Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Observations of an Expat Returned

Having lived abroad for most of the last decade, we've had the unique opportunity to observe the United States from a distance, understand how it's perceived by foreigners and reflect on our own cultural values.

The points below outline some of my observations gained from our time away and subsequent return. Any one of these observations could be an essay in and of itself, so keep in mind that this list only provides the briefest snapshot of those things that stand out as noteworthy.

I'm more than a little disturbed by the fact that there are signs prominently posted to remind patrons that guns are prohibited in libraries, recreation centers and other public institutions. Besides being just plain odd, it's a blatant reminder that concealed weapons could be present pretty much anywhere else I take my family. Australians sensibly view guns as a public safety issue and not just a civil rights issue. The Port Arthur massacre was followed by swift political action to tighten gun laws. Gun deaths dropped by two-thirds and there have been no further mass shootings.

Religion and holidays
Australia is a far more secular country than the US and I'm struck by the sheer number of churches of seemingly infinite denominations here - one on every other US block it seems! On a similar note, holiday celebrations in Australia are far less commercial, pervasive and absurdly over the top. Here, I'm mildly disturbed by the amount of classroom time devoted to holiday celebrations, not to mention the commercialization of it all.

Figuring out the complicated US health insurance system was a part time job for me. Australia has a national healthcare system, generous paid maternity and paternity leave and an all around decent social welfare system. Here in the US, a choice between bankruptcy and forgoing medical care is not uncommon, whereas Australians have the luxury of not having to worry about losing their home should they receive a worrisome medical diagnosis.

I'm so grateful to have had our children in the Australian medical system where midwives generally care for low-risk pregnancies and obstetricians oversee higher risk pregnancies. The US system has most pregnant women in the care of an obstetrician which tends to lead to higher rates of intervention such as inductions and c-sections. In the Australian public medical system, there is generally no cost for maternity services. Midwives and community nurses even checked in on us at home several times during the first week! A major benefit of having male babies outside of the US is that Australians, like much of the rest of the world, view circumcision as a medical procedure to be used only in circumstances warranting intervention. They know there are no good reasons for routine infant circumcision so when an Australian friend announces that she is pregnant with a baby boy, I can be pretty certain that the parents won't elect to amputate any of his body parts.

Hello gigantic portions, overly sweet food and having to remember to tip again! Servers in Australia are paid a living wage (minimum wage is about $17 per hour) and they don't rely on tips. Tipping is only practiced in upscale restaurants and this means that servers aren't hovering over your table asking how everything is every two minutes and if they can get you anything else. Cafes in Australia are usually set up to allow patrons to fetch their own glasses and a pitcher of water. Having been a server for many years, I understand the game, but it's still somewhat off-putting to be back in a tipping culture.

Eggs are stored on the shelf in Australian supermarkets and almost none of them are white. (Interesting fact - an egg's natural coating is an effective barrier to bacteria but since eggs from filthy factory farms must be washed before sale, the risk of contamination goes up and they must then be refrigerated.)
A number of foods sold internationally, like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, are formulated with better ingredients outside the US. In Australia, the boxed delight is colored naturally whereas in the US that orange glow is achieved with artificial colors.
I can think of only two fast food/drive-through restaurants in north Canberra. Here I could probably list at least twenty in a five mile radius. Pies (not the dessert kind but savoury meat pies) are the original Aussie fast food!
I'm missing authentic Asian food - dumplings, noodles and laksa, but easy access to Mexican food makes me just as happy!

There is nothing like a well made and properly proportioned cappuccino in a cozy open-air cafe. One coffee shop here in the US kindly dug a six ounce cappuccino cup out of the back of the kitchen but other than that it's been super sized coffees all the way. Have you seen how big the small cup is at Starbucks? You can't get a decent ratio of espresso to milk to foam in a giant paper cup. We bought an espresso machine and sound like snobs when we instruct baristas on how to prepare a proper coffee.

The venomous partisanship that is US politics is worrisome and frustrating to say the least. Extremism, hatred, and an inability to compromise characterize an ill functioning political system. Not that things are much better in Australia at the moment. What I find most disturbing perhaps, is that Americans in startling numbers have been persuaded to dislike “big government” and yet readily support representatives bought and paid for by corporate interests. I've concluded that people around the world are both fascinated and flabbergasted by Americans and our government. Foreigners are baffled by the conduct of our elected officials and questions posed to me often carried an undertone of "have you guys lost your minds?" Australians are absolutely unable to comprehend, for example, how we can't seem to regulate dangerous weapons or sort out a healthcare system.

