Monthly Archives: August 2014

Diversity and a place in the sun

Go back to where you came from? Embracing diversity gives us a competitive edge. Queensland Multicultural Festival. Photo: Mick 2005

Go back to where you came from? Embracing diversity gives us a competitive edge. Queensland Multicultural Festival. Photo: Mick 2005

This week, one lunch time, I took a moment to sit in Queen Victoria Park. Just sit still and watch people milling about, eating their lunch, enjoying the not-yet-too-hot Brisbane sun. What struck me was the diversity around me. A cacophony of accents from people with features originating from all the continents in the world. Of course, the vast majority of people here are still of British or continental European origin, but our local strength in this globalised world is surely our diversity.

When I was a child in monocultural and provincial Denmark, I thought the Korean girl in my grade was beautiful and exotic. Her beautiful black hair, dark brown eyes and golden skin was different. She was one of the first children adopted into Denmark through the international adoption program. This ‘difference’ was unusual where I grew up in the early 1970s. Yet, she was just like any of the girls in my grade – we rode our bikes to school, sang in the choir together and went on camp with the local scout group together.

When in the late 1970s Danish Photographer Jacob Holdt visited our small town with his Amerikanske Billeder – a collection of photographs documenting life of African Americans in the early 1970s – my parents took me along to his talk. It had a huge impact on me to see how people – families with children – lived in contemporary America: the squalor and poverty, right there in the wealthiest country on earth. The African Americans too were different, yet they were not embraced by the privileged mainstream society.

At about the same time, the television series of Alex Hayley’s Roots came on Danish television. The family saga begins with a young African man brutally captured, trafficked on a sailing ship to America and sold as a slave. As if he was not human. It offended my sense of identity when I learnt that Danish sailors and ships were engaged in this human trade.

Safe and healthy in middle class provincial Denmark, my parents taught me that my comfortable life of opportunity was not a given for everyone. It was my luck that I was born to free parents in a place with democracy, social mobility and a strong sense of social justice and equality. Looking back, I can also see that it was easy to be tolerant of difference when you rarely meet it in monocultural Denmark.

Migrant children on a 'New Australians' parade float at the Enoggera Immigration Holding Centre, Brisbane, Queensland, ca. 1955. Photo: State Library of Queensland.

Once upon a time, everyone arrived by boat: Migrant children on a ‘New Australians’ parade float at the Enoggera Immigration Holding Centre, Brisbane, Queensland, ca. 1955. Photo: State Library of Queensland.

It is at the edges of cultures that innovation and new thinking happens. When we are all the same and all think the same, it can be hard to generate new ideas and to imagine things could be any other way. At the edge of our ‘we group’, we are challenged by difference and, if we let it happen, new perspectives come together to see our issues and problems in a new light. This diversity of points of view helps join the dots in new and different ways. Monocultural societies – and ‘we groups’ – tend to protect their way of seeing, thinking and doing. And tend to fear difference.

A quarter of all Australians are born overseas. Another 20% have at least one parent born overseas. With more than half of Australians either born overseas or being children of people born overseas, we are still very much a country of migrants. Perhaps it is only Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, the people of Australia’s first nations – who make up only 3% of our population – who are not migrants to this country.

In Denmark, 10% are ‘Danes of other ethnic background’ though this number may include third and even fourth generation of ‘other ethnic background’. In my own extended family, I can count:

– one Swede and two children
– one native American and one child
– one Kurd, two children and two grandchildren
– one Pole and one child
– one German, three children and one grandchild
– one New Zealander, two children and two grandchildren living in England
– my own family of four living in Australia, including my husband born in England.

Mine is a rather multicultural family – though I would venture to say this is not the Danish norm. When does one’s identity change from Dane with other ethnic background to just Danish? Four hundred years and ten generations back on my father’s side is a German soldier and Rittmeister from Rodinger – does that make me a Dane with other ethnic background? If not, at what point did that change? Seven generations back, six, four? Or does it take 40,000 years to truly belong to a country?

