Let me begin with two generalisations.
The first is that our culture is never static or uniform. It evolves and develops over time nor matter where you live.
The second is that it is only when you refuse to allow your culture to evolve will you witness a clash of cultures.
Australia has a long and often difficult history of coming to terms with its migrants.
The Chinese were mistreated during the gold rush era.
The Irish Catholics were looked down upon for a long time.
More recently, Australian have made fun of ‘wogs’ and ‘dagoes’ after WWII and ridiculed the ‘slopes’ from Vietnam.
My own experience might give an insight into how many new migrants felt at the time.
In coming to Australia I travelled on a ship for 30 days.
It was a nightmare and the thought that I had to learn a new language and a new culture frightened me and my experience upon getting here was no better.
It was tough growing up in a new country. For three years my family and I lived in a three bedroom house we shared with two other families.
My first taste of school in Australia was the biggest shock.
I tried to hide my Greekness. I had a deep preoccupation with wanting to ‘belong;’ a burning desire to be socially accepted by my fellow students.
While there were other students of similar background to me they appeared (in my mind) to be successfully assimilated.
My sense of not fitting in was exacerbated by Roger a kid whose sole purpose in life was to torment me.
My mother didn’t help. Her arrival at my school wearing a black dress, black stockings, black cardigan and her black scarf was a source of great discomfort to me.
Her appearance emphasized my sense of difference, she looked different from other mothers.
During lunchtime I disappeared behind the portables and devoured my split Vienna sandwich stuffed with zucchini and fetta cheese before others had the opportunity to see me.
Our Greek style garden at home with its beans, sweet corn, tomatoes, beans and peppers propped up by sticks of bamboo meant that I never invited any of my friends home because of my fear of ridicule.
I was also befuddled by the constant talk of Peter Hudson and Don Bradman. Who were they? I dealt with my ignorance by quietly walking away from my friends when the discussions turned to sport.
My years at primary school were not happy ones.
As the years passed I noticed the wider Victorian community increasingly accepting differences and I relaxed about my past. I now faced a new challenge of assimilating the two components of my identity.
I actively explored my heritage and asked myself the question; Am I Greek, or Australian, or Greek-Australian or Australian-Greek?
In asking myself that question I started to listen to Greek music, was happy to showcase my mother’s culinary delights and above all I learned about my heritage.
I loved what was Australian about me and realised that to reject the Greek part of my identity was denying me who I was, my history, my culture my character.
My challenge was how to create a sum total of the two components. So I found a strategy that allowed me to absorb new ingredients, to try new things, to give me time to adjust and to cushion the loss of some of the Greek part.
A major discovery was that I had things in common with others.
I learnt about Aussie Rules and cricket. Bartlett, Chappel and Lillee were not mythological creatures. I learnt Italian and realised that Italians were as family orientated as the Greeks.
I even became friends with my tormentor, Roger.
Australia is one of the most religious, cultural and linguistic diverse nations in the world. While many agree that our cultural diversity is one of our greatest strengths.
However there are Australians who see cultural diversity leading to division.
What would your response be if one of your children decided to marry someone from a different cultural and religious background?
Cultural transformation does not simply happen by the process of osmosis. We need three components working in combination to ensure the survival of a multicultural Australia.
Firstly, our religious leaders need to do more than just preach from the pulpit on Sundays.
Secondly, community and political leaders need to do more than provide motherhood statements six weeks prior to an election and thirdly individuals needs to allow their own culture to evolve.
The first two are simple to understand, but the third component needs clarification.
There are two different types of cultures – ‘rigid’ and ‘flexible’.
We have our own ‘rigid’ culture, the inherited culture that we try to preserve and pass on to the next generation.
The ‘flexible’ culture is one that has evolves as a result of one’s environment. It is alive and constantly changing and borne out of people interacting with one another.
When people of different cultures mingle and share, over a long period of time they learn to adopt and understand others’ cultures.
Since the 70’s, I have made the effort to find a middle ground. A place where I can retain parts of my Hellenic culture that I was comfortable with while accepting influences from a variety of cultures.
We need our religious and community leaders to allow us the flexibility to live with other religions and cultures around us.
Governments should promote the advantages of our diversity by supporting language education and promoting the different cultures as part of Australian culture.
Importantly each one of us needs to allow our culture to evolve and to accommodate others’ cultures.
Readiness to accommodate other cultures brings out the best in us.
I survived in two cultures. We can survive in a multitude of cultures.
The survival of our own culture depends on it.
The survival of multicultural Australia demands it.
The following is an edited version of a presentation by Nick Kotsiras at the Australian and Greek Migration systems: a comparison a conference last week in Melbourne, organised by the Hellenic Migration Policy Institute and the Victorian Multicultural Commission.
Nicholas Kotsiras is the elected State Liberal Party member for Bulleen and also Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs & Citizenship, and Shadow Minister for Innovation among other roles.