Monday, 13 October 2014

Is there any Joy in being an 'Ethnic Killjoy'?

An exhibit at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)
As I edge closer to (finally) attending my Australian citizenship ceremony later this month, I am wondering if a few pieces of paper will really allow me a greater sense of psychic belonging to this land. Perhaps after almost 12 years of being an outsider both in India and in Australia, I am simply looking forward to having a current address and a national identity that are somewhat congruent. But perhaps this inner outsider-ness is here to stay.

Perhaps this sense of looking in from the outside, this perpetual hybridity emerged much before the international migration experience. As a child of a Sikh family growing up in a largely Hindu city in a Muslim-majority state, and attending a Catholic school, I probably grew up with a greater ease with 'diversity' than similar-aged Anglo-Australians in the 1980s and 1990s. Still, not ever belonging to any semblance of a majority community or a numerically dominant ethno-linguistic group rendered me forever observant of what these inter-cultural interactions entailed. This is not unlike the Parsi girl in Bapsi Sidhwa's novel, 'Cracking Earth' who reflects on her insider-outsider status as India and Pakistan are being partitioned in 1947.

While there was no segregation in the school yard along religious or caste lines, I did wonder what impact the militancy in the state (Jammu and Kashmir) would have on our formative selves. The discord of our environment was most tangible for us when we witnessed a few bomb explosions at a stadium in the city where we were gathered to perform for the Indian Republic Day festivities. I don't recall us calling for a ban on the burqa, or otherwise ostracising our Muslim classmates. Yet, the recent flood in Kashmir has brought forth a tide of jingoistic nationalism and Islamophobia that I seldom associated with the place I grew up in. According to journalist Chirag Thakkar writing for Kafila, 'TRP-hungry television studios build a spectacle that is acutely wedded to a deep-rooted, pungent nationalism around catastrophe and relief in Kashmir'.

Perhaps I was indulging in a bout of diasporic nostalgia by romanticising my hybrid childhood experiences. But equally, it is likely that this inter-cultural utopia generated in the mind of a 10-year old that gave her a sense of belonging for the present and foreseeable future. It was accompanied by an implicit faith that most of her 'majority' and 'minority' comrades thought likewise. However, not being party to the last decade or so of neoliberal transformation and religious divisiveness in India has left me bewildered at the recent turn of events. Every other Facebook post on my news feed from a former school friend that implores the Muslim 'other' to glorify the rescue efforts of the army pushes me further away from this new essence of what it means to be India.

At the same time, the latest rhetoric about belonging to 'Team Australia' is alienating for me and a number of close friends and colleagues who do not share the same political beliefs as the current government. Yet, whenever I move out of this comfortable bubble (such as by tuning into the wrong radio station, or overhearing an uncomfortable conversation on the train), I am reminded of being on the fringes all over again. In a piece for the The Conversation late last year, I referred to this as being an 'ethnic killjoy' . There have been many occasions of late where my ethnic killjoy resilience has worn thin, and I have stayed quiet when I would have otherwise attempted to explain and elaborate. Perhaps I am adjusting to my officially bestowed Australian-ness and the killjoy will return once the citizenship pledge has been taken and recycled in the correct bin.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Who can Photograph Whom, and How: A Review of ‘Home: Photographs of ethnic communities’ by Louise Whelan

There was much criticism of the NSW State Library's panel titled 'Multiculturalism: What are we afraid of' in March this year. For instance, Professor Andrew Jakubowicz (Co-Director of the Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre at UTS) wrote a piece in The Conversation equating the all-white composition of the panel to the gatekeepers of multicultural Australia. However, he didn’t review the photographs at the centre of this debate, or call into question the photographer’s ‘good intentions’. In yet another article critiquing the panel and the State Library, Sydney-based writer Ruby Hamad pointed out an image from the exhibition’s Facebook page, and its underlying caption to argue that ‘those of us from “different cultures” are not specimens to be dissected and discussed by Smart White People’. So what was it about this picture, the exhibition as a whole, and the artist’s statement that warrants us to pay more attention as viewers/witnesses?

The image that irks Hamad is that of four ‘Congolese’ children, seated on a bench, and looking bored at a wedding in Dapto in 2010. The Facebook description adds, ‘this just one of the many fantastic photographs that will take you into homes and urban environments of both refugees and migrants now calling Australia home’. While the photographer, Louise Whelan was purposely commissioned by the State Library to carry out the above, the results come across as 19th century colonial anthropology rather than 21st century inter-cultural ordinariness. Her artist’s statement duly acknowledges the intention to counteract negative media portrayals of migrants and refugees, but also complicates the counter-narrative by noting that she has been bearing witness to ‘assimilation’.

