4 years in Oz

I moved to Oz back in October 2011. That means I’ve been here for almost four years.

Much has happened in four years, so let’s start from the beginning.

Let’s begin with the why I moved here in the first place. After we moved to Alcântara, our lives became too monotonous. It was even more intense considering where we had come from. Going from off the grid awesomeness to a heteronauseating couple life started to grind on us. Over time, it eroded the good and we decided to move. By then the GFC had hit and the right wing party was about to get elected. That was my wake up call. I did some financial forecasting on our big white board wall. I was about to get effectively poorer every year. Being in my late twenties with no possessions or responsibilities, I felt there had to be more out there for me.

My first thought was academia and robotics, one of my great passions. I contacted my masters advisor and he suggested Tohoku uni in Sendai. I started an intensive Japanese course and was absolutely determined to go. Meanwhile, T started planning her trip to Berlin and learning German. We were always a good team, and even when we were about to go our separate ways, we supported and helped each other.

Within my first month of learning Japanese, the big tsunami hit Sendai, the big nuclear accident happened and I began to question whether it was a good idea to go. I had consulted with my advisor on studying Japan, but now I had to figure out what to do. I went through my options. Being the shallow and practical person that I am, I prioritised money and weather. Australia came up top, especially with A being there to help me if I needed. This became my backup plan. I shifted my job hunting/course hunting to Australia. I also set my departure to 6 months from then. Either I’d get a job or go on a holiday, but the flight was booked—with or without visa.

Job-wise, I started with academia. I sent dozens of emails to professors all over Australia with different project ideas that I had. These emails may have been a bit overly creative, since in about 20 emails sent to 4 or 5 universities I only got one (negative) response. That settled my chances in uni. I moved on to trying to work at universities anyway, as a technical assistant or lab aide. That didn’t work either, my few applications all got denied. My last resort was to try to find a job in the industry I was already in—IT. I went on seek and started applying. I applied to jobs every day, some days one or two, some days up to ten. Meanwhile, I started doing my IELTS certificate and medicals so I could get a visa in Oz. Most of this was paid on my credit card. My credit card would become the greatest enabler of my Australian adventure, which is kind of ironic coming from an anarchist like myself.

It quickly became clear that despite my skill Oz companies weren’t exactly welcoming. I always sent customised cover letters with each application, but in about 50 applications only 3 companies replied and only one asked for a remote interview. I logged into Skype early in the morning with my dreads tied back and had a great interview with the company I work for at the moment. They worked in education and travelling—two things I absolutely love. They were also a step up in terms of technology versus where I was. At least that’s what I thought. I was also impressed by the test they sent me—it was quite deep and extensive. I got something like a 6 out of 10 with compliments to my skill. Great—a place where I can learn the trade better. I taught myself the needed frameworks and prepared to join a mature company doing cutting edge technology in one of the highest rolling business cities in the world. They offered to sponsor me, but had me pay half of the visa. My credit card was there for me, yet again. By now, expenses had gone over $3000.

As soon as I landed, A and E picked me up. It was all too familiar. Sydney looked like a dirty and sunny version of the UK, and the place I moved to was pretty much another anarchist open space. Some things changed, but not that many. I had my first ever aussie meal at the Vic down the road—a t-bone steak. I had seen them in cartoons but they are so disappointing in reality—even with the neat little bit of bone in them.

I’d be lying if I said I moved here only for the money. I moved here to escape what felt like a slow decay into routine, a right wing government promising austerity, and perhaps in a way to chase a time when I was living creatively and freely as well, and my emails with A reinforced that. I found a bit of that life again at the warehouse project she was starting with a few other artists. I accidentally stumbled into the cool lefty bit of Sydney and it kept me sane. I experienced street parties, warehouse parties, got to meet incredible musicians and host people again. My personal life was good. Celibate, but good.

