I'm trying to keep my business, my triplets, and my waistline under control. I excel at one of those, fail at another one of those, and one is a work in progress. Which is which is day dependant.

Monday, September 21, 2009

An American in Australia

A recent facebook request for blogging topics brought about some interesting writing prompts. Among the requests were discussion about cooking school (already done), grad school (I'm counting culinary school as this one done). The rest of the list ran the gamut from childhood memories to a second instalment of the "why Australian food is weird" post.

So today's facebook suggested topic is all about what it's like being an American in Australia - or more specifically about the cultural differences which make my life here interesting.

It's fair to say my first bit of Australian culture shock happened within an hour of getting off the plane in Sydney. I came here as part of a one year study abroad program, and the first part of that was to spend about 3 days "acclimatising" in Sydney before we all went off to our new universities across the country. So they got all of us off the plane, herded us onto buses (where out the windows we saw Mickey D's, and KFC, and went, "Wait? Have we actually left the US yet?") and took us down to the Harbour. Sydney Harbour in real life is better than you might expect. We've all seen the image of the Opera House so many times - seeing it in real life, it's surreal. Like you are standing inside a postcard. So they took us on a ferry to Shark Island, for a "Welcome to Australia" BBQ. This should have been my first clue.

So, how Aussie was it?

1. The bloody place is called Shark Island. For real.
2. It required a boat trip to get there.
3. It required a fair amount of complaining before we even arrived.
4. It involved meat.
5. It was a BBQ (or a barbie, to be precise), and Aussies need no excuse to stand outside and cook animals over an open fire,


6. When I said, "Umm, I'm vegetarian..." to the people there, the silence was deafening. You could only hear the distant lapping of the waves. At which point one of the organisers said, "You'll be right, mate. I think there's a bit of salad over there somewhere" and he waved vaguely in the air with his tongs.

So. I wandered over to the salad area, to be greeted with some silver foil containers filled with lettuce. And a tomato wedge which had seen better days. And not much else.

I stood there for a minute or two, Australian sun warming my back, the sound of the waves at t shoreline below, surrounded by a whole gamut of funny accents, with the heavenly smell of cooking meat invading my nostrils.

So I did what any other self-respecting person would have done. I shrugged, went back to the barbecue, helped myself to a big ol' piece of steak, and waved goodbye to several years of vegetarianism. I've never looked back since. And DAMN, but that steak was good.

In the intervening 14 years, a lot has happened - but so much about this wide, wonderful land hasn't changed at all. All the things about that barbie which were so terribly, terribly Australian are all still true. The only possible exception is that these days, vegetarians are not quite the pariahs they once were.

One of the stranger things about living here is the immense influence of other cultures. So, superficially, it looks like an American city. You can find Target and K-Mart and Subway and Starbucks without trying terribly hard. Underneath all the shiny signs of Americana beats the heart of England. The street names are mostly English, many of the attitudes are English, plenty of food and religious traditions are very English, and so on. Somewhere in the middle of the American outer core and English inner core lies something which is distinctly Australian. The twist to the story, if you will.

It wouldn't be odd, for example, to shop at Costco (American), and notice everyone is very patiently, politely waiting in line for their turn (English) and right outside the door is a sausage sizzle raising money for the local life saving club (Australian.) Australia is often described as "America in the 1950's" and I have to say I think that - with the exception of i-phones and email and assorted gadgetry, that description is pretty accurate.

Many families have one parent who does not work. There is no such thing as the American style of summer camp, because people here TAKE TIME OFF to be with their kids during the holidays. Many families still sit down together, every night, to a traditional dinner of meat and 3 veg. I can send my kids to play in the street or walk the dog by themselves and not worry (too much) about them. People still send thank you cards, handwritten. Almost the entire country shuts down for January, so everyone can have some summer sunshine time off. For the most part, people are polite. Nobody is in much of a rush to go anywhere - in fact my family, when they visit, often complain about how slow service is here. There are not 433 types of milk in the supermarket, and it's only recently that you can buy pre-prepared foods there. People here do not start every conversation with, "So what do you DO?" and things like going to sports games on the weekend are still mostly affordable and people will take their kids along. Caravan holidays are still popular, everything (!) is closed on Christmas Day, and people still ask you what "your Christian name" is.

I could keep going. Swimming is like a religion. Tipping is not expected here, because waiters and hairdressers and everyone else gets paid an actual, real salary. I don't think I've ever heard of anyone suing anyone else because they burned their lip on a hot coffee - actually, I've never heard of anyone suing anyone else at all.

As an American living here, the biggest 'cultural shock' is that it's the underlying values which are different - NOT the way it looks or the accents or the cars on the other side of the road or the plastic money. It's the way people behave - how they act, how they react, and how they perceive life in general. On the whole, I have found Australians to be more relaxed than Americans - but they also have a far greater sense of entitlement. Literally every day on the radio you hear about some profession or another walking out on the job because they want better money, better working conditions, better... everything. There is no doubt that the teachers, the paramedics, the garbage men, the whoever, are working hard. And yet, no matter how much they get paid or how good their benefits are, the chances are high that they'll engage in industrial action at some point. Why? Because, for whatever reason, they deserve it.

People often ask me what it's like to live here. Of course I miss my family, and there are things about America I miss (especially access to cheap labour, good Israeli food, and Entemman's donuts)... but on the whole, life in Australia is about a certain quality of life. People here actually think that taking time off is important, that spending time with your kids is essential and that having a life outside of work is vital. I find that people here very rarely sweat the small stuff. Nobody gets offended too easily, it's practically a requirement that everyone laughs at themselves a bit, and people are just nice. Life in Australia is - to me, anyway - quieter. Slower. More relaxed. Where else in the world do you go to a super-fancy concert or show and have people eating ice creams at intermission? Where else in the world do people think that 'black tie' is some sort of offensive dress code, when jeans and thongs (of the shoe variety) will do just fine, thank you very much?

Basically, how I feel about Australia boils down to this:

The sun (mostly) shines, the food is fantastic, people are friendly... and they invented Tim Tams. Really, what's not to like?

1 comment:

Jewel said...

you have just officially made me miss home and you terribly. xo