Sunday, February 7, 2010

Edges straight and true

The truth is that most edges are not straight.  Borders marked on maps wind and weave alongside rivers, around mountains, and along the shores of oceans.  Just like the sea ebbs and flows, so the borders change and drift over time.  Sometimes they are lines on maps that bear no similarity to the cultural flows and drifts that set down roots in centuries long past.

Last night, in the early evening, and after a productive day doing household things, I decided that dinner would best be served from a stall at Canberra's Multicultural Festival.  And seemingly thousands of other Canberrans had the same thought - as they crowded into what was a cross between street market and folk festival.  I moved through the crowds trying to decide if I wanted Vietnamese, or Thai, or Indonesian or Sudanese.  Part Octoberfest, part folk festival, it was a lovely way to sample cultures from around the world.  And it was delightful to see people in national dress, singing and dancing, on the stages, and in impromptu groups near each country's stall.  There was joy and pride among each of the groups getting to show something about the place they've come from, rather than what must be their everyday life adapting to the world they are in.

As a poignant prequel to this blend of Arabian night and South Pacific hangi, I met a lovely girl from Krygistan yesterday morning in the carpark of my local gym.  Also a local pool, she had been there taking her daughter to swimming lessons.  Driving forward from the carpark next to me, she had accidently driven over a concrete bolster.  We called the gym, who called security, who were very helpful and removed said bolster from under the car.  While I waited with her I learnt that she had only migrated to Australia 4 years ago.  It was interesting to talk to her and quite clear that for her the borders between the two worlds were merging well.

In the conversation she mentioned Mark Twain, and it made me think about the hooks that grab us when we learn new languages or visit a country.   In travel, sometimes, you can only catch a glimpse of what a country is really like, and when you are learning a language what you learn about the country is often guided by the interest of the teacher or text book author.  There are many cliches that we learn about, and see when we travel.  Sometimes we learn through the lense of past decades, because the materials or the people come from those times.  But if we really want to know a culture all we can do sometimes is butt up against it through these portholes until the vision widens.

And it is the blending of old and new, the memories of expats and the challenges of the day, and the truth that sits behind the songs and dances that helps us live within these worlds.  Before I left the festival, and as day became night, I watched a calypso band sing Kingston Town (a Western radio hit in the 60s) with the Carribean singer and drummer backed up by a grey haired muso who looked like he learnt the song in a garage band, way back then.  It wasn't pure, but like the kids in saris playing with their mobile phones, very true.

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