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April 30th 2009 print

Philippa Martyr

Eavesdropping on a cultural crisis

Mervyn Bendle is dead right when he writes about Asian students haplessly absorbing mega-jive about Australian history and culture.

Mervyn Bendle is dead right when he writes about Asian students haplessly absorbing mega-jive about Australian history and culture. I was party to a real-life experience of this in a State Library not so long ago. 

Immersed in archival research via microfilm, I only gradually became aware of the annoying male voice in the background. I had a quick peek over my shoulder. There he was – a small and skinny man, olive-skinned, with greying funky short haircut and one of those leather thongs with a bit of rock on it round his neck. His accent wasn’t quite Australian, but it was near enough. 

Seated across the table from him was a sweet-faced young Asian girl, very obviously a student (e.g. armed with every electronic device known to man). 

“So since we last met, what have you seen going on in the world, on TV, in the newspapers?” he asked. Her reply was inaudible.

“What’s the big event happening this weekend, then?” Inaudible reply.

“It’s a major worldwide thing, happening everywhere. Everyone’s involved in it.” Silence.

“It’s EARTH DAY.” For the first time she replies, “Ohhhhhhh.”

“And on Earth Day, everyone will turn out their lights for one hour. Why are they doing that?” Inaudible reply.

“It’s to help the planet, isn’t it? To help stop global warming.” 

There is only so much of this one can listen to, so I got back to my records. But every now and then, a word would emerge from this conversation which set my teeth on edge. “Whales”, for example, or “racism”. After that, they got on to something practical like how to go shopping for small items. 

Poor girl, I thought. You’ve come here at considerable expense to improve your chances; you need English lessons, and so you’ve ended up with this do-gooding eco-evangelist who gives you fifteen minutes of religious instruction before you are allowed to move on to things which you really need to know. 

The thong-toting man would have been incensed to be compared with a nineteenth-century missionary in a balmy-breezed colony. But I couldn’t see the difference. The weather was lovely; he was dressed entirely in black; there was something of cultic significance strung around his neck, and it sounded awfully like question-and-answer catechism, looking for the “right” answers. To which his captive audience replied “Ohhhhhh” at the right times, and waited in patience for some practical help to come her way. 

Perhaps he will make some converts eventually, but just for now the natives are at the “ohhhhhh” stage. Long may they remain there.