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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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Migration

My how-tos and reflections on migrating from Singapore and choosing to call Canberra (new) Home.

Our sky is orange, our sun is red

For those in my community who live and breathe outside of Australia, I thought I’d let you know how we’re holding up as news of our bushfires light up media outlets around the world.

We’re fine for now. My little fambam lives in Canberra and although the nearest out-of-control bushfire is 86km away from our house and presently 27% of Singapore in size, current modelling indicates we’re not in danger. We’re in a State of Alert, however. Canberra sits in a narrow corridor where our neighbours to the southeast and west of us have been told to evacuate, and many have naturally landed in Canberra. These evacuees — tens of thousands from rural and coastal regions so devastatingly driven off their own homes by catastrophic fires — are the ones the Canberra community try to feed, shelter, and comfort at present.

Canberra has held the dubious honour of the worst air quality among the world’s capital cities for a week now. We feel churlish to complain about the smoke here when our close neighbours have lost their homes, watched the beauty of their hometowns melt or explode before their eyes while they huddled on beaches, and faced utter blackness in what should have been broad daylight. But the fact is I woke up this morning to an orange sky. And for weeks now, we face an eerie red sun at dusk while smoke sneaks into our homes. That in itself is heartbreaking if you know how fresh and clean Canberra’s air usually is. We’re elevated 600m above sea level, and our air comes straight from the mountain ridges surrounding us. Our air is so pure, we get unbelievable sunsets I’ve long taken for granted after living here for over 16 years. The prettiest purples and pinks melting to amber and blue. Well, I don’t take them for granted anymore.

Some of you have already started posting news articles about these fires, which is honestly a relief. It’s comforting for many of us in Australia to know that the rest of the world is paying attention and dismayed, and that there is solidarity after all. There was, for a terrible moment there, a kind of bewilderment that these fires — so ferocious, so unprecedented in their magnitude and decimation — hardly seemed to rate much in international media. But then, many of us rather suspect that our politicians might have burnt bridges with their doubling down on their commitment to fossil fuel. I’ve already personally encountered comments on Kiwi news site asking their government to prioritise Australian climate refugees below pacific islanders. Because karma is a bitch, even for those of us who think differently about our economic, social and moral imperative to do better by the environment, plan ahead, and to curb our profligacy. The fact is, our conservative government remains defensive, reactive, and reactionary.

Still. It’s sobering to watch more than a billion getting pledged to the rebuilding of a beautiful but largely uninhabited building than to mitigate the loss of half a billion animals and 6 million hectares of bush, not to mention the myriad small towns and coastal communities who have lost their livelihoods and the homes they love. There’s pretty sobering accounts from survivors huddled on beaches in the hundreds and thousands, watching their town on fire and listening as gas bottles explode homes in the distance.

A State of Alert basically means we’re not in a state of emergency yet, but to gird our loins in case things turn bad. The fact remains that so many of these horrifying fires are maliciously started, and so we can model the heck out of wind direction and current bushfire trajectories, but there’s always the possibility that some cruel arsewipe out there will decide to be funny and start a fire to feel, perhaps, significant and consequential for once in their bored, selfish lives.

Press conference about the 53 suspects responsible for 69 bushfire-related incidents.

It’s quite confronting to start packing for a possible evacuation. There’s an infographic that takes you through it and it feels at once overwhelming and thin on detail. First, the choice of whether you stay to defend your property or flee with the clothes on your back is entirely yours. There’s already anecdotes about communities leaving their recycling bin out in the driveway so firefighters know to check into those properties to evacuate homeowners opting to protect their property, should it all go tits up. There’s advice about stuffing your socks with sand to clog your drainpipes so you can fill your roof gutters with water. (Thank goodness for Atticus’s sandpit!) There’s things about getting the flammables out of your home. But where do you put them otherwise? I have no idea.

Meanwhile, there’s a map to tell you if your home is bushfire prone. Our house technically isn’t… but every other street to the northeast of us is, so that’s cold comfort. I’m half planning for both an evacuation and the possibility of sitting tight in a home that’s still upright amidst a fire-affected city. I’m trying to figure out what to feed my family assuming that we lose power. (Tuna. And cold sandwiches. Two things my son loathes.) I’m trying to remember to withdraw enough cash because I heard about all the ATMs going down in one place and affected people, in a largely cashless society, basically stripping a supermarket bare out of desperation and running out because they can’t pay. I need to get a radio that runs on batteries, assuming we lose telecommunications and we need to know what the hell is going on. I’m stocking up on torches and batteries. I’m charging our power banks every night. I’m seriously thinking about buying a small power generator.

