Last night, I had four guests come to my house for dinner. They were: my friend Andy, who moved to the US from the Blue Mountains 5 years ago and whom I’ve rarely seen since; his girlfriend, who is American and was on her first trip to Australia; my brother, Thomas, who lived in the US when our family moved there in 1997; and his girlfriend, Kaely, who was born in the US to an American father and an Australian mother, and lived there til she was 7.
It was strange, being in an environment with people who all have a fairly sound grasp of both American and Australian culture, and generally had genuinely divided loyalty. We spent a good part of the evening discussing the differences: we talked about politics, about healthcare, about street names and public transportation.
But the thing that we seemed to dwell on the most; indeed, the thing that seemed the most distinctive difference was in Australia’s vast culture of underachievement.
It was odd, because I had been discussing the very thing with my friend, H., earlier in the day. We both feel more at home overseas. It seems a gross generalization, but people in Australia don’t seem to DO much. Most of the really capable, intelligent, amazing people I know seem happy to settle close to where they grew up- maybe after a year overseas- and settle into a fairly familiar routine.
It’s also a culture that seems to passively- yet aggressively- encourage us all to hide our lights under the bushel. There is a very strong reaction against any kind of self promotion- even to the extent that notions of grand ambitions are quickly quashed.
Change comes slowly here. The manner in which we’ve embraced the internet is case and point: I have explained what an RSS feed is to more computer-literate people than I’d care to count lately. Most seem to experience the internet through Facebook, very simple Google searches and News.com.au/Smh.com.au. Our hesitancy with the new illustrated the way we are a culture of cowards- scared to do anything big, to make any change, to challenge any norm. We can be innovative and cheeky, but never strong or bold. Look at our selection of leaders- we usually pick capable administrator-types as Prime Minister, rather than inspirational leaders.
It’s frustrating to watch, too. Frustrating to see these amazing, capable, interesting people make really boring decisions, to opt again and again for the easy and the obvious rather than challenging themselves. We have a national aversion to discomfort of any kind.
We were all frustrated, last night. Frustrated by how little happens here, by how little there is to do. By the way people don’t really engage with much. There are some great advantages to being an Australia- cheap university education, wonderful health care, fantastic weather- but it is difficult to live in a culture that puts a lid on excitement and enthusiasm. It’s as if being laid back is a moral imperative. And it’s really, really annoying.
Ok, so that was a rant, and a rather ill-conceived one at that… I’ll try to re-think it, and put together a less generalist and slightly racist summation of the conversations I’ve had on the subject later.