– my life through the lens of culture from 1954 to 1991 -
My maternal grandparents were born in Ireland. My paternal grandparents were born in England and Ireland. My paternal grandfather anglicised the spelling of the surname 'Coughlin' to 'Coghlan' on arrival in England to conceal his Irish identity. Interestingly, my maternal grandparents altered the spelling of their surname - O'Burn, to Burns on arrival in Australia for the same reason. It was more acceptable to be considered Scottish in this country in the early part of the 20th century, and it also served the purpose of masking the fact that they were Catholic. Being Catholic was a definite bar to respectable employment in Australia as late as the 1960's.
I was born on the 26th of May, 1954, in Adelaide's only Catholic hospital - Calvary. I was the third born into a loving and heavily Catholic family. Three of my grandparents died before I started school. I can only remember the fourth grandparent, my father's 'very English' mother, with any clarity. It is then of some interest that I have always considered myself to be more Irish than English. I'm not sure why. Certainly my mother was much prouder of her Irish heritage than father seemed of his English heritage. My mother told of leprechauns, sang Irish songs, and her 'Irish temper' was infamous in our family. The only effect I can pinpoint in my childhood that may have stemmed from my part English background, aside from the obvious influences of language and the predominant Anglo-Saxon mores, was an inherent snobbery that my father possessed, and a concern for class that frowned upon we children mixing with those he deemed below us. This, despite his own relatively humble lower middle class socio-economic status.
My paternal grandfather however was often spoken of as a man of letters, a man of high culture, who insisted occasionally that his nine children spoke French at the dinner table. This my father never tired of telling.
Until age seven, the predominant cultural values surrounding me were an Anglo-Irish hybrid. This included religion, family life, and as I became increasingly aware, sport – a sub-cultural aspect that took over my life about this time and continued well into my adult life as a key to acceptance in many different situations. How very Australian! My early contact with sport also brought my first encounter with Australian Aborigines.
My first contact with Aborigines was in the local football team. There were a few black members of the team who were irregularly present. This irregular attendance was ascribed to the blanket phenomenon of 'walkabout'. Even in 1962, Aborigines did not seem to live in one place. They seemed to wander at will from town to town. I don't know if it was true, but I accepted it totally from others as fact. An incident concerning Aborigines which made a significant impression on me was a conversation I had with a black teammate in the town's public toilets. He informed me that his people did not like to be called 'boongs', but 'darkies' was a term they did not consider insulting, and they used it to refer to each other.
The first time I remember someone from a different culture causing conflict in my life was a day when two newly arrived Italian lads joined in on the lunchtime football field. The older of the two, though his command of English was limited, was fairly aggressive and fairly assertive in his knowledge of the rules of our great Australian game! I remember feeling very annoyed, disagreeing with him vehemently, thumping him one, and running home from school to the protection of my mother. How could one so recently arrived with so little English know the rules of OUR game!
We moved back to the city; I to college. Very little cultural contact there apart from Anglo-Australian children, until the school I attended relocated to the foothills in the north eastern suburbs. This was an Italian neighbourhood and consequently Italian children came to the school in greater numbers. They had different sounding names, looked different, suffered bad taste jokes about garlic and sewers, and for the most part played soccer and kept apart from we Anglo children. I laughed at these bad taste jokes, probably even joined in the telling of them, but also remember feeling objection to the inherent unfairness they embodied. I was not yet aware of racism as a word, but I already knew its bite.
I moved schools. As a day scholar in a boarding school, I came into contact with people from Asia for the first time. What contact I had with them was always as part of a group, and relations seemed friendly. Perhaps the fact they were boarders, and lived at the school, enabled them to mix more freely with Anglo-Australian children than the Italian children did in my previous school.
I began studying French and Latin. French I was vaguely aware as a 12 year old Australian schoolboy was a language spoken by real people in some place far away called France. I felt absolutely zero connection between myself and those people living far away in France. Latin was referred to as a 'dead language', spoken long ago by the Romans but no longer in current usage as a form of oral communication between real people. It's interesting to consider that the fact that French was a 'living' language and Latin 'dead', made absolutely no difference to my appreciation of them. They were simply subjects I studied at school. I found Latin easier than French so I persevered with it longer. Writing now I wonder whether it is actually erroneous to consider studying these subjects as cultural influences on my life in any greater sense than studying Mathematics may have been. It was many years later when I went travelling as an adult that I was able to build on my rudimentary French acquired in high school, and utilise the dead Latin that lay like residue in my brain to unlock meanings of words in European countries I travelled in. It was only then that I had some appreciation of the fact that I had studied these subjects long ago in school. I can only assume that these early experiences with languages was a springboard for what became a fascination with languages and the meanings of words later in life.
