Girt by sea

Last night, I was awarded the title of New Australian of the Year by the Australia Day Council Victoria. I was invited to make a speech on that occasion, and chose to reflect on the traditions of hospitality that made my own migration possible. I never write speeches beforehand, but wanted to share it here – the version below is reconstructed from memory. 

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I’d like to tell you about the place that I used to call home. Imagine a place in the South of France – a broad landscape of flat, salty marshland. If you turn to the right and look out towards the sea, you will see a lighthouse, and my great-great grandfather built this lighthouse. If you turn to the left, you will see white moutains of salt by a pink lake: these are Europe’s oldest salt marshes, where my uncle used to work. If you now look straight ahead, you’ll see an old medieval town with thick walls and rounded towers. And as we go through these walls by one of the doors, I’d like to ask you to stop for a moment and look at that door, because my great-grandfather was the locksmith of the town, and he used to have a key for every city door.

Now, I’d like us to turn left inside the wall, and walk a few steps until we reach a large green metal door, with a rose bush flowing over it, and I’d like us to get in – and I know that we can, because that door is always open. And as we enter the courtyard, you will see an old lady sitting at a table, humming a song. That’s my grandmother, and she’s the reason I’m here today.

Hospitality took me here, and hospitality was the most fundamental value that my family taught me. In my grandmother’s house, the door was always open, and people would constantly come in and out, family, neighbours, old friends, and new friends. And if you stay long enough with her, my grandmother will point at the corner of the yard and say, there used to be a well there, and in that well, she says, there was always water, even in the driest season, and everybody would come in and share from it. That’s what hospitality means to me – a door that’s always open, and a well that never dries up.

Hospitality took me here. I’d like to take you now to a different place. It’s a cold evening of February, 2006, and I’m getting off the train at York train station. I’m visiting northern England for the first time, on a holiday, and I’m looking for a man with a carnation in his hand. We met through Couch Surfing, a website where people offer each other hospitality. A few hours later, we’re sitting in his room, with music playing, and he asks me: ‘shall we make love?’ – ‘Make love,’ I reply, ‘why not?’ Eleven years later, he’s the reason I’m here.

Hospitality took me here, I didn’t plan migrating to Australia. But I was ready to go. The place I described as ‘home’, that’s not where I was born. I was born in a different place, a town in North-eastern France called Strasbourg, right on the German border, a place where it gets down to minus 13 in the winter, and the snow falls, and people close their doors against the cold. I was the son of Mediterranean parents, a father from Southern France, a mother from an Italian family. I was a wog boy living on the German border. And all my teenage year, my dream was to move South, somewhere warm, with palm trees and jasmine. When I first visited Melbourne in 2007, I thought, this might be it.

I never thought I would move that far South, but I saw that I could fit in this new place. There were Mediterranean migrants like myself, Greek, Italian, Lebanese, Croatian. Meanwhile, my partner comes from a lineage of Lutheran pastors, Barossa Germans: through them, not only could I stay connected to the traditions of my teenage years in Strasbourg, but I entered an Australian that was intrinsically diverse: here were founding fathers of a State, yet clearly not from the dominant anglo-celtic tradition.

I could have been comfortable simply carrying my European heritage here – but something else happened. In fact, Australia did something quite extraordinary: it made a French intellectual realise the depth of his own ignorance. When I first visited the country, Asia hit me in the face – and I how little I knew about it. The only way for me to make sense of this new country would to learn about Asia. Luckily, I was brought up to believe that ignorance is not destiny. So I educated myself. I started teaching myself Chinese, I migrated overland taking three months to travel from Paris to Singapore, and next I knew, I was enrolled as art director in a mid-length Vietnamese action movie set in the Western suburbs of Melbourne.

There were numerous other experiences, projects, and friendships in my early year. Then it crystallised into one thing. In 2011, three years after landing in Australia, I founded a nonprofit organisation called Marco Polo Project – acknowledging my own Italian heritage – which explored new ways of bringing Chinese voices to Western readers, through the Internet. That was a difficult journey – I had no background or experience in business, and now I found myself building and running an organisation from scratch. But it worked out – six years in, the organisation still exists, and has grown. From pure online presence, we started bringing people together offline. We’ve now run more than sixty events around the world, bringing together speakers of English and Mandarin. Through this work, other opportunities opened, leadership training, start up incubators, scholarships and international delegations, and now, among other projects, I work with a Swedish Philanthropic Foundation on issues of global governance.

