Tag Archives: culture shock

Things Australia Does Best?

31 Oct

There’s a story in The Age today about the things Australia does best. It’s written by an Australian who calls himself the Backpacker.

I always find it interesting to see what things Australians tend to give themselves credit for because they are almost never the things I, as a foreigner, would choose to put on the list. It’s insightful to see how Australians view themselves versus how outsiders like me view them. It should come as no surprise, then, that I agree with very few of the items on this list!

Pedestrian safety

You can tell a lot about country by how seriously its drivers take pedestrian crossings. In Italy, for example, they couldn’t give a flying, um, fusilli about them. In Mexico I’m not even sure why they exist. In Australia, however, (most) people politely stop if they see someone even considering crossing a road. It must can take a bit of getting used to for visitors.

It was just a few weeks ago that I saw a pedestrian run down on Punt Road and sent flying through the intersection. He was in pretty bad shape and I don’t know if he made it. Additionally, Australians LOVE to jaywalk, even on busy streets, and they will just stand on the center line as traffic whizzes past them, waiting for an opening in which they can dart in front of an oncoming car. Personally, I think this is a dangerous habit, so if I see someone standing in the road like that, I will usually stop and wave them across, even though it annoys me to do so. But I almost NEVER see any other driver extend that courtesy to a jaywalking pedestrian. While I’ll give Australia props for having sidewalks and marked crosswalks, unlike America, I’ve never gotten the sense that Australians are particularly concerned with the safety of pedestrians. So….no.

VERDICT: Australia is not the best at pedestrian safety.

Customer service

Laugh all you want, but when you sit down at a restaurant in Australia, a waiter turns up. And explains things. When you walk into a store the person who works there will smile at you, maybe even say hello. You might take that sort of thing for granted, but it doesn’t happen all over the world.

*Snort!* Are you kidding me? Ever tried getting your drink refilled at a restaurant and your server is nowhere in sight? Yeah, that happens all the time. And no, store clerks usually won’t even acknowledge that you’ve entered the store. Getting a “hello” out of them is uncommon. It’s better here than pretty much anywhere in Europe, but only marginally.

VERDICT: Australia fails at customer service.

Sausage rolls

There are variations of the humble sauso around the world, from the weird things they sell at Gregg’s in the UK to the multiple versions of sausage in pastry around the globe. But Australian bakeries do them best. Heck, I’d even take a dodgy service station job right now.

I personally think these are really gross no matter where you are in the world. If being the best at sausage rolls is your thing… okay, whatever. To each their own.

VERDICT: Australia can have this one because proving otherwise would require me putting a disgusting sausage roll in my mouth.

Avoidance of bureaucracy

Ever tried getting a work permit in France? Or buying a train ticket in India? Or posting a letter in Italy? Or getting a visa for Russia? I don’t know, maybe in Australia I just know how the system works. But it seems like everything is that bit easier to achieve in the homeland.

For someone in the process of getting a spousal visa, it would be easy for me to vehemently object to this. And I would if I didn’t have any other basis for comparison. But I happen to know that it is even harder to migrate to the US (legally) and there are loads of countries where it is hard to get even a visitor’s visa. But I still don’t understand this Myki system for public transit and I know I’m not the only one. And the fact that you need a tax ID number just to sell stuff secondhand on Ebay is crap.

VERDICT: Australia is middle of the road on this one. Not the best, not the worst.

Friendly rivalries

There’s no one we really hate, collectively, as a nation. There’s not enough history – no bad blood. We profess to dislike the English, yet still want to be part of the monarchy (and visit the country in droves). We pretend to hate the Kiwis whenever there’s sport on, but tell foreign friends what a great country New Zealand is after the game. You go some places around the world and they seem to truly hate their neighbouring town, and their neighbouring province, and their neighbouring state. It must be tiring keeping up with it all. Fortunately, there’s none of that in Australia.

This is true. The Australians claim to dislike a lot of people, but when it comes to walking the walk, they don’t follow through. They’re pretty friendly on the whole.

VERDICT: Yes, Australians are some of the friendliest people out there.

Varied cuisine

We don’t really have a cuisine we can call our own, save for one of the entries above, but one of the great things about dining in Australia is that you can eat just about whatever the hell you want. Your day can consist of three great meals from three different continents and then something else for dessert. Try doing that in Paris.

