Leaving Australia for good

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I live in Beijing, a city that I both love and hate. But I recently returned to my hometown of Sydney – a city I also both love and hate – and one Sunday found myself on the beach, with a man who asked me, "How can you get sick of this?"

For a long time I've considered myself just one of thousands of Australians whose experience living overseas has an "expiry date". Time spent in a foreign country is borrowed; a period of high-octane adventure, drinking, new friends, short relationships and discovery. Everything is off the record, and back in Australia an old life has been folded away into storage, waiting for the day its owner will return.

But there is another group of Australians too living overseas. Their years have turned to a decade and more. From their footloose and fancy-free expat existence, tiny tendrils have sprung and each - a foreign credit card, a driver's license, a house deed and perhaps even a marriage, plants that Australian deeper and deeper into foreign soil. They belong to an increasing number who are ticking the permanent departure box on their passenger cards.

To which do I belong? In entering my fourth year of Beijing life, and at 29 years of age, it is time to choose.

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I know I am tired of expat life and its revolving door of fellow expat friends that come and go. There's only so long one can be sustained on friendships that live and die like fresh-cut flowers, vibrant and fun, but in which circumstance has predetermined their fate. It becomes a race - who will leave first?

But hanging up one's expat hat is not synonymous with returning home. At least it wasn't for a friend of mine called Hannah Death, who has now spent eight of the last ten years in London. She first went over at 23, and quickly fell in love with the city's diversity, the anonymity it offered her, and the heavy weight of history that emanated from "streets that have been walked on for hundreds and hundreds of years," she tells me over the phone.

And as a professional working in advertising and media, there were few better cities in which to advance her career. Yet it was never supposed to be forever, so in those first few years she did the "expat thing": hanging out with young Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans and Americans all doing their London stint. "There was always the thought that I would eventually go home, so I was only half engaging," she tells me.

At the time she was dating a "true London boy", and now believes her lack of commitment to the city affected their relationship. When it ended she decided to head back to Australia and throw herself into Sydney life. She found a job, lived in Potts Point and was surrounded by her best friends. But in her heart, something was nagging. "I was constantly feeling like I missing out on something. Like there was this big, bad world going on and I was on the periphery," she says.

She also found Sydney unbearably superficial. "I remember the moment where I said, 'I'm getting the hell out of here.' I'd gone to some work drinks at the Ivy and we were at the pool bar upstairs. There were these barely 18-year-olds prancing around with fake boobs, kaftans and hair done, heels on, looking at me like I was the weird one because I was wearing flip-flop and jeans."

I tell her when I go home I feel claustrophobic. I step off the plane and Sydney's famously pure, clean sunlight feels like a jailhouse spotlight. In the car ride home hearing on the radio the twang of the Australian accent sounds strange to my ears.

This reminds Hannah of a story. "When I moved home in 2007 my brother picked me up from the airport and we were driving over the Harbour Bridge. I turned around and realised through the rearview mirror I could see the entirety of the Sydney CBD, and had a panic attack. My entire life in the back of a rearview mirror," she says.

It's like we're sharing war stories in a recovery group called Sydneysiders Anonymous. And at times this reverse cultural shock can manifest itself as snobbery. Another friend once told me, "I've outgrown Australia." While actress Melissa George was recently lambasted for saying, "I'd rather be having a croissant and a little espresso in Paris or walking my French bulldog in New York City", than have to be in Sydney and pander to the tiresome Australian press.

After two years of Sydney life Hannah returned to London. Now her friends are "long-term" expats who've settled down in the city. And there are other signs of her commitment, she says. "I've got my UK driver's license, transferred my super to a UK pension, and am looking to buy a house next year. I still have to remind mum of that! Just the other day she said, 'Honey, you shouldn't buy furniture. It's going to be really expensive to ship it home.'"

And while Hannah, who has already picked up tinges of a British accent, may have no intention of returning home, she still has to fight the pangs that call her to other cities like Hong Kong, or New York. I tell her at some point you need to stop chasing 'the one' and just choose a place to grow old with.

I ask if there's anything, perhaps children, that could ever pull her home. She acknowledges raising kids in London won't be easy. "My kids will have English accents. They won't understand what it's like to catch the school bus in 35 degree heat sliding off the seats. And how the cicadas can be so noisy you can't hear yourself think," she says. "Maybe it becomes difficult for parents and their children to identify with one another because you don't have those shared childhood experiences." I agree, and mention it's a problem many migrant kids in Australia have with their parents. 

Back in Sydney I meet new people and all my sentences begin with, "Oh it's not like that in China …" or "Trust me, if you'd lived in China …" I sound like someone still obsessed with an ex.

Amazingly I'd managed to go 12 hours with my new friend and only mentioned the C-word once. We were at the beach near his house and he came out of the surf, all smiles and jubilation. The blue ocean was rolling in with icy white crests. 

