My Weird Australia Thing
4:38 PM EDT on May 4, 2022
I am Australian by accident. My parents were born and raised in the United States, just as their parents were. My brother was born in the United States, as was my sister. But I was not. My family relocated to Sydney for my dad’s job back in the late 1970s, and that’s when I decided to show my face to the world. Born in the Sydney suburb of Wahroonga. I can pronounce the name of that town flawlessly, by the way. You have to give it real energy on the back end, like you’re introducing the musical act on Saturday Night Live. “Ladies and gentlemen … WahROONga!”
Just a scant few months after my birth, we all moved back to home to America and have resided there ever since. I am an American in every legal and cultural sense now: a standard issue, boring-ass American who grew up in the burbs. I own an Australian passport, but it’s long since expired. Wikipedia once said I was “an Australian-American journalist” (not my edit, I swear), which is misleading on like six different levels and got me a lot of anti-Australian epithets hurled my way online anytime I published something angry. The circumstances of my birth are more a useless factoid than anything else.
But oh my God, do I wish that weren’t the case. I TOTALLY wish I was fully Australian. I wish I had the accent. I wish I had the insane tan. I wish I could look a rattlesnake in the eye without blinking. I wish I understood Aussie Rules football whenever I watch it. All of that shit.
Instead, everything I know about my temporary Australian upbringing was relayed to me secondhand. I was born premature there. My mom had to stay in the hospital for a week after I was born, but the Aussie hospital treated her so well that she wasn’t in a hurry to leave it. My older brother picked up an Aussie accent, the lucky bastard. My father caught it on tape and would replay it for us long after Alex had shed that accent entirely. You can hear lil’ Alex talking about a dragon in a duck pond. It’s both adorable and cool as shit. I never had a chance to pick up that accent. In fact, I can’t even do a passable fake Aussie accent these days. When I try, I sound like your dad attempting an Irish accent. I hate that I can’t do it well. GOOD EYE, MITE! See? Terrible.
I have more hand-me-down memories of Australia. I knew the details so intimately that I have been able to build working memories out of them. I can see the woods behind the house where Alex took a walk one day was bitten by a creature that, to this day, we still don’t know the species of and which put him in the hospital. Could have been a snake. Could have been a massive centipede. Could have been the Babadook. We’ll never know. I would like to go back to that backyard one day, find the offending serpent, and gut it like a hog. Another time, my folks once walked into my older sister’s nursery and saw a spider the size of a salad plate looming on the ceiling above her. That one kinda freaks me out. When I eventually had kids of my own, I was very glad they weren’t born in Australia, because I didn’t want Aragog sneaking into their room at night to turn them into baby jerky.
But I’m not ALL the way glad I live in the States. I still love my birth story, which is why I love to unleash it upon unknowing acquaintances. Because Australia was always cool to me (still is), and my origin story there represents the only vaguely interesting thing about my background. I’ve based book characters on myself and had those characters be widely derided for being too boring. Which means that I am boring. But I always have Australia in my back pocket. Being born just outside Sydney has always been a card I can throw down anytime I want to take people by surprise. And it works! They say, "Really?" and I say, "Yeah," and then they say "Oh." It's a precious moment.
More important, being born outside Sydney makes me feel different from everyone else around me. It gives me an alternative cultural identity that I can, and do, ruminate upon. The fact that I have no memory of living in Australia has, counterintuitively, only strengthened my bond to the place. I am a citizen of a daydream of Australia: a remote land of strange monsters, road warriors, and vast expanses of bush. GOTTA TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF OUT IN THE BUSH, MITE. I privately bask in that shit like it’s real to me, because I have a birth certificate proving that at least some part of it is.
My folks were more than happy to exploit this bit of personal trivia. They hung a framed needlepoint in my room of the Australian continent, with my full name and birth date stitched into the landmass. I stared at it constantly. My mom made me pavlova for my birthday on more than one occasion. I made that same dish for the dessert course on Chopped, and then I fucking won. CRIKEY! When I had to give a country report in fourth grade, I picked Australia with my folks’ blessing and without hesitation. And when America flirted with Aussie culture for 10 minutes in the 1980s (as acknowledged with devastating accuracy by, naturally, The Simpsons), you better believe that I reveled in the fad. Everyone is into Australia, and I’m Australian! HOW FUCKING COOL IS THAT?!
And I continue to trade on my fake Aussie heritage any chance I get out in the real world. If I ever hear an Aussie accent on someone, you better believe I tell them that I was born there, acting like we went to grade school in Wahroonga together. When I find out a famous actor is Australian, I like them 50 percent more than other famous actors. I always root for Australian athletes at the Olympics. When I worked with an Australian woman at an ad agency a while back, I felt a kinship with her when there was none to be had. I slide a door and my family never moves back to America in 1976. I grow up in Sydney and become a legit Aussie. I have the magnetic jocularity. I can surf. I can drink a THOUSAND beers and not have it affect me in the slightest. It’s not just that I think I could be another person had we stayed, it’s that I’m certain I WOULD be that person. I would be roguishly charming and an undisputed fucking BADASS. I wouldn’t be a cartoon Aussie like The fucking Bushwhackers or some other posers. I would be the real deal.
This is why I am strangely overprotective of Australia. Yes, it was originally founded as a penal colony (the twist there is that Great Britain only took up serious interest in the idea after losing the Revolutionary War to the Americans, whose colonies happily took in British convicts before Australia was forced to). Yes, the history of terra australis incognito, or Unknown Southern Land, is checkered with the genocide and forced displacement of native peoples, the endless plunder of natural resources, and SO MUCH racism. Yes, it’s one of the most expensive countries on Earth today. Yes, its billionaire class is appalling even by billionaire standards. Yes, its chief cultural export is Rupert Murdoch. Yes, Vegemite is horrible shit. My mom once told me that she found Australian men appallingly sexist, and if an American woman tells you that your country is sexist, that says a lot. Strip away all of Australia’s rebel charm—and isn’t it always fun to play the reject?—and you’re left with a country whose foremost attribute is its considerable distance from nuclear powers.
But if you say an unkind word about the place, I will fucking ruin your shit. That’s MY country you’re talking about there, fucker. So don’t you come at me with all of your NAUR jokes and whatnot. That’s not even phonetically accurate, and I would know. I WAS BORN THERE. Sure, I love the idea of Australia more than the country itself, but don’t you tell me how to live my pretend life. And who’s to say it'll always be pretend? Sometimes I hope there really IS a nuclear war so that I can relocate my family back Down Under (we call it that; there’s a song and everything) for good. In fact, I even explored the idea after Trump got elected. I would Slack Australian io9 correspondents questions about living on the other side of the world. How are the schools? Is everyone nice? Are the taxes high? And then all of them would reply, “Drew, it’s three in the morning here. We don’t know.” MY COUNTRYMEN! I can’t wait to live amongst them!
Nobody can resist the occasional urge to imagine a different version of their life, to go back to the moments where one timeline branched off from another, and to think about what might have been down that other direction. Australia looms so large in my mind because leaving it put a fork in my destiny at the very beginning of my life. It makes me feel that everything could have been different. That's why I feel that when I left that country at such a young age, I took a part of it with me that I never want to lose. Because being American is boring and stupid. And predictable. But being Australian? That fucking rules, even when you’re not really Australian.