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PROGRAM - by Puva Arumugam

Studying Diasporic social behaviour and migrant cultural assimilation processes have always been one of my many interests. I now dedicate a fair bit of my time being involved in research work that would provide an interesting and creative insight to the how migrant and expatriate communities adapt, adopt and assimilate in a different country over a period of time.

Living away from home is never easy! Whether you moved because of better prospects, needing a change in environment, or out of sheer necessity, one has to adjust to new practices, habits, ways of lives, thinking and social surroundings when you begin to start life in a new country!

This adjustment can be quite daunting! Life has never been the same for many once they make the decision to move away from their homeland! However, creative thinking can always help you adjust to all these challenges and make the best of given situations!

With this as a background, I have started a Gemz Creative Arts Cultural Integration Program in January 2013 where I work closely with migrants, expatriates and diasporic communities to understand and work with them as they integrate into a new society, cultural environment and adjust to a different lifestyle as part of their journey to a foreign land.

Do visit this page from time to time to get an update on the Research Program as this has been truly a wonderful experience for all involved.

Feedback is always welcome and if you live in Melbourne and wish to participate in this program, do send me an email. 

Sri Vidya comes from Bangalore, India and her husband is working in InformationTechnology for an established firm. The couple have a six year old daughter and they arrived in Melbourne in June last year.

To Sri Vidya, this trip to Australia is a dream come true. She had always wanted to travel and she is thoroughly enjoying her stay here. To her, Australia has certainly lived up to her expectations. She is full of praises about the neat roads, green gardens and big lovely parks. She also finds the quality of fruits and vegetables to be really tasty and the variety is certainly a plus for her.

She admits that there are pros and cons in being an expatriate wife but certainly the pros supersede the cons only because of the job and the lucrative allowances that her husband earns.

1) Life in Australia

Her first month in Australia was spent looking for a house to stay and it had to be close to her husband's work place and her daughter's school. Renting was not easy for the couple as dealing with housing agents was certainly a new thing. In India, the tenants deal directly with landlords and have very little to do with agents. Sri Vidya said that at times she felt the agents were making the decisions and refusing their queries instead of the landlords when it came to lease or tenancy matters. She feels it might be better to deal with landlords directly.

In looking for a place to stay, it is important to this couple that there are other expatriate families from their hometown or country living nearby to offer support in times of need. I have personally observed that the Expatriate ladies take turn to drop and pick up the children on certain days allowing families to take a break when needed. This camaraderie is essential when you have no other form of support system to depend on. That is why we see the formation of diasporas who use the familiarity within the community to help ease the tension of coping with challenges that they face in a new land.

Sri Vidya observed that over the last few months, her family have adapted very well to their life here. Their house is a stone's throw away from her husband's workplace. He comes home for lunch and both parents take turns to drop the girl off in the mornings. Sri Vidya said that in India, the travel time to work takes ages and there is hardly room for the husbands to share the load with their spouses to take care of children as they have to leave early and come home really late. So the bond within the family has certainly strengthened.

She has also gathered a lot more Australian friends after she helped to organise a Bollywood Event in her daughter's school. Prior to that her friends have been mainly the families that had arrived from India.

Once she offered her help and time to mix with the locals here, she was happy to see that it opened up new friendships for her.

She also noted that Australians were not really happy when she gave her opinion on matters without being asked though. "They will accept it only if they asked for your view. If you give it unsolicited, they usually just ignore you." She said that "The the local Australians do have a close knit circle and one can enter only if they allow you to do so. Once you are in their circle, then they are very friendly and nice to you." It is an interesting observation and this works both ways I would say.

2) The Australian Language

Sri Vidya speaks five different languages and English is one of them. She feels that the Australian language is very colloquial. Being trained in British English and as a person who speaks and writes five languages fluently, she is appalled at the slangs, short forms and jargons that are used here in Australia. She is still baffled as to why the Australians like to use the term "No worries" for everything! A term that I am slowly refraining from using after my interview with her!

3) Education in Australia

From language, we moved on to education in Australia as this is very important for families with children when they move to a new country to work or live.

When I asked if she was happy with Education standards here in Australia, her reply was: " If you are already a citizen here, then you have no choice but to educate your children here...but if you are not a citizen, then I would suggest that you move your children back to India to continue their studies when they are in Grade 5 and 6!" To her, the school is only exposing the children to a broader cultural perspective but not giving them a good foundation required for higher studies or international standards.

She is not alone in this thought. Most expatriate families who are here from India, that I know, do coach their children at home with extra work that would allow these children to be compatible when they return back to India. The standard in Indian schools are much higher than what is taught here and it is very competitive.

