Picnics at the beach, long summer evenings and time with family and friends. Four prominent women tell Jane Rocca about their childhoods, and what Australia means to them.
Penny Wong, 49 Leader of the Opposition in the Senate
I moved to Adelaide from Malaysia at the end of 1976 as an eight-year-old. Mum is originally from Adelaide and wanted to come back home after she separated from my dad. They both agreed it was a better idea to come here for a good education. Mum is from a farming family of five girls from the Adelaide Hills. We initially stayed at my Aunt Ally's house in Belair and then moved to the Coromandel Valley in the Adelaide Hills.
It wasn't a multicultural community and I was certainly the first Asian in the school and the first Asian a number of people had ever seen. There were many challenges, upsides and downsides, that came with that. Aunt Ally was a very keen sports watcher and played a fair bit of cricket and golf when she was younger. One of the things she wanted to do as part of my introduction to Australia and engagement in the culture – for which I am very grateful – was to go and watch cricket or football games.
I associate the Australia Day holiday with watching cricket at Adelaide Oval and learning about that with her. I also liked to hang out by her pool. Summer swims and barbecues were a big part of my childhood, as was family and friends being together. The temperature and light you get at dusk on an Adelaide summer night was very memorable.
We tended to eat Malaysian and Chinese food growing up. It was quite a new thing to eat a Western diet when we moved here. I have to say I wasn't a great fan. I didn't like sandwiches and some of the meat-and-three-veg servings left me pretty cold. Both my brother Toby and I learnt to cook when we were pretty young.
Like everybody, my childhood was multi-dimensional, and so were my experiences. Some of those interactions were negative. A few individuals who had a lot of prejudice and a lot of fear made me feel isolated at times. I had abuse hurled at me for being Asian and a racist neighbour graffitied our driveway.
But I also had a lot of affection for, and was made to feel welcome by, others, and I came from a very loving family. I had moments with people being accepting and making me part of their lives and community.
I recall that when Paul Keating was prime minister, he spoke of Australian history and identity and referenced the fall of Singapore and the Kokoda Track campaign during World War II as defining moments in the same way Gallipoli in World War I was. That was important for me because my family on my father's side had died when Singapore fell. That direct reference to my family's history by an Australian PM was relevant to me and profoundly important in terms of feeling that this was my country.
I have always remembered that. I am privileged to be a citizen of a wonderful nation like Australia, one that is confident, forward-looking, inclusive, decent and multicultural. When we are at our best, we are the nation the world wants to be.
Stephanie Gilmore, 29 Australian surfing champion
We grew up around Kingscliff on the NSW North Coast and the beach was very much a part of our lives. My parents are hippies: they owned a Kombi van and would pack it with surfing boards, towels, cricket bats and balls to take with us. On Australia Day, I'd traditionally get up early and go surfing. I have fond memories of Coolangatta: it was only an hour away and my mum's sister lives there.
Every inch of grass and sand was taken up with picnic blankets laid down by those who'd arrived early to set up for the day. I found it amusing how Aussies have a very competitive side: it was all about beating each other to the best spot on the beach or park and who could get closest to the barbecues.
Sometimes we'd go to Rainbow Bay just over the border at Coolangatta and hang out at a nice spot. It was about relaxing and not doing much, but an element of sporting activity was always included. For me, it was all about surfing, then meeting up with my family and friends to hang out. I have two sisters, Whitney and Bonnie, who also surf. As Dad is a keen surfer, it was inevitable we would all take to water. Dad still surfs now and he's 64.
Dad is very passionate about surfing. He never made us do anything we didn't want to, but with surfing we could see how therapeutic it was for him and how much he loved it.
I've done a lot of travelling in my life competing in surfing championships but there are no other beaches in the world like those in Australia. They are so unique and we should be proud. Aussies take great pride in keeping our beaches clean, which can't be said for other countries. The more I travel around the world, the more I see how well respected MY AUSTRALIAN STORY Picnics at the beach, long summer evenings and time with family and friends. Four prominent women tell Jane Rocca about their childhoods, and what Australia means to them.