At the office, I realised how incredibly good my education had been. I also realised how advanced our tech was at my former company. I distinctly remember coming in and being taught the basics of our product. My manager, a lovely guy from the UK on a 457 visa as myself, opened a browser window and all I saw was a blank screen with colourful tabs. Nothing. The big cloud company I joined was smoke and mirrors. The app was barely started and the version I was shown as the ‘mock-up’ was a mishmash of plug-ins put together most likely to secure funding. One of the lead developers was already on his way out. This, I thought, is what it’s like when you have lots of money and start a business. You can afford to be inefficient. The lead developer, also on a 457, was an older, very talented guy supremely passionate about programming. I consider him one of my great mentors in my trajectory as a developer. At first, I loved that the company was incredibly multicultural. Pakistan, China, Germany, France, UK, Bhutan and now Portugal. What I didn’t realise is that most of them were also on a 457 visa.

By now you must’ve begun to wonder why I keep mentioning the visa number. It was when I realised what this visa actually meant that my understanding of my own working conditions shifted dramatically. It was the beginning of my emancipation as a migrant worker, and my first experience of loss of privilege ever in my life. A 457 visa is an agreement between employer and migrant that states the migrant can only work for them and if they decide to change jobs, they automatically lose eligibility to work and have 3 months to leave the country. Since a new 457 visa takes at least 3 months, it creates a situation where the migrant will have to be illegal if they want to find a new job. Companies offering 457 visas will quite often offer lower wages to migrants with the bait that they get access to the local job market. In practise, companies save big money by hiring migrants that accept lower wages than other workers. In that company alone there were 5 engineers on a 457. Considering that an engineer in those conditions will make some ~$20000 less that the equivalent Australian worker, the company I joined was effectively saving some $100000 by hiring migrants. While this is a natural process of opening borders and migrant workers, there is another, perhaps more pernicious aspect of being on a 457 visa. Everyone on a 457 lives with the constant fear of being fired. If you are fired, you have to pack up and go. For someone who never worked as a migrant, this might not seem like a big deal. But we have to remember migrants change countries for a reason, and it is probably not because they want to go back to their home countries. Working in constant fear of being fired and sent back home means it is very hard to have healthy work relationships. The power differential between employer and employee becomes too big.

This might sound fictional, but I witnessed 3 situations of migrant injustice in this very company. The first, and perhaps most dramatic, was that of my manager. He had come to Oz on a working holiday like many Brits do. While travelling and doing farm work, he fell in love with a German girl and decided to stick around. He found this sponsorship and became the company’s project manager. They lived a comfortable life in a nice suburb and had twins. But in his job things weren’t as easy. Imagine having to make tough decisions and put your foot down with company execs while fearing having to be sent home. That’s exactly what happened. Managing projects on a low salary is bad—especially when you start realising your value in Sydney’s tech industry. One meeting, he went to the execs for financial aid and they said no. He broke down and said he was struggling and had even thought of going back. The CEO turned to him and said “why don’t you go back to the UK?” Him, his wife and two daughters now had 3 months to leave the country. Things aren’t as black and white, but to me there is a clear narrative of power and exploitation.

The two other situations were similar—both employees wanted to become residents. One thing that is expected when you’re in a 457 is that your company will at some point nominate you for a residency. The problem here is that, unless the company has good ethics, there is little incentive to nominate in the first place—from then on your employees can quit straight away. Both of them pressured the execs for a residency and ended up quitting. Luckily, in their case, they found sponsors again. Little did any of them know the company couldn’t actually offer a nomination for residency anyway. They didn’t even have the paperwork done for it. They had been playing all these workers when they could never have offered a residency in the first place.

In my case, being the mercenary that I’ve always been when it comes to business, I started working on my residency plans without telling my employers. Once I saw what happened to my manager, I knew there was no chance this company would make my 457 turn into a residency. My visa still had 2 years in it, so I contacted a visa agent and began the process of residency independently. The whole lot of paperwork meant another $7500, which put together with my 457 visa costs put the total price of my little adventure in Oz at over $10000. That is a lot of money for someone that in Europe barely made that in a year. Needless to say, credit cards to the rescue and I finally got my residency last year.

I thought once I’d get my residency I’d insta-quit. Truth is once I got to talk to my employers about my visa status, their attitudes changed. I started being upfront about what was going on with the project and instead of getting fired, I got promoted. In a twist of fate, I was given a systems architect job plus a lead developer job plus a 10% raise. Unfortunately, raising 10% on a salary that is 70% of what it should be isn’t much of a raise. I still make more than most friends I have here, so I’m doing pretty well for someone who landed with nothing but a bag and bagpipes. This professional adventure is still going, but I’m in a totally different game now. Whether that lasts is a different story, but I’ve effectively become much more than a developer, and it shows. I get job offers every week. Seems like I moved here in the right moment.

