On the evening of August 14th, 1982, my parents, my sister and I packed up and left our home in Hong Kong to a country on the other side of the world that none of us had ever been to – permanently. That was 29 years ago and there is no doubt in my mind that, despite the ups and downs that my family has experienced over those years, and especially when we first arrived, that it was the best decision my parents ever made.
I don’t remember my initial reaction when being told of the move. All I remember is thinking how special we were and how exciting it was going to be. Back then, in the late 70s and early 80s, everyone was already either contemplating leaving Hong Kong, or had already left. It seems a little ridiculous now, perhaps, but back then, there were major concerns that once the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule, that the tiny country would become Communist and all democratic freedoms lost. Most people emigrated to the US or Canada, including my Dad’s side of the family back in the early 70s, but many also moved south to Australia.
I knew nothing about Australia at the time – only that they spoke English – little did I know then that Aussies actually speak ‘Strine 🙂 I didn’t know anything about koalas, kangaroos or didgeridoos. I had no idea how big or small the country was or that it was girt by sea (check out our National Anthem!). All I remember is the impression that we all had that westerners all lived in big mansions with lush green lawns in the backyard, possibly even with a pool.
I had not given any thought to what it would mean to say goodbye – to all my friends and, most importantly of all, to my grandparents. At age 10, moving to the other side of the world is just a big adventure. Packing up my worldly possessions was a painful process – I was not allowed to bring all my soft toys, although I was allowed to bring some. The one that I miss the most is a red puppy dog with white ears (well, they were pretty grey by the time we parted ways) which was my “chicken pox puppy” because my Dad had bought it for me from a street vendor when I had chicken pox. I think I was 3 or 4 at the time, but I remember that toy vividly. I wish I had a picture of it. When my nephew had chicken pox, I bought him a little puppy dog soft toy, too 🙂 But I digress.
There were plenty of family friends and relatives who came to the airport to see us off, although all I remember was my grandparents being there. It wasn’t until I was helping my Mum clean out my grandmother’s things in her flat in Hong Kong last year after her passing that I looked at photos from that night again and realised what a big farewell we got. It was the first time I had ever seen my grandfather cry. I think it was at that moment, as we said our “final” goodbyes to walk through the departure gates, that it hit me I might never see them again. I didn’t see them again for the next eight years.
It was a long flight from Hong Kong to Sydney – over eight hours long – and it was the longest flight I had ever been on at that time. In-flight entertainment was much simpler then. One giant screen at the front of the cabin in cattle class and you don’t get to choose what you watched. I have no recollection of any part of the flight but I’m sure I continued crying for a long time. I tend to get very emotional very easily.
We were picked up from the airport by one of my Mum’s cousins, who had come to Sydney with her husband and son (2 years younger than me) a couple of years earlier. How they squeezed seven people into their borrowed station wagon plus all our luggage I have no idea. I guess all three of us kids were very small back then so we didn’t take up much room, and seat belts were not compulsory so I guess that was how! I remember crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge when the toll was 20c and my little cousin insisted that his Dad went through the toll booth that was manned instead of the auto booth because he wanted to say g’day to the collector.
What were my first impressions of Australia? A lot of wide, open spaces. There were skyscrapers but nothing compared to the developments of Hong Kong, even as it was in 1982. I saw blue skies – just being able to see the sky was an extraordinary sight. There was a lot of grass, and better yet, we could walk on it without getting into trouble! There were no signs that warned “KEEP OFF THE GRASS”. The air was clean. People appeared friendly although their accent was hard to understand for those of us brought up on the Queen’s English and used to watching American TV shows.
A lot has happened since we landed in Sydney. We never lived in a big mansion with a big yard and I never got my own bedroom until after my sister got married (she still hasn’t got her own room – she said the two years she spent as an only child before I came along don’t count). There were good stories and bad, but mostly good, some of which I may share in the future. I will always have some connection to the country where I was born, but they say home is where the heart is. I have traveled a bit in my adult life, and the more of the world I see, the more I know for sure that my heart belongs right here in Sydney. Some day, this may change, but for the last 29 years, there has been nowhere else I would rather have been, and I don’t imagine this to change any time too soon. I hope Sydney loves me as much as I love it.