Dealing with names

Please swipe through to view the full gallery. Artwork by Anpu, posted on Facebook.

This is fascinating to me. A lot of people in my life do all the right things, according to this artwork. And I appreciate it when people genuinely want to respect me and my ethnic name.

But I don’t care if you get my name wrong because I think we get too attached to names and labels and the cultural baggage that comes with them.

Colonisation created a global hierarchy. So did capitalism. Yes, it’s terrible that the world’s colonial history decimated hundreds of tribes and tribal languages. We should learn from that history. Languages aren’t meant to compete with each other for attention and recognition. Fighting for recognition doesn’t necessarily bring recognition. If we’re to live in one world together, we all need a common language to communicate. That means every one of us will have to make compromises. People like me, who aren’t native English speakers, may have to be ok with English speakers struggling with our names. The same way, English speakers will have to deal with a thick Indian accent if they want their software issues sorted and a rough African accent if they want their parents in aged care looked after. It’s called co-operative existence.

For me, a person is a person. As long as you’re polite and considerate and not racist, you’re fine. If you can’t remember my name, that’s ok. Because guess what, I often get Michael and Matthew mixed up. Beth and Beck are too much alike. By the time we get to Chris, Cris, and Kris, I’m dying. And don’t even get me started on Mick being short for Michael.

If you need an easier way to remember me, just ask. I’d do the same for you. We all take shortcuts sometimes.

Humans named things and each other so we can refer to them in conversation. That’s all. Don’t read too much into it. A name is a name. It’s not your soul. From where I come from, often, a name is a caste. It’s religion. It’s the foundation of hate crimes and human butchery. No one should strut around wielding it like a flag. That’s the kind of devotion that rips countries apart.

Names and labels are just signposts for a dirt road that’ll change and disappear over time. Just because no one will remember a dirt road 50 years from now doesn’t mean the road didn’t exist or serve its purpose. So what if you forget my name? For as long as my being was here and in your life, it’s served its purpose. That’s all we all are—signposts. Sometimes we have letters missing, sometimes we’re scarred or scratched, and some other times we’re just facing the wrong way. Regardless, here and now. If we are, we are.

What’s in a name when a rose by any other name would smell just the same?

Reality image

Doll figure at the Columbia stall at the National Multicultural Festival in Canberra
National Multicultural Festival, 2020, Canberra

Dreamy; perfection,
represents folkish lifestyle—
dollish, delusion.

National Multicultural Festival

Volunteering is the best way to experience a new society, right?

So when the Multicultural Festival came around, I signed up as a general volunteer—you know, the ones wearing a red festival t-shirt and a hat, and a lanyard too large for their body—wandering around the perimeter smiling at those gorging on meat on a stick, sipping their beer before stepping away so that it doesn’t spill over before they reach their friends. 

The festival started at 4 pm last Friday, with cultural performances and food stalls all the way through 11 pm. When I showed up at 4, a half hour earlier than the start of my shift, the place thronged with a hum of excitement. The sun sprawled on us as volunteers scattered throughout the city circle, taking their positions, armed with brochures, information packs, while the area wardens double-checked their walkie talkies, strapped on and ready to go.

The moment I stepped out into the festival ground, I regretted not carrying my water bottle. The festival organisers had done a tremendous job of setting up water filling stations every few metres, but without my bottle, I didn’t stand a chance. When at last I gave up my ego and picked up a plastic water bottle, drained and desperate, I promised never to do that again. 

It didn’t take me too long to study the festival map. Six stages with three or four tents that accommodated smaller performances, spread across five major streets in the city centre. I’d walked around that part of city enough of times to know what lay where, and after two complete rounds, I’d memorised the locations of each stage.

Equipped with so much information, I began wandering. For that was my role as a general volunteer. I was to walk around with a welcoming smile, answering questions, and helping out anyone in distress. It had all seemed easy and fun on paper. And yet as I walked around I felt myself suffocating under the smoke of charred meat, barbecue and grilled citrus waffling throughout the streets, mingled with the joyous cries of lolly-sucking kids and the satisfied lip-smacking of bratwurst-wolfing adults.

On my right, noodles were sizzling, fried with eggs and chicken. From the left came yells advertising crepes—savoury and sweet—French, with gluten-free and vegan options. Baos, or steamed buns, weren’t too far away, sitting right next to the street food extravaganza of masala dosa and curry. A little further were Croatian beers, Sydney ice-cream, Ethiopian lentils and beef stews with flavoured injera.

Row after row showcased food from all over the world, in various shapes and sizes—from pulled pork burgers to the so-called healthy zucchini fritters, from paella to pan-friend momos, from fresh-squeezed orange juice to vodka-infused lemonade.

  • Greek coffee at the National Multicultural Festival

Overwhelming is an understatement. For five hours, I let the crowds push me from one place to another, as I tried to find my way through, only wanting to return to my starting point. As I left the festival that evening—four hours before the performances ended for the day—I was ready to hit the bed and not return for my shift the next day. I didn’t want to volunteer ever again.

But on Saturday afternoon, I arrived again, signed in to my shift three hours early, and started patrolling the grounds, looking for something more engaging than dead meat. Fortunately, that second day was the best.

