The American-Australian Debate

I’m an American expat and have been living in Brisbane, Australia for exactly 1 year and 10 months (in two days). Acquaintances of both nationalities often ask me what the other is really like. Are we really all so different?

What’s interesting is that many Australians, like many other societies, have an idealistic vision of certain aspects of America influenced by pop culture. Going to Disney World, New York City, and Vegas are top priority destinations on a bucket list for many. For some equally naive Americans, Australia is depicted as a laid back, blond-haired surf community who put shrimp on the barbie and have pet kangaroos.

So here are 6 observations – and I must preface “in my opinion” – between Australian and American ways of life.

There will be people, places and ideas that of course don’t apply to everyone, and everything. I’m in no way insinuating that they do. You could argue that I could include facts about dueling healthcare systems, poverty lines and unemployment rates, but I’m not going to go there. There are also many topics like food, drinking cultures, and television. This is just a small aspect of current reflections of my time on both continents.

1. Societal pressure

This is my ultimate number one; a topic I engage in conversations regularly. As an American growing up on the East Coast there is a simple formula to success. You go to school and get good test scores. You choose a university and the more prestigious the name, the better. While enrolled in university you partake in extra curricular activities, clubs and begin undergoing internships as soon as possible. You graduate in 4 years, no more. After graduation due to your collegiate success you have a job lined up and gradually work your way up the corporate ladder. There is no gap year; there is no break to sit back and think about your future. At 18 before you even leave high school you sign up for the rest of your life.

Furthermore, your career becomes your status. Blue collar jobs are frowned upon and success is measured by you and your significant other’s occupation.

I find that the societal pressure I speak of above is drastically less significant here in Australia. A university degree is important, but not essential to obtaining a career. And I use the term career loosely. Less significant is what job you have, but better the fact that you have a job. Blue-collar jobs, mineworkers, plumbers, construction workers, what they term as “tradies” are highly regarded, because they require skill and get paid big bucks. There is no shame in saying your significant other is an admin assistant or carpenter.

With that, keeping a long-standing career in one area isn’t as essential. Most young people go traveling between graduating high school and going to university, if they even do. In fact, its called a “gap year” and encouraged. Many people work for an amount of time to save their money and then go traveling…in their 20s AND 30s. But what about your job when you get back, saving for a house, babies? The priority tends to be more about enjoying your life and spending the time and money you do have on experiencing it.

Of course, there is the current economic state and unemployment rate in the US compared to the high economic success Australia is having at the moment (ahum mining) that one could argue are attributing to both of these factors and cannot be ignored. However if you removed them from the equation I still feel strongly that it’s an underlying mentality of each culture more then anything else.

2. Cost of living

In Australia, it is astronomical. Again, the economy…I get it. Australians get paid more and therefore things cost more. New York is expensive but in comparison to everyday Australia, it’s a bargain.

Here are a few examples of Brisbane and New York price comparisons:

Piece of Pizza: AU $7; US $2.50

Bus Ticket: AU $4.80; US $2.50

6 Pack of Beer: AU$ 16; US $8

Pair of Nike sneakers: AU $240; US $180

Gatorade: AU$4.80; US $2.50

Another example is retirement packages. In the US, your employer may provide you with a 401K package, in which you contribute a certain percent (typically a 3% minimum) of your salary in which your employer contributes another 3%. In Australia, your employer legally has to pay you Superannuation of 12% on top of your salary, and you can contribute to it as you like. Not a bad deal.

3. Airline etiquette

One advantage of being a country that has no majors concerns about national security means that your airport traffic and regulations can be a whole lot more lax. Let’s compare the two experiences.

If I were to have an 8 o’clock domestic flight, I would depart Brisbane Airport at 7:40. I would therefore likely arrive at the airport before my flight at 7:20 or so. Yes, 20 minutes before boarding is plenty of time. Upon entering the destinations lounge I would approach one of the 30 or so Qantas kiosks scattered around the area to check in. To do so I’d simply search by my last name, then first name, and finally select my destination from a list in order for my boarding pass to print. While I’m at it, I would also print my baggage tag and then check my own bag without the assistance of anyone needed, but the friendly service attendants make themselves available just in case.

Once approaching security, at worst will take more then 5 minutes, I put my bags through the scanner. The only thing I need to take out is my laptop or any sort of aerosols. Shoes stay on, sweatshirt stays on, water stays put and get this, and so does my ID the entire time! I’m through, whew, although I will add that I always get picked for that darn bomb detector swifter.

There’s also something strange about the plane etiquette. It’s an unspoken signal. Just as its time to board, without an announcement needed everyone just files into line to board the plane. Sometimes they announce to board by row, buts its unnecessary as everyone takes into an orderly fashion. There are some passengers with carry-on items but not everyone carrying everything they own on earth.

Qantas domestic provides one bag complimentary checked, complimentary meals or snacks on every flight, and free booze during evenings. Sometimes I even get inflight entertainment – like movies on my own personal screen. Just saying. I’ve never seen anyone get bumped for an oversold flight or asked to give-up his or her seat.

