Australia, Part 1 – 6 weeks that changed me as a researcher

My office door in Reading!

My office door in Reading!

At the end of May 2014, I printed out my ticket and boarded a flight to Sydney. The furthest I’ve been is Egypt to the East and Chicago to the West. For a geographer I’ve not been particularly adventurous in my travels. My sister, on the other hand, an economist, has been all over the world. I was nervous, excited and ready! A highlight of my ESRC Future Research Leader award was an opportunity to visit Australia in order to conduct some comparative research on citizen responses to biosecurity. When I wrote the funding application I hoped this element would be funded but I hadn’t really prepared mentally for what it would mean to leave my other half at home and travel to the other side of the world. The flight was on time. I was carrying a very full briefcase and carry-on full of anything and everything that might help me get through the 23 hour flight. I learnt my lesson on the way back. Travel light. With very little hand luggage. Watch movies. Don’t contemplate work.

Packed and ready to go

Packed and ready to go

I want to get this out of the way from the beginning – I wasn’t travelling alone. My mum, retired, furthest she’d travelled was Spain – said, at the first serious mention that I was booking the flights, “I’m coming with you!” This is an element of the research process that is often written out of our accounts, but several colleagues, including the wonderful Caren Cooper [here], have discussed it here and here – travelling with family for research. It made this trip an adventure in more ways than one. To have an extra pair of hands with me meant my visits to museums and other cultural centres for background research were easier, the loneliness of the long distance researcher was mitigated and the eyes and ears that would return from days out full of tales of trees, sites I didn’t get a chance to visit, and observations of landscape, flora and fauna added to my research and trip.

Blue Mountains with my mum

Blue Mountains with my mum

Please note she paid for herself throughout this trip. In fact, she spent many days of the trip on her own – on her own research adventure.

I went to Australia following a ridiculously busy week. I’d held two tree health workshops at Reading in the week before and then in the days before I organised a social science event for researchers at Reading and on the very day of departure interviewed for my first PhD student. Getting on the plane then was a relief. We finally arrived in Sydney at 5am. And my research started almost immediately as we declared our ‘biosecureness’ at the border. We then waited an hour until sunrise before we took a taxi into the city. I didn’t want to miss my first glimpse of the Australian trees. I wasn’t disappointed. Gum trees lined the roads as we made our way to our hotel. After a quick shower, we walked through Hyde Park towards the Harbour. It was 8am on a  Sunday morning. It was peaceful apart from the squawks of birds I couldn’t yet identify. But the trees… wow.

Hyde Park, 8am

Hyde Park, 8am

Precinct of trees, Hyde Park

Precinct of trees, Hyde Park

Looking up!

Looking up!

Amazing.

Amazing – Sydney Harbour Bridge.

By 1pm on the first day, we were desperate to check-in to our hotel. Exhausted. We were up early the next day and we walked and walked and walked. And it was over the course of this day in Australia that I was confronted with a set of issues that have changed me as a researcher. The day began with a trip to the Australian National Maritime Museum. The first stop was a replica of HMB Endeavour – Captain James Cook’s ship on his first voyage, to Australia in 1769 to 1771.

"The Great Cabin is where Cook worked and dined, sharing the space with famous botanist Joseph Banks"

“The Great Cabin is where Cook worked and dined, sharing the space with famous botanist Joseph Banks”

A view from HMB Endeavour (replica) at Australian National Maritime Museum

A view from HMB Endeavour (replica) at Australian National Maritime Museum

Cabin of Botanist Joseph Banks

Cabin of Botanist Joseph Banks

"The Welcome Wall, located at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, stands in honour of all those who have migrated to live in Australia. Registered names are permanently engraved in bronze"

“The Welcome Wall, located at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, stands in honour of all those who have migrated to live in Australia. Registered names are permanently engraved in bronze”

I completed my PhD at Royal Holloway, under the supervision of historical geographer Felix Driver. I was therefore very attentive to the postcolonial context of Australia and the contested cultures of exploration, hidden histories and the ways in which the history of geography is implicated in these difficult and challenging pasts, presents and futures. Some might say I am making a bit too much of this, but for me, being on HMB Endeavour in the Australian National Maritime Museum made me feel very uneasy. One of my hosts in Wollongong, Chris Gibson, later suggested I read The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. The thing is – Sydney and the bits of Australia I visited felt very familiar – the language, the mainstream culture, the shops, the food. The landscapes, flora and fauna differed, but the familiarity in many other things was striking. Ien Ang describes this:

“Australia remains predominantly populated by Anglo-Celtic people, who inhabit exnominated whiteness in this country. Its main social institutions and basic cultural orientations are identifiably Western, and as a nation it is categorised in the international order as part of ‘the West’.”

Ang, an Asian in Australia, goes on to describe a situation in a supermarket where she accidentally bumps into a middle-aged white woman. The woman begins to verbally attack Ang, “why don’t you go back to your own country!” Ang places this example:

“in the larger context of Australian cultural history, the racism expressed here is not just ordinary prejudice. There is a measure of spite in her insistence with which this white woman proclaims Australia as her ‘home’ while emphatically denying me the right to do the same. It shocked me, because I thought this kind of thing was possible in Europe, not in a settler society such as Australia. In declaring herself to be a native threatened by alien immigrants, she displays an historical amnesia of (British) colonialism which actively erases the history of Aboriginal dispossession of the land. In other words, in her claim that Asians don’t belong in this country, she simultaneously reproduces, in a single appropriative gesture, the exclusion of Aboriginal people.”

From: Ang, I. (2003). I’m a feminist but…‘Other’ women and post national feminism. In Feminist postcolonial theory: A reader, 190-206.

I’ve spent over 10 years researching enthusiasm in a largely middle-class, retired, white, male environment. Enthusiasm is a topic regarded by many as ‘boring’, luxurious and frivolous. This trip to Australia was different. And so began 6 weeks – related in part to what Ang describes as ‘historical amnesia’ – that have had an emotional impact upon me that I have only felt able to write about 7 months later. I’m not alone in these feelings, but this emotional response to being in Australia was, for me, unimaginable prior to the trip. For a while I couldn’t stop thinking about it and noticing how it was changing the questions I wanted to ask about ‘enthusiasm’. I wish I hadn’t left it so long to begin my adventure.  To be continued…(part 1 of 5).

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