I don’t know anybody who’d feel comfortable saying they loathe Africans or can’t stand the Chinese, but I often hear people say they don’t like Americans. It is a prejudice still permitted in polite society.
I’m Australian, by the way, born in America. I’ve been here from a young enough age to have an Australian accent. My parents aren’t so lucky. They’re held to account for the sins of their country on a regular basis, even though they left the United States decades ago.
A few months back, they were taken to task in a supermarket queue when a woman overheard them discussing their evening meal. She said they – Americans – had made the world unsafe and should go home. She’d picked unwisely. My parents, like many of their compatriots, are critical of George W and his team. They agreed that the United States is behaving like a willful child, stomping across the globe, breaking things it has no right to touch. And because they all agreed, the supermarket encounter ended amicably. But it’s not the first time they’ve had to listen to complaints about the United States.
I wondered if other Americans living here had similar experiences. I think of Melbourne as a tolerant city, but maybe I’d feel differently if I sounded American. The United States reputation as a global power, safe haven, and maker of cultural product, has waxed and waned over the decades. But right now it’s asserting itself in many unpopular ways. So I talked to some Americans who’ve made Melbourne their home, and asked whether we’d made them feel welcome.
According to the 2001 Census, there are 53,694 US-born people in Australia, 11,200 of them in Victoria, 9431 in Melbourne. There are about 8500 Americans studying in Australia. The Department of Immigration says there were a further 9635 student visas granted to North Americans in 2005-6, making them the fourth largest international student group after China, India and Korea.
It seems that our government’s attachment to the current US administration has changed things somewhat for Americans here. Not that ours is an unpleasant city in which to live. I’m told we’re a friendly, well-travelled and sociable bunch, but that our love-hate relationship with the United States has lately been leaning away from the hearts and flowers end.
Kristen Murray is an independent research consultant in her thirties who moved to Australia from Memphis in 1992 with her Australian husband. She says she liked Melbourne straight away and felt no hostility at all about her place of origin. But after the US began its military action in 2002, she noticed an increase in people asking her opinion and telling her they were angry about the war. ‘People often predicated anti-American statements with “I know all Americans aren’t like this, and you certainly are not, but -” and then they would say what troubled them about the Bush administration or Americans in general,’ she says. ‘I think this government has – perhaps irreparably, or at least for many decades to come – damaged the reputation of the US and Americans in general in most parts of the world.’
Even if you agree with a criticism about your home, listening to it is never fun. William Kestin, 45, is the CEO of the Australasian Promotional Products Association. Born in White Fish Bay, Wisconsin, he spent seventeen years in Los Angeles before moving here in 1997. He loves the beauty and sophistication of our city but says: ‘I probably experience anti-American sentiment at least monthly. It can be simple, a comment or an off-the-cuff joke. But I’m a practical person. I’ll get into a cab and say I’m Canadian because it’s easier than dealing with the same comments over and over. You know, ‘You’re making the world unsafe, why are you Americans so aggressive, why is your culture so bent on world domination?’ You get used to it to a certain extent. Sometimes I’ll give people their two- or three-minute American bash. I’ll make the comment that I don’t run the country, and that close to fifty per cent of the country didn’t vote for the guy.’
Maybe this is what you have to cop when you come from a country regarded as the schoolyard bully (or worse). No other nation pushes our fury and indignation buttons the way America does. We are unforgiving about America’s extreme beliefs and cloddish imperfections because it has the money and might to insist on reshaping the world in its image. Everyone has a stake in its behaviour. William Kestin says, ‘Because America is considered the only viable world power at the moment – although China’s well and truly emerging – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with holding it up to scrutiny.’ But he adds, ‘I think some of the choices our government has made make it easier for people who already had anti-American sentiments to be more vocal about it.’
Are we following Europe’s lead where anti-American sentiment has shot skyward since the start of the Iraq war? Writing for The Huffington Post in February this year, Andrei Markovits, a professor at the University of Michigan, says: ‘I cannot recall a time like the present, when such a vehement aversion to everything American has been articulated in Europe… I perceive this virulent, Europe-wide, and global anti-Bushism as the glaring tip of a massive anti-American iceberg. Anti-Americanism has been promoted to the status of Western Europe’s lingua franca.’ Do people in Melbourne feel like this too?
