The author in kimono, 1985
The first ride-on mower my parents bought was always breaking down. This seems an incidental fact, but really it isn’t. We lived on sixteen acres in subtropical northern New South Wales and the grass grew like wildfire. There was a man who would come out to repair it. He was a regular feature of my childhood. Reliable, efficient, relatively cheap. There is something alluring about people who come into your home and solve otherwise insurmountable problems, and it’s interesting the way fix-it men can come to seem wise. Into my teens, I’d watch my parents’ thankful faces as they waved this man off, peaceful in the knowledge that the mower would work again tomorrow.
One day, after he had fixed our mower for the umpteenth time, my mother and I stood chatting to him in the driveway, a moment of small talk. I don’t know why, but I mentioned that my boyfriend was of Italian descent.
‘The I-talians, well, they’re all right,’ he said. ‘But those Asians, you’ve got to watch them.’
I was utterly shocked. This statement, so out of the blue. I glanced across at my mother, but she was staring avidly at her feet.
‘What do you mean?’ I stuttered out.
‘They’re shifty. You can’t trust ’em.’
Now it might sound improbable in small-town rural Australia that I could get to the age of seventeen and never have experienced such a blatantly racist statement, but that’s the first I remember. I stared at this familiar man, trying to fit his words into the picture I’d built of him.
‘We don’t feel that way,’ my mother said quietly, finally looking up.
The man seemed unperturbed. ‘In the cities and that, they’re taking over.’ There was a faint gleam in his eyes. ‘Can’t go anywhere without seeing them.’ He climbed into his truck and lifted his arm in a casual wave. The same as he’d always done but irrevocably different. The week after that my parents bought a new mower and the fix-it man vanished from view.
The valley where I grew up, and where I still live, is a predominately white place, but something unusual happened around the time of my birth. Three separate Japanese families moved into town and then each proceeded to have a bunch of kids. In my small primary school of sixty children there were about ten kids of Japanese parentage, all around my age. It was an anomaly – a Japanese community in 1970s rural Australia – but in the jumble of that time and place they fitted right in.
The 1970s was a chaotic decade in the history of my town. Previously it had been quite homogenous, old farming families going about their business, but with the rise of the hippie counterculture there was an influx of new settlers, young folk from the cities trying out whole new ways of being. They were on the hunt for a place far removed from the rat race, or – as my father once explained – away from the perceived evils of materialism and conformity. I used to imagine that there must have been quite a struggle when all these outlandish characters, with their long scruffy hair and bell-bottoms, turned up in town to build their hippie shacks, but nowadays – when I ask around – I find a relatively benign response to their arrival. It’s easy to forget that nearby town Nimbin, the hippie heartland of Australia, was once voted the deadest town in Oz by an early 1970s television show. Clearly there was some ideological reshuffling required when all these young folk came flooding in, but I get the feeling that mostly the locals saw this rush of outsiders as revitalising – fresh blood, so to speak.
And into this topsy-turvy world came the three Japanese families. Drawn to northern New South Wales for the same basic reasons as my parents, they wished to escape the society they’d been born into, to live a different life from their forbearers. Adventurous, they were ready for a new start. Of the three families, there were two who were particularly close with my parents. Shigeru and Yumiko, with their four children, and Yoshi and Tokie, with their three boys. Shige is a builder and Yoshi an artisan carpenter, and in the late 1970s both were involved, in different ways, in the building of my parents’ home.
Shige and Yumiko were first to arrive. They had travelled through India and South-East Asia, the classic hippie trail. Flying into Western Australia, they’d lived in Coolgardie for five months before they’d hitchhiked across the Nullarbor Plain, Yumiko pregnant with their first child. I once asked Shige why they’d settled in my valley, and he laughed and said, ‘We run out of money. Stuck!’ But later he elaborated: ‘When we move here, lot of other people move here too. Everybody new around the same time. Also, we lucky, lots of people traveller, so they understand.’
Yoshi and Tokie had planned just to visit the area, but by the time they arrived Tokie was pregnant with their second child, so they stayed for a while, and in time it’s where they settled. Yoshi told me, ‘In Japan everybody same mind…here people so friendly and very open-minded.’ Shige added, ‘Australian people complain about having no culture, customs … traditions … because it’s young country. For me, in Japan, too many traditions. So when I came to Australia I feel so free.’
Things like cultural capital can be hard to quantify, but the presence of these Japanese families brought something special to my town. Shige and Yoshi were both, in different ways, extremely skilled craftsmen, and many of the older houses in town have a uniquely Japanese flavour. Slanted, shingled roofs, hand-carved wooden features, handmade bamboo fences, the occasional wood-heated bathhouse. Way before the ubiquitous sushi train, we hippie kids were sampling the delights of homemade Japanese cuisine. Sushi rolls and handmade tofu. And on top of all that was the philosophical exchange. Elements of traditional Japanese culture involve a focus on being in harmony with the seasons and a reverence for nature. Keystone hippie ideals. The Japanese families in my hometown led the way when it came to going back to basics, living for years off the grid without electricity.
