As with any language or dialect, Australian English has its share of idiomatic expressions in which simple-seeming words come together to produce a meaning inexplicable without cultural translation and therefore destined to mystify newcomers to the language. It might even be the reason such expressions exist in the first place. They are the linguistic equivalents of handshakes in Masonic temples, of passwords whispered to guards at fortress gates. The ones I remember being particularly baffled by – we arrived, my mum, dad and me, in Australia in 1990; my sister stayed in Europe – are “it’s my shout” (oh the stories I could tell you…) and “bring a plate” (likewise), though perhaps most puzzling of them all was a single word, unhyphenated and modestly prefixed: “overqualified”.
Where we were from, you couldn’t be too educated or too experienced for a professional, skilled job. Not so in Australia, it turned out, not for new arrivals anyway. My father’s periodic removal from his résumé of his Ukrainian/Soviet PhD in hydraulics – a bizarre ritual of self-administered shrinkage, necessary, he was told, to get a “foot in the door” – has been replicated across decades by migrants to this country. Particularly by migrants from Africa, Asia, eastern Europe: the non-West guild. Melbourne writer Ralph Johnstone has told of two Somali men, Abdulkadir Shire and Ali-nur Duale, who in the course of 17 years of “downskilling” crossed out any hint of their respective Masters in petrochemical engineering and PhD in applied entomology from 300-plus job applications. Still no joy. Because who could be less employable than an overqualified alien?
Ridiculous business, this practically standing on your head not to appear too smart to prospective employers. As a migrant you are already up against it, what with the language barrier and the close-to-zero social capital and the sometimes not actually owning a pair of employment-ready pants to wear to a job interview. And then, crazily, you are compelled to hide your goods. Most people routinely inflate their capabilities in CVs (“selling themselves”, it’s called) whereas these PhDed migrants – my father, once upon a time – have been doing what, precisely? As far as I can tell they have been doing the Great Australian Undersell. The smaller you make yourself, the bigger the chance of the square peg that is (sort of) you fitting the round hole that is Australia’s jobs market. So there’s logic to it. But it is a pretty brick-like logic.
Read Egon Kuntz’s Displaced Persons: Calwell’s New Australians and you will see something similar happening in the years after World War II. Of the 170,000 migrants who come here via Europe’s displaced persons camps – men and women, known as DPs – the ones with university degrees and professional qualifications end up suffering the most. First, two obligatory, humiliating years as “labourers” or “domestics”. Then a shit fight to get their qualifications recognised, and to be employed, however peripherally, in their “field”. Most won’t make it. And who, of all of them, has the hardest time? Doctors. Kuntz wrote a separate book, The Intruders, on their experiences. Some doctors remember being told in their first months in Australia that European degrees were worthless here and, anyway, could be bought on the black market back home and, besides, none of them were real doctors.
The names of the countries and continents breeding New Australians with worthless degrees have changed since then. But the tradition of some of our most educated migrants being made to feel acutely unwelcome persists.
You take a dive. You start from scratch. You are at the bottom looking up.
“Overqualified”, as a phenomenon, is in fact a bittersweet corrective to the lament that neo-liberalism has engulfed Australia’s public policy thinking. That everything, including migrant intake decisions, must be justified in terms of current or projected economic benefits. If you look at the history of the overqualified, deeper forces, subterranean and otherwise, than economic rationalism are always at play, and as Kuntz makes plain, “The throwing away of eighteen or more years of formal study which the doctors brought with them, and which was provided at the expense of other governments … was in economic terms an expensive and wasteful folly.”
The folly is not quintessentially Australian. All over the Western world, migrant scientists and engineers drive taxis – have you noticed how taxis always make headlines when stories of migrants’ skills wasting away are told,? how taxis have become the signifier of choice? – and world-class musicians scrape by playing restaurants, not concert halls, while people with tertiary education clean the big houses of those without it, and economists count themselves lucky to work as bookkeepers, and people who could, indeed did, head university departments or lead theatre troupes become nannies to the young or carers of the moneyed old.
You take a dive. You start from scratch. You are at the bottom looking up. That’s what being a migrant is like for most people moving to the West. No one has asked you to come here. And no one here thinks you are fabulous, not straight off the bat anyway. That’s the experience. First-generation migrants everywhere, those lucky enough to get their noses into a professional set-up of any barely tolerable kind, take directions from superiors who have a fraction of their know-how. They bite their tongue, bide their time.
