Today is Australia Day, and I have so many mixed feelings about it.
As an expatriate, I have a strange relationship with my Australian identity. I feel both more and less Australian by living overseas. I rarely interact with Australians, so a lot of the time that’s how I’m identified by others – as “the Australian”. When your nationality is your number one identifier in a community, it starts to feel more important than ever before. This was especially true as a teenager living in the US. I’d never felt more Australian than I did then.
Sometimes being identified as “the Australian” means that I get asked a lot of questions about Australia. Sometimes people are interested in the answers; sometimes they dispute my answers. Sometimes I’m expected to say that yes, this person can do a good Australian accent (when they can’t) or yes, that stereotype is true. Then people are disappointed if I disagree with their presuppostions about my country. Sometimes I am mimicked – with a “cute” accent and strange vocabulary that make me a novelty. It comes close to the tokenism many minority people groups experience.
Sometimes my identity as an Australian gets erased. Sometimes I’m told I don’t have an Australian accent. Sometimes that’s true, as my accent does shift toward American when I’ve been overseas long enough. Sometimes it’s not actually true – I’m speaking in a clearly Australian accent but the person made assumptions about me that trumped how I actually sound. That’s happened more since marrying an American. Someone who knows my husband already and is then introduced to me is more likely to assume I’m American no matter how I sound.
Being married to a non-Australian is also affecting my sense of identity and connection to country. Being Australian – how that culture shaped who I am, how deeply connected I feel to the geography I grew up in, how that identity as an expatriate has impacted me – is a big part of me and my life. And it’s a part my husband doesn’t share. He’s visited Australia twice, for a total of three weeks, but my culture is foreign to him. Our life together is not Australian. Australia will never be *our* home in the way that it was *my* home. My relationship to my own country has changed, and it leaves me feeling a little uncertain – like part of the foundation has shifted underneath me, and I don’t know where it will settle.
The idea of celebrating Australia Day is also something quite fraught for me, all expatriate complications aside. It wasn’t something I felt was celebrated as such growing up. It was just a public holiday during the summer school holidays – no extra day for the kids, but the adults being off work meant having a barbecue or a picnic or something, probably with friends. So I don’t have any family traditions or customs I associate with the day.
Living overseas, Australia Day is one of only two days in the entire year that I feel “justified” to bring up and celebrate this piece of my identity. (The other day is ANZAC Day, when I usually go to the embassy’s dawn service.) In the past I met up with the one or two Australians I knew in town at the time, and/or made a pavlova at home, often for non-Australian friends. This year I feel quite disconnected from those previous ways of marking the day. I don’t know many Australians in town, and certainly no one near me. I don’t have an oven so I can’t make a pavlova. And I’m honestly not sure what I want anyway.
A big part of my uncertainly stems from the date itself. Australia Day is on January 26th, a date which (leaving aside certain historical quibbles) marks the start of European colonisation of the continent – and, with it, the systematic destruction of the oldest living culture on earth. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders it is known as “invasion day” and is marked as a day of mourning (a tradition going back nearly a century).
Australia Day really falls on January 26th for lazy logistical reasons. Our federation happened on January 1st, 1901 – but new year’s day is already a public holiday. There are plenty of other suggested dates, but there’s a strong push back against the idea of changing the date at all, especially from the current federal parliament. The hashtag #changethedate is spreading, and nearly half the population thinks it’s a good idea. I think it’s a no-brainer to change the date, and I don’t really care what it’s changed to – even if it’s a symbolic change to January 27th. Then the 26th could be a day for reflecting on the indigenous history of our continent.
But changing the date is really only a small thing compared to some of the more important issues: the lack of legal recognition of Australia’s first peoples, the lack of self-determination and representation experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and the huge disparity in longevity and quality of life between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. I feel woefully inadequate to comment appropriately on any of this, so instead I read a lot, and share the voices (and writing) of others, especially indigenous writers, and often with little or no comment from my own perspective. This year I’m seeing more around the hashtag #changethenation – to recognise that a symbolic date change won’t hurt, but it also won’t help with deep systemic issues.
So, we come to today, and my swirling mix of emotions about it all.
Who am I as an Australian, living in China, married to an American?
What does it mean for me to experience or celebrate my Australian identity as an expatriate?
Will my Australian identity ever be seen in more than a token manner?
How can I best respect and bring light to the experiences of indigenous Australians on a day that is painful to many?
What do I do with a day that, while one of only two dates that feel Australian in an expatriate context, comes with so much that is problematic?
I have so many more questions, but no answers. I don’t know what to do with any of this, really. I think acknowledging my confusion and melancholy is a good starting place. Sometimes just asking the question is worthwhile, even when there are no immediate answers. Sometimes accepting the feelings is worthwhile, even when there is no solution.