In most cultural events that are advertised on Facebook with flyers abound and hashtags galore, people throng in thousands, flashing cameras at dancers as if they’d never before seen a blend of colours or beaded jewellery. Our impression of culture is often so stereotypical that we can’t imagine anything beyond a stage performance featuring slender female dancers and flavoured meat.

However, this multicultural festival tried to showcase some genuine culture. Not only did it feature music and food from various countries, but it also accommodated embassies of various nations. Why, one of the most popular aspect of the event—aside from the German beer and sausages—was the EU village. For an entire day, a large section of the festival hosted embassy stalls where delegates and foreign representatives shared brochures, travel advice, traditional information, and snacks. They even gave away free EU passports at the European Union tent—a fun activity for the young and the older where you could walk your way through all the tents of the EU countries and get your passport stamped at each tent.

  • National Multicultural Festival, Canberra - 2020

A little later that day came the iconic Multicultural Festival Parade. As the name suggests, it’s a tremendous walking and dancing display of culture by the many countries that call Canberra (and Australia) home. From indigenous musical representatives to Chinese dragon dance, to Korean music, south Indian drumming, Bulgarian dancing, Brasilian samba, belly dancing, and more, the entire parade was a blurry flourish of colour.

Each of the six main stages represented a region. For instance, stage five was for African and Pacific Islander performances, food, and crafts, whereas stage two and its surrounds featured Celtic performances and Scottish traditional foods, information, and dance troupes.

Day two was more satisfying than the first one.

When I woke up on Sunday, hoping to make it on time to hear some multi-lingual poetry at 10 am, I realised I’d been stressing myself out. I had to lie in bed until I had to leave. My shift was to start at 1pm and I checked in 10 minutes prior.

Having spent two whole days at the festival without staying anywhere long enough to enjoy any performance completely, I’d decided to let it all go and have fun.

The section I stood at featured the Greek community and culture. From Zorba dance and olive pastries to sipping black traditional Greek coffee, I had a wonderful time, nodding to tunes I’ll never get out of my head. 

As I waddled over to the Latin American zone, loud maracas and drums invited me with floral t-shirts and unpronounceable words. It was the most warm and welcoming experience I’ve ever had. Charged by my volunteer status, I walked right to the front—not because I was being an arsehole, but because being 5 feet and a couple of inches, in a crowd, I can’t see anything other that people’s sweaty, muscly, arms. 

While the groovy Peruvian music troupe sang and danced, the audience had a party of its own. People in all kinds of clothing set their bags on the ground to jump onto the dance floor. It was a perfect amalgamation of traditions—performers came from various Latin American countries and the audience featured black, white, and all shades of the brown in between.

National Multicultural Festival, Canberra 2020
National Multicultural Festival, Canberra 2020

As the festival wound to a close, I’d changed my mind about volunteering. I’d so it all again next year, but now that I know the scale of the event, I’ll be more strategic about channeling my energy and enjoy the event. 

After all, what good is volunteering if we don’t have fun?


Hand woven basket at National Multicultural Festival
Hand woven basket, National Multicultural Festival

Entwined into one,
like lives of marital bliss—
threads of a basket.

Coffee traditions

Over the weekend, I volunteered at the National Multicultural Festival in Canberra. In its 24th year and my first, it was such good experience to be part of the three-day extravaganza.

Of the many highlights, was a small cup of Greek coffee.

Standing outside the Greek food stall, I stared at the sign that said “Traditional Greek coffee, boiled in a briki.”

Italicised and unpronounceable means that it’s traditional, right?

Eliopite, a Crypriot olive pastry and Greek coffee
Eliopite, a Crypriot olive pastry, and Greek coffee

It wasn’t anything groundbreaking though—just regular black coffee—the same thing I drink everyday: fine-ground coffee powder boiled in water, served steaming hot.

Although it was neither authentic nor imported from Greece, it was unlike any I’ve had. It was stronger, and without the strange sourness of instant black coffee.

The best thing about the festival is that I could watch (gawk at) Greeks doing the Zorba dance (such grace!) and then later talk to a woman about the tradition that’s Greek coffee.

Much like the Turkish, Serbian, Armenian, Cypriot, and Bosnian coffee, the Greek version is also boiled in a tall metal pot called, that’s right, a briki. The coffee isn’t filtered and so when I received the cup with gracious thanks, masking my disbelief at the smallness of the serving, the dregs swirled around, rapidly gaining weight, sinking to the depths of the cup’s under world.

Saying that it’d take a while for the grounds to settle, the woman advised me to drink it slow and warned not to drink the “mud”.

The reason?

In Greece, once people finish their coffee, they turn the cup over and read dregs—much like tea leaf reading in many real and imagined cultures.

Because it’s so hot, the coffee promotes conversations in social events. Greek coffee is an accompaniment for afternoon(ish) tea gatherings. Not a bad thing—forcing people to talk to each other while waiting for the damn coffee to cool down. That would’ve prevented people from chugging it and rushing away from over inquisitive aunts and uncles.

Clearly, this all before the mobile phone era. Then again, aren’t most traditions?