Drumroll please, for the lovely Bec who is back (she’s back!) with a new post for all us lucky gals who dwell in this sweet old tent. I can’t get enough of her writing. I just can. not.
On Being Human, by Rebecca Schopf.
The post I’ve decided to write today has absolutely nothing to do with parenting. Or with being a woman, per se. But it is about being a human, which I think is what the Red Tent – were we to bleach the fabric, strip away all the cute bunting and fairylights we’ve strung up, and hand Rach some breast pads and clothes because FOR GOD’S SAKE WOMAN WE HAVE COMPANY – is all about. Being human.
To start, I need to give you all a quick debrief about me and where I am: I’m an ordinary Brisbane girl, born and raised, who knew Rach at high school before going on a rather convoluted career-searching journey in the years that followed – a year working as a secretary, four years studying journalism and science whilst working at various cafes and later Channel 7’s Sunrise program, then another four years studying medicine and working part-time at the ABC before graduating in 2009. (And believe it or not, I still have What I Want To Be When I Grow Up fantasies!)
For all the endless um-ing and ah-ing over my career, though, my heart was always far more straightforward. When I fell for someone, that was it: I would do anything, go anywhere for love. (It kind of helped that I love to travel). And so it was, that after 3 days learning how to ski in the Austrian alps in 2007, and after he then came out to Australia a few months later, and back and forth and back and forth as I finished my degree… in 2010 I decided to leave my family and friends and move halfway around the world to be with my ski instructor-turned-husband, Norbert.
(Sidenote: Let us all take a moment to pause and reflect on his god-awful name. The first thing I asked him when I met him was “What kind of mother does that to their newborn son?!”).
So anyway, that explains why I sit here, amongst the snow and quaint alpine cottages, with farmers walking by my window wearing those cute little Tirolean felt hats. Not so complicated, really. Almost boring, in fact – your typical ski instructor blah blah love blah blah cliché.
And whilst the Norbster and I are still awesome – which is no small feat, considering we’re now seven years, one bicultural wedding and two kids later – I have to admit, being thrust into another culture has been…well, hard.
“Well um, duh, Bec,” I hear you say. “What were you expecting?”
And yeah, OK, point taken. But hear me out. Consider where I came from before I moved countries. I was graduating medical school. As one
absolute wanker tool person in my class said, “Dude, we’re gonna be DOCTORS, man. DOCTORS.” And in that short statement, he confirmed all those suspicions you’ve ever had about doctors being arrogant and egotistical idiots. Don’t get me wrong; there were a few good ones in there – I like to think I was one of them – people who realised that being a doctor didn’t mean you were smarter, or wiser, or better than anyone else. It was just another job, in which you had the privilege to step into someone’s most personal life for a moment and potentially change it forever.
Nevertheless, I want to put it out there that no matter how down-to-earth I was, there was still some sense of accomplishment – entitlement, even – attached to the feeling of click-clacking down a hospital hallway in a Witchery pencil skirt, clipboard in hand, talking to people who have driven 300km that morning to see you for a 10 minute consultation. I had an agenda. I was busy. I had places to be; places I was going. I had a definite sense that I was somebody. I belonged there.
And then I moved to Austria. Where I spoke not one word of German. Where the people dealt with annoying English-speaking tourists all the time and had no immediate desire to befriend one of them purely for the sake of it. Where no-one gave a damn where Brisbane is, or what my life was like before coming here. “University of where?” the secretary at Innsbruck University said.
It was, in many ways, like being a baby again. But this time I was no longer growing up with the automatic advantage of belonging to the “us” majority. The new me was going to learn what it was like to be one of society’s minority. To not feel like you had just as much right to be here as everyone else. To be made to feel like a guest, who should politely thank someone – God, the stars, perhaps the locals themselves – that she got so lucky to get a ticket to live here. In other words, to be one of “them”.
Can you imagine what it’s like to work in a restaurant bar and have a woman – sober, during the day – lean across the bar, cup her hands around her mouth and yell, “Hello? HEELLLOO-O?!” and tell you very loudly and slowly that you are making her beer in the wrong glass, but of course you are, because you don’t come from here? (It was in the right glass, by the way). Or to have a man ask whether an Australian medical student should be allowed to insert someone’s drip in their arm (a procedure I had performed hundreds of times before)? What about being invited to a hen’s night of a friend of your boyfriends’ that you don’t really know, feeling obligated to go because she is obviously trying to be friendly and include you, showing up at the stated 8pm arrival time and waiting for an hour alone at the bar because all of the other guests have been invited to her house for pre-drinks? And then, when they all arrive in a laughing, squealing, half-pissed gaggle, to discover she has brought your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend along too so they can all watch you squirm as you meet her for the first time?
I have asked a German man to speak slowly and properly for me and received the reply, “But you don’t speak proper German, so why should I?”
