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A reflection

08/01/2015

I’m a Dutch emigrant to Australia. My family emigrated in 1954. We only knew Dutch ways of being: culture, language, food, history. It was a time of intense pressure for non-English speaking emigrants to assimilate. Let’s reflect a moment on that young boy’s experience. Me. He experienced racist physical and mental abuse because of his dress, appearance, language, accent, food, parents, ways of being all viewed as ‘funny.’ The policy of that time was assimilation, “You’re now a new Australian. So, leave all that funny stuff behind you.” (Practice saying that with a nasal clenching Australian accent, if you can.)

Yet above all else that young boy required acceptance by his peers. The answer for many was to accept, adopt and embrace the cultural myths and become a ‘dinky-die, true blue’ Australian and, that required changes of behaviour and attitude. I recall an advertising slogan of that era: “Football, meat pies, kangaroos, and Holden cars.”

Many hid their non-English-speaking identity by formally or informally adopting an Anglo-Celtic name or marrying a man with such a name. Others embraced and adopted nicknames as a means of surviving in that racist intolerant society. Many, of course, succeeded by standing their ground with an awareness of the main-stream culture as false, nonsensical, problematic; but that required maturity, strength, courage.

Emigrants were given alternate names by neighbours, bosses, co-workers, or teachers who couldn’t pronounce the originals. Those alternate names were often adopted by the emigrants. Though the idea for the new name might have come from someone else, the name did not become official unless the emigrant chose to formally change his or her name to make it official.

Names were adjusted, sometimes slightly, to fit new surroundings, and sometimes drastically, in order to fit new identities. Official name changes did not always come about through haphazard errors, but because emigrants deliberately chose them. Chalk it up to the pressure to assimilate, the drive for self-reinvention, or using a freedom they may previously have been denied.

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