For no particular reason, or perhaps for all the reasons, work, moving, travel, family, holidays and life have combined to create a sustained period of human company. While I love humans, and the company they offer, I am aware how little space I have afforded myself lately to think.
And so I do.
As is most often the case, when at last I have time to think, I want to write. There is much here I have to share. It has been an exciting and potent year for Peril, celebrating our 10 year anniversary and working together to enter a new decade of Asian Australian stories. I want desperately to share our ideas and plans with you, our readers, and to invite you along for the ride. We are indebted to you for our past, we know you will be integral to our future – we can’t wait to get started on this, our rooster year.
But not today.
For today is 26 January.
Australia Day. Or Survival Day. Or Invasion Day. Or just that day when need to explain to your Anglo-Australian friends, or even just yourself, why you can’t reconcile the complexity of this particular public holiday. Why you worry your BBQ snag is secretly festering maggots as flies dance over the table in the backyard. I like to rest as much as the next person, I crave it in the deepest places of my heart; I want to be with friends, and to celebrate the achievements of my community. But I just can’t get on board with Australia Day.
While I know I am not alone, I am also aware my views are not necessarily shared by all in the community. Leave aside, for a moment, the comfortable majority of Anglo-Australians for whom the symbolism of Australia Day is smoothly reconciled with their world view, historical vision, life experience and position in Australia’s dominant social hierarchy. Everyone loves a party thrown in their honour. Many migrant Australians also recognise and celebrate this day in ways that are significant to them, often citing the benefits, securities and opportunities afforded by virtue of their citizenship. Indeed, narratives of ‘grateful migrants’ are central to Australian-ness in many ways, and Asian Australian ‘model migrants’ have often been touted as exemplars of just how lucky this country is.
Because I do not wish to speak for others. Let me speak only for myself.
So many First Nations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of the territory we now refer to as Australia have already expressed their opposition, critique and resistance to the timing, nature and purpose of the Australia Day celebrations. Their voices are more important than mine. But if you have the time and generosity to continue reading, I want to share with you the simple (and, admittedly, reductive) analogy I share so often with those who question why some years I protest, some years I grieve, some years I guilt, and some years I absent myself from the Australia Day celebrations.
What if, one day, your friend took you to the movies? You love the movies – the whole goddamn experience. You delight in the film, the popcorn and the respite from the bright outdoors. You don’t care what movie they’re showing, you love it all the same. To bathe in the air conditioning of a megaplex cinema is all you really want, and secretly, it’s what you know you deserve. There have been dusty, hot, lonely hours in your life until now, and when your friend invites you to the cool, mystical delight of the cinema, you leap at the chance and say “yes”.
Your friend gives you a ticket, and you are allowed to accompany him to the movies.
It was not easy to make friends with this friend. He’s selective, sometimes capricious, even a little mean. But you have heard tell from others that this cinema, its choc tops and its plush seats, is what you should desire. So you go to the movies with your friend. And feel not a little smug with the pleasure.
He leaves you for a moment to get himself another bucket of sugary drink, additional choc tops, maybe even a glass of wine (this is some fancy cinema you’re in). It’s even more beautiful than you imagined. You wait, anticipating the previews, salivating for the feature. How great to be given this ticket.
But then, while your friend is away, some new people arrive.
They’re holding tickets. Their tickets look somewhat different to the ticket your friend gave you, but still, their ticket says you’re in their seat. They have friends with them, too. You and your friend are in their seats. These new people, they seem insistent, they were sitting here before, in fact they sit here all the time.
You’re sure this can be resolved when your friend comes back. And you know your friend, they’ve got all the tickets to all the shows, they’re always taking people to the movies, if and when they want to. Of course this is their seat. You insist. But they’re insistent too.
In the impasse, you feel a little guilty, but you also feel a little bit attacked. You just came along with your friend, no need to get shirty about it.
When your friend comes back though, and they ask for his ticket, he’s a righteous little so-and-so about it. He throws his soft drink in these strangers’ faces and shouts loudly for the ushers to move these buggers along, to help you get your seats back. The usher asks you to show your ticket, you dutifully do, and you point at your friend, explaining “it was a gift.”
