Civility: A thing of the past?

A recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia brought me face to face with the sharp contrast between fast and slow cultures. Okay, no-one is going to call Singapore slow. It is a city on the move, often derided as an oversized shopping mall in which all traces of tradition have been bulldozed to make way for more shops.

What struck me most strongly in both countries is their (sigh) intense civility.

We know Singapore is a deeply regimented society and that much of what takes place there is mandated. So it’s no surprise folks actually wait until you have stepped from the train, rather than crushing you as you disembark.

We spent two days in relentlessly multicultural Melaka, during which time we witnessed an amazing late night gathering in the neighbouring kampong, which I assume had only been preserved because of its touristic value. There was music, sound and colour.

Exploring the kampong a couple of days later I was engaged in conversation by a friendly local. I got the old “where do you come from” routine. This of course doesn’t happen much here in Oz. I’m told that we Aussies are friendly when approached but we do not approach strangers in this manner, in fact even when we see travellers clearly in distress we tend to ignore them.

So I asked this Malay gentleman what the hubbub the other night had been about.

“Ah” he said, “ my hero was here to meet us” with hand over heart as he pointed to the large poster of ex-PM Mahathir. I thought it best not to remind him of Mr Mahathir’s lowly opinion of Aussie’s in general and Paul Keating in particular.

He asked me why we hadn’t come down to the kampong to see for ourselves, telling me: “we had so much local food you would have been welcome to join us”. I thanked him anyway and wandered off contemplating his words. Did he have any idea how far removed from our cultural practices his question was? Imagine if I told him about the overseas student who said, regarding her three years in Australia: “ I’ve really loved being here, I’m, just sorry never to have been inside an Australian home”.

We Australians are sick of having our culture criticised and very sick of the claim that we have none. I’m reminded of a wonderful woman called Joy Burn. Joy was raised in Cunderdin in WA’s wheat belt and was a stalwart of the CWA. Privileged to interview her, I arrived at her home to be greeted by the smell of fresh baked Anzac biscuits.

Joy Burn was old-school, an Australian of the Depression and War years, who invited neighbours round and offered a cuppa, even to “new Australians” like my family.  That Aussie hospitality still exists but sometimes we need to be reminded to open our doors wider.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

Everything New..

This week in the Food Studies class I teach, the topic turned to food miles. Having newly learnt that much of our food comes from very far away, students have written guiltily and at length, of the scourge of the carbon footprint as another new manifestation of the problems of life in the 21st century, as though food has never travelled before.

When I tell them globalisation began with Colombus they look startled, as young people who have perhaps never learnt of him, or indeed any other historical figure, might.

Eminent anthropologist, Sidney Mintz argues in his monograph Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, that it all began with the sugar trade. You only have to consider the great sugar producing nations to see the truth of this. Not only did sugar travel across the world, so did the plants themselves and the labourers, and with horrifying consequences.

The Caribbean was largely repopulated by slaves from Africa while indigenous populations were eradicated.   And what of us? Australia’s history of “blackbirding ” of Pacific Islanders to cut sugar cane in Queensland is no less shameful.

This history is of course rarely considered as we tuck into ginger cake, lamingtons or banana bread. These traditional afternoon tea delights are redolent of our British origins. It’s just that we forget how closely tied those origins are to our colonial past.

My grandmother and my mother grew up in the cold, working class, north of England and their dietary preferences reflected those origins. Friday night dinners shared with Nana would inevitably end with “pudding”. This pudding might emerge from any number of strange, but available, ingredients, custard and jam being amongst them. But always desiccated coconut, which I have since grown to loath, my admiration for the origins of that archetypal Aussie sweet, the mighty lamington, not withstanding.

However desiccated coconut, bananas and ginger (powdered, preserved in syrup or candied) have long been staple treats of the British diet. Of course they speak to us of Empire – of the days when Britannia ruled the wave and her British (and Australian) subjects could enjoy the fruits of empire: tea and sugar being foremost amongst them.

We might think those retro sticky date puddings (there’s another one – no date palms in the Old Dart) are very last decade but as sure as winter follows autumn these sweet delights will grace menus this winter, yet again. What of the health messages, the diabetes epidemic, the obesity epidemic? They didn’t emerge from a culture which makes its own puds on special occasions. They are more likely to result from an assault on the freezer compartment of your supermarket, while a homemade pudding offers the enjoyment of shared activity, sense of accomplishment and real flavour.

Less of Sara Lee and more of Margaret Fulton I say. What was that Noel Coward said, something about everything old being new again?

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University