Meaningful multiculturalism can be hard to find, but maybe there’s a good reason for that

Although there have been rumblings against immigration in Dublin, I don’t hear the same here in the Australian capital

The roads, which sweat gently in the summer heat, are closed to allow pedestrians to amble between the seemingly endless stalls of the multicultural festival in Canberra, the Australian capital. Some are selling art and trinkets such as jewellery from around the world, but most are selling food, raising money for local clubs or initiatives.

I wonder if it counts as discriminatory that I’m far more intrigued by the long spiral of fried potato on a stick being sold from a Korean stand than I am in the Guinness pie and mash that the Canberra Irish club have on offer. They also appear to have a bar in operation, but we’ll leave that there.

I reason with myself that I was at home eating mash in Limerick only a few months ago, and line up with a number of extremely excited children at the Korean stall for what I discover is referred to in English as the tornado potato, or slightly more delightful “rotato potato”.

“You can eat one even though you’re a grown-up lady,” a girl of about six bellows merrily at me as she walks past with her still-sizzling carby prize towering high above her head. “I know,” I reply with a tone of distinct defensiveness, deliberately looking at the other bona fide adults waiting in the queue as if to say, “Just because kids like the potato doesn’t mean it’s not for us.”


The Italian stalls are thronged, as they would be anywhere. Italian people never stop talking about how excellent their food is, and because they’re entirely correct, we can only agree and then queue resentfully for pistachio ice-cream. They’re selling gelato and some sort of filled pasta that smells like it could heal a broken heart. The Greek stall is offering herby skewers of succulent, fragrant lamb (we buy two), and the Croatian stall – representing the Australian capital’s significant Croatian community – call the carnivorous forth with the sound and smell of cooking cevapcici, little grilled beef and pork sausages seasoned richly with garlic and paprika.

In the leafy environs of Glebe Park, EU country embassies have set up their stalls. I consider elbowing my way through to the Irish one, but instead linger on the periphery feeling a quiet satisfaction that, although the Belgians and Spanish stalls were granted twice the space, the Irish is the busiest one we’ve yet made our way past. There’s a queue and everything.

In fairness, they might be giving away T-shirts. I can’t be sure.

It’s a three-day weekend dedicated to celebrating multiculturalism. Dance. Food. Traditional dress. A tiny boy in traditional garb I don’t recognise – it has a flavour of eastern Europe about it – is reluctantly tugged along, presumably by his mother, who is wearing a voluminous and colourful layered dress that looks as though it originated in a much colder climate than Canberra’s on this hot afternoon. “I’m too hoooot and my shoes is pincheen!” the boy yells in a distinctive Australian accent.

His speech and grammar have the “I’ll give it my best shot” construction of a child so young as to be relatively new to sentences. I don’t just pity him because modern clothing is so comfort- and utility-oriented that, for a child of maybe four, suddenly finding himself in a little suit of stiff black wool with thick tights, leather shoes and a heavy hat must register as an affront. Also, because these forms of dress, although valuable as cultural artefacts and lovely to look at, represent something a tiny Australian boy can’t possibly appreciate. He’s too young to have any real conception of Australia as a country distinct from any other. It must all seem very strange to him.

Australia has experienced large waves of immigration in recent years – far more than Ireland, even despite the relative difference in population size. I’m one of many Irish immigrants who are part of that wave. Although there have been rumblings against immigration in Dublin, I don’t hear the same here. As a political city though, Canberra sits apart from the rest of Australia in some respects and I wonder what the mood of the wider country is in this respect. People I meet here tell me that Canberra is a bubble. Many work in government. Salaries are higher than average. The values of people who live here coincide broadly with what might be considered “elite values” across the developed world. Multiculturalism is generally seen as a good thing by default.

Traversing the festival and meeting friendly people from all over the world, it’s not hard to agree. Yet, cosmetic multiculturalism is not the same as meaningful multiculturalism. It is easy to celebrate one another when the appreciation looks no deeper than food, dance and dress. Values are where things get a bit squiffy – anywhere that seeks meaningful integration, not just Australia. When values fundamentally clash and we don’t know how to parse the dissonance.

We pass a stall of women raising money to aid their sisters still in Afghanistan, suffering dreadfully under Taliban rule. None of these women could safely go home even if they wanted to. The Taliban, being a bunch of lads rather against multiculturalism themselves, have thankfully not attended the festival. Neither has the North Korean embassy set up a stall as far as I can tell, though perhaps they weren’t invited.

I don’t know if the Israelis were invited, but I don’t see them anywhere. A Palestinian performance group withdrew from the festival after being asked to change their performance in line with the “apolitical” festival ethos. Naturally, there is a solid argument to be made that culture is not apolitical and that by flattening it to food, dress and dance, we engage in what the group – Tales of a Homeland – described as “artwashing”.

It all gets a bit strange when multiculturalism becomes telling people of other cultures what constitutes a valid expression of that culture, so that it doesn’t jostle the values of our own. And yet, nobody would want to attend a festival if it were all advocacy and politics. No. Multiculturalism so often becomes food, dance and dress for a reason.