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.
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.
Daily Life, December 2012.