Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

What is Normal - Part 9: An American in Australia

© 2015 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[I started making notes for this essay one week into a 7-week trip to my country of birth, Australia. It had been more than eight years since my previous visit, and I was quickly reminded of many differences between the US and Australia. I decided to make a list of some of them, and to share that with you here, along with some commentary.]

In my June 2010 essay, "Australia and the U.S. - A Contrast", I looked at Politics and Government, Law Enforcement, Taxation, and Education. This time, I'll cover a number of other areas, especially those I noticed during my recent trip.

To put my comments in context, I spent the first 16 years of my life in the Riverland area of South Australia (SA), which has a Mediterranean climate and irrigated fruit growing and dryland farming. I then lived for 10 years in the state capital, Adelaide, which is between a range of 3,000-foot mountains and the coast. In the US, I lived a year in the Midwest city of Chicago followed by 35 more in the greater Washington DC area inland from the Mid-Atlantic coast.

Although I lived 25 years Down Under, I spent almost all of that time in one state, and then only in one country area and the state capital. As such, some general claims I make or seem to imply may well not be true in other Australian areas or states. Alternatively, they might have changed since I left 36 years ago.


Probably the first thing one notices is that everyone is driving on the other side of the road (and the car). Fortunately, the clutch, brake, and accelerator pedals are in the same order. Each time I went out with one or more passengers, I asked them to remind me to "keep to the left". This is quite easy when one is following other traffic, but when left alone, one can easily revert to one's "natural" side. One challenge I've always faced is to keep to the correct side when turning left into a divided highway. Then each time I left someone's house late at night, as I was saying "Goodbye", I inevitably unlocked the front passenger-side door, but soon noticed there was no steering wheel there, so went around to the other side.

One day, as I was driving up a steep hill, in the left lane, I found myself thinking, "What if some American or European tourist is coming up the other size in the wrong (that is, right-hand) lane?" I thought about that at length. At some point, you just have to trust that other people are playing by the rules.

The first few days in SA, each time I wanted to turn, the windshield wipers came on instead of the indicators. Don't you just hate that when that happens! (To be fair, that's not related to left- or right-hand driving; rather, cars built in different countries simply equip them that way.)

When I got my driving license, the written and practical tests were done by the local police (which are all state police). Now, like the US, these tests are handled by the state department of motor vehicles.

In SA, a driver can get a Learner's Permit at age 16 by passing a written test, and must have an L-Plate on their car to alert other drivers. Once they pass the practical test, they must have a Provisional Driver P-Plate for two years.

In SA, the open-road speed limit is 110 kph (68 mph), which given the general condition of the roads, I think is way too fast. To the chagrin of many drivers following me, for the most part, I stayed around 60 mph. The road conditions are not helped by the discontinuation of most freight rail-lines, resulting in the hauling of cargo by road, in increasingly bigger and heavier trucks, with many pulling trailers.

Unlike in the US, I don't think I saw any yellow lines on the highways, only white, and there seemed to be two different ways of indicating one was not to overtake another vehicle on a given section of roadway.

As Australia is representative of the western marketplace, it has long been a test ground for products from Asia, including motor vehicles. As a result, one can see models there that are not available in other countries. (Japan and Australia both drive on the left.)

A minor detail is the color of turning-indicator lights (AU: blinkers), as Australia requires them to be yellow. This seems not to be a requirement in the US.

Australia currently produces its own models of automobiles, via General Motors Holden (GMH) and Ford Australia. (For more than 35 years, Chrysler Australia did likewise.) One of the most distinctive styles is that of a utility vehicle, or ute, for short. Utes are really sedans with the back half replaced by a low cargo-carrying area, but they don't look at all like a typically US pick-up truck. In recent years, 4-door versions have also been built.

Prior to airline deregulation some 30 years ago, there were two domestic airlines, TAA and Ansett, the first being government-run, the second, private. They flew to the same places, at about the same times, for the same prices. With deregulation, there is more competition, but few people fly to small cities or towns. Qantas, the national airline, is now the biggest domestic carrier as well.

Weights and Measures

In 1972, Australia changed from the Imperial System of weights and measures to Metric. At the time, I worked in a chemistry lab, so was quite familiar with the Metric system, but only for relatively small measurements. (See my March 2013 essay, "What is Normal - Part 6: Weights and Measures".)

For someone used to the Imperial System (or the US version thereof), this involves new challenges. Weights are now in kilograms (or kilos, for short) rather than pounds, and tonnes rather than tons. Of course, feet, inches, yards, and miles all become meters and kilometers, and pints, quarts, and gallons become liters.

Now while one can easily make the transition from miles per hour to kilometers per hour, fuel consumption is another matter. Specifically, miles per gallon goes to liters per 100 km, which has the two measures swapped over. And instead of inflating the tires to some number of pounds per square inch, one has to deal with kilopascals per square cm.

