Tips for Americans Moving to Australia


You're moving to Australia, are you? Well so are many other people! And if you're anything like I was, then you probably do not have any idea what to expect. So I wrote this note is to give some tips and advice to make your transition as smooth and enjoyable as possible. It should be emphasised that this entirely an American's perspective. I have lived most of my life in various places in the USA: Detroit, Indiana, Milwaukee, New Jersey, Georgia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Deigo. At the time of writing, I have lived in Sydney for about 10 years, and really can't imagine me being happy anywhere else.

The people of Australia.

The first thing one has to learn in order for a smooth transition to Australia, is to un-learn everything they've seen from the Foster's beer advertisements. You know, those ads that show a man wrestling a crocodile, or a woman chugging a beer and then crushing the empty can against her head. These advertisements are a HUGE mis-representation of Australia, and the Aussies don't like the image at all. Oh yeah, nobody here drinks Foster's anyway. More common beers are Victoria bitter (VB), XXXX, and Toohey's. But honestly, I'm not sure one could taste the difference!

What are the Australian people really like? I describe them as very civil. Australia has very close ties to Britain, and have inherited the British manners. Moreover, since most of the communities in Australia are small towns, the lack of "anonymity" has helped prevent the insurgence of the irresponsible, care-free behaviour that certain media organisations such as M-TV encourage today. Here are a few examples of proper behaviour in Australia:

Whereas America is the "land of opportunity", Australia is the "land of equality" - a truly egalitarian society. This comes through in the language: the word "mate" is like the way Asians bow to indicate "you are just as good as me." Don't be shy to use the word "mate." It seems a bit more common to use it when talking to a man, but women are treated as equals as well. In fact, Australia was the second country to give women the right to vote: New Zealand was the first! America followed some time later.

Equality is not limited to people of the same financial status. Whether a person is homeless, or whether he is the prime minister of Australia, you treat them the same. Maybe this is a little bit of an exaggeration, but not too much!

You will find that Australia has quite a diverse population, with people from all over the world. Although there is some racism (not much), people generally get treated as equals regardless of race or accent, so long as they behave properly. The equality attitude has also attracted a large gay population to Sydney.

The main lesson one should take from this issue, is not to try to portray yourself as better than anybody else. Doing so will make you a "tall poppy". In contrast to America where the succesful are idolised, the Aussie hero has traditionally been the loser. They call him the "little Aussie battler." This is the guy who fights just to make ends meet, but never attains much success. The theory is that although the little Aussie battler never achieves much, at least we know he is honest. On the other hand, you never know about how honest the tall poppy has been to get where he is today. A true Aussie always cheers for the battler (i.e. the under-dog), hoping that some day he will "chop down" the tall poppy. This is called "tall poppy syndrome."

I believe this attitude is changing a bit. With the great success of Australia in sport (example: Australia was one of the top countries in the 2000 Olympics when you look at the ratio of medals to population, and they also have been very successful in rugby and cricket recently), at least some successful sporting figures are true Aussie heros.

One very important question, is how do the Aussies view the Americans? There is no easy answer to this. I find Australia mostly pro-America, but often very critical of American politics, for example the Iraq war. Although Australia was a very important supporter in the war against Iraq (they were one of the few countries that actually sent troops), most Australians were against the war. I remember an interview by a very intelligent little girl at a war protest, where she was asked what she thought about the war in Iraq. Her view was that she thought it was good that they are supporting America, but she really didn't see that the war was necessary, especially putting the lives of Australian soldiers at risk when Iraq does not seem to be a threat to them. This attitude seems to be held by many. There are others who are completely pro-America including the war, and others who are generally anti-American.

Australians seem to have a strong appreciation for the arts/music coming from America. Whenever a American band is playing, it will always attract a large crowd. They also appreciate the technology coming from America. To them (and us!), seeing "made in America" is a sign of a good product.

As long as one behaves well and is not too loud or arrogant, you can expect to be treated well regardless of where you come from. There are of course exceptions. Sometimes being American can be a major plus, and other times a negative (example: America is the "tall poppy" of the world).

Language.

The Australian accent can be difficult to learn. They have an easier time understanding you because they view American movies/television all the time. On the other hand, there are not many movies that have thick Australian accents -- though Crocodile Dundee is one exception. You should really watch that movie several times and try to understand what he is saying.

Learning the accent is something that you just have to overcome with time. I don't really have much advice on that other than a comment about the "r" and the "i" when the "i" is pronounced as in "bike". The "r" is very subtle, much like that in Boston. If you don't understand a word that seems to end in "h", then think of it as if it ended in "r". For example, "cah" means "car". The Aussies can hear a difference between the two, but I can't. I once tried to immitate the accent, but when I said "cah", they thought I said "cow" so I gave up! As for the "i" as in "bike", it is a bit difficult to describe. It sounds to me like they start the sound out with their mouth in the shape that we would make an "o" sound for, and then they quickly switch to an "i". Listen to Steve Irwin say "Crikey, mate!" It sounds like "Croikey, mate" to me, where the "o" is very quickly switched to an "i".

