Bogotá, Colombia

Biting, nagging, cultural assimilation


It is common for children of migrants, or for any person whose appearance looks non-white in Australia to be asked, “Where are you from?”. Sometimes it looks like: “Where are your parents from?” Any which way, the person is desperately trying to get an answer so they can comprehend you. Little do people realise the sheer extent to which such an answer can end up defining you. That means, the way you answer their questions now, shapes what you actually think of yourself in the future. Many migrant children confront this.

But it remains my fear: Say you’re Australian, enough to the point that you actually forget what your origins are.

It was a really commonplace thing for me and my sister in our childhood to face these kinds of questions. It wasn’t until university that I started to mingle with other mixed-race kids and realise the questioning (or interrogation) was not something exclusive that happened to me only.

My mother (pictured) emigrated from Peru to Australia in 1991 and then married my dad, who grew up in Bomaderry, NSW. She established her local language skill at the same time as juggling the upbringing of us. She then acquired a Bachelor of Education to teach at high school.

In many respects, people love to define the way you are and the way you represent yourself. It is their means of dealing with ambiguity — neat boxes by which every person from every crazy location can be understood. This is the reason why in the context of a multicultural society, people need clarification of your origins.

But as language remains a really important mode by which people connect to culture, it is also the way you (talking to you, rebellious Australian culturally diverse kids), can enable yourself to connect with these origins.

I was not taught Spanish alongside English while growing up.*

This was not the experience of many children of migrants in Australia, who were. Certainly, those I met from Peruvian or Latin American families had all been taught Spanish. It helped that they had large nets of uncles and aunts here too. But Spanish for me and my sister, especially in our primary school years, at times felt like a fading memory. We learnt what I call español de la cocina, or kitchen Spanish — an understanding of the language’s most basic forms and then of course, the words you hear to describe food. It did not enable me to talk fluently with anyone in Spanish, my aunties over the phone, nor my grandmother when we visited when I was 14.

If I can clarify this, I mean that between age 5 and age 13 (the expected 'critical' period defined by linguists, see Critical period hypothesis on Wikipedia for a discussion) I was not able to hold a conversation or understand most sentences spoken to me. But frankly it doesn't discount the hours of hard work spent by both me and my mum trying to acquire it, speaking, revising conjugation tables hundreds of times, and then in later years proofreading my essays.

Let’s contextualise this growing up a bit more. When you go to a school in Australia, English is what’s important. But I am by no means talking about success in actual English class. Instead, the colloquial means of communicating with other students, making jokes, and following the banter. After hearing the experiences of some of my friends from today about their ESL (English As A Second Language) journeys in school, perhaps it was a virtuous decision my parents made not to enforce Spanish in the household. ESL class had been at times, a demeaning, isolating experience for those kids.

Migration and English sound like easy adventures when the details of those experiences are ignored. I make it sound like English and Spanish bilingualism was a choice available to me. Other Latino-Australian friends of my parents made it sound like it was a choice. A lot of people make it sound like a choice that mixed-heritage children have, dependent on the individual parents’ skill in navigating what is essentially a tightrope juggling act. The ‘regret’ of absent language tuition is not the same as missing out on swimming or bicycle lessons. For one, connecting to the other language, when English dominates you and slaps you in the face through school, TV, friends and schoolyard bullying, can feel like the lowest priority in the world. Why would you learn to use it when you can already eloquently ask for food or extra pocket money in one? The expectation IS there and it’s strong. But I can still remember the words, “why didn’t she teach you Spanish” burned into my brain and the numbing feeling that followed when I didn’t know how to respond.

In my early days, I held both a lot of angst toward my parents for neglecting Spanish, and a lot of lethargy toward any learning of Spanish because it just felt too difficult. It wasn’t until I progressed to university did I realise what was the thing that was driving some of this angst. And the thing definitely has a name. It’s not grammar or student apathy, either.

Australia is a land of immigrants (as much as many like to deny), but in spite of popular social acceptance of the ideals of multiculturalism, it is impossible to deny the impacts of the force at work: it’s called cultural assimilation.

It is accepted that when a family migrates to Australia, that they adapt their cultural practice to the Australian way. The experiences of European, Indian and Asian immigrant communities in Australia (and many others) are a tale of cultural persistence and assimilation. Some families can navigate the two very well. Others subside and give way to assimilation, shedding off any connection to the migrant culture as they deem it unnecessary for the way forward.

To place it into other words, to assimilate, at times, can mean to shed yourself of your other origins and guide yourself blissfully through a shop of identities selecting only the things which make you uniquely Australian. In other words, your Peruvian mother’s culture, language and family heritage are rejected just as quickly as it takes to fly here. It is not me who can best tell the story of my mum’s struggle with linguistic acceptance, or of the walls of communication, or of haunting phone calls in her job where clients would berate her accent. In some ways, these struggles continue today 26 years after she settled here. It was certainly easier for her children to say, “we’re just Australian”, to avoid the ten questions about their mum’s origins and then the following ten questions about their physical appearance.

The somewhat dorky looking familia gathered together.
The somewhat dorky looking familia gathered together.

But that’s where it comes from, the power of cultural assimilation. The new host identity will give people security and comfort, it is safety in numbers and a grant of acceptance and smiles from the dominant western order.

The physical appearance debate leaves greater questions for where mixed-heritage children sit in the parameters of debates on race, ethnicity and identity. I have the freedom to identify as I choose, but I cannot say I feel so free to speak out for people of colour. The annoying bite of casual observers who are quick to jump on my white appearance has been enough to keep me from speaking up whenever I call myself anything else. (For those interested, debates on race-passing continue elsewhere.)

Australia is the kind of place which is truly a migrant’s dream. It is wealthy, education is easy to access, and its townships have levels of public safety and facilities which many parts of the world struggle to achieve. The cost of it all? It can’t be measured in dollars. It is and can only be a loss of culture. Put simply, to migrate here requires that at least you will lose some of what was important to you, much more than just your material possessions or distant relationships or patriotic sentiments. Even if that decision was made by you, your parents, or generations going forward.

We can only hope that more kids and families in Australia and western countries do not feel like they have to choose the easy route to satisfy the instigators of assimilation that surround them, and that they can take up pride in cultural diversity without any anticipated fear.

Sebastian Reategui

Article first published on 1 February 2017.