It didn't seem like much when I first arrived. It was just a little pool
with low brick walls located in the courtyard of St. Mark's residential college,
where I was to spend the next 6 months. 'I can't believe I've been worried
about this,' I told myself as I walked past it for the first time. 'After
all, how scary can a little pond be? Especially one in the shape of a cross
with the statue of a saint in the middle!' For months I had been imagining
a gargantuan lake that stood just off the edge of the St. Mark's campus like
a dark, forbidding guardian looking down on all who disobeyed the rules of
her beloved college. This was certainly not what I found.
My fear had arisen, and indeed grown, over the previous several months after
having been regaled with so many stories of this famous body of water. The reason
it struck such worry in me was the idea of being ponded. Ponding is the process
by which you are laid on the edge of the wall surrounding the "pond", soaked
with water, and then rolled in, regardless of whether you are enthusiastic about
this whole idea or not. Upon hearing such accounts, I immediately began to think
of fraternity hazings here at IU. Hazing in general just seemed like the most
ridiculous thing on Earth to me. Needless to say, I did not warm up to the idea
While I managed to escape the ponding experience through effort, a little
luck, and a few connections to the right people, it did happen to the more luckless
of my compatriots. Hazing was certainly one of the motivations behind ponding,
but it also served a much more important purpose. For the most part, this punishment
only resulted if you violated a sacred St. Mark's dining hall rule. These included
not wearing shoes in the hall, not refilling the pitchers if you emptied them,
standing up during a formal dinner, and answering a cellular phone, among others.
While most of these seem like trivial infractions, you would never see them
enforced in such a way here in the States. These were obviously things that
carried a lot of importance to the Australians at St. Mark's.
For the longest time I could not put my finger on exactly why these would
be so important, so I passed them off as merely tradition. However, reading
an essay given to me by the international students office in Adelaide made me
immediately recognize the their way. Their land is a harsh one, as compared
to the rich bounty of natural resources Americans have found at their disposal.
Only by working together could they have survived. While this is hardly the
same as refilling drinks or making sure to wear shoes, it does have a common
theme; respect for others. The dining hall was the one true place of community
for the entire college and it was important to respect such a place. While many,
including some Australians, might disagree with me on such origins, I am sure
that at some level this is the root of the tradition. Such a community respect
explained other Aussie phenomena I came across, such as the insulting nature
of sitting by yourself when you had the opportunity to sit with someone else
at a meal, or how it was almost impossible to find an egotistical Australian.
The individualism that Americans cherish so dearly was overshadowed by a respect
for the group.
This realization gave me a new appreciation for the intricacies of the two
cultures. There are quite distinct differences, but they often manifest themselves
in very subtle ways. Initially I was somewhat concerned that this would dilute
my study abroad experience, since there were fewer outright cultural differences
to point to. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that
such subtle differences require a much more observant eye. Only by being in
tune with my newfound surroundings in a way that would have been impossible
in many other countries with wider cultural gaps, could I begin to appreciate
such differences. In this way, I learned a great deal not only about Australia,
its people, its culture, and how to avoid getting thrown in a pond, but also
about how to pay attention to the little differences in people. Who knows, maybe
I even learned how to more closely examine myself in the process.