In a book titled Witnessing Australian Stories, Kelly Jean Butler writes, ‘Witnessing, thus, involves a double move: the need to witness to the other, while at the same time, witnessing to the self in the act of witnessing. In this way, witnessing is simultaneously a process of self-fashioning, of articulating different forms of selfhood, and of forging new kinds of communities among witnesses’.

Is it this self-witnessing that is missing when Whelan bears witness to ‘ethnic’ communities and takes photographs of them in their everyday settings? Is her inability to see and recognise the power relationships in operation what makes me uncomfortable and disaffected as a witness to these representational encounters? Is the sheer political and cultural imperative to see ‘ethnics’ as nothing but the other trying to emulate the self what reproduces and sanctions the logic of assimilation?

What if the children at the wedding in Dapto self-identify as Australian? What if the landmower is happy to be photographed by Whelan, but is an avid photographer, and would one day like their pictures own pictures of domesticity to hang in a prestigious gallery? What if the women dancing at the Hindu wedding really want to make a local film that captures all the dimensions of their lives, not just the South Asianness that they are required to put on display for the purpose of this photograph?

These are, of course, age-old questions about who can speak for whom (and how), especially when it comes to representing those on the margins of the cultural and political mainstream. There are lots of movements towards self-representation in the formal and informal community spaces of these margins. Scholars like Tanja Dreher, Chris Ho, and Juan Francisco Salazar, for instance, have written about migrant digital storytelling projects in western Sydney. On one level, one wonders why these self-represented stories rarely make it to spaces such as the State Library of New South Wales.

On another level, the imagined audience in these mainstream spaces has more power to act than those on the margins who are either testifying for someone like Whelan, or self-representing through a medium of their choosing. This presumably middle class, city-dwelling witness to the photographs can almost play the role of the adjudicator of the show, and has the option of taking their experience beyond the gallery through informal endeavours such as talking to friends, or more formal ones like political protest and lobbying. First, however, I/you/we have to develop the ability to self-witness and be critical of ways of seeing (and representing) that may be well-intentioned, but that are ultimately reducing the other to an artefact to be aesthetically consumed. Twenty-first century multiculturalism isn’t merely about celebrating the different colours and cultures inhabiting our cities and suburbs; it is also about finding better ways to relate to this diversity, of etching the face of the other in a universal patina with hues of individual/social difference.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

You Think You are Making a Documentary, but the Documentary is Making You*

*This is the first in a series of monthly posts until I complete my new documentary project on ordinary, everyday practices of cosmopolitanism (hopefully by the end of 2015).

I thought I wanted to make a documentary about cosmopolitanism to re-jig my original youthful dreams of being a traveling creator, perhaps akin to a foreign correspondent. The reality of a demanding full-time job and other commitments has meant that my fantasies of exploration have moved to the streets and treasures of the cities I have resided in since becoming an adult (and there have been quite a few!). So this more realistic, adult version of travel is both about being a wandering tourist in one's own city (without the alienation and otherness often associated with tourism), and also a re-mapping of one's own life trajectory. I am only in the very early stages of this process, but have already begun to realise that my aspirations of world travel may have had less to do with disappearing, and may have been more about wanting to be found.

Last night at a party where I knew no one but the host, I hesitantly introduced myself as someone who had started to work on a new documentary on cosmopolitanism. I also unequivocally added that while the subject was infinitely interesting, I had yet to find a hook for the story. My fellow party-goers (all involved in creative endeavours of one kind of another) pitched ideas and offered suggestions that took me by pleasant surprise. An actress I talked to was of the opinion that being open to others, especially those from other cultures, was about being a certain kind of spiritual that transcended religion. Her partner, an introvert with a wide range of specialised interests said that cosmopolitanism to him meant blending into the crowds of a big city. He added that this suited those with temperaments similar to his own. A former actor and media diversity advocate didn't like the word 'cosmopolitan', and frankly told me that it sounded 'wanky'. He did, however, have a taken on being more worldly. As a half-Maori lover of chocolate and toast, for him it was food that helped migrants penetrate a society. I knew that food was powerful for invoking individual and collective memories, but also aware that it was a hackneyed and misunderstood metaphor when talking about contemporary Australian multiculturalism. We did, however, come to the conclusion that the pathways of food and what it said about a city/society at any given point of time was worth documenting.

