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The Immigrant’s Dilemma

20120401-093014.jpgGrowing up as an immigrant to Australia leaves me in a bit of an awkward position, both culturally and emotionally. It’s the same, I imagine, for immigrants everywhere, especially those who have moved between countries with dissimilar languages and cultures. The refrain is always the same: too much of the old country in you to ever truly feel at home in the new country, but too much of the new country in you to feel a part of the old.

When you hear Australians talking about their culture, you’ll often hear the same cultural touchstones being mentioned – swimming and footy (Australian Rules, Rugby League and Rugby Union, depending on which state you live in), Vegemite, sunday roasts, ANZAC Day, XXXX and VB (not Fosters – only foreigners drink that stuff), the southern cross, the outback, Aussie battlers, white sandy beaches, larrakinism, mateship, half the male actors in Hollywood and barbies (barbecues for those of you across the sea, prawns are provided, “shrimp” are off the menu). What all these things have in common is that they’re all unique aspects of the overwhelmingly dominant culture here: Anglo-Australian.

Which is fine, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The thing is, if, for whatever reason, you’re not, these things become a veritable mountain of shibboleths that you need to navigate every day that will remind anyone not reared on Vegemite, hearing stories of Harold Holt, Wally Lewis or Dawn Fraser at their parents’ knee that they’re not from around here. Which isn’t to say that Australians are racist or unwelcoming toward foreigners, or have some issue with inclusion because there are far worse places someone from outside the anglosphere could move to. It’s just that in a thousand little ways, I’m constantly and subtly made to feel as if I don’t belong.

I was born in El Salvador, a country as different from Australia as you could think of. In Australia, this not only means that I’m part of an exceedingly tiny minority, but also one people cannot readily identify. As a result, what little racism I have experienced in this country was offset somewhat by its pathetic and confused nature as the perpetrator tried (and failed) to find an appropriate stereotype.

Life in El Salvador, from my dim childhood memories of it, is all a heady mix of God, pupusas, soccer, green mangoes, salsa, merengue and mariachi music. Everything about the place, from the scents, the sunshine, the people, the consonant-heavy accent and the bizarre puns, felt like home. It would be easy for me to romanticise life there, had it not been for the fact that I had never felt more Aussie than when I visited and actually interacted with the place.

Rather than feeling out of place because I looked different or didn’t like beer or rugby, I felt out of place because I thought differently. Getting looks from relatives for expressing a desire to move out of home, feeling like some kind of giant while riding the bus, misunderstanding all the slang and off-colour language I’d hear in the streets, attempting to pay for a haircut using a $20 note and being rebuffed because the haircut cost $1.25 and there wasn’t enough change – every time one of these things happened, I felt out of place and a stranger in my native land.

Culture is an insidious thing. You absorb it from your surroundings and before you know it, it becomes a part of you and shapes every expectation and assumption you make. When I travel to El Salvador and interact with my relatives, I am constantly being shepherded from one place to another, warned against certain modes of behaviour I otherwise take for granted and am invariably treated differently from my cousins. All these things happen because I am different, I am foreign and almost entirely ignorant of the way things work. When a girl is made fun of for wearing flip flops outside the house and when couples who openly flirt and make sheep’s eyes at strangers nevertheless refuse to hold hands in public, I have no clue as to why. The fact is that I’ve absorbed so much of Australian culture and values over the course of growing up that I’m now a little bit foreign everywhere. I even speak Spanish with a slight Australian accent.

The end result is that I realised that I couldn’t go back, even if I wanted to. My life is here now, my future is here. I may never really love the cricket the way Australians are meant to, I might haye the taste of Vegemite and I may roll my eyes at anyone uttering the term ‘unaustralian’ to my dying day, but I am as Aussie as Ned Kelly, Julia Gillard and the Bee Gees. I came here as a child and the place shaped me into who I am today.

If only I could get into watching the cricket.

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