I remember as a child thinking I was terribly clever asking whether Brazil nuts were just known as 'nuts' in Brazil.
Or asking what's 'Déjà vu' in French?'
We all did that right? As a kid? Silly games and playing with words as we began to learn about how to use them.
Back to the Brazil nuts though....
Apparently, they are not actually a nut (rather, a seed) and it turns out Bolivia harvests more of them than Brazil. And it's not just Brazil; they grow in other parts of South America too.
But it got me thinking about labels.
What narrative do you tell yourself about who you are?
How do others describe you? Do you like the words people use?
In many ways it could be argued that we need labels to help us to function as a society. On a civil level, it protects our rights and entitlements to services (health, housing, social benefits etc) and also allows us to prove who we are.
But what about the labels that aren't for government purposes? The ones which the newspaper touts as a headline like:
MIGRANTS take ALL new jobs in Britain (The Daily Express)
the Mail Online:
How they make YOUR lunchtime sarnie: Migrant workers use their BARE HANDS to churn out three millions sandwiches a week... I refuse to link to the Mail Online, so here's the Huffington Post article that discusses it.
These are fairly extreme examples, but they are real headlines from British papers. They incite hatred and provide a slow drip feed of hate and fear that isolates and demonises different sets of people.
And I hear you saying, "but that's the Daily Express and the Daily Mail. They're known for writing like that."
Yes they are, but those headlines filter down to local communities and become the accepted facts. Too often no one checks to find out if the headlines are actually correct or what their motives might be.
I thought to myself, 'but I'm not dark-skinned or Eastern European or any other 'otherness' that's deemed 'foreign' am I? I really wanted to say that out loud, but I let it slide as it was a new job and I was worried about being seen to cause problems. I've regretted it ever since.
Yes I am a migrant in the UK, but when does that descriptor become a label?
It comes when it's used negatively against you. A while back a friend asked me what words I'd use to identify myself. I surprised myself by instantly saying, 'red-headed Australian'. I wondered why and realised that at home in Australia this was a given. It didn't need to be expressed.
My experience in the UK has been quite different. I am the one that is 'not from here', and referred to as the 'foreigner', 'the 'convict', the 'red-head', the 'ginger', 'ginga' or the 'colonial'. I've been in business meetings where people have talked about 'drowning gingers at birth'. I've had people say, 'another bloody arrogrant Australian' when I've politely answered a question. Another told me that 'all Australians are arseholes' whilst someone else even looked at my ankle and asked 'where is the ball and chain?'.
It certainly doesn't make you feel welcome. I must point out at this stage that I have met many lovely people too and live in a wonderful community. The more negative comments are definitely not the majority, but they are said with enough regularity to have an impact.
For them it's a throw away line.
For me, it's my every week, sometimes my every day.
So you decide to try to fit in more to make yourself less noticeable, not as open to the passive aggressive 'jokes'. But you're unaware that you have every chance of losing yourself. Without really realising, you slowly chip away at the fundamental descriptors that make you who you are. I ended up not sure who I was anymore and where I belonged.
However, last week I heard the most wonderful talk by Dalia Elmelige, on Radio 4's Four Thought. Her story of being a Muslim in America after 9/11 was fascinating especially her comments about being split between 2 cultures - Too Muslim for America, but not Muslim enough at home.
WHY DO LABELS EVEN MATTER?
They matter for two reasons.
And to end....
Here is to more conversations.
WHAT ARE YOUR MOST PRECIOUS OBJECTS?
It's the house-on-fire question isn't it?
'What would you grab if you only had a few minutes to get out of your house?
There's the obvious ones like family photos and your beloved pets. I'm also likely to grab practical things like my computer drive, passports, credit cards, clothes etc. They are all the obvious items that I think we'd all choose if we had to make a quick decision.
But what about the other objects around your home?
I'm talking about the ones that tell a more detailed and multilayered story of your life - their meanings not fully tangible to other people, but are imbued with a rich personal depth that reveal the story of your life.
For me that meaning comes with a personal experience.
The object triggers so much more than what appears on the surface.
There's also certainly something wonderful about finding an object in the ground and piecing together its story.
