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.

Happy places

Twelve middle aged women in fuchsia tops are dancing in the middle of the street. Their chirpy music mingles with the lounge soundtrack of the Starbucks terrace.

I’m on Shamian Island, where colonial powers established their residence in old Guangzhou. Heavy European architecture, stucco, balustrades, pillars. If it wasn’t for the dancing ladies, the tropical heat and the dangling roots of the giant trees, I could imagine I was in Prag, Berlin or Budapest. But I can’t think away the heat, the trees, or the people. I’m in southern China, late summer, with a mild film of sweat over my face. I rolled up my jeans to let my legs breathe.

I was in that exact same seat two years and a half ago. Back then, I was living in Nanjing – it was freezing winter up on the Yangtze, and for Christmas, I fled south. I stopped over in Changsha for a day, and arrived in Guangzhou on the night of Boxing Day. I still remember that feeling, getting out onto the street at FangCun subway station. The air was welcoming. I bought peanuts from a street seller, then bananas on LuJun Jie, where I walked among plastic tables where locals enjoyed late night barbecue. I walked along the Pearl River, sipping milk tea. Teenagers were out with skateboards. And I felt happy.

The next day, as I did this morning, I crossed the river on a ferry, looking out the window at the grey waters of the Pearl River. I walked along the stalls of the Fish Market, past piles of polystyrene boxes, mounds of seashells on the floor, among the strong smell of mud and water. I walked along the canal, under the dangling branches of evergreen tropical trees. I crossed a bridge, and arrived on Shamian Island. Then, I settled on the terrace of the Starbucks with a cup of espresso. I felt safe, home, happy.

Over the course of my travels, I have gathered the memories of a few such happy places.

There is a food court in the Singapore Chinatwon, where retirees gather after dark for cheap food and beer. In November 2014, after a difficult year running my first festival and applying for a PhD, I spent long hours there, finally resting, reading Watchmen and drinking addictive sweet coffee. This is the background image on my iPad.

There is another food court, in Penang, on the seafront. I sat there with Philip in early December 2008, eating curry, fried chicken, ice Kacang. We were getting to the end of our three month overland migration journey, and after exhausting times in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, we felt that in Penang, things became easy, we were getting close to our new home, and we could breathe.

There is a cafe in Chippendale, in Sydney, where I sat down after my first major talk on the Chinese Internet in 2014, and again, after finishing a major stretch of work recruiting candidates for the first round of CAMP. It’s a little hipster place with fancy muffins, light blue pat, second hand wooden chairs, across a park and a new residential development.

There is a Bench in Queenscliffe, overlooking Port Phillip Bay. In 2011, I took an emergency two-day off there, after incorporating Marco Polo Project. I walked along the ocean to Point Lonsdale and, halfway through the walk, felt dizzy. It was evening, I was alone, and thought I might simply collapse there, from sheer exhaustion. I pause, I breathed, I looked at the waves. I slowly wake de all the way to point Lonsdale, trying to leave the burden behind. I made it there. A bus took me back to Queenscliffe, where I sat on the bench, looking out onto the water.

There are other places, but these mostly come to mind. These are places I reache after a feat – a difficult and transformative experience. There, I felt I could pause, relax, and take the time to regain strength before I start again. Is is what I am doing today. I just completed my first report for the Global Challenges Foundation – this has been one of my most difficult, if rewarding, professional experiences. And before I start again, or move on to something else, I need to take some time in my happy place, to renew.

On soundscapes

I’m back at Gills Diner. Yesterday morning, I started working from my study, but felt eerily drawn to Gills, and so I went. It’s not only the bombolone. It’s something about the place, it’s the vibe. And when I reflected on it, wondering why I love working form that cafe so much, I realised: it’s the soundscape.

We live in a multi-sensorial environment, surrounded by sounds and smells; our body reacts to the cold wind on our legs or the presence of another person nearby. But – maybe distortion of our screen-mediated world – visual cues take credit for everything. A place, a person, a thing, look good, or doesn’t. Whether they feel, smell, sound good – it matters, but it’s not something we think about.

