My parents recently came to visit America for three weeks. They’re both well travelled people, both avid followers of US politics, but neither had ever been to the the country before, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have come if I hadn’t been here. They visited us in Portland, before heading of to the east coast to see Washington D.C. and New York, then I met back up with them in San Francisco. On our last day, I interviewed them about their experiences and impressions:
Ruth: Alright, you have to be honest
*they look pensive*
Ruth: What does it matter, you’ll be in Australia
Dad: But we don’t have to agree?
Ruth: Agree to what?
Dad: With each other.
Ruth: No. You should say what you think.
Dad: Well, what are the questions to which we’re providing answers?
Ruth: What were your impressions of America before coming here?
Dad: Well, I always thought of America as essentially being very materialistic, very driven by individualism, very right wing, very — almost sort of mono-cultural in a way, which is absurd, but that was the sort of the mental image that I brought. It was a rather stereotypical sort of image.
Ruth: But then did you have different associations with different cities? Because even though you think of America as one thing, but then you think New York is one thing and LA is one thing—
Dad: No, I didn’t really have a preconception about the cities, I suppose. I sort of thought of them as being variations on the same theme but in different places, which is also absurd. But I knew that Portland was more progressive, in terms of its local government and social organisations—
Mum: But that’s only because of Ruth. We wouldn’t have heard of Portland—
Dad: Yes, I didn’t have any concrete sense of that. No, my overwhelming impression was a stereotypical view that everybody in America was driven by the need to consume, everybody was overweight, they were all right wing and they were all xenophobic and all only interested in American affairs, not interested in the world at all.
Ruth: [to Mum] What about you?
Mum: I think I had a slightly more nuanced view! [laughs]
Dad: Yes, mine was knee jerk, A very un-thought-through—
Mum: Well I’ve probably had more to do with Americans. When I was in the Tibet movement, that was very international, so I used to meet lots of Americans.
Dad: Intellectually I know that’s a very narrow, simplistic interpretation, but that was probably my overriding instinct.
Ruth: There is a lot of, I have realised, there is a lot of xenophobia in Australia against America and Americans. It’s OK to be racist — well anti-American. It’s kind of encouraged.
Dad: Yeah I think so, it’s partly a throwback from the British heritage, sort of by way of contrast. Sort of identifying Australia more in a British mould than an American mould.
Ruth: Well I think Australia has an inferiority complex — Australians — I think.
Mum: It’s probably gone through waves, though, because of the generation we came from and the Vietnam War, possibly our generation are more anti-American. Whereas our parents’ generation, who would have seen the Americans as the saviours in the second world war.
Dad: But it’s a very two dimensional attitude, and once you start to investigate it—
Ruth: But it’s an accepted two dimensional attitude.
Dad: I think those sorts of stereotypes are more accepted in Australia. And it’s probably due to lack of exposure to Americans.
Ruth: True, because Americans don’t travel a lot, and for a long time, it was just prohibitively expensive for Australians to come to America because the dollar was so low.
Mum: A lot of Australians do travel to America, though.
Ruth: Aww, not percentage wise.
Dad: And they go to Disneyland. The thing which strikes me in counter to that, is that as soon as you get here, you start to realise the complexity of the situation and the many different cultures that exist and the local history and how local conditions are very different. It’s very obvious that the country is made up of people from very different backgrounds.
Mum: I’m just thinking of more exceptions to your statement, because people in Australia were very excited by Obama, weren’t they?
Ruth: Yeah but was that a pro-America thing, or just because they hated Bush and because it actually has an impact on our country?
Mum: Yeah, that’s right.
Ruth: Because, see, I find it really hypocritical, because Australians will say these horribly racist things against Americans, but they’re also obsessed with America as well.
Mum: That’s right, and that is because we are so dependent on America. Because we know that the decisions the US administration makes have such an impact on Australia.
Ruth: And culturally
Mum: And I’m sure that’s one of the reasons people are so emotional and, in a way, unfair. Because a country that is — like Greece, take Greece. You can afford to be fairly dispassionate about Greece and think about the pluses and the minuses and what’s the good things and the bad things and what’s going to happen to Greece now — you can be very interested in what’s going to happen to Greece now, but it’s not going to affect your life personally, or my life personally, is it? Whereas what happens in America will affect our lives, and that’s why I think Australians tend to get very frustrated and angry about it when they see Americans making what they see as wrong decisions and electing the wrong president! Because it’s that sort of powerlessness.
