Australia, a world in itselfUrban cities Down Under are a beautiful confluence of people and culture
Australia is a country essentially of coastal cities. The romaticised outback holds more allure than a real desire to venture out for most. While nothing much is happening at any time in its outback, the cities, at least the ones I visited, offer a glimpse of Australia’s soul if one can say a place or a country can have such a thing as a soul.
Even though a tourist and a short-term visitor can know only so much, unlike a serious traveller or an anthropologist, the consolation is that even serious travellers from James Anthony Froude to Rebecca West, Joan Didion and V.S. Naipaul couldn’t escape their prejudices in their travel writings. As for anthropologists, one can say, while acknowledging their in-depth contributions about non-Western societies, that only rarely have the examples of individual societies studied have produced disciplinary theories. And those theories in return have influenced the disciplines—for example Clifford Geertz’s study of the island of Bali. More often, anthropologists have studied individual non-Western societies to confirm or refute disciplinary theories produced in Western academia.
Before Edward Said, most anthropologists while studying non-Western societies didn’t think about their unconscious biases but after Said, many made the West the source of all non-Western pathologies. Given all that, I can’t say anything definitively about Australia after only an 18-day visit of four of its cities. So, I’m offering here my disjointed impressions as coherently as the deadline of a newspaper column allows.
Australia is expensive; the wages of its workers are high. The cities I visited—Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Cairns—are people friendly. The suburban towns are linked to the city and to each other by a network of trains and buses. And people do walk a lot from home to the bus or train station or the town market and back; people walk or run along its paved waterfronts and broad sidewalks. Within the Melbourne business district, the tram service is free—hop on and hop off. While the street-driving in the cities can be slow and congested because of their serpentine structure (except for the downtown areas, suburban streets are rarely on a north-south, east-west grid) and because of the lack of quick access to freeways, their public transportation system offers a glimpse of its government’s attitude towards its people. Hence, Australia’s capitalism harnessed by the state is people friendly. Even though cars are not very expensive unlike houses, petrol is expensive compared to its price in the United States. While I was there, petrol per litre ranged anywhere between 1.39 to 1.55 au dollar for regular unleaded gasoline. Houses are mostly red brick structures with tiles as roof with no central heating and cooling. Most wash clothes in machines but dry them outside.
There is incentive given to families for child birth; and monthly allowances thereafter for underage children of certain income level. Six-week paternity leave is given to a worker, and minimum wage is above $18 au.
Hotels, buses, taxis, restaurants, shops, petrol pumps and convenience stores are staffed mostly by Asians. Even among Asians, the Chinese outnumber everybody else. In the Canberra hotel, the receptionist who checked me in was a Brazil-born young man who had grown up in Australia. He boasted that he had no “accent” in either Portuguese or English. The young woman, another receptionist, who helped open our room, was a recent arrival from Gambia. Our rickshaw on the Yarra riverfront in Melbourne was pulled by a Brazilian man and the couple who sold us marino wool clothing (it was getting colder by every passing day) was from Argentina who said they had lived in Australia for more than three decades but whose English made me ask him if he was from Chile. The young woman who served us lunch in the alley next to the Federation Square was from Mexico, who said she couldn’t be there if she was not born in California. The receptionist of the Clarion hotel who suggested we should visit Domaine Chandon winery was from Iran. The Uber drivers in Sydney were from Italy and Lebanon. The Italian young man said there was more money in Dubai than in Australia but life was better in Australia though the taxes were high. The Lebanese older man came to Australia decades ago when he married an Australian woman and claimed that he made $2000 au a week just from his Uber driving. He was an accountant for the rest of his time.
You could run into Nepalis everywhere—city streets, restaurants, airports, walking in the streets, commuter buses and trains, grandfathers taking grand children to schools or grandmothers walking on the sidewalks, pushing strollers. Taxi drivers were mostly Indians—and in Cairns Punjabis, especially Sikhs. Sikhs were the largest banana farmers in Cairns.
Whenever I got a chance in the evenings or mornings, I turned on the television. Besides the usual soaps and shows and global Trump-Un parley, television debates centred around these: the rights of the Aborigines and their potential or real violations, Australian National University’s rejection of a multimillion dollar grant by the Ramsay Centre that came with strings attached to use the funds to start a Western Civilisation degree and the prime minister’s public disagreement with it, condemnation of Australian soldiers’ putting up of the Nazi flag during their assignment in Afghanistan in 2007.
In the Australian National Museum in Canberra, the Aborigines section of the museum not only displayed in elaborate detail about how the First Australians, as they are called now, lived—their lifestyle and their artifacts but also how their encounter with the Europeans deprived them of their hunting and fishing territories, brought diseases to decimate their population and other adverse consequences. The growing awareness of indigenous rights and recognition of their voices became clear in the candid statements on public display that the descendants of the First Australians had made about their loss. Indigenous experts and activists themselves had designed and curated this section of the museum.
The rebellious heritage of Australians is alive and well. This is the spirit that Peter Carey in many of his novels, notably in his True History of the Kelly Gang, and Robert Hughes in his epic non-fiction work Fatal Shore depicted so well. This is the national lore of the Ozzie manifested in many aspects of their life and society.