How do you find a sense of belonging when living between two countries?
In 2004 I travelled to New Zealand for the first time with my BFF Jac. Both of us keen SCUBA divers, Jac eagerly told me about an unusual place called the Milford Sound where you could dive with the deep dwelling Black Coral and Spiny Sea Dragons in just 10 metres of water. This strange phenomenon is caused by Milford Sound’s heavy rainfall (around 6,500mm per year) and huge mountains casting their shadows over the waters. As all that rain plunges down the sides of the mountains the rain water becomes stained with tannins from the forest trees, finally coming to rest on top of the heavier, salted sea water of the Sound. The light is blocked and the funny creatures residing below are able to live much closer to the surface.
When you dive the Milford Sound you descend first into the brown, tannin stained water. Even though the water is clear it’s a little bit like snorkelling in a cup of tea (without the milk of course). Anyway, as you descend down a few metres you start to encounter the perfectly clear salt water and for another metre or so everything appears totally blurred, distorted and surreal. You really need your diving instruments and depth gauge because there is no way to real way to orientate yourself. Then suddenly (like jolting from a weird dream) you leave the tannin stained fresh water behind completely, you’re in clear salt water and you begin to feel like a SCUBA diver again.
Living between Australian and the Philippines for almost four years now is a strange state. Every time I leave one country for another the transition is exactly like a dive in that Sound. The lines of my citizenship become blurred as I spend less time in Australia and Philippine culture becomes more a part of my psyche. But Filipinos let me know in no uncertain terms that I am very different. Their constant interrogations of who I am and why I’m in their country; the different prices I get charged; and shouts of “Kan-a, Kan-a” as I walk by; let me know every day that I’m a foreigner and don’t quite belong. Kan-a is a derogatory word: a shortened form of ‘Americana’ and used to describe any foreign, non-Filipino looking woman.
But in Australia it’s tricky too. Because ‘you live abroad Miss Irvine’ I don’t qualify to adopt Jerry under the Australian International Adoption program, yet I am still Australian enough to need an annual tax return or be selected for Jury Duty or fined if I forget to vote. I need travel insurance, have to renew my driver’s licence and have my Debit Mastercard cancelled by the bank because I use it too many times outside Australia in one day.
This blog post isn’t a whinge, I love my life. It’s more about explaining the things you don’t anticipate, and how this experience has changed my thinking about Australia and what it means to be Australian. Like every time I get off the plane in Manila I’m greeted by the laughter and joyful energy of the Philippines and then contrasting that to my last feeling of Australia: a shrill voice declaring ‘anyone who doesn’t have their passport out and ready can go to the back of the line!’.
Then arriving in Australia I drink in the intoxicating silence that sweeps over me. Even Sydney seems peaceful and laid back. The Philippines is filled with smog, traffic noise, neighbour NOISE, karaoke NOISE and loud, loud MUSIC NOISE. EVERYWHERE! Four years ago I cursed the Queensland ‘nanna’ state but man, the highly anticipated 10pm-7am loud noise curfew is like my very best Australian friend, I resist leaving her every single time!
I love the simplicity of the Philippines and the stoic nature of the people who bear hardship, long queues and extreme poverty so well. I hate the pollution, the trash and the way Filipinos push in line and shove you out of the way as they rush to get in a lift or jump the queue.
I love the long stretches of Australian beaches, the wonderful super clean (and free) public parks, gardens, BBQs, playgrounds; and the overall courtesy of our people who hold the door open for you as you’re running for the lift. I hate the smug “I don’t get paid enough to put up with this shit” attitude of Australian workers because actually, we do.
There is enough in both countries to love and hate, and whenever I’m in either country I can’t imagine living anywhere else. So after almost four years I try (as much as possible) to spend my time in each place living that place as fully as I can. In the Philippines I speak Ilonggo more every day, eat the native food and attend to traditional festivals and customs. In Australia I savour the opportunity to really talk, fully and completely; browse wonderful bookstores; attend amazing creative workshops and local events; and eat green salads every day.
One day I’ll be Jerry’s legal mother and in a position to decide on a country. Until then I’ll keep subscribing to Australia’s literary publications, be a bit more assertive in the queue, learn more Ilonggo words, have my passport out and ready, smile in response to the shouts of kan-a and politely reply “Yes ma’am, I am Australian!”
© 2017 Melinda J. Irvine