Wash your hands! That may have been touched by a Chinaman

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  • Published 20140506
  • ISBN: 9781922182258
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

FORTY YEARS NOW have passed, but I can still smell the scent of her thick black hair. Juliette, my girlfriend, would carefully braid her dark locks into two attractive plaits and I loved to nuzzle my nose into the nape of her neck and smell that sweet perfume. With her large brown eyes and warm smile Juliette was attractive, confident and fiercely intelligent. For me, a teenager from an Anglo-Australian family she embodied many things I desired to embrace and be intimate with. Juliette was Jewish. She was my first love. I was hers too. The memory and impact of that Melbourne teenage romance is enduring – for both of us.

Reflecting back to that first romance in the early 1970s led me to contemplate some personal questions with big historical themes, a combination I am fond of; what has Australia’s multicultural society meant for me and my family? And is my family’s experience indicative of broader demographic and social changes in Australia over the past fifty years?

‘Multiculturalism’, the word, is today often kicked around like a soggy political football, disparaged by some as a divisive concept for Australia and other western democracies that have embraced large populations of refugees and immigrants – blaming multiculturalism for crime, social division and ‘home grown’ terrorism. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, both right of centre politicians, recently asserted that multiculturalism had been an utter failure in their respective countries.

In Australia there is generally bi-partisan support for our immigration and multicultural policies. But we have our critics. In 2011, right wing Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, in a submission to a Federal parliamentary inquiry warned that social unrest arises when ‘separation, not integration, is pursued under the guise of multiculturalism’. Bernardi was instrumental in promoting the recent controversial tour of Dutch, anti-Muslim Member of Parliament Geert Wilders and has called for a ban on women wearing burqas.

A recent eleven-year study by the University of Western Sydney’s School of Social Science revealed that a majority of Australians are pro-multicultural, but it seems we are also anxious that the diversity of cultures here will not be managed well. The study found that 85 per cent of Australians acknowledged racial prejudice occurs and that at least one in five migrant Australians experience verbal abuse such as offensive slang names, swearing and abusive physical gestures. It found that 11 per cent of migrants feel unwelcome and believe that they don’t belong, or believe they are considered inferior by other Australians.

The 2005 Cronulla riots together with the 2012 violent protest in Sydney, against the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslimsgreatly heightened the stakes for both sides of the debate on multicultural policy and its effects on social cohesion.

But how has multiculturalism played its role in shaping modern Australia? Has it affected our personal and romantic relationships? Is our experience different to the German and British –so called ‘failure’?Migrants and multiculturalism have profoundly shaped my life and family, and I suspect my story is a familiar one, replicated across the homes, streets and suburbs of contemporary Australia. The extended Graham family has not only grown in numbers, but in style, happiness and its sense of self, as a ‘worldly’ Australian family…well for most of us anyway…and more on that later.

LET ME EXPLAIN. We were a typical Australian postwar family. I am child of the baby boom. I grew up in the late 1950s, 1960s and early ’70s in a Melbourne suburb called Sunshine. Mum and Dad, my big sister and me, a budgie and a dog called Sausage. My mother’s ancestors were amongst the first pioneer settlers to Western Victoria in the 1850s. My father’s father was Scottish, and came to Australia in the late 1920s. Our family had some prized books in the linen cupboard, the 1954 Royal Tour of Australia and New Zealand and several collections illustrating the lives of the Queen’s children, the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne. We joined the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts and honoured Baden Powell. Dad often came home ‘under the influence’ from his 6 o’clock swill at the local pub. Sundays started with church, Anglican, at 8.30 am. The Vicar, Father John, a tall, thin, stiff man, would occasionally drop into our home for afternoon tea.

As a kid, attending Sunshine East State School, in Julia Gillard’s old electorate of Lalor, I thought there were only three types of food: canned spaghetti, meat pies and chips…with tomato sauce and vanilla slices. Sunday lamb roast, cream sponge and lamingtons were staples too. We ate every kind of meat there was: corned, boiled, roasted, fried, grilled. The idea that you could cook your own spaghetti, or that there were other forms of pasta never dawned on us in our suburban westie kitchen.

