After living for the past decade in Portland, Oregon, I’ve moved with my husband J. to Sydney, Australia just about four months ago. I’ve lived abroad before — with my family in Beijing, China where I went through fifth & sixth grades at an international school, and later I spent about a year as a college student in Paris, France — but never before as a couple and not as a working adult. Now I’m an “expat”. I came here to take a dream job, and fortunately the professional side of life is not disappointing. My husband, who just celebrated his double-nickel birthday, has never lived anywhere but Portland, Oregon, though, and he’s going through significant culture shock.
Part of that shocking culture, from my perspective, is simply that of a big city: Australia is intensely urban, and Sydney holds about 4.2 million people within a 15km radius. Portland, by contrast, is a small city — more of a large town really, with few tall buildings and mostly residential neighborhoods even within its urban growth boundary. Sydney is dense and dusty, and in our rush to be settled we picked an apartment on a cross-town thoroughfare that’s never quiet, always whirling. The lace balcony overlooking the street casts beautiful shadows on our tall, moulded ceilings, but the light constantly shifts as cars zoom past below and refract the sunlight.
Another aspect of culture that’s come into focus for me is encapsulated in the most common of greeting idioms here in Australia: “How you going?” In America, the equivalent is: “How you doing?” (In all informal settings, people drop the “are”. )
In this rather subtle linguistic difference lies a world of meaning. The American asks: “How you doing?” and thereby expresses entrenched values regarding what you are achieving, what you are making, what you are doing. The Australian asks: “How you going?” and thereby looks to understand your state in terms of how you are flowing, how life is treating is you, how you’re getting along in the way of things. One is subject — one is object.
The typical American is baked hard in Puritanical clay, in the capitalistic expectation of production. We’re ever-validated in our making and striving and attempting. The native Australian is baked hard in sandy soils, with a fatalistic expectation of destiny received. Both cultures share a love of gambling, but the American proto gambling is the game of poker – the player winning by wits and hard face and cold math, while the Australian proto gambling is the horse race – the bettor feeling it by odds and gut and warm sense of a name.
I’m presently reading “Cloudstreet” by seminal Australian novelist Tim Winton, whose entire oeuvre J. is plowing his way through. Winton is deeply cavalier with his characters, sending the “shifty shadow” over their lives, shunting them from health to sickness and hope to hopelessness in the blink of a paragraph. I can barely breath in the speed at which fortunes move under the shuck and jive of backcountry pathois.
Neither approach towards life is fundamentally right; I hold no judgment either way. The American psyche is bound up in this striving, with massive parts of our people having lost their way in the world as the means of production shifts ever further from labor to intellect. The Australian psyche’s weaknesses under this laissez-faire mindset are less clear to me, but perhaps people are feeling adrift, eroding under the endless beating of waves on its dry, ancient shores.
I’ll just stay here awhile, and watch the varied scenes unfold.