But work wasn’t the only thing that happened during these four years. Another two, perhaps even more important to me, were my introduction into Aikido and Irish music.

I was already into Aikido in Lisboa. It was something that drew me in mainly because of its aesthetics and non-violent philosophy. Unfortunately, in Lisboa my life was far too chaotic to join any martial arts club. After witnessing so much violence in my every day life while squatting, plus my pathetic encounter with the two neo-nazis, I felt it was time to learn how to defend myself. I had no interest in knowing how to attack, but I thought protecting myself was very important. ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’ said Mike Tyson, and I got punched in the face and realised I did, in fact, have no plan either.

After a few months in Australia I realised the environment was much more violent that in Lisbon. People drank in similar quantities but instead of being happy they ended up in a violent stupor. Considering most Australians are bigger than me, I felt it was time. I had the money and the time so I searched for clubs around my area. The club near the warehouse ended up being run by instructors that worked in Japan, so I thought it was a good sign. I didn’t really know it was Yoshinkan, or that I’d end up in a martial environment just like my days of kayak-polo.

My instructors were strict but kind. I’ve always dealt well with strictness and found the whole martial environment to be quite soothing. Bowing, mantras, meditating. The absolute structure of grades, belts, sequencing, steps. Even the techniques themselves were broken down into kata, basic movements that are like an alphabet. This is a distinct aspect of Yoshinkan versus other Aikido families. In Yoshinkan, you must first learn the basic movements and endure years of kata pratice before you can start doing full techniques. I’m all the way up to 2nd kyu and have only really began doing Aikido now.

Perhaps the best moment I had in Aikido was this past year, and it was then that I realised I really loved doing it. When we train, we always train with a partner and switch between uke and shite, the one who attacks (and is therefore defeated) and the one who defends (the one who is applying the technique). At seminars I’d hear that you were meant to make your uke feel happy. For me, it was always a struggle. I hate hurting other people and for a long time my technique was harsh and painful. But some time last year, along with my residency and weight off my shoulders, came a much lighter Aikido. I started throwing my _uke_s hard but they would pop back up smiling. I was stunned. I was making people happy while defending myself from their attack. That’s when I knew I wanted to keep training. Nowadays I train around five times a week. I made many friends and overall, I’d say Aikido has made me a much happier and stronger person. I also like to think it has made me a better person, but it’s hard to be the judge of that. I do know my self control, posture and attitude in any situation is completely different. I stand straight, look people in the eye and preserve my dignity in every moment. Something that I had lost over the years to a bohemian and often self-debilitating lifestyle.

I still feel my journey in Aikido is just starting, but it has given me much more than I could imagine.

One of the most pathetic experiences I had in Oz was that of auditioning for a local Portuguese folk group. While I was living in the warehouse, I tried find musicians everywhere. I had my pipes with me and thought there’d be some kind of folk music group in Sydney, especially considering the Portuguese neighbourhood was right around the corner. I emailed them, got a reply and dropped by for some tunes.

The place itself is a football oval with some barbecues and a big dance hall and restaurant. I had been there before with A and E for a thank you dinner. This time, I showed up and the first thing they said to me was that I had to cut my hair. Strike 1. Then they told me they didn’t know the instrument and had to google it. What. The main Portuguese folk group in Sydney didn’t know gaita. Then I played a couple of tunes and they were horrified. They couldn’t hear their accordeons! Kids were laughing and the only person in that whole group that said anything sane was an old man who remembered the pipers back in his day. Needless to say I walked out and have never gone back.

This was heartbreaking for me. I had spent a lot of time learning traditional music and was hoping to continue to learn it in Sydney. What I found instead was a conservative community that knew little of what had been done in folk since the 50s. I kept searching in other places. Festivals, online communities. Until one day I decided to try an Irish session at Kelly’s, a local pub. I knew maybe one or two session tunes, but at least there they had to know the pipes.