The flipside. Where to start. Smelly home-made food, old-school planes, madness, no overhead room for luggage, chaos at security.  My god.

Most US airlines oversell their seats. That means that if you don’t select your seat when your purchase your ticket (usually at a cost if you’re not a member of their loyalty program with a certain status) there is a chance that when you arrive at the airport to check in you may not have a seat on your purchased flight. Notice boards are now customary in many airport lounges with a long stand by list. A plus, if you’re in no rush you can usually give up your seat for a voucher for a free future flight and get on the next plane.

Because luxuries like complimentary meals, even measly food like the classic bag of peanuts, no longer exist, that means that people have begun the disgusting habit of bringing left overs from home or in take out containers from the airport food court. There is nothing like sitting in a vacuum-sealed compartment with the pungent smell of hundreds of passengers’ leftovers wafting in the air.

And one final point, as plane upgrades seem like a thing of the past and flying aviation from 20 years ago is trending, airlines have tacked on costs for checked baggage. Yes, this exists here in Australia too for airlines aside from Qantas. But, for some reason I find that American passengers have decided it’s just not worth the cost to check a bag, and therefore try and beat the system by bringing on board everything they possibly own. If you’re unfortunate to board the plane last you won’t even have room to tuck away your handbag.

4. Shortening of words

Is it shortening of words, or just slang? I think a bit of both. Some say it derives from the criminals who founded this darn continent (geez lets just forget about the indigenous people), regardless, picking up new fashion slang and slicing every multi syllable word in half is right up my ally.

Ranga – someone with red hair (short for orangutan)

Tradie – someone who works a trade job

Arvo – Afternoon

Bicky – Biscuit aka cookie

Cuppa – Cup of coffee or tea

Barbie – BBQ

Togs, Swimmers – Bathing Suit

Snags – Sausages

Singlet – Tank top

Sunnies – Sunglasses

Bottle O’ – Liquor Store

Servo – Service Station/Gas Station

Mate – Friend

5. Sitting in the front of cabs

So one of the best things about New York City is the cabs. You can get across town, uptown to downtown etc. for under a $20 cab fair. While your at it, yapping away to your friends passing street vendors, bodegas, and various bars, although it can be annoying at times, you have a TV sharing with you the latest weather, pop culture, and news. Don’t like it, simply turn it off. But sometimes it’s a nice distraction to pass the time. Rarely do you sit in the front of a cab, and that’s only when you’re exactly 4 people.

In Brisbane at least, a cab from the trendy “going out” area of The Valley to my apartment a 15-minute walk away cost $12. Public transport is outrageous, hard to come by without dialing a number, and the fairs increase the later it gets.

The expectation is that if you’re a solo passenger you sit in the front. It can be an exhausting experience. Sometimes I don’t want to make conversation and so I’ll say my brief hello, provide my destination then stare aimlessly out the window or watch the expensive meter tick by. Other times call for being a chatterbox and time passes quickly with friendly attentiveness from my chauffeur.

I’m aware this isn’t a comparison on America as it is more on NYC versus Brisbane but for someone making the transition, sitting in the front one on one with the driver can be intense.

6. Service and options

But none of the above comparisons can go without mentioning the luxuries that America has that Australia, or at least Brisbane can’t compare by an inch. It’s what makes America, well, America and so many other nations and cities envious. America has options, and a lot of them.

In Brisbane shops close at 5 or 6, there is no mid-week shopping – except one day a week allocated for “late night shopping”. What!?!? Not only in NYC, but also even in suburbia shops are open until at least 9. And there are options, so many options. There are cheap clothing stores with cheap clothes for cheap prices and cheap stores with decent clothes for cheap prices and expensive stores with cheap clothes and expensive stores with expensive quality.

When it comes to food you can’t even compare. 24 hour options, fast food, gourmet foods, trendy restaurants, hot dogs, pizza, donuts, cheesesteaks, hoagies, beer. Yum yum yum yum.

Minimum wage in the States is appalling. Many service works don’t receive incentive packages like healthcare and live solely by tips. With that, you expect attentive service and if you don’t get it many know the restaurant’s reputation and their tip will reflect. For me, 20% was standard. What’s great about tipping is you can incentive better service. What’s not great is you can spend a lot more then the cost of the meal shelving out those incentives. Because more customers mean more money, it’s not customary to take a table for a full evening. It’s in and out.

In Australia, many service workers make around $20 an hour. Tipping is only done if service is extraordinary and you want to thank a server for going above and beyond. Tipping is very rare. Although the food prices are higher, the atmosphere can be a bit more relaxed and you can take your time with your meal. That also means though that the servers have no incentive to provide exemplary service and at times this can be very frustrating.

I leave Australia again this week to head for America for a quick trip. What I’ve noticed has become a bit of a pattern is that for my first few days in the States I’m constantly making comparisons in my head to my life here in Brisbane. I’m grateful for the laid-back lifestyle and simplicity of things here. By the end of my trip after enjoying the luxuries of a fast paced lifestyle back in New York indulging in all its luxuries the tables turn.  Oh the woes of living abroad.