Friday, January 02, 2009

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Reflections on a Reunion

I went to a school reunion recently. How strange it was to be revisiting people, places and times that I hadn’t thought about in four decades or so.

Since we were a very mixed bunch, drawn from all over the world, I thought it would be interesting to do a little survey to see what had become of us in the meantime. My special interest was in those who had emigrated here from other countries as we had. What was their experience like? How did they cope with being uprooted and coming to a strange country? What did they achieve and what was the impact on local populations and the broader society?

Not many people responded, but those who did, reported how surprisingly emotional they felt when recalling those times and their subsequent experiences. Like me they had not thought about this era in a very long time. Here then, is an informal summary of what I learned both at the reunion and from the survey, not definitive or conclusive by any means, but a little snapshot of some exciting and turbulent times in our lives. Many thanks to all those who did respond and I am sorry I couldn’t include more of your comments because many of them were very moving.

The setting



Fitzroy High School ca. 1960s. Looks a bit grim, doesn't it

Those of us who
attended Fitzroy High in the late 50s and early 60s were the part of the post war baby boom -a period of optimism, peace, technological innovation and growing affluence. Television was in its infancy – all black and white, with Bandstand and Disneyland, The Mickey Mouse Club and perhaps the Tarax Happy Show, the highlights of our week.

It was an era of gleaming appliances –round shouldered refrigerators, twin tub washing machines and laminex tables in the dining room. Most families still sat down together for meals, although splades and those trendy square TV plates that were both saucer and bread and butter plate in one, were all the rage.

Fitzroy and Collingwood, the suburbs where most students lived, were still largely industrial. Shoe factories and shirt factories like Pelaco had not yet gone off- shore. Fitzroy still played at home and in the mornings you could smell the Weeties and the Colvan chips on the way to school.



For the most part these were innocent times.Drugs were unheard of. Few Aussie Mums worked. Divorces were rare. The Beaumonts had not yet disappeared and Kennedy had not been assassinated. Children could still amuse themselves and walk safely to school. We played with yoyos and hula hoops and danced to Buddy Holly, twisted to Chubby Checker and and rocked around the clock with Bill Haley.

Not that it was the unmitigated Golden Age John Howard remembered so fondly. We were the generation who grew up in the shadow of the bomb. Books and films were still censored. Men greatly outnumbered women. The football and the six –o ‘clock swill were among the few forms of public entertainment. Pubs closed at six and did not open on Sundays. Women were not admitted to bars. Nor were they admitted to many professions. It was not a time to be openly gay. Aborigines could not vote. Fast food was pies or fish and chips and there were very few restaurants and coffee shops.

The people

Not that such things were much on our minds. Most of us were on the cusp of puberty then. Remember those days when the girls were separated from the boys, the blinds were drawn and we were shown jerky black and white films about reproduction and female anatomy? Not very appealing. I resigned myself to having to adopt children. Helen Mirren talks about those same lectures putting her off having children for life, but most of us went on to become parents sooner than expected – the pill was not yet available -and married young, as was then the norm. Many of us now have grandchildren and wonder where the years went. Except for myself and a few others, most of us have stayed married too, unusual now in these times of easy divorce. Alan remains happily single and proudly gay.

Stella who kept a diary all those years ago, talks about ‘how intense our feelings were then’ and Liz writes how awful it was ‘being a fat girl and not having any boys interested in me.’ Ironically on the way to the reunion Michael C told me that he was passionately in love with Liz back then and how each morning he used to walk a devious way to school just so that he could get a glimpse of her. And I thought he was only interested in Maths. As well as all the usual angsts of those teenage years, many FHS students had other things to worry about.

A Great Social Experiment

A very large proportion of FHS students - one report put the figure at over 90%, had come to Australia from other countries, part of the great postwar diaspora from Europe, when many places lay in ruins or offered few opportunities. While the vast majority came from Mediterranean countries like Italy and Greece, making Melbourne the largest Greek city outside Athens, some of our students came from places more diverse and further afield.

Tonny for example, came from Denmark. Tonny writes how his father was a builder but found little work in the long winter months, hence the decision to come to Australia. Tasoula writes that her father was one of twelve children and wanted his own children to be able to have the education his own family had not been able to afford. Rasma was from Latvia. Eva was from Hungary. Dalia came from Lithunia. Liz’ family had come from a displaced person’s camp in Germany.

Although one former student reported that she had been called Wog by one of the Australian students, and Lauris recalls being peeved about one school mate “…singing the praises of Greece over Australia,” there was little discrimination from other students.

As Liz writes, ‘…As many of us discussed at the reunion, we can’t remember any bitchiness or groups that dominated or ones that were excluded. I think that is pretty remarkable.’