Dad: And also there’s that sense in a way that Australia does follow America in lots of senses, and so it’s not hard to see the trends which are developing. And so you almost feel this power that’s dragging you along — whether you want it or not — in a certain direction. So if you feel negative about that direction — I would cite rampant materialism and individualism as a tendency which I would be somewhat negative about — then you tend to see that in CinemaScope on the American scene, and I suspect that’s why there’s that prejudice to start with.
Ruth: So how would you say your views have been challenged — or confirmed? Did it match your expectations? Were you surprised?
Mum: Well I think it’s kind of a dual experience, isn’t it? Because a lot of the time, you’re in places that you’ve seen many, many, many times on television and in movies, so there is one sense in which it’s like, “Oh, Central Park, here it is.” Or: “Here it is, the White House.” So there’s a certain air of familiarity which you don’t always get while you travel. But then it’s not quite the same, is it? Because it’s real. [laughs] I think the size, the size is a surprise.
Ruth: The size of the country?
Mum: The size of the country and the size of the big cities.
Dad: And everything seems to be on such a big scale, whether it’s buildings or museums.
Mum: Because every individual monument or building in D.C. you have seen images of time and time again, haven’t you? But when you see them all together in this one city, it’s almost overwhelming.
Ruth: What about culturally?
Dad: Well, in a way we’re sort of moving around in a bit of a bubble, because as tourists, you’re not actually interacting with the subcultures in the way that someone who’s living here is. We’re moving around in a tourist bubble, which is a bit strange, and some of that is quite pleasant. You get to sample bits of history and culture and so forth — obviously food and art museums and things like that. So it’s a bit like going shopping: a bit here and a bit there. But shopping’s not like real life. It’s sort of an add-on. On the other hand, I’ve had some really nice interactions with people.
Mum: I think one thing, which I knew intellectually, but I think it’s emotionally quite challenging, is just the reality of what, in many ways, a harsh society this is. Because all the time you’re seeing homeless people, you’re seeing mentally ill people on the streets. And you realise that all the other people could very easily end up like that. Like I’m very aware of the fact all the time that the safety nets just aren’t what they are in Australia or many other European countries. I would find it a very anxiety provoking society to live in, I think, to live in America. Because, you know — I mean, maybe it’s true you can go from very poor to very rich in America — it’s possibly still the land of opportunity — but you can go the other way much more quickly. I see women my age  begging on the streets. That’s quite shocking to me.
Ruth: But I guess what characterises America is that positive optimism, you kind of need that.
Dad: Yes, but the flip side is that once you’re out of the system, then you’re regarded as fundamentally a failure aren’t you?
Mum: But then a lot of American films and novels and stories are about people who sort of hit rock bottom, and then something turns their life around — often religion or a 12-step program or whatever it is. So it’s one of the kind of archetypal American stories, isn’t it? That there’s hope for everyone. That doesn’t necessarily mean people aren’t critical of them, but there is hope. But I don’t know, because we haven’t met enough people.
Dad: Yes, we haven’t had much exposure to the everyday suburban life, which is obviously the experience for most people here. The only way we experience that is through television, which is pretty limited. The majority of people we’ve been interacting with are people in the service industry or tourism industry. Or tourists themselves. It’s a slightly skewed cross-section of humanity that you come across, inevitably… But you are conscious that people aren’t paid very much.
Mum: Yes, tipping! That was a shock.
Dad: That was a suprise—
Mum: No it wasn’t a “surprise”—
Dad: Well not a “surprise”, but it’s very pervasive.
Ruth: Why is that?
Dad: Well the fact that you know people are being paid a very low wage, so you’re very conscious of trying to compensate for that by tipping. You feel a moral obligation to do so.
Ruth: Did you ever not tip for bad service?
Dad: Not that I’m aware of. I might have inadvertently. I tipped for bad service! Tipping tour guides on buses and things was very strange. That’s an odd experience.
Ruth: Do you think you got better service though?
Ruth: You wouldn’t say the service is better?
Mum: Oh, is service better here?
Ruth: Yeah, and do you think that’s a result of the tipping? Because you have to be nicer?
Mum: I wouldn’t say service is “better”. Sometimes it’s a bit more over the top!
