SYDNEY, Australia – The spicy scent of eucalyptus leaves lining the streets. A casual kindness, even from strangers. Ten kinds of Asian dishes in a radius of 100 meters from the city center.
These were among a never-ending list of things I longed for in my hometown as I waited, held abroad for over a year, for a chance to return.
At the Sydney airport, my father greeted me with an awkward hug. “You’re home,” he said, smaller and with whiter hair than I remembered 18 months ago. But still giddy from jet lag, it wasn’t until I stumbled into the glare of the morning light and heard the sound of native birds that I believed it: I was finally really back in Australia.
My family reunion this year – and many thousands of similar reunions across Australia – was hard to come by until November. That was when Australia announced a change in strategy: With a vaccination rate high enough to withstand a wave of Omicron, “Fortress Australia” lowered the drawbridge and reopened its borders to civilians and permanent residents, creating a unlimited homecomings for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak.
I had accepted this forced separation as the price of working thousands of miles away from home – and knew that my London wait, long as it seemed, was infinitely easier than the crushing hardships faced by migrants and asylum seekers suffering violence and economic collapse. escape in Europe. their countries.
Still, I was restless for home. But I was also nervous. How would I find Australia after the abyss of a pandemic? And how would it find me?
In the decades before the pandemic, accessibility to air travel and population diversification made Australia noticeably less island than it once was. A 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’d seen Australia maintain its strict border closures and put in place lengthy closures that, at least initially, helped keep it relatively unscathed.
“We’re an island nation — we had opportunities that others didn’t,” said Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist at Deakin University in Melbourne. “We made several sacrifices to avoid the kind of waves other countries had to live with.”
But had embracing its geographic insularity and isolation affected Australia’s cultural identity? Would the country turn to a more provincial past with fewer connections to the world?
Society observers I surveyed about the changes during my absence thought, at least to some extent, that yes, the pandemic has changed the way Australia interacts with the world.
Australia had united to overcome 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 being happy working together — and moving away from the rest of the world.”
And where would I, a foreign-born Australian often trapped between so many homes, fit in this pandemic-turned country?
First, 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, sealing the borders, even to its own citizens, has been a welcome boost to Australia’s self-image as “a place of refuge, sheltered from the troubles of the world,” said Mr Soutphommasane.
“People forgot about the human costs associated with separating families,” he said, pointing to another key shift returnees could expect: “a greater willingness on the part of Australians to accept extensions of executive and government power.”
Despite a vaccination campaign that critics say initially lagged, I could understand what the experts meant when they told me that most Australians, who trusted the government, had voluntarily complied with its demands. More than 95 percent of adults are fully vaccinated and two-thirds of the nation has been boosted.
But in conversations, I felt a strong division between those who were shocked by Australia’s decision to open its borders just as Omicron cases were rising, and those who thought it was long overdue to reopen the country.
Added to the mix, I noticed, was a feeling of whiplash from the abruptness of it all.
“We went from zero to a full blast,” said a friend – recently recovered from Covid – of the number of cases as we walked the too-quiet route to Sydney’s iconic Opera House. “We are so bombarded with these rules. And now it must be over.”
Many people, used to lockdown routines, were still hesitant to socialize. It was as if Sydney had become an introverted relative of his former self. The pulsating streets and alleys, the secrets of which I had once known like the back of my hand, now felt too quiet and strangely strange without the crowds.
I became afraid to visit old haunts without calling, in case we arrived to find the windows dusty and the chairs piled up. And if they survived the economic pressures of the pandemic, I’d be inside them, feeling guilty about sharing stories of traveling around Europe with friends who hadn’t left the country for two years.
The skyline had also changed. House prices in Sydney, already one of the world’s most expensive cities, had only risen further over the past year and developers wanted to take advantage of this. Across the vast expanse of the city, gleaming new skyscrapers and condominiums had sprung up.
Even the weather threw an unusual veil: unpredictable bouts of almost 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 of the things I loved about Sydney remained. While sitting in a dark theater before a performance, I again heard the Welcome to Country, a ceremony conducted by an indigenous elder paying respect to the land’s traditional trustees, which has become more mainstream as the country reckons with its violent history of colonization.
Wherever I went in the world, Sydney was the closest I felt to the wild desolation of nature, like meeting an old (and daring) friend. In the oceanfront pools and beaches so essential to Sydney’s identity, I dived into the waves over and over until it took every thought out of my mind.
When I craved peace and quiet, I could drive in almost any direction and find myself in one of the city’s national parks, with only the sound of crickets 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 rabbit, which caused a lot of drama as he escaped from his cage and ate my father’s prized bok choy before surrendering in the driveway. My mother laughed at me one fateful day at the beach when she pulled a Pacific man o’ war jellyfish — known in Australia as a bluebottle fly — out of my body while I screamed.
In February, as I was preparing my farewell, Australia was getting ready to open its borders to vaccinated international travelers, and since I left, the country has continued to wake up from hibernation.
In terms of how much, and how permanently, nearly two years of ‘fort’ had changed its Australia, it would take time, experts told me, to calculate the full social and cultural impact.
For me there is a sense of sadness at 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 at home, the weather played a bittersweet trick, making it much harder to leave: the La Niña-driven rain cleared for a few days and the sun I’d longed for appeared in London. I cherished it for hours with loved ones, as if I could breed it up for the next year.