05 March 2015

Where are you really from?

Photo Yaocheng Lee from http://www.meldmagazine.com.au
A strange thing happened recently when I found myself on the other side of Melbourne, walking through Footscray Mall in Melbourne's West. I live East, but I may as well have been visiting from Sweden or Finland for how whitey-white-white I felt.
Large African men sat at cafes with names like Harambe and Queen of Sheba. Beautiful dark skinned women wearing colourful fabrics sashayed past me—eyes bright, skin shinning. Two steps later and I was in Vietnam. Here were stores selling unfamiliar food stuff, phone cards and Hello Kitty knock-offs. Hand written signs were everywhere, in a language I recognise but cannot read. It was all rather exotic and exciting, though also somewhat unsettling. The area made me feel like part of the establishment—an uncomfortable feeling for a child of immigrants who grew up feeling like "the other".
I grew up in a series of rented rooms in the inner suburbs, in terrace houses accommodating several families. We all shared one bathroom and one kitchen. Fifty years ago there were no three hat restaurants or trendy cafes in Richmond, Collingwood or Fitzroy. The residents were mostly working class migrants. Money was tight. Eating out was hardly an option. My father and men like him worked double shifts in factories like General Motors Holden in Port Melbourne, after which they waited for the first trams to start running, so they could get home. My mother worked in a series of low paid jobs then came home to clean and cook and do the washing—all by hand. We had no washing machine, no vacuum cleaner or any other labour saving appliances.
When I was almost three years old, my parents bought a semi-detached house in Thornbury, in Melbourne's North. I still remember the excitement of the day our first refrigerator was delivered. Later still we got a car, an Electrolux vacuum cleaner and a Sunbeam toaster; but we never had an indoor toilet or a telephone. These luxuries became available when we moved in the mid 70s, when I was almost 14, to a brand new, off the plan, brick, free standing home with a car port.
A few years later, thanks to the Whitlam Labour Government, I was able to go to university. Afterwards I travelled to Europe. I visited London, Paris, Rome, as well as my parents' homeland and eventually settled back in Melbourne into a professional career. My parents dreamed that their children would get office jobs, and not have to stand up all day in a factory with a foreman (or woman) yelling at them to work faster. They hoped we would be able to earn our living in a clean workplace, without the dirt and grease and smell of manufacturing.
So here I am now—a writer and graphic designer who lives in a beautiful period home in a leafy suburb: a member of the middle class. It astounds me to think that more recent immigrants might see me as no different to people with surnames like Jones, Bradford or White; though I suppose that that is essentially what I am.
In the Mall in the heart of Footscray I have an urge to pull people aside and say, "My parents were just like you; and one day your children may be just like me." As little as thirty years ago, people from Southern Europe were viewed as being just as different and foreign as people from Asia and Africa are viewed today; and I don't believe for a minute that anyone thought us in any way exotic. Back then there were no anti vilification laws (another thing we can thank Gough Whitlam for). My parents would turning up to places to apply for work and be told, "Go back to where you came from you bloody wog!"
Only 15 or so years ago my sister and I went to Tasmania for a week's holiday. In a gift shop just outside Hobart we were asked, "Where are you from?"
The answer, "Melbourne" didn't seem to sit right with the woman behind the counter.
"No, where are you really from?"

Sometimes, I wonder.

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