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. 

fullsizerender

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.

On working for the woman

Today, at a birthday party, I had a short conversation with a guy I hadn’t seen for a while. To my ‘how have you been,’, he replied, ‘you know, working for the man.’ The expression was not entirely familiar, but based on his tone, I interpreted it as unsatisfactory work, submitted to some arbitrary form of authority, with a touch of exploitation. A form of modern slavery, featuring ‘the man’ as master.

Jokingly, I said, ‘it sounds bad, you should try working for the woman instead.’ I couldn’t miss the occasion, and explained how the very morning, I’d been pondering this optimistic paradox. At equivalent levels of competence, men hold higher positions than women. The logical corollary to the sad fact is, for an equivalent position, all odds are that women holding it are more competent than men. And therefore, it’s likely that they’ll make better managers, leaders, or bosses to work under.

I count myself lucky that, since I moved to Australia, almost all the people above me whenever I’ve worked in organisations have been women – and some of my close friends are women in leadership roles. Consistently, they’ve been exceptional.

If I was to think of an optimistic pathway to future work equality – well, here it is: since women leaders are statistically more competent than men at a similar level, let’s assume they’ll form the best teams, deliver the best results, and word will spread. Meanwhile, here’s my encouragement – as much as you can, don’t work for the man, work for the woman.

On blurred focus

I have never worked on just one thing for more than a week. For as far as I can remember, I have always juggled professional identities and projects. This has made every utterance of the question ‘what do you do’ an opportunity for self-reflection.

Diversity of practice is core to my sense of freedom. Separate the powers: let not my life depend on just one person or one organisation. Hang on different spots, so that if one thread breaks, the web survives.

At times, this juggling is a source of energy. I can hover from one activity to another over the course of the day, following my own rhythm. I pack in more than I would otherwise, with a sense of joy and independence. But there have been moments when I felt a sense of saturation, experienced as internal panic.

Not that deadlines are pressing, but rather, than my focus becomes unclear. I shift my glance left and right. No matter where I look, everything is on a spectrum from complete blur to slight haze. Nothing is crisp and sharp. I can’t figure ‘what to do next’. The mind flickers. Progress stalls.

Three things will precipitate similar states of uncertainty: when deadlines are too close together, when I work with more than three different sets of people, or when expectations and quality criteria for a project are unclear.

What’s the way ahead? Write a piece like this one. Recenter. Stop, reflect. Take a step back. What is my general goal? Where does everything fit? Then, from the big picture, zoom back on the details, and execute.

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.

On sexualised puritanism

Midsumma is the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Festival. Yesterday was one of their feature events, Carnival, a big get together day along the Yarra River, with music, food, and community stalls.

It is unclear, however, what Carnival is exactly designed to be. Right after the entrance, I walked into people in black singlets playing volleyball among a circle of stalls for Gay and Lesbian sports groups. I greeted a friend from the ‘Glamourheads swim team’, and walked across the centre lawn. Blaring sun, no shade. From the main stage, a cover band played a loud piece of doof doof dance music. On the way, I passed a small group of men in skimpy swimsuits, with the words ‘naked men fest’ written on their bodies.

Past the skateboard rink, the corporate and community stalls started: Coles, PWC, Dykes on Bikes, and three different animal protection groups. People pushed leaflets and showbags into my hands. ‘Are you interested in getting a job?’ Someone asked. At an HIV stand, somebody took a photograph with a hunk in a red cape and white underwear saying ‘no glove, no love’.

It was all very teasing, I was hoping to see some action – a handjob workshop, Kink DIY practice, an orgy tent – or at least some proper nudity. But there was none of it, no touching, no sex on premises. Carnival is family friendly. Yet again, there were not many families, nor many women either. Mostly white men with frustrated expressions.

As I walked back along the main alley, heading back home, I passed a man in a black t-shirt and two young Asian women holding white ‘Colgate’ plastic bags. “Oh, toothpaste!” I said, “Why are you handing toothpaste at a gay festival?  Should I brush before or after the blow job then?” They were not amused. “No, we’re a gay-owned dental clinic – some people find it more comfortable.”

On cosmopolitan settings

Today, a friend shared an article about international students in Australia. The piece lamented the lack of integration between Chinese and Australian students, and called for change.

This is common rhetoric: international students have limited interactions with locals, what a missed opportunity for both sides! Yet if we dig a little, where exactly does the problem lie? In a city like Melbourne, where one person in four was born overseas, who are these mysterious ‘Australian students’? I’ve been here for seven years, and hold two passports. When I go to Monash University for my PhD, am I a local?

More surprising is the way we seem to consider interactions between Chinese students. They spend most of their time among themselves, I read – well, maybe. But with over a Billion people in China, I doubt they’re spending their time with cousins or village neighbours. More likely, they’re developing entirely new networks across their country, and discovering its culture and diversity from the safe neutral ground of Australia. Not to mention their encounters with Korean, Japanese, Indian, or Latin American students.

When Gertrude Stein invited Hemingway for dinner in Paris, did they yearn after the presence of ‘a real French person’ to make their experience worthwhile? To what extent does it matter that international students in Melbourne integrate with elusive locals? Not if they have a deep experience of learning about the world and themselves, and leave with rich networks and countless insights. But focusing on that may put too much pressure on universities to think hard about their current methods and mission. Beside, who said foreigners could have a good time in our country without us?