Australia has a Branding Problem

Chapter 24

I never expected to find myself in Australia. Even the first time I visited—in late 2012—the circumstances that brought me there came as a surprise. I’m not sure why I never fantasized about the lonely continent the way I did other pockets of the world. Why, in dreams, I’d cross over the moon-drenched sands of the Gobi or the Sahara but never the dust-baked ochre of the Outback. I grew up during peak Steve Irwin—on sick days, I’d stay home from school and watch The Crocodile Hunter track massive salties through the burned swamps of Kakadu National Park. But I can count the other times Australia peeked my childhood interest on one hand:

1)    When I pressed my lips against the resin-caked mouth of a didgeridoo in an elementary school music class.

2)    When I learned that despite weighing a mere 8 kg, the Tasmanian devil has the third strongest bite in the world.

3)    And when a childhood friend sent me a postcard from Uluru, then still known commonly by its colonial named, Ayers Rock.

So when my sister decided to spend her first year after high school abroad in Toowoomba—rather than, say, Hanoi or Marrakesh—my first reaction wasn’t when can I visit, but why?

Two men of the Yorta Yorta Nation, in costume following a traditional dance performance.

Two men of the Yorta Yorta Nation, in costume following a traditional dance performance.

Looking back, I see how irrational this lack of enthusiasm was. Australia shimmers beneath the glint of danger. There’s the spiders, the snakes, the sharks—all classics—but even the sun is more likely to give you cancer there than in any other corner of this planet. Biologically Australia’s a mess; all egg-laying mammals and over-sized terrestrial birds that occupy ecological niches elsewhere reserved for grazing megafauna like goats or deer. Indigenous Australia is home to one of the longest continuous civilizations—over 500 nations hold traditional ownership of the land, from Tasmania to the Torres Strait. For the expeditioner, the biologist, the anthropologist, or the ethnographer, Australia is a 40 °C + wet-dream.

I’m trying to make sense of why all those allures were lost on me. So far, I’ve come to the following conclusion: Australia has a branding problem. When viewed across the distorted lens of the Pacific, it’s all racist farmers that speak as if through a dirt-filled mouth and womanizing surfer bros whose sun-bleached hair falls halfway down their swollen, tattooed biceps. A few pretty significant historical blunders—the white Australia policy and a distribution of land rights governed until the 1990s by Terra Nullius—have left the country with scars that even the deepest chestnut tan can’t obscure.

Although I’d never explicitly planned it that way, I would eventually be given the opportunity to test these stereotypes. Three years, in fact—provided I didn’t violate my visa restrictions. It all began on one muggy day summer day, when I touched down in Melbourne on the tail-end of February 2015.

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My suitcase handle slid around in my sweaty palm as I tried to makes sense of Tullamarine airport. Through worn eyes, strained after an 8-hour economy flight out of Kuala Lumpur, I looked upon my new home for the first time. The scene outside the arrivals lounge windows was all palm trees, golden light, and highways. It looked a bit like LA—but if LA were startlingly white.

My pocket vibrated—free Wifi! This hadn’t been the case in Brisbane, Sydney, or the Gold Coast airports when I’d visited in late 2012. My university friend Melissa, who’d been living here for just over a year now, had a couch waiting for me on the other side of the Yarra river. I shuffled out the door and to the extremity of the parking lot to catch a clandestine Uber. Forehead smushed against the window for the next 40 minutes, I tried to make sense of this sprawling low-rise city that was commonly referred to as the most livable place on earth.

This whole move to Melbourne had gone off like firecracker. I’d been summering at home on Vancouver Island, working as the product photographer for a small menswear boutique, when I received an offer to return to Thailand the coming Fall to help run an English camp in the cowboy obsessed town of Pak Chong.  The prospect crackled with the warm static of nostalgia; I’d spent my first weekend in Thailand, two years earlier, in the same town. But it also felt sedatingly familiar. I was becoming increasingly aware of the timer I’d set before that first trip to South East Asia—in January 2013—and it was rapidly running out. 2015 was the year I promised myself I’d go back to school.  

Over that span of 22 months, I’d learned as much about myself as you’d expect from someone in their mid-20s, living out of a backpack. One, perhaps less expected, epiphany was the urge to become as chemical engineer. But I also recognized that I was under-equipped for the challenge. Nearly two-years of peering at the world through the kaleidoscope of rapid-fire cultural immersion had eroded my already epileptic attention span. Last time I had attended lectures, as an undergrad, I’d scraped through by constructing the most diverse course load possible; mornings inhaling acetone in the sterile crucible of the chemistry lab and afternoons interviewing aid workers, phone-sex operators, and activists. No graduate program could offer that same flexibility. Therefore, if I did require equal amounts of novelty, I’d have to stuff it into my time outside the classroom. What made the most sense was to study abroad. When I searched for English-language, internationally recognized institutes outside of Canada, the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering had the earliest start date of the options that came up.

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It’s easy to romanticize a blind one-way move to a new country. So let me kick things off with a few humbling stats. Ever since Captain James Cook landed in Botany Bay, one fall day in 1770, most journeys to this part of the continent have been one way. Today, one fourth of Australians are born abroad.

First there were the British convicts, who spilled into the region around Port Phillip in the early 1800s once the penal colonies of Sydney and Van Diemen’s land had been filled. Then, in the late 1820s, enterprising pastoralists began to creep up the banks of the Maribyrnong and the Yarra to lay the foundations for what would become the first capital of Federated Australia. Melbourne would remain its second most populated city, even after that title was passed off to Canberra in 1927. The 1850s welcomed an explosion of diversity with Chinese, Greek and Italian migrants chasing the gold found in the hills of Ballarat and Bendigo. Since then Melbourne’s offered solace to various waves of refugees: escaping World War II in Europe, the American bombing of Vietnam, the famine in Ethiopia, and the rupturing of Sudan. 9 million people have immigrated to Australia to date. That’s in a country of a mere 27 million.

