Riverfire and 8월의 크리스마스

Five prams fought for wheel space by the car­riage doors. A teenage girl made baby eyes at an infant boy. His big, eigh­teen month old  eyes looked at her briefly, then re-focused back intently on his father’s iPhone. Curi­ously he tapped an icon, then another. His father, a strap­ping fel­low in a navy-blue T-shirt and a week’s stub­ble of whiskers, sur­veyed the car­riage proudly. It was a mot­ley crowd in a very crowded space. There were grand­moth­ers with puffy blotched skin, crop-dusted over with thick makeup. Overfed young women in syn­thetic miniskirts, their arms and legs already dis­fig­ured by the skid marks of wannabe prison tat­toos, picked at their nails. Noisy clumps of teenage boys pok­ing each other in the ribs. At Cen­tral Sta­tion the loud­speak­ers advised pas­sen­gers not to for­get their belong­ings includ­ing their chil­dren. The masses streamed through the turn­stiles, a river join­ing a flood join­ing an ocean of bod­ies. Wtf? Then I remem­bered some­thing called River­fire. It was appar­ently the grand finale to Brisbane’s week of fes­ti­val, and half a mil­lion peo­ple were head­ing for Queen Street river bridge to watch a few buck­ets of fire­works, and say oooohh when a cou­ple of jet fighter planes did a low fly-past.

Me? I was going to see a Korean film at the Tribal The­atre, and down by Roma Street Sta­tion the town was almost empty. In the the­atre foyer, a gag­gle of young Kore­ans in frog green T-shirts tried to be help­ful. A sweet girl pointed me to the box office. The atten­dant put down his cof­fee and looked sur­prised when I asked for  a ticket. “We do stamps” he said, putting a quick kiss of ink on my wrist. We lounged around the foyer, maybe a dozen patrons, until thirty sec­onds before show-time. The girl at the cin­ema door had kept us out. “They are prepar­ing a forum”, she declared impor­tantly. Allowed in at last, I held up my wrist to pass. “Yo bro!” said the girl by the door, slap­ping her palm to mine. The patrons scat­tered thinly amongst the seats. Three peo­ple sat on kitchen chairs, down in front of the big screen. A pale, plump young man intro­duced him­self as a lec­turer in film, and wood­enly read a long, long intro­duc­tion to the two other kitchen chair dwellers. One, a scraggy Aus­tralian of indef­i­nite age had appar­ently men­tioned a Korean film in his blog once. He finally admit­ted that it was the only Korean film he had ever seen. The lec­turer said wasn’t it mar­velous that Aus­tralia had all these for­eign film fes­ti­vals, and he had once brought some DVDs back from Seoul in his suit­case. The real live Korean film maker parked between these two glit­ter­ati was a rather pretty Korean woman in her thir­ties. Cast­ing around for some­thing, any­thing to say, she noted that the Aus­tralian art film scene was rather closed and con­ser­v­a­tive, while New Zealand was much more wel­com­ing. The cul­tural dif­fer­ences from Korea had been much greater than she expected. Korean cul­ture, she noted, was focused on pleas­ing peo­ple, and some of the very vio­lent films in the fes­ti­val weren’t like Korea at all… The panel looked about hope­fully for audi­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion. A voice from the back said that, well, his wife was Korean. We finally got around to watch­ing the film.

The film was gen­tle and wist­ful. “Christ­mas in August”, 8월의 크리스마스 , it was called, a melo­drama and love story. A thirty-some­thing pho­tog­ra­pher finds a quirky and very pretty traf­fic inspec­tor drop­ping into his stu­dio fre­quently. He lets the rela­tion­ship develop hap­pily, is kind to his cus­tomers, and qui­etly anguished in his heart. She doesn’t know he is dying of an incur­able dis­ease, until one day the stu­dio fails to open. It is quin­tes­sen­tially Korean, circa 1998, sun­shine and shad­ows, and some­how an aeon from the hedo­nis­tic con­sumer cul­ture of South Korea’s last decade. Bris­bane is awash with young Kore­ans but the cin­ema crew apart, they were hardly to be seen at this show­ing.

Back out on the mean streets, I headed up to the CBD mall. The lem­ming tide of human­ity was still stream­ing towards the bridge. This crowd, an engulf­ing blaze, sucked oxy­gen and bod­ies into its maw. Sep­a­rated from their TV sets for an hour or two, these tens of thou­sands of flick­er­ing minds came to find mean­ing in a mass greater than them­selves. I bought a choco­late bar and skirted through back streets, back to the Cen­tral Sta­tion. Set­tled down in a now quiet sub­way car­riage to flick though some for­eign vocab­u­lary on my smart phone, it took a while to notice that the train wasn’t actu­ally mov­ing. After ten min­utes, a laconic  voice came over the loud­speaker. “We are look­ing for the dri­ver”, it announced. “When we can find him, we’ll leave.” Five min­utes later the update announced, “We are still look­ing for the dri­ver. If we can’t find him we’ll get you another one”. A while later, the train bumped into motion, with or with­out a dri­ver. Only in Bris­bane.

