Having just returned from a near year of travels in Europe and contemplating where and how we should live in this next phase of our lives, I have been ruminating on our former and future relationship to our second home, Australia. We arrived in Canberra 26 years ago, in 1990, so that I could take up a position teaching art history at the Australian National University. Max was 7 when we arrived, we were 41. We were so excited to leave the U.S., and we were fully committed to becoming as Australian as we could be. We had no intention of ever returning to America. Here’s how I described our transformation there in my book, Images of the Pacific Rim: Australia and California, 1850-1935:
My family and I were successful transplants. We took up Australian citizenship as soon as it was allowed. We learned all the verses to ‘Advance, Australia Fair’ and we followed every incident in cricket and four different football codes, none of them gridiron (as Australians refer to American football). We revelled in the magnificent birdlife and the beautiful beaches. After a few years in Canberra, I was commissioned to write, along with my husband, the Blue Guide Australia (1999), a cultural tour guide of the entire country.We considered the book, which took seven years to complete, a love letter to our new country.
But return to America we did. What happened? As I have begun writing this, the memories have made me sad and melancholy, so I am going to skim over some of the specific situations that led to our leaving, while giving some of our impressions of Australia as it appears to us today, as we sit here in the abysmal atmosphere of the 2016 U.S. election year.
The first shock came when I arrived at the university, to be told that the department had decided to begin a new degree program and that I would be teaching in this program–a decision that had never been mentioned in my interviews nor that I had any desire or predilection to teach. This was my introduction into a tertiary system in which the head of department has much more say over those under him than an American academic would be used to. My refusal to acquiesce set off an adversarial situation that remained throughout my time there. This man–and it’s important to state that I was the ONLY woman at that time in the department–would try to deny me tenure (one gets tenure in Australia without being promoted), and I was never promoted in the 13 years I taught there, despite glowing student evaluations and a decent record of research. I was, then, pegged as “difficult”–a woman, an American, and an uppity American woman at that.
Then came my first faculty meeting. In a room with at least 150 faculty members, I saw only 6 women. When one of these women had the audacity to raise her hand and ask a question, the entire room looked at her with astonishment, as if they were amazed and irritated she was there at all. I can still see their faces! At that moment, I realized I had just moved my family thousands of miles to be part of an institution that was systemically sexist. We women on the faculty were meant to be utility players, were rarely given promotions, were often on part-time contracts, and every method would be made to prevent us from advancing. Occasionally, the university would carry out a study of gender discrimination; the findings would state that yes, there was systemic discrimination, then the report would be put in a drawer and forgotten. This happened throughout the 1990s. I do think that in the 2000s some progress has been made on this front, but now the Australian university system is under such strains–the same that are happening in all universities–that the issue of gender equality is one of its lesser problems. (Read this and weep, and note that differences in the Australian funding system: https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2016/september/1472652000/thornton-mccamish/thinking-caps
I adored teaching and I had some excellent students and first-rate colleagues from whom I learned a lot,and I had the opportunity to contribute some real scholarship to a relatively new field, the history of Australian art and photography. But eventually, the dysfunctions of my department and the frustrations with the university became unbearable for me. And in Australia, having as small a population as it does, there really is little possibility for lateral movement to another position. And as far as I could see, at least in the fields that I was capable of working in, this systemic sexism existed across the board in the country. Those who followed the appalling treatment of Julia Gillard when she was Prime Minister will understand how entrenched in Australian attitudes is this masculinist misogyny: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOPsxpMzYw4
I do feel that Australian women now may becoming more empowered, and have had enough of “mansplaining.” They are starting to revolt seriously, and I hope that a new generation of Australian women will have a real “fair go”, as the Aussies would say.
George also confronted different, yet related, workplace difficulties, in his case involving the painful and ultimately racist process of reluctant “Aboriginalization” on the part of institutions set up to support and aid the Aboriginal population. In his case, the attacks were a reverse kind of racism: ageist, anti-American, and, yes, sexist. He was finally able to extricate himself from what should have been the perfect position for him, and worked as the assistant for a famous Aboriginal academic–only to find that he would have to be overseeing the dismantling of an academic program, an action of which George wanted no part. In both of our working situations, an Australian penchant for Schadenfreude, maintaining the status quo, and playing the power game came to the fore.
We do realize that all of these events and situations are just a microcosm of global transformations, but as it was happening to us in Australia, and as ex-pats, we were particularly sensitive to our personal experience within, for us, this new society.
We were trying so hard to become Australians! Ultimately, we had to face up to a fact that all ex-pats usually have to face: you can never completely become a part of that other society, even one with as many affinities to the “home culture” as Australia has to the Western United States (I firmly believe that Australia has more in common with California than California has with Alabama or Maine). Max, who never lost his American accent, was, I think, quite happy in Canberra–it’s a great place to raise a boy, as long as he likes sports, and we were never happier than when we took Max to a sports oval or stadium for one of his many athletic competitions, whether baseball, soccer, or rugby. Being involved in and liking sport is a necessity to fitting in in Australia, at least for a boy. But he always felt a bit of an outsider, and rarely brought home friends to meet us. Again, this may just have been his personality, and I do know other Americans who have assimilated more completely than we apparently did, but as I have been thinking about our time there, I am still a bit baffled about what finally led to the decision to return to the States.