I attended Catholic schools. I was impressed by a priest/teacher who was able to come in at the start of each class with greetings in Latin. He taught us to say the prayers at the start of each class in Latin. However, just as it was in Mass, we understood nothing of what we intoned.
It was at this same time at the same Jesuit school that I had a teacher who was the only vaguely foreign teacher I ever had throughout my school life. He was Irish and spoke with a heavy accent. He was eccentric and would occasionally get wildly angry, further corroborating my prejudicial belief that all Irish possessed tempers to be feared.
Catholic schools were of course religious, and they purported to be strict, and depending on the teacher, they were at times extremely so. Schools function as transmitters of culture and when a particular religion is the focus of the acculturation intended you get a more thorough dose of those aspects of your culture considered to be more important. In my earlier years at school, Catholic schools existed to produce Catholics. Every day and every lesson began and ended with a prayer. We had a period of formal religious instruction every day - it was given as least as much weight as any other subject being studied. On average, we attended Mass at school once a week. Most of the teachers throughout my school life were priests, brothers and nuns. As I grew older we had more and more lay teachers (already a sign of diminishing vocations within the Catholic church) and most of these were practising Catholics. Indeed, it was always the source of some amusement when we had lay teachers who were not Catholic. Obviously we were able to spot them by the fact that they did not conduct prayers before and after lessons. Their being non-Catholic also meant they had to work harder to gain students' respect and impress as good teachers. We quite definitely saw them as outsiders, interlopers who did not really belong, and we as students were far more merciless in dealing with their shortcomings. How they themselves must have realised this!
Strict meant corporal punishment, and it was practised daily. As early as grade four I witnessed nuns venting their anger on young children with canes to the hands or the backside. Some were quite savage in their fury and infliction of punishment. Such scenes of caning and strapping were a regular theme throughout my school life. It was not questioned by us whether or not it should occur. It simply did. It was a given. The effect of it all upon myself was not to inspire fear, but as I grew older I came to realise that its paramount effect was to lessen my regard for authority and those who wielded it. I think it's unfortunate that it also resulted in me regarding religious with disdain. I was regularly caned and strapped, and I could never understand how people who lived 'a life with God' could be so unloving in their meting out of corporal punishment. Not all teachers practised corporal punishment, but most did, and without question I remember those who did not resort to it with greater regard. Interestingly, it was more likely to be our lay teachers who were more likely to refrain from using corporal punishment!
I could not end any discussion of my school life without reference to sport and the role it played in my development. It may be that sport in Australia is a core value of the dominant Anglo culture, but my contact with other realms of Anglo - Australian culture far removed from the world of sport made it seem more to me like a sub-culture that I regularly retreated to and was enveloped in. It had the dual effect of both making me feel totally accepted by those who embraced the values of this sub-culture, and at other times making me feel quite alien in the company of other Anglo-Australians with whom I spent a great deal of my time. Despite the reputation this country has of being sport crazy where everybody to a man embraces its value, I can testify that there are a great many individuals who loathe sport , and who found it extremely puzzling that a seemingly intelligent, sensitive person as myself would devote so much time to it.
I devoted so much time to it because I was very good at it, and I discovered very early its value in establishing oneself as an important member of groups, particularly in schools where it was looked on with admiration by peers and teachers. Without going into sentimental detail about it, the doors that sport opened for me made my life growing up immeasurably easier and more pleasurable. It gave me friendships, it boosted my confidence, it gave me health, and was an open ticket to peer group acceptance whenever I changed schools. However, the older I got the more I became aware of the typecasting 'sport freaks' were subject to. For another group of people that I was increasingly identifying with, the 'counter culture', the world of sport was full of unthinking types who were trapped in the mainstream, and it has been a recurring theme in my life that as soon as I see myself as too closely identified with any group, particularly if too mainstream, I pull back from it. (A result of the cult of the individual so stressed in modern Western cultures perhaps?)
