I was on a plane from Las Vegas to Houston when I first read about the quintessential Australian values. I flipped through the pages a book my mom picked up at Half Price Books. I can’t remember the exact title or author, but it was an informational and practical guide targeted at American audiences considering relocating to Australia. It covered the logistics and basics about health care and work culture. Reading briefly about the colonial history and favorite Aussie past times (drinking and footy, to name a few), I was especially interested in the section describing some of Australia’s core values.
In my experience, a nation’s core values often seem like gross exaggerations or stereotypes. At first they appear impossible, but with a closer look are unmistakably present in life in the country. It’s not always as in your face as a Wikipedia description might seem, but it’s there.
What I first dismissed as stereotypical characteristics that probably wouldn’t show up in daily life, I began to see demonstrated. It could very well have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, it could be that analyses of Australian mainstream culture are accurate.
Disclaimer: This is a non-academic approach to describe a very complex topic. I oversimplify and perhaps am too dismissive of subtle yet important distinctions in the following national values. I aimed to provide a first-person experience as a foreigner interacting with these values.
Fair go is a term that used as is in vernacular is still hard for me to understand. But the ideas behind it aren’t, and rather evident in the everyday. It means giving everyone an equal chance, no matter where they came from or who they are. Many immigrants to Australia were either convicts or destitute, crossing great distances to make a living. It’s of upmost importance to give everyone a shot to prove themselves.
On my first day on the job, I walked into the rec room at 7:28am. I was supposed to start at 7:30. Thinking that 7:28 was an appropriate time to arrive at work, I was surprised when everyone was already sitting in a circle, silent, waiting for the morning meeting to start. They had already signed in, signed the pre-start meeting form and done their breath-os.
“Ah, the Yank, coming in a bit late but it’s her first day,” my boss announced as I walked in. “But it’s 7:28!” I said, wondering what all the fuss was about. I was not late. I looked around and everyone was silent. My boss didn’t respond. She stared at me. “Oh, shit, I’m sorry I didn’t realize how sassy that sounded,” I said, embarrassed.
Everyone laughed at me and I sat down. I was wondering when I was going to learn to think before I speak. I made a fool out of myself on the first day, but no one held it against me. They gave me a “fair go,” an opportunity to redeem myself despite my wrongdoings. Even so, that didn’t mean that it wasn’t a favorite way for them to take the piss out of me for the next three months. I heard that story repeated many times to all the new people who came in. If someone was late, someone in the audience would shout “Don’t worry, the yank’s always late, too!”
Usually describing the strong bonds between males and said to describe loyalty, equality and friendship, mateship has been criticized by some for helping to create the strong homophobic culture in Australia. Having roots in the early colonial period, newcomers were forced to give each other a hand to survive. This tradition has carried on, and you can see strangers helping each other out in every sense.
A very obvious example of mateship is the way Australians refer to each other as “mate” no matter how close or far their social distance. Putting everyone on the same level socially, the convicts are said to have referred to their jailers as “mate.” There are also more subtle ways of showing equality and solidarity. I witnessed several acts of kindness in Australia that created a sense of togetherness. On one occasion, I was especially touched (figuratively, of course) by a man on a Melbourne tram who helped a drugged-up man come to when he was being kicked off.
On the mine, when people sensed my confusion or inability to do something, they would immediately jump in explain or show me how it should be done. They did, of course, make fun of me for it relentlessly, but nevertheless they wanted me to know that I wasn’t going at it alone.
Love of the underdog
Love of the underdog is something that I relate to wholeheartedly. I find myself naturally supporting the odd one out.
Coincidentally, this is one of the fundamental values Australians hold is to cheer on the underdog. Be it a sports team, the last runner in the race or the one who failed the test, someone always wants to root for the least likely to succeed. Related to the previous point about mateship, Australians at the mine enjoyed that I was clueless at my job. While, as I’ve already emphasized, they loved to point out my flaws, they also expressed their desire for me to succeed. They didn’t want to see me fail. They did what they could to root me on, to watch me improve and to show their support, verbally and with actions.
Tall poppy syndrome
My first day cleaning the mine site, it was just Martha and I, figuring things out on our own. Even though the mine site and its employees are considered this company’s “client,” the people there didn’t shy away from helping us out. In a subtle informality, one of the superintendents of a department caught us and said, “Look, if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to I won’t tell on you. But just watch out for some of these other blokes.” By these “other blokes” he referred to people who were tattle-tales. Narcs. The ones who defied mateship and sought approval from authority. In other words, people to be shamed.
A few weeks later, I was back at the mine, this time just Rebecca and I. Martha is a very good worker. Yeah, she might get her panties all bunched up sometimes, but she works hard and does things with integrity which was something I really respected about her. On the other hand, Rebecca, although well meaning, lets her personal life interfere with her performance on the job. I would much rather work with Martha than Rebecca. During one of Rebecca’s sessions where she complained about the day shift workers – i.e., Martha, not doing their job right, I corrected her. “No, Rebecca, I worked with Martha and I promise, she always does an excellent job and it’s really important for her to take pride in her work,” I said. “Yes, I know,” she said, distrustful, “Sometimes too much…”
Too much, so that she stood out as a good worker. Too much that she cozied up to management and became their friends. Just too much.
Throughout my weeks at the mine, I got the overwhelming sense that the real enemy is out there, and its authority. Anyone who sticks their head over the masses and cozies up to authority is not to be trusted. In doing too good of a job, Martha stuck out amongst the rest and threatened their equality and loyalty.
Featured photo: Lipton tea, taken at the jumping crocodile cruise at Adelaide River