"I can't believe it," I said to him, passing our shared beer. "You've lived your whole life by this beach. But it still excites you."

He grinned with a row of perfectly straight teeth, and took a swig. I felt vaguely envious of his weekends spent swimming, surfing and playing golf with his best mates.

"How can you get sick of this?" he asked looking out. He must be nearly 30, I thought, but like this land, felt so youthful. 

He passed me the bottle and ran back into the ocean. The heat was lifting off the blinding white sand, and his words hummed in the air. I closed my eyes but the sunlight still seemed to flood my brain, chasing all my answers away.

37 comments

  • I totally get this article. Whenever I fly back to Australia from my life in Kuala Lumpur, I have friends who say things like 'Don't you miss Melbourne' or 'How can you live somewhere where they don't understand good coffee or real bread'.
    As an expatriate teacher in Malaysia, I have over the last 7 years changed my political outlook. When you live in a society that has no welfare system and you come home to some people complaining about how low unemployment payments are or saying we have the worst healthcare around. Or friends on $70k+ complaining about their salaries or the fact their coffee milk wasn't exactly right, and these things make me think.
    Sure, one misses their home and the sound of a currawong, the scent of eucalyptus in the air, the sky so blue that your heart sings and yes the smell of real bread. All this makes me want to come back but I also love my life in Kuala Lumpur, a place with a huge gap in how people live depending upon their race or religion, where healthcare is just as spot on as we offer in Australia. That the minimum wage in KL is AUD$1.40 an hour, that the quality of air is highly questionable thanks to the ever encroaching Palm Oil plantations burning jungles.I see people in Malaysia living with a level of happiness that is much greater than ours, even those in poverty.

    Australia will always be there and like many Expats, I wouldn't have appreciated just how marvellous Australia is and should be unless I came to live in a vastly different place. For this I am grateful I am Australian.

    Commenter
    Gordie
    Location
    Kuala Lumpur
    Date and time
    December 18, 2012, 8:32AM
    • Yes, everywhere has good or bad. No matter if I am in Paris or Mudgee, I am always on the look out for the good thing. If I am in China I don't look for pizza, I look for good Chinese food, when I am in Brisbane there is no good Chinese food, but I don't miss it, I am too busy eating great pub grub.

      Commenter
      Flingebunt
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 3:32PM
  • I can't quite believe you thought that quoting Melissa George would give you any credibility. Really?

    Commenter
    Oh do Grow Up
    Date and time
    December 18, 2012, 8:41AM
    • Was it supposed to add credibility? Is that what quotes are for? Not to tease out discussion or provide disparate points of view? I can't see any endorsement of exactly what Melissa George said. This author quoted a recent comment made by someone quasi famous which relates to this topic. Had the author not referred to it your comment would probably read 'grow up, Melissa George'.

      Commenter
      Mrs Palmer
      Location
      Black Lodge
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 10:25AM
    • There is still someone highly offended by Melissa George. I thought this was old news, it does give new meaning to the phrase :Oh do grow up" however

      Commenter
      Tina
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 10:35AM
    • Sorry, but I think this article is a load of sanctimonious drivel. And, quoting 'quasi-famous' Ms George added nothing. Perhaps, Ms Tan should just count her blessings and stop publicly agonising and just quietly appreciate very few people have an opportunity, let alone a choice such as hers for the taking.

      Commenter
      Julia
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 12:51PM
    • I pointed out Melissa George's status as
      a) a little dig at her celebrity
      b) as an acknowledgement that her comments are fresh in peoples' mind and *relate* to the story.
      There are numerous other expats who have made similar comments about Australia. This was the most recent. I imagine that's why it was included. I don't think it speaks to the need for the author to 'grow up'.

      I enjoyed this personal essay. It's not often we read such personal accounts of *why* someone would leave Australia for good. As someone considering flying the coop (and putting my reason for leaving on the feedback form as 'the comments section on our daily newspaper websites'), it was nice to see I'm not alone, even if our reasons for leaving differ.

      Commenter
      Mrs Palmer
      Location
      Black Lodge
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 1:24PM
    • @Julia: I think you really need to get a life. If the only think you read in the news was about a life only you personally experienced, it would be a very small amount of news. Whomever we're talking about.

      Commenter
      Dave R
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 2:10PM
  • Nice article. You sum up those feelings really well. I have found that I have more of an affinity with Europe than I do here. I feel like I can be my true, genuine and happy self over there. For the moment I have chosen to live here (largely because I fell in love with an Aussie) but we'll go to live in France for a while eventually. I have often been seen as a snob because I dared find bliss in another country and identified with another culture more than my own. But it happens, and when it does, it's very powerful.

    Commenter
    Francophile
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    December 18, 2012, 9:03AM
    • "My entire life in the back of a rearview mirror" Oh the horror!

      Commenter
      jimmy
      Date and time
      December 18, 2012, 9:05AM

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