It did not occur to me that Australia is in the southern hemisphere until a month before I took off. I literally knew nothing about the continent. All I knew was that I wanted to feel cast away and experience a different culture. This desire sounds blurry and ambiguous. There have been times when I doubted my decision— not fearing that I may fail to manage it, but wondering about the meaning. My mom told me that answers were to be found in the odyssey, not in the imagination or others’ words. Starting from June I made basic preparations and searched the internet for a suitable residence and other basic information. The tasks were not difficult for me, despite their apparent complexity. Though it is my first overseas sojourn, there was not much to fear because I thought I was well prepared for everything lying ahead.
After a ten-hour flight, I arrived at Sydney with a huge suitcase and waited for my Murrays bus to Canberra to arrive. On my way to Canberra, I looked out of the window all the way. It rained at first. Then in the late afternoon the sun shone through. The evening glow spread and diffused all around, with threads of red, orange and purple lights. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Both on the bus and in the field… At that time I realised it is a really different country. My sojourn may be quite unique.
I live off-campus. I get fewer chances to mingle with international students, but on the other hand, I am more exposed to different kinds of people. My landlord, Iain, came to the central bus station to pick me up. He was a kind old man. He took me to the shopping mall nearby. It was cloudy and cold outside, but Jamison Centre was bustling and busy, in clear contrast to shops nearby which closed at 4 p.m. There were many families around, enjoying their weekends. “This may be a vernacular picture unravelling”, I told myself. When it approached six, the sky dressed up its deep blue coat. Everything then became very quiet and tranquil. It felt quite special being in a remote country and observing how others lived their lives. I wasn’t homesick, but things were very different. Iain taught me many things, such as which supermarket offered the best prices, how to memorise the way home and so on. Ranging from the house facilities and nearby infrastructure such as shops and bus stops, I was taken good care of. Knowing that I have a terrible sense of direction, Iain gave me a map to help me explore the local area. It was still winter, but with the heater in my room and the care from Iain I was able to have a sound sleep that night.
The picture changed when I started my bus journey. There is only one route passing nearby, Route 40. I expected a romantic bus journey, travelling through the bush city with sunlight spots jumping around. What welcomed me was indeed a honeymoon period at first. I was excited to go to the university and sat at the bus stop very early in the morning. When I got on the bus, the driver greeted me with “how are you doing”. I answered with “Thank you, I am doing well” and a big smile. The smile was a disguise because I did not know how to continue the conversation. Later I figured out “how are you doing” was meant to break the ice in every occasion when people interacted with each other, even for a brief greeting on the bus. In the afternoon, I waited for bus going home at the station near the university. It was nearly thirty minutes before the bus came. I got the chance to chat with other students. One girl was from China, who came here when she was in high school. Another girl was from the US, who came here for postgraduate study in biology. They told me two good spots to visit, Lake Burley Griffin and the National Museum. They also told me briefly about their life stories. We had happy conversations, despite the fact that I was still confused about the meaning of shallow chitchats at that time. For the first week, I chatted with people in the bus stop every day. The honeymoon passed easily. What followed, however, was a tough battle with the bus timetable.
Route 40 comes roughly every 15 minutes at peak times, but every hour at off-peak times. I seldom met the people I talked to again after the first week, so the freshness of chatting faded away quickly for lack of deep communication. It takes me 5 minutes to walk from my home to the bus stop. I am terrible at waiting so I departed from the house only 7 minutes before the time the bus was supposed to come. Soon I discovered that the bus may come earlier and pass in front of my eyes and may be late by more than 15 minutes. If I did not walk out from the stop and wave to the driver, it would not even stop. If this was on a weekday, it was still tolerable. But missing a bus at the weekend means I have to wait for more than an hour. It took me two weeks to get used to the system and adjust my own schedule. No one told me that because I never asked. I thought I could handle it nicely, though the result was very frustrating at first.
