Saturday, August 20, 2005


I have a piece on visiting the locations of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo over at Samizdata.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Australia grows more complex, or perhaps doesn't

My native Australia did not start receiving large numbers of immigrants from East Asian countries until around 1980. It has received a great many since, so that there are now perhaps half a million people of East Asian background in Sydney. Of these people, the most predominant are Chinese people of various backgrounds and origins. However, due to this relatively late start, the majority of adult Chinese-Australians were born overseas. And at least when I was a student and a young adult in Australia in the late 1980s, I knew lots of Chinese people, but these people had been born in Hong Kong, Malaysia, or elsewhere. When I first visited California one thing that was striking was that there were ethnically Chinese people there who were so Americanised. They had been born in America, and so probably had their parents, and there were no hints in their mannerisms or accents or day to day attitudes that they were different in any way from other Californians. They were just Asian looking rather than European looking.

And now of course we do have a few Australians like this: people of Chinese ancestry who were either born in Australia or came as small children, and have gone through the Australian education system, and are now in their early twenties. Early twenties is of course the age at which Australians go abroad en masse. The tradition has long been for Australians to finish their university career, get a job in Australia for a couple of years to make some money, and then make a prolonged trip to the rest of the world for a year or so (possibly or probably doing some work along the way - stereotypically Australians do this and return with more money than they had when they went away) before getting married, having children, buying a house etc. (Those of us who leave and become permanent expats are a different category that has always existed, but I think we may have been getting bigger at the expense of the traditional year away people). This is quite distinct from the British "Gap Year" experience, where British people go away from a year between school and university. Australians tend to get older before leaving home.

These early twenties Australian trips away often start by going to London, and I therefore see early twenties Aussies all the time: on the tube, in pubs (on both sides of the bar), working as hairdressers, decorators, builders, and quite a few of those kinds of jobs that require skills but in which people are often employed for months rather than years.

And in the last couple of years the appearances of the Australians doing this have become notably more diverse. Yesterday, on the tube I was sitting opposite a particularly good example: an early twenties young woman, who was dressed in a casually Australian way, was speaking in a quintisentially Australian way, with very strong upwards inflections. (People don't always think about just what it is that distinguishes an accent, but the most notable thing about the Australian accent is the upwards inflection at the end of the sentences. Whereas in most other versions of English I know of people raise the pitch of their voice at the end of a question but not at the end of other sentences, Australians raise the pitch of statements as well. If you are attempting to immitate an Australian accent you have to get that right. Even if the resulting accent is imperfect in most other ways, it will still sound "Australian" if you get this right). And there was something about her mannerisms (a particular way of shrugging I supposed) that just screamed "Australian". And she was discussing the normal young Australian in London things: cheap places to live, good bars, possible sources of work.

But of course she was ethnically Chinese. Even the non-Anglo Australians follow the same pattern and get to the old colonial hunting-grounds. But seeing them in London is still something one notes mentally. In a couple more years it will be entirely unremarkable.

(And yes, I am very deliberately ignorning the descendents of the Chinese people who came to Australia for the gold rushes of the 1850s, before the immigration of non-Europeans was outlawed. These were a much smaller group, and while their descendents do still live in Australia, they are now so well integrated that they fit into a different categoty still).

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