I have been in Australia for about a week now, and It’s interesting how a place that seems so familiar can be so different. I mean when you imagine Australia, you think of the outback, but when you imagine the people, you see a culture that speaks the same language as in the states and comes from a British-colonial history like the States. But it is definitely a different place in a lot of ways.
The first thing I noticed was the metric system. Now I know it’s obvious that America uses a different system of measurement than the rest of the world, we read it in our school books and even practice using centimeters in elementary school and grams in science class. But when I walked out of the plane into the Melbourne Airport and the health screening authority told me to walk slowly, one meter behind the person in front of me, I kind of freaked out for a second. My head quickly ran through all of it’s known references to a meter – rulers, kilometers, yardsticks, Meter sticks! Since the man kept reminding me of the distance order, I just walked slowly and tried to picture a meter stick between myself and the person in front of me. Then we were told that it was 9 degrees outside; mind our shock until we remembered that this temperature was measured in Celsius. Today I tried to purchase lunch meat from the grocery deli. It was priced per kilogram and I had a pretty hard time figuring out how to order the correct amount. In the end, we just went by slices and it worked out alright. Speed and distance are measured in kilometers, and eventually, it just gets you wondering why we can’t just get with it in America. It is embarrassing to feel so absorbed in your own culture that you can barely function in another due to something as simple as measurement.
Weather systems are backward here. It’s currently wintertime and the locals are bundled up. In Melbourne, we saw city folk dressed in their thickest coats, scarves, and hats… it was about 53 degrees (Fahrenheit) out there. We were in jackets and hoodies, enjoying the beach and wildlife. One of the Arcadia staff members explained to me that this seems extremely cold to Aussie people because the heat is so extreme throughout the year. She also said they probably would have a hard time adapting to a typical Midwest winter, it would just be out of the question. Other backward things are cars. They drive on the opposite side of the road and car here. Even seat belts are backward. It looks so strange.
Some of the cultural differences are positive. Everywhere we’ve gone restrooms are loaded with signs reminding visitors that Australia is the driest continent. We are encouraged to conserve water and limit showers to four minutes or less. Also, plastic bags are almost a thing of the past. At some stores, it cost extra to have your items bagged in plastic. Most people bring their own reusable cloth shopping bags to stores, whether they are shopping for groceries or clothes. It’s a habit I think I will try to get into and take back with me to the states. Plastic is extremely wasteful and dangerous to the environment when not properly disposed of. Also, when your bagging option has less capacity, you tend to buy less. And speaking of purchasing, prices are much higher here than in the States. Electrical outlets have switches above them to turn on/off the power to the individual switch when needed. Much more energy efficient.
In other differences, pennies do not exist here, nor do one and two dollar bills, they are coins instead, and prices are rounded to the nearest denomination of .05. Target is more of a Sears-type department store than a Supercenter, Payless shoes is mighty expensive, and Burger King is called Hungry Jack.
I think the hardest thing to cope with however is the internet. Internet use is more of a public utility then a luxury here. It’s expensive, slow, and not common in every household. At the fancy luxury hotel we stayed in our last night in Melbourne, internet use was limited to a coin operated computer in the lobby ($2 for 20 minutes of dial-up use), or pre-payment for use in the room (limited to one laptop). Instant messaging, photo uploads, and video-streaming is pretty much impossible due to the low connecting speed. Convenience stores and internet cafés a scattered amongst city blocks where people wait, and often pay, to use anywhere from two to twelve available computers, depending on the size of the place. This was quite a shock to the students of our group. We are used to internet just being fast and free, or at least affordable. So next time you are wasting 3 hours on Facebook, remember that not everyone has that luxury, be productive.