To be or to be

Anna Koestenbauer is an Austrian-Australian: born in Vienna, she has lived in six countries and now calls Canberra home.  Anna loves the English language and looks forward to communicating with this global, new-media community about perspectives and our sense of place.

I was asked at the gym, “Were you born here?” I paused. “No,” I said. He smiled. “Are you Australian?” I paused again, then replied “Yeah!” I said yeah with that high-pitched inflection at the end of the sentence, that oh-so-Australian curl upwards that makes everything sound like a question.

Perhaps it was a question.

I had cause to look at my birth certificate recently, and it felt a little bit alien. It was written in a different language in a different time in a different country – where my story started. If my parents had not been the adventurous souls that they are, perhaps it would have continued there too.

But it didn’t. It went all over the place, and across the years, I felt at home anywhere my family was. But then, is feeling home the same as being home?

In Portuguese, which is a language I am learning at the moment in preparation for my next job, there is a difference between being and being. There is the being of character. Descriptive being. Permanent being. Ser.

There is also locative being. Being in a place. Feeling good. Temporal being. Being pretty (but only today, not always.) Estar.

I watched a Portuguese comedian recently, joking about how brutish he thought English was, for not being able to differentiate between these two types of existence. He pointed out that ser bêbado and estar bêbado were really quite different (being drunk and being a drunk – in English we rely on an article, in Portuguese you get to use a wholly different verb!)

Interestingly, you can ser casado but you can also estar casado – to be married. Married as a state of character and married as a current status. Permanent and transient. Perhaps this is a grammatically profound insight into marriage, which accepts that what you are and how you identify might sometimes be discordant and could, indeed, change. Or not.

The same subtlety doesn’t exist for nationality and identity. You can lessen through actions how you identify with the country of your birth in the sense that you can stop speaking the language, live elsewhere, and get new bits of paper telling others who you are. But you can’t, grammatically, go from eu sou to eu estou. I am Australian. Eu sou australiana. You can say estás bem? (are you well?) but not estás um bom australiano (you are temporarily a good Australian). This is because your identity, according to these grammar rules, has nothing to do with how you practice it, or how you live it or feel about it. It supposedly transcends your everyday life and simply is. No wonder migrants struggle with the conception of identity. It is static, and we are dynamic.

On the day I participated in my Australian citizenship ceremony, the state’s representative pointed out that the new citizens in the room had one thing in common. We were all from somewhere, now calling somewhere else home. We would not leave behind who we were, but rather bring who we are into a new future, to enrich our new identity of Australian. His words were a gesture of inclusivity over a decade ago, an embrace for dynamic identities. Back when multiculturalism had not yet been so tarnished.

Recently, the columnist and commentator Andrew Bolt claimed multiculturalism was a ‘stupidity’. I think I know what he really means. He doesn’t mean the multiculturalism that helps someone like me feel at home here, someone like me who speaks English with that hyperbolic inflection, who has white skin and works a job that serves the nation. He doesn’t think I’m a stupidity. He means them. In moments like these, I feel betrayed by being Australian. I pass for Australian, while many around me are othered. Told that they are un-Australian. Are not Australian. Not enough para serem australianos. Only enough para estarem na Austrália.

I feel the same dis-ease when I sense a lack of empathy for Australia’s First Peoples. Australia is indivisibly whole with its – with our – First Nations. And yet our nationhood convulses. There’s an irrefutable gap in our experiences of being Australian. So while we’re told we’re all the same on paper, are we really?

If I have learnt anything from my twenty years in this country, it is that being Australian is complicated. In my experience, being Australian has almost nothing to do with eating pies in the sun while watching football, although those things are fun to do. Instead, being Australian is asking really difficult questions about colonisation and migration, without wanting to be at home anywhere else. Being Australian is accepting our insignificance on a continent that existed long before us and will remain long after us, but also accepting the responsibility to protect it right now. Being Australian is the collective embrace of our community following a bushfire or a pandemic. Being Australian means calling out those who disappoint us and honouring those who serve us. Being Australian is more than what it says in my passport, and I am not less Australian because of my birth certificate. Eu sou. Tu és. Nós somos a Austrália.

© Anna Koestenbauer, 2020