Inquiry into the Status of Australian Expatriates

The orig­i­nal 2004 post­ing of this mate­rial is still on my old web­site, here. Other arti­cles deal­ing with cross-cul­tures: “Cul­tural Oper­at­ing Sys­tems – Thoughts on Design­ing Cul­tures“, 2010; Eth­nic­ity and Racism – Stir­ring the Pot, 2005; “Korean, Amer­i­can and Other Strange Habits – You Do It Your Way – two books reviewed“, 2003; “When Is It Rude To Be Rude? – Polite­ness Across Cul­tures and Sub­cul­tures“, 2001; Indi­vid­u­al­ism or the Group“,2001; “The Price of Free­dom – an Escape from Viet­nam“, 1984

Many read­ers of this site are expa­tri­ates of some kind. For var­i­ous rea­sons they have cho­sen to live beyond their native bor­ders. Some are absent from home for a fairly short time before head­ing back with a quota of after-din­ner tales. For oth­ers, home is where their bed is, and the point of child­hood depar­ture is a dis­tant mem­ory.

I hap­pen to have started life as an Aus­tralian. The iden­tity tag, ‘Aus­tralian’, still has some res­o­nance for me, although not quite in the way your aver­age Bruce in a Syd­ney leagues club would under­stand it. Now it has dawned on the Aus­tralian Par­lia­ment that out of twenty mil­lion cit­i­zens, around 800,000 of us are folk like me — liv­ing away from ‘home’. This has led the Hon­ourable Mem­bers to won­der a lit­tle how (or whether) they should account for the inter­ests of these scat­tered brethren. To that end, the Legal and Con­sti­tu­tional Com­mit­tee of the Aus­tralian Sen­ate has been accept­ing sub­mis­sions on “The Sta­tus of Aus­tralian Expa­tri­ates”. My sub­mis­sion below may inter­est some folk. Since it has now been tabled in the Aus­tralian Par­lia­ment, it can be viewed on the web­site of that par­lia­ment at , while links to a full list of sub­mis­sions to the inquiry can be seen at . Note that all of these sub­mis­sions are cov­ered by par­lia­men­tary priv­i­lege (i.e. their author’s have full legal pro­tec­tion for what­ever they may have sub­mit­ted).

The Sec­re­tariat
Sen­ate Legal and Con­sti­tu­tional Com­mit­tee
Room S1.61, Par­lia­ment House
Can­berra ACT 2600
Tele­phone: (02) 6277 3560
Fax: (02) 6277 5794

Sen­ate Inquiry on the  Sta­tus of Aus­tralian Expa­tri­ates, 2004
sub­mis­sion author : Thor May, South Korea

This short sub­mis­sion has sev­eral ele­ments:

a) It puts for­ward a view of what it is to be ‘an Aus­tralian’, and hence what it may mean to be an expa­tri­ate Aus­tralian. The view expressed might be some­what at vari­ance with the nor­mal assump­tions of nation­al­ity, and hence the premises which a Legal and Con­sti­tu­tional Com­mit­tee could bring to bear on the sta­tus of Aus­tralian expa­tri­ates.

b) It out­li­nes my own cir­cum­stance (at var­i­ous points in the paper), as a par­tic­u­lar instance of an expa­tri­ate Aus­tralian. This includes some sug­ges­tion of why I became an expa­tri­ate, and why I con­tinue to be one.

c) It indi­cates why an indi­vid­ual such as myself can make a greater con­tri­bu­tion to gen­eral Aus­tralian pros­per­ity and secu­rity by con­tribut­ing as an expa­tri­ate rather than as an Aus­tralian domes­tic res­i­dent.

d) It item­izes sev­eral hand­i­caps in the Aus­tralian civil con­text encoun­tered by expa­tri­ates such as myself.

1. The Con­cepts of Nation­al­ity and Cul­ture

A nation state in its mod­ern incar­na­tion is essen­tially a fortress sur­rounded by a wall. Those who are born within the wall, or who are admit­ted by spe­cial dis­pen­sa­tion, are said to be nation­als of that fortress. Those with­out are held to be for­eign, and may be denied civil rights to vary­ing degrees (some­times entirely). A tra­di­tional view of the nation fortress is that it is legit­imized in the last resort by force of arms, rather as tribal units have always been legit­imized. A more mod­ern moral-eco­nomic argu­ment is that the inhab­i­tants within the nation fortress sup­port its func­tions by ser­vice and tax­a­tion, and there­fore have exclu­sive or prior call on its pro­tec­tion. Many other assump­tions under­pin the con­cept that mem­bers of the nation fortress form some indi­vis­i­ble and unique unit. It is com­mon to iden­tify these uni­fy­ing assump­tions by the col­lec­tive term ‘cul­ture’.

