I moved back to Australia in January 2021. Moving countries can be a strange experience, but the COVID-19 pandemic made it that much stranger.
When I was four, we packed up our home and went travelling through South East Asia, on our way to China. I had so many mind-opening experiences in just a few months of travel, experiencing cultures and learning about the way different people lived. My parents told me I could probably learn more from travelling around the world than going to school. For a long time, I didn’t understand what they meant, but I think I do now. My rootless childhood can be described as that of a ‘third culture kid‘, who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland.
Photo by Denny Ryanto on Unsplash.
When we moved to China I went to a public kindergarten. Since I was a white kid in China, many people assumed I was a tourist, or an expat child going to an international school. I learned Chinese customs, such as refusing to go out in the rain because I would get a cold. I remember being so surprised when I could think of words in Chinese but didn’t know how to say them in English. It made me question whether I was Australian given I felt more comfortable in China, and thinking in Mandarin just cemented my opinion that my home wasn’t Australia.
By the end of my first year there, I was a fluent Mandarin speaker. The ability to speak multiple languages is a gift, because it is so helpful and allows me to connect with more locals while travelling. Every time I spoke Mandarin to anyone, everyone would be so surprised and congratulate me. I loved the attention when I was younger, but I don’t like talking to strangers in Mandarin anymore because as I got older I started to dislike people paying attention to me. It makes me feel different and out of place.
I moved to Penang when I was six. I went to an international school, where I spent all of my primary years. School was fun and the people there are friends I hope to have for life. I developed my passion for cycling, with almost every holiday involving at least one cycling trip. We once rode from Alor Setar to Penang in one day. It was a 125 kilometre journey, and I loved it.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.
Covid struck at the end of 2020, and in the middle of Covid, in August 2020, we moved again, this time to Cambodia. I remember that move clearly. The differences between Malaysia and Cambodia were huge. I loved Penang, and Cambodia was a stark contrast. The school community was very different—the kids seemed to live in a bubble. They didn’t seem to pay much attention to global issues, only really caring about the things that immediately affected them at any given time. But I think being there was eye-opening, and the cycling trips, although dusty, was nice.
When we moved overseas we were under the impression that family and friends could come and visit us, and we could visit them. If something happened we could always be back within a couple of days. All that changed when COVID came. Suddenly we couldn’t even leave the house, let alone go and visit family. So we decided to move back to Australia so we could see family and friends, and be there for our loved ones.
I think the only downside of moving countries is the ephemerality of the connections you make with people. When you go to international schools, people are coming and leaving all the time. You become aware that making connections is dangerous because at any moment their family could decide to leave and you’ll never see them again. You can call or text them, but you realise as soon as someone leaves, the likelihood of you seeing them again is next to nothing, and with COVID, it’s even lower.
“I think the only downside of moving countries is the ephemerality of the connections you make with people.”
Then in January, I ‘came home’. People often ask me what it feels like to be ‘home’, and I just say it is nice… but I feel ambivalent about it. How do you explain to people who have never left Australia, that even though your family is here and you were born here, this doesn’t feel like home? Home is where you grew up. Home is your memories with people you love. My brother Wallace always knew and felt like he belonged in Australia, because he had spent the first eight years of his life here. He had time in his early life to make connections and memories that made him feel like Australia was his home, whereas I hadn’t had that time to make a connection to this country.
Because I had gone to an international school in Penang and lived in a place full of different cultures and backgrounds, going to a school here with very few students that have lived overseas has made me realise that my childhood has been special. I have had the privilege to see and be part of things that other people could only dream of. I’ve learnt so much moving around and had experiences that have widened my views and made me the person I am today.
People often assume I’m ‘Australian’, however I don’t feel like Australia is my home. By contrast, when some people are asked “where are you from?”, they feel Australian but they are wrongly perceived as not ‘looking Australian’. Surely you can’t assume someone’s nationality before getting to know them, because what you look like or how you may talk doesn’t always determine where you’re from.