You are different too

I’ve always been scared of public speaking, but my first ‘official’ engagement wasn’t too bad. The writer’s group I belong to–Write, Publish, Grow– was invited to perform at North Sydney library’s Harmony Day celebration. Each writer had 5-6 minutes to tell a story about multiculturalism. It was an honest night of storytelling and poetry and a bit of reality check with Amnesty International and writers from Redfern. My story reflects some of the lessons I’ve learnt since leaving my home country…

I didn’t know I’ve always belonged – 21 March 2016, Harmony Day

I’m going to ask you to think back when you were a kid. What did you want to be when you grow up? Some of you may be thinking “a doctor”, “a teacher”, “a pilot”, “an astronaut”. But I would simply respond: “I want to live overseas” – the profession didn’t matter as much. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I wanted to move to another country from such an early age. My country wasn’t at war, my family wasn’t being persecuted or facing financial hardship.

But there was something that in my eyes didn’t look quite right: I wasn’t like the typical Brazilian. My ancestors migrated from Germany to Brazil and although I was born a few generations later I inherited the Germanic look: blond hair, fair skin, green eyes. I don’t know if I can blame it on my genes but I didn’t embrace many of the Brazilian traditions. I wasn’t into soccer or carnival, I didn’t worship the pope and the social-economic gap between the rich and the poor made me feel very uncomfortable. I think that because in many ways I wasn’t like the majority I didn’t fully adopt the Brazilian identity. In many respects I felt like a stranger in my own country. I had developed strong connections with the people but not so much with the place.

My dream as a child was to do high school in America but my parents could not afford to send four kids overseas as international students. So I had to wait. And I patiently waited until I was 26 and had worked hard and saved enough to finally be granted an international student visa to go to Australia. Soon after my visa was issued, I got married and, with my husband, embarked on a trip of a life time.

I can still remember the day our plane landed in Sydney 18 years ago on a bright and sunny winter’s morning – a glorious day for a dream to come true. It was hard to contain my excitement, I was eager to mingle with the locals and experience the Australia culture and way of life. I had done some research and I thought I knew a lot about the country I would soon be calling home. But when I crossed the exit gate in the international passenger terminal all familiarity went out the door. Australia wasn’t as ‘Australian’ as I had pictured. I couldn’t see many people that looked like me and our host waiting for us by the gate looked… well, not like me at all.

We had arranged to spend our first months with a local family and our host went by the initials BT. I thought these were the initials for something like Barry Thomas or maybe a nickname for Bartolomeu. But interesting enough those letters were the initials for Black Tiger. BT was a Korean migrant who married an Australian woman. They lived in the South of Sydney, near Hurstville, a suburb where 50% of the population speaks a language other than English at home. Most shops in the area had signs in languages I could not decipher and the suburb bustled with people dressed in colourful ethnic clothes, sounds of different languages and scents of delicious food.

I knew very little about other cultures. I thought the only time women would willingly wear a veil was on their wedding day – but now I was sitting on the train with women that chose to cover their faces as a way of life. I saw people bowing to Allah and revering the Buddha. The more places I went in Sydney the more I came across people of different backgrounds and from parts of the world I barely knew existed.

When I moved to Australia I was looking for a country where I could feel a stronger sense of belonging. I expected to find a true blue Western nation that inherited its language, political and legal institutions from the British. A nation colonised by white convicts and settlers. But I got much more than that: I was welcomed into a country that opened up its doors to immigration and did not impose sameness on its new citizens. A country that embraced the diversity of 300 ancestries and 200 languages.  A country that since its early days was built as an egalitarian society with a culture of ‘fair go’, liberty and social justice for all – not just those that look similar and behave a certain way.

In Australia, my life gained a new perspective. I realised that no matter where we live we are all individually different–from our appearance to our world views and opinions. To deny our distinctiveness in order to seek conformity is quite dangerous. When we feel that we need to conform in order to ‘fit in’ we loose our identify and become disconnected from ourselves and others. And when we feel alienated we look for what separates us from others.

Before moving to Australia I found easier to see what made us different but my Australian experience helped me shift my focus to the values that bring all cultures together: compassion, fairness, honesty, and respect for others. I came to Australia looking for a place to belong not realising that I had belonged all along. It’s funny that once I realised that, I became more connected to my own Brazilian origins, much more so than when I was living there.

Migration and its resulting multiculturalism is not easy. It requires we migrants to embrace the unknown and the different – and the locals to appreciate and respect new cultures. But when this happens we grow as individuals and as a community.

So to everyone here tonight I say welcome to Australia. I hope you’ve found your sense of belonging.

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