When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I had an obsession with snakes. I studied them, I collected them, and above all, I sought them in the wild. Whenever my family went on a vacation, I’d carry my National Audubon Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians around like a Bible. For me, different states and countries were simply different places to find different kinds of snakes. That’s it. Steve Irwin was my hero at the time, and The Crocodile Hunter was the greatest thing that had ever happened to TV (before Animal Planet shifted their focus to made-up “animals” that sell better, like Big Foot and mermaids). Naturally, I saw Australia as the wild outback, full of the world’s deadliest snakes, monstrous crocodiles, scary sharks and uncomfortably large spiders. And I wanted to go so badly.
Today in Sydney, someone (an American) asked me if I’d seen the Modern Family episode where they go to Australia. Um, no, but I’ve totally seen every episode of the Crocodile Hunter. After giving me the you’re-such-a-weirdo look, she proceeded to tell me that she was planning on visiting all the places from the Modern Family episode. After giving her the you’re-such-a-weirdo look, I began to think, that’s interesting – here we were, two people visiting the exact same place, and it meant completely different things for both of us.
It got me wondering – what does the place mean to actual Australians, and what do they think about what we think?
I found an interesting article from news.com.au (Australia’s most popular news website) about the Modern Family episode, which explains how the “cliche-laden” episode made most Aussies “cringe,” while it made most Americans think “What a cool country.” Based on Tweets alone, many Americans had even decided (or so they claimed) to visit or move to Australia after seeing the episode. It’s just a totally cool place (I’m telling ya hipsters, you’re way behind on this one. Austin is so over; now it’s Australia, and next I’m guessing it’s gonna be Austria… just have a hunch).
The first cringe-worthy cliche the article mentioned was that “EVERYTHING WILL KILL YOU IN AUSTRALIA” (which was also mentioned in this Australian-written article, which had pretty much the exact same complaints as the other article). Apparently the dad in Modern Family has some tough confrontations with nature in the episode, from jellyfish stings to mosquito bites, allergic reactions, and even punches from kangaroos, and it all just looks ridiculous to the Australians. The difficult part about this stereotype is that Australia does have some pretty crazy wildlife, so why would the people be so bothered by the cliche that “everything will kill you in Australia?”
Here’s my guess (I actually have no idea about a lot of things, but I’ve got guesses). Look where all the people live in Australia (the darker the shade of red, the more people living in that area… in case that wasn’t completely obvious by the map).
Most people live near the coasts. Not only that, but they live in cities, 89% of Australians in fact. Most animals, on the other hand, don’t really like to be around humans. They live in a place humans like to call “the wild,” and most humans don’t really like to spend much time there. That means the wild animals and urban humans don’t really see too much of each other. Perhaps it’s still accurate to imagine Australia as a wild outback with dangerous creatures, but if you’re also imagining the average Australian in that picture, that’s where you went wrong. Most of them don’t live in “the outback” – they live in cities, and they’re unexposed to most of their own wildlife, just like we are to ours.
I’ve now been in Sydney for about 10 days, and even being a person who actually looks around for wildlife, I have not seen any of the animals that Australia is most famous for – no kangaroos, no koala bears, no wombats, no platypus – and none of the dangerous snakes, crocodiles, jellyfish, and sharks. That may seem pretty obvious to some (it’s a big city — of course there aren’t kangaroos hopping around everywhere), but I promise you that this is an expectation that some people have.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean there’s no interesting wildlife in Sydney. Here’s what I have managed to find in the city:
- Huge bats.
- An interesting bird with a long beak
- Big spiders
- Big lizards (in Royal National Park, more on the edge of the city, but I’ll still count it)
That makes the trip a success for me so far! And besides, there’s actually more to a country than the wildlife that live there, just like there’s more to Australia than the handful of sights in that Modern Family episode, or the outback seen in the Crocodile Hunter. Both are interesting slices of something much, much bigger, and there’s no way I could even touch the surface of that in a two-week trip. But I will keep exploring.
Love always from Planet Earth,