Thursday, 26 January 2017

Six things that surprised me about Australia

Happy Australia Day.

I've spent the last month down under, and I just so happen to be departing this country on its national holiday. I'm on a plane now to Bangkok, where I’ll base myself for the next month while travelling around Southeast Asia.

I actually didn’t know this was Australia Day – their version of the Fourth of July - when I booked the ticket. But in the end it didn’t make much difference. From what I observed the holiday doesn’t seem to be a very big deal for Australians, and in fact many people I asked told me they are working today as normal. It was only made a formal public holiday in all states and territories in 1994 (although it had been unofficially observed since 1935). As one Australian told me, throwing in a Mean Girls reference, “the government is always trying to make Australia Day happen. It’s not going to happen”.

We even saw television commercials from the government over the past two weeks instructing people to celebrate it, which amused me. I can’t imagine the US government taking out TV ads telling people to celebrate the Fourth of July.

The holiday marks the 1788 arrival of the first fleet of British ships on the continent, and comes along with all the awkwardness and guilt one might expect. Many aboriginal people, along with left-leaning white Australians, call it “Invasion Day”. It would be a bit as if the United States celebrated Columbus Day as the country’s main holiday rather than the anniversary of the declaration of independence (as it stands, Columbus Day is only a holiday for government offices, not for workers).

The problem, of course, is that Australia’s “independence” from Britain is still somewhat nebulous and, many would argue, incomplete. See item number six below.

The relative ambivalence toward Australia’s national holiday (at least by American standards) was just one of many surprising things I observed during my month-long visit to this fascinating, beautiful country. Some of my expectations were met, and some were wildly challenged. So I thought it might be fun to compile a list of the six things that surprised me the most about Australia.

I know many Australians will disagree with some of my observations, for instance about the importance of Australia Day. But keep in mind, I’m just reflecting my observations as a visitor. I’m not claiming to be an expert on the country. So I’d love to get any reaction from Australians, whether you agree or disagree with my observations.

1) Australia’s latest craze is punching each other in the back of the head.

It didn’t take long after arriving in Sydney to hear people railing against the recently-introduced “lock out law” introduced in the city. About two years ago, New South Wales Governor Mike Baird introduced a law ordering bars and clubs in Sydney to close at 3am, and for them to stop allowing people to enter bars and clubs after 1:30am.

The controversy over the law has become so great that it was one of the factors that caused Baird to resign as governor last week.

Coming from the US, I am familiar with closing regulations – both California and Massachusetts require all bars and clubs to close at 2am. But never before had I heard of a lock-out time. Patrons can stay in a bar or club after 1:30, but if they leave they can’t come back in, or enter any other establishment. So, you need to make sure you’re in a good place when the hour strikes, because then you’re trapped! It’s either stay where you are, or go home.

It gets weirder. The law was introduced to try to get a handle on Australia’s out-of-control drunken violence – in particular the current craze for drunk people to come up to strangers and punch them in the back of the head. If delivered correctly, the so-called “one punch” (one punch to rule them all) can kill someone instantly. And it has. In the last 15 years, more than 100 people have been killed by the one punch in Australia. The government has been trying all kinds of measures to get a handle on it, including convincing the media to rebrand it the “cowards punch”.

Now, 100 isn’t such a huge number. But we kept hearing about the one punch over and over during the visit. They kept talking about it on the news, and on chat shows in all three of the states we visited. I was interviewing an environmentalist in Airlie Beach about efforts to protect the Great Barrier Reef, and she even brought it up then! She had segued into the increasing drunken violence on the beach.

During our time in Brisbane we learned that Queensland has recently followed suit and introduced a 3am closing time, but last week the government decided against a plan to add a 1:30 lock-out time. The reason? Since it was introduced, there is no evidence to suggest that Sydney’s lock-out-laws have resulted in a decrease of One Punch incidents. The fad is still going strong.

Victoria, the state where Melbourne is located, does not have plans to introduce the closing laws.