I would share the same thought even though I am not from India. I grew up in Singapore and our primary school standards are higher than what is taught here in Grades 1 to 4. So I push my children to do a lot more homework than what is given at schools as I feel that they are not taught enough at school. But as Sri Vidya pointed out, my kids are born here and this is their home. I just want them to be good in their studies.

4) Cost of living in Australia

Sri Vidya observed that the cost of living here in Australia is way higher than in India or even the United States where her friends have been posted to before coming here. She is shocked and wonders how the locals are coping with such high costs of living. The good part of being an Expatriate is you save with the allowances given and the families do not need to buy appliances, vehicles and just use the basic so that they can save the money to buy them a better living back in their home country. But even the basics such as public transport, books, food and rental are costly and this reduces the amount that they can actually save when they are here.

5) What is not good about Australia?

Well, given that Sri Vidya did start her interview saying that there are more pros than cons, her main concern about the cons was the medical facilities and its cost and care that is offered here. She said that she is shocked at the lack of care that the patients get when they have to go to Accidents and Emergencies at hospitals in this country.

She had heard of encounters by friends and relatives of having to wait for several hours at the A&E for just basic treatment. This applies to both infants and adults.

She also cited the case of how one of her relatives was not given the proper diagnosis after a four-hour wait at an Emergency Ward. He was sent home with just a report and pain killers after an x-ray. His situation worsened after a few months and he was told to fly back to India for treatment as the wound was infectious and it could be contagious! Incidents such as this could be few and far between but to let something serious as this fall through the crack is not a pleasant memory for a mother who has a young child.

Given that India is a very progressive country in terms of its medical facilities, the expatriates from India are shocked at the lack of nurses on duty, the lack of duty doctors and how little the GPs here are of help for a flu or an injury! It is just ironical how money can buy some of the best medical services in India but the same amount of money cannot buy at times even basic medical service here in Australia.

Apart from the medical care, Sri Vidya also mentioned the drinking culture that seems to prevail in Metro cities.

She is just shocked not because she is conservative but at the drunken display of stupor among women and men that is so public in Melbourne CBD. She said she used to look out of the window whenever she heard a scream or a shout from below the streets. She was shocked to see how often it would be drunk women pulling and shouting at each other and a group of men running in many different directions down some alleys. Nowadays, she just shuts the windows and is quite immune to the public display of drunken aggression.

But overall, Sri Vidya is having a great time living here with her family. She feels that her daughter has toughened up a lot here. She has been a very confident child even back in India...the past few months, has also made her rough and tough. There are no monkey bars to climb back in the schools in India and Sri Vidya is just happy that her daughter is now trying everything adventurous.

She is impressed at the level of publicity that tourism gets in Australia. She observed: "Even a small water creek gets such great publicity that wants to make you visit this place. Once you get there, it is shocking because we have seen many other better creeks or falls in India! The thing is no one gives the places of interest in India much publicity. I am just impressed that the cities or local governments spend heaps of money for publicity here."

I had a great time talking to Sri Vidya as I could relate to many of her experiences here even though I am not from India. We are kind of the same and yet not the same. Given my hybrid identity of being a Singaporean Indian, I have been to India several times and I know the windows from which Sri Vidya is looking at when she is here in Australia.

The country we are from plays an important part in adapting and accepting changes into our lives. The status of our visa also matters as if you are here temporarily, you would brush off many things that do not concern you or likely not to have an effect on you. After all, you do have a home to go back to.

But for migrants like me, this is home. It is hard to brush 'not so good' medical facilities and education standards off the chart only because my family is here to stay and we do have to live with these conditions whether we like it or not. The windows through which I look at Australia have to certainly be different so that I can adjust and adapt to life here accordingly.

I will be talking to more migrants and expatriates from different countries and it would be interesting to compare their observations based on where they come from and what they are used to back home and what they expect from Australia too.

Till my next interview....stay tuned.

Part 1 Cesar and Carol - 

Migrants from Columbia

I recently had the privilege of working with two Colombian Migrants, Cesar and Carol for a period of two months on their adaptation and assimilation process in a new land.

I initially became involved as an English tutor but our discussion led us to expand this and we explored how they were adapting themselves as new migrants in a foreign nation.

Cesar arrived in Australia last October after he obtained his Permanent Residency Visa to be a skilled worker in Australia. He has given himself a year to find a job in the IT industry as he is well qualified in developing programs and systems. While he was busy sending out his resumes and contacting recruitment agencies, he also made sure that he was getting English tutors by both Native Australians and English Teachers to improve his spoken English. He felt that learning the Australian English would certainly help him to understand Australian Culture and get his job faster.

I was his tutor no. 4 as he juggled his lessons with three other tutors on different levels. The other three were Australians and Europeans who were teaching him different ways of speaking and understanding Australian English.

