Friday, June 21, 2013

Not in Kansas Anymore – August 2012


“G’day!  Welcome to Brisbane.”

So says the sign over the gangway as I disembark from my overnight flight and take my first steps on Australian soil.  Aussies clearly aren’t shy about conforming to their own stereotypes.

Having been led to expect some of the most rigorous screening in the world, I’m surprised to be whisked through customs without a single search, X-ray, or body scan.  I’m also somewhat dismayed to find that having an electronic visa means I’m admitted without getting a piece of paper or even a stamp in my passport.  Sooo… I have a visa, I just don’t… have it.  This better not cause me problems later on.

I have only one acquaintance here, a buddy from my church in Hong Kong.  She’s generously invited me to come and stay while I find my feet, and I’m happy to have somewhere to go.  She meets me at Arrivals and drives me back to her place, where I get settled into her spare bedroom.


This is my first time ever in Australia, home to marsupials, Finding Nemo, and Peter Weir.  I’m a bit better informed about it than most foreigners.  I know the name of the prime minister (Julia Gillard), the capital (Canberra), and how to pronounce “Brisbane” (rhymes with “fizbin”).  With a bit of prompting I can even name all six states, two territories, and their capital cities.

All the same, I arrived here not knowing quite what to expect from the place.  Some of my earliest impressions of the continent came from A Town Like Alice: big, hot, dry, full of redneck cowboys and poisonous animals.  Over the years they continued to be informed by the media that trickled into North American society: the Chamberlain case gave us dingoes; Gallipoli gave us ANZAC; and Steve Irwin gave us crocodiles.  Then the Sydney Olympics happened, with its stylised representations of Australian history and its affirmation of Australian modernity.  There was also the Opera House, Ayers Rock (now preferentially knows as “Uluru”), and the Great Barrier Reef, and, of course, those Aborigines with their body paint, boomerangs, and didgeridoos.  In other words, my impressions were variegated and cartoony, and all over-laid with a general notion that Australia really isn’t that different from Canada.


So far my last guess doesn’t seem too far wrong.  In terms of day-to-day life, Australia is a bit like Japan (driving on the left); a bit like Canada (the spelling of “colour”, “centre”, and “grey”); and a bit different from both (the first floor is not the ground floor).  But most of the things that have taken me by surprise so far have involved not differences from my native land, but from my most recent country of residence.  When I arrived, I couldn’t get over how big everything was!  Imagine: four-lane highways with barely any traffic on them!  A two-story house for only two people!  A fridge as tall as I am!  Boxes of cereal that might last more than four days!  And 1 kilo tubs of yogurt!!!

Most of the changes are nice.  I’m thrilled by the novelty of actually being able to go up to the cashier in a store or stop someone on the street and talk to them!  I’m also amazed that the cash points here work 24/7 without charging for overtime, and that drivers will actually yield to pedestrians!  But I’m finding it hard to unlearn some of my Japanese habits; I have to restrain myself from bowing at everyone!

I’ve been coping with so much reverse culture shock that culture shock has barely stood a chance, but I have also noticed the odd peculiarity.  I embarrassed my Hong Kong buddy on my very first day by taking a picture of the grocery store shelf containing every form and size of Vegemite you could imagine!  I was even more shocked to learn that there is, in fact, such a thing as a Vegemite sandwich, and that it’s actually really tasty!  Other culinary discoveries I’ve made are that fish and chips shops are almost as common here as they are in England; Burger King is called “Hungry Jack’s”; and kangaroo is a popular meat, valued for its low fat content.

I was dumbfounded at the size of the money.  There’s a coin here that’s roughly the size of a quarter; you know how much it’s worth?  Ten cents!  The twenty is the size of a twoonie, and there may or may not be a fifty-cent coin that’s larger still!  The smallest coin is the five cent; Australia did away with pennies sometime before we did, though that doesn’t stop cashiers from ringing up your total and telling you that you owe $19.98.  (Am I going to get change from a $20??  No???  Then don’t tell me I owe 2¢ less than I do!!!)  Most baffling are the $2 coins, which for some reason are smaller than the $1 ones.


When debating the relative merits of Brisbane and Melbourne, the two came up about evenly, but in the end a number of small considerations tipped the balance in favour of Brisbane: it’s slightly closer, it’s slightly warmer, and it’s slightly cheaper.  It’s also the one major Australian city that didn’t make it into Bill Bryson’s book, so the only way I’ll ever learn about it is to discover it for myself!

