Perhaps it’s because I’ve not had a class of my own to focus my energy on, coupled with a bursting readiness to teach, that almost everywhere I look I see potential classroom stimuli. Reviewing the week that’s just gone, there was the Australian of the Year – Adam Goodes and Li Cunxin especially; Cyclone Dylan – everything from science to poetry, maths, art, history and just plain getting to know each other, where Yasi veterans could advise cyclone novices about preparations and expectations; and Chinese New Year. Which is what I’m going to reflect on here.
My children and I spent most of the Christmas holidays with my family in Scone, a tiny, beautiful little town in the Hunter Valley of NSW. Scone may be home to some famous people – one of Australia’s richest women (yes), James Packer, Malcolm Turnbull, and Phillip Adams are a few that come to mind – but this is not what makes Scone famous.
As anyone with even a fleeting connection to Scone will tell you, Scone is the Horse Capital of Australia. Turn up to Scone in May and you’ll find yourself surrounded by all kinds of horse-related activities, not least the Scone Horse Festival parade. Growing up, the parade was the highlight of the year. It had everything, from the Light Horse Brigade to the pre-school kids on the back of a hay-stacked truck to the local baker handing out free bread rolls to kids. After the parade, that 1km segment of the New England Highway is always speckled with horse manure.
A close second to the excitement of the parade, growing up in sleepy Scone, was the occasional chance to go out for dinner. There were two restaurants in Scone: the Connaught and the Fortune Palace. Both Chinese. Both chopstick-free zones. Every Scone family loyally favoured only one restaurant, never eating at both. Our family was a Fortune Palace family, which I later came to understand actually served Malaysian Chinese cuisine. These very occasional dinners constituted my entire childhood experience of cultural diversity. There were no Chinese students at my school; no Asian students; no migrants even. Well, my best friend in high school had Greek parents, but she was born in Australia.
Things have changed dramatically in Scone since I left there in 1990, and so have I. The most obvious change I notice on my (usually) annual visits back there is the gaping dark holes that now pit the landscape – otherwise green or gold, depending on the vagaries of the various droughts. A more subtle change has been the gradual increase in the number of Chinese people walking Scone streets. I would even suggest that there is a corresponding increase: the more coal mines, the more Chinese people on Scone streets. I suspect that as more locals head for the greater dollars available working in the mines, more overseas workers are sourced for the Scone abattoir, one of the town’s largest employers.
I know they are Chinese because I hear them talking amongst themselves at the supermarket, at the RSL Club where there is a good Chinese buffet, and at the house behind my mother’s, socialising late into the night. I have had conversations in Mandarin with thousands of Chinese people in China. In Townsville, in Sydney, in Cairns, in Brisbane. In Auckland, in Japan and Indonesia. But not in Scone. I can’t explain why. It’s different. Because it’s new.
But last month a chance came. Travelling on the late afternoon train from Newcastle to Scone, my children were ensconced in their books and the couple across the aisle were speaking Chinese. With intermittently black hills blurring past us, I started up a conversation. The usual surprise, but they happily switched their preferred Cantonese to my Putonghua. Why had they come to Scone? A visa. Working at the abattoir they can get a longer visa, which will hopefully lead to permanent residency. That’s why they had all come. It’s functional. For them Scone is a stepping-stone to a new life, but not a new life in Scone. I wish them luck in their endeavours, but I feel slightly let down too. They don’t feel the beauty of the place, the way I had unthinkingly assumed they must. Scone is not in their individual futures, but collectively, as an employment trend at least, they are in Scone’s future. There is a disconnect between these temporary workers and the wider Scone community. There are no Migrant Resource Centres, no community representatives; it’s just two separate communities respectfully and functionally sidling around each other, with minimal fuss. The transient Chinese community in Scone is welcomed for the contribution they make, but not (yet) incorporated in any substantial way. More conversations are needed, including from me.
I guess I hope for more authentic interaction between the Chinese workers and Scone locals. And surely this is the year for it? The Year of the Horse. If there’s anything the local and Chinese residents could celebrate together, it’s the Chinese Year of the Horse. Will it happen? I doubt it this year. But maybe next time around, in 2026? I look forward to it.
So, really what I’m thinking about, now home, 1832km north of Scone, is how would I (if I had a class) incorporate the Year of the Horse into my classroom in Townsville? I’d hold onto it the whole year. I’d teach the students about Scone the Horse Capital of Australia, about continuity and change. About empathy and compassion and migration, work and resettlement. About home, place and belonging. I’d read them horse stories, from Australia and China and everywhere else. They’d learn the character for horse 马 and I’d learn their horse stories. I wouldn’t just say ‘gong xi fa cai’ and leave it at that.
We’d make jiaozi (dumplings), and call them jiaozi, not dumplings. I’ve made them with a Prep class and the kids absolutely loved rolling, cooking and eating them. I’d show them how a jiaozi represents the moon and teach them Li Bai’s poem Still Night Thoughts. We’d look at the role of the full moon in controlling the tides, and why Townsville’s low suburbs were flooded in the king tide preceding Cyclone Dylan. That flooding full moon is those kids’ link to the Year of the Horse. And we’d talk about Li Cunxin, the Queensland Australian of the Year.
Well, that’s what I imagine I would have tried to cram in amongst the practicalities and formal syllabus of the first week of the year if I had a class… What’s on this week?