The other day someone asked me if Australians are patriotic. In and of itself that is a loaded question and I made some sort of strange ‘yyyeeeaaaahnooooo’ noise which swiftly ended when the second part of the question was posed, ‘to England or to Australia?’ I was quick to assure the lovely man that we display little patriotism to England, despite the Union Jack on our flag, despite the fact we voted against becoming a republic and despite the fact half the bloody country will spend a year in London at some point, and that in fact there exists an age old rivalry between us and the United Kingdom. I didn’t delve any further, because it was not the time or place to embark on a lengthy monologue about it all, but I have been mulling over the question for a while. There is but one take home message in this well-intentioned but completely bizarre question and that is a take home message I encounter time and time again in Europe, and that is – no one really gets Australia.
That’s fine. We are very young, very far away and are largely known for two things 1) our unconventional start as a Western nation 2) our unconventional flaura and fauna. In between grappling with the idea of England sending boatloads of (petty) thieves to a vast, unknown land at the bottom of the globe (and establishing, in an extremely short amount of time, a thriving nation) and an enormous marsupial that bounces and keeps its baby in a pocket, there is little space to attempt to come to grips with the Australian culture. To be fair, Australians themselves have difficulties defining what this culture is – we simply inhabit it, identify with some or most of its complex, woven facets and fail miserably when trying to present ourselves to the world.
I blame several things. Paul Hogan – you have no idea how many people say ‘that’s not a knife’ to me, sometimes in the most obscure of ways simply because they are so desperate to reference it – Australian Tourism for its bizarre penchant for embarrassing campaigns in which people wear a lot of shorts and hiking boots and hats, and us. We tend to shoot ourselves in the foot because a) we aren’t fully comfortable with who we are and therefore what image to present to the rest of the world b) we love telling stories, regardless of the amount of truth they contain. So what happens is we end up fulfilling the world’s expectation of us, by sitting around in shorts and thongs, telling outrageous stories about snakes and spiders with a thick, exaggerated accent for effect because, well, it’s just easier than being serious. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the rest of the world walks away from the experience with all assumptions truly confirmed – we are friendly, funny, talkative and routinely wrestle venomous snakes.
What we fail to explain comprehensively are the finer details of a truly wonderful, rich, complex culture that has formed in the most unique social, environmental and historical circumstances. Of an ever evolving identity that, despite its constant evolution, despite its youth, despite the constant debates that surround it, really does have a strong foundation, built on commonalities, shared histories and shared values. We have an indigenous history and we have a white history. We have a strong immigration history. And these disparate, varied, unusual collective histories have combined to produce a unique shared culture. We have a shared way of speaking, a shared way of interacting with each other, a shared sense of humour and lack of pretension. A shared openness, a shared stubbornness. A shared sense of adventure. A shared social code. A shared love and awareness of, reliance on and respect for the outdoors. We are commonly afforded and commonly expect a shared freedom to be heard, to express. We have a shared understanding of what it does and can mean to live in Australia and to be an Australian.
But we cannot expect the rest of the world to understand that, if we don’t tell them.
I love a good snake/spider story and I derive a sick amount of pleasure from telling wide-eyed Europeans about the presence of sharks in our waters (having never actually seen a shark, or experienced a shark alarm or anything remotely shark-related) and what they say the best way to evade a crocodile is (despite never actually having seen a crocodile outside of a zoo). As a beach lover who wears thongs and routinely says ‘no worries’, I play into many a stereotype and for the most part, that’s fine. Because stereotype or no stereotype I am a beach lover who wears thongs and says no worries and enjoys a venomous snake story.
But I also love, and make a concerted effort to do so, explaining what we are also about, beyond the crocs (animals, not shoes) and kangaroos. I want the rest of the world – or at least the people I meet – to understand my culture like I do. Or at least, at the very least, to know that we do have our own, collective culture, despite our youth, despite how un-serious and casual we claim to be about it, and it’s an interesting, complex one that – despite how unfashionable it is to say this – we are quite and quietly proud of.