For many students though, there were difficulties before coming to FHS - language problems, hard times, maintaining cultural identity and clashes of cultural values. Often arrival in Melbourne was preceded by a period in loveless migrant camps (Stella, Tonny). Often both parents worked. Some like Tasoula’s father worked at two jobs day and night, to get his family re -established in their new home. Stella writes that her parents missed Greece terribly until they began to bring out their brothers and sisters. Tasoula writes that her mother cried for a year and suffered anxiety and stress related allergies.

Liz’s parents had no home to go back to. Until the advent of cheap air travel with the coming of the Jumbo Jets in the 1970s, going back was an impossible dream for most families. Until then, the precious letters from ‘home’ were the only link to former lives.

Tonny speaks for that bold pioneering generation when he says, “My parents showed a lot of fortitude in coming to Australia at their age (in their forties) without any language skills – they showed me what can be achieved with very little, which was basically the root of many exciting things I have achieved in my life so far.”

Tasoula talks about not wanting people to hear her speak Greek and how she hated being called to the principal’s office to interpret for other students. Liz says that when her parents opened their deli in Smith Street, one of the first continental delis in Melbourne, “People used to look in the window and point and laugh at things like Kabana and polish sausage.”

Stella wrote “I think, at different stages in our lives we were all in denial about our origins. We all wanted to belong so much.

I coped by keeping a barrier between my school life and my home life.

The only friend who breached that barrier was G. She kept inviting herself to my place - I could not understand why she would want to come… (T) hey lived in a home with lovely furniture and all the conveniences. I loved going there.

We lived in a home where my father picked up most of our furniture from the local tip and recycled it. He would win a prize these days but at the time I was so ashamed of it. There were holes in the lathe and plaster of the walls and he had painted our kitchen a bright pink.”

Some of us missed not having a broader network of family and friends, but others found support in the neighbourhood. As Liz writes, “Life was pretty good. We were all migrant families and none of us had anything. We were just mutually supportive. Everyone felt equal.”

Both Stella and Tonny remark on the resilience of children.

“As children we did not miss anything or anybody. We carried our world with us and just took things as they came [Stella] or “As kids, we had a great time because of all the different experiences, animals etc…. esp. the spiders, snakes and all the other Aussie things [Tonny].”

Nor was the initial lack of English a big barrier. As Tonny who was almost 12 when he arrived, writes, “(It) took us kids about 3 or 4 months to get pretty proficient, and in my case, after about 9 months in Australia (I) came first in English Literature and Grammar.”

Many of these students went on to do very well at school with several gaining scholarships and many of them going on to gain degrees, usually the first in their families to do so. Perhaps it was those early struggles that made them study harder than their Australian born peers or perhaps it was the added pressure of having to fulfill their parents’ hopes and dreams in days when overseas qualifications were not recognised and most migrants had to work hard in menial jobs.

One of the more difficult aspects revolved around the different parental expectations regarding members of the opposite sex. As Alan writes,(It) always amazed me what sheltered lives the ‘ethnics’ had to live ….parents never wanting them to go to events like school socials or excursions.”

In Stellas’s words” I think the hardest thing for me was to escape my parents’ expectations on how a good Greek girl was to behave. I never fitted the mould and that led to a lot of conflict during my teenage years.” Tasoula talks about the same problem, but although her parents were fairly strict, she was at least able to talk to her mother who was more progressive. For Liz, it was the religious difference that mattered to her parents when she began going out with another former FHS student, but they gave in when they realised that their objections were in vain.

Meanwhile, what was the effect on local populations? Lauris, an old Australian for many generations writes eloquently about those times.

“We and all of our peers were a little daunted by all these people coming into our country. My main memory of migrant kids was at Primary School where I am a little ashamed to say we sometimes gave them a bad time. They dressed strangely, had funny names and couldn’t ‘speakdaenglish’ very well and seemed to be pushing us out. Lots of our British background neighbours seemed to be shifting out to the new suburbs of Reservoir and Thomastown and these families of migrants were moving in and living several families together in one house. Then, all of a sudden they owned the house next door….The Fruit Shops and Fish and Chip Shops were soon run by all our Greek and Italian friends.”

Outcomes

Despite occasional incidents, most people had very fond memories of their time at FHS particularly of school excursions to Rutherglen. All the respondents had nothing but praise for their teachers. As Liz writes, “Lots of teachers made an impression on me. I always felt that the teachers had time for us and generally treated us with respect.”

Proof of this is in the fact that many former students went on to become teachers. Some like Stella, even returned to the scene of the crime on one of her teaching rounds. Tasoula also became a teacher. After scoring the highest aggregate mark at Teacher’s College and not forgetting her own experiences as a migrant student, she was instrumental in establishing Migrant Education Classes and the ESL Curriculum. She has been working as a consultant and guest lecturer in that field for many years and has won several awards. Alan is another person now semi - retired after 40 years with the Education Department. Building on his love of Speech and Drama, no doubt inspired by his starring role as “Allova Din” in Mrs Mc Nish’s Drama Class, he still organises flamboyant events for the Education Department.