Cesar's girlfriend Carol arrived in January this year after she received permanent residency visa as well. She is a trained Mechanical Engineer by profession and she too was keen to get a job so that both Cesar and her can start their life here.

Both of them are in the view that the current job situation here in Australian is tough and they have given themselves till June this year before they decide to return back to Colombia.

As part of our Cultural Integration programs, we would meet twice a week and chat about life in Australia for two hours each session. This exercise was very interesting for me as I could apply all the theories of Cultural Studies in the way both Cesar and Carol adapted, assimilated and resisted their integration into a new country.

It was also refreshing as I had gone through almost all their shocks and apprehension 12 years ago when I first migrated to Australia but on a different level.

While there is potential for this study to be a good research paper or an academic paper, I would like to start by sharing my study in this platform to create initial awareness under several headings...Language, Perception of Australia vs living in Australia, Job market, People and Culture and Connection with home!

1)The Australian Language

Cesar speaks very good American English and his mother tongue is Spanish. He has a post graduate degree from Colombia and he code switches between English and Spanish quite often.

He speaks with an accent which is not hard to understand but he thinks it is hard for Australians to understand him. He also finds it hard to understand the Australian slang when he speaks to recruitment agents on the phone.

He feels that the native Australians were speaking too fast and was at first afraid to ask them to repeat what the agents were saying on the phone. So most of the time, he ended up not answering the questions in full or sometimes answering them wrongly. He would feel very silly as he knew they were asking something that he knows quite well but due to the way the question is phrased and asked, he feels he had not given his best shot!

We then worked on breaking the barrier of not wanting to ask the speaker to repeat the question. This is tough as the confidence has to come from within. Cesar had to fight the urge to be quiet on the phone and speak up a lot more. At times, it is a cultural barrier of not wanting to seem silly or slow when you ask someone to repeat themselves a few times.

Having studied Theories of Language and having taught the Representation of Language and Culture, I explained how the certain words were pronounced, articulated here in Australia, I showed how certain vowels are pronounced in the Australian slang which is quite different from how he and I would speak. This helped Cesar to understand why certain words like "No", "Home" and "Day" were stretched when spoken and sounded like they had a letter "I" even when there was no letter "I" in the spelling of these words.

Given that they both spoke fluent Spanish, they tended to pronounce the letter "V" as "B" and vice versa! So I would always pick it up for them until they made a mental note to change it as they spoke.

Carol was also very careful not to make a mistake when trying to express what she means. She would often correct herself while she speaks and question me if she phrased the questions correctly. The need to be understood was inherent and the need to belong in the Australian community using Language seemed to be a pressing need.

As English is my first language and I speak three other languages quite fluently, I have never had the difficulty of being understood here in Australia although my accent is not Australian. Hence, the importance given by the couple to be fluent in English was a foreign concept to me. I kept assuring them that I understood them perfectly but they were not convinced that the fellow Australians understood them as they were met with quizzing looks or questions on the phone that made them stumble!

2) Perception of Australian

Lifestyle vs living in Australia

Migrants often come with the view that the pasture is always greener elsewhere. In the case of Cesar and Carol, they wanted to see what was outside Colombia.

Both Cesar and Carol had good jobs back in Colombia and led fairly comfortable lifestyles. It is natural to expect that when they decide to migrate, their lives would be similar if not better than where they came from.

But were these expectations met? Not exactly...They were surprised that the cost of living here in Australia was really high. The strength of the Australian Dollar had a great impact on their financial planning. 1 AUD$ was equivalent to 2000 pesos! While they had come with a reasonable amount of savings, they found that food, transport and rent were fairly expensive when compared to back in Colombia.

When Cesar first arrived, he was told by his housing agent to pay a six month rental up front! That is not the norm here but his housing agent made him do it. Why was he told to pay that much?Neither of us had the answer! I was explaining that it is usually a month's rent in advance as bond and month's rent. Having paid so much in advance, he is certainly unable to move for six months unless the new job offers a good pay and that warrants him giving up his payment here. The couple also mentioned that they noticed more violent behaviour displayed on the streets and read about more violence in the suburbs in the news than they would back in Colombia. This made them question if this is really a place where they want to stay long term. They are used to seeing and reading about crime and violence in Colombia but when you are in a foreign land, it is just natural to fear the same crime and violence owing to the unfamiliarity of the location and people.

Things like connecting a phone line took more than a week to happen here in CBD Melbourne! They can't imagine the time it would take if they moved to a suburb! Internet connection was just as hard. The customer service was appalling with some agencies and these are major phone line or service providers! Getting utilities set up or just getting a furniture ordered took days and weeks unlike in their home country. This was certainly an issue that shocked them. These are issues that shock many locals too, believe me!

