Upside Down Under: Australia Week in Town

It's a typical corporate function on a rainy winter afternoon in Los Angeles. The setting is the comparatively minimalist Renaissance Hollywood hotel in West Hollywood — hardly upscale utopia, but these are hard times.

Inside, generic business types mingle. A middle-aged guy in a gray suit works the room, brandishing a business card and unloading a gratuitous introduction, yet with a decided twist. He opens with "G'day," an Australianism, often bandied about by tourism-industry types tapping the reliable though dated line about all things down under — apparently a beer-swilling utopia of unparalleled candor and opportunity.

This is Australia Week, and in keeping with the occasion, this dude has unleashed his Inner Australian. Despite being a private school–educated chap with a master's degree in business, he's seemingly morphed into a Mick Dundee soundalike, weaned on a diet of beer and raw meat and hailing from some exotic wilderness dense with life-threatening flora and fauna.

He reveals an impressive-looking business card, Roman typeface, single-spaced, and it even has a gold embossed kangaroo and emu logo — eat your heart out, Patrick Bateman.

Outside, what appears to be a sports demonstration is unfolding. Twenty or so men are running around a damp field in what appears to be '70s-style short shorts and wifebeater shirts. They offer a demonstration of Australian-rules football. Luminaries like Keith Urban, Julian McMahon (Nip/Tuck) and Simon Baker (The Mentalist) join in the kick-about and generally feign interest.

Australia Week is an annual event at which various L.A.-based Australians from the entertainment and business sphere converge to celebrate themselves and promote all things Australian. The event features token celebrity appearances (New Zealand–born Russell Crowe was honored last year, and Hugh Jackman before that). It also provides lots of freebie wine and cheese — essentially the best part.

The Australian consulate says the event, poetically dubbed G'day USA: Australia Week, is "an annual celebration of Australian capability in  the world's most prosperous economy. In seven years it has successfully tapped into the depth of the Australian–United States relationship to change perceptions of Australia in America and to strengthen and deepen the bonds between the two countries."

The objective is to portray Australia as an innovative, high-growth, sophisticated economy, with cutting-edge research and technology in products, goods and services, the consulate says. The program highlights Australia's economic credentials as a desirable place in which to do business and invest. The promotion "has resulted in excess of $22.5 million in trade and investment across sectors as diverse as art, food, wine, fashion, tourism and business services," the consulate says.

Regardless of the apparent socioeconomic upside, to this Aussie transplant at least, the event seems dripping with regression. It's harder to swallow than the vintage Penfolds cab.

Instead of tearing up at fond reflections of the homeland, recalling some distant memory of a home-cooked meal from adolescence, the feelings are of repulsion and confusion, even horror. The musical medley booming in the background isn't helping either, namely Men at Work's "Down Under," Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl," and INXS' "Devil Inside." (Oh, you like that one? Sorry.)

Thrown by this mire of contradiction, I wander off to a corner, shunning the magnetic spectacle of Urban and wife Nicole Kidman just a few feet away. Have I become  sadly estranged from my roots, hovering in some neutral purgatory?

A brother thinks my accent has become "Americanized." A woman in Pasadena thought for three weeks that I was British.

Yes, accents are confusing things, though they imply identity, something that endures time, something that makes us distinct. Still, once heavily tied to its colonial roots and all things Brit, the Australian accent is now in fear of being Americanized, with Australian youth mimicking the accents heard via mass media.

The Sydney Morning Herald recently examined the phenomenon of Australia's teenage girls now adopting "Valley speak" as part of their everyday linguistic intonation. "Oh. My. God! Like, can you believe how many young Australian women talk as if they're California Valley Girls nowadays?"

The story quoted Dr. Felicity Cox, a doctor of linguistics at Sydney's Macquarie University, who revealed that "accent is about identity, about group membership and how we want to express ourselves." Cox added, "Russell Crowe was born in New Zealand, but he speaks with an Australian accent because his identity is rooted here, it's how he wants to be known."

It's why everyone from Aussies living in London to teenage girls, news reporters and horse-racing callers adopt vocal styles of other groups. Cox called it "communicative accommodation ... you accommodate with people you want to identify with and be like."

All very nice, but this still fails to calm concerns about cultural identity and Australia Week. Is this really an accurate representation of Australian culture? Or might it be gratuitous backslapping that endorses racial stereotypes?

Olivia Newton-John, Urban, Kidman, Crowe and Baker were all highly visible at G'day USA: Australia Week. They were there in service of a marketing archetype that perpetuates a stereotype and does little to elevate Australia's profile as a place of creative depth and potential, even as a plethora of fledgling scriptwriters, musicians, fashion designers, architects, directors, novelists and others beg some form of nurturing in the U.S.

Ah, well, at least the cheese was free.

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