A friend of mine put it this way when I emailed her asking if she knew any resident Americans with whom I could speak for this article. She wrote: ‘Can’t help I’m afraid unless you want to talk to a rogue voice that seethes internally at the raging American militarism that is forcing nutty countries to arm themselves with nuclear weapons because they have been singled out as “axis of Evil” countries which may or may not be invaded on some cunningly orchestrated campaign of untruths authorised at the highest levels of US government! Let’s face it, the US brand hasn’t looked this crooked since the Nixon years. Johnny might be buying it but he walks alone. Having said that, the offspring of American Satanists ain’t so bad. Love you K.’
Nice to be loved, but I think the offspring here do bear some of the muddled rancor about what the American government and corporations do, and what the people and culture are like. When we say we don’t like America we mean a whole grab bag of things: the government; the fast food giants; bad bland films; seepage of the culture into our own; and a population we criticise for being uneducated, self-centred, and God-fearing.
Expats here are aware of the low esteem with which some of us – not all of us – regard them. Mary-Beth Collins, 30, moved from Boston to Fitzroy where she worked as a waitress for six months. She enjoyed it here and plans to return but says ‘I’m guessing Australians view Americans with the same stereotypes other countries do. That is, we are loud, obnoxious, stupid and fat… I’ve learned from experience to listen to people’s opinions of Americans and keep it peaceful by not saying too much.’
Even the most softly spoken of American I spoke with has been ribbed for his accent. We can be ruthless about accents. Robert Stafford, 53, is from Seattle. He recalls: ‘in one of my jobs – a consulting firm in Collins Street – my boss, who was the managing partner, moved me away from him because my accent annoyed him so much. He just didn’t like the sound of my voice. What can you do?’ Would we be so bold with a German or Russian employee?
The best offense is, of course, a good defense. William Kestin makes sure he’s always the one to comment: ‘At every presentation, the first thing I do is make fun of my accent. You can see the Australians relax and go, ‘Oh, he gets it. He’s not one of those flag-waving, gun-toting Americans.’ It makes a huge difference.’
Rachel Stover is a 39-year-old GP and mother of three who moved here from Arizona in 2003. She says she hears negative comments about the United States once or twice a month, ‘but people say less critical things than I would expect to hear at home. And usually if people have a criticism about the US, I tend to agree with them.’ She puts up with comments since American politics ‘affect the rest of the world, and there are valid concerns about what America’s goals and motives are.’
When Rachel’s brother visited recently he went to a festival in the country where a man repeatedly mocked his voice. ‘My brother’s a relaxed guy, so he shrugged it off,’ she says. ‘I did ask him if he’d ever do that to someone. He said there was no way he would.’
He also told her that while he enjoyed his time in Melbourne he would never live here because of how much American popular culture we’ve adopted. ‘The amount of it shocked him,’ she says. ‘And the fact that it’s the worst of American culture – the crime shows, the trashy sitcoms. I guess that’s the cheapest stuff for the networks to buy. But, as my brother said, it means Australians think that’s what America and Americans are like. He didn’t think he could put up with people thinking he was like what they saw on TV.’
American programs do dominate our screens, and they rate well. Because we watch them. To people from the United States it seems peculiar that we complain about American cultural imperialism then settle down to a night of Lost, West Wing, Survivor, The Sopranos or one of countless American talent, makeover, reality and dieting shows, and then also make local versions of them. (We really only have ourselves to blame if there’s an audience for Australia’s Biggest Loser.) When we import – and support – American television by the truckload we’re not doing any favours to Americans who reside here.
Ann Marie Johnston, 29, Director of Public Relations for the American Women’s Auxilliary, says: ‘My husband is Australian and when we met (traveling in Spain) he said he had no interest in ever visiting America. It was partly because of what he saw on television – The Jerry Springer Show, Baywatch. I look at the American programs on air here and think “God, why do you have to show that?”’