Moving from the Fahrenheit temperature scale to Celsius is another challenge. Back when I was a lad, everyone knew a 100-degree F day was "bloody hot", but now they insist on its being 38 degrees C. Of course, cooking in an oven requires being able to translate between the systems.

And what's all this hectare and square-meter business? Acres used to be good enough!

Paper sizes are different, as are hole-punch positions, and envelope sizes.

When the Metric System was introduced in Australia, I distinctly remember companies having a 10-year transition period before they had to convert, and after which it was illegal to import products using non-Metric measurements. This seemed reasonable, in order that the populace "get with the program" as soon as possible. However, during my recent trips, more than 40 years after the conversion, I was quite surprised to find real estate ads in many newspapers using acres, and birth announcements showing baby weights in pounds and lengths in inches.

Food and Drink

Growing up in SA, the early meal of the day was breakfast. Around midday, we ate dinner, and in the evening, we ate tea. However, if we ate out in a nice restaurant, the evening meal became dinner. Snacks mid-morning and mid-afternoon were called morning tea and afternoon tea, respectively, while a late-night snack was supper. In the US, we have breakfast, lunch, and supper, but an evening meal at a nice restaurant is dinner.

While a major US fast food is a hamburger or hot dog, Down Under, it's a meat pie, pasty, or sausage roll, with or without tomato sauce. In some areas, Cornish pasties are available, and in the past 20+ years, pies and pasties have been offered in various, and increasingly exotic flavors, including with kangaroo meat.

US pastries are often heavy on chocolate, icing, and sugar while Australia has many different kinds of buns, in the English tradition. (Can you say buttered finger bun?) Sweet muffins are now appearing in Australia.

In SA, a very popular drink is iced coffee, made entirely with milk rather than water, as in the US.

While Americans eat lots of English muffin, a sort-of similar thing Down Under is a crumpet.

In SA, custard is very popular, and can be bought ready-made in cartons. Apricots are also popular. Butcher shops are everywhere and lamb is readily available. One can get a fried egg on a hamburger, and beetroot on a steak sandwich. Fish and chip shops are common, and pineapple on pizza is not considered weird. Various US ethnic things like bagels, rye bread, and Mexican food aren't generally available. Culturally, people don't eat out for breakfast, and they eat with both knife and fork rather than cutting food, putting the knife down and eating with the fork after changing hands. A very popular source of food is a "counter" meal served at a pub or sporting club. The American idea of taking uneaten food home in a "doggy bag/doggy basket" is catching on. The term diner (as a cheap place to eat) isn't used.

A very popular Aussie alcoholic drink is bitters, brown lime, and lemonade (the latter being lemon squash).


In general, in SA houses are smaller, and sometimes considerably so. Second stories are rare, and basements are non-existent. Many have garages while carports are popular. Older homes do not have a dining room separate from an in-kitchen eating area, or any en-suite bathrooms. There are not separate formal lounge and family rooms. The one toilet is often in a room by itself, not in the bathroom. So the American phrase going to the bathroom seems odd to many Aussies. Most houses I've visited have separate hot and cold-water taps at each sink, with good old-fashioned plugs. There are nowhere near as many electric outlets as in the US, and there often is only one wall jack for a landline phone. Although it can get quite hot, in the southern half of the country the humidity used not to be so high. However, with world weather patterns changing, ducted heating and air conditioning is more popular in new houses. Many older houses (and even some newer ones) have galvanized-iron roofs, and now, outside walls as well. A far bigger percentage of houses are made of brick, in which case, they can support a roof of terra cotta tiles.


To be sure, in SA, many working couples have laborsaving devices, but they are not as committed to them as in the US. However, I did see more dishwashers this last trip. Except in the few big cities, hardly anyone lives in a multistoried building, and most people live in single-family houses, with a yard, and a rotary clothesline on which to hang their laundry.

Aussies pretty much are a big middleclass bunch. Yes, there are a few very wealthy ones, but it's impossible to be poor. There really are so many social programs, and medical care is available to all.

Aussies still have greengrocers, butcher shops, and newsagents.

Regarding the worldwide coffee craze, while Aussies do drink coffee, many love their hot tea, even in the hottest of weather when Aussies actually consider it a better thirst quencher than a cold drink. Regarding coffee, before the instant variety came to Australia, we made a cup by putting a teaspoonful of Bickford's coffee and chicory essence from a large, tall, black bottle, into a cup and pouring boiling water on that. Until I first ate at a fine restaurant, I'd never experienced percolated coffee. By the way, most hotel and motels rooms have an electric kettle and tea/coffee-making facilities, as God intended!

