SubjectACT interview – Talking migration and belonging with Nathan Gubler

In November last year, be:longing’s Dunja Cvjetićanin and Anita Patel caught up with Nathan Gubler of SubjectACT, a current affairs radio program on Canberra’s 2XX FM.  We talked all things migration, cultural belonging and multiculturalism in the Australian context.  Read on, below, for a transcript of our discussion.

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Nathan Gubler is one of the hosts of SubjectACT on Canberra’s 2XX FM, community radio, and has Irish, Swiss and French ancestry.  Check out the website for 2XX here, and make sure you tune into SubjectACT, Mondays to Fridays from 8:30 to 9am (Canberra time)!

Anita Patel was born in Singapore and lives in Canberra, Australia.  She is as Australian as a banana paddle pop and a pair of sandy thongs and she is also a part of the Asian diaspora.  She has been published in various journals including Burley Issue One, Block 9, Conversations (Pandanus Press ANU) and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

Dunja Cvjetićanin was born in Yugoslavia in 1989 and moved to Australia with her family as a baby.  She is one of the Founding Co-Editors of be:longing and enjoys interacting with others who feel a similar connection to other places and cultures as she does.

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Nathan Gubler [N]: Dunja and Anita, welcome to SubjectACT.  The first question is, what is be:longing, and how did it all start?

Dunja Cvjetićanin [D]: be:longing is a website that I run with my friend, Jasmine Soukieh.  It’s basically an online publication, like an online magazine or journal, where we gather stories based around migration and cross-cultural issues.  The stories are written, or created, by migrants, or people who are related to migrants or have some sort of personal experience with migration.  Our contributors create works reflecting on migration and all the feelings and experiences and emotions that you get from belonging to a couple of different cultures.

N: Can you talk a bit about your own life and perhaps in what way your experience informed you to organise this collective?

D: That’s exactly how it came about.  I was inspired by probably a thousand different conversations that I’d had with my brother, my parents, my friends – particularly friends from different cultural backgrounds.  We had just spent countless hours talking about what it means to be part-Australian and part-something else.  Me, I’m from a migrant family from Yugoslavia, or Serbia now. We migrated here to Australia in 1990.

N: And what was the state of Yugoslavia at that point?  Was it disintegrating, or?

D: It was about two months away from disintegrating.  My family was actually quite lucky – we got out about two or three months before the wars began, as migrants rather than as refugees.  A lot of people came out of that country as refugees in the years following that.  But you know, while we weren’t technically refugees, we had a lot of similar experiences to those who were refugees – who were forcibly displaced – because while we “migrated” of our own accord, we couldn’t really go back.  My parents didn’t want to take two young children back into a warzone.

So, going back to how be:longing came about, we just kept talking about all these different things – my brother and my friends and I – and we kept thinking, what are we?  Are we Australian?  Are we something else?  Why is it that we connect so well, despite each being something different?  And I think that’s just where it came from.  I must have had a really good sleep one night, because I woke up the next day and I thought, “I have to start this. I have to start this project.”  And yeah, I got onto my friend Jasmine, who has a Lebanese-Australian background, and we kind of kept that conversation going.

N: That makes me think of people I’ve met who you’d say have an Anglo-Celtic, Australian heritage, and that migration – the migration stories of those people – would virtually be forgotten now.  For instance, the Irish who had to come here in order to get away from the potato famine.

D: I think that’s also a big motivator for this project – we don’t want to let all of these experiences and feelings and emotions just go forgotten in the years to come, like they may have with Anglo-Celtic migration.  I think it’s special, being part of a generation that sits somewhere in-between different cultures.  I have this direct contact and intimacy with Serbian and European culture, but also with modern Australian.  I think it’s a unique vantage point, in a way.

N: I was recently reading the work of Christos Tsiolkas, who talks about the Greek experience in Australia, and a lot of the characters in his books want to get rid of that foreign experience; they kind of want to fit into mainstream Australian culture.  Is that something that you felt you had to struggle with, or that you observed with those around you?

