Attempts to summarise national characteristics of a society by the educated are often flawed and unsuccessful. These could lead to stereotypes, misconceptions and even prejudice about a particular society, based on certain obvious collective similarities. I feel confident in making some observations of Australians' behaviours only within the range of my personal experience They may not contain real uniformity or may contradict other evidence or examples.
Compassion is said a to be a great Australian characteristic and asset. It could be originated from the fair go mentality and a tendency to pay sympathy towards the underdogs. It goes beyond typical Aussie pleasantries and is followed by concrete helps to those in need. This is also out of their comfortable living with abundance in supplies and sufficient welfare covers, so that extra effort in helping others does not harm themselves in terms of money costs or waste of emotion.
The most vivid and enduring memory I have is the Aussie style unreserved help and compassion. On return from the ski place of Lake Mountains many years ago, my old second hand car broke down, with a dead battery. It was nearly dark, and among streams of cars passing by, an Aussie couple stopped to offer roadside help. It was obviously worse than the sturdy man thought, certainly not possible to start by connecting jump start cords. He did not give it up and followed us to a nearby gas station, where plenty of lighting could make his work easier. The man tried everything he could, even pull out a pole from ground to lift up one set of generator to a certain position. When these did not work, his female partner tried to cheer him up and would not let us get stranded in a remote place in darkness. She spot my little boy in the baby seat at the back and could not resist the urge to play with him for a while. The man turned to us and mused:"She just loves kids". This apparently gave the woman more reasons not to abandon us, and she worked with her partner for an extended time span to get the car started and running in a normal way. She then turned to us saying:"Now you can drive back to Melbourne safely". We could not thank them enough, but all they would accept were a pack of cigarettes.
This ordeal took about two hours of their time, a long time to test their compassion and willingness to help total strangers (Asian strangers were then few in country Victoria). They were typical Aussies, and country folks, simple, perhaps not well educated, but stuck to the accepted standards of compassion. Whenever I think of Australian thereafter, that single even reminds me of decent and fair-minded Aussies in this lovely country. I feel I owe that Aussie couple something, so much so that I tend to urge me to forgive bad behaviours of other Aussies I encountered, to forgive those racial slurs hurled by ignorant teens, slight, and dismissive attitude in everyday life. Compassion from an ordinary Aussie couple proves the true worth of a national characteristics and more than compensate certain bad memories and negative feelings coming from past experience in Australia.
Sometimes even when it is not their own concerns, Aussies just feel they should render some help. I once lodged a visa application for my fiance to come to Australia. An education officer in a government department handling this matter showed his sympathy towards my separation with my fiance and verified the application with minimum fuzz. It is a widely accepted view that if one is posted overseas for over several months, the spouse should be allowed to go along. The next time I went to the department, things went a dramatic turn. Since my fiance got permission to visit Australia for six months as part of an exchange tour, I chose to take up that option because of quick procedures on the Chinese side. The officer was evidently upset when he was told by front desk that I withdrew my application that I could hear him screaming behind open door "he what?!". After I laid out my reasons, he remained unconvinced and tried to talk me out of that, with a typical Aussie view of life: your fiance still has to go back to China after six months, and you don't know what will happen after; with this family reunion visa, you can have a stable family life in Australia; and the Chinese government may force you to accept separation, so an individual rather than government visa will give you more freedom. Although he obviously knew little about China, he talked in a very compassionate way, and I was really moved. All these are not his concerns, really; if I made a wrong decision, I alone suffer the consequences. He could simply do the paper work and had no obligation to think of the options from my point of view. In later years, when waves of self-paid Chinese students swamped government offices of major Australian cities on visa related matters, I treasured immensely the relaxed earlier time when a government officer had time to sit down and attempt to persuade a Chinese student to stay longer in this country with the right type of visa.
Mr. Ross Garnaut (later Professor at the ANU) was the ambassador to China in 1985-1988. A few Chinese students from one university, including me, wrote to him on the matter of visas for our wives, which had been lodged for a long time. Unexpectedly, he soon replied to us and apologised for procedural delays and particular situations surrounding visa issuing. He might not be able to offer concrete help in his letter or promise anything, but this kind gesture illustrates a common unique tendency towards treating family reunion and other applications on compassionate grounds. This communication with him probably worked one way or another, since our wives eventually arrived in Australia by the end of the year, before Christmas.
The secretary to my university professor was Mrs. Chai, clearly an Aussie woman but got the family name from the Malaysian man she married. With this background, we often had something to share, and she did not hesitate to talk about what she felt of certain unfair treatment on Asians in and out of this country. She became sensitive to racial slurs against Asians, and related to me an occasion at the Malaysian international airport, where some Aussie blokes in front of her loudly joked about people and officers there. Mrs. Chai was deeply irritated and told me if those insulting remarks were landed on other Aussies, the guys would have got punches to their noses. Only because those local people did not hear clearly of their insults, they got away with that. She felt so shamed that some of her countrymen behaved that bad overseas and did not deserve the good reputation of Australia being fair and compassionate. Some Aussies can be called narrow-minded, rather than fair-minded, in a racial context, but considering the short time after the White Australia policy was officially dropped by all political parties, this occasional outburst against multiculturalism and Australia's own trait of compassion is understandable.
There is a growing risk that this compassion is running thin, especially in bad times and when shocks come from external sources. Under the circumstances of the "everything goes" 1990s, with economic rationalism, deregulation, and all that, compassion and tolerance were on the way being less generously offered while encountering shocks, and they risk becoming even rarer commodities.