We’ve also long given a second home to American music, books, films, games, websites, clothing and runners, not to mention our long-running patronage of their fast-food outlets. And we’ve always had a rather schizophrenic attitude about this. We beg treats from Gap when people visit the States, and love to travel to New York and San Francisco. When Al Gore or Paris Hilton or even David Hasselhoff visit Australia they are – all of them – lavished with attention. And yet, as a nation we rate the United States poorly.
In an address to the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue Forum, Treasurer Peter Costello cited a study conducted by a local group, the Lowy Institute, published in April 2005, about Australian attitudes to other countries. The survey asked: ‘When you think about the following countries do you have positive or negative feelings about them?’ Among Australians the United States had a positive rating of 19 per cent, half that of China and slightly ahead of Indonesia, while the UK scored 75 per cent and Japan was at 70 per cent.
Several people voiced their frustration with what they consider our slightly one-eyed view of their nation: we consume the finest the country has to offer and disingenuously ignore its origins while making it clear the worst could not possibly have come from anywhere else. William Kestin says: ‘When it comes to America-bashing, people here think of the worst aspects of American culture. They don’t want to talk about the best aspects. They don’t want to talk about the counter-culture in America. Whenever you have a conservative, fundamentalist, religious Right in power, American culture is very quick to develop a strong counter-culture, but we don’t get much acknowledgment of that.
We’re not the only place where emotion and consumption are not quite on speaking terms. Writing for Slate in 2006, Daniel Gross cited Peter Katzenstein and Robert Keohane’s study examining negative attitudes to American cultural and political imperialism. They found that: ‘from 2002-2004, Coke’s sales in Europe rose 37 percent, McDonald’s rose 31 percent, and Nike’s rose 40 percent. By contrast, adidas-Salomon’s Europeans sales rose about 8 percent, Cadbury Schweppes’ rose 28 percent, and Nestlé’s rose 2 percent. In other words, as they were demonstrating against US policy and telling market researchers they’d boycott Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, Europeans were increasingly lacing up their Nikes to walk down to McDonald’s, where they’d wash down the junk food with a supersized Diet Coke.’
So how does this affect Americans who live here? We send a mixed message about our regard for the United States, its cultural output, and its people, but a consistent message about how we feel about the American government. But everyone I spoke with agreed that compared with European cities, Melbourne is a breeze. Not that we don’t have a few misconceptions about our American citizens.
Kristen Murray finds we sometimes underestimate Americans’ capacity for humour, and think Americans have no sense of irony. ‘Certainly the style of humour can be different there, but America has some of the funniest people in the world. There is a lot of comic talent there, and Americans can be great storytellers.’
William Kestin thinks the fundamentally different rhythm of our speech sometimes causes misunderstandings between us. In America, he says, ‘when you meet someone, you speak very sincerely and openly with them, and only when you know somebody well do you take the piss out of them. Australia is the exact opposite. You take the piss out of someone first to see if they get the joke, and only when you know them better do you speak on a more sincere level. Australians are forever thinking Americans are very earnest. And Americans are thinking, “I don’t even know you. Why are you making fun of me?” It’s just the way the cultures have developed.’
With a few exceptions (the lack of decent Mexican food, the expense of everything, a general defensiveness, appalling local efforts at producing hip hop music), the Americans who live here have good things to say about the people of Melbourne, the architecture of our city, our passion for food, wine and being outdoors.
There was one oft-repeated concern about our city and country as a whole: that we are becoming the things we criticise about the United States. Americans resident in Melbourne seemed, on the whole, fairly sanguine about finding themselves occasionally on the receiving end of negative sentiment but troubled that their new home may morph into a version of the one they left behind. William Kestin says, ‘Being an American living here you want to – in a very loving way – shake Australians and wake them up to what’s going on in their country. I don’t think Australians understand that they’re quick to say this is the way American culture is without looking at themselves. But if you’re not careful you’ll follow in the same footsteps as the US. You only have to look at Iraq, global warming, education and healthcare to see you’re just two or three steps behind America.’ And whether that’s in a supermarket aisle, a hospital or a trench I don’t think that’s a place many of us want to be.
