Back when I was dating, one of my favourite things to do was to study the faces of my new boyfriends as I introduced them to my family for the first time. There was my mum – a former skydiving instructor in her short shorts and singlet, chain-smoking for the entire population of Australia. There was dad – former actor (now a poet) with his long pony tail and eclectic Navajo jewellery. And oh yes, there was Alf, our pet dingo. On paper, you probably couldn’t imagine anything more ‘Strayan (we even cooked our meat around the hills hoist), but what really confused people was that we were Turkish through and through. People didn’t know what to think, couldn’t figure out how to pigeonhole us.
“Your family is not what I was expecting,” I heard time and time again and my response was always the same. “I know... that’s the way my parents planned it.”
The way my mother tells it, there were lots of things that terrified her when she landed on our shores in the spring of 1970. She worried about learning the local language (she couldn’t speak a word of English at the time), she fretted about being isolated from her community (she didn’t know a single person here), she was anxious about finding decent feta (and as time wore on, any feta), but most of all she worried that her children would be viewed as ‘different’. This fear trumped everything else, so instead of bowing down to pressure from local organisations or accepting invitations from the small-but-emerging Turkish community to move her family into what is often referred to as a ‘cultural ghetto’, she did the exact opposite – she moved her family into a suburb where there were no other Turks to be seen anywhere.
I know that my Turkish heritage is likely to die out with me. My cousins who grew up in Auburn have no such problem.
Her kids, she’d decided, would grow up to be regular Aussie kids. Neighbours breaking their necks on the backyard slip n’ slide? She’d pour Palmolive on ours. Girls at school burning their necks on the old crimpers? She’d take five and burn us herself (kidding). At Christmas she would (and still does) dress as Santa, and at Easter, she’d be the Easter Bunny (yes, she still does that too), and as much as it confused every other Turkish family in Sydney, we grew up exactly the way she hoped we would. Or so you would think...
As the far right would have you believe, there are many advantages of growing up outside ‘our own kind’. Yes, we’ve assimilated, each one of her children marrying non-Turks, speaking English with a broad, ‘I’ve been wrestling sheep up in Lightning Ridge my whole life’ twang (I’ve worked hard to change my accent over the years), and having circles of friends without a single Turk to be found within them (I still don’t have any).
But the truth is there are downsides too. I’m fluent in Turkish but I speak it with such a strong Australian accent that I get laughed at everywhere I go in Turkey. I don’t quite fit in with my relatives, or know what to say when someone gets married, dies, or is going through hell.
But the worst part is, people like me don’t quite know how to pass on their culture to their children when it’s already so damn diluted. My kids can’t speak Turkish because I’m the last person who should be teaching them, and I know that my Turkish heritage is likely to die out with me.
Placing minority groups in said ‘ghettos’ invites its own set of issues. I also know that without them, all the things that makes our country so unique and exciting will eventually die out.
My cousins who grew up in Auburn have no such problem; yeah they were forced to go to Saturday Turkish school, and yeah, they all seem to still speak with an accent even though they were all born here, but their kids are already fluent and they’re holding on to their culture for dear life.
I sometimes think back to the decisions my mother made when she first came to this country and I think she made the right choice for her family, yet while I know placing minority groups in said ‘ghettos’ invites its own set of issues, I also know that without them, all the things that makes our country so unique and exciting will eventually die out and we’ll all become vanilla. Take it from experience.
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.