By Anne-Marie, 78. Henley Beach, SA
My journey to Australia was a drawn-out odyssey. I first left France to work in Africa. In Zambia, I taught English as a second language in a boarding school near the source of the Zambezi River, where my son was born.
During a holiday I travelled south to the border of Zambia with Zimbabwe. There, I walked with my son in the spray of the Victoria Falls which are called the Mosi-oa-Tunya in the Si Lozi language, meaning the smoke that thunders. The falls are around hundred metres high but produce a forty metre spray. We took a few steps and it was a treacherous walk. The reverberation was thunderous and we became totally drenched. Our raincoats were of no help. That evening after we dried up, we went to watch the hippos drinking water in the shallow waters above the Falls and then shared a campsite with some monkeys. They put us to shame by finishing off in front of us the inside flesh of two halves of an orange peel we had discarded after squeezing them manually for juice. It was a memorable adventure for me and my son, but the event imprinted in both our memories was the mighty impact of the smoke that thunders.
Later, I moved to multi-lingual Papua New Guinea where I taught among other things English grammar to adult graduate students. Finally, I emigrated to Australia and spent time in the remote regions of Western Australia where Aboriginal people taught me the Wongatha language spoken on the edge of the Western Desert. In the Pilbara I was nicknamed jarda in Ngarluma. I liked that better than being called ‘old woman’ in English. I loved the multi-cultural experience of hearing so many languages.
In France, I used to hear the Occitan language from my grandparents in Zambia, the Chi Bemba language. In Papua New Guinea, which had an excess of seven hundred languages, I learnt some Tok Pisin and phrases of Hiri Motu greetings from the Goilala people. Over time, I became a casual language learner and nowadays you can hear me speaking Australian English down under.
I was also lucky to work with many First Nations colleagues and get to know them. There is nothing better than sharing a meal and ‘rubbing shoulders’ with people you have not met before, it breaks down barriers. But little interaction took place between the non-Aboriginal residents and First Nations Peoples on a personal level while at the community level some of the gaps between the two groups were wide and it is regrettable that the government has statistically effected very little change.
When the pandemic lockdown came into force, it provided me with a focus and a sense of direction. From home, I established a study corner for myself. I time-tabled a daily routine, worked on an update of my website and engaged in some creative writing with enthusiasm. I improved in my daily puzzles, which became useful when Wordle became a fad later. I listened to classical music interludes or podcasts before going to sleep. I was able to gather my energies around this and these new habits invigorated me. Before the pandemic, when I had just retired, I had tried to progress my days at home but had not achieved much. Someone always would put me off: Why are you doing this? Not worth the bother. Frustration had made my spirit flag.
After I signed up for an online course and re-discovered some of my skills, I sent my Twitter followers a brand-new invitation! My reading group would have its first meeting in the coming month. I felt liberated and could not wait to regain the warm contact with people, which I always loved.
At first, socially, all had been well in isolation until outrageous remarks started to dominate social media. I resented many of the anti-Asian racist comments made about the origin of the coronavirus in China. Awful vulgarities were listed alongside cartoons and chain letters of inane content were circulated. I was concerned, even worried, that in the end these comments promoted racism. I decided to argue my point, and made some repartees of my own. I found out it was even harder to avoid trolls online than it is in life.
Conscious of the diversity of people from a wide range of migrants, I appreciated their contribution to the Australian workforce. Many around me were anxious to show respect to the First Nations Peoples and, like them, I was interested in negotiating a way to best fit into the Australian context.
As soon as the restrictions stopped, I would re-join my personal network, intending to follow a new direction where I would make a point to stand up for my views. I would try and make it work and get past the Voilas and the Whatevers! I was looking forward to this. An argumentative true blue Aussie, that’s who I would become! So I sent a message to my son to tell him how well things were going for me. I was astounded by his reply.
“Here you go,” he said. “You are like the smoke that thunders!”
Anne-Marie Smith is a French Australian linguist who writes about cultural experiences. She taught English in multilingual contexts in Africa and Papua New Guinea before migrating to Australia. She published Culture is… Australian Stories Across Cultures — An Anthology (Wakefield Press) and a memoir Pardon My French (Ginninderra Press). Now in Kaurna Country, she writes Flash Fiction, some published online and some on her website.