Australians are, and the warm and welcoming response we get from other people. We have this humble and easy-going reputation. It's something I am proud of when I travel. I still call Australia home, although I spend a lot of time in LA. I love that in Australia you can have a full day before it hits 9am. You can surf, swim, do yoga and keep fit. I love that we appreciate the outdoors so much and make the most of it.
Anna Polyviou, 38 Award-winning pastry chef
My parents, Gina and John, migrated from Cyprus to Melbourne in the late 1970s. We didn't eat out: it was always about home-cooked food, including octopus and fish on a regular basis. We had big feasts on Sundays, when up to 80 people would visit us and I was always in the kitchen helping Mum prepare dishes. Mum still cooks Greek food but has adapted to the Aussie meat-and-three-veg.
On Australia Day we'd go to the beach and have a picnic lunch. Mum would pack fresh bread, olives, tomatoes and cucumbers. Somehow a can of Spam was always present, which always puzzled me. It was a very Australian thing to do.
Some of my favourite Australia Day memories are of my parents taking my brother, Marinos, and me to Eden in southern NSW and staying at the beach. They would hire a cabin and we'd enjoy family time outdoors. I also remember Mum making custard in a glass bowl and sprinkling cinnamon on it. I'd only get to taste it if I was well behaved. I was a little rebel as a teenager. It wasn't cool to be Cypriot Greek when I was at school. It was part of the reason I rebelled.
My parents were shocked the high school they sent me to had a smoking area. Luckily my mum kept me in line and was constantly on my case, because the school wasn't very strict and let us do as we pleased. I didn't enjoy it much. You could call the teachers by their first name. Kids need discipline, not a place where rules aren't that important.
Both of my parents worked in factories. They call themselves Aussies and wouldn't live anywhere else. I have an Australian girlfriend; we have been together for nine years. It's great that our country now recognises same-sex marriage. It's certainly a reason to be a proud Australian.
I went overseas for the first time at 22 and noticed how much foreigners are obsessed with Australia. They adore us. We are down-to-earth and open-minded and welcome people from all different cultures.
Miriam Corowa, 42 Co-presenter, ABC News 24 Breakfast
I was born in Adelaide and moved to the far north coast of NSW when I was six months old. My dad was working at the State Theatre in Adelaide when I was born, and when he and Mum separated we went north, which is where Mum is from.
She worked for the Tweed Byron Local Aboriginal Land Council and then with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Lismore until I was 10. She got a job in Canberra and we moved there for two years.
At 13, I was back in school at Lismore. I remember spending time with family at the beach and visiting a place called Fingal Head on the Tweed River. That was our real connection to country and older family members. My mum's Great-Aunt Queenie and Aunt Helen were very close and we would visit them a lot. I remember being bitten by sand flies, collecting pipis with our feet and cutting oysters at the beach – all fun childhood memories.
Australia Day wasn't significant growing up. It was always around my birthday so I was more focused on that and what presents I wanted! I suppose when you're a kid you're not thinking about that stuff. It was another day catching up with friends and enjoying the long hot summer.
The meaning of Australia Day has become a little contested and I can understand that. My first real thoughts about it didn't happen until the Bicentenary in 1988. There were lots of celebrations but a lot of protests as well.
I have Indigenous heritage from Mum's side of the family; Dad was a £10 Pom who arrived in Australia from the UK in 1965. So I felt very conflicted.
My mum is very political, and we'd have very political discussions around the dinner table. School kids were going to get a Bicentennial medal and it was a hot topic at home.
Mum asked me if I would accept that medal. I said, "Well, I feel like to not accept it would be to deny one part of my family story." Even though I wasn't close with my father and didn't see much of him after Mum and Dad split up, I can't exactly push it to one side and pretend it's not there.
As Australians we do need to realise that for some people January 26 is not the appropriate day for Australia Day, but it's also not a straightforward "yes" or "no" answer. I can understand why people say there are other more appropriate days we can look at. For me, while I acknowledge the protests, it's the story of who I am. It's having one foot in one world, one in the other, and being stuck in the middle.
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