Race on the Brisbane River

This blog entry about the events of Saturday, July 20, 2013 was originally posted on July 30, 2013.

PART 11 (DAY 25): “I started the African-American Community of Australia. The A.A.C.A.,” said the familiar voice of Maurice, a.k.a. Moe, an African-American ex-pat living in Brisbane. “Guess how many members are in it?”

“I dunno,” I answered before making a hypothesis. “Five?”

“Two,” he replied, chuckling. “And the other guy is a white guy.”

I’d met fellow backpacker Moe in New York City close to a decade ago, through the BootsnAll independent travel network, which at the time, was the resource for the independent RTW traveler — you know, before travel blogging jumped the shark and went commercial in recent years. (Even The New York Times says so.) While I was getting a start in my travel writing career with BootsnAll, Moe, whose handle on BootsnAll was Moman, had transformed his passion for backpacker culture by bringing it home to the Bronx — by starting a backpacker-targeted bus tour of his less-visited home borough, to show that it can actually be quite nice and full of culture when you peel away any trepidation brought on by movies or media. (It was pretty successful for a while, until it was hindered by tons of red tape from borough and city officials.)

Moman was also a fellow designer when he wasn’t on the road or on a bus giving tours, having also lived (and survived) the dotcom bubble life of 1999-2002. Also like me, he had since found a way to pay the bills by working at ad agencies and creative tech groups of corporations. The only difference is, he did so in Brisbane, not the Big Apple, for he was now happily — and interracially — married to his Australian wife, Roz.

Roz was out for the day with her mother, so it was just Moman who met me at the Meriton Apartments building on Herschel Street in downtown Brisbane, just a few moments after I’d said goodbye to the World’s Best Group of Papua New Guinea that morning. He led me to his home in suburban Balmoral on the outskirts of the city so that I could drop off my bags, before we head out on an all-day pub crawl — one that would involve drinks at different catamaran stops along the Brisbane River.

“I love the no tipping thing here,” I raved as I paid the tab for our brunch and drinks at the Café Citron in nearby Bulimba, a sketchy-turned-trendy neighborhood with bars and cafés lining the street that led to the dock of the CityCat — Brisbane’s fast-moving, public catamaran system. While I could totally get used to not writing in gratuity on a bill, I still couldn’t get used to looking in the opposite direction of the States, when crossing the street.

“Watch out,” Moman warned me, as a car was coming in the direction I wasn’t looking.

BRISBANE IS AUSTRALIA’S THIRD LARGEST CITY, one I hadn’t visited during a backpacking trip I’d been on in the Land Down Under over ten years ago, before The Global Trip blog even existed. (Hard to imagine, huh? But you can watch what I did Down Under in this dated, legacy video I produced back then.) Brisbane really isn’t on the world travelers’ radar, except maybe only as a gateway for getting to popular Gold Coast and Frasier Island a couple hours away, or the world-class Australia Zoo nearby, which Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin made famous before he was stabbed by a punkass stingray. Crikey.

From what I’m told — and what I’d witnessed so far — Brisbane is more or less a pleasant, livable albeit generic city, where the skyscrapers of mining companies house big business. With that said, I suggested that Moman and I spend our day together not trying to see “generic” tourist attractions — things like botanical gardens — and just “go out on the piss,” as they say.

The centerpoint of touristy things is at South Bank, the first stop of our catamaran-powered pub crawl. We walked beyond the Nepalese Peace Pagoda, remnant of Expo ‘86, which revived tourism back to the area, and the Wheel of Brisbane, a ferris wheel akin to the London Eye or Singapore Flyer, that Moman and many Brisbaners thought was an eyesore. That didn’t stop visitors from riding it, that is, when they weren’t busy gawking at the pretty girls enticing people to swim with them in the Mantra hotel pool, through a revealing glass cross-section.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” cried a busker nearby, trying to collect an audience. “I am about to perform a show!” he announced very generically, without any humor or a hook to entice a crowd.

“Did you notice that guy?” Moman commented to me. “He’s African-American.” Moman seemed to have a radar for encountering others like himself, which was only an occasional occurrence in these parts. “It’s typical that an African-American meets an Aussie girl while traveling, and ends up emigrating.”

We continued the discussion about African-American/Australian relations over our first rounds of craft beer at the popular Plough Inn, which served Sunday gallivanters drinking either on the porches to enjoy the warm winter weather, or inside to watch the AFL (Aussie Football League) game on FOX Sports: Richmond vs. Fremantle. “Australia is sixty years behind the States. It’s only now that you’re starting to see African-American faces in the AFL,” Moman informed me. He mentioned some former basketball player from the U.S. (his name escapes me) who had been recruited to play Aussie rules football — a sport much more intense than American football — where height and the ability to jump high is a big advantage.

However, that’s not to say the African-American experience hasn’t been a part of Australian pop culture for years — they get most of their television shows and movies from the U.S., after all — although it still is an African-American experience, not an African-Australian one. “Chris Tucker came through here,” Moman told me, talking about black stand-ups who’ve made the rounds to Brisbane. “Chappelle… Paul Mooney played here too. He had a field day. They have a thing here called ‘coon cheese.’ He’d be like, ‘They eat black people here.’”

