We don’t hear that much about Australia in the news or at university back home. Their politics, the social problems they face, I just never really thought about it before I came here. Here in Australia on the other hand, a lot of the subjects in class are viewed from an Australian perspective, and often is being referred to Australian events. All the Australian students are familiar with these examples while for us as internationals it’s often the first time we hear about it. Yesterday I did my presentation on the SIEV X, a refugee vessel that sank on its way to Australia. An event I had never heard about before, and explaining the political environment of Australia to Australians was a strange situation. Sometimes this lack of knowledge makes it harder to understand things, but often it is really interesting because you got the experience of looking from another point of view than you’re used to. Even though there aren’t major cultural differences between Australia and Europe at first sight, you notice they have a slightly different starting point, a different focus.
One of the big issues and most sensitive subjects here that comes up in a lot of lectures is the indigenous people of Australia. To be honest, the aborigines and their culture are almost invisible in Australian society so far if you don’t pay attention to it. You might see some art galleries selling aboriginal art, and a few Aboriginal looking people on the streets, a little too often causing problems being drunk, and that’s it. Also white Australians often don’t speak in positive terms about the Aboriginal people, and often don’t really seem to mix with them.
In class however, I more and more got to understand the problems of the Aboriginal people, learning about the history of colonial Australia. I’m learning about Terra Nullius, the fictional idea that Australia belonged to no people when the Europeans came here that was used to justify the colonization. The Aboriginals were simply seen as part of the flora and fauna, not as people or inhabitants of the country. I’m also learning about the ‘stolen generations’, the children that were forcibly removed from their family in order to give them a Western education, a way to erase their Aboriginal culture. I have never thought of Australia and it’s relation to its indigenous people in terms of genocide, but it becomes clear that it is the way we should refer to it. But even now, in the 21th century, the Australian government refuses to acknowledge the full story of what happened.
I got to know a few indigenous girls in class. I wouldn’t describe them like that myself, but that’s the way they are seen in this society. Despite the fact that both the girls are only one quarter indigenous and three quarters European descent they are simply being labeled, and seen as ‘indigenous/aboriginal’, also by the government. It’s like calling Obama as a black president, while he’s half ‘white’ and half ‘black’. Sadly I think it will take a long time before Australia will have an indigenous president…
Besides these observations I also want to share another really Australian experience: my first time surfing! With a group of 13 mostly international students we went to Goolwa beach to surf for the weekend. Most of us had never done it before and took a lesson, and it was surprisingly how fast everybody was able to stand up on the boards. After two full days we were all exhausted and sore, but the feeling of catching the waves Letting us all stay for the night at his house are surf teacher was another amazing example of the Australian hospitality, and we’ll definitely be back soon for another surftrip!