Sunday, October 7, 2012

Blog-tober - The Sum of All Parts

I got to mark another thing off the bucket list today.

After pump class, instead of going for a coffee with Jay as I normally do, I went home, showered, changed and made my way to a Bridge Road cafe for brunch with Glen Waverley and Merijn. We try and do this fairly regularly, and it's a lovely thing to do.

Once breakfast was done with, Merijn and I left Glen Waverley to go home, watch the Bathurst race and talk to the cat, while we made our way into town. We'd been talking about this trip for a few months.

We were off to the Immigration Museum.

For regular readers of this blog, you'll be more than aware that I'm a bit of a culture vulture - and the Immigration Museum on Flinders Street has been one of those places that I've always intended visiting, but never got around to it. Merijn is of a similar bent, as well as being a motor racing widow - so with Bathurst on this weekend, something neither of us could give two hoots about, it was decided  that today was going to be the day. 

What followed on arrival was two of the most fascinating hours I've had in ages.

I'll start this off by saying that going with Merijn was a brilliant thing to do. Merijn came here with Glen Waverley four years ago. They have permanent residency in Australia, but they are Dutch by passport. No matter how many snuggies, ugg boots, thongs and stubbie holders I buy Glen Waverley, he's always going to be Dutch even if he does choose to become a citizen in the future (and then he will be Dutch Australian - and that will be fine too). Coming here through company sponsorship, they've made Australia home. 

Me, well, I'm fifth generation white Australian. My folk came in the 1850's, mostly from Cornwall and Wales, they came to the gold fields and to the newly settled colony of South Australia in search of a better life. Looking over the family history, there are lots of farmers, farm workers, clergy and medical folk, with a reprobate publican thrown in for good measure. There is also the odd Gallipoli and Western Front veteran of whom I am particularly proud.

We have completely different views and experiences of what it is to be Australian.

When I was born, the White Australia Policy was still in place, if only by name, people were inherently racist, Aboriginals were only eligible to be counted in the census for a year - their children were still being stolen. Foreign food included going to a "Chinese Restaurant" for fried rice and honey prawns. Many of my parent's friends thought of spaghetti as "ethnic food".

I was born into a very different Australia. 

Thank goodness things have changed.

The wallop that this museum packs is felt from the first exhibition. A video exhibition explain why people come to Australia - family, war, disaster, opportunity, poverty, family... stories of people escaping from unimaginable horrors and situations. Nearly in tears, I sat and watched, counting every blessing that I know I have in my charmed life. 

What follows is a fascinating, wondrous  confronting couple of galleries looking at Australia's immigrant and immigration history. It takes an unflinching look at the last one hundred and seventy years of Victoria's immigration history. It passes no judgement on some of the pretty parts of our history - the abject racism, the treatment of the aboriginals, the White Australia Policy, Tampa, One Nation.... just to name a few of the monstrosities.

The greatest thing that this museum achieves is the celebration of the spirit in which people have come to Australia. Stories of women working in the sewing factories, refugees, "ten-pound-poms", entrepreneurs and convicts. Most of us came her at some stage - if like Merijn, it was only a few years ago, or in my case, over a century ago - we all got here somewhere, somehow, for some reason.

Many of the exhibits were moving. A walk through the cabins in which settlers would come here by sea, the cramped conditions, the even worse latrines, the rancid food and lack of running water. Stories were told of boat people, interment, settlement camps and island processing centres.

The biggest take away for me was the hope in which this place instilled. For all of the government decisions that made coming here impossible for some (including the "Dictation Test" that migrants were forced to take. If they didn't want you to come in, they'd make you do the test in a language other than your own - for example, Maltese immigrants were forced to take the test in Dutch... Mindlessly cruel stuff) people still wanted to come. I remember sitting at a friend's citizenship ceremony and being moved to tears by some of the sentiments presented by the speakers. We do live in a country filled with hope and opportunity.

Too many of us take this for granted.

For everything that the Australian government and it's people have thrown at recent migrants, these people prevailed.

There was an interesting exhibit about skin colour, ethnicity and prejudice. Although nowhere near as apparent as it was, more subtle forms of racial taunts are still there. I got to tell Merijn about my experience of skin colour and how wrong things can go. When I was taken to see my sister when she was born, my three-year-old self rejected my new born sister - you see, she wasn't black. I wanted a black sister like the babies I'd seen on Sesame Street... my parents never let me forget this strange fact.

Another exhibition we both enjoyed was a celebration of sweets from different cultures. This included a pin board with recipes that people have put up there - having a look there were recipes for gulab jamuns, bread and butter pudding, malva pudding... it all got a bit much for my sweet tooth. Merijn asked me if she could leave an offering - of course, I told her.

So here is Merijn's recipe for Vlaflip (also known as Flim Flam if you're German)

Merijn and I left two hours later, still pondering the marvel that is this under-visited and thought provoking place.

It's a place I'd go back to in a heartbeat and I encourage anybody who like me, has been putting off going here to make the trip. It's a place which makes you think and gives you hope at the same time.

This is never a bad thing.


The Elephant's Child said...

What an amazing place. Thank you for taking this first generation Australian along with you.

Kath Lockett said...

One of my Flemington mates is on a sound recording there, telling us what it was like to arrive in Australia as a 12 year old from Scotland.