Australia, May 2008

MAY 2008 — It’s somewhat disorienting to be in Australia. When I went for a jog this morning in Melbourne, I had to be very careful about crossing roads because they drive on the English-side of the road here. It’s also autumn and the leaves are turning colors. So that’s a neckwrench, coming from New York, where spring is a-bloomin.

As I jogged through Como Park along the Yarra River, I saw people walking their dogs and carrying what appeared to be weapons. They were about three feet long and seemed to have round knockers of some sort on the bottom. I thought they might be called “bean knockers” of some sort, for hitting people on the head. But it turns out they were ball-throwing devices; they put balls on the cuplike device on the end and hurled the balls greater distance for the dogs to chase. Turns out it’s based on how the aborigines throw their spears. Go figure.

And the sports they play here are all odd. I went to an Australian-Rules Football game last night. They had 70,000 people watching a game in which 18 guys on each side use a ball that resembles an American football run up and down a 150-meter field with complete abandon. They didn’t have “plays”’ like American football does. And the ball has to touch the ground every 10 meters, so the players would actually bounce the ball once in a while as they ran. Of course, that would halt the play in American football, but here it is required. And in a pub with Mike Keats, my old boss from Hong Kong, we watched Australian women play Netball, which had some similarities with basketball, but only vaguely. And then they play rugby here, which is a completely alien undertaking.

So they speak the same language we do, albeit with a different accent, but their practices and habits are so very different. And oh yes, because it’s in the southern hemisphere, the water goes down the drain in the reverse direction of how it does in the United States. Water goes clockwise down the drain at home; here it is counterclockwise.

I spent three days in Melbourne, which is a lovely city. It’s further south than Sydney so it’s colder. (Remember, south here is toward Antarctica.) The city is surprisingly cosmopolitan with tons of new Chinese and Indian immigrants. In fact, we enjoyed a Mother’s Day lunch with Mike and Sybil Keats and their daughter and grandson in a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown. I’m told that the reason so many immigrants are coming to Australia is that the United States has really tightened up. I wonder if we are depriving ourselves of talent.

Mainland Chinese are all over the place. They’re hungry for coal, iron ore, uranium, wheat, etc. One visiting economist was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “Whatever you have here in Australia, the Chinese want it.”

I noticed that there is no sense of fear here. There are almost no police on the streets, whereas in New York we have guys with submachine guns standing near Grand Central Station and other key pieces of infrastructure. And incredibly, there is no security clearance in the lobby of office buildings. You simply go right up to your floor. In New York, getting through security and letting them screen your bags is almost as much hassle as getting through security at an airport. So they are not worried about crime or terror.

Not that it is utopia. There is clearly a kind of racism here that they are maybe just beginning to deal with. The aborigines are now called indigenous people and an art museum in Melbourne has a display of their art, but the wounds between white Australians and the aboriginals are deep, just as deep as between white Americans and native Americans (whom we used to call Red Indians.) And they still do things like tell Polish jokes on the radio. That’s so very 20 years ago in the States. (Okay, here’s the joke. A Polish guy goes to see an optometrist who proceeds to give him an eye test. When he reaches the last line of the eye chart, with the letters Q Z Y X T P, the optometrist asks, ‘Can you read that?’ To which the Polish guy responds, ‘I can not only read that. I know that guy.’)

The funny linguistic differences keep surfacing. In asking for a coffee, you either ask for a “flat white” or a “long black.” When you ask for a lemonade, they bring you a Sprite. People ask me funny questions like, “What did you get up to today?” None of your damn business, is my immediate New York thought.

The gap in sporting lingo is profound. I discover that there are two kinds of rugby here; one is the Australian version which has 13 players a side and the other is the original European version with 15 players on a side. What we call soccer in America, but what the Europeans call football, is also called soccer here. At least we agree on that.

The sports metaphor gap is profound in business discussions. An Australian PR lady took me to see an American executive involved in a business in which I was interested. As I was conversing with my fellow Yank, we began talking about how hard it is to get through “the final yard” in any business effort. I turned to her and asked if she understood what we were talking about. “No idea, lov,” she said. Of course, we were talking about the final yard in American football, an endeavor that completely escapes the Australian sensibility or comprehension.

Back up in Sydney, I had a moment of supreme disorientation, almost like something out of Hitchcock. One morning, I ran into the park that surrounds the Sydney Opera, and an art museum and a tropical plant center. As I ran along the trail in the tropical area, I heard what I thought were very loud birds. I looked up and HOLY SHIT, they were these big hairy bats hanging upside down. Bats in America are small and weigh a few ounces. These suckers must have weighed five to 10 pounds. I asked a fellow recreationist, what are those creatures? “They’re flying foxies,” he said, quite calmly. I later discovered, upon deep research, that their fruit bats and if they defecate on your car and you don’t remove it within a day, it will strip the paint from the car. I guess they eat so much fruit with citric acid that their feces is deadly.

American brand names are everywhere: Starbucks, FedEx, Westin, Marrikott, Citibank, General Motors, Ford.

From Sydney, the plane heads north and flies over Australia for about four hours. It looks like the wastelands of Nevada the whole way. Absolutely nothing down there. When we reach the northern shore near Darwin, I can see the northern shore of Australia, but the Great Barrier Reef is to the east, so I can’t see that. The Australians have a phrase—“the tyranny of distance” to describe the huge distances they have to contend with within Australia (where the vast majority of the population lives along the coastlines, much like 90 percent of Canadians live within 50 miles of the U.S. border.) But the phrase also applies to how far Australia is from everywhere else. Getting to and from Australia requires a big investment of time, any way you cut it. If Melbourne and Sydney were closer to America, or the population centers of Asia, it would be positive in some respects, but they’d be overrun with more tourists and immigrants. Their character is appealing precisely because they are so far away

From Darwin north, we fly over remote islands in Indonesia, like the Moluccas, skirting Borneo and New Guinea. Some of the most exotic islands in the world, but also the scene of combat between the Americans and Japanese in WWII. We seem to skirt the southern Philippine island of Mindanao and then head straight across the South China Sea to Hong Kong. My Australian journey is over.

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