I wrote this story for the Book – Journeys to Australia, published by the Hobsons Bay City council. The book is a collection of migrant stories from different residents and was released as a part of the harmony week celebrations. It details my journey from India to Australia, which is repeated hundreds of times every day in various hues by hopeful migrants coming to this beautiful land of opportunity.
My journey to Australia – a home away from home.
For nearly 20 years of my life Australia for all practical purposes was Terra Australis Incognita (“The unknown land of the South”). Remember these were the years from 1980s to the 2000s, the days before cheap telephony, Cable TV, high speed internet and Google street view. Australia as much as we take ourselves seriously now, is such a happy go lucky place that it’s never in the news overseas for anything. We don’t export terrorists, cuisine, culture, or for that matter much at all except for education and iron ore. We don’t cause trouble, we don’t go bankrupt, we don’t have revolutions and coups every few years, our leaders until recently anyway didn’t go around the world preaching economic gospel to other countries. We just go our happy way, living and letting live. So as far as the overseas media was concerned Australia didn’t exist.
My earliest memory of Australia was in geography lessons and world maps, where it was shown as a significant producer of dairy products along with and about as equally important as New Zealand. Slowly as the years went by and we learnt of countries and capitals in general knowledge, Australia was famous as a choice for a trick question in General knowledge as we don’t have our biggest and most famous city Sydney, as our capital, that honour instead going to Canberra.
Then came the cricket world cup in 1992 where Australia beat India in Brisbane by ONE RUN in a very close match. This was when Dean Jones and Allan Border became indelibly etched as legends in my teenage mind. As the years passed by Australia from a far, always seemed like a friendly country with some awesome cricketers, only in the news at New Years Eve fireworks or when there was India vs Aus cricket.
As luck would have it I happened to major in a university, where a lot of seniors had migrated to Australia. I was friends with senior who had migrated here a couple of years before and he guided me through the whole process of getting skills recognised, English skills tested and applying for migration. In about 2.5 years the whole process was through and I was ready with my bags packed.
At 25, life as I knew it was going to change big time, I’d never been on a plane, never even seen a plane from close quarters, never visited any country overseas and I’d just been granted a chance to change my life forever. I left Mumbai, on a direct Qantas flight from Mumbai to Sydney. On my way out through customs in India, the clerk upon realizing that I was headed for Australia with a PR asked for baksheesh (euphemism for outright bribery), I refused, hoping vaguely that the days of giving bribes were now behind me.
I was travelling with a friend and it seemed to us like we were the only two first time fliers on the flight. Our flight over Australia was all during day time and we were reprimanded more than a couple of times by the air hostess to lower the blinds, lest the light coming in wake sleeping passengers. I was far too excited to be subdued by them. The whole journey over Australia, I and my friend were glued to the windows with blankets over our heads so as to not let light in and disturb other passengers. The novelty of being in a plane for the first time, seeing clean parallel streets, long roads and rural cattle stations and the dry outback and more importantly long patches of not seeing anybody on land from up above was like the excitement of a little kid in Disneyland.
The final highlight was of course when the pilot couldn’t get landing spots at the airport and we spent 20 minutes circling above beautiful Sydney. That was my first view of the iconic Harbour bridge and Opera house, and both were as impressive as I imagined them to be. As they did for thousands of migrants before me, they were icons of a new world, a developed one and far too different to the still developing world and the shanties surrounding the Mumbai Airport I’d left behind. Australia represented the hope, reward and opportunity to establish a new life. A world where government is not corrupt, (most) ministers reply to letters sent to them, elections are fair, government employees don’t expect bribes, and there is hardly any poverty.
As migrants with nothing but the clothes on our backs and a few friends for support we did pretty well in the first few months, at least we knew the language and one other thing. Life was good and it was only going to get better.
For my first job in the weeks after we came here, I was out door knocking the poorer suburbs in outer Sydney trying to flog utility contracts from dodgy electric companies that have long since gone bust. No better way to learn about a new country and its people, than to be a salesman on the streets knocking stranger’s doors. While I’ve always loved dogs having a few set upon you by irate home owners is not the best way to meet them in a new country. Anyone who hasn’t door knocked strange doors trying to sell them something is missing a key experience, for us it was like a rite of passage in the school of hard knocks. Lack of cars never deterred us for long, as rides were far too easy to hitch down the end of an outstretched thumb, Australians we felt were far too generous. In memory to those days I’ve never turned a door knocking salesman down without first giving them a hearing, or passed by an outstretched thumb if I am in a position to give a ride. As they say it’s all good for my Karma.
Eventually I found good paying work, first temporary and eventually more permanent, long term and professional work based on experience and qualifications from overseas. Work that didn’t involve trying to sell strangers, things that they didn’t want to be sold. I moved around a few cities following work, and eventually settled in Melbourne. Melbourne has this amazing multicultural feel that is redefining what “Australian” looks like. In the past decades it was the Greeks and Italians and now it is the Indians and the Chinese. With such a large ex-pat population of Indians there is hardly anything missing be it in cuisine, places of worship or entertainment. The only thing that we still long for here is the people, the family and the old friends.
We are not without problems here for it would be too boring if we were satisfied with the status quo, but basic things that make life comfortable are such a given. One cannot truly appreciate the basic comforts everyone has here till we have spent many years living overseas.
I became a citizen a few years later and overtime somewhere inside my head a switch flipped in the way I thought of myself, still very much true to my Indian roots and feeling for the home country but now with a very special spot for this faraway land that I now call home. I am waiting for some scientist to discover the spot in human brains, similar to the magnetic compass like spot they found in migrating albatrosses or homing pigeons where the place called home is etched. I have my guesses on this, I believe the spot is etched in human brains between the school and early youth where a sense of ownership, belonging to the community, knowledge and pride of local history blend together in the young impressionable minds to develop patriotic feelings for the country.
Australia today is bending over backwards at every government and policy level to make it more accommodating for migrants and refugees of all kinds, perhaps to make amends for past wrongs or decades of white Australia policy. I for one wish it was the migrants who had the greater responsibility of learning the language, culture and assimilating into the general Australian way of life not the other way around.
To this effect, Australia day and Anzac day are not just public holidays in our household but are days to celebrate the opportunity we got to become Australians, to attend the parades, celebrations and festivities all around us. To think of all the history that went behind making Australia what it is today, its Anglo Saxon heritage, its institutions, and the tolerant, secular and the civil society that gives us the opportunity to call ourselves proud Australians.
On a lighter note, one thing that is a bit more difficult to change than Nationality is support of sporting teams. When we went with friends to the MCG for the India – Aus T20 match last year, though us, parents wore Indian team’s T Shirts and colors, my son sitting on my shoulders sported an Aussie T-shirt and colours. I can’t wait for him to grow up so we can have the Who’s the greatest ? Bradman Vs Tendulkar argument.