Recently, I was privileged to attend my husband’s Australian Citizenship ceremony.
I had done the same thing many years ago; although mine at the local courthouse with only three other families. Very low key and nothing to show afterwards other than a certificate with my name on it.
On this day, there were one hundred new Australians who stood and pledged their allegiance to their new country, the majority choosing to include God, the remainder taking a second pledge without reference to God.
“From this time forward, under God, I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.”
Sitting, listening to those reading out the pledge, a great sense of belonging and respect rose up in me. When those who were there as witnesses and for support were invited to stand to reconfirm their pledge, my heart was nearly bursting, my head spinning and the blood was pounding loudly in my ears.
My husband held my hand and gave it a squeeze as we stood side by side. From now, we were both Australian Citizens.
We left the hall in silence, watching others hugging and shaking hands, our hands still entwined.
There was a lightness in our step as we searched for somewhere to eat. Over dinner, I asked: ‘So do you feel any different?’
You have to understand that my husband, as was I, was born in UK of Welsh parents and very ‘British’ in all manner of his life. Bound by respect and loyalty to the monarchy, all things made and sold in the UK, the English cricket team winning the Ashes and most of all the Welsh Rugby team!!
I never once suggested to him that he become Australian, but he knew that I held dual citizenship, and perhaps, for him, this was his way of showing his respect and commitment to his choice to live in this country.
His answer staggered me.
He quietly reached over and held my hand and said: ‘I now feel that I belong and that I can be part of building a better place for all those, like me, that call Australia home.’
For him, the transition was easier because his life’s experiences had been culturally similar to those in the UK. He marvelled and honoured those who would have had to change a whole mindset, adopting a culture and society that was alien in many ways.
I have pondered his words and his sentiments, and I think that he is right. Respect and pride of living and belonging go a very long way in making this world a better place.
I have experienced living in different countries first-hand – the different cultures, languages and social norms. It took me a long time to feel that I belonged, and if I’m honest I now, believe that in fact I never achieved that belonging.
Belonging only becomes real when the individual becomes involved in something; knowing the feeling of security from being included and accepted. To enjoy relating to everyday life, fitting in, conforming and subscribing to everyone and everything that you acknowledge as home and the place you are in, this is belonging.
Belonging is a human desire. We are wired to belong. Deep within each of is us all is the desire to be part of something larger than ourselves.
From the very beginning of time, when God created the heavens and the earth and every living thing, his purpose was to place humans, created in his image, within his creation to achieve and prosper. Tribes, families, societies, nations, all formed by His grace.
Being part of this enables us to belong and to enrich our identity and relationships. It can lead to acceptance and understanding. This ideal plan went horribly wrong when sin robbed us of our planned destiny. Our yearning to belong, though, turned into a primal desire to fit in and seek approval – poor substitutes for God’s plan of belonging within his family.
Belonging can’t be gained through anything other than being authentic and presenting ourselves as we truly are, self-accepting.
Life and living together aren’t easy. Mixed with the complexities of different cultures, religions, education, social responsibilities and financial inequalities, our world is an open canvass for good or evil. I reflected on my experiences and those of refugees worldwide – particularly those on Manus and Nauru.
When Europeans began sailing across the Pacific in search of new trade routes with Asia, they encountered many of the island societies. They used the broad terms “Micronesia,” “Melanesia” and “Polynesia” to demarcate island groups which seemed to share some physical or cultural similarities. The similarities, however, were largely superficial. In their more ‘educated European minds’, they assumed that these cultures could co-exist and unite with ease.
They were wrong.
Melanesia, literally, the “dark islands” is the most culturally diverse of the three Pacific island regions. Individuals run the spectrum of body type and skin colour, while the social organisation is determined by chiefly hierarchies.
Micronesia, the “little islands,” refers to nations that have relatively small land mass, the individual islands actually vary in size and shape—from high islands with tall mountains and rain forests, to low lying atolls. Kiribati and Nauru, both my homes for six years fall within this culture.
Polynesia, the third culture, had chiefs and community members who trace themselves to a common ancestor. Unlike the other two cultures, leaders were chosen in Polynesia based on their hereditary bloodline. Chiefs generally had absolute authority and decided all the laws and matters of justice, but their rule was tempered by more pragmatic concerns, such as being good and fair leaders, listening to the advice of peers and considering the interests of their subjects. Polynesians were artists and artisans of great skill and charismatic by nature. They were motivated, and this showed in their traditions, particularly in their singing and dancing. Tuvalu is Polynesian.
