LUCK WOULD HAVE IT
AUSTRALIA is a lucky country because it has a lot of opportunity: in education, health, housing, employment, environmental sustenance, you name it. Those of us who come to Australia know how lucky we are to be here. We all have a big part to play in creating an Australia in which we are the custodians of the present and the future.
Australia is not my first home. My personal fortunes began when growing up in colonial Papua. The League of Nations had designated Australia as the authority to govern Papua and that meant we had a structured government which resourced us post World War II.
It gave us Papuans discipline and helped rebuild our lives after war had created fear and havoc for our families.
For example, my grandfather had gardens, horses, pigs and cows, but the Americans took that over during the military build- up. The family had to move to another family property in the bush about 40 miles away.
Grandad, Jim Solien, returned to his property after the war and the Americans compensated him ( somewhat). The survival strengthened my family and survival is what I learned from them and what I brought to Australia when I came. Many migrants also bring this strength from their families and their circumstances.
But, I also received a lot from Australia. In 1970, I decided to come to Australia as a 19- year- old boy to join the Army. I didn’t realise how big the country was and that I would be outnumbered by the colonists ( whereas in Papua we were the majority).
Jumping on the plane, I had to borrow a suit from my cousin because I thought everyone dressed in a suit and tie in Australia. I looked smashing! But most people on the plane were wearing singlets and shorts.
At Mascot airport, I looked around, the weather was terrible, it was pouring rain and there was nothing but white faces all over the place. I also saw white people mopping the floor and emptying rubbish. I had the biggest shock of my life. They didn’t do that in Papua!
On arrival, I met up with a sergeant who gave me my travel details. They escorted me out to a big black limousine. The chauffeur picked up the bag and opened the door for me. I was in shock! It seemed like royal treatment. ( The biggest mistake the military made was that they thought I was a relative of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia who had retired the previous month. This didn’t last long.)
Prior to leaving Port Moresby, Mum gave me $ 5 and advised me not to spend it on rubbish! So, when I was dropped off at Watson’s Bay, the cook said, ‘ your dinner is in the oven’, but I met someone who took me to King’s Cross.
The first person I met was a Papuan national who asked me for $ 5 and another told me she would give me a good time for $ 5! Mum’s $ 5 got me into a lot of trouble. Here was I, a boy from a place that was so different.
But, in the Army, we learned a lot about camaraderie, about being buddies and about mateship, which was the strength behind the Army’s training programs; the Vietnam War was on at that time.
That time in the military really gave me another foundation to build on. It was tough all right! I had to change my cultural perspectives on many things because it meant that some parts of my own culture were not fitting into Australian society.
The laws were different. There were different attitudes to social issues, too. Even the freedom I thought would be a right was not always the case; I was kicked out of one bar in Townsville because I was black.
But overall, reflecting on where I was only makes me believe how lucky I was to end up in Australia. The military gave me the foundation to survive and, as well, my upbringing – what I learned growing up – was also my strength.
All of us who come from different places have received a lot, but we have given a lot, too. For me, giving was very important: giving of yourself in voluntary work, such as playing music in church, looking after homeless people and youth in crisis.
In return, I received appreciation and recognition as a community member and a community elder.
So, home to me now is living in and creating an inclusive society, a society that allows me to have conversations that are open and challenging about what it is to call Australia home. And, it’s still about family and about mates.