I’m an earthy guy, and experience the world through all senses. The touch of wood, the waft of bacon and coffee, the echoing voices of nearby conversations and clinging metal from the kitchen – they’re more important for my own sense of space and presence than just how things look.

There’s an old rivarly between Melbourne and Sydney. Once, coming back from the other city, as I stepped out of Spencer Street Station, I had a sudden flash of insight. Sure, Sydney pleases the eye – but Melbourne is sweeter on your ears. The tingle of trams, the clapping horses, the buzz of pedestrian lights, and the large echoes of its broad street, make the Melbourne CBD one of the most pleasant urban soundscapes in the world.

And since that moment, I realised – to discover whether a place feels right – I close my eyes, and listen.

On anglo-imperialism

Alternatives are limited. My multicultural friends in Melbourne often resent ‘anglos’ and their sense of self-evident linguistic and cultural centrality. But forces of resistance are dispersed.

I like lists. One of my favourites is the yearly list of ‘Global Cities’, major nodes in the world system, ranked in order of importance. Although New York and London sit alone on the ‘alpha ++’ top tier, the twenty four ‘alpha’ cities of 2015 are reasonably spread across the globe. Superficially, we live in a globally diverse world.

A closer look tells a different story. Nine of these alpha-city were founded by the British, or became significant as part of the British Empire – London, New York, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Toronto, Sydney. Two more, Los Angeles and Chicago, are located in the US. Contrast with Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, Frankfurt, Madrid, Beijing, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels, Sao Paolo, Mexico, capitals of so many distinct historical entities. I’m not entirely sure where to place Shanghai.

I learnt one day that English historians mockingly label France ‘the eternal second’. Its empire did not quite match the British. They failed, only just, in claiming ownership of Australia. In the two World Wars, they were a lesser supporter of the great Anglo-American alliance.

Last night, I watched Mission Impossible. British and American spy networks play complex games of alliance to save the world. The French are nowhere to be seen, nor the Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Belgians, Russians, Germans, Spaniards, Brazilians, Italians or Mexicans. These nations are not playing the grand game.

Much of Australian discourse on multiculturalism hovers between a post-British aspiration to join a liberal, English-speaking community – and an aspiration to fully respect all cultures and languages equally. These may be two sides of the same coin. On top, post-imperial anglo-universalism; below, the mossy jungle of diversity. What would an alliance of second-tier powers look like, I wonder – or an alliance of their diasporas as a real-politik alternative to current all-inclusive, English-umbrella’ed conceptions of multiculturalism.

On Australia day

Outside my building, an Asian boy is playing Because I’m Happy on the violin. He would be seven or eight. His father is standing nearby, seemingly proud, perhaps amused. The boy is wearing an orange cap with a white stitched-on kangaroo, and the word ‘Australia’.

Today is the national holiday. My social media pages are flooded with controversy. Should we move the date? January 26 commemorates the landing of the First Fleet. Indigenous people find it disrespectful. Better call this Invasion day.

At lunchtime, I passed a demonstration of Indigenous flags marching along Swanston Street, and headed for a quiet picnic in a suburban park. Our group included two French-Australian couples, a French woman with her half-Indian daughter, an Australian woman with her half-Sudanese son, the son’s Chinese schoolfriend Wan, and a couple from Venezuela. We had potato salad, cold chicken, rockmelon, and a French-style puff-pastry caked filled with almond paste, washed down with nine-dollar-a-sixpack beer from Aldi. We sat on mats, played croquet, and conversed in three languages.

Later, on St Kilda beach, it was a large, noisy, shirtless guard. Two red-haired girls were strolling on the esplanade, draped in a large Australian flag. Their mother was walking two steps behind, trying to capture a photograph on her phone. With the crowded beach and pier in the background, the shot had iconic potential.

