Class, Travel and the Overseas Dinner Table

Class, Travel and the Overseas Dinner Table

Sitting in a restaurant in Bali, I notice a lot of people who don’t deserve to be here. Not under normal class rules anyway. This chic establishment has all the trappings of high society. The waiters and waitresses are polite and professional. The plates and bowls are carved from wood. They are garnished with herbs and fruit as beautiful as they are delicious.

Semi-alcoholic cocktails cost up to 100,000 Rupiah ($10AUD) each and meals are between 10 and 20 dollars, meaning, due to the average daily wage on the island being less than half a mojito, the Balinese that visit this place would have to be supremely wealthy. Business owners, politicians and landlords – the few locals dining here are finely dressed, have good posture, and speak reservedly. The tourists are the opposite. Their accents and diction lack the refinement of the upper classes; their food choices are bland and unhealthy; they slouch on tables and grumble to one another with full mouths. Their clothes are cheap and reek of middle class.

For the tourists, a night out would usually feature the Sunday Roast at the local RSL, but here they are swanking it up. And I’m no different. I can’t even afford to go to restaurants in Australia. Yet here we are, mixing it with the big shots because travelling provided us with the ladder we needed to climb classes. We are now socially mobile.

When we don’t travel, it’s difficult to escape one’s class status. From birth, your parents’ salary, skin colour, region, even gender, dictate the social strata you are confined to. A good combination of these things is more likely to propel you to success. If you pull the lever and hit – well-educated parents, white, affluent suburb, male – you are instantly provided much more opportunity in life than the opposite. And while rags to riches stories are sometimes true, they are the exception.

Many claim they are self-made, but a quick peek into Clive Palmer’s history will reveal a litany of privileges denied to most. He is white and male, his father, George Palmer, owned a successful radio and tyre businesses, and worked as a travel agent which afforded them flights around the world.  Young Clive grew up in the Gold Coast where he was sent to private schools. Well-travelled and well educated, Mr. Palmer hit the birth lottery jackpot, and dawdled into success.

Some people go to public schools, others private, and it is here that we predominately socialise with people in our own class bracket. We learn how to talk and behave from those around us. We begin embodying our class traits from our teachers, peers and our peer’s parents. For some people this means their life aspirations soar, for others, a ceiling appears.

Megan at Maroochydore State High School wants to be a doctor, but she doesn’t really know how or what they do – she just likes helping people. Her dad is a truck driver and her mum works at a call centre and they don’t know much about being a doctor either – neither of them went to university. Most of Megan’s friends are planning on travelling after school and some have already picked up a trade. The closest uni is four hours away from home, so Megan might defer this – it will give her time to figure out what she really wants to do.

Stacey at Mathew Flinders Private is going to be a lawyer, because her best friend’s dad is a lawyer, and she speaks to him about it all the time. She knows the difference between a solicitor and a barrister and that you need to go to university for five years, and then intern at a legal firm for one year before you can practice. When she finishes her degree, her friend’s dad will use his connections to help her get a job.

Though they may sound cliched, these examples show how class status reproduces itself. The class of your parents, school and environment dictate your aspirations and the likelihood of achieving them. However, class doesn’t just affect our outward prospects; it also affects our inward makeup. As humans, we embody our environments. We talk like those around us, about similar subjects (sport/literature; the gym/the art gallery; Martin Garrix/The Cosmic Psychos). We eat the same food as the people around us (meatloaf/roast lamb), and wear similar clothes – it is all a part of socialisation and fitting in.  This creates class divides, which once embodied, are incorporated into our personalities, our mannerisms, our speech, even our aspirations. These embodiments become difficult walls to overcome and are inevitably reproduced.

Except when you travel. Going overseas to countries with weaker economies, where our dollars stretch further, is an activity enjoyed by many in the west. Most students in Sydney or Melbourne can barely afford rent, but in parts of Asia, South America or Africa, their Youth Allowance money swells to a small fortune, and through this they are elevated to the fortunate.

My climb happened in Africa. A study abroad program landed me a semester in Cape Town and four months to check out the surrounding country. Within a month, I had a house with five people my age, a crew of people to party with, and was comfortable – except when we would visit their parent’s houses. When invited into these multistoried, multi-acred palaces, suddenly everything changed.

Backs were straightened, fucks and shits were removed from sentences, table manners became robotic and mechanical – no reaching, no elbows, cutlery down when speaking and then reassumed when eating. I freaked out. As much as my mother may have tried, I grew up in a house where we watched TV and chowed down our dinner without even looking at it. Thrust into formal dining, I panicked, went quiet and applied full concentration to my every movement, ensuring that it replicated the others. I lacked the inbuilt social skills required for these actions to be autonomous, and at 26, it took everything I had to stay afloat.

But the dinner table wasn’t where I noticed the starkest difference. It was in the success of everyone I met. Their jobs, their aspirations. Everyone I spoke to had an employment position as unique as it as was successful. Job titles like graphic designer, festival organiser, entrepreneur and travel photographer became commonplace. Mere dreams among my Australian friends while venting about our shit hospitality jobs were fulfilled by my friends overseas.

They were privately educated, had wealthy parents, and a gusto and self-confidence to achieve what they wanted. Even those who hadn’t enjoyed an extravagant upbringing were surrounded by people who had, because they were white, and their dreams expanded accordingly. In South Africa the class divide is easy to spot because most of the time it runs across race lines. Even post-apartheid, white people still mostly hang with white people, and black people with black people, because regardless of the action taken to create race equality, the class divide still exists, and the wall between them remains steadfast.

In Australia, the class wall exists too, though it is just more subtle, less defined. Successful groups of people exist back home, but I am never surrounded by them, because we grew up in different social tiers. We went to different schools, followed different career paths, partied at different bars, and somehow oscillated around one another without ever crossing paths or interacting. And I am speaking from a middle-class perspective, my position must be equally estranged from rural Australians, a family dependent on Centrelink or from many Aboriginal men my age.

As much as we like to take credit for our privileges, it is cashing a false cheque. Most of the time we didn’t earn our status. Our environment – parents, school, region – dictated our range of opportunities, and our positioning on that range. While the lower classes are most restricted, the walls exist for everyone. Socialisation narrows our perspective to those immediately around us, obstructing any chance of a holistic view, and it is within these class confines that our personalities develop, our capabilities and aspirations are enhanced or limited, and where we become estranged from one another.

Cover by Annie Spratt