But Australia taught me something else. This is not a country that says ‘more, more, more’, this is a country that asks you ‘who are you?’ Australia gave me shape. It didn’t matter how many projects I conducted, if there was no meaning to them. I spent a long time reflecting on this – and in the end, I think it’s a rather simple thing. All my work centres around cross-cultural understanding. How can you get people from different languages and cultures to better understand each other? And if all I accomplish in my life is help people realise and accept that their world is not exactly the same as the world of the people around them, then I’ll have done enough.

I think this is a very Australian pursuit. Australia gave me shape. And that’s what this award represents. It’s about not my achievements – it’s about celebrating country that embraces new citizens, and welcomes their contribution. I’d like to reflect on a verse in our national anthem, a line that says, ‘Our land is girt by sea’. What does it mean to live on an island-continent surround by water? To someone whose great-great grand-father built a lighthouse, to someone whose family comes from Europe’s oldest salt marshes, to a Mediterranean wog boy, this is what it means. The sea does not separate us from the world, it connects us. Australia girt by the sea is in direct contact with the entire world. This land is a meeting place for all.

And that’s what I found here, not just a warm place with jasmine and palm trees – I think I got cheated on the heat in Melbourne, actually – but a place of hospitality. A place where the door is always open, with a well that never dries, and where people from everywhere come together, share their stories, and find their own shape. And that’s what this cup represents, and that’s what we’re celebrating today.

Surely they would

Something funny happened to me the other day. I had a meeting with someone who works in Sydney, in the lobby of a famous hotel. I arrived in the morning, had lunch with a friend, then strolled over to the harbour. The meeting was at 2:30. At 2:35, I receive a text from that person saying they were in the lobby. I couldn’t see them, so called. We quickly figured out the reason we couldn’t find each other. That person was in Melbourne – and I’d come to meet them in Sydney.

I then exchanged a couple of emails with their assistant to set up another meeting. In the end, I think it was much more funny than tragic. I did re-learn a rule of good communication though. Always clarify. Be redundant.

How did the mistake happen? In a simple manner. There was an address at the top of the calendar invite I received. But I only read the attached email, mentioning the name of the hotel. Rather than look for an address on the invite, I googled. I had explicitly indicated I would happily fly to Sydney for a meeting, so Sydney was my anchor. I thought, surely, they  would tell me if it was otherwise. They probably assumed that, surely, I would read the address on the calendar invite, and no confusion was possible.

This can happen to two people living within the same country and sharing the same language. It happens even more across languages and cultures. One party thinks: all information is there, how can they possibly go wrong. The other party thinks: surely, they would emphasise anything that might lead to confusion. Thus, mistakes occur.

It’s easy to fall into blame, or guilt. Their fault, my fault, who wasn’t good enough. But as a linguist, I always assume that communication problems are, intrinsically, a joint problem for both parties. Communication failures are collective mistakes, and have a simple prevention method. Clarify, clarify, clarify.

But we’re human, and weak, and often, we forget.

On building bridges

“If you’re building a bridge, you can’t think like a farmer”. This is what I almost posted on my Facebook wall earlier. But then I caught myself: farmers observe nature continuously, and may be wiser than most of us city dwellers. The better proposition would be, “if you’re building a bridge, you can’t think like a gold-miner.”

Over the years, as I presented Marco Polo Project to potential partners, funders, even mentors, the same question came popping up: what sector are you in? When I tried explaining that we spanned across industries and countries, and didn’t really fit in any, eyes rolled. Some wise advisors even told me that we’d better locate ourselves more clearly, because if we didn’t, who would ever consider funding us?

Find a niche, hey? I understand your logic, but now tell me: what’s the use of a bridge inside a tunnel? And if you’re building on air, then don’t you think it’s wise to rest your weight on two pillars at least?

No wonder we don’t fit in any clear-cut category: our very purpose determines our structure. Not hiding in the cave, digging for gold, but anchored across a range of sectors: literature and education, multicultural communities and partners internationally. We build connection between them and – like bridges – are neither here, nor there, but in-between.

