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Sorry to rock the boat: an immigrantís take on immigration

By Meg Mundell - posted Thursday, 10 November 2005


Australia, thanks for making me so welcome. I came here by boat, to start a new life. The vessel we boarded seemed small and vulnerable, but the man who sailed it promised he knew what he was doing. I threw up most of the way here.

This country has been good to me, but every migrant misses home: it hurts to be transplanted, whether by brutality or choice. Homesickness hits you in the guts, a weird mix of love, yearning and nausea. On melodramatic days, we migrants worry that a piece of us might be evaporating. At other times we just miss our families, the light and smells of our homelands, the crashing surf or bad TV.

Aside from those few queasy moments I’ve had an easy ride. This country has bombarded me with opportunities; some were a good idea, some were definitely not, but I gave most of them a shot anyway. As far as I know, ASIO hasn’t opened a file on me yet.

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So I feel bad about bringing this up. But at the risk of sounding ungrateful - or even “seditious”, under our proposed new “anti-terror” laws - I confess that something is bothering me.

Sure, I came here by boat, but not to flee hardship. I’d just finished uni and ended a relationship: I wanted a fresh start and the chance to broaden my life and career opportunities, so took a job crewing on a yacht. Apart from the violent sea-sickness my nine-day voyage was trouble-free.

When I reached Australia’s shores there was minimal paperwork and zero hassle. I recall the kindly customs and immigration officer asking me two things: “There are a lot of chickpeas in here, do we have a vegetarian on board?” and “My daughter is vegetarian too - but all she eats are lollies! I bet you’re just the same, hey?” I’m 90 per cent sure he gave a jolly wink as he stamped my passport and disembarked into the night, although I may have imagined this.

Becoming a citizen was easy for me: I’m white, middle-class, non-religious, was born in a country that’s not bad at sport (for its size), and endure dodgy sheep jokes with reasonable grace. (By the way, Kiwis don’t get the sheep jokes thing, and are slightly concerned about Aussies’ fascination with the theme.) I’m also lucky enough to hold dual citizenship. When I floundered over the allegiance questions at my interview, the immigration officer gently told me the correct answers.

Why? Because I’m from that quaint green land of hobbits, a bungee-jumping, nuclear-free place populated by down-to-earth sorts who pronounce “six” in a way that tickles folks on this side of the ditch?

Australia is full of good people, some of whom have become very dear friends - some of them nth-generation Aussies, others immigrants, or children of immigrants, from all over the planet.

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But in the current fearful climate, as the West battens down the hatches and our government seeks to boost its powers to detain, monitor, silence and even shoot “suspect” people; as we jealously guard our borders and simultaneously play willing accomplice to the murder of tens of thousands of people in the so-called “war on terror” - why have I been so warmly welcomed, while people fleeing war and terror on their own soil are vilified, resented and left to languish in the nowhere-land of purpose-built jails?

Why do so many Australians cheerfully make derogatory remarks about immigrants in my presence, as if I am not one myself? And why are Aboriginal people denigrated in such a casual way and open way, as if I could not fail to hold the same views? Some examples from the past month: “Immigrants take all the jobs and don’t mix with the white folks” (an acquaintance). “Port Augusta? We called it Portaloo. It’s full of filthy Abo’s” (a friend of a friend). “You don’t want to get out here, this area’s full of Aborigines” (an Adelaide taxi driver). “Most Melbourne taxi drivers are illegal aliens who don’t even have licenses” (a friend’s boyfriend).

This kind of talk drives me crazy. Sometimes I get mad and let rip: sometimes I try to muster an articulate response. And other times I’ve sat there like a relaxed and comfortable traitor, saying nothing and disliking myself for it.

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About the Author

Meg Mundell is an award-winning writer, freelance journalist and university lecturer, and a research assistant at The Australian Centre (Melbourne University). Meg has worked as a policy analyst, communications consultant and advocate for homeless young people, and her writing has been published by The Age, Meanjin, Sleepers Almanac, The Big Issue, the Herald Sun and the Lonely Planet travel guides.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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