“Where’re you from?”
It’s a question I’ve been asked at least thousand times by at least a thousand different people. It’s such an Australian question (to me), the curiosity of knowing where someone (and since they’re asking me – usually a fellow white Australian) is from, an opportunity to hear a story, an opportunity to hear something new or some gossip about another area you might have ties to. It is a very old style question after all. It harks back to the days when people travelled less, and to meet someone new was an unusual thing, therefore asking where they were from, and for them to fill you in on news from other areas was a novelty and useful.
It was a question that was asked a lot (of everyone) in Alice Springs, where I spent 10 years of my childhood, as Alice Springs was an isolated town, and a town where people moved in and out for job opportunities, tourism, and to visit family and country. The town has a large number of USians who work at Pine Gap, traditional owners of the town and areas around it, those who have come to work on a specified project, and those who are long-term residents (which when I lived there was anyone who’d been there for more 3 years – which compared to many other places in Australia is a very short time).
So as a result, I grew up listening to that question, listening to the answers and learning that everyone’s story is interesting. This is something that some people don’t seem to get, sadly, but really – everyone has an interesting story. Ordinary people are (at least to me) far more fascinating that celebrities, because ordinary people do exceptional things all the time (to paraphrase OK Go). My own story is really fascinating, I’ve lived in interesting places, had interesting things happen to me, met interesting people, and have lived for 36 years so far – so my story is a long one to tell (not as long as my grandmother’s story which sadly I didn’t capture before she died).
And each story isn’t just about what someone’s done or seen or met, there are the stories of places and feelings and insights. There are stories about how the moon rose one night, looking like it filled a large portion of the sky, and how my father took me walking up a steep road on the side of a hill to capture the moon-rise with his camera, and how everything else was so quiet and so dark, except for that rising moon.
Throughout my childhood, I listened to stories about country, people, places, experience, and emotion. I lived in a world of stories told verbally, visually, written, musically, and through dance. When stories weren’t being told, I was making them up in my heard – stories about places I’d never been, or about people I’d never met… or about things and people that were familiar to me.
And then I started work with the Immigration Department, a job I fell into by accident more than design, and I got to ask that question officially – and since I was interviewing people (first for extensions of visas, then for spouse or family visas, and finally for refugee status), I asked for their stories, and found happy and sad and terrifying and horrifying and interesting and valuable and fascinating and amazing stories all the way through.
These days I don’t ask for people’s stories, I don’t ask where they’re from because I don’t want them to feel like I’m interrogating them or that they must answer my question in a way that satisfies this white, Australian woman that they have a right to be walking the street, sitting in a cafe, working alongside me or whatever. I’m still wildly curious about these things, and am always slightly amazed (and happy) when people actually volunteer this stuff to me – this happens far more than I think it should and from complete and utter strangers (of all backgrounds).
I don’t know if I’ve gotten to all the points that I thought I would in this post, mostly now because it is very late (and I’m going to SO pay for this tomorrow morning – but there was a friend in need who needed to be heard, as well as a desire to get this done). Before I finish up though, there are a couple of stories of people, places and country that I want to reference for other stories I grew up with:
Long ago in the Dreamtime, Tiddalik, the largest frog ever known, awoke one morning with a huge thirst. He started to drink and drank until there was no fresh water left in the world. Soon creatures everywhere were dying and trees were wilting because of the lack of moisture.
All the animals pondered about their terrible plight until a wise old wombat suggested that if Tiddalik could be made to laugh then maybe all the water would flow out of his mouth. This was a good idea the animals agreed.
The animals gathered by Tiddalik’s resting place and tried for a long time to make him laugh, but it was in vain. The kookaburra told his funniest story, the kangaroo jumped over the emu and the lizard waddled up and down on two legs making his stomach stick out but Tiddalik was not amused.
Then when the animals were in despair, Nabunum the eel who was driven from his favourite creek by the drought slid up to the unresponsive frog and began to dance. As the dance got faster Nabunum wriggled and twisted himself into all sorts of knots and shapes to the amusement of Tiddalik. Tiddalik’s eyes lit up and burst out laughing. As he laughed the water gushed out from his mouth and flowed away to replenish the lakes, swamps and rivers again.