2) Australia loves rules

The lock-out laws are just one example of the many, many rules in Australia. This was perhaps the most surprising thing I learned while in Australia, as I would have assumed that Australians’ care-free nature would be reflected in an Italy-like lack of regulation. But in fact the exact opposite is true. The country has rules for everything - a full embrace of the nanny state mentality. And Australians love grumbling about their over-regulated society.

It may seem strange that I found this so surprising, given that I live in a rule-obsessed country myself. But in Germany the attitude toward rues is different. There are less written-down rules governing peoples behavior in Germany because people don’t need them – they adore enforcing uncodified rules on each other. While Australians bristle under what they view as nanny state overreach governing their health and safety, Germans wish they had more rules than they do.

Perhaps Australians need the rules more than Germans do, given that Germans are natural rule-followers. “If Australians want the state to stop treating them like children, maybe they should stop acting like children,” one Australian friend quipped as we watched a bar brawl erupt on Sydney’s Oxford Street.

3) Australians live in the air

This one wasn’t so surprising to me, given that for a population of just 24 million, Australians seem to be overrepresented in the world’s tourist population. But it was interesting nonetheless to observe what avid travellers Australians are.

You might think that, situated at literally the end of the world thousands of miles from anywhere else, Australians don’t leave their country very much. But this is not the case. The people I met, not only in Sydney and Melbourne but also in Brisbane and Byron Bay, seemed to take travels outside of Australia several times a year. It was a marked difference from the United States, where most of my friends in New York and LA have only left the United States a few times in their lives, if at all (many of my friends have never left the USA).

The thirst for travel seems to extend across social classes, although I’m sure it is more difficult for people who live in rural areas. One of the explanations for the US-Australia difference is probably the amount of holiday time people have. Australians are legally guaranteed at least 20 vacation days per year, and most people I talked to told me they have between 30 and 40. In America there is no guaranteed legal minimum, and most people have between five and ten vacation days per year.

I imagine the difference is cultural as well. Australians come from more recent waves of immigrants and therefore have closer ties to their ancestral countries (see observation number five). Despite being so far away from the rest of the world, they are much more engaged with the world than Americans.

Of course, leaving Australia is a serious commitment of time and, perhaps, money. I say perhaps because the Jet Star flight I’m on at the moment from Melbourne to Bangkok cost me only €150. My flight from LA to Sydney, however, was €700.

The amount of time on a plane one must spend to leave Australia is, unfortunately, unavoidable. But while watching TV I noticed all kinds of commercials for products designed to make long-haul flights more comfortable. What was interesting is that these commercials weren’t tailored to business travellers, as you might expect them to be in the US (I’ve never seen such a commercial in the US actually). They were tailored for normal people, because in Australia you might make a reasonable assumption that normal people take long-haul flights. Not in America.

4) No Americans but lots of Chinese

The lack of American vacation days is the only explanation I can come up with for my next observation, which I found extremely surprising. During this whole visit, I encountered almost no American tourists. It was a refreshing change from Europe, where the major cities are awash with them. I didn’t meet any and didn’t hear any on the street (and trust me, they’re usually hard to miss).

What I did encounter was a LOT of German and French tourists. It was a nice way to keep my language skills fresh while I’m away from Europe, actually. But they were everywhere, escaping the harsh European winter just like me (we picked the right year to do it). There were a fair number of British tourists as well, but surprisingly, not as many as Germans and French.

I suppose that for Americans, the long flight time to get to Australia, combined with losing a day because of the international date line, makes a trip to Australia too difficult. The flight time for Europeans is the same or even longer (compared to the US West Coast), but like Australians they also have 30 vacation days to play with so they can afford to take the time.

There were, however, many many tourists from the world’s other superpower – China. They were everywhere, largely in big groups being unloaded from buses. China is making huge inward investment into Australian raw materials and property right now (see more on that in my blog entry here), and it seems that it translating into an equally huge Chinese interest in Australia for tourism. They were most heavily present at the big tourist sites, and certain sites seemed to be particularly famous back home for them.