I went in on a Sunday around 8pm and no one was there. I asked the bartender and he said maybe another hour and they’d come. I went and grabbed myself dinner on King street across the road at a Chinese place. Once I came back, I bought myself a pint and sat near the musicians just to hear the music. Surprisingly, one of them said immediately ‘What’s in the bag?’ ‘Bagpipes’, I said. They invited me to sit with them and welcomed me to the session. Kind, honest and straightforward musicians who, above all else, just want to hear good music. I played a few tunes and they played along. It was absolutely amazing for me. It was like I had been sinking deeper and deeper into a lifeless (or music-less) pit but now I had come up for air. My lungs were full again. I decided this was where musical inclusivity was at, and set the goal of learning more Irish music. I went online and bought myself a low whistle, since my high whisle was far too annoying.

One day, at home with a friend, S, we were after things to do on a Sunday. I googled and found that there was a Session on for beginners. I called them and they said I could join, so I did. I’ve been going ever since, for at least three years now. I went from having maybe two session tunes to about a hundred, went from playing slowly once a week to playing at speed twice a week with professional musicians. I still go to slow sessions, and I’m far from what you’d call a standard level session musician, but I can lead a tune or a set, and most importantly, have found a community that welcomed me. It’s unfortunate that it had to be another migrant community instead of my own, but then again I’m not a fan of nationality anyway.

My dedication solidified a few months ago when I bought my first Irish flute. A cheap 70 quid Dixon, but still quite playable. I play every day now. Music has always been a big part of my life, but now I play in public every week, some times for a crowd. I never thought the music I’d end up revelling in would be Irish music, but there it is. My reward for paying off all my debt for staying, once I finally do it, will be a decent flute. At least that’s what present me is saying.

In an attempt to avoid complete social collapse, as soon as I moved here I tried many scenes before finding the music scene I love. Warehouse parties, game shops, philosophy meet ups. If some say the Internet has made us more lonely, I’d add to that that it has also given us the tools to explore all kinds of social circles we’d never hear about. I’ve always loved visiting small scenes and seeing how different they can be even within the same city. I think in a way it has always been my novelty-seeking drive. Be it travelling or people I am constantly in a state of wanderlust. Even romantically, the process is the same. It is no surprise, therefore, that I ended up using the Internet for that as well.

For the first two years I lived here I was absolutely celibate. I didn’t understand what was going on or why people were so rude to each other. It was only after I started dating online that I realised in Oz flirting and intimacy work the other way around. They are rude to the people they like and are intimate with, and polite with people they hate. This was very hard to navigate, and it still is, which means my relationships here haven’t lasted long. Maybe English is just too different for me and I’m still adjusting, but I find it hard to get used to insults being equivalent to flirtation. Sydney is a very romantic city full of unromantic people. It can be quite disheartening. Even if you are a feminist and a leftist, it doesn’t mean romance is all bad.

Luckily, now that I’ve had enough time to adjust to the inflections and sarcasm, things have been going a bit better. I still date online once every now and then, once the trauma from all the bad previous dates wears off. I’ve come to realise I actually enjoy dating. It makes things easier. If a date goes well, you either end up with a friend or a lover, but from the get go you both know you are both looking. That is a huge difference from the nearly impossible maze of ambiguities I grew up with. While in most cases I don’t like the Anglo pragmatism, this is one situation where I thing it’s useful. There is nothing better than everyone being clear about what they want and what they don’t want. I’ve gotten many rejection messages, but they make my life easier in finding non-rejections. Overall, though, I think my relationships so far have been incredibly positive and generous, and the one I’m presently in has been great.

I can’t really talk about the future but I can talk about the present. I came here to have a sense that I was in some kind of ascension towards a better me and every day I feel like that is happening. I think that is a good sign, even if winging is as Aussie as being a migrant. But for me the real question remains—would have I not have found the same feelings of ascension and self-improvement back home? It’s hard to say. One thing that makes a lot of difference is how little I work versus how much I get paid. I arrive home every day at 5.30pm and get paid about four times what I used to get paid. I can fly around the planet every year and experience much more. All of this has been enabled by money—money that is a consequence of my education and upbringing, but money nonetheless. I think some times it’s easy to forget how much financial independence makes room for the spirit—we no longer live under the permanent threat of housing insecurity, health insecurity or food insecurity. Obviously, in a healthy social state these fears wouldn’t exist in the first place, but that isn’t the world I live in.

