Australia is a very easy country to stereotype if you’ve never been here. For the three weeks that we were in the Midwest, a number of common perspectives about Australia emerged, which can be broken down into two main categories: Creatures That Will Kill You and Creatures That Are Cute But Weird.
Additional categories include Surfing/Sharks, Accents, Slang, and Do Australians Really Eat Vegemite? And at least they’re better than Australia’s perception of America which is pretty much Why Are People So Obsessed With Owning Guns?
On Day 2 in Chicago Jared and I strolled into a T-Mobile shop to purchase a SIM card. The young man behind the counter grew extremely excited when he learned that we live in Australia.
“So do you guys have kangaroos?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, perking up. “They hang out in grassy fields and you always see them on road trips. Kind of like cows, I guess.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I mean, do you, like, have kangaroos? Like in your house?”
“Um, no,” I said. It was all I could do to resist saying that we mainly use kangaroos for transportation and therefore they are usually kept in the garage.
“Because my friend studied abroad in Australia. Janine.”
Here he paused and searched our faces for signs of recognition – Oh sure! Janine! I know Janine. – before completing his story.
“Anyway, she lived with a local family there and the mom took in sick or injured kangaroos and like, rehabilitated them so they could go back in the wild.”
“Right,” Jared said. “No, we personally don’t do that.”
Perhaps in future T-Mobile guy will ask more specific questions when Janine tells stories about Australia.
Jared’s accent made him an immediate target for questions; it seemed like every time I turned around he was laying it on thick about the snakes and spiders that inhabit Australia. He especially enjoyed telling the story about the time I came across ‘the biggest worm I’d ever seen’ only to learn that it was a baby snake.
This raises an important consideration: Does Australia really have a large number of dangerous creatures, or do the Aussies just like to scare people? (Exhibit A: The dropbear) The world may never know for sure, but I still shake out my shoes before putting them on, just in case.
In the US my American accent blended in, so I got a different set of reactions than Jared did. (Lady at the nail salon: “Honey, couldn’t you get him to move here?”) The most baffling was that once people knew where I lived, they began to insist that I had an Australian accent.
My mom and I were at J.Jill in Indianapolis, and while she was in the fitting room the enthusiastic saleswoman (“It’s my second day here!”) asked where I lived.
“I live in Australia, but – ”
“Oh gosh, I can hear your accent!”
“but I grew up in Indianapolis,” I finished.
“There it is, I heard it again!”
Over the following weeks I figured out why people thought I had an Australian accent – it’s the way I say Australia and Aussie.
Americans say it like this: ‘Oss-trail-ya’ and ‘Ossie’
Aussies say it like this: ‘Straya’ and ‘Ozzie’
I’ve come to pronounce it somewhere in between, a distinction I failed to notice until recently. Now I hear it all the time, most recently in footage of Aussie rugby league-turned NFL player Jarryd Hayne’s pre-season games for the 49ers – the announcers love to pull out their favorite Australian phrases (G‘day mate, put another shrimp on the barbie) then declare that the ‘Ossies’ must be going crazy.
It’s hard to argue with these perceptions of Australia, even though at times they make Crocodile Dundee seem like a documentary. Just when I’m ready to say that these stereotypes are exaggerated, I receive a reminder that they are founded in truth. There are a bunch of unusual animals here. In my household there are no fewer than four surfboards. Even after years of exposure to Australian slang, Jared can still throw me with his turn of phrase.
And as a tangible reminder that what they say about Australia is true, I had a real-life snake encounter this week on campus. I initially thought it was fake, planted by a student to get some laughs. The person next to me thought that was hilarious – “This lady here thought it was fake!”
“Just a common tree snake,” said the Australians. “It won’t hurt you.”
The longer I live here, it is increasingly clear why ‘no worries’ is perhaps the most common phrase of all – if Australians started worrying about all that stuff we think will kill them, they might never stop.