Whose Afraid of the Big Bad (American) Wolf?

Posted on December 12, 2010 by


It was about ten years ago that I attended a David Malouf book launch when he said that Australians are terrified of being swallowed whole by American culture and yet it is intrinsically in us to resist it. After all, there were American’s on the first fleet and we have been successfully resisting their attempts to culturally dominate us ever since.

All my life at least, Australian’s have been resisting American’s. There is an unease in our relating, that is very one-sided. Australian’s have those jokes. You know the ones: Why do American’s talk so loud? So they can be heard over their clothes – that sort of thing. Australian’s have made a pathetic attempt at a haughty disdain and American’s have watched in a bemused fashion and ruffled our hair.


Some of my dear American friends over the years have asked me why Australian’s feel this way. I have always explained it in terms of cultural domination – of us being irritated with American products and ideas dominating every market place when they are not necessarily the best; this sort of thing.


But I have reason to change that idea now.


I used to go to New York City all the time. My mother lived there and that gave me ‘excuses’ to travel there regularly. My experience of American’s was always the same. Why, when they were so important to the rest of the world, did they give so little thought about the rest of the world? Why did they vote in THAT president (over and over again)? Why can’t they make a decent coffee, and why does everything they eat have to be six times the size of our largest meal? It’s now been, I think, at least six years since my last visit.


This time was very different in two ways.


The first difference I noticed, was how much of American culture has been assimilated by Australian’s recently. More than I’ve experienced before. It’s in the little things. Starbucks, Donut King, Victoria’s Secret, Gap, Barnes and Noble – these stores are now all over our shores, and they were once very special reasons to go to the States. You’re hard pressed to find a major chain store in the States that is not in Australia. But more than that, we can shop at all these places on-line now. The shopping, always an exciting aspect of any visit to New York, was simply, no different to home.


It’s not just the stores, however. Television looked the same. I commuted each day from the burbs on the Staten Island Ferry or the morning express bus, and the conversations people had around me could easily have been had in Sydney Australia. Conversations about other countries, about news, food stamps and poverty.


But the big change, was in the American’s themselves. There is a nervousness to them now. A vulnerability. They still have that warmth (they will leap over a subway barrier to help if you are looking cock-eyed at a map) but now they worried. My son, on his first trip to the States, and only sixteen years old, said “People are so nervous here. It’s like everyone’s scared.”


I knew it myself. I felt instantly warm toward the people, when I had mostly felt irritation. And it wasn’t just me either. Peter Carey who had always said he would never write an American novel despite so many New Yorkers’ begging him to do so, wrote the quintessential American novel last year (Parrot and Oliver in America), Don Watson called Americans ‘those odd cousins that fascinate us, but we always worry about getting too close to.’ Yet he also wrote his American book last year (American journey’s). And then there is all that cultural assimilation that we have been so happy to accept. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that in this country we have embraced America more culturally in the last ten years or so than we ever have before. I saw it when I was there.




Is it a post 9/11 thing? Is it a GFC thing? Is it about the power shift toward Asia?




Those events devastated America, and no doubt contribute deeply to their obvious insecurity. More than one American on my trip made mention of how well Australia did in the GFC. American’s have always looked on Australian’s as exotic funsters, loving our larrikin image. But, besides the guy who followed us in Staples trying to copy our accents, this time the engaging was deeper. More respectful. There were even questions about moving to Australia, and how difficult it must be to get into such a great country. American’s on this trip didn’t baffle me. I felt for them. And I wanted to warmly reach out.


Is this a permanent shift? I think it is. And I think it is partly why we have accepted so much of their way of life onto our shores recently. I think we no longer fear them. They can’t take us over any more. Rome has started to fall, and we are feeling the first effects of that now.


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