In my experience, being an expat hasn’t meant cutting ties with my nationality. If anything it becomes more important. It’s a site of reflection, and one of the main topics of conversation you have with those you meet.
Even though I’ve never felt very patriotic, patriotism is rife in Australia. The reason why I’ve never felt it myself is because the symbols are cartoonish and unrelatable. Patriotism is drinking a cold stubby [a can of beer] by the barbie [barbecue] (which usually only men do). It’s an appreciation for the bush (where only a minority of the population actually live); a hunger for kangaroo meat (which is so unpopular on a day-to-day basis that you find it next to frozen dog food in the supermarket); fondness for Australian slag (which nobody under age 50 actually uses); and an admiration for white, male lyric poets who died over a century ago.
Many people who don’t feel they belong in this stereotypical Australia might feel “cultural cringe”, a kind of inferiority complex which makes people dismiss their own culture as less valuable than others. It is a big force in the creative industries, which I’m most accustomed with. Most of Australia’s major galleries import (at huge expense) their exhibitions from overseas – things like Renaissance paintings, the Dutch masters, the impressionists – before looking at the cool stuff closer by. Headline keynote speakers at big literary events are almost always flown in from the antipodes and being from somewhere else seems to lend those speakers a greater air of success and legitimacy. Most theatre companies will feature the likes of Shakespeare and Chekov before investing in local, living talent. The ballet – which invariably rehashes some old classic like Swan Lake – gets vastly more funding than many other art forms.
We really ought to find a middle ground which neither values the old tropes about what Australia is nor assumes that international means good. The middle ground would recognise that Australian culture is changing, multifaceted, diverse, and yet small and necessarily outward-looking. There’s a lot of great art that comes from Australia, and it’s absolutely a literary powerhouse. There’s legitimate reasons to feel pride in Australian culture without mentioning kangaroos. But because our modern, creative output is neither the Ballet Russe nor Henry Lawson (a famous, old bush poet), it seems to evade any mainstream recognition.
The cultural cringe feeds into why many young, creative Australians like me feel a sense of cosmopolitanism. We must travel. We must see other places. We might have to distance ourselves a bit from our nationality in order be adequately recognised for our work. We definitely have to go to bigger, busier places to find the bustling excitement of a lively contemporary culture.
But escaping from home doesn’t mean that your potential as a creative is suddenly realised. In Australia, your nationality is ordinary. Elsewhere, I often find myself carrying cultural stereotypes I barely know and don’t relate to – at best. Here are some real things I have been told in my travels:
- When I think of Australia I think of nothing.
- What are some good things to do in the outback?
- You guys are pretty loud.
- Your accent is similar to the Swiss, right? No wait, I mean New Zealand.
- Australia? Oh, the Crocodile Hunter!
- Oh, you eat kangaroo!
- You speak English?
- You call that a knife?
- I tried Fosters [beer] once. It’s awful.
It kind of puts you in your place. The cringe at home is very similar to the cringe overseas. People don’t know a lot about you or your tiny country. But it’s a problem of our own making. We created those stereotypes, those are the stories we told ourselves. We ignored our capacity for creativity and innovation. And as a result of my travel experiences, I’ve seen that the world follows suit.