Far off in Dreamtime, there were only people, no animals or birds, no trees or bushes, no hills or mountains.
The country was flat. Goorialla, the great Rainbow Serpent, stirred and set off to look for his own tribe. He travelled across Australia from South to North. He reached Cape York where he stopped and made a big red mountain called Naralullgan. He listened to the wind and heard only voices speaking strange languages.
This is not my country, the people here speak a different tongue. I must look for my own people. Goorialla left Naralullgan and his huge body made a deep gorge where he came down. He travelled North for many days and his tracks made the creeks and rivers as he journeyed North. Goorialla made two more mountains, one of the Naradunga was long made of granite, the other had sharp peaks and five caves and was called, Minalinha. One day Goorialla heard singing and said, “Those are my people, they are holding a big Bora.” At the meeting place of the two rivers, Goorialla found his own people singing and dancing. He watched for a long time, then he came out and was welcomed by his people. He showed the men how to dress properly and taught them to dance. A big storm was gathering, so all the people built humpies for shelter.
Two young men, the bil-bil or Rainbow Lorikeet brothers came looking for shelter but no one had any room. They asked their grandmother, the Star Woman but she had too many dogs and couldn’t help them. the Bil-bil brothers went to Goorialla who was snoring in his humpy but he had no room. The rain got heavier and the boys went back to Goorialla and called out that the rain was heavy. Goorialla said, “All right come in now.” The Bil-bil bothers ran into Goorialla’s mouth and he swallowed them. Then he began to worry about what the people would say when they found the boys missing. He decided to travel North to Bora-bunaru, the only great natural mountain in the land. Next morning the people found that the boys were gone and saw the tracks of Goorialla and knew that he had swallowed them.
You may never see these lakes or mountains, but after the rain you will see his spirit in the sky , which is the rainbow. This is the reason why he is called Goorialla the Rainbow Serpent.
[Though in one version of the story I read as a child the Rainbow Serpent was followed and hunted, once caught he was cut open to free the two brothers]
My Country (by Dorothea Mackellar) – excerpt and so relevant for Australia right now
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!
A stark white ring-barked forest
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon.
Green tangle of the brushes,
Where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops
And ferns the warm dark soil.
In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving `down the Cooper’ where the Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.
And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
“He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.
And the Snowy River riders on the mountains make their home,
Where the river runs those giant hills between;
I have seen full many horsemen since I first commenced to roam,
But nowhere yet such horsemen have I seen.”
So he went – they found the horses by the big mimosa clump –
They raced away towards the mountain’s brow,
And the old man gave his orders, “Boys, go at them from the jump,
No use to try for fancy riding now.
And, Clancy, you must wheel them, try and wheel them to the right.
Ride boldly, lad, and never fear the spills,
For never yet was rider that could keep the mob in sight,
If once they gain the shelter of those hills.”
The Drover’s Wife (by Henry Lawson) – excerpt
Now and then the bushwoman lays down her work and watches, and listens, and thinks. She thinks of things in her own life, for there is little else to think about.
The rain will make the grass grow, and this reminds her how she fought a bush-fire once while her husband was away. The grass was long, and very dry, and the fire threatened to burn her out. She put on an old pair of her husband’s trousers and beat out the flames with a green bough, till great drops of sooty perspiration stood out on her forehead and ran in streaks down her blackened arms. The sight of his mother in trousers greatly amused Tommy, who worked like a little hero by her side, but the terrified baby howled lustily for his “mummy.” The fire would have mastered her but for four excited bushmen who arrived in the nick of time. It was a mixed-up affair all round; when she went to take up the baby he screamed and struggled convulsively, thinking it was a “blackman;” and Alligator, trusting more to the child’s sense than his own instinct, charged furiously, and (being old and slightly deaf) did not in his excitement at first recognise his mistress’s voice, but continued to hang on to the moleskins until choked off by Tommy with a saddle-strap. The dog’s sorrow for his blunder, and his anxiety to let it be known that it was all a mistake, was as evident as his ragged tail and a twelve-inch grin could make it. It was a glorious time for the boys; a day to look back to, and talk about, and laugh over for many years.