What Makes A Tasmanian, Well, Tasmanian?

What Makes A Tasmanian, Well, Tasmanian?

A mainlander's perspective on the inhabitants of the Apple Isle.

What is about Tasmanians that make them, well, quintessentially Tasmanian? I am not Tasmanian. I currently live in Tassie, and have done so for the best part of five months, but that definitely does not qualify as being a local. Deep down, I'll always be a mainlander.

In my current avenue of education one fact is constantly being reinforced to me. It basically revolves around the idea that Tasmania - due to its geographical isolation as an island for the last 5000 years or so - is a type of "ark" for wildlife that have become extinct on the mainland.  These animals have continued to survive and, in fact, flourish amongst the rugged beauty of this island state. I'd like to think that this applies to other things too. Like the people themselves, the traditions they have kept, like the jokes that only a Tasmanian citizen would understand. As always, the devil is in the detail. Picking up on and examining these subtle cultural nuances within a wider Australian context helps to understand why Tasmanians are the way they are - what differentiates them from us mainlanders.

One thing's for certain; Tasmania is, and has always been, a place of extremes. When I speak of extremes I'm not speaking about its natural extremes; the awe-inspiring natural beauty or the fact that while Melbourne can have four seasons in a day Tassie will pull out eight. Independent of these natural extremes (or perhaps because of them) I believe Tassie locals adopt a strong stance on all issues, whether they relate to political, social, cultural or environmental spheres. Something about Tasmania seems to polarise opinion on anything and everything. In my personal experience when Tassie locals do choose to weigh in there rarely exists a middle ground. The Tasmania I knew growing up - a mainlander's media influenced impression - was unwavering in its conservative nature. How is it then, that Tassie gave birth to the first Green political party in the world? The paradoxical nature of how Tasmania is represented - contrasted with its reality - is one of its the state's most striking features, and has lead to a perpetuating misrepresentation of the complexities and intricacies of the island that lies underneath its vastly larger counterpart.

In writing this article I wanted to re-read some stuff I'd jotted down in my first few weeks after arriving in Hobart. A few things strike me instantly. At one point I complained about the fact that going to a pub in order to undertake a hobby of mine, people watching, never seemed to eventuate. This was simply because everyone was too damn friendly and instantly struck up conversation without hesitation. After a three-year stint in Sydney, I can't recall any moment where I encountered this same 'problem'. Another observation I made was that there was a distinct lack of bullshit in the way people went about things. Tasmanians don't talk around things as we too often do in the English language - they tell it how it is.

I recently read a quote by David Walsh - you know, the crazy, eccentric gambler who decided to build a contemporary art museum on the banks of the Derwent River - well, that guy. He talks about the Tasmanians (or Taswegians, as he calls them) he grew up with - the doctors, lawyers, miners, environmentalists, politicians and fisherman of today. 

"We were western privilege without western ego...We Taswegians knew that we weren't special but, paradoxically, thought we had something to prove."

I really think he's onto something with regards to the ego. For me, one of the most notable differences upon relocating to Tassie was this distinct lack of ego. In all of my early encounters - and in most since then - people come across as pragmatic and to the point. Pragmatic, in this case, shouldn't be read as impersonal or unfriendly. It’s more about their approach to things. For example, instead of asking you the same old questions when you first meet a Taswegian (Where are you from? What do you do? What makes you cool and worth my time?), they’re more likely to just sit you down and get you talking, get themselves talking, and before you know it you’ve both answered the above questions and have become best mates.

Again, this pragmatism extends to the way people dress - practicality above all else. This is not to say that Tasmanians are unfashionable people, hell no! It is simply a tendency for personal dress to favour usefulness over aesthetics. Ultimately a utilitarian approach, it is reflective of those extremes of weather that are somewhat unrivalled on the mainland.

These extremes are again demonstrated by a prominent Tasmanian figure, Richard Flanagan, who talks about Tasmania's turbulent history during a piece on David Walsh, who I mentioned earlier. He makes the point that if Australia was considered to be the "lucky country", then "Tasmania became its unlucky island". Here Flanagan is referring to the fact that the Tasmanian population is, and has been for some time, the least fortunate in the country in terms of social indicators. Of course, there is some debate as to whether this is changing with the rebranding of Tassie as a cultural hub (thanks in large part to MONA), as a food and wine haven and as an adventure destination that is a worthy rival of our neighbours over in New Zealand.

As Tassie goes through the process of trying reinvent itself, I am left to wonder how an influx of people to a previously fairly isolated island will affect the local Tasmanian psyche and Tasmanians in general. Will Tasmanians rebel in order to keep a hold the turbulent and unique past that has shaped who they are today? Or with the inevitable force that is gentrification stemming from the mainland continuing running its course, will the essence of what is truly Tasmanian fade away? These are all questions that await the future of the small island state, its people, and its ubiquitous culture. The future is uncertain. All I can be sure of, for now, is that I've got a hell of a long way to go until anyone, further still myself, is prepared to call me a true Tasmanian.

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