I may end up using food (but not national cuisine) as the glue that holds my narrative together. What I am also interested in exploring now, as a result of these fortuitous conversations, is how personal histories and self-perceptions intersect with social conditions to make us more or less cosmopolitan. It is almost as though we bear witness to both our own growth, and that of our physical world to establish relationships with 'others'. These others may belong to a different group in the school, the workplace, the gym or the local shopping centre, but the cosmopolitan self is able to participate in an ethical encounter that is cognizant of similarities as well as differences. I am not suggesting that there is a personality type that is more pre-disposed to acting is such a manner. Most of us are fluid to a degree, and I would hope that what I uncover through the process of making this documentary is precisely what turns on the cosmopolitan switch for a wide range of (unlikely) people, and how they make it a part of their everyday relational practices. In the meantime, I will continue to look for the right cultural metaphor even as I wait to arrive into a state of balanced, adult selfhood.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

When the Pressure Cooker (finally) Whistled

I have been using food-related anecdotes to begin and flavour many a personal/political story. Yet I know that this loaded metaphor is often used by those whose politics, or lack thereof I am trying to contest.

All the 'ethnic' food and leisure precincts that have sprung up in Australian capital cities in the last decade or so are such battlegrounds of meaning-making. First, there are the store-owners who may have arrived as students, and after struggling to bust the proverbial bamboo ceiling in their chosen field, they decide to set up a small business. Then, they are trying to cater to not just their own regionally or linguistically defined community, but also fellow 'ethnics' who may use similar ingredients, as well as the occasional curious 'outsiders' who may want to cook up a curry for their exotic new date, or try aloe Vera juice recommended by their nutritional coach. Finally, outside of this neat business-client relationship are a wide range of actors and agents attempting to claim this space for their own ends. The community leaders get photographed in the area for a particular festival - this is published in the community paper which is placed in stacks at the store counter and next to the DVD aisle - this is then digitised and publicised through various social media networks - which then gives an impression of the area to bigger players, mostly local politicians. The story then goes that a string of stores of a particular kind justifies using pretty little titles:  'Little India', 'Little Vietnam', 'Little Italy'. This serves the dual purpose of keeping these precincts from getting 'big', and also showcasing the 'multiculturalism' of the thriving, dynamic metropolis.

This showcasing is not just akin to putting on a display for aesthetic reasons. There is a particular marketing of ethnic difference by all parties involved that goes largely unquestioned in the celebratory pho and falafel picture that is painted of multiculturalism. Sure, the people involved in the transaction talk to each other, but one is usually identified as the Asian, and the other as the cosmopolitan consumer. I recall a particular episode of the ABC2 series 'Dumb, Drunk and Racist' where a white resident of Cronulla shows his solidarity with the local Lebanese community during the infamous riots in 2005 by going and eating at a nearby falafel shop. It is also reminiscent of the 'Vindaloo against Violence' movement that was started by a bunch of well-meaning Melburnians in the aftermath of the attacks on Indian students in their city in 2009-2010. I am heartened that there are those in our cities who value fellow residents who may not hail from the same ethnic or class background, but also bothered that their picture of these people is a picture of their 'authentic food'.

This brings me to why I have resisted learning to cook my own authentic food for so long. It was not just a case of wanting to display more cosmopolitan tastes by declaring that I was better at baking that at making curry. Weak sinuses and a revulsion to hot food meant that onions and chilli - two essential ingredients in a wide variety of Indian meals - were replaced with shallots and paprika in my culinary inventions. I also took great pride in adding French and Italian cheeses where they don't traditionally belong. Fancy some bocconcini on your yellow dal? I highly recommend it. Fuck tradition. It should go in the waste, not the recycle bin.

Except I was embarrassed when a fellow Indian friend stayed over one night, and was surprised that most of the spices in my pantry had either expired or were unopened. I went on to buy not just brand new fragrant masalas, but also a fancy little steel set to store them in. They now take pride of place on my tiny kitchen bench, and sit happily amidst pie pans and Tia Maria. Because of their high visibility, and during a recent amorous/domesticated life phase, I used them rather frequently to cook up everything from my favourite red kidney beans (rajma) to the humble but delicious okra (bhindi). Still, the pressure cooker my mother got me a few years ago remained out of reach on a higher shelf and gathered dust in its unused emptiness. Would using the pressure cooker be my ultimate cosmopolitan test? Did I not need to know the rules first to bend and mend them?

