going home

004_RT16

Thousands of Australians leave to live overseas every year, yet most of them still call Australia home. Will they ever return? And how easy will it be if they do? Kate Paine investigates.

"It just wasn't the same," says Wendy Richards, just returned from a trip home to Perth, her first in three years. "Everything was familiar but weirdly foreign. I felt displaced. It was a very uncomfortable feeling." Wendy, 34, has lived in Tokyo for five years. Teaching at an international school, she comes into contact with many other expats, mostly parents of the kids she teaches, and usually living a life of luxury almost unimaginable back home. "I hear on the grapevine how so-and-so went back to America or Australia or wherever, and just panicked." After earning incredibly high wages and having most of their expenses paid, the return home to normal life is a shock. They go from being someone special within a rarefied community to being just like everybody else. "Thank God I'm just a teacher," she laughs. "Maybe the fact that I pay my own expenses wherever I am will make it a bit easier when I do go back."

According to "They still call Australia home: Inquiry into Australian expatriates", a 2005 Senate Inquiry, many of those who do move overseas end up staying, despite initial intentions to return home after a year or two. The longer they stay abroad the more ties they make, until a point is reached where returning to Australia seems a backwards step, personally and professionally.

While Wendy has no immediate plans to return, it's something that is in the back of her mind. An only child, her elderly parents put no pressure on her. Wendy does that job very nicely herself. "I don't want to be over here when they die," she says bluntly. But Wendy is lingering as long as she can. "My life here is pretty much one big party. I know it's not the real world, but I don't want to give it up just yet." At the same time she doesn't want to be living this lifestyle in another ten years. "The trouble is, if I don't go soon I can see myself not going at all, and that would make me very tragic!"

For Lea Gentry, a Brisbane girl in Barcelona, her recent visit home to negotiate a permanent return was also disconcerting. She likens it to walking down the street and seeing another Lea walking along beside her. "As if I could see myself from six years ago, but realised the new me was the stranger. It was a bizarre feeling." Lea, 39, has decided not to renew her university teaching contract. "Barcelona's a fabulous city, but I've been there the longest of all my friends. I'm the old hand, the one who tells the newbies where everything is. And I'm starting to fantasise about space." She keeps picturing her parents' backyard in Brisbane. "It's crazy. I'd want to kill them both after a week of living there, but just now, I can't get it and them out of my head."

Lea, however, is starting to feel increasingly wary about her return. She's found a similar job to the one she has now but at about a third less pay and with higher taxes than she's used to. Then there's finding a house and community, something that was easy when she moved to Spain. "The expat community's like a family, you just slip right in."

Lea's also nervous about reclaiming friends, most of whom now have partners and kids, mortgages, cars, gigantic televisions. She's the one in the foreign country but it's her friends whose lives are foreign to her. Nevertheless, they're the ones to whom she'll turn when she does go back.

Leaving your country is, inevitably, leaving your friends and family, the people you grew up with, met at school, university or work. These are the people who know you, who can describe what you're like when you're in a good or bad mood, who provide the shading and background to your life. Yet we're leaving without a backward glance, moving on to new countries, new experiences, a self-reliance we didn't imagine possible. The expectation, however naïve, is that friends will be the same as before. "Cryogenics would be a fine thing," comments Lea. "I had a good group of friends when I left and most of them are still there, but now they've got all these shared memories that don't include me, so I sit there, trying not to look and feel left out."

Also on Lea's mind is the prospect of starting her own family. "It's just not going to happen here," she says. And anyway, Australia is the place to bring up kids. She wants any children of hers to have similar experiences, go through the same system, and, at the very least, do it in the same language she did. "I know, I'm idealising it, but I don't want to do it here. I love Spain but it's not Australia, at least not the Australia in my head."

Usually young, with high skill and education levels, the Australians who move overseas do so to study, for work, adventure, sometimes for love. The Australian Bureau of Statistics states there are nearly a million Australians living overseas. Since 1999 the number intending to permanently leave Australia has doubled, with almost as many again intending to stay away for at least twelve months.

"That's the clincher," says Greg Boad, 30, an IT contractor from Sydney, living in Oslo, Norway. "You say a year, two tops, but next thing you know years have passed and you're no nearer to going home." For Greg, home is still Sydney, despite not having lived there for four years. "I love it here, I've got a girlfriend, good mates, earn more money than I’d ever see back in Oz. But Sydney's still home, no question. I'll be back there one day. If I can find a job good enough for me."

A funny thing happens when you move away. You pack your bags, step on the plane and think you're leaving everything behind. But when you arrive you find you've brought it all with you. "That's so true!" laughs Wendy. "New people at school or friends of friends will come up to me and say, 'You're Wendy the Australian! It cracks me up, especially as when I do go home now I feel very un-Australian."

It seems that physically leaving will never be enough. "You might as well have a badge pinned to your chest saying 'Representative of Australia'," jokes Greg. "I find myself defending things I've never given any thought, or sounding like a tourist ad for places I've never been."

And for Lea, the longer she stays in Spain the more Australian she feels, and the more she longs to return. "It's going to happen now. I've even booked my flight back." She pauses before saying, "I just hope it's not too late."


Sources

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008, "Permanent Departures Overseas - Where Are They Going?",
Issue 3412.0 Migration, Australia, 2006-07, retrieved 21 May 2009, <</span>http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/3412.0Feature%20Article12006-07?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=3412.0&issue=2006-07&num=&view>

Aussies-Abroad Yahoo Group 2009, <</span>http://groups.yahoo.com/group/aussies-abroad/>

Expats Australia 2009,

The Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee 2005,
They still call Australia home: Inquiry into Australian expatriates, Commonwealth of Australia, retrieved 20 May 2009,
<</span>http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/legcon_ctte/completed_inquiries/2004-07/expats03/report/report.pdf