Alison Ball
Guest Speaker – Royal Women’s Hospital Annual Luncheon for Volunteers June 1986

I have been asked to talk to you today about Social & Cultural Barriers. Social & Cultural Barriers to what? Well I think when I was asked to speak to you what was in mind was our mini United Nations here in this hospital. The many people who originate from another country, who may speak a language other than English and who may embrace a religion other than Christianity.

I think also in mind were the ways we may respond to those English speaking Aussie born who have a very different life style from our own. I think it was hoped I would enlighten you about the customs and ways of some of these groups. Well having learned more in the past twelve months since working at this hospital about other racial, cultural and religious groups than in my past seven years as a social worker I still decided that I know very, very little on the subject so it is doubtful I’ll talk very much about that at all.

I was reminded though of my daughter’s sense of frustration and helplessness in about 1967 when she returned from her first day in 3rd grade at South Yarra State School certain that she was the only person in the grade who couldn’t speak Greek. In fact she discovered later she’d been the only person who hadn’t then learned to swear in Greek. South Yarra State School at that time was also like a mini United Nations. I feel that same sense of frustration and helplessness when I find that the person I am talking with can’t understand a word that I say. But more on that later.

I did look in an Annual Report for the Hospital – 1984 I think. And I found that of over 24,000 admissions that year more than half were Australian born. I found that Italians made up about 5% of total admissions and that there were considerable numbers of people who originated from Greece, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Turkey and Vietnam with the Vietnamese being 1% of all admissions. In all, people originated from 84 different countries. I learned also that our hospital makes efforts to cater for the various groups. We have interpreters who speak many languages, we put out information in a number of languages, we make some efforts to cater for various dietary requirements and we even circulate information to staff about particular religious requirements which may help us understand why, say, a woman doesn’t want to do what we want her to. For example during the feast of Ramadan as at present.

Now, maybe like you, I learned some French and Latin at school, I even learned a little Russian at University, I’ve traveled in a number of countries and I’ve read about the values, customs beliefs and traditions of other nationalities and religions.

However, maybe or maybe not like you, I only really learn something, deep down at a gut level when I am face to face with the other person; I really only learn through direct experience.

And direct experience for me here in this hospital means when I am doing my job. My job of working with another human being and determined that I do not want their experience to be violated in any way and wanting to ensure that their needs are met or that at least our hospital does not stand in the way of them meeting their own needs. And it occurred to me that working at this hospital provides us with a great opportunity not readily available elsewhere.

How easy it is in general to live in Melbourne surrounded by increasing numbers of people of varied racial, cultural, social and religious origins and yet to go about our lives personally untouched by them. We mostly live in our own little groups, we feel safe and secure that way. But working here offers us the chance to extend our awareness, add to our knowledge and enrich our lives through direct and very personal contact with many people different from ourselves.

One aspect, though, seems very important to me. We must not attempt to draw conclusions about the customs, traditions and beliefs of whole groups of people because we meet, get to know or work with individual people or families. Our contact with a particular family should not be generalised to all families from that particular race, culture or religion. Of course there will be overlaps and commonalities within groups and of course we will find definite beliefs, customs or traditions which are vastly different between groups but, it is of prime importance to keep in mind that this person, this family is unique and will respond or act in their own unique way.

At the same time it is essential to keep in mind that experiences people undergo at this hospital are universal experiences. We deal each minute of each day with birth, death, pain, suffering, love and joy. And no matter what our origins, these events and feelings touch a common bond in all human kind.

We are most fortunate to work in an atmosphere that presents the opportunity to recognize the common bonds while at the same time providing us with the magnificent chance to develop real relationships with people from varying backgrounds and learn to respect and value their differences. So, I gave some thought as to how I myself put barriers in the way of making the most of these opportunities. What are these barriers and how did I develop them?

First of all I think the barriers are largely based on fear. What are our fears? Fear that we may not know what to say? Fear that we will appear foolish? Fear that we may upset someone, hurt someone, that we may say “the wrong thing”. Fear that we may lose control of a situation or perhaps we subscribe to a wider community fear that “these people are taking over”, that they threaten our Aussie culture and will lead our children into a future very different from that Australia in which we were raised.

Fear, it has been said, is in direct proportion to our ignorance. But do we choose to stay in our ignorance and in the helplessness of our fears or do we take some risks and open ourselves up to new and exciting possibilities? By allowing ourselves to be open to making real relationships with real people who are different from ourselves we can lose our fears and gain in understanding so that our lives and ultimately we as a nation can be strengthened. So, as I said, I considered how I had built up my barriers and I thought you may enjoy, feeling how it is to be generalised along with me as US AUSSIES.

