It started with a series of firsts.
My first time in Australia.
My first time flying Qantas, as well as my first time on what is considered a “domestic” flight in a country other than my own.
Finally, my first time in one of those time zones that operate in half hour increments.
I wasn’t even a teenager the first time I looked at a time zone map and noticed these peculiar places on the other side of the world. After many years of only seeing this on a map, it felt strange to finally physically be in one of these places.
With respect to geography, I could not be in a place more opposite from where I live.
Darwin is in the Southern Hemisphere. It is tropical. It is coastal, and it is remote.
Rather than four, or two, they separate the year into six seasons.
The series of flights to get here, without the layovers, took a total of 21 hours. With layovers, and crossing the international date line, it was a three-day journey. There’s no way not to feel farther from home than at this point.
Yet, as soon as I arrived in Darwin, I found myself in a setting that felt strangely familiar. A Greek festival.
The Glenti Festival, in its 32nd year, celebrates the Greek heritage of Darwin. This aspect of Darwin’s history and culture is something I was unaware of before coming here.
The overall vibe here felt strangely familiar. It became easy to forget just how far from home I was geographically. I repeatedly encountered the types of attire, mannerisms, and activities I would typically associate with the more rural parts of the United States.
I ended up feeling like it would be impossible to find a county more culturally similar to my own. Other than the United States, I don’t recall anywhere else I saw as much soda sold at the grocery stores and as large of portion sizes at restaurants.
With the warm humid air, beaches, consistently seeing hats like the ones many wear in rural America, and streets like Mitchell St., it felt like a weekend at Daytona Beach, Florida.
I could easily imagine some of these places featured in an MTV reality show!
Many of the differences I did observe felt like slight differences within the same general framework.
In the United States, we contend with the way we uprooted our Native American population, with mixed results that include many failures we tend to gloss over.
Australia has the Aboriginal population, who appear to be honored in ceremonies, but not fully integrated into mainstream Australian society. When the conference I attended in Darwin began, I was given a “welcome to country”, acknowledging the Larrakeyah population that was here thousands of years before British settlement. Yet, I am certain that the nation of Australia administers all affairs here. This feels similar to our often impoverished “indian reservations” across North America.
The influence from nearby countries in Southeast Asia can be felt in both the racial makeup of the population and the types of cuisine available.
At places like Stokes Hill Wharf, one of my favorites in Darwin, cuisine from Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, India and more can be found.
The wharf was one of several places to see a phenomenal sunset during the dry, or Wurrkeng, season.
It also feels like Australia has a similar political divide. Without ever bringing up politics, over the course of the week I heard viewpoints ranging from admiration of President Trump, to envy for New Zealand’s progressive stands on certain issues.
There are still some obvious differences. Australians drive on the left side of the road and pronounce the last letter of the alphabet “zed” rather than “zee”. They also have a different perception of “cold”. Many lament winter temperatures in Sydney and Melbourne, mostly in the 5-20C (41-68 F) range. For most Americans, this is not cold.
The most culturally significant difference I experienced was how friendly people are.
I felt a kind of cultural warmth here. At the conference, I met dozens of people who would happily chat with me about both professional and non-professional topics. I also made friends with others at the penthouse bar at the hotel. Nearly every day, I was invited to join with people, who were previously strangers, for a meal or some other sort of activity.
One afternoon at a bar along Mitchell St., I noticed two people who were sitting alone, at separate tables. Despite different ages, genders, and races, they weren’t sitting alone for long; one invited the other to join. When a room is empty enough, we Americans leave an empty seat between ourselves and the people we were joining. However, any of the Australians I met, that would come join me at a session, would sit right next to me. I noticed them all doing it with each other. Even in a room with dozens of empty rows, there would be people sitting right next to each other.
I came away feeling that American culture is a bit stand-off-ish. An Australian woman I met on a ski lift at Whistler last year told me that people sitting adjacent to each other on a ski lift but not speaking a word to each other “would never happen” in Australia. Yet, we do these kinds of things all the time. We keep our distance from one another. We abruptly end conversations so we can get back to activities that involve work, making money, or personal development. Sometimes, our behavior even suggests that other human beings are mere commodities to be leveraged for personal gain.
Yet, it is important to remember that the values of our immediate surroundings are not the only ones that exist. With loneliness and depression on the rise in the United States, perhaps we can benefit from incorporating some of the values observed in a place that couldn’t be farther away geographically yet could hardly be more culturally similar.