EXPERIENCES THAT SHAPE YOU
From an early age my parents took us travelling. Where possible, time wise and financially, we spent holidays camping in the outback, learning to 4WD, learning to like our own company, learning to appreciate and respect the ancient Aboriginal culture that forms the foundation of Australia. And when more money and more time permitted, we backpacked overseas. I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to grow up learning about the world through the eyes of the people we met on our travels.
But these experiences were not always ones I’d like to repeat. In India our train was held up for several hours by bandits in the middle of the night, other passengers telling us to hide as we would be easy targets.
In Egypt I remember our taxi being stopped by the police. As foreigners we were viewed as potential drug traffickers. The doors were forced open and the police started to pull the panelling off the doors as they searched for narcotics. As a 10 year old sitting in the back seat, I started to giggle – mainly through fear, but very quickly stopped when mum’s face showed me the seriousness of the situation. On not finding any drugs our taxi was allowed to continue.
There’s something about taxis actually; they seem to feature quite heavily in my experiences of other countries. It was 2am and we’d just settled back into the taxi after stopping for tea. We were travelling to Kipling Camp in northern India, where we were hoping to see tigers.
The thick jungle-like vegetation made for a fairly monotonous journey that was, until a man walked out into the middle of the road. Our driver slowed down and rather than waiting for the window to be wound down, the man opened the front passenger door.
Something wasn’t right.
Our driver’s face told us all we needed to know.
He was scared.
Dad managed to pull the door shut again and quickly reached around to us in the back and told us to lock the doors. The driver was frozen with fear, but managed to move off again with Dad repeatedly telling him to drive, getting slightly more frantic each time he didn’t move.
As we drove off and looked behind us, we saw about another 10 men walk into the middle of the road from the bushes all carrying machetes.
Who knows what might have happened, but I don’t think they were expecting foreigners. The split second look of shock of the man’s face when he opened the door was enough of a delay to save us.
LISTEN TO OTHERS with KINDNESS AND ACTION
It is these situations that have made me look at the world differently. It’s opened my eyes to the fact that everyone has a story and everyone’s story is their own. We are all human. Our diversity is what makes us unique, but it’s also what makes a whole.
In 2005 I spoke to a man in Syria, who said:
How do you reply to that kind of comment?
How do you answer the woman also in Syria, who during the Iraq war walks straight up to you out of the blue and asks, ‘do you like Iraqi people?’
...or the woman in Vietnam that says ‘we are sick of people coming to look at us after the war’.
How do you cope with the racist attitude of a couple in the northern territory who are happy to give the man next to us a lift down the road, until they realise he’s Aboriginal?
You respond in the way you know how...
For me it’s about sharing people’s stories, whether it’s a man on the other side of the world or the local artist who crafts items from driftwood she finds on the beach.
People’s stories like this are replicated all over the world. Our social history gives us a place and a soul; otherwise what else are we other than just creatures with no connection to each other?
Our stories need to be shared, witnessed and honoured.
We make communities this way and as we start to understand each other's lives, we can support one another through the tougher times.
A FEW OF MY OBJECTS
On my window ledge, there's a polystyrene figure that I carved when I was going through a tough time. It reminds me of my strength and the growth that comes from these challenges. I have dried Eucalyptus and Wattle leaves which remind me of home in Australia. Then there's the cute soft toy duck I bought when I travelled overseas on my own for the first time. I just liked it at the time, but now it feels like one of my first acts of adulthood and of branching out on my own.
So, which are your favourite objects?
Which ones tell the tale of your life?
I've been here over 11 years now. Am I still am expat? I don't have a contract that I know will end in 2-3 years and then I'll go home. I moved for love. My wife is British and I moved to England to live with her. So....lovepat it is.
So how does a one way ticket feel for a lovepat?
It's quite something to sit on a plane, having packed up your entire life and know that you're leaving home, but not know if you will ever return. I felt excited and enjoyed the feeling of the unknown, but I was also a bit scared and slightly unsure - was I doing the right thing?
But deep down I knew that I still had choices to return home to live if I wanted to.
But what if you can't go home?