I was born in Aus­tralia in 1945, which I con­sider to be a piece of extreme good for­tune, for it has been a coun­try essen­tially at peace dur­ing my life­time. My ori­gins how­ever were poor, and my par­ents moved con­stantly. There­fore the priv­i­lege and set­tled friend­ships which give some an essen­tial start in life were not part of my expe­ri­ence. Well, humans are adapt­able ani­mals. I have spent nine­teen years of my adult life out­side of Aus­tralia, study­ing and work­ing. That has given me a fairly sharp per­spec­tive on the fortress men­tal­ity of nation states, the often com­pla­cent val­ues of those within their bor­ders, and the whole con­cept of what it is to be a mem­ber of a nation, or a cul­ture.

A cul­ture is a design for liv­ing. Or rather, it is a vague state­ment about an aver­age design for liv­ing adopted by a cer­tain group of peo­ple. Clearly, there are myr­iad con­stituents to this design, and any given indi­vid­ual only relates to cer­tain of those con­stituents in some greater or lesser degree. It is a con­ve­nient polit­i­cal fic­tion to claim that there is an essen­tial ‘core’ to any national cul­ture, the umbra of the giant Venn dia­gram as it were, and that the penum­bra is some­how sus­pect.

I take a rather more dis­persed view of cul­tural par­tic­i­pa­tion, Aus­tralian or oth­er­wise. On any par­tic­u­lar con­stituent of the cul­tural design, I would see indi­vid­u­als dis­trib­uted on a nor­mal (bell) curve. Those less attached to bar raf­fles, Akubra hats, Aus­tralian idioms .. or what­ever, would be on the wings of the curve, with some issue-major­ity clus­ter­ing at the cen­tre. Some of that cul­tural minor­ity on issue X or Y will be mad and bad. Oth­ers will already  tread­ing new paths that the major­ity will fol­low in a gen­er­a­tion or two.

The argu­ment which I wish to put to the Sen­ate Com­mit­tee is that the con­cept of a nation as fortress is, in large part, destruc­tive and coun­ter-fac­tual both at indi­vid­ual and insti­tu­tional lev­els. It is destruc­tive because any insti­tu­tion which cre­ates a sharply defined perime­ter of in-groups and out-groups also gen­er­ates a stand­ing invi­ta­tion to con­flict. Human his­tory is riven with tragic exam­ples, from tribal and reli­gious sects to the socio­pathic behav­iour needed to sus­tain most empires.

The nation as fortress con­cept is coun­ter-fac­tual in the cur­rent geopo­lit­i­cal con­text because to sur­vive at all, every mod­ern state has had to cede an increas­ing amount of sov­er­eignty to multi­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions. Only some of those orga­ni­za­tions pre­tend to be state owned (what­ever that means). Many of the most pow­er­ful are pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions, and vir­tu­ally all of those have long ceased to loy­ally sup­port the func­tions of fortress nation states through ser­vice and tax­a­tion. The Com­mit­tee will be aware that the pro­por­tional con­tri­bu­tions of com­pa­nies to national tax rev­enues have plunged pre­cip­i­tously in most OECD coun­tries since the 1950s, throw­ing an ever increas­ing bur­den on hap­less worker-con­sumers. The col­lat­eral casu­alties of the now brit­tle fortress state poli­cies of exclu­sion are not preda­tory cor­po­ra­tions but indi­vid­u­als who also attempt to be mobile across the sur­viv­ing bar­ri­ers.

There is an alter­na­tive, more flex­i­ble and resilient con­cept of nation­al­ity to that of the fortress nation. It requires no ide­al­ism at all to observe that the human fam­ily is just that, a fam­ily, on a very crowded planet. The most suc­cess­ful rooms in this big fam­ily man­sion are not the xeno­pho­bic exclu­sion­ist enclaves like North Korea (nor, in its present mode, an increas­ingly xeno­pho­bic Amer­ica). No, the most suc­cess­ful and sought after rooms are those where the inhab­i­tants have friends and rel­a­tives scat­tered right through the house, pass­ing back gos­sip and inside tips, and qui­etly calm­ing the tem­pers when the folk around them don’t under­stand why Aus­tralia (or who­ever) seems to be act­ing in a dumb or bas­tard way. These out­lander friends and rel­a­tives fre­quently have to tol­er­ate a lot of local insu­lar­ity, racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion them­selves, so they are not thrilled when the home front puts up bar­ri­ers too. Any national nas­ti­ness man­i­fested by their coun­try of origin rebounds dou­bly on them, often in very per­sonal ways.

