Recently, I came across a link to an article titled: “G’day mate: ‘Lazy’ Australian accent caused by ‘alcoholic slur’ of heavy-drinking early settlers”. The link was accompanied by a comment, “I’ve pretty much never been less surprised by anything”. I’m half Australian and I couldn’t help but crack a grin in agreement with that comment. Australians are descendants of English convicts who were exiled to a desert wasteland occupied by unimaginable beasts and creatures that make a person question the existence of any god. Considering their harsh origins, it’s not surprising that these settlers turned to the bottle for comfort. Over 200 years later, Australians are perceived as lazy, racist, alcoholic brutes with gambling problems. After my recent trip to Australia, I often wonder if the stereotype isn’t too far from the truth.
My conception is the result of my father’s mate winning two plane tickets to the United States from an Australian radio contest. After spending some time here, my dad reckoned he’d like to stay in the land of opportunity, so he entered a green-card marriage while his mate returned to Australia. My dad worked odd jobs across the country and ended up in Los Angeles, working in the film industry. He built up connections in the industry and used them to start his own business, A few months ago I visited Australia with a friend and my father. We drove across the country from Melbourne to Adelaide, then to my dad’s home town for the first Hardy/Pedler family reunion in twenty or so years, where my dad met about fifty cousins whose names he had never heard before. I was introduced to countless family members who were previously unaware of my existence, but more importantly I met the man who gave my dad the opportunity to start a new life in America. I can’t remember this man’s name because like every other patron of this reunion, I was hammered.
In hindsight, much of my journey seemed like an intoxicated blur. Upon further reflection I realized that whether I was in Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, or Mount Burr, a town with a population of 390 people (Australian Bureau of Statistics), I spent most of my time in pub. There was always a pub nearby and it was never empty. Much like a booze-induced blackout, I didn’t lose any exciting memories of adventure; they just weren’t created. I feel haunted by what I can still recall, the sense of desolation and hopelessness I observed in the various cities and people of Australia. The tagline on a poster for the Australian film Wake In Fright summarized it perfectly:
While in Australia, I spotted the poster for Wake In Fright on Netflix. I had wanted to watch the movie for many months, but it was unavailable on Netflix in the United States. Instead of actually exploring Australia, my friend and I decided to crack open some stubbies (Aussie slang for beer) and watch a movie about the country instead.
Originally released in 1971, Wake In Fright was well-received upon debut, both internationally and in Australia, for it’s brutally honest depiction of life in Australia. During a screening in Australia, a man interrupted the film by screaming, “That’s not us!” before leaving the theater (qtd. in O’Loughlin). Unfortunately, the film was considered lost due to a lack of VHS distribution. In 2009, the film resurfaced and was restored for a release at the Cannes Film Festival where it received a second wave of praise from critics, holding a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Wake In Fright follows John Grant, a schoolteacher from Sydney reluctantly teaching in a small town in the Outback under a government contract. Grant plans on traveling back to Sydney over the Christmas break, but must stop in the Bundanyabba (referred to as “The Yabba” by the locals), another small Outback town. While in the Yabba, Grant is greeted by aggressively friendly locals who encourage him to join in their drinking. After watching men gamble, Grant drunkenly hatches a plan to earn enough money to buy out his contract from the government, freeing him from teaching. Grant is initially lucky, but takes the betting too far and loses all of his savings, stranding him in the Yabba. Relying on the kindness of stranger, Grant accepts his fate and begins binge-drinking with his new friends, leading to fist fights, kangaroo hunts, and homosexual encounters. Eventually reality and sobriety hits Grant, who then tries to kill himself but fails.
Wake In Fright explores Australia’s alcoholism as a catalyst for other vices: gambling, sexism, masculinity, racism, and homophobia. The film’s entire plot is driven by drinking and the increasingly poor decisions made by characters during absurd levels of intoxication. As a cornerstone of Australian culture, “beer is a religion” and the pub is it’s temple (Kirby, 244). Unfortunately, the average Australian pub is not as welcoming as a temple. Until 1976, Aboriginals were forbidden by state law to drink in pubs (248). Today, Aboriginals and immigrants still face discrimination quite frequently, even outside of the pub.