My experiences in Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru reflected the three races, and its only now that I can identify and value the differences.
As they are today, lineages were the backbone of Pacific communities. Members of a lineage held land in common, worked the land together, acted together and interacted with other lineages. Kiribati and Tuvalu’s ‘riches’ were determined by how much land was held and the number of coconut trees there were on that land (coconuts being the source of basic food and sustenance). The coconut tree was used in every way possible: food, drink, cooking, fuel, shelter and building materials. The whole tree was used down to the liquid core of the tree trunk, which was known as the ‘millionaires’ meal.
A household was multi-generational, consisting of an immediate family and certain extended relatives, including grandparents, siblings and their spouses and children. Sometimes, even non-related individuals attached themselves to a household. It was also not uncommon for children to be unofficially adopted by relatives residing in other households. It wasn’t unusual for eldest children to be taken into another family. Mainly to keep the family’s name going, keep Grandparents younger and more active, but more to ensure the father’s legacy especially if there were only daughters.
The British joined the nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu into the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, under the assumption that they could co-exist. In truth, that never happened – the very basis and beliefs of cultures saw many hidden, conflicting under-currents that were only resolved once separation back to two nations was established.
In Kiribati, a system of ‘boobisy’ was common place. It was the practice of taking anything from one another, including children, without question or repayment. ‘Family’ could mean anyone who decided that they would come and stay.
There were no orphans, no old age facilities, no detention centres, only a Police hut that would house drunks and perhaps a violent criminal until they were rehabilitated back into the community, or placed under a family elder or chief who would take them in hand.
Did I ever belong during those six years of my life?
After marrying and became a part of the ‘family’, I had a level of belonging, but it was evident to me that I was ‘different’ and was treated as such.
I was a ‘white’ woman in a coloured world of two cultures, trying desperately to function as one.
There are differences; that doesn’t mean the differences are wrong or exclusive to themselves.
I lived, worked and loved the people that had embraced me. Did they see me as belonging? Yes, for a time they were willing and inclusive as best they could be. Did they fully understand my culture or me as a person? Let’s just say they felt a deep sense of responsibility towards me, but they treated me differently. Past experiences of colonising and government had set a precedent that I wasn’t going to break.
There were no ‘coconut’ cups for me to drink from, a reserved metal mug hung in the outside kitchen in the family home, never touched by anyone else but myself. A chair suddenly appeared, no sitting crossed legged on the family homes floor on coconut matting. There was always ‘tea’ and freshly baked bread to eat and drink. The heads were always cut off a fish before serving, and I eat never ate with the women, my place was next to men.
I never thought twice about those things back then; now I cringe to think that they felt they had to treat me as special.
After four years in Kiribati, I felt accepted to a degree. Did I belong? I thought I did, but now I realise that was far from the truth.
Seeing the various nationalities, cultures, languages and races standing in that ceremony, my heart ached for them to have that sense of belonging, and for our Nation to embrace them as human beings.We need more of God’s words to dwell in us, work through us, to break down mindful conversations of differences, unworthy notions that some people are unlovable and don’t belong, and to let the Spirit of God join us all in his truth.
We need more of God’s words to dwell in us, work through us, to break down mindful conversations of differences, unworthy notions that some people are unlovable and don’t belong, and to let the Spirit of God join us all in his truth.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household; Our belonging is in God.
I now realise that I felt ashamed of my heritage on the islands. Ashamed of who I was, where I had been born, and the perceived privileges and richness of living in the UK that were now presenting themselves as barriers to my acceptance and belonging.
I was afraid that I would not be accepted, liked, or loved. That I would be rejected because of my colour, attitudes and beliefs. I hid all those parts of me that I thought would be barriers to my belonging. Now I realise that I was just human – fear and shame are part of all of us. I had fallen into the trap of being defined by my thinking and culture.
Brene Brown, a shame researcher, puts it so simply:
‘Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are – nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe that we are enough.’
God tells us that we are all his children, born of his spirit and belonging to him. For those who accept this, we know we belong, for those still struggling with doubts and fears, defining differences are the only way out, their security, perpetuating division and isolation.
This is about ‘belonging’ and living it. There’s another tale to be told, on a different level about my experiences on Nauru and belonging. That’s my next episode.