After 13 Years I Returned Home to Australia — It’s Nothing Like I Remembered

moving to australia

Things change. People change. The world has changed a lot.

It’s been exactly three years since I packed up my flat in London and moved to Sydney. It wasn’t exactly a spur of the moment decision, I’d been planning the move for at least a year and, in some ways, over a decade.

See, I was born here, to British parents, and spent my formative years growing up on the north shore of Sydney. Wollstonecraft, to be exact. My parents moved out to Papua New Guinea in the late 80s for something a bit different to the bright lights of Oxfordshire and accidentally stayed in Oceania for over two decades. As you do.

They always had the intention to move back and so, when I finished primary school, back we went.

Except for me it wasn’t back, it was away. Away from everything and everyone I’d ever known and off to some grey and distant land that I instantly hated but grew to love deeply over the 13 years I spent there.

Wrapping up my masters degree in 2018, and seeing all of my friends enter poverty-level employment in the dire London job market, I thought it was now or never and booked that plane ticket. I could always come back, I reasoned, if it didn’t work out.

Well it’s been three years and I haven’t yet returned. Three whole years without family or friends and, from the looks of things, it’ll be a good while longer until I can see them again.

COVID has played a massive role in the time I’ve spent here. It’s stopped me doing many of the things that I came here to do, like travel and experience new places, find all the cool restaurants and bars, and get into trouble.

That’s not to say I haven’t done my fair share, just that it never quite works out the way you expect it to.

Australia was meant to be a homecoming of sorts but I’ve learned that home is just a concept that reality often doesn’t measure up to. What does it mean to go home when your home is nothing like you remember it? When none of the people or places are the same and the environment is largely indifferent to your existence? Home is what you make it and where you choose to do so. Like everything else, it’s in a constant state of change.

I’ve not had anything like the same immigrant experience that so many others have had here. For starters, I get referred to as an ‘expat’, not an ‘immigrant’, and I’ve got an Australian passport which immediately opens doors and banishes any threat of fruit picking, limited work, or deportation. I’m also white, male, and British, three characteristics that make my passage through life in Australia far simpler than most others.

Still, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 90% of my friends here are expats or foreigners. Sydneysiders can be cliquey and, for some reason, what high school you went to is a big deal. For an international city, the place has a small-town mentality, and with that goes all the shady back-room dealings that most people here are very aware of but seem to accept.

I’m not sure who needs to hear this, but a gambling room in every pub is not normal. For the longest time I thought “VIP room” meant strip club or brothel and was amazed at the ubiquity of them. Locking down your nightlife and dictating what people can do past 1am on a Saturday is also abnormal. It’s clear that something’s up when the only place you can get a drink past 3am is the casino, and that a monstrous new development on the water is given over to further high-stakes gambling.

While we’re on the subject of policing, Sydney is one of the most over-policed cities I’ve ever been to. I lived in a flat in London next to drug dealers and worked in Westminster during several terrorist attacks. Never have I seen as many police as I do on a casual Friday night in a relatively quiet part of Sydney. For a city with a comparatively tiny crime rate, it’s a weird thing to want to do to your citizens.

I’ll never forget the look of shock on my friend’s face who came to stay from London at the sight of police entering a venue with a drug dog. It just doesn’t happen in other places.

When I first arrived, one of my dad’s old friends, an Irish expat, told me that Australia is a place where anyone can make it. To me it seems that the country is simply behind the times, a few decades away from the stagnant wages and savage public health cuts that have made social mobility impossible in the UK and the US. In many ways, Australia is relieved of the class structure that stratifies the old world, but that same class structure does rear its ugly head for certain demographics and postcodes.

Still, there’s a lot going for the country. With relatively high wages, incredible landscapes, and glorious weather, it’s a world away from the London grind and, on balance, the quality of life here is better.

Still, to be tied to two different countries comes with its own set of challenges. Being born a dual citizen means you end up living parallel lives. One half of you is keeping up appearances with friends and family back home, trying to stay grounded in the past, while the other half is creating this new life and different version of yourself that is unknown to the people you’ve left behind. Some experiences just don’t translate through pictures and phone calls.

The more time you invest in one version of yourself, the further away the other becomes. I think I’ve accepted that I’ll never be wholly settled between these two worlds and that having such unrestricted access between them is both a blessing and a curse.

For some reason, when I was heading to the departure gate at Heathrow, I was stopped by a man with a clip board asking where I was going and why. Some data gathering exercise I assumed. I told him Australia, maybe forever, and when he asked for a reason I off-handedly joked, “Brexit”. I made sure he wrote that down.

The country I had grown to love was changing and not in a way that I liked or could see having any positive outcomes. Now that Britain has properly decoupled from Europe, all of the worst fears of those who voted against the change have materialised. Fuel shortages, empty shelves in the supermarkets, and an authoritarian government casually laying waste to many of the values that make Britain great; great scientific achievement, a dedication to human rights and democracy, a vibrant cultural scene, and universal healthcare.

To be fair, it’s a process that’s been ongoing for decades, but Brexit has removed the restraints and allowed the tyrants to run amok, all the while convincing the public that this is not only what they voted for but is in fact in the best interests of the country.

Britain has become a place I no longer clearly recognise as home. Whether that’s simply the distance, or the time, or the changes that have taken place since I’ve been gone, it’s no longer certain that this is a place I belong.

Much like Australia when I first arrived, the UK seems familiar but strange. While I’ll certainly return — and my God am I looking forward to it — I’ll also certainly return to Australia and continue considering my place on this planet, torn between it’s northern and southern hemispheres.

If I was to try and impart any wisdom from my time here it would be this:

Talk to People

Australian’s are a friendly bunch and, while they might wonder who you are and what you want, they’re often keen for a chat and happy to swap stories, particularly when beer is involved. Everyone has a great story and you’ll learn a lot more from listening.

Learn the History

Australia is a young country with an enormous history. Very little of it is good and you’ll never quite get over the gross feeling of living on stolen land once you read into the details of how this land came to be named after a bunch of dead white men. History plays a huge role in Australian life, from the dreamtime, to the first fleet, colonisation, the White Australia policy, ANZAC Day, and January 26. They all know this stuff, even if they don’t know they know it, so you should too. It’ll make everything make just a little bit more sense.

Everything Is a Joke

Aussies love to laugh at everyone and everything around them. Brits have a notoriously cynical humour but the Aussies take it one step further. Every day is to be enjoyed, every politician is to be laughed at, every event is an excuse for a huge piss up. Laughing and getting involved is the only way to go. It might not make much sense, but you’ll soon realise why the ‘laid-back’ stereotype exists.

Sydney Is a City of Two Halves

You’ll have to make a lifestyle choice. Do you want to be by the beach, where you’ll be paying extortionate rent for a little slice of paradise or do you want to be surrounded by bars, art, and entertainment but only get to see the water a few times a month? Everyone has to pick whether they’re a culture person or a beach person. Most Brits go for the latter.

You Can Check Out but You Can Never Leave

Once you’ve experienced the way that people are living on this side of the planet, you’ll never forget it. If you leave, you’ll be sitting in an office block looking out at a drizzly skyline somewhere knowing that there are people who start their mornings on Bondi beach and end them in some of the world’s best restaurants and watering holes. You can escape all this but you’ll never be able to shake the feeling that maybe those people have got it figured out and that, quite possibly, in a land down under, other people are doing life much better than you are.

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