By Cam Lucadou-Wells
The well-travelled Bernard Vancuylenburg’s worldly interests don’t only span five languages but millennias of history.
For two decades, the 76-year-old multilinguist has volunteered as an English-language tutor for migrants and new arrivals at AMES in Dandenong.
His students have landed from as far away as Afghanistan, China and Vietnam. Each a window to history and culture, each a friend to Mr Vancuylenburg.
Such is his dedication, he learnt Mandarin in recent years to better support some of his students.
“You get more than you give because you meet many different cultures,” Mr Vancuylenburg says of his role.
“They’ve got so much to teach you.”
Motivation is high among his students, though they are bewildered by the sheer size of Australia, he says.
“You find they appreciate the chances they have in this country.”
Mr Vancuylenburg has toured the world with history groups, exploring ancient Mayan, Aztec and Incan cultures in Latin America.
History is a “fascinating prism” to take a long view of the world at present, he says.
He toured China, not just to discover its 5000-year history but to improve his Mandarin. It unlocked a view of its people and a land of surprises.
“It came to very good use. You’d be surprised to see how many friends I made.
“They had a joke in China. They thought foreigners speaking their language must have something wrong with them.”
In the meantime, he’s stepped in to help a Chinese-speaking tourist order a coffee at Melbourne Airport. It’s also opened channels with his Chinese-speaking students.
“Thirty-five years ago, all we knew of China was Chinese restaurants and the Great Wall.
“Now the more you get into the heart and soul, you learn that – politics apart – it is a beautiful country of fantastic people and beautiful scenery.”
China’s younger generation thirst for travel and freedom, he says.
“Democracy is new to them. They’ve always been under authoritarian rule.
“The younger generation don’t see things in the same way. They want to break free and see the world.”
Growing up on a tea estate in country Sri Lanka, his love of learning was nurtured as a boarder at the private Catholic school St Anthony’s College in Kandy.
There his dedicated teachers fed his love for history. Sri Lanka was the only country in South East Asia to trade with the Roman Empire more than 1000 years ago, he points out.
“My teachers went beyond the call of duty. I was very good at history but they’d take extra time to teach me things and get me good library books.”
After managing a hotel chain, Mr Vancuylenburg migrated to Australia in 1984.
He worked as an administrative officer in Victoria Police before being retrenched in 1999. Soon after, he applied as a volunteer tutor at AMES.
During his varied life, Mr Vancuylenburg has played lead guitar in rock bands in Sri Lanka and Australia. He speaks English, French, German, Italian and Mandarin languages.
On his travels, he found a proverb in Turkey that he says perfectly sums up his life.
“The heart is not searching for a coffee or a coffee house.
“The heart is searching for a friend.”