Cross cultural non-communication

‘We will always choose perfection over politeness.’ That, a German friend explained, is why a stranger sitting at the next table outside on a glorious spring afternoon got up, came over to me, took my cutlery and started to demonstrate how to deal with a Weißwurst. The skin must not be eaten. It must be surgically removed. The man assumed I spoke no German, though I was asking him, in German, why I could not eat the skin. He did not answer. His first incision was ragged; the skin did not peel away. The second was more successful. Satisfied, he had conveyed the lesson, he returned my knife and fork and resumed his seat.

Not knowing that I should only order these white minced pork and veal sausages, with sweet mustard and a pretzel before midday, I had done so at two in the afternoon: a light meal to keep me going after the long flight from Australia. I had started cutting the first of my sausages into pieces, offering a morsel to my companion to taste. Neither of us suffered from this first mouthful of white sausage eaten after midday with the skin on. Modern sanitation practices should have rendered the rule that no Weißwust hear the noon chime of the church bells obsolete. But traditions remain strong in Germany: there is a right and wrong way to do many things.

While the big guy from Bavaria – when he went to the bathroom his wife, in trademark German socks and sandals, sort of apologised for her husband’s intrusion and told me they came from Bavaria – felt no compunction instructing me in the art of sausage eating, it’s more usual for Germans to keep their distance. That we soon discovered when we, two Antipodeans, joined eleven domestic tourists in Leipzig. We were to be together for three days, discovering the city of Wagner’s youth in the day and attending his Ring Cycle in the evening.

Standing outside the designated building for our first encounter, I blundered in. A roly-poly, happy man from Frankfurt approached us, thinking we may be part of the Ring group. Yes, I said, proffered our names and asked for his. Roland was the only person to tell us his name. We spent the rest of the trip on no-name terms with our fellow Wagner fans. An architect from Berlin with a shiny bald pate and hip round-rimmed glasses – he had at least two pairs, one with bold red frames, the other tortoiseshell – exchanged a few jokes with us and showed us dozens of pictures of his house. His wife sported very shiny Egyptian-blue hair, short at the back with shaved zig-zags patterns. She wore only black and white clothes, usually with something polka-dotted. Avant-garde in appearance perhaps but both were as German as they come. When our guide — he didn’t introduce himself either – arrived, the first think Mr Goggles did was point out to the guide that his shoelace was undone. Perfection not politeness.

Stories from the front: art reveals more than news about the ravages of war

Australia’s handling of the global refugee crisis confounds me. I cannot fathom how a nation of immigrants can be so manipulated by our politicians. They stir up artificial fears, pathetic fears when compared to the terror that compels people to flee their homes.

Facts and more facts about the horrors in Syria, the plight of the Rohingyas, the misery on Manus and Nauru can act as an anaesthetic. Art, on the other hand, can revive the senses.

That was my experience at Gardens Speak by Tania El Khoury, which I visited during the 2017 Adelaide Festival. Come with me to those gardens. First, enter the bleached forecourt of the tumble-down Queen’s Theatre, the oldest in the city. It appears abandoned. Is this the right place for the performance? A girl in the cool, dim foyer tells us someone will fetch us soon. Another willowy volunteer appears to lead us and ten others into a high-ceilinged barn of a building, alongside the theatre. As instructed, we take off our shoes, we put on disposable rain coats. What’s going on? We are handed a card with the name of someone who has died. It’s in Arabic. Our usher explains that Syrians bury their dead quickly. In wartime, it can be impossible to get to a cemetery for a funeral or to visit a grave. So, people are put in the ground at home, sometimes under a favourite tree, still close.

Our group is guided through heavy plastic curtains to a darkened part of this cavernous space. Twelve mounds of soil are arranged in two rows, each with a stake where a name is written. Using our cards to guide us, we find ‘our’ grave. We have to dig around in the dirt. One woman disturbs the solemnity, exclaiming concern for her jewellery. We are looking for a buried speaker. The volume is low so there is no choice but to lie on the mound with an ear to the microphone to be able to hear a story about war and dislocation, of fear and anger. Not all these people are innocents. My person – I confess, I have forgotten his name – tried to stay out of the conflict until it got too close. His own family members were killed. He entered the fray. He was shot.

