The following article was published in THE DANDENONG STAR JOURNAL of the 31st March 2020.(ref:https://dandenong.starcommunity.com.au/entertainment/2020-03-23/a-world-of-friends/
The well travelled Bernard VanCuylenburg’s worldly interests dont only span five languages but millenia of history. For two decades, the 76 year old multi linguist has volunteered as an English language tutor for migrants and new arrivals at the AMES School in Dandenong. His students have landed from as far away as Afghanistan, China, Sudan, and Vietnam. Each a window to history and culture, each a friend to Bernard. Such is his dedication, he learned Mandarin – thanks to AMES in recent years, to better support some of his Chinese students. “You get more than you give because you meet many different cultures”, Bernard says of his role as a Volunteer Tutor. “They have got so much to teach you It is a two way street You also learn to be a good listener”. Motivation is high among his students though they are bewildered by the sheer size of Australia. He adds, “You find they appreciate the chances they have in this country”.
Bernard has travelled widely to many parts of the world and his travels always have a historical focus. Some of his favourite tours have been with history groups to explore the ancient Mayan, and Aztec cultures in Mexico, Guatamala and Honduras, and the Inca culture of ancient Peru. “History is a fascinating prism to take a long view of the world at present” he says. He has toured China four times, not just to discover her 5000 year old history, but also to improve his language skills. It unlocked to him a land of many surprises and gave him a deep insight into the psyche of her people . “These trips widened my horizon, and you would be surprised to see how many friends I made” he says. He further states “The Chinese have a quaint sense of humour – for example they think that any foreigner speaking their language must have something wrong with him or her !!. This only further adds weight to the mistakenly held belief that Mandarin is a difficult language to learn. If you want to learn a language with your heart, you will learn it.”
He once helped a Chinese traveller at Tullamarine International Airport who wished to order a milk coffee and could not speak a word of English ! A knowledge of Mandarin also opened many channels with his Chinese students. Thirty five years ago, all most people knew about China was “The Great Wall” and Chinese restaurants ! Now, the more you get into her heart and soul you learn that – politics apart – it is a country of picture post card scenery and fascinating people. Bernard says “The younger generation of Chinese today yearn for travel and freedom. Democracy is new to them and they have always been under authoritarian rule. They want to break free and see the world.”
Growing up on a tea estate in the hill country of Sri Lanka the land of his birth, his love of learning was nurtured as a boarder at a private school SAINT ANTHONY’S COLLEGE in Kandy, which was one of the finest educational institutions in the island. Within the hallowed portals of this college his teachers fed his love for history. He says “My teachers went beyond the call of duty. I was good at the subject and they took extra time to teach me historical facts which were not found in the standard text books for the school curriculum.
One of my teachers went into the trouble of getting me extra books from the library. People are often surprised when I tell them that ancient Ceylon was the only country that traded with the Roman Empire, often through the port of Pondicherry in South India.”
After working as Administrative Manager for a hotel belonging to a chain owned by one of the largest finance companies in the island, Bernard migrated to Australia in 1984. He worked as an Administrative Officer in the Victoria Police Department at Police Headquarters in Melbourne, before being retrenched following a ministerial restructure in 1999.In 2000 he commenced working as a Volunteer English Tutor at AMES in Dandenong. During his varied life, Bernard played lead and rhythm guitar for bands in Sri Lanka and Australia. He speaks – apart from English – French, German, Italian and Mandarin, apart from the two indigenous languages of the land of his birth, Sinhalese and Tamil. He said that during his travels in Turkey, he came upon a Turkish proverb in a hotel which perfectly sums up his life’s philosophy :
“The heart is not searching for coffee or a coffee house. The heart is searching for a friend”.