When I was four years old, my family emigrated from the United States to Australia. My migrant story is quite a privileged one, my father was a skilled migrant, so we arrived as permanent residents and became dual-citizens not long after.
Compared to most Australian immigrants, this journey was almost too easy, however, that journey remains one of the defining moments of my life, my status as an immigrant and dual national equally so. I still have an accent, it’s faded, but I have the following conversation at least once a week;
Me: Insert dialogue… general greeting… small talk… conversation starter.
Stranger: Oh, where are you from.
Me: Brunswick (smile).
Stranger: Oh no… I mean… before that.
Me: Ah, yeah, Seattle, but a long time ago. My family moved here when I was about four.
Stranger: Wow! But your accent is still so strong.
Me: Yeah… it sticks around…
Stranger: Have you… like, ever tried to lose it?
There are a few different versions of this conversation, some include the Brunswick joke, others don’t, sometimes I include a fun fact I learned from a friend who studied linguistics: the American accent is supposedly the easiest to pick up and the hardest to lose. My point is, I have the script near memorised, because my American-ness remains a defining part of my existence. For the most part, it’s something I take for granted. I grew up in Australia, with an entirely American family (my little brother, who was born in Queensland, has a stronger accent than I do). To this day my upbringing leaves me questioning which culture I was exposed to the most, whether it was Australia, through my day-to-day life, or America, through the lessons and mannerisms of my parents, and the media I consumed.
When I got to university one of the subjects I studied was anthropology. These lessons focused largely on globalisation, migration, and the way culture has shifted and changed in our world. I was also introduced to the idea of the ‘Third Culture Kid’, the name given to children who grow up in a culture other than that of their parents, or what might be considered their ‘own’. It’s a term often used for the children of diplomats or army officers, or the children of immigrants. These kids often feel one of two things: conflicted and uncertain of their identity, or incredibly cosmopolitan. They identify with the world as opposed to a nation, and often end up travelling loads, and living abroad. It was a crystallising moment for me, where I not only realised that was how I’d felt growing up, but discovered there was a name for it.
On reflection, I realised that the seed had always been there. In college (years 11 and 12) my group of friends had been predominantly made up of internationals and diplomatic children. I loved travelling, and all the while growing up in Australia I’d had a question mark floating over my head. I was always labelled as the American kid, yet, with the exception of a few short holidays to visit family, I could barely remember it. Seattle, where I was born and spent my first four years, was little more than a blurry, grey snapshot of wet pine trees.
It was only after moving to Melbourne two years ago, away from my family and in with my Australian partner (who has now begun to pick up a bit of an American twang herself), that I began to feel really Australian. I was part of the workforce, studying for my masters, and living in a city that seemed to have its own, unique version of Australian culture, one where my question mark suddenly turned into an exclamation of excitement. Melbourne works for me, it has for two years now. Learning to follow AFL has also helped.
I say all this, because now, I’ve returned to the United States for the first time in 10 years. It’s the first chance I’ve had as an adult, with my own fully formed ideas and critical thinking to reconcile the media constructed version of America I’ve always carried with myself with the reality of the place. It’s also a chance to do a little self-assessment and see if I really still feel like ‘the American kid’.
So far, we’ve spent a couple of days in San Francisco, and will be heading off to New York in a few more. After coming from Melbourne, visiting San Francisco is kind of like easing yourself into the States. There’s a similar vibe, that laid-back energy of people who are completely content doing their own thing and a passion for the arts and sport that’s very Melbournian (it’s baseball season, so the city’s awash with the Giant’s black and orange). I’ve been utterly charmed by San Francisco, and I can understand why it lured both my parents out from the east coast when they were teenagers. It’s a vibrant city, colourful in every way, despite the afternoon fog that rolls in at 3pm, a bizarre reality that all the locals seem to accept. We’ve climbed and biked the hills, wandered the streets, spoken to the people, and eaten the food (not always in that order). We’ve heard stories about ghosts, Google, and gentrification, and we’ve learned a lot about fire safety. The latter is a major focus – the entire city burned down in 1906. We visited a hidden leftist bookstore, saw fireworks from an Uber driven by a marijuana farmer, and we bought Yankees caps in Giants territory (in anticipation of our first ever game in New York). We keep talking about moving here, and whether or not it’s a joke I can’t exactly say for sure.
In terms of my little cultural study, it’s a slow starter, but there are a couple of things I’ve been able to zero in on.
One of my earliest memories of moving to Australia was my Dad pulling me aside and saying ‘so, you might have noticed how everyone here speaks much more quietly than we do…’
He wasn’t wrong. That decibel difference is something I’ve become acutely aware of whenever travelling overseas, now that I’ve trained myself to a more Australian ear and tried to tone things down, my radar dings whenever I pick up on an American accent. Usually, when I do the scan, they’re across the street, in a passing car, or a plane circling overhead. Americans are louder than Australians, it’s just a fact. Being here now, I’m starting to realise why. There is always a cacophony sound, and it’s always loud. There’s music, traffic, other people, the occasional bird, and a chorus of constant electronic beeps and blings. People also love their Bluetooth headsets, and they speak into them, loudly, which means you’re never quite sure if someone is speaking to you or not. I’ve barely heard a word from my girlfriend in the first two days. Her volume is on a very different level, and I’m sure she got tired of me asking her to repeat herself. I think it’s a by-product of that energy, something is always happening, and everyone is readying themselves for what’s next. Pleasantries are fleeting here, and I have to remind myself that it’s not rudeness, just pace. No time for chitter-chatter when you’ve got ten thousand things to do in a day.
The other thing that’s striking is the city’s cultural diversity. At any given time, you could be within earshot of three or four different languages being spoken. Growing up, I was always told Australia was a multicultural country, and I suppose that might be true, but it literally pales in comparison to the melting pot that is San Francisco. At the same time, there’s a flavor of Americana to that diversity as well, or at least, Californication. While biking over the Golden Gate Bridge, I saw a priest in a Golden State Warriors cap, chatting happily with a couple of guys decked out in Harley leathers. Later that evening, the eve of Pride week, Cheree saw a man wearing nothing but a fishnet bodysuit.
Over the last four days, we’ve spread all of these little fragments out and started putting together a jigsaw. The image that has emerged is like an old painted cityscape, where a city street is jammed with chaotic action as cars veer out of control, lovers leap into one another’s arms, drunks fight in the gutter, politicians cry out from their soapboxes, newsboys herald the anarchy around them, and musicians add to the soundtrack. It’s dazzling and somewhat overwhelming, but I think I kind of like it. I realise, that understanding a place from the perspective of a tourist is seeing it from a position of privilege, I’m yet to cast my eye over the dark and seedy corners of the city, and I know there are political and institutional issues in America that have an impact on the lives of all the people that live here, but amongst all that, I like it. I think that’s the first step to understanding a place, after all, it’s not likely you’ll stick around to find out more if the spark isn’t there.
The results are still pending on my self-assessment, but reflecting on the way I feel about San Francisco, and my still relatively new home of Melbourne, the notion of the Third-Culture kid identity is ringing true for me; not the sense of displacement, but the idea of a more cosmopolitan identity. These are both cities that pride themselves on being progressive, and open, brimming with life and overflowing with a variety of cultures. I remember being wowed when I went to Tokyo and London when I was younger, impressed by how they seemed worlds unto themselves. I see Melbourne and San Francisco in much the same way, only as ecosystems, breeding their own, unique urban culture.
Next stop: New York.