Most people never consider how much of their life relies on an inherent understanding of the world around them.
I didn’t either.
That is, until I found myself at an elementary school last week standing in a crowd of students who knew every word to the Australian national anthem. I had never even heard the tune.
It was the first time I’d felt truly out of place in Australia, not simply because I was American, but because I was embarrassingly ignorant to the world of Australian culture that I’m still entirely a stranger to. After living in this country for two months, I was confident that I had a fairly complete understanding of the community I’d been living in. But I was wrong. And all it took was 150 elementary school students singing “Advance Australia Fair” to throw me for a loop.
This was how I ended my first week at the Parramatta Advertiser, a weekly community newspaper where I will be interning for the rest of my semester in Sydney.
Despite this self-realization, the week itself was endlessly valuable and fun. Without a doubt, it’s an experience unlike anything I’ve done. The newspaper staff is small — just one editor, three reporters and myself. We work in an office with two other community newspapers, all of us housed under the NewsLocal brand, part of News Corp Australia. And because of the small staff, we each get to play a little role in everything, from covering a diverse range of stories to copy editing the finalized layout pages.
While in the office, I’ve never felt out of place. As journalists, we do the same things journalists do in every newsroom: comb through social media for stories, keep our desks piled with notebooks on notebooks and when there’s a bit of free time, discuss the latest season of “The Bachelor.” (In case you were wondering, there is an Australian “The Bachelor,” but most people seem more hyped about the American version.)
In fact, on my first evening of work, when I found myself riding the train home with two new co-workers after getting after-work drinks and dinner, I had never felt more at home or comfortable in my community. We were discussing political systems, and I was confidently comparing the separation of powers in the United States to that in Australia. I didn’t feel lost or even like a classic American tourist. I felt like a new Australian who had simply grown up elsewhere.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was just thrown into a community I didn’t understand.
I thought that because I now walk on the left side of the sidewalk, understand the public transportation and have started using “chips and tomato sauce” to describe “french fries and ketchup,” that I was settling into Australian culture well. But the truth is, I have a long way to go.
It all started with my first phone call to a source. If you’re a journalist, you probably have a classic, go-to phone greeting. Mine is something along the lines of, “Hi, this is Felicia Gans from [insert newspaper here]. How are you doing?”
Simple enough, right?
Well, in Australia, “doing” is replaced with “going.” And no, that doesn’t mean they want to know where you’re going. “How you going?” is used synonymously with “How are you?” And no matter how hard I try, I can’t get my voice to say it. It still feels so unnatural.
The biggest challenge, though, has been covering events in the community. The best journalists, in my eyes, have always been the ones who know a little bit of everything about the community they cover, from politics to sports, from cultural events to future development plans. Journalists are not always experts, but they’re supposed to know more than their readers do.
Well, for the sake of honesty, I’ll admit that nearly every reader of the Parramatta Advertiser probably knows more about Australia and the Parramatta community than I do.
And that’s not an easy pill to swallow.
In the past week, I’ve interviewed a state politician whose position I don’t really understand and spoken to two local radio stars whose fame means next to nothing to me. (Sorry, Fitzy and Wippa, you were funny despite my ignorance!) I’ve gotten lost in a ginormous mall, just trying to find the one store I needed for my story.
And when a cab driver asked me for directions to get to my story assignment, I embarrassingly admitted that I had never even been to that suburb, despite it being 10 minutes away. I think he probably figured that out when I mispronounced the name of the town, though.
I wish I knew more about the community, and I wish I hadn’t felt so out of place when I couldn’t even join in the national anthem at the elementary school last week. But I also know that even the knowledge you inherently know was taught to you at some point. Nobody was born with “The Star-Spangled Banner” memorized or knew to look left, then right, as soon as they began to walk.
Everyone, no matter who they are, had to be taught the intricacies of American life, even if they never realized it was happening. There was a time in every American’s life when that knowledge wasn’t inherent.
So I may be somewhere entirely new, and I may feel a bit lost. But I take comfort in the fact that it’s never too late to learn.