Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On not making fun of Australians

Confession: when Alisa and I arrived in Oz, we used to make fun of things Australian, and Australians themselves, in the privacy of Pelagic

And we used to do it every day.

To a newcomer, Australia just screams out its stereotypes.  There are the nicknames: I have had grown men introduce themselves to me as both "Macca" and "Razza".  There are the strange conversational traits: some Australians have this frustrating habit, when trying to get across a vaguely complicated idea, of just giving up mid-sentence with a defeated, "and, yeah..." that segues into silence, and seems to be a plea for their interlocutor to start up with another conversational thread while they locate their scattered brains.  There are the incredibly crass billboards around Brisbane that advertise dubious pharmaceutical sexual aids to men.  There is the rigidly defined social norm of being a "regular bloke" in all-male social interactions.  There are the baffling Royalist tendencies. 

There are the meat raffles at pubs around the nation every Friday night.

And, perhaps more than any of these trifling details, there is the palpable lack of ambition that blankets vast swaths of the cultural landscape.  This is the country where anyone will understand what you mean if you say "tall poppy syndrome": the collective, and nearly universal, desire to bring down anyone who aspires to something beyond the common lot.

"Say what you will," I said to Alisa just about every other day in our first six months here, "but these people have never been to the moon."

And, while I'm at it, here's my very own Australian joke:
Q: Why aren't Australians religous?
A: Because communion service has a one-drink limit!

Pretty good, no?
A few weeks ago, though, I noticed that I wasn't making fun of Australians anymore. 

This society is starting to make sense to me.  I begin to glimpse the nation of individuals behind the stereotypes.  I have developed real admiration for the "it's not complicated!" attitude of some particular Australians who are, very quietly, leading lives that are admirable mixtures of adventure, louche dissolution, and family responsibility.

And the upsides of this society are starting to seem particulary attractive.  The sense that everyone deserves a fair go is bedrock here, and contrasts painfully with the attitude in the U.S.  Australians have a well-developed sense that the common good is something that everyone has a stake in promoting.  The upside of the "it's not complicated!" attitude and lack of overarching ambition is that this is a developed society that does a very very good job of enjoying life.  I have not yet been to a boring Australian barbecue.  Which is to say that while Americans are (stereotypically) forever thinking about ways to get ahead or get to heaven, or to get something, Australians are (stereotypically) forever thinking that everything is pretty OK, but might be better still if they were at the beach.

No points for guessing which attitude resonates with me, the peripatetic yachtie.

And, finally, Australians are not laboring under the sense of exceptionalism, and divine mission, that is slowly suffocating the U.S.  Americans are forever carrying on about how the slaveowners who wrote up the Constitution were actually God-fearing Christians.  Australians just know that they have a good thing going, and call theirs "The Lucky Country."

God knows, things are not perfect here.  But still, I'm starting to feel at home.  I'll never pass for a fair dinkum Aussie, and I'm determined to see the inside of my grave before I know the difference between Rugby League and Rugby Union.  But I am starting to think that our family may have an association with this place that goes beyond our current stay.  I'm starting to feel a little Australian.

So much so that Alisa has told me that while she doesn't mind being addressed as "matey", she would prefer it if I'd stop calling her "mate".


  1. Ned Kelly - in bloody cold OhioFebruary 17, 2010 at 3:29 AM

    Geez mate, stop making me feel so bloody homesick!!

  2. hey, there are meat raffles here in falmouth, too.

  3. Nicely put! Your experience parallels ours. Although of course we took the extra step and are now ourselves bona fide Aussies. And, like, yeah...

  4. a fine bit of writing Mike. it is is also clear to me, that the experiences you have provided your son with, will be something he holds dear forever.