There are few places more mystifying to people than Australia. In fact, the only thing more mystifying to non-Australians is a black Australian. After living in Melbourne for 7.5 years, I now have an obsession with surfing, brunch and stand-up comedy and an accent that sounds like it’s been mauled by a Yeti.
In other words, Australia has made me healthier, more settled and, yes, boring as hell. I may be one latte addiction away from becoming that girl on Tinder who recites Marilyn Monroe quotes, fashioned from the same basic girl “cookie cutter” that made Kristen, Carrie and “Becky with the good hair.”
If you ask Melbournians what defines their culture, answers may include sport, fine dining, drinking alcohol or their bizarre, hipster-inspired obsession with coffee served by men with what I call “gourmet beards.” In fact, if you (like me) don’t drink coffee, you should probably start. Everything is decided over a coffee—from job offers to loan approvals.
When I leave Melbourne, I realize that mentioning Australia to people is a fantastic exercise in unveiling how little they know about the continent down under. That ignorance is often coupled with an ability to recite dated pop-culture references that are exhibited on television but rarely practiced by Aussies themselves.
I’ll never forget the time my Australian then-partner flew to Polk County, Fla., to meet my 80-something grandmother, and her husband popped out of the toilet, shook his hand and said, “Crocodile Dundee!”
Australia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. And Melbourne, which has been voted the most livable city on the planet the past six years in a row, is the capital for creativity, culinary delights and intellectualism. As in most developed countries that aren’t the United States, minimum wage is actually livable, vacation days are a minimum of four weeks per year, national health care and maternity leave are seen as inherent rights, and tertiary education is at least partially subsidized by the government with a payment system that puts U.S. student loans to shame.
Gun control, which was instituted after one of the worst mass shootings in history, is a source of bipartisan pride rather than bipartisan mudslinging.
Like most African Americans, African-American women in particular, I grew up with a healthy fear of medical bills, as well as walking down the street alone at night and worrying that becoming pregnant would essentially end my career. Now, as an African-American Australian, I cannot overstate the importance of being able to go to the doctor when I’m sick instead of waiting until I’m dying. Or the freedom of walking home from the grocery store at 10 p.m. on a Friday without being accosted. Or knowing that going to university won’t put me into crippling debt for the rest of my life. These are considerations on which I now refuse to compromise.
But if you want to live in a city with a high quality of living, be prepared to pay for it. This year, Melbourne’s median house price hit a record-breaking AU$826,000 (almost $650,000), confirming that homeownership is officially unobtainable for almost everyone. And according to Deutsche Bank global strategist Sanjeev Sanyal, Australia and Japan are the most expensive developed countries in the world. Australia charges $8.20 for a pint of beer, which is nearly double the price of beer in the United Kingdom, New Zealand or Germany.
(Of course, the litmus test for cost of living is beer. Or course it is.)
But quality of life isn’t determined just by dollars and cents (or even beer). For people of color, it is access to that quality of life, including work, and whether there is a progressive attitude toward diversity, inclusivity and acknowledgment of the country’s brutal colonial past.
Morayo Adeyami* is all too familiar with the price of admission. Her family migrated to Australia when she was just 7 years old. Born in Lagos, she says that her family moved to Melbourne for a better life, better education and better access to those resources.
Before she left Nigeria, most of Morayo’s exposure to white people had been through television. “There was definitely some culture shock,” she says, adding that suffering a lot of social isolation was part of that experience. Her family moved to the Melbourne suburb of Narre Warren when she was young, and they were the first family of color to live in the neighborhood. “Not even the first black family … the first family of color. The bullying was brutal,” she says.
As she got older, Morayo says, feelings of social isolation became normalized, something she noted when she returned to Nigeria for the first time at the age of 17.
“It was reverse culture shock, absolutely,” she says. “I started noticing the differences in attitudes about how I dress, and [in] gender norms.
“People are constantly in your face, throwing compliments or insults, without any regard,” she added. “By then, I got used to having my own space.”
Now, as a working adult, she finds that the awareness has shifted to professional spaces and environments. “I’m always the only black person … it’s all a bit more heightened because of my physical appearance.”
Australia, more than any other postcolonial, white-hegemonic country I’ve visited, has an unspoken demand that migrants abdicate their cultural past in order to assimilate into an Australian identity, one that excludes its First Nations peoples and disavows their rightful claim to the land, now policed with some of the strictest migration laws in the world.
