ELIZABETH DENLEY looks back on her childhood, which kindled an awareness and interest in cultural diversity. She offers some key learnings from those formative years that have helped her to embrace the possibility of humanity coming together in kinship, mutual love and respect.
Growing up in a steel town in Australia after the Second World War was a smorgasbord of multicultural diversity. My neighbors and school friends were from many parts of the world, including China, Lebanon, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Israel, Palestine, Russia, Germany, Poland, and the UK. By my teens that had expanded to Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and by my twenties to all countries of the world. Back then, Australia was known as the Lucky Country as there was work for everyone. That does not mean racism and prejudice were absent, especially for Indigenous Australians. As a melting pot it was still a work in progress, with a lot of teething problems that are still being resolved today.
The Steelworks was a place for migrant workers, so over 50% the town’s population was composed of new arrivals, and wave after wave from other shores joined the workforce as I grew up. While the adults didn’t always get on, we children adapted to each other’s ways very quickly. We shared each other’s food at lunchtime, climbed the same trees, played softball and netball together, and laughed at jokes and common experiences. By the time I finished school, the first thing I did was travel to other continents to learn more about their richness of culture and history.
Together we were creating a multicultural society, without realizing how the experience was also forming us. My first experience of pizza was from Stephan Gimpelli’s lunchbox in grade 3. My first experience of falafel and hummus was at a neighbor’s home, and the backyards of my school friends were filled with bok choy, olive and pomegranate trees, mangoes, and vineyards.
Looking back, I now appreciate with gratitude this formative awakening. The diversity was rich, not only in food, but also in customs, language, religion, and culture.
On top of that, we were thrown together because of the local ethos of doing things in teams. We had to get along: choirs and orchestras, drama, sports, and even academic work were all dependent on teamwork. Our culture didn’t encourage individuals to shine– we either all shone together or no one shone.
Of course, there were many things not to like, to rebel against at the time, but looking back, those formative years gave us an openness to people of all cultures. I have since understood that this dynamic is characteristic of new societies, without much hierarchy and tradition. While it has its drawbacks, it is filled with opportunity and possibility.
Recently, I met up with some of my old school friends, and it was a wonderful connection after so many years. I realized that we had shared experiences during a pivotal and formative time in our lives. We had flown in different directions after school – different places, different careers, different family experiences. But our shared story is still there, and we laughed and reminisced about times past in a way that awakened a great sense of belonging.
What did that melting pot instill in me about diversity from an early age?
Elizabeth is the founding editor of Heartfulness Magazine. She is Australian, loves meditating, writing, playing and singing music, gardening, thinking, spending time with her two grown up children, and life in general. She has been a student of both science and spirituality all her life. Trained as a research scientist, with a PhD in ecology, she... Read more