Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Australia Day story

The photo from the Sydney Morning Herald shows the Australia Day ferrython on Sydney Harbour. You can find a full set of photos here.

This is the story of a lunch yesterday.

Just a simple lunch. It was not held to mark Australia Day. It just happened to be held on that day. Yet it says something about modern Australia. It also shows, I think, how the cross-linkages that bind Australians in modern multicultural Australia go back some distance in time, in fact more time than I care to remember.

Our host and hostess were Indian, as are their two daughters, although both daughters were born in Australia. By this I simply mean that the family retains its Indian cultural traditions. Eldest daughter has completed her medical degree and is doing post-grad work, youngest is still at school. They are a rather wonderful loving family.

It was almost eight years since we had seen them and then at our host's fiftieth birthday party.

My wife, Australian born of English and Irish heritage, met the host while they were both at Sydney University's International House. In 1982, they shared a house with two others, both of different nationalities to Indian or Australian. None of them had been in a share house before, but they were well looked after by the wonderful Greek woman next door who used to cook meals and bring them in to ensure that they were well fed.

The other couple present were R. and S. You see Marcellous, I have adopted your initials technique!

Born in England, R. joined the Australian Diplomatic Service in 1966. I met him in 1967 when I arrived in Canberra as an Administrative Trainee. You see what I mean when I say that the cross-linkages go back in time further than I care to remember!

R. has in fact featured in a number of stories on this blog, if disguised. Both R. and I belong to the Australian generation that first discovered Asia, although R. travelled far more than me.

It was at R.'s flat that we heard that Harold Holt has vanished. It was at R.s flat that I discovered Vietnamese cooking as R., St. ( now a very well known Australian economist), their Vietnamese girlfriends  and the rest of us cooked up Vietnamese spreads. It was at R.'s flat where we worked out a campaign (my job was to work on Ian Sinclair because of the family connection) to try to overturn Mr Whitlam's decision to refuse entry to Vietnamese people who had supported Australia during the War,

I had been opposed to the Vietnamese War, but this was a different issue because Australia had a moral obligation to help those who had helped us.

Later, R. married S., a Singapore Chinese girl. S. had been at International House with my wife and had visited the share house. Mind you, it was some time before I was to find this connection. I was not married when R. and S. started going out.

So now we have a multi-ethnic lunch with personal linkages going back in some cases more than forty years, in all cases more than twenty-five years.

As you might expect, the conversation ranged quite widely.

There was a lot of conversation about India and Indian history. I thought of Ramana here.

Perhaps oddly. there was no mention of India's Republic Day. It was not until we were in the car coming home that I was reminded by the radio that the date is the same as Australia Day. Rather, the conversation roamed over family visits, rail trips, shopping and aspects of daily life in India. R. and S. have been to India a number of times and had met our hosts' family.

I mainly listened, asking the occasional question. While I know a fair bit about the sub-continent, I have never been there beyond a transit at Bombay. This put me at a disadvantage.

As you might expect, there was a fair bit of discussion about children, school and university.

For those who don't know Sydney, geographically it is a huge sprawling city increasingly segmented on a regional basis. It took us fifty minutes driving time to get to our host's place along toll-roads with remarkably little traffic. In addition to the varying family backgrounds, our kids have grown up in three very different parts of Sydney -  Eastern Suburbs, North Shore and North West. This made for differences, as well as commonalities.

One common theme was the pressure of life in Sydney, mixing work, life and study. This applied to adults as well as children. S. commented that her Chinese friends and work mates who had come to Australia were taken aback by the intensity of what had become an instant response work culture. While I have written on the changing work culture in Australia, I hadn't seen it in quite the same way, so found this external perspective interesting.

As it turns out, S. and R. are proposing to relocate to Singapore in two years time, partly because S, wants to be closer to her own family, in part for a break from Sydney. Both R. and I have known Singapore over many years, I first went there at the end of 1965, although R.'s recent knowledge is far greater. He described modern Singapore as safe, efficient and boring, with very good if expensive medical facilities. Both he and S. thought that medical care in Singapore was better than in Australia, based in part on R.'s recent  experience.

Four of our collective kids are presently at two universities in Sydney, while our hostess is on the faculty of a third and has also taught at several others. Two of our respective kids have experienced some difficulties at the same university in classes with a heavy dominance of overseas students.

R. commented that students from Mainland China no longer had the same work ethic. I challenged this because my experience had been that the family pressure on Chinese kids to perform was still huge. The problem, in fact, appears to lie with pampered kids from the modern Chinese elites who expect to be given, not earn, things. Our hostess provided us with a war story that illustrated this and the difficulties it could create for faculty members.

There was much talk of food. Our hosts had prepared a rather wonderful Indian vegetarian meal with multiple dishes drawn from several parts of India. I am still not used to carrying my camera with me at all times. This was one case where a photo would tell the story better than a thousand words.

I reminded R. of the weekend trip we had made to Paris in 1979 when a friend and I were staying with him in London. Joined by St. who was then at the OECD and his wife, we had the most marvelous lunch, still the best French food I have ever eaten. By accident, François Mitterrand and his party were at the next table, adding to the memories of the meal since Mitterand, already a well known politician, would become President of the French Republic in 1981.

This will give just a taste of a conversation that ranged widely over a three hour lunch. It was fun, but also does, I think, give a feel for one part of current Australian life.

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