Dienstag, 17. Februar 2015

The Travelogue, Part XLI - Straya, Mate!

After having been in Australia for a month now I figured it would be appropriate to sum up my impressions. They are based purely on my experiences in Melbourne, Sydney and their surroundings and unlikely to be representative for anything but these major cities. Since Australia is one of the most urbanised country in the world, however, it is probably fair to say that my experiences might be to some degree applicable to a large part of Australians. I'll be keeping my travel musing to the end of the trip as usual, just so much said: I love it here.

Identity struggles

One of the first things that struck me while traveling here is a certain obsession with everything foreign. While Australia’s identity seems to be pretty distinct to most foreign onlookers (you know, surfers, kangaroos and all), its inhabitants seem to feel a lot less so. In fact, I’ve never been to a place whether people’s idea of what makes their national identity is so shaky. Australia is a very young nation, and as such did not have a lot of time to develop a unique and consistent culture of its own. Or at least it seems to me that’s what the Australians themselves think. Otherwise I cannot explain why the highest pedigrees Australians seem to label their surroundings with are EVERYTHING BUT Australian.

I've heard these frequently, for example:

“Australia’s great because we got the best Thai/Japanese/Asian food."
"You can skip the Australian exhibition, go to the [insert random foreign country] one."
“Melbourne is great, it’s so European!”

Anything labeled 'Australian' is often equivalented to being backwards, rural and of lower quality, and even the more conservative countrysiders seem to take the label with a certain sense of irony.

If anything, Australia seems to define itself by its nature. In all national museums I have been at here, the sections about local wildlife are exceptionally large, and a conversation with an Autralian seems to inevitable include some reference to the Bush in some fashion. I guess when the even the key event of your nation’s forming happens in some border island in countryside Turkey some 10000 miles away, then hopping marsupials and over-sized birds are all you’ve got left to make your birthplace stand out.

The Australian Coat of Arms

 In all fairness, Australia did not have an easy ride. When the Dutch first mapped the continent, they hated it in a way that only the Dutch can hate. From derogatory place names (“Rats’ Nest Island”) to marooning sailors on its coast as punishment, they clearly did not deem it a desirable place to live.

The same was true for the British, who decided it was a great location to export all its unwanted citizens to (a time-honoured practice Australia now emulates by sending its illegal immigrants to desolate Pacific islands), setting the first foundation for modern Australian identity: that of the criminal. People who can trace their ancestry back to an original convict do so with glee, and being the descendant of a certified sheep thief or con man is a badge of honour and testament to your Australian-ness.

When Australia abolished its “White Australia” policy in 1966, thousands of immigrants flocked to its shores, changing Australia’s society forever. When you walk through the big cities, it often seems as if half of Australia is Asian, and Pan-Asian culture is well integrated in society through arts, culture, and of course food. Australian cuisine, when heralded, is usually a Euro-Asian fusion mix, and locals seem to be quite proud of the quality and variety that these newer Australians have brought to their streets and dining tables.

Despite a certain amount of Americanization it seems that Australia looks to (northern) Europe as a guiding beacon for its cultural identity, and often people seem to be filled with a almost wistful longing for an imagined Europe that is filled with diversity and wonders. Going there once seems to be an expected wish list item of fundamental importance to one’s understanding of their own heritage, as if Australia would be an inferior derivative of a cool and totally happening other country.

The Pan-European Quality Control approves.
Er, Franco-Germanic Italo-Skandie Cafe?

Ironically, most Australians do not seem to be aware that Australia has established itself as a lifestyle brand abroad, with Australian coffee, cosmetics, fusion food and clothing becoming trendier every year. Australia’s excellent self-marketing has led many foreigners to believe that this is a country of beautiful, liberal, eco-conscious, life-savouring free spirits. There is a wondrous transformation that most young foreigners here undergo, turning full Aussie as soon as they come across their first surf shop, showing the lasting effects of that marketing. Unlike America, Australia has so far mostly avoided being connected with its appalling refugee policies, extensive environmental destruction and sky-rocketing obesity rate in the global public eye.

In a somewhat haphazard attempt to include the Aboriginal population into what makes the Australian identity, there are also many projects, displays and notes informing visitors of original place names, sites of significance and cultural artifacts relating to Australia’s pre-colonial inhabitants. While these efforts are admittedly in their infancy, I personally find them quite forced. It might be fashionable and appear ethno-conscious to re-adopt indigenous place names and craftwork, yet I find it is still a very white man’s definition of what aboriginal art and culture is allowed to be, and have seen little that hints to a true mingling and pollination of the two heritages.

Courtesy of Wikipages

Among all this it sometimes seems to me that Australians forget that they don’t have to look elsewhere for cultural identity, but have the unique opportunity to shape a future society of their own. When Tony Abbott reinsituted the Australian Knighthood in 2014 it seemed to me that there was definitely a feeling that Australia was a country of importance. Yet there was no idea of what exactly it was, no new collaborative future vision of what this country is to be, and so it again emulated the old. The same is true for the flag raising ceremony on Australia Day, which never quite manages to marry British-style imperial pomp with the low key beach bum rebel vibe of Aussie fame. I mean, you're playing a song about a suicidal sheep thief when your leading politician ascends to the podium on national day -  way to go Australia!

One might argue that Australians are too chilled to worry about such things such as national values and future societies, and that that might be a good thing. But then again, I'd wager it's that mixture of colonial melancholia and easy-going apathy that got them Tony Abbot.

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen