I am six weeks into this study abroad and I keep forgetting I am in another country. Studying abroad in Australia is a far different experience than studying abroad somewhere like Morocco, Rome, or Japan. In Australia, the Westernized culture is highly similar to that in the USA. I haven’t had to test my luck receiving directions in another language, or navigating wildly unique social norms. People here mostly keep to themselves like the US, all types of attire are appropriate like they are at home, and there are McDonald’s on every other corner. In fact it is so similar that if I don’t play the game “Can you spot the difference in these two pictures”, I could miss out on the quirks of this slightly altered world down under.
My first experience with Australia’s cultural quirks and perks was a painful one. I like to call it The Green Demon. (Ok technically that’s what other people named it awhile ago.) It goes by the more proper names of E102, E110, and E120. I’m talking about Tim Tams, people. Australia, and only Australia, is home to the decadent, fudgy, thick brown cookie the Tim Tam. In fact they are so Australian that they’re banned in most other countries in the world, primarily in avoidance of one-of-a-kind food additives. E102, E110 and E120 supposedly cause a whole list of health issues. Let me say I have never tasted a commercial cookie so good, and my gut has never felt so uneasy. As threatening as they may be, Tim Tams aren’t the only interesting thing about Australia. The kangaroos are a giant plus. I thought that I would only get to see their long strong tails from afar, but most animal reserves and zoos have open areas with kangaroos roaming free and plenty a tourist walking beside them. The flying foxes are an awesome addition to the sunset sky. With their 1.5 meter long wingspan, those critters can scare the Tim Tams out of you if you aren’t paying attention. But… personally the koalas are my absolute favorite. They smell like eucalyptus, these fluffy perfumed teddy bears. And they never stop eating and sleeping. Truly wonderful role models in my opinion.
Besides the food and the wildlife, I noticed something odd. Every single website address ends in .com.au. In the US, website addresses simply end in .com. I remembered from German class that websites end in .com.de. It made me realize that the USA has a bit of a monopoly on internet rights, and it made me further think about all the American influences ingrained in this country. American music at every club. American politics on TVs. American franchises along the streets. Aussies still drive on the other side of the road, though. And walk on the other side of the sidewalk. And the toilets flush in a clockwise vortex. (But who really knew that they flush counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere anyway?)
The people are also more reserved. I’ve heard that interactions with the Aussies are like interactions with the British. It takes awhile to open up an actual conversation. Aussies aren’t the open, opinionated, quick-spoken Americans I have known all my life. Their more reserved approach to social interaction can come off as rude, although it’s only a misinterpretation of culture. For this reason, we were told by our program director to not be too surprised if we don’t make a million Aussie friends. We were also reminded that since college is only three years in Australia, most Aussies already have their friend groups and are just looking to graduate. More than that, most Australians commute to campus. “The college experience” here isn’t “the college experience” back in the USA. People are mostly here to study and get done. College in Australia is less about finding yourself and changing your worldview, and more about leaving with a degree that will give you a job. Majors are more closely directed to future career paths. For example, students can get a head-start on medical school by enrolling in the “Medical Studies” degree. The “Paramedics” degree is also a popular choice among students which allows graduates to secure a job as an EMT. At home, students are likely to change majors at least once if not twice. In Australia, students begin to discern what path they want to take as early as fifth grade.
This different way of dealing with the college problem has made me think about the fundamental beliefs that drive culture in the United States. At home, abstract ideas like self-discovery are at the heart of our education system. We place ample emphasis on the individual and the growth of that individual. At the heart of American education is the desire to push students to grow, develop, and think as individuals. Aussies seem to be less concerned with the abstract and intangible musings of the American spirit and more concerned with the practicalities of life (which includes well-practiced practical relaxation). It’s not to say one way or the other is better, only to acknowledge and wonder about the ways in which people live all over the globe, and to acknowledge I now only know two of those ways-of-life. There must be thousands.
Before I end my tales of this week’s discoveries, I wanted to acknowledge the tragic events that happened in New Zealand just a few days ago. Only a short plane ride away from the beautiful country of New Zealand, Australia also shared in mourning those who are greatly suffering from the Christchurch mosque attack. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those who are affected around the world. It wasn’t easy receiving an email from our program director saying that “As far as we know, all students and staff in the IFSA program are safe.” This week’s tragedy made me solemnly, reluctantly, painfully understand that hatred exists even in the serene, magical land of New Zealand. Even still I stand firm in the belief with many others around the world that one day love will win.