My sense has always been that in general, the Australian people have a better grasp of the significance of climate change than Americans. That said, Abbott has rolled back climate policy, dismantled efforts to establish a price on carbon, slashed Australia's investment in clean energy and gutted the renewable energy target. It's embarrassing and reckless. Meanwhile the Obama administration has proposed actual strategies for curbing carbon pollution while cutting tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry and pouring funds into renewables.
Smaller scale, but interesting - clothes dryers are not common in Australia. Sensible given the quantity of sunlight! The hills hoist is a national icon and even appears in the National Museum of Australia. Hooray for significant energy savings and reduced emissions!
Water consumption is taken seriously in Australia. Canberra's water is stored in dams and prominent signage informs residents of water levels. Usage restrictions are common in summer and the neighbors would absolutely frown on watering a lawn in the middle of the day. Not that lawns are at all common. Acres of velvety green lawns in our suburban landscapes still seem luxurious!

Metric system
It's just so sensible. I'm confident Americans could move away from an antiquated system of measurements and learn the one utilized by the rest of the world. Oddly however, Australians refer to the weight of babies in pounds and ounces for some reason. Similarly, standard printer paper is sized differently in Australia and I have to give to nod to the sensibility of A1, A2, A3, A4 and so on.

You can purchase a whole lotta house here in the US for A LOT less than the half a million dollars you'd expect to pay for something pretty average in Canberra. The Australian housing market is one of the most expensive in the world and it's pretty tough for many young families to afford the investment. Granted, salaries are generally higher in Australia but the cost of living is higher too. I'd guess the house we just bought would cost three times as much in Canberra!

We tried diligently to not acquire too much stuff in Australia because we knew there was a good chance we'd be toting it across an ocean one day. This effort was made slightly easier with the fact that stuff is somewhat harder to get in Australia than in the US with so many things being imported and therefore more expensive. Now that we're finally able to acquire the bits and pieces we'd been saving on wish lists for so many years, we are loving the range of online shopping and free shipping options available. Also on the shopping front, holy lots of big box stores everywhere! And, most annoyingly, why in the world can't tax be included in the cost of an item!? This will be a source of momentary surprise and irritation in check-out lines for years to come.

Flat out. How ya going? Rugged up. Knackered. Have a go. Bloody hell. Stuffed up. Whadya reckon? Heaps. Full on. Lost the plot. Nick off. Whinge. Have a squiz. My shout. Chuffed. Uni. Chockers. Good onya. These and many other words and phrases are stuck in my vocabulary for now and I frequently wonder if the expression that's just come out of my mouth has made any sense to my listener. I'm still more likely to say bin, biscuit and trolley than garbage can, cracker and cart. And sometimes I genuinely can't remember if a phrase is distinctly Australian or not. Do people in the US say "pear shaped" or "run off my feet?" I really can't remember. The kids however, have transitioned rather smoothly from "tomato sauce" to "ketchup" and from "easy peasy japanesey" to "easy peasy lemon squeezy." 

Having become so accustomed to the Australian accent, I've found the American accent to be, let's say, noticeable. When I first arrived in Australia, I had to remind myself to listen to people's words because I was so enamored with the accent. Now I find myself hearing the American accent rather distinctly and it's an interesting reversal. In our first months back, people frequently commented on my unusual accent but I hear that less and less now. The kid's accents are changing too. Riker has made the change from "cahn't" to "can't" and from "wohtah" to "wah-drrr" but he still pronounces Australia like a native with a muted 'r' sound at the end. On that note, I'm finding that I preferred how Australians (who don't do so well with R's) pronounced his name. There he was Rikah, which is much softer and has a more pleasing end sound.

