When you are first granted a residency visa for Australia, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection very kindly points you towards a couple of documents on its website, suggesting that you give them a read.
The first, ‘Life In Australia’ gives a potted history of how the Australian nation was shaped, what its common societal values are, and what life down under is really like. The second, ‘Beginning a Life in Australia’ covers more of the essentials of settling into life there – how to get housing, employment, access medical services and so on, but it still includes a whole section on the values of Australian society.
I read both of these with extreme interest for a couple of reasons.
First, I want to make sure that we arrive in Australia with a respect for the ways and traditions of our new home. In order to do that – to fit in, and have our new home welcome us – I believe we should make the effort to understand what’s important to the people who have been there far longer than us.
When I watch TV shows such as ‘Wanted Down Under’, which follows the journey of potential migrants to Australia, I’m often staggered by some participicants’ lack of preparation for, or even basic understanding of the fact that they are going another country. Here’s an example of what I mean from the Daily Mail (so take the reported facts with a pinch of salt).
Second, from our 10 years in Denmark, I can now see how living in a country with a certain collective personality can change you and it’s useful to be aware of that as we prepare for a move to what we hope will be our home for many years to come.
It’s clear that our time in Denmark has shaped and moulded us in a different way than if we had lived in the UK this past 10 years. It’s happened to such an extent that, when I visit the UK now, I think of myself as a bit of an outsider, and I really see the differences between Danish and UK life from an objective standpoint, versus from a solely UK perspective.
The UK fixation on house prices and the badge on the car you drive seems odd to me now. As does the willingness to suffer two hour commutes to work on an overcrowded, overpriced, inefficient public transport network and then work relentless hours, regardless of the consequences for personal well-being and family life.
By contrast, I puzzle at the Danes willingness to suffer Soviet-era supermarkets selling fruit and vegetables that are often already rotting when you unpack them at home. Or the insularity that sees all our neighbours disappear indoors at the onset of winter, only emerging again once Easter has gone.
And it’s this insularity that I think is the thing we’ll have to watch. When we first arrived here, we would walk along the street and, if we caught a stranger’s eye, say “hello”, or smile, or at least acknowledge them. This is deemed very odd behaviour here, and we quickly learned that the de rigueur Danish response to an approaching stranger is to look away, look at the ground, or look through them, but not to acknowledge them.
In the forest on a dog walk? Two hours since you last saw another human? Here comes one now and, as they approach, they look at the ground and hurry past. Spotted that guy from your own neighbourhood out jogging – you know, the guy whose kid goes to the same football club as yours? You’ve seen him around. Here he comes now, and… no, he looks at the ground and rushes past too.
This sort of thing affects you after a while and, despite myself, I’ve found myself not looking to greet people, not looking to make eye contact. Ten years of being ignored can do that to you.
The point is, my perception of Aussies is that they are pretty outgoing, sociable people. If we move into a Canberra neighbourhood and pull all that ‘looking away/looking down’ behaviour there, I’d imagine we would quickly get a reputation for being rude. And don’t get me wrong, the Danes aren’t really being rude – they are just acting according to their own social norms.
A good friend of ours, an Aussie, moved back to Melbourne a few years ago after five years in the UK. When I asked him what it was like, fitting back into Aussie life, he said that, after a few months back on Oz, his own mother had quipped: “Pull your neck in son, you sound just like a whingeing Pom.” And he added: “You know what? I did.” Our environments affect us, infect us and change us. It’s inevitable.
So, we’ve learned to fit in here in Denmark, and I hope we’ll manage to do the same in Canberra too. But fitting in will require adaptation on our part, not Canberra’s, and we’re ready to do that, even if it takes a while to adjust.
In the end, we’re going to Australia because it’s Australia, not because we want it to be ‘like the UK but sunnier’. I’m not sure I can say the same for everyone who takes that long one-way flight.