The process began, I think, when Max applied for colleges in the U.S. He was all set to go to Melbourne University, but just to humor me, I had him apply to a few schools where I had wanted to go in the U.S. Lo and behold, he got into Reed College–and, given that the exchange rate at the time made it appear that we were living in poverty, he got a full scholarship! So after not having returned to America more than once in 12 years, he set off for university a continent away. That was hard, but we still assumed we would stay in Australia. For the first two years of his college life, Max commuted between continents. The realization that once he was in the U.S., the prospects of him returning to Australia to live were slim, was probably the biggest impetus to our decision to move back to California. If Max had indeed gone to uni in Melbourne and had stayed in Australia, we might still have been there.
Just as Max went off to college, we moved to Queanbeyan–a small town outside of Canberra, the only place where we could afford to buy a house. We had been persuaded by one of the art professors at the School of Art that if more of “us” moved there, we might be able to create a livelier social scene in this typically parochial country town. Then that art professor tragically died in a freak accident, having had no luck persuading anyone but us to move there!
We loved our funky house, which had once been a neighborhood grocery store with living quarters behind–we set out right away to fix it up and make it a fun, happy place. But here we experienced the absolute worst of the Australian character. Next door to us lived dope-dealing low-lifes, with barking dogs, lots of sad caged animals, and a teenage mother who handed her two kids over to her mother who screamed at them all day. Drunken fights took place often outside our front door, and very shady characters appeared constantly for their fix. When we tried to get the other neighbors to join us in reporting them to the police, none of them would confront the family and were reluctant to go to the police. But when we were fixing up the house, painting it and removing aluminum siding, those very same neighbors were quick to report us for leaving debris on the verge. A fire truck, and two police cars appeared to give us a stern warning and told us to remove the offensive objects immediately. Obviously we weren’t ever going to be part of this community. We were seen as “having tickets on ourselves,” as snooty Canberrans, and what’s worse, AMERICANS–time for some “cutting down of tall poppies,” to use another Australian phrase. The last time we were in Canberra, we drove past the house. The garden that we had so lovingly planted and landscaped had degenerated into a mudhole, uncared for and unrecognizable.
The final straw, I think, was the 2001 election, in which the mean-spirited, nasty little piece of work that is John Howard was re-elected Prime Minister. I have never felt such high dudgeon about a political event in my life. When we first moved to Canberra, we felt that Australia was still a place committed to the common weal, that there was a sense of a shared communal bond that reminded us of America in the 1950s. (Australian patriotism is of the most touching kind, not overblown and xenophobic like America’s, but heartfelt and simple; we still sometimes go to Anzac Day ceremonies at the Australian consulate.) The PM then was the very populist Labor leader Bob Hawke, followed by the pugnacious yet elegant Paul Keating, who, while watching the old Labor constituencies crumbling, still held to decent social democratic policies begun by the great Gough Whitlam. But the ascendancy of small-minded conservatives like Howard marked a decided societal shift that mirrored, once again in microcosm, what was happening in the U.S. and around the world. Being so involved by living in the Australian capital, we just felt this shift viscerally. That election day was also the first and only time (again, in Queanbeyan) when we experienced anti-American sentiment directed at us. When we went to vote, the man at the polling station heard us speak and questioned whether we were qualified to vote. Sigh.
In the end, I think we just got so tired of fighting battles at work, and then having to be the representation of all that was wrong with America every time we opened our mouths. We got tired of being ex-pats. Don’t get me wrong, we do not regret our time in Australia at all! We made some wonderful lifelong friends–many of them through AA, which was the greatest thing that happened to me in Australia, that I got sober. We miss the Aussie sense of humor (Roy and HG are national treasures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyDuSHOmhG0) and a more nonchalant approach to life, we REALLY miss the birds, the beautiful clear sky, the incomparable beaches, the unique landscape. But when we went to visit two years ago, we felt that things were not right. That horrid neoliberal process that began with Howard has allowed, among other things, the continuation of a draconian refugee policy that, to our minds, has destroyed Australia’s reputation as “the lucky country”, where equality and a “fair go” were considered the greatest strengths. As one of my Australian friends in AA once told me, “scratch the surface of any Aussie, and you’ll find a racist.” While that is, of course, an exaggeration, and we know that the entire world is experiencing these reactionary swings, the Australian nonchalance in the face of what amounts to human rights abuses and outright torture is starting to affect the country’s image abroad, and, I think, is wearing on those caring Australians who don’t know what they can do to effect a policy change. We just sensed a different psychic attitude the last time we were there. Add to that the fact that Australia is now so expensive that there isn’t a house in all of Sydney under $1 million, and our dream of a nice, safe, happy place to live out our days has nearly vanished. And, finally, there are those pesky children–now a new grandchild. Australia’s permanent dilemma–being a Western nation far, far away from its ethnic origins, not en route to anywhere–is its greatest curse, or perhaps, its salvation. But for us now, it’s just too far.
And yet, and yet: there are those beaches, there is (at least for the moment) universal healthcare, and an easier, less complicated way of life. The changes wrought by recent events may be a global dilemma, and one that internationalists like us, who really don’t feel completely at home in our own first country, just have to accept as the way of the world in the 21st century. My book Images of the Pacific Rim was about an “aesthetics of place”, how visual imagery creates conceptions of “home”; perhaps in the end, we will just have to accept that aesthetics are the deciding factor, despite any other considerations.