Cultural attitudes
Australians love the underdog and have a deep respect for those who push through adversity. The term "battler" conveys endearment for the hard worker at the bottom of the totem pole. In a similar vein, Australian culture has a tendency to put down those with accomplishments that distinguish them from their peers. If you stand out as a "tall poppy" you're likely to meet with resentment or criticism. Conversely, Americans are more than happy to share their achievements with pride and this can appear boastful to Australians. My observation is that these phenomena contribute to the fact that the US has a thriving entrepreneurial spirit, while Australians are much less likely to take risks that might shine the limelight on an individual. Americans have greater levels of confidence and take more risks while Australians often downplay their own successes and prefer self-deprecating humor (peppered with large doses of sarcasm).
Australians are generally very friendly, informal and laid back. Kids in school call their teachers by their first names. I'm finding it odd how the parents and teachers and school staff here all refer to each as other as Mrs. So-and-so. Very formal!
Greeting friends in Australia involves a kiss on the cheek and I'm only just now managing to stop myself from surprising acquaintances with an overly affectionate greeting by American standards!


So there you go - my random and not at all exhaustive list of things that give me pause when considering the differences between the US and Australia.

I've very much appreciated the opportunity to view current events and cultural norms in the US from afar and share conversations with Australians about their meaning. Having been an expat for so many years, it's interesting to note that many Americans seem to have no idea just how strange we can seem to the rest of the world. Without a doubt, foreign observers are much better informed about us than we are about them. This of course, has much to do with the nature of the American news media. Now that my passport is stamped with a variety of international experiences, I see even more clearly how insular we can be here in the US.

That said, on a more personal level, Australians find Americans to be friendly and lovable even, if not exceptionally loud. I don't know of a single Australian who, having visited the US, came back with anything but kind words to say about the people and rave reviews of our remarkable landscapes.

I adore this beautiful country in so many ways and there's nothing like getting to see it from an outsider's perspective to bring into sharp focus the things that need an overhaul and to really foster an appreciation of the things that make this country and its people great.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Celebrating Dads

I know I just said that my next post would be about my observations on the differences between American and Australian culture but I'm going to go ahead and interrupt that series to share some great photos I captured today while celebrating a clan of outstanding men.



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

So how was Australia?

Today marks the one year anniversary of our departure from Australia. If I weren't so busy with house renovations I'd probably have felt sadder about this or at least marked the occasion in some way. Fortunately I've been working on a series of reflections on life post-Australia and I'll be sharing these with you over the next few days. 

Having returned to the homeland after many years spent living abroad, we are frequently asked a few common questions:

How was Australia?
Why did you leave?
What's it like to be back?
How is it different from the US?

Anyone who's had an amazing vacation experience can appreciate the difficulty in answering the offhand, "so how was it?" question. Imagine the difficulty in characterizing an entire life cultivated in a faraway land!

I don't begrudge the questions by any means, but in order to respond, I try to assess if the enquirer is just making small talk or if they are genuinely interested in the answer. Then I consider how long I have to answer and how much emotional energy I want to pour into the response.

Sometimes I offer the briefest answer of, "it was amazing, but we're generally happy to be back," but this never feels satisfactory as my heart can't help but call up a selection of the people and experiences that made our Adventures Down Under so profound.

The answers aren't always straightforward either and sometimes they even change from day to day. We love being close to family but when the temperatures were plummeting, we wondered what in the world we were thinking! And even though we're back in familiar territory, there are things that feel unfamiliar and out of sync with how we're accustomed to doing things now.

My first experience with reverse culture shock came after living in Costa Rica for six months in college. After happily immersing myself in all things "Tico,"  I found returning to the US to be totally overwhelming. Such a fast paced life, so many choices in the supermarket and everything so big and sprawling. While Australia is hardly exotic in comparison to the US, it certainly takes some adjusting to life in a different place and to a city with a much different personality than the one that was home for most of the last decade.

The funny thing is that expats spend so much time preparing for a stint abroad by reading about the culture, language, food, where to live and so on, but we neglect to spend as much time processing the details of a return home. We expect everything to be more or less the same, but of course, we've changed and the place that was home has changed too. When going abroad, you expect everything to be new and different. Being confronted by what was once familiar is unnerving and can make you feel like a stranger in your own backyard.

All of this adds up to some major changes and I've found it helpful to think of these life transitions in terms of seasons. We had a good long season for adventuring, traveling and forging our own path. While we loved Australia and our life overseas, we feel our kids deserve some constancy, not to mention family and friends they won't have to leave behind anytime soon. Now is the season to lay down roots and build strong foundations.

