This is an edited extract of a story that appeared last week in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper: When 30 people gathered in a Sydney ceremony last month to pledge allegiance to Australia, they were treated to a moving speech on what it means to be an Australian citizen … by an American. While Prime Minister John Howard has been stressing the importance of new Australians swearing allegiance to Australian values, no-one in his party had the time to take on the job. So guest speaker was US Consul-General Steve Smith, whose consulate is in the area and who was initially baffled by the invitation but ended up speaking about the similarities between Australia and the US.
I’ve been joking about this stuff for the past two weeks, and synchronicity being what it is, something like this was bound to happen. This past week or so in Sydney, two separate newspapers have carried stories about the “Americanisation” of Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald started the ball rolling with a piece headed Yanks R Us on the similarity of our TV viewing habits.
Among other things, it also argued most Aussie children now pronounce the last letter of the alphabet as “zee”, rather than the traditional “zed”, so I tried it on my 11-year-old daughter, who to my shock duly used the American pronunciation. When I questioned her, she replied: “Well, we use the other one too … they’re both right, y’know.”
“What, the proper one, you mean?” I asked. “No – zed, the other one. We use that too,” she said. The next morning, she offered further proof that what remains of our culture is all but doomed. She has recently developed a fascination for yuppy cars (perhaps one day she can move to Los Angeles), and while I was driving her to school, we passed a new Jaguar (now owned by Ford). “Oh, look,” she said, all prim and proper and very English-looking in her grey-checked school uniform and hat. “A new Jag-wah.”
“What’s that, Liz? Beg yours? Don’t you mean a Jag-you-er?”
“Errrr, no way, dad,” she said, with a mid-Pacific accent inspired by shows like The OC, with the must-have accompanying eye, mouth, jaw and head movements, and too close to being devoid of any Aussie twang for my parental liking. “Sor-ree for, like, living … it’s a Jag-wah … don’t you know aaa-nnneee-thing?” Sigh …
Serious commentators might point to Australia’s switch from traditional British allegiance and our foreign policy since half-way through WWII as evidence that we’re on a fast track to becoming the 51st state of the US, and it’s a joke we make about ourselves, but the little things that are the true barometers – and which, to be honest, really grate. Like the American expat commentators for Australia’s National Basketball League, the NBL, talking about a game that was foreign to us until 20 years ago. “Oh yeah, they’re totally on fire, Jaahn … The Kings are now 5 and oh [zero?] for the season,” said one the other night. I don’t have a clue what that means, although my son, who is 19 and who until some years ago had taken to wearing American baseball caps backwards and sideways, has tried to explain it me. And don’t get me started on baseball, a game that bamboozles me, although it’s on cable so the rot’s probably set in.
Sesame Street has left a generation of kids sounding like little Americans, who now even go trick-or-treating on Halloween – unheard of until about 10 years ago. The similarities, however, were already frightening. Whenever I have visited the States, I have only needed to stick my fingers in my ears and I’m back home in the blink of an eye. Especially in a taxi when the traffic’s not moving. (Remarkably, many cab drivers in Australia and the US have the same accents, the same conspiracy theories and the same lack of knowledge about how to get from A to B without taking the circuitous route.) But soon, I won’t even have to cover my ears.
Politics are similar, too: two main parties with a Senate and a House of Representatives. And where Australia used to have a pub or a fish ‘n’ chip shop on every second corner, now it’s McDonald’s (known as Macca’s, of course), Burger King, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut and Domino’s. There is even a mutual love of flashy pick-up trucks, although Down Under’s are mostly based on big saloon car chassis (generally locally designed Fords or Holdens, the GM brand) and equipped with a big, thumping six or a hotted-up V8 that makes them more like a two-door NASCAR racer. They’re called utilities, or utes (yoots, as in shoots).
Down at the pub recently, my mate Johnno, never short of an opinion, claimed he’d found an article by an American industrialist who believed Ford suffered a few years back from having an Aussie at its helm – because foreigners don’t understand America’s love affair with big 4WDs and pick-up trucks.
Johnno is a transplanted red-dirt bushie from an outback town (a fair way out the back of nowhere) whose idea of a good time is a motorbike cattle-muster followed by a weekend of pig “shoot’n” and he begs to differ as he has two of these – the shiny two-seater V8 number for weekends that takes him and a mate and their fishing gear (or his girlfriend, if it’s her birthday), and a four-door dual cab for workdays to drive the building crew (and two blue-heeler cattle dogs, Nippy and Lucky, who will only answer to “Oi”).After five beers he was promising to ring Ford to offer his services. “Mate, fair dinkum, they’ve lost the plot over there,” he said. “They don’t know about cars. Those big-wig blokes in stripey suits get $20 million a year to run a company that runs itself. Fair dinkum, I could do it better meself and they could pay me in beer.”
