Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

May 2013

Only connect wrote novelist E.M. Forster, giving sound advice that stresses our often-ignored common humanity. This dictum also applies to the ageing brain, and I obeyed it when I recently received a news feature about the Wimmera township of Nhill, where I spent formative years as a small child. It seems incredible to me, making the mental connection over time and space, but Nhill now has a new ethnic community: some 120 of the Karen people from Myanmar have settled there, halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide.

In my Nhill childhood teachers like my father were the exotica, the wanderers who came and went. Bank managers did the same, but they were respected, knowing as they did the state of the farmers’ mortgages. I can remember only three genuine immigrants: the Chinese vegetable man, and Austrian Mr and Mrs Otto, who ran the local bakery. Louey Tong drove his horse slowly around town and sold his wares to the local housewives, while we children made up lurid tales about him, tales involving opium smoking and mysterious weapons lining the walls of his little hut on the edge of settlement. But now I remember him as a dignified individual who would not have hurt a fly.

In between times we were dispatched to buy the best and stickiest fruit buns in all the world from the bakery. Mr and Mrs Otto inspired awe because they were, we thought, so old, and because they could spin a good yarn. Mrs Otto was speedily parting company with her teeth, and had dead straight grey hair. He cuts it with the axe, she said, and we believed her. Much later, when I visited their native land of mountains, forests, and waterfalls, I wondered how they had endured their new place of heat, flatness, and dust. But at least there was a tenuous link with home and language, for the township was very German. The Lutheran Hall was opposite our house, and resounded to the thumps and calls of square dancing every Saturday night.

Nhill was deeply conservative, as small places so often are. There was a chasm-like division between Catholics and Protestants, and the town died a ritual, puritanical death on Sundays, although my mother was told that women could do their ‘fancy work’, as embroidery was called then, on Sunday afternoons, as long as the blinds were drawn. All this mattered little to my sister and me: we had an idyllically adventurous and secure childhood in a wonderful climate.

The first Europeans arrived in Nhill in 1845; when my parents arrived about 108 years later, they had the distinct feeling that only a history of three or four generations would do. In a Cornish churchyard I once had a similar impression, when a local commented on my foreignness. How long does it take to become accepted? I asked. 300 years was the reply. I pointed out that I qualified, my ancestors having left Cornwall as late as 1849.

My ancestors left because of poverty; the Karen people left because of political oppression. Karens comprise 7% of Myanmar’s population of 50 million, and have been in conflict with the central authority since 1949, when Myanmar was Burma and a pink part of the well-remembered map that showed the Empire on which the sun never set. The Karen people in Nhill are young and with growing families, but spent formative years in refugee camps, most often on the Thai border: an idyllic childhood was not theirs, as many of their villages were obliterated in civil conflict. This is not a fate that Nhill is likely to have, so one has high hopes for the happiness of the little transplanted Karen children.

I am enchanted to learn that these immigrants often wear traditional dress in township streets, and that they have saved the Luv-a-Duck poultry business (long after my time) for Nhill. My mother found life in Nhill difficult, clannish as it was then. She was often lonely, and loneliness is the immigrant’s main dread. But now some long-time residents are taking care of the new chums and giving practical help in introducing them to what must be a very strange new society. Only connect. And after E.M, Forster there was Philip Larkin: We should be careful of each other, we should be kind, while there is still time.

 

  

Gillian Bouras

 

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