There are also a number of common expressions which you also need to learn. Here are a few that you will need to know:

There are many lesser common words that I wouldn't worry about, such as fair dinkum (my favourite), dunny, cobber, and so on. The language is changing all the time so words like these are rare and not too important.

Dangers.

It is unlikely that you will have to worry about crocodiles, sharks, or poisonous snakes. The hype is just a lot more than the reality. Here are the real dangers that you need to be concerned about:

Restaurants and Food.

One very important point about Australia is the restaurant service is very different. Do not expect that a waitor/waitress will interrupt you asking if you want any more of something or the other, but instead attract the person's attention when you need it. Also, at the end of the meal it is usally the case that you just go up and pay for it yourself rather than waiting for a check/bill from the server. There may be a tip jar at the cashier where you can leave a tip, but you don't need to.

The exception to the above paragraph is that a very nice restaurant might have service where you are waited on more actively, and you may have a mild obligation to leave a tip. It doesn't have to be much however, and certainly it would never be higher than 10%.

Americans often find the Aussie lack of tipping funny. Australians find the American system funny. They say, "why doesn't the owner just pay their employees better so that people don't need to tip?" The Americans view tipping as a reward system: you get paid according to how well you served the people.

Australian food is somewhat like American, but one thing I really miss is American pizza. Yeah, they have the popular chains like Pizza Hut and Dominoes, but it's not quite the same.

Be careful about your hamburgers: they often will put "beet root" on them. That's typical Aussie style, but most foreigners don't like it. I didn't really like burgers with eggs on them either, but you might.

Speaking of eggs, you don't get the choice of "over easy/light, medium, over hard/well done" when you order fried eggs. You just take it the way they cook it when you ordered fried. Oh yeah, I should also mention that the eggs at the grocery store are in brown shells, not white.

Australia has an excellent selection of Asian foods, due to its proximity and the large number of Asian immigrants. The Europeans go especially nuts over the thai food.

In a lot of places in America, like the mid-west, we tend to go to chain restaurants. There is a certain sense of "trust" when you go to a place you know, that is well established. This is less so in Australia. There are wonderful individual restaurants and cafes throughout the country. You can generally trust many smaller businesses: people usually open restaurants here not for attaining great wealth, but instead because they have something special they want to cook, or because they just like the people atmosphere.

I once ate kangaroo that tasted quite good the way it was prepared. Every other time I tried it, it nearly made me sick.

Steaks are an Australian specialty. A lot of places emphasise "grain fed" steaks. Just do a little research on mad cow disease and you will find out why. Australia has never had mad cow disease.

At all costs, avoid the vegemite. God has blessed Australians with a special coating on their taste buds which gives them a natural resistance to the horrifying taste of this aweful spread. If they try to get you to eat it, tell them "only if I can put a layer of peanut butter and layer of nutella on top." That will gross them out just as much as vegemite will gross you out.

If fast food is your thing, then try Oporto's. I like their spicy chicken roll.

Also try the Tim Tams: A pretty good Australian biscuit. It is a favourite dessert/snack among Aussies.

Taxes.

If you are working in Australia, then you will have to file taxes for both Australia and the USA! I really recommend you get a tax consultant for this because it can really get messy. I am not a tax expert but here is some general information that you should be aware of.

Australia and the USA have a special agreement to prevent double-taxation, which implies that as long as you don't make too much money, you will only have to pay taxes to one country (Australia) assuming all of your earnings were there the whole year. However, you still have to file tax forms for both countries.

This gets a bit ugly. The Australian tax year runs from the beginning of July one year to the end of June the next year, whereas the US tax year agrees with the calendar year. At the end of the tax year, you will get a group certificate in Australia which is equivalent to the W2 form in America. Unfortunately, you cannot use the data from your group certificate for your USA tax returns because it does not correspond to the USA tax year dates. For the USA return, you need to calculate how much money you earned during the calendar year and how much tax you paid, and then convert to USA dollars according to the currency exchange rate for the year.

It gets worse. In America, you have a 401K plan which is untaxed until you take it out. The equivalent in Australia is a superannuation scheme. Although your Australian superannuation is not taxed by Australia until you take it out, it is not accepted by America as the same status as a 401K plan. The upshot is that you have to declare your Australian superannuation as part of your earnings when you file your USA tax forms.

On the other hand, if you end up buying property in Australia, the interest you pay on that property is not tax deductible in Australia. But it is tax deductible in America, so make sure you itemise your deductions. This saved me from paying a small tax one year when I had particularly high income.

Here's one more annoyance. Now that you have an Australian income, you must have an Australian bank account. If at any time during the calendar year your combined non-USA bank accounts total US$10,000 or more, then you must file form TD F 90-22.1 by the 30th of June. There are no extensions for this. It is strongly advised not to omit this or miss the deadline since the USA government has been cracking down on TD F 90-22.1 delinquencies.

