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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Australiana #13: The Tale of Four Hemispheres

It's winter in Australia and we're celebrating Christmas! No, this isn't a joke. We are in the southern hemisphere and have winter in the months May-August, when the whole of the northern hemisphere is wilting under the combined influence of heatwave and thunderstorms. As for Christmas, it's the Australian way of doing things. My neighbour, Arthur, told me about it. "I go to this club which celebrates Christmas in July so we can have all the English goodies that people eat there during Christmas in the northern hemisphere." Like my other neighbours, Arthur left the British Isles nearly 40 years ago. But he misses the good old British stuff, so he consciously associates with British groups and ex-Brits to get a bit of that 'northern' feel, especially during winter, when he wants to dig into roasts and plum puddings. 

It's Christmas in July!

While Arthur and other seniors indulge in north-style festivities, other Aussies are discovering what it's to be in the East. Till about a decade ago, most Australians would happily start a sentence with, "We Westerners believe..." The 'we' represented the White Australians of British, Greek, Italian and Eastern European stock. Then someone probably pointed out that Australia is in the Far East and not West, so technically, they shouldn't call themselves 'Westerners'. That, and the fact that China's buying up almost everything Australia has to offer and selling to Australians everything it makes that they need or don't need, Australia has discovered that it is more advantageous to say it's an eastern country than a western one. Leading the way are the Socceroos, the Australian footballers, who represented the nation in the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil under the umbrella of the Asian Football Confederation, along with Iran, Japan and South Korea.

In an increasingly globalised world, where the internet is blurring the boundaries between people, work and home, why does north/south or east/west matter? First, this is the only continent that is entirely in the South (besides the uninhabitable Antarctica) and was populated by choice by people from the West and the North for over a century. They had lost almost everything but their roots. They were suspicious of the Eastern traditions and cultures: the languages they could not follow, the people of skin colour different from their own and most importantly, people who could work very hard in adverse environments and gain sufficient advantage in skill and knowledge that would better their own. They had a problem when the Chinese miners dug out more gold in Australia in the nineteenth century than the British settlers. It sent alarm-bells ringing and there came in a policy that would keep Australia, white. The policy was revoked in the 1970s and in came the Chinese again, with their own culture, language, brand of hard work and culinary skills. The immigrants revived and revitalised a country with an ageing population, which still clings to the idea of its 'Western' roots.

The second reason why hemispheres are a big deal here is because nobody really knows much about Australia outside of Australia, not even the fact that it has multiple time-zones, like the US. Australia has been a stable country with some goofy leaders but all you hear about it is usually on the travel, sports and Discovery channels. The country has among the boldest media in the world. They even have a television show called Media Watch on ABC that tears apart all forms of traditional media by pointing out their inaccuracies and ineffectiveness in coverage and gets the respective editors to comment on them. But even the Australian media does not get much talked about, apart from its association with the Australian-born-now-American Rupert Murdoch. When the rest of the world pays little attention to you, you want to make a note of why you're so different. "Those blokes up in the North have no clue what the weather is like over here," one Aussie tells me. They will not. They just have too many things on their minds up in the North - population, climate change, economic backlash, petro-dollars, wars, etc - to worry about a place far, far South.   

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