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.

On pop music

Yesterday, when I got back home after a long walk through Fitzroy and Carlton, the crepe place outside my building was playing an 80s French song. I hummed along as I walked into the elevator: ‘Partenaire particulier recherche partenaire particulière’. I was home.

One of the surprising difficulties of migration is that people in the new place don’t share your mental music library. Bars and cafes never play the songs of your childhood. There is no retro dance night where you can belt out the words of a familiar 1984 hit.

I have a precise memory of intense cultural alienation. It is 6pm on a Friday, and I’m at Papa Goose bar on Flinders Lane with colleagues. I had been living in Australia for two years and a half, and was working for the government, in a strategy team. We’d just finished a big conference, and went out to celebrate.

These moments also serve team bonding. The conversation soon drifted to pop-rock favourites. Titles and band names flew around, creating a sense of joint belonging beyond hierarchical divisions. Except, none of the names rung any bell for me. Some of those might have played on French radio, but I could not identify them.

I felt isolated, a bit stupid, very self-conscious, and angry. Didn’t they realise that the conversation alienated me? Couldn’t they be polite enough to find a more consensual topic – or, failing that, turn the focus on reflecting about pop-rock trends in France and Australia?

It wouldn’t happen. Lots of superficial office banter only serves to reassert pre-existing social connection. For that, people are expected to share the same web of references, pop music, pop cultures, values, models on how the world works. Migrants myst catch up, or shut up.

To their credit, it is difficult to conceive that somebody close to you never boogied to the sounds of a favourite songs. Surely, they must know. I can’t really believe my partner never danced to ‘Partenaire Particulier’.

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 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?