By 1965, two million post-war migrants had arrived in Australia. In our working class Sunshine patch we had plenty of ‘New Australians’ as they were politely called in public. But at home, Italians were ‘dagoes’, Greeks were ‘wogs’, Poles were ‘garlic’ or ‘sausage eaters’. It was US and THEM on the home front. I remember Nanna, my mother’s mother, had a frequent saying around the house, ‘Wash your hands because that’, whatever ‘that’ was, it could have been anything, ‘may have been touched by a Chinaman!’

But at school it was a very different story – the fear dissipated. The intermingling of the schoolroom and schoolyard was a social leveller. I played with Italian and Jewish kids. One of my best friends at primary school, Andre, was from a German family of displaced World War II refugees. But my good Italian friend Sammy – we loved our backyard cricket – was still a ‘bloody dago’ when it came to schoolyard fights.

It was one of the ironies of my family life, and I suspect suburban Australia, that the then collective Anglo view of newly arrived European migrants, was suspicion at best, but really fear, and or, loathing. However, on an interpersonal, one on one level, these ‘dago’ kids were just like me, another bunch to kick a footie with. Even my mother, who would occasionally describe someone as ‘a dirty wog’, wasn’t shy of bringing home a slice of Polish sausage given to her by a co-worker at the factory office she worked at in Footscray. Food, even then, was capable of crossing suburban ethnic battle lines, becoming a point of sharing and tolerance. We ended up loving Polish sausage, riddled with garlic, in our house. I must’ve eaten miles of it.

Migrants were expected to fit in, to assimilate to our British-Australian ways, to not stand out in a crowd, to speak English and abandon their old ‘inferior’ culture. ‘Speak English, you bloody wog!’ I can still hear it as the ultimate put down. I can also remember thinking that way myself as a child. It was my way of seeking approval, particularly from my parents and grandparents; I could feel secure in our haughty Anglo-Aussie superiority.

One day our local milk bar on the corner was taken over by Polish Jews who, miraculously, had survived the Holocaust. Isaac, their son would come to school wearing a kippah or yarmulke on his head. He’d play street cricket with us, wearing his kippah, and so we teased him mercilessly. There was nothing sinister about the teasing – so it seemed at the time. But Isaac was smaller, frailer than us ‘Aussie’ kids, and the teasing we subjected him to would today clearly be called racist bullying and unacceptable. Sometimes it became physical, too, as we tried to snatch the kippah off his head. He didn’t stay long. The corner milk bar where I bought bags of mixed lollies, costing sixpence, soon changed hands. I now wonder what became of Isaac and his Jewish family who dared to venture to Melbourne’s west. Perhaps with hindsight our teasing was more sinister, something that Jews everywhere had experienced throughout history. I like to think not. But then again, I never jumped into their shoes to try them on for size.

Growing into a teenager I began to change. I became more sensitive and aware and excited by cultural differences. Aboriginal land rights, abortion rights, conscription and the war that prompted it were now on my radar. It was the ’60s after all and my personal change mirrored the change in the broader Australian society, which was slowly becoming less insular and conservative. Gough Whitlam was in his ascendancy. But social change seemed to be a very slow process at the time. Cafe culture, ‘ethnic’ restaurants, bookshops and cultural events were thin on the ground.

I was seventeen and a student at University High School when I met and fell for my first love, Juliette. Her parents, from Romania and Germany, were ‘Shoah’ or Holocaust survivors. I was apprehensive about being taken home for a meal and to meet the entire mishpukhe (family). We ate Jewish food and it was a far cry from my hitherto Anglo diet of lamb roasts and meat pies. My first taste of matzo ball soup and chicken schnitzel soon helped me cross the cultural frontier. The taste buds were tingling. Juliette’s mother was an enlightened woman, and “goys” who loved her daughter and her chicken soup were most welcome. So matzo balls and love were everlastingly linked in my teenage, hormone rampant brain; I was smitten by the girl, her culture and the cuisine. And through this suburban Melbourne Jewish family I felt something of the pain of the ‘Shoah’and its profound meaning for their lives. I was lucky to be in love with Juliette and be a part of her life.