Free time has allowed me to finally put down my thoughts in writing. I think that has been invaluable—I had always wanted to do it, but on a tighter schedule it’s much harder to do it.

Living in the lefty part of town has also taught me a lot about my privilege and head start. The easiest change in privilege levels happens on the plane here. I hop in in Lisboa as a white and land as an olive-skin, or as they say in police reports, Mediterranean appearance. My skin doesn’t change colour, obviously, but my race changes. I was brought up believing that I was white in opposition to all the migrant peoples in Portugal. But as soon as I encountered Anglo society, I realised I wasn’t. I’m not white enough in Australia for some places. Luckily, I’m white enough that it doesn’t lead to any loss of opportunity. Yes, I hear casual racism at times, but that is a small price to pay for my living standards.

Moving here also made me realise how much of my upbringing and education gave me a head start. I got my visa quickly, aced my English tests and saw nothing but open doors. Most of my migrant friends, either because they are darker than me or in non-scientific fields, end up having to do much more. But being a white-ish male has made my experience much easier.

But that also means I’ve become the much hated figure of the left—the well off white-ish male. Every date I go to is another guaranteed hour of privilege calibration. It no longer matters where I come from or how well off I may have been in the past. Here, I must always speak last and not say anything out of place. I had to learn how to speak without being sexist or dismissive. As I learned how to navigate the feminist sphere I began to realise how sexist my culture really was. This was another form of privilege I didn’t realise I had. For my whole life I had been shutting off people from the conversation. Being a much better feminist has also fixed a lot of misconceptions I had about gender, sexual orientation and race. It has been an incredible shift for me. I live a much happier life now—I saw the lens I was seeing my world through and managed to polish it up a bit.

In all fairness, I don’t think this is exclusively Australian, but it’s definitely a strong force in my social circles. Internationally, these pockets do end up being the same. But feminism also introduced me to the best form of hosting I ever was able to provide: safe-space hosting.

For a long time as a host, I inadvertently used my power as a host to be heard, and at rare occasions, to attract a guest. I didn’t really realise this was going on, but my understanding of power at the time ended at institutional and ideological power. Nothing about individual power had hit me. As a host, that power expressed itself in many different ways, and one of the problematic ways is developing romantic relationships with people that rely on you for their accommodation. This is absolutely not a good thing and I only realised it once I got deeper into feminist thinking. But once I did and analysed my hosting behaviour, I realised it was easy to fix that and provide a safe space without any problematic power imbalances.

I started by limiting the total number of people I host per month. This is exclusively for my own well-being. It is much easier to be present and kind when I’m rested. From there, it also means I can explain the power imbalance from the start, which makes my guests feel safe. I also started drawing an absolute line about dating anyone who is a guest. While this might sound a bit strange, hosting leads to a lot of situations where a guest will harass you. This is not mentioned that much in most hospex reviews because they are mostly written by guests. But speaking very frankly about my experience, when someone grabs your genitals it is very clear they are after something more than a bed. In the past, I was much more relaxed about the situation, framing it as people feeling free. Now, I am much more serious about boundaries, personal space and active consent. Active consent, it turns out, isn’t only to be practised by the host. Guests, too, should practise it. In every day hosting, I constantly have to remind my guests that it’s better to ask before grabbing my genitals or using my washer or painting on my wall. In the past, I let these things happen without realising how much they were affecting me. The experience of having the space around you shifting constantly is exciting, but it is also draining, especially when it relates to property damage or sexual assault. I’ve witnessed enough of it to know active consent is probably the best ethical technology I’ve used as a host.

My hosting habits haven’t changed much apart from that—I think being an actively feminist host has had very good results for me. My experiences have been much more humane—even if some of the people contacting me wanted to date me along with staying with me.

This is the past, so how about the future? I often get asked how long I’ll be staying. My answer used to be the end of my visa—that was my deadline to find an answer. My current answer is: I don’t have to answer that question any more. Being a resident has lifted that weight off my shoulders. I can stop worrying about geography and continue my happy and eudaimonic trajectory—least resistance and most enjoyment.

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