When I moved to Australia in March of 2002 I had a paper return ticket, two suitcases full to the brim and several boxes of books in the mail. My dog was coming along via Eastern Creek for a month’s quarantine, and my mail had been forwarded to my sister’s house in Chicago. Was it a permanent move? I did not know. I did not feel like I needed to know.
I was 24 and in love.
My father died in May that year, my dog died in October, and my youthful indifference was gone. But I’m still here. I’m 43 and in love: with my Australian husband, my Australian children and my own version of Australia – the one of salty fresh swims and a banh mi in the sun, of flat whites and red soil, of tea tree-stained creeks and the smell of eucalypt on a stinking hot summer’s day. I love Australian writers and their vernacular, Australian winters and their sun, Australian birds and their strange and clever ways. I love the dry humour, the self-effacing grins, and the sense that the more I learn about Australia, the more there is to know.
But I don’t love being stuck here.
On Sunday April 11 our Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that he could no longer guarantee Australians would have received their first vaccination by the end of this year, and with that my hopes of visiting my mother and sister in the USA in December disappeared like Harold Holt. There is no way that this government will open the borders further if the population isn’t vaccinated, and a travel bubble to New Zealand or Singapore is just that – a bubble that I cannot pop. My mother and sister are vaccinated, most people I know in the USA have had at least their first dose, and yet they are not allowed here and I am not allowed to leave. There are several ways you can apply for an exemption to leave Australia: if you are travelling for compassionate or humanitarian grounds, if you will be gone for more than three months, or you’re travelling for work. Then you are still required two weeks of hotel quarantine (at your own cost) when you return.
Only Australian citizens and residents and their immediate families are allowed to enter the country (still with those two weeks of quarantine, at cost, and they have to find flights). Parents of adults are not considered immediate family. I’m lucky, my family is well, but my mother just had a hip replacement and every year she cannot see her two grandchildren while she is able is a deep sadness, it is a loss that we cannot replace.
I made the choice to live here, but it was a choice I made knowing that I could come and go, that if – God forbid – something were to happen, I could be there in a matter of days. Now this distance feels impossible to span, and unknowable in length.
We’re so lucky in Australia, everyone tells me – and for the most part I agree – we kept COVID at bay, we shut our borders like a steel trap. But this is a country full of exiles, of emigrants and expats. How many FaceTimes can we bear, how many years apart? There is a Welsh word, hiraeth, which means homesickness mixed with grief and sadness over what is lost or departed.
Those of us who are emigrants have lost more than a year where we have not seen families, more than a year where there is no way to travel back. I cannot shake the sense that something is not right, I’m plagued with a sense of constant waiting. If I cannot go there, it is difficult to be fully present here. I am trying, but there are moments when the tears come unbidden. Someone asks about my family and my voice cracks.
‘But why can’t I come there?’ my fully-vaccinated, new-hipped mother says.
‘You’re not immediate family,’ I reply.
‘That makes no sense,’ my mother says.