Interview with Anna Koestenbauer – PART 1

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.

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

In this interview series, we talk to contributors to be:longing, and find out who the person is behind the words – behind the piece or pieces that they’ve contributed.  Today, we are lucky enough to have as our guest, Anna Koestenbauer, and PART 1 of her conversation with Dunja. 

Image: © Moustafa Kass, 2021

Dunja Kaczmarek (DK): Anna, you’ve contributed three different pieces to our site over the years.  I hope you contribute many more because all of your pieces have got poignant, important points to them; they make me think; and they really, I think, contain some incredibly valuable perspectives on multiculturalism and what it’s like to be a cross-cultural individual.  To get started, I want to go from the beginning and ask you where you were born, and what your childhood was like. 

Anna Koestenbauer (AK): Thank you so much for the kind words on the writing.  I find the writing process really funny because I go for long periods without really having anything to say, and then I’ll have one insight and I’m overwhelmed with the need to get it out there. Then I sort of tend to write in this big wave of expression, and sit there until 10 o’clock… 11 o’clock at night until I’ve got it out, and then I’ll fire it off to you and be like, “I don’t know if this is any good, but, you know, just give it a read.”

DK: It always is.

AK: I suppose I’ll say that everything I’ve written comes from a real place of honesty and feeling, and I think that’s one of the greatest things about the be:longing that I’ve been reading from the other contributors, as well.  Everyone is sharing pieces of themselves that, perhaps, they don’t get many other opportunities to, and that’s definitely been the case for me. 

So, my story – I was born in Vienna in 198-hm, and lived there until I was nearly six.  And then my parents, who were development workers, were given a contract to go, of all places, to Papua New Guinea, which was on the other side of the world.

DK: So there’s a bit of a difference between Vienna and Papua New Guinea?

AK: Just a little bit, yeah.  And it’s funny that it happened at exactly that time period in my life where I, still now, have some actual memories, not just stories I was told about what happened, but I remember certain experiences.  I remember going to a mixer for all the other volunteers who were getting posted to various countries, and  all the different kids hanging out, and the slightly nervous energy of all the people as they were going to lots of different destinations; and feeling an impending sense of change, which, I think, for a five… six-year-old can be quite a unique experience because up until that point we had a lot of consistency in our lives. 

We lived in the apartment that I was born in – and then, my brother – and we lived there.  We went to my grandparents’ house in the country on weekends, and we had a tight group of friends, some of whom are still friends of my parents.  So, there was a lot of continuity and then, almost overnight, there was this massive shift in every conceivable way: the climate, the language, our role, our skin colour, we weren’t part of the majority anymore – we were ‘unique’ and people looked at us.

I will say, in PNG in the 90s, we had an experience, which, in a way was still part of a world that, I think, by now has disappeared.  We went into a community where there was what’s called an ‘expat’ community – so your various aid workers, development workers, diplomats and business people and so on, and you know each other and you hang out, and there’s a clear distinction between you and the locals.  However, we went to a school, for example, where the vast majority of people were actually locals; I was the only white kid in my class, and my brother was the only white kid in his class.  A variety of things happened, which meant that eventually – a couple of years later – the principal of that school actually said to my parents, “I think you should send your kids to the international school, and they can be more with theirs.”  Now, there was a political background to that.  There were some funding issues, there were some perception issues, there were some safety issues.  So there were a variety of reasons for that, but we ended up going to the international school.  Anyone who’s familiar with Port Moresby will know that’s the Ela Murray School; it continues, to this day.  And that was a really multicultural mix of people.  So, you had lots of Australian-heritage children, but also Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Japanese, some Kiwis, some Brits, some Germans – a massive mingling…

DK: Some Austrians.

AK: Oh yeah, sorry, and me – some Austrians.  And I remember being profoundly happy as a child in that environment. 

DK: So, you started life out in a typically Austrian way, let’s say.  I mean, you did have parents who were, in their occupations, pretty fundamentally international, not just living in Austria.  But then you find yourself at six… seven… eight years old moving to a completely new country, new climate – everything – and then starting life out a bit closer to the locals, but then moving into the international space.  I want to ask you about this – in your time in Papua New Guinea, did you get a sense of connecting with the culture there, or was it more connecting to the international side of your existence there?

AK: I think, as a child, you have the enormous advantage of having a passport to being everybody’s child, especially in a community where children are valued and loved, and where family is valued.

DK: And is that the Papuan culture?

AK: Definitely, yeah.  It is the core of what is a more communitarian-based culture.  Their societal values are very, very different to the more individualistic cultural framework, I guess, that people would associate with Australia.  So, definitely, I think, we were adopted – for want of a better word.

And we, would dress in local clothes, and we would put feathers in our hair.  My brother would hunt animals with bows and arrows, and I would be in the village and pound leaves and make medicines, and all of that stuff.  There were, I think, years of genuine innocence.  And maybe, looking back on it, a display of the unbelievable flexibility that a child at the age of six or seven has, right?  Your desire really is to emulate everything that’s going on around you.  You don’t get called a sponge for nothing – you’re just absorbing.

DK: And that would probably also help you get a sense of where you are, and connecting to where you are here and now – ‘Sure, you came from somewhere else, but this is your present and this is your reality.’

AK: 100%.  I think it doesn’t last, though.  So, when, I would say – latest, latest – at the age of eight, I was very acutely aware that I was not from PNG, that I was not a local and that we would never stay there.  I was, I think, astute enough to ask these questions, and I got honest answers from my parents, saying, “No, we can’t stay here forever because this is not a country we are allowed to stay in forever” – aid workers are there on limited visas; you cannot migrate to PNG, that’s not an option.  Even if we had wanted to, that wasn’t a realistic choice, and it wasn’t encouraged by the PNG government, which is absolutely their right.  And so, I knew we were always going to have to go back or go somewhere else.  And I had, sort of, mini identity crises at the age of eight or nine.  My brother, bless him, I really don’t think did; but for me, it became almost kind of this obsessive question of, “Who am I, and where am I from, and where do I belong, and where am I going to go back to?”  And partly, that was born out of the language, as well.  You know, I spoke Austrian at home, and English at school, and then Austrian when we went back home, but I was becoming far more confident in English than I was in German.  And I didn’t know all the little references to TV programs or, you know, what shoes people were wearing.  And you find yourself in this in-between space, which was happening at a point in my life where my parents got divorced.  And, I mean, that was handled, honestly, as well as it possibly could have been handled, but at the same time that was another rupture and another change. 

DK: You had an incredible amount of different pressures and forces happening in your life that were really having an impact on your sense of belonging and identity.  I think, certainly, as cross-cultural individuals, a lot of us can understand that.  You know, whether you are in an expat situation or you’re a child of a migrant who has moved somewhere else, I think a lot of us have had that sense of, “Hold on, I don’t belong here.  I can’t stay here.”  Sometimes you want to stay and you can’t; sometimes you don’t want to stay and you have to. 

AK: It sounds super neurotic to say something like, “Ah!  I was an eight or nine year old, and I was having an existential, or an identity, crisis…”

DK: It happens!  It happens. 

AK: But this is the thing – I think, to our peril, we ignore the capacity of children to have really, really profound thoughts about themselves, their identity, where they belong, who they are, and who they want to be.  A seven… eight… nine year old is absolutely capable of asking themselves those sorts of questions, and finding an answer that is more or less satisfying to them, right?  For me, those difficulties really continued when we moved to Australia, as well. 

*** End of PART 1 ***

© Anna Koestenbauer and Dunja Kaczmarek, 2021