I have tried to order a mocktail in a restaurant and had the waiter laugh hysterically, gather his colleagues so they could hear me order again, and then comically mimic my pronunciation of the word ‘lychee’ for the rest of the meal. (It’s pronounced “lit-chee” in German.)
You see, when you are systematically made to feel ‘lesser’ on an ongoing basis, you start to change. On the inside. You start to wonder if you are actually the weird one, and they’re all normal. You start to wonder if it’s somehow your fault, for not being tougher-skinned, for not being able to just shrug these things off and get on with it. You start to subconsciously look for offensive undertones in every interaction – “did that check-out chick just make fun of my accent?” – even when it’s not actually there. You start seeking out the company of your own kind. And you start to understand how stuff like this can shape a person, how they see the world, and how they approach other people, for a lifetime.
You probably think the instances I’ve written about in this blog are made up. You probably think, if they’re not made up, then they must be limited to this crazy, backward-thinking part of the world. I thought so too, at first. I thought: man, the number of accents I came across in my 25+ years in Australia, and never, not in a million years, would I – or any of my friends or family – openly laugh or mimic how a non-native person speaks.
But then, is it really such a stretch of the imagination? If I assume that most of us in this tent are like me – i.e. educated, middle class, probably somewhere on the left side of the fence politically speaking – well, what we consider “normal Australian behaviour” is probably a far cry from what’s considered normal to the talkback radio listeners in Longreach. I remember the old farmhand who worked on my grandparents’ farm referring to his (presumably Pakistani) doctor in Kingaroy Hospital as ‘Osama Bin Laden’. Do you get where I’m going here?
It reminds me of something a Turkish man said to me a couple of years ago, in a German class: “At least when you keep your mouth shut, Bec, people think you’re from here. My ‘them-ness’ is like a tattoo over my face.”
And just when I’d started to feel sorry for myself, I am slapped in the face with the cold realisation that this – how I have it over here – is not bad. Noooo. Not by a long shot.
Consider the 16-year-old Sudanese girl, desperately missing home and hating her new school in Capalaba, and then discovering a group of girls have befriended her because they “needed a black girl in their group”. Or the mother of the Down syndrome boy in the park, helplessly fighting back tears as she watches his delight, believing he’s playing with the other kids, when really they’re teasing him. The asylum seekers on Manus Island. The people in Syria.
I don’t write this stuff to bring you guys down. I know it’s a risky move, writing this post, because it’s not as cheery or funny as my last one. I guess what I’m trying to do is put forward another perspective. Not in a patronising way, and hopefully also not in a preachy way. Had I not fallen in love with my ski instructor back in 2007, I never would have had the opportunity to see society from this angle. You can’t, when you live and work and exist in a community that you have grown up in – where you belong. So what I wanted to do was take you on my journey with me. Because I truly think and hope that if we move back to Australia one day, it will be impossible for me to be the girl I was before. Not that that girl was bad – not by any means. She was incredibly friendly, and charming, and would give a million-dollar smile to any stranger in a hallway – be they white, or old, or black, or young, disabled, whatever. But at the same time, she kind of looked through them. She was striding with purpose down that hallway. No offence, stranger person, but she didn’t really need any more friends; and she didn’t really have the time for anything more than a cheery smile, thanks to that precious agenda of hers.
But now I know how it feels, to be looked through. And as a result, I think I’ve become softer. Slower. Smaller.
And these new characteristics are just some of the cool discoveries I’ve made since living in Austria. My German is now at doctor level and hopefully after one last exam next week I’ll be able to start working again (the question remains whether I actually want to, but that’s a whole nother blog!). I have my hugely supportive husband, and my two little sausage-toed girls who make me belly laugh at least 60 times a day. I’ve found a few absolute gems of friends within a 30km radius – which is all anyone ever needs, really – and I have this strangely awesome little cyber tent of ours, the modern day equivalent to the Aussie bloke’s backyard shed. Perhaps it’s weird to say this after all I’ve just written but life is, believe it or not, good. Not perfect (is it ever?), but good.
Before I go (are you still reading?), I want to share something Norbert said to me tonight. First he said, “Why do you have to go and write something so depressing? Can’t you just write yet another article about how oh-so-hard but oh-so-rewarding parenting is?” (Don’t worry, ladies, I have let him know that such attitudes towards Tent posts are not appreciated in here. I won’t bring him next time). But I also want to share something else with you that he said, because between the god-awful name comment, ski instructor stereotype, not to mention calling his homeland “crazy” and “backward-thinking” – well, poor old Norbs has copped a bit of a bashing in this post, when actually, as far as men go, he’s a pretty good one. So I am going to end with a quote from him, which I really do think is quite profound:
“Because you see, nobody is a nobody in his or her surroundings. Everybody is a somebody, to someone, somewhere.”