It was the 1960's and "the times they were a’ changin'." The Vietnam war was on, I had moved out of home, and drugs had become a part of my life. I had become aware of and part of a struggle between two sets of contrasting values within my own culture: a struggle between new and old ways, modern and traditional, young and old. I signed up for the new, the modern, and the young culture; that offshoot of mainstream culture that Theodore Roszak labelled the "counter culture." I had become aware of greed, materialism and war, and was only too keen to blame my parents' generation for the inequality and hypocrisy I saw around me. I rebelled against my middle class upbringing and the values they represented: security, family life, and conservatism. I expressed my desire to break free from that world with disorderly appearance, pop/rock music, and in a more clandestine fashion with drugs. I became a devoted fan of the people who threatened the established order through music. I questioned everything. Riding on the heels of the Woodstock generation, inspired by the cataclysmic social upheaval sweeping Europe and America, we saw ourselves as establishing a new way of living based on love and honesty, where people were not judged by their appearance or the job they had, but by who they were. We were idealists who refused to believe that age should automatically dim idealism.
Looking back it was an unlikely set of cultural influences that were operating upon those of us studying humanities at university and opting for the counter culture. My gurus at the time were British rock musicians, and the American spokesmen of hippiedom. At the same time I delved deeply into and became enamoured of the writers and commentators of 'high' culture: Chaucer, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, historian Barrington Moore. I delved into Marxist thought and the politics of underdevelopment.
Throughout this period at university, I travelled extensively in Australia and overseas, putting into practice this new found freedom and bravery of the young. I went first to New Zealand and remember clearly the daunting feeling of watching Australia's shores recede into the distance like the breaking of an umbilical cord. My brief contact with Maoris in our neighbour across the Tasman helped me understand just how desperate the position of our own indigenous people really was. Maoris seemed far better integrated into New Zealand society than were Aborigines here. They were visible throughout the country and not just confined to more isolated and rural areas. They seemed more actively involved in the preservation of their own culture and defence of their rights in their own land.
My next journey overseas was to South East Asia. The journey began in Singapore when it was still an underdeveloped society. The abundant squalor and overcrowding and streets teeming with life had a profound impact on me. Nothing in my life prior to that first day in Singapore as an impressionable nineteen year old had prepared me for the shock I felt that day. I moved on to Djakarta and the shock was even more resounding. People living and dying in the gutter; the smells and sores of abject poverty. I was virtually penniless and I felt like a rich man, having to brush past the outstretched arms of a row of crippled beggars. It was an easy and logical step to return to my studies in Adelaide and begin a passionate inquiry into why the world could be so unequal, and it served to reinforce my denunciation of the middle class western culture that I had been brought up in, and that I saw as responsible for the inequities that I came face to face with in Asia.
It was in Asia too that I became aware of a way of living that was less clock oriented, more relaxed and much more public about expressing religious worship. Shrines and alters to deities dot the cities and countryside. Burnings of incense and offerings of food to deities at these shrines and alters happened on the street. People did not dress up to attend temples or mosques. Religion seemed more part of life, not apart from it as it did at home. Some religious even used marijuana to heighten the sense of the spiritual. It was not just deemed an anti-social and irresponsible act. For me, it was as if the taking of mind-expanding drugs was validated by other creeds.
I completed my B.A. and went to England - my first experience of living and working in a foreign land. I felt at home and away from home all at once. I was vaguely embarrassed by my 'Australian-ness'. We were popularly depicted as beer swilling lovers of sun and sport, somehow barbaric for our pursuit of pleasure, and not 'cultured'. I did not feel like I fitted the typical mould, and this experience of the English (and later Europeans) wanting to stereotype me I'm sure was partly responsible for me attempting to 'de-Australianise' myself. I did not want to speak like an Australian; I did not want to be associated with the brash and ugly stereotypes that the British media portrayed. I wanted to show that Australians could be more sophisticated than that. (I don't think this was a pretentious or artificial act on my part. It was more a natural result of my upbringing that I had till now resented, and a reaction to the situation I found myself in.)
Throughout my educational life to this point I had been fed the notion of the mother country with its royalty, nobility, and manners. As the origin of our culture, the spawner of a great literary tradition, the masters of the empire on which the sun never set, I guess I was in awe of Britain. I consequently looked up to it. It was with some surprise then that I found so many of its inhabitants narrow minded and myopic, almost peasant like. Denigrate the popular image of the Australian they may have done, but for thousands of British citizens Australia was this paradise on the other side of the world where their dreams could be realised. I had never considered my homeland to be a paradise, but the more I travelled the more I saw it as that. (I still do.) The longer I stayed away the more I threw off the cultural cringe. I became proud to be Australian, and my visit to the national centre of births and deaths in London helped me to understand just what that meant.
