A year ago I sat jet lagged in a hotel room looking at the prospect of another two weeks locked inside a single room in Sydney, Australia. It was a scary time. Two suitcases and Bird's hand were all I held as we embarked on a transcontinental journey to start a new, and unknown, life down under.
The year that followed would turn out to be one of the happiest periods during my thirty cycles around the sun.
I have always looked at immigrants as some of the most brave humans on the planet. The strength it takes to leave your home behind and look blindly into the unknown is unfathomable. Whether forced or fleeing or simply for the chance of a different life, the hurtles facing those who must leave the soil from which their life is rooted seem to me, nearly insurmountable. I am an English speaking, white, Western woman who moved to an English speaking, majority white, Western country with the support of an entire company of loving humans and it was still one of the most disorienting transitions of my life.
It was the little things that caught me off guard. I remember needing a new car seat for Bird, as our American one was actually illegal in Australia, and I had no idea the name of a store to type into Google Maps. A quick search of "Children's Stores" provided a long list of names, none of which meant anything to me. In the US I could go to Babies'r'Us, Target, or Bye Bye Baby but none of those existed in this place where Christmas is hot and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. There is a strange feeling when all the things you have learned to use as tools to orient yourself, logos and brands that seem unremarkable in the moment but whose familiarity provides a sense of confidence and ease, don't exist. You start to wonder if you are falling prey to marketing ploys, price gouging, or will end up with a poor quality product. In my anxious mind, people seemed scary and untrustworthy and more than once I gave up entirely, choosing to stay home, putting off venturing out for a braver moment later on.
It was back to being a little girl, following my mom around to learn cultural norms and our societal values. No wonder children are so sensitive, especially during outings. They exist in a world with rules they don't know, and nuance to those rules that only years of observation can instill. I was jumpier and less confident in my social interactions, clearly feeling the "otherness" that comes with even the slight cultural differences between the US and Australia. More than once I sat in the dry, powdery dirt of Adelaide, touching the earth, desperately willing to find something familiar to the dark, dense soil of my mountain home in Northern California. At home, I could touch any tree's bark, go up and stick my nose in the sugar pines, lay in the under growth and know with confidence the time of season and habitat in which you'll find rattle snakes and how to identify and avoid poison oak. But the trees here were the wrong shades of green and even the most mild looking ants stung like fire ants in the American South. It was the small things that made me into the confident, self-sufficient California mother and it was the small things that rattled my grounding here in a new place, under the bright stars of the Southern Cross.
I often looked back to the neighbors we had when Bird and I lived in LA. A multi-generational Hispanic family whose matriarch, Abuela as we called her, spoke no English. Abuela and I would speak to each other almost every morning as toddler Bird and I rushed out to bike to pre-school. My Spanish is not great but we always managed a short conversation. I felt privileged to meet someone so brave, but sometimes I felt sad, and wondered if it had been a long time since Abuela had felt the long exhale that comes with being totally and perfectly in sync with your environment. Culture runs deep, and often we don't know what it means to our identity until we are dropped into a place where nothing feels easy or comfortable. It is very likely I am projecting, as Abuela was always happy and at ease when we met. Possibly this was because Southern California is her home, both traditionally and currently, and my musings were only the naive assumptions of someone who has been privileged enough to never feel insecure in her sense of home.
In one of our first weeks in Australia, Bird got bit by a dog and we needed to go to the hospital, or so I thought. The bite was not deep but it broke the skin. In those moments you realize you are faced with possible dangers that you have no knowledge of and a medical system that is as foreign as the word Parliament. It turns out Australia has eradicated rabies so my hastiness to the Emergency Department was unwarranted. After feeling silly for even being there, upon being checked in I was asked questions that contained words I didn't even know the definitions of. I was at the mercy of the system and the doctors. The ability to advocate for oneself assumes that I understand what rights I have. But there I sat, next to my little girl coloring with her unhurt hand, hoping she didn't notice that I could barely provide for her in that moment. We left with a bill for $500 and a bandaged baby girl. I could not help thinking how lucky we were to be in a country where I could communicate with and trust the medical system and how horrible it must feel if that hadn't been the case.
Possibly Abuela, like almost everyone who has traveled for a period of time, now has an identity that is untethered from location, leaving a sense of self that is stronger, but a sense of place that is blurry. She was once a girl, who fit in one home but was called to another. There she adapted. She grew into clothes that at first looked foreign and her strength of character fortified. And if she was to go back, to the home of that little girl, to put on her comfortable suit of childhood, I imagine it would be ill fitted, though the clothes themselves had remained unchanged, she had not.
Now sitting in a room in the US writing this, I can confirm that the "reverse culture shock" is a force to be reckoned with. When we left Australia we tied a neat little bow around the remnants of our life there. Nothing that existed there now exists here. The people's names in my stories mean nothing to my life from a year ago, and even Bird's collection of gum nuts, with their pungent eucalyptus scent, had to be absorbed back into the scribbly Australian bush. If it wasn't for my kettle that I took despite not being able to plug it into an outlet here, I might be able to convince myself that Australian Megan and Bird never existed. However, the strength that I found when I disregarded how scared I was to drive on the other side of the road and practiced just like I did as a 16 year-old back in the US, has come home with me. It has made me into a, very slightly, hybrid Megan. Now everything here, home, looks a little off. But I can sense it is me who is a little off. And I wonder if the oak trees notice. And I worry the golden hills will smell the eucalyptus on me and turn away.
I say all of this from my heart, but I know that I experienced the most minimal culture shifts for a relatively short amount of time. Not to mention, Australia is a wealthy nation with universal health care and many forms of support for anyone struggling. While it is therapeutic for me to write my thoughts, I rather hope what comes of this is that if a white girl from California can feel home sick while not being able to identify any clear home to which she belongs, we can all appreciate what bravery it takes or the intensity of pressures that spur a human to say goodbye to the very ground and stars of their homeland and seek out life in another part of the world.
Meanwhile, for Bird and I, to tour we go! We will spend our winter in Europe and Bird will go back to full time home schooling. My books will be much tighter in the coming months as my focus shifts to performing with Gravity and Other Myths (come check us out if you're in Europe) and being present with my little Bird.