Mathew was nine when I met him and twelve when he became orphaned and homeless. He arrived on my doorstep everyday in the summer of 2006, asking to “stay”. My privileged eyes had no clue what was going on and I repeatedly sent him away, completely unaware that in modern day Australia a child could be left homeless and autonomous with no supports in place. Oneday, amid confusion and sobs, I realised that his use of the word “stay” actually meant “live”, and between gasps for air he explained so that I could finally understand, that his only home was my home. Under extreme and difficult circumstances, this funny, persistent, talented and strong young boy hoisted himself upon me and, against all of my life plans, I found myself playing foster carer to someone else’s child. I then had to learn to navigate the world of governmental bureaucracy as well as the world of remote indigenous people whose world views are so vastly different to my own, as I entered the realm of belonging to a remote indigenous family. With no children of my own, this newfound belonging has not only made me a mother, but I am also a sister, daughter and – most horrific of all – a grandmother!
One of the funniest examples of our cultural difference occurred one day when I was out with Mathew and his sister. I told the children to meet me at a specific place at 2pm. Mathew looked at me with a quizzical expression and asked “Well at 2 o’clock, where will the sun be?”. Feeling very inferior I was forced to reply “just find someone with a watch and ask for the time”! On another occasion a group of children from his extended family were visiting us. As I piled washing from the machine into the basket, I noticed the children were all listening intently as Mathew spoke to them in language and I overheard the word “whitefella”. I interrupted to ask “what are you telling them about whitefellas?”. He replied “I’m telling them how whitefellas always clean their ‘ouse everyday, eh?”. Looking down at the basket under my arm I figured it was futile to argue and headed outside to hang the washing!
Now 21, he came to see me at work this week. When I appeared, the face of this hip young man lit up and my own heart did a little dance. It never ceases to surprise me that I have this bond with a young man from one of Australia’s most remote and marginalised communities which I have never been to, whose first two languages I don’t understand, who knows how to hunt wild animals and has obligations and lores that I have absolutely no clue about. There is a saying that life’s biggest disappointments come from the picture we build in our heads of how it is supposed to be. I would adapt this to say that the biggest joys often come from connections with the most unexpected people in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Taking a break between law school and the launch of her career as a corporate solicitor, my god daughter was visiting from London this week. Only two years older than Mathew I was keen for them to meet and so we organised to have lunch together, with some of his extended family. Sitting in a food hall in Alice Springs, my London life met my Central Australian life, like ends of the earth coming face to face. Trying to break the ice, I told Mathew, for whom family connections are paramount, “she is kind of like your sister”. He flitted awkwardly between myself, Katie and the table of young indigenous family, who had erupted into giggles!
Culture clash does not necessarily have to describe conflict. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most often, culture clash is just an ordinary human connection being made between people with different world views.