Activist abroad

It was stinking hot in Dili today. The thick open-oven-door heat of a 40-degree Perth day blasting out into a wet, sticky, muggy tropical afternoon. A Bikram yoga class at my front door. Sweat at the small of my back. My landlady and I, chatting idly on my porch, both agreed that while we’d each showered once already today, another one would be required. Later, I retreated inside to blast my air conditioner and hide in the lounge with lights dimmed.

Scrolling Facebook on my phone from my couch in the cool, I saw headlines and posts about the Australian-run Manus Island detention centre, which was closed down yesterday after last year’s Papua New Guinea Supreme Court decision that the centre was unconstitutional, and Australia’s detention of intercepted refugees unlawful.

I felt resigned and desensitised by the situation, and considered scrolling past. Until I saw a short sentence stating that power had been shut off to the centre.

Manus Island. Papua New Guinea. They’d have the same climate as we do here, I realised.

I looked up at my air conditioner, whirring with effort. Back to my phone.

There are more than 600 men still in the centre; most of them genuine refugees — they’ve been told to move into alternative housing in Papua New Guinean communities, but those communities have been hostile towards the refugees, and they’re refusing to leave the centre for fear of attack. Some reports say the accommodation is unfinished and unsuitable.

Thirty degrees. Stinking humidity. No air conditioner. No cold water. Hardly any water at all. No flushing toilets. Nowhere to charge your phone. No way to tell people what’s happening. Nothing to do to escape the dread and fear of not knowing what comes next. Nothing to do but wait and hope.

I read the articles. I shared one on my own Facebook. Then, for the first time in 26 years of life as an Australian citizen, and five as a lefty activist, called the Prime Minister’s office and then my MP’s office, registering my concern over the inhumane treatment being carried out in my name.

Why did it take this?

I’ve seen news about civilian deaths in Syria in my Facebook feed; about bombs in occupied Palestine; about the genocide of the Rohingyan people; the plight faced by queer and trans and disabled Australians; the ongoing trauma endured by Indigenous Australians. I’ve agitated in Australia — I’ve signed petitions, attended rallies, emailed, gone doorknocking, made phone calls, donated money, shared and shared and shared on Facebook — but in all that, I can’t remember calling my MP or the Prime Minister.

I couldn’t do it from Australia, but I could do it from Timor-Leste. Why?

I’m considering this question in the context of being an Australian abroad. Is it perhaps easier for me to examine my home country with clear eyes, because I”m outside it all? It is easier to see its faults and flaws with distance? Is is more important, suddenly, for me to really identify as an Australian and to own my nationality, my country — failures and all — because I’m not at home?

Or is it just that I now live in the tropics and I can more easily imagine that foreign-sounding, far-off place called Manus Island, because it’s really fucking hot in Timor-Leste, too?

I worry that the majority of Australians have grown up with such privilege and luxury for so long we’ve lost our frame of reference and forgotten that it’s not normal.

This is not to undermine the hard work of people like my parents who have gotten us into this position, or to ignore the experience of Australians against whom our society discriminates — only to reflect on my perspective and how warped I now believe it to be.

The surprise and fear I felt when I first saw a Timorese kitchen, for example. The new, sheepish feeling I have when my wardrobe won’t close because I have too many clothes. Last week, when I drove from Castaway ($9 salads and fresh lime juice by the beach) to a local warung to buy soup for my friend’s family, and saw in front of my face the difference in my dinner habits from the vast majority of the population here.

Tim Minchin, as he so often does, articulated the challenge of examining one’s normal very well in the graduation speech he delivered to the University of Western Australia’s 2013 class:

We must think critically and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and hit them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privileges. Most of society is kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies and then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions. Like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

Even the very poorest Australian will out-earn the vast majority of the world’s population. Our minimum wage is about 15 times greater than the figure four billion people, or two-thirds of the world’s population, lives on. Seventy per cent of the world’s population — including Australians — live on less than $10 a day.

I feel fortunate and uncomfortable with this opportunity I have to live overseas and experience a life different from the one I had in Australia. It’s an often-challenging and always-important elbow-in-the-side to the assumptions I hold, and I feel fortunate every day for the cricket-bat-bash Timor is giving me (even if that gratitude comes begrudgingly, often with its twin guilt, like it did yesterday afternoon halfway through the hissy fit I threw over the fact that my fresh lime juice at Castaway came with sugar in it, even though I SPECIFICALLY requested it to come without sugar!!).

(You know, I just wrote that sentence as a world different from my one back home; but that’s wrong: it’s the same world. I’m just experiencing a different part of it).

In the context of Manus Island and being agitated overseas and it all being the same world.

I don’t want to criticise Australians for the lives we live or the problems we have or the difficulties we face. They’re real and valid and important. But I am asking Australians to reflect on ourselves; to really consider our lives in a global context and to see that in addition to when we suffer, in many, many ways, we are lucky and privileged and safe and healthy and lucky and that we have democratic elections and clean drinking water and a too-low-but-at-least-existent minimum wage and a strong local music scene and beautiful beaches and cheap strawberries and good street art and disabled parking spots and a wicked national sense of humour and granite kitchen benches and freezers that make their own ice and the right to call our members of parliament just to complain and Little Dove beer and brilliant baristas and no gunfire in our streets and no kids dying from diarrhoea in our cities and that as well as consoling ourselves when life is hard, we also have boundless empathy and can reach inside and feel something when there are people who are suffering in our names. And then do something about it, even it it means making ourselves uncomfortable.

Because making phone calls is awkward! And thinking about privilege is uncomfortable. But being squashed by someone else’s is worse.

It took an overworked air conditioner in Timor-Leste and a sweating landlady to make me sit up and start paying attention. Now, it’s time to do some work.


One response to “Activist abroad”

  1. […] links, and Joni Mitchell’s back catalogue; I’m skyping friends and emailing home and calling my representatives; I’ve started a compost bin and have made a new friend and organised a new volunteering job […]


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