Sitting in multicultural Brisbane that lunch hour, I saw people of many different backgrounds, who call Australia home. Some may have been here for generations and some, like me, be first generation migrants. You cannot really tell just by looking at people. However, at the end of the day, no matter how our government statistics classify us, we are all humans with fundamental human needs – including the need to belong and find our place in the sun. We are going to have to figure out how we live with diversity for it will not go away. Thankfully. It makes our lives all the more interesting.

Mortality and the art of living

The Danish birth certificate in Jelling. Photo: Mick 2005

Denmark’s birth certificate in Jelling. Photo: Mick 2005

It seems to me death is all around me. First, tragically, actor Robin Williams commits suicide, which makes me wonder how could such a funny man, who seemed to be able to summon joy for himself and other people, do that to the people he loves? Then, horrifyingly, American journalist James Foley is decapitated by members of Islamic State, which makes me wonder how people can hate so much to justify this violence? In Ferguson, Missouri police kill 18-year-old Michael Brown, sparking racial unrest, which makes me wonder why the colour of your skin should determine your life chances. Next, the 1975 Klaus Rifbjerg radio drama, De Beskedne, that I was listening to abruptly ends with the sad death of the family patriarch, which makes me wonder about the cleverness of writers to make you care so much about a character that you feel sad with his or her fictional passing. Finally, I see on Facebook that a childhood friend, the drummer of my brother’s teenage band, passed away before turning 50 years old, which makes me wonder about life’s fragility and my own mortality.

It happens all the time, death, it is a consequence of living; in its own way it is probably the very realisation of life’s finiteness that gives us motivation to live well. In a paradoxical sense, the living is so much harder to do than the dying. Precisely I was granted life through the amazing fact of the evolutionary success of every ancestor that has come before me: each one of them, right back to the primordial soup, were successful in navigating life and surviving at least until they could reproduce. How to make sense of the millisecond of life I have on life’s stage in the long history of the world? How to be secure in the knowledge of my own value and worth in the bigger scheme of things; how to live well; how to make a difference and make a mark? And then you die. And most of us will die twice – once those who remember us also die we will finally slip into oblivion.

Death is the certainty of living. Photo: Mick 2005

Death is the certainty of living. Photo: Mick 2005

In 1979, death first came close to my life when my grandfather, Morfar, died. It was suddenly, without warning; a heart attack, as he sat up in the bed in my mother’s sister’s house. I loved Morfar, who was always warm, funny and willing to read us Asterix comics because he himself was deeply interested in ancient history. He took my brother and I to see the archeological diggings for the remains of 1000 year old Gorm den Gamle in the church in his home town, Jelling. In viking times Jelling was the residence of the Danish monarch and to this day, the rune stone known as Denmark’s birth certificate still stands here. Sadly, at the time of Morfar’s funeral, Jelling’s church was still closed for these important investigations and we sat in a neighbouring community, singing for him and ourselves with our tears, memories and gradual realisation about life’s fragility, our own mortality, how irreversible death is and how long ‘forever’ really lasts.

In 2003, the last of my grandparents, my beloved grandmother, Farmor, died. I loved Farmor who had simply always been there for us. She had reminded me that I was going to come back to Denmark when my kids were ready for school – which I never did. I was across the world in Australia and could not be at her funeral. It was the end of an era. My father said to me: “My generation is next in line”. Ten years later he passed away and, given the fact that my mother died in 1997, I urgently feel my generation is now next in line. The untimely death of someone I knew when I was just a kid, someone just two years older than me, brought this fact straight home to me.

Next on my bucket list is our one year stay in Denmark in 2015. I will be home again, after 23 1/2 years living in another country. 23 1/2 years are roughly half my lived life. Does that mean I am Danish and Australian in equal portions? I look forward to reconnect with my culture, my family and friends. I especially look forward to spending more time with my nieces and nephews. Indeed, in the midst of all the mortality, a brand new member of my Danish family was also born. I cannot wait to meet you, Lillepigen.

