Australia Day is here. As a migrant to Australia, and a relative newcomer to some of the traditions practised here, it might seem odd that I value Australia Day as highly as any public holiday. Not just for the extra day off work, which I certainly appreciate, but for the opportunity to really reflect on why my family moved here and why we stay.
My decision to move to Australia does not reflect the typical migrant dream of starting a new life in a new country. In fact, I was perfectly happy in the UK. I had family, friends, a nice job offer and a city-centre apartment that enabled me to easily stagger home after some rather big nights out. My in-laws also lived on the other side of the world, which -- if you can swing it -- is definitely where to keep them.
Migration was my wife's dream, one that I thought she'd get over once we were married and settled in jobs. She didn't. So with very little planning and practically no savings or jobs to look forward to, we hopped on a plane and started a new life in Perth.
Perth is an interesting city -- famous for being the most isolated capital city in the world. Some days you can definitely feel it. I moved from an apartment in the middle of one of the UK's busiest cities to my in-laws house in the middle of a forest in the Perth Hills. I couldn't walk to a local shop, the bus service ran on a weekly timetable and, worst of all, I suddenly lacked the convenience of being able to do anything and get anything at anytime of the day or night.
People describe this as a culture shock, but I don't think that phrase goes far enough. Even though Australia and the UK share a language (sometimes) and have an intertwined history, there really is nothing familiar about the Australian landscape to a lifelong pom.
I found that the skills I'd been building in the UK were of little use to me. My father-in-law asked me if I'd ever used a chainsaw before. I looked at him blankly, hoping he was joking. Chainsaw use was not part of my upbringing. I lived in an apartment with a shared garden, I was sure to have been evicted had I decided to start hacking trees down. I answered him in the negative. Disappointment became his face. After a few months of practice, however, I'd gained my chainsaw badge and was taking down trees like I'd been doing it all my life.
I raise that story because it sums up what I've found most fulfilling, but also most difficult, about adapting to life Down Under. In order to thrive here I've had to let go of some of my inhibitions and do things I'd never normally do. Like cope in extreme heat. The only extreme heat I ever experienced in the UK was standing too close to the oven when the door was open. Even then I think I've experienced hotter temperatures standing on the beach over here. I've been here for a number of years now but my friends are always a little cautious about taking me anywhere when the sun is out. I'm treated like some delicate British vampire who is likely to burst into flames at any moment. My bravado has seen me turn red and scabby several times during the summer months.
What I think makes Australia a truly awesome place to live, and the reason why we have never considered moving back to the UK, despite the spiders, sharks, snakes, sun, scorpions, mullets, rats-tails and truly awful beer, is the people. Australians have this ability to accept and integrate people from all over the world into their society. I find this an amazing quality and one inherent in nearly all of the Aussies I've met.
One of my first jobs in Australia was in HR at an iron and steel foundry in the country. I had absolutely no idea what I'd let myself in for, and initially I was terrified of the bearded, fouth-mouthed workers with their deeply tanned hides and their penchant for '80s power hair. It wasn't long until my fears were completely forgotten. Once those 'blokes' realised that I could take a joke, make a joke and was up for a bit of 'hard yakka' (it's still up for debate whether I actually did any or not), they made me feel completely accepted. It didn't matter that I was from England, that I had never been in a foundry before or that I had a modern hairstyle and a closely shaven face, they made me a member of the team and subjected me to the same treatment as they did each other (which meant reams of abuse, communal flatulence and swearwords I didn't understand).
So to me, Australia Day is more than a day off work and a BBQ by the pool (although that's exactly what I'll be doing). It's a celebration of being welcomed to what is undoubtedly the best country on earth, and a chance to express my gratitude at the opportunities I've been afforded since moving here. So, here's to you, Australia. Now throw another shrimp on the barbie and chuck us a tinny.