Driving.

Before you buy a car, really decide if you need it. In a number of places, especially city centres, the public transportation is more than adequate. But for those who decide they need to drive, here are a few things you need to know:

Environmental issues.

Australia is very environmentally conscious. Just spend 15 minutes in the sun with no sun tan lotion on and you will find out why. Then, to minimise your pain, apply some aloe vera lotion. The hole in the ozone layer is real. Skin cancer is a major problem in Australia.

"The Greens" is an increasingly popular political party in Australia. The environment is a central issue. Protection of the great barrier reef is an important concern.

Weather.

When the newsreport says that the weather will be "fine", this can be roughly translated into "a perfect day". The weather is "fine" very often in areas like Sydney. It is comparable to San Diego's weather, but with a little more rain (not much, however!).

Melbourne isn't so blessed as Sydney. They claim to have "four seasons in a day".

Many Australians have never seen snow. You can find some snow in the "snowy mountains" during winter, but not much.

By the way, here's a tip for converting from Celcius to Farenheit in your head. The exact conversion is multiply by 9/5 and then add 32, but this is not easy to do in your head. An accurate approximate conversion is to just double the number and add 30. For example, 20 degrees Celcius is about 70 degrees Farenheit.

Dress.

Don't be one of those tourists wearing a crocodile-dundee hat! In the city, these hats are rare. If you're an American wearing one, you will look like a tourist who doesn't know better. But they are nice hats!

The trends are always changing so I won't say much about dress. In general, you don't have to wear nice clothes to go to the typical pub. There are a few exceptions.

Other misrepresentations of Australia.

As we said before, the people of Australia are not all crocodile wrestlers. They tend to be very civil, friendly people. They like to drink beer, but that doesn't imply that they are always drunk. They tend to not wear crocodile-dundee hats, except in the outback. Perhaps the most accurate image we have of Australians is being laid back. No worries, mate!

We often view Australia is a place of deadly animals: sharks, crocodiles, snakes, poisonous spiders, etc.... There are few shark attacks in Australia, but when they happen you will hear a lot about it. Most of the sharks are not dangerous. Florida has far more shark attacks than anywhere else in the world. Crocodile attacks are also rare. Maybe once every five years. You will not see poisonous snakes in cities, and it is unlikely that you will come across a poisonous spider (but the red back and the funnel web spider may rarely be found in a city). Maybe the creature responsible for the most deaths is the box jelly fish, which lives in the semi-tropical waters of northern Australia. Avoid swimming in that area during the season that they are around and you have nothing to worry about.

The fears we have of these creatures in Australia are analagous to the fears that Australians have of going to America because Americans are allowed to have guns. Australians frequently hear about shootings in America and think it is a very dangerous place. Yeah, it happens now and then, but any individual's chance of being shot is pretty small, especially if you're "street-wise". A similar thing can be said about dangerous creatures in Australia.

Unfortunately, in cities like Sydney, you will not come across kangaroos or koalas. Koalas are actually kind of rare. Kangaroos won't be hard to come across when you leave the city.

Aboriginal issues.

Aboriginal rights is centre-stage in Australia. My advice is not to say any opinion on this. You can talk about it with people, but don't start saying "what we did with the American Indians..." because the Aussies don't like this, and they will be quick to present several negative ways that Americans have treated the American Indians. Listen rather than talk when it comes to Aboriginal rights. This is the advice I got from the book "Culture Shock: Australia!", and I fully agree with it.

Tipping.

In Australia, you don't need to tip. Not when you get a meal, not when you get a haircut, not when you take a taxi, and not when you get a beer. You can if you want to, but it is not expected. Generally, you wouldn't pay higher than 10%. For more info about tipping at restaurants, see the Restaurants and Food section above.

What makes Australia special.

There's only one negative thing I can think about Australia. The bugs. Especially the flies, cockroaches, and spiders. God, I hate those spiders! Not all of them are dangerous, but sometimes they can be big and ugly. Similar to some of the ones that creep around in the Georgia woods!

There are so many positive things about Australia, it's hard to know where to begin and when to stop talking. So I just touch the surface:

Fun things to do in Sydney.

If you're coming to Sydney, here are a few fun things to do. Sure, there are a lot of tourist things that you will do as a one-time thing: visit the opera house, the botanical gardens, Manly beach, the aquarium, and so on. The things I list are touristy in nature, but you will want to do them over and over and over again!

The end.

I hope to see you in Sydney! Now learn the Aussie chant:

Aussie Aussie Aussie!
Oi! Oi! Oi!
Aussie Aussie Aussie!
Oi! Oi! Oi!
Aussie!
Oi!
Aussie!
Oi!
Aussie Aussie Aussie!
Oi! Oi! Oi!