Hedonism, fatalism and free will

Fatalism or indeterminism? This week's arts experiences offered everything. Photo: Lone 2014

Fatalism or libertariansim? This week’s arts experiences offered everything. Photo: Lone 2014

I had not worn this fine leather jacket for some time. I bought it on Ibiza from a fashion house in the summer of 1989. Though it bemused us that students without many means were treated as princesses by attentive sales people, I walked away with the softest buffalo skin leather jacket, hitting the waist with generous pleats in the back and a diagonal zip overlay at the front. And a payment plan. It is fair to say it was an impulse buy.

The Queensland climate rarely lends itself to wearing a leather jacket. Our summers are hot and our winters are mild. But on Thursday I wore it to the opening night of La Boite’s indie season’s Hedonism’s Second Album. As we were waiting for the show to start, I thought to check if there was something in the buttoned pocket of my jacket. And I was immediately transported back in time. I found a ticket stub for a concert I attended with my very good childhood friends in Århus in February 1991. Mek Pek and the Allrights. I could almost hear the ska with the trio of trumpet, trombone and sax in the background, thumping out Hit me with your rythm stick, Mek Pek style, in a smoke-filled room packed with young people, well imbibed by the 10pm start, the laughter, the shouting, the drinking, the dancing, the sweating into my leather jacket.

Like a genie, this ticket was hidden for over 23 years and then appeared to make me think of the past and what got me to where I am today. Photo: Lone 2014

Like a genie, this ticket was hidden for over 23 years and then appeared to make me think of the past and what got me to where I am today. Photo: Lone 2014

It was an apt entré into Hedonism’s Second Album which portrays a four-piece band after the excesses of their first album’s success. It explores the ‘sometimes badly behaved characters we may hide within, behind our public selves’. The play was fun with its comedic approach to the ideosyncracies, posturing and insecurities of four young men. But it had a serious edge with its terrifyingly real message about conflicted young men struggling to be: in endless pursuit of pleasure, excruciating pain sometimes is the price. Did they have a choice?

This message came on the back of our Monday night experience when we, courtesy of the Danish Club, attended a special screening of the Swedish film, The Hundred Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Dissappeared. It is a surprising and funny film, which places its affable main character in a series of historical events. Allan became an orphan at the age of nine, yet he is portrayed, not as a troubled, but as a straight-forward young man, whose favourite pleasure was to blow up things. He is almost oblivious to his profound impact on the course of history. Things just happen, as he carries with him the words of his dying mother: Stop thinking so much like your father – just start doing. But if you thought this liberatian advice was the message of the film, it needs to be seen in light of Mum’s fatalistic advice: it is what it is and it will be what it will be. No point to pursue pleasure or avoid pain.

In their painful pursuit of pleasure in the flotsam of their success, Hedonism’s musicians found it difficult to just do. So Saturday’s performers of Casus Circus were a perfect contrast, demonstrating the power of free will. We braved the unseasonal, relentless rain and went to the opening night of Finding the Silence at the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Art. The title refers to ‘that elusive silence, that moment of pure clarity’ which a circus performer has to find before every trick to defy danger, fear and gravity. Through physical exploration, the show questions whether the silence and clarity really exists. I was in awe of the young performers’ physicality, skill and bravery; and most of all their ability to work together to do what seems impossible. Like ballet dancers, just much more interesting. And shorter.

Real-life Casus appear not unlike fictional Hedonism. Hot on the heels of their international success with Knee Deep; however, Casus have been determined to follow up in a timely way that seems to defy the fear of not reaching the heights of former glory.

As I reflect on the arts experiences of the week, it seems to me that we fall into a trap when we give in to nostalgia. The youth, the dreams, the life in front of me, all came back to me when I stared down at that 23 1/2 year old ticket. Would it be what it would be or was I able to influence the course of my life? I think the latter. But as I look back I see that though my life is full of thinking and planning before doing, I also see that life changing events can happen with little planning and decisions may be taken at the spur of the moment. Like the soft leather jacket and the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude of Mek Pek’s Allrights. And when I find that moment of silence, I see that I would not change a thing: it is what it is, it will be what it will be.