Being American in Australia
Robert Stafford, 53, works as a senior business writer for a software services company, but moved here in 1985 to take up a fellowship at Melbourne University after completing a PhD in history at Oxford. Both he and his ex-wife are from Seattle. Their son was born in England and their daughter in Melbourne. Robert lives in Glen Waverley.
When Robert Stafford arrived in Melbourne he missed the smell of sagebrush, seeing big predators in the wild, and the dramatic landscapes of the United States. But aside from finding our streets cluttered with signage and advertising, his early impressions were positive. Melbourne seemed a heaven on earth compared to the ‘cramped, worn-out cities’ of Britain. And the people he met were ‘incredibly warm, friendly and welcoming when we arrived’.
But he says ‘things are worse for Americans now, palpably worse. No one’s happy with anything the US is doing, including most of the population of the US. I’ve never seen America’s credibility so low in the world.‘
While he will celebrate the Fourth of July, and later, Thanksgiving, living overseas has made him cast an even harsher eye on the United States than he already did. And he is acutely aware of our assessment of the United States. ‘Overseas, you live it,’ he says. ‘In America, you’re insulated from foreign criticism because the media barely reports it.’
He recalls buying a vintage truck from an Australian WW2 veteran. ‘From day one he said, “I never much liked Americans. I didn’t like them during the war and I don’t now. But you seem like a nice guy. I’ll sell you this truck.”’ Their transaction came to a swift end when the Iraq war began. But Robert was eventually given the keys to the truck. ‘After he calmed down he sold me the truck. He was angry. He wanted to react. I was probably the only American he knew, and that’s okay.’
However unpleasant, he feels this goes with the turf. ‘Every expat, every tourist, like it or not, is a representative of his or her home country. And venting to Americans seems to provide a not-to-be-missed opportunity to unload.’ At least he has to deal with it less often here than in Britain.
Robert says it’s harder when criticism is directed at his children. When his son was seventeen he encountered a teacher who was vocally anti-American, and to his added dismay, ill-informed. (Best not to tell the son of a history PhD that the United States played no role in the Second World War.) ‘She wouldn’t listen to one word out of my son because he was American. In the end she did respect him because he fought back coherently and could write a good essay.’
It’s not only Americans who cop flak here, he says, since to an outsider, racism appears ‘endemic’ in Australia. ‘I never cease to be amazed at what the advertising industry is allowed to get away with here in terms of racial and ethnic stereotyping — in the United States that’s been illegal for decades.’
Ann Marie Johnston, 29, is Director of PR at the American Women’s Auxilliary. Born in Atlanta, she met her Australian husband while traveling in Spain and moved here with him in October 2004. They live in Brighton with two dogs they brought over from the States.
Through her job, Ann Marie has a lot of contact with expat Americans. Her organisation is a fundraiser for the Royal Children’s Hospital, but also offers American women an opportunity to meet and support one another. She’d been warned before moving here that Melbourne is a hard place to make friends. ‘Lots of American women have told me they’ve struggled to make friends – everyone’s already a part of a closed group. My husband tends to mix with people he’s known since school and university,’ she says. ‘I think it’s easier in the States because we move around more – for college and work.’
Being American doesn’t help either. ‘People always have opinions about Americans,’ she says. ‘Usually negative ones. When I first came here I was uncomfortable speaking too loud for fear of being judged on the spot… Sometimes people say to me, ‘”You’re the first American I’ve met that I like’” and I wonder how many Americans they’ve actually met.’
She’s heard negative comments directed towards people from other countries but doesn’t think any other place gets the same amount of criticism as the United States. Which she finds understandable: ‘If the US wasn’t a superpower, and didn’t have the say in world markets that it does, perhaps people would still care what it did, but not with the same intensity.’
Rachel is proud to come from America. ‘When people ask, I always tell them I’m American. If they make an “I won’t hold that against you” reply I shrug it off. But if somebody says something that really pushes my buttons I’ll stand up for the US. It’s a great country with a lot going for it. I don’t think the US is doing everything right, but we’re not doing everything wrong either. There are good and bad things about the States, just like there are good and bad things about Australia.’