Socioeconomically it looks something like this: countries are not using the skills or expertise of many of their new citizens even as these same countries pledge half a kingdom and a horse to remain “competitive in the global marketplace”; the unemployed or underemployed migrants face a loss of livelihood, status, cultural cachet, skills (which get degraded through non-use), self-respect and authority; these losses, in turn, disfigure social relations and eat away at families and communities.
Some migrants may not have good, or good enough, English and their skills may be non-transferable. Or their education and experience is simply too different for them to be neatly absorbed. And, fact is, they don’t know how business is done in the new country, they’re blind to the unspoken rules that govern professional relations, they don’t fit easily into an office or a team and they may scare away clients or, say, students. So there are (relatively) rational reasons. It is not all madness.
Here comes the madness bit: and in it lies another, quieter, sadness, and this one cannot be pinpointed socioeconomically. People come to a new country with deep knowledge of something – the human body, soul, music, machinery, history – and find there is no place for their knowledge and no thirst for it. The thing about knowledge is most people who have it have a fundamental need to use it. Also, to pass it on. Must be some kind of an evolutionary thing. When the knowledge remains trapped inside the person, unused, unrequired, unwanted, when it withers (no, I won’t say like a foetus) away, well, it’s a tragedy for the person and for the culture that let it die.
People sometimes attempt to define what kinds of rights migrants should automatically be afforded. The right to professional recognition and employment is always up there. But when does anyone ever talk about the right to contribute, to pass on knowledge, to use expertise in a meaningful, socially significant way? When is this “right to contribute” ever seen as that – a right – not some wishy-washy multicultural curry-and–bamboo-headwear construct?
Migrants’ vast intellectual capital.
Is it time, yet, to worry about what has been done with it?
Omar Farah tells me that when government agencies call him to discuss “problems within the African community”, he gets cut off whenever he attempts to offer any analysis or advice on how those problems might best be tackled.
“Government agencies are more than happy for me to be someone who tells them what’s happening in the community. That’s it. Don’t worry about all that analytical thinking, Omar. That’s not for you. Just tell us what’s happening.”
You supply the raw data; they process it, analyse and interpret it, work it up into policies and papers.
“I also work with police on many issues. What they do is ask me to provide information about what’s happening, never the recommendations. They say, tell us exactly who is doing what … I want to give a bigger picture, about how we might work to stop certain things happening. They don’t want a bigger picture. There is no space for that from someone like me.”
When you are not allowed to sit and eat at the policy table, and when you have no control over how the information you provide will be used, it is like you are spying on your community. They want Omar to be “the eyes and ears”, he says. Just not the brain.
When will I graduate from being a refugee?
Over a quarter of a century in this country and I am still being referred to as a refugee.
When Omar Farah came to Melbourne from Somalia in 1988 people would say, “Oh, Samoa?” And he’d correct them, patiently. “No, no, Somalia.” African migrants, by and large, only started arriving in Australia in the mid-1980s. Now enough people see the kids of African parents, at kindergartens, schools or universities, for Omar to hope this matter-of-fact daily exposure, this easy familiarity, might change things for the second generation. He worries about the second generation. They were born and educated here. They speak English and tend to have no deep relationship with their parents’ culture. Still they are being shown that this is not their place – in the way they are always treated as new arrivals, even if they have been inhaling this country’s air since day one, even if this air is all the air that they know; in the way their parents cannot find meaningful, skilled work and a dignified way of being in Australia.
It is not just the parents and the sons and the daughters who are damaged. Of the mistreatment of DP doctors in post-WWII Australia, Kuntz writes: “The degrading of doctors was … not a matter affecting the doctors only, but was felt as a personal loss and an affront by a large proportion of the 170,000 refugees.”
Omar used to run the Horn-Afrik Men’s Employment, Training and Advocacy project at the Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre. The job got decommissioned in 2014, and he is relieved. It felt meaningless by the end. He wasn’t able to achieve much at all and the moment had come when being paid to do this job began to feel “denigrating”. He is a long-standing adviser to the Victorian Government and police. He says by now he’s had a meeting with everyone in Melbourne, including Labor leader Bill Shorten. Shorten was talking about refugees. And Omar said to Shorten: “When will I graduate from being a refugee? Over a quarter of a century in this country and I am still being referred to as a refugee.”
He has five children, all born in Australia, all now at universities. That is how long he has been here. “The Australians who were born when I arrived here are now becoming managers, while I am still doing exactly what I was doing then.” That’s how long. In 2013 Omar was awarded the medal of the Order of Australia. Protocol demands that he writes OAM next to his name. He tries not to. Because when he does, people say to him, “Are you sure?”
