A thud at the living room window drew my attention from my book. Not three feet from my head, the impact had left a smear, and there on the table where it had landed after rebounding was a small bird lying on its side. A closer look revealed a long Kingfisher beak, brown feathers tinged with blue, a white collar and a white chest that appeared to be moving. Behind it, an Indian Myna hopped around curiously.
Insight ran an excellent series of interviews with young Aborigines living in Alice Springs last night. The kids opened up and talked about their fights, their drinking, their family problems and their hopes for a better future. If I have one regret about my book Dragon Bones, it's that the stories of the Bhutanese people are told in my words, not theirs. It's now my dream to collect the stories of Aborigines, immigrants and other minority groups in Australia and publish them (in some form) in their own words. I've recently discovered the 'Sydney Story Factory', which looks to be a great way to do that. Thousands of students attend courses and regular tuition on creative writing, with a focus on telling their own stories. All volunteers are screened for working with children so it's a comfortable environment. Unfortunately, the screenings have always clashed with my other volunteering commitments, so I'm yet to join, but it will happen this year.
Have you ever heard a politician praise the previous government? Adam Giles, NT Transport Minister, gave full credit to his predecessor for 'the best program the territory government has ever run' and vowed to continue it. The program? DriveSafe NT Remote is helping indigenous Australians to get driving licenses. In the Northern Territory, it's impossible for most people to get around without driving, but few Aborigines have the papers necessary to apply for a driving license, so they don't bother. They don't have proper lessons and they have never been tested, but many still drive. Under these conditions, it shouldn't be a surprise that on a per capita basis, indigenous deaths are twice as likely as deaths of non-indigenous people in road accidents. This figure alone is enough to show that the society that brought motor vehicles into the country should be make training available for everyone who wishes to use them. But there are side effects that enhance the need. Aborigines who have never had the opportunity for training because they don't have a birth certificate get sent to gaol for minor traffic offences. This program, which my employer is taking up for NSW, provides support for indigenous people, helping them get the required paperwork and putting them in touch with volunteer trainers. Check out the facebook page to support them.
Not everyone understands the Australian sense of humour. Sometimes it's even beyond Australians. Some of my countrymen have complained about the Prime Minister's recent video declaring that the end of the world is nigh. In one case, a mother of a young autistic man has had to convince her son that the Mayan calendar can't influence the physical world and the seemingly authoritative video didn't help. Aside from a few such cases, most Australians love the fact that our leader doesn't take herself seriously all the time. Many other cultures, particularly those in which humour is based on word plays or visual misfortune, just don't get it. Gillard's video went viral in China, where the reaction was of bafflement that a world leader could believe in the end of the world. When the subtitled version began to circulate, some Chinese accepted the joke ('oh no, but I haven't gotten married yet'), but more were horrified that a head of state could be so irresponsible as to push a false message to her people. I wish that I could explain, in 500 words, why humour doesn't translate between cultures, but I can't. Word plays, at least, suffer from homonyms in one language sounding nothing alike in another, and humour based on political or historical context is doomed to fail outside of the original setting. But I never understood why Japanese comedians must perform in pairs or why Asians don't understand irony. The best I can do, unless you have the time to read a thesis, is to respect Gillard for understanding her own people and to remind the rest of the world that we're all different.
Last month, the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence launched its own social networking site. The officially named Community of Excellence is known as Black Fella Facebook by its users. Targeted exclusively at young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the site allows youths to share their goals and aspirations and to indicate their support for each other's posts using a 'Respect' button. I really like that the inspiration came from the community and that the Aboriginal youth were consulted in the design process. Who else could design a system to meet the community needs? I am also impressed to learn that a large non-indigenous organisation like Telstra (through the Telstra Foundation) would commit their resources to developing such a complex tool without, as far as I can tell, trying to influence the design. I question the NCIE's statement that this is a new era of digital inclusion, because non-indigenous Australians like me are not invited to join, but this is not a complaint. The service is not designed for me. One day, if it works well, there may be similar respect-based, goal-oriented tools made available for all Australians, but for now, I respect that black fellas want a facebook of their own.
