Thanks to Kate Allison, regular readers of the Displaced Nation are treated every other week to a new episode in the life of fictional expat Libby Patrick, a 30-something British woman who has relocated with her spouse to a town outside Boston. Her diary, Libby’s Life, is replete with rich observations about life in New England vs. England. In keeping with the Libby tradition, we have started a series of occasional posts by writers who are sensitive to the often subtle, yet powerful, differences between new and old worlds. This month’s contribution is from Russell V J Ward, who made his first appearance at the Displaced Nation as a Random Nomad interviewee. Ward’s popular blog, In Search of a Life Less Ordinary, chronicles his overseas moves first to Canada and then to his wife’s native Australia. The couple now lives in Sydney with their infant son.
When I left my native Britain to live in Canada and then Australia in search of a life less ordinary, I anticipated thriving on the energy I would find in a system that is more open to people who work hard, regardless of class or race.
The Old World with its long history and class traditions held me back and frustrated me. The New World, by contrast, would provide a sense of unfettered opportunity.
This hope has largely been borne out. But I’ve also faced some adjustment challenges, which I’ll talk about in today’s post.
An eye (as well as mouth) opener
The first time I visited a dentist in Sydney was also the first time I learned about Australian attitudes toward certain immigrant groups.
As a rule, I don’t mind going to the dentist’s. I find that most dentists are of the chatty sort, making me feel comfortable and not particularly averse to the fact they’ll shortly be rummaging around in my mouth looking for any signs of badly behaving teeth.
On this occasion, I was laid out horizontally waiting for the dentist to examine my pearly whites. As he leaned over to begin his work, he asked if I was house hunting yet and, if so, how it was going.
“Pretty good,” I replied. “We’re looking at a few options but we’re thinking the North Shore might be a good place to call home.”
“You should look at houses in the west of Sydney,” he said. “Lots of big, grand houses out near Penrith way. Built for wogs. Depends if you like your woggy houses. Lots of concrete and ornate metal railings. Not my thing, but some people love those wog houses.”
I was floored. Did I hear him right? Had he just said what I thought he said? Should I have said anything back? Reprimanded him for saying something so racist and unprofessional in front of me?
In the end, I smiled awkwardly and said nothing, unsure of the territory I was in and concerned that I might be in danger of overreacting. With the conversation grinding to a halt, he continued with my check-up.
This encounter took place not long after I arrived in Australia, almost seven years ago. I soon found out that a “wog” is in fact a person of Greek or Italian descent, not quite the meaning it has in the UK.
That said, it wasn’t used in a particularly positive light so I remained troubled by what I’d heard.
The Canucks get it more right
It wasn’t the only such occurrence over the years but, more often than not, I put these incidents down to the Aussie sense of humour or credited it to the way things were done and said here.
Besides references to “wogs” and “lebos” (those of Lebanese descent), jokes about “Abos” (Aborigines) are fairly commonplace. Less common, but also prevalent, are negative comments about folk from other cities and countries (us Brits top of the list of course, closely followed by the Yanks and the Kiwis).
So, in those early weeks and months of living in Australia, I realised I should probably “put up” and “shut up” if I wanted to fit in—but I still felt uneasy. Hadn’t I left the cultural stereotyping of the UK behind for the new world?
I’d also stopped at Canada in between, a country that I think gets it right—or more right than the UK, and certainly Australia, does.
Those who’ve followed my blog may know that I previously posted on how Canada and Australia are separated by more than just water. (The post in fact appeared on Maria Foley’s blog, I was an Expat Wife—part of an Expat Dispatches series.) My view was that Australia preaches tolerance, whereas Canada believes in accepting a person, wherever they’re from or whoever and whatever they are.
How much will (should) I tolerate?
Not so long ago, I read an article by a fellow expat in Australia, Lauren Fritsky, in the UK Telegraph, “Seeing in black and white in Australia.” Originally from the East Coast of the U.S., Lauren expressed her unease and embarrassment at hearing what she perceived as racial “icebreakers” in public. She noted her struggles with the apparent lack of political correctness in Australia and the ease with which some of these terms are used by the local population.
Reading this piece was a reality check: I realised how accustomed I’d become to these casual, throwaway, offhand remarks when they do occur. In fact, I often brush them off as unintentional slurs or said without bad feeling behind them. I mean, what’s so bad about giving a Kiwi or a Yank a bit of stick about where they’re from? And the Poms have been ridiculed for years, much as the Lebos and Westies have.