I heard the most amazing play on BBC's Radio 4 this week. 'Minority Rights and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - The Fernhill Philosophers'. In it the Eritrean character - a highly educated man, who was unable to go home said, "Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live".
It's a powerful statement isn't it? 'Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live.'
Imagine living with that everyday. Imagine our friends in Syria who cannot go home as home no longer exists. Imagine the exiled LGBTQI person that will be murdered if they go home. Imagine knowing that you will never go home to all the people and places you hold dear.
It's beyond painful....
But exile is not just about people from other countries. Imagine feeling like you're in exile because no one understands you and your autism. Imagine the stress of trying to do your job well, but your dyspraxia plays havic with your ability to remember what your boss asked you to do. Imagine people always looking at you oddly because your muscles make you walk differently.
We need to care and support people. We need to ask them what they need, because until we've walked in their shoes we know nothing of their lives.
But we can listen. We can listen openly and with love, and we can see ourselves in everyone we meet. If we listen we start to learn differently and we also start to learn the similarities. I love the Vietnamese expression, 'same same, but different'. We are the same but we are all different too.
We are all a piece of the giant puzzle of humanity. No two puzzle pieces are the same shape, all rounded slightly differently, but I know that I can't make up the picture without another puzzle piece, and another piece.....and another, and another, until we all fit together; different, but each forming an integral part of the same picture.
We need each other.
Whomever we are - what ever country we come from - and whatever our abilities.
Sometimes we're that lone piece of the puzzle that doesn't seem to fit anywhere. We can't seem to find our way. But suddenly the piece of puzzle is turned around and with a shift in perspective there's a connection - a connection to another piece and another, and as more and more connections are found, the puzzle bonds together more firmly.
It's much like life and community. On our own we may feel unconnected and wonder how we fit into 'the bigger picture'. But start to shift perspectives and you start to see others more deeply.
You start to see the intangible layers, the personal stories in people's eyes, the body language that shows their discomfort, the way they eat food that shows a rich cultural heritage, the non-stop talking that tries to hide their nerves, the accent that makes them 'not like me' and makes them hide the other 5 languages they speak, the jokes they make so you love them, the respectful silence you take as shyness, the constant movement that helps them to focus, the clothing they wear with pride but you don't understand......the.....the..... The list is endless.
All I ask of you is to pause.
Open your ears and eyes.
Open your heart.
Be the shift in persepective.
None us of want to be that lone puzzle piece.
The next day I found myself driving to the site with an old Aboriginal man as my passenger. I wondered what on earth I was going to talk to him about as we were worlds apart. There I was, a young non-indigenous woman from the city, him, an old Aboriginal man from the country. We drove in silence. I wasn’t frightened by the silence, but it made me think about other times I’d been ‘out bush’ with my family on 4WD holidays.
I started to talk about my love of the bush and camping in the middle of nowhere. We passed a dead roo by the side of the road, the smell hitting our nostrils, making me screw up my face and smile. I made a comment about the dangers of roos by the road at sunset, when he began to recount an amazing story about having to drive along a country road at night without working headlights. The lights had died on route and the only way he could see well to drive was to stick closely behind the well-lit road-trains (large trucks) which frequent country Australia. But, this didn’t work for long. The road-train must have hit a kangaroo, because suddenly a dead kangaroo came flying out from under the truck and landed on his car! We talked about kangaroos, camping trips, camp fires, watching the sun go down over the desert, and about his life as a feral goat catcher.
Arriving at the art site, I got on with work and he sat in the shade. We occasionally acknowledged each other throughout the day and again shared silence over lunch. At the end of the day I put out my hand to shake his and said, ‘thank you’.
He took my hand, said nothing, and shook it in the usual manner, but as I went to release my grip, he wouldn’t let go. He continued to hold my hand firmly for what felt like ages, placing his other hand on top of our hands. Finally he looked up and smiled at me. ‘Thanks love’. Two simple words, but it was a special moment that confirmed we’d had a good day together.
This banter has always existed between Aussies and the Brits, but what has taken me by surprise has been me not seeing the boundaries and assumptions of my culture. I guess all of us look at the world through our own lense, but the moments you realise, are good opportunities for reflection.
