Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Not so Distant Land of Oz

By Daniel Pereira 
Ask an American about Australia, and they will likely evoke some jibe about deserts, marsupials, or crocodile hunters. The silly representation of Aussies in the media along with the sheer distance between our nations can only
bolster the notion. Few Americans have the means to take the transcontinental leap. Fewer even, have the stomach to deal with twenty-five hours of awful sleep, nagging children, and terrible airplane food. Four months ago, I did not know what to expect. I must confess, when my brother surprised me with an all-inclusive holiday to Oz, my travel research mainly consisted of perusing through the Wikitravel page. “It is generally acceptable to wear revealing clothing in Australia,” I read. I was good to go.

To much amazement, my transgression of touristic laziness went greatly unpunished. Arriving at Oz, what was most striking was that our separated countries seemed more akin to first cousins than complete strangers. I had barely escaped the throngs in Tullamarine airport when I was readily greeted by billboards inciting to “Try the double quarter pounder,” and “Enjoy Coca Cola”. The airport vicinity was filled with a menagerie of familiar, but somehow unwelcome sensations. Teenagers playing on their iPads, a Ford Focus blasting hip-hop, a bevy of blonde stewardesses with Santa hats gossiping in front of a Jose Cuervo cutout. Was this Australia or Atlanta?

As a country with close political and economic ties to Uncle Sam, it's not surprising to see Australia, well, more like America than anything. These observations naturally incite a discussion on globalization and its homogenizing effect. For those of us who slept through Political Science 101, this is the Cliff-notes version: Nation wants to develop, nation looks towards another nation for a developing model, nation accepts the model, nation finally develops but loses its identity in the process. So it goes. The problem with this is clear. A people’s customs are its prized possessions (even the poorest of societies will place pride and value in their culture). To lose this on the premise of self-improvement would entail the worst kind of existential suicide (what Mario Vargas Llosa called “the negative utopia of the world.”) Naturally, there are counterarguments to this theory (which in all respects, is still within the realm of educated speculation), and the discussion is better suited for a Master thesis than a blog article. However, I cannot help but wonder if there ever was a unique “Aussie” identity. If there existed, at some point in time, a pure substance that has now become muddled by the modish trends of the industrialized world.

To be fair, Aussies do have their unique set of manners, conventions, and tastes (one would be hard-pressed to find as many fish-and-chip joints, say, in Wichita, as opposed to Wagga Wagga). However, throughout my trip, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had never truly left the “establishment”. It would not be happenstance that if a tree were planted to the left of Main Street, Melbourne, a similar tree would be planted to the right of Main Street, Memphis. As a nation with great public programs, a burgeoning economy, and enviable unemployment rate, I cannot say that Oz would be better off outside the modern landscape. But then again, if all the kids want to learn to rap like Kanye, who’s going to learn to play the didgeridoo?

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