To see, on paper, in the vaults of that building far away from home, the names of all my grandparents as having been born in the United Kingdom reduced me to tears. I felt at home. Home somehow seemed a much larger place than it ever had before. I felt part of something much bigger than I had ever imagined. I felt part of a culture that had been split in two, and it felt sad, awesome and wondrous. I travelled to the Isle of Wight, to the church where my maternal grandparents had married, and stood contemplating the fact that two people, one of whom I never knew, did something in that church long ago that eventually led to my existence. Gone was any feeling of resentment of my upbringing, my heritage. I was glad to be alive. I was glad my grandparents had got married, and raised my father who in turn had me. I felt English, Irish, and Australian.
If I was in awe of England, I was even more so of Europe. My education had told me that England was the birthplace of our culture, but that Europe was the cradle of our civilization. This time it was seeing the white cliffs of Dover recede into the distance that felt like another umbilical cord being cut. I found myself in situations where no one spoke English and unlike Asia, people were not so ready to offer assistance to a stranger in need. I discovered a German population intent on atoning for the sins of the holocaust. I discovered that the continental cradle of our civilization was home to hillbilly like peasants in the mountains of Austria. I saw again how warmer climes relaxes the pace of living in places like Greece. In Greece too, I experienced how migration between our two countries forged bonds across cultures. Australians were very welcome in Greece. The landscape reminded me of the dry rugged beauty of my own homeland and I realised just how beautiful it was, and just how much I missed it. I had also felt something similar in Scotland when for the first time in many months I enjoyed open spaces. With such experiences I became aware of just how much our physical environment shapes who we are and how we relate to our world.
My first visit to Europe though did not provide me with any feelings of any deep cultural connection as England had. In Israel however, to be in the Holy Land where Christ had walked, had a far deeper effect on me. Initially, it had the effect of raising my consciousness as a Christian. I felt part of something ancient and tangible as I wandered the old city of Jerusalem and the shores of Galilee. I relived Christ's last night on earth in Gethsemane much more easily than I could feel the power of the ancient Greeks in the Acropolis. It was with some confusion that I had to come to terms with the fact that here, in the birthplace of Christianity, my religion was of little significance for the Jews and Arabs who made it their home. It played a greater part in the lives of average Australians than it did for those living in Christ's homeland. A seed was sown: one's own religion is more a product of culture than some indisputable eternal truth.
I lived on a kibbutz for six months and enjoyed my first taste of large scale communal living. I had been raised in a nuclear family. Mum stayed home and did the domestic duties while Dad spent long hours at work. Male and female roles were divided in the traditional way. Back in Australia during my university days I had lived in share houses where the traditional division of roles was discarded - a by-product of the alignment with counter-cultural values. On an Israeli kibbutz I saw at close hand a society where all adults worked. Children were cared for cooperatively in children houses and only returned to their parents' house at selected times each day. This was partly to offset what was seen as the disadvantage of children being raised by just two adults in a nuclear family. It struck a chord with me. As I grew older I had felt more and more stifled by the closeness and conservatism of my parents. I was growing up in times when their values became less appealing to me. The Israeli kibbutz experiment seemed to allow people to develop independently of their family without feeling guilty if their values diverged from those of their parents. Kibbutz raised children seemed mature earlier and extensive research bears out the fact that these children become members of the ruling and professional classes in disproportionate numbers.
Looking back at my father's working life, it was clear that he was imbued with the Protestant work ethic (though he was Catholic.) I had had odd jobs in Australia, but had never derived true satisfaction from them. Working on a kibbutz, where one's labour is unpaid, and where how well one works is the most important measure of acceptance in the community, I simply fell in love with hard work. I learnt to take pleasure in a job well done. I could regulate my own work hours and it was assumed that I would complete any given task responsibly, and I did. I doubt I ever would have learnt this valuable lesson in the Australian workplace where people are watched over and work more in response to subtle coercion than a desire to do a job well.
Living in Israel also showed me how the whole concept of manners was culture bound. Unlike the opposite extreme I had encountered in Britain, Israelis are by any Australian definition, impolite. They never say please, they push and shove in queues, and raising one's voice in public was an accepted and expected way of getting one's own way. I found it frustrating that my own culturally ingrained ways got me nowhere in banks, post offices and on public transport. It was with great delight after some months that I found that I too could push and shove and raise my voice in public and earn respect. It was empowering!
My continuing contact with Israel over the years has taught me how easily won is our freedom and standard of living here. To live in Israel means to struggle. Peace and security are won by constant vigilance, and I regularly met people my age who were already the veterans of two short wars. They cared more passionately about their homeland than my compatriots did, and were willing to fight for it. I came from a country where comfort and freedom were mine by birthright, and I realised what an absolute luxury that was.
