Is Australia really that different from America? At a first glance, it appears that these two English speaking, developed countries could be easily placed in the same category. Some have asked… out of all the countries to study abroad, why Australia? What type of meaningful cultural immersion could you experience in a country where the majority of the people are white? In a country that follows almost all of the United State’s world politics? In a country that speaks English?
I would be the first to tell you, having travelled to countries in Europe, Central America, and South America… that yes Australia is very similar to the United States. There are broad cultural similarities that make “cultural immersion” not a difficult process.
These similarities could make it easy for myself to become accustomed to our spacious two-bedroom apartment with a view that overlooks the city, the reliable tram system that makes commuting a breeze, and the endless options for food and entertainment. However, in the month that I have been here, they have also forced me to look deeper into subtle, meaningful contrasts between the Australian and American ways of life. I am aware of the dangers of generalizing about entire countries or groups of people, but there are key differences that I have observed when interacting with students, professors, and community members. I would also specify my comments about the city of Melbourne; as how could I possibly already know about the people of an entire continent!?
Every Melburnian has told me that the city is famous for having four seasons in one day. The day may start out with a thunderstorm, transition to a sunny, warm day, followed by high winds, and perhaps a chilly evening. On a recent trip to Ocean Grove to learn to surf, we woke up with the sound of rain beating against the window. “But what do you mean we are still going to the beach?” After an hour-long bus ride we arrived at the ocean, the rain had stopped, and the sun was out. Melburnians joke about this, because overall their weather is quite spectacular.
Instead of a city with four seasons in one day, I like to think of Melbourne as a vibrant city where you could easily experience at least 4 (most likely many more!) unique cultures or perspectives in one day.
Every day that I am here seems to go by so quickly, and when I reflect on the day, I am surprised by how many wildly different experiences I have had. Not only are they in direct contrast with many of my experiences in the US, but the ability to experience a diverse range of views in one day is worth noting. It has already connected to me to this city in a way that I have never felt before. For example, during the course of one single day…
… Before class I head over to the outdoor market and stop to listen to an incredible Brazilian Samba band. I listen for a few minutes as I eat my cheese pastry, and soon the crowd grows with children dancing in the middle. A homeless man, with very little clothing, begins to dance as well. Instead of calling the police, everyone laughs with (not at) him. One woman offers the man some spare change. He promptly gives it away to the band.
… Later in the day, I walk into my first lecture for “Gender, Ethics, and the Family”, and notice a few boys already sitting down. I thought that was interesting as I have never been in a gender class at Georgetown with more than one male student. I sit down, and the room fills, and as I look around I am shocked as more and more male students enter the class.
… Next on the agenda is my “God and the Natural Sciences” theology lecture. There are two professors for this course. The first one introduces himself as Reverend Stephen Ames, an Orthodox Christian. As a student with no extensive religious education, I think “…What kind of class have I signed up for?”. The next professor then introduces himself as Dr. Kristian Camilleri, an atheist. This course has the potential to be one of the most provocative classes I have ever taken.
… After I finish my classes, I make my way to the university sports center to attend a pilates class. I have taken many Pilates and yoga classes at home, but never one like this. We only did a few exercises in the hour-long class with very little movement. The teacher tells us that “less is more”, and if you are not doing the movement correctly there is no point in doing it all. She checks each student’s alignment in every single position. I think about the control of my breath, the alignment of my spine, and the connection between my ribs and hips. At the end of the class, I am mentally exhausted although I did not even break a sweat.
These are the observable facts of just a few of my experiences thus far in Melbourne. I would invite you to draw your own conclusions about America and Australia. Is Australia really that different from America?
To me, while we share a common language and many of our world political stances; Melbourne feels unique in its acceptance of differences, desire for diversity, genuine interest and care for others, and perhaps most freeing of all… it’s “no worries”, Aussie mindset. While the city is constantly moving, there is no sense of stress or anxiety. While the University of Melbourne is said to be one of the most challenging schools in Australia, students and professors seem relaxed and eager to learn for the sake of learning not for a grade or award.
Differences go beyond the colorful plastic money, the prolific use of curse words, the love of vegemite, and the consumption of kangaroo burgers. The contrast is in the people. Each day is a new adventure, and I cannot wait to wake up every morning in this city to explore, learn, and grow.