Mapping Europe over Asia

There is an idea that cultural resemblance operates by proximity. That, therefore, there may very well be differences between the French and the Germans or Italians, but those pale in comparison to differences between ‘Europeans’ and ‘Asians’.

Now I remember a guy once telling me that he’d been on a trip to Vietnam, and was amazed at how close the two cultures were. This is how he made his assessment: he went to see a French comedy, and people were laughing at all the right places. This would make sense: when the French established colonies in South East Asia, they chose the Vietnamese to rule over others – hence ongoing problems in Cambodia today.

We might make other comparisons. England and Japan: an obsession with rules, people moving away so they won’t come too close to you, high levels of personal repression, except on booze-fuelled evenings to release the tension. Punk teenagers and suited businessmen. Or Northern China may be like southern Italy: Harbin is the closest thing to Naples I’ve seen. People shouting out from their balcony to the street, addressing you spontaneously as you pass. A massive yearning after social contact.

So, rather than Europeans vs Asians, there may be just patterns of internal differences that we can trace on both continents, in an effort to better understand each culture’s own centre of gravity.

The wog is always further south

As a migrant to Australia, I discovered a new word: ‘wog’. The word, I learned, refers to “Southern Europeans” or “south eastern Europeans”. In Australia, that’s Italians and Greeks mainly, and potentially the Lebanese, Spaniards, Croatians, Serbians and Macedonians.

On the Wikipedia page about wogs, there is an English quote saying, “The wogs begin at Calais”. The border of civilisation ends with us. I noted the same thing through my early years.

People in northern France, where I grew up, thought of the Southern French as lazy oily garlicky dark-skinned sloths who parade around in convertible cars.

My father’s family comes from this oily southern France, but civilisation, in their eyes, ends just a bit further. They’re reliable, but the Italians, though pleasant, are unreliable, lazy, flashy, etc.

My grandmother, on my mother’s, is from northern Italy. Emilia-Romagna: fat, rich, middle-class Italy, where they put egg in the pasta, and pork in everything. I remember telling her I was going to Naples, and she would say “oh, Naples, oh, this is different. This is a different place altogether. We’re from Parma.” She was the daughter of a metal worker, cast away from Italy for his involvement in anarchist movement. But she had an extreme snobbism and superiority, towards the South Italian ‘wogs’

One of my dearest friends in Paris is Herakles, from the island of Zakinthos or Zante. This was a Venetian seaport, like Corfu, and never a part of the Ottoman Empire. One day, we were walking along the port, and pointing out at the sea, he would tell me: this is Peloponnesus, they were Turkish out there. He went to Athens for university, and his friend from the island, they would call the locals “barbarians”, and mock their Turkish sounding music.

So prejudice will make us perceive whoever lives across the border as somehow the first barbarians – and ‘us’ as the bulwarks of civilisation.

Looking to be normal

My appetite for knowledge has been driven by an incapacity to be normal, and a constant injunction to be so. I tried to learn, using books and my brain, how to be normal. The more I tried, the more I failed. I skipped from country to country, language to language, discipline to discipline, looking for that common ground of normality.

I learned how to morph into various cultural norms, but found no normal. Instead, the bookshop and the library became like massage parlours: an intellectual stretching exercise, increasing my flexibility, rather than revealing any common truth. This may not be just a matter of my personal fabric, but the common experience of our generation.

Beyond the anglosphere – on a poem I read

As Covid-19 is putting us all in self-isolation, I have been going through my drafts and folders, putting some order into them. I resolved either to polish and share pieces publicly, or dispose of them. Some, I simply shared as is, others I contextualised. This is what I wanted to do here: in this post, I talk about anglo-ness as default in Australia’s cultural and literary world. As our borders lock down, at the same time that the world is experiencing a genuinely global trauma, some of the questions raised here may be more pressing than ever. So – what should we do, and what can we do, to no longer take ‘English’ as a default? 

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

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

I’ve been invited to many of the forums and events she names, 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 because I’m nice and naïve – or maybe because they do have a genuine desire for more diversity.

And yet, in all these instances, I often 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 those events.

I do strongly feel the 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.

But 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 these issues she raises. And as a semi-white writer myself – for better or worse, I felt good after reading this piece.

Corona thoughts: whose voices are being heard?

“In the digital era, whose voices are being heard?’ A few years ago, I posted a question on my Facebook wall, asking friends for advice on good historical writing about the Australian pre-federation period. One of the comments was from a cousin, who wrote – in French – ‘bon, tu arrêtes ton charabia, et tu parles français comme les gens civilisés’.

As a French migrant to Australia, the multilingual internet is a fact I remember every time I post on Twitter or Facebook. My friends and family do not speak English well. My Australian friends do not speak French.

It’s happened that I’ve read good articles in Le Monde or French blogs and wanted to share them, but they wouldn’t make sense to my Australia friends who do not speak French. And China – well, it’s a different beast yet. I have WeChat on my phone, and check Facebook on my computer. One device and platform per country. Sharing from one to the other is very unwieldy.

The internet offers a strange meeting of local and global. When Marco Polo Project was running its digital magazine, we had readers in over 1000 cities around the world. I have multiple blogs in multiple languages, and their audience is international. As Australia becomes increasingly multicultural and multilingual, how will we listen in to these non-English language conversations? How will we explore the new forms that evolve in certain countries?

Much of the internet is real time. A few years ago, I hosted a visitor to the Emerging Writers Festival. A literary reviewer from the UK, she had issues sleeping  in Australia – she felt obliged to take part in Twitter conversations, and listen in for urgent emails or calls for work on UK time. Others follow conversations in New York, 14 hours difference. Meanwhile, who knows what’s being discussed up north, in Japan, China, Korea, Indonesia.

In Covid-19 times, this becomes an issue. What do we know, us non-Chinese readers, about the Wuhan experience. And I’m not even talking of censorship, but direct testimonies of the people there, or medical reports, even research from China? What do we know of the deep conversations in Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan? Only what correspondents will share, in English. How can we develop a deep, global sense of the present crisis, in a linguistically fragmented Internet?

There is no clear solution – and this piece isn’t offering one. Only that we probably need to reflect more on language, writing and ideas. Language is the medium of any writing – well, of any articulated thoughts – and if we do not go beyond English, we will remain unaware of our own enormous blindspots. In times like these, a terrible missed opportunity.

A paradox of language learning

Communicating in a foreign language is a difficult task. This is an emotional difficulty – fear of social embarrassment – and a cognitive difficulty – mental exhaustion. Both are largely tied to the high level of ambiguity that characterises exchanges between second language and native speakers.

To succeed, it is crucial for learners to build resilience in situations of high ambiguity. However, most language learning models focus on increasing fluency – how to understand and communicate better – rather than increasing the capacity to cope with ambiguous settings. In other words, education is focused on teaching students how to fail less often in their communicative and interpretive efforts; learning how to better deal with failure is only incidental.

What if we reverted this proposition, and designed language learning activities optimised for dealing with communicative failure, with particular attention to the emotional dimensions of the experience? This is what much of my work with Marco Polo Project was guided by!

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.