When I first arrived here I was lucky enough to get a job with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. I had no idea just how highly esteemed they are. I often wonder if not growing up with the cultural and social context of the RNLI meant that to me it was 'just a job' and so I relaxed in my interview, unaware of my wife's huge excitement at me potentially working for the Lifeboats!
But I digress....
In my time at the lifeboats, I took part in a lifeguard day, great for team morale and a fun day out.
It was a good day for many reasons, but three things have stayed with me.
I've since taken up snorkelling too. For roughly 30 years I lived in one of the hottest countries on earth with a massive coastline, but it took me to come to England to take up snorkelling. Weird huh? It was so cold that I came out with very dead looking white big toe.
#2 - I didn't know I'd been afraid of sharks my whole life
The oddest thing happened. As I ventured into the surf, I felt a strange sensation in my body. It was almost as though something was physically draining from me. I realised that I was relaxing in a way that I never had and it was because I knew for the first time ever, that there was nothing in the water that could eat me. Now, shark attacks in Australia are fairly rare, but having watched jaws as a child which led to a recurring dream of my bloody body washing ashore, the idea of swimming anywhere but in a swimming pool was clearly frought with danger. I'm not sure I ever really realised how ingrained in me this was. It was just second nature to be aware of sharks in the same way that you shake your boots out for spiders before putting them on. I just hadn't comprehended how much of an impact it had on me.
#3 - Being a lifeguard is bloomin hard!
This was such an eye-opener. I'd been going to the gym and thought I was fairly fit, but I couldn't have been more wrong. It was all I could do to swim out to the buoy and back with my flotation device, let alone think about actually rescuing someone. I came away with huge respect for the RNLI's lifeguards. Their fitness, strength and endurance is second to none and I felt privileged to witness it.
I sit here writing as Storm Emma, aka the 'Beast from the East' is bringing us snow. We very rarely get snow where we live, so it's a real joy to watch it coming down. If I ever had to write a section of the FAQs I've been asked in my time here, one of the top ones would be 'does Australia get snow?'
And in case you're wondering.......
Yes it does and we have ski fields too.
Despite the 'technical difficulties' of me not being able to hear or see anyone, I hope you enjoy it. It's certainly very weird talking to yourself, but definitely a hoot!
Any questions? Please post them for me in the comments below.
Drawn to a story arose from me venturing across an ocean, well, a few actually.
It was an adventure with expectations of wonder and a feeling that I was really grabbing at life. Moving from Australia to southern England seemed familiar in that I knew England well, having visited several times before, but I also felt a sense of something new and unknown, just as Jean Batten describes beautifully:
The opportunities and experiences of different cultures, of meeting new people, of trying new foods, watching different TV programs, learning new social 'rules' and local traditions, is incredibly enriching and enjoyable. However, it is also a particularly strange experience.
You naturally evolve. It’s a constant change, so subtle that you’re almost not aware of it – you use a different word here and there or the foods you start to hanker after shift slightly. And then you go home for a visit and you realise that you don’t quite fit there anymore....and you start to question.
Who am I? Where do I fit? What does it mean to be Australian? What does it mean to be British? or English? Complex thoughts and feelings running through me in ways I couldn't verbalise. At the same time I was very grateful for the conflicting thoughts as it's through this discomfort that the best thing comes.......personal growth.
I always been fascinated by stories and people and how people make meaning, how they cope with difficult experiences. As a young adult I thought I wanted to be a historian, but I realised it wasn't so much what happened that interested me, but why and how people coped...and so then I found myself in the hot seat...away from 'home' wondering how to cope with challenging thoughts and feelings around identity, culture and belonging. And it is here that this story begins...... picking up a pencil, and over the course of a year, creating a set of drawings that utlimately became a book about life 'elsewhere'.
But it's not just about me. It's about all of us who live elsewhere, all of us who love it, but also who are equally challenged by it. I am excited about having created Drawn to a Story to explore all our stories - to inspire, to support and to break down walls of 'the other', whomever that may be. After all our similarities are more than our differences.
Next time you meet a stranger, why not start up a conversation and find out their story? You might find that it's not too different to your own.