This Boeing 747-400, photographed at Sydney airport last Friday, belongs to Thai Airways International. If you happen to have decent eyesight, you can confirm this by the fact that it has “Thai” painted on the side. Ownership is not about paint, however.
If you paint “Thai” on my side, I do not then become the property of Thai Airways, not even if you’re employed by Thai Airways to do so. Paint is just paint, whereas ownership of property is an abstract concept. A concept which can be supported or asserted by paint or other physical signs, but still an abstract concept which can only be agreed upon by sentient beings.
But what about another concept: nationality?
Nationality is not about paint either. Paint “Thai” on my side if you like. If you use the right brush I might even enjoy it. But I won’t become even remotely Thai. However is nationality something which is just agreed upon? Or is there something essential — in the core meaning of the word, having to do with essence — which makes someone immutably Thai or Australian or Czech or Chinese?
And how does nationality relate to similar concepts, such as ethnicity or race or culture?
I usually don’t think about these categories. The variation within them outweighs the supposed differences. People of every nationality range from amiable to arsehole. However that aircraft — that specific aircraft — has brought it all into focus.
On Friday, ’Pong sat in that aircraft. It took off, climbed through that layer of brown shit on the horizon, and flew to Bangkok. It’s his first visit to his hometown in six years. That renewed perspective has already revealed previously-unnoticed bird sounds and a 3-litre iced beer dispenser.
’Pong is essentially Thai. He’ll tell you that he was always an outsider there, always a little bit different. Nevertheless, there are papers where next to the word “nationality” it says “Thai”. Paint, y’see.
On the other hand, we have a letter from a politician called Kevin Andrews which says ’Pong is Australian — or at least he will be once he recites a magic spell and shakes the hand of the mayor. And, due to the magic of dual citizenship, he will be both Thai and Australian at the same time.
But as I say, it isn’t the paint (or ink) which makes him Thai or Australian. ’Pong is certainly Thai because he can breathe pure chilli vapour with no ill effects. But he’s equally Australian because he understands the difference between Tooheys and Reschs and Coopers.
I’ve pondered Australian values before, but I mention all this today because in just under three weeks I’ll be sitting in that same aircraft (or one very like it) and also travelling to Thailand. As it happens, it’ll be my first trip outside Australia — and I reckon that’ll change my views about what it means to be Australian, and indeed what it means to be me.
People are usually surprised to discover that I haven’t travelled overseas before. I take that as a compliment, because I think it means they find me more worldly than the usual stay-at-home. I hope I won’t be like John Howard who, according to his historian brother Bob, was remarkably unchanged by his overseas travels.
Having read what you’ve read about me, how do you think I’ll change?