Our teenage romance took flight before Gough Whitlam’s Labor government came to power in 1972. Juliette and I were ardent fans. It was Gough and his Immigration Minister, Al Grassby, who introduced the term “multicultural” to the Australian political lexicon in 1973. Whitlam’s government began the process of creating public programs more inclusive of migrants. By October 1975, both Whitlam and Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser, were making speeches, demonstrating for the first time that multiculturalism was becoming a major political priority on both sides of politics. At a ceremony to proclaim the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, Whitlam referred to Australia as a ‘multicultural nation’. Fraser, in a speech at a Greek community ball, affirmed the Liberal Party was ‘committed to encouraging and supporting diversity in our multicultural society.’ByAugust 1977, the first formal public policy of Australian multiculturalism was defined in the report, ‘Australia as a Multicultural Society’, by the Australian Ethnic Affairs Council.

FROM THESE RATHER small beginnings in the ’70s, the adjective ‘multicultural’ has been increasingly used to describe the cultural and ethnic diversity of contemporary Australia – people from the four corners of the globe with their different languages, foods, customs, convictions and religions. This multicultural revolution was having a profound impact on Australian society, and most markedly on my westie Sunshine clan. My parents were greatly influenced by Whitlam’s values and they too softened their attitudes to European migrants, they warmly welcomed Juliette as my girlfriend.

Later on, I continued to date a string of Jewish girls, such was the impact of my first love. And of course on my life’s journey, in matters of romance, there have been many other loves, women from diverse cultural backgrounds, Australian, German, Egyptian, Israeli, and Peruvian. This is not meant as a list of romantic stats, but rather the revelation of a behavioural pattern. It’s hard to explain. But I connect this seeking out of ‘otherness’, romantically, to growing up in the monocultural world of my Anglo Sunshine family. I needed to leave this singular world, and what I perceived as its cultural constraints behind me. The experience of meeting and loving Juliette meant I could escape from the parochial circumstances I’d grown up with. There was a big wide world of people and cultures to embrace and increasingly they were coming to Australia and continue, wonderfully, to do so. It proved I had the means, the skills, the wherewithall, to escape my nanna’s mantra,’Wash your hands, because that may have been touched by a Chinaman!’

INTERESTINGLY, I RECENTLY had lunch with Juliette and her twenty-two-year-old daughter in Melbourne. While mulling over old times, we got onto the topic of what our relationship had meant to both of us all those years ago. I unloaded on Juliette all of the above written here. And then to my astonishment she did the same. I discovered that our teenage relationship had a profound and lasting impact on her later romantic choices in life too. It proved for Juliette that she could have a loving relationship with a non Jewish guy, something she was unsure of beforehand. For her own reasons, ‘kissing outside the lines’, as I call it, was providing a sense of ‘acceptance’ of her, and her European Jewish identity within an Australian context. Juliette had shown me a glimpse of Europe, its history, food, a life of books and particularly through her mother an intellectual culture. And Juliette found she fitted into Australia outside of her family heritage.

In so many ways this personal anecdote is emblematic of the possibilities of multiculturalism and goes way beyond the plethora of ethnic restaurants and foods we can now eat in Australia. Society can evolve, adapt and change and so too can individuals, finding new meaning and life changing relationships.

I am now married to a woman who embodies, in my view, contemporary multicultural Australia. Rose, born in London, has a Portuguese mother and a Hungarian father. She came to Australia when she was seven, as a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ and grew up in the outer western suburbs of Brisbane. She wholeheartedly identifies herself as Australian, in her thinking, worldview, lifestyle and aspirations. But Rose is also deeply informed by her diverse and rich European family heritage. So our daughter, Angelita, a true Australian flower of multiculturalism, has a Portuguese grandmother, a Hungarian grandfather, a Scottish great grandfather, along with her Australian lineage going back to the 1850s. We are now a tasty minestrone of cultures.

