Same but different.. America and Australia

By Sarah Jukes
This was originally published September 9, 2013 on sarahjukes.com

One of the fascinating aspects about living in another country is getting your head around the social and cultural differences at play.

Those ‘at play’ differences were everywhere. And at times, ‘at play’ is can be both intoxicating and overwhelming.

There are so many subtle social and cultural differences going on here. I see and experience these differences every single day. It’s part of the fascination of this country, that it’s so different and yet so familiar at the same time.

You’d think that between Australia and America there wouldn’t be a whole lot of differences. Little things sure; the accent, the lingo, the endless cricket vs baseball comparisons. We speak the same language, watch the same movies and share a mutual respect and fascination for each other.

But I wanted to know more.

I got onto this book. I forget how. It’s called Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States. It’s written by an American, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian David Hackett Fischer.

My homeland might not be New Zealand, but there is much that can be extrapolated from this book about its very close regional and colonial cousin. As such, Australia is mentioned frequently throughout this book.

The essential premise of the book, as evidenced from its title, is that Americans value liberty and freedom. In contrast New Zealanders (and by extension Australians) value fairness and equity.

But why?

According to Fischer, the answer lies in our British colonial past.

The Brits settled on the east coast of America roughly in the early 17th century. But it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that they got around to colonizing and settling in New Zealand.

It is this 200-year difference between the British settling of America and New Zealand that’s so crucial.

Fischer says that the British colonists who settled in America in the early 1600s did so with a with a sense of control and tyranny that went on for generations. Two hundred years later and the British settled New Zealand (and Australia) with different principles and a softened spirit.

The American ideals of freedom and liberty can be traced back to the long struggle early Americans had with their British colonizers. It was a 6-generation struggle against tyrants sent over from England to bring colonial America back into line with its British rulers. The American War of Independence, and subsequent Declaration of Independence celebrated on July 4th, put an end to this tyranny. Fischer explains:

“these many imperial conflicts are little remembered in the United States, but together they had a major impact on its history.. The American obsession with liberty and freedom was in large part a product of that long experience.. That habit of mind found a permanent place in American ways of thinking about the world”.

This is all in contrast to Australia and New Zealand who won their freedom from the mother country without having to fight or struggle against their British founders. The path to nationhood for both these countries was a gradual one, with no war or significant struggle against the British. Freedom and liberty therefore were not strong themes from this time or in subsequent generations. Instead Australia and New Zealand are much more wrapped up in ideals of fairness, equity and social justice.

Case in point, Australians believe that everyone should help themselves, but if you are genuinely in need then the government should be there to provide assistance to you. This explains why Australians are for the most part happy to pay taxes to fund services for people with genuine needs, such as hospitals for the sick, services for the disabled and care for the elderly.

To many Americans, this concept is foreign because the prevailing thinking is one of every man for himself. ‘Redistribution’ is a dirty word to many Americans who despise the thought of their tax dollars in some way helping others. It is accepted in American society that one person can do well without depriving another. As such many Americans “strongly oppose policies of wealth distribution”. In the same way I frequently read about high profile Americans and their apparent strong aversion to paying taxes in the first place.

The book concludes with what is perhaps its most difficult question.. is it possible for a nation to be fair and free? Can freedom, fairness, liberty and natural justice ever sit together? Not an easy question to answer and I’m certainly not going to attempt it. But Fischer offers this advice:

“In 1940, that was a problem for the future. In the twenty-first century, it is a question for our time”.

What this book gave me, besides a fascinating history lesson, is a look at the cultural, historical and societal differences between America and New Zealand, and by extension, Australia as well. It provides a summary of the historical literature on a wide variety of subject areas including military and wartime traditions, racial and indigenous issues, government, women’s rights, religion, immigration, even how the different countries have responded historically to various financial crises.

While this discussion is interesting, what does it all mean for expats like me who spend significant amounts of time immersed in American culture and society? How does it help me with the ‘at play’ differences that are fascinating and overwhelming at times?

I owe it to my adopted country to have an awareness and understanding of what dominates American culture and thinking and why.

I don’t have to necessarily agree with it or conform to it but this understanding helps me to achieve what I’m most trying to do here. To bring together everything that’s good about my Australian upbringing, plonking it in one of the world’s best cities and coming up with some kind of hybrid life that’s interesting, fun and uniquely my own.

Sarah Jukes lives in New York City and works for a technology company in digital health. Outside of her day job Sarah pursues her other passions – classical ballet training and writing. She writes on her own blog and is a contributing writer on one of the world’s top indie music blogs – Indie Shuffle. Connect with Sarah via twitter and LinkedIn.