All the current controversy concerning immigration, multiculturalism and integration stirred in me a compulsion to share my firsthand experience with all and sundry. Having set foot on Australian soil just over 60 years ago as an unaccompanied 17-year-old refugee without a word of English should suffice as my qualification to do so.
When the Red Army of the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian anti-communist revolution in the European autumn of 1956, tens of thousands of us fled to Austria, the only non-communist country bordering my homeland. As I was leaving, my wonderful father, with tears in his eyes, put his hands over my head in a gesture of blessing and after a brief pause said, “Go to Australia, it’s a young country”. I remain forever grateful for that propitious advice. He passed away some years ago, as did my mother, but both very much alive when I and my young family visited and stayed with them for nine months in 1971.
Having grown up under the brutal oppression of Soviet communism, I was woefully ignorant of the world at large. Even now it is difficult for me to recall that I didn’t know English was the language of the country I would make my new home until I was aboard the ship bringing me here. My introduction came in the language classes for beginners offered to us by Australian immigration officers. The only non-Communist history I had been taught was a bit of ancient history, a little about the French Revolution and some Hungarian history. The rest was all about the glorious Soviet Union. I realised only later, a little at a time, just how extremely ignorant I had been. I continue realising it to this day.
I can’t recall a single unpleasant experience after disembarking in Melbourne on the February 10, 1957, but it sure was a strange place. Nice and good but strange in myriad of ways, and some things were outright wrong. Nothing serious, mind you, more in the way of being amusing, although occasionally annoying and frustrating.
Like most New Australians – a very proper and fashionable term at the time – most of my social life for the first few years was within the expatriate community, in my case Adelaide’s, where I ended up courtesy of family friends already established there. I spent some time at the Bonegilla immigration camp and picking grapes in New South Wales, later boarding with Hungarian families, working for a Hungarian boss, playing in a Hungarian basketball team, barracking for my Hungarian soccer team and dancing at the annual Hungarian ball.
Even though we were happy and satisfied in our new country, amongst the favourite pastimes of the Hungarian fraternity was knocking Australia and Australians. Not in a viscous, nasty manner, just ridiculing their ways. Rugby, the carrying of an elongated ball under the arm and kicking it only occasionally yet calling it “football”, was the most hilariously ridiculous of all. Football was played primarily with the feet and the ball was round. All sensible people knew that! As for golf, the hitting of a tiny white ball, then walking after it in order to hit it again, was absolutely barmy. We called golfers the harmlessly insane. (Golf had been designated a degenerate pastime of the bourgeois by the Comrades). As for cricket, the inanity of that was beyond comprehension.
And, oh, the short-back-and-sides haircut! Wasn’t that risible? We only went to European barbers who knew how to cut hair properly. As for bread, you could have any sort as long as it was a white tank loaf inedible after 24 hours. No wonder it had to be freshly delivered every day. We got our bread, Vienna loaves, as well as many other food items, from the handful of specialty delicatessens selling “continental food”. The cuisine at the boarding house was strictly Hungarian, no greasy lamb and mutton for us. And we drank wine with dinner, supplied by a Hungarian wine merchant who home-delivered it in flagons. Australians called it “plonk” and considered it fit only for winos who then slept it off in the park. There was also the matter of imperial measurements and currency, topped off by traffic running on the wrong side of the road. Need I go on? I could, but no need. Suffice to say that Australia was a good country with good people who had an awful lot of strange ways about them. They had a lot to learn and we were here to teach them.
Now, all these decades later, I gladly note that we have, indeed, learned a great deal from each other. The elongated ball is still very popular but so is the round one. You can buy literally hundreds of varieties of bread, smallgoods and every other sort of food you might name in any supermarket. Haircuts are another matter, particularly of late, but let’s not go there. Measurements and currency are now decimalised, but the traffic continues to run on the left side of the road, which I have come to find perfectly normal. Having learned English reasonably well, I am now annoyed by Strine and the pronouncing of “foyer” and “fire” pretty much the same. I initially learned English from workmates when working on the roads with pick and shovel but soon noticed that radio and TV announcers spoke a nicer version of the language, yet still sounded distinctly Australian. I began emulating them.
Strange as it seems in retrospect, I never had a Hungarian girlfriend, even though I knew Hungarian girls of my age. I married a Latvian girl, born somewhere in Poland while her mother was fleeing and her father was fighting the advancing Red Army. So we are both wogs, although she went to school here while I received no education of any sort in this country. We only speak English at home. My children went to traditional Australian private schools; consequently my son is an ardent cricket and rugby union fan who happens to be raising his family of now-teenagers in Scotland with his Scottish wife. My daughter is single and seems set to remain so, but she is a thoroughly Australian woman.
As for myself, I am a Hungarian-born, proud and patriotic Australian, a respectful admirer of the disproportionately significant and gallant involvement of the nation in both world wars, notwithstanding the fact that my ancestors fought on the opposite side, although never against Australians as far as I know. They were fighting Russians. I was naturalised in July, 1964, at the Randwick, NSW, town hall and used the occasion to shorten my surname, which I inherited from my Croatian grandfather, retaining only the very English first half of it.
That event didn’t seem particularly significant at the time but my appreciation of it grew enormously over the years. I cannot sufficiently express my eternal gratitude to this wonderful country and its kind and generous people, who accepted me into their world and their hearts.
Over recent years I have become gravely concerned about the deteriorating state of the nation, to borrow an American expression. I still love my mother tongue and speak it fluently, enjoying the benefit of being able to listen to the excellent speeches of Viktor Orban, the feisty Hungarian prime minister. Having moved house many times over the years, I have long lost contact with my erstwhile Hungarian compatriots. Few would be left of them, anyway. I don’t miss them and don’t feel guilty about that.
When the Olympics is on, I am equally interested in Australian and Hungarian results, rejoicing and feeling proud equally at the success of both. I endeavour to keep in touch with Hungarian domestic issues, especially now that Orban leads the resistance against EU totalitarianism. I also keep in touch with the dwindling remainder of my relatives in Hungary. Soccer remains my favourite ball game by far, but I have long stopped scoffing at the other football codes, although I still don’t “get” cricket. You need to have grown up with it, my son maintains, and he is probably right.
We regularly have traditional Hungarian meals at home, which my wife learned from me and the recipes available at excellent Hungarian websites, which I translate for her. She is an inventive cook, shuns elaborate food preparation ala reality TV cooking shows. Her menu is dictated by what is available to the prudent, value-minded shopper. We also have meals that would be standard fare in traditional Australian homes.
My children, although well aware of their ancestry, are exclusively and thoroughly Australians, even though one lives in Scotland and is unlikely ever to return home for good. His children are, of course, Scottish. That is the way it ought be. “Multiculturalism” — if there is such a thing — ought to end with the first-generation immigrant. The only honest alternative is to depart.