When we first arrived in Adelaide, we stayed in a two-bedroom unit off Goodwood Road. My sister’s old school friend had arranged for us to live there while the occupant-bachelor was away for a holiday. Two weeks or so later, he was due home but we still hadn’t found a place to rent.
Fortunately, through our new church, we met a university lecturer who said that his family had space for us. They lived in a double storey brick bungalow with two separate entrances – one on the top level for the family, and one on the bottom level, which was rented out to international students.
It was summer, and the students had not yet returned. The lecturer had devised an ingenious scheme of using grey water for his fruit trees. He had peach trees in his backyard, and he used to lug in boxes of peaches for us to help ourselves. I had never before tasted such peaches, picked when ripe from the tree, simply bursting with sweetness.
Neither the bachelor nor the lecturer accepted rent from us. We invited the lecturer to come downstairs to share a meal with us (the rest of his family were away), but the sense of indebtedness lingered.
We eventually found a rental place on a sub-divided plot of land. It was a compact home, with three small bedrooms and a bay window that looked out to pink standard roses lining the front porch. This became our first home in Adelaide.
We lived there for two or three years. At different times two new migrant families moved in with us until they found their rental properties. The entire family – mother, father, child/children, luggage – would take up our master bedroom, and my family retreated to the back two rooms. Nowadays, when I drive by that tiny house, I wonder: how did we all fit?
But I don’t remember it being onerous. I also don’t remember any evidence, in these two instances, to the saying, ‘Fish and guests in three days are stale.’
Perhaps it was because we didn’t move heaven and earth to accommodate our guests. I didn’t cook special food, and we let them do the dishes and mop the floor when they offered. It took the pressure off me to be the perfect hostess. While we were close enough to have some shared history, we had enough distance so that we were courteous to one another, and refrained from comparing or critiquing child-rearing practices, content to let it be that each family has different habits and standards.
It may be due to selective memory, but I remember those two occasions as fun times, like adult versions of extended sleepover parties. Our children were around the same age, so the kids had a few extra playmates. We took turns cooking. They copied my tiramisu recipe and I admired their Thermal Cooker: bring soup to the boil in a pot, put the pot into an insulating cylinder, let the soup cook on latent heat for three or four hours, and by dinner enjoy bak kut teh, pork falling off the bone.
When I drive by those pink standard roses now, I almost think the house must have expanded. Resources have the capacity to grow to accommodate the intentions of the heart.
When I interviewed Malcolm Fraser, I asked him why Australia did not take any of the 2,500 refugees from a freighter, the Hai Hong, that was languishing in Malaysian waters in November 1978, local authorities having refused the freighter permission to dock.
He said, ‘Maybe Australia felt it was doing enough with the numbers we were taking out of the camps, in Malaya in particular. I think we’ve all got to accept that there could be more people than you can easily, totally accommodate. That’s why as many countries as possible should keep their doors open to refugees. So that no one country gets pushed too far, which is only going to arouse anti-refugee sentiment.’
How far is too far? This is not an easy question to answer because there is an elasticity to capacity. It grows or shrinks depending on how the host community regards newcomers: bane or blessing? And this is where the rhetoric around immigration and asylum seekers has a real effect on how welcoming a society is and its capacity to provide refuge to those fleeing war and terror.
Next Friday: how my grandfather accommodated Chinese migrants in Malaya and what that did for his business.