[My mother’s story version of arriving in Australia.]
Gita’s arrival at Brisbane airport was dramatic and foolish. She has flown straight from Kathmandu, the youngest child in a sling on her back, the two elder children clutching at her skirts, big bags in her hands. One child had a Nepalese drum – at the sight of which the Customs officials sighed and took a tight grip on themselves. Gita was dressed in a short thick black cotton sari. These were the sort worn by women in a particular Nepalese tribe to show off the tattoos on their calves. She knew the fumigation was coming and hoped to add to the dramatic effect in retaliation. But Gita didn’t have tattooed calves.
All this was quite stupid. There was a reporter who sensed something and wanted to take photographs. The reporter had noticed Gita exchanging a long intense, slightly smiling glance with Johnny who was waiting outside the customs barrier. Johnny, in his typical cool manner, continued leaning against the pillar, glanced at the reporter and quietly drawled that he had better not. The reporter was a middle-aged Australian, short and plump, a disappearing race of understanding country reporters. He must have sensed tragedy, fear, who knows what, so he didn’t argue but stood by Johnny and watched until Gita was through with Customs and had greeted Johnny with one word, “Hello.”
Gita was taken straight from the Third World into a two-storied wooden house on stilts in a very small coastal village of Australia.
Immediate differences in cultures came fairly quickly one after another. White labourers working on the roads – a strange sight to someone coming from a colonised country. Vendors calling in motorised vehicles. The postman driving to your post box was hard to get used to at first as Gita assumed all postmen walked with heavy bags on their shoulders. There was hot and cold piped water in the house, separate bedrooms for the children, supermarkets in the nearby city and many clubs for people – especially women.
Women called on Gita to invite her to join the CWA, the National Fitness Club and the Bowling Club. She went on to the school tuckshop roster.
The neighbours were a little slow in making contact, they didn’t know what to make of this bizarre family dumped in their midst – two dark-skinned children who talked Gurkhali to each other in a low voice, one small blue-eyed baby boy, one large blond blue-eyed man who smoked a pipe and one South-East Asian woman.
Johnny suggested that Gita make the initial calls on neighbours, first to the couple living on the right and then to the couple on the left. Later they came, a little ashamed of themselves and not quite looking Gita in the eye. They told her what day was garbage collection day, and about milk, bread and newspaper deliveries.
Life in Emu Park was still at the stage where neighbours called on newcomers to welcome them and make their entry into the community as easy and pleasant as possible.
The earliest encounter with the Queensland dialect was when a young lad called with a message from his mother.
“Do you have any spice in your fridge?” he asked politely.
“Oh, no,” replied Gita, “I don’t keep spice in the fridge, I keep them on the shelf.”
A puzzled look came into the lad’s eyes and he almost backed away.
“Mum asked if you have spice in your fridge,” he repeated.
Gita repeated her answer and so it would have gone if the lad hadn’t changed his wording.
“Mum says if your fridge is not big enough, she could keep things for you in her fridge.”
Pretty soon they sat down to tea and biscuits.
It took Gita several years to get over her horror at having people spell words for her over the telephone. The a’s and i’s were hard to differentiate and her English wasn’t all that good either. One man jovially told her it reminded him of Peter Sellers, which surely was a chicken and egg question. On the other hand, Australians were surprised at Gita speaking English at all, and made such remarks as, “How is it that you speak straighter English than we do?”
“I’ve never spoken to one of your kind before,” said a taxi driver in Sydney, “I really enjoyed that.”
And another man asked, “Are you a school teacher?”
On the whole, Gita was mostly absorbed in Johnny and their new life together. Johnny concentrated on Australianising his new family as fast as possible. Gita’s attitude to that was pretty easy until she took the children to a cafe in Sydney where they stuck their fingers into everything and generally behaved so oddly that they soon attracted the attention of the other eaters. It didn’t take very long for the kids to learn to handle knives and forks and say excuse me and please and thank you. Life became a little less conspicuous.
Ah, the freshness of those early years in Australia, despite Johnny and Gita’s fear and sorrow.
The year was the late nineteen sixties, Australia was riding high, beef was expensive because of the export prices cattlemen were getting for their beasts, minerals were being dug up and shipped out at good prices and employment was plentiful.
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