D: Definitely.  I think, growing up, I didn’t realise that I was different from anybody else.  In school, the only thing that tipped me off to that was that teachers would struggle to pronounce my name.

N: So, it wasn’t like ducking into two different worlds?  It was kind of normal for you?

D: Well, as a young kid, that’s what it was like, but as I got a little older and a little more aware of my place in the world, I started realising that the food that we ate at home, the way our parents would dress us, or the kinds of activities we would engage in were different from those of the kids around me.  In a way, when I would get home, it really would be like stepping into a different world – a Serbian world.  I only learned English words such as “kitchen towel” or “colander” when I was older, because, growing up, I only ever knew those words in Serbian.  In my house, words or phrases like “dinner” or “come to the table” were only said in Serbian, so I didn’t know their English equivalents.

Anita Patel [A]: Usually, in a migrant house, anything to do with food or the kitchen, we talk about in our own language.  It’s the most comfortable language for a mother to use in a house, and kids pick up that language.  I remember my son saying one day, “What’s that colander again?”  And my husband is Anglo-Australian, so we certainly spoke English at home.  But it’s funny – it was the colander, too.  I think we often use these kitchen words in our other languages.

D: Haha.  Until I learned that word, I used to say, “that pasta-strainy-thingy”…

N: Anita, we should bring you in here.  How about you talk a little bit about your migration story?

A: It’s funny, because when Dunja and I talked about our migration stories with each other, there were a lot of parallels, even though we’re generations apart (I’m Dunja’s mum’s generation).  My family came in the 70s, when I was a teenager.  In Australia then, there was still the White Australia Policy, so as a person coming from a migrant background, as a teenager, you definitely felt that you wanted to hide anything to do with being a migrant.  Obviously, you can’t hide your colour or the way you look, but we certainly tried to change the way we talked.  We quickly picked up English, and not just English, but Australian-English.  You often hear migrant kids, when their mothers or fathers are talking to them in Turkish or Indonesian, answering their parents in English.  Language.  We just didn’t want to engage in our own language.  Later in life, you gravitate back to your language and now it’s a really precious thing for me to have my first language, my second language, and to be able to cross into those places.

N: So is it a matter of fitting in straight away?

A: Absolutely.  Language is the thing that fits you in straight away.  When I came in the 70s, we learnt to speak Australian-Australian, as I said.  I’d been brought up for a little bit of my life in England, so when we started speaking Australian, my mother was just so desperately stressed out by our Australian accents.  But diasporic people are constantly walking in two worlds.  We are always in two places.  I think that’s why migrant kids often gravitate to other migrant kids.

D: I think that’s definitely true.  I personally connect with that a lot.

N: Like, regardless of background?

A: I mean, I have a lot of Anglo friends as well, but with other migrants, there can be a kind of implicit understanding of that common experience that you have.  Even with my parents, who also live in Australia, their friends are Greek, Lebanese, Italian.  Those people understand them, and they have a common kind of language that they speak, even across migrant cultures.  That’s kind of why I really engaged with the idea of be:longing when Dunja told me about it.  I was like, “Yes, we need this.  Somewhere we can talk about what we yearn for, where we feel we belong, why we sometimes don’t feel we belong.”

And, you were talking about people coming from places.  I think that some people come from somewhere – a very definite somewhere.  Some Anglo-Australian people are like, “I’m Australian, that’s where I come from,” and of course Aboriginal Australians definitely come from somewhere.  But there are also people who come from anywhere.  They can be from anywhere.  I feel like I’m kind of that person.  I can’t tell you where I actually come from.  I don’t know where I’m from anymore.

