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May 13, 2013 / Amy Bradney-George

Thoughts on Australian culture

Let’s just kick back with a few stubbies, chuck some shrimp (prawns) on the barbie and have a bit of a chinwag about our culcha, orright?

If that sounds Aussie to you, I’d suggest looking further than the iconic institutions that are Crocodile Dundee, Croc Hunter, Cath and Kim et al. There is so much more here and recently I’ve given more thought to what makes up Australian culture.

Years ago I actually wrote about the multicultural element of our society, particularly in relation to film and TV casting, but since then I’ve travelled and lived overseas, moved cities and met hundreds of people from all around the world. As a result of life experience my view of culture has somewhat changed, to say the least.

The problem is that I can’t encapsulate Australian culture accurately with one definition. It’s just not that simple. There are so many layers to our history, to where we’ve been, the people that make up this land, the ones first connected to it and the ones that have since found something on these shores that resonates with them. I can’t simplify that down to one, bite-sized explanation of Australian culture.

What I can do, however, is bring my own interpretation to the table. I recently had a discussion with another creative who brought up her perspective on our culture, which she said was very lacking (based on lots of years of travel and reflection). Lots of people agreed with her, but I chose not to say anything and let it sink in. That’s where this post began.

What our culture is to me

Australian culture is a mix of people, ideas and life experiences. Every day I meet people who have lived their whole lives in this city, moved from countries around the world, come from the countryside…the variety is profound. I love it. And not all of these people identify as just Australian.

I have friends who were born here who say they are from elsewhere because they’re first generation Aussie (and grew up with another cultural element at home), I have friends who moved here when they were kids and do call themselves Aussie. I know people who have become Aussie citizens and engage with politics here more than people born here; and those born elsewhere who are now permanent residents and care as much about our country as the place where they were born.

All of us, together, make Australia what it is. And it’s not some kind of hotpot, pastiche culture, but one united through diversity. One that changes all the time and, with it, so does my awareness of what makes up our culture. But here are a few of the elements specific to me now…

Australian culture is to me, working hard at whatever you do. It’s also knowing when you can get away with taking a break (because hard work all the time is HARD, and burns you out). It’s seeing the grass as greener elsewhere, and striving to get there even if you find that once you have arrived, the neighbouring field is even greener.

It’s often also hiding behind hard work, giving credit to the result rather than the effort, in an attempt to avoid being seen as a tall poppy ready to be cut down.

It’s trying new things. Think about all of the different restaurants you can go to in a city, or even a small town. My home town, Bellingen, is just over 2000 people and there are restaurants serving Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian inspired food. There’s the standard pub fare, a Swiss patisserie (which is practically an institution there), hearty pies and fish and chipperies. Melbourne is even more diverse, and so was Brisbane when I lived there.

It’s not just food where this idea of giving things a go takes hold. I see hundreds of Aussies come to salsa and bachata (another “Latin” dance style) classes, or going to free seminars at the Wheeler Centre and elsewhere.

Australian culture, to me, is also a connection with the land. It’s more common now (thankfully), to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land by name before events.

On the European history side of things, there is the connection to farming. We have such high quality dairy and meat produce; we are aware of the differences between free range and caged, between organic and hormone free or pesticide-sprayed. And where we lack information there are organisations doing research and exposés to enlighten us. It might sound silly, but when I lived in Vancouver, I disliked the milk, the cheese, the meat. I don’t consume a lot of any of those things normally, but when I do I like to enjoy them, rather than have tasteless versions.

Then there’s the military history, the Aussie Battler image that can be proud and heartbreaking at the same time. We’re loyal and have a history of uniting for things we believe in.

What I’m also discovering is that Australian culture has a place for creativity and art. Almost everyone I know does something creative either for work or in their spare time. I know accountants who dance, engineers who play music, politicians who paint beautiful artworks, everyday people who write the most wonderful memoirs and novels and many, many others that attend art events. Lately it also seems like every second person I meet writes beautiful poetry.

In the last couple of years I have been lucky enough to see some amazing new Australian works. Mainly in theatre, but also film and television and live music. I grew up with my teachers at school and my lecturers at uni telling me that Australian culture didn’t accomodate the creative arts. Either that has changed or my view of culture has adapted to include it, because it’s everywhere I look now. Yes, we have a long way to go (especially with funding), but people are interested by creativity and engaged by it. And there is lots of great Australian art being developed and produced. Maybe it’s not yet easy to find, but it is there and that in itself is exciting.

The old idea of Aussie culture

My perhaps optimistic view of Australian culture isn’t the full picture and I’m very aware of that. There’s also the red-blooded, masculine, stick-it-to-the-man, convict-history side of things. It’s still out there.

A few days ago I was on a train in the city and a man in his 20s got on wearing a shirt that read: “This is Australia – We eat meat, we drink beer and we speak f*ckin’ English!”

This is not Australia to me.

This is not Australia to me.

I literally recoiled when I saw it. He was wearing it on a very ordinary day, no cultural celebrations in sight, just because he wanted to I guess. I was angry at first, but then I realised if that’s what Australia is to him, then that’s what it is to him. We can choose how we interpret culture, just like anything else in life.

The thing is our culture is not tied together the way some other cultures seem to be. We don’t have centuries old buildings and texts in cities the way that many other countries do (though there are some amazing indigenous sites and sacred areas around the country). But it’s not a “clean slate” either, because there is history here.

What we do have, though, is an opportunity to interpret Australian culture however we want to interpret it. There will always be people who don’t see our culture the way that I do, but I’m okay with that. As long as I can share and express how I see our culture, and as long as I respect that others can do the same, I know that there is something here for all of us.

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3 Comments

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  1. theapostrophe / May 17 2013 5:54 am

    This is everything that I like about a modern, connected Australia. We have the option to choose our identity, our tribe, our culture and make our lives what we will. Some would say that this is what the ANZACs fought for, others that this is what multiculturalism brings. I think you’re right. This is all of that plus more – Australian kulcha is more than the sum of its parts and is something that is evolving and developing in front of our eyes, the oldest living culture and one of the newest, wedged between a couple of oceans. It’s a pretty grand idea.

    • Amy Bradney-George / May 17 2013 10:27 pm

      Exactly! I love the way you say “we he the option to choose our identity, our tribe, our culture”. In a sense we’re uniquely free to do that in Australia because we don’t feel the need to rebel or conform with centuries and centuries of history. Plus with so many different cultural influences (old and new) we can draw on whatever we want and find what resonates with us from moment to moment. It’s really rewarding to appreciate modern Australia in this kind of way.

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