Actor Benedict Cumberbatch atop Sydney Harbour Bridge in April 2014 – Photo credit: Bridgeclimb
I often joke that, had Les Misérablesbeen set in England and not in Revolutionary Paris, Jean Valjean would have been sent to serve out his prison sentence in sunny Sydney instead of the galleys in Digne. It is a well-known fact that the first European settlement of this British colony (then known as New Holland) consisted of English convicts. These days, British tourists (and other countries near and far) arrive in droves on a daily basis.
Australia Day is celebrated on January 26th to mark the landing of the First Fleet and the raising of the British flag in 1788. Despite past controversies over the treatment of the local Aboriginal people by the white settlers, this day is usually celebrated by the sights and sounds that Australia is famous for. As it is summertime, a “barbie” or a visit to the beach are common on this day.
For my family this year, however, we decided to do something a little different, not the least due to inclement weather that has lasted all day (nobody like soggy sausages). We decided to celebrate Australia’s cultural diversity, of which we are contributors of, being migrants ourselves, and went to my local Shanghai dumplings restaurant. We stuffed ourselves silly, just as we would have had I been doing the barbie, but with no clean-up afterwards. I tried to tell my 12 year-old nephew that dumplings are just like sausages – you never really know what’s inside. Then we came home and watched the Australian Open Tennis.
I love meeting new people whenever I travel. As soon as I open my mouth, they recognise an “interesting” accent and the question inevitably follows: “Where do you come from?” I refrain from breaking out my Men At Work impression and I reply “I come from Australia.” That is the answer I have been giving for the past thirty years. Yes, it hardly seems real that it has already been thirty years since my parents packed up the family and moved us halfway across the world from Hong Kong to a city in a country we had never been to.
I never fully grasped the enormity of such a move back in 1982. At the time, I knew nothing about Australia – not even about the koalas and kangaroos that people ask me about nowadays when I travel abroad. The only people I knew who had even been to Australia were friends of my parents who had come here on a family holiday. I remember going to their house for a slide night but taking very little interest in what was on screen.
The only thing I remember thinking was that they spoke English in Australia. Having attended an English private school since kindergarten, I was not afraid of the language barrier, though if anyone had warned me about the accent, things might have been a little different! If only I had read Nino Culotta’s They’re A Weird Mob back then, I may have had a better understanding of the Australian slang!
The prospect of leaving behind all my friends and my grandparents, who I was extremely close to, never truly hit me until we were at the airport on August 15th, 1982, when I saw my grandfather cry for the first time in my life as we bade our farewells at the departure gate. Having always been an extremely sensitive and sentimental child, the sight of my grandparents and my parents in tears was the first sign that my life was about to change in a major way.
G’day mate! ‘Owyagoinmateawright? (Translation: Hello! How are you going, mate, all right?”)
For a long time, Aussies like me have been complaining about how our country and people are portrayed and perceived by people in other countries. The kinds of questions I get asked about Australia whenever I travel abroad never cease to amaze me – sometimes they make me laugh, while other times, they just make me shake my head and wonder what kind of education people are getting about us.
Let’s start with some basics: we don’t all have kangaroos hopping around in our backyards or cuddly koalas perched in our trees chewing on eucalyptus leaves. Thankfully, I have not had these questions in a very long time. Maybe if I lived in the bush or in the Outback, I might find them, but out here in the ‘burbs in metropolitan Sydney, the only place where I would see said natives is at the zoo or wildlife park.
On my first visit to the US in 1995, I was constantly asked “Do you have a lot of flies in Australia?” The first time I was asked this question, I replied “yeah, that’s why this [waving hand in front of my face as if swatting away flies] is called the Australian salute”. Now this is actually true. But when I was asked this a couple more times as I met different groups of Americans, it suddenly occurred to me I might have been missing something. When I asked why everyone was asking me this (as opposed to the typical “do kangaroos really know how to box?”) I became curious. It turned out the Discovery Channel had just aired a program about flies and apparently Australian flies were heavily featured. Mystery solved!
It is Tuesday 22nd February, 2011. I have spent the better part of my day today glued to the television but it is not what you think. I have been watching the rolling coverage of the earthquake that hit 10km south-east of Christchurch, in the South Island of beautiful New Zealand, At 6.3 magnitude, it has been deemed to be less severe than the earthquake that hit the same area last September, where there had been no loss of lives. However, the devastation has been unprecedented this time – the quake hit at 12.51pm local time on a Tuesday afternoon, when people were at work or outside having lunch, and kids were in class at school. Christchurch was still rebuilding from the September earthquake, and many buildings had been weakened by that quake, exacerbating the impact of today’s quake. As I write, the confirmed death toll stands at 65 and is expected to rise as more than 200 people remain unaccounted for.
Our Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, spoke in Parliament earlier, announcing that a search and rescue (SAR) team was already on its way to help our neighbours across the Tasman (NZ is approximately 3hrs south-east of the Australian east coast – even closer than we are from Central and Western Australia). She reminded us of the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) spirit, that we rise to the occasion and provide whatever assistance we could to help our neighbours, as they experience one of the “darkest days” in NZ.