Racism in Australia is a common theme in the 2007 television series Summer Heights High. The Australian mockumentary follows two students and one teacher (all played by one actor) at Summer Heights High, a fictional public school in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. The character Ja’Mie is introduced as a transfer student from a private school. Elected Australian of the Year, Ja’Mie describes herself as “the smartest non-Asian” she knows. During her tour of the school a student explains how the school is diverse, yet all the races are socially segregated. These polarized cliques are given racist labels, such as “filos” (Filipinos), “curries” (Indians), “fobs” (an abbreviation for “fresh off the boat” immigrants), and “rangas” (orangutan, slang for red-haired people). Ja’Mie becomes friends with the popular girls, who unknowingly enforce segregation via exclusivity in who they allow in their group. The only non-white member is Bec, who was “adopted” into the group because she’s “hot for an Asian”. Ja’Mie starts several conflicts with Bec in an effort to ostracize her from the group, often making racist statements and citing negative Asian stereotypes in her arguments. Ja’Mie takes advantage of racism in the school for her own benefit when proposing a school formal. During a school-wide assembly, she explains that a formal would “bring groups together and remove the apartheid of the playground”.
Jonah Takalua, a self-proclaimed “fob”, is a Tongan student who is both a victim and an instigator of racism among his peers and teachers. Declared an “at-risk” student by his teachers, Jonah is a delinquent vandal who is barely literate. He attends special classes at Gumnut Cottage, a special education class composed mostly of other Polynesian students who are also considered at-risk. Jonah and his Polynesian peers reluctantly attend Polynesian Pathways, a program started by the administration for Polynesian students designed to “help them celebrate their heritage and show that we celebrate it too”. The school also hosts the annual Poly Day, where Jonah and his friends perform a traditional Polynesian dance in costume, resulting in heckling from white students. The school’s attempts to avoid discrimination and racism actually alienate the different races in the school and fuel conflict.
Jonah’s crew of Polynesian friends, “Poly-force,” frequently tag bathrooms and pick on younger white students, who respond with racist comments that escalate into fights. When confronted by teachers for his behavior, Jonah responds with his defense, “people are racist to fobs… so we can be racist to rangas”. Jonah claims, “teachers at this school are so racist. They always blame me for shit. If anything ever happens in school, teachers go ‘Jonah, he must have done it’”. As a result, Poly-Force is given additional boundaries during recesses, but the rival white students remain unpunished. Jonah explains, “we have a rule where we’re not allowed to go within 10 meters of the fence, in case we beat the shit out of pedestrians and stuff and kids”. His friend, Leo, interrupts him, “we don’t attack people.” Jonah replies, “Yeah, but we have a reputation for being violent”. The cycle of racism between students and teachers is handled poorly by administration, fueling further racial conflict in the school.
Jonah’s fictional experiences at Summer Heights High reflect the current state of racism in Australian public schools. Australia has had a long history of racism, but after recent attacks against Indian students studying in Australia, the author of “Curry Bashing: Racism, Aliens, and Space Invaders” raises the question “are Australians racist?” (Baas, 39). The author spoke with different students at Australian public schools and their responses were quite alarming. Similar to the characters of Summer Heights High, they were open about confessing their distaste for Indians and Asians because there were “many” of them (39). Australian students consider them “space invaders,” aliens who take up space in hallways, subways, public spaces, and roads (41). For a country that is literally it’s own continent, a lack of space isn’t a valid excuse for racism in the 21st century. The media claims that these were opportunistic attacks, not racial, suggesting that Indian students were likely targets because they’re “soft” and “weak” (37). Even in their effort to deny racism, Australians can’t help but be racist.
I encountered this casual racism quite frequently during my trip to Australia, even among people my age. Some of the Australians I met made racist observations like it was talking about the weather, for them it was just small talk. I kept my mouth shut, I was outnumbered by what I believed to be a horde of raging drunks. Even I was perceiving them as a stereotype I had previously resented, but now it stood before me, beard and all. My father had always been my source of information on Australia and it’s culture, having never occurred to me that he spent most of his life in America. It became clear to me that there was a reason he never returned to Australia. The family reunion we attended at the end of our trip only confirmed my suspicions. Most of my extended family had never left the country, many still lived in the town their family had lived in for generations. Are Australians aware that people in America perceive them as rowdy patrons of a steakhouse chain, throwing shrimp on the barbie while sipping oversized beer cans? Try ringing up the pub and find out.
Baas, Michiel. “Curry Bashing: Racism, Violence and Alien Space Invaders”. Economic and Political Weekly 44.34 (2009): 37–42. Web.
Ketchoff, Ted, dir, Wake in Fright. Group W/NTL Productions, 1971. Film
Kirby, Dianne. “Beer, Glorious Beer”: Gender Politics and Australian Popular Culture. The Journal of Popular Culture, 37: 244–256 (2003). Web.
O’Loughlin, Toni. “Oz Wises Up to it’s Heritage”. The Guardian. June 18, 2009. Web.
Pearlman, John. “G’Day mate: ‘Lazy’ Australian accent caused by ‘alcoholic slur’ of heavy-drinking settlers”. The Telegraph. October 27, 2015. Web.
Summer Heights High. ABC. ABC, Sydney. September 5 2007 – October 24 2007. Television.