The Aodaliya Conversations

Aodaliya is the pinyin for Australia – 澳大利亚 ào dà lì yà. It’s odd to say since every character in the four-syllable phrase is fourth tone. When said as a single “word”, the usually gets the strongest stress, and there’s often a slightly less strong stress on the ào.

When I wrote about how I learned Chinese, I mentioned that I have had conversations about Australia with many, many Chinese people over the years. Rather, I had the same conversation over and over, but the conversation changed over time. A few people have asked what that conversation is/was – so here goes!
When I first arrived in China, and for the first few years after I arrived, this is how the conversation with taxi drivers went:
Driver: What country are you from? 你是哪个国家的  /   你是哪国人?
Me: Australia 澳大利亚
Driver: Oh! Kangaroos!    哦!袋鼠!
Koala in an animal park in Victoria.

Unimpressed koala in an animal park in Victoria.

While saying this, the driver would mime a kangaroo jumping. While driving. And looking at me. Not looking at the road. And not holding the steering wheel. Welcome to China!

Occasionally the driver in question would add 考拉 kǎo lā (koala). As with “Oh! Kangaroos!” there was no sentence, just “Koala!”, said with great enthusiasm.

Sometimes, depending on my mood and on their level on interest, there would be a discussion on the size of kangaroos, and my experiences with them in the “wild” in Canberra (where they are found in great abundance in public bushland).

Kangaroos in the bushland behind my parents' house in Canberra.

Kangaroos in the bushland behind my parents’ house in Canberra.

My sister and brother-in-law walking on "Lake" Ballard in Western Australia.

My sister and brother-in-law walking on “Lake” Ballard in Western Australia.

If the conversation went any deeper than that, it was usually along the lines of me being told that Australia is so big and has so few people that we must all be rich. I tried to explain that 80% of the country is officially desert (40% of the land is covered in big piles of sand) but the reality is that yes, by the standards of ordinary Chinese, most Australians are rich. If you dispute that, consider that in the city a blue collar salary of $2,000 a year is common; entry level white collar (or skilled blue collar) is about $7,000 a year.

The conversation changed right around the time I moved to Langfang. At the end of 2007, the Labor Party won the federal election in Australia and Kevin Rudd became the new Prime Minister. It was reported in the Chinese media that he had been a diplomat in Beijing in the 80s and spoke Mandarin. In April 2008 he visited Beijing and, most importantly, gave a speech at 北大 Bei Da – Peking University. He spoke very well, fluidly and with a good accent. Impressive for a foreigner, regardless of how many speechwriters and languages coaches may have been involved. If you’re interested, you can see a video of his opening remarks (including a few jokes), or read a translated script of the main speech.

From that time on, whenever I told a driver I was from Australia, the conversation instantly turned to Rudd and his excellent Chinese. Another very topic was the friendship between our two countries – one of the main topics of Rudd’s speech.

4 years later, the topic changed again. In the summer of 2010 Julia Gillard came into power as the new Prime Minister and completely confounded many Chinese. Here’s how the conversation went:

Driver: What country are you from?
Me: Australia
Driver: You have a new president, right?
Me: Yes
[Australia has Prime Ministers, not presidents, but close enough]
Driver:  She’s a woman, right?
Me: Yes
Driver: And she’s not married.
Me: No
Driver: And she doesn’t have any children.
Me: No
Driver: But she has a boyfriend?
Me: Yes
Driver: And she’s how old?

Nothing about politics. Julia Gillard’s personal lifestyle was so far outside the Chinese expectation that people seemed to get stuck there. I had this exact conversation numerous times in the next few months. Occasionally someone might remark on the colour of her hair, or what a good nose she had, but that was about it. (Earlier this year I met a driver who was particularly impressed with her, though!)

The conversation changed again in the next year. Since 2010 Australia has poured a lot of money and effort into promoting itself as a tourist destination to Chinese citizens. These efforts have clearly paid off, not just in tourist dollars, but in the change in how Chinese think of Australia.

Indeed, many times when in a taxi I have heard discussions of Australia on the radio, promoting it as a travel destination. I have heard discussions with travel agents saying how popular various places in Australia are. The was a radio program about particular tourist destinations in Australia – the correspondent was doing fun things and talking about them. The point was that these weren’t ads, so to speak, but programming praising Australia the clean and beautiful.

Over the last 2+ years, when a driver discovers I’m from Australia, the instant reaction is not “Oh! Kangaroos” or a comment about the Prime Minister. Instead, I am told how wonderful my country is – the air, the scenery. The most common conversation started goes like this:

Driver: What country are you from?
Me: Australia
Driver: Oh! Such a beautiful country, isn’t it?!
Me: Yes, it is.
Driver: Great scenery, and the air is clean, isn’t it?
Me: Yes, it is.
Driver: Is there much pollution there?
: No, not really. Even the big cities are small compared to China, and the pollution levels are quite low.
Driver: The air here is bad.
[An especially common remark on a high pollution day!]
Driver: So why do you live here?

Okay, so that last line isn’t often said so directly, but it’s implied a lot of the time! More and more I am being asked about tourism (how much it costs to fly to Australia) and immigration (how easy/hard it is). I always feel bad when I can’t dodge direct questions and reveal how high the costs of plane tickets and general living expenses are.

The blue skies I miss!

The blue skies I miss!

So that’s a brief look at how Australia is perceived by many ordinary Chinese! I might also point out that while most Americans (including the well-traveled) haven’t heard of Canberra, almost every single Chinese I’ve talked to knows that Canberra is the capital of Australia. I must say I’m glad that their knowledge of my homeland has grown to more than thinking kangaroos are cool, but the more Australia is promoted as a tourist destination, the more I am reminded I left clean air for grey murk. Good thing I love my life – if not the air quality!


5 thoughts on “The Aodaliya Conversations

  1. Pingback: How I learned Chinese – Part 2: Passenger and Patron | Tanya's Stories

  2. Pingback: More conversations with Xiao Chen | Tanya's Stories

  3. Pingback: Taxi Conversation | Tanya's Stories

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