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.
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.
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