Columns, Opinion

GANS: Fish Down Under swims into Australian community

Sydney, like many metropolises, is a huge city but a very small world.

I found this out the awkward way when my friends and I ended up at a 30-something-year-old’s birthday party in the garage of a quiet Sydney suburb. It was the beginning of the semester, and my friends had met a group of guys at a late-night bar hop who then invited us back to their house party.

Sorry, mom and dad, I know this sounds like the beginning of a college student’s horror story. But aren’t you glad to hear about it three months later?

When I walked into the garage, one of the guys offered us drinks. When he looked up and saw me, he just paused and stared.

“I know you,” he said to me. My heart stopped, and my head started racing. He knows me? How does he know me? I don’t think I know him. No, I definitely don’t know him. OK, this guy is either a serial killer or so high on drugs that he doesn’t realize I’m a total stranger. Time to go…

“You were on the Bankstown train today. Got off at St. Peters?” He asked casually, flashing an adorable million-dollar smile in my direction.

“Uhh … yes,” I replied, thinking about how romantic this scene would be if it were anything but real life.

“I wouldn’t have noticed you because you actually look pretty Australian” — wait, I do? — “but you were smiling. And no real Australian has a reason to smile on the train,” he said.

Well, first of all, buddy, come to Boston, ride around on the Green Line for a bit, and then tell me Sydney public transit doesn’t make you smile.

But more importantly, how had I managed to stick out like a sore thumb simply by riding the train? I was just venturing to a nearby suburb to explore a pop-up farmer’s market and a local neighborhood cafe.

I took pride in my independence, excited to see a new side of Sydney and delve into its inner-workings alone, without the blinders of my American study abroad program in the way. Unfortunately, my efforts to blend into Australian culture belly flopped.

All because of a damn smile.

As far as study abroad programs go, the Boston University Sydney Internship Program is about as sheltered from the “real Australian world” as you can get.

In many ways, we’re lucky. Leading up to our study abroad semester, we barely had to plan anything at all. BU arranged our housing, our roommate assignments, our class registration and our internships. When we got here on our first day, BU had clean sheets on our beds, a new towel for each of us and a kitchen fully stocked with dishes and appliances. As far as moving across the world goes, BU made it as simple as it could possibly be.

But as I watched my friend Paige search for an apartment and hastily register for classes for her semester abroad at the University of New South Wales, I actually envied her stress a little bit. Sure, she had a lot more to worry about, but in the week she had been in Australia, she had already interacted with the Australian university system more than I had in my first month.

So, as the weeks went on, I pushed myself every day to understand a new piece of Australian culture, whether it be through trying a new cafe, walking a new route home from work or having a conversation with a new person.

Little by little, I started to feel like I really understood this place, like it really was becoming another home to me. As long as I remind myself not to smile on trains, I could fit in here.

With only two weeks left in Australia, I look forward to the people I’ve yet to meet and the conversations I’ve yet to have. But I’m also immeasurably thankful for the people I have met.

I’m thankful for the Jewish guy that Paige and I met in a bar on my birthday. He ultimately invited us to join a group of Jewish young adults in the area, and I celebrated Purim for the first time since early my high school days.

I’m thankful for the dates I’ve been on here, and the chance I’ve had to meet men on Tinder without crass language or naked photo requests. Dating in Australia was more than just a romantic venture for me — it was a chance to understand how Australian dating culture works. And I’m no expert on dating, but American men could learn a few mild-mannered ways from their Australian counterparts.

I’m thankful for the friends I made during my trip to the Outback, specifically my friendship with CJ and Leanne, who love talking politics and history as much as I do. On my second night in the Outback, CJ and I stayed up late, roasting marshmallows by the campfire and talking about political systems. That night, I learned about Australian welfare, student loans and resources for the homeless. They were all things I’d learned about in my Australian social policy class, but it was different hearing about it from your everyday Australian citizen, rather than a professor.

And I’m of course thankful for my friends and mentors that I’ve made at the Parramatta Advertiser, where in just six weeks I’ve gone from being a complete stranger to Australian politics to at least having a baseline understanding of it. I’ve also learned so much about what it means to be a reporter in Australia, where the freedom of the press is not an explicitly stated constitutional right.

During these last two weeks, my focus remains on immersing myself in the community as much as possible. Despite all I’ve learned, I still have a ways to go and a million and one questions to answer.

Until my calendar says April 28 and I must bittersweetly board a plane to come home, I’ll continue to spend all my time and energy in my perfect little American-Australian limbo. I’ll continue absorbing as much as I can.

The BU Sydney Internship Program is undoubtedly sheltered, but when you put yourself out there and break out of the shelter, the rewards are invaluable.

So invaluable that I may even keep smiling on trains.

After all, I’ll be back on the screeching Green Line before I know it.

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