Flying to Australia distorts your sense of time. You leave on one day, and arrive two days later in a foreign place where the time zone is sixteen hours ahead. Before going to Australia, you hear the country tangentially mentioned in the news, but Australia always seems like a country far away and beyond reach. When my plane touched down in Sydney at the end of the 15 hour flight, I was struck by Sydney’s vastness and large buildings. A two day trip away from the US landed me in a massive, sprawling city in a tropical environment.
The bus ride and walk to my apartment in Randwick, a suburb of Sydney, made me intensely regret my decision to wear sweatpants on the flight. After showering off gallons of sweat, I headed out into Randwick’s commercial district to grab lunch. On my walk through the quiet, green suburb, I was amazed by the view of Sydney I could experience while strolling through a quiet neighborhood. The presence of public transportation seemed vastly greater than the US, as multiple buses and railcars passed by me on my walk.
Randwick’s shopping centre contains a plethora of shops and businesses. I noticed a high quantity of chemists, Australia’s version of cheap pharmacies. There are more massage parlors and gyms than I am used to seeing in the US. Asian restaurants are everywhere in Randwick, and I decided to stop at a small ramen place for my first Australian lunch. The waitress warned me about the spice level of the broth, but I still was unprepared and my mouth burned for at least fifteen minutes before I could get up and pay the bill.
My mom had been freaking out before the trip because of all the news about the fires. The way CNN covers the story, you could easily think that Sydney is burning to the ground. Instead of a city burning down, I was met with a city of sunny skies and a scorching economy. Many Australians assured me that the entire army would be sent in if the fires got anywhere near reaching Sydney. A middle-aged Australian woman whom I met through my high school friend cynically assured me that I would be safe because Sydney has too much money for it to burn down. Meanwhile, the poorer rural areas are being decimated by fires. On some days, the air has smelled like a barbecue, but for the most part, the fires have not affected me.
After only a few interactions with Australians, I decided that the people are significantly nicer than in the United States. The worker at my school’s accommodation desk spent thirty minutes trying to help me to get Uber to work in Australia without making me feel like a clueless American. I have found the staff at restaurants and other businesses to be extremely friendly without being fake. The weather and people both are considerably warmer than I am used to in frigid New England.
It feels tempting to think of Australia as a utopia. Superior public transport, friendly people, a relaxed environment, and tropical weather made me seriously considering moving to Sydney after the first day. Of course, Australia is far from perfect. While the newly installed light rail in Randwick is an impressive piece of transport infrastructure, one Uber driver told me that the rail was long overdue after decades of overcrowding and traffic. An environmental protest occurred in Sydney less than two weeks after my arrival. Demonstrators gathered to rally against the government’s response to the fires. The prime minister recently took a vacation to Hawaii. Meanwhile, environmentally damaging fireworks were set off on New Year’s Eve, which was an extremely tone deaf move by the government.
My first class at the University of New South Wales, Aboriginal Sydney, focuses on the way in which Australia has long obscured the historical oppression and discrimination of Aboriginal people. While Europeans invaded Australia and fought with many hostile Aborigines, the history of European settlement has long been taught as peaceful and unopposed in Australian schools. Aboriginal people were not even recognized by the Australian government until 1967, and still trail behind white Australians in important measures of well-being such as infant mortality and life expectancy.
Seeing a place so far away from home with extraordinary strengths has made me think that the US can really improve in areas such as public transport and health. But the glaring issues with Aboriginal people and the environment shows that Australia is far from a utopia, but rather a complex society.