Friday, 21 September 2007

Knowing thyself

As someone who calls herself a historian I have to admit to a certain ignorance of Australian history. I can’t blame, as some have, a cultural bias in Australia towards history of the Empire. This exists, but my ignorance comes from dipping in and out of Australian schools and missing the Australian history segments (and apparently a great deal of important maths). I was here for levels two and seven then years eleven and twelve. What I do remember from those brief years of Australian education are several stints at the world wars, various reiterations of the Treaty of Versailles, fragments of Asian history and solid chunks of English history from the perspective of both the coloniser and the colonisee. Surprisingly I didn’t do any American history in high school in spite of attending an American high school albeit one in Asia. Then when I did ‘O’ Level history, it was heavy on European nineteenth and early twentieth century although I remember a unit on India.

It wasn’t until I went to university that I really discovered a love of history. Even here though, I only did a small amount of Australian history. I remember an introductory history class where we read the Abel Tasman’s logs of the Dutch East India Company’s Heemskerck and Zeehaen, which explored the Australian coastline long before Cook and others arrived (1642 and 1644). No-one in the class could read Dutch but the lecturer insisted that this was not an impediment. I’m still not convinced. Most of my history courses were non-native. My major was Chinese language and contemporary Chinese history so that was my main focus. I dabbled a bit in other North Asian histories (Japan, Korea and Taiwan). I remember a wonderful modern Russian history course that I took in conjunction with a year-long survey course of American history. I ended up writing my honours thesis on modern Taiwanese elections.

This morphed into study of Taiwanese identity and a thesis on the politics of said identity from a study of Chinese media and then somehow, I fell into writing a thesis on 20th century United States’ political communication history. While I loved this, I felt very ignorant of my own history when I returned to Australia. Just the other day, I read the proposed migrant knowledge test and had no idea of the requisite Australian history. I do wonder though, how many “real Aussies” would pass it.

One thing that I have really appreciated in the last few months of researching local history is that it has given me a much greater understanding of Queensland history and more broadly Australian history. Whatever becomes of this project, at least I will understand more of my own country’s past.

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