On my way back from work one day, I stopped at a Nepalese grocery store to stock up on their steaming fresh momos. I then remembered that I was out of my usual lentils that cooked quickly. Failing to find them in this store, I picked another kind, vaguely knowing in my gut that they might require more patience, and perhaps even more tradition. They stayed bundled up all semester long, until I realised the time was nigh to get tips from my mum, and get that pressure cooker off the not-so-reachable heights. My first attempt at using it was a classic fail - putting the cooker on high heat to try and get it to whistle quicker. It ended up making most of the water evaporate! For my second go, I was gentler and practiced slower cooking and more generous seasoning. The results were probably still not authentic enough (soupy, yet not mushy like a curry), but I was reasonably sure that I had passed my own pressure cooker of a test.

The pressure test for Australian multiculturalism in the present day is not dissimilar. There needs to be an exercise of personal and collective agency on the behalf of the migrant communities that affirms their cultural history, and also allows them to experiment with new forms of belonging in shared spaces. This allowance is also something that needs to become part of media and political discourse - where the trajectory of particular cuisines is recognised, but not covered in cling wrap so it can't breathe. Our communal whistle emanating from this pressure cooker may take a while, but it could be a delicious brew that transcends both capitalist logic and vote-bank politics.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The 21-Step Guide on How to Avoid Marking

1. Write a blog post on how to avoid marking
2. Tell yourself that this is merely 'creative procrastination'
3. Do every Myers-Briggs Facebook quiz on your personality type (guess mine!)
4. Plan a documentary on cosmopolitanism in suburbia
5. Begin shooting said documentary
6. Read about cosmopolitanism
7. Read about urban diversity
8. Plan to write a prosaic book on the poetics of space
9. Realise it has already been written
10. Wonder why you didn't realise your dream of being a foreign correspondent
11. Picture yourself in war-torn region, holding a microphone
12. Justify the non-realisation of above dream by blaming the GFC
13. And digital media for shrinking old-fashioned journalism budgets
14. Until you feel like you sound like your student who wants to be a newsreader
15. And that you are probably too neurotic to be 'neutral' in a war zone
16. Although you wish you did more than just research and write and teach
17. This is not a career quiz, but you are a 'creative documentarian'
18. Who need not worry about the academic and the creative battling away
19. And rest assured can get back to the pile of marking
20. With the hope that clever words may be inching closer and closer
21. To the heart of the latest worthwhile matter.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Coming Out of...the Good Girl Closet

All I feel like doing these days, after a rather hectic teaching semester, and a rather emotionally turbulent last few months, is couch-surfing with an easy yet insightful read while listening to 'late night jazz' on Spotify and sipping lemon and ginger tea. If out with friends, the tea is replaced with red wine, but my headspace remains in the same easy-breezy couch mode. I have found that this is rather conducive to revealing the full spectrum of my personality to those new in my life (this is the vast majority of people I interact within a daily basis as I only moved to New South Wales a year and a half ago).

What do I mean by the 'full spectrum'? Trust me, I am not being deliberately obscure. It both surprised and amused me when a farewell card given to me by former colleagues had a number of them proclaiming they would miss my calm and cool presence. Yet, I am pretty sure that those on the same floor as me, or next door to me, wouldn't necessarily describe me as even-tempered. A few others even expressed their interest in finding out how I established a social life so quickly in a new city! This, for a socially shy person, was an even bigger surprise! I wondered what of myself I was projecting, or if all of this was largely a matter of perception.

I have little idea of how my new work-mates perceive me. I do know that I am more interested than ever in tearing down the good girl facade. I recall a friend in high school telling me that she thought of me as a 'goody two shoes' when she observed me from a distance, but changed her view entirely when we became close. I turned out to be the irreverent one, hiding Ayn Rand's 'Fountainhead' under my Maths textbook.

Of course I don't need a camouflage anymore - there are no parents or teachers to please in adult life. There are bosses and colleagues, but one can only go so far with facades. I can see how they served an important end in my first proper academic job. As a 27-year old in a coveted position, I wanted to look and feel the part. That is possibly why and how I pulled off coming across as calm and collected,  the general opposite of my artistic and volatile self. I also made friends out of the sheer desperation of not knowing anyone in a new city. In my latest abode, I have seldom gone out of my way to be social. Instead, I have chosen to listen to whatever rhythm my body is sounding out, veering between intimacy and solitude. I have still made friends - only slowly, and I hope more organically. Most think of me as busy and crazy rather than calm. I can live with that!