My sister’s story mirrors my own. Sandra’s first boyfriend, who she brought home to meet the family, was first generation Italian. She has an adult son, Daniel, to a West African partner, a Senegalese migrant, former automotive industry worker and much respected union shop steward. Amidou was amongst the first Africans to settle in Melbourne. Her now life partner, Jac, came to Australia, as a Dutch migrant when he was nine and settled in Geelong, close to where they now live. Growing up in Sunshine in the 1950s and ’60s clearly did something to both of us. As the famous French saying goes, ‘Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait pas’ – ‘The heart has reasons, that reason does not recognize.’

BUT NOT ALL is rosy in contemporary multicultural Australia. I don’t wish to paint a false picture. Racism continues to have strong roots here. My sister’s Senegalese-Australian son complains bitterly about racism. He often says he is stared at glaringly and asked, ‘Where do you come from?’ He believes this is because he’s seen as an ‘outsider’ and not Australian. But sometimes also, it’s the opposite. He’s measured up as attractive and exotic.

The attitudes of the ‘old Australia’ linger on persistently in my family too. My mother, now in her late eighties, despite the potpourri of cultures that make up her much loved grandchildren, still loves ‘to bag’ the latest arrivals to Australia; ‘boat people’, Indian-Australian taxi drivers are a pet subject, Muslims, ‘they bring their problems out here and cause trouble, they eat with their hands, and anyone who eats with their hands is an animal’.

Needless to say, this topic causes quite a rift in my family, just like it does in the broader Australian society when it arises. For me it brings back all the issues I thought I’d escaped from my childhood. When my nephew challenges his grandmother with the fact that his father grew up as a Muslim and that his grandfather, who lived in Dakar, Senegal, worked in local government, owned a lot of land and was a respected person, she responds with, ‘Oh yes, but I bet he ate with his hands’. His grandma in this respect is the re-incarnation of her mother before her,’Wash your hands, because that may have been touched by a Chinaman.’

But there is also another endearing side to both my mother, and grandmother, and I suspect the ‘old Australia’, too. My mum and nanna both wholeheartedly embraced Sandra’s Senegalese partner once they had the opportunity to know him, just as my mother did many years earlier with Juliette. They would physically embrace him, welcome and kiss him at every family gathering. Their initial apprehension was based on fear of the unknown and stereotypes about Africans.

Perhaps intercultural and interracial marriage is the best indicator of whether a group is fully integrated into the mainstream community. Australian demographer Charles Price (who pioneered the demography of intermarriage in Australia, in his 1982 report The Fertility and Marriage Patterns of Australia’s Ethnic Groups) noted that, ‘intermarriage is still the best measure of ethnic intermixture because it breaks down ethnic exclusiveness and mixes the various ethnic populations more effectively than any other social process’.And Australia has an impressive record to boast of.

In 2009, 120,000 couples were married in Australia. Just over 40 per cent involved a bride or groom who were not Australian born. Demographers have also revealed even stronger intermarriage rates, with successive generations of migrant Australians. Over 70 per centof third generation migrants that arrived in Australia prior to 1970 have married spouses of a different family heritage resulting in families and a population of increasingly mixed ethnic origins. Charles Price also prophesised that, ‘not only will this element (mixed ethnic origins) soon become the largest ethnic element in the population but it will have more and more influence in determining Australia’s identity and values’.

These stories remind us just how much social change has occurred in Australia, in a relatively short time frame, on the most intimate of levels. Interracial couples, often overcoming social and cultural barriers, have been the vanguard of this profound change.

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About the author

Trevor Graham

Dr Trevor Graham is a Sydney based filmmaker and a former Commissioning Editor for Documentary at SBS TV. His most recent film, Make Hummus Not War, had...

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