Yet what would America really get if the two were to tie the knot, apart from English as a second language and half the world’s most dangerous animals? Well, everything they’ve missed out on in the past 200 or so years would be generously back on the table. For starters, The Queen; at least four weeks’ a year annual leave; universal health care; a proper flag, and driving on the correct side of the road. And an understanding of why cricket is one of the world’s great civilising influences and thus why the Pakistanis, fanatical exponents of the game, are the only Muslim nation really trying hard to be on our side, despite the fact they don’t really want to. And since Australians nearly always beat everyone at most sports they play, Americans could discover (just like the English) that sport is about playing, not winning.
But there ARE pitfalls for the unwary. Sir Winston Churchill, possibly not gifted with his usual foresight, once described America and Britain (and I take it at the time he meant the remnants of Empire as well) as one people separated by the barrier of a common language, so ponder this little anomaly: the use of the word entree in the US to mean main course. Elsewhere in the English-speaking world it has its original French meaning – literally, to enter. An appetiser.
Imagine my surprise, then, at a nice restaurant in San Francisco when a seafood “entree” came out that could have fed all of Burkina Faso for a week. Things went really pear-shaped when, if you included the sirloin steak and added Nigeria to the possible list of beneficiaries, I realised I’d ordered two main courses and an appetiser that was a small version of the seafood “entree”. In a real-life episode of Seinfeld, confusion reigned supreme and led to much mirth and merriment among the other diners. On the same trip, I ordered a spaghetti marinara at a restaurant in New York. Now, in Sydney’s Little Italys, marinara is a seafood sauce (mare = sea. Get it?). But in the US, it was just a tomato sauce slopped forlornly over some limp-looking pasta. “Hey, what happened to the prawns [shrimp], mate?” I asked. “Oh,” said the waiter, by way of explanation to the other diners, “you’re Australian”, like I was some kind of weirdo or even worse, a Texan.
Then there was the time I was staying with some American friends in LA. “I can’t find my thongs,” I said to my goggle-eyed and giggling hostess, who kindly offered me the use of hers as she “had plenty”. A quick check of her feet revealed there was no hope they’d fit, and then she asked how long I’d been wearing them.
“Since I was a kid. We wear ‘em to the beach,” I said. “Something wrong with that … ?” When I found them under a pile of clothes, just like at home, the penny dropped. “Oh,” she said. “Flip-flaaaps. You call those thaaangs?” She dashed off, returning presently with a fetching, barely-there, fragrant piece of women’s black, lacy underwear. “This,” she said, waving the apparel under my nose, “is a thaaang.” A g-string. Which went a long way to explaining the strange looks at the surf shop in Hermosa Beach when I enquired about their thongs.
Also, why call something a tap when you can sound like a prize pseudo-French wanker and waste an extra syllable by calling it a bloody faucet? Still, it’s better than cock, the old-English term. And while we’re there, let’s not forget rooting, that other wonderful old chestnut. In Australia, if you’re rooting for a football team, you’ll likely be pretty sore by the end of it. (Well, that’s nice dear, but make sure you use plenty of lubricant or you’ll look like you’ve been riding a horse for a week.)
Many of the differences, as I’ve speculated before, might be down to the fact America’s founding fathers were religious puritans while Australia’s were thieves, conmen, prostitutes and Irishmen. (Big mistake, that, sending all the party people to the best place. The choice: hang by the neck on the gallows at Tyburn Hill, spend the rest of your life on a rat-infested prison hulk in The Thames – or take a long cruise to sunny Sydney, with plenty of rooting. Yee-hah, and remember to pack the condoms). Yet somewhere in the middle, there must be a desire among Americans to be a bit naughty, while Australians at least TRY hard to be good, which must be where the minds meet.
Meanwhile, Johnno, who for the price of a sixth beer adds public-bar marriage guidance, real-estate speculation, debt management, financial counselling and bush political analysis to his list of services, has a much better idea than Australia becoming America’s 51st state. It’s a concept brilliant in its simplicity: “Mate, I reckon we could incorporate the 50 states of the US into Australia, which would be more beneficial to ‘em in terms of culture, sport and cars and all that fu.kin’ stuff, y’know?”
No doubt US consul-general Smith would be fair-dinkum stoked about that. He gets the trifecta: stay in Oz for good without being locked up as an illegal immigrant, buy Johnno a beer in the front bar of The Hero of Waterloo AND speak at more Australian citizenship ceremonies, this time in an official capacity.