Only in Oz! A column about little things that are deceptively similar, yet decisively different. Read and be prepared. Us and Them
by Guest Author
Well, its that time of the year again, which reminds us that were a year older and weve been in Australia for a year longer. With each passing year we might reflect for a moment: Has it been a good year (financially, socially)? Did we do the right thing by leaving South Africa? Are our friends wishing they were here too, or are they glad they stayed? Each of us will, of course, have unique answers. Such is the nature of free moral choice, and we see the results of those choices in the diversity that exists all around us. Not surprisingly, human nature being as it is, us and them issues, even xenophobia, often ensue, whether by ignorance or intolerance, which might help explain why Saffas have been branded as arrogant.
Now, as multi-culturalism is a cornerstone of Australian political policy, I thought it may be apt to comment on the subject. What does multi-culturalism actually mean? I decided to ask a few Aussies and got roughly the following: Its about letting all these people in from other countries and giving them a fair go. So far, so good. Is it working? The majority thought that the policy of multi-culturalism had only been successful to a limited extent, that is, when the newcomers had embraced the Australian way of life, even though it meant relinquishing their own established ways. About the fair go part, its a nice bit of rhetoric, but everyone knows discrimination is alive and well, despite official government policy.
The criterion they apply really comes down to this: Is the person one of us? Given that over 50% of Aussies have at least one parent who wasnt born here, its hard to know where to draw the line between us and them. Do you become one of the us group when you qualify for citizenship? Are there certain customs, rituals or habits that characterise the true blues among us and let them recognise each other when interacting in a crowd?
Last weekend, after having had a surf at The Spit, and while loading the boards on my car, two things happened. In the first interaction, two huge Maori lads struck up a conversation with me. The first sentence was about the waves, but it turned instantly to rugby when they heard my South African accent. I was surprised, since I didnt think I really had any accent. Well, thankfully we have rugby in common. In the second instance, a true blue lifeguard pulled up in his ute and enquired about the surf. Not since early morning dawn patrols in J-Bay had I felt this local. Eager to please, I said it had been good on the outgoing tide, but the north-west wind had turned onshore now, and it was a bit crowded. By speaking in this way my true identity was revealed, not so much by the accent, but rather by the density of information I had crammed into one sentence. I should have said something like, Good mate, a bit crowded but or slang to that effect. The result was a curt Ah from the true blue, which was a certain dismissal. I got the feeling that he felt any further conversation with me would be just too much trouble, since I was confirmed as a one of them, not an us.
But this isnt just an Australian phenomenon. My feeling was not all that unlike when I first took up residence in Cape Town and read a bumper-sticker that told me Welcome to Cape Town, now go home and I was later educated by the locals that you could only call yourself a Capetonian if you were born and bred in Cape Town (and if not, you couldnt call yourself anything because you didnt have a right to exist).
Perhaps I am way too sensitive. And maybe thats why Im here to get more thick-skinned; and, of course, less arrogant.
Dave Robinson is professor of management studies at Imagine College and Central Queensland University, an entrepreneur, surfer and amateur musician.