I arrived excited by what new experiences, new adventures, Australia would offer me. I had been to Australia a couple of times on holiday so had seen Sydney, Perth and Melbourne but I didn’t feel that I knew the country. However, fresh from having lived in Cambodia, I felt that Australia would be new and different without being alien.
I grew up watching Australian TV programmes, Neighbours and Home and Away, and Australia didn’t look so much different to life in the UK. School kids seemed to have the same preoccupations as I did, cars were driven on the left, and people spoke English. Australian film and pop stars were regularly on UK TV, as was Australian Rules football and they played other sports that we did, sometimes even better. People did seem far more likely to have a swimming pool in the back garden and there weren’t any kangaroos in the UK, but friends had moved to Australia and seemed to find it easy enough to settle, despite all of the spiders and snakes that could kill you.
Whilst settling anywhere new is always a challenge, British people in general would not think that moving to Australia is a trip into the unknown. Most would feel at some level that they know Australia and feel familiar with it. My first few days, weeks and even months was spent feeling that I was somewhere familiar, but also somewhere that I didn’t know. And I was struggling to get to it know better. I would try things but couldn’t get past the nervous, polite, first-date conversation that goes no further than the surface.
In Cambodia, people newly arrived talk about the heat, the traffic and the food. These are quite obviously different from where most have arrived from and Cambodia is an assault on the senses as everything is different in a way immediately seen, heard and felt. Over time, the differences on the surface recede and a deeper understanding forms. With deeper understanding, I found further difference, but I also began to find similarities. Australia is the opposite; I can see similarities everywhere but struggle to decipher the difference that lies, undeniably, beneath.
I had been in Australia for four months at the time of my first Australia Day. Friends were visiting so I was in Tasmania camping with them. Australia Day, a public holiday, happened to be a Monday so the people of Coles Bay were having a good Sunday night in the pub. Speaking to a few people, it appeared that there was more excitement for the national radio stations most voted for 100 songs of the year than preparing for celebrating the country’s day in any 4th of July type way.
At work, I didn’t know whether I should wish colleagues a happy Australia Day because I wasn’t sure how people would react. I had learnt that Australia Day isn’t a day universally celebrated. Australia Day marks the day that the first fleet landed in Sydney and the Union Flag was raised; a day that for many people marks the beginning of an invasion that killed many people and stole land away from any survivors.
This tension marks one of the most difficult things to understand about Australia; the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people within it. I knew that there was historical discrimination and that racism may persist amongst a few but I was unprepared how deeply this issue affects Australian society today and remains wholly unresolved. I knew of South African apartheid and the civil rights movement in America but didn’t know that Australia didn’t even count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people as human beings until 1967. I’ve met people who were flora and fauna at birth.
I’ve already written about the linguistic differences but the differences are deeper than the every day and run through the Australian identity. In the run up to Australia Day, the lamb industry run a big advertising campaign with a block buster of an advert. Last year, my colleagues sat me down to talk me through it and it was perfectly illustrated by a British person’s understanding of Australia. I knew who Captain Cook was (a famous Brit) and I guessed the Ned Kelly character, but then there were all of these other legends of Australia, and I had no idea who they were.
From the advert, the two guys in the desert were Burke and Wills who led an expedition in 1860 to traverse Australia from Melbourne in the south to the northern top of Australia. Horribly underprepared for the unknown that lay ahead, they made slow progress as they were weighed down by litres of rum, an oak table, food for two years and other encumbrances that in total weighed 20 tonnes. I’ve since heard references to Burke and Wills pepper conversation with allusions to their slightly farcical and unfortunate demise in the outback.
They of course met their demise in some far flung place that I had never heard of, which isn’t too hard because most people could probably only name three or four Australian cities, and the cities is what people visit and know. But the essence of Australia is not found in the cities, but out there in the bush or the outback. It is in places that I’ve never heard of and may never see but Australians speak of as though it is a home they have not see in too long. Most will have their favourite campground, their favourite river spot, or their favourite hideaway on the coast whilst aliens are still dazzled by the glitz of Sydney.
Colleagues lent me books to help me see beneath the surface. I read Jasper Jones, Australia’s version of To Kill a Mockingbird, set in a hot, stuffy, dusty town that shone a light on hypocrisy and social values. I read Martin Flanagan’s The Game in the Time of War, which whilst being about the place of Australian Football in Australian life, what stayed with me was the description of a town, of a community, burned by the bush fires that can sweep through this country. I read Mullumbimby and its depiction of a woman’s struggle to find her own life in modern Australia whilst trying to reconnect to the land of her ancestors.
Australia is a country with its own history; its own story of places and change; of triumphs and failures; of heroes and villains; of songs and fables; of politics and culture; of peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. Australia may have taken much from other parts of the world, but it is its own, and I’m still not sure I know her yet.