Melissa’s three-bedroom apartment was a microcosm of this.  Her boyfriend, Zac, was a Kiwi and their two roommates a Brit and a Finn.

“Don’t worry about making Australian friends, they’re dickheads anyways,” Zac said as we sipped nutty brown ale on the balcony, 30 stories above South Back. The Crown Casino next-door belched gas-fed flames into the night, lightning up his half-sarcastic smile.

The black swan - endemic to Australia and New Zealand - and absent everywhere else in the world. Long before Europeans arrived in Australia they used the animal - thought to be fictional at the time - as a metaphor for something that did not exist.

The black swan - endemic to Australia and New Zealand - and absent everywhere else in the world. Long before Europeans arrived in Australia they used the animal - thought to be fictional at the time - as a metaphor for something that did not exist.

My first two weeks in Melbourne went impossibly smooth. There were obstacles, yes—attempting to navigate a crowded rental market or absorbing expensive inner-city food prices with no income on the horizon. But these were hardly different from the type I’d experiences in a major Western city. At times, in fact, I felt they were too damn similar. Even the Australian dollars I bled held the same international values as their Canadian counterparts. As I made the commute across the river each day on foot, through the knotted streets of the CBD, most of what I saw brought back the soggy streets of Vancouver: McDonalds, a Chinese Grocer, or a hip-little coffee joint. I began to wonder if the move had been worth migrating 13,000 kilometers across the Pacific for at all.

I tried to explain this Melissa to one night. I shouldn’t have been surprised when she told me she felt the same way.

“It’s easy for us me, and easy for Zac but we won’t stay here forever,” she said.  “Actually it’s easy for everyone. Too easy. The pay’s good. The hours are good. But people get too comfortable here.”

Too comfortable—those words hung in the air of the musky, maximalist bar. Then what made us both of us feel so unsettled?

--

Relativity is the traveler’s unshakable shadow. The moment his feet touch new soil, he draws comparisons to the patch of ground he left.

“Phnom Penh feels lot like Manila,” a Filipino friend once told me as we received a dust-bath in the back of our tuk-tuk into town. Later that day, while reading the Cambodia Daily, I spotted a story on the staggering number of co-working spaces popping up around town and caught myself drawing parallels of my own. In a globalizing world, these similarities seem easier to spot than ever. There’s a KFC tucked next to Yangon’s Shri Kali Temple and a Cuba Libre ordered in Havana will now be mixed with authentic, brand-name Coke. But often these aren’t the carbon copies we credit them as—they’re far more nuanced by their environment. Cashiers in branded black lungyis; cane-sugar instead of artificial sweetener. Us humans have a built-in familiarity bias—we tend to dwell only on the details we recognize. I cannot remember the other stories I read on my first day in Phnom Penh, even though I scanned the paper front-to-back.

Modern, graffiti choked Melbourne.

Modern, graffiti choked Melbourne.

The problem with drawing comparisons is that in doing so we focus our attention on externalities rather than immersing ourselves in the culture at hand. 20 countries have been referred to as The Paris of the East at some point in time, from Shanghai, to Kolkata to Baku, Azerbaijan. But what does that really tell us about any of these places? They house a growing population? An iconic tower? Croissants? Generalizations can be convenient for making sense of a place but useless if they emphasize the wrong details. The irony, of course, is that the more of the world we visit, the more prone we are to this pitfall. The more scaffolding we have to prop our comparisons up, the easier it is for this scaffolding to become a crutch.

I’ve vocally expressed a similar fear I have when it comes to exoticising. I go so far as to build fail-safes into my travel routine to prevent myself from falling victim to it. During my first 24-hours in a foreign country, I force myself to leave my camera at home so as not to return with too many photographs of iPhone wielding monks. Instead, I spend that day visiting a café or a university campus. I read fiction written by an author from that country instead of nonfiction written about it. I want to vacate my brain of any bias. Although sometimes it still manages to slip through the back door.

During my first two weeks in Melbourne, I got too caught up on one end of the spectrum and forgot about the other. I was looking for bush-tucker and feeling irritated by all the Nandos. What I should have been doing is visiting all the pie shops and laneways in-between. It’s tangled amidst the intricacies that we find the most revealing aspects of a culture. Restaurants on the borderlands of Melbourne’s Italian precinct that serve spag bol and parmas, the same way early Chinese migrants to the Americas invented the fortune cookies to attract a new type of clientele. Australia and Canada may appear similar in that both are young nations, absorbed into the Commonwealth at the expense of a rich indigenous past, and built into cultural mosaics through immigration from around the world. But these actions took place within hundreds of years of each other and through startlingly different mechanisms. The world had changed a lot over that period of time. And it’s the zeitgeist of a nation as well as its explicit cultural customs that each wave of immigration brings to its new, respective home.

Two of my new Australian friends, Joyce and Sunny, loitering in a parkade off Flinders Street.

Two of my new Australian friends, Joyce and Sunny, loitering in a parkade off Flinders Street.

With 20 minutes to kill between apartment showings, I stumbled into a standing-room only café.

“How ya goin'?” The blunt-banged barista asked.

“I’m doing well,” I replied, trying not to over enunciate my words.

I relished the small novelty of not being asked what size beverage I wanted and fingered through a stack of magazines.

I made a mental memo to look up the different between a latte and a flat white.


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Anyone who has been reading for a while now (or has basic math skills, really) will know that this blog is about 16 months behind today's events. If you're curious about peering into my future, my Instagram account gives a pretty comprehensive idea of how I've settled into my new home.


Posts set in Melbourne, Australia