I’d been living abroad for more than a year complimenting people on what good vocabularies they had and how everyone I met seemed to be intelligent and capable of reasoned political conversation, when I realized I didn’t have to play dumb anymore.
Well actually that’s not what I realized. I realized that people thought I was dumb.
Because I was interacting as I do with the general, nonPhD public in the States, which means don’t say anything openly political unless it’s a joke. Don’t use big words. Don’t say anything complicated. And talk slowly. Especially around cute boys. If seeking romantic entanglement, play extra dumb because men are totally emasculated by intelligent women.
Here, where people haven’t been systematically undereducated and kept on a diet of sloganistic politics, they expect a rather higher level of intellectual function and engagement. I was giving them my best superficial apolitical friendliness and they believed I was a ditz. Then I weirdly gushed about how smart and “political” (meaning leftish) everyone seemed to be.
Finally someone sat me down and explained that they have women elected officials at every level of governments, and, well, equal rights, pretty much. And have had it for a couple of decades. And, well, NZ pretty much has a history of anti-racism, crystallized through rugby-related policies and events… And, uh, treating the indigenous people not perfectly but better than AU and USA and most other places.
I guess it helps to know where you are before closing your mouth, as well as opening it.
And about the puppies
Shortly after arriving in NZ someone sat me down and said “you really need to be careful about the tall puppies.” I couldn’t actually understand anything they said, and anyway, I was pretty committed to being myself. Later on I heard about flowers and a war with swords, but none of it made any sense anyway. I did occasionally wonder why the Kiwis were resentful of the bigger puppy in the litter. Was it a variation on having sympathy for the runt?
Well over time it’s become clear that the topic is pOppies, not pUppies, and that Australian soldiers in a certain war don’t like any tall flowers. What this has to do with anything, I don’t know.
My American friend B who’s been here longer than me says One is Not Allowed to Take Credit For or Be Proud Of what you do. This seems to violate feminism as I know it, which is about Finally Taking Credit and Celebrating Ourselves And Giggling About How Excited We Are about what we did and are doing. Since I’m still just catching on to feminism, I feel a bit more loyal to that than war reenactment, even if I am trying to get used to my new country. One thing at a time. Once I figure out how to love myself as a proper feminist I can worry about being a proper Australian.
Anyway, the more interesting bit of this investigation was a conversation with my friend A, a Brit who’s lived in the US a lot, and after a brief stint in Australia, wanted to go back to the US. His pithy review of Australians “there’s a hint of the desire to be respectable.” I pursued. “And what do you like about Americans?” “People are willing to tell you about what they want.”
He went on to say that Americans all have a dream, they’re trying to do something, they’re trying to make something of themselves, and they’re excited about it, identified with it, even if it isn’t happening right now. And they’re willing to tell these dreams to strangers on the bus. Australians, he observed, don’t feel this compulsion to identify with an expressive project. This is the positive side of what I observed in LA that (long before twitter) you needed a clever and humourous self-pitch that could be a whole sentence, but even better if just a phrase.
More juicy tidbits about Australia and New Zealand
- They don’t serve coffee. It’s espresso or nothing.
- The standard customer service greeting is “Are you ok?” I am at a loss. Saying “No” seems a bit melodramatic: “I’m a bit upset about a few things, but I think a cappuccino will help.” If I say “Yes” which seems a bit more self-contained, the staff person then leaves me alone, forever. I’ve been told this is just a figure of speech and I should translate it as “How can I help you”. But it always feels a bit aggressive to respond to “Are you ok?” with a demand for services.
- Automobile drivers do not try to avoid hitting pedestrians. Even when a pedestrian is in plain sight of the driver crossing the road, the driver will not apply the brakes. Moreover, drivers do not decelerate when entering an area dense with pedestrians. They accelerate around corners and out of alleyways. Crossing the road or even a driveway is quite frightening for a person accustomed to pedestrian right-of-way. I am told that the reason for this behavior on the part of drivers is that they cannot be sued for damages if they strike a pedestrian.
- Many articles of the English language are not used here. For example, instead of “up the stairs at the back of the building“, the Australianism is “up the back”. Instead of “down on the right side of the page” the Australianism is “down the right”. Time becomes space, prepositionally. “We’ll do it on the weekend.”
- “Ta” means thank you. But it sounds like “dismissed”. I’m told “it’s English”.
- People are not so house proud here as Americans. In NZ most people dry their laundry in the front room before they main window of the house. Maybe they are laundry-proud instead of house-proud.
- A really cool thing is that every pharmacist is a notary public, and they provide this service for free.
- People will warm up and give you a compliment, in about two years.
- Business must be good, because salesmen never return phone calls.
- When driving, you are expected to be familiar with the route before and know exactly which lane you need to be in at all times so that you are in the (unmarked) turning lane well in advance.
- High winds today forced some beachgoers to chase their hats.