When I was a child growing up in Melbourne, I used to go with my Dad to Victoria Market. I don't know how old I was when I started to register the dirty looks when he'd say, “Gimme a kilo of topside”. He never said, "Please".
More than 20 years later, I hear about a Croatian woman in London who wants to buy a bus ticket. The driver says, “What's the magic word?” And she's thinking she's stumbled into some arcane Harry Potter crossed with Romper Room para-universe.
When people talk about the cultural gaps migrant children grow up with, they often talk about the garlic sandwiches, the kabana sprinkled with caramelised sugar for dessert, the sheep's head for Sunday lunch with the eyes reserved for the elders to suck on in lieu of after-dinner mints. Food's always the most visible thing when people talk about collisions of cultures.
It's the other stuff that's more subtle - manners, mores, little social cues - that made moments of my childhood excruciating and made me feel like a freak. Breakfast at my first slumber party: I was in paroxysms of anxiety because everyone else was eating their bacon and eggs without toast, or even bread. I think I must have been about 18 before I felt comfortable eating “normally” in front of people outside my family.
Normal meaning like a peasant. Because my family were-are peasants. And there's a whole lot of stuff that goes with that.
When I hit university and stumbled on a first-year subject on the French revolution, it was a revelation. The desperate plight of the peasantry seemed so similar to the world my parents were born into. Little or no formal education, and lousy when you got it. There's a Spanish saying, la letra con sangre entra ( “letters are learned with blood”). My mother - who had absolutely no schooling - thought my sisters and I were geniuses when we learned to read so fast; we were probably just advancing in the way children who get a decent chance do.
In the 1920s and 1930s when my parents were children in Spain, the priests micro-managed village affairs, right down to insisting every girl bore the name Maria, or else she would not be baptised. Then there were the Taliban-like working conditions for women like my now 70-year-old friend, Cándida. She was a maid with an Opus Dei family who forbade her ever to address the male of the house. She was admonished severely when, after several desperate attempts, she slipped him a note to please sign papers so she could migrate to Australia.
Some children have relatives who want to talk about the past, about how they got to where they are. For those of us whose parents wanted to forget, or who feel their origins were embarrassingly humble, or irrelevant to the post-industrial society their children were born into, it can be a huge gap to bridge.
It seems to be a fundamental human need to see ourselves, our realities, reflected among at least a small group of people, if not in the wider culture - in a way that’s a bit more meaningful than just faces of colour presenting the news. When that mirror is missing - as I think it often is in a nuclear family environment in the suburbs, especially when extended families or legions of cousins and uncles and aunts are fast disappearing - your take on the world and what you feel your place is in it, can feel weird and disjointed. You’re out of step with what you’re told are the formative experiences of your generation. It does take a village, and the nuclear family is a poor, overburdened substitute for a village, but it’s often the only one we’ve got, wherever we’re from.
What took 200 or so years in Britain, in my family, and thousands of other Spanish families, took just two generations: peasants driven from the land, forming the urban proletariat, then members of a post-industrial society. In the English-speaking world, even the poorest families at least had some schooling and could read. But in my family my sisters and I were the first generation to complete primary school, let alone secondary school, let alone university. Though when I gave my Dad a copy of Angela’s Ashes one Christmas, he said, “God, they had it even worse than us”.
I wonder about the migrant children growing up now, not the children of skilled migrants who have been middle-class for a couple of generations, but the children who may have been in refugee camps, in wars or in societies where unspeakable things happened or cruelty was normal to the point of banal.