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Out of sight, out of mind?

25 Jun

My confusion has not been untangled and neatly filed away.

I can’t move on yet.

These people live and breathe in my land.

On the road to nowhere

For most the volunteer experience is both temporary and short. The volunteer pays for X weeks of cultural immersion and participation in a meaningful project. At the end of it they may travel further, continue on to other projects, but eventually they all return home. The friendships they make are real and important, but are also somewhat contractual – lives diverge and the memories live on. It’s easier that way.

One year ago today I arrived at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in WA. For two weeks I was literally thrown in the deep end. A team of 6 Uni students, we were plonked in the desert to establish ‘entertaining and educational’ programs at the newly re-opened detention facility. Our ‘clients’ were 300 Afghan male asylum seekers ranging from 18 to 80. Most of us had never met anyone from Afghanistan. During that fortnight I delighted in teaching yoga and Aussie slang to the somewhat bemused men and in return learning how to cook, speak and dance like a Hazara. Three days after returning to Sydney I contacted my manager begging to go back in the September Uni break. The thought of never seeing them again was actually distressing. By the time I returned, the camp had swollen to 750 men.

For the past year I have been in almost daily contact with people from Curtin. I have seen a handful of men receive their visas – their golden tickets to freedom – and start their new lives in Australia. I have also seen a great deal more languish in that hidden place. As one friend said to me “Our camp is growing but our hearts are shrinking”. The camp now houses over 1400 men from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iran. The prominence of asylum seeker slander in mainstream media makes it awfully hard to feel any kind of hope for them. Having volunteered in India and Vietnam it is so easy to cast blame for basic human rights violations on corrupt governments and the cycle of poverty. But I cannot, and will never, understand the blatant and intentional punishment of such vulnerable and innocent people in Australia. The hypocrisy of it saddens me beyond belief.

The only comfort I can find is in the strength and resilience of those men. Upon reading this they would most likely tell me to stop being so weak! I just hope that they have enough energy to last them through until the end, until they get their freedom, until the real challenge begins…

If you haven’t already watched it, I can highly recommend the SBS show “Go Back to Where You Came From”. Truly riveting stuff.

What more. could you want?

31 May

We all know the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words” and I think these photos of a local supermarket in Tamil Nadu say it all!

Good old consumerism eh?

Culture Envy?

1 May

Prior to embarking on any ‘cross-cultural’ endeavour participants are warned of the inevitable experience of culture shock. At some stage one is likely to feel out of place, homesick, resentful towards their in-country hosts and may even experience physical symptoms! We are also prepared for the shock of returning home to a place that is seemingly oblivious to the amazing and horrendous things that we have witnessed, an experience that is, at best, unsettling.

It is this return to the familiar and the friendly that has had the biggest impact on me, has changed me the most. While culture shock came, assaulted, and faded away, a much more permanent and surprising condition has taken hold: CULTURE ENVY!

As other contributors have expressed, it is perfectly normal to see your world in a new way; to critique consumerism, chastise racism, and condemn foreign policies. For me I believe this is also part of becoming an adult, particularly influenced by my university education – I am reminded constantly to be critical of ‘the norm’! However, my fundamental opposition to so much of what happens around me has prompted this culture envy.

While overseas, I delighted in buying conical hats and eating Pho with chopsticks in Vietnam, and parading in my shalwar and eating chapatti with my fingers in India. It was all part of the excitement of make-believe. But beyond those superficialities I have come to envy these people whose cultures are apparently so definite. Perhaps I am just mourning the absence of my own sense of culture – I don’t know what it means to be a white 22 year old female in Australia. Being an immigrant from the UK I find myself jealous of other migrant groups who steadfastly maintain their sense of identity through community organisations, the arts, and within the family unit. It is not the food or the clothes that I envy, no. It is this sense of belonging, this seemingly stable (though no doubt complex) system in which everyone has their place. The Afghan detainees at Curtin Detention Centre in WA were so determined to defend their ethnicity and religion that they had spent their whole savings to travel in a rickety boat across the ocean in the hope of Australia’s protection. What do I have to fight for?

Do I REALLY envy this?

Being an anthropology student I am sadly forced to question my own assumptions and ask whether these ‘cultures’ really are so stable. After all, my colleagues in India were vehemently opposed to the systemic discrimination of women and caste groups. And I am reminded of the Vietnamese youth who, despite living in remote agrarian villages, delighted in their satellite TVs, mobile phones and western pop music. Even some of the Afghan men talked excitedly about the prospect of visiting Australia’s night clubs (or ‘discos’ to them!), something that has never thrilled me…

So what does all this mean?

At the end of the day I should replace this envy with gratitude for having been welcomed into the lives of countless interesting people across the globe. Without their influence I could not hope to be in the place that I am now. I may not know exactly where I belong, or even where I want to belong, but I am so SO grateful that I live in a place where I have some choice in the matter.

Indian for a day vs Indian for a lifetime

Delights and Dilemmas – the Journey Begins!

27 Apr

Having just returned from my third visit to Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in remote WA, the delights and dilemmas of cultural convergence are fresh in my mind. In my final year of a Development Studies and Culture Change degree (a rather exotic name for a fairly generic Arts course) this idea of cross-cultural interaction still perplexes me.

I first entered the volunteer world as wary gap-year student, searching for that ‘life-changing-career-deciding’ package deal. It presented itself as a 3 month stint in Vietnam working with young children – fine, perfect, that’ll do. Four years on, and several cross-cultural experiences later, I’ve realised that those life changes and career decisions do not come as instant revelations but emerge as an ongoing, internal dialogue.

After travelling extensively both as a volunteer and tourist I can happily say that every new place challenges me in different ways, alters my aspirations, and undoubtedly adds confusion to my life! And I wouldn’t have it any other way. While returning to ‘normality’ is inevitable it is surprising how often a fleeting sight, sound or smell can transport you back to those funny, temporary worlds and reveal a tasty morsel of insight…

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