I enrolled in my first foreign language class - Hebrew. Classes were conducted entirely in Hebrew. With delight I discovered I could communicate in this language from the first lesson. If the context was sufficiently clear, one could deduce meaning in a foreign language and reproduce it accurately. As I learnt more it became clear how speaking another language effects your personality. A different linguistic system will dictate how you express things. I had seen this first years before in Indonesia when a German acquaintance who was quite mild in manner when speaking English, became vociferous and argumentative when he spoke his native tongue. I too when speaking Hebrew became rather more direct and abrupt in my communication than I was in English.
On my return home from my first long trip abroad my friends remarked that the whole experience had softened me. Indeed, in the first few weeks back I felt like a stranger in my own land. Australia seemed like a brash and beautiful place with odd customs. Australians undoubtedly though were friendly and open people, and slowly I became one of them again.
I enrolled in a Dip.Ed., and for the first time in my life studied with a sense of purpose. I was older and knew that I enjoyed studying and wanted to do as well as I could at it. The following year I was offered a job in a Catholic school. My chance to enter the establishment! I took it. I now had to examine more closely those elements of my culture, and religion, that I thought worthy of passing on to my students. I tried to give my students an appreciation of the best that I had been given: to use the Catholic faith as a basis for moral development that left ample room for freedom of personal conscience; to instil a social conscience of what was happening on a global scale.
My experience as a teacher on the other side of the fence in a Catholic school was invaluable in redressing the harm done during my own school life. I worked alongside religious who had no wish to inflict physical harm upon students. The majority operated out of a love for God and humanity. I saw the Catholic faith as a source of care more than an excuse for wielding authority. I was able to select from its doctrines those I was comfortable with. I felt happy to be a part of the Catholic community, even if I did not embrace all its values, and felt relaxed about conveying the Christian perspective to my students. My conscience ( the use of which had been encouraged in my schooling) allowed me to be non-Catholic in regard to some issues (for example, compulsory attendance at Sunday Mass) and still not feel too out of place as a teacher in a Catholic school.
After three years of teaching I travelled again. This time I went first to Sri Lanka. I had been there briefly before but this time stayed several months. I lived in a fishing village with local inhabitants and learnt the rhythm of hand to mouth existence. If a good part of the day was not spent in the pursuit of food, then there was none at night. Husbands (and I) spent the morning fishing. We used to return to shore, take the catch to the fish market, receive payment, give the days earnings to the wives, who would go shopping for food and then cook it while the husbands untangled and repaired nets. It was life in delicate balance such as I had never known. Here people spoke only of the days events with immediate relevance. Western knowledge was irrelevant. My body was a useful extra instrument of labour, and my music was appreciated (I often played guitar and sang in the village) but so much of what I had learned and used in my relating to people at home was useless. Conversation was rooted in the necessities of daily life.
In this Sri Lankan village too I had to learn to live as part of a crowd. The villagers spent very little time reading and writing and whenever I engaged in either of these activities it attracted a large crowd of interested onlookers! We as Westerners regularly seek time alone; these Sri Lankan villagers never did. They in fact considered it quite odd that we should actively seek time alone! I had to adjust to going to the toilet on the beach with only the privacy of a sarong to hide behind. Those months in Sri Lanka had an enormous impact on my evaluation of my own culture. On return to Australia, so much of life here seemed absurd. It seemed so much of our time is spent placing so much stress on non-essentials. In Sri Lanka I had experienced a way of living that was stripped down to the bare essentials and I found it liberating and illuminating.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I learnt from my time in Sri Lanka was how uncomfortable I was initially being among people who gave totally of their meagre resources without any expectation of return. I learned later that this is an essential tenet of Buddhism, but as Sri Lankan codes of hospitality don't allow guests to repay favours I felt totally unable to deal with this constant barrage of generosity. In true Western style I sought the privacy of my own company for a few days and left the village to ponder why it was I felt this way. I realised slowly that I could accept the villagers' kindness without guilt, and as the weeks went by I found I could repay them by entertaining them with my guitar. It is appropriate at this point to mention that on countless occasions I have been extremely fortunate to forge links across cultures with my music. This often referred to 'international language' is indeed just that. So often it has enabled me to cross barriers of language and custom.
