Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Great Expectations

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This week’s cold weather spell in Melbourne, with the mercury hitting a top of 10 degrees today, reminds me of how things felt like physically and emotionally upon my arrival to Australia as a new migrant close to a decade ago. It reminds me of one of my more colossal failures.

I arrived to Australia at an all time high. For the previous year and a half nothing could come between me and my efforts to move to Australia; I was at an all time high. What could go wrong?
Well, a lot did. As usual for problems of a colossal nature, it all came down to ignorance and stupidity. I assumed that Australia’s job market is the same as Israel’s only larger, because of the larger population. I assumed the culture is similar because both countries are generally Western secular countries. I assumed the weather would be alright because, hey, Australia is the sunburnt country (and it was nice and warm when I visited during summer). I assumed too much and did not stop to verify my assumptions are anywhere near real. I was supported by the cheers of everyone around me into a euphoric state of mind but that is no excuse; for all intents and purposes you could say I was a fool.

Then came the harsh reality, in various shapes and sizes. It did not take its time to slap me in the face without mercy:
  • Melbourne’s weather was the first to welcome me. Coming off Israeli spring I thought I had arrived at Antarctica. I was eternally cold (with a proper cold to boot during the first fortnight). There was more to it, though: it took me months to realize what an effect the eternal winter cloud cover has on me. It’s very rare for the sun to be completely hidden in Israel, yet during Melbourne winter you can spend weeks without a proper glimpse, especially when you're locked at an office for the bulk of the day.
  • My next slap came at the office. Office culture is totally different: people are so formally dressed at the office, suits and ties and all, that even the lowliest employee out-dresses the most conservative of Israeli CEOs. The dress code is just a mirror for the formal way of Aussie office affairs, where there is much less casual communication, where an employee’s mouth tends to be much more reserved around the boss, and where obidient observation of managers’ orders are the order of the day. Granted, Australia is not Germany; but it is also very far from the much more open (and thus creative) environment offered at Israel.
    The stupid thing about it is that Australians are not at all reserved and quiet; they just pretend to be so at the office so that they can maintain the illusion of running a show fit for a queen. Once outside the locker most inhibitions are abandoned.
  • Next it was culture. In order to get along with people in you usually have to descend to the lowest common denominators. That’s fairly easy in Israel, where security is a common fear and the vast majority serve in the army. In Melbourne these lowest denominators tend to be alcohol and footy (in other parts of Australia Aussie Rules is replaced with rugby).
    The problem is that both are totally foreign to me; in many respects, especially those that matter to most Aussies, I despise them. That is, I like my sports but I have a problem with violence and I also don’t see how one mercenary beating another should have an effect on my life other than me enjoying the spectacle. It obviously matters to the average Aussie, though. Sports is the official religion of Australia, yet I am a skeptic.
    Don’t get me started about alcohol, the pivot around which the majority of Aussie life revolves: in most circles, if you don’t drink you don’t exist. And I don’t drink, definitely not at the quantities regarded as normal by Aussie standards. You may think this position of mine shouldn't affect a new immigrant’s stand much, but it does: on my second day at work in Australia, my fourth day since landing, I had to deal with an office alcoholic harboring a thing or two against Jews/Israelis. Well hidden while sober, things took on a new twist once alcohol got in the mix.
  • Antisemitism is relatively rare in Australia although it definitely exists in the open (I recall waiting in line at the bank to hear a couple next to me discuss “Jewish businessmen” in less than favorable light). However, one of the biggest problems of contemporary Australia is the inherent xenophobia that’s simply rampant everywhere, felt by anyone who is not a Christian Anglo Saxon and especially new migrants (even though as a migrant it took me a while to identify the problem for what it is). Everybody appears nice and people smile at you, but the core is rotten. The stranger is not as well accepted as it should in a country with so much immigration, probably because immigration is only welcomed as means to improve the financial benefits of existing residents. To me it meant that my CV stood a much lesser chance of being looked at than a CV bearing a "proper" English sounding name.
  • I thus found myself in the midst of a professional crisis. After being forced to leave the first job, where this bloody foreigner was rejected by one business unit that didn’t like another telling it how to get along, I found myself unemployed for close to six months. Again, I was the fool: I assumed Australia’s IT market would be just as lively as Israel’s, when in fact what qualifies here for IT is mostly running government projects and running companies’ computers.
    There is hardly any high tech development here: there is no Intel designing and manufacturing chips and no international software companies employing thousands to write code. The closest you can get is small time consulting. I had to compromise my professional aspirations and my income expectations, and I had to adapt myself in order to become a potentially successful job seeker in the Australian IT market. It’s not as easy as it may seem, especially when there is no one to support you (which gives me another opportunity to express my utter contempts towards Australia’s IT recruitment industry).
  • Interestingly enough, state support for the unemployed in Australia is very poor. For a migrant it’s even poorer: you’re not allowed any proper form of support for the first two years of your arrival. Regardless, Australia’s reputation of lazy people getting their tans under the son is entirely unjustified: compared to European and Israeli standard, the unemployed as well as the rest of society’s weakest get nothing and a half here. If you lose your job you can quickly and all too easily find yourself in proper trouble with no one to help. You’d be on your own, like in that film Three Dollars.

You may think that doing nothing for six months is a nice luxury. I will tell you it isn’t. Here is my word of warning to those who think winning the lottery is great because they can retire to a life of doing nothing: doing nothing is bad for you. Doing nothing detaches you from the world around you. I suspect that doing nothing for so long got me into a proper state of depression, albeit a milder one that wasn’t too hard to recover from.
I will say this: doing nothing when you don’t know when you’d be able to start doing something again, when the hope of being able to start doing something again is fast dwindling, and when your fate is generally not in your own hands, has been the toughest mental challenge I ever had to contend with. Couple that with all the issues faced by a new immigrant thrown into the unfamiliar environment described above and you will see why I now consider my time of first arrival at Australia to be a colossal failure.
You can see why I am in no rush to try another migration adventure.

At the end I was rescued by people who cared for me, my partner and my brother in particular as well as many a few good men (and women). Yet the experience changed me forever.
I used to think that making enough of an effort will take one anywhere. That attitude took me to Australia, didn’t it? Now I think differently about this basic psyche of what commonly passes as The American Dream. Now I realize that circumstances matter: you can make all the effort in the world, but if circumstances don’t allow it you will never be the next Beethoven.
This realization made me much more caring to the wellbeing of others. Even those that don’t seem to be making an effort deserve my attention when it is clear that some people are in no position to make the effort in the first place. I realized that my own well being is tied down to the well being of others, because as long as there are those who suffer there are circumstances which could make me end up as one of them.
By now the probability of me suffering greatly for anything other than personal health related reasons is severely reduced, but the state of mind is there to stay. My Australian migration experience is responsible for making me a full fledged humanist.

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