And if we were to evacuate, what do we leave behind? We don’t have a trailer, just a wagon. So it’s the important documents, and then jewellery and photos. The kids’ favourite toys. Clothes. Toiletries and feminine products. Dry shampoo in case you can’t drink or use the water. Food. Lots of water. Wool blankets because they’re fire retardant, unlike cotton. Sunscreen. Favourite pillows, if you can squeeze them in.

I keep wondering if I’m panicking, paranoid, or just preparing like a pragmatist.

I have been hoarding so many things of my cousin’s and mother’s since their deaths, but nothing quite distills what the truly sentimental things are when you’re faced with a wipe-out and a car boot that can only hold so much.

That’s pretty much us, at the moment. It’s hardly as nerve-wracking as my friend who runs a wildlife sanctuary in the path of looming infernos. It’s hardly as tricky as a young family in an evacuation centre with a newborn. It’s hardly as harrowing as watching your town flattened and the factory you work in or own, literally going up in smoke. To return and shoot the livestock you own and love that are half-burnt and in agony.

But it still preys on the mind. Even if we were to live in a bubble, there’s a myriad of pinpricks to remind us of this sword of Damocles. Two electrical substations went down in NSW, and now we’re being cautioned in Canberra to watch our energy use. We hit record-high temperatures yesterday in Sydney (48.9°C) and Canberra (44°C); Arddun and I, along with our friends, were in the mall yesterday to watch a movie and hide from the heat when all the screens went down at the same time from a suspected power outage or brown-out. Escalators in malls are turned off, many shops are closed. The postal service hasn’t been delivering mail for a few days now, so there goes everyone’s online order for face masks because the shops are continually out of stock from people panic-buying.

It’s the long school holidays in our territory, but our children’s vacation care provider just notified us today that they’re cancelling care all this week because of the smoke and the State of Alert. Two of the four universities here are closed for two weeks. They just cancelled flights to and from Canberra, because our bushfires are so insane, they’ve started creating their own weather. So now there’s pyrocumulus clouds, also known as “fire clouds”, which form fast and move quickly, creating gusty winds and thunderstorms. After a Qantas flight experienced poo-in-pants-inducing turbulence, they started cancelling flights today.

Meanwhile, we’re mostly staying indoors because face masks apparently aren’t recommended for children under 14. And the blame game has long started, so my social media is inundated with tales of heroism and blame-shifting in equal measure. There is solidarity, but there is also a lot of anger and defensiveness. I battle with frustration and a tinge of despair every day.

Pray, if you believe in it. Be specific and ask for rain, good bushfire quenching rain. We really, really need the rain. We’re in horrible drought, and certain places couldn’t even be saved because they ran out of water. As if that isn’t hard enough, the water reservoir burst in a town called Cooma yesterday and so their town got flooded. Cooma is right in the middle of that narrow corridor in the Leave zones. They needed that water in the event of a bushfire and now it’s gone. The heat is relentless, nothing like I’ve ever experienced in Singapore. Pray for rain.

And then donate. There’s so much to rebuild. I cannot imagine the havoc of rebuilding and insurance claims after this. I read on in disbelief when individuals on Twitter dismiss what’s going on in Australia, citing how huge our land is and how low the death count has been. The death count is low because we have processes in place to evacuate people. But then there was also a horrible period when the window of time to leave got abruptly cut short with changing weather and towns were stranded. I’ve read about people, unable to escape in their rural properties, who basically had to seek shelter and wait for the fires to pass over them. Imagine that kind of horror. I can’t.

5 reasons to migrate to Canberra

So you’re dead set on migrating to Australia, except you’re not sure where to land. Do you go for the usual suspects — Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide (in that order), or do you get really crazy and try the less beaten track?

australia-map

I moved to Canberra in July 2003, thinking it was going to be an 18-month tree change. Thirteen years later, I live to tell how the unlikeliest of cities grew on me and why I’m suggesting you give Canberra a try.

  1. Canberra is classified by Immigration as “Regional”

    Let’s start with the most practical of reasons: your visa. Canberra falls under the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme, which means choosing to come here gives you one extra option for your PR application. The Subclass 187 visa is a permanent residence visa for skilled workers who have been nominated by an employer to live and work in regional Australia. Under this visa, you usually will have to work and live in Canberra for a minimum of 2 years before you can stretch your exploring legs… but 2 years is a good length of time for you to figure out whether you and Canberra are secretly made for each other.

  2. It’s a glorified country town

    I say that a lot about Canberra, and I say that with huge affection for the place. If you’re a City person like me, Canberra is about as “country” as you can tahan before it starts to feel too ulu. It’s bushland with mod cons sprinkled with *some* decent shopping malls and food. It’s the Tree Change you crave with decent internet speeds and MUCH better coffee. It’s the intimacy of a small town (population ~350,000!) with the sophistication of a Capital city. And driving here is a breeze — even in peak hour traffic.