On occasions we would go to the village cafe for tea or coffee. Sri Lanka is tropical, hot. I thought nothing of going to this rather seedy, if quaint, cafe bare topped, clad only in sarong. I noticed vaguely that Sri Lankan men may go topless on the beach, but certainly not to the cafe. I thought it rather silly of them. Eventually my host politely suggested I wear a shirt when we went to the cafe. It took some time for me to realise that it was not care for my welfare that prompted his suggestion but rather that I had already caused him acute embarrassment a number of times by going to the cafe topless. I felt ashamed of my ignorance. I subsequently learnt that it was with great difficulty that the villagers tolerated Western women wearing bikinis on their beaches. It flaunted their sense of decency and appropriacy for women. It taught me that one should not practice one's own customs automatically in a foreign land and that no matter how senseless something may seem from the perspective of your own culture, one can unwittingly cause great offence.
In Sri Lanka I had no difficulty living with crowds. I later spent three years in Holland where crowds of people living in high density urban conditions in a cold wet climate depressed me thoroughly. Again I was acutely aware of how the availability of unlimited space in Australia had influenced how I function. I was driven to distraction by walls and inclement weather, but slowly learnt too how the Dutch notion of 'gezelligheid' (it loosely translates as comfort) is crucial in learning to enjoy being confined for long periods inside. They pay much more attention to interior decoration than we do and their living and entertainment areas are far more aesthetically pleasing than the equivalent in other countries.
On a particular day in Holland we attended a party with about fifty guests. I was told some days later that several people at the party who had not spoken to me asked who I was because even in a crowded party they said that the way I carried myself made it apparent that I was not Dutch. I can't be more specific but I found it intriguing that the way I sat or stood marked me as being from a different culture!
I also had many American and English friends in Holland and I was always amazed how much easier I could relate to Americans than to English people on first meeting. It seemed that as fellow citizens of 'new world' countries, Australians and Americans readily found a communicative rapport. There seemed to be a cultural bond that permitted levity and less formality in communication between relative strangers. A Swiss friend commented that she always found Americans and Australians refreshing because we were free of a cultural burden that she said belaboured communication between people of other cultures.
I enjoyed my time in Holland. There I felt freer than most Dutch people, less reserved and more spontaneous. In Australia, behaving in similar fashion, I don't feel particularly outgoing or spontaneous. I believe Australians are less shackled than Europeans in the way they relate to each other on a personal level. Europeans may be more sophisticated in appearance and manner and may be more progressive in their thinking, but Australians relate more easily and openly to each other.
Before I returned to Australia I journeyed to Portugal to do a course in teaching English as a foreign language. It was an educational influence of great consequence. I had already spent several years as a teacher. This course made me question everything I had ever done in a classroom and revealed many practical and theoretical weaknesses to my teaching - quite a shock for one who thought he had done a pretty good job as a teacher hitherto! It brought home to me the importance of dynamic behaviour on the part of the teacher, the value of a teacher as an entertainer, and the crucial fact that all learning must take place IN CONTEXT; that it must be perceived by the learners as being relevant.
These points may seem obvious but so much of teaching in schools is governed by pressure to complete a syllabus that is remote from people's life experiences, and little attempt is made (and little time is available) to explain why certain things are being taught other than to pass exams and complete the syllabus. There is a lot more I could say about why this course was an invaluable educational experience, but suffice to say that it left me fortified and inspired to return to teaching. I returned to Australia and soon after began working as a teacher of English to adult migrants.
I am still working in this field and it is like going to the world every day because every working day I spend with people from many different cultures I'm exposed daily to cultural influences that clash with my own. I could write at length about specific items of culture that have surprised, shocked, and amazed me in the course of four years teaching adult migrants, but that would be a separate memoir in itself. Obviously in this job I must try to impart the values of our own culture that are essential if one is to live here harmoniously. I am forced to be selective about what is essential. I must differentiate between my own personal cultural system and other group cultural systems at large. I must be a conveyor of Australian culture and be sensitive to what manifestations of other cultural systems can be sensibly maintained in Australia. I must help newcomers from other countries understand what will shock, and what will be appropriate here.
The continuing influence that this job has on me is generally a positive one. In the main my students are impressed by Australia and its people. I daily re-evaluate the group culture that I have been born into and constantly see it through the eyes of outsiders.
I have spent a good deal of my life travelling and living in other cultures. Consequently I see myself as something of a cultural chameleon. I have been in too many foreign situations to blindly accept my own culture as better than others. I see myself as the product of many cultures, and yet I feel undeniably Australian. I do not readily identify with many aspects of what may be seen as Australian culture, and so abroad I am not easily recognised as Australian. Yet, when abroad, I announce with great pleasure and pride that I am Australian. To some degree I can feel at home in many different cultures, but I still feel a stranger until I return home. There have been times when I have known that to behave honestly as an Australian may set myself apart, perhaps offend, but I have done so because I'm simply not capable of doing anything else, or because at other times I have judged that it's important to express my cultural personality to show someone of another cultural background that there are other ways of doing things.
