I had a very sobering reality check from a friend of mine last week. He posted he and his wife’s annual ‘Keep In Touch’ message on our Canadian college’s alumni site, detailing their 3 years in Darwin in an open forum between our year, the year above and the year below. I mentioned these particular friends just a few posts ago; Roberto’s Italian and Lai Heng is Malaysian, and they’re both doctors living and working in Australia. Next year I will have known them both twenty years.
Roberto’s message made me wince. Not just because of the content, but because of my cultural position in relation to it. He was writing about a side of Australia I’ve heard about, thought about, worried about, read about, written about, argued about, but never actually seen with my own two eyes. I’ve never been to the Northern Territory. I have never been in remote, desert Australia. I have never lived among nor even visited an Indigenous community. I am Australian, but in many ways I am so very ignorant of Australia at large.
Like many Australians, I find travelling around this vast land prohibitively expensive. I have also tended to focus my wanderlust on destinations abroad; “home,” we often tell ourselves, will always be here when we get back. It can wait. We’ll get around to it. But what constitutes home in a country the size of Australia? And where is it? I can tell you that my home is nothing like Lai Heng and Roberto’s Darwin. And reading his message, my absolute otherness from the world Roberto described appalled me. I was ashamed; my own message on the same open forum was very self-absorbed, very me-me-me and oh look, more about me: very Sydney. Not very Emergency Room, Darwin. I shrank away from the screen thinking ‘Oh my god, how indifferent I must seem, how careless.’ Yes, a level of vanity prevailed: I was aghast at the idea of everyone reading Roberto’s clear-eyed recollections and judging Australia, judging Australians. Judging me. I wanted to dash off a hasty rebuttal, I wanted to make excuses for myself. I really did. Badly. But I knew even as shame burned my cheeks how right Roberto was, and how complicit I and the majority of Australians have been. My only defence, and boy it’s flimsy, is that I really don’t know what to do. I am ignorant of both the Indigenous experience and the solution. I’m not without compassion, and I have debated some of the questions Roberto raises both in my own head and around many different tables, and still I feel impotent beyond belief. Sharing an extract from Roberto’s message won’t help that, but it feels like the absolute least I can do:
…we have moved after having spent three years in the stinkin’ hot, humid tropical north of Australia. We lived in Darwin, an interesting place with an eclectic mix of people including a large and diverse Aboriginal population, 70,000 huge, hungry saltwater crocodiles, many jellyfishes, sharks, venomous snakes and the occasional feral hominid with countless tattoos, a rather large belly, and a beard longer than Osama’s. We both worked at the main hospital there (there is only one hospital…now of intergalactic notoriety because it received Mr Ramos-Horta from Timor Leste after his assassination attempt ), and also spent quite a bit of time working in remote Aboriginal communities. Both at Royal Darwin hospital, where 50-60% of the patients are Aboriginal, and in the remote medical services, we saw and treated diseases that are uncommonly found in the rest of the western world, like leprosy, tuberculosis, melioidosis, crusted scabies. We also witnessed a lot of poverty, violence, self-neglect, inequality, disadvantage, and the stifling effects of the welfare system on people’s ability and incentives to influence their future. Too many Aborigines in Australia are physically sick and weak, stuck in a complicated web of unfreedoms (bad health, low literacy rates, poor housing, low life expectancy, violence, racism, passive dependence of welfare, etc ) that history and circumstance has cast upon them. The recent awkward, military-style intervention into Aboriginal communities in the northern territory directed by a previously uninterested Howard government might prove beneficial in kick-starting a process of removal, and raising awareness, of these unfreedoms.
This is a country of enormous prosperity and opportunity. Australia’s original inhabitants seem to be the only ones locked out of this bountiful Oz. People flock to Australia from all over the world hoping to build a better life – they work hard, they make sacrifices, they struggle, and in so many cases, ultimately they prevail. They have an appetite for betterment. Is this an urge that can be taught? Legislated? Enforced? I do not know. I wish it was, though, because it was this instinct that changed my life for the better when I – a working class white city girl – was in pretty desperate crisis first as a child and then as a teen. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and I moved on. I still wonder sometimes if an appetite for betterment isn’t the only new beginning there is.