Inside Story

Strangers in a strange land

Books | Migration is never an easy experience, even if there are laughs along the way

Sara Dowse 9 July 2020 1159 words

The fierceness of the sun: Sydney’s Coogee Beach in February 2019. Sam Mooy/AAP Image

How to Be Australian: An Outsider’s View on Life & Love Down Under
By Ashley Kalagian Blunt | Affirm Press | $32.99 | 288 pages

It’s not often that I review a book after having heard so much about it. Even in the midst of Covid-19 restrictions there’s been enough media interest in How to Be Australian to bag the author interviews not only on Radio National’s Extra but also on Seven’s Sunrise. Yet this is hardly surprising. The one thing I’ve learned after being here so long is that Australians are forever eager to know what people think of this country. It’s the national equivalent of leading with one’s chin.

Australia is very different from the country I arrived in from the United States sixty-two years ago. But migration at any time, whatever the circumstances, always has its challenges. Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s arrival came fifty-five years after mine, yet her attempts at adjusting, and the obstacles she met with, seem remarkably similar. It was impossible for me to read her story without making constant comparisons; and in a country full of migrants, I’m guessing that a lot of other people will be reading it in much the same way.

Kalagian Blunt comes from Canada, a former British colony, like Australia, that grew into nationhood. “As Canada’s Commonwealth sibling, Australia felt distinct yet familiar,” she writes. The major difference was the weather. What drove her out of Winnipeg were daytime temperatures many degrees below zero in winters that could go on for six months. On one particularly freezing, windswept afternoon she slipped badly on black ice, and that decided her. As soon as she finished university, she was leaving.

Her dream destination was Sydney, a city that had entranced her ever since she saw it televised during the 2000 Olympics, and she finally arrived in February 2011 after sojourns in South Korea, Peru and Mexico. Not only did she land here, she had persuaded her husband to accompany her. While she’d been travelling, Steve had been building a career in accountancy, earning enough in her absence to buy the two of them a home, but he loved her enough to make her siren call his. She had been accepted for a master’s course at Sydney University, with visas that gave them each a year to see how it all panned out.

All the due diligence had done little to prepare them for what they encountered that first February day. There was the incredible jet lag, then the 30°C heat and the fierceness of the sun. Even more concerning was the cost of everything, from bottled water to astronomical rents, combined with the fact that Steve was without a job. Ashley was teaching a course in Winnipeg online, but it was hardly enough for the two of them. They found an apartment in Enmore they could afford, which turned out to be infested with cockroaches, some of them seemingly as big as rats. On top of that, the ceiling over the minute kitchen was patched with cardboard to catch the bird shit dropping through the roof.

Steve spent the next four months job-hunting on his laptop without bagging an interview, while Ashley struggled with her course. All her fellow students were foreigners; Australian postgraduates, she discovered, tended to go straight for PhDs, so she didn’t get to know any, as she would have liked. Nor could she understand the poor marks she was getting, even after explaining to a bafflingly hostile teacher that back in Canada she’d received a gold medal for her journalism degree. Turns out it was just the sort of thing that put her teacher off — the North American earnestness and confidence. A Uruguayan friend, who’d lived all over before enrolling in the Sydney course, explained to her that Australians were unimpressed by anything that smacked of boasting:

“I read about it in a cultural guide to Australia — I’ll lend it to you if you want? My husband has the same problem, except it’s worse — he’s an American. Because of the tall poppy thing, Aussies tend to talk themselves down. Listen for it, you’ll catch on.”

Eventually they made more friends, even Australian ones. One of them steered Steve towards the public service, and he found himself a job with the NSW government. With this they could afford a bigger flat, closer to the uni. They took trips around Sydney and further afield. Things improved to such an extent that they decided to go for permanent residency. Their white First World status didn’t spare them from the many rigid, puzzling demands concocted by our immigration bureaucracy, but after two years of paperwork and clearing all the hurdles, their applications were successful.

Yet, strangely, if ineluctably, their positions had reversed. After months in a cockroach-infested flat punching CVs into his laptop, Steve had been ready to go back to Canada while, for all the obstacles, Ashley was willing to soldier on. But as Steve settled comfortably in employment, with an encouraging string of promotions, Ashley became increasingly, bewilderingly, anxious.

Amid the humour, the reader gets a picture of a woman nearly disabled by a neediness triggered by the mounting fear that Steve would leave her to deal with Australia on her own. It’s as though she couldn’t recognise that Steve had found a slot for himself in this country, and it was she who had come to feel she would never fit in. Crazy as this was, it was all too recognisable — at least to me, and I’d imagine many more. Perhaps all us migrants lose the plot at some point, for one reason or another.

There’s the language — an English like no other — and the constant near misses in communication. There’s the underlying suspicion of foreigners, especially those who are disconcerted by the Australian way of taking the micky out of everyone. There’s the worry about ageing parents back home, the exhausting schlepping back and forth to care for them. There’s the longing for home, the dawning realisation it will never be home again, and the wondering if there is such a place as home.

The promotion for How to Be Australian emphasises its humour, and Kalagian Blunt can certainly be funny, though perhaps not quite as hilarious as some of the commentators have said. Like many outsiders, she takes refuge in one-liners, as when likening Sydney interiors to meat lockers. Having been frozen in such from my arrival, I laughed myself silly here. But at times the book feels like it was composed by a stand-up comic who’s strung all her jokes together without pause for breath.

If Kalagian Blunt is pushing too hard here, anyone who’s gone through the same rite of passage will recognise the need to send up the experience. For those who haven’t, I hope they’ll come away from the book with a greater appreciation of what damn hard work and heartache the adventure of changing countries entails. •