The Other Australia

There was a storm here the other day. Just a little one, really, but it pushed over enough trees and slowed enough traffic to make the news, whereon the journalists went around interviewing people about their inconveniences.
“Well, it’s the weather,” one guy pointed out. “You can’t control the weather.” It was raining on the Vancouver street behind him and he was dressed appropriately.
Another guy, who had been waiting patiently for the ferries to start up again, was happily doing his crosswords and catching up on his reading. “Yah, well. Bin here about four hours now,” he said cheerfully. “Just waiting for the ferry to go.”

Australians, in contrast, while pretty easy going themselves, probably would have at least found someone to blame. Probably Labor.

Outside of a few particular idiosyncrasies and funny little incidents such as this, however, I’m finding that Australia and Canada, and Australians and Canadians, are pretty much the same thing, with a few minor variations on the theme.

Both countries are huge but largely uninhabitable, with much of their bulk taken up by vast, difficult landscapes – one hot and waterless, the other iced over. During the more extreme seasons, while Australia is reaching 50 degrees Celsius in some places, Canada is reaching the same number in the negative.

Both have a lot more space that population. What population there is tends to inhabit the more liveable edges, with all that space hovering just over their shoulders. And it’s this space and this wilderness and these extremes that have, for the most part, defined and toughened inhabitants of both countries: their stereotypes have been shaped by it, their sense of space and significance based on it, so many of their films and music and books devised to reflect it. Distance is normal. They think nothing of spending whole days in the car, and regularly subject their vehicles and their dogs to long and arduous road trips across barely changing landscapes, those of one watching for kangaroos, the other for deer.

Both countries are new, white, middle class, comfortable places, comparatively unburdened by history. They keep mostly to themselves, and are generally misunderstood or ignored or both by the rest of the world, unless they’re being made fun of. Both tend to be favoured by tourists who like their holidays comfortable and their language English and who leave thinking, ‘Well wasn’t that a pleasant, beautiful, odd little country.’

Both keep their politics harmless and their economies stable. They both exist in bubbles inflated by generous resource booms, which have kept them reasonably impervious to external global crises. Their dollar values hover at around the same level. They both have their various, comparatively mild social problems – their homeless and immigration conundrums, their occasional crime and aging populations, the delayed consequences of their colonial pasts – but for the most part are comfortable and wealthy and unconcerned. Socially, all that mining, oil and, in Canada’s case, lumber, have bred high concentrations of under-educated rich, who buy jetskis and boats and big cars and TVs bigger than their walls to watch sport on. They build massive modern fishbowls with views of water and bump drunkenly and uncomfortably against the small clusters of cultural elite/poor students, who are meanwhile doing their best to keep to themselves and their quiet events, while attempting to maybe drag a little more grant money from the government.

Instead of dead possums or roos on the side of the road, Canada as dead raccoons. Instead of hot summers, there’s cold winters. Instead of P Plates, new drivers drive around on N (for Novice) Plates. Instead of the ABC, they have the CBC; instead of TFNs they have SINs; instead of your RSA, it’s your SIR. Instead of toilet, it’s washroom. Instead of Aussie Rules and rugby and cricket, it’s hockey, baseball and football. Different name, same basic idea.

Spending time in a culture so similar to my own, though, I’ve started noticing nuances of Australian culture I missed travelling around places that were deeply different. One of which is the way in which Australians are friendly.

The people of both Australia and Canada are known for their open, easy-to-get-along-with demeanour: they’ll make eye contact with strangers and will most likely smile back, particularly outside of the big cities; their busdrivers will probably help you with directions; you could probably strike up banter with most shop clerks; and if you break down on the side of the road, chances are someone will give you a hand to the best of their abilities. It’s generally easy to make friends in both countries, depending of course on where you are. However, while Canadians are friendly and earnest, Australians are friendly and cheeky. Canadians are friendly without an agenda. I think this is where the main difference lies.

To generalise wildly, Canadians are nice as a way of being, as a matter of course, as a way of existing. They’re nice like they don’t understand why anyone would want to be any other way. In contrast, there’s usually something underneath an Australian’s friendliness – be it playful or more sinister than that. It’s not the same blank friendliness that seems to be so prevalent in Canada, or in British Columbia at least. On the other hand, this can also make Australian interactions more interesting, lend them more depth and complexity.

Regardless, it’s interesting to find very familiar aspects of my own culture reflected in another on the other side of the world, often in opposite contexts. And reassuringly, I come from not one, but two unique, stunningly beautiful, friendly and very silly countries.

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