Saturday, June 6, 2009

Oz: There is Some Place Like Home

So I just spent two weeks in Australia. This should be a big deal and a big blog because, let’s face it, Oz, as they call it, is one big continent and one even bigger hassle to get to. Unless you’re in one of the “‘Nesia’s” or that other galactic outpost, New Zealand, Australia is far away from just about anywhere.

What’s more, when I arrived in Melbourne, I reunited with Sandy Fenton after 23 years. If you’ve read my new book, ahem, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, (insert shameless subliminal plug here) you know that Sandy is a Canadian who saved my life in southwestern China 23 years ago. Today, she’s living in Melbourne. Reconnecting with her was a very big deal, too.

Obviously, however, these opening paragraphs are a drum roll to an anticlimax. Sandy met me at the airport, there was a huge shriek and hug – and then we started to talk. And it was like: So anyway, as I was saying 23 years ago…

We practically picked up in mid-sentence. Two decades have gone by but we slid back into our friendship like a pair of beloved slippers. Which was wonderful for us, but boring for readers. Who wants to hear about how two women, seeing each other for the first time in 20 years, start talking about where they can get a really good deal on handbags?

And then, there was Australia itself. The Aussies are going to hate me for writing this. They will no doubt bar me from entering their country again – though I don’t mean this as an affront to them at all. But that said: Australia, to me, was very much like the USA. There. Gulp. I’ve blasphemed.

Yet I’m doing this not to gloss over cultural differences or dispense with nuance or to commit the ultimate, typical American faux pas of measuring another country against the “standard” of us. Rather, I say this, because as much as I’ve traveled and lived abroad, no other place has challenged my idea of American exceptionalism quite so much as Oz.

Through traveling and living abroad – as documented in this blog -- I’ve come to better understand American culture, foibles, shortcomings, and character. To this end, I’ve also come to better appreciate my country’s uniqueness as well: our idealism, our founding principles, our outsized humor and friendliness.

That is, until I arrived in Australia – where, harrumph, American uniqueness suddenly didn’t seem quite so unique anymore.

For starters, there’s the superficial, physical stuff. Never mind that the Aussies have better accents and drive on the wrong side of the road (wink). The few places I went to Down Under looked unnervingly like parts of California and Florida -- shiny, tinker-toyed housing mixed together with historical architecture and palm trees -- or like Chicago and San Francisco – pretty 19th century buildings next to brawny glass skyscrapers …cable cars weaving among them… There are brazen billboards in English, American tv shows, drive-thru McDonalds, Subway franchises, malls, Krispy Kreme donuts. (Mmm. Donuts. Can’t get those in Switzerland…) It felt more than a little familiar.

More importantly, the streets in Melbourne and Sydney look like the United Nations in motion. And at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, there’s an introductory video showing immigrants on ships loaded down with bundles and suitcases. A better life, the screen reads. Freedom from persecution. Escape from natural disasters. Reuniting with family. These are some of the reasons why people come to Australia.

Immigrants of all different backgrounds are then filmed talking about their journey to Australia while old newsreels play of Chinese laborers disembarking from steamers and Greek street peddlers hawking goods in Brisbane decades ago and Jews fleeing pogroms back in Europe then settling in Sydney. If maps didn’t show arrows radiating from all over the globe to Melbourne and Perth, the video could’ve been plucked directly from the Ellis Island Museum back in my hometown.

Harrumph again.

Apparently, there’s another country on this planet that prides itself on being a haven for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, yearning to be free.

Granted, while we Yankees never shut up about our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, the Aussies still have the Queen on their money. And while we have our Statue of Liberty lifting her lamp beside the “Golden Door,” Australia had a “White Australia” immigration policy well into the 20th century -- and “white” really meant British – not so fast all you Slavs and garlic-eaters.

But the legends that we two nations promote about ourselves are strikingly similar. We both pride ourselves on being the New Frontier, the Multicultural Melting Pot of the West, the land of opportunity. We are the fresh start, the Can-Doers, the beaches full of blond surfers dashing boldly into the sunshine to catch the next wave.

And for all our high-minded ideals, we share similar hypocrisies, too: genocide against indigenous people; discrimination against immigrants; quota systems; ongoing hate crimes; crazed national security measures, etc. Australians, I was surprised to learn, even interned their Japanese citizens in camps during World War Two just like Americans did.

Yet to be fair, just like in America, on a personal level, Australians are one gregarious, fun-loving bunch. Histories aside, they are sunny and just fucking great to be around. God bless ‘em: Aussies don’t give a shit. Like us Yanks, they’ll start talking to you in elevators, cafeteria lines, public restrooms. Who cares if they’re a bell-hop and you’re a customer? They’ll tease you about your flat American accent while they toss your luggage into the back of a taxi. No worries. It’s all in good fun. They’ve got a fabulous sense of humor and irreverence. They claim they’re a bit rougher than Americans – but to me, this simply makes them closer to New Yorkers.

So what can I say? Apologies, mates. But I flew halfway around the globe and felt closer to home than ever – if a bit more humbled.


