Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 March, 2009, 12:00am


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Growing up in multicultural Melbourne, Australia, allowed me to experience the richness of other people's cultures.

This area of my upbringing would have been lacking if I had grown up only in Hong Kong. In comparison, Hong Kong certainly has its own distinctive style and vibrancy created by its inhabitants, the majority of whom are Cantonese-Chinese. I have found that other cultures tend to adapt and blend into the Hong Kong lifestyle rather than retain their own original forms.

This is probably because of the limited geographical space that forces everything to adhere to a more uniform and compact form.

In Melbourne the various cultures have their own urban centres far apart from each other, and this allows them to retain much of their original flavour. Fortunately, at the edge of these cultural centres are places where the various cultures mix, and this allowed me to experience other people's lives.

I remember growing up going to Greek weddings where I didn't understood a word being said during the Greek Orthodox ceremony but still enjoyed myself, thoroughly absorbing the sights, sounds and especially the smell of the spit roast goat that was waiting outside for the post-ceremony party.

I remember visiting my Lebanese friends' homes and got a first-hand taste of homemade authentic beef kebabs and chicken shwarma served with hummus, falafel and Lebanese spicy potatoes. I really miss my Lebanese friends.

There were my East Timorese friends, many of whom were refugees from the crackdowns before the tiny nation won its independence from Indonesia.

I remember my friend's older sister, who was 17 at the time, explaining to me that it was her duty to remove all her body hair (besides that on her head) after reaching the age of 15. This is apparently a tradition in East Timor. It was a surprise, especially in light of her strict Catholic upbringing, and left me pondering what someone would look like with no hair all over. I was going though puberty at the time.

I lived in government-commissioned flats during my early years. These flats were provided to migrants who couldn't afford to live elsewhere. The flats still exist today and their tombstone facades are as ugly as I remember them. It was a real cultural melting pot.

It was a rough area where all of the people were from poor backgrounds and crime rates were very high. Even during primary school I knew where the heroin dealers were hanging out and where someone could live dangerously by borrowing money from a crime syndicate. Luckily for me I was a bit of a nerdy kid, had reasonably good grades at school and steered clear of the bad stuff. My cousin on the other hand, who is much more Vietnamese than I, didn't.

There were lots of Vietnamese migrants and the jobless rate among them was very high, and that sometimes led people to a life of crime.

My cousin spoke Vietnamese and hung out with the wrong people. He isn't a bad person, as demonstrated by his now happy life with a loving wife and kids, but he was certainly adventurous when he was a child. He was forever being caught stealing and breaking into premises.

One day his mum and dad had had enough of picking him up from the police station. They sent him halfway around the world to our ancestral village in China for a couple of years, in the middle of our primary school years. Time flies when you are a kid. One moment I noted I hadn't seen my cousin for a while, and the next moment he was back, but now speaking Cantonese and Mandarin on top of Vietnamese and English.

Apart from my friends of different ethnicities, I also had plenty of Australian friends. I spent many summers riding my bike and exploring our adolescence with fellow adolescents. There was a river nearby and we spent much of our time fishing and swinging like Tarzan into the river.

When we got bored we thought of new ways to spend time at the river. I remember the not-so-bright idea of riding our bikes into the river. We made a mad dash down a hill on mountain bikes, onto a ramp we had set up on the riverbank, and literally flew into the air over the water, landing in the middle of the 10-metre-deep, silty river. What we hadn't anticipated was how hard it would be swimming back to the riverbank with a mountain bike.

We are the sum of our life experiences and I truly believe the experiences we have when young mould us into the adults we become.

That is the big advantage of growing up in a country like Australia, where nature is all around you and you don't need to look for it like you do in Hong Kong, where you can experience the benefits of multiculturalism, and where adventure lies just around the next bend in the river.