The other day, my work organised a family site visit and my daughter was allowed to come to the site to look around. As I work about 1200km from where I live, this is a very rare occurrence. She had a pretty fun day, all told, with everyone pulling out all the stops to show the visitors what we do and how we live. Honestly, it was a pretty well set-up visit with the kids being allowed to get on all the machines and even drive the big truck in the simulator. What does this have to do with the subject of this blog? Not much except that there were two other girls about the same age as my daughter in our group, and happily, they hit it off and spent the day playing together and having a great time.

At one point nearing the end of the day, one of the girls asked my daughter where she was born. Now, we live in a fairly non-diverse part of Australia, so my daughter was confused. “Uh, a hospital,” she responded. “No, which country were you born in?” her friend asked again. “Australia,” my daughter replied, sounding super confused. “Oh, then you are an Aussie like me,” the little girl said. “My mum is Chinese, but that doesn’t matter.” Their other friend, whose parents I happened to know came from Pakistan, chimed in, “I’m half Aussie.” “Where were you born?” the other girl interrogated. “My dad got a visa and is not a citizen,” she said. “You have to be born here to be an Aussie,” the other girl said.

Well, that’s when I decided to join the conversation. I turned around and said, “You don’t have to be born here to be an Aussie.” “Really?” the ‘half Australian’ girl asked. “Sure,” I said. “If this is your home and, most importantly, you take care of the people who live here, then you are an Aussie, no matter where you were born.” That seemed to make both the little girls happy, so I promptly ducked out of the conversation again while they continued to chat happily about being Aussies.

This conversation got me thinking about belonging. Except for my daughter (who has inherited none of her mum’s swarthiness), none of the girls would be what you’d picture if you thought of the stereotypical Australian of the previous century. Their respective phenotypes had made little impression on the girls. They may have been as different looking as three girls could be from each other, yet they were happy to play together. So, what had caused the little girl to start the conversation about who was an Aussie or not?

My guess is that it stemmed from her idea that place of birth equalled belonging. Her dad was from here, and her mum was not. I suspect it made her feel that she perhaps only had a half claim to belonging, and thus, she (likely without thinking about it) tried to get ahead of it and pre-emptively claimed belonging lest someone try to deny it. If that is the case, what a horrible way to grow up.

Now my parents were immigrants, and where I grew up in Perth, there was a lot of kids whose folks had come over from Italy, the former Yugoslavia, or other Balkan nations. As much as we liked to make childish jokes about each other’s parent’s nations of origin, the fact that we were Australians was a given. I was shocked when I first went to the Eastern States and discovered that many of the people from immigrant backgrounds were described as and described themselves as something other than Australians. I haven’t noticed any change in my small pocket of Western Australia, and the few kids my children hang out with that have a parent from overseas seem to both be considered and consider themselves to be Australians. However, at least in this little girl’s experience, this convention may not be universal.

So, what can we do? Well, the answer seems to be that we as a society need to define what it means to be part of our community and who can claim to belong to it. I have spilt a fair bit of ink on this subject already (here is a list of articles), so I won’t rehash it all again here. Except to say that without a clear definition of what it means to belong that has a plurality of support within our community, we will run the risk of alienating good people who desperately want to belong.

To me, the criteria for belonging is simple. If you want to be one of us, you will give your loyalty to our community over any other, and you are willing to obey the minimum societal norms, then you are one of us. Your skin colour, your ancestry, where you or your parents were born or the god you worship (in so far as it does not conflict with the societal norms) is irrelevant to belonging to the community. In the end, what is required to belong is not physical but mental. To belong, you must first want to belong and then choose to align your actions with the expectations of the society you are joining. We can help our newer citizens in this process by making explicit what we require of them before we accept them as ‘one of us’ and conversely accepting nothing less from those of ‘us’ who are already here.

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