A few weeks ago I was involved in a cross-cultural training session for a young family that was moving to Australia. I was regaling them with tales of my embarrassing misuse of Aussie slang, and somehow the expression “crazy as a galah” came up. (Perhaps in reference to me; I choose not to remember the exact circumstances.)
The galah is a type of cockatoo that’s found in Australia. Its plumage is grey and a very fetching shade of dusty rose — a colour combination that reminds me of the eighties for some reason. It’s a rowdy bird that likes to screech (and can be taught to talk), and that’s probably where the expression originated. Or maybe it’s because of its playfulness; apparently galahs like to swing upside down from telephone wires.
One of the trainees wanted to know if birds are common pets in Australia. I had to admit I didn’t know; the thought had never actually crossed my mind. When kookaburras, galahs, cockatiels, and lorikeets are hanging out in your back yard, why would you bother keeping a bird in a cage?
My point — you knew I’d get to it eventually, didn’t you? — is that our idea of what’s exotic and what’s mundane is all relative. Just ask Kylie Custard.
I met Kylie when I lived in Australia. She was only a kid then, but years later, after Elder Daughter was born, she came to stay with us for a few months. One day, while she was slurping a bowl of custard (her favourite snack — hence the nickname), a squirrel wandered into the yard and started nibbling mulberries that had fallen from the tree.
Kylie went — if you’ll pardon the pun — squirrelly. She ran around the house, looking for her camera and squealing excitedly. As she snapped endless photos of the little rodent, she exclaimed breathlessly that she’d only ever seen squirrels on TV. “They’re so exotic,” she gushed.
Squirrels? Exotic? It took me quite a while to wrap my head around that notion. I don’t think I really understood what she meant until I moved to Singapore. I probably outdid Kylie in the hyperventilation department the first time I saw a family of monkeys — a mother and three adorable babies — scampering across the parking lot of the British Club. Later, though, when they snatched our breakfast off the table (and bared dagger-like teeth when we objected), I began to see that one person’s exotica is another’s scourge.
By the time we left Singapore, three years later, the sight of simian funambulists skipping across the telephone wires outside our house barely raised an eyebrow. They’d simply become part of the background of our life. How sad is that? We were bored by monkeys, for pete’s sake.
It came as a bit of a shock to realize that the things we take for granted in our daily lives are wildly exotic to someone, somewhere in the world. Is it possible that if we tweak our perspectives a little, we can begin to see them in a new light? Perhaps looking at the not-so-fascinating bits with fresh eyes will re-awaken that sense of adventure we had when we first moved abroad.
[Edited to add: Hmm, maybe not. I tried this with the skunk that persists in viewing the space under my front steps as prime real estate, and I failed miserably. Once a skunk, always a skunk, I’m afraid! The next time I try to tweak my perspective and re-awaken my sense of adventure, I think I’ll set the bar a little lower.]