AuzzieSister said...

I love the way you write Susan Jane Gilman. You capture an event then transport it to the page in such a way that we get to experience the adventure with you. Your latest blog left me feeling like I was in downtown New York one moment then in Melbourne’s CBD the next. I also loved that in some ways, Australia felt more like home than Geneva. I am looking forward to your next blog. I wonder what great escapade you will take us on next. Much love dear friend.
Your faithful,
Aussie Sister

moonbeam said...

I already wanted to go to Australia, as well as half of the rest of the world, but you have made it that much more enticing. Well I stayed up all night reading your most recent book (thus I know who Sandy is), and like Hypocrite, I loved it, related to, relished each insight, and frowned upon the one snarky review I read, probably from a backpacker who spent months or years inflating her ego with the very "I'm so tough look what I did" attitude prevalent in certain grimy hostels and guesthouses...I spent a year teaching in Korea and just six months ago returned from a season travelling solo in SE Asia. I feel the loneliness, and sprinkles of psychosomatic madness, the moments of blinding brilliance and awe in surreal landscapes and touching connections...twenty years may have passed by, but your experiences and feelings are universal and timeless, to a degree. I really would love to know what has happened to Claire (did she pull a Mrs. Filtzgerald? Did she remove herself to an Overboard-esque bubble of champagne and caviar?) I guess if you don't know, I never will any time soon, but at least I've stumbled upon your site in the process of investigation. This comment is too long so I'll conclude, but I could go off on why Hypocrite was so amazing. Thanks for your words, sincerely, Claudia

me said...

Hey, you forgot one other thing OZ and US have in common... we both started out, at least in part, as a convenient place for the Brits to dump their criminals, indigents, troublemakers and malcontents.

Sherry said...

I wanted to let you know I reviewed your book for my newspaper and loved it!

Here's the link:

Also, I have a question: Did Sandy marry her Mexican doctor? I'm thinking not since you visited her in Australia...

Moongrl722 said...

Just finished your new book, my Dear, and LOVED it. I have been a fan for a long time!

Tudor Rose said...

Finished reading your new book last night and loved it, which is no big surprise considering how much I loved the previous books. So imagine how delighted I was to realize you not only have a blog, but the first entry I read mentions Sandy!

Jaxie Fantastic said...

I'm re-reading "Hypocrite" for the 6th time... Love your writing and just found your blog! Woo hoo! :)

dwyerkim said...

Just finished your new book and really enjoyed it. Wasn't expecting the direction things went in (heck I'm sure you weren't either at the time!), what a story. Dying to find out what happened to "Claire"... so sad. Glad to have found you as a writer and your blog, I'll be reading more. Thanks!

Linenqueen said...

I could not put your new book down, a major thriller and you never let the cat out of the bag. Sign me up to find out what happened to Claire. Who knew she would turn out to be that fragile. I would have blamed myself just as you did. And Sandy, there is no way she would marry the doctor, who would after he dumped her. She would be a fool to sign on with him. She sounds like a really fine person. You were so lucky to bump into her. And now a reunion. I can't wait for your next book which will tell the tale of Susan-Sandy tour. I so glad you are a writer. Ann

y said...

I can see the similarities as you write about them but i have to say i don't know how much i agree overall. One main diference is that one country was founded by convicts and the other puritans and this alone makes the 2 places very different.
When I was a uni student I worked in an American summer camp in the bible belt. I have since travelled extensively to more exotic locales. But It was actually in Texas and not say Japan that I experienced the greatest culture shock. Perhaps because like you I was totally unprepared and it was my first time OS. I remember feeling a little freaked out by 8 year old kids in t shirts with soldier of god written on them and discovering the hard way that hell and damn were considered dreadful swearwords. I was also amazed that one of the excursions was to a gun range. I remember also struggling to make my accent understood even though our countries spoke the same language. I later learnt there was a big cultural divide within the states between north and south which i was unaware of. Overall i had A great time in the states and found the people to be lovely but the initial culture shock was huge.

Alcyone said...

Hello Susan, I just finished your book "Undress Me In The Temple Of Heaven". And by "just finished" I mean, like 5 minutes ago. I couldn't put it down. I'm still wiping the tears from my eyes from your reunion with Lisa.
Every book I've read about traveling through China has essentially said the same thing. The dirt, the crowds, well, the phlegm. Honestly, I don't think my stomach could take the food. I'm in my 50's now (and, like you, a member of the Tribe) and hubby and I travel on cruise ships. Sellouts? Nah, not at this age. We should have traveled like you did, but in our 20's. Instead, he built his small, solo medical practice and I had kids. Some things have passed us by, some relegated to "the next life" - literally. But our first grandbaby is due in 5 weeks and hopefully, a new round of Disney Worlds awaits.
Susan, I loved your book. Really loved it. And I love your writing style. I'll be heading to my bookstore next week to find another of your tomes.
My heart went out to Claire. My heart sang for you. Thank you.
With a reader's love,
Meredith (Alcyone),
Bloomington, Indiana