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When you move to Australia, you must work to understand it from the little things up

At home we take our sense of place for granted – when we emigrate, we have to create it

Within weeks of my arrival in Australia last August, the country held the voice referendum to recognise indigenous people in its constitution. Newly arrived as an immigrant in a country I had never even visited before, I mostly spent those few weeks trying to get my bearings.

Looking for a place to live before our temporary accommodation ran out. Figuring out which was the best brand of toilet paper and where I might find a good cup of coffee.

I had no understanding of Australia at all. When you’re new in a place, you must start working to understand it from the little things up.

You construct a sense of what every day looks like for you as a person who suddenly lives in another hemisphere, time zone and culture. It took almost three weeks for the intergalactic jet lag to lift and its attendant thick, insulating fur of utter bafflement to clear from the inside of my brain.

The jet lag is murderous.

It will have your knees randomly sending messages to your brain indicating that they’re simply done for the day. At 11 in the morning.

It will give you the distinct impression that you might die if you don’t get this itchy, too-small jumper off right now, except you’re not wearing a jumper. It will have you crouching in the shower reliving the time, 10 years ago, that you used the phrase ‘nip that right in the butt’ in a meeting at work and your boss had to explain the error to you in front of Celine from HR.

Once you know which bus to catch and where you can buy Panadol, socks and the other essential mundanities which comprise the dull weave of the tapestry that is daily life, you’re equipped to think about the bigger stuff.

Until that point, you feel slightly like a cornered, overstimulated animal who doesn’t yet know where to buy socks. You’re jumpy and confused, newly jarred by the fact that the elements of the day you could once cruise through on autopilot now involve active, conscious problem-solving and focus.

Your ignorance can be embarrassing. You don’t know anyone, or where anything is. The money looks a bit like Monopoly money to you and you squint at every note like your Granny doling out your annual birthday tenner to figure out what you’re paying with. You give up and tap your card every time instead.

You have no mental capacity for the bigger political, cultural or existential questions – you’re just trying not to get hit by a car because the rules of the road are different in Australia.

Seven months later, I now have a sense of the everyday stuff.

There was the five-month wait to get enrolled in the Australian healthcare system (this wasn’t all bad – it took almost as much time to gain a basic grasp of how it works).

I’ve found a GP and figured out my favourite local café. I know that when the green man beeps, cars can also still proceed through an intersection sometimes. I’m not entirely sure when or why that is, but I know to watch out for it to stave off the reaper. If I do make an error, at least I have access to healthcare now.

Given all this, I hope I’ll be forgiven for having had the epistemic humility (or panic-induced imperative) to know that as someone who was so recently arrived that they still smelled of plane food when Australia held the voice referendum, it was best to simply listen to the public conversation, but form no opinion.

For a new immigrant, there is a steep responsibility in getting acquainted with the country you’ve moved to. Its culture, its history and its mores. I was unequipped. It struck me as unimaginably arrogant to deign to tell the population of a country I had just arrived in how to conduct its business.

There was simply too much – everything, really – that I didn’t understand. And goodness knows Irish people are more keenly aware than most of the gully between the technical and legal change a Yes vote would institute and the change people might like to see.

A couple of weeks after my arrival, some Irish immigrants to Australia got in touch to encourage me to get involved in the conversation around Australia’s referendum and to potentially join them in some leafleting or take part in any way I could.

These people had only been in Australia a couple of years themselves, but seemed to feel comfortable enough in the objectivity of their position that they might tell Australians who could vote how best to use that vote.

I was uncomfortable, and it wasn’t the jet lag.

This is an element of the emigrant dilemma which has only sharpened as the months advance rather than softening. When you are welcomed into a country that isn’t your own, you want to contribute positively. Arguably, you have a duty to get involved, to immerse in the culture and to learn about the place where you now live. But when receive mode – which I am very much still in – shifts to upload mode, I don’t know. If it does at all.

The tragedy and the liberation of being an Irish emigrant in Australia is the separateness it necessarily lends you.

While you might feel part of and responsible for the historical legacy of your own country, and the ways it manifests in the present, it seems presumptuous to feel this for a place you arrived in a few months ago. It might be a mark of respect for the complexity of Australian history and culture to take a passive role for a while.

Yet, the longer you stay, the more this changes.

At home we take our sense of place for granted. When we emigrate, we have to create it.

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