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The duality of detachment

By Raja Ratnam
Created 18/05/2009 - 11:38

Raja Ratnam [0] is the published author of three books on migrant settlement, ethnic affairs, and the associated issues of citizenship, national identity, and refugee and humanitarian entry; as well as a number of articles, including three published in 20067 on Webdiary [0]. Good to see you again, Raja.

The duality of detachment
by Raja (Arasa) Ratnam

Australia, in the twenty-first century, is a demonstrably successful multicultural nation. But it was not always thus. It was only in the last thirty years that full ethnic diversity was permitted. In the thirty years before, when white British and European immigrants (preferably able-bodied men) were sought assiduously, the former were often described derogatively as Poms, the latter as Wogs; the rare coloured immigrant was either a black or a chink. Those who relished using these descriptions are not all dead yet.

That is, a people used to believing that Australia was a haven for white British people, where every man was equal to every other man (obviously their women knew their place), had to have time to adjust to the vast societal changes thrust upon them by their government. Thus, it was after a generation of living with the Poms and Wogs that Anglo-Australia was ready for coloured immigrants. Initially, the lighter coloured East Asians, the majority of whom were Christian, were favoured. After a period, the entry door was opened fully to the darker South Asians. Census data confirms this.

It is a great testimony to the host people, by now not wholly Anglo-Australian, that the vast variety of new cultures entering the country adapted to one another, and to the host culture, peacefully. And that is because most, if not all, immigrants do want to “adapt” to the institutions and social mores of their chosen new home. Governments are not needed to “manage” ethno-cultural diversity.

Adaptation, progressing to integration, is the usual path for new entrants; if not for them, then for their descendants. The story below about a Hindu immigrant highlights some aspects of such adaptation. A brief background of his birth culture sets the stage.

Part of the guidance available from the metaphysics of Hinduism covers the detachment from society that one can, and perhaps should, undertake near the end of one’s life. Prior to that, at the age of anecdotage, one can have a role to play in guiding one’s grandchildren. One’s own adult children may even become interested in one’s experience-based views or maturity-derived observations. The inter-generational adaptation of a Hindu immigrant into Australia, set out below, exemplifies both this process and the more significant cross-cultural impacts of migration.

Academic Krishna had left his family home before reaching adulthood. Yet, he had been adequately acculturated by then. Traditional customs, obligations and responsibilities had been well implanted before he left for study overseas. Like more and more of his people, and others from the developing nations of Asia, he (now with a wife from the same tribe and two children) was finding a new life in a Western country; in his case, in Australia.

In the meantime, his father had reached the age of detachment back home. As a spiritual seeker, he had divested himself of the responsibility of managing his financial affairs (officially at least, for – in reality – his wife had been the driving force in that household). He now began to detach himself in his mind from all the pettiness of the world, his community and his extended family and clan. It was not difficult. He had realised by then that human behaviour is intransigent in its endeavours and re-iterated responses. His mind had transcended the bondage of conformity with the community, including ritualistic prayer. He was increasingly pre-occupied with where he might be going soon, whilst others of his age might have other normal interests.

Anyone who wanted to access the insights of his current life (internally lit by countless previous lifetimes) was welcome to a dialogue. Since each soul has to find its own path to the Void, using its own map of the Way, he was realistic in his non-expectations of the behaviour of others.

He accepted that his son was integrating into a new nation, hopefully maturing spiritually, in reciprocity with those of other cultures which were also alert to the wonders of the Way. He realised that his son’s future, and that of his son’s new nation, were circumstantially being navigated according to laws beyond those of nature or of the modern scientist. Both he and his son would adapt to their respective visions of Reality and wend their way through the thicket of existence as best they could or perhaps as determined by their respective destinies.

His son, however, was becoming detached in a different way. Since his children had been born in Australia, he had, like most migrants in this position, become a little detached from some of the practices which had formed him. He was also adapting himself to some of the values, attitudes and practices which his sons brought home from school; his children would not have the benefit of the wisdom available through his parents, particularly his mother. As traditional values are more effectively transmitted by mothers and grandmothers, his children would be detached from some of the wisdom back in their ancestral home.

Indeed, his children’s adaptation to Australian idioms and ideas was a little disconcerting. Whereas he and his wife had been thoroughly conditioned by the time of their departure, whereby they could be relied upon to continue the more important cultural “practices”, and to uphold traditional “values” in a new milieu, the children were clearly going to be a source of threat to some of that tradition, and thereby a source of potential conflict. Most migrants, especially those who had migrated as communities, usually through chain migration, had comparable experiences. For instance, his Greek neighbour had recounted sadly how her first son, aged twenty five, born in Australia, was on the dole, by choice. He had a new car and a home provided by his parents and grandparents respectively, in another city. The parents were working six and half days a week in their business.

