Lately I have been thinking a lot about the sense of belonging and how hard it is as a migrant to feel as if you really are part of a place. At our study group today we were talking about the seven deadly sins (a light topic on a chilly day). Pride and envy topped our “most difficult” list, though lust raised much hilarity. One of the ladies mentioned how someone she knew had been deeply upset when it was written in her husband’s obituary that “he was always proud of his German heritage.” To her mind that was absolutely untrue. He had no shame at being German, but he was always treated like dirt for it and tended to hide it.
This historic tension is one of the features of the Scrub today. None of the towns would be here without German settlers. The hillsides would not be dotted with houses and farms. The schools would not exist. And yet, these hills are the dregs of the land – the land unwanted by the English and Irish settlers, who much preferred the plains and along the rail line. While the German farmers transformed the hills, sent their children to school and built up businesses, they remained looked down on by non-Germans. Tensions rose to the surface during the world wars, but they were not new tensions. People today remember non-German girls refusing to dance with them at the local dance (or rather, the girls’ parents not allowing them.)
As part of writing up a grant application for the school, I’ve had to contact local politicians for letters of support for our project (building a multi-purpose sports court). I have been pleasantly surprised at the response, with immediate letters forthcoming from our local councillor and our state representative. Yet, I still find myself amazed that I can actually interact with politicians, that I have political representation.
After seven years in the United States on a legal visa, I had become accustomed to feeling alien. Having “non-resident alien” stamped on my passport helped. I was accustomed to knowing that I had no political, economic or social support. I was not allowed to vote. My taxes were accepted, but I was not allowed any rebates or exemptions. I had other restrictions on financial matters. For example, I was not allowed to borrow money from a bank or conduct certain financial transactions. Fortunately I had health insurance, but I was not allowed to accept public medical assistance. I had to get permission from the university to travel. It has taken a long time for me to adjust to the notion that the infrastructure of Australia is there to support me. That I can go to a doctor or a hospital, that I can vote, that I can contact a politician to express my opinion, that if I want to take a job I can, that as a property owner I have rights (and a vote that might be courted).
After five years this sense of being a citizen is beginning to take hold. How long would it take a migrant in a colony largely free of infrastructure? You would cling to your familiar neighbours and try to avoid conflict. You would not trust that colonial administrators would support you – most of them were English. You would work hard and keep your head down. And sometimes not even that would work.