Study Abroad: Learning About Australian (and American) Identity in Sydney

If you’ve never traveled to a place where you’re the one with the funny accent, you really should. Being an outsider is terrifying at times, but also a great conversation starter, as people will always ask you where you’re from. The study abroad gods say that you’ll learn more about yourself when you’re an outsider. Maybe this is true, but so far I’ve found that what I’ve learned more about is America.

Ironically, the discussion that taught me the most about being American was concerned with what it means to be Australian. Americans often gripe about our lack of culture. Many look to the countries of Europe and Asia and envy their long, rich histories. People rarely discuss the charm of American cities, and when they do, it’s in reference to very specific areas. Comparing our old cities like Boston to Europe’s Greek and Roman ruins is laughable.

But, according to the people that I’ve met since arriving, Australians see America as having a more distinct national culture than Australia does. Aside from the fact that the government actually has to pay television stations to schedule 50 percent Australian programming, the impression I’ve gotten is that Australians feel lacking of a fundamental national identity. The country never fought for independence; it never really had a major part in any war. Patriotism is very subdued, except perhaps on Australia Day and on the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps holiday. When brainstorming qualities that were quintessentially Australian, things like kangaroos, beaches, and Vegemite were mentioned, but these are as insubstantial as the American apple pie and hot dogs.

Yet there are ideas that I take to be distinctly American: our particular conception of freedom, of the frontier, of the melting pot. Not only are these ideas upheld in America, but I think they are characteristic of our culture. We look back to national heroes like Washington, Franklin, and Lincoln, and to the battles that they fought in the name of these values. Of course, these historical figures are idealized, but they represent American values nonetheless. While our culture reaches across the world and is shaped by global influences, that doesn’t mean that it is not distinctly American. 

When our culture reaches many parts of the world, it is often a stereotypical version of American culture. For example, I met one student hoping to study abroad in America who was expecting to find the culture of Friday Night Lights, and another who became an American political junkie thanks to shows like The West Wing. There are certainly truths in these television shows, but they are also generalizations that show an entertainment version of American values and ways of living.

Unlike most of my American classmates, many young Australians feel it’s necessary to go abroad for a few years before they settle back home. They spend time in Europe or Asia or the Americas, perhaps so that they can experience places with a richer—or simply older—cultural history than their own. From what I understand, this seems to be an idealization of other cultures and a way of saying that Australia does not have enough of a distinct culture on its own.

Yet Australia does seem unique to an outsider—or at least to me. It is one of a minority of developed countries in the southern hemisphere. It has been influenced by British culture, of course, but it also has its own unique twists. But does being unique mean that Australians have a culture of their own? From my brief time in the country, it seems that many feel they do not. But maybe the very fact that Australians feel the need to experience the world is quintessentially Australian. Maybe traveling and leaving the country is part of the Australian culture, the same way that multiculturalism makes up much of what I consider to be American culture. Perhaps in the end, Americans and Australians are too focused on looking outward rather than inward to see that looking outward is, in fact, what makes our cultures special. 

Samantha Stilson is a junior at Harvey Mudd College, where she is majoring in International Relations and minoring in Computer Science. She is spending the semester abroad at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia. 

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