In Krishna’s case, his first son did all that his father told him to do. In the main, this was study, and more study – a traditional approach to the future by any Asian community. Indeed, researches had shown recently that communities in Australia from the Mediterranean region, as well as established Aboriginal communities, had comparable aspirations and practices; their approach to their future was also for their children to study, and study hard.

Krishna’s second son, however, was adapting to Australia faster. He told his father one day, when he was about 12 years old, that he would not need his family to provide for him in any way. He would decide what he wanted to do. This was contrary to tradition, when Papa generally made that decision – but under Mama’s guidance. This child was still in primary school, where he had been taught about individual rights. On enquiry by Krishna, the boy could not remember his teachers saying anything about the “rights and needs” of his family and community, and the his “obligations” in regard to these. Was Australian society based solely on the rights of individuals, wondered Krishna, with some alarm.

When Krishna slapped his son for being both stupid and rude, his wife intervened. Krishna slapped her too, for being rude first and stupid next. This had been a traditional way in Krishna’s community back home of disciplining one’s dependants. Migrants from certain parts of Europe had similar practices, which were continued in Australia after migration, at least for a while. Krishna’s wife, with her professional status based on two degrees, initially considered seeking institutional help. Without parents from either family, either to support her or have her accept (however reluctantly) the rights of the master of the household, she was more free to seek intervention.

Yet, being afraid of the risk of breaking up the family, and the likely resultant alienation from fellow families from the same culture, whether or not they condoned the slapping, she took no further formal action. Krishna’s behaviour had to be modified from within the family, by attrition, and by certain threats. Eventually, these means worked.

By the time Krishna reached the age of anecdotage in Australia, he would become detached from many of the traditions of his people back home. His family was not likely to be fractured. A strong sense of community, with both intra-community and intra-family responsibilities, would bind them in a manner not likely to be known to most Anglo-Celt Australians. The individual rights available in Australia would only be selectively accessed by his sons. They would ensure that their children were protected, guided, coerced, developed, threatened, moulded, and turned into viable citizens. Whilst a family breakdown can occur, it would not result from any diminution of that peace of mind, love, and “family support” that children everywhere rightly and automatically deserve. And Krishna may or may not follow, in time, his father’s footsteps along the path of spiritual detachment.

That many children are terribly and horribly exploited by Hindu, Moslem, Christian and other societies, mainly in the developing and under-developed nations, is not lost on anyone. Greed is universal. Church, mosque and temple-attending hypocrites successfully exploit not only little children, but also women – and anything and anybody else they can. The new Australian Krishna accepted that a civilised society can do something about this problem, without relying overtly on the Law of Karma or Cosmic Justice.

He accepted that Australia is such a society. Whilst some individuals will not lift a finger, or their voice, when another human is being violated, collectively the majority of the people, irrespective of ethnicity, do care (although many indigenes might not agree). This is the Australian nation’s great virtue, and the attraction for peoples all over the world.

Yet, as an integrated Australian, he is discomfited and despairing about recent developments in his new nation. He feels detached from the excesses in asserted individual rights, whose proponents yet display great reliance on the welfare state; that is, on the collective. He is concerned about those maritally detached who reflect a deficiency of commitment by one partner to the other in marriage; of the peace of mind of the many children whose lives have become stressed by the claimed divergent rights and wants of their parents; and of the plight of the many aged lacking succour by their families. He asks: Is there any real difference in leaving the old to die in the desert (or some other isolating location) and leaving them in distant institutional care? In the latter case, their bodies might be cared for, but what about their souls or psyche?

There are too many fractured families, too many hurt and alienated children and youth, and too many isolated aged, he feels. This situation, he claims, damages the prospects of a cohesive and caring “future” society, and that the attitudes and values held by those damaged by the excesses of irresponsible freedom and newly-coined asserted rights are also not compatible with a stable and secure society. He argues that society should always be structured on a moral base, and with regard to the long term viability of humankind, with the family as the core unit of society; and that individuals and communities should not be allowed to slide into detachment societally. Spiritual detachment can come later, if sought.

Thus spoke Krishna, the new Australian, with his feet solidly grounded on the operational ethos of multi-ethnic Australia, whilst retaining his ideological connections to what have been described elsewhere as “Asian values”. This concept can upset the superior neo-colonial white Christian. Yet, it merely extols the virtues of the extended family within a communitarian ethos, together with appropriate respect for one’s elders and those in accepted authority. What, asks Krishna, is faulty about that, either morally or societally? He points out that we are all born into a collective, are sustained by a collective, and will probably return to a collective.

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