Representations of Australia – What does being an Australian mean to me?

Australian. A noun meaning a native or inhabitant of Australia or a person of Australian descent. As a South Sudanese living in Australia, being Australian has always confused me.

It's something I've always struggled putting into words. So what does being Australian really mean?

I moved to Australia as a baby in the early 2000's with my parents. We packed our old lives into two raggedy suitcases and our new lives waited ahead of us.

It was quite difficult at first for my parents to adjust to this new world. We don't have that ‘pure Australian’ blood running in our veins, nor did our forefathers waltz with Matilda. But we are Australian and have the documents to prove it. Being an Australian is, however, much more than owning a citizenship certificate.

Being Australian means being part of a multicultural society where we accept those of all backgrounds, ethnicities, religions and beliefs. My mates celebrate Australia Day with a barbie and a swim and my neighbour celebrates Australia Day with kebabs and visiting family. Despite our differences, we are all one people.

Like a crazy experiment that could potentially go terribly wrong, Australia’s ‘White Australian’ experiment faltered and was spectacularly unsuccessful. Australia is now one of the most multicultural countries in the world, with over 21% of the Australian population speaking another language in their homes. We are a nation of migrants, a bag of Allen's Party Mix, a nation founded on respect and diversity.

We are told that being Australian is about being at one with the land, where we preserve the stories of the Dreamtime and appreciate the wild, free bush. Banjo Patterson speaks of Clancy of the Overflow and the iconic Aussie Outback lifestyle he lived. “In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars, and he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, and at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.”

Being Australian is mostly about being friendly and giving each other a fair go. It’s about showing a kindness and generosity of spirit to all. You can hear this in the way Aussie’s love to give everyone a nickname. Jackson becomes Jacko, Khan becomes Khanie, Claudia becomes Claudi and Josephine is shortened to Josie. The Australian way is to chop off the name and add a vowel. We’re all mates after all. Why not?

Despite the fact that I absolutely love living here and have an amazing group of Australian friends, there are certain times when I'm made to feel un-Australian. Like the time I was called the "n" word by a person while going for a walk. Like the time my mum was told condescendingly on the telephone at work by a customer that "I can't understand your accent, it's so unprofessional."

In fact, we must acknowledge that Australia has an ugly side.

It can be a racist, biased and bigoted land. It is a country that still finds it awkward to see its first nations people degraded and dispossessed. It’s a nation that may be able to distinguish an Italian from an Englishman, but assumes that the dark skinned Nigerian boy in the year below must be my cousin. It’s a nation that preaches about the virtues of the Man from Snowy River, but fails to measure up to the same values of bravery and courage.

The Pauline Hanson rant about the imaginary spectre of Islam taking over Australia while ignoring the real problems in their communities – the unemployment, the binge drinking, the domestic violence. Pauline Hanson’s voice is loud and relentless. But who hears the little Indian girl’s distress when asked by an old woman “why did you come to Australia and when are you going back?”.

I want to have a voice. Sometimes my African school mates put me down, for studying and paying attention in class. My aptitude for school is often met with disbelief. Is it so strange that my intellectual abilities are of a higher standard than a few white kids or the African kids that have so many difficulties? It's interesting when I try to describe the inequalities and hardships I have faced as a refugee in Australia. I like to count how many students are playing corny games or have started to zone out or yawn after I've said the word "Africa".

Is it bad that I like Rap, Hip Hop, Soul, and R'n'B? Most Australians will never understand how I feel when some year 8 boys are singing along to Kendrick Lamar and the "n-word" is about to come up. My hands are clammy, another African student looks at me and we exchange that "I'm sorry but I'm not sorry?" "It's ok. It happens all the time" look.

It's annoying when everyone touches and asks about my hair. I'm not part of a petting zoo. "Bob Marley Hair", "Nice Corn Rolls", "Ew, Emmanuela take the fake hair out, just be normal for once in your life." I deal with these comments everyday. I’ve even been asked if my heart is black too. Like the great Bob Marley says, "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, cause none but ourselves shall free our minds."

I like to hang out with my friends and I have hot chips for lunch, but at home, my thick African accent re-emerges. I hate Vegemite, can't swim very well and Western Sydney ("The Ghetto") is my favourite place in Australia. This is normal. This is me. Unapologetically of African descent and there is nothing you can do about it. 

Being Australian isn't only about sticking to stereotypes, but also juggling different cultural and social identities. And so being Australian means acknowledging that we all do come from somewhere. Every day friends from China, Kenya, Lebanon and India all push past in the corridors and in the canteen lines. My family came here from Africa to find a better life in Australia and so did many, many others – from all over the world.

We all have different feelings about what it means to be Australian. Nevertheless, we are all proud to stand on Australian soil. We've come a long way from the days of the White Australia Policy and genocide. Australia is not just all ‘barbies’ and beer. We should reflect on the past and change for the future. Hopefully there will come a day when my kids won't be labeled the "Bob Marley's" of the school.

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