Sharp, Ilsa. Culture Shock! Australia. 6th ed.

Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2005.

Even though the foundation myths of Australia and the United States and their early histories have almost nothing in common, there’s a commonality of experience: Huge, mostly uninhabited spaces, an “old west” based on stock raising, gold rushes, and having to come to terms with an indigenous culture with which the incomers also had nothing in common. I’ve known a number of Americans, especially in the 1960s and ’70s, who loved Australia and thought seriously about emigrating. But the place has changed tremendously in the past forty or fifty years.

The author was British-born but studied Chinese and spent most of her life in southeast Asia. Her husband is Tamil/Singaporean (they moved to Perth in 1990), which gives her a certain perspective regarding Asian migrants to Australia. It’s hard to tell how rose-colored her glasses are regarding her adopted country, though. She seems to believe that Australians in the 21st century are universally environmentally minded, shunning plastic grocery bags for paper and conscience-stricken over the proportion of native species that are now endangered due to the earlier callousness of white Australians. Also that Australians are uniformly friendly to gay rights and to Asian immigrants, are opposed to smoking, and have totally given up the quest for a tan because of the threat of skin cancer. This seems a considerable overstatement of the situation, since there are just as many Aussies with a Neanderthal social sense as there are Americans, Brits, or anyone else. The “green” and otherwise socially liberal vote may be stronger there than in the U.S., but they’re far from being in control, except for temporary and decidedly local situations.

The chapter on “The Basics,” which tries to summarize what being “Australian” means, somewhat oddly spends considerable time on poisonous snakes (which make up the majority both on land and at sea), crocodiles, leeches, ticks, and jelly fish, not to mention the dangers of leaving the suburbs with insufficient food and water. (No mention of drop bears, though.) But she also makes plain just how egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, and aggressively plebian most Aussies are, education and earning power notwithstanding. And yet, the widening wealth gap there rivals that in the U.S.

They also have (she says) a lackadaisical approach to business, whether in the local bar or in dealing with international corporations, by which they do themselves no economic favors. What can you do when the waiter confides that “the fish really isn’t that good today,” or when the shopkeeper sends you to his competitor because the other guy’s prices are lower? Are Australians really that suspicious of making money? Though it’s true that many of the financial high-flyers of the 1980s subsequently went bankrupt and were publicly discredited, the economic turmoil continues Down Under. And the tax system at all levels is extremely Byzantine.

The chapter on the “typical Australian” is especially interesting. Depending on the ethnicity of the viewer, Aussies come in several distinct (and stereotyped) models. The Continental European sees him as an ignorant, loudmouthed peasant, to the Briton he’s an insular, drunken colonial, and the Asian view is of a lazy, racist lay-about given to hyper-bureaucracy and corruption. But the Australian’s self-image is the “Battler” — the little guy eternally struggling against the Powers That Be, with a little Bush Pioneer and Crocodile Dundee thrown in. But in fact, more than 90% of Australians are urbanites, the nation’s per capita alcohol consumption is well down the list of First World countries, and Australia, though technically a welfare state, spends far less on its citizens than any of the Western European nations. But there’s still the “cultural cringe” and the fear of being seen as a too-successful “tall poppy.” (They aren’t much impressed by conspicuous consumption, either.) Aussies are happily willing to chat up strangers on the street, they’re willing to be matey with practically anyone, and personal loyalty — “mateship” — counts for a great deal. It is indeed one of the nation’s core values, and that’s no stereotype.

The section of this chapter dealing with the Aboriginal peoples is excellent. The original inhabitants have been there for at least 60,000 years and have been very badly done by. Their history since 1788 is one of almost continuous trauma. The majority of modern Australians, those whose families have been there for a couple of generations, have finally begun to see the need to make restitution and to recognize Aboriginals as people, with rights — especially land rights. The Aboriginal population is now growing steadily, presently pushing 600,000, but the White/Aboriginal reconciliation will be a long process.

Additional sections investigate how Australian society works (Aussies are fundamentally democratic in their world-view, at least in principle), how the government operates, what “personal freedom” means (Australian sexual freedom upsets a lot of East Asians and Muslims), how various sorts of Australians perceive themselves on a regional basis, how Australian men perceive and relate to women and how women perceive men and themselves (it’s a slowly changing landscape), the twin philosophies of freedom to do your own thing and benign neglect, and the national distrust of “Great Men.” Then come the practical chapters on the legal and bureaucratic realities of immigration, requirements for temporary visitors, the transportation system (public and private), communications, healthcare, buying property, the mania for gardening and DIY, eating and dining-out habits, sports (including a few strange ones), doing business, the fine arts (not nearly as philistine as claimed), shopping (hardly anything is open in the evenings or on Sunday), children (they’ll assimilate far more quickly and completely than you will), and speaking (or at least understanding) the Australian idiom.

Some of the books in this generally quite good series I was able to judge for accuracy, having been to the places under discussion and even having lived in a couple of them. But I’ve never been in the Southern Hemisphere, so I have to take the author’s word for what she says about Australia. And it feels right.


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