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.