‘Most Americans here just roll with the punches,’ she says. ‘It’d be nice if it there was a better attitude towards Americans but Melbourne is still a great place to live.’ She gives the thumbs up to our wine, parks, beaches, and the diversity of food on offer.
But she thinks her husband stirred more interest in the States than she does here. ‘People aren’t quite as friendly in Melbourne as they are in the Southern US. Everybody there was so interested in my husband because of his accent, and wanted to know about life in Australia. That’s definitely not the experience I’ve had. There’s occasionally some intrigue about where I’m from, but for the most part people just tell me why America is wrong about everything. About the war, the environment, and that we’re fat… Otherwise they tell me about their holiday!’
Once a week, Eric Black and Lynn Spence play gridiron together for the Western Crusaders, who are based in Footscray. They both moved to Melbourne with their Australian wives.
Eric, 33, is a mortgage broker from Omaha. Prior to meeting his wife when they were both travelling in Greece, he lived in Ireland. He has been in Kensington since Christmas Eve 2006.
Lynn, 38, is a corporate executive with Vodafone. Born in Denver, he moved here in 2001 (post 9/11), having travelled here once a year for five years prior to emigrating. He lives with his wife and two children in Caroline Springs.
(For information about American football teams in Victoria: www.gridironvictoria.com.au)
Eric Black visited Melbourne a few times before moving here, and was struck by the New Orleans-like ironwork on the homes, the terrace houses, the wide roads, and dense urban landscape, which made the city seem a cross between England and America.
He’s found Melbourne accepting of his origins. ‘It’s rare that anyone says anything. I’ve been well received overall. I get the odd bit of slagging from people I know, and some misdirected blame for the world’s problems but mostly it’s good-natured. In Ireland people made more of a big deal of me being American.’
People ask his opinion about events in America, but in a measured way, and how he responds makes all the difference. ‘If you react too much to what people say they’re going to have a go at you. I just blow it off and move on. Maybe because of the way I carry myself, people already know my political views so it doesn’t come up that much.’
Despite his generally positive impressions about Melburnians, we do harbour misconceptions. ‘People here seem to think we all have guns, that you can’t walk down the street in America without dodging bullets, and that we’re a lot less intelligent than we are because of shows like Jerry Springer and Cops.’
Living in Melbourne and Dublin has changed the way he sees his country, and the way he deals with other Americans. ‘We really can’t take a joke that well. I recently met some American friends in Thailand and the amount of time that was spent with everyone explaining themselves to one another so as not to not aggravate one another or hurt somebody’s feelings was just annoying. Overall I’d say were a pretty serious lot.’
It bothers Eric that Australia ‘seems hell-bent on becoming like America. I get the impression that people here are letting things erode, and giving corporations free reign. I hope that doesn’t happen because Australia has the fundamental things in place for it to be an almost idyllic society – natural resources, a small population that’s well educated. I’d like to see it become more of a world leader and less of a world follower.’
His team mate Lynn Spence has found Melbourne a good place to raise a family, but a frustrating place to do business. ‘Because of the different ways of doing business here, and the slower pace, I was often viewed as a pushy American. It took me about two and a half years to really learn how to do business here.’ He says that, like many of the American business people he knows here, he found it hard to start at the bottom. ‘People with multiple degrees and a lot of experience have to start low here. That’s hard when you know at home you would walk straight into management.’
He has encountered negative comment about the States but never racism. ‘People regularly ask me how I’m treated here, and I say I’m treated well, maybe better than Caucasian Americans.’
Not that being American is always a positive for him. When the Iraq war started his car was vandalised and he suspects that was a result of the American flag displayed on it. He does hear comments about the war, and often responds that ‘war is what has allowed both cultures many of our rights we enjoy now.’ He finds this ‘a pretty socialist place,’ he says. ‘But Australians are not really as free as Americans. Just for example, your children have no automatic opportunity to go to university. Their career is decided based on a test they take in twelfth grade. Most American kids go to university to figure out what they want to do, learn independence and become part of a bigger picture. They have the chance to study whatever they want – and that can change your whole life.’