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Youth culture: 'Born in the USA'

By Joseph Wakim - posted Wednesday, 14 December 2005

It is the year 2020. It is an age when people’s preferred method of communication is through fingers on keypads, rather than through their mouths. Non-verbal language has been relegated to a chapter on human evolution in science books. It is equated with the skills of primates because 21st century humans have allowed their eye contact, body posture and facial expressions to fade into extinction. When communities need to socialise, they dread face to face encounters, like nocturnal creatures that are disoriented when forced into the sunlight.

Even courtship rituals have changed as any chance encounter is followed by each partner rushing to their wrist-worn PCs. Even humans sharing the same room prefer to text each other rather than call out when dinner is ready or a meeting is called. It gives new meaning to digital communication - using the digits of their hands rather than the organic gestures of the hands and organic sounds of the vocal chords.

Discrimination too has become extinct. Cyber forums such as chat rooms provided an equalising and “level playing field” that is blind to skin colour, disability, age, genre, location, race or creed. Even dyslexic, stuttering and speech impaired persons participate as equal citizens in this cyber-world where their messages are auto-corrected and without ethnic accents.


This may read like the makings of a science fiction thriller and the makings of the next generation gap. But digital tools can never substitute the organic pools that shape who we are.

It is IT toys that most markedly differentiate the current youth generation from their parents’ generation. Computer literacy is now a given in Australian schools, with children teaching their parents how to operate mobile phones, remote controls and CD burners. In turn, youth are investing their money in personalised ring tones, personalised top 40 on their iPods and personalised web sites. On the surface, these toys define their identity. But like fingers of the hand, they are an extension and expression of identity rather than the palm pilot that drives identity.

These two-dimensional mediums pretend to be unique, but ultimately reveal conformity to a narrow range of the latest fads. The real diversity lies in the three-dimensional human interactions, where class, culture, age and gender intersect.

In my own experience, the cyber space between my generation and my children’s generation pales into insignificance when compared with the generation gap of my immigrant parents’ generation. If it is a digital river that separates me from my children, it was an ocean that separated me from my parents’ generation.

Today, I can assist my children with their homework, converse openly about growing up and can even help them with dusted-off, but similar, topic assignments that I had completed and archived a generation ago in Australia. I can watch the same TV programs in English, enjoy revamped versions of songs and serials from my generation and use mobile phones to stay in touch 24-7. My parents enjoyed none of these bridges.

My parents were like a million other Australians who immigrated here post World War II. They endured a culture shock without interpreters.


First, my parents from North Lebanon left a Middle Eastern country in the 1960s for a Western country “down under”. Suddenly, a “white Christmas” became cosmetic and disorienting. Many of their staple food essentials were not even available in the Australian market until they grew imported seedlings in their own back gardens. Second, they had elementary education at primary school level like most of their contemporaries. They were barely literate in Arabic while English was foreign as well as written in the opposite direction - right to left. How could they help me and my siblings with our homework or even read the school newsletters? Third, they moved from a close knit village environment to an urban metropolis where “stranger danger” was the edict. The pace and privacy of big city life compounded their shock and alienation.

These three factors alone were enough to trigger a generation gap between my siblings and my parents. We would converse in English - the language of our school peers and television - while mistakenly associating our mother tongue with backwardness and a culture that was ostensibly left behind by our parents. This needs to be contextualised with the white Australian policy at that time, when our parents were actively discouraged from sustaining their culture and their names were Anglicised for convenience. To exacerbate their alienation, this era was pre-SBS, pre-ethnic media, pre-AMES, pre-interpreters and indeed pre-multiculturalism.

These chasms of culture are still being reconciled today, with my parents’ generation still nostalgic about the intimacy of their own childhood era - their good old days. Unlike my parents, my children’s generation does not stand still on the edge of a cliff, pondering “us versus them”. Instead, this cyber generation dives into a sea of sub-cultures, becomes saturated in a smorgasbord of choices through the mass media, then emerges with a hybrid identity. In this post-modern age, when neat, linear identity is declining, identity is now quintessentially eclectic.

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About the Author

Joseph Wakim founded the Australian Arabic Council and is a former multicultural affairs commissioner.

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