Surprising Observations From Down Under

By Michael Ray.
By Michael Ray.

I visited Australia recently to see my daughter, Gabrielle, 21, near the end of her college semester abroad. With me is my girlfriend, Kim Bowen, who grew up in London but moved to Sydney at 23 and was appointed fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Australia. Heady stuff, especially at that age. For her, this visit was old-home week.

We arrived in Sydney very early and were in our rented apartment by 9 a.m. Kim had not been back to her old stomping grounds for years and immediately set out.  Although totally jet-lagged, I trudged after her and in the next few days met her many friends. Back in the day, they had been rising stars in fashion or entertainment and today are major players.

Here is the curious thing: all of them treat the ocean as integral to their lives. They know it. They are surfers or sailors or swimmers and they know the intimate details of the ocean as true aficionados. Most Australians are similar. I sought to know why.

Australia is about the same physical size as the United States, yet has a population of only 23 million, the same as the L.A. basin. Due to geological accidents, the land is many millions of years older than most of the rest of the world, and is thoroughly eroded. There is little topsoil. It was washed away eons ago, which means the interior of Australia is not only hot and hostile, it is economically untenable (except for mining).

The erosion also created a jagged coastline. It is not a smooth curve like Laguna. Rivers and streams long ago carved out every available path to the ocean, and that erosion created irregular points, peninsulas and harbors.

Ninety five percent of Australia’s population lives on this coast and the geographic accident of constant proximity to coastal waters has created an oceanic mindset. It is a Mother Earth reverence, but set in modern times.

The ocean brings life. You protect it. You pass laws to prevent its pollution. You do not question climate change. You can see it.

By our standards, then, Australia is quite liberal in its environmental policies. This is juxtaposed to a blatantly hostile racist leitmotiv. Like our Native Americans, the Aborigines were crushed. There is no remorse. The population is 92% white and 7% Asian. If you are black or brown, they do not want you. If you are gay (and there is a big gay population in Sydney), the thought of legal marriage is not even a distant dream. If you are poor, there is no pity and no desire for your presence. Immigration is strictly limited to people of means. If you have money, then they want you, but only if you are white or Asian.

Even the acceptance of Asians is forced. It is economic.  Australia makes a living off mining its vast mineral resources, mostly sold to Asians. Today, the Chinese are buying up those tracts of mineral-rich lands at astronomical prices, and like in the U.S., are immigrating here as quickly as they can get their money out. China is too polluted and too corrupt.

Make no mistake, Australia is thoroughly modern and up to date. Its architecture puts ours to shame. Its people are bright, beautiful and full of contagious laughter. Yet, the country has none of the clash and chaos of our own cultural cauldron, which is our strength and the source of constant reinvention. Think of Orange County today, with it’s sweeping and accelerating cultural diversity.  It is a place of change, intrigue and economic vitality.

By contrast, Australia is a muted place.  Australia is like an environmentally kind version of Orange County, circa 1955, homogenous, pretty and lightly populated. And ultimately boring. It is not where you go to be brilliant. It is where you go to get away.

My daughter Gabrielle has done well here.  She has grown more aware of her surroundings and more aware of herself.  She now is even more self-confident and sure of her ever-expanding capabilities, and even better at commanding the situation without seeming to try (God, she is great at that; I wish I was half as good).  Her college semester is now finished and tomorrow, she leaves for Thailand, thence Vietnam, with her friend Lex Corwin. I gave them the usual lecture about being safe, which they endured stoically.  After all, I am the Dad.

That is all for now. I never would have visited Australia had not Gab gone to school here, and am glad I did. The countryside is wondrous, the people friendly, and the Great Barrier Reef is as spectacular as advertised. But truth be told, I probably will not visit again. Even in Sydney, by far the most cosmopolitan city, there is a sense of unrequited  expectations and ambitions that never can be realized.  Unless you leave.


Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and now lives in Laguna Beach.  He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.

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