Your friend’s frothing at the mouth, he yells for the ushers to do something about the outrageousness. Things start to get hectic. One of the plugs of your friend’s limited edition Havaianas comes unstuck as he tries to land a kick on the backside of these new people, who are waving their tickets in futility as the ushers rough them up. Your friend might have even used the word terrorist, you can’t quite tell, he won’t stop ranting.
He comes here all the time, this is his freaking seat, in fact his dad owns the cinema, these useless gits should be grateful he even lets them watch from the last row, don’t they know he sees them trying to sneak in the back door? Some of the audience join in to say they know your friend, that he gave them their tickets too. There’s hollering and jeers and confusion.
The protests of the newcomers fade faintly as they’re dragged from the cinema. You’re sticky with the spilled soft drink, which has fallen into your popcorn too. Your friend is swearing under his breath, kicking the seat in front of him and telling anyone who’ll listen that this is his seat. You look uncomfortably around you – do these people have tickets too? How did they get their tickets? You try to whisper to him, “hey, what was that about?” but he tells you to shut your stinking curry hole or this will be the last movie you ever see with him.
The movie is starting but you can’t concentrate because you’re pretty sure you’re friend isn’t as nice as you thought he was, and that if this really was his seat he wouldn’t need to be such a catastrophic dick about it. The cinema doesn’t even seem to be full, it’s just that he doesn’t want to share.
You don’t even remember the film you were going to see anymore, but you go home that night and wonder what happened to those other people after they were dragged away, wonder why you sat so still in your seat, wonder why so many others did too. You’re not sure the whole experience hasn’t ruined the cinema for you.
All of which is a silly, socially fraught way of trying to say that the coloniser’s position has so often been legitimised by the migrant – the group ideally positioned to demonstrate the coloniser’s sovereignty, the ability to control the borders and boundaries, to define legitimacy and illegitimacy, to marshal force and to commit violence. And, while you can benefit from the privilege of migrant/settler complicity in colonisation every day of the year in Australia, it seems additionally cruel to afford yourselves a public holiday just to reinforce it.
And I’m tired of it.
Australia needs to have a substantive conversation about race and racism. It needs to school itself on how to have that conversation without seeming like a belligerent adolescent at the movies.
The world is changing, we need to change with it.
As we estimate the world’s population to grow towards 10 billion by 2050, our ability to survive, prosper and find collective meaning as species will be determined by our ability to work together in difference.
I can understand those who feel changing a symbolic date that has cultural meaning for a dominant group will have little substantive benefit for the lives of First Nations people in Australia. We live in an age of political cynicism.
I can understand those who like the holiday and what it represents. There are many who still feel proud of the great narratives of Australia: the bush, the beach, the ANZAC legend, the little battler. Yet, I can also understand those who are deeply grieved by all that it symbolises, to the dispossession it attests. I feel empathy for the lucky and the unlucky migrants, the ache and the bitterness of belonging and unbelonging to a country that has always had a problem with race.
We have done deep wrongs to each other. We need to find a collective way out. This is the great challenge of Australia’s competing truths: the measure of our culture will not rest on whether or not we can at last resolve the question of who is right and who is wrong, but the grace with which we attempt to balance the inequities that have arisen from ever thinking there was an answer to that question.
It will probably waste everybody’s time, energy and money discussing a public holiday change instead of more meaningful demonstrations of equity and equality. But it’s not an either or proposition – you can champion land rights, recognition of sovereignty, substantive changes in life outcomes and opportunities, while also dreaming our collective culture forward.
Change the date. Or get rid of it at entirely. You want public holidays? You can have them. Why not transition the colonial and Christian legacies of our existing regime of non-working to being in favour of the many Indigenous seasons: welcoming the tender shifts, the dramatic ruptures or the blessed relieves of cool, wet, warm, dry seasons as they move across our country. There will be plenty of days for us all.
As some delight in informing us, Australia continues to be one of the richest countries in the world, ranking highly in the UN Human Development Index, lauded for its position amongst the most democratic and free of all ‘civilised states’. As we move into 2017 in earnest, whether lunar, Gregorian or other calendar guides you, I know we can do better.
I’m tired of going to movies with my shitty friend.