Most of us had no trouble finding work. The 1970s were a time of full employment and many students who spoke at the reunion are now retiring after many years with the same company. As Lauris writes ‘I can’t remember anything that could be labeled my Worst Years. Life was pretty laid back way back then. Jobs weren’t too hard to find. I went for my job interview with the Chief Lady Clerk as she was known then (she was almost a Miss Musty clone). She said, “When would you like to start?” I said after the Christmas School Holidays and that was the beginning of my working life.’ Lauris and her husband then went on to run their own company for the next thirty years.

At the reunion Banking and Finance seemed particularly well represented among former students. However, we also have a Taxation Officer, an airline hostess and several IT professionals including Stella, who has enjoyed three entirely different careers, another feature of our generation.

Tonny also works in IT, computer engineering, network design and establishing wireless networks throughout Papua New Guinea. Liz became a social worker and has worked as a consultant for the past thirty years.

The star pupil of our time at FHS was undoubtedly Michael C who has gone on to become a Professor of Mathematics in Israel after working in France and the USA. Together with co –workers he even has an odd equation named after him. Despite his success, he remains a charming and humble person, happily married and proud father and grandfather to three children and four grandchildren.

In typical fashion, when invited to comment on this article he said, “Why have you put me at the top of your ‘list?’ Yes, I have been lucky to be able to do some rather interesting and special things, but each of us, you, me, everyone, has done their own things in their own ways, very important for different reasons, and impossible to compare. I recently met Sue and her husband Gary ... and I was touched to learn of their work … in Queensland, where they help underprivileged members of the community. That is surely at least as important and as meaningful as anything else that any of us have done or do.”

There are of course many other wonderful stories from this group and, as Alan proudly announces to anyone who’ll listen, “For a small school in a working class suburb, FHS punched well above its weight.”

As to how he was affected by the migrant experience, Alan writes how it “… gave me a wonderful taste of how other cultures lived. Made me appreciate a variety of cuisines” and as Lauris writes, “We are still all Australians together, much the richer for their coming. What would we do without their beautiful food, customs and enjoyment of life?”

Certainly the most obvious signs of assimilation are the street cafĂ©’s and coffee shops and the wonderful variety of food which migrants brought with them.

The extent of assimilation is probably further evidenced by the fact that not only did many of the overseas -born respondents marry outside their own culture and very likely an Australian, but Lauris’ own children have married outside theirs. As she says “Their spouses are from our so –called ethnic background, one Italian and one Sri Lankan. They have brought with them a rich background for their children to enjoy…”

Many former students also report that later, especially when they had their own children, they did take pride in their culture and maintained many traditions. Many also travelled extensively, often initially because of a desire to touch base with their roots. For example, Tasoula writes that she “visited Greece 4 or 5 times…and travelled around the world for nine months living in Kathmandu and South Africa.” Stella says “I have been back to Greece many times and used it as a base for two years while travelling in Europe.” Tonny writes, (I have) been around the world many times, visiting around 55 countries and have lived the past 24 years in beautiful and amazing Papua New Guinea...”

I personally blame that early dislocation as child migrants for making incurable, insatiable travellers out of all of us.

One effect of being challenged by different values, is that it opens the mind to other possibilities. As Tasoula puts it, “Having two cultures and diverse values enables you to think differently. I am very proud of the contribution made by migrants and the positive effect it has had on my life. It has made me more compassionate and made me want to teach the underprivileged. It’s the reason I still do voluntary work for refugees.”

Liz writes in a similar vein -that the experience has given her “a strong internationalist orientation and a strong sense of social justice.”

Nor is has it been a one way street. As far as the wider society goes, Tasoula believes that the multicultural experience has brought new skills – where would Australia be without the olive growers, the wine makers and the cheese makers – and that there is greater tolerance and an international outlook, that enables Australians to communicate and relate well to other countries.

As Liz’s writes, “Australia is a very different place now. (Back then) Multiculturalism didn’t exist, food was boring and our neighbour shouted across the fence when we had been in Australia only a very short time “Speak bloody English!”

What comes through these stories is the sense of optimism, both in the host culture and in those who left their families behind to give their children a better life. Now we eat Sushi for lunch and can’t decide whether to buy Thai or Indian for tea. When I find myself thinking how strange it is to see Africans strolling through the mall, or seeing milk bars turning into noodle shops and young women in their headscarves, I am reminded of Lauris’ experience and think “Hey, half a century ago that was us.” To be sure we have since discovered that the resources upon which our lifestyle depends are finite and that not everyone who enters Australia is peaceful and tolerant, but as the experiment continues, it will be interesting to see what changes Australia works on them and how they in turn will influence Australia in the years to come.

It was lovely seeing you all again

Best Wishes for the next four or five decades

-Veronika


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