G’day mate! ‘Owyagoinmateawright? (Translation: Hello! How are you going, mate, all right?”)
For a long time, Aussies like me have been complaining about how our country and people are portrayed and perceived by people in other countries. The kinds of questions I get asked about Australia whenever I travel abroad never cease to amaze me – sometimes they make me laugh, while other times, they just make me shake my head and wonder what kind of education people are getting about us.
Let’s start with some basics: we don’t all have kangaroos hopping around in our backyards or cuddly koalas perched in our trees chewing on eucalyptus leaves. Thankfully, I have not had these questions in a very long time. Maybe if I lived in the bush or in the Outback, I might find them, but out here in the ‘burbs in metropolitan Sydney, the only place where I would see said natives is at the zoo or wildlife park.
On my first visit to the US in 1995, I was constantly asked “Do you have a lot of flies in Australia?” The first time I was asked this question, I replied “yeah, that’s why this [waving hand in front of my face as if swatting away flies] is called the Australian salute”. Now this is actually true. But when I was asked this a couple more times as I met different groups of Americans, it suddenly occurred to me I might have been missing something. When I asked why everyone was asking me this (as opposed to the typical “do kangaroos really know how to box?”) I became curious. It turned out the Discovery Channel had just aired a program about flies and apparently Australian flies were heavily featured. Mystery solved!
There is also a myth about Australia being “sooooo far away!”. OK, we are one ginormous island, so big that we are a continent. But the distance between Sydney and Vancouver is…wait for it…the same distance as it is between Vancouver and Sydney! Surprise! Now, why am I saying this? Because I have family and friends who live in cities like Vancouver, New York, Toronto, etc, all of whom I have visited more than once. And on each visit, they would say to me, “you have to come again soon!” However, when I reply with “well, I have been here a few times now. It’s your turn next to come visit us!”, I am no longer surprised when they say “but you’re so far away!”. For some reason, a 20+ hour flight is longer for those traveling to Sydney than it is for those traveling out of here. Go figure.
It is true that Australia is the home to many of the world’s deadliest insects, arachnids, reptiles and so on. But most of us don’t have snakes crawling up our drains either. We usually live and let live – if we leave them alone, they will leave us alone. If you’re in a national park and spot a few snakes or lizards, it is usually a good thing to remember that you are in their home and to give way to them. When it comes to spiders, well, they are more common than I would like. As a general (but not definitive) rule, the smaller they are, the deadlier they are, and the pretty ones (like a redback) are the ones you definitely want to stay away from.
Being in the Southern Hemisphere, our seasons are indeed the opposite of the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. But some things are not dictated by times of the year. For example, one time over 20 years ago, a friend of mine in Canada actually sent me a Christmas card in June and complained about how hard it was to find one at that time of the year. It has to be the dumbest thing ever. Considering we had gone to Catholic school together as children in Hong Kong, I nearly fell off my chair that she would associate Christmas with winter instead of the birth of Jesus Christ. (Not the sharpest tool in the shed, that one). So, to anyone who read this paragraph and thought to themselves “ooh, I didn’t know Aussies celebrate Christmas in June!” smack yourself on the back of the head Gibbs-style** and hang your head in shame.
Moving on to some Aussie cultural icons. Let’s start with the ugg boots. Yes, the woolly boots that adorn the feet of Hollywood stars. In Australia, you would most likely find them on the feet of farmers, “bogans“, or tourists. In my case, I wear them to take the garbage out or wear them as slippers at home in the winter. In other words, THEY ARE NOT A FASHION ITEM! Phew! Now, there is actually an American company called UGG Australia which makes their boots in China based on the Aussie boots. So there you go. And now that I have explained that, I must confess I do own a pair of denim UGGs that I have worn a total of two times to go to my sister’s house. One more thing, the Outback Steakhouse is NOT an Aussie steakhouse. We don’t eat “Chaize Froies” – personally, the very thought of melted cheese on top of my fries makes me want to throw up.
When it comes to Aussie slang, there is no doubt that we like to shorten words: sunnies (sunglasses), brollies (umbrellas), telly (television), postie (postman), footy (Aussie Rules football), barbie (barbeque). And speaking of barbies, everyone loves a barbie here. And we love our prawns. Yes, I said prawns. Shrimps are those tiny little prawns that we use for fish bait more often than we would eat. So where did the phrase “put a shrimp on the barbie” come from? Oh I remember it well, thanks to a 1994 tourism campaign at the height of Paul Hogan’s career (just before he became better known to Americans for his film “Crocodile Dundee“). To be honest, I loved this campaign.
If you are game to try out some Aussie humour about a foreigner’s first impression of Australia, you have to check out a fantastic book called “They’re A Weird Mob” written by Nino Culotta (real name John O’Grady). It is hilarious and oh-so-true.
I’m sure there are many more myths about Australia that abound. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a comment and I’ll try to debunk it…or not 🙂 And so I leave you with this little clip I found on YouTube. Enjoy!
** To those not familiar with Gibbs, he is the name of a character in the hit TV show NCIS who has a habit of smacking the back of the head of one of his agents, Tony DiNozzo.