Home Among the Gumtrees
Tasha May explores the intricacies of her mixed Anglophone cultural background
When I’m asked, “where do you come from?” in Cambridge, I assume people have picked up on my definitely-not-British accent. I answer “Sydney” but soon have to untangle the knotty confusion that arises from meaning Sydney, Australia, not Sidney Sussex College.
Besides from New Zealand, Australia is pretty much as far away as it gets, but the distance from home never really makes itself felt until the bookends of term time. I remember the end of my first term, taking a break from packing up my room, having a cup of tea in my gyp and looking out the window. I saw parents helping their kids pack their cardboard boxes and suitcases into their cars, and knew that not only would I be making the several trips with my belongings to the Foundress basement storage space on my own, but ahead of me was a bus ride to London, making my way through airport security and the three hour wait before boarding time, the first ten hour flight to Hong Kong, another three hour layover before the final thirteen hour flight from Hong Kong to Sydney.
Airports are crowded places, but sometimes that only makes you feel lonelier. When I finally arrived back in Australia on December 4th (eager to finally be rid of the framed matriculation photo I had been transporting as carry-on and knocking people and things with for the last 36 hours) I was waiting in line to scan my passport for the final security check of my journey. However, I found I had to re-queue for the manual security check instead because the facial-recognition technology wouldn’t acknowledge my dishevelled appearance and bedraggled expression as belonging to the person whose picture appeared in my passport.
The end of a Cambridge term leaves you mentally exhausted, but my journey home proves a pretty physically draining one. I do not travel in style – I arrive back home sleep-deprived with bloodshot eyes, limbs that ache from standing in endless queues with a heavy backpack, a headache from screaming babies in the plane cabin and if I’m lucky enough, the cold the passenger next to me had. Sorry, rant over.
From my first time going home, I learnt that the distance does make itself felt in the physical act of getting from Cambridge to Sydney, and vice versa - yet strangely enough, the challenges I felt in Cambridge were more the adjustments common to all university students – transitioning from school to university learning, living in a college as opposed to with your family, and learning to get around a new city.
Cambridge was the one university I applied to outside of Australia (thinking, like a lot of applicants, I wouldn’t actually get in) – but never having been to the UK before accepting my place, the decision does seem rather reckless in retrospect. In the end though, I never really experienced any culture shock. Yes, England is not as sunny as Sydney, and I didn’t know what squash was and drank it undiluted in freshers’ week - but overall, as part of the Commonwealth, Australia retains a fairly strong cultural stamp from Britain.
To my surprise, I didn’t find the experience of being an international student in Cambridge alienating – or perhaps no more alienating than the sense of being a bit different or ‘foreign’ that I’ve always been used to. I was born in Sydney and lived my entire life there until beginning university in the UK, but having a (very talkative and loud) American mother and spending my early primary education at Sydney’s International French School had a particularly distorting effect upon my accent.
One’s accent, like one’s outward appearance, is something that can immediately signal difference and it was something people around me picked up on before I was even aware of the concept of an accent. Having assumed I sounded like everyone else did, it was only gradually that I was made aware of my hybrid inflection when I moved to an Australian school. “Where are you from?” and “how long are you here for?” are questions I have long been used to answering. My accent mostly gets taken for American in Australia and the UK, sounds British to Americans, and there are always some odd guesses in between like Irish and Swedish – but it only ever gets recognised as vaguely Australian in the aftermath of me telling people that’s where I’m from.
In spite of this, Australia is definitely my home; but it’s often in the spaces free of human voices, amidst the Australian landscape itself – taking my dogs for a walk in the park outside my house and hearing kookaburras’ cries predicting rain, or hiking in the bush on the Central Coast where my family has spent every summer holiday that I can remember, shaded by gum trees and great cavernous red rocks – that I feel most at home. •
Tasha May is a first-year English Literature student, and is on the Pembroke Street editorial team.