But hey – if you’re looking to dig a gold-mine, you shouldn’t think like a bridge-builder.

On translation – reflections on English imperialism

Last year, I taught a class on translation at La Trobe University. On the reading guide from the subject coordinator is an article by Tim Parks about underpaid and underrecognised translator. I liked one part of the piece – a recurring theme against the praize of individual genius in literature. I winced, however, at the following passage:

‘Some years ago Kazuo Ishiguro castigated fellow English writers for making their prose too difficult for easy translation. One reason he had developed such a lean style, he claimed, was to make sure his books could be reproduced all over the world.

What if Shakespeare had eased off the puns for his French readers? Or Dickens had worried about getting Micawber-speak into Japanese?’

Indeed, but isn’t it remarkable how a Japanese author is thinking of overseas readers – while London-based Tim Parks defends the genius of his co-native authors, who should never compromise their own capacity to use all the resources of the English language so that barbaric French or Japanese readers might access them. These are not our audience – and we shall not cater to them.

This short extract – and my reaction to it – reveals tension between two different ethics of literature. One whereby the great book is written by a great individual. One whereby the great book is that which can access a larger number of readers – including, because the writing is easy enough, or universal enough.

Take the case of Italian epic-writing collective Wu Ming – possibly the most remarkable literary experiment to come out of Europe in the last fifteen years. They create myths for contemporary reader, and work as a group. There is no genius writer. And their work has been reasonably well translated.

With collective writing, translation can occur without the odd obsession that translators have, what Tim Parks describes like this: “You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then he sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to his experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness.” Note the gender of the pronoun.

Translators can take pride in this extreme level of attention to details. It is a remarkable, and remarkably undervalued skills. Yet there can is an hybris to translation – the desire to recreate, and deny the difference of languages – and an hybris to literature, that of the author directly communing with the language, and neglecting all considerations of their readership.

 

Festival time

Three days to the Marco Polo Festival! It’s been eighteen months at least since I first sat down in Little Lonsdale Street to discuss an idea for a program that would bring together writers and readers from Australia and China who embraced the internet as a key part of their practice – combining online and offline events.

Marco Polo Festival events

Preparing a Festival takes a lot of energy, and as a result, I’ve been a bit silent on this blog – but I haven’t exactly stopped writing. One pleasant aspect of working as a Festival Director is the level of attention you get – even when you’re just running a junior, first time gig – and I was able to publish a few things over the last month or so: a piece on Translation in Writer’s bloc, another on ‘Translating Asian Voices in Australia‘ in Peril Magazine, a Q&A with Writers Victoria, and an interview with the new Tongues magazine.

And now Festival time is a-coming – we’ll be talking all things digital and cross-cultural, sometimes all in English, sometimes in two languages. And I look forward to sharing ensuring thoughts and meditations here, or on the Marco Polo Project blog. Meanwhile, if you’re in town, come along and take part in the conversation!

On reading a poem about Melbourne, Unesco City of Literature

Two days ago, my partner sent me the link to a poem by Koraly Dimitriadis, Greek-Australian writer and performer, called ‘Open Letter to Melbourne Unesco City of Literature‘. The poem throws flame at Melbourne literary institutions – festivals, magazines – denouncing their whiteness in direct, explicit ways – and expresses the rage of the poet for having to stay outside the door.

Oddly, this piece resonated very strongly with me. I wouldn’t have expected it to. I’ve been trained in French formalism, the raw emotional style jars with my classical taste, and I find its direct name-throwing discourteous. Yet I was very moved.

I’ve been invited to many of the forums and events Koraly denounces, disproving their exclusive anglo-ness, or non-queer friendliness. I never felt I was in as a ‘token foreigner’, and witnessed real commitment to diversity from the organisers, many of them women. Maybe I’m just nice and naïve – or maybe there was, indeed, genuine desire for more diversity.

Yet in all these instances, I also felt a great solitude, as one of the very few migrants, foreigners, non-native English speakers, among panelists and audience. I never quite know what these figures mean, but I read that in Greater Melbourne, 25 to 30% of people speak a language other than English at home. This is certainly not the soundscape I encountered at any literary forum in Melbourne. But then, literary forums are not home. Except if English is your native tongue, it will certainly feel closer.

