As an Australian, it would be fair to say Americans hardly think of us at all. We are quick to call them culturally insular for this oversight, but consider the fact they have 320 million people of their own to consider. We see them through the kaleidoscope of American TV, and they do much the same thing with us. Steve Irwin is largely responsible for the perception of Australia as a land filled with poisonous animals. There is some residual fear they’ll be met at Arrivals by a gigantic spider and stabbed through the heart. Most people have seen the Australian version of Kath and Kim and they like our accent. They’ve heard of Tim Minchin and they’ve listened to ACDC. They say we never stop complaining about how expensive video games are in Australia and they admire our liberal use of the c-word. Then they usually say the c-word aloud. They say it just the once because they’ve always wanted to try it out. I usually nod and don’t bother explaining we’re not that liberal with it.
They say they would like to visit but don’t expect they ever will. And this is where the conversation gets wistful.
They ask about healthcare… ‘Is it true you have socialised medicine over there?’ They ask about long waiting lists and people dying of cancer, unable to access oncology doctors in time. No, I tell them, if it is urgent enough treatment will begin right away. That’s when they sit back in their chairs and start blinking. The TV show, Breaking Bad, ran for five seasons in the US as Walt raised the money to pay his medical bills by cooking meth. I like to tell Americans if they made the show in Australia it would go something like, ‘You have lung cancer.’ ‘Well, I’d better get chemo.’ End of season. Walt could have received subsidised chemo from a less reputable doctor his health insurer covered, but his wife wanted the best. There would still be deductibles and leave without pay, putting them in the red.
Healthcare is expensive for the self-employed, but often covered by an employer in the US. They take poorly paid jobs, ‘with great benefits.’ The major benefit is their medical bills will be covered by the employer. If they need to see a specialist, they’ll be assigned only those doctor covered by their insurer. If they want an expensive procedure like an MRI, the doctor will weigh a patient’s request against how much money it will cost their practice, should the health insurer not cover it. The patient will seek a second and third opinion, because they know treatments get denied because of the expense. The doctor bills the health insurance company at inflated rates to cover their own personal liability costs, in case they get sued for malpractice. Everybody is doing advanced math. When I call a doctor in the US, I haggle with the receptionist. “How much will he do a blood test for…What if I pay cash?” Usually, I do it on-line and pay a doctor I’ve never met in Texas for the referral.
The next line of enquiry is about college. If you have watched American TV, ‘saving for college’ is a plot device that comes up a lot. According to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2012, the average US student graduates with $24,000 of debt. That is a four-year bachelor’s degree, a Master’s program can run it into six figures. Over 40% of people paying back loans are between 30 and 50 years of age. 17% are over 60.
The debt is a mix of government and private loans and here is where it gets ugly: the interest rate varies between 3.8 to 10 percent on these loans. These loans cannot be defaulted on, even with bankruptcy. Americans watched on television as houses slid into the canals of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and I heard one woman say, “And you know, they are still going to have to pay back their student loans.” If you are injured and receiving a government disability cheque, they will garnish this income. If you default on your student loan and your future employer runs a credit check, you might not get the job with a poor credit history.
But the taxes are low. The food and petrol is cheap. It has to be. It is the most wonderful place to visit for the diversity and the natural beauty and their courage, which looks a lot like cheerfulness. I admire the cheerfulness of the old man packing my grocery bags with his gnarled hands. It’s not what he expected to be doing at his age, but cheerfulness is the enemy of entitlement. It says, I’m getting on with it.
So they see us funny and laid-back. Our humour is blunt and we take the piss, which sometimes confuses them. Making fun of an American is a bit like teasing the girl with an anxiety disorder. She looks bewildered at first and then her feelings get hurt. And they see Australia as a place they wouldn’t mind living but can’t afford to visit and they hope to get here someday and know they probably won’t.
Vivienne Walshe is an Australian playwright and screenwriter. Her plays have been highly awarded and published by Currency Press. As an actress she appeared on The Secret Life of Us and many other television shows and performed in plays at the Melbourne Theatre company, Sydney Theatre company and Queensland Theatre company.