Transitions – out of China, into Oz

Here is a note to mark the end of twelve years in East Asia (China 1998–2000, South Korea 2000–2007, China 2007–2010). Well, I was indeed thrown out of China on the cue of turn­ing 65, regard­less of being awarded a PhD a few months before. My employ­ers in a joint Chi­nese-Aus­tralian ven­ture were inef­fec­tive (inert?) on this mat­ter in chang­ing the mind of China’s all-pow­er­ful and murky Pub­lic Secu­rity Burea. My stu­dents, at least, were indig­nant.  These links to a farewell note from one class, and from one stu­dent, can put this more elo­quently than I can. Here is a link to my farewell speech to the Mid­dle King­dom, which actu­ally never got made thanks to clever oblit­er­a­tion by a KTV party. In vain I made three short, shaky videos to prove that I wasn’t entirely decrepit: one in my class­room, Teach­ing is Fun; on a speech to grad­u­at­ing stu­dents, The Jour­ney of a Pas­sion­ate Skep­tic; one of me run­ning, Born 1945 and Still Run­ning Strong. Naive of course – no bureau­crat is inter­ested in actual real­ity.  Con­tinue read­ing

Australia Calling Home

Aus­tralia Call­ing Home

I remem­ber burn­ing beaches and the rush of salty waves,
I remem­ber long cool drinks in the shade of old tin shacks.
There were dusty tracks through bush­land to hid­den moun­tain pools,
And brain­less boys who lived to tell of leaps from walls of rock.

We grew to slicked down teens on the hunt for bimbo blondes,
And our rusty hurtling cars were the ter­ror of the streets.
We were care­less of the hard bright sun, of booze and friendly smiles,
Then fell for love, the fix was in, Aus­tralia was our home.

Thor, China
    spring 2008
(Port Mac­quarie beach, NSW; image cour­tesy of www.sydney-australia.biz)
.. for other exam­ples of Thor’s poetry, see Time Pass­ing
at http://thormay.net/literature/poems.html

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 http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/legcon_ctte/expats03/submissions/sub437.pdf , while links to a full list of sub­mis­sions to the inquiry can be seen at http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/legcon_ctte/expats03/submissions/sublist.htm . 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
E-mail: legcon.sen@aph.gov.au

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

Con­tinue read­ing

A Stranger in His Own Country – Adrift at 49


Dreams are tufts of cloud in the blue-black yon­der. One sec­ond you almost have them, the next you have tum­bled a thou­sand metres through space into another wooly con­coc­tion. Is the truth so insub­stan­tial? She was small and grubby and freck­led. If all lit­tle girls are meant to be cute, she was the one god for­got. She stood in my way with fierce deter­mi­na­tion, pulled me down, and said in a tiny voice “I love you.” Then she kissed me lightly on the lips.

We seemed to be in the hall­way of some kind of apart­ment build­ing. There was a sense that her mother had drifted in with another lack­adaisi­cal one-night-stand, and that for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son I was the only per­son around who looked like a rea­son­able human being. No I don’t know what it all means. Only that a very few dreams have a long after­taste.
Con­tinue read­ing

Seventeen in 1962

This longish poem, Sev­en­teen in 1962, is a pretty accu­rate descrip­tion of my first job in Nun­dah, Bris­bane, in 1962. I was a stranger in the city. My fam­ily came from around Syd­ney, and had just retreated, nearly bank­rupt, from a failed migra­tion to north Queens­land where south­ern­ers were unwel­come. The bit­ter­ness of tone per­sisted for much of my first ten years in unskilled jobs after leav­ing high school,  partly per­haps from dis­ap­point­ment after hav­ing topped the school aca­d­e­m­i­cally, then col­lid­ing with the incom­pre­hen­sion of work­ing class par­ents and the indif­fer­ence of gen­eral Aus­tralian cul­ture. The peo­ple I knew or met seemed to resent intel­lec­tual curios­ity. They wanted to be respected veg­eta­bles in a very small gar­den plot. As a com­plete out­sider with­out money or any social skills at all, it was a friend­less time.

                    Sev­en­teen in 1962

The wait was over, the grow­ing done,
Just the fill­ing out to come;
Time of promise, time to fear,
Gan­gling sev­en­teen.

First job, be-clerked, min­nowed and shoaled
With the eight o’clock tide, be-tied.
And the man­ager, Minikin, said marry your­self
To the com­pany, boy-man to be made;
Tuck in your shirt and swear
Here will be done as your elders have done,
Let all debtors be blessed, amen
And wipe the smirk off your face.

Con­tinue read­ing