SYDNEY, Australia – The pungent smell of eucalyptus leaves lining the streets. Relaxed friendliness even from strangers. Ten types of Asian cuisine within 100 meters of the city center.
These were part of an endless list of things I longed for in my hometown as I waited, stuck abroad for over a year, for a chance to return.
At Sydney airport, my dad greeted me with an awkward hug. “You’re home,” he said, smaller and whiter than I remembered from 18 months ago. But still dizzy from jet lag, it wasn’t until I staggered into the morning light and heard the chirping of native birds that I believed it: I was truly, finally, back. in Australia.
My family reunion this year – and many thousands of similar reunions across Australia – had been hard to pull off until November. That’s when Australia announced a shift in strategy: With vaccination rates high enough to withstand a push from Omicron, ‘Fortress Australia’ was lowering the drawbridge and reopening its borders to citizens. and permanent residents, allowing unlimited returns home for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began.
I had accepted this forced separation as the price to pay for working thousands of miles from home – and I knew that my wait in London, long as it seemed, was infinitely easier than the crushing hardships facing migrants and asylum seekers fleeing violence and economic collapse in their countries.
Still, I was restless for home. But I was also nervous. After the abyss of a pandemic, how would I find Australia? And how would he find me?
In the decades before the pandemic, accessible air travel and a diverse population meant Australia had become remarkably less insular than it once was. A third of residents were born overseas – a number that reflects my own story, with my first glimpse of Australia as a baby in my mother’s arms as she carried me off the plane from Hong Kong.
In Britain during the pandemic, I had seen Australia maintain its strict border closures and enact lengthy lockdowns which worked, at least initially, to keep it relatively unscathed.
“We’re an island nation – we’ve had opportunities that others haven’t,” said Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist at Deakin University in Melbourne. “We made different sacrifices to avoid the kind of waves that other countries had to live with.”
But has embracing its geographical insularity and isolation influenced Australia’s cultural identity? Would the country look to a more provincial past with less ties to the world?
The societal watchers I asked about the changes while I was away thought, at least to some degree, that yes, the pandemic has changed the way Australia engages with the world.
Australia has come together to get through the pandemic, said Marc Stears, the former director of the Sydney Policy Lab, a research group at the University of Sydney. “The flip side, though, is that he’s happy to come together – and get away from the rest of the world.”
And where could I, a foreign-born Australian who often felt caught between so many homes, fit in in this pandemic-altered country?
On the one hand, I could expect little sympathy from Australians for being stranded abroad, said Tim Soutphommasane, a political theorist and sociologist at the University of Sydney.
For many Australians, closing borders, even to its own citizens, was a welcome reinforcement of Australia’s self-image as “a sanctuary, safe from the troubles of the world”, Mr Soutphommasane said. .
“People were forgetting the human cost of separating families,” he said, pointing to another significant change those returning could expect: “a greater willingness of Australians to accept the expansion of the executive and governmental power”.
Despite a vaccination campaign that critics said had initially been delayed, I could see what the experts meant when they told me that most Australians, trusting the government, had voluntarily accessed his requests. Over 95% of adults are fully immunized and two-thirds of the nation have received a boost.
But in conversations I felt a sharp divide between those who were shocked by Australia’s decision to unseal its borders just as Omicron’s cases were pushing higher and those who thought he was big when the country reopens.
Added to the mix, I noticed, there was a feeling of whipping due to the sharpness of it all.
‘We’ve gone from zero to a full blast,’ a friend – recently recovered from Covid – said of the number of cases as we traveled the all-too-quiet road to the iconic Sydney Opera House. “We have been so bombarded with these regulations. And now it’s supposed to be over.
Many people, acclimated to lockdown routines, were still hesitant to socialize. It was as if Sydney had become an introverted parent to her old self. The pulsating streets and alleys, the secrets of which I had once known like the back of my hand, now seemed too quiet and strangely unknown to me without the crowds.
I was afraid to visit old haunts without calling, in case we arrived to find the dusty windows and stacked chairs. And if they had survived the economic strain of the pandemic, I sat in them, feeling guilty for sharing stories of trips across Europe with friends who hadn’t left the country for two years.
The horizon line, too, had changed. House prices in Sydney, already one of the most expensive cities in the world, had only risen again last year, and developers wanted to take advantage of it. Across the vast expanse of the city, shiny new skyscrapers and apartment buildings had sprung up.
Even the weather cast an unusual veil: unpredictable bouts of near-daily rain, thanks to the presence of La Niña, made it seem like I hadn’t escaped the gloom of London after all.
Still, many things I had loved about Sydney remained. Sitting in a darkened theater before a performance, I once again heard the Welcome to Country, a ceremony led by an Indigenous elder that honors traditional guardians of the land, which has become more common as the country comes to terms with its violent history of colonization.
No matter where in the world I’ve been, it’s in Sydney that I’ve felt closest to the wild abandonment of nature, like meeting an old (and daring) friend. At the oceanside pools and beaches so central to Sydney’s identity, I dived again and again into the waves until every thought was chased from my mind.
When I wanted peace, I could drive in almost any direction and find myself in one of the city’s national parks, with only the sound of cicadas and my own breath for company.
And there were my parents, who had kept their habit of drinking pu’er tea in the morning. I met their new pet rabbit, which caused great drama when it escaped its cage and ate my dad’s prized bok choy before walking down the aisle. My mum laughed at me one fateful day at the beach as she shot a Pacific man-of-war jellyfish – known in Australia as a bluebottle – from my body while I screamed.
In February, as I prepared to say goodbye, Australia was preparing to open its borders to vaccinated international travellers, and since I left, the country has continued to emerge from hibernation.
In terms of how much and permanently nearly two years of being a “fortress” had changed Australia, it would take time, experts told me, to calculate the full social and cultural impact.
For me, there is a sense of grief over losing the Sydney of my memory, but also gratitude for the strict rules that helped protect my parents.
During my last days at home, the weather played a bittersweet trick, making it even more difficult to leave: the rain caused by La Niña cleared up for a few days and the sunshine that I had so longed for in London. appeared. I bathed in it with loved ones for hours, like I could bottle it up for next year.