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Oceania Newsletter 13, January 1994


Anneke van Wamel

From September 1990 to March 1991 I gathered data for my M.A.-thesis on identity and ethnicity among immigrants of Dutch origin in Melbourne, Australia (Department of Anthropology, University of Nijmegen). These Dutch immigrants came to Australia in the period between 1945 and 1955. In my study of this group, based on a series of interviews and a written survey (46 respondants), I concentrated on the discrepancy between initial expectations, and actual experiences of immigration.

The image of the Dutch immigrant, held by Dutch people as well as Australians, is an ideal image: It corresponds to what the Australian and Dutch governments expected of the immigrants. This sterotypical image is based on, firstly, the belief that a language shift from Dutch to English has occurred among all immigrants; secondly, the assumption that the Dutch immigrants have little interpersonal contact among themselves and live scattered all over the country; and finally, the belief that they have adapted so well that they have become mainstream Australians.

It is true that in general they tried to behave as ideal immigrants, gained a reasonable to good competence of the English language, and because of a lack of striking physical differences to other white Australians did not attract much attention in public.

In my research, however, it appeared the Dutch emigrants held on to their former national identity. In the beginning there was little identification with Australia and its inhabitants. For most Dutch immigrants, Australia was second or third choice as a destination, Canada being the preferred country. Australia became the alternative after Canada increased entrance requirements in 1950. Many people left for Australia without even the slightest knowledge of their future homeland. In making their decision, they "blindly" followed the advice of emigration consultants.

The lack of knowledge and interest in Australia itself explains the initial low degree of identification with Australia. The identification remained low in the following years, mainly because of the hostile reaction of Australians to the influx of immigrants in spite of the Australian government's policy. My informants and respondants described their experiences as negative. They reported being confronted with attitudes of hostility, arrogance and impatience from Australians. A so-called monistic orientation concerning assimilation was followed by Anglo- Australians: Immigrants were expected to forget their cultural background and to act and look like Anglo- Australians.

Contrary to these expectations, a number of Dutch clubs were established in Melbourne. These clubs fulfilled an important function in the emotional resettling of the immigrants, enabling them to meet other Dutch people, to exchange experiences, and to speak Dutch. They were very important for women who had had little choice for they had to follow their husbands willy-nilly to Australia. This group of women still has a particularly low degree of identification with Australia.

One of the things that made the public think that Dutch people assimilated totally is their high degree of naturalization. It appeared, however, that they did so mainly for practical reasons, for instance, to be eligible for pensions or because it makes travelling a lot easier. Officially they are Australians, but is that how they see themselves?

Having spent the largest part of their lives in Australia, they describe themselves as 'Dutch Australians' or 'foreign Dutchmen' (sic - ed.). Although they have adopted some Australian attitudes, in a great many other respects they have adhered to their Dutch identity. As one informant put it, 'The Netherlands is my mother and Australia is my bride'. The 'happy-go-lucky' attitude of many Australians seemed to be incompatible with Dutch origins. A common remark was that Australians were just not 'gezellig' (cosy). Most of the immigrants of the period mentioned have since become pensioners. They have noticed a change in Australian contacts. One man, for instance, said, 'I left my Australian friends at the office when I closed the door behind me'. The pensioners realize that they are still very Dutch no matter how assimilated they seemed to be. For years they suppressed their Dutch identity vis--vis Anglo-Australians. Consequently, there exists a lot of confusion among Dutch immigrants in Melbourne in relation to their identity, After having lived in Australia for forty years, they wonder if they have failed as immigrants for they still feel Dutch. I do not think it is a matter of having failed or not, but that their assimilation is an unrealistic expectation.

A lengthier version of this piece was presented as a paper at the First Dutch-Australian Community Conference at Monash University in Melbourne, November 20, 1993. For further information contact Anneke van Wamel, De Gildekamp 10-26, 6545 KB Nijmegen, The Netherlands, or awamel@trimbos.NL

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