My educational experiences have instilled in
me a love of
learning. I like to use my intellect. Whatever my painful memories of
education in Catholic schools, I am eternally grateful that my parents
sacrificed a great deal to expose me to the 'cult of learning' of the
I am happy to describe myself as Catholic in the literal sense of the
word - universal,
and spiritual. I consider myself fortunate to have had an education
independent thinking within a Christian framework that stresses care
I believe this, coupled with the fact that I grew up in a time when
people were granted much more freedom and responsibility, and exploited
possibility of mobility around the world, has allowed me (and others of
generation) to have a religious outlook that is certainly more
eclectic, and to
be more able to cope with a society whose values are changing rapidly.
not culturally stultified; we expect, even encourage, change. My
my culture and my religion has limits that are not so well defined, and
point where cultures meet, I expect dynamic interchange. The group
that I most identify with does not fear changing values as much as my
generation did. We recognise that it is inevitable, and expect it. And
to my parents' chagrin, is the result of the excellent job they did of
me to be independent, conscientious, and free to make my own decisions.
Feedback on this essay from
Prof Jerzy Smolicz prompted me to add these notes on Portugal, Ireland,
and other cultural influences since 1991.
Michael – I was pleased to read your long and illuminating essay – and I can see that you are only halfway there! Portugal still to describe; Ireland still to visit. I think that you have described very sensitively the array and variety of cultures that have influenced you – while you continue to maintain a strong Australian identity, but of the kind which permits you to adjust your personal cultural system through interaction. A very perceptive memoir.
I did spend a month in Lisbon in the mid-80s but it was solely to learn the trade of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL). I learnt little of Portuguese life as I spent this month either in the classroom or studying back in my apartment. I do remember being shocked at how poor parts of the country looked. I hadn’t seen that level of neglect and disrepair in houses and public infrastructure in Europe before – I thought that such rundown sights were the province of the developing world, or as it was commonly called then, The Third World.
Carminho (WOMADelaide, 2014)
My only other encounter with strands of Portuguese culture was via their form of blues – Fado. I first heard it at WOMADelaide, and was drawn to its soulful, doleful cadences. A music full of feeling that oozes sadness and at the same time carries tones of beauty. I have always been intrigued by the musical sounds that cultures produce – they are unique and often specific to place.
Sitting under the stars at The Treasury – the star attraction at Petra in Jordan – I was moved to tears one night as the sounds of an oud supporting that instantly recognisable vocal style of Arabic music washed over us as we sat in candle light in the desert night. The fact that that place – those rocks, that sand, those warm nights had produce these unmistakably Middle eastern sounds enthralled me. Somehow that particular mix of geography and culture had conspired to create those sounds that are a signature of the Arab world.
I imagine sitting in a café in a Lisbon miradouro listening to Fado might have the same enthralling effect.
All my life I had dreamed of going to Ireland. As an undergrad at university we studied J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. The Western world in this play was the west coast of Ireland, and I was beguiled by its peaceful wilderness. I kind of promised myself that I would get there one day. As the years passed I had made several visits to and even lived in the UK but had not yet crossed the Irish Sea. I think I was waiting for a time when Ireland would be THE destination and not just an adjunct to another trip to the UK.
Much later in life I finally had it planned. I would spend a couple of weeks in Ireland exploring Dublin, our family seats of Cork and Clare, and the west coast. As fate would have it, just as I was set to depart I was offered some work out in the Pacific. If I went ahead with Ireland it would be Dublin only; or no Ireland at all. I chose the ‘just Dublin’ option.
I’m glad I did it – I’ve yet to get back to Ireland – but I think I’d put such expectation on the whole experience of finally seeing Ireland that it was bound to fall short of those expectations. And Ireland is not Dublin. So I’m going to leave any further discussion of Irish cultural influence till such time that I can get into the Irish countryside.
I have played my guitar and sung in cafes, bars, and restaurants many times over the years. A few times I’ve been approached after singing in such places by people saying something like “you have to got to be Irish!” or “you must have some Irish in you” because there is apparently something in the way I sing that reminds people of Irish music. But I don’t sing any Irish songs. I must say though that I enjoy the idea that people say this about my singing. Perhaps there is something of my mother’s Irish genes inhabiting my musical soul?
