Walking from home to my office only takes about five minutes. This morning, while walking to the office, I had a chat with a Chinese guy whom I met in the elevator at home. A chipper fellow, he was in his final year of studying accountancy and planning to do a Master’s after his graduation. What started out with him inquiring if I was on my way to a class as well and what I studied—“Oh Philosophy? Good good!”—soon turned into a verbal avalanche with him sharing his life’s story. Divulging what I study sometimes has that effect on people. I’m usually not so talkative myself in the mornings, but I’m fine with listening to other people’s musings and it made for a nice diversion of my normal morning walk. Originally from Shanghai, he had been here only for a couple of years. Yet he seemed distinctly Australian to me.
Now I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure myself what I mean by “Australian”. To me, it is a certain cheeriness and genuine interest in one’s fellow human beings. Bump into an Australian and they’re likely to apologise themselves for your mistake. The English “How do you do?” has evolved into “How’ya-goin’?”: make no mistake, it is spoken as one word and commonly used as a greeting. As someone from the Netherlands, where we greet with a simple “Hoi” or “Hallo”, I had to get used to constantly being asked all day what my state of being was. I’m a bit apprehensive about the question, because if I’m not careful it kicks off a train of thought in my mind where I try and weigh the latest developments in my life and figure out if any bad stuff has happened. I can be quite creative when it comes down to thinking of things that could be better—I could’ve done laundry yesterday, finally managed to surprise my wife with a morning coffee before she wakes up, or just, you know, brought about World Peace—so my usual reply is a carefully weighed “okay” or “fine”. Catch me answering “good” and I’m probably doing exceptionally well. People sometimes mistake the long wait before my reply as a sign I’m not doing so swell—that, or they see me as mentally deficient. In my own attempts not to burden others with the same deliberations, I often forego asking them how they are.
I’ve heard that Americans use the phrase “How are ya?” like the Dutch would use “Hé!”: as just a greeting with no expectation of an elaborate reply. At first I thought Australians might be using their variation the same way. I hatched a plan where I would counter the question with an boringly long description of my current state of life, work, and health, ending with some personal detail people usually don’t want to know, like the efficiency of my bowel movements last night. So the next time I got posed the question, I unleashed my ploy. Paint me flabbergasted when my story was absorbed with the utmost interest and, when I finished, got upped by an even more intimate account of a cross-dressing partner, the dilemma of buying a Chihuahua or a Labrador, and the latest developments in the field of New South Wales tax politics.
I’m exaggerating of course. The point remains however, that Australians seem more genuine about asking how other people are doing than, say, the Dutch. In any case, my Chinese friend seemed to exemplify my stereotypical image of the Australian way perfectly. I had noticed before that the Australian ‘energy’ tends to grow on people from overseas, even when they have only lived here for a short while. It made me wonder how long it would take me to succumb. We parted ways when I was near my office building, and, having grown on me, I waved him a fond goodbye. I walked to the door with three suited gentlemen in tow. They were chatting and gesturing energetically. While I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I guessed from a few phonemes I caught as well as their complexion that they came from India and were speaking Hindi. I held the door open. Just as I was silently marveling at the cultural diversity of this place, one of them hastened to take the door from me and with an uncanny Australian accent gave me a cheery “Thanks mate!” Surprised, I could only nod and quickly turn before he could ask me how I was going.
Pictured are me and my teacher of all things Aussie: Vern.