I encountered my first minor communication struggle when I wanted a taste of my favorite and possibly the most ubiquitously consumed drug on the planet: coffee. I was shocked to learn that the barista did not know what an ‘americano’ is, so after a few seconds of gathering myself in order to switch out of autopilot, I almost condescendingly explained that an ‘americano’ is a shot of espresso topped off with some hot water. It turns out that in Sydney an ‘americano’ is actually called a ‘long black’, has two shots of espresso and is then topped off with hot water, so in retrospect it makes sense that the barista would be confused by my initial request.
As I was contemplating what to write about for this post, I realized that I am more shocked at the arrogance of my initial shock during my coffee experience, than I was shocked about the barista not knowing what an ‘americano’ is. I think in order to understand my situation we have to backtrack to January when I was deciding on which NYU abroad sites I wanted to submit an application to. Back in the infancy of my process to apply to a study away site, I still had fresh memories of the previous seven months I had spent in Paris. I had attended cooking school there and at times unsuccessfully attempted to integrate myself into the social scene. The problem was my spoken French. I understood almost everything people around me were saying, but I struggled to communicate, which I believe did make my time in Paris less enjoyable than it could have been. So, when the time came to decide on where to study abroad, I wanted to go somewhere, where the locals already spoke English, which would allow me to pursue endeavours in place of learning a foreign language. What I hadn’t considered at the time was that I was thinking about English in only one dimension, which is to say I was think only of American English.
Cutting back to my first couple of weeks in Sydney. Everything was as I had imagined. Doing things around town was easy, and it seemed to me that my bumbling attempts at communicating in a foreign language, and struggling to get my point across to the person in front of me, were forever in the past. In my mind it almost felt as though everyone in Sydney was American, but with an accent. It was this mindset that ended up leading to my initial shock in the coffee shop and is also the mindset, which I now think of as offensive to the local culture. In order to explain my stance on this I am going to draw on my experience in Paris. In Paris, I understood that Parisiennes named things differently than I did, because they spoke French, and they spoke French because they come from a different cultural background. Having this understanding I was never shocked when people in Paris didn’t understand what I was talking about, and I never presumed that they should always understand me when I was speaking English. However, in Sydney I did expect that Australians would always understand what I was talking about, which when I think about it doesn’t really make sense. Yes, it is true that it is okay for me to assume that people here will understand most of what I am saying, because they too speak english, but it is wholly unreasonable for me to expect them to understand U.S. vernacular. The reason I believe that my stance was arrogant is because, as is the case with France, Australia has a different culture from the U.S., so it would stand to reason that Australians will sometimes, or even a lot of the time use different words than I would use when describing things. In my opinion by having the reaction I had, I was being dismissive of the uniqueness of Australian culture, which in turn is a position that runs counter to everything I am trying to achieve by traveling. This situation was a good reminder that the reason to travel is to experience overt and subtle cultural differences, in order to gain a more nuanced picture of the world.