U.S. and Them


After almost eight years of residence in the US, American friends often ask me: do I ever get homesick? Australian visitors wonder how I retain my Aussie accent. These concerns say a lot about our cultural differences.

I’ve found that I carry my country with me and there’s a level at which I never leave it. But it’s a balancing act on a high wire above the quick sands of ethno-centrism.

The US remains foreign to me, despite exposure to Hollywood from boyhood. The suburban storytelling I knew in Brisbane of the late 1950s and through the 1960s came from a black and white television beaming The Mickey Mouse Club, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Red Skelton, The Flintstones, Jet Jackson, The Rifleman, and so on.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

But it’s the real USA I now explore. On the West Coast, when I got beyond the comforting first sight of eucalypts, I was struck by their alien immensity. They confronted me like the mountains east of Los Angeles; something is different even in the soil of this great continent. Geographic and historical circumstances bequeathed this nation power so great that the rest of the world must deal with it, at least for now.

In the last months of 1997, preceding my relocation to New York City, I was restless with interpreting the difference between my homeland and this land. The first thing was the scale of the place. Returning from Boston to Brisbane in 1995, I marvelled from the airplane windows at America’s vast human presence and its endless infrastructure unbroken westwards, from New York to Chicago. Flying out of New York City’s JFK airport, I could see in the metropolis below the structures of a population the same as for the whole of Australia.

The weekend before I departed Australia indefinitely in February 1998, I flew to Cairns from Brisbane to farewell friends. As the plane cruised the Queensland coastline, the penny dropped. Beyond Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, wilderness absorbed the signs of civilisation. Gladstone and Rockhampton looked like islands under threat from an aggressive landscape. Beaten up, abused, yet untamed, the bush dominates. Unlike the US, we Australians perch on the very edge of our continent in uneasy relation to the natural forces we often fail to acknowledge.

Symbolic of this difference are two icons: Mt Rushmore, where by force of technology even the mountains are made to bear the images of American presidents, and Australia’s Parliament House, landscaped over, as if in submission to the primeval spirit of its geography.

This mirror reversal of attitude can be extended. White Americans tend towards the patriarchal: many of their men begin as fraternity boys shaped in the image of Greek gods to be worshipped by their women who are trained to please by displays of their sex. Australians have been more matriarchal. I say ‘have been’ because like tribal people everywhere, our culture is diffusing rapidly with meanings derived from elsewhere, especially the US. But this sets up another reversal: US culture is very Greco-Roman, rationalist and destructive of tribalism, set like the stone of Mt Rushmore in its Jeffersonian idealism, and the extraordinarily powerful myth of exceptionalism.

Australian Parliament House

Australian Parliament House

Where Australians would experiment, lead from the front and strategise for coordination among peers, Americans will prefer a set play, command from the sideline, and strategise to win without the possibility of failure. Appreciating this now, it’s no wonder I’ve met so few Australians on the Atlantic Coast, where the engine of America is most powerful. Aussie friends prefer to make the pilgrimage to Europe where the ancient tribalisms – Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Slavic, and so on – survive the homogenising tendencies of US-led consumerism.

I also wonder if familiarity with the US engendered through the media is breeding contempt from Australians for the extraordinary differences in American culture. We need to find a respect for American differences if we are ever to communicate with their culture a case Peter Hartcher has been making for some time.

I’m inclined to believe that there’s a residual British partisanship at the heart of our culture dating back to the American Revolution of 1776 that affects our attitude to the Yanks. Blinding us is not only our lack of interest in Americans as they really are, but the sentimental preference for Europe and Britain. Australians I’ve met on flights from Sydney to LA, mostly aim to exploit the colossal American market, rather than actually hang around with Americans. And then of course there is smug Aussie ‘groupthink’, so easily offended by Americans with their individual self-confidence and imperial perspective. How ruthless we can be behind their backs on our soil. How obsequious we are towards them on theirs.

Now, imagine marrying an American and facing just some of these issues through marital intimacy. That’s been some high adventure for both of me and my wife. So given just this small catalogue of culture shocks, the first year of living here was stressful. Everything ordinary was different: the money, immigration requirements, banking rules, workplace culture, and accents. Even the way the post office or grocery store served its customers provoked a sense of helplessness in me. It was like re-learning basic living skills.

The US, I discovered, is a land of possibilities, and Australian humour, as it takes shears to tall poppies, flies like a lead balloon here. And our regard for race relations lacks the urgency and intensity provoked when prominent minority groups demand access to privilege and power. Living in Harlem for five years, I embarrassed my wife numerous times in conversation with our multi-ethnic friends. My education was rigorous and swift.

So, my American experience has been about encountering the very unfamiliar, day in and day out, for almost eight years and I have discovered that this is way better for me than parochial contentment. There’s so much to discover about the complexity and the wonder of human life in global cities like New York or Sydney, where unimagined diversity at every level is thrust upon us in our offices, our streets and our neighbourhoods.

So do I miss Australia? Always. Do I imagine returning? Often.

But expatriates eventually learn something that Tolkien highlights in The Lord of the Rings. Adventure changes us, so there’s no returning to what once was. It seems to me that the journey home is always forward, every new experience raising an awareness of life, deeper and wider than before, and navigating that has required faith and endurance.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.