As a student, I had been told by my teachers that what we did and achieved throughout our school years would impact not only on our future employment capabilities, but our whole lives as well. According to my grade six teacher, a lanky man whose head was betopped by a fleece so thick and curly that it would be the envy of a merino, and who had the propensity to bizarrely embark, in a fittingly bleating voice, upon lengthy tangents extolling the pneumaticness of Elle McPherson mid-topic, we should garner all our Maths Wards and other Distincions for future use. Consequently, I still have my runners up certificate in the 1989 School Spelling Competition. My voice broke on the second day of the competition and I was deemed by the adjudicator to have spelt access rather than excess, resulting in the award of the coveted lilac first certificate, to other, less deserving individuals. I have nursed a simmering grudge against my school ever since. By the time I had finished high school, all my various certificates and awards were neatly filed away in a folder, and there they remain to the present day, except for one award that is particularly special. Back in 1993, I performed an erhu (chinese violin) solo at a concert for the Chinese community at the Radisson President. Owing to an administrative error, I was given the First Prize in the Chinese Singing Competition. Given the late Sir Peter Ustinov’s deeply held conviction that “to refuse awards... is another way of accepting them with more noise than is normal,” I accepted the award I had done nothing to deserve and have treasured it ever since, placing it upon my bookshelf next to my father’s 1967 lacrosse trophy, equally as bizarre only because I can never imagine him playing such a poncey game. Next to that is another bizarre award, given to me by an obscure Greek organization upon my return from Greece after a particular nasty stoush with the then Greek deputy foreign minister over the plight of the Greek minority in Northern Epirus. That award was for “proper conduct by a Greek youth.” In accordance with Jack Benny’s belief that: “I don't deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don't deserve that either,” I accepted this award only to be advised that the Greek race was superior and the father of the Chinese people, a theory interesting but as bizarre as a 1967 lacrosse trophy and thus, I disengaged myself as politely as possible.
Upon receiving an officious looking cream envelope embossed with the sovereign’s crown in the post recently, I was slightly bemused to learn that I had been nominated for the Government of Victoria Award for Excellence in Multicultural Affairs and what was more besides, I had been successfully nominated. For a good half hour, I enjoyed a decent semantic debate with my mother, where I adpoted the positon that the letter merely stated that whichever misguided individual had nominated me, had done so successfully, ie, managed to fill out the form properly and submit it, and my mother vascillating between adopting the view that a successful nomination was one that entailed an award and enjoining me to go outside and see if she was coming. Finally, adhering to the august precepts of Mary-Lousie Parker, expressed thus: “I’ll take any trophy. I don’t care what it says on it,” I prepared for the awards reception at Government House.
The concept of a government giving its citizens awards for multicultural excellence is a fascinating one. In his pioneering study: From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000, George Vassilacopoulos and Toula Nicolacopoulou have convincingly shown how state multiculturalism has served to contextualise ethnic minorities as legitimisers of the dominant British-Australian group’s ontopathology and seizure of land from its true owners. According to their view, this is reinforced by the state recognising cultural diversity on the one hand, while on the other directing that ethnic minorities adopt a subservient model of behaviour vis a vis the dominant British-Australian cultural tradition that is a guarantor of the ‘neutrality’ of cultural diversity in Austalia. Consequently, an award by the State for Multicultural Excellence is merely a reward to one for following the directives and iedeologies of the State’s conception of multiculturalism. In other words, it is a reward for subservient behaviour.
There is much to recommend itself to this incisive analysis and a corollary to it would be this question: If members of ethnic minorities are providing services to their ethnic minority groups that are of value and deserving of reward, then why are those ethnic minority groups not rewarding those deserving members and instead, referring this privilege to the government? This question, posed to other Greek recipients at the ceremony, generally provided this as the answer: “Can you imagine? We would rip each other to shreds. There would be accusations of nepotism and vested interest flying about everywhere.” Some had even this to say: “Because our community appreciates nothing. All it does is drag people down,” and others, this: “Community? What community?” Whatever the reason, it appears that we have accepted an imposed subservient position because there is a general feeling that awards in the service of our own interest given out by us are self-interested and illegitimate. Awards provided by the State have legitimacy, even though this means that by recognising such legitimacy, we are also recognising the State’s prerogative to determine what is meritorious and in the interests of our community. The implications of this are manifold.
