In “Exchanges Down Under,” an ongoing series for Spectrum, Lisa Clark Diller has been sharing her experiences on spending a year away from Southern Adventist University on a professorial exchange with Avondale College. In this guest post, her exchange partner Daniel Reynaud shares his experience thus far in America.
“How do you like America?” That question, or variations on it, has come my way frequently in the eight months that I’ve been here on a one-year professorial exchange with Southern Adventist University historian Lisa Diller, who is taking my place at Avondale College in Australia. And it’s a fair enough question – I’ve asked its Australian equivalent of many a foreign visitor.
As an official and legal “alien” – a term my wife is still trying to get used to, as we are not green and from Mars – I have found my time here fascinating and instructive.
For starters, the people: we have been overwhelmed by the generosity of spirit and resources from so many folk. Helpfulness and going the second and third mile seem to be the markers of those we have met, both around Southern and of complete strangers encountered on our travels.
Secondly, the landscapes: what a stunning country of diverse beauty. Only superlatives can come close to capturing the jaw-dropping scenery we have taken in, and we haven’t seen everything!
But, “How do you like America?” Well, even though this is our first meaningful stay here, it isn’t as strange and unfamiliar as, say, the average American travelling to Australia. The pervasive influence of American culture means that most Australians have grown up on American television, movies, music, and even news, while American speakers are the norm at camp meetings and big events, so there is little that is exotic about Americans and American English. On the other hand, my Australian accent alone often singles me out for admiration. “Keep talking,” I’ve often been told here, “we just love hearing you,” a phrase I don’t get too often in Australia! I find that a little jolting – that I should get glory for something as superficial as my accent, but, there it is.
So much of America is familiar, yet there are nuances to be observed and surprises to be had. For all of its reputation for brassiness, this is a land of considerable variation and subtlety. Regional differences emerge, and the diversity of opinions, even in a relatively small area, undermine any cliché of the “typical.”
Instructive for me are the consonances of history. Both America’s and Australia’s European origins stemmed from a disenchantment with Britain and a desire to build a new way, a new world, a new set of values. Indeed, Australia was established as a dumping ground for British convicts purely because the Americans would no longer accept them after the Revolution. But while both countries saw themselves as creating a new ideal – “a city set on a hill,” to quote an Australian political phrase, and while there is a great deal which is similar, they have set out to cure quite different ills in their new worlds. America’s path has been more consciously religious and individualistic, ensuring religious liberty and the individual pursuit of prosperity and happiness. America is a nation that emphasizes the exceptional person.
Australia leaned towards other virtues: that of the “fair go,” to quote another great Australian phrase. To this end, Australia has deliberately emphasized equal opportunity and has accepted, nay demanded, that governments be active in ensuring a level playing field. While Australia is a capitalist country, it is one with a more socialist soul than the U.S.A. Australia valorizes the common person.
Consequently, there are certain things that strike me as an Australian in America. “How do I find America?” I am staggered at the surfeit of wealth – in every sphere. The landscapes are beautiful beyond imagination, the farmland is rich and produces an amazing volume of food. (Our family settled on a sheep farm in Australia that could only stock one sheep per two acres – and we were far from being in the driest part of the country.) Shops groan with an abundance of things to buy, often at very tempting prices. Shops and businesses are lavish in their size, architecture, and décor.
But more astonishing for an “Aussie” is the inequitable distribution of this munificence. Wages and salaries are often stingy in the extreme, suggesting a very low value for key roles, and the minimum wage is laughable. On the other hand, sports stars are paid fabulous salaries because of their media leverage. The gap between rich and poor in America is surprising for me; in Australia, wages are set to ensure a working-class family can maintain a decent standard of living. Most Australians live in the economic middle; the rich and the poor form a much smaller portion of the population. This leads me to ask, how can America be so rich yet so many of its people be poor?
Another thing that strikes me is the overtly religious nature of American society. This is most pronounced in the Bible Belt where we find ourselves, and many Americans tell us, “Oh yes, but it is different elsewhere.” And so it is, yet even these more secular parts of America are often more overtly religious than Australia. Historically, Australia wanted to avoid the divisions that led to conflict in Britain and Europe, so religion became a public no-go area. Actually, Australians have pretty much the same level of belief in God that Americans do, but religion is quite invisible in Australian society, to the point that most Australians believe that most Australians are not religious. Talk about swallowing our own myths!
What is ironic to me is that the most religious parts of America are often also the most militant. Somehow the followers of the Prince of Peace see no tension in owning lots of high-powered weaponry and being prepared to use it. Somehow also the ideals of the founder of Christianity in his attitude to the poor seem to have been lost in a championing of free market capitalism, where the economic losers are pilloried for their lack of success.
I recognize that I am talking on some sensitive political issues here and have probably lost more than a few readers already. I also recognize that there are factors and forces that I don’t understand that help explain the apparent paradoxes. I know that I am being abrasively Australian – forgive me! I have American friends who have no issue with the American values I have queried, and I am humbled by the gentle way that they accommodate my strident opinions.
But, when asked, “How do I find America?,” these are some of the things that stand out. What an amazing nation, so gifted, so rich, so contradictory. Which leads me to think, what tensions and contradictions in my own way of life have I become so used to that I cannot see the forest for the trees? In what ways are my own Christian values distorted by my Australianness? How do I fail to understand the fullness of the Gospel because of my own cultural biases and limitations? To what extent am I trying to pick the speck of wood from American eyes with the log in my own?
Daniel Reynaud is Assistant Dean of Learning and Teaching at Avondale College of Higher Education and is currently enrolled in a year-long faculty exchange program at Southern Adventist University.
Image Credit: SpectrumMagazine.org
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