Tuesday 12 July 2011

On Being an Expat - or Why I Left Tasmania

This was meant to be a piece on what it's like to be an expat, but as I wrote turned into something entirely different, and a welcome, I think, excursion away from prematurity. 

Please, don’t ever ask me “what are you doing here?” with an incredulous look on your face. I don’t know, alright? It just seemed like a good idea at the time. I was on the cusp of turning 30; I always said I’d do something outrageous for my 30th. I did think it would be backpacking with my husband and 2 children in the Kimberleys (Western Australia) however, 29 saw me single, childless, and absolutely fed up in the fish bowl that was Tasmania.

Now Tasmania is not, contrary to popular belief, a small island with one school and one road running through it.  It’s a fairly sizeable island with a population near half a million. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s stunningly beautiful. It has wilderness beyond imagination, temperate rain forests, a wild river, beautiful bush, amazing mountains and glorious beaches. The air, for the most part is pure. The raw produce, vegetables, fruit, fish and meat are second to none. There are vineyards and wineries, seemingly around every corner. The cheese that’s produced in Tasmania and its outlying islands is some of the best in the world.

There is wildlife too, the fascinating Tasmanian devil, pademelons (like a small wallaby), quolls (the native cat – as destructive as an English fox) and endless species of birds. There are unique orchids, stunning trees, such as the native Huon pine, and other very beautiful old growth trees. Tasmania is a stunning place, and I am privileged to have been born and raised in this very special place.

Tasmania also has a lot of artists, and musicians. It has a world class orchestra. Tasmania invests a lot of time and money in festivals. It has a newly opened Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) which is, I think, pretty much unique for anywhere in the world.  There are lots of opportunities for craftspeople to show their wares, and vibrant markets, like Salamanca, a meeting place for artists, musicians, foodies and everyday people to mix and to gather in an atmosphere that I have never experienced anywhere else. 

So if Tasmania is so wonderful, what, in fact, am I doing here? Tasmania is tiny. It is very hard to find work, unless you are especially gifted, clever and persistent,  it is difficult to find an entry level job. There is a lot of competition in the job market for the most basic of jobs. When finishing university I found it impossible to find work, and did a course retraining me to care for adults with disabilities. 

Tasmania has a very dark side. The suicide rate, particularly for young men, is amongst the highest in the world. The murder rate is also very high. Tasmania is very insular, and its difficult, if you make a mistake in your life, to cut your losses and move on. 

If you recall the Hollywood concept of six degrees of separation, in Tasmania this translates to about 3.2 degrees. I recently went back for six weeks, and without trying managed to run into my ex-husband’s stepmother and father, without trying in a restaurant in Hobart. Hobart is quite a large city with many eating places, but this sort of thing happens all the time. I recall once working in Fiji on a community project and I met a girl about my age, 19, and she said “oh Tasmania, I know only one Tasmanian, Mr Dutta”. Yep, sure enough, he was one of my teachers at college. Every Tasmanian can tell this sort of story. In fact, in my first week in Manchester I was with a friend eating in a pub and I whispered “I am sure I know the waitress”. She came up again and we got chatting. Yes, she was one of my ex-boyfriend’s ex work colleagues, from Launceston, Tasmania, the town where I worked and studied for over 10 years of my life.

One of the problems with Tasmania is that it is incredibly isolated. The little stretch of water, known as Bass Strait that separates Tasmania from the Mainland (or North Island as some Tasmanians call it) is quite small, it costs a considerable amount to cross it either by plane or by boat. And the crossing point by boat is about a 3 hour drive from Hobart, the capital city. Due to this isolation, there are some things that happen rarely in Tasmania, such as visits by well known bands. We don’t see classic works of art very often, I’d never seen major European works until I moved here.

Tasmania compensates for this by producing its own artists and musicians, but it isn’t always a fair exchange. I remember as a teenager even the then Premier, Robin Gray, on the 6 o’clock news making an appeal to Boy George to bring Culture Club to Tasmania. I may have hated his politics, but his bumbling rendition of Karma Chameleon was endearing. He even gave him the key to the city of Hobart. Dunno that Boy George ever used it. Perhaps I should ask him on Twitter. Dare me? 

I remember writing letters to Duran Duran, Wham and later once I’d matured a bit to U2, and to endless other acts, pleading with them to come to Tasmania. To get to the mainland to see a band as a teenager was impossible, unless one had young and hip parents with plenty of money, which I didn’t. Big musicals didn’t come to Tasmania, we had our own theatre companies that would sometimes reproduce them, but it just wasn’t the same. The only thing that “helped” was the Port Arthur massacre in 1995 (?) – I think it was this year, but I refuse to Google it on principle. This made a few bands come to Tasmania in the subsequent twelve months. The Cranberries at the height of their fame and the Presidents of the United States of America are two that come to mind. But soon it was forgotten, and no one bothered about Tasmania much.

All the issues Australia has of being separated from Europe and the USA are, for Tasmania, even more keenly felt, and that makes it difficult to have a very well-rounded world view. I was very blessed to be able to travel overseas at the age of 19 to Fiji. For the first time I saw poverty. I saw very obvious distinctions between the rich and poor. And it opened my eyes to what life could be like, living in paradise, but living in abject poverty. 

However, international travel was out of my grasp, I could never earn the sort of money it would take in order to be able to travel. So once I had saved enough, I left, with the premise of working for a few years, saving some more money, and coming back for good.

