No dogs, no fruit, no firearms, no professors

11 May 2015

As with any language or dialect, Australian English has its share of idiomatic expressions in which simple-seeming words come together to produce a meaning inexplicable without cultural translation and therefore destined to mystify newcomers to the language. It might even be the reason such expressions exist in the first place. They are the linguistic equivalents of handshakes in Masonic temples, of passwords whispered to guards at fortress gates. The ones I remember being particularly baffled by – we arrived, my mum, dad and me, in Australia in 1990; my sister stayed in Europe – are “it’s my shout” (oh the stories I could tell you…) and “bring a plate” (likewise), though perhaps most puzzling of them all was a single word, unhyphenated and modestly prefixed: “overqualified”.

Where we were from, you couldn’t be too educated or too experienced for a professional, skilled job. Not so in Australia, it turned out, not for new arrivals anyway. My father’s periodic removal from his résumé of his Ukrainian/Soviet PhD in hydraulics – a bizarre ritual of self-administered shrinkage, necessary, he was told, to get a “foot in the door” – has been replicated across decades by migrants to this country. Particularly by migrants from Africa, Asia, eastern Europe: the non-West guild. Melbourne writer Ralph Johnstone has told of two Somali men, Abdulkadir Shire and Ali-nur Duale, who in the course of 17 years of “downskilling” crossed out any hint of their respective Masters in petrochemical engineering and PhD in applied entomology from 300-plus job applications. Still no joy. Because who could be less employable than an overqualified alien?

Ridiculous business, this practically standing on your head not to appear too smart to prospective employers. As a migrant you are already up against it, what with the language barrier and the close-to-zero social capital and the sometimes not actually owning a pair of employment-ready pants to wear to a job interview. And then, crazily, you are compelled to hide your goods. Most people routinely inflate their capabilities in CVs (“selling themselves”, it’s called) whereas these PhDed migrants – my father, once upon a time – have been doing what, precisely? As far as I can tell they have been doing the Great Australian Undersell. The smaller you make yourself, the bigger the chance of the square peg that is (sort of) you fitting the round hole that is Australia’s jobs market. So there’s logic to it. But it is a pretty brick-like logic.

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