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.
When the reports come in of a school shooting in the US, as an Australian I would wonder how a gun ever got into the hands of a teenager? How that teenager could drive themselves to a school and press the trigger down on a semi-automatic weapon and spray bullets at children? Too many levels of unfathomable to take in. A teenager with a gun. Who drove himself to high school. Who wants to kill children. It becomes something that happens in the US and we file it away under Crazy Shit Americans Do.
When I visited my sister who lives in California, the first thing she said was, “Let’s do something you want to do and then something I want to do”. I really wanted to visit Berkeley campus and see where Alan Ginsberg first read ‘Howl’ aloud. It was still an unfinished poem and in the recording, you can hear the audience murmur and shout back with all the unsaid things, heard for the first time. My sister replied, “Whatever. Then we’ll go to a shooting range.” An indoor range is terrifying for the noise and the strange collection of people who are taking it seriously. I shot a single bullet. My hands trembled and then I was done. In the cubicle next to me, a boy of ten or eleven blasted away at a rifle. I wanted to leave as soon as I got there.
When I finally moved to the US, I had a cup of tea with a lovely yoga devotee, the first date I’d been on – an American date with an American man! Whilst we sat cross legged on his couch drinking herbal tea, I asked him what the vault across the room was for? “My gun safe,” he said and looked sheepish. How many guns were in there, I asked. “Six or seven,” he lied. It turned out to be ten rifles and ten handguns. Glocks, Berettas, M1A, and my personal favourite for its sheer butchness, a fancy sawn off shot-gun called The Alaskan. He had enough ammo to supply a militia and that’s where I learned something about the second amendment and the American psyche. They are woven together in a way that’s hard to understand, looking in.
The second amendment gives every American the right to bear arms and form a militia. The sentiment with so many Americans is that government is a group of people elected to perform an impossible task: managing three hundred million people with two porous borders. Americans often feel it can’t be done to good effect and that they are alone. They watched the images from Hurricane Katrina, people stranded for days on the top of their house, waving listlessly at the helicopters. It confirmed their fears: you will not be rescued in your time of need. In most of the houses I’ve been welcomed into in America, there are emergency provisions; enough canned food to last three or four days, torches and water. It’s tucked away in the garage without much fanfare. Other houses have full on bug-out bags stocked with enough gear to last three or four months if they have to scurry into the hills. Hell, Mormons are required to stock enough food and water to last two years and outlive the rapture. As an Australian, if you’ve ever wondered what would happen in a drought/flood/fire that left you stranded, I would like to think we’d co-operating with our neighbours, at least before the chaos set in. In America, it’s game on. No one is coming to get you and if they do, it might be for the water in your swimming pool and they’ll kill you if they have to. That’s when you’ll need a gun.
You can’t really hold a handgun or a shotgun in your hands without considering the circumstances of when you would use it. You don’t fasten on a pair of skis and never consider the snow. What you weigh in your mind, as you hold that gun in your hand, is whether or not you could pull the trigger on another human being. Going to the gun range, you’ll find the elderly Vietnamese man, the young tough guy, the Persian, the father and son combos. I don’t know how they feel about killing a person, but the idea has been squared away because of so many handguns on display, and you don’t shoot a deer with one of those.
I think I’d rather die than live knowing I killed a person, but that’s what the Americans call a Victim Mentality and so I tried getting into the spirit of things. If I was robbed by someone with a gun? Nope, I probably wouldn’t. What if my beloved was about to get shot? Okay, maybe then. To hold a gun is to feel out your moral boundary and see where the lines are drawn. For a lot of the men at the range, it’s to play out the hero scenarios on high rotation, at least it was for the guy I was dating. Is it the culture that’s emasculated them or the gun that plants the idea?
Americans are perceived as being disingenuous; both friendly and cunning is the cultural identity. International politics and multinational interests, the NSA, the Iraq/Afghanistan war, the aggressive free-trade agreement with Australia, that’s a lot of cunning. But as an Australian living in the US, I understand why Americans are this way with each other. They have nothing to fall back on and they are alone. It’s a very thin social fabric here, the taxes are low but the roads are poor, the food is cheap but public school are funded by local council rates on their homes; wealthy area = wealthy school, poor area = poor school. Wouldn’t you make nice-nice and take care of your own interests under these circumstances? The other day, my GPS took me through Skid Row in Los Angeles’ downtown area and I got to see what happens when you fall through the cracks. This isn’t just a row, it goes on for blocks and blocks and it’s the stuff of horror films. You can’t have a Skid Row in the middle of downtown and not feel it echo through the rest of the city. The sky really is limitless in the US, but the fall is Wile E. Coyote over the canyon’s edge. Beep, beep. Whistle.
What surprised me about the people in America is that if you are trusted and loved by a friend, the bond is deep; survival deep. You only have each other after all and in a way, you form your own militia. And the gun. You have the gun. And if you want to throw a couple of rifles into the back of a pick-up and drive through endless national forest, no one can damn well-stop you. Americans fight to maintain as much personal freedom as they can, as if they were still on the wagon, riding it over the plains. Freedoms I didn’t know I had the right to exercise in Australia, because they’ve already been taken away. But I think they get it wrong on the guns.
What do you think about gun control in the USA vs Australia?