D: And that’s one of the things that we’ve purposely engaged with on be:longing, as well.  I think there is so much pressure to feel like, “Where do I belong?  I have to choose.  I have to be either Serbian or Australian.”  As I got older, I realised that, “Okay, when I go to Serbia, I’m definitely not Serbian, and here in Australia, well, I’ve got a couple of aspects to me that make me a bit different from everyone else, too.”  One of the strongest realisations I made was, “You know what?  Actually, I don’t have to choose.  I can be in-between.  I can be sitting on that proverbial fence really comfortably, just looking at both sides and appreciating the closeness that I can have to both cultures.”  And that is really one of our missions at be:longing – we want to allow people to be comfortable somewhere in-between – something a little bit mixed, a little bit marbled.

N: We’re kind of in a time now where nostalgia is becoming quite a toxic emotion to indulge in, in terms of it finding its way into certain nationalist movements in Europe and America, and yet I think we’d all agree that nostalgia is an important way of engaging with our life stories.  Is the nostalgia that a migrant might feel for a country potentially a slippery-slope towards that sort of political engagement, or is it completely different?  I’m interested to know what you think of that.

D: I think nostalgia is a very human emotion, whether it’s for a different country or a different time.  It’s something that we can all really connect on, but I do agree that it could be a slippery-slope into things like nationalism and much more closed-off ways of thinking – discrimination, even.  You could almost tie those lovely times that you had for whatever reason to that place and put it on a pedestal, and decide you don’t want to engage with other places.

N: On the be:longing website, food is a big theme – food’s ability to evoke the culture from whence you came.  Can you talk a little bit about food’s place in remembering the migration story?

D: Food is one of those things that is almost synonymous with belonging.  It’s everyone coming around a table, eating things, and feeling fulfilled by something that was created in love.  Maybe that’s a very family-centric way of looking at it, but it’s definitely the way that I was brought up, and I’m very grateful for that.  The mere thought of some of the dishes that my mum would make, or that we would all make together as a family, and eat in so much happiness, brings that warmth to every day – even just the memory of it. Then you step back from it and think, “Oh wow, it’s actually quite special to have been able to engage in culturally different food, as well.”  I was able to link that to my Serbian identity.  Like, the Serbian dish, sarma – pork and rice wrapped in sauerkraut and cooked in this big stew.  You just love it!  Any time it gets a little bit colder, you think, “It’s getting into April, Autumn is coming?  Sarma time!”  You can’t wait.  And then you realise later on that, “Oh, this is special!  This is something unique.”

A: Yeah, other people around you haven’t got it for that food.

D: I guess it’s also wonderful because we can all engage in lots of different food.  Canberra is becoming such a foodie paradise.  You can have Vietnamese for breakfast, Turkish for lunch, Greek gyros for dinner.  I think food is a very unifying thing within a family, but also within a community.

N: Anita, I wonder, from a migrant’s perspective, what do you think about Anglo-Celtic people’s migration stories?  They obviously migrated here some 200 years ago, but because of colonisation and the stories around that, they’ve perhaps almost forgotten that they did originally come from the other side of the world.  Is there something lost there, and how might people begin to engage with that past?

A: I find that to be a really interesting viewpoint.  Though I always correct myself now, as someone who came in a later wave of migration, the way I think and the way I used to talk was to say, “He’s Australian,” when talking about my husband, and then to think, “but I’m not Australian.”  So I used to think of my husband as being Australian, because he’s an Anglo-Australian.  And he would say to me, “I’m Anglo, and you’re Australian as well.”  And that is absolutely true.  It was Anglo culture itself that created that myth of Australian-ness that was born out of the White Australia Policy, and that plays into that thinking and narrative.  There is, as we know, only one true group of Australians, and they’re the First Australians; they’re the indigenous Australians of this country.  You make a good point that Anglo culture itself has lost a connection with its original culture.  In a way, I think this is our opportunity, as later migrants, to hold onto this feeling – that we are in this country, but we also have other cultures and places.

