Interview with Anna Koestenbauer – PART 2

Anna Koestenbauer is an Austrian-Australian: born in Vienna, she has lived in six countries and now calls Timor-Leste 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.  Here is PART 2 of Dunja’s conversation with our guest, Anna Koestenbauer.  Read PART 1, here.

Image: © Moustafa Kass, 2018

Dunja Kaczmarek (DK): So we’ve just been discussing your childhood in Austria, and how you and your family then lived in PNG in the next part of your childhood, while your parents were doing international development work there.  You then moved to Australia.  Could you tell us a bit about that?  What brought you from PNG to Australia?  What was going on for you and your family around that time of transition?

Anna Koestenbauer (AK): My wonderful stepdad is from Scotland, and he and my mother made the decision to move to an English-speaking country so that he could continue on his professional pathway.  I totally get that, but that limited the choice of countries we could move to and excluded my home country of Austria. 

And so, Australia became the third country we lived in in seven years, and what we thought was going to be an easy transition, actually, was hard.  There’s, again, not that much similarity between PNG and Australia.  There’s not even that much similarity between the expat community and what life is like really in Australia.  I found it really hard to know what to do at school to be normal, and by then I was ten.  And everyone will tell you: the most profound desire that a ten-to-fifteen year old has is to be normal and not to stand out in any way whatsoever, and I struggled. 

DK: Was this a difference you felt between living in the international community in PNG, where everyone’s different and unique, to moving to a country like Australia – which definitely has a lot of migrants in it and a lot of different communities who are providing wonderful influences on the broader Australian identity – but in some contexts (I think primary schools are  a good example) it can feel really monocultural and as if everyone has to be the same, and there’s a sense of ‘Well, who are you, trying to be different here?’      

AK: 100 percent.  I had my first experience with the atrocious and despicable concept of tall poppy syndrome, for example, where I had the uncomfortable confrontation of having been raised by an Austrian mother who was like, ‘Hey, when you’re good at something, that’s great; try and be even better at that thing, and there’s nothing wrong with you claiming that you’re good at something.’  And going into this class, and the teacher asking me, “What level of English reading group do you want to be in?”  And I said, “Well, I love to read, so the highest one, please.”  Cue groans across the classroom, and the sentiment of  ‘Who does she think she is?  She’s come from a developing country; I’d be surprised if she can even read.’  And I was just absolutely not prepared for that, which is this funny, perfect encapsulation now – 18 years later – where you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s tall poppy syndrome; that’s how we cut each other down as children in this country.’  And then we wonder why it’s really hard for adults to leave that behind. 

DK: And, to be fair, I think a lot of kids who have grown up in Australia – I mean, it is a pretty fundamentally Australian thing – who find themselves to be talented at certain things, or they get excited by learning new things and they want to pursue that, they can really get dissuaded from doing that because there’s just such a huge pressure of other kids telling you ‘Nerd!’ or telling you ‘Why are you trying to do that?’ or ‘Only geeks try and do well in school.’  And I think that, particularly when you’re coming from a culture where that is so normal, all of a sudden being in a context where that’s not normal where you are actually a ‘freak’, or there’s the suggestion of ‘Why would you want to do that?’ – that would have been really confronting.

AK: The devaluation of academia, I think, is one of those classic examples of a cultural difference.  The streaming according to abilities and talents in Austrian and German schools starts much earlier, and they encourage academic competition and high performance much earlier.  I think a lot of Australians feel uncomfortable with the amount of pressure that is put on much younger students to prove themselves academically.  On the other side, you have the extreme valuation of sporting talent in Australia, which I did not have.  I look back on that now and just go, ‘How different would I have been if I had been amazing at soccer?’  But it just goes to show, right – there are different value sets in different cultures; they’re not better, they’re not worse.  Even for somebody who’s White who came to a country that is predominantly White and, therefore, I did not have to cross that colour bar in integration, there were still so many invisible things that we didn’t know about.  Sarcasm!  Sarcasm is an absolute minefield for somebody who comes from a Central European background.  We just don’t get it.  I am, meanwhile, fluent in sarcasm, I have to report.  But it takes a while.  Humour is a really big one.  Gender norms…  what’s okay to say to someone and what’s not… the Australian practice of constantly ridiculing each other as a sign of affection… It takes a while to learn all of that stuff, and I think I really only started to hit my stride in year 11 and 12, which weirdly is also when – in an Australian cultural, societal, economic context – your grades really start to matter.  

DK: It’s like a flip, isn’t it, at that stage?  All of a sudden: ‘Oh, you haven’t been learning all this time?  You should have been studying harder.’ 

AK: Yeah, and year 11 and 12 were great years at schooling for me.  I had fantastic friends from different cultural backgrounds, different racial backgrounds.  I went to a school that had a lot of international students; it’s a big boarding school.  And I think that really helped.  We were each other’s family, in a weird, deconstructed, seventeen-year-old way.  And then following on from that, I went to uni at ANU (the Australian National University), which is where we met, and uni, again, was this massive opening up of opportunity, and finding so many more people who were like me and so many other people who were not like me and didn’t care.

DK: And that is maybe the difference between being ten years old and wondering why you’re different from others, and being twenty years old and realising ‘I’m different from others but that that’s actually okay’. 

AK: Oh mate. (I say mate now.  I’m really assimilated.)  I leaned into being different for the first time at eighteen… nineteen… twenty.  When I was ten, that was my absolute worst nightmare.  And I try to explain this sometimes to my partner now, and he just says, “I just can’t see it.  I can’t see you as being shy and insecure.”

DK: Well, I suppose they also say that diamonds are created from pressure. 

AK: Yeah, maybe – maybe that’s true.  But certainly with continuity in Australia, and more time to read the invisible cues and understand the rules and find my own way and find people that I identified with and looked up to, it became easier and easier and easier.  So easy, in fact, that I was able to leave again.   

 *** End of PART 2***

© Anna Koestenbauer and Dunja Kaczmarek, 2021