March 6 – 8, 2014
By Emily Katzman
My stay in Brisbane has been defined by meal times—good conversation over good, home-cooked food. The conversations I share with my host mum, Lauri, while we break bread have opened my mind to her particular concerns and convictions and have also afforded me a window into Australian society.
Over breakfast and a pot of tea, we listen to ABC radio and discuss the news: the larrikin antics of a bra-snapping male politician, controversies in the coal industry, families separated due to immigration policies, the triumphs of heroic sporting figures, and the anticipation of the royal family’s upcoming visit Down Under. As I put my ear to the radio and consider everything the LC group have seen and learned so far in Australia, I can’t help but think this radio broadcast is quintessential Australia.
The Australian nation is a young one—I’d liken it to a person in his early adulthood: that awkward, confusing stage following adolescence when you’re still working out your identity, solidifying your values, and feeling exceedingly self-conscious. When I listen to the radio and watch television, I notice programs like Australian Story. A brief glance at the newspaper headlines and I see there is renewed debate over changing the Australian national flag. My point is Australia seems a bit unsure of its national identity.
National identity is a social construction, an aggregation of founding myths and symbols which serve to unite a nation, which is itself imagined, and distinguish it from other nations. National identity is the answer to the question, “what does it mean to be Australian?”
The Australian national identity is a story of mateship and egalitarianism. It is the story of rugged, masculine, anti-authoritarian individuals coming together and forging a nation from the bush. Through teamwork and “hard yakka” (labor), these men overcame the challenges the harsh environment imposed on them, and in doing so, shed their unfavorable British characteristics (e.g. class hierarchy, urbanization, femininity) and thus became Australian. References to Australia’s founding myth are everywhere today.
The founding myths exclude from the Australian story Indigenous Australians, women, and people who immigrated more recently. When the media, lawmakers, and individuals grapple with the question “what does it mean to be Australian?” and they look to Australia’s founding myths for an answer, do these excluded groups become any less “Australian?”
Realistically, Australia is highly urbanized and socio-economically stratified (so much for the bush ethos and egalitarianism!). One third of Australians were born overseas or their parents were born overseas. The populace simply do not fit the founding myths, and so Australians question and debate the validity of their national identity.
The beautiful thing about traveling around and really coming to know another country, is that learning requires a certain amount of comparison and analysis of the home country; it forces the traveler to turn her critical eyes to her own country and view that place with the same curiosity and objectivity she uses to understand Australia. I think that has been the experience of many of us here this semester. As we dissect the components of the Australian national identity, we can’t help but consider what is America’s national identity? Is it as fraught as the Australian national identity?
We have so much to learn about our own home countries. For some of us, it took traveling 7,286 miles to remember that.