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Migrants already know about loneliness

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Migrants already know about lonelinessExcept for two periods of 18 months each, eight years apart, I have not lived in my country of birth, England, since the late '70s. My accent, though not as full-blooded as Gardening Australia’s Peter Cundall, is definitely from "oop North". While old school friends say I sound Aussie—it is that questioning lilt—English people here who I may be meeting for the first time will engage me in what I call Brit-to-Brits, conspiratorial conversations where it is assumed I will support England in the Ashes (I do not).

Coffee shop owners at Circular Quay think I am a tourist, yet I am an Australian citizen of 14 years, a victim of what so many migrants know: you are neither 100 per cent one thing, nor 100 per cent the other.

The "where you come from" part of everyone's emotional history is truncated as a migrant. Even if most of your family and friends also emigrate here (mine did not), your life starts again in a new country. And in a country of migrants this happens a lot.

Federal Liberal Party backbencher Petro Georgiou wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald of the "Australian character that is fundamentally accepting of people trying to make a go of it, especially when we come to know them as individuals". Novelist Sophie Masson remembers her French migrant father enjoying the informality and anonymity of being in Australia where "you were free to be yourself".

Much as I would whole-heartedly endorse the openness and ready acceptance most Australians have for others, I have also found a surprising contrast, a closeness to family and sibling networks wherever this is physically possible by location.

I am an only child, and besides occasionally playing with a bevy of distant cousins around the same age, was usually the youngest in a world of great aunts and uncles, Germanic Ashkenazi Jews prone to high teas with kuchen and meringues. I have never since gravitated to big family gatherings. Nevertheless, in Australia I am continually struck, almost enviously, by the number of close-knit groups, either family or long-term friends who cut across class, race, gender, even length of time here because migrants often move en masse and end up in the same street.

There is a divide between people whose autobiography is split by geography—interstate and international—and those with ready-made cohorts built up gradually and jealously guarded, who remember that dreadful or amazing or dull or outrageous music or maths teacher. When I make friends it is often with people who are newcomers themselves, or who have travelled or been expatriates. I am not sure yet if this matters and, if so, why it matters.

I am not sure who is the better off, the ones who enjoy close company but may also suffer from a tyranny of proximity, where duty, obligation and the highs and lows of family history intervene, or the ones reflecting the tyranny of distance, and resulting dislocation...

Social networks, how and when and with whom we socialise, are important. They underpin those casual salutations, "have a good weekend" or a "big night", or the jabber of mobile phones or texting.

Yet, for all the technological developments and websites reuniting friends or introducing liaisons and potentially putting everyone in touch with each other, the Australia Institute's 2005 report, Mapping Loneliness in Australia, found that many Australians feel lonely and isolated.

Mapping Loneliness in AustraliaMobility increasingly is the main game, whether for promotion, or telecommuting, or a new job entirely; divorce or separation or fresh love; financial loss or gain; or desire to travel at any age. No longer can we take socialising for granted. We need to assess whether we are looking for acceptance by others, or simply filling in time, to block out any gremlins that might lie dormant in our inner souls until fed by memory, analysis or empathy.

Sometimes, it really is easier to buy a takeaway and read, or watch TV or a DVD, play computer games or socialise virtually. But perhaps that is capitulating to pressures. Today's lifestyles indicate that there will be fewer generations-long family and family friends staying in the same place. Migrants mostly know about this already, but perhaps for everybody there will be a greater need to build on the here and how without dwelling too much on the then, and of being able to adapt and find joy wherever—and with whomever—we can.



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Who cares. Self interest is all.

Marian Bell | 19 August 2014  

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