Australians are delusional if they think they are tops for a varied menu. Just ask any expat who can’t find anything that even remotely tastes like home. Yes, Australians do have a wide variety, but that doesn’t mean it’s especially high quality. I’ve yet to have a good pizza here.

VERDICT: Sorry, Australia, but you’ve got a long way to go in this department. Even Canada has you beat.

Avoidance of chaos

I love India, I really do, but it’s mental. There might be four lanes marked on the highway, but about seven lanes of traffic driving on it. There are temples stuck in the middle of roads; cows wandering through markets; litter that just gets chucked out of windows. Australia, admittedly, is boring in comparison. But when you actually want to get something done, boring’s not such a bad thing.

Any country looks good when you compare it to India, so this is sort of cheating. Instead of cramming two lanes of traffic into one, Australians do the opposite: they take up two lanes when they really only need one. Navigating through traffic at any time of day, but especially peak hour, can only be described as chaotic. But let’s be serious here: comparing Australia to a third world country in any regard and then declaring Australia the winner is a bit disingenuous. If you compare Australia to countries with a similar culture and standard of living, you’ll find it doesn’t come out on top.

VERDICT: Again, not the best, not the worst.

Sporting events

What Australia doesn’t do particularly well is chanting and/or singing, because about all we’ve got is “Aussie Aussie Aussie”, and it’s a national embarrassment. What we do do well, however, is put on sporting events that are friendly, safe and well run. At an Argentinean football match you’re locked in for half an hour after the final whistle to allow the away fans a chance to get away without being lynched. In Australia we sit next to each other.

I haven’t been to any sporting events, so I can’t really pass too harsh a judgment on this. I’ll take the guy at his word, considering people in America are rioting over the World Series. That said, I always find hockey games more interesting when there is a good fight.

VERDICT: It’s probably true.


As mentioned a few weeks ago, our coffee is good. Great, even. There’s better around the world, but if all you’re after is a decent flat white you’ve got a very good chance of finding one anywhere you go.

I’m not a coffee drinker, but I’ve heard it’s decent here. Though as the author says, there is better in other countries.

VERDICT: Obviously not, and the author agrees.


The chest-beating Australians sometimes do over “mateship” makes me cringe – there’s no way we can claim to be owners of the concept of making friends. What I’m talking about, however, is the mutual support Australians seem to give each other, particularly when travelling. Doesn’t matter where you are in the world, from the biggest city to the most remote outpost, if you bump into another Australian you can usually guarantee that you’ve just made a friend.

Any Australians care to weigh in on this? I’m a bit skeptical, since people tend to gravitate towards others like them, and that’s true for everyone, not just Australians. That’s why there are expat groups!

VERDICT: I’m skeptical.

The weather

It’s a boring cliché, and I hate talking about the weather, but how is it outside right now? Thought so.

Well, let’s see… it was supposed to be sunny, but instead it is overcast. And it rained pretty much non-stop for four months over winter. Melbourne is especially bad with it’s pop-up thundershowers.

VERDICT: Not as bad as Seattle, but I would never call it fantastic.

Here’s what I’d put on a list of things Australia does very well, in no particular order:

  • Health care– a great blend of public and private that is affordable, sustainable, of good quality, and accessible to all.
  • Natural beauty and wide open spaces– you’d be hard pressed to find a country with more breathtaking views and amazing sights than Australia and unlike in Europe or Asia, it’s hard to feel claustrophobic here.
  • Unique wildlife– every place has their own signature animals, but I think Australia has some of the coolest ones, many of which exist nowhere else on the planet.
  • Drinkable tap water– you don’t need to boil it before drinking, it tastes all right, and there are no white flakes or bits of dirt floating in it.
  • Healthy living– Australia does a pretty good job at building walkable, bikeable cities and providing sporting facilities; plus, it’s easy to get fresh, healthy food here.

What do you think Australia does best? Do you agree with the Backpacker’s list?

It’s the Small Stuff

23 Oct

Isn’t there a book called “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… And It’s All Small Stuff”? I’ve never read it, but I’m betting the author never lived abroad.

Why? Because when you live abroad, it’s the small stuff that wears you down the most.

It’s having to remember to say “lolly” instead of “candy”. It’s having to think twice about which lane you’re turning into because you’re driving on the wrong side of the road. It’s having to strain to understand what people around you are saying because their accents are so thick they don’t even sound like they are speaking English.