My Hong Kong acquaintance and her husband have been helping me to find my bearings and showing me around.  They’ve taken me out to the Gold Coast (famous for its beautiful beaches and surfing) and Mt Tamborine (famous for its rainforest walks and cute cafés).  They’ve also helped me with practical matters, like figuring out the public transit system, opening a bank account, and shopping.

Between dropping off résumés, I’ve been exploring the down town a lot.  It’s an easy place to navigate: all the streets are named after people, with the female streets running one way and the male streets running perpendicular.  It’s most notable feature is ANZAC Square, where are commemorated Australia’s military loses in various conflicts, including (much to my surprise) Vietnam.  There’s also a botanical garden and several big old churches.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last two years living in a Japanese backwater, but Brisbane’s a lot cooler than I was expecting.  It’s not too big, and not too small either, the perfect size for someone who grew up in Ottawa.  It’s nice to be back in a city with beautiful buildings, be they historical, like the train station, or modern, like the library.  A lot of the city is waterfront, and the ferry service that runs up and down the river is a convenient and scenic way of getting around.  It reminds me a bit of Vancouver.

The best feature so far has been the weather.  August in the Southern Hemisphere is theoretically the dead of winter, but it feels much more like spring to me!  The days here see temperatures in the teens and low twenties, and are almost all sunny.  I’ve been here for almost a month now, and I haven’t seen it rain once!!  Combine that with the size of everything, the high prices, the general cleanliness, and the abundance of subtropical flora and I feel a bit like I’m living in Beverly Hills!


In my leisure time I’ve been enjoying the Olympics in London, which has put on a show to rival Australia’s own.  As my location has changed, the focus of the coverage has shifted from Japan to China and ended up on Australia.  I’ve gotten to know the green and gold team uniforms, and even the names of some Aussie athletes.  Needless to say, I have no idea what my compatriots have been up to.

I enjoyed both the opening and closing ceremonies, the former of which paid wonderful tribute to my favourite movie (a certain 1981 British flick featuring a lot of synthesised music but surprisingly few incandescent carriages), and the latter of which celebrated the country’s great musicians (my personal favourite part was seeing the Spice Girls reunited!)  I saw some of the rhythmic gymnastics.  I also watched the BMX racing, an entertaining new addition to the Olympic programme.  But the big focus, as always, was track.  In that category the big stars were Usain Bolt and his fellow Jamaicans, but the most impressive moment for me was when South Africa’s Caster Semenya came out of nowhere to steal silver in the women’s 800 m.

The Olympic spirit did not dissipate with the closing ceremonies, but remained strong through the succeeding Paralympic games.  This was my first year paying any attention to the Olympics’ younger sibling, thanks largely to the strong advertising push put behind it by the U.K.  Although I didn’t watch as much of it, I was very impressed by what I saw of the opening ceremonies.  I found time for some of the swimming and running.  And I feel I can say with some conviction that wheelchair basketball is a lot more fun to watch than the regular kind.


In the news this month, Australia has decided to re-open the Nauru refugee detention centre.  Opened under John Howard in 2001 and closed by Kevin Rudd in 2007, the centre is a dumping ground for refugees, who are kept in off-shore camps rather than being allowed to stay in Australia while their claims are being processed.  The fact that this controversial policy has been re-instated under the same party that saw it dismantled has made some noise in the international community, and quite a bit in the country itself.  It’s been interesting to see the Australian perspective on this change, which seems to be almost as unpopular here as elsewhere.

Also in the news, American cyclist Lance Armstrong has been found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs and stripped of his Tour de France titles.  I don’t pay any attention to cycling, but even I know that Lance Armstrong is a hero to a lot of people, and I grieve for them.


Movies I’ve seen this month:

Bran Nue Dae – Weird, irreverent musical-comedy about an Aboriginal boy’s Odyssey through Western Australia.  It wasn’t always to my taste, but definitely interesting as my first ever Aborigine-made movie.  (Three stars)

The Sapphires – A much more accessible Aboriginal story about four cousins who travel to Vietnam to sing Motown.  Sweet, fluffy, and entertaining, it’s worth watching mostly for its insight into Aboriginal history and affirmation of Aboriginal identity.  (Three and a half stars)

Plays I’ve seen this month:

Henry V – Part of the local Shakespeare festival, this was surprisingly good quality for free theatre.  The costumes and sets were minimalist, but compensated for by the quality acting.  Prior to this I’d only seen the Kenneth Branagh movie version; seeing it performed live has improved my opinion of it.