Adjusting to a new place

People often exaggerate when talking about the difficulties of migrating to a new country. 

Of course, you don’t have any friends, and it’s painful to understand not only the ways of life, but also the regulations, policies, and many common practices that you’ve never even heard of before.

It’s been seven months since I moved to Australia, and I still have trouble understanding what the various organisations I often come across do. I can’t figure out the confusing superannuation (the employee retirement scheme), the expensive tax deductions, fluctuating supermarket prices, or the various insurances including health, dental, and ambulance. You can even get insurance exclusively to cover the cost of transporting you from home to the hospital in an ambulance. Holy sphinx, huh?

Yes—moving to a new place comes with the burden of understanding its culture and lifestyle. And it can take much longer than you anticipate.

However, aside from these significant issues that gnaw at your brain now and then, everyday life is pretty easy to adopt. For instance, I live on a day-by-day basis—I wake up, work, cook, eat, shop, walk, and sleep. That’s my standard day, with moderate modifications like meeting a friend, attending an event, or just wandering the parks because it’s a beautiful day. That’s how I’ve been living and haven’t had much difficulty adjusting to life in Australia.

It didn’t take long for everything around me to seem natural, and there’re only a few surprises that stun or destabilise me. I was in the bus a couple of days ago, and as the vehicle turned left in an intersection, I suddenly noticed how broad the streets are, compared to where I grew up. Then it hit me—I’m now so accustomed to these streets, the style of shops, and people’s mannerisms, that they’re no longer shocking as they were in my first week. At that moment, in the bus, I couldn’t believe I was living in Australia. It felt like a dream. And yet I’d lived through all these months comfortably adjusting and fitting into this lifestyle. 

It doesn’t take long for a new person to incorporate themselves into a society. We think it does because not everyone feels at home in a new place. And that’s a whole other thing.

Groups matter

One of the first things I did when I moved to Canberra was joining a writing group. I’d been writing for almost ten years, and I’d never had a peer group to read my work aloud to and hear feedback from. I didn’t even think I needed a support group until I had one.

Not only did they coerce me to share some of my work, but they were also accommodating and friendly in their suggestions. For the first time, I felt as if people read my work, not just to tell me they’ve read it, but to actually help me improve it.

It felt amazing. We bonded, sent over our short stories and poems to see what others thought of them, and even met up outside our allocated meeting times to write together.

Within myself, triumph blossomed. From being the written counterpart of a bathroom singer, I went on to become a voice they thought was worthy of their time.

Not long after I joined the group, we all went on a retreat. Thirteen in all, to an ancient manor set in the heart of small Victorian town Goulburn. It was a two-day getaway in the dead of winter. Beautiful Goulburn is perched a little north of Canberra and a little more south of Sydney.

Victorian mansion in Goulburn

With my minimalist backpack and a well-equipped laptop in my friend’s car, we drove up to this strange town I’d never heard of, to spend the weekend in a stranger’s house with a few people who were strangers until a couple of months ago.

I couldn’t have been more excited. I was looking forward for two days of writing, sharing, and revising. 

What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that a roaring fireplace, wine and whiskey, and impeccable homemade food on a Friday night don’t always add up to a night of relentless writing. The frost hugging our windows didn’t help much either. 

None of us wrote anything that night.

We drank and talked. Someone told about his experiences with ghosts. Many of us laughed. 

Except—unlike drunk college students, waking up with guilt stretching over their faces, the next day we woke up full of fervour for the art of writing—and a little light headed, of course. 

We spent the day in silent rumination, writing. Some continued perfecting works-in-progress, while some others picked their brains, chipping away at creating new ones.

That night, we shared, laughed, drank, and danced again. As the weekend wound, and the sun shone on our faces on Sunday morning, we packed up our recyclable bottles and editable writing and drove back home to Canberra.

Looking back now—a month away from our next retreat—I realise that weekend wasn’t about drinking. It wasn’t about escaping from family and responsibilities. It wasn’t even all about writing. 

That retreat was about presence. It was about sharing our personal selves with others like us, telling family stories, ranting, and reassuring each other. It was about sitting by someone as they struggled to get words onto their screen, silently motivating, never judging, and being there when they needed to talk to about the best way to end a murder mystery.

Everyone needs a group like that they can run away with.

It’s good to get lost

When I woke up this morning, I didn’t want to be around people. It just wasn’t a socialising day. Within minutes, I decided to get lost in the Australian National Botanical Gardens.

The first time I went there, I was a traveller. A high-energy trekker, equipped with a backpack full stuffed with a jacket, cap, water, and snacks. And I tried to cover the whole area in one day—because that’s what I do when visiting a new city. I crave to see everything, experience everything in one visit. As a result of that over ambition, I lost my way in the gardens, strayed from the main path every time I saw a flower or a streak of sunlight glinting through a puddle, and ended up missing a few parts of the garden.

This time, I knew better. I had a plan, a purpose. I chose a trail—the eucalyptus walk—and decided to stick to it. 

Except, I got lost again. It took me longer than it should’ve, but I went around in circles before finding my way back on to the trail. 

And you know what? It’s ok. It’s ok that I got distracted by plants, that I gravitated towards weird shaped-branches and odd-named bushes. It’s ok that I didn’t follow the trail exactly as it was mapped. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about seeing them all. It’s about appreciating what you did see. 

And I saw a lot. 

Of sinks

One of the most important things to me in a home is having a big sink. When I say that to any of my friends in Canberra, I get rolling eyes and raised brows in return. 

The reason: they can’t fathom why I’d want a bigger sink when the one in the kitchen is as wide as a trash bin. 

As for my unaccustomed-to-the-first-world self, I can’t—for the life of me—comprehend how people live with tiny sinks in which you can’t even rinse a wok without whacking your elbows in the sides.

Over the last six months, I’ve seen many kitchens and sinks. When I learnt I’d be travelling for over a week, I moved out of the expensive place I was staying in. And so, for almost two months, I’ve been house hunting, walking all over the beautiful suburbs of Canberra, peering through overgrown bushes to find door numbers, lighting my way at night with my iPhone, desperately hoping the flashlight’s battery wouldn’t run out, and stopping every now and then during the day to gawk at and photograph early spring blossoms breaking away from their tree houses.

Every place I saw—from old, creaking, leaking buildings to new, renovated, refurbished townhouses—had small, impractical kitchen sinks.

When I mused about this phenomenon, one of friends pointed out people nowadays use dishwashers. (Don’t even get me started on the prices of dishwasher tablets.)

Oh, sure. But what about things that can’t go in a dishwasher—like an expensive bamboo chopping board? 

Some of the older houses don’t even have a dishwasher, rendering the argument moot. It makes sense, too—the dishwasher is a modern, economically well-off person’s fancy house appliance. However, it still didn’t explain the economy in sink size.

When I lived in a fancy house, I never used the dishwasher once. It was useless to turn on the machine when I cooked (meal prepped) only for myself. It’d take me weeks of cooking to fill up the dishwasher. 

Hand washing is easier and more sensible. If only the sink designers were as sensible as I.

Modern society

Beauty in necklace—
intolerable in streets—
multi-colour skins.


Photo: From an interesting shop called Eclectico in Melbourne. They sell a range of jewellery, handicrafts, and attire from Mexico, Peru, Spain, Brazil and south east Asia. Great place to look around while waiting for the next tram.