Blame the animals. If Australia didn't have such vicious creatures, Americans might be capable of seeing the place as something other than a huge zoo where humans are the food. The latest promoter of Deadly Australia is Bill Bryson, author of A Sunburned Country. "If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner," he writes, "you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, carried out to sea by irresistible currents or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the Outback."
Exaggerations like these have built an image impossible to break down. A decade ago, in New York City, I shared an elevator with a fellow traveling Australian. Hearing our accents, a muscle-bound, WWF-sized local interrupted: "You guys are Aussies? Man! Tough guys!" He wasn't joking, despite the fact that he could easily have smashed both of us to atoms. Looking ashamed, he said: "You must think we're wimps."
A stroll through U.S. newspaper coverage of the Sydney Olympics reveals the fantastic divide that remains between how Australians think of themselves and how Americans perceive them.
Or how the U.S. press chooses to present them. Many Sydney folk looked forward to the Games as a chance to display how lively, clever and urbane the place is. So American journalists fled the joint. Reporters from the Denver Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post dashed to distant Silverton in southwest New South Wales. Why Silverton? Well, some scenes from Mad Max II were shot there.
Silverton Hotel publican Jo Casey became almost bored by all these Americans queuing to have her pour beer down their pants (it's a hotel tradition, apparently). The Denver Post struck gold when Casey revealed that her husband had been knocked off his motorbike by a kangaroo. Nothing excites the U.S. press like a kangaroo story. At least four columnists passed on to American readers the news that a kangaroo had broken into a house in the Northern Territory, where it was fended off with a bottle of Jim Beam.
Seeing how some Americans render Australian speech, you'd think they'd been guzzling the stuff. "G'day, mates!" began one Washington Post column, violating the rule that it's only ever mate, singular-say g'day to a group, and that's all you need say. And "bloke" isn't a form of address ("Hello, bloke!"), despite the claims of Louisville's Courier-Journal. The Chicago Sun-Times thinks "g'day" is interchangeable with "goodbye." The Los Angeles Times reckons Australians call their dentists "fang carpenters."
Anyone who can decode this sentence-"If your Sheila thinks you're a bludger, buckle down and cut the macaroni"-should send their solution to the Dallas Morning News, which included it in a guide on "How to Speak Australian." Some reporters found it easier to turn Australese into Americanoid; the San Francisco Chronicle quoted an Aboriginal man as saying he'd be "rooting" for runner Cathy Freeman in her 400-m race.
Freeman provided visiting journalists with a platform for incontinent moralizing. The New York Times thought Freeman had not only won a foot race, but had also shattered the time-space continuum: "Cathy Freeman, the pride of Australia, the joy of the Aborigine people, carried this continent 400 m across the finish line and light years further." Perhaps into a future which uses the term "Aboriginal."
Who knows why, but as the Games went on, an anti-American sentiment developed. "You should have heard the hissing and booing when American 400-m hurdler James Carter eased toward the finish, derisively motioning for the laggards behind him to hurry up," the L.A. Times reported. "Australians, for good reason, absolutely abhor this sort of thing." Others were less sympathetic. "The United States Olympians are not the most popular athletes in Sydney because they keep winning and being smug," wrote the Denver Post. "Deal with it, Australia."
Australians did, via the Internet. "You guys just don't get it, do you?" an Australian snapped at the web magazine Salon after it declared: "It's official: The Aussies don't really like the United States." "We don't care much for American egos," was one reader's response. Another invited Salon's Olympics writer to join him at a Sydney bar for "a rousing chorus of 'Go U.S.A.' . . . I'll bring my running shoes and a couple of mouthguards." The rest of the world, railed yet another e-mailer, was "annoyed at American arrogance."
So were some Americans. "We have heard many Americans here for the Games who made us cringe and hide our flag in shame," wrote Karen Meyer, an American who lives in Sydney. "Maybe we Americans should pay a bit more attention to what the rest of the world thinks." Australians wish the U.S. all the best. They know how hard it is to fix an image problem.