A long time ago Omar used to drive a taxi. The damn taxis … One day he picked up an older lady, well groomed, from the airport. She grilled him about how on earth he was allowed to drive a taxi. How long had he been in Melbourne? How well did he know the city? “In her eyes, I was this guy who came from the jungle. In my own case, I could not tell my family back home that, actually, I was driving a taxi. They’d have said, “‘Are you really a taxi driver?’”
Omar stopped driving taxis when his son told him he wanted to be a taxi driver too when he grew up.
To be clear, the people I speak to in this essay are not meant to represent migrants as a whole, or their respective communities, or some inter-ethnic intellectual underclass. Enough with this burden to represent! To be seen as individuals is also a fundamental right. When it’s not there it creates what Vrasidas Karalis (I’ll tell you about him in a moment) calls “professional Greeks”, or, for that matter, professional Vietnamese, Hungarians or Somalis, people whose job it is to embody the mainstream culture’s kitschified view of their ethnic group as a whole. Some do very well out of it, actually; to a genuine intellectual, playing their ethnicity like this is a demeaning and grotesque game.
One more thing – the people are all guys. It just happened this way. Usually I write about women (the book I’ve been working on for the past trillion years is all women) but gender was not in my head and didn’t feel important for this story. And, yes, I could perhaps deconstruct why this is so, and maybe my deconstruction could and would reveal something important about gender imbalances of one kind or another or about how the game is, as you’d expect, rigged, and I’m sure it’s true that migrant men – men in general – have an easier time, on the whole, feeling legitimate in thinking of themselves as intellectuals. I have made a decision not to insert women post-factum because doing so felt dishonest and disrespectful, not least to the photoshopped-in women themselves. Over the years I have also come to believe that sometimes it is good not to think about gender as one of the axes along which one must travel to understand what’s going on in the world. There is at least 50 per cent chance I might be wrong. Fine. I’d much rather be wrong than scrambling to cover my arse.
Vrasidas Karalis is a professor of modern Greek at Sydney University. He publishes sprawling intellectual books, translates Patrick White (Voss, The Vivisector, A Cheery Soul) into Greek, and teaches – 90 per cent, he says, useless knowledge. (“Useful knowledge,” he tells his students, “will help you find a job but it will never make you grow up.”) In other words he is doing all right for himself. Except when I call him it’s the start of the academic year and he says: “Once they make you a full professor, your career is over. They’ve neutralised you. You’ve become irrelevant. You’ve become a structure, a set of obligations.” And here was I, about to nominate Vrasidas for migrant success story of the year, based on a conversation I’d had a few weeks earlier with the writer and academic Ouyang Yu who, like Vrasidas, like me, has been in Australia since the early 1990s. Ouyang has long since given up on the idea of an academic career here. “If I was someone else, if I were born in this country,” Ouyang says, “I wouldn’t have a problem. Professor, easily.”
Vrasidas spent seven years of the ’90s visiting Mr Manoly Lascaris, Patrick White’s long-time partner. They met several years after White’s death. Vrasidas had recently arrived in Australia, was translating Voss, and wanted to find out all he could about White. Mr Manoly Lascaris – this is how he insisted on being called; everything else was an insult – was in his mid-eighties. His pre-White life was spent between Cairo, Alexandria and Athens but he had lived in Australia since 1949 and was known to the world exclusively as White’s other, private half. To Vrasidas, it soon became obvious that Lascaris was an intellectual of the first order. In Greek – they spoke only Greek – Lascaris was formidable: his range was dazzling, as was his knowledge of history, literature (Chekhov was a favourite) and mythology, plus he had a phenomenal memory, electrifying insights into White’s writing, and he could be wicked and admonishing. His exquisite puns in Greek drove Vrasidas wild. When Lascaris died Vrasidas wrote a book about their conversations, Recollections of Mr Manoly Lascaris, hoping to save Lascaris from being remembered as a shadow of White.
Well, here is a question: how is it that Mr Manoly Lascaris could not find any space to express his gifts? Another question. Did he feel compelled to hide the immensity of his intellect? “The dilemma of a diasporic intellectual,” Vrasidas tells me, “is that you are already on the outside but you need to be doubly on the outside to retain your integrity.” Lascaris’ problem, in other words, was not that he got lost between Greek and Australian cultures but that in standing apart from both he was rendered invisible. (And then he was rendered invisible one more time by his relationship with White.) Every bit of this is unsettling. Far more comforting to imagine that the big-thinking women and men coming to Australia from other nations, who could have made a massive contribution to this country but did not, were essentially victims of bifurcation, all torn up and culture-shocked, struggling to adjust and never the same after their immigration ordeal. Boo hoo. It’s much harder to contemplate that many of these women and men, whatever their misgivings, were dying to offer the insides of their heads to this country. And no one was interested.
