Greetings from the pleasant city of Canberra, Australia’s purpose-built and modernist capital. After spending yesterday exploring Sydney’s Leichhardt neighborhood, I hopped a late train last night to make it here for this year’s Conference of Italians Down Under. I was asked to be a keynote speaker in order to share representations of Italian Americans and NIAF with the Italo-Australian community as they seek to create national institutions like our own.
Going into something like this, it’s difficult to imagine what one might share with an audience in an all-new country. I was slightly anxious that my remarks might not be relevant to people who have not shared the Italian American experience. Needless to say, I did not know what to expect as I walked into the residence of the Italian Ambassador, The Honorable Pier Francesco Zazo, on Friday afternoon for the opening of the conference.
Ambassador Zazo welcomed all of us to his home and outlined the weekend structure. Friday would include three keynotes, each speaker addressing one of the main topics for the weekend. Saturday would be a chance for small group breakout sessions to try and create some real solutions to what the Italo-Australian community has designated as their most impending challenges.
After official welcomes from the Australian government and the dignitaries present, I was invited to address the crowd with the first keynote. If you are interested, you can see transcription of my commentary here. Mostly, I spoke about our community and NIAF’s place within our story, and the overlaps that I thought might exist between us and the Italo-Australian community.
After I finished, the Ambassador invited Professor Angela Scarino, Associate Professor of the School of Communication, International Studies and Languages at the University of South Australia, to talk about teaching of the Italian language in Australia. It was fascinating for me, having sat since my first days at NIAF on the Osservatorio della lingua italiana at the Italian Embassy in D.C., and been involved in our community’s attempt to preserve our Italian Language AP Exam.
It was really incredible to encounter an Italian emigrant population in which our language is still spoken by the majority! Professor Scarino and many in attendance were addressing problems of keeping numbers up, but not keeping the language relevant. As a matter of fact, Italian was, until the last census, the second-most-spoken language in Australia and was only passed in 2011 by Mandarin! Studies show that the language is still primarily spoken by first-, second- and third-generation Italo-Australians, but also by other members of the Australian community at large as the preferred European language.
Following Professor Scarino’s enlightening discussion was Dr. Henry Ergas, Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the University of Wollongong, to speak about Italy-Australia trade relations and the potential for improved investments between the two economies. Dr. Ergas is perhaps Australia’s most renowned economist. His simple and concise explanation, not just about Italy and Australia’s trade but also their individual economies was, for me, someone with less than a polished handle on economics, very enlightening.
He made the clear point that Italy and Australia have what he calls “overlapping economies” and that the potential for extended trade is great. It brought me back to the point of the discrepancies in Italy and the United States direct investment relationship. Italy is lower on the list of U.S. direct foreign investments than little Liechtenstein—clearly not where a trillion-dollar economy and long term strategic partner should be.
After these speeches, we enjoyed refreshments, further conversations and an open forum for questions and answers with each of us. I found the participants really wanted to know what NIAF was doing to address the problems they felt our two communities shared: reaching out to the young, preserving the culture, and finding best practices to provide as much as we can for our communities in these difficult economic times.
On the second day, as we broke off into small working groups, I was assigned to participate in the group dedicated to strategies to strengthen representation of the Italian-Australian community and enhance its participation in Australian Society. What became glaringly obvious to me was that while there are some differences in our communities, there are also many important similarities.
While the Italo-Australian community only formed in substantial numbers after major Italian immigration to the United States was drawing to a close, the thing that kept repeating in my mind was that we find ourselves, along with our cousins in Canada, as three branches from a very similar tree. We’re all very proud and protective of our Italian culture, and we are all maintaining this culture in countries that are predominantly Anglophone and draw their major cultural traditions from their British histories.
While it is often hard for modern Italians to relate to our community because of the 100-plus-year gap between our version of Italianità and that of modern Italy, it was somewhat easier to relate to this community where they have experienced the similar fingerprints of Anglo-cultural influence as we have.
I found it fascinating to hear over and over again that the Italo-Australians saw the major difference between themselves and us as the fact that we, in the earliest versions of our immigrant story, came to America seeking assimilation. They are in Australian seeking integration. They are maintaining the language far better than we did (I often found myself wondering how much stronger our community could be if we all spoke the same second language) and they are well aware that theirs is a community that makes up part of a patchwork and not a melting pot.
I do hope each of you takes the opportunity to dig a bit further into what our cousins Down Under are doing. While I was asked to participate in order to give some models of success that we’ve seen in our community, I found that it was equally fulfilling for me to learn some models of success that have worked in the Italo-Australian community in areas in which we too need leadership and vision. If we have given anything to them in our models of NIAF, I hope to take some back in their models of preserving the Italian language and preserving a sense of understanding and of independent participation in both cultures.
My next stop will be Melbourne and its Lygon Street neighborhood before I finally come back to the United States and begin prepping for our Annual Gala. So, thanks for reading, thanks for supporting NIAF, and stay tuned…mates!