Yesterday on the 26th of January, the Australian exchange students organized a small Australia Day party complete with all the trimmings – a sausage sizzle (slight burnt, onions optional of course), fair bread (buttered toast with sprinkles, atypical of any primary school birthday party), Tim Tams (which I think were the fastest to disappear) and of course vegemite (diluted with a bit of butter for those not used to its strong taste). Yet in the midst of creating our little sampling plate of Australiana, I realized it has been just over three or so weeks since I arrived in the US and more so than anything else, I find myself drawn back towards Sydney and Australia though not purely out of sorely missing the summer warmth in the midst of yet another polar vortex in Washington DC.
Australia Day does not mark the birth of Australia – it marks the birth of a colony of Britain which over the course of over two hundred years has wrestled with its own identity set against the identity of others. If the narrative is to be believed, Australia began unmistakably and loyally British in birth, recasting itself as a nation in 1901 with the formation of a federation of states coming of age on the fields of the Western Front and the beaches of Gallipoli, and then once again along the Kokoda Trail. Yet within this narrative is a story of insecurity – of the fear of outsiders which led it to implement the White Australia Policy and a desperate attempt to maintain itself as a loyal outpost of Europe set amongst South East Asia. Australia Day is a strange creature – it marks the date upon which the British flag was raised on Sydney Cove by Governor Phillip. A simple enough act but one which, beneath the sausage sizzles and Australian flags draped over sunburnt shoulders, reveals the sheer complexity of Australian culture, identity and indeed, that most politically loaded notion of what is “Australian”.
There is a certain degree of surprise when I speak to someone in the US – the Australian accent seems to be discordant with what they would expect. This is perhaps understandable enough when much of Australian culture and people continues to be represented by the likes of Crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin but does a grave injustice to the true, and in my opinion, far more beautiful face of Australia today as a rich, diverse and multicultural nation. Looking back, the most striking image of Australia Day was not at the Cricket Grounds, the Footy Field or even in Canberra. It was a small suburban park in Sydney’s South-West, a area well known for its multiculturalism, in which an Afghani family was having a barbeque, flatbread and lamb next to the Tip-Top with the slightly burnt sausages. I could not help but be reminded of this image as I looked around the room at the multitude of cultures which were celebrating Australia day with us, bringing just a bit of Sydney in the midst of chilly Washington DC. There is little doubt that our Australia Day party helped remind me what being an Australian is all about.