Ouyang Yu says to me, “Look into the history of Archibald Prizes. Look at the Miles Franklin Award. Who are the winners? The first winner ever was Patrick White. The name is significant. White. Not Patrick Yellow. Not Patrick Black. It’s a determining name.” It’s not only Nobel Prize winners that Ouyang likes to have fun with. In an essay in Peril, an Asian–Australian arts and culture magazine, he has a go at the seldom-questioned emphasis on revising – all writing is rewriting! – in creative writing courses, calling it a “petty bourgeois obsession with perfection” and asking, “if you keep refining shit, would it become non-shit?”
I first came across Ouyang at an awards ceremony in 2011. His book was nominated for fiction and mine in non-fiction at the New South Wales Premier’s Awards, and both our books were shortlisted in a separate category – “Community Relations” – which Ouyang, with his novel The English Class, won. The fiction prize went to Alex Miller, a close friend and supporter of Ouyang’s, whose work Ouyang has translated into Chinese. I can’t recall what Ouyang said when accepting his prize. I do remember wondering how was it possible that I knew nothing about this guy. People around me did not seem to know anything about him either.
Listen to this. His body of work is, so far, stupendous: he has published 70-something books in English and Chinese. Fiction, non-fiction, literary translation (Greer, Malouf, Miller, Stead and Hughes) and literary criticism. He also edits Australia’s only Chinese literary journal, Otherland. The guy is some kind of giant. Probably we should put him on bank notes, and, well, failing that, he should have a big job at one of the country’s leading universities (he could, for starters, single-handedly take care of a department’s publications targets).
You see where I’m going here, right? Twenty years ago Ouyang finished his PhD. In 2004, on turning 50, he came to the conclusion that, as he puts it, “In this country it was not going to happen for me.” Back to China he went. There he was swiftly made a professor by one of the universities. He now lives between China and Australia. Every year he goes to China twice: for spring and autumn terms. Australia is a sort of holiday.
One night in 2011 he found himself at a dinner party in China with a number of Chinese writers. They wanted to know about the prize he had just won in New South Wales. He did his best to translate “Community Relations”. It wasn’t easy. But he got there. “It doesn’t sound,” they said, “like it is a prize for a work of literature.”
Ouyang doesn’t care about prizes that much nor consider them anything like a true measure of a work’s artistic quality or worth. A prize “is a sign of encouragement”. It is a message being sent out, never explicit. If the message is that non-white artists may be dutifully shortlisted for the big prizes but won’t win then the message, essentially, is don’t bother. Ouyang says there is a hidden contempt among this country’s intellectuals for first-generation migrants commenting on Australia and Australians. What, goes the thinking, would they know? On precisely what basis are they speaking? Any critique will likely be seen as an attack. Ouyang has been called angry a lot (in China, too). “Well-intentioned criticism,” he says, “is surely a sign of goodwill. Without this kind of criticism nothing happens.”
An example: the matter of a nineteenth-century head tax on Chinese immigrants used by the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States to deter Chinese people from entering. Canada and New Zealand apologised some years ago. Australia has not. Ouyang drafted a piece demanding an apology from the Australian government, sent it to the Sydney Morning Herald and other places. The idea was to publish it on a mainstream media platform, get the country debating this apology alongside other momentous recent apologies. No one wanted to touch it.
“An Asian scholar or intellectual in this country,” Ouyang says, “is only able to talk about certain kinds of things.” Ethnic things: racism, human rights (maybe), refugee policy. “Why,” – is what Ouyang Yu wants to know – “can’t we talk about literature, language, love, society, history?”
Of course you and I (and Ouyang too, if he was that way inclined) can dig and strain and find examples of first-generation migrants who broke through. And you and I can paint, with words elegiac and rousing, portraits of these half-forgotten trailblazers. No, fuck it. The fact is that for the vast majority if you come from another place but do not identify yourself with it, and if you aspire to not be a professional Greek, Somali or Chinese but to be an intellectual, the owner of a non-ethno-specific voice that can take on politics, love, art, mortality, good and evil, the state of science or of the universities and do so in a critical, questioning, public way, well, mate, you’re dreaming. Migrant, for god’s sake, know thy place. Your children can, and will, do it, just not you.
