Speaker by Various Artists

The multicultural freak-out

by Che Tibby

I've never really understood what it is about multiculturalism that make conservatives loose their 'nana. Maybe it's the way the idea seems to involving having to sit next to someone you think is "stinky" on the train or bus. I mean, I used to hear all this talk about biculturalism and wonder what the fuss was. When you grow up in Mount Maunganui the "weird outsiders" usually come from Auckland, and talking with Maori is something you grow up doing.

Even then my mispronunciation of Maori words was, to my mind today, shocking. I remember very clearly one year an older woman asking me how to spell my name. Having told her, she stated categorically she would instead call me "chee", like in cheese. Seeing my puzzled expression, she said, "ok, so say Maori, not mao-ree". Hearing your name pronounced "chee" can be grating.

I realised a few years later that maybe I got away with murdering Te Reo for so long because of a necessary tolerance on behalf of Maori society, a tolerance that was wearing thing by the 1980s.

It's this necessity, tolerance, that seems to be at the heart of so many arguments for and against multicultural ideas like biculturalism. But, what has become obvious to me since living here in Melbourne is that the biculturalism I heard so much about in New Zealand is not so very different to the stereotypical idea of multiculturalism spouted by pollies and journos on this side of the ditch. Sure, tolerance is a key factor, but the heart of the matter is how the majority deals with difference.

There's many great things about Melbourne but a few really stand out. The first is the commuting. For three bucks you have two hours to travel across the entire centre of the city on any form of public transport you like, bus, train or tram. For five you can travel all day within "zone one" (if you have to travel outside "zone one" you're officially in the suburbs... aargh). The second is the music. There's enough kiwi bands over here to prove that point. The third is the food, authentic egg noodle soup with wonton and bbq pork, $7.50.

The last is the diversity. When I first arrived here I was living out in zone two somewhere, and made the move to inside zone one pretty much as soon as I woke up. It wasn't much of an improvement. Camberwell, the suburb the Sullivans grew up in might be picturesque on the telly, but in reality it's an upper middle class nightmare. Bailing yet again, I moved to Richmond, a poorer neighbourhood that borders downtown and the really expensive neighbourhoods of Prahran and Toorak (which is across the river).

Now, to be completely honest I was on the northern border, and only had to walk across the road to get to the run-down neighbourhood of Abbotsford. But to say Richmond is a bit more hip. It's a bit like Grey Lynn and Arch Hill.

The point though is that this road I had to cross was called Victoria Street, and is a main thoroughfare for the trams that used to wake me up at 5am. Now, everyone needs a decent coffee at that time of day, and if you've run out you'll find Victoria Street is of little help. The problem is that at many times of day you'll be lucky to see a white person, because everyone is Vietnamese. So noodles, sui mai? No problem. Coffee? You'll want to fossick around an out of the way store, or make a trip to the supermarket.

Most tourists who come to Melbourne make their way to Lygon Street, the part of town affectionately called 'Little Italy', but Little Vietnam is far, far more interesting (and the food is better). Or, if you're really game you can go to Sydney Road in North Brunswick, which in places is like taking a trip to the Middle East.

On this level then, Melbourne really is a multicultural city. After moving again, this time to near Lygon Street in North Carlton, the neighbourhood has whitened out but there are still a great many elderly Italian people living here.

The point I'm trying to make is that despite all this diversity there aren't really any problems with 'ethnic conflict', and although neighbourhoods do take on a distinct ethnic feel, they are far from ghettos. That a big honky like me can wander round and not feel hassled or unwelcome is not unusual here. Sure, there is 'ethnic' violence, but Melbourne's gangland murders are confined to a very specific group of families, and some Vietnamese murders last year were by drunk teenagers who knew each other. Between ethnic groups you're always going to get your usual racist munter, but on the whole there is a high level of tolerance for difference.

It's surprising to find out then that as a government policy multiculturalism isn't about encouraging or expanding this type of diversity. The official policy 'multiculturalism' is instead only about tolerance of difference, and accepting that 'citizen' equals 'Australian'. Essentially, what Canberra says is that citizens are welcome to belong to whatever ethnic group or religion they want, as long as they obey laws and pay taxes. And cheer for Steve Waugh. Diversity flourishes because no one is worried about the details of their city's ethnic make-up. Except Hanson. And she got what she deserved.

I would argue that this type of tolerant multiculturalism is also common to New Zealand, the only real difference being that often it's Maori tolerating mainstream monoculturalism. As a whole though, New Zealand is and will remain a multicultural society. I remember to this day that 'Food Alley' on lower Albert Street did the best curry Laksa I've ever eaten. Pity getting there was a nightmare, and all the decent music in town was played by DJs.