Do my experiences have enough in common with yours that we can make assumptions about US AUSSIES as a group?Maybe you wouldn’t want me to be used as a representative of what all Aussies are like in the same way as I object to us making statements about All Turks or All Muslims or All Greeks. Maybe your up-bringing wasn’t like mine…

I was born in 1937 and grew up during the 1940’s in a small Gippsland country town. Right from the start my world was divided into THEM and US. First of all there was ME, in capitals, and then there was THEM – my brothers and sisters- and I wasn’t like them.

Then there was OUR FAMILY. We belonged to the Poor But Honest variety while much of the rest of the town; and especially the shopkeepers, bank manager, the cow cockies, the solicitor and the local doctor belonged to the group of THE RICH and therefore naturally suspect.

In my country town though we were mostly good, solid typical Aussies of only two basic types. White Anglo Saxon Protestants like US of several generations or White Anglo Saxon Catholics like THEM who went to the rather suspect other school and were taught by Nuns. Of course I mostly didn’t get to know “Them” but we swung on fences on the way home from school and sung rhymes at each other about Catholic Dogs and Protestant Dogs sitting on logs etc. Remember – did you do that?

At that time my only real knowledge of other races in the flesh were the men in maroon uniforms called “Eye-talians” who congregated at a particular shop on market day because they were interned – and what that meant I never really did know. And there was the one Greek family who owned the local fish and chip shop and whose son had to be sat next to me in 5th grade. I remember, too, lots of talk about the horrible Japanese who my brother was at the war to fight and also a grudging respect for a funny little man called Ghandi. Apart from that my mother had taught aboriginal children and had invited them into her home-so that proved we weren’t prejudiced in any way. But somehow we grew up with a sense that we just happened to be, quite fortuitously, quite naturally, counted among the inherently superior people in the world.

And I often wonder if all peoples of the world grow up with a sense of that for themselves or is it something that was peculiar to us, US AUSSIES or US of BRITISH stock. Human beings may all be similarly conceited.

Anyway for me- that sense was shattered in my first four months living in the big city.

I was 12 years old, my father had died and I was sent to a rather tin pot but I thought super snobbish girls school in town. And I was invited to my new friend’s house on Sunday afternoon – for High Tea no less. What on earth was High Tea? Something I may have read about in some English Schoolgirls novel.

In fact it was to be my first time ever of feeling like an alien in a foreign land – of feeling that my way of being – my family’s way of being was unacceptable. That I didn’t fit. And I tell you the story not quite in its entirety – you can ask me in private for the bit I leave out.

There we sat at my friend’s house starched and stiff eating scones and cake and me staring at a calendar on the wall because no one talked and I was completely overwhelmed. Then suddenly there was my friend’s brother asking me about our cows at home. Now that was something I could talk about – I was an expert on cows. And there he was egging me on. Did they really come if you called their name? Surely not? Boy calves and girl calves? Really? How could you tell the difference between a boy calf and a girl calf?

Well – he asked me didn’t he? And I told him just the way my mother had always told me to tell. I don’t know if you can imagine the result but I suddenly knew that I’d transgressed social barriers – that I was something less than human, someone to be patronised, pitied, looked down upon. My experience was minor compared to the experiences of many others who suffer various forms of discrimination or outright abuse but I think it was that experience that coloured my attitudes in the years to come- the 1950’s.

Do you recall the 1950’s in Melbourne? Do you remember traveling on our trams? Do you recall the good old Aussies talking about the Bolts and the Reffos.

How dare they have the audacity to travel on our trams and still speak THEIR LINGO. My sympathy for the underdog had surfaced by then. So I felt a sense of shame and discomfort that made me want to stand up for their right to be themselves. And since then too, I’ve traveled and known the feeling of relief that comes when in a foreign country you find someone who speaks English and I’ve learned how hard it is for me to take the risk of trying out my school girl French. We’ve grown up a lot since the 1950’s haven’t we?

We don’t talk about assimilation any more – we talk about multi – culturalism. We don’t call them Bolts and Reffos anymore – or even migrants or New Australians. No – we call – them Ethnics and our children call them wogs and the European born greengrocer in my local shop worries that “they, (the Vietnamese) are taking over the country.” We have came a long way since then but I wonder how much we have really changed. If we look deeply inside the seeds of prejudice are in all of us. Do we appreciate how much these different groups of people have given to our country, our culture?

Do you remember when we didn’t eat spaghetti except out of cans, when wine was for plonkos and “Eyetalians”, when the only rice we ate was as a sweet rice pudding and when we hadn’t even heard of Pizzas’ much less the huge array of other food now readily available to us. And food is only one obvious aspect. So – I want to be an advocate for taking advantage of what this hospital has to offer – great opportunities for us to really get to know at first hand a wide range of people from a variety of cultures, religions and origins. In that way we can perhaps help to break down the barriers elsewhere because where we’ve opened up ourselves as one human being to another- fear and ignorance are swept away.