A Japanese exchange student, who joined my school in year 10, kept up with classes by translating unfamiliar words in her electronic translation dictionary. When I saw the same gadget on my first exchange to Japan, I would have bought it if I'd had the money. By the time I went back two years later, you could buy a similar device with multiple dictionaries, and even a calculator, loaded on removable cards. I spent the whole year fighting the urge to buy one. Soon the idea developed into personal organisers like the Palm Pilot and again I fought the temptation to buy my own. What would I really use it for, once I'd spent the money? I didn't need a diary or a calculator because I had a computer. Then Apple created the iPhone and soon it seemed that everybody had a smartphone, but still I resisted. I hated being tied to a phone and rarely took my feature-poor mobile out of my bag. Besides, if I was going to live in a developing country a smartphone would be an unnecessary reminder of wealth disparity and I probably wouldn't have a data connection anyway. Now that I've decided to stay in Australia for a while, I have finally succumbed and I'm loving my Android phone. Fiona teases me for constantly checking facebook, IMDB, movie times, ebay, goodreads and LinkedIn and even more for playing Alchemy and Flow. I even take it with me so I can monitor videoconference equipment when I support meetings at work. My computer is now almost redundant. So despite my frustration at the turnover of mobile phones (figures say the average usage of a mobile phone is just 18 months), I
I rarely go to the butcher these days - I'm guilty of succumbing to the convenience of supermarkets - but last week I wanted to get some quality meat for a hot breakfast. The old lady next to me at the counter was complaining to the butcher that she'd bet on Queensland in the State of Origin, but that NSW had won the match. He commiserated, but quickly responded that he had another tip for her - a horse that had just landed in the country. It struck me as a very Australian moment. Only here would a butcher give betting tips to customers.
I must applaud the NSW government's new moves to improve education for Aborigines. The biggest mistake the federal government made in the NT Intervention was not consulting Aboriginal elders regarding their plans. Perhaps having learnt from past mistakes, the federal government apparently created the Indigenous Action Plan (probable parent of this NSW effort) following 'extensive consultation with indigenous leaders.' While these leaders are unlikely to predict every eventuality of the program in every school selected, they at least should be able to make broad predictions about whether the program will work at all and to identify likely side effects. That these elders support a program which (as far as I can tell) puts money in a few select White principals' pockets, inspires me with confidence of positive results. I also love the flexibility of the approach. Aboriginal people in general can be given education in ways tailored to their needs. But the government takes this even further allowing each school to modify their approach to meet the needs of the local community. Since each school is likely to try different policies and methods, we will see the effect of various techniques, the best of which can then be applied more broadly. I believe that the chosen schools have a mix of Aboriginal and White students, which may make the work to balance needs more difficult, but it also provides a better environment for testing for issues if the program is deployed more broadly. While there is a chance that this will just be another failed attempt to improve the situation for our native hosts, the conditions under which the program is being run suggest a better chance of success than previous initiatives.
Until I moved to Europe, I assumed that people randomly chose the direction they moved to avoid oncoming pedestrians. In Belgium, I found myself stepping to the same side of the footpath as my counterpart almost every time. It didn't take me long to realise that I always stepped to my left while they stepped to their right, and that both of us stepped to the side that we drive on in our home countries (right in Africa, Europe and the Americas, left in Japan, India and the UK). Looking back, I'd rarely had the problem while in Australia and almost never in Japan, where people also drive on the left. Foreigners were rare in Japan and most foreigners in Australia were immigrants who'd lived in Australia much of their lives. The further I travelled, the more my findings were reinforced. When I returned to Australia, I began to get annoyed at the number of people who hadn't worked all this out and persisted in stepping to the right, and even in standing to the right on escalators. I'm only just beginning to realise that Australia is much more multicultural now than it was even 15 years ago when I left. Rather than keeping to a single suburb, immigrants from each culture are settling wherever they can, and I'm likely to hear Japanese being spoken in almost any Sydney suburb. The same is probably true for other languages that I don't recognise so quickly. With so many people stepping to the right, most people have no reason to know that we traditionally stepped to the left. I'm just starting to realise that's a good thing - even if it does take me slightly longer to
I recently saw a sign in my neighbourhood that said 'The path is there to share,' with pictures of both a pedestrian and a bicycle. I'm not sure when this changed, but it certainly wasn't the case in the Sutherland Shire in my school days. I know because I was ticketed for riding on the footpath. I'd ridden the first 3.5km on the roads and then most of the way down the Kingsway. Twenty metres from the school gate, a police car sat in the left lane of the highway. Three lanes of peak hour traffic trying to squeeze into two was dangerous enough without adding a cyclist to the mix, so I picked my bike up onto the footpath to ride the last twenty metres. The policeman stopped me and gave me a ticket. I'm sure that's entrapment. I've been very careful to never ride on the footpath since and often find myself muttering under my breath at cyclists who do. They're generally aware of pedestrians and aren't riding dangerously so I haven't felt compelled to complain directly. A good thing too, because since 2009, Sydney council has allowed cyclists to share some footpaths in an attempt to convert more people to cycling. The standard law allows children under 12 (and an accompanying adult) to cycle on all footpaths in NSW. I'm yet to see one, but NSW now apparently has 'bicycle storage areas' to allow cyclists to wait safely at traffic lights. I love the growth of bike paths around NSW, but for streets where they don't exist, I believe these changes are a step in the right direction.