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Little Americans: They're Everywhere!

Kathryn Hummel
Illustration by Luke Toomey

There's probably not a single place on earth where one won't run into an Australian. Hummel speculates on what compels her people to travel so.

My Canadian friend Jen emailed me last month to ask, 'What is it about you Aussies? Are you born with the travel bug?' She'd just come home from a trip to Italy during which she said she'd met tons of Australians, all of them very friendly, and not a grump among them. Since I'm apparently the only Aussie who's also a first class grump, I was unable to provide a voice of authority on the last bit, but decided to have a crack at working out why there are so many Antipodeans scattered around the globe in every country but their own.

Overseas travel is a rite of passage most Australians embark on either between jobs, before marriage, after uni and before highly-paid meaningful employment, or even after uni and before realising there's scant chance for highly-paid meaningful employment. In a bizarre reversal of penal transportation that Captain Phillip et al could hardly have foreseen, at these particular times in their lives convict descendants swarm back to hail Britannia once more, establishing kangaroo palaces in unsuspecting suburbs and presiding over the beer taps of most of the pubs in the United Kingdom.

Evidence of this exodus is the sub-culture emerging in the UK because of our tenacious presence: newspapers like the Australian Times, written specifically, as the tagline reads, for Aussies living in London. There's also a web page run by the Australia High Commission instructing visitors on the correct procedure and etiquette when attending a Royal Event -- a necessary piece of cyberspace, to be sure, since I imagine Buckingham Palace is overrun with enquiries from a generation so adamantly pro-republican. (N.B. That's not republican with a capital R and equally does not mean anti-Queen Liz in any personal way).

The ultimate nod acknowledging the prominence of the Aussie community in London occurred earlier this month, however, when Sam Ly and other Australians injured during the 2005 bombings were honoured during memorial services across a city that had so many of its own to be remembered. Often, though, Aussies stop closer to home geographically and instead stretch culturally to Indonesia, particularly Bali, and also to Thailand. Nor should the efforts of Australia's finest Humanities graduates be forgotten, slaving as they do to teach a new generation of Japanese and South Korean youth to speak English with a distinctive dry twang.

The sowing of wild oats in as many continents as possible, regardless of lack of funds or clean socks, may not appear to be a particularly Australian phenomenon. But there are two elements inherent to the Australian psyche that have driven us to our nomadic end: guilt and inadequacy. Modern Australians can claim to have no country -- not as evictees in the sense of the Zionists of Israel, but as evictors who have slowly realised the significance of a prior, ancient claim. Remorse over previous generations' treatment of Indigenous Australians (and frustration over ongoing injustices) may not literally drive young Aussies away -- rather, I hope it's urging us toward Reconciliation -- but it does help explain a lack of identity with this country, and why we so often leave it behind for a lifetime of clinging expatriation. I also suspect it has something to do with an atavistic fondness for flagellation, whether it's self-inflicted or not.

Australia has also fostered an inferiority complex that goes beyond typical self-deprecation. Possibly it has something to do with being so far away from the culture that colonised us and brought us up to believe their way of life was best, even though it gave us the Einsteins who tried to grow crops in winter before working out hemispheric seasonal opposition. Our culture-worship shows the same legacy of naïveté lives on in us today: we go somewhere else to experience Life and always fear coming home, as if the real world won't hold our shape and will close up after us.

If you're not convinced, just think about the criticism Australia, as the new kid on the globe, has had launched at it over the years: D. H. Lawrence fired off that he disliked Australia's "hateful newness" and "democratic conceit". Ava Gardner allegedly described Melbourne as "the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world" (and this being Australia's cultural centre), Salman Rushdie found Adelaide to be the ideal setting "for a Stephen King novel or horror film" (though I'm not entirely sure if this is an insult), and Prince Philip declared our capital city of Canberra as having no soul (fair enough).

These sticks and stones have left Australians with deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy that manifest in our fawning adulation of the B-grade 'celebrities' we continually import to host the Logies, and the way we lay wild claims to having reared any New Zealander who cuts an even remotely successful figure on the international stage. Under a political spotlight, Australia seems to imitate John Howard and gambols about like the deadly keen loser in high school no-one wants to be friends with but who nevertheless tries to win the approval of everyone around.

Because I've spent so much time navigating my own rite of passage journeys, I've only recently gone on my first solo Australian holiday, to a health retreat in Queensland, where a fellow guest also observed he'd travelled more outside Australia than he had within. Having an immigrant parent meant that most of my childhood trips overseas were spent visiting elderly relatives, having my cheeks pinched, being bullied by my sister, forced to drink elderberry cordial and forbidden to complain rather than having adventures, but it also meant I was taught early on about the value of travel and have taken full advantage of this lesson as an adult.

Another friend made the point that you need to go away from a place in order to appreciate what you've got at home. While a two week stint of doing nothing much at all on the Gold Coast can't in all fairness compete with the excitement of riding a horse across freezing Mongolian planes, hiking up the Great Wall, gazing at Lenin's waxy face in his gloomy Mausoleum, or pub crawling around Belfast, the elements of travel I value the most were still there, despite my comfort -- the opportunity to gain fresh perspective, the freedom of the unknown and above all, good company.

On this last trip I was accorded the pleasure of experiencing the same generous and stimulating fellowship that has, fortunately, followed me everywhere. It helped that the atmosphere was sort of like a school camp; aside from a brief moment of coyness, during which the boys stood on one side of the room and the girls on the other, we decided to play nicely together. Every effort made, from walking up a hill to falling off a tree was met by a chorus of 'good on you' and 'well done'. Sessions mourning the food we'd left behind became hilarious debates, especially regarding Australia's best wine region and the meaning of 'deli' from state to state. And there was always a friendly trail junkie willing to engage in some espionage ('bushwalking' became a codename for 'scoping out the grounds for the staff's secret dope crop'-- because surely they couldn't be that cheerful from endorphins alone).

Mention is also due to Bush Tucker, Man Junior, who helped me out when I was spouting blood after a leech attack, to my alter ego Kathryn M., to the mademoiselle who tucked in my tag during tribal dance, to my two official Buddies, to the Kiwis for putting up with us, to the surrogate mum and dad who changed my sheets for me after I spewed my guts out, and to everyone who didn't laugh at the sight of the self-same gut flashing itself at every inappropriate moment it could find. All proved that sometimes the right people do travel, travel, travel, as well as stay at home.

So where the bloody hell are the rest of the Aussies? Still strewn across the world waiting for a national identity to call them back? I like to hope for better things for my sort. Those tragic figures that no longer see a reason to call Australia home are mobilising; conspiring behind their beer glasses and casually culminating their power until the day they are able to make the world over in their exceedingly friendly and un-grumpy image.

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