The problem is that, although these words are as much a part of the light-hearted Aussie vernacular as the barbie or the ute, they sometimes come very close to crossing the line—and often, as is the case with the use of choco or Abo, they do.
It’s important to understand the psyche here, the fact that the culture is based on the premise that “anything goes” and “anyone is fair game”. From the camaraderie at the bar to the casual BBQ setting, the light-hearted work environment to the jovial yet die-hard sports rivalries, all combine to create a “no worries, mate” attitude, inspired by a society that goes with the flow without giving a damn what you might think of them.
Yet to this day I still get tiny flashbacks to my former university days spent in the heart of the multicultural British Midlands, where racist taunts and cultural insensitivity tended to be the norm rather than the exception.
The question remains as to whether the basic attitude of tolerance in Australia is good enough to carry the nation forward in today’s many-cultured world.
There’s quite simply no place in such a beautiful land for ugly attitudes and ignorant opinions, and I can only hope that the odd experience or encounter I’ve had along the way isn’t held by the many but by the inconsequential few.
* * *
Thank you, Russell, for such a thoughtful treatment of this controversial topic. Readers, can you relate to Russell Ward’s experience? Has the cultural stereotyping you’ve encountered in your adopted country made you think twice about settling there? Or have you been tempted to turn a blind eye, putting it down to cultural differences?
A Basingstoke lad born and bred, Russell Ward now has dual citizenship with the UK and Australia. As reported on his blog, he recently left his cubicle job to join an Australian-based team of social media professionals, which permits him to work from home most of the time. That said, he and his family are currently training their way across Canada to TBEX Toronto, courtesy of the Canadian Tourist Commission! A version of the above post originally appeared on Ward’s own blog. We thank him for tweaking it on our behalf.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s “Capital Ideas” post, by Anthony Windram. (Hint: His choice of city pays tribute to the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest 2013, which ended on Saturday.)
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Portrait of woman from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (R) from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (L) from MorgueFile
Well, this Australian finds Russell’s experience both shocking and surprising. I’d have thought a professional using a word like “wog” in conversation with a client would be practically unknown (even if the dentist didn’t mean it derogatorily, it is still very unbecoming of a professional), and that people who abbreviate “aboriginal” to “abo” are extremely rare outside of certain enclaves such as the school playground (I daresay any Aboriginal person encounters the term regularly, but I’d say the percentage of Australians who ever use it is extremely low). That is the Australia I’ve known since I was a child. But of course, racial insensitivity is not evenly distributed within a country: different attitudes prevail within different subcultures, and these outweigh differences between countries often by orders of magnitude. All I can promise is that, if you are not yourself a target of cultural prejudice and insensitivity, then it’s very easy to live in Australia and avoid mixing with people who exhibit it in public, although you can’t avoid being shocked quite regularly by opinion poll results.
I’d have thought so too, Adrian, but this is still the way of things in modern Australia. Having now spent the past 3 weeks travelling across Canada and speaking to the people here, it’s made me realise that Australia still has a way to go in terms of cultural attitudes. It is at once both a modern, sophisticated society, but also has large elements out of touch, perhaps due to distance and locality. I believe attitudes will change over time but I think it will take time. Thanks for sharing your insights.
What’s interesting to me, after two expat stints first in the UK and then in Japan, is how much more I resented the cultural stereotyping, so to speak, I saw in Britain.
As an American with red hair and freckles, I could blend into the UK. Over the years, my accent and vocab changed, along with my sense of humor and personal style — to the point where friends thought I was “one of them.” But whenever I caught a British person making a derogatory comment towards another group of people, I was as shocked as you were in the dentist’s chair in Oz. I thought to myself, I may look and sound like them, but I definitely don’t THINK like them.
In Japan, by contrast, I was much more willing to tolerate the xenophobia (against other Asians, against anyone with darker skin).
So why did I give the Japanese a break? I think b/c no one thought I was one of them! As long as no one thought I belonged to that group, then I could chalk up their objectionable attitudes to history and geography — to their experience of being part of a small-island nation that had chosen to isolate itself from the outside world for a couple of centuries.
But in Britain I simply thought there was no excuse for the Little Englander mentality. I deeply disliked it. It literally made my skin crawl and was one of the reasons I thought I couldn’t live in Britain any more, after my time in Tokyo. There’s no way I wanted to be mistaken for one of that prejudiced and small-minded lot.
Clearly, though, there are inconsistencies in my attitude — which puzzle (and distress) me, even to this day…