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.

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