*Kate writes about acculturation. I find this post fascinating because some of her experiences are the opposite of mine. I have found that with the exception of a generation or so, Americans are less worshipful of the external marks of success than other people and more likely to tell people to take authority and shove it. I wonder if the difference is where Kate comes from, or just the fact that she came here almost twenty years after me, and whether we’ve changed that much in that time. I’d like to say the TSA is not something I’d have expected us to swallow for more than a few months, in dire emergency. Perhaps we’re being boiled very slowly.
The only other note on her feeling more Australian the longer she’s here… I felt like that until I went back to Portugal for three months, about six months in. And suddenly I felt more American than any American. This is because the human brain only sees the differences and magnifies them. Of course, now I am American in a way I was never Portuguese. You see, I actually believe in the founding principles. There are still a few of us…*
So, Sarah wants me to guest here, and she’s given me free rein to rant… er, write whatever I want. MWAHAHAHAHAAAAA! (Um, oops. Let the mask slip a bit there).
Anyway, a couple of weeks back I was ranting over at Mad Genius Club about culture and how various things affect it. Kind of sideways, since I was actually saying how there’s no such thing as the Great American Novel, but still, a lot of things go into what a culture looks like and they affect the way people look at things in subtle but important ways. Or, to use the fancy words, culture is where the world-view comes from, and that affects the paradigms a person recognizes.
I make a pretty good illustration of this. I might have been in the USA for going on ten years now, but I’m still thoroughly Australian. I may never be anything but Australian even if/when I eventually take citizenship. It’s not that I don’t like the USA and its principles, it’s more that the more I live here the more I realize how Australian I am in everything except the beer. Hell, despite not ever being much interested in sport, I find American sports incomprehensible, but I’ll cheerfully watch the sports Aussies obsess over.
And one of the regular complaints from Australia is how much the place is being “Americanized”. What I’ll call for the want of a better term mainstream American culture is superficially very similar to mainstream Australian culture. The differences don’t seem to be particularly important – to the extent that when I moved here to get married, I naively expected the USA to be like Australia only better.
Well, no. It’s not. It’s different. Some things are better, some are worse, and some are just plain baffling.
One of the first things that I noticed was how much more Americans generally trust those in authority. To this Aussie, that’s plain weird. Australia got its start as a convict settlement where most of the convicts were petty criminals or political prisoners, and their overseers were the dregs of the British Army. The New South Wales Army Corps was where the British Empire dumped the soldiers who were too much trouble anywhere else – so those convicts in a place that was alien and upside down (they had no idea seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, which nearly starved the settlement) were stuck with brutal and incompetent overseers. Their religious guidance such as it was came from the “Flogging Parson” who was notorious for trying to save their souls on Sunday and beat the life out of them the rest of the week.
No surprise, Australians generally have a deep distrust of anyone in authority, and tend to believe that not only does power corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely, anyone who seeks power is either already corrupt or highly corruptible. In short, all politicians are lying bastards and so are all bosses, union leaders and other such sorts, and the only way to keep them half-way honest is to stay on them like flies on shit. (I should probably add that Australians typically don’t regard most of the four-letter-word family as swearing. Or a lot of other language that gives Americans the vapors. As for politically correct language, it generally takes less than 24 hours for the current PC-phrase-du-jour to be used as an insult. Australian English is extremely contextual.)
Add to that a country where damn near everything can kill you – Terry Pratchett’s scene in Last Continent where Death starts by asking for a list of dangerous animals and plants in XXXX (Which is actually an Australian brand of beer) and gets buried under books, then asks for a list of non-dangerous critters and gets a single piece of paper with the line “Some of the sheep” isn’t really exaggerating. Much – and where the main driver of little things like rainfall is the temperature of the South Pacific Ocean miles away (you know, the thing that drives whether there’s going to be El Nino, La Nina or something indeterminate) and you get a country where people shake their shoes and clothes out before putting them on and assume that anything good is transient and to be enjoyed while it lasts.
It’s built a culture of work hard, do it once, right, then go relax and have a beer. Also a culture that regards failure and misfortune as inevitable because everything really is out to get you. You can do everything right and still get screwed by Australia. But it’s still the best bloody place on Earth, mate, and God help anyone who tries to say otherwise, because Aussies won’t.
You’ll hear people claim that Australians are racist. They’re not. They just sound racist because all the originally racist words end up becoming terms of affection. Or just outright descriptive. An Aussie is not being racist when talking about going to “the chink restaurant up the road”. That Aussie is probably friendly with the people running the restaurant, and has kids who play with the restaurant owners kids regularly. It’s just that “chink” is shorter than “chinese”, and it’s become a generic nickname. All Australians typically care about is whether someone works at what they do, and keeps trying even when the sky opens and the brown stuff falls.
Because one thing Australians do know is that success and failure both have a hell of a lot of luck attached.
From what I’ve seen the USA completely missed the luck factor. The founding mythos isn’t one of injustice from the Powers That Be, but one of religious people ultimately finding the promised land. On top of that, the USA got a truly astonishing collection of intellects in the founders of the nation, which led to the notion that the people in charge were there because they actually deserved to be there.
This poor Aussie very nearly ended up picking up pieces of exploded brain over that one.
American heroes tend to be shot down and discarded as soon as they show any kind of flaw, which is equally mystifying to Aussies. Aussie heroes are the ones who keep at it despite what happens, and despite – sometimes because of – their flaws. The people who get torn to pieces are the ones who make the mistake of trying to claim they’re better than anyone else. The way to be a popular success in Australia is the combination of “I worked hard and I got lucky.”
But then, Americans did get the promised land, in a way. Americans went west and found endless plains of arable land, reasonably predictable seasons, and weather that while harsher than European weather was liveable. Australians found desert. Lots of desert. And floods that covered half the continent with water before disappearing and going back to desert again. Americans found California. Australians found desert that turned into beach. Shark infested beach, at that. Americans got corn. Australians got the most toxic snake in the world.
So Americans had mostly a land that told them if they worked hard they’d succeed. Australians had one that told them they could do everything right and the land would still break them. End result, Americans expect success, where Australians keep an eye out for trouble and don’t trust a bloody thing. The American success story is certain he got there entirely because of his hard work, where the Australian success story is pretty sure the bloke beside him who worked just as hard and failed was unlucky where he got lucky – and tries never to forget that luck changes. (Yes, Australians are inveterate gamblers. So much so that the Australian Tax Office does not classify winnings from gambling as income. It’s a windfall and not taxable.)
Most of all of this was completely invisible to me, until I started living here. You don’t see the world view of your culture until you live in another culture. It’s just “normal”.
Which of course means that writing a culture that’s radically different from your own is an interesting challenge. This would be why not many authors can do it. And why being able to do it is important. Aside from anything else, someone who can get inside the mindset of a different culture can also look at their own culture from that other perspective and see the blind spots.
Not everything is perfect, and the USA has its share of flaws. There’s a difference between acknowledging the flaws and wanting to improve them, and thinking that because it’s not perfect it must be evil (a peculiarly American issue, as far as I can tell). I’m all for the former, but anyone who tries to pull the latter on me is in for some choice Kate-bitchiness.
I should add that the same applies at the every level: personal, family, locality… all the way up the scale. From my perspective the best thing Human Wave offers is the ability to acknowledge the flaws without presuming everything flawed must be evil.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I have Evil Overlording to do.