And I know people think that it was because I fell in love and had a baby that I settled here, but truth be told, my decision was made before I met Man of the House, and long before Joseph arrived. The truth is, I love England. The reasons I love it are a post for another day. But here, in short, I feel a freedom that I never had in Tasmania.
That freedom isn’t the reason I left, as I never knew I didn’t have it, but it is, the reason I stayed.


  1. Aw, Kylie. You hit the nail right on the head (about Tassie). I notice you talk only of leaving 'Tasmania', not 'Australia' which is interesting. The Vietnamese say of Thailand and Cambodia - "same, same, but different" and that's exactly how I feel right now, about Tassie and the mainland. That little stretch of water might as well be the Atlantic. Tasmania IS isolated and insular. Am flying up to Sydney next week. I hate to say it but every time I leave the island I feel a pang of relief. Of course, once in Sydney, I instantly get my anonymity back. And yet...

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  3. It was meant to be a post about being an expat, but then ended up being a rant about Tasmania! I think that's very true about being the "same but different" and it does annoy me when British people say "but Tasmania isn't real Australia" and you know, they are probably right. When I meet other Australians, I don't feel an affilation with them somuch, its like they come from a very different Australia than I do.

  4. I certainly get the "what are you doing here?", followed by "don't you miss it?" many times. I explain that I don't get homesick, but knowing Tasmania is there is a nice source of comfort. I certainly miss people, and walking in the outdoors, and things like that, but I don't feel an enormous tug back there. Having made the standard migration across the strait, I miss Melbourne more I think - with its city life that feels more manageable than Sydney, long flat roads for cycling, progressive attitudes, vast culinary selection and an enjoyable period of my career life working in broadcast and tv production.
    I think it does help enormously that we live by the sea (Dorset), as I feel much more grounded with either sea or mountains nearby (had both growing up in Hobart of course, but now, one out of two will do). I like Britain a lot, know a lot of people here, and at 36 am surely one of the country's youngest addicts of Radio 4.
    Of course, it seems that to most people in Britain, Australia is the perfect green on the other side of the fence - a flawless land where anyone with the slightest trace of a bank account would pack up and move to. Then I meet people who tried it and moved back. Nowadays, most people come back having had a great time, wanting to see more, but "gee it's expensive".

  5. My husband beats you, he's 40 and has been devoted to Radio 4 since 1991! I am going to do a post about how fabulous Britain is, I love it here. I do miss home at times, but as you say its family, people, and walks, not the lifestyle as such. When I went back recently I went to a pub to see a band. They were playing the same songs as they would have been 10 years ago. It was just disheartening, and somewhat comforting I suppose, that the rest of the world has moved on and Hobart hasn't/

  6. I found this a bit depressing - Tasmania's not that bad! Perhaps it depends whether you can find people to be friends with, with whom you have something in common? And a society that has similar values to you. I struggle with that a lot more in Melbourne than I ever did in Tassie. All people care about in 'kultured' Melbourne is how fancy your house/car is (Ours is an old, uninsulated rental with a garden, which we love), which school your kids will be going to (don't know, haven't thought about it, but I'm not going to pretend to be Catholic just to get my kids into the Old Scholars Network), and which football team you follow (None, I hate the football culture). I'm not interested in those things, and in the 10 years of living here, I've only made a couple of friends with whom I can really be myself. I find Tassie much more to my liking than here... but you're right about the jobs unfortunately. My husband is a scientist, which Tasmania doesn't excel in, so we had no choice but to move. You do need to be a real innovator and self-starter to make it work in Tasmania, and some industries just aren't, and perhaps can't be supported.

    Europe and the UK has heaps of culture, but it isn't cheap either - I didn't pay the 20 pounds required to enter Westminster Cathedral for example, but I did pay $20 to see the Tutankhamen exhibition in Melbourne.

    The parochialism of Tasmania is ridiculous, but I think everywhere has that to some degree. The degrees of separation thing is frustrating at times, but it never bothered me too much. I find the same thing in Melbourne - connections between people you never thought of. The sense of place, Mt Wellington, the vastness of the Southwest National Park, the isolation - all this is what pulls me, and what I miss the most.

  7. Michaela, sorry to be depressing, I might have to do another one next week about why I love Tasmania! Because I do love it. But I think one of my problems is I lived in Launceston for 12 years, which is so different to Hobart.

    I do think England has got a lot better, so many of the attractions are now free (not privately owned ones though, they are extortionate)

  8. I do feel torn between Melbourne and Hobart. I moved to Melbourne at 21 and fell in love with it. I still love it but I feel a little betrayed by house prices. Living in St Andrews, an hour from the CBD, I sometimes think we'd be better in "inner city" Hobart. But my husband is Victorian, my children are Victorian, moving is complicated emotionally, financially, logistically. In my ideal world I would own a little riverside apartment in Sandy Bay as well as a house in Melbourne. I have to say being in Hobart during the ash cloud business reminded me what an island it is,

    I love the Asian and Mediterranean influences in Melbourne culture. Tassie is so waspy. I know I probably just had bad experiences but I do feel that Australia has a more child-centred culture than the UK, I found people pretty miserable and intolerant of kids (which extended to me as a mother). Though it had been raining for three years when I was there with Fred. On my first visit as a single woman I liked England, but the sun was shining then.

    I wish you lived in Australia. It makes me sad to think we may only see each other again a handful of times in our lives.