Dad: Yeah, asking you five times whether you enjoyed your meal I find a bit hard to take. I wouldn’t say it’s “better”.
Mum: But then service in Australia has improved over the years.
Ruth: It’s still considered one of the rudest countries, though, when they do polls. Because everyone’s so laid back — I don’t think they’re rude, but people from other cultures do.
Mum: They appear rude. But don’t you think, once upon a time in Australia, service people were almost sort of sullen!
Dad: Well I think the attitude was that you weren’t anybody’s servant, you weren’t subservient to them, therefore why be artificial about it? There is often an exaggerated deference [here] which I find hard to take. Lots of “ladies and gentleman”s, which I find over the top.
Ruth: Yes, there’s a lot of “sir”s and “ma’am”s. I think manners are emphasised more. People swear less.
Mum: Yes, I haven’t heard any swearing, actually, now that I think about it. I’d call that a plus. [laughs]
Ruth: So how would you characterise each of the cities you visited?
Mum: Well, Portland I’d characterise as—quirky?
Dad: Relaxed. Youthful.
Mum: Yeah, very youthful. Very clean.
Ruth: What about New York?
Mum: Just overwhelming!
Dad: Yes, very fast, very bustling.
Mum: But very dynamic, very vibrant, exciting. Just a kind of miracle it keeps going! It’s just so complex.
Dad: Washington was a bit overwhelming; it’s very overwhelming in terms of its scale. Everything seems to be larger than life.
Ruth: What about culturally?
Dad: Pretty restrained, I thought. Conservative.
Mum: I found Washington very exciting.
Dad: I didn’t find it so exciting, because I probably didn’t have an expectation. But you were jumping up and down like a school girl when we went to the—
Mum: Don’t put that in!
Dad: No, it’s true! “Ooh, I’m so excited!” she said.
Mum: Well, I think because it’s kind of the flip side of what I was saying earlier about what happens in America matters to everyone. And when we were waiting to go into the public gallery at the Capitol, and we were in the queue we could see on the TV they were having the debate and then doing the vote on the American involvement in Libya. It’s that same thing, you just think “Wow, this vote really matters!”
Dad: That’s true.
Mum: And you didn’t know, because the party system is so undisciplined here, you actually don’t know what the final result will be. Whereas in Australia — not so much now because of the minority government — but until recently, you always knew what the result in the House of Representatives would be. Whereas there it was a real vote. So yeah, I thought that was pretty exciting.
Ruth: What was the UN like?
Mum: Well of course, the interesting thing about the UN is that, by comparison, it’s quite low key and obviously not wealthy, is it? The UN building isn’t extravagant or over-awing in the way that the American power buildings in Washington are. And, in fact, the guide pointed out to us that their budget was about the same as the New York Police Department. And they are supposed to be keeping peace in the world!
Dad: Yes, it was quite modest in a way, wasn’t it? The whole building was quite modest.
Mum: Yes, I think so. But it was interesting. But it made you aware of the limitations of the UN, in a way — not that your’e not aware.
Dad: But the need to treat everybody equally—
Mum: Yes that’s right, they have these incredibly complicated rituals to make sure no country appears to be getting heard, in terms of their seating arrangement. There was a lot of explanation about the seating arrangements and how they rotate them alphabetically to make sure no one gets a good spot forever. Which is really good, the philosophy is good, but you know the reality is that not every country is equal because there are the five permanent Security Council members. So I guess it really just reminded me of what the UN’s up against!
Dad: The other thing which I’ve been very struck with — I mean, you knew about it — but the security. Not just at airports, but all the major buildings. Just that all pervasive—
Mum: Yes, it’s very oppressive, I think.
Dad: Like when we were going to the Capitol, you went through an initial security thing before you even went into the building, then—what was the next thing?
Mum: The next thing was you had to give in all your mobiles and things like that.
Dad: Yes, and then there was another queue, and then when you finally get to the actual chamber, you went through another security check… there’s just that sense that the memory of September 11 is still very strong, it’s still around. And of course that was reinforced when we went to the site, ground zero. That really reinforced it. You just feel that event is still echoing through US society in quite a major way. And it’s referred to in the media and on television and in papers a lot, in ways in never would be in Australia.
Ruth: What was your impression of the media here?
Dad: It was the expected spectrum of material on television, because you’ve been exposed to it—
Mum: You didn’t find the media as uniformly right wing as you’d thought.