That said, I suppose settling down could be considered an adventure for us since we've never really done that before - not like this anyway! We've bought a house, we're starting a business and delving into projects we've been itching to do for ages (woodworking, music, photography, brewing, painting, sewing).

So you see, when asked how Australia was, my head goes off rambling in a million directions. How can I ever convey to my listener the fondness I feel for that sunburnt country? I love talking about Australia and probably always will, but there's just no capturing the essence of what feels like the blending of two lives in just a few concise sentences. So if I look at you somewhat blankly when you ask me about my life in Australia, it's because the pages between the two chapters are still being written and I'm still passing through the enormity of the transition.

Thanks for asking though.

PS. Since the answers to these seemingly innocuous questions are so complicated and have so much back story behind them, I've set to compiling a list of observations about life in Australia versus life in the US. That'll be the next post so stay tuned!

PPS. You'll be pleased to know that while proofreading this post, I remembered that I had a package of Tim Tams stashed in the pantry so I marked the occasion with a chocolate biscuit. They sell them at Target now!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

In the Studio

My seriously awesome photography class has come to an end. I was reviewing some of the images I've captured in the last few months and recalling how much I enjoyed the class on studio photography. What fun to have a proper backdrop, diffusers, reflectors and studio lighting at multiple angles to play around with!

I won't post any of the photos I took that night as I didn't get permission from my fellow classmates to use their images but I did receive several from my turn as the evening's model. Now I know with certainty that I didn't look this good when I left the house that night, but I'm going to go ahead and pretend anyway that the photographer didn't Photoshop out the dark circles and wrinkles before sending this photo to me :)

We'll just chalk this one up to talented classmates. Thanks Joelle for making me look better than I have in ages!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dare I Get My Hopes Up?

I've been hearing all sorts of comments about the arrival of spring for a few weeks now. However, having lived in this neck of the woods before, I'm well aware of the weather's fickleness and have been reluctant to get my hopes up. But now the snow is rapidly melting and grass is appearing and I can't help but get excited for warmer days ahead!

The very first day it warmed up slightly, the boys were asking to get their bikes out. They enjoyed a little spin around the neighborhood and we loved getting to spend more than just a few minutes outside!

Love that last photo as it really captures a moment!

I'm pretty sure the deer are looking forward to spring as well. They've been coming around looking for food in the neighbor's bird feeder spillover. As usual, we've enjoyed watching them whenever we get the chance.

We're looking forward to getting out for more walks in our local Metroparks.

Not that we haven't enjoyed (some parts of) winter. We've been sledding a few times and have built snowmen and have had lots of snowball fights!

Here's to sunny skies ahead!

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Rockefeller Greenhouse

Last weekend my photography class took another field trip, this time to the city of Cleveland's Rockefeller Greenhouse. I really enjoyed this trip as I LOVE macro photography and was finally able to get some practice with my macro lens. And with all the natural light, the orchids and other blooms really came to life. I'm really happy with the results!



Saturday, February 21, 2015

Western Reserve Historical Society

My photography class recently took a field trip to the Western Reserve Historical Society.  Founded in 1867, the WRHS is the oldest cultural institution in Cleveland and is home to a variety of artifacts and archives chronicling the history of Cleveland, Akron and Northeast Ohio more broadly.

The Society was kind enough to open several exhibits for us outside of normal operating hours so that our crew of budding photographers could set up tripods and practice our skills.

One of the highlights for me was getting to photograph the colorful, hand-carved wooden horses of the Euclid Beach Park Grand Carousel, once located on Cleveland's lakefront. We were given access to the pavilion that houses the carousel so we could photograph it before it started operating for the day.

The rest of the morning was spent exploring the Crawford Auto Aviation Collection. I was really drawn to the classic details on the cars so I focused my energy on capturing images of antique lights and hood ornaments. I couldn't tell you the make or model of any of these cars so apologies in advance to any aficionados who might be wondering!

Indoor lighting conditions can be somewhat challenging so it was a good experience to have the camera in manual mode while trying to accommodate glare and use the light to my advantage. I feel like I'm making progress even though I don't get quite as much as time to practice as I'd like!