Once while enjoying a sunny day and a mocha on Brunswick Street, I gave a homeless woman my change, but when she discovered my origins, she recoiled in disgust and spat out, ‘You’re American?? I hate Americans. You’re all taking over Australia.’ Then she wandered off with my money.
Well, those were her two cents, and here’s mine.
I like to imagine that the woman was colorfully paraphrasing the quote by historian Richard Pells, ‘… American culture has never felt all that foreign to foreigners.’
It’s true that no matter where I go in the world, people seem to know an awful lot about American politics – on a trip in 2006 to France and England, locals would shake their heads and demand to know how I could live in a country that elected George W. Bush. In late 2008, Beijing cab drivers would give me a thumbs up and shout, ‘ào bā mǎ!’ Life in Melbourne was no exception.
Combative people love this constant fodder for debating, but after five years as an expat, I grew tired of grudgingly entering arguments that I was always doomed to lose. When in public, I adopted ways to blend in: not wearing trainers with jeans, throwing away my North Face fleece; and I dreaded hearing the ring of my mobile phone on the tram because as soon as I said hello, the jig was up – the flat sound of my telephone greeting would alert everyone – there’s an American among us. Call me paranoid, but ever since that day on Brunswick Street, I’ve been bracing myself for someone else to get in my face and declare that they hated me.
And (spoiler alert!) it never happened again.
But during my two years in Melbourne, encounters with strangers that lasted longer than 30 seconds often meant I was forced to explain why my kind was so uninformed, why don’t more of us have passports, and for God’s sake, why are we so loud? I don’t know, guys; you’re loud, too. I would attempt to form an intelligent, well-travelled answer to the above questions and deliver it in a whisper, but failure is inevitable. After all, I am just one woman (who likes flat whites and soy milk, just like you) and I cannot cancel out for all the dumb, loud Americans roaming your country’s university campuses (I’m sure there’s a crowd of us outside your window right now, drunk and chanting ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’).
Until I lived in Melbourne, I hadn’t realized that this kind of omnipresent political debate my nationality immediately opened up was such a privilege. People in Melbourne were some of the most politically engaged people I’ve ever met, but when other nations (ahem, mine) struggled to know anything concrete about your country, let alone your Prime Minister’s name, it enraged you. I know, because I often inadvertently enraged a lot of you. In particular, when I thought a wombat was the animal hissing from a tree outside my bedroom window (everyone informed me that it was a possum, because wombats can’t climb trees. Allegedly.).
A lot of what I observed in Melbourne as an American got lost in the daily humdrum of living there and perhaps, as the woman who confronted me said, Americans and our culture are taking over. I’m almost certain that the average Melburnian knows more Simpsons quotes than I do, but I haven’t even seen a single episode of Neighbours.
Or maybe I was too close before – too blinded by the combination of white sunlight and black jeans, but now I can really see the place clearly. I live in London now, and from the view of this gray, wet city, Melbourne glows like a beacon of footy stadiums and GDP growth.
First of all, you guys really know how to do brunch. Here, they fry some bacon, pour out a can of beans on a plate and call it a day. But I digress.
My impression of the people in Melbourne is greatly influenced by the people I lived with in share houses. Between my partner and me, we’ve lived in six share houses and without exception, the Australians we cohabitated with were greatly concerned about water conservation and limited energy use. You might be the one nation I’ve seen that actually cares about the environment, instead of just saying you do. Speaking of caring, there seemed to be a protest on in your city every day.
From my experience, the majority of the world knows next to nothing about your artsy, beautiful, culinary-forward city, and I suspect this is why Melburnians are always waxing lyrical about how great their city is. And it is. It is. But often the boasting comes across as a tell-tale sign of a collective insecurity. We’re just as good as Sydney, perhaps?
That’s the kind of forward-thinking (or perhaps ‘Moving Forward‘) place that your city is, though: politically aware, environmentally active and recognising the virtues of good PR. By comparison, the UK seems muted and resigned.
But the beauty of you world travellers means I barely get to even miss you guys! The best cafes in London are Aussie-run and on nearly every red double-decker bus I ride, one of you is behind me, complaining about how the English treat you. The English may sigh and turn their noses up as they hum and haw about the Australians taking over London, but I know how you feel. I was once just like you, in a foreign country, forced to defend my honor.
Jessica Pan graduated from Brown University and then promptly moved to Beijing, where she worked as a magazine editor (for two years) and a TV reporter (for one year). Then she upped sticks and moved to Melbourne. She received her Master’s in Journalism from RMIT University and currently lives in London. Find samples of her work on www.jesspan.com.