02 May 2019

Living with Our Global Sisters: Embracing and Resisting Change

— Text of focus talk given on 3rd May 2019 by Susan Nulsen
Bio: Susan was born and educated in Australia. During her childhood the family moved around the country and she attended eight different schools before she went to university. Shortly after she married she went to England where she stayed for about nine years from the late 70s to the mid 80s and then also spent another year there in two different stretches during the 90s. She has now spent about fifteen years in the US.

As you can see from my bio, I moved around a lot as a child, and not quite as much as an adult. Every time I moved I had to leave my friends behind and start all over again. I heartily resisted that change! Now I am here to talk about the interactions of immigrants with the society they are coming into. I can speak both from the point of view of an immigrant myself and as a member of a society welcoming immigrants.
My Journey
The first case of welcoming an immigrant came when I was eleven living in Mt Isa, a small remote copper mining town in Queensland. At that time a new Finnish girl came into my class at school. She could not speak a word of English and none of us spoke Finnish, but she was welcomed with open arms by the girls in the class. It was my first encounter with someone who could not speak my language. We were eager to learn all we could about this exotic girl and spent a lot of time trading words with her. The handful of Finnish words I vaguely remember come from that time, “mitta” meaning “what” being her most common utterance. I left Mt Isa shortly after that but visited about six months later when I discovered her speaking fluent English. It was stunning.

When I moved to Alice Springs, in the central desert of Australia, I discovered that it was really I who was the immigrant. The Australian aborigines have the oldest continuous culture on earth, around 50 thousand years old (older than can be determined easily with carbon dating). When the aborigines entered the uninhabited land, as all peoples do, they changed the landscape. They managed the flora by regular burning and, probably, brought about the extinction off the large land animals, such as the diprotodon a giant wombat. However, by the time European settlers arrived it appears that they had reached a steady population and lived a sustainable nomadic lifestyle. They had no wars, although crimes still took place incurring punishments such as ritual spearing and in extreme cases “pointing the bone” which amounted to a death sentence. As late as the 60s there were still tribes in the central desert who had not encountered Europeans. The British declared Australia “terra nullius” which means it was owned by no-one so they were free take what they like! And that they did. In fact the aborigines didn't own the land; the land owned them. Naturally enough the aborigines resisted the British and did take farm animals. The consequences were a number of massacres by the British. These shameful events are not what we learnt about in school when I was young. 

My class contained a number of aboriginal and part-aboriginal children. Again I was eager to learn about another culture, but these kids were not quick to embrace a stranger. However a few of the girls, my sisters on this globe, would talk to me. They would hide their broad smiles behind their hands and regarded it as very important to avoid shame. Aborigines are very generous with their belongings and do not see the need to seek praise for their achievements. Even though the original people are now only an extremely small percent of the total population I see echos of their culture amongst Australians in general. I think it is partially (though only partially because I blame the British too! More about that later) responsible for Australia's “cultural cringe” – anything or anyone from overseas should be regarded more highly than the local product. An example of this was when my husband Paul said he was going to the UK to do a PhD in astrophysics. His father asked him what he thought he could do that someone else hadn't already done. Even in the physics department at the time, promising students were always advised to spend time overseas. Also Australians subscribe to what is known as the “tall poppy syndrome” – Australians like to cut down the tall poppies, those who put on airs and regard themselves as better than others because of their accomplishments. It is not that Australians don't strive for everyone to achieve as much as they can. Our (relatively) egalitarian society has ensured that Australia achieves more than its population would suggest on the global stage. I would like to think we make full use of all our people. I needed to experience other cultures before I came to the realization that the tall poppy syndrome was another example of society at large incorporating elements of the indigenous culture, without even being aware of what is happening. I attribute much of the difference in culture between Australia and its sister nation New Zealand to the differences between the indigenous aboriginal and the Polynesian Maori cultures. The Maoris, by the way, had only been in New Zealand about five or six hundred years when the Europeans settled there (1840). By that stage the Maori were facing ecological disaster. I believe this is one of the reasons that the Maori are much more warlike than the aborigines. (The British had to win a war to gain control of New Zealand.)
Grade 7,  Ross Park Primary School,  Alice Springs

In Alice Springs I had friends who were Italian, British and Chinese. And when I think back to the places I lived as a child my friends included people with many different national backgrounds (mainly European) but mostly we just didn't think about it at the time. Yet even so there was certainly an amount of cultural exchange taking place. I even had an American friend when I lived in Darwin. 

The United States prides itself on being a melting pot, but it is not the only one. Now 13.7% of the US population is foreign born. This compares with Canada which has close to one and a half times as many at 20.6% while Australia has 28.6% foreign born, more than twice as many as the US per capita. Almost one third of Australians are born overseas and less than half would have both parents born in Australia. One difference that stands out starkly is how readily many Americans relate to their ancestral nationality whereas most Australians who were brought up in Australia, certainly those that were born there, don't regard themselves as anything other than Australian. My mother's mother was English and her father a Welsh speaking Welshman but my mother would be puzzled and horrified if anyone referred to her as an English Australian or a Welsh Australian. Those were adjectives that could only appropriately be applied to her parents.

