Once upon a time in multicultural Australia


The SBS series Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta makes for difficult viewing. Racism, poverty, family dysfunction and crime present an often sad and ugly picture of the challenges faced by Vietnamese refugees as they settled into their new home following the abolition of the White Australia Policy.

But mercifully the take-home message is that these are challenges overcome. What this documentary provides above all is a story and a voice for this group of Australians who have formed a unique part of our history. As former Fairfield councillor Thang Ngo wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The Vietnamese refugee community has learnt that you need to find your voice and to take up your full democratic rights. Only then do you stop being guests in this country. That's the moment you become Australian.

For many people 'becoming Australian' means assimilation. Yet in a multicultural society assimilation is not a fixed goal. The multicultural experiment in Australia means groups like the original Vietnamese refugees help to define Australia, even as they learn to adapt to it.

At the heart of our multicultural ideal is the faith that whatever difficulties we face, unity can prevail if we let it. Migrants arrive as outsiders, but the boundaries between 'insider' and 'outsider' shift until our identity as Australians is revised. The message of Cabramatta is that time can heal all wounds.

Some in our society fear that our social cohesion is more fragile than we realise; that our unity and equality is undermined by a focus on our varied ethnic identities. In recent months Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt became the most publicised exemplar of this view.

Despite being found guilty of racial vilification for his comments regarding the self-identification of fair-skinned Aboriginal people, Bolt was not motivated by racism but by his ideal of what it means to be Australian. This view was informed by his experience as the child of migrant parents. He felt like an 'outsider' and initially sought refuge in the ethnic identity of his Dutch heritage. These days:

I consider myself first of all an individual, and wish we could all deal with each other like that. No ethnicity. No nationality. No race. Certainly no divide that's a mere accident of birth ... I believe we can choose and even renounce our ethnic identity, because I have done that myself. But I also believe many people now increasingly do insist on asserting racial and ethnic identities.

Bolt's story mirrors that of many others from a different ethnic background who were born or raised in Australia. To those who feel they belong neither to the new homeland nor to the old one, the ideal of an individualistic Australia without ethnic labels may be very attractive.

The irony is that embracing an individualistic Australia that transcends ethnic heritage would leave us with a culture that is young, thin, and commercialised, lacking the deeper meaning and tradition that only come with time. Our mainstream culture has little history, little to distinguish us as Australians, or to enrich our daily lives with time-honoured customs.

It's one thing to become an individual in defiance of cultural inertia; it's quite another to have no real cultural inertia to defy.

The Vietnamese refugees who became Australians will never forget their history, their story. Andrew Bolt does not hesitate to remind us of his Dutch heritage and his struggle to reconcile it with the land of his birth. But those of us who have always been 'Australian' know no other heritage. We are the ones who are lacking a story and an ethnic identity.

Yet our stories do exist. I, for example, am descended from Scottish migrants who were driven from their ancestral homeland during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. My ancestors lost their language and their culture; they married English migrants (despite the scandal of such ethnic mixing!) and raised their families in the townships of rural Victoria.

So I am not simply 'Australian'. I am the product of a people who lost their ethnic identity in the melange of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh migration to this strange new country.

If we wish to promote the unity and equality of modern Australia, the best thing we can do is learn our own forgotten stories of ethnic identity and heritage. I will never pretend to be Scottish, but nor should I forget the struggles and travails of my ancestors.

This is what it takes for, particularly, those of us who form the declining majority descended from the British Isles, to take our proper place in a multicultural society.

Zac AlstinZac Alstin is a research officer for Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide. He has an honours degree in philosophy, a graduate certificate in applied linguistics, and an amateur interest in Chinese philosophy. 

Topic tags: Zac Alstin, multiculturalism, Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta



submit a comment

Existing comments

This is an excellent piece. Respectful of all stories, it embraces the principle that human history remains such when acknowledge and told to future generations. Well done!
Fr. Tony | 20 January 2012

Spot on Zac. The values of acceptance and tolerance are rooted in the struggles of our own refugee ancestors to survive in this land. Unfortunately many descendants forget this when they talk about boat people and queue jumpers. Immigration wave response theory also illuminates how past arrivals torment the most recent. Just have a look at the home invasions and drive by shootings in Sydney these days.
Professor John Collard | 20 January 2012

Back in 1994 I visited Ireland for the first time, Most of my ancestors came from there and I was struck by the stories of their conflict with the English. I came back to Australia with a greater empathy with our own aboriginals after hearing how a distant ancestor of mine had lost his home and of another who suffered at the hands of Cromwell's soldiers. I can remember the animosity between Catholics and Protestants or State and Catholic school children and hope that we can all come to be regarded as individuals and see others that way too. These conflicts pass and hopefully we can all learn to appreciate the strengths of others and in the recognition of our own blind spots allow newcomers to more rapidly take their rightful place in our society enriching our heritage as they make us look at those riches they share with us from of their own background.
Patricia Ryan | 20 January 2012

The whole multicultural issue is permeated by ideological PC. If you are a Christian victim of Islamic violence and try to explain the reason why you came to Australia, most do not want to hear. If you are a boat person and Muslim, people go out and bat for you. People only want 'nice sanitised' stories - they don't want to question the ideas of the regimes that drove people to leave. As for Bolt he is courageous in my view to have asked the questions he did and in doing so treated the Aboriginal people, many of whom count him as their friend, with dignity and reason - he wanted a straight answer - in opposition to the 'feelgood' crowd who croon about Aboriginal rights but do nothing - e.g. our present government.
Skye | 20 January 2012