These vignettes capture my experience of Australia Day. Their contradictory tension makes up the nation I embraced.

Purple is for education, no culture

1.

In October last year, I was living in Nanjing, and I organised a translation night at a local cafe, with the Nanjing University graduate student English club. The local branch of an Australia-China Youth Association partnered with us. Their role was to bring in Westerners – their people told me they would have no problem bringing in 10 or 15 people. But on the night, only one Polish girl turned up. Furious organisers from the Nanjing University graduate student English club requested apologies – which I managed to deliver. They had brought 25 people, expecting interactions with foreigners, why did I promise ten, and only one came? There was not too much harm in the end, but some disappointment.

I later debriefed with the president of the partner Australian Youth association, and another Australian friend. ‘What time was your event?’ one of them asked. ‘6h30 to 10pm’, I replied. Both Australians had a smirk: ‘Now that makes sense. People just won’t come at that time. It’s a Saturday evening, at 6h30 they’re preparing dinner, then they’re having dinner, and then they’re going out for a drink.’ The tone was condescending, but I stood my ground. ‘People won’t come at that time? Well,’ I replied, ‘twenty five Chinese people came. We might have to deal with a cultural issue here.’ Yet I wasn’t really surprised – neither by the touch of unconscious racism, nor by the poor rate of showing up among Westerners. When I organise events in Melbourne, Aussies rarely come – while Chinese people do turn up.

On the night, in Nanjing, I ended up chatting with three people who’d come as observers. As I found out, one was the head of the Nanjing University Business club, one was the head of the international club, and the third was a friend of theirs, managing editor of a Shanghai-based online magazine specialising in digital media. They’d heard of our event, and were interested.

I went out for dinner with them – a local street restaurant, serving the best barbecue fish in town. Another friend was with us, highly educated Chinese woman writing a Master’s thesis about the reception of European modernism in China. Our conversation was warm, smart and friendly – the Chinese internet, the Chinese video games industry. Then we spent a long time comparing the power structures of the communist party with those of the Catholic Church, alternating between English and Mandarin. I became good friends with these three guys – and as it turned out, through one of them, I found myself one handshake away from Mohammed Yunus, and connected with a group of Guangzhou based innovators and IT entrepreneurs. I think these people will do stuff – and I built the foundations for ongoing relationships with them. How did I achieve that? I rocked up at an event, and I demonstrated a respect for culture.

2.

The Victorian government organised a trade mission through China, which culminated in a Shanghai event at the Pudong Shangri-La. Hamer scholars were invited alongside alumni of Australian Universities to meet the delegates and a few Victorian ministers.

The formal part of the ceremony started with a moving speech by a very wealthy Chinese investor who told us about his time of studies in Melbourne, where he discovered the full value of education and curiosity – which he called ‘the Australia spirit’. In his reply, our Premier expressed his own version of ‘the Australian spirit’, by quoting at length how much income Victoria derived from education exports, in full dollar value. Was I the only one to wince and experience a tinge of shame?

The overall event organisation was chaotic, unsurprisingly, given the large attendance. There was a table plan for the dinner, and coloured laniards for each profession. I tried explaining I worked in the cultural sector, and was there a colour for that? But the Chinese hostess replied, pointing to a pile of laniards: ‘purple is for education, no culture’. I later wandered across the tables, and bumped into one of the organisers. ‘I’m trying to find a table with people working in the cultural sector’, I said. ‘Good luck’, she replied, and left.

I ended up sitting alongside a very nice young Chinese woman, who worked in a bank, but considered a career shift to language teaching ‘I’m a Christian, I like to help other people’. Other people were boozing up on Yarra Valley bottles, while an ad about ‘Dairy Victoria’ rotated on the centre screen. I left early to get back to Nanjing, slightly bitter – with a sense of lost opportunity and misalignment.

3.

