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On human rights, Hugh Jackman and living in New York

By Simon Adams - posted Monday, 20 February 2012

In a city of almost nine million people you would be surprised how often you meet, spot or hear Australians. You get introduced to someone from Woy-Woy at a function. You see a Collingwood Guernsey on Fifth Avenue. Or you overhear the nasal chainsaw of an Australian accent cutting through nearby vowels while you ride the subway. Like Wall Street stockbrokers or Kardashians, Australians seem to be everywhere in New York.

This is especially true of the unique ecosystem of the United Nations and the various human rights and humanitarian organizations appended to it. I know at least one person in almost every major NGO in town who is Australian. Proportionately speaking Australians appear ludicrously over-represented in the leadership of these organizations. I once asked a former Australian foreign minister about this. His view was that, "Australians get recruited because they are pragmatic, un-pretentious, and there is a reassuring lack of bullshit in their demeanor". Note to those responsible for "Brand Australia": this may be a stereotype worth promoting.

Most Australians I know in New York are here on an E3 visa. The preferential terms of the E3 are widely regarded as the United States government's reward to former Prime Minister John Howard for Australia's participation in the "Coalition of the Willing". Given the passionate opposition to the Iraq war articulated by many limp-wristed human rights types like myself, it is truly ironic that we ended up directly benefitting from the US-Australia free trade agreement negotiated in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. At least one Australian I know suggested he was embarrassed to be here on an E3 for this very reason. Personally I consider this an affectation. It's the New York-Australian political equivalent, assuming you are under 60 and don't shear sheep for a living, of calling someone "cobber".


It is undeniable that the "new economy" and the relative ease of obtaining an E3 have swelled our ranks. There are now more than 20,000 Australians working in New York. We have an impressive array of internet chat rooms, networks and websites to help us assimilate. There are several Australian-owned pubs in midtown, a West Village restaurant that serves "new Australian cuisine", and a specialty shop on the Lower East Side where you can buy Vegemite (essential if, like me, you have young Australian-born children). There is even a local Aussie Rules football team – the New York Magpies. No one I know has seen them play, but like secret knowledge of a half-forgotten public toilet on Manhattan, I feel comforted by their mere existence. I may desperately need them one day.

Yet, in my estimation what makes this antipodean human rights confederacy truly unique is that we tend not to seek each other out. After a meeting at the United Nations one afternoon, five of us, Australians all, coagulated on the sidewalk. We talked for a few moments before someone noted that the locals were staring and we self-consciously melted away. The fact that we tend not to cluster provokes an obvious question. How does living in New York make you feel about being Australian?

First of all, it makes you allergic to terms like "down under", "Aussie" (which is always pronounced "Oar-sie") or talking about the Broadway career of Hugh Jackman. I couldn't count the number of times I've been asked if I am proud of his thespian efforts. Pointing out that I have no connection to Jackman and don't even come from the same part of Australia as him, strikes an American as distinctly odd, undiplomatic and ungenerous. They are probably right. Recommending the literary works of Tim Winton, who comes from my hometown and whom I do know, offers no compensation. The damage is done. Australians in New York are unpatriotic. Their attitude to Broadway proves it.

Having said that, I did feel a certain sick pride recently when it was reported on the local news that an American tourist was eaten by a shark while snorkeling near my hometown of Fremantle. Not wanting to celebrate a tragedy, I felt gruesomely guilty until another Australian, also working for a human rights NGO, reassured me that this was "a natural Australian instinct – a pride in the lethality of our wildlife". A few weeks later a co-worker, who is from Florida, told me how big the alligators were "down home" and I couldn't wait to hit google and show her a picture of what might possibly be the largest salt-water crocodile ever seen. The 5.5-metre monster was photographed lurching from the murky Adelaide River to devour a massive chunk of horse-meat dangling off the side of a boat. I confess, with genuine shame, that I heard myself exclaim to my American friend, "Now that's a croc!"

But strip away the hubris and pretending to be Steve Irwin in a necktie and what have you got? Certainly one thing I've noticed amongst the Australians here is a discerning cynicism regarding some of the more saccharine elements of American mass culture. A feeling that like male strippers, there is something intrinsically awkward and unattractive about overt displays of flag-waving, foot-stomping nationalism. I truly miss the sea, red dirt and the throbbing, face-melting, nuclear heat of a West Australian summer. I took Anzac biscuits to work for Australia Day, but that's about as overtly patriotic as I am ever likely to get.

I don't think I am alone. Most fellow members of the "new Australian diaspora" who I know do not suffer from cultural cringe and have no imperial illusions or "arse end of the world" Keating-esque hang-ups. We are proud of our country but not in a Paul Hogan advert kind of way. Because of the peculiarities of the industry I work in, many of the Australians I know have also worked in Congo, Sudan, East Timor or somewhere else before coming to New York. One day we may move on to Brussels or Geneva, or back to "the field". But unlike the "cultural exiles" of the 1950s or 60s who left for London and never returned, I'm confident most of us will eventually move back to Australia.


As for me? Australia still defines and shapes who I am. Even here in this glittering metropolis, it will always remain home. I just don't want to go to Broadway and listen to Hugh Jackman sing about how I still call it that.

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About the Author

Simon Adams is the Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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