Dad: No, actually I was really struck by things such as Rachel Maddow, there’s nothing like that in Australia, with a very opinionated person from the left expressing very strong views and basically, in this case, attacking the Republicans at every possible opportunity. And other programs on M…N…?
Dad: M-S-N-B-C. Quite a few of those programs are much more outspoken that expected. So that was quite refreshing in a way, to see that diversity of opinion which perhaps I hadn’t expected. Perhaps I knew it existed, but I didn’t expect it to be expressed in the mainstream media like that. The newspapers I haven’t been quite so struck by.
Mum: Well we tried to read the New York Times most days.
Dad: I was conscious of the fact that there was a very strong focus on the Middle East, and predictably, American affairs. The mainstream media was obsessed by things like child murder and various other sensationalism.
Mum: There seems to be much looser restrictions on reporting, like you see live court cases here, and judges and jurors talking about why they made particular decisions, which you couldn’t do in Australia.
Dad: And endless, endless dissection of the case by umpteen experts.
Mum: But I think one of the things that I’ve realised from the media here — reading it and watching it — is the actual reality of the economic problems here. Like because you only get the most bare summary in the Australian media. You get the headline unemployment rate — it’s still very high or whatever — but you don’t get the itty bitty details that you get in the local media of the closures and the layoffs.
Dad: And I suppose, behind that, you don’t have that sense that America has a very self confident view of its place in the world that it used to have. It’s sort of retreating. There’s a very strong push to cut back on defence. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s almost sort of a withdrawal or retreat back to the mainland and back to local issues and back to solving your own problems. And the hemorrhaging of the economy through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is obviously costing them a lot, and the huge numbers of people being injured too, which is pretty depressing.
Ruth: What’s the difference in war coverage you’ve seen in both countries?
Mum: Well there’s more here — of course. Iraq hardly gets a mention in Australia at all because we have no troops there anymore.
Dad: Afghanistan gets more coverage, in fact, it’s become more prominent lately as the death rate’s gone up. And the issue about withdrawal has become more important.
Mum: But in any event, I think Afghanistan gets more coverage here.
Ruth: What was your impression of San Francisco? We didn’t get to that.
Mum: San Francisco seems very much like a mosaic to me. I find it very hard to generalise about San Francisco, because you go very quickly from one neighborhood or precinct to another, and it can change dramatically in the course of a block or two, can’t it? So San Francisco as a whole I would find it hard to generalise. It is more laid back than the east, but it’s not as laid back as Portland! [laughs]
Ruth: What’s been you favourite city?
Dad: I think Portland, for me.
Ruth: You might be somewhat biased.
Mum: Whereas I do think if I had an opportunity, I would enjoy to go back to New York again, because I just feel like there were so many things we didn’t see in three days.
Dad: Yes, three days is no time at all.
Mum: But then I feel tired thinking of that [laughs]. You know what I mean? It is a real effort, New York.
Ruth: What’s the best things you’ve seen?
Dad: I loved that lodge in Mount Hood
Dad: Yes that was such a unique thing. I liked Whole Foods!
Ruth: Whole Foods was the best thing you saw in America?
Dad: It was great! All that fresh food under one roof.
Mum: The Holocaust Museum was pretty astounding. You couldn’t call it an enjoyable experience, but it was an astounding experience. Very sobering.
Dad: I liked the Museum of Native Americans. That was fascinating and intriguing. For sheer sort of take your breath away stuff, I guess the MoMA in New York was extraordinary.
Mum: Just to see so many famous paintings in one place.
Dad: I thought “My God, are there any modern paintings left in Europe? The Americans have bought the lot up!”
Mum: That is an astounding thing about the US, is the artistic heritage here, just the amount of really important, high quality artwork here is phenomenal. The Library of Congress was pretty amazing.
Ruth: Do you think you’d be more likely to recommend friends and family travel here now?
Mum: Well I guess I just never had a view before. But now I’d say yes, it’s something you should do once in your lifetime.
Ruth: And would you say your impressions of America and Americans are more positive or less positive than before you came?
Dad: In some respects more positive, in some respects less positive. Because they’re more detailed.
Mum: In some ways I’d say I’m more sympathetic than I was. Rather than just seeing America in terms of its implications for me and Australia, I think of it more in its own terms now. I think most people are doing the best they can in a pretty harsh system — a harsher system than ours, anyway.