The first exhibition I visited when I arrived in Sydney in 2010 was called On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants. I stumbled across those gut-wrenching stories, and their tragically false promises of a better life, as I wandered alone around the city I was born in but hadn’t lived in since I was two. What I saw in those photos and letters at Australia’s National Maritime Museum wasn’t the land of milk and honey I’d dreamed of – that progressive, independent, free-spirited modern life my Australian mother fondly imbued in us as we grew up, oceans away. Instead, I saw a nation filled with people who had come against their will from far, far away, building their new lives on land owned and lived on by a people and culture pushed far, far from their homelands and the mainstream. Children torn from their parents, hearts broken across hemispheres and deserts and whole cultures disjointed from their song-guarded spiritual homes. How many lives in Australia are built on loneliness, I wondered?
They came by boat two centuries ago, they came by boat in the 1960s and they attempt to come by boat now. I came by plane, and I chose to come. But it doesn’t matter how we got here. The point is that the vast majority of us came from somewhere else – and, whether through family, or stories, or on paper or in feeling, are still entangled in that somewhere else.
My tight tangles come in the form of friends and family. My parents and a sister live in the UK, my parents-in-law live in Germany, another sister lives in Dubai. And so, my life, like so many lives in Australia, is partly held in place by a scaffold of planes and airports, bouts of jetlag and survival tips on travelling through the stratosphere in a speeding metal canister with two toddlers for 24 hours.
Covid-19 has thrown a spanner in the works. For some, this strange moment in time will forever be remembered by loneliness, as those living solo bounce around quiet apartments, tend to pot plants and Zoom family and friends. For others, it’s the utter opposite: their time, their body, their privacy all noisily sacrificed to family as they isolate together from the long tentacles of this kraken-like virus. They are living at work and at school and at home all at once and the end is nowhere in sight. For many, it’s far worse. Illness, intubation, loss and questions. For me, the pandemic has become about existing too far away.
Each English summer, I’d fly back with my babies and spend a few months with my mother, who has early-onset dementia, and my father, and my sisters and my German family. It was doable, back then, before a novel coronavirus wiped out the global air industry, closed borders and shut down the seemingly endless flow of people around the world. Before the viral age, airborne rivers of human bodies poured from Beijing to Tokyo to LA to London to Johannesburg to Abu Dhabi to Moscow to Istanbul to Calcutta. Aircraft hopped from city to city, over mountain ranges and deltas and family separation and detached friends and brought pieces of me together. It couldn’t – shouldn’t – have lasted as it was, pumping carbon into the atmosphere at the rate of knots, but I hadn’t expected those lifelines to dissolve quite so dramatically and indefinitely.
The upshot is that I’m trapped in a wonderful place that, to me, worked because of the planes that came in and out, and because of the borders that allowed me to travel freely. I came for work, for my Australian family, for the lifestyle, and I reconciled living 15,000km from my sick mother by telling myself I could be with her in less than 48 hours, if the worst came to the worst. Now, even if I could somehow abracadabra my way to Heathrow, I couldn’t get to her anyway – she’s been in strict isolation in her high-needs nursing home since March, no touch from her husband, no visits from her children, no scudding clouds overhead or smells of just rained-on concrete to break the monotony of her months.
Being from somewhere else is all I’ve ever known. I’m a classic third-culture kid – two parents from different sides of the world, bringing children up in a yet another range of countries and continents. I’m used to feeling a little dislocated, but this feeling, this new government-mandated isolation on a national scale, is different. With every slowly processed application to leave Australia, every new cap on the number of international arrivals, or every $3,000 hotel quarantine bill, the bubble of Australia – fighting fit but utterly cut off – becomes more suffocating.
I’m in good, if a little lost, company: 34% of Australia’s population over 15 years old – some 6.9 million people – were born overseas. Every one of my toddlers’ daycare friends has grandparents overseas. We all made this far-reaching life work, because we knew, if things went pear-shaped, we could be on a plane home within hours. That comfort has frittered away, like an air mattress deflating without warning. We can go, sure, but it takes an application to the government to leave, then a lottery to find flights to get back to Australia, then the expense and difficulty of hotel quarantine for a family of four. I have friends who are sick with worry about not being able to visit elderly relatives, and there are all the missed funerals, missed births, missed weddings and missed grandchildren – missed, because, although we choose to live with immense distance, the all-important option of being able to be there, if we so choose, has been ripped away. One friend, in Dubai, couldn’t be with her husband as he died in the Philippines.
Through it all, I’m hyper aware that my needs are few and my comforts are many. But, even for those who have been forced into physical or emotional exile, for those who have no financial power, for those whose worries are far more immediate than I’ll ever know, I sense the basic need for human touch, for family, for home – in whatever form – is universal.
For forced migrants who find themselves in a new place they never expected, but most especially the refugees and asylum seekers who are now held in detention, itself a cruel, trident-headed isolation from new beginnings, from society, from life, homesickness – if that’s what this is – on a massive and interminable scale is, I imagine, wrapped into the ordeal.
So, thanks to this coronavirus, the great global experiment that, in recent years, invited so many of us to call so many distant shores our homes has lost a little of its sheen. Perhaps this version of FIFO, cross-pollinated living, toes physically dipped into different cultures and lands and languages and opportunities, relying on planes and planes alone to fuel those rivers of workers, families, of snatched weeks of togetherness, wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Or perhaps things will spring back to form, contrails criss-crossing the planet, delivering jetlag, grumpy toddlers and huge, irreplaceable parental hugs sooner than I fear.
One of the funny things about all of this is the hyper-connectivity that has gone unabated, even accelerated. As vulnerable to cyber attack as our lives may be, our virtual lives can’t be directly touched by this particular virus. But, despite all the video calls, my body still, resolutely, remains stuck in Sydney.
These days, I sometimes feel I might have taken a wrong turn and ended up in one of those black-and-white images I saw hanging at the maritime museum in 2010. A self-orphaned child miles from her loved ones and unsure where to turn, carrying a face mask and a useless passport, waiting to be rescued. And feeling very, very far away.
But perhaps that’s the nature of our nation. With the help of planes and technology, we’ve learnt to forget that we live with the tyranny of distance, that our isolation is in-built and deeply shapes our collective soul. Loneliness is part of the Australian condition. But, if I’m feeling like this in a stint that we know to be temporary – god help us if it doesn’t turn out that way – then I have no idea what it must have felt like for those helpless migrant children, or for the millions who are forced to leap from all they’ve known, never to return home.
Because, I know, unlike so many from these lands and beyond, that I came by choice and I will, when things settle, be able to leave by choice, too.