D: I also think that it doesn’t necessarily take 200 years for somebody to lose that connection.  It can happen within a generation.  If you don’t put effort into it, and if you don’t assign value to the fact of coming from somewhere else, I think you can lose that connection very quickly.  Whether it’s just about people from an Anglo-Celtic background going to Ireland, going to England, and reconnecting with some of those places, I think people would get a lot out of it; a lot of significance and value and personal satisfaction from it.  I’ve heard a number of my friends who’ve gone, and afterwards they said, “I always knew that my mum had a great-aunt in Bath, and we finally went to go visit her,” and all of a sudden it meant a lot more to them.  I think that’s why, at be:longing, we concentrate on that personal connection, and we realise that you have to assign value to being different or to coming from somewhere else – you have to believe that it’s not a bad thing.  And if you do that, you can actually get so much more out of it.  Instead of trying constantly to stomp certain things out of yourself or to stomp certain people out of your perceived culture, you open it up and everyone gets so much more.

N: I wonder if you relate to this.  My surname’s from Switzerland – my grandfather was Swiss.  When I went to Switzerland, even though I couldn’t speak the language or anything, the culture kind of clicked with me.  And I really don’t have a lot to do with Swiss culture.  Have you heard similar stories?

D: I have a similar story, myself.  I always had some kind of a connection to Serbia, to the Balkans, but at the same time, I had never lived there.  When I was about 21/22, I decided I’d take a semester off of university and live in Serbia, because I’d always wanted to do that.  One day, about three months into my sojourn, I was walking through a park, and I got this enormous feeling of, “Oh my gosh, these trees, they are my trees; these are the trees that my family – my heritage – walked around.  These are the trees that my family planted.”  It just washed over me all of a sudden like that, and I felt this immediate sense of, “Wow, this just feels right.”  And it was such a strange thing; I’d never seen those trees in my life, and yet, I just felt like I was home, in a way.

A: There’s that connection with country.

D: And then I also feel that with Canberra.

A: I know, it’s a strange thing, because I feel it very strongly for this city, Canberra, now too, because I’ve lived here for many decades and I brought my children up here, so I do feel that for here.  I must admit, a similar thing to what you experienced happened to me, too.  I was born in Singapore, and we were back there recently, just on a quick stop-over, and it was the smell.  That smell comes to you, and suddenly you’re like, “Oh, this is the smell of my childhood.”  I just felt this really strong pull for this smell and my childhood; I could see my mother and hear her everywhere there.  It’s just an interesting thing that that does happen.

And in India, too – because my father’s Indian, he’s from Kenya – he’s an East-African Indian.  As a child, we spent about three months in India, but I’ve never been Indian.  My mother tongue is Malay; that’s my mother’s language.  And when we went back to India, it was very strange, because I did get that feeling, because my face is Indian and people would recognise me, even if they didn’t know me.  For the first time in my life, somewhat, people could see my face and say, “Oh, you’re Gujarati,” because I look specifically ‘one type’ of Indian.

D: Did you feel a similar thing when you went to Switzerland?

N: I don’t know.  It just felt like the organisation of the place felt….  Europeans, they let their hair down a little bit more.  Even in conservative Switzerland.  And the age of the cities as well: Lausanne, Geneva, and places like that.

A: And sometimes it’s a very intangible feeling of, “I get this place; I know it.”  There’s this sort of energy that you connect with.

N: Yeah, definitely.  I wanted to ask one last question.  There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of years of the issue of cultural appropriation.  And seeing as be:longing is about the sharing and exchange of cultures, I wondered what your opinion is on cultural appropriation.  Is there a danger in appropriating cultures?  Or is the way that cultural appropriation understood unhelpful?

D: I think cultural appropriation is a very complicated issue.  And I think it’s one that is legitimately discussed and brought up; it’s really important.  I think there’s a big danger when people view other cultures in an exoticised and essentialised way; reducing them to stereotypes or caricatures.  Ultimately, I think cultural appropriation is something where people don’t really take the time to understand a culture properly; to really engage with it in a meaningful way, and to view the people in that culture as human beings with completely legitimate cultures and societies and ways of living life.  Other cultures don’t need to be made fun of, or made into a costume for entertainment.

