Culture-shock, identity and acceptance

sunset’s Harriet Cheney considers the extreme differences between one area of a country and another:

I relocated from Sydney to Darwin and a part of me got lost. The extreme culture-shock that I felt when I arrived in Australia’s Northern Territory was nothing compared to what I felt when I returned home.

Six months in the Top End was enough to change my life perspective and render me completely overwhelmed by city life. As soon as I stepped off the plane at Sydney Airport I had this intense feeling that I’d spent months living in a cave. Things about city life that I’d never noticed before were glaringly evident…

• Everyone is so attractive and well dressed.
• The shops! Everything is so shiny, bright, sophisticated and abundant.
• The signs are so big and dominating.
• The Harbour is as fucking stunning as ever.
• There are so many options.
• Food is available until 10pm even on weeknights.
• There are more cafes in my little Sydney suburb than there are in the whole of Darwin.
• Coffee is a couple of dollars cheaper and so much better!

But, there is so much traffic and people are so impatient in Sydney. I almost got run over by a car my first day back, momentarily forgetting that pedestrians don’t have as much right-of-way here. I would never go to the traffic lights to cross the busiest highway in Darwin, even at peak hour. I’d just stroll out onto the road and dodge a couple of cars.

I feel a bit like George of the Jungle or a Blade Runner replicant coming to terms with a new world. But it’s only been a few months. How could I forget so quickly?

sohMore than any other shock though was learning how defined I am by my environment. Sydney is part of my identity. I have always had this ideal of non-attachment believing that I did not really need anything and I would feel complete just in myself. Obviously I’m a couple of years off enlightenment yet, because only on my return did I realise how happy my possessions made me – my lamp made from Frida Khalo printed fabric, my pinboard full of postcards from friends’ travels, the luxury of a dishwasher, even the goddamn zebra head in the lounge room.

My attachment extends further to the abstract and intangible aspects of life – the grunginess of my indie haunts, the collective creativity and individualism of my friends and associates and that feeling in the air of possibility and excitement.

All of these were so incredibly absent in Darwin.

Darwin seems preoccupied with functionality at the expense of passion and creative innovation. It thrives because of mining, the army, construction, its proximity to Asia and tourism. There are more Irish in Darwin than there are Darwinites.
Darwin is king of the backyard BBQ and the home of the most ridiculous newspaper stories featuring a crocodile 50% of the time. You may not be able to find a meal or any WiFi on a Monday evening after 8pm but you’ll always find a nightclub open pumping with backpackers and Fly in-Fly out workers bursting out of any of the main street pubs. It’s fun for a while until you look at someone the wrong way and end up getting stabbed with a dinner knife (actually happened, just not to me) or you get sick of tripping over that guy who’s always passed out drunk, taking up half the footpath.

Ironically in a place full of crazies, there is a lack of acceptance of individualism. It’s a harsh environment. It’s isolated, it’s bloody hot all year round and it’s a relatively very small population for a capital city of 120,000 people (and that includes the surrounding areas). Less people means less sub-cultures and I felt like a spectacular misfit on many many occasions.

For a start, I’m a coeliac who was inhabiting in one of the biggest beer drinking cities per capita in the world. Try explaining to a Darwin local that you don’t drink beer… it’s like telling a devout worshipper that their god is a load of crap… it just doesn’t go down well.

Then there was the bright and outrageous clothes that I wear which seemed to encourage pointing, whispering, sniggering and even the odd shout out of a level three apartment of “neyece sheert”. He was right of cause, it is a very nice shirt.

So why would you live in Darwin?
Certainly not for the transport which consists of buses that come when they feel like it and stop at 9pm (oh and the body odour stench that’s recycled by the air conditioning could actually make you pass out), but there are a swag of other reasons that will grab your heart strings and never let go…

Like going out bush to Kakadu, Litchfield and Arnham Land. The sunsets, slower pace, fishing, warm weather, awesome camping and the friendly locals. The cheap and quick travel to Asia, job opportunities, less traffic, good bike paths and less regulation such as 130kmh speed limits which are about to become unlimited again. The natural beauty, magical vibrations of the Top End land and the Indigenous culture – a treasure that the rest of Australia hardly knows. It’s wild and raw and it’s stuck in a nostalgic, endearing time warp.

Darwin will never be Sydney, but parts of living there I loved more than I could ever have imagined. There’s an understanding and respect for nature, a simplicity that makes you consider what’s really important and an interconnectedness and community that watches out for one another. I haven’t spent a great deal of time in remote Aboriginal communities but from the limited experience that I have had it’s easy to see that these wonderful Darwin characteristics are at least in some part due to the Indigenous Australian values infiltrating the Northern Territory way of life as a whole.

Now I’m reunited with my city and all its awesome misfits. Sydney I love you. All the more for your brief absence in my life.



Words by Harriet Cheney