As kids in my hometown, we’d run together in packs – climbing trees, swinging wildly from the Tarzan vines, splashing our way through the creeks. Going out bush with baskets of fruit from the trees, we’d hang about playing elaborate games – laughing, bickering and making up again. Mostly we stayed outside, but at the end of the day we’d venture into one another’s houses.
Author’s brother’s 9th birthday party, 1988.
When you’re a kid, everyone else’s family is like a foreign country, peculiar and unique. You have to learn the house rules, figure out the language. I distinctly recall being entranced by the exoticism of the plush pink wall-to-wall carpet in a friend’s suburban bedroom at about the age of eight. Suburban aesthetics that horrified my parents – from which they had so determinedly escaped – were alluring to me in their unfamiliarity. It is often confounding, how different we all can be, but I don’t remember feeling the Japanese families were more foreign than anyone else’s. I do remember enjoying the company of the Japanese mothers, who were gentle and softly spoken. Sometimes those mums would come into our primary school to teach us origami. They made us onigiri, which we thought were a massive treat.
I’ve been wondering lately about my own obliviousness to race as a child. I used to believe it was an outcome of having been brought up in a particularly open-minded community; that difference was somehow made invisible by the lack of attention afforded it. It has struck me recently that maybe my blindness was a luxury of my ‘normality’, my whiteness. Isn’t the very definition of privilege that the one who has it doesn’t see it? But then again, our town was full of wild characters. In this spectrum of eccentricity it was hard to get much of a sense of what was normal. Mine was a mixed-up world, multi-layered and complex. The rules, at times, seemed difficult to discern. As a child, the basic tenets I intuited were: be open (explore!), be kind (where possible) and – last but not least – don’t judge. (Each to their own. Whatever gets you through the night.) Certainly, when it came to the Japanese families, I detected not a hint of ‘us’ and ‘them.’
I am endlessly fascinated by this hippie experiment, that a proportion of the population committed to trying out relatively untested ways of living even existed in the 1970s. That they could flow towards my valley like a meandering creek, arrive in an unruly mess and go about erecting this strange boundary-less place seems somewhat fantastical in hindsight. Of course, they have always been easy targets for parody and derision. Long-haired stoners, talking their ideological bullshit. But there is something about this idealism, this verve – when it was still fresh and new – that fills me with a kind of yearning. Though I’ve experienced firsthand the ill effects of the hedonism of this era, there’s a part of me that longs to experience some version of the idealistic fervour. To be able to truly believe. By the time I’d come into any kind of political consciousness, idealism was dead. Cynicism was ever-present, anything less was just plain foolish.
In my final year of high school one of my teachers announced to the class, ‘You know, the rest of Australia isn’t anything like here. You think this is the mainstream, but it isn’t.’ We treated that statement with the derision we always reserved for old men in bad ties who tried to tell us how the world worked. A year later I was living in Brisbane, Pauline Hanson had been elected to the federal seat of Oxley and the political landscape had erupted into a space where fear of the ‘Asian invasion’ loomed large.
‘I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians,’ Hanson said in her maiden speech to parliament. ‘They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.’
It was hard to make sense of this in the context of where I’d come from. I couldn’t stop thinking of the Japanese families in my hometown, of what they’d brought to my community, of what we’d all shared. I couldn’t shake the bewildering sense that I had entered adulthood and stepped into an unfathomable world, an alien landscape where bigotry was righteously defended as a valuable addition to society instead of a scourge. My nation felt like a foreign land.
Nowadays, fear of the Asian invasion has lessened and the denigration of Muslims has taken centre stage. It’s a sad pattern, that each new wave of migration brings a counter surge of racism. I think of how ostracised the Italians and Greeks once were in our national culture – wogs, dagos – and how Australian they now feel. I watch the Socceroos win the Asian Cup with my sport-mad fifteen year old and the names on the shirts make me smile: Luongo, Langerak, McKay, Behich, Spiranovic, Brillante, Troisi, Bresciano and Jason Davidson, whose grandmother is Japanese. I want to say to my son – this is the best of us, this mishmash of names, this team.
We are a nation of immigrants. Colourful, diverse, textured. Apart from the First Peoples, none of us has ancestry on this soil that goes back more than a paltry two hundred and twenty-seven years. Looking back through our nation’s history of shifting prejudice – from the early stigmatisation of Irish settlers to present day anti-Muslim sentiment – I suspect that in a few decades the tide will have turned. Muslims will be seen as fully integrated citizens, a part of the fabric of this patchwork-quilt nation. Someone small-minded somewhere will be saying, ‘Well, those Muslims, they’re all right,’ with a world-weary sigh, ‘but those [insert new immigrants of choice], you can’t trust ’em.’
How I wish we could just skip that part, take a look around us and see how much we’ve gained.
First published in the Griffith Review #49 & the Asia Literary Review #28 in August 2015.