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My siblings and I spent our childhood in the suburb of Noble Park, 30 kilometres south-east of Melbourne. We lived in a single-storey house with super 1960s carpet, floral wallpaper and a backyard full of fruit trees. Used toys and hand-me-downs circled our neighbourhood until they wore out; op shops were our favourite weekend destination. And our home was shared by various relatives and boarders throughout my childhood, including a young man from Sri Lanka who became a bonus big brother.
When I was 12, we moved house, school and suburb. It’s telling that our move to Frankston, with its coastal views and its distinct middle- and upper-class pockets, felt like a giant step up in the world.
As I settled into a new classroom at my new (private) school and began to make friends, it gradually dawned on me that I had grown up in fairly low socioeconomic circumstances for 1990s Melbourne. A few of my new peers were well-off in a way that blew my mind. For my siblings and me, the epitome of being rich – until then – was living in a two-storey house. Being super rich meant having a swimming pool as well.
But following that realisation, another soon dawned. Despite its “economic disadvantage”, Noble Park life had been deeply enriching. Because, despite our humble beginnings in a place with many deteriorating houses and a lack of disposable income, growing up in Noble Park had exposed me to the world’s diversity in a way that few of my new peers had experienced – and it showed.
Noble Park was, and still is, tremendously multicultural. My primary school classroom was as diverse as you could imagine. I learnt alongside Hindus, Christians (both Protestant and Catholic), Muslims, Sikhs and, of course, kids without religious affiliation. Every morning in grades three and four, I played “king ball” with peers from Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Greece, India and Romania. There were Indigenous kids too, and a few kids of Anglo descent. But you couldn’t assume anything based on skin colour.
Sarah Bacaller in Noble Park in her school uniform.
Our next-door neighbours were Czech, the man across the road who bred homing pigeons was Polish and our neighbours down the hill were Mauritian. Growing up in Noble Park, differences were a given. They were so normal we didn’t notice them. That’s not to say we didn’t recognise and celebrate cultural heritages – we did. Especially food! But it was no big deal to differ from one another. There was a camaraderie between us all; we were our world.
I’m sure my perspective is tinged with the innocence of childhood, and no doubt there were some less hospitable dynamics within certain pockets of the community. But I certainly didn’t encounter them, and it made for an incredibly rich upbringing.
The only indication of anything more sinister was that I was a little worried that people “out there” would think I was less patriotic in my enthusiasm for the Australian men’s cricket team than other fans, because my skin wasn’t white like the players.
While “white kids” in my Noble Park classroom were in the minority, they never seemed threatened. Actually, I never heard blunt labels like “white” or “black” used to describe anyone in Noble Park. When I first heard these descriptors as a 12-year-old (in my new classroom), I was livid. For one thing, what the hell did skin colour even matter? My own family was a melting pot of difference. I’d had no idea racism was actually a “thing” until I moved away from Noble Park.
When I discovered that it was in fact a very big thing, I was astounded. I yearned for my dear Vietnamese friend to come and join me at my new school so that these school kids would learn how misplaced and simply wrong their assumptions were. My new classmates (mostly boys trying to impress each other) made racist comments on a regular enough basis – not to me, but in the context of our learning. It made my blood boil. They were so ignorant! I was fairly unforgiving at that age, not realising that these kids were as much a product of their circumstances as I was of my own.
Sarah Bacaller (right) with her sister and brother.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to value my upbringing in Noble Park as one of the cornerstones of my life. It shaped a way of viewing the world that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and a comfortableness with others that has been a great asset.
As I parent my own kids in a beautiful town that is distinctly less multicultural than Noble Park, I know their lives will be much more enriched by experiences of diverse people, places and cultures than by playing with the latest toys, wearing brand-name clothing or having a swimming pool – though for now, my eight-year-old disagrees!
Sarah Bacaller is a freelance writer.
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