To jump ship or not to jump ship? The Migrant Experience

I’ll be the first to admit that the migrant experience varies considerably: if you arrive on these shores, indeed any shores, with enough gold bars to interest the US treasury, chances are you’ll have a swimmingly good time. Ploughing in feet first, you’ll find all the doors opened to you previously, still open, now wider, and then some. On the other hand, should you arrive with little more than a suitcase and appropriate working papers, then life will be as if once was, after the veneer of newness has worn off, complete with the same ol’ frustrations of being at the bottom of the pond, except if you’re eligible, they’ll be some tax-payer recompense, paid through Centrelink, to soften the blow. That, in a nutshell, is what most migrants encounter. Now for the burning questions, some of them thinly veiled protestations, I hear most often:

But isn’t Australia an egalitarian society?

Well, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? The truth is, we are a flattish society, in that I’d talk to the person beside me in the queue at Australia Post, perhaps even share a laugh with him or her about some trivial matter, but wouldn’t go so far as to invite the person over for tea, unless we belong to the same social strata; and yes, there is such a thing as social strata.

Having been a doctor’s wife for a good 12 years, I can tell you that I never socialised with the wives of HRH’s consultants while he was a resident or junior registrar. It’s not that they weren’t friendly or I wasn’t open to having new friends, but even within the same professional pool, there is a great disparity in incomes, and hence lifestyles, between those starting out and those already established.

While HRH was in training, my friends tended to be the spouses of other trainees. We all suffered the same neglect, enjoyed the same occasional perk of being tagged along to work conferences, all looked forward to the same green pasture we’d glimpsed when attending rare Consultant-hosted events.

So you see, Australian society, while not as egalitarian as one might think, is not intentionally discriminatory, unlike Asian society. In Asian society, it is an understood fact that those at the bottom and those at the top of the food chain, do not co-mingle, unless related by blood or marriage. Even then, co-mingling is ruled by one’s social status relative to the other. But this, my dear readers, is what has migrants – especially less educated ones – lured here by the promise of absolute social equality, disillusioned. They come here to get ahead only to find the same social obstacles to their progress.

But isn’t Australia about giving people a fair go (as in equal opportunity)?

Recently I received a comment from a new reader with regards to my post on the outcome to Australia’s Federal Election, bemoaning the discrimination one supposedly faces as an Australian-educated, Asian jobseeker. While discrimination does exist, it isn’t in all sectors of the job market and certainly not to the extent that one might presume from reading random stories in the news. Australians are generally fair-minded and if you have the goods, they’ll usually give you a go. However, as I pointed out to my new reader, even whiteys (as in white Australians), encounter great difficulty trying to land jobs in law and finance. This loops back to my earlier comment about “social obstacles.” For you to understand what they are, please read my post on the value of a private education.

The thing is, Asians think that the saying, “It’s not what you know but who you know” only applies in Asia when it clearly applies here as well. Moving with the times, I’ll add to that cleverly phrased sentiment by saying, “It’s not just what you know or who you know but who KNOWS YOU that matters.”

Of course, who knows you is hardly important if your skills are such that society can’t function without you. Except for the unicorn wunderkinds in each profession, we can’t all claim to be so indispensable, can we?

Why would I want to leave behind my family and friends then?

No one is holding a gun to your head saying that you have to but for my money, I think some people rather enjoy being as far away from family as they can – especially if family is controlling and meddlesome. I’m not referring myself, thank you very much, but inferring from the countless conversations I’ve had with other migrants. I live here because I enjoy the simple things one takes for granted growing up in a country like Australia, like safe streets, crisp, unpolluted, lung-fuls of air, clean water straight out of the taps, an uninterrupted supply of electricity, a dependable supply of untainted fruit and veg.

As I often tell anyone who will listen, public schools here are like private schools where I come from; the class sizes are half what they are in Malaysia, the number of classes for each year not even a third. In the schools my daughter has attended (okay, so we sent her to a private school for kinder), each class has a teacher and a teacher aid, proper-lighting, air-conditioning, computers, some have overhead-projectors and sound systems, parent volunteers to help with reading, trainee teachers to lighten the workload further. We have educational outings, school discos, a constantly replenished library, a multitude of “themed days” to encourage learning. When I was growing up in Malaysia there were close to 50 to a class, at least 8 or 9 other classes like mine, 1 teacher to each, and only chalk and talk. “Crowd control” was often unstinting use of physical punishment, from which none of us emerged into adulthood bruised or scarred or requiring counselling.

So how do I know if I’m suited to migration?

First things first: what do you want from it? If you come here expecting a Cinderella-transformation in lifestyle, you’re going to be left gnawing away on a rotten pumpkin. As you may have heard from family or friends who’ve already made the treacherous swim across from wherever they were originally, this is the land of Do-It-Yourself. Come prepared to take care of your day-to-day needs and you’ll be delighted by all the opportunities to show off and expand on your self-sufficiency. Come here expecting to be waited on by Yati and Maria (my mother’s favourite names for maids), and you’ll be humbled by what your income, hitherto perhaps large, can afford.

Most migrants I know live simply. Even those in pole position on the income charts don’t live as large as they would back in Asia. They might have cleaners visit their homes, but this is seldom more than once a week. Even if they eat out often, they rarely entertain in restaurants; something to note if you come visiting. For that reason, potlucks are very popular in migrant communities as almost everyone has something they are particularly good at making to contribute. Perhaps, when you are a migrant, what you miss most is not ostentatious restaurant fare – that’s widely available over here – but humble home cooking and the variety of delectable morsels from hawker stalls, which no one sells for lack of demand.