I’m dizzily in love with Australia. Patriotism shouldn’t be reserved for the rightwing.

As I travelled 30,000km around Australia, I found so much to love about it. But understanding our history means reconciling with our First Peoples.

I love Australia.

The words have somehow become transgressive. But I say them anyway because it’s true. Right now I’m dizzily in love with Australia.

I’m lucky enough to say that because, unlike most Australians my age, I’ve had the privilege to see quite a bit of it. In December I returned from a sweeping 30,000km road trip around the country. Six months earlier I had left Sydney wearing the haunted look of so many overworked, sun-deprived journalists today, and drove the return leg through the yo-yoing curves of the Blue Mountains well and truly rejuvenated.

I was heavy as a wet sponge with the sights, sounds and stories of the nation. Memories of my time on the road swam around in my head like happy, fat, silver barramundi: the storm clouds rolling in over the towering Flinders Ranges, the sun setting fire to Uluru, turtle meat roasting on a barbecue courtesy of Goolarabooloo fishermen in the Kimberley, the sound of a bellowing cassowary in the dripping wet rainforests of far north Queensland.

And that’s when I said it, probably for the first time in my life without irony or reserve: “I love Australia!” It was a love born from so many months of sharing meals with miners, grey nomads, artists, farmers, community workers and small business owners from across the nation; some Aboriginal, some white, some Asian, and even a few who managed to be all three.

Patriotism has become a touchy subject of late and a battleground Australian liberals are slowly, in the sobering dawn of Brexit, Trump and the concerning resurrection of Pauline Hanson and homegrown xenophobic nationalism, realising they may have too quickly abandoned.

The longer and more fervently Hanson and her ilk dominate the practice of patriotism the more one is left with the sinking feeling that unless you prescribe to her particular brand of jingoist flag-draped anti-immigration hysteria, then you’re not a patriot. Even the more benign series of nationalist archetypes (the larrikin, the digger) or moth-eaten phrases like “a fair go” and “mateship” feel affiliated with a certain nostalgic rendering of Australia that hasn’t been seen in real life since 1960 and is unlikely to be seen again.

Depending on which side of politics you sit, the words “I love Australia” can feel vaguely racist and – especially if declared loudly, obnoxiously, defensively – can be interpreted as a clarion call to protect the nation from threatening outside forces and to vigorously deny all and any of its shortcomings.

But true love is not a state of being – it is an action. Love requires commitment and tenacity. When you love, say, your partner or an old friend, you do not turn away as they speak of the darkest chapters of their past but listen quietly. Such confessions engender intimacy and deepen an understanding of their present woes. Countries are no different; history is the DNA of our present.

On the Western Australian island of Murujuga, also called Burrup Peninsula, I drove with a friend up an unmarked dirt track, away from the famed ancient rock art and the smoke-belching chemical factories, to the Flying Foam massacre site. There a small plaque read:

Hereabouts in February 1868, a party of settlers from Roebourne shot and killed as many as 60 Yapurarra people in response to the killings of a European policeman in Nickol Bay.

There was a second plaque I would not have noticed had my friend, a film-maker and Ngarluma man, not pointed it out. The land there is covered in naturally forming piles of rust-red, squarish rock, and on a nearby ridge a line of rocks had been deliberately placed upright, leaving the horizon jagged as the edge of a well-worn flag. That, he said, was a traditional way to mark a site of spiritual significance.

The best sort of love of country doesn’t stuff colonialism under the rug (as WA premier Colin Barnett has so characteristically implored all of us to do on Australia Day), but invites it to sit at the dinner table and share its story.

Too often a love of Australia is couched by moderates as some sort of abstract concept, a floating chair to which the helium balloon words of “multiculturalism” and “democracy” are tied. But a true love of country should be expressed with earthly pleasures. A Chinese person misses the spicy chilli broth of Sichuan cooking. A Brit misses the smell of rain on the heath.

And now that I have tasted Australia, smelled it, walked it, seen the lay of its land and read the story of its life, my love for it is visceral and spiritual. This is the kind of patriotism that should be fostered in Australians, and who better to lead the way than those who have loved it so for over 60,000 years?

I am Australian and I have no other home – there is no village in China for me to “go back” to. So it is for many of us, our ancestral villages in Ireland, China, Vanuatu, Germany, have faded from descendant memory. We cannot sing its songs. We cannot cook its foods. If you were to show us a photo of its waters or hills we would hold it in our fingers, a light-winged curiosity would flutter across our faces, but no great yearning would surge in our hearts.

We are Australians yet strangers in a foreign land – a nation in limbo yet to reconcile with our own history. To reconcile with history is to begin to reconcile with Indigenous Australia; to reconcile with Indigenous Australia is to begin to reconcile with the land. Then, and only then, might we truly know how to proudly and unequivocally call this place home.

First published on the Guardian website
1 February 2017