Authorised traffic controllers and the wild frontier

 

Government instituted rules and precautions to keep us safe wake up the rebel in Australians. Photo: Mick 2014.

Government instituted rules and precautions to keep us safe wake up the rebel in Australians. Photo: Mick 2014.

It is a bit of an Australian cultural paradox. On the one hand the Australian self perception as the pioneer bushman who braves new frontiers and the carefree larrakin who will do anything for a bit of fun; and on the other hand the extreme risk aversion manifested in the way we defer to the government to fix everything. The paradox was highlighted for me recently, when driving with my brother in the rented car.

Holidaying in Australia from Denmark, he and his family had driven up the east coast from Sydney to Lamington National Park and had encountered numerous stretches of roadworks, where traffic was directed by ‘authorised traffic controllers’. They thought this form of risk management quite contrary to the anti-autharitan image they had of Australians. As we drove back to Brisbane through road works at Logan, mobile lights controlled the traffic seemingly adequately, yet several ‘authorised traffic controllers’ were also on site with their lollipops. Like keeping your pants up wearing a belt as well suspenders, really.

Every time something happens – something dreadful – Australians are quick to deny any personal role in it and suggest that ‘they’ must do something about it. A train hits a person at the level crossing, and the safety precautions are dreadfully insufficient. A crocodile mauls a person swimming in its habitat, and the animal must pay. A serious road accident holds people up on the highway, and it is the appalling state of the road. And the funny thing is the way the Government responds to this outrage and finger pointing: trains are ordered to toot when approaching level crossings and elaborate pedestrian gates are built which fence in pedestrians; crocodiles are caught and killed or relocated from their home; and endless authorised traffic controllers are employed when the road conditions change and road works require car drivers to take care.

Australians look to government to make us safe, and government responds by telling us what we can and cannot - usually cannot - do. Photo: Mick 2013.

Australians look to government to make us safe, and government responds by telling us what we can and cannot – usually cannot – do. Photo: Mick 2013.

Thus Australian governments assume responsibility and create rules and preautions to minimise risk for citizens. It acts as a nanny state. And this is a downward spiral that confirms and strengthens the culture of ‘it is not my fault’. All of these rules remove risk assessment and decision making from citizens and place responsibility with government, should something go wrong in spite of precautions and the rules being followed. Instead of Australians taking responsibility for their own lives and the local communities they are part of, politicians and policy makers seem content to invent new processes and make more rules that remove responsibility from citizens. How come it is necessary to have both trains tooting, warning lights, alarms sounding AND pedestrian gates at level crossings that close even before the train stops at the nearby station? Who is to blame when crocodiles act in ways perfectly natural and normal to the species and why do they have to pay the price of the patent stupidity of the swimmer, probably disobeying multiple warnings about crocodiles? Why can we not rely on Australian drivers to obey the signs and drive with care and consideration of other road users?

Government taking risk minimising measures does not make us safer. They give us the perception that we are safer, and they may even provoke a rebellious response to circumvent the measures and break those rules. After all, the Australian self-image is all about taking risks and pushing life at the frontier – the bushman, the larrikin and the rebel.

Do we really need to be told what to do all the time? Photo: Mick 2013.

Do we really need to be told what to do all the time? Photo: Mick 2013.

‘I would be so bored as a traffic controller’, said my 16-year-old niece.

‘Perhaps you could play games on your phone in between cars coming?’ suggested my 10-year-old nephew.

Perhaps the authorised traffic controllers are an employment scheme. Not only for the people with the lollipop signs, but the authorisation that needs to be processed and controlled by bureaucrats, the training that needs to be designed and delivered, the authorised traffic controller vests that need to be designed, produced and sold, traffic controllers that need to drive cars to get to places where their services are needed – it is a whole value chain, helping our economy to grow(!)

And it gives us the sense that we are safe in this dangerous world, which is in our Australian self-understanding to want to conquer. Go figure.