The principle religion Down Under is sport, pretty much of any kind. If you live in/near Sydney or Brisbane, football means rugby. For the other states, it's Australian Rules football. Nationally, there's soccer. These are winter sports, along with netball. The primary summer sports are cricket, tennis, and watersports. Hockey means field hockey while ice hockey means, well hockey on ice (which given the geographical position of the country, not surprisingly, is not well known). Basketball is a huge sport and baseball is becoming more popular. Lawn bowls used to be a retired-persons game, but now more and more young people play.

Aussies have a long history of gambling, and there's an old saying that two Aussies would bet on a fly crawling up a wall. When I lived in SA, the state government ran a statewide agency called the Totalizer Agency Board (TAB), which had outlets in pretty much every town over a few thousand residents. These provided places to bet on horse and greyhound racing, and later on English and European football. They still exist, and now they cover other sports as well. Most states have at least one casino. Probably one of the worst impacts on the pocket of the blue-collar worker was the wholesale introduction of poker machines some 20 years ago. They proved to be just another way for working-class people to throw away their money. Just about every pub and small sporting club has them, and often the proceeds from them are used to underwrite the cheap meals served.

Miscellaneous Stuff

In Australia, the electricity supply is 240 volts, 50Hz; power outlets have switches; light switches go down for on and up for off; and light bulbs fit into their sockets using a bayonet connector. In the US, the electricity supply is 110 volts, 60Hz, power outlets do not have switches, light switches go down for off and up for on, and light bulbs screw into their sockets.

When television came to Australia (much later than in the US), a channel 5A existed on all channel dials. [The channel based near my hometown has that designation.] For color TV, Australia chose the PAL analog system versus the US's NTSC. With digital TV, the same standards are used; however, the DVD region codes for the two countries are different, so one cannot play pre-recorded videos on the other's machines.

The Australian dollar (AUD) has 100 cents, and coins come in 5, 10, 20, 50 cents, and $1 and $2. (The 1-cent and 2-cent coins have been discontinued.) The US still has a 1-cent coin, but no 2-cent, and has a 25-cent (quarter) instead of a 20. It has both the traditional $1 banknote and a more recently introduced $1 coin; as such, the coin versions are far less used. Each Aussie banknote has a different color and increasing denominations get longer and wider. US banknotes are predominately green, but other colors are being added with new editions.

Language, Spelling, and Vocabulary

George Bernard Shaw wrote, "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." And given that Aussie English is rooted (but not identical) to British English, the same applies between Australia and the US.

Back in 1979, as I was preparing to move to the US from Australia, my travel agent gave me an Aussie-English-to-American-English "translation" guide consisting of more than 500 words. Here are some of them, the Aussie term first, followed by the equivalent American term in parentheses:

  • footpath (sidewalk)
  • serviette (napkin)
  • railway sleepers (railway ties)
  • clothes pegs (clothes pins)
  • kindergarten (preschool)
  • cool drink (soda, pop)
  • lemonade (Sprite, 7-Up)
  • budgerigar (parakeet)
  • tap (faucet)
  • petrol (gasoline)
  • diesel or distillate (diesel)
  • gas (LPG – natural gas)
  • windscreen (windshield)
  • car boot (hood)
  • mudguard (fender)
  • blinker (indicator)
  • manual gears (stick shift)
  • bum bag (fanny pack)
  • sultana (golden raisin)
  • anticlockwise (counterclockwise)
  • chemist shop (pharmacy); however, the American version is taking over
  • peanut paste (peanut butter)
  • tomato sauce (ketchup); however, the American version is taking over
  • icing (frosting)
  • scone (biscuit) (Aussies pronounce it as 'scon')
  • sweet biscuit (cookie)
  • savory biscuit (cracker)
  • jelly (gelatin, or the brand name Jello)
  • jam (jam, jelly, conserve)
  • beetroot (beets)
  • spirits (liquor)
  • pub (bar)
  • power point (electrical outlet)
  • xx-dollar note (xx-dollar bill)

There are numerous differences in spelling and pronunciation. For example,

  • litre (litre) and metre (meter)
  • colour (color), labour (labor), flavour (flavor), and so on
  • aluminium (aluminum)
  • tyre (tire)
  • newspaper [I hear Aussies (and Brits) say the n like the Spanish ñ while the Americans say it simply as n.]
  • Double letters and digits such as "oo" and 33 are spoken "double-o" and double-3 (oo and 33)


As I travel, I often think that everything is the same yet, on closer inspection, everything is different, and that's certainly the case with the US and Australia. As I finish writing this, it's 7 weeks after my return from Down Under, but now I'm in England for 3 weeks. Not surprisingly, there are lots of similarities and differences here as well, and to some extent, I'm using a whole other vocabulary. It's a whole other normal!