• You take for granted racial and social inclusivity in London. (Getty Images )Source: Getty Images
Australian expat Nicole Rodwell reflects on the 'reverse culture shock' of swapping London life for regional Victoria.
By
Nicole Rodwell

17 Jan 2018 - 11:59 AM  UPDATED 17 Jan 2018 - 11:59 AM

‘It’s time to go home.’ The voice nudging me back home became more persistent during my last years in London. I was convinced moving home to Australia to start a family was the right thing to do and I’d sold myself on the great Aussie dream of big backyards and amazing weather.

Adjusting to Australian life over the last two years has been difficult in many ways. I had no idea how anything worked and had virtually no record of having existed in Australia, apart from an almost-expired Medicare card and faint memories of a university share house address.

Trying to get an Australian phone number was an ordeal. I was interrogated repeatedly by Telstra because I hadn’t lived in the country for the past 10 years. They still won’t give me a phone contract to this day because I’m apparently ‘high risk’.

On the inside you feel neither here nor there. Not an expat anymore, but not quite at home either.

I also struggled with Australian news coverage that reported every murder, road death and rape. Apart from the most serious offences, violent crime isn’t reported on UK news, so I never really thought about being murdered or dying in a car accident. Here, it was in my face daily. I still can’t bear to watch the news because of it.

But repatriation is so much more than phone contracts and news coverage.

It cuts deep into the identity of who you are, or in my case, the person you have become. You may speak the language and sound exactly the same as the confused bank teller staring back at you when you ask a simple banking question, but on the inside you feel neither here nor there. Not an expat anymore, but not quite at home either.

Returning home, the initial excitement of un-rushed catch-ups with friends and proper flat whites soon faded after I noticed something I hadn’t seen on my yearly visits home.

I was taken aback by the casual racism that seemed to be embedded in Australian culture.

The most jarring coming from a new acquaintance who suggested I could ‘just pay a black fella’ to move my family's belongings into our new house. Or the time a relative denounced immigrants while in the same sentence asked me what it was like being an expat.

The transformation that comes from living overseas is monumental. I’ve seen closeted wallflowers turn into out-and-proud gay men in London, but for me it was subtle. 

For some, the transformation that comes from living overseas is monumental. I’ve seen closeted wallflowers turn into out-and-proud gay men in London, but for me it was subtler. 

I moved there a naive twenty-something but returned ten years later a global citizen. I owe this to living in diverse neighborhoods like Shepherd’s Bush, where I could eat a different cuisine every night of the a week (oh how I still pine for you, Peruvian yucca chips), and was working with colleagues from every continent.

I learnt about their cultural traditions and even stayed with a workmate’s Belgian relatives when my hotel booking fell through in Brussels, discussing life with three generations of Belgians over a bowl of moules and a pint of Duvel beer.

Yes, this cultural diversity can easily be found in most Australian cities, but having lived in predominantly white suburbs since moving home I miss the everyday exposure to these worlds.

Since moving to regional Victoria, the contrast between my old and new lives is startling.

Most importantly, life as an expat taught me not to fear ‘the other’. Making friends with people from all around the world opened my mind to new ideas and chipped away at the prejudices I didn’t even know I had.

You take for granted the racial and social inclusivity in a city like London, where white Brits are now in the minority at 45 per cent of the population and where gay marriage has been legal since 2013.

The recent divisive marriage equality debate reminded me just how far Australia has to go as a so-called progressive nation. 

I’d never really considered the benefits raising kids in a progressive city like London could bring, only the outdated notion that they need backyard cricket and beaches to be happy.

I’d never really considered the benefits raising kids in a progressive city like London could bring, only the outdated notion that they need backyard cricket and beaches to be happy.

Kids in London are, for the most part, socially conscious and street smart. Five-year-olds know about religious festivals like Diwali and Ramadan because they are freely spoken about, and celebrated at school.

Yes, they may be growing up in smaller homes than us, but the majority have access to large green spaces where their diverse communities come together to walk their dogs and grow vegetables.

I look at my 14-month-old daughter and wish she could be exposed to the broad spectrum of faces, cultures and ideas as a toddler, I only had the chance to experience as a young adult.

When I look back, my memories are dominated by an eclectic array of London experiences. Like twerking with a Jamaican band at Notting Hill Carnival, tutoring disadvantaged kids and getting to know the homeless man I saw every day on my commute to work, because the city had broken down my long-held prejudices against homeless people.

I look at my 14-month-old daughter and wish she could be exposed to the broad spectrum of faces, cultures and ideas as a toddler that I only had the chance to experience as a young adult.

These are the things I crave for my daughter and make me long for London life. Not Big Ben or Buckingham Palace.

I’m not alone in feeling this sense of repatriation alienation.

Clinical psychologist Dr Simon Kinsella says reverse culture shock is extremely common in returning expats.

‘Every single one of my clients who’s spent significant time overseas has suffered from it,’ he says. ‘Adjustment disorder’ stems from Australia’s isolation, which limits exposure to different cultures and experiences.

'You can’t just pop over to Spain for the day like you could in Europe, and people really struggle with that,’ he says. It’s these kinds of opportunities that have the capacity to transform a person. I’m living proof.   

Of course, there’s lots I love about Australia, and my new life here. Aussie humour, new friends and backyard BBQs all help ease the despair and loneliness I’ve felt over the last two years. I love that people say hello to me in the street, and stop to let my daughter pat their dog, even when they’re clearly in a hurry. This stuff matters too, and I’m so thankful for it. 

Living here offers us all the opportunity to shift our culture for the better, and I have no doubt we will grow to be the progressive nation I wish for my kids future. If all else fails, London is only a plane ticket away. A return ticket, I promise.

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