I have lived in Sydney for 6 years now, and while I have not regretted moving here those many years ago, there have been some moments in my time when I have questioned how I have managed to pass a significant portion of my life in such a passive, complacent and limp country like Australia, despite personally harbouring a deep connection with a more vibrant, cultural and inspiring environment.
I recently read some words from D. H. Lawrence, which gave me insight into how I truly feel about Australia.
“This is the most democratic place I have ever been in. And the more I see of democracy, the more I dislike it.”
I found myself agreeing with a lot of Lawrence’s views on Australia, in his letter correspondences that he had with his sister, despite it being written in 1922. So why does it seem like nothing has changed in such a long period of time?
This led me to really think more about why I have such an apathetic view of Australia. I wondered if, somehow in the midst of the many harrowing experiences I have had in Sydney, if this had somehow distorted my views and altered my overall opinion. And then one day, I found a few philanthropic projects that I had enthusiastically started as a student at The University of Sydney, but had subsequently abandoned into the I-will-try-again-another-day pile as it received little traction and interest. I felt saddened that this was a lost passion, something that was more of a distant memory of who I was rather than an active image of who I currently am.
This sudden and stark realisation about myself was not so startling as when I went out to dinner with a few friends and they described me impassively as “the scientist” or “the academic”. I had never aspired to be a scientist and was not pleased to be immediately categorised and pigeon-holed into this confining space; devoid of freedom and stifling even in hypotheticals.
I felt suddenly infuriated that I was not engaging in actively doing more to help the many people in the world who were suffering from poverty, disease, failed governments and unemployment. I had fallen victim to my once greatest criticism of others who I observed around me: I had lost myself in the myriad of quotidian toils and had allowed everyday worries to overwhelm my life. It felt as if I had lost it all: the many years spent cultivating my independent views and opinions, and my diligent collection of the many worldly vices that were anathema to me. So in a desperate attempt to rectify this passing label of “the scientist”, I clambered to speak about my youth, a reminder to myself and to the new people who had entered my life, that I was more caring and compassionate at one point in my life. However, it failed to have the impact that I was hoping for. Instead, I felt like a fraud.
So I thought deeper about myself and who I am. “Who am I?” I asked myself. I realised that, while the course of my life was my decision, I was not the only one to blame for my predicament. Australia has long since been moving towards a more conservative society, engaged less and less in international aid and philanthropy. This was significantly different to the culture I am most familiar with in South Africa, where caring for our fellow kindred and the concept of ubuntu are underlying cultural attitudes.
I feel like over and above feeling foreigner, there is a deeper underlying sense of cultural disconnect between Australia and myself. It is not just the recent changes to citizenship laws in Australia which has made me feel foreigner, nor the casual racism towards Asians (and other foreigners) in general, but the far right wing opinion of extreme politicians like Pauline Hanson, Australia’s insouciant attitude to international aid and philanthropy, the lack of- and dwindling engagement of Australia in helping refugees, that causes a major rift between my own values and the values of the country in which I reside. I am reminded again of a quote from D. H. Lawrence in his experience with Australia:
“I have never felt such a foreigner to any people in all my life as I do to these. An absolute foreigner, and I haven’t one single thing to say to them.”
These matters of international concern are dear to my heart, and something that I feel so passionately about and I think when you are shrouded in a society entrenched in complacency, and a casual lack of concern for fellow humanity, it makes it challenging to constantly remind yourself of who you are and what you want to stand for.