I did not order my SIM card until the first Saturday after I arrived. I thought it would arrive soon, as the card company promised. Every day I would check the mailbox when I went out and came back. Two weeks passed before I finally decided to ask the card company’s customer service. They told me I should go to the Mitchell post office to see if it was there. This became another adventure for me. Out in the field, with no data on my phone, my direction blindness always got me into trouble. I got off the bus in Tuggeranong with the map after I misheard the station name which was announced with an unfamiliar Australian accent. After 15 minutes fruitless searching, I was told that the Mitchell post office was in another direction. It took me another hour to wait for the bus and to arrive at the destination. Then I was told at the shop that I had to go to the freight centre to get my SIM card letter. Another 45 minutes passed before I was informed that I should check with the SIM card company again because they were sure they had sent it out. I felt I was in a primitive era, receiving such a frustrating result after all the unproductive efforts. I thought that must be the most annoying day I had after I came to Australia. On my way to the bus station, a young lady pulled over to ask whether I want a lift. She told me she knew how I felt when she heard my story about the freight centre. She also said something that became an involuntary turning point in my attitude. “That is how the system runs”, she said, “it is annoying but sometimes we have to live with it”. I realised that there are some things I can’t control, but I can change my own attitude and accept the system. Although I literally waited for one hour and a half for the bus to take me home later on that day, I was not as displeased as before.
There are many stories between the bus and me. I learnt that I have to press the button on the bus to tell the driver I need to get off when it announces the stop number. Wasted time became a precious experience because I knew I would not waste it again missing the bus or waiting by the road side. I slowed down my pace to feel the breath of the city. I would head out of my house earlier and read a book at the stop, or simply enjoy the beauty of nature and the songs of birds, with my mind drifting. My heart gradually becomes as tranquil as Canberra.
The tension in my heart slowly eased. I became more comfortable with daily chats. Sometimes they could even surprise and enlighten me. There was one old man who always sat on the second row and got off the bus one stop before me. I have met him for several times before we started our bus conversations. His name is Jim. Close to retiring, he likes talking with different people. Once I asked him about one thing I have always been thinking about, isolation and connection. He said Australia is an isolated land yet people are still connected to the world through the internet and other communication. Many people come to Australia as globalisation continues. There are many different elements, such as the white culture, the Muslim faith and the Asian beliefs, trying to make peace in the land. Sometimes people even argue about the legal system to take care of different settlers. The blending is not always peaceful. Conflicts happen all the time because each culture is trying to preserve its own uniqueness. The way to solve the conflicts is to listen and communicate, which is how people connect with each other.
I believe there are deeper meanings in Jim’s words, yet currently what I can do is to reflect on my own journey. I enjoy being alone most of the time. My character is that I always try to explore by myself instead of asking people for help. To me, conversation plays more of a functional role to solve problems. As a result, I wouldn’t ask the way unless I couldn’t figure it out on my own. Sometimes I wouldn’t ask for suggestions before I learn a lesson by myself. I wouldn’t continue shallow and repetitive conversations because I regard them as a method to kill time. But if I approach others and ask for help, I can save a lot of time and feel at home earlier by empathising and sharing their stories. Connecting to others means confronting, blending and discovering. There may be conflicts and disagreements in beliefs, but these are indispensable to help me see the discrepancies and reflect on the self. In addition, it doesn’t necessarily mean compromising, but rather, it nurtures the mind and allows me a wider range of areas to think about when I am alone.
One night when I looked up into the sky, I discovered the beauty of night for the first time. Clear and high, decorated with bright stars, the sky became a tranquil picture. There was breeze blowing. It felt amazing to be alone in this occasion. I looked back on my journey so far and thought I knew what mom said. The meaning is to be found in the odyssey. If I do not actually live here, I would not know how it feels to live a peaceful and slow-paced life. I would not know how important it is to adjust my attitude on time and make peace with the surroundings. I would not know how to make daily interactions and connect to others then reflect on myself and my experience. This international experience has also brought me many challenges. I realise that developing a global perspective is more than adapting to any local culture, but rather in making peace with oneself. I appreciate this journey also because I tackled the problem that has confused me for a long time. I still enjoy being alone to think and contemplate, but I remember the verse of John Donne in Meditation XVII about gradually make sense of the meaning of connections. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
This is the front of my home in Canberra, surrounded by flowers and bushes.
This is a quiet conversation between an old man and a bird on a sunny afternoon near the lake.
About the author LIU Miaoling Catherine is a 3rd-year student majoring in Professional Accountancy. In the fall semester of 2015-16, she participated in an international exchange program at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.