culture shock, take two
big-ass arachnophobia? she'll be right, mate.
by jack bradley
It’s not the animals. It’s me.
About a year ago, I wrote a column called Culture Shock about my first few weeks in Australia. As an American, certain things came as a bit of a surprise to me. Huge fruit bats in my garden for instance…and equally huge bugs. I received a lot of mail over my description of “the spider dance” last year. (You know what I’m talking about… you pick up the broom while trying to whisk the monster spider down the drain or out the door, only to realize that he’s gone. Gone where? Why, up the broom handle, of course! So you start shaking the broom to dislodge him, realizing that every second that passes means that he could be closer to your hand. The dance gets more frantic, and you start to add little steps backwards, looking anxiously at your feet in case he’s dropped to the floor and made that mad dash towards you. The “spider dance” usually ends with you dropping the broom and running backwards, brushing off your arms with your hands and shuddering uncontrollably because you can just FEEL him scrabbling around inside your clothes.) As a matter of fact, that single passage of text is the reason my mother won’t come visit me here in Sydney. But I digress…
(What’s new, right?)
So…many things were, and are, surprisingly different here. Even though Australians speak “English,” I’ve learned that it’s simply not the same language as the “English” I was taught. There are three kinds of English: American, Australian, and -- as the Brits so modestly put it -- The Mother Tongue. (Yes, you can hear the capital letters when they say it.) These three languages have very little in common with each other when they are all three being spoken at the same dinner table. Especially if wine is involved.
There are lots of other things that caught me off guard at first, too…but I eventually began to adjust. I got used to the skywriting on sunny days. I stopped reading the human interest stories in the newspaper until I was sufficiently settled and could handle the fact that ice-skating dwarfs would commit suicide after having affairs with the football commissioner’s wife. I’ve learned (after two close calls and one collision with an irate bike messenger) to look right first instead of left when crossing the street. And I’m slowly learning to deal with the fact that I can’t shoulder the burden of defending the United States of America.
See…that was really getting to me after my first couple of months here. Australians -- actually, most of the world -- have a love/hate relationship with America. They love our movies, but they hate our actors. They have adopted a certain American Fast Food Chain With Large Yellow Arches as a lunchtime favorite…but they complain that American fast food is ruining their diets and making them all fat. They complain that the local economy is too dependent on the American economy…but they have every move the Dow Jones made that day posted in the newspaper and on TV. The same groups of Australians who claim that American-style capitalism is ruining their country will also claim that they can’t find a pair of Levi’s that will fit their newly fast-food enhanced derriere. I think you get the idea.
Here’s where I got caught up in the drama.
You see, I spent much of my time defending my country to Australians. I would rant about comments made in the news or on TV that carried any anti-USA tone. I wrote scathing Letters To The Editor and I emailed local newscasters, all to no avail. It was exhausting, and after a while it was easier to just shut up and let the comments pass. Then a funny thing happened…
I started listening.
Those of you who know me personally will find this shocking, I’m sure. I’ve never been a “listener.” I have always been a talker. Put me into any social situation, and I would take the lead, make the introductions, pick a topic, and start the ball rolling. I was the guy you hated to be standing next to when you were in line for a bank teller. I would do Jerry Seinfeld-esque rants in grocery store checkout lines. I interjected whenever I felt necessary, and I usually held the spotlight…whether I deserved it or not. It’s a decidedly American trait, one we are known for around the world. But I was a master at being a Conversational Domineer. In America…I honestly don’t think I stood out that much. In Australia…it was painfully obvious even to me. So I learned to shut up. I learned to listen. I learned that I could pick my battles, and that I didn’t have to comment on every single subject that pushed my buttons.
Here is another shocker…I have learned that I often end up agreeing with the other person once I’ve heard everything they have to say. They usually have a reason for what they think or why they do something. I’ve also started to cringe a bit when I encounter Americans here…and not because I don’t like “my own people.” It’s because I like the way that I’ve grown and changed. Australia has had a very good influence on my personality, a very noticeable effect. Many Americans haven’t learned to listen, and I already find myself having difficulty with conversations I have with them, especially if they are strangers. Aside from the fact that Americans tend to talk much louder than Australians (I still haven’t figured out why), I find myself wanting to tell them to slow down, think about what they are saying or doing… and to listen.
It’s a cultural thing. It’s not about being bad or good, or about the right or wrong way to behave. It’s just different, and I like the Australian way of “being.” Australians just take things a bit easier, a little less seriously, and they listen. These days so do I. There is a saying here that goes “She’ll be right, mate. Or not.” It’s the Australian tongue-in-cheek way of saying, “Look, if it’s not a life-and-death issue, then don’t act like it is. It’ll either be okay or it won’t. Deal with it.”
Here’s a good example of what I’m getting at: some American friends were visiting me recently, and our group became separated at a large indoor concert. The two Americans that were with my half of the group began retracing their steps, trying to locate the others amongst the thousands of people. When they didn’t find them right away they began to worry about all the things that could have happened to them, ways to locate the them, how the situation should best be handled, and what to do if they couldn’t be located. I listened as they became gradually more and more agitated about the situation, and then I pulled them all together and said “Look, guys. You all know the way back to where you are staying, you all have money for cabs, and there is plenty of time to find them. Let’s stay in one place, and they will probably turn up in a few minutes…if they don’t, then you’ll see them back at the hotel afterwards.” In other words, ‘She’ll be right, mate. Or not.’ Sure enough, the others turned up a few minutes later.
Afterwards, my partner pointed my behavior out to me. He’s the one who noticed that my attitude during the “crisis” was very Australian, not American. He was actually laughing about it because I’ve maintained for months that I was keen to keep my “American” qualities, and that Australia wouldn’t change me. I don’t think I have much choice in the matter, actually. I didn’t even realize that it was happening. It’s made me start paying attention to myself now…not just to others. I even went back and read some things I wrote a couple of years ago and watched a videotape of a TV interview of myself. I compared them to what I write now, how I sound now.
I compared them to how I am, now.
The differences were… well…they were “shocking.”
My partner says I’m being ‘assimilated,’ whether I want to be or not. This concerns me a bit, but so far I like the changes I’m adopting. And that’s a whole new kind of Culture Shock.
March 6, 2001
Born the son of a circus monkey, Jack had to overcome the stigma of having an address south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Struggling against all odds, he finally got his HS diploma from some guy on the corner, and proceeded to attend NC State University, where his records are now the "running joke" in the admissions office. In February of 2000, he moved to Sydney, Australia, to pursue a writing career full-time. Jack currently has a husband but no wife, no children, and a dog with great fashion sense.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
3.23.01 @ 10:02a
In America, Jack, it stood out. But we loved you for it.
If you've really changed, you can come home now. Exile's over.
3.23.01 @ 9:16p
And you can't make me. I like it here.
[continues bouncing ball against cell wall]
3.26.01 @ 10:08a
I like you article "big brother"... As usual, you have written a wonderful piece! I wanted everyone to know just how proud I am of you!
(Now, where's my payment?)
3.30.01 @ 12:50a
Very introspective of you, Grasshopper....