Bring an Australian stereotype to mind. What comes up? Maybe a leather skinned man covered in red dust knocking back beers like his life depends on it? Maybe your stereotypical Aussie is less Alice Springs informed and more like a tan, blonde surfer dude fresh from a knock out dual with a Great White shark? Oh wait that guy does exist…Mick Fanning I’m looking at you. Whatever image came to mind there is one thing I have learned from my time in Aus so far and it is that Americans love to either a) forget Australia exists or b) stereotype the entire population.
One would think that after dating an Aussie for more than a year I would have had a better idea of what Australia would be like before I came here, but I have still had many learning experiences in Australia over these past two months and I’d love to share them with you. So here they are, what I’ve learned in Australia so far…
Walking across the street requires far more mental engagement than back home
Australians drive on the left, a nod to their British ancestry, and while this is a simple thing to understand rationally, it is much harder to remember daily. I have been here two months and I still must think okay, look right, left, right before crossing any roadway to avoid becoming a Monica pancake. I also routinely look like an idiot walking the wrong way in stores or on the street and, because of this, occasionally small children (who are probably thinking Why is the crazy lady walking the wrong way?) run barrelling into me.
Americans have entirely changed the English language
We spell so many words differently than the British English spellings that I think, given a couple more decades, British English and American English may just become different languages. Just a few examples: traveler vs traveller, defense vs defence, color vs colour, aluminum vs aluminium, the list goes on. One positive from this unexpected spelling lesson is that now I can tell where someone is from (or where they learned their English) by their writing.
Australians love their slang
Continuing with the theme of changing the English language, Australians are well on their way to creating their own version of the language filled with mozzies (mosquitos), sunnies (sunglasses), pozzy (position), to cark it (to die or for something to stop working), bottle-o (liquor store), piece of piss (an easy task), and my personal favorite, thongs (flip flops). While, I’ve learned that the meaning of thongs is different here than back home I will always giggle a little when Kane says, “Just let me put on my thongs.” They love to shorten anything and everything, from people’s names (Henderson to Hendo) to entire phrases (this afternoon to S’Arvo). This is not an exhaustive list, there are thousands more where these came from.
Work life balance exists in Australia
Australians are serious about their holidays. In the time that we have been in Darwin, just about a month, there have been four public holidays. These are government mandated, paid week days off (usually a Monday or Friday) for any full-time worker in Australia and if you are not a full-time worker they are required to compensate you by paying you what is called casual loading, where they pay you 25% more than a normal salary for that job for the entire year. To further sweeten the pot, all full and part time workers are entitled to 4 weeks annual, full paid leave, at a minimum and everyone is entitled to 10 paid sick days off work every year. Many employers give more annual leave than this to reward their long-term employees or to incentivize working for their company.
The minimum wage is a living wage
You know that strange idea that anyone working a full-time job should be able to live with dignity? Well that idea is reality in Australia. Fruit pickers, the bottom of the rung in the American workforce, earn $22.50 per hour on a casual contract or $17 per hour on a full-time contract in Australia. Wage laws are strictly enforced and most people earn well above minimum wage for many jobs that would be considered minimum wage jobs in the States, for example, restaurant staff, cashiers, and cleaners.
The argument against minimum wage increases in the States is often based around the idea that if business were forced to pay their staff living wages they would all go out of business and prices of commodities would skyrocket. If we consider Australia one big experiment in the effect a living wage has on an economy, we should all be running to increase our minimum wages. During the 2008 financial crisis, Australia bucked the worldwide downward trend and was in a state of growth. That growth has leveled off due to the mining boom coming to an end, but it hasn’t dropped and businesses are not dropping like flies. What has actually happened is that even though consumer products cost slightly more in Australia than in a place like the States, the consumer has more purchasing power because everyone gets paid more, thus they have the expendable cash to do things that stimulate the economy, like eating out, supporting local businesses, etc.
Australians travel a lot
Only 36% of Americans hold valid passports, while 60-70% (depending on which statistics you look at) of Australians hold valid passports. It is because of the high minimum wage and mandated annual leave that you see so many Australians out traveling the world. The middle class exists in Australia and it is thriving. We met a couple traveling Thailand for 8 weeks who both had café jobs. My mind was blown that they could afford to travel internationally and long term on café jobs with no outside income, that just would not happen in the States. The middle class is also heavily supported by a free public healthcare system and subsidized higher education.
This country is huge and, still, very wild
I have a feeling that most Americans don’t quite appreciate how vast and mostly empty Australia is; I certainly didn’t. With a population of only 23.78 million and a land mass of 2.97 million square miles (yes, I’m still using imperial measurements, because most of my readers are American) there just isn’t the population crunch in Australia that you see elsewhere in the world. Compare that to the States whopping 321.4 million people in 3.797 million square miles (or only 3.12 million square miles, discounting Alaska and Hawaii). Consider as well, that the majority of the Australian population is clustered along the eastern seaboard, leaving vast swaths of untouched land in the west, the arid middle, and the tropical north.
I have yet to truly appreciate the great expanses of Australia, as I have been living in the two largest cities in the west/north, Perth and Darwin, but I will see it all soon when we hit the road in June on our great Australian road trip. However, when I say largest cities in the area I feel some of you might be misled, these are not large by American measures (Perth maybe as it has 2 million people) but Darwin only has 142,300 people and is the only real city for 2000 miles. Even in the metropolis of Perth you can see flocks of birds in the thousands, snakes chilling in the sand dunes, and kangaroos having their morning snack on the side of the road. In Darwin, I have seen fruit bats the size of small dogs, a reclusive bilby crossing the road, and fell in love with the flock of small, colorful parrots that call our parking lot tree home. It might not be for everyone, but I love that Australia still has its wild spirit.
People are really friendly
I am a stealth foreigner in Australia. At first glance, I could be from here, but when I start to speak my accent gives me away. I was afraid that this would mark me as different, as someone to avoid, but that is so far from the case it’s ridiculous. Everyone is so friendly here that sometimes it confuses my slightly social awkward self, like every time the checkout person wants to chat about life and I freeze up like a deer in the head lights. Oh God she’s talking to me, what do I say, what do I say, thank you or good, oh wait I forgot what she said, God I hope she said how is your day, I’ll go with good, crap, she said have a good day, now I look like an idiot. The friendliness is taking some getting used to. However, I’m learning to open up, relax, and enjoy that a stranger acknowledges that I exist beyond my credit card.
Remember those stereotypes I first asked you to think up? Well they exist in Australia too; I’ve seen some of the beer drinking Outback styled miners wandering barefoot around Darwin and I saw my fair share of surfer bros in Perth, but there is so much more to this country than that. There are red deserts and snowy mountains, vibrant coral reefs and rainy forests, camels and kangaroos, metropolises and one horse towns, and, of course, surfer dudes and Outback crocodile farmers. There are the normal people too, the people who will welcome you into their home after just meeting you, the people who make this country what it is. Contrary to what the rest of the world thinks, the land down under exists and life here is pretty good.