So even though Morayo now has a multicultural community of friends and peers to support her, she notes that being pulled between cultures has left her feeling disconnected from both. “I don’t feel Nigerian or Australian,” she says. “I don’t care.”
Australia exists within a geopolitical vacuum and has one of the most casually accepted cultures of racism I’ve ever experienced. It’s a culture where refugees are held illegally in offshore detention camps, with minimal public outcry. It’s one that puts immigrants and other people in a hierarchy, where Southern Europeans are near the top, followed by Asians, African Americans and then Africans, Arabs and Aborigines (for whom their hatred burns eternal). But even though World War II gave Australia a certain reverence for Americans, including black ones, the fetishism and ignorance around race and diversity make even the most flippant “Hey, Macy Gray!” or “I love black men” comments all the more repugnant.
Given the above, combined with the mass incarceration of Aboriginal people—who continue to be imprisoned and die in police custody at alarmingly higher rates than non-Aboriginal people, even though they constitute only 3 percent of the population—progress and racial equality are things that I did not find in Australia.
But Joelle Wells is still searching. She moved from the U.S. to Melbourne in November 2016 because she had just finished school and wasn’t happy professionally.
“I’ve always wanted to travel abroad and visit Australia,” she says. And while last year’s U.S. presidential election had little to do with her decision, it seemed like the perfect time to put her money where her mouth was.
“The election wasn’t even the cherry on the sundae; it was the sprinkles,” she says matter-of-factly.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., and having lived all over the U.S., Wells says that her first impressions of Melbourne were a textbook lesson in culture shock.
“Oh, man; if I’m honest, my first impression was, ‘Oh my God; I’ve made a horrible mistake.’”
Expecting more diversity, Wells notes that not seeing many people who look like her has been an isolating experience, one that is gradually becoming better as she finds more of a community with which she can relate.
“It is not diverse here,” she says. “It’s diverse for Australia.”
The history of Australian immigration consists mostly of people of Western European descent, especially the English (white), Irish (whiter) and Scottish (snowflake). People of Southern European, Chinese and Indian descent come in a distant second. In fact, the White Australia Policy, which was enacted specifically to keep Australia white and British (after nearly wiping out its Aboriginal population), was abolished only in 1973 with the Racial Discrimination Act. And while that piece of legislation did change policy, the mindset of Australian culture has yet to catch up.
“Within the first two months of moving here, someone threw a rock at me and called me a monkey,” Wells says. “Right in the middle of the CBD [Central Business District].”
Despite that, after eight months of living in Melbourne, Wells says that she doesn’t feel like she’s made a mistake anymore. Her objectives for staying in Australia are largely economic: better health care, work prospects, gun control and safety. “I see the value in coming here. Melbourne has so many more opportunities than in America.”
And Clarence, who was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, and moved to Melbourne via Newcastle, Australia, in 2002, agrees wholeheartedly.
“I came to Melbourne looking for work and a place to study—and it seemed like every other Zimbabwean here was able to find a job,” he says.
Clarence says that he was influenced a lot by TV and movies: “I just wanted to live in a big city.” And Melbourne, with its orderly CBD and population of nearly 4.5 million residents, hit the mark.
After 15 years, having become a change manager at a bank, and now happily married with three kids, Clarence says that Zimbabwe shaped him as a teenager but that Melbourne has shaped him as an adult.
“How I think about things has been shaped more by Melbourne than Harare has—in a good way,” he says. “It’s shaped how open-minded I am.”
Though he’s made a life in Melbourne, Clarence notes that the change in the national discourse mirrors the xenophobic rhetoric echoed in other parts of the world.
“When I moved here, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on how different African immigrants are from everyone else,” he says. “But at some point in the last couple of years, there’s been a shift in how they cover the African community; the language that’s used now is inciting fear.”
He sees this as a direct influence of Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump in the U.S. “Those two scenarios have given people here who feel that way permission to express that they feel that way,” he says.
“But that’s always been part of Australia’s story,” he says, noting how xenophobic focus shifts from one wave of immigrants to another so effortlessly. “Now people feel like they have permission to be vocal about not wanting people who don’t look like them to come to this country. And that focus is more on Africans now.”
Still, both Clarence and Joelle note that the quality of life in Melbourne is infinitely better than where they come from, and so neither has a desire to move back, though they miss elements—especially the food. The advice they give mirrors Morayo’s: Network, build a community and be prepared to work hard. Finding good work that pays is essential to building your quality of life.
“And if you don’t drink coffee [or beer], you should probably start,” Clarence adds.
Beards also help.
*Name has been changed at subject’s request.