Save for a short holiday to Fiji, I came to the Pacific much later in life. Offers of work in my new semi-retired phase of life took me to Vanuatu, Fiji, Tuvalu, Samoa and New Caledonia – all different countries with their own distinct cultures – but there are common cultural threads in the Pacific that are found in many of these small island nations. And these common threads start with Christianity.
I had made many visits to Asia over the years, and as much I love it Asia is nearly always crowded. The Pacific right from the start for me felt like Asia without the hassle. It affords a gentler version of the tropics where there’s nearly always breezes blowing from the sea, the pace of life is equally languid, and the standard of living is basic but not too depressing. Few go hungry in the Pacific.
Within an hour of arriving on my first visit to Tuvalu I was asked what church I would be attending on Sunday!! There were multiple options – all manner of Christian churches have colonised the Pacific – and I neatly side-stepped the question. It seemed to me that about 90% of the population do attend church in Sunday mornings. I eventually learned to walk around near empty neighbourhoods on Sunday mornings and just get close enough to churches to enjoy the angelic sound of gorgeous voices wafting out through the palm trees. It always sounded beautiful and sometimes extraordinarily so. Everybody in the Pacific sings. Men and women, young and old – everyone joins in in perfect harmony. Such wondrous vocal choruses also happen at other significant events outside of church but to be a non-Christian in the Pacific would mean much less music in your life.
The Christian influence is everywhere. Samoa actually advertises itself as a Christian country and proudly spruiks the fact that Christianity is the state religion. I was never close enough to the inner workings of Pacific society to know what pressure is exerted on everyone to go to church and live by religious values, but as a foreigner I felt absolutely no pressure to be a part of it. I was left in peace on Sundays.
There is a cruel and ironic flipside to this ubiquitous Christianity. Just about everywhere in the Pacific there are the conjoined problems of alcoholism, domestic violence and diabetes. Beneath the veneer of Christian love and tropical ease is an undercurrent of deep unhappiness. Most of the drinking is done by men who routinely bash up their women and it is almost accepted as normal. Clearly links to traditional culture have been broken and many feel a sense of disconnection from any meaningful life purpose.
The diabetes epidemic stems from overeating. Many Pacific cultures have sadly lost the skills and knowledge to cultivate traditional foods and instead eat mostly processed carb rich foods from Western style supermarkets. I was quite taken aback by the amount of food consumed at meal times by both men and women. They eat larger lunches and evening dinners than most do in countries like Australia, and this was presented to me as part of their culture. I was often told that “We like to eat” without any shame or embarrassment.
Another curious aspect of culture in the Pacific is the intersection of French and English cultures. Both the French and the English had colonial footholds in the Pacific for many decades. In most places these European monoliths divided their spoils – the French for example had Tahiti and New Caledonia; the English and their Anglo-Pacific partners (Australia, NZ) had Fiji, Tuvalu, Nauru etc. But Vanuatu was a shared situation and still today the small nation is divided along language lines. Local languages are spoken regionally, but about 40% speak French as their second language and 60% English. This has significant ramifications for education and training where everything needs to be published in both languages.
It was certainly my experience that people from the French parts of the country spoke very little English and found anything other than very basic English too hard to comprehend.
I wrote above about the role of the sub-cultures of sport and counter-culture. In the early nineties I encountered another sub-culture that was to have a profound and lasting impact on me. WOMAD is an acronym for World Music and Dance and it became an incorporated body that sponsored global musical festivals. My hometown Adelaide was chosen as the site of the Australian WOMAD festival and hence WOMADelaide was born.
“What first attracted me to the festival was the truly exotic – Russia’s Terem Quartet, a lone kora player from Africa, throat singing from Sardinia, Madagascar’s Justin Vali Trio – music you would never hear anywhere else, and where you felt extraordinarily privileged to witness things you otherwise had no access to.”
I fell in love with music played by people I had never heard of, playing instruments I’d never heard of, singing in languages that I didn’t understand!! And I was smitten!
There is something subliminal, primal about appreciating culture that depends on recognising difference and a shared humanity at the same time. Language is an expression of culture but understanding a culture’s language is not a precondition for enjoying a culture’s public manifestations – dress, art, food, music. And music as an expression of sounds that can both convey and provoke depths of emotion, is rightly dubbed the universal language.
Once a year WOMADelaide delivers a cultural smorgasbord from across the planet. “The Sounds of the Planet.”
(page updated 17/7/20)