Monday, 7 July 2014

Culture shock? It's the small things, not the big ones

I've started a running joke with people about culture shock.

I'm a British citizen who moved to NZ, then Australia (both former British colonies), from Wellington to Melbourne (both known for their arty, hipster, coffee-fuelled cultures). Hardly different worlds, right?

But looking back, "culture shock" is the best way to describe the confusirage of those initial months.

Move somewhere really different, and you expect things to be different. No-one moves to Osaka or Lesotho and gets shitty when they can't buy Marmite at the supermarket.

But move somewhere similar, even almost the same, and that's when you get tripped up.

Hype and grump

Giant Australian streets.
Beautiful by day, desolate by night.
A lot of it is around expectations and reputations.

For example: Melbourne is famous for its "cafe culture". So it baffles me that cafes close at 5pm - in a city of 4.5 million people, famous for drinking coffee. (A dedicated blog post on this to follow. Short answer: "Cafe Culture" is actually made up of Food Culture and Coffee Culture; cafes are largely accidental to this.)

And naturally, there's me being a whinging pom.

For example: I cycled home from a friend's house yesterday. Having already complained about the tiny street signs on the giant Australian streets (usually hidden behind traffic lights), I entered a mini rage when I found a junction for 2 major roads didn't bother with any signs to tell me which street it was. Any!

But that's me - grump grump, moan moan, typical whinging pom.

Heaps of city junctions around the world are missing street signs. That ain't culture shock.

Australian vs Kiwi

The fact is, Melbourne is an Australian city and Wellington is a New Zealand city. They might occupy very similar roles in their own countries, but they still have very different characters.

Assuming that Melbourne is just Wellington with more money and bigger buildings is a mistake.

If a foreigner visited both cities in the same short holiday, they'd see the similarities. The same with Australia and New Zealand in general: they both use dollars, both have big wide streets, both say "yeah nah".

But having lived in Wellington for 4.5 years, I've been seeing and feeling all the hundreds of tiny ways Melbourne is different to Wellington...

Culture shock is about the little things

It's like, no-one knowing anything or caring about New Zealand at all. "ANZAC spirit" my arse. Aus & NZ is truly a big brother/little brother relationship.

It's like, your everyday bank account being called "Savings" when it's not the account you do savings with.

It's like, nowhere serving large coffees. You have to order a second little tiny one.

It's like people calling your phone when a text will do.

It's like, the empty, giant, desolate streets of this giant, spread-out city. I've moved to a big city, but outside of the CBD and Fitzroy, it sometimes feels like a smaller one.

It's living in a city that's cosmopolitan and international, but in a country so inherently racist that Melbourne churches have banners saying "We welcome refugees and asylum seekers", just to remind Melburnians that they're not like that, they're not like the rest of Australia and the media and the government.

It's like, moving to a wealthy city with enough money for an excellent integrated comprehensive transport network, but which doesn't have one. "Get a bike", everyone says. Is that supposed to be an excuse?

It's living in a city which has always resisted population density, and still does. Buildings over 3 storeys are controversial. Shade from a block of flats? Not in my back yard! Meanwhile the low-density sprawl continues to spread beyond the tram lines.

It's living in a city and country that both refuse to admit it gets cold and neither like nor understand dark beer.

It's living in a city that wants to be proud of its indigenous heritage, but where Aboriginal people are invisible.

It's like, living somewhere where a coffee is still just a few bucks, but lunch is $12 or more (£7 GBP, $12 USD, $15 NZD).

It's living in a country where everything is expensive, except the things which aren't. Some things are cheap because there's a bigger market, like New Zealand milk, which is cheaper than in New Zealand. Some things are expensive because they're imported, like electronics, even though New Zealand milk is also imported.

It's like, moving to a country that hates immigrants, but takes only 4 years to become a citizen from getting off the plane. New Zealand, largely welcoming to foreigners, is at least 5.

It's moving to a country where the people have a similar "she'll be right" slack attitude to health and safety, but government and bureaucracy is actually really tight and strict.

It's living in a country where the 7 states believe petty things like refusing to do daylight savings and a 0.5hr timezone help define their independent identity, instead of just making them look stupid. Kinda like the UK and the pint, I guess.

It's living in a city full of young Asian (Chinese, Japanese etc.) university students, in a country that refuses to admit its economy and future are dependent on Asia. Australia has recently accepted it might just be European instead of British, about 50 years late.

It's living in a country where the word "cunt" is used by pretty much anyone, all the time.

It's like a hundred more tiny little things.

No country makes sense. And naturally, move somewhere really different like Osaka or Lesotho, and there'll be big and small differences. And those big differences are a walk in the park either.

But culture shock is when you expect a new country to not make sense in the same ways, and find out it doesn't make sense in thousands of different ways.

Disclaimer: In case it's not clear, or you don't know me very well, I'm enjoying Melbourne very much. There's plenty of great things about it which I'm loving - even things which are (shock!) better than Wellington. No-one reads my writing proportionally anyway, but I try and remind people I'm not an evil unhappy person with a sour blackened soul. Not all the time, anyway.

1 comment:

  1. It's been really fun for me seeing you adjust from Wellington Melbourne the same way I did. I noticed a lot of these things when I moved over, and over time the annoyance has faded from a lot of them -- but some still really piss me off, because there is a RIGHT WAY to do things, and Australia does it in the WRONG WAY.

    Why won't they just listen to us? We've lived in multiple countries and can tell them what they need to do!

    Also: when I was in Germany, little things super-duper ticked me off. S. pointed out that it really means they're quite similar places. That was a comfort. I guess?