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Why I'm Grateful To Have #FirstWorldProblems

After spending a decade abroad, Australia's problems are a welcome change.

24/05/2017 2:16 PM AEST | Updated 24/05/2017 2:17 PM AEST
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"I was used to ducking and weaving through heavy traffic and considered myself pretty skilled at it."

At the end of last year I came back to Australia after spending a decade overseas and for months I had a pretty bad case of reverse culture shock. I'd spent most of my time in Bangladesh and Myanmar, so it was as much about getting used to the first world again as it was adjusting to life back home.

Simple things confounded me: I kept burning my hands on the hot water that came out of taps, I didn't know how to use Paypass or take public transport (accustomed as I was to just jumping in a cab or rickshaw and dealing in cash) and I hadn't recycled in years.

The bounty on offer at supermarkets was overwhelming and sometimes I'd leave without buying anything. Having to wait for the little green man to start flashing at every crossing drove me insane -- I was used to ducking and weaving through heavy traffic and considered myself pretty skilled at it.

Hearing so many references to the law in Australia was also strange because I was used to living in countries with broken legal systems and scarcely a rule of law. People would make agreements and stick to them (most of the time) simply because keeping your word was the right thing to do. Here it felt as though people would do no more than the legal minimum.

People say that Australia is racist and while I agree that it is to a degree, there's no comparing it with Myanmar -- where ethnic cleansing is taking place as we speak.

Normally a confident extrovert, I was suddenly painfully shy around strangers because I'd forgotten all the shared cultural cues -- a simple transaction in a store with a chatty cashier was intimidating. I was startled when fellow residents said hello and goodbye to me in the elevator -- I was used to keeping my eyes downcast and expression neutral.

My husband is from Bangladesh and I'd half-seriously joke to him that I felt 'Australasian'. I was surprised that some of the cultural traits of female modesty in Asia had rubbed off on me: I speak more quietly than I used to, rarely swear and was aghast at the amount of skin on display in Sydney. It took my husband and I several months to feel comfortable holding hands in public, let alone giving each other a peck on the cheek: PDAs just don't fly in Asia.

My accent has changed after such a long time away, and it was often a relief when someone asked me where I was from, because sounding like an outsider meant there was less pressure on me to fit in. On the other hand, the assumption that I am an outsider reinforced my sense of being one.

Perhaps the biggest shock was adjusting to my new economic status. In Myanmar, I was a wealthy expat -- even as a journalist I lived very comfortably, in a condo with a gym, pool and tennis court and a maid that came three times a week. In Sydney I was an economic amoeba, living in a bedsit that was too small to even fit a couch -- and it cost three times more than what we paid in Yangon. The price of groceries made my eyes water, while a night in a pub set me back what I used to spend on a week's worth of groceries.

Sometimes I'd panic and have to fight the urge to book the next flight out to Bangkok, only to remember that I chose to come home to start a family in a country that's safe and has great schools and doctors.

It took months for me to regain my confidence and to feel as though I fit in, but I'm happy to report that I've taken to saying 'crikey' instead of 'gosh' when I talk to my parents on the phone, so I must be well into the final stages of the transition. And the nightly dreams of Myanmar that lasted for months have been replaced with strangely reassuring ones of sharks and crocodiles, along with other Australian icons. It's as though my subconscious is very obviously trying to tell me that it's okay with my new reality.

And from the get-go there were also a lot of positives, such as Sydney's bright blue, pollution-free skies, the beautifully clean and smooth footpaths that allow me to wear any type of shoes without damaging them as I used to in monsoon puddles and potholes, and being able to wear makeup without it sliding off my sweaty face. The food here is a joy (real coffee!) and cold weather is a novelty: I hadn't worn boots or hoodies in years and love cosying up in front of the telly with a blanket.

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Living in an English speaking country again is both a blessing and a curse: organising stuff is so much easier, but overhearing mundane or sexually explicit conversations on the train is strangely irritating. Without a doubt, the greatest joy is being able to speak freely without worrying that it could get me in trouble. While living in a former military dictatorship like Myanmar, there were many topics that were either off-limits in public or spoken about in hushed tones.

People say that Australia is racist and while I agree that it is to a degree, there's no comparing it with Myanmar -- where ethnic cleansing is taking place as we speak.

Australia does have its share of problems, but they are openly discussed and debated. In fact as time wears on, I have more and more moments where I feel immensely grateful to live in Australia -- having first-world problems is such a load off my mind.

But I'm also grateful for those years I spent overseas -- not just because they were immensely interesting, but also because I look at Australia with fresh eyes.

We really are so lucky in so many ways.

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