I do notice a gap between a discourse putting forward cultural and linguistic diversity – aspirations to be some international city of literature, even – or in other circles, a part of Asia – and the domination of anglo-american authors and references in our literary life. It’s embarrassing, at a literary event, when you never heard of such American author, and the person you’re talking with has never heard of such Italian collective you love, or some Shanghai-based blogger. But it’s happened to me so much now, that I sometimes avoid talking about literature altogether – or when I feel provocative, I just say: ‘I don’t really read English-language books much’. It’s a great conversation killer.

Still, it’s a tough game: it’s hard enough to lead a reasonable conversation within one’s own tradition – trying to bridge aesthetic and ethical gaps may be beyond what audience or readership can accept. I’m not sure rage is the most appropriate way to deal with this, but I believe we should be very aware of issues Koraly raises. If I wasn’t invited, maybe I would feel that same rage. And as a semi-white writer myself – for better or worse, I felt good after reading this piece.

In country learning – on motivation

Has anyone ever told you, with a serious face: ‘If you want to learn a language, I think you need to go to the country, that’s where you’re gonna learn’? And in retort, have you never come across a post on a language learning blog explaining that, with the possibilities of the net, you don’t need to travel to create your own language learning environment? I’ve been living in China for three and a half months now, and my language skills have made tremendous progress as a result, even as I attended classes less and less. I’d like to reflect on this recent experience to provide my insights into the ‘travel or stay home’ debate about language learning.

It is true that, with internet media, skype-tutors and multicultural communities, it is entirely possible to build one’s own ‘in-country-like’ environment in any major western city. Conversely, the same elements of globalisation mean you can live in China without ever speaking Mandarin, surrounding yourself with expats, hanging out in English-speaking cafes and restaurants, and streaming American movies on your laptop. It is particularly easy when you live in Shanghai or Beijing, where expats are many, and often have a great story to share.

There is no necessary scenario playing itself out, and learning will take efforts. The nature and degree of effort needed, however, may vary. Learning a new language is extraordinarily demanding, at an intellectual level certainly, but in terms of motivation too. Not only do you keep forgetting the words you learn, not only do you find yourself articulating vague statements along the lines of ‘Australia good, bad, China good, bad, same same’, but whenever a parameter changes – noise in the background, someone speaking in a soft voice, or a topic you’re not familiar with – you find yourself unable to perform at the level you thought you’d reached months ago. And often despair strikes in.

Learning Chinese in China can be remarkably painful. The taxi driver will not understand you when you say ‘Nanjing university’. The waiter will not understand that you’re saying ‘black coffee’. That pretty girl or boy that you met will have an impossible accent; or the loud music will bang bang their speech into syllable mash. You will stare at the bus timetable, and not find your stop among the sea of characters. Easily, you will fall into the comfort of expat bubbles, or avoid anything involving speech and movement. But when your energy returns, you just have to step on the road, and you’ve got Chinese all around you. More interactions with your environment will require – and develop – further language skills. And sometimes, Chinese will just barge into your comfort zone, in the form of a loud neighbour, perplexed waiter, or bill to pay.

Learning from home, the opposite will be true: your Chinese bubble will be fragile, and require ongoing care and attention. Sure, you can build a community of Mandarin speakers around you – but if you bring anyone else into the mix, the group language will shift towards English. Sure, you can listen to Chinese radio, but can you do that when your friends are around. And sure, you can read Chinese books and papers and magazines – once you’ve reached a certain level – but who’s around to talk about them – and where do you get them from?

Finally, when you learn in-country, opportunities will increase your appetite for the language, and your desire to learn more. Whether it’s appealing books at the bookstore, business meetings and partnerships, or good-looking locals, you will have a direct sense of how much more you could do if only your language skills were better – and that sense will help you get through the pain and frustrations of learning. While at home, learning that foreign language requires an extra layer of discipline – to reject other more appealing offers, drinks with friends or colleagues, a film with your partner, a short week-end on the coast. And when you’ve spent the cognitive energy to reject these offers, stick to your discipline – how much is left for study?

Living in the country for a while won’t help you learn the language out of necessity – but possibility.

Have you learnt a foreign language at home or by living overseas? What was your experience like – please share it in the comments of this post!