Carol mentioned that when she told her friends that she is going to Australia, they were envious that she can now visit Asian countries like Singapore, Vietnam and Bali for holidays as these places were really near! She was surprised to find that it was not as near as she thought these places would be and the price of airfare was also not as what she imagined the fares to be!

The perceptions have been altered and it is not until you get to the place that you can actually find out how it is to actually live there.

3) Job Market

Both of them have arrived during a tough time in terms of employment situation and they are technically in a place that is inundated with migrants who are all competing for the same piece of the pie.

There are jobs but the couple are looking for jobs in niche areas and in the case of Carol, she stands a better chance of getting engineering positions in the mining towns or regional areas. As such, Cesar would then have to look for IT jobs there too.

Cesar noted that he might have been too hopeful of getting an IT job easily in Melbourne City but soon realised he was competing with a thousand other migrants from other nations such as India and Asia who are also sought after by employers. He felt that their command of the English language gave them the edge above him.

The next thing we noted was the lack of contacts to get Cesar his first job! He knows very little people here and those that he knew were not in the IT line.

He was finding it hard to understand why the agents were not getting back to him even if he had all the qualifications. One thing that hit him was that he did not know enough people here to get him contacts or in roads to the jobs that he wanted to do. It was easy for me to tell him to keep calling the agents to find out if they would see him but in reality, it is hard in some cultures to be so persistent.

While they have read that in the media that Australia had survived the Global Financial Crisis and that the dollar is strong and the economy looks stable, theactuality of their situation has thrown them off guard. The fact that the job hunt has taken more than six months is a worry! The only hope for them now seems to be Carol getting a job so that she can open up in roads for Cesar to get employed at some point.

4) People and Culture

What is the Australian culture? Certainly they were asking the wrong person as I am still learning what it means to be Australian!

We then observed collectively what a foreigner would perceive the Australian Culture to be. This would certainly be different from how Australians would perceive their own culture.

The first thing that was mentioned was how we had to be affiliated to some Footyteam to feel at home here! Cesar quipped: When I get my citizenship, I think I have to sing "God save the Queen and I love Footy!" It was like a passport requirement to belong to a Footy team! And of course his passion was Soccer which is not as popular here as Footy or Cricket!

I myself have yet to find a team to be affiliated to in these last 12 years as I can't be bothered with the sport really! My daughters are supporting a team because they like the colours and the team has been winning over the past year or two. That's as far as I would go in with the discussion of Footy! But Footy has sure been a great ice breaker with any Australian that I have met so far!

Cesar also said in Colombia, people love to watch people. They are basically very curious! And the people are generally very helpful and friendly. Here in Australia, no one cares if you walked half naked, no slippers or fully clothed. People don't watch what others do as much! I laughed out loud when I heard this as I don't come from a place where we watch people as well! I am not bothered with what others wear or do. Hence the curious stares of Cesar has been a worry at times even for himself!

Politics in Australia was also a topic that came up in the discussion. For a start, it is hard to comprehend who is in power and who is not. Who is a better leader and what is different about the politics here as opposed to home. Reading the news also gives a slanted perception depending on who is the flavour of the media! It was funto compare notes on what the couple thought about the ruling party as opposed to the opposition party! I was quite surprised that I was discussing politics quite readily and openly and that to me was a sign of me being assimilated with the Australian society. This is in the context that I come from a society that shunned political discussions openly some twenty years ago! It is of course a different scenario in my previous homeland these days.

5) Connection with home

While as migrants we have made a decision to leave our homeland, it is hard to be completely divorced from our homeland only because we have left our family and friends there!

When President Chevoz from Venezuela died recently, Carol said it really affected her! I was not even aware that he was sick! She was affected when she heard that her relatives were unwell. And this happens whether you have been here for two months or 12 years. News from the homeland will have an impact on the migrant as that affects the loved ones that they have left behind.

It is fair to say that while we are coping with our day to day demands here, our hearts and minds are, at least for the first few years, connected to our homelands. The issue would be that some migrants are able to let go of their sentiments in due course and move forward as they have made the decision to migrate, while there are some migrants who are too connected to their sentiments and family and leave for their homeland eventually to be where their heart is!

Both options have opportunity costs and in the case of this couple, they are just currently testing the waters here and are sure that they would one day return to their homeland as the pastures are not as green as they seemed to be when they were making their plans last year to migrate.

This program has been interesting for me and I hope you the reader have found it interesting too!

I look forward to sharing more of my future Cultural Integration exercises soon!

My next project is with an Expatriate who is transiting in Melbourne and let's find out if she is going to take the plunge to make Australia her home.

Stay tuned!

Dr Puva Arumugam

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