Perth, 1970: With his olive skin and tight, dark curls, it’s clear to the other kids in the playground that the new boy sitting silently with his lunch box is different to everyone else. One by one, they gather around him. What is he and why can’t he speak English, his classmates want to know. And most importantly, what on earth is he eating?
The boy – my older brother – isn’t all too sure about what is going on initially. What he does know is just how happy he is that his mother has packed him all his favourite treats from the homeland he still yearns for. There are traditional Turkish meatballs in bread, bôrek (sheets of pastry filled with cheese and spinach) - and dare I say – more garlic and onions the Western seaboard had ever seen before. But just before he can relax his five-year-old mind, the ‘Wog boy!’ taunts begin in earnest (yes, it’s still original back in 1970). My brother says things got better once he began to speak English, but had the damage already been done? It’s hard to say.
What we do know is this: once my brother turned 18, he changed his name to Dave and began distancing himself from his culture. Today he still has no interest in visiting the country of his birth, and although he still possesses the gorgeous olive skin and tight, dark curls, he makes it clear the ‘wog’ has left the building. “There are many things that played a part in why I am the way I am,” he tells me. “But the schoolyard thing was probably the first negative experience I had about cultural identity and the rest probably snowballed from there.”
Sydney, 1991: Staring at the contents of the fridge, I’m deliberating over what to pack for my school lunch. My eyes fall on a saucepan full of stuffed vine leaves – my favourite dish – but I force myself to reach past it for the peanut butter. ‘Don’t worry’, I tell myself as I throw a banana and popper in the bag as well. ‘You can always eat the vine leaves when you get home and ‘punch in’ as Turk once more’. I don’t really know why I’m so worried; the western suburbs by this time is incredibly multicultural and I have friends of every ethnicity, but there’s something about both my brother’s playground experiences, and his subsequent disconnect from his culture, that is unsettling to me. As much as I want to take those vine leaves to school, I figure the one thing I want less than those crusty peanut butter sandwiches is to be bullied because I’ve got the ‘wrong’ food.
In the end, my friends and I take to moon-lighting our identities. Throughout the day we ‘anglicise’, ordering mechanically separated meats parading as chicken burgers and pies and glugging cans of Coke from the school vending machines (ah, the early 90s!), but once 3pm rolls around? Pure, unadulterated wogdom. We walk from house to house treating our parents’ kitchens like they’re laying the scene for daily progressive dinners. There’s Sri Lankan snacks at Bel’s, Portuguese mains at Nicole’s (swiftly followed by more mains – this time Syrian/Italian at Sara’s) and then back to mine for dessert. Happily, this only carries on for a few years; by the time we hit senior school, the landscape changes so much that even the ‘non wogs’ are happily munching feta and olive rolls. Related to our school experience or not, I still don’t know, but to this day, each of us feels a strong cultural connection to the country of our parents’ birth.
Sydney, 2017: It’s the first day back at school for my daughter Cella and she’s concerned I’m going to forget to put in her school sushi order. “I’d like salmon or tuna,” she tells me. “And could you please make some Peking duck rolls or bôrek later this week?” I wave her off, initially exhausted with her (not inconsiderable) catering demands, but then I can’t help but smile.
She’s only interested in two things: whether someone is good or bad, and what interesting new tastes they’ve got packed away in their lunch boxes
You see, there are days when I feel like a huge, dark cloud is bearing down on humanity and I worry about the world I’ve brought my children into. But just when things start to feel really hopeless, I have moments like this morning when I see my daughter surrounded by classmates of all ethnicities and I realise that she – like the rest of them – does not see colour, religion or race. She’s only interested in two things: whether someone is good or bad, and what interesting new tastes they’ve got packed away in their lunch boxes (basically, these kids are focusing on the advantages of multiculturalism, such as really yummy food). And as I fill out that sushi form, I think about how far my own family has come in as little as three lunch boxes and I think, you know what? With our next generation of trailblazers leading the path, the human race is going to be more than okay. Phew.
Lead image by Melissa via Flickr.
Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice. Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm). Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.