When I arrived on the island/nation of Australia, I discovered two Chathams, one on each coast. There is the village of Chatham in New South Wales and Chatham Island off Australia’s western coast and like ours not far from Albany — which also like ours is the sixth largest city in its state, called Western Australia.
The eastern Chatham seemed more appropriate and at least superficially resembled ours, a village endowed with its own business district, cinema, pharmacy, medical and veterinary offices, a hunting club and a high school called — what else — Chatham High. This would have allowed me to tritely point to these commonalties and add a few more about the primarily English stock of both places, while reporting that Aussie Chathamites, like most Australians, are descendants of British convicts “transported” to the “Fatal Shore” beginning in 1788.
However, a more interesting comparison involves all of Australia and the United States, two countries with people more similar than any other pair in the English speaking world. Aussies are surprisingly more similar to Americans than they are to Kiwis and we are more like Australians than Canadians.
Australians, like Americans, finally are coming to grips with and making major progress in overcoming the nightmare of their racist past and like us are building and embracing a truly multiracial and multiethnic society. Despite being its own continent, Australia has chosen to integrate with Asia in a construct they call Asia Pacific. They bill the Australian Tennis Open, which we attended, as “The Grand Slam of Asia Pacific.” With that moniker the tournament attracts tens of thousands of Asian tourists. The women’s final, which pitted Li Na of China against Belgian Kim Clijsters had the atmosphere of a soccer World Cup final. In the aftermath of their defeat in the men’s doubles final by the amazing Americans Bob and Mike Bryan, the equally famous Indian doubles team of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati remarked about the comfort and joy Asian athletes experience at this event.
Australia, like us, is also coming to terms with China as a global superpower. But unlike us, Australia doesn’t have to fret about sharing that status with another. Indeed, Aussies have embraced the Chinese behemoth. Unlike most of the world, just beginning to recover from the near depression of 2008-09, Australia avoided it by seizing the opportunity to sell China massive quantities of minerals and chemicals extracted from its arid interior.
As they did in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, Australian armed forces fight in Afghanistan, fueling a healthy American style debate about the efficacy of those wars and whether Australia’s national interest is sufficiently implicated to lose lives in Afghanistan, as they have and tragically did while I was in Melbourne.
Australians, like Americans, are sports obsessed, but even more so. They rabidly support not one, but three big professional football leagues in three distinct games called “Rugby Union,” “Rugby League” and “Australian Rules Football.” That is, in addition to a fourth professional “football” league playing the sport we call soccer.
Australian pop culture is not merely like ours, it is ours. “House,” “Big Love” and “The Good Wife” are blockbuster television shows in Australia, although I had to explain to my Aussie friends that the model for the suffering spouse in the last named series was the wife of New York’s former governor.
When I arrived, Oprah had just departed Australia. She is bigger there than here — as impossible as that may seem. There were two full weeks of news stories about what she had done and interviews with people whose lives she had touched and changed.
Although Australians, like us, are strong, confident and independent people (currently wrestling with when to get rid of their current flag and status as subjects of the British monarch — most likely when Elizabeth dies, thereby disclaiming Camilla as their next Queen), they consider America their bigger brother. They root for us, except when we face off in an athletic contest. They fight shoulder to shoulder with us in wars of our choosing. They embrace our culture and want us to succeed as they see their success as connected to ours, with little of the suspicion and resentment which emanates from our sibling to the north.
Australians feel our pain and they despair when we are in distress. Right now, they are very worried about us — most often citing what they perceive as a romance or obsession with guns. This concern for us comes from people whose ancestors were shipped “Down Under” in chains from Georgian England — the same George who we declared independence on July 4, 1776 — an insurrection often cited as historical precedent for why we need to be able to “pack” at movie theaters and even in schools.
In 2003, my daughter, Elizabeth, spent a semester of her sophomore year at a big public high school in Tasmania. She came back much better for the experience. It would be a great thing for Chatham, New York to send a kid or two to Chatham High School in New South Wales and have a couple of their students become Panthers. All these kids and both Chathams would be the winners.