It’s different for those who immigrate as children, teenagers – for the first generation that is not, quite, adult on arrival. They can absorb the new country’s ways through their breathable frog skin, adjust without breaking their brains. At least theoretically. I was 16 when we immigrated. And though for a long while I did feel like a mermaid coming ashore, every step a knife through muscle and bone, over time I’ve mutated enough for the pain to mellow. I have become a new kind of creature; most fully formed, mutation-resistant adults can’t do that. They are already fundamentally who they are.
Omar Farah notes the Vice-President of the International Court of Justice is from Somalia. Born, bred, educated there; migrated to Europe fairly late. In Australia we do not have any of that. It’s startling to Omar, the number of Africans taking up important positions in the institutions of Europe and America. “My question, always, is why are those who migrated to Europe and North America so sophisticated? Engineers, judges, architects, doctors…” Australia must be getting a really bad batch.
So to see Berhan Ahmed, an Eritrean-born agricultural scientist (who doesn’t hide his PhD), run as an independent at a 2012 Victorian by-election, then build his own party – “Voice for the West” – in time for last year’s state election, is an almighty shock. He came to Australia as a refugee via Sudan and Egypt in the late 1980s. He is thick-accented. You’d call him “an African community leader”, right, only despite decades spent working with communities from Africa he is not interested in being called that. He is determined to be part of this country’s political process, to contribute to Australia’s social and political life. He tried Labor. Tried Greens (“too busy moralising and scolding instead of working on the fundamentals”) and being an independent. Now his own party is his passion. He is unperturbed by results: “Election is not about winning but about sharpening the mind.”
I listen to an ABC radio interview. Berhan is explaining how his new party is seeking to redress the woeful neglect of the western suburbs (fastest growing, highest unemployment, longest hospital queues, no infrastructure or good schools) of Melbourne. The journalist smells the familiar odour of a refugee banging on about not having enough resources for this or that. “So,” she says, “it’s all about money.” Berhan is completely taken aback. “No,” he says. He tries to explain further: as someone who came here with nothing, he says, he believes in education, in opportunities, in creative ideas, in giving people ways of participating. The journalist pushes along, impatient, audibly uninterested. I cringe.
“As an intellectual,” Berhan tells me, “you have got a moral responsibility to your profession. But sometimes you have to deal with a force of morality to be an intellectual far beyond your territory.” It’s not a choice. You have to do it.
If I can, just for a moment, play amateur psychoanalyst to our fine nation: could I suggest that some of the problems herein aired might come from our need to see migrants as children? To accept them as adults is to accept them talking back. It is to accept them mirroring us back to ourselves. Migrants who cannot be babied – e.g. intellectuals – often elicit the harshest or the most bewildered response. Anyway, write me letters and tell me what you think.
I find a column in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail circa 1954 – “Professor Murdoch Answers”. Professor Murdoch is Walter Murdoch, great uncle of Rupert, whose widely read and syndicated weekly column ran for nearly twenty years. That week Professor Murdoch was answering a letter from a migrant with a Swiss university degree who wanted to be employed in his profession, rather than as a lavatory cleaner, street sweeper or car painter, which had been the man’s job trajectory in Australia up to that point. “What you should have been told,” writes Murdoch, “was that the chief opportunity proffered by this country to its migrants is an opportunity for patience.” And then, he continues, “You may reply that years is long enough to exhaust the patience of Job.”
Ouyang Yu tells me he is turning sixty in a month. In Chinese terms, he says, it is a cycle. After sixty years you are born anew. “I will declare that I haven’t written a single book and will start again,” he says.
This breaks my heart. All of it.
My beloved first-generation friends from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bosnia, Italy, Ukraine, Poland, with brains as big as the world itself, struggling, forever struggling, to find a place for themselves, saying yes to the worst jobs at the smallest universities and colleges, retraining, giving up, making yourself tiny and inoffensive, sliding into obscurity, hopeful – hopeful still? – that one day, in this country, you could be at least 10 per cent of who you are. Don’t you give up, please.
As to you, Dad, I know it’s too late. You are a pensioner, that’s how you describe yourself, not a scientist anymore. I don’t believe it for a moment – a scientist is always a scientist – but I know you do. You have tried for long enough. I want to say I am devastated and ashamed that you couldn’t find a place for yourself and your knowledge in this country you brought me to. But you will not appreciate me saying it: you love this country more than I do. If I say that your not being able to pass on your experience is a tragedy, you will not let me get away with that either. It’ll feel too hyperbolic.
And, yes, compared to the great injustices of the world, it’s not that big a deal, but it is a tragedy nonetheless, Dad. I am sure of it.