An Australia Homecoming, Mixed With Yearning and Trepidation

SYDNEY, Australia — The tangy smell of eucalyptus leaves lining the streets. A casual friendliness even from strangers. Ten types of Asian cuisine in a 100-yard radius of the city center.

These were among an infinite list of things I yearned for in my hometown as I waited, stuck abroad for over a year, for a chance to return.

At Sydney’s airport, my father greeted me with an awkward hug. “You’re home,” he said, smaller and whiter-haired than I remembered him 18 months ago. But still dizzy with jet lag, it wasn’t until I staggered into the glare of morning light and heard the sound of native birds that I believed it: I really was, at last, back in Australia.

My family reunion this year — and many thousands of similar reunions across Australia — had been difficult to realize until November. That was when Australia announced an about-face in strategy: With high-enough vaccination rates to withstand an Omicron surge, “Fortress Australia” was lowering the drawbridge and reopening its borders to citizens and permanent residents, allowing an unlimited number of homecomings for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began.

I had accepted this enforced separation as the price of working thousands of miles from home — and knew my wait in London, long as it seemed, was infinitely easier than the crushing hardships faced by thoughts of migrants and asylum seekers escaping 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 it find me?

In the decades before the pandemic, the accessibility of air travel and a diversifying population meant that Australia had become remarkably less insular than it once was. One-third of residents were born abroad — a number that reflects my own history, with my first glimpse of Australia as a baby from my mother’s arms as she carried me off the plane from Hong Kong.

In Britain during the pandemic, I had watched Australia maintain its strict border closures and enact long lockdowns that worked, at least initially, to keep it comparatively unscathed.

Families reuniting at the Sydney International Airport.
A cockatoo perched in a eucalyptus tree in Sydney.
Outdoor seating at a restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown.

“We’re an island nation — we had opportunities that others didn’t have,” said Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist at Deakin University in Melbourne. “We have made different sacrifices in order to avoid the kinds of waves that other countries had to live with.”

But had embracing its geographic insularity and isolation influenced the cultural identity of Australia? Would the country turn to a more provincial past with fewer connections to the world?

Observers of society whom I polled about the changes during my absence thought, at least to some extent, that yes, the pandemic has changed how Australia engages with the world.

Australia had united to get through the pandemic, said Marc Stears, the former director at the Sydney Policy Lab, a research group at the University of Sydney. “The flip side, though, is it’s happy to pull together — and pull away from the rest of the world.”

And where would I, an Australian born abroad who often felt caught between so many homes, fit into this pandemic-altered country?

For one, I could expect little sympathy from Australians for having been stranded abroad, said Tim Soutphommasane, a political theorist and sociologist at the University of Sydney.

For many Australians, the sealing of the borders, even to its own citizens, was a welcome reinforcement of the self-image of Australia as “a sanctuary, sheltered from the troubles of the world,” Mr. Soutphommasane said.

“People were forgetting the human cost involved in families being separated,” he said, pointing to another significant shift those returning might expect: “a greater willingness of Australians to accept expansion of executive and government power.”

Despite a vaccination campaign that critics said initially lagged, I could see what the experts meant when they told me that most Australians, trusting the government, had willingly acceded to its demands. Over 95 percent of adults are fully vaccinated and two-thirds of the nation boosted.

Swimmers in a rock pool at Maroubra beach near Sydney.
Mossy rocks at Maroubra beach.
Quiet streets in the Erskineville neighborhood of Sydney.

But in conversations, I sensed a stark division between those who were shocked by Australia’s decision to unseal its borders just as Omicron cases pushed higher and those who thought it was long overdue for the country to reopen.

Added into the mix, I noticed, was a feeling of whiplash from the abruptness of it all.

“We went from zero to complete explosion,” said a friend — recently recovered from Covid — about the number of cases as we walked the too-quiet route to Sydney’s iconic Opera House. “We’ve 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 relative of its former self. The throbbing streets and alleyways, whose secrets I had once known like the back of my hand, now felt too hushed and oddly unfamiliar without the crowds.

I became afraid to visit old haunts without calling, in case we arrived to find the windows dusty and the chairs stacked. And if they had survived the economic strain of the pandemic, I sat in them feeling guilty about sharing stories of traveling around Europe with friends who had not left the country in two years.

The skyline, too, had changed. Housing prices in Sydney, already one of the world’s most expensive cities, had only surged further in the past year, and developers wanted to take advantage. Across the city’s vast expanse, shiny new skyscrapers and apartment blocks had sprung up.

Even the weather cast an unusual pall: Unpredictable bouts of near-daily rain, thanks to the presence of La Niña, made it seem like I hadn’t escaped London’s gloominess after all.

Still, many of the things I had loved about Sydney remained. Sitting in a dark theater before a performance, I heard once more the Welcome to Country, a ceremony led by an Indigenous elder that pays respect to the traditional custodians of the land, which has become more mainstream as the country is reckoning with its violent history of colonization.

Terrace houses in the Surry Hills neighborhood.
An Australian white ibis at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney.
A shower at the beach in Camp Cove.

No matter where I went in the world, it was in Sydney that I felt closest to the wild abandon of nature, like meeting an old (and daring) friend. In the oceanside pools and beaches so core to Sydney’s identity, I plunged over and over again into the waves until it drove every thought from my mind.

When I craved some peace, I could drive in almost any direction and find myself in one of the city’s national parks, with only the sounds of cicadas and my own breath as company.

And there were my parents, who had kept their habit of drinking pu’er tea in the mornings. I met their new pet rabbit, who caused high drama when he escaped his cage and ate my father’s prized bok choy before surrendering himself in the driveway. My mother laughed at me one fateful beach day as she pulled a Pacific man o’ war jellyfish — known in Australia as a bluebottle — from my body as I screamed.

In February as I prepared my goodbyes, Australia got ready to open its borders to vaccinated international travelers, and since I’ve left, the country has continued its emergence from hibernation.

In terms of just how much, and how 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 sorrow over the loss of the Sydney of my memory, but also of gratitude for the strict rules that helped protect my parents.

On my last days home, the weather played a bittersweet trick, making leaving that much harder: The La Niña-driven rain cleared for a few days and the sun I had so longed for in London appeared. I basked in it with loved ones for hours, as if I could bottle it up to last for the next year.

The skyline of Sydney from Camp Cove.

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