Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Letter from Sydney

(A guestpost from my travelling friend and corespondent, Balázs Szendrői.)

In this day of global multiculti, we constantly walk past, and sometimes interact with, people whose cultural background is very different from ours. But this was not always so. Here in Australia, I am reminded of one affair in particular, in recent (painful) memory, relatively well-documented, which took one party completely by surprise: when the Australian Aboriginal communities first spotted The White Man.

Talk about a complexity difference: the typical toolkit of mainland Aborigines consisted of 31 items; that of Tasmanian Aborigines had only seven. Captain Cook's hair styling alone, recorded on contemporary paintings, must have needed more tools than that. But the first encounters between whites and Aborigines were made difficult by more than just "the differences in the technology set".

One misunderstanding concerned skin colour. Apparently black corpses become whiter with time. On top of that, one of the Aboriginal burial practices consisted of removing an outer skin layer, leaving behind a pinkish corpse, looking not unlike the newcomers; in South Australia, the Aborigines actually called the first Europeans "grinkai", a word also used for "peeled corpse". So who else were these white creatures, but spirits returning from the afterlife? Of course they forgot how to speak properly, because of the shock. Moreover, they became sexually amorphous: from a distance, they looked like women, with no facial hair, but upon closer examination they exhibited male features too. Expeditionary parties were sometimes called upon to reveal their gender - with proof! That's what I call the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Once gender established, it seems to have been traditional among Aboriginal communities to offer their women to travellers who passed through the country, as a friendly gesture, for the night they spent in the neighbourhood. White Man knew two answers to this: either politely refuse, which amounted in Aboriginal customs to a hostile response, or else, assume that his hosts thought nothing about sharing women, so return again and again and assume that any woman of his choice could always be his. This of course broke several taboos, including incest, since by befriending one of the women, the others apparently became sisters to him.

After this, came smallpox, abductions, the dreadful choices involved in entering the Native Police, and other all-too-familiar stories, leading to the Lost Generation. It will take more than Cathy Freeman's Sydney Olympic Gold to atone for all that.

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