While that joke might have been so Mooney, there’s another food out there where Aussies actually look like they’re eating black people — babies specifically — known as Chico Babies. Basically, Chicos are chocolate-flavored gummies in the shape of babies, which come in different colors — but for some reason, the black ones optionally come in their own separate package. Candy segregation, really?

“Sometimes I hold a bag of them next to me and shake them like this to Roz,” Moman told me, making the hand gestures by his face. Both of them take offense to the popular candy, but are even more offended by the golliwogg, a culturally-popular ragdoll that many Australians have grown up admiring as children, not realizing that it’s about one of the most racist images from an American perspective. Moman told me about how a gift shop at a hospital Roz worked in once had them on display, until she complained about it and they were taken away.

“You don’t really see it in the cities these days,” he told me. “But you still see it in the smaller towns. They just don’t know any better.”

You may recall the incident in 2009, when American singer/actor Harry Connick, Jr. was a judge on the Australian talent show Hey Hey, It’s Saturday, and he condemned a group of Australians who thought it was acceptably funny to perform a number as the Jackson Five — in black face.

“I just want to say, on behalf of my country, I know it was done humorously, but we’ve spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we take it really to heart,” Connick said on camera. “Man, if they turned up looking like that in the United States, it’d be Hey Hey There’s No More Show.”

Perhaps this ignorance is simply that: ignorance. As long-time blog reader and former host (Novosibirsk, Russia) Yulia commented on this issue: “In this part of the world, there’s no such stigma.” (She now lives in Australia, and can speak on it.) True, unlike America, Australia has no history of bringing Africans over and enslaving them, followed by a now politically-incorrect culture of making fun of Africans in cartoons and old musical acts.

However, with Australians adopting so much American pop culture, wouldn’t you think they would adopt the social responsibility that comes with it?

“THAT’S THE GAZEBO WHERE WE GOT MARRIED,” Moman pointed out to me, on our next CityCat stop of our river pub crawl. We were in New Farm, a former U.S. submarine base-turned-city park, one manicured and pretty enough for his wedding a few years back. Moman’s mother was the only relative from America who’d come to the wedding, and since then no one else from back home had made the trip Down Under. In fact, I was the only other American from New York who’d come to visit him since he emigrated there in 2006. “Roz told me, ‘You finally have your first visitor!’” he told me. Really, he was excited to have me there, a New Yorker no less.

“Cheers,” I toasted.

“Tally ho!” It was Moman’s catch phrase, leftover from his time in the U.S. Army.

We clinked our pints of XXXX beer from the bar at the nearby Merthyr Bowls Club, where Aussies bowled on a big field the old English way, sort of like bocce. Nearby, we couldn’t help but notice a man grilling up steaks of proud Australian beef on a grill: Scotch fillets, a rib-eye cut without the bone, known as such in British commonwealth countries. (I had it in Calgary with Leigh-Anne’s parents as well.) If there’s one piece of Australian culture I want to have brought to the States in reciprocity for American pop culture, it’s the name “Scotch fillet” — I would even be socially responsible about it.

Unfortunately, the Scotch fillets were for a private event, sectioned off by a rope and a sign. “We could have gone in there and snuck in,” Moman told me.

“I think it would have been obvious we’re not from that group,” I told him, taking notice of the majority of race in the private party.

“[Because we’re] two guys with American accents,” Moman joked.

There were two more stops on the Brisbane River pub crawl: Watt, a bar at the former powerhouse-turned-pavilion of bars and nightclubs right on the river, where we had a few rounds as the sun set and temperature dropped; and then at a bar back in Bulimba where a live band played as middle-aged women dressed to impress on a Sunday evening danced amongst themselves on the dance floor. By the time that was going on, I was really drunk to know what was going on. Fortunately, Bulimba was the CityCat stop near Moe and Roz’s house, where I passed out shortly thereafter.

THE NEXT MORNING, I bid farewell to Moe and Roz — as well as their two adorable dogs, Winnie and Poppy. However, I’d see them in nine days back in Brisbane on my way back to the States. In the interim, I had plans to head into the colder, more southernly winter of New Zealand, a country culturally similar to Australia, so much in fact that it was acceptable to have three local white women in chocolate black face on the front page of a local newspaper.

I decided to accept another country’s culture for what it is; the backlash of history isn’t necessarily American after all. Besides, there would be another group to be questionable about instead: Lord of the Rings nerds.


FUN FACT:

One could argue that Australia does in fact, have an unfavorable history of race relations with a dark-skinned race: the Aboriginals. However, that history is a lot different from the African-American one, which was rooted on slaves being brought over from Africa. White colonial/Aboriginal relations in Australia parallel the white colonial/Native American one in the States, which has nothing to do with the act of performing in black face. (That’s a whole other politically incorrectness in the U.S.A.)

On second thought, early Australians did enslave dark-skinned people of the South Pacific, so there is in fact, some slavery history to be a shamed of. On the flip side, Harry Connick, Jr. has been hailed as a hypocrite for his comments in Australia — because he’d already portrayed a black preacher on Mad TV.





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Previous entry: Rabaul Adventures




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This blog post is one of fifteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Cowboys, Duk-Duks, and Kiwis," which chronicled a five-week trip through the Canadian Rockies, followed by Calgary's Stampede rodeo festival, an assignment through different regions of Papua New Guinea, and a wintery jaunt to New Zealand's South island.

Next entry:
Beautiful, Yet Remarkably Mediocre

Previous entry:
Rabaul Adventures




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