Friday, 9 January 2015

Becoming Cosmopolitan - The Citizenship Ceremony for the 21st Century?

On the 29th of October 2014, no country was led into Tagore's 'Heaven of Freedom', but I did become a naturalised citizen of Australia. While desiring of this piece of paper for largely pragmatic reasons, I was also acutely aware of what my citizenship certificate and subsequently-granted passport meant in terms of my collusion in the dispossession of Aboriginal land. As a largely symbolic gesture, I decided to wear a scarf on my right wrist that had been designed by an Indigenous artist, and to later pose for a photo in front of the Aboriginal flag rather than the Southern Cross. I told myself that these black armbands were all I could manage under the circumstances, and hoped that this was an opportunity to ally with old and new Australians who continue to re-define Australian-ness and hold our political representatives to account in regards to our participation in the global civil society.
Photo Credit: Owen Leong
However, a few months on, in the wake of globally significant events such as the Sydney siege, the Peshawar school shootings, the Air Asia tragedy and the Charlie Hedbo attack, my questions regarding whether a cosmopolitan consciousness can co-exist with a locally-rooted identity (often understood through the lens of ethnicity or religion) have re-surfaced. During this time, I have also been tentatively putting together a new proposal for a sole-authored monograph on the subject of cosmopolitanism. In the course of reading philosophical, sociological, cultural studies and inter-disciplinary takes on the matter, I have realised that a sense of civic consciousness and being empathetic towards those different from us on account of colour or creed is in fact rooted in one's own personal histories and emotional geographies.

The generic association of cosmopolitanism in the popular imaginary with a kind of class privilege that bestows intellectual and aesthetic openness to other cultures does not tell the whole story. Then there those researchers who have argued for the existence of a kind of 'vernacular cosmopolitism' than may originate, for instance, in the not-so-privileged playground of a primary school in Western Sydney with kids from varied ethnic descents sharing the contents of their lunch boxes. This, in my view, is an important counter-henegmonic story to tell, but is again only part of the picture. I am interested in what happens to these children when they leave the western suburbs to go to a university closer to the city centre, and often share houses in locations such as the inner west of Sydney that are more readily associated with cosmopolitanism. Does this mean that we have those hailing from non-Anglo and working class backgrounds added to the pot of a relatively educated inner city mix? If so, how does this change the practice of being cosmopolitan and the spaces where it is practiced? Also, how do spatial and temporal movements (and the changes in dominant cultural phenomena that they entail) impact individual and collective affinities and cosmopolitan practices?

It is no secret that my own trajectory of being an international student in Australia from 2003 to 2010, a 'temporary' worker moving half-way across the continent for academic work in 2011, a permanent resident gaining a foothold in yet another new city in 2013, and then a citizen of late have impacted my own cultural and political association with the notion of cosmopolitanism. In previous years, I have more readily associated, both in my work and in my personal life, with the idea of being 'diasporic'. However, I now find that my points of cultural reference and emotional attachment are much more dispersed than implied by the term diaspora. These references and attachments don't just belong to India, where I was born and went to school, or to Adelaide, where I spent a formative chunk of my young adult life. In fact, they are both more specific and more widespread that those place names indicate. Growing up in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India meant an early initiation to ethnic strife and its impact on innocent people, while starting university in Adelaide the same year as the beginning of the Iraq invasion felt like a preordained beginning to the overarching themes and questions of my academic and creative routes thus far.

Similarly, I have come across many an international student turned 'skilled migrant', first-generation migrant turned returnee, second generation migrant turned expatriate in a third country, Indigenous Australian turned asylum seeker advocate, and many permutations and combinations located between the extremes conjured up by a white cosmopolitan man in an airport lounge, and a non-white woman in a kitchen, a temple, or a remote community. The purpose of my project, then, is to shed light on the 'cosmopolitan becomings' of people and groups whose stories are grossly under-represented or mis-represented in our popular media and culture. Such becomings may not fit the brief of an Australian tourism marketing campaign, but they may just be more indicative of the meaning of citizenship in the 21st century.