I was talking with another expat recently, Stacey from South Africa, and we’ve both found that there seems to be this perception that if you, as an immigrant, speak the language of your host country, then integrating shouldn’t be a problem for you, that feeling at home should come easily.

Yeah… right… That couldn’t be further from the truth.

While I can imagine how much more difficult it is to move to a country where you don’t speak the language and are from a radically different background. the truth is that even expats who speak the language and share a similar culture to their host country also face plenty of challenges. In some ways, I think it might even be harder.

Take for example, the refugee or asylum seeker from a third world country. Everyone knows he has come from a disadvantaged background and that he’s probably led a pretty crappy life without many opportunities. It’s taken for granted that he will have a hard time as a new immigrant and as such, people will cut him some slack and expect less of him. Furthermore, he’ll be given loads of help by various charitable and governmental organisations to help him get settled. Of course it will still be hard for him, but everyone else understands that and treats him accordingly.

For the English-speaking expat to Australia, the assumption is that Australia can’t be too different from where we came from, so there should be no problems whatsoever. Sure, we don’t face the same challenges that the refugee does, but that doesn’t make us any less prone to feelings of isolation and depression. That’s something I don’t think people who haven’t been there can understand. Even my own husband doesn’t get it.

I’ve written before about my difficulty in making new friends and general feelings of loneliness, and recently another blogger did as well. Stacey told me that she spent the entire first year in Melbourne living on South African time, trying to keep up with her old life there, and almost never leaving the house. Like many of us, she wasn’t immediately eligible to work or study and found it hard to make new friends. Six years later, Stacey says she still feels like an outsider, as most of her friends are native Australians who have no concept of what it is like to move abroad.

So while the challenges an English speaking expat to Australia may face aren’t as glaringly obvious as the challenges other newcomers may face, they are still there.

They’re all little things, small stuff. But after awhile, it wears you down psychologically. Everything that was easy and automatic before now becomes something you have to think about.

Ordering a side of fries becomes a conscious effort as you remind yourself to order “chips” instead and then find yourself hoping they will actually bring you “fries” and not “crisps”.

It takes you forever to cross the street because you have to stand there and figure out which direction you should be looking for traffic or you creep through every intersection because you can’t remember how hook turns work.

You’re constantly trying to convert the weather report into Fahrenheit so you know if you should bring a sweater or not. Oh, sorry… I mean a “windcheater”.

And you make your husband call to order a pizza because you get embarrassed that the pizza people can’t understand a thing you say on the phone and you can’t understand them, either.

Or, if you are from South Africa, like Stacey, you might suffer extreme guilt from causing your friend to miss a turn by telling her to turn right at the “robot”, instead of at the “traffic light”, and wasting valuable time explaining what you meant by that strange turn of phrase.

They are things that, as a short term visitor, would be only mild annoyances and inconveniences, with perhaps one or two major faux pas thrown in for good measure. But when you’re staying for the longer term, those constant frustrations start to wear you down and make you feel depressed because all of it is a reminder that this isn’t home and might never feel like home.

Because while America might have the same green coloured street signs, they’re not surrounded by eucalypt trees. Nothing looks the same, feels the same, smells the same. The only part of home you have with you is what fit into your suitcase; maybe a favourite outfit or some small heirloom, if you’re sentimental.

But your family and friends don’t fit into a suitcase. Neither does your comfy bed. Or that oak tree that provides such nice shade in the summer. Your hometown definitely won’t fit, along with all of your memories from your “old life” that you had there. And if you try to pack snow to save for Christmas, it will either melt or be confiscated by customs.

No, you pack your suitcase with your “essentials”- some clothes, some applicator tampons, a laptop- and off you go. You take the small stuff, things with minimal power to make you happy, and you leave behind all the big, important stuff that you love. All in the name of adventure, of a better future.

I think a big reason why expats tend to form their own communities and cluster together the way that they do is because it’s so much easier to cope with the challenges of living abroad when you know there are other people who feel the same way you do, who talk the same way you do, who are going through the same things, and who understand what you love “back home” and why it was worth leaving behind. Another expat will always understand what it’s like to miss the things you left behind and also why you don’t “just go back home if you don’t like it here”.

After several years (like 10 or 20), I’m told you don’t sweat the small stuff anymore and you only sweat because the summers are so stinking hot. Eventually all those things that frustrated you in the beginning because they were different just become normal and you make your peace with the small stuff. Here’s hoping!