It is not comfortable lying in the dirt, clean though it may be. Its earthiness and the intimacy of the listening and the gloom add a visceral perspective to the news we hear about Syria. But let’s not kid ourselves; we are still perfectly safe and soon we’ll be able to go for a cleansing ale. Our final instruction comes as we return to the vestibule to remove the coats and retrieve our shoes. We are given pencil and paper and invited to write to the relatives of the person we met on the other side, of the plastic sheet. Who knows if anyone ever received those letters. If they did, what did they think? Did they feel, just for a moment, a little less abandoned, a little more part of the whole human race?

A few weeks ago I went to another performance. Much less sophisticated, still raw. Suitcase Stories are vignettes written and performed by teenage refugees now living in Sydney. First, the actors offer us their childhood memories of accidents and illnesses and awkward moments. These lull us with their familiarity about our own lives. Who doesn’t know a child carrying a scar from a toddler mishap? Soon we are in new territory, where ISIS and soldiers, landmines and bombs shatter families, produce demons and desperation. All this is mimed by the group, dressed in plain red T-shirts and leggings. Crates act as the only props, turning from cars and tractors into beds where sleep is hard. Instead of counting sheep to help her nod off, one girl counts missiles, 429, 430, 431.

These are grim stories, some better written and spoken than others — English is a new language, a second, third even fourth tongue.  Amanda tells of the Tuesday she went to the hairdresser.  She was delighted by the result. As she preens, a bomb goes off. Hundreds are killed in the busy marketplace. ‘It was supposed to be an ordinary Tuesday afternoon.’

Anabella can’t act out her own story. Mariam takes her place. She’s at her uncle’s house. The phone rings. Something has happened. No-one will tell her what. She goes into the street where she overhears two people talking. That’s how she learns her father has been murdered. These are, we are reminded, true stories.

Finally and urgently these families flee; some must leave everything behind to escape the danger. They are now in Australia. In unison, the teenagers tell us they like Australia because they are safe, away from fear. Well nearly. In one of the final scenes Shukrullah and Saltanat discover a new enemy, a magpie, who swoops them daily as they walk to school. Kifarkis plays the magpie. He has a future on the stage.

Suitcase Stories is a production by Treehouse Theatre in Sydney. The theatre provides a platform for young refugees to share their life stories.

Multilingualism matters

Welcome_multilingual_Guernsey_tourismOn 27 April 2016 I attended a public hearing of the House of Representative’s Standing Committee on Education and Employment. It was part of the committee’s inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy . When I introduced myself as, inter alia, a former diplomat, I was greeted with a German ‘sehr gut’ and Russian ‘здравствуйте’! That was heartening though unfortunately we didn’t get to talking about languages, which I argue are part of the skills our workforce needs. Without them, monolingual Australians will be less competitive in the global market place.

As the Economist noted in 2014: ‘Oil economies aside, the top 10 [richest economies] includes countries where trilingualism is typical, like Luxembourg, Switzerland and Singapore, and small countries like the Scandinavian ones, where English knowledge is excellent.’  The article quotes a  Cardiff Business School study, which estimated the lack of foreign-language proficiency in Britain costs the economy £48 billion  or 3.5% of GDP each year.

In a more recent column in the same publication Johnson (a must-read for anyone interested in language) shows that those who negotiate in a foreign language gain added advantages because they think in a more utilitarian, less emotional way. They can also confer privately in their own language. Moreover, using another language is reminder that we don’t all see the world the same way, no bad thing when you are wanting to close a deal.

Cultural diversity and understanding  are becoming valued as an important part of any organisational structure, not just in businesses working in the international arena. In Australia, 16.7 per cent of Australian workers identify as Asian. Yet, according to the Diversity Council of Australia, only 17 per cent of people with Asian backgrounds strongly agree that their organisation uses their Asia capabilities very well.

So an easy step toward  increasing our ability to engage with Asia is to take much more advantage of the talent we have among those with Asian heritage. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for native English speakers to rest on their laurels. Yet, when it comes to Chinese language that certainly seems to be what’s happening. Dr Jane Orton writes that the current number of proficient adult speakers of Chinese in Australia of non-Chinese background is estimated to be 130 at most; and half of those are already over 55 years of age. In 2015 there were just 400 year 12 students of Chinese as a second language. (See also Orton’s  Building Chinese Language Capacity in Australia just published by the Australia-China Relations Institute.)

Goodness knows how we are going to greet the two million visitors the government hopes will come to Australia during the 2017 Australia-China Year of Tourism!

Oh, and if the economics of this don’t matter so much to you, remember: learning a language is good for brain function too.