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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Going For Bloke

What's the Difference Between an American and Australian? Funny You Should Ask

September 15, 2000|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — We have baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. They have Aussie Rules, meat pies, pavlova and Holden.

They have Ayers Rock, the Sydney Opera House and the laughing jackass kookaburra. We have The Rock, Staples Center and Jim Carrey.

We have Pennzoil, Quaker State and STP. They have Vegemite.

They have the platypus, a rather bizarre creature that, it has been said, looks as if it were created by committee after a few too many coldies. We have the Clippers.

We have annoying Muzak droning in the background everywhere from supermarkets to elevators, systematically numbing our senses and killing off once-valuable brain cells. They have Kylie Minogue.

They think "Crocodile Dundee" is a hackneyed formula comedy overloaded with outdated cliches about their culture. We think "Crocodile Dundee" is the great Australian documentary.

Pathetic truth be told, we Americans know precious little about the real Australia on the cusp of the Sydney Olympics. (Although, being Americans, we think we know it all.) Evidence? The Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games has loads of it, too much of it, in the form of e-mails collected over recent months from dull-edged Yanks--and saved, apparently for blackmail purposes.

As if Atlanta '96 weren't enough.

Some sorry samples, as they were dispatched to the official SOCOG Web site, accompanied by obligatory smart Aussie retort:

Question: "Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street?"

Answer: "Depends on how much beer you've consumed . . . "

Q: "Which direction is north in Australia?"

A: "Face north and you should be about right."

Q: "Can you send me the Vienna Boys' Choir schedule?"

A: "Americans have long had considerable trouble distinguishing between Austria and Australia."

Q: "Will I be able to speak English most places I go?"

A: "Yes, but you'll have to learn it first."

Q: "Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Australia?"

A: "What's this guy smoking, and where can I get some?"

Yes, we are clueless. We amble off the plane and start to cackle about Aussies driving on the "wrong" side of the road and amuse ourselves by ordering the seafood chef to throw another shrimp on the barbie--highly linguistically incorrect; Aussies call them prawns, never shrimp--and inquiring at the front desk about the nearest boomerang-tossing competition. Yet our Australian hosts politely indulge us, smiling and nodding and keeping their bush knives in their sheaths, partly because they consider Americans enviable if occasionally irritating relatives, partly because, at the moment, they are exceedingly eager to please.

The real Australia? At the start of the 2000 Summer Olympics, it is doing a fairly passable imitation of the United States. Three of the four most popular television programs in Australia last week were American imports: "Friends," "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" and "Spin City"--with only the Super Bowl of Australian Rules football, the AFL Grand Final, crashing the all-American party. Leading the Aussie box office charts were "Scary Movie," "Road Trip," "Hollow Man," "Shanghai Noon," "High Fidelity" and "The Patriot," which is a tale lifted from the American Revolution but, as locals are quick to remind, does star an Australian, Mel Gibson.

Two hundred thirty years after Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay, McDonald's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken have stormed the beachfront. Trend-of-the-minute restaurants line the streets of Sydney serving risotto and sushi, not swagman's damper. Bar patrons step inside to sip merlot and cappuccino, with not a tin of billytea boiling over an open fire in sight.

Even the old Aussie slang ain't what it used to be. Cable television, cinema and the Internet have conspired to blunt the rough edges of the native dialect, homogenizing some of the quirkiest twists ever inflicted on the English language. Many American tourists will be crushed to discover that no one here calls women "sheilas" anymore, "fair dinkum" is now considered old school and "goodonya" is starting to give way to the bland American-dude "go for it."

Thankfully, some differences survive. "I don't know," the catch phrase of the Atlanta Olympics, has yet to be uttered by a volunteer, tour guide or concierge clerk in Sydney. If a question does not immediately illuminate a light bulb, maps are pulled out and phone calls are made. It's the 21st-century incarnation of the traditional Aussie can-do spirit, leavened with the country's storied friendliness and hospitality.

Aussie-Americans?

Amer-Australians?

There are still a few ways by which you can distinguish between the two (see box at right).

SOCIOLOGY

From the Web site www.jokedujour.com:

Americans: Seem to think that poverty and failure are morally suspect.

Canadians: Seem to believe that wealth and success are morally suspect.

Brits: Seem to believe that wealth, poverty, success and failure are inherited things.

Aussies: Seem to think that none of this matters after several beers.

And . . .

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