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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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Immigration

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.

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TTT – Going live, coming home

I know this is now two days late.

To be fair, I did start writing this on Thursday… Greenland time.

Better late than never, etc etc…


I don’t know whether it was the lack of sleep, my current gooey pregnancy hormones or the fact that I have the day off today, but I woke up this morning feeling a whole lot of Thankful. There’s a calm in me, wholesome and warm like freshly baked bread, and just as nourishing and welcome on this cool winter’s afternoon. I don’t usually gush about the good things in life, but there’s just something about today that makes my soul hum.

We’ve had Andrea and Ben over this last week from Singapore. Between blogging the hours away and immersing myself in their cheer and company, I chose the latter the way one savours a good meal and is loathe to let any morsel go to waste. They got on the coach this morning and even as I type, are on their way to Sydney to eat their weight in fresh seafood and work it off after with long walks around this hilly, bustling metropolis. I’m going to miss them, but I’m sure they have, in no small way, contributed to my sunny sense of wellness this day.

So here goes.

1) Going live, baby

After telling myself that I’d like to get out of web project management and try something else, I landed a part-time contract in April with a Christian organisation that I just could not refuse. It turned out to be an intense project full of twists and turns that required constant creative thinking and firefighting, and pushed me outside of my comfort zone. It’s not finished yet, but the first part of the product launched on our deadline despite crazy, crazy odds and yet another last-minute curve ball. Awed, inspired and grateful for the many hands on deck, but most of all touched by the graciousness I constantly encounter from others in this business.

It also meant I could enjoy the rest of the week with Andrea and Ben without this project hanging over my head and heart. Bliss!

2) Being at home with my homies

I remember one bible class lesson with Willie where she described how, decades into her marriage, she still feels about hanging out with her family of origin. That sense of sinking into that deep sigh of familiarity and knowing, “This, THIS  is my family”. Don’t get me wrong – Tony, Arddun, Boy Blob and I are a family. They are my family. And of course home is wherever they are. And I love Tony’s family too – his family of origin. The source code that explains his uniqueness.

But being with your own family of origin means dipping your whole being into the aaah-just-right waters of your genetic pool. It means never having to explain the history, because they were a part of it. It means saying a word to recall a lifetime, and to watch this sage-like recognition of where you’re coming from when you talk about a time and place.

I don’t think Ben, Andrea and I slept very much over the week, mostly because we were chatting so late into the nights, and then starting the day early-ish so we could spend more time with each other still. It didn’t take very long for Arddun to pick up where she left off with them in June last year. The second moment she got home from school on Friday – 9 hours after they’d departed for Sydney – she looked around the house before quietly asking, “Where’s Aunty Andy? And Uncle Ben?” And I know she misses them still.

(Sorry for funny colours. Was playing with filters.)

Andrea and Ben
Our visitors – “Uncle Ben” and “Aunty Andy”
Andrea doing Arddun's hair in the morning
Still waking up at the breakfast bar while Aunty Andy does her Elsa hair
Andrea and Arddun
Her Aunty Andy
Arddun climbing steep ladder to slide
Getting by with a little help from Ah Ben
Arddun solo down slide
Wheeeeee!
Arddun running out from slide
Again, again!
Andrea Arddun slide
Sliding down together is so much fun!

 

3) Seeing the world I’ve grown to love through appreciative eyes

I get a little teasing, mainly from Singaporeans, for choosing to live in Canberra. Partly because most of them have only heard about how quiet it is, but mostly because Canberra is about as different a city from Singapore as you can get. It’s 350,000 inhabitants “squished” in land area bigger than Singapore (including the latter’s islands and numerous land reclamation projects). It isn’t about shopping and food. It has four seasons including a real winter, a struggling public transportation system, and a lot of natural parkland and reserves. It’s quiet. Oh lord, it’s quiet. You can hear your thoughts here. You have room to breathe the freshest air blowing through from surrounding hills and ridgeland, and your sinuses and skin clear up because it’s dry and clean. You can see sheep and kangaroos grazing (though not together). You can build houses here. You can work hard here, you can slow down here, you can grow alongside your children and soak up their childhood. And because there aren’t so many people around, you can find yourself here – distinct, apart from the crowd, clear, lucid. Apprised of, but relatively sheltered from fads and trends and popular opinion. You can get clarity here. You can dream.

As with any home, you know its faults most of all – but you’d defend it to the ground if someone on the outside were to attack it. And until a few years ago, I guess I’d secretly regarded Canberra as a looooong staycation. But it’s been eleven years since I moved from Singapore, and I’m more content now than I’ve ever been in over a decade.

It’s a lifestyle – and a life choice – that is hard to explain, and even harder to embrace if you’re not looking for it. Tranquility can often be mistaken for boredom, and it took me a while – especially coming out of my twenties – to wind down the adrenaline junkie in me. I still pack too much in a day, and I still burn the candle on both ends to embrace all my interests. But I’m beginning to understand that a life without constant hyperventilative event and drama can be deeply satisfying.

(HUGE caveat: I’m not saying my Singaporean friends and loved ones are all dark and twisty adrenaline bunnies incapable of switching off and building fulfilling lives. Hardly. I’m just saying Canberra is starting to suit me, but it doesn’t suit everyone. Mostly because there are no durian parties here.)

This is a super long-winded way of me saying that it made my heart sing to see how Andrea and Ben truly appreciated this brown land I’ve come to call home. They found joy in the little things I find joy in – good food in surprising cafes, gorgeous views unassaulted by high-rise buildings, fresh produce, quirky shops. Freezing cold air juxtaposed with yummy hot chocolate, humongous stationery warehouses, a double-storey music store. Stretches of winding road enveloped in velvety darkness, supermarkets that stay open till midnight. Quiet traffic.

An almost-empty cinema and a brilliant movie playing while you’re nursing a glass of Prosecco. A surprise of wooden artistry in a forest of glass and concrete. Crazy playgrounds shaped like acorns, and a breathtaking expanse of land dedicated to the cultivation and conservation of the world’s trees.

A church that is small but intimate and loving. That trusts each other enough to lay down true burdens, that worships without fanfare (and sometimes without Powerpoint). That asks hard questions and is okay with diverse answers. That can be disorganised, but strives so hard to be patient with one another in love.

And then the ultimate compliment – that they can see why I live here. And that is heartwarming indeed.

Photo of Graham, Penny, Andrea and Ben (normal)
A posed shot with the Frys
Photo of Graham, Penny, Andrea and Ben (quirky)
That’s more like it
Andrea taking in view from arboretum
Andrea taking in the view of the arboretum

Happy Australia Day

Velle: You know that place in Queensland? Woolloomoolloo?

Tony: ?

Velle: Woondimoodi?

Tony: [Starting to grin]

Velle: Woondoomoondi?

Tony: [Grinning harder]

Velle: You know the one I’m talking about! Woondoo-something. Mindi?

Tony: [Laughing silently]

Velle: Or was it moon? Moon-something! Woondimoondi!

Tony: [Not even trying AT ALL to help.]

Velle: You know what I’m talking about! The one in Queensland!

Tony: Mmmmphf!

Velle: Come on! The one in Queensland! Windi! Windimoondi!

Tony: I know there’s a Goondiwindi…

Velle: YES! GOONDIWINDI! Anyway, Nicole’s* going there to do her prac.

 

And I thought Singapore street names were hard.

 

*Nicole = Tony’s cousin, currently doing a double major in nursing and midwifery.

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