Fantastic piece, and so very true. Growing up I had little understanding of my own heritage. It's only in recent years that I've begun to learn more about my Irish roots - both the situation in their home country that lead to my ancestors' migration and the lives of the Irish migrants here in Australia. It has not only given me a greater sense of my place in this country, it has also really helped me better understand my family and myself - why we are how we are. Like Patricia Ryan, I think it's important to have this understanding if we're to also try and walk in the shoes of other families from different backgrounds.
Joseph Vine | 20 January 2012

On the money. Living multiple identities is quite consistent with getting on well with others doing something similar--but with a different mix of identities. Visiting Scotland recently brought the shock of instant recognition of some things seen only as shadows in family life many generations away. But it also brought shocks of total strangeness. That I suppose is why exploring one's family background is so intriguing. The learning about cultural differences and similarities need never stop.
RFI Smith | 20 January 2012

A very enlightening piece...I think when people migrate, they have the tough job of assimilating to the new country and retaining their cultural heritage.
Mary | 20 January 2012

The huge interest in genealogy indicates people searching for connections and 'a story'. One of the good things about tracing your family history is getting to understand how much change our forebears were capable of absorbing. It's inspiring to us today to think of them launching themselves into the almost unknown, and making a go of it. People driven from homes, Catholics marrying Protestants and being driven out of families, being widowed and starting again - it gives you hope for your own capabilities!
Russell | 20 January 2012

I too have a Dutch background and came here as a migrant in 1959. I was considered an outsider for some time but rather than do what Bolt did, I was able to reconcile the differences in my cultural influences. I am proud of my Dutch background and have continued to celebrate it throughout my life. But I consider myself Australian and celebrate that, too. I do not see the simplistic black/white solutions to aboriginality, refugees and multiculturalism that Bolt propounds as viable - in fact, they are confrontational and create far more problems than more nuanced and appreciative approaches would take. This is not about political correctness - it's about a world view that seeks to ensure that we live peacefully and "love our neighbour as ourselves". Our ethical standards should not drop because others' are different from ours.
ErikH | 20 January 2012

I was sad to see the difficult situation these refugees were placed in. There was a serious lack of care in providing clergy to support these new arrivals, unlike the care given by the large number of irish clergy that supported and energised the irish australians who then played such a significant role in the formation of this nation. Who was responsible for this failure?
terence flanagan | 20 January 2012

Context, context, context: think it was Goethe who remarked that if we are not being educated in the context of 3000 years of history, we have no basis for developing a perspective for the future. We live in the first age to have removed God from the Context of our existence and have ended up with the misery of Content-consumerism .I quote from God to Job: How can one so weak add such strength to my arm ' Young man your wisdom so simply expressed is our hope for a future where' having thrown open the window to the world and allowed God to escape, we may raise our voices in supplication imploring Him to return: We need Him like never before.

I think)
Hugh Forde | 20 January 2012

To Terrence Flanigan, I'm not so sure about all those Irish priests. In the 1860s, when many of our ancestors arrived, Fr Tennison-Woods' parish at Penola covered 22,000 square miles. The blessing from that was the concept of the Josephite sisters. It is difficult for those of us whose families have been here for generations to empathise with the newly arrived. Their vulnerability is terrifying.
Margaret McDonald | 20 January 2012

Skye, where is the evidence that 'Christian victims of Islamic violence' are not listened to? And what on earth is 'ideological PC'? Or for that matter, the 'multicultural issue'? And who is 'not questioning the ideas of the regimes that drove people to leave'? And, by the way, Happy Chinese New Year.
Ginger Meggs | 20 January 2012

The most far seeing and life enhancing point, is the realisation that all people have this common bond,as human beings, and are thus irretrievably related to each other.
bernie introna | 20 January 2012

Really good piece. I do believe that racial history, family history, cultural history brought here from the homeland are a terribly important part of who we are as migrants, and remain so even and especially when we become australian citizens, and must be passed on to future generations, because Aussie though they might be by being born in this country, where they originated from, be it parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, it is very much part of their identity, and only knowing their history, although being proud of being Australians can they fully develop as confident human beings so as to be able to reach their potential and only by acknowledging the past struggles, can develop tolerance and understanding of others.
Maria Prestinenzi | 22 January 2012

What Zac seems to have misunderstood, is that Australia as a nation, is a mono-culture and will always be a mono-culture, regardless of ethnic influences. The idea of a multicultural Australia is a complete misnomer. You will always have a dominant culture in any nation regardless of the diverse ethnic identification. To continue to use words like multicultural to describer a sovereign nation such as Australia, is really just a lack of understanding at best and outright political agendering at worst.
DavidB | 27 January 2012

Thanks for your comment DavidB, I was beginning to think everyone agreed with me! Culture, as of 1867, means: "collective customs and achievements of a people" Yet the definition of 'multi-culture' is not straightforward. It can be -as you imply- part of an ideology, or it can be a simple attempt to describe the reality of Australia's ethnic and cultural diversity. Likewise, when you say 'mono-culture', we can interpret this as a strong claim that one specific culture ought to or will predominate. Yet we can also read it as a more nuanced claim that any nation will *develop* a unified culture and identity from its diverse components. Eg. What you refer to as the "dominant culture" is presumably that comprised of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh migration to Australia. Yet this culture is clearly different from any one of those more diverse British cultures. I agree with this latter interpretation: we will tend inexorably toward a unified 'mono-culture' comprised of all our diverse influences.
Zac | 30 January 2012


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up