After I was married I moved to England with my husband. We lived in the cosy academic environment of Cambridge (the one on the River Cam) where we made friends with people of many nations and many cultures. For example, it was there that I first met a couple with an arranged marriage and came to appreciate how well such an arrangement could work and create just as loving a relationship as the love matches that I took for granted.

However after several years I began to notice a dark side to the British culture – the extreme classism with which it is afflicted. I should say that this classism is mitigated by the sense of “noblesse oblige” of the British upper classes. They feel that they have a duty to ensure the welfare of the lower classes. Nevertheless there is a definite social rank and Australians are at the very bottom, the most uncultured of all. Australia was, after all, founded as a penal colony when the American Revolution meant that no more convicts could be sent to the plantations of Virginia. This was brought home to me when I pointed out a good job opportunity in Melbourne to a physicist friend. His wife was a scholar of British literature and his immediate response to me was, “But what would Cathy do?” My jaw dropped. Now you can see why I place a large part of the blame for Australia's cultural cringe on the British. We decided that we did not want to bring up children in such a culture – one where your accent and the school you went to mark you for life. We returned to Australia before our daughter was one.

We did go back briefly for a couple of sabbaticals so our children had a chance to experience the British culture briefly for themselves. We also came here, to the US, for six months when the x-ray satellite Chandra was launched in 1999. As a result of that visit Paul was later offered a job at the Center for Astrophysics. We left our university-student children behind sharing a house in Sydney and I arrived at the end of 2003.

I found that a very difficult transition. I had been working as a research fellow in the engineering department at the University of Wollongong but now I was no longer allowed to work. I was unsuccessful in finding any group of Harvard spouses that met. I did do a couple of things. One was to take some art classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Another was to come along to the Theological Opportunities Program. It took Ann Wiseman, who was also my art teacher, quite some persuasion to convince me that I wasn't going to a religious meeting. TOP was of course WomenExplore and I enjoyed Liz Dodson Gray's process of planning the lectures. I was able to make myself useful because could google. I was able to find suggestions for speakers and often I could get contact information for speakers others suggested. And most importantly I also made friends with all of you! 

Ten years ago TOP wanted to reach out to other groups of women, so I searched once again and found that there was now a group of Harvard spouses known as HSSPA [pronounced “Hespa” ]. H.S.S.P.A. stands for Harvard Students' Spouses and Partners Association and was mainly made up of the wives of post-docs but also included wives of PhD students and visitors to the university in a variety of positions, plus the occasional husband. They did not prove to be a great source of participants for TOP/WomenExplore. However I found another home with this group. Although I was older than most, but not all of them, I was another foreigner displaced from life in her own country, community and family and unable to work. Without HSSPA most of these young women would have been extremely isolated.

I did not realize at the time that there was deep connection between HSSPA and TOP/WE.

In 1896 Anna Parker Lowell, the wife of a Harvard professor, started a group called the Society of Harvard Dames. This group was open to the mothers, sisters and wives of Harvard students who were only temporarily resident in the area. These were women who had come to look after the young men while they were studying at Harvard. The Harvard Dames met on Thursday afternoons for a talk followed by afternoon tea. The group lasted into the 30's and probably longer before it petered out. Maybe the war interrupted it. In the late 50's the Dean of the Harvard Divinity School decided to resurrect the Society of Harvard Dames as Ladies' Lectures for the wives of HDS students. In 1973 Brita Stendahl with a small advisory committee reformulated these lectures as the Theological Opportunities Program. Like the Ladies Lectures they weren't just open to wives but to any women who were interested. TOP/WomenExplore only became the organization we know when Elizabeth Dodson Gray became coordinator in 1978. She opened the Advisory Committee up to all who attended, developing our unique method of devising a lecture series through the topics that are on our minds. She then introduced the idea of an existential focus to ground the topic of the day in the experiences of one of the women who attended. These two features are what distinguish WE from the myriad of other lectures that are available to us.

Meanwhile some time after I had arrived, another woman turned up looking for a Harvard spouse group. She wasn't happy to find nothing and with the help of the Harvard International Office discovered the Society of Harvard Dames and resurrected it for the second time, this time as HSSPA.

It was a culture shock for me arriving here. I think foreigners feel they know what the US is like from the bombardment of American culture that we receive, but it is never what anyone expects.

I was incredibly shocked the first time I came to Boston to see beggars on the street! In the richest country in the world! It was additionally amazing to see that numbers of them are military veterans. I had NEVER seen a beggar in Wollongong! 

I find that I resist some American traits such as: 
Kowtowing to the boss
Rugged individualism
The belief that everyone is capable of achieving the American dream if it weren't for their own failures.
Philanthropy, which equals giving back a small fraction of what you stole to salve your conscience
The poor state of the democratic system, the democratic system which once led the world.
Tipping at restaurants
The lack of a living wage – tantamount to slavery. If the government needs to support your workers it is subsidizing your business.
It is a very sad fact that America is an extremely unequal society and it is only becoming more unequal, despite the efforts of many good people.

On the other hand there are other characteristics I seek to embrace such as:
The willingness to give praise
The real generosity of many individuals.

Thank you.

The main lecture was given by Roslyn Negrón, socio-cultural anthropologist from UMass, Boston, author of Ethnic Identification Among Urban Latinos: Language and Flexibility.

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