Ten Things Australians should know about the USA

1. Yes, Virginia, there are USians with a sense of irony. The streets of NYC are paved with it. A few weeks ago I saw a gorgeous caricature of a woman with lots of makeup, high heels, big hair, in tight capris, flimsy T-shirt emblazoned in sparkling gold lettering with the word "darling", walking along with her tiny pet chihuahua and her enormous body-builder boyfriend. The dog, who was slightly bigger than my hand, fell into a hole in the footpath and got stuck, taking some coaxing and tugging to set it free. "See, honey?" she said to her man. "I told you this dog was too big." Try reading the stories of Terry Bisson, Kelly Link, or Howard Waldrop, or pretty much any good writing from the South (Flannery O’Conner, Kate Chopin, Florence King, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote). I appear to be implying that irony is a largely south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line thing. Au contraire. Read the sex advice columns of Dan Savage, check out the Onion, the Julia/Julie project, Bellona Times, or Izzle Pfaff. And, yes, sarcasm does count. I love sarcasm.

2. Very few USians are blonde. Even in California. Hell, especially in California.

3. USians are not all the same. Come on people, the USA has a population creeping up on 300 million and every last one of them is the same? You want diversity? Come to the United States of America. In NYC just walking a block you hear more accents then I’ve ever heard in Sydney, and I’m not simply talking about the Russians and Dominicans and French and Italians and Chinese, but the folk who hail from Kentucky and Minnesota and Rhode Island and Alabama and New Jersey. Unlike Australia, the USA has three strong colonial influences: the English, the Spanish and the French. It shows. For instance, Texas has been under six different flags: the Spanish, the French, the Mexican, the Texan, the Confederate and now, of course, the US flag. Texans will never forget those glorious five seconds when it was the nation of Texas. It’s the only state where the school kids have a clearer idea of what the state flag looks like than the national one. All the cities I’ve visited are markedly different: Austin is nothing like New York City which bares no resemblance to San Francisco which could not be more different from Los Angeles which sure as hell ain’t Chicago which can’t possibly be in the same country as Miami. And I’ve never been to New Orleans, the one everyone says is a whole other world.

4. USians do not uniformally dress badly. But I may not be the person to judge. Me, I like Hawaiian shirts.

5. They’re not all ignorant. Try telling that to any number of the world-class scholars here. Or to the bartender who told me in great detail about the war with Canada. "The USA went to war with Canada?" I repeated, ignorantly. I thought he was having a lend, apparently not. There’s not a country in the world, including Australia, that isn’t full of people who know only about their immediate (and I mean immediate) local area. I’ve met Australians who don’t know who the premier of their state is or, more shockingly, the prime minister (oh, okay, it was a five-year-old kid, but still!) Many non-Sydney-siders seem to be under the impression that every suburb of that fair city is on the beach, and that all the cops are corrupt. Such sad ignorance.

6. USians only rarely have names like Gidget or Rock. Disappointingly that turns out to have been a fifties thing. I have, however, met several Randys, a Sue-Ellen and a Cory (but he’s Canadian).

7. It may comes as a shock to some, but there are many USians who dislike the current adminstration. I’ve met many people here who do not suffer from the delusion that Iraq had anything to do with the attacks of 11 September, or that giving incredibly rich people massive tax breaks will help the poor. Not just people from predominantly liberal cities like Austin, NYC, Seattle, Madison, or San Francisco, but from Crawford, Texas (supposedly Bush country) and Lexington, Kentucky, from Maine, New Hampshire, Missouri, Alaska and Nebraska, from all over the USA. Yes, this is the country that produced Ronald Reagan and Ann Coulter, but it also produced Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson.

8. Some of the most annoying USians are actually Canadian: William Shatner, Jim Carrey and Celine Dion are not their fault.

9. Yes, you really do have to tip everyone for everything: you should tip waiters; everyone at a petrol station; tattooists (though possibly not if they’ve botched it by etching "LIGHTING" on your forearm when you asked for "LIGHTNING"); maids and bellboys; the hairdresser, hairwasher and receptionist; your friends; anyone who smiles at you in any service situation ever (or snarls for that matter). The amount varies radically, not just from state to state, and city to city, but from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. The richer the area, the bigger the tip. Try to relax about it. Tipping only becomes an issue if you don’t tip or you tip too little. When that happens they will sure as hell let you know by threatening violence to your person (cab drivers are particularly touchy about tips) to avert disaster thrust $20 in their hands and run. Fortunately, unlike in socialist countries, tipping too much seems not to bother them.

10. Anything you can say about the USA is most likely true. It’s a big place; there are bound to be aliens landing in flying saucers somewhere.

In answer to the query: I use the term "USian" because all my Canadian and Mexican friends get cranky when I use the term "American" if I don’t mean them as well. Canadians are very scary.

New York City, 7 September 2003