For instance, when I went to see the ‘penguin parade’ at Philip Island outside Melbourne (you watch the penguins emerge from the ocean and return home after a day of hunting), I would estimate the audience was about 80% Chinese. The signs at the facility were in English and Chinese, and there was Chinese interpretation running along with the narration as the penguins emerged. It surprised me because I had never heard of these penguins before someone in Melbourne told me to go. But they seem to have special significance in China, because everyone was very excited.

I noted that unlike the French and German tourists, it appeared many (most even) of the Chinese tourists could not speak English.

5) Not a melting pot, but a tossed salad

One of the coolest experiences I had while in Australia was meeting some distant cousins who live in Melbourne – 17 of them in fact! They are the children and grandchildren of the sister of my Italian great-grandfather, the one I got my Italian citizenship through.

It was interesting to see that their connection to Italy is much stronger than my family’s in America. They could still speak Italian, even down to the level of the ones who are currently teenagers (although their Italian is not very good). They would speak English and then when using an Italian word would use the correct pronunciation, unlike Italian Americans who seem to have invented their own prononciation for the words they are so fond of using.

My great-grandparents moved from Italy to America in 1912 around the age of 19. When my grandmother was growing up, she would hear her parents speak Italian with each other at the dinner table. But if she or her sisters tried to emulate them, they would get a smack. “We’re in America, you speak English!” the parents would insist, before going back to speaking Italian among themselves. Her and her sisters were also very intent on improving their parents English.

My Australian relatives told me the situation was very different in Australia. There was a close-knit community of Italians in Melbourne who would mostly speak Italian with each other. Even people born in Australia living in the Italian neighborhoods would speak Italian with their neighbors. There was no expectation that they had to renounce their former culture and language in order to “become Australian”.

Of course, this probably has a lot to do with the time of immigration. The big Italian immigration wave in America came in the 1910s and 20s, whereas the immigration wave to Australia came immediately after World War II. My great grandfather’s sister was much younger than him and left Italy much later, after her children had already been born, and so the immigration story of her family is much more recent. It also came as globalisation began to flower and leaving one’s country was not such a dramatic rift as it would have been in 1912. They made many trips back to Italy and were able to speak regularly with their relatives there over the phone. In this way they were able to keep their home cultures more alive, in the same way that in America Hispanic immigrants coming after World War II retained their culture in a way the Italian immigrants had not 40 years earlier.

Because Australia’s immigration wave happened more recently, you can see that the immigration model is much more similar to Canada’s than America’s. The Canadian model has often been called a “tossed salad” rather than the American “melting pot” model. In the former, the different groups maintain their identities and differences but come together as a nation, whereas in the latter the differences between the groups melt into one homogenous American identity.

6) Yearning for nationhood

Speaking of identity, this leads me to my final observation – which I know might be a controversial one with Australians. As I mentioned in my introduction today’s holiday of Australia Day seemed like a much less clear-cut national celebration than what we have in America. Part of the reason is that Australia’s independence is much less clear-cut.

For one thing, Australia still shares a head of state with its former colonial overlord. The effect of this is largely symbolic – Queen Elizabeth II is on their money, and statues of British royalty are found everywhere in the country. Though the Queen can theoretically wield considerable power in Australian politics through her governor-general, including dissolving the parliament, expectations mean she would not do so. But her governor-general did dissolve the parliament and call fresh elections in the 1970s when an Australian prime minister started looking a little too socialist.

Even the symbolic effect of having the British monarch as your ruler can have a psychological effect, however. Every time you handle money, you are reminded that you are still not a quite-independent nation. Australia’s defacto indepenence came in 1904, when the various colonies on the continent united into a federation with its own parliament (around the same time that Canada did the same). But in truth the process toward real independence was gradual over several decades – there was no ‘grand event’ like the declaration of independence and revolutionary war.

Two days ago I drove up to Ballarat, a storied gold-mining town two hours North of Melbourne, to visit the site of the 1854 Eureka Rebellion among miners. There is an increasing movement to cite Eureka as a defining moment in the move toward Australian 'independence', although even this effort is controversial.

