An American friend once attempted to describe the US to me. She said, “we are nothing if not a country of extremes.” While it was not her intention to wax poetic, I do think that she managed a staggeringly precise and erudite description of the country I have called home for the last ten years. America was never a country that I intended to visit at all, but it has become a fascination of mine, equal to any other country I have visited. Our time in Tennessee has confirmed my friend’s analysis, inasmuch as I have seen evidence of these extremes on an almost daily basis.
Americans love a good “drive through”. Consider almost any consumer product or service and somewhere in America there is a way to receive it without having to confront the inconvenience of getting out of your car. Australians are boggled by this phenomenon but fail to consider that, at home, while we cannot cash checks, order food, or get married from the front seat of our Holden Commodore (despite attempts by many petrol heads) it is almost universal to purchase booze by driving through a large tin shed. In America the “drive through bottle shop” is not an unknown service, but it is still a novelty to most. “Hey, will you look at that, a drive through liquor store! Let’s pull in and get ourselves a bottle of Jack Daniels.” Despite this, it is still a rare occurrence for Australians to lead the way when it comes to purchasing convenience. As Bill Bryson once said of America, “Here there are only three shopping options: Can I buy it today? What about tomorrow? I’m going somewhere else!”
Americans are curious almost beyond reproach. Fascination with others, especially those that grew up somewhere different from themselves is almost a national pastime. In addition to this, Americans rarely have the social conventions that preclude asking questions that, in other parts of the world may be considered too personal. As long as it’s not about politics, gun control or religion, it’s open season as far as Yanks are concerned. They also willingly share life’s details with people they barely know, folks that other nationalities typically spend years developing friendships with before even divulging their phone number. As a result it is not uncommon to confront the following, “My therapist says that my first husband didn’t appreciate my sexual appetite nearly enough. My children have a complex resulting from the fact that I denied them access to any books. Do you think that this anal rash is something to be concerning about? Have you ever spoken directly to God? Now what was your name again?”
I do not consider Australia exotic, as compared to say… Easter Island. But to Americans, Australia is a land where dreams are made of. Upon discovering that I grew up there they pry me with all the questions that their high school geography teacher should have answered for them. It never ceases to amaze me that such curiosity was not fully taken advantage of while these people were required to be inside the education system. Ashley was asked just this morning if the sea water around Australia was salty or fresh. Perhaps I am being a little hard on geography teachers, but this woman’s earth science teacher must be shot for lack of attention to basic oceanography.
Marketing in America can be dizzying. While there are no longer the classic billboards claiming “4 out of 5 doctors smoke Camels!” there is plenty of other advertising to make your head spin. Let’s forget for a moment about the sheer volume of advertising that’s out there (documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock will address this in his newest flick, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”) One of the things I’ve found the most fascinating is how advertising in America actually tries, not just to sell you something, but to make you feel better. In the 80’s and before, there was a kids’ cereal called Sugar Smacks, consisting basically of sugar-coated puffed wheat. In the 90’s Kellog’s changed the name of the cereal (not the recipe) to “Honey Smacks” and then in 2000, just “Smacks.” There is no less sugar now than there was in the original, but the name leads us to believe there is. “Whole milk” is sold in America while its Australian counterpart is billed as “full fat,” a significantly less appealing product, to be sure.
But eat as many Sugar Smacks with full fat milk as you’d like, because if you look at the size of your clothes, you’ve actually gotten thinner in the last 50 years! Amazing! In order to have less of an impact on the psyche, the fashion industry has gradually introduced the concept of “vanity sizing” in America. Ashley wonders how, when she weighed 10 lbs less in high school, she’s actually a size smaller now! Vanity sizing has made Americans feel thinner. An American size 6 is an Australian size 12. People say that Marilyn Monroe was a size 14, but neglect to mention that a size 14 in the 60’s was a size 6 or 8 now, so the poor dame wasn’t quite as “voluptuous” as we’d like to believe. Anyone who buys vintage clothing has had to make a note of this, lest they end up with garments that are not only overpriced and smelly, but too small as well.
Add to this the bill board advertising “1 800 DNA TEST – Who’s the father?” and you are literally in advertising Mecca. Americans will sell anything. (Pajama jeans – “Jeans are so hard to put on!” – Google it if you’ve never heard of them). It’s truly staggering. The best ever was an advertisement that I saw on television just this morning. It was for a personal injury lawyer who was requesting that all people who have recently had an operation involving vaginal mesh to contact his office. “You might be eligible for money – get paid.” This ad should read, “Sue the shit out of your doctor, even if you have never had any problems with your vaginal mesh. You might join a class action lawsuit and get three dollars 20 years from now.”
Reading back over this post it could be argued that it is not the most favorable impression of the country that I have called home for the past 10 years. This has not been my intention. America, although often confusing, exercises greater influence on the Western world than any other nation, and consequently opens itself up for greater analysis and criticism. It would be easy to paint Americans as gun-toting, Bible thumping, world domineering red-neck bastards… but this would be grossly wrong. By far and away the majority of Americans that I have met have been welcoming, open-minded, understanding and willing to accept differences of opinion, much, much more than say… the French. So I doff my hat to this fascinating nation. Thank you for ten years, for an education that I would have never received through the traditional system, great friends, a wonderful wife (yes, I did take one of your “daughters of the revolution”), and a child I love with a passion I did not understand before. I grew from a young man into a father in this country, from a kid with bum fluff on his cheeks into a world-weary cat who has found contentment with simple things, from a boy into a man. So, without taking too much crap from my family I will say now, and forever hold my tongue (cause my family in Australia is going to give me hell for this) God Bless America!