• As a child migrant to Australia, pubs were very foreign places to my family. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
"As a child migrant to Australia, pubs were very foreign places to my family. We assumed pubs were places for alcohol and adult things. Not places for family and food."
By
Nadine Chemali

1 May 2018 - 11:51 AM  UPDATED 3 May 2018 - 2:05 PM

On the weekend my partner asked me if I would like to go for a pub meal. We drove around, trying to find a pub that “felt okay” for me. He looked at me like I wasn’t all there, searching for a pub I felt comfortable in, near a beach, filled with families and children. I realised I have only had a handful of pub meals in my entire life, despite my passionate love of pepper gravy. When we found our family friendly pub I asked my partner if he noticed anything. He looked at me again like I was speaking Arabic. I then pointed out that everyone in the pub was white. He looked at me shocked, and glanced around the room “Wow, you’re right, but that doesn’t mean what you think it does!”.

He was worried I would think everyone was racist and it was a racist pub.

Of course I didn’t. I understand that the Australian relationship with the pub is far more complicated than that.  But I also understand that your typical suburban family pub is not particularly diverse.

As a child migrant to Australia, pubs were very foreign places to my family. We assumed pubs were places for alcohol and adult things. Not places for family and food.

We didn’t know about the pub. We didn’t know that behind the carpet soaked in mouldy beer smell of the front public bar was a bistro, or a garden and an area for kids to play

We came to Australia baffled at the lack of sidewalk cafes, no people dropping in for a cuppa unannounced, cousins, aunts and uncles piling in and out of each other’s homes. I remember hearing “Do Australians have community? They don’t dine together, they don’t break bread together, how do they talk to each other? Don’t they have any friends?”.

We didn’t know about the pub. We didn’t know that behind the carpet soaked in mouldy beer smell of the front public bar was a bistro, or a garden and an area for kids to play, where community gathered to see the footy score, to say g’day, to meet people.

The pub was a mysterious place we didn’t understand. So I never went to one. The closest we came was when my Uncle Labib and my dad took plates to the pub upon learning they had food and brought us home take away meals of Sunday roast. My cousins and I were so excited at this roast meat and three vegetables we hadn’t had before. No tabouli, no hummus, just gravy and it was glorious.

At 37, I had been a few times, but they were still really strange places for me.

My point is, in particular to my Anglo-Australian readers, no you aren’t racist. If you see a migrant family at the pub you would smile and be polite, even welcoming. I know that you are generally a lovely welcoming bunch.

But you won’t really see many there. They don’t know about it. They don't know it's a thing.

As Australians we (yes, we, I am an Australian too now), have a responsibility to embrace people from different cultures. Not just the culture they bring to our shores, but the people themselves. Australia has somewhat succeeded in embracing the cultures of others, white women taking belly dance lessons with henna all over their arms, or men joining drumming circles and loving a good curry.

When you befriend someone from another culture, it’s almost always to learn about their culture, eat their food, embrace their way of life. Which is lovely. But they still feel like an outsider

But where we have failed is in helping our newly arrived neighbours learn about our life here.

When you befriend someone from another culture, it’s almost always to learn about their culture, eat their food, embrace their way of life. Which is lovely. But they still feel like an outsider. A novel amusement, they have to work hard to impress you, cook for you, dance for you, to make you like them. Most will love sharing their culture with you, but they will be eyeing those bangers and mash leftover in the lunchroom with great curiosity.

What they really want is to belong. They want so desperately to understand. They want to understand what it’s like to attend an AFL game - why everyone is jumping so high, why they really are playing on an actual oval and mostly, why those are shorts so small. They yearn to get invited along to a gig you think they might not enjoy because it is too loud, or to do something you think is “boring” like eating fish and chips by the water. 

One of my family’s favourite stories is going to the seaside for the first time. We ordered food from the obligatory fish and chip shop and while we waited for an order we watched another seemingly white Australian family. The mother ceremoniously unwrapped paper from a mountain of chips and started putting bits of fried potato on slices of bread and handing them around to the children.

As the migrant mother of a first generation Australian to get outside my comfort zone and do “Australian” things. To know that I am allowed to take up White Space

My mother said she felt sad for them, unable to afford little more than dry bread and two dollars worth of chips to feed them all. Confusion came when they piled into a very expensive and brand new Mercedes Benz. We later learned about the tradition of chip sangas on the beach but at that time, bewilderment and laughter ruled our lives.

As a child the art gallery was the most foreign place to me in the world. It wasn’t a place for My People. To this day I am a little anxious in a public library, which I avoided all through university because I didn’t understand how they worked properly. I somehow managed to pass.

I push myself now, as the migrant mother of a first generation Australian, to get outside my comfort zone and do “Australian” things. To know that I am allowed to take up White Space.

I take my kid for fish and chips, he knows what a lamb chop is (I had my first at 32), I have started bush walking and discovered it is peaceful and lovely, we attend school holiday activities in the shopping mall where you need to sign up, which for my mother with a language barrier was impossible.

I’ll be honest, I am still uncomfortable in the library but I’m working on it.

Back at the pub with my partner, surrounded by people who don't quite look like me, my meal arrived.  A giant plate, with a crumbed chicken breast the size of my head, covered in red sauce, a slice of ham, oozing with cheese atop a pile of chips, with a side of pepper gravy.  I don't know who invented the pub chicken parmigiana Aussie-style, but I am glad they did.   

Nadine Chemali is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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