This notwithstanding, it was both heartwarming and humbling to learn that there are a multitude of persons out there, most of whom are unknown, who devote much of their free time to the assistance of others and that their hard work is recognised and rewarded. After I obtained my award from the Governor, Dr Michalis Michael, of La Trobe University, who was present, whispered to me facetiously: “What is your award for? The production of polemical diatribes?” It was a profound, singular statement. For most of the Greek recipients of the award were unknown. They were school-teachers, labouring for decades to transmit the Greek language, volunteers who assist at clubs for the elderly or visit hospitals in order to comfort the sick. I recognised one lady who had visited my ancient great-grandmother in hospital a few years ago and offered her a few words of support. My great-grandmother could speak of nothing else for the next two days and still speaks of this woman’s singular kindness to the present day. These are unsung heroes of our community. They do not take part in petty micro-politics, nor do they have any formal leadership role. Yet their selfless, self-effacing, humanitarian tradition of giving is the social emulsion that has caused us to adhere to each other and give our ‘community’ some type of form. Conversely, one would argue that the increasing scarcity of such people is the catalyst for our increasing fragmentation. Other, more well known recipients, such as Kyriakos Amanatides, a great educator and man of letters and the ubiquitous Kathy Georgiou whose name is synonymous both with Cyprus and culture are truly deserving of recognition and commendation. George Papadopoulos, contributor to this publication, champion of multiculturalism and key architect of its development and application in Victoria well deserves the recognition received by him in the form of the Premier’s award. These are the true leaders of our community.
The State commends them and rewards them, because as the Governor of Victoria, Professor de Kretzer stated in his introductory speech, the work they tirelessly execute on behalf of their communities ultimately benefits Victoria as a whole. Our community generally maligns or is indifferent to them until State recognition is afforded. Regardless, their example should be a wake up call to all of us. The vast majority of recipients were over fifty. They belong to a generation brought up with the value of providing and giving - whether that be through the sending of money overseas to feed familes back home, working extra shifts to send their children to a better school, or giving up their weekends in order to raise money to help pay off a brotherhood building. Giving of themselves is as natural to them as breathing and it forms an intrinsic part of their communal identity. Inevitably, the generation they produced was reared upon the value of receiving. Thus they expect and are not willing to give of themselves without receiving material benefit. The admission of one award recipient is revealling. Upon approaching a member of the younger generation in order to provide him with a leadership role in his organisation, he was asked: “who will compensate me for my time?”
If the Victorian Government Award for Excellence in Mutlicultural Affairs has any purpose for our community then surely it is that one of the most important material benefits a person could ever aquire, is the goodwill and gratitude of the people around them. For it is this goodwill, this knowledge that we only exist in reference to the people around us that comprises and maintains our community and ultimately, society as a whole. Ultimately, it is the height of folly to take what we have for granted. For when the candle of the first generation sputters out, and there are few members of the second generation willing or able to selflessly maintain the organised community’s coherency, what will be the form of Hellenism that we will bequeath to our children? How will they relate to each other in a fragmented, self-interest world? We must therefore strive to transpose this sense of community down the generations.
One would like to to believe the poetic sentiments of gold medal Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, who stated that: “Awards become corroded. Friends gather no dust.” Yet when it comes to awards, I think it is the sultry Christina Aguilera who best expresses our zeitgeist: “I feel so fortunate to be 22 right now and having three under my belt, which is amazing.” Of this we can be sure. Finally, as a parting shot to the beloved Dr Michael, the revelation that in fact I received no award for Mutlicultural Excellence. Nor did anyone else last week. Instead, owing to a problem with the mould, we actually all ended up with medals of Multicultural Excellenge. And this as bizarre as my father’s lacrosse trophy, I am benignly proud of besting him in the bizarre stakes, thrice.