On Australianness in China: an Australian-Chinese reflects

A close friend of mine considers me nationalistic. She points out that I often add things like: “Did you know that she’s Australian?” when some celebrity figure comes up, or that I often wear my national colours of green and gold.

She is from Canada, and is quick to surmise that Canadians are not nearly so excited about being Canadian as people from Australia are about their home country.

So, this Saturday being Australia Day, my first celebrated in China, I thought it only suitable to bring she and a number of other non-Australians along to the Leg and Whistle, an English pub fortunate enough to host the evening’s Australia Day proceedings. There, they were subjected to a crash course in Australian culture, from the celebrity figures plastered to the walls (including a makeshift Heath Ledger memorial), to the surf short, thongs/flip flops and zinc sunscreen outfits of the adventurous (temperatures have been brutally cold in Chengdu this week) and rousing renditions of the “Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!” chant and national anthem (which I, proud to say, lead).

Even the pub owners had gotten into the act, pasting “Victoria Bitter”–a popular Australian beer–labels over the local brewery logos and serving excellent versions of Australian meat pies, baked by a local chef from Singapore. I was most impressed, however, by the quote they’d chosen to adorn the front entrance of the pub:

“God bless America. God save the Queen. God defend New Zealand and thank Christ for Australia,” which they attributed to “some bloke named Bruce.”

What is it, then, which makes overseas Australians–such fervour is less common back home, where public participation is generally lifted to sports or music events–so enthusiastic, so cheerful, so wild about celebrating their country’s existence? In particular, this one, of Chinese blood and Malaysian family? Attend a sporting event featuring the Australian national side anywhere from London to Beijing this August and you’ll be sure to see somebody adorned head to toe in gold and green, flag waving proudly, with possibly a stuffed kangaroo in tow. We are famously rowdy (occasionally overly so), beer-intensive, all-inclusive celebrators. Other countries, like the United States and Brazil, are similarly patriotic, but for a country of barely over 20 million, I think Australia’s brand is still rather remarkable.

At a general level, the facts are an obvious place to look. Australia is comparatively safe, wealthy, healthy and boasts the sunniest weather of any developed country. We have interesting animals, Elle Macpherson, ACDC and had Steve Irwin. Also, we’re not British. Our social democracy is functioning reasonably well and we’re riding the wave of a huge natural resources economic boom.

But clearly, we’re not perfect. Our indigenous relations were and remain appalling; we host our fair share of racism and bigotry, anti-intellectualism and sheltered small-mindedness. Global warming is already beginning to have serious impacts upon our way of life. Australia’s future, in terms of its demographic make-up, economic sustainability and relationship with Asia and the West remains particularly unclear.

For me, the most important tenet of Australianness is that of fairness. The fruit of our history as a working class nation, later shaped by multiculturalist policymakers, it is both quintessentially pragmatic and timelessly universal, not unlike the American Dream. Giving people “a fair go” at life, acting “fairly” in all matters and through natural extension, fundamental values such as honesty, integrity, tolerance and inclusiveness. I see this notion at the core of our famous warmth amongst strangers; particularly from the ever-grateful Britons I meet who’ve taken refuge from the UK’s emotionally icy shores at some point. At a more personal level, it’s not difficult to draw connections between fairness and my move into international development. What, if nothing else, is development work about if not giving poor people “a fair go” at life?

I also hold that this belief–the “Fairness Doctrine”, if you will–extends beyond “giving a fair go” to “having a fair go.” Australians celebrate the adventurous, the hardy and the dedicated. My father’s favourite Australian is Fred Hollows, an ophthalmologist who performed free cataract surgery in Aboriginal communities and abroad from the 1970s through to the 1990s. Such commitment and tenacity to fulfilling one’s abstract values is rare, but we promote it as a national value, celebrating sportsmen like cricketer Justin Langer, who makes up in heart what he might lack in God-given talent, along with our freakishly talented, such as Shane Warne.

It is overseas in which our appreciation for a fair society, amongst other things, matures and sweetens. For me, it began to kick in as a teen when observing the plight of Baltimore’s homeless during a seven-year stint in the United States, and carried through to the particularly acute inequality gap of the developing world, including China. I’m sure the feelings similar for many an Aussie backpacker, traveling other similarly poor countries for the first time. Though we’re far from perfect, and recent immigration policy has been anything but, I still hold Australia to the sort of “fairness” standards that America never displayed (but which I know many Americans are working towards).

This morning over breakfast, the same friend described my nationalism as “comparable” to that of the other Aussies in attendance, if somewhat more subtle. She cited, for example, my insistence on her translating a couple of speeches that fellow revellers had given into Chinese for a non-English speaking friend.

Perhaps its because this year I happen to be in China, the land of my ancestors, that my national heritage becomes all the more precious. Surrounded by people of a similar appearance, yet feeling more foreign than ever before, I am steeled by the notion of “a fair go,” in everything from communicating in Chinese to rounding out my students’ English pronunciation. It’s not exactly Buddha’s Eightfold Path or the Ten Commandments, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s Australia’s version of “Liberte Egalite Fraternite” and it’s as close to universal humanist doctrine as anything else I’ve come across.

After all, when my Grandparents left China in the first place, what more were they truly after than a fair go at a decent life, at a chance to escape grinding poverty? And where Malaysia might have been reasonable good to them, it’s university admission laws were less than fair to my parents (amongst other Chinese Malaysians), who ended up studying in New Zealand, before moving to Australia. I’m genuinely thrilled to live in a time where many Chinese are realising they don’t have to move to the West to prosper. That at some level here, they too have a fair chance of earning success.

Imagine that. A country as ancient as China learning a thing or two from one as small and young as Australia.

Proud to be Australian? You bloody bet’cha!


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