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

I came to live in a BIG city, not an ethnic ghetto

The Palm Sunday rally in support of refugees, Sydney CBD
With apologies to all those who are offended by the words ‘ethnic’ and ‘ghetto’ placed next to each other. I will not call on my right to be a bigot here; rather, I will call upon that form of postcolonial political correctness aptly termed ‘strategic essentialism’. Perhaps my new inner-city latte leftie status renders that defense null and void! Truth is, at the ripe old age of 30, I still like to think that ‘cosmopolitanism’ is not merely the preserve of the intellectual and cultural elites. And, I only have anecdotal evidence to prove it. What a bad scholar!

So, almost six months ago, I made the brave decision to abandon my North Wollongong apartment (with roomy bedrooms, a living area where you could distinguish the kitchen from the dining and lounge rooms, a balcony of real proportions, and only minutes to the beach and university). You see, I craved to live in a ‘big city’ - it was almost as though the ‘small’ places I had lived in thus far in Australia (Brisbane and Adelaide before Wollongong) were bringing on some kind of premature maturity. Again, I intend to cause no offense to all those south-east Queenslanders who consider Brisbane the big end of town!

During my eleven months in Wollongong, I would make frequent weekly and weekend trips to Sydney to get my big-city fix. I fondly remember those days of getting misty-eyed at the sights of the tunnels of Central Station, or heaving a sigh of relief on reading the ‘Welcome to Sydney’ sign when approaching the Sutherland Shire on my drive down from the Gong. In all fairness, the suburb of Thirroul, just eight kilometres north of Wollongong, is probably more ‘gentrified’ than the Shire, but the latter’s proximity to inner-city Sydney mattered more in those days. I think it is time for another apology - pardon me, current and former residents of Sutherland. Your beaches are formidable, but they are just not for me!

I am certain that I saw much more of the Sydney metropolitan area in those days of living in Wollongong. I wouldn’t hesitate then to catch a late train back from a Sydney Festival gig at Parramatta, or hop on the line to see friends in Chatswood, or drive ‘all the way’ to Ryde for a seminar at Macquarie. In the last few months, nestled ridiculously close to a major inner west train station, I barely venture beyond a two-kilometre radius of my tiny one-bedroom unit. When the coffee shop across the road from my place displayed a ‘closing down’ sign, I was mortified. Now I would have to walk a few hundred metres further for my morning fix! Yet, I was also half-happy at turning into a smug Sydneysider. I had heard that this was a stereotype I could use in public, and even wear as a badge of honour.

Still, I ventured into foreign territory - Manly, Cockatoo Island, Kings Cross - mostly for street photography-related escapades. I even attempted a short drive to Kogarah to get specialised Indian grocery items and conduct ‘ethnographic research’ for a research article. Last Saturday, I took the train to Parramatta to attend a community briefing on proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. Yes, I was a little skeptical that the session was intended for ‘subcontinental communities’, as opposed to being directed to the residents of Parramatta and surrounds at large. Still, someone was doing something and I was willing to cross the mighty inner western frontier to get to it.

I know I am too new here to complain about the ethnic ghettoisation of Sydney. I do love this Harbour city - public infrastructure issues, dirty politics, and all. I like the idea of ‘having the option’ to travel to this or that suburb to sample food and click away to urban photographic glory. However, when the opportunity came up over Easter to travel with a friend to the Villawood Detention Centre, I cancelled at the last minute. I could give you a million reasons for saying no - ranging from not being emotionally ready to not knowing anyone inside (I have since arranged to register as a ‘Villawood Vollie’ and go through an induction process). Most of my reasonable excuses at the time were reflective of a geographical and psychological inertia that I have come to inhabit since moving to Sydney. Memories of lives past punctuate once in a while to interrupt and disrupt this tendency towards inertness.

Perhaps I am over-reacting in conflating this with the sort of inaction or apathy that has contributed to bringing down socially progressive political regimes in certain parts of the world. But then again, the personal is political, and I moved to the big smoke so I could partake of its largesse - the concerts and the marches, the holes in the wall and the Victorian tea rooms, the groovy festivals and the daggy train stations. Sometimes I overhear the most cosmopolitan conversations at my local Vietnamese grocery store or onboard a train to a suburban destination. Maybe those of us who inhabit the proverbial cultural centre sometimes become so contained as to become a ghetto unto ourselves. While there is no harm in living close to one’s kith and kin, there is a lot to be gained from occasionally moving through seemingly uncomfortable frontiers, if only to see how the bigots live up there.