In December, I went on a ‘great trip down south’, to Guangzhou via Wuhan and Changsha. I had never heard of Changsha before, and Wuhan was just a name on the map. I learnt it used to be the centre of ‘Chu’ culture, one of the three great cultures of Ancient China; the Dao De Jing manuscript had been found nearby; it is called ‘the Chinese Chicago’; ten million people live there.

I visited the Hubei Museum, and was confronted headfirst to thousands of years of history – and a tradition I was entirely ignorant about. I would normally count myself as well-educated. Yet in this museum, for the first time in many many years, I felt a very deep and almost shameful sense of ignorance.

4.

There’s a quote I really like by Sergio Pitol, a Mexican diplomat and writer, back-slapping Americans: “in my country, it’s not respectable to be ignorant”.

What changed in 2013?

It has become common, as the new year comes, to publish a list of one’s recent ‘achievements’ – discrete items completed over the last year cycle, that – may – go down in our personal history like a string of baroque pearls. In parallel some will publish a list of goals or resolutions for the year to come – which, when the time come, will become new pearls on a new year-string. I do not much like the productive metaphor that underlies this yearly ritual – but would rather reflect in a more holistic way on how my situation transforms from year to year, and what new changes I expect from the coming cycle. Let’s call it, present consequences of last year’s achievements.

So, this is what changed for me since last year, in no particular order.

My linguistic competence changed, and with it my capacity to talk and engage with people. Last year, I was not confident enough to join in a semi-professional Mandarin discussion. I struggled to read, and could not write a short message or email without an electronic translator and dictionary at hand. I am now able to do all of this – still not with perfect confidence or fluency, but well enough. This means I now think of Chinese people as potential conversation partners, and can start imagining direct interactions with them, face to face, through social media or email.

My relationship to China changed. After spending four months in Nanjing as a resident, after visiting five provinces and twelve different cities, I have a much more intuitive and personal understanding of the size, diversity, and historical depth of this country. By living here, I have developed friendships and trusting relationships with a number of Chinese people from different places and background, and can now confidently contact them for advice or help. Both at the emotional, imaginary, and practical level, I am now more able to project myself into China, and make sense of events or situations involving Chinese people from a range of local perspectives. 

Marco Polo Project changed. We now run a reasonably respectable website, with an established editorial line and a core group of identified authors. We’ve got full models for events, and are ready to grow partnerships. Our operations are now clear, and we’re ready to increase our productivity. My own professional status changed along with Marco Polo Project. I raised 38,000 dollars for two different China-related project, and for the first time, will pay myself a small salary from this sum next year to run them. My public profile also changed. I am now introduced more often as ‘founder and CEO’, and was invited to speak about related topics at a few public events in Australia and France. I am not a solid authority yet – but slowly, I am being recognised as someone worth listening to when it comes to learning languages online, the multilingual internet, and all things China.

My personal situation changed. My partner completed his degree, and will be teaching English at Ivanhoe Girls Grammar from January, in a role that he loves, and with a comfortable enough salary.This means the end of a very tight financial year for both of us, and the excitement of a new profession starting.

My personal networks changed – I made new friends, and deepened older friendships – each of them opening a new window for me to understand the world, potential for joint projects, or the simple pleasure of conversation and company.

My nationality changed. I became an Australian, which means I no longer have to gather documents or engage with the immigration department; which means I can get a visa to China without much hassle; which means I can work for the Australian public service; which means I can legitimately reply ‘I’m Australian’ when people ask me where I come from.

My own psychological balance changed. Last year, I started with a lot of energy , but little experience and understanding of what lay ahead. I’m starting this year more tired – certainly the result of four intense months in China – but better connected, and with significantly stronger systems in place.

I am not sure yet what changes will happen in 2014, but here are a few directions I will work towards. Cosmopolitan short fiction. Personal productivity. Delegation. Mandarin speed and flexibility. Weaving Australia, France and China. Portfolio career. Regular day-breaks.

And we’ll see next year what actually changed.