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My 25th Australian Anniversary

September 1, 2011

The end of last month marked the 25th year since my family and I first arrived in Australia. Back in August 1986, I was a wide-eyed, super-short, very shy seven-year-old with a Rutland accent, long plaited hair, and frankly no idea where in the world Australia was. I knew we were “swapping lives” for a year with another family whose father, like my father, ran a second-hand bookshop. I knew this would go on for one year, which I vaguely understood to be a long time. I also understood that the journey to Australia would take around 24 hours. This seemed like an inordinate amount of time to me, and thus, as I remember it, my planning for our Australian adventure was wholly focused on how I would entertain myself for 24 hours on a plane.

Having safely reached Australia, my first impression was that the trees here were a very odd shape and colour. It seemed a very different world to the one I had known of English country towns and villages. The scale was bigger, the light was harsher, the buildings newer, and the roads much rougher. Most importantly to me though, it seemed the people were friendlier.

The children of Kangaroo Ground quickly taught me all I would need to know as a new-comer. First, I would need a team to barrack for. This was problematic. First, what on earth did “barracking” mean? What teams were there? And exactly what sport were we talking about anyway? For the sake of having a team, I became a North Melbourne supporter before I even saw the game of Aussie Rules played. This was all very strange for me. In England I was vaguely aware that other people followed football (soccer, that is), but I don’t think I had ever been asked if I supported a team in my life, and would have struggled to name one. The youth of Kangaroo Ground also offered me strict instruction into the proper pronunciation of Melbourne. My two new friends Megan and Lisa held my captive in their cubby house until they had taught me to say “Mel-bun” not “Mel-born”. It was for my own good. Gradually over the weeks and months I learnt the ropes. I learnt to ask for “textas” not “felt-tip pens” and for “sticky tape” and “‘pens”, not “sellotape” and “biros”. I was also taught that Australia was clearly a better place to live than England, for the obvious reason that only Australia has the Red Rooster fast food chain. Twenty-five years later, I’m inclined to agree that Australia is a better place to live than England, but happily I’ve still never eaten from Red Rooster.

The Aussie kids of Kangaroo Ground and Wattle Glen were a much more fashion and pop-culture oriented bunch than the children I had known. My clothes, which tended to be conservative and pretty (gingham dresses, plaid shirts and the like) were decidedly dowdy by Melbournian standards. I was instructed to get more colour in my wardrobe. This was 1986 – bright and clashing colours were big, as were bubble skirts, John Farnham and Kylie Minogue.  I made some concessions to fitting in. My plaits were lopped, and I remember excitedly choosing my first Aussie-style piece of clothing – a short and flouncy skirt with a black and white check overlayed with a pattern of almost flouro-coloured tropical fruits. I thought it was the height of fashion. However, I refused to fully assimilate. I watched the choreographed dances of my friends in ra-ra skirts from the sidelines, remaining deeply suspicious of the music of Kylie and co, and although I watched one episode of Neighbours, to see what the fuss was about, I simply didn’t get it. I was the only kid in Grade 3 that didn’t know all the words to the Neighbours theme.

Colonial Julia, Diamond Creek Town Fair, c.1986

Despite my stubborn refusal to wholly embrace the fashion and culture of Kangaroo Ground, the kids were a remarkably friendly and accepting bunch. We’ll never know if I would have embraced the bubble-skirt and the Minogues if I’d been Melbourne born and bred, but as it was, my oddities were excused due to my Englishness. The kids made it clear that they found my choices strange, but they were happy to be friends regardless. The primary school that I had attended in England had not been a nurturing place for me. As an incredibly shy and nervous child, the authoritarian style of that school, (remember the school attended by Roald Dahl’s Matilda anyone?), which included using humiliation as a major method of punishment, had led me to seek virtual invisibility. Although I was a hard-working and obedient child by nature, I was always afraid of doing something wrong. My days at that school were focused not on learning nor on having fun, but on getting through without being noticed.Wattle Glen Primary School could hardly have been more different – it was welcoming, nurturing and encouraging. The friendly staff and students gradually helped me to transform from being painfully shy, constantly anxious and terrified of authority to being shy but quietly confident, happy and playful, with a healthy suspicion of authority.

After returning briefly to England, my family and I returned to Melbourne as permanent residents in 1988, and I proudly took out Australian Citizenship in my teens. For me, Australia has been a welcoming country, where I have not only made a home, but also grown into a happier, healthier person than I suspect I would have in England. I consider myself extremely lucky to be here, and I will be forever grateful to the many people who welcomed me and taught me to be the slightly off-kilter Aussie that I am.

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