  3. We get four seasons here

    Yes. Winters are WINTERS, and Summers are SUMMERS. You get the extremes of temperatures here, which means you never get sick of the weather for too long. Winter is cold, I’ll grant you that. It goes down to the minuses — so you’re either now thinking, “SHIOK AH!” or already shivering at the prospect. I can assure you that the body acclimatises eventually, and a well-insulated house makes a world of difference. We also get a lot of sun in winter. It’ll be bright as anything during lunch time so you think, “I’ll just go for a walk!”, and then you step outside and it’s friggin’ ZERO. But winters are generally quite cheerful here.

    Spring is very pretty and it’s also what Canberra is know for, but Autumn really grabs my heart. Autumn here is like walking around outside in free air-conditioning EVERY SINGLE DAY. It’s perfect weather — dry, sunny but not too hot, and the air is fresh and crisp all year long. My lifelong sinuses cleared up here, as did my skin. Some months of the year, I hardly break a sweat. Singapore, you step outside the shower already, you have to turn around and shower again. Look forward to saving water here.

  4. It’s comfortable living

    The rest of Australia reacted with disbelief, scorn, and even outrage when the OECD did some number crunching and scored Canberra the most livable city in the world out of 362 regions in their member states. No kidding.

    Yes, such qualitative scoring does tend to exclude that other equally stirring yet inscrutable criterion: that certain je ne sais quoi — call it vibe, character, or soul. But against the OECD’s “wellbeing” yardsticks, Canberra does look good on paper, scoring over nine points out of a possible 10 for all eight of their indicators — Income, Health, Safety, Accessibility of Services, Civic Engagement, Education, Jobs, Environment. We scored a perfect ten for income, safety, and civic engagement. Canberrans have the highest income per capita, possess the highest education standards per capita, and live in bigger houses on average. And it hasn’t been a fluke judgement, by the way. We’ve been ranked the top for a couple of years now.

    In crucial ways then, Canberra is a lot like Singapore — it’s safe, it’s got a huge middle-class, it’s got a good healthcare network (albeit pricier), and its natives revere educated. Its land size is also similar to Singapore’s, perhaps fractionally bigger.

    I was told this rather bizarre fact the other day by two chefs: Canberra also has the highest number of restaurants per capita in Australia. As you can imagine, this last one is a hotly contested fact among the loud and proud Australian cities but the fact remains – the food scene here is growing.

    There are, of course, also huge differences between Singers and Canberra which I’ll leave for another post. But by and large, you won’t be in for too much of a culture shock in terms of living standards.

  5. Fellow Singaporeans are few and far between

    And this can be a good thing, and this can be a terrifying thing. It depends on you, lah. If you want to move from one crowded city filled with Singaporeans to another crowded city also filled with Singaporeans, then you might struggle here.

    But honestly hor… if you want to spend so much money and time and effort and braincells and heartache to upside-down your life and start over in a different land, only to hang out mostly with the same kind of kaki spouting the same kind of Singlish eating the same kind of food, then… you migrate for what?


I’ll be honest — Canberra isn’t for everyone. You might find the winters too bitterly cold for you, especially if the insulation in your home is crap. You might find the quiet too deafening, the stillness too cloying, the peace too dull.

flying-over-canberra
Canberra. Artificial, yet genuine. Photo credit: Woroni (http://www.woroni.com.au/)

Or you might chance upon that hidden underbelly of hipsterdom beneath the superficial layer of constipated Government blah this city is infamous for. You might gradually break through the seeming cool cordiality of its inhabitants to find them possessed of very warm, very generous, very witty centres. Canberra is stately and formal, and indie-chic and cheeky. It’s the country’s punching bag that rarely bothers to straighten the record or apologise for itself — mostly because it’s also rather secure and self-satisfied… and even a little smug. Yet something else us Singaporeans can identify with.

Any change as big as migration is going to result in culture shock and take some getting used to. But if you’re willing to give things a chance, Canberra can very pleasantly surprise.

Why I’ve started a Facebook Page

I’ve been blogging semi-regularly since I came to Canberra 13 years ago. To me, it has always been about keeping in touch with family and friends in Singapore and around the globe – an extension of my Facebook profile, really. A means of chronicling our moments and milestones, of keeping a loose scrapbook of my life in general and my children’s lives in particular.

And I dare say that for the most part, my blog will continue in that vein. I think having the children has sharpened the focus of my writing, and has in turn brought me a small but loyal following of readers within my family and friends. Thank you for keeping in touch all these years and for delighting in my delights. I love writing these open letters to you.

Continue reading “Why I’ve started a Facebook Page”

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