2. An Expa­tri­ate Life and Its Con­tri­bu­tion to Aus­tralia

I have cho­sen to live where cul­tures and nations over­lap, on the wings of all those nor­mal curves, an out­sider. My sense has always been that it is in these periph­eral regions, where noth­ing can be taken for granted, where ideas clash and blend, that the seeds of our future human­ity lie. Am I a par­a­site, a dropout, a “value-free” virus? One hopes not.

I have writ­ten tens of thou­sands of words in sto­ries, inter­pret­ing China and Korea through Aus­tralian eyes, and these sto­ries have been read by many tens of thou­sands of peo­ple from over a hun­dred coun­tries (see ). Nowa­days I play by the title of Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor in Applied Lin­guis­tics with the speci­fic job of prepar­ing Korean and other inter­na­tional grad­u­ates to com­plete over­seas Mas­ters degrees in TESOL . In fact, my course web­site specif­i­cally directs them to Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties ( ; ) for which I get nei­ther thanks nor pay­ment, and of I am their present idea of what an Aus­tralian amounts to. Those grad­u­ates in turn will go on to teach Eng­lish through­out South Korea and Asia, car­ry­ing a lit­tle bit of “Aus­tralia” in the cor­ners of their brains.

3. Civil Hand­i­caps Which Derive from Expa­tri­ate Sta­tus

So what is the down­side to being an Aus­tralian work­ing over­seas, specif­i­cally in South Korea?

1. I am likely to lose legal ‘res­i­dent’ priv­i­leges when I do make return trips to Aus­tralia, even though I am arguably mak­ing a far greater con­tri­bu­tion to Aus­tralian wel­fare and its econ­omy that I could as a 58 year old, prob­a­bly unem­ploy­able man inside Aus­tralia.

2. Aus­tralia has been unable or unwill­ing to con­clude an exchange superannuation/pension agree­ment with South Korea. That means my com­pul­sory con­tri­bu­tions to the South Korean pen­sion fund will be for­feited when I leave, and my already anaemic share of the Aus­tralian super­an­nu­a­tion sys­tem will be worth­less.

3. My par­tic­u­lar lifestyle has made it non-viable to either seek or com­mit to tak­ing out a mort­gage on res­i­den­tial prop­erty in Aus­tralia. That is, such sav­ings as I have (well below the Aus­tralian aver­age for a man of my edu­ca­tion) have had to remain liq­uid. Sev­eral years ago, after return­ing from a lec­tur­ing posi­tion in the Uni­ver­sity of the South Paci­fic, Fiji, I found that unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits were not avail­able to tide me over while I found a new job. The argu­ment was that I should con­sume my mea­gre cap­i­tal instead. A non-mobile Aus­tralian who had been able to put such sav­ings into a house deposit would not have been penal­ized in this way. I found this whole par­a­digm (and the right­eous atti­tude of offi­cials which went with it) to be grotesquely inequitable. I am antic­i­pat­ing a very thread­bare retire­ment.

Well that’s the bad news. The good news is that I have a happy, pro­duc­tive job and all the fas­ci­na­tion of learn­ing about other lifestyles while my Aus­tralian con­tem­po­raries go pear-shaped in front of their gog­gle boxes and have heart attacks. Things looked less per­son­ally opti­mistic eight years ago when I made a sub­mis­sion to the Aus­tralian Sen­ate in 1996 on the Sen­ate Inquiry Into The Sta­tus of Teach­ers ( ), or in 1998 when I was forced out of the Aus­tralian teach­ing pro­fes­sion, essen­tially as a casu­alty of Vic­to­rian pol­i­tics ( ).

Regards, Thor May

Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor in Applied Lin­guis­tics
25 Feb­ru­ary 2004

TESOL Unit, Ven­ture Bldg. 207
Pusan Uni­ver­sity of For­eign Stud­ies
55–1 Uam-dong, Nam-gu
Busan 608 738, South Korea

Leave a Reply