A: Yeah, I think you’re right.  I think there is a big thing that happens here in Australia that makes me think of cultural appropriation, too.  We like to think of ourselves as a multicultural country, and we do have a lot of cultures here.  And [former Prime Minister Gough] Whitlam actually implemented a policy back then that was the Multicultural Policy, which was quite an extraordinary thing.  But what I actually think it has eventuated in – and I taught languages in schools for a long time, so I witnessed it a lot – is that we have a descriptive multiculturalism here.  So what we like to do is go, “We’ve got Multicultural Day.”  And when we’re teaching a language, it’s like, “Let’s make nasi goreng for Multicultural Day; let’s wear a Vietnamese hat; let’s do a dance.”  Let’s have these exoticised kind of symbols of culture for the ‘multicultural’ people, and the ‘Anglo’ people, who are “really” Australian, can just watch.

D: It’s being performed for them.

A: It’s being performed.  My daughter, Asha, wrote a piece for be:longing that touched on this topic, actually.  Asha is, as I say, half-Anglo, so she can generally pass for a European, or Greek, or Middle Eastern or whatever.  Her piece talked about a time when she was at Byron Bay, or somewhere up the North Coast, and she was buying samosas from people who were white, but dressed like Indian people.  They were making and selling samosas, and then proceeded to tell her about how to make samosas, and how samosas were made correctly, and all that sort of stuff.  And she said that was completely fine, up until the point where they said, “So where exactly are you from?”  And it’s always at that moment, when you’re a migrant, and you go, “Oh, so your Anglo-selves just kicked in and asked me where I’m from.”  You know, there’s the two things going on.  It’s like, “We want the food; we appropriate the culture – we are making samosas and we’re going to tell you about this stuff – but at the same time, we’ve just recognised you’re a little bit different.”  It’s a really interesting one.

D: It’s a fantastic piece.

N: So, Anita, you’ve brought part of a piece to read today.  Can you talk a bit about it?

A: Okay.  This very same daughter – she’s my quite bohemian, slightly hippy-ish daughter – she lived in Broome for a few years with her family, and we would visit her in Broome, which as you know is on the very tip of northwest Australia.  And so, I was part of the Broome community; I would go there for weeks and weeks and weeks.  And it was quite an extraordinary community because it was that moment in Australia, where I went somewhere and I went, “I’ve come home.”  This is the part of Australia that – while I love Canberra – this here, shows me why this country feels like home for me.  Basically, in that part of Australia, Indigenous and Asian Australia are really closely linked because of the pearling industry that went on there, where they got pearlers from Japan, from Malaysia – or Malaya as it was then – and Indonesia.  So they had lots of Asian pearlers, and Indigenous pearlers, who were all very badly used by the pearling industry.  And there, Anglo-Australian culture is not dominant.  It is just totally not dominant in Broome.

So when I went to Broome, I felt this immense sense of belonging, and I had never felt that in any other part of Australia.  I heard Indigenous, First Australians speaking my language, Malay.  Because there’s a connection; they’ve had it for so long there, that connection with the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay Peninsula.  They were eating our food; they were singing the songs that I’d grown up with.  I found that profoundly moving, and I just became sharply aware that I was meant to be in this country, when I was in Broome.  So that’s where I felt my belonging was.  And I’m very grateful to Broome for making me feel that.  So basically, that was what led to this little story.

[Check out Anita’s Broome Story here.]

N: Thanks so much, Anita.  I’ve got to go to Broome now.

A: You have to go to Broome.

N: It sounds unlike anywhere else in Australia.

A: It is.

D: The piece really transports you there, doesn’t it?

N: Absolutely. Thanks so much Dunja and Anita for coming in to SubjectACT.

D: Thank you!

© Nathan Gubler, Anita Patel and Dunja Cvjetićanin, 2018