It's interesting how countries feel they need to justify their existence by citing violent events as their points of genesis. We see it in Europe as well - countries that were created by peaceful treaty without a shot being fired still feel the need to find some kind of violent event with which to paint the picture of their creation myths. Everyone wants their own version of the Revolutionary War. In the case of Eureka the connection to Australian independence seems weak. And as one of the commentators at the 'Museum of Australian Democracy' (set up at the site of the rebellion and flying the rebels' Southern Cross flag) noted, "the unfinished business of Eureka is the Australian Republic" - an unfinished project.

To me, the museum spoke to a larger Australian yearning for a greater sense of nationhood and identity – for a clean break with Britain. In my conversations with Australians over the years, this yearning has been reflected in their indignant assertions that they have nothing to do with British people.

I have to confess that Australia was never high on my to-visit list. I felt like it was a very long way to fly to arrive at a place with a very similar culture to where I had come from. "Why fly all that way just to be around British people with tans"? I asked.

So I was curious in this visit to see how close Australian culture felt to British culture. I was wrong in a lot of my assumption - for instance, Australians don't have tans either. But I also feel like it's taking the piss for Australians to claim they have "nothing to do with the British". As ever, the answer lies somewhere in between.

Yes walking around in Sydney did feel a bit like I was in a British town during a heat wave. The people look similar. There are familiar British chains on the high streets - even the British health insurer BUPA which I used to have when I lived in London. The posh Australian accent is indistinguishable from a British accent to me. At night the pub culture is very familiar, including the pervasive problems with drink-fueled violence.

The music on the radio and in clubs is distinctly British, playing songs that never came to America and some which didn't even leave the British Isles (I've heard S Club 7 a number of times). The television shows have a huge crossover with UK programming, in a much more bilateral fashion than with American programming. I do have to conclude that it feels a bit like being in a far-flung corner of the UK, cut off by miles of ocean.

But based on my conversations here, the fact is that no matter how British Australia appears to me, people here do not feel British - at all. Nobody has liked hearing my observation that being here reminds me of when I lived in the UK, indeed they have bristled at the suggestion that they are anything like British people.

So Australia is definitively a different place than Britain, and I think it's becoming more different by the day. This will be especially true, unfortunately, as the UK embarks on its path toward Brexit nationalism and delusions of empire-rebuilding.

This morning, as I packed up my suitcase in my hotel, I watched a speech by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra to mark Australia Day. He is a conservative, and not super popular with my progressive Australian friends. And yet I was struck by the pluralistic, open vision of Australia he presented in his speech. He even used the word “multicultural”, in a positive sense! How many leaders in Europe would dare to use that word right now?

Turnbull alluded to the dark forces of nationalism currently returning across the world, but he said Australia is different. It is a welcoming society of immigrants, he said, that believes in openness and fairness. After finishing speech, he presided over a citizenship ceremony for 26 new Australian citizens.

It seems to me that Australia has developed its own strong, proud identity – quite independent of Britain. It is beyond time that the umbilical chord was cut, and the country became a Republic. There was a referendum on the matter in 1999, but Australians narrowly chose to remain part of the British monarchy.

Support for the monarchy remains strongest in Australia’s rural and outback states, not in its cities. Most people I spoke to in the cities believe there will be another referendum a few years after Elizabeth passes away, and that people will not vote to keep Charles as the King of Australia.

All in all this was a fantastic visit and I learned a lot about Australia I didn't know before. It really is a fascinating place.

1 comment:

JP53238 said...

Great Article, I thought i'd make a few points.

First of all we gained independence in 1901 rather then 1904, small point but it just bugged me.

Secondly, about the national identity i feel that many Australians will feel as though we have an identity separated from Britain, that doesn't necessarily equal desire for a republic. Many people I know are indifferent to the monarchy/republic debate, although other are also have very strong belief in a republic. Also, if the throne was to skip Charles the same push to a republic may not happen.