Ciara Chow Arrives in Australia
After a day of traveling, I arrived Launceston, Tasmania at around 5 pm. Driving through the town with Amy, my exchange, and her mom, I jumped in my seat every time she turned left before reminding myself that Australians drive on the left side of the road and we were not going to get into a head-on collision with incoming traffic. After dinner with her family, the jet lag started to hit me and I quickly fell asleep. Over the next few days, I met several of Amy’s family members, some of whom had accents so strong that it hardly sounded like English.
Since arriving here, we’ve driven down to Hobart and spent a few days there, the state capital and at 250,000 people the most populous city in the state of Tasmania. Tasmania is a small island off the coast of Australia and has a total population of 500,000. For comparison, that’s about the size of our least populated state, Wyoming. However, I quite liked Hobart and we were even able to meet up for dinner with fellow Athenian Chloe Kass and her exchange’s family, who also goes to my exchange school. I spent the weekend shopping and exploring Hobart with Amy and her family. We drove to the top of Mount Wellington and caught a beautiful view of all of Tasmania with its green rolling hills, snowy mountain tops, islands, oceans and river. On the way back up to Launceston, we went to an animal sanctuary where we pet koalas and wombats and fed kangaroos, which I found very exciting!
A major difference between Tasmania and California is the amount of farms. California has tons of agriculture, but rarely do I see so much empty land full of green grass and trees, so much undeveloped land. In fact, it was the first thing I noticed when flying in. When you fly into SFO, you see endless city lights; in Launceston, it’s a landing strip amongst acres and acres of beautiful rural land.
Once I started going to school at Scotch Oakburn, the first obvious difference was the uniforms. I hadn’t thought about it too much beforehand, but on my first morning before school it dawned on me that even in the near freezing weather I’d have to wear an ill-fitting skirt and thin tights instead of a sweatshirt and Uggs. After a painstaking ten minutes of misbuttoning and fiddling with my tie, I was ready to face the day. Amy was in Melbourne getting her visa on the first day back to school, so I was really lucky to have Amy’s best friend Caitlin and Chloe to figure out my classes. My first class was with Chloe and when we saw it was dance, we both just laughed. The teacher encouraged us to participate, despite our polite objections and insistences that we were awful. In the end, however, we ending up having a great, if slightly cringe-worthy, time. Even then, we were still relieved to hear we could switch our electives.
Over the course of the next week, I met tons of people and teachers and desperately tried to match names to faces. Amy and Caitlin were eager to show me around and introduce me to their friends. It’s still a bit nerve-racking meeting new people all the time, but luckily I do have Chloe here and we’ve been trying our best to make friends with everyone we meet. In the process, I’ve been assured my accent sounds “very American,” told that only “bogans” wear Uggs outside here, and asked if I see celebrities all the time at home. On the other hand, I’ve also been asked if I like Donald Trump, will I move to Canada if he wins, and if all the gun violence scares me. I realized these questions had to come from people decently informed on American news, reminding me that the rest of the world does indeed watch our country and thus our actions hold global influence. Such experiences revealed to me the image the United States puts forth externally in the media and gave me a refreshed perspective on the issues our nation faces.
Some parts of life here are just the same as I am used to with my friends back home – everyone’s on social media, likes alternative music, and a lot of people have my sense of humor. But Amy and I also found several differences. Unlike living near Oakland and San Francisco where musicians regularly perform, going to a concert for Amy means flying out to Melbourne or Sydney for the weekend. The cost of living in a rural, environmentally-conscious state is a lack of cities and easy access to shopping. Whereas I got my license when I turned 16, Amy didn’t even get her “learner’s” (basically like an American permit) until age 16. We talked about how Aussie politics get so much less attention than America’s, even though Australia has had five Prime Minister elections in five years. I’ve also found out that her school, and Tasmania in general, has a lot less diversity than Athenian, but nonetheless has a strong interest in multiculturalism. They follow AFL (Australian Rules Football), NBA and even their school sports with such enthusiasm and excitement, making it quite a fun environment. Although Launceston is a bit smaller and quieter than I’m used to, overall it has been filled with friendly people, just like home.
Ciara Chow says Farewell to Australia
Over the course of my exchange at Scotch Oakburn, I’ve learned to be adaptable and resourceful, to appreciate different ways of life, as well as my own back home. Some aspects of Scotch, a Round Square school, felt Athenian-like, such as the value they put on multiculturalism and acceptance. Speakers came in to discuss how Australians should view the refugee crisis as an opportunity to help instead of as a cause for fear. The drama program emphasized the importance of LGBTQ+ acceptance through a play about a homophobic hate crime. In their classes, they discussed the importance of humanitarianism. In chapel, they extolled value of being both spiritual and a believer of science. Through annual camps, they instilled an appreciation for the natural world. I even noticed some education for democracy when students were invited to meet in groups with the Head of School and give honest feedback.
It was also apparent, however, that many teachers were more concerned with their students’ presentation than their performance. Students were chastised for wearing makeup, having shirts untucked, or wearing the wrong uniform jacket, but were allowed to slack in their academics. Many students skipped homework or behaved disrespectfully in class without consequence. Although it often made for an interesting and fun classroom atmosphere for me as an exchange, I can’t imagine trying to learn in such an environment. It has led me to appreciate Athenian students’ natural respect for teachers and classmates, as well as Athenian’s focus on academic rigor rather than superficial appearance. I have also learned how rare and valuable Athenian’s clique-less social culture is. This newfound appreciation and reinvigorated love for our “hippie liberal school” even has me a bit excited to return to Athenian for my junior year.
After six weeks in Tasmania, Amy’s family and I traveled to Sydney for my last weekend on exchange. Tasmania is absolutely stunning, with vibrant greenery and endless farmland; however, Sydney has the city wonders I am more familiar with. I repeatedly expressed my surprise at how clean, safe and beautiful the city felt. We shopped, climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset, marveled at the Sydney Opera House, and swam at Bondi Beach. I loved watching the expanse of the city lit up at night. I appreciated the familiar sounds of cars on freeways, as opposed to Tasmania’s two-lane highways. Although we didn’t have much time in Sydney, I soaked in every moment before getting on the plane this morning.
As I sit in my aisle seat, ten hours away from LAX and then another hour from the comforting aerial view of SFO, I believe exchange has been a growing experience for me. I’ve had to learn how to live in a new household and adapt to a different dynamic. It has reminded me how hard it can be to be new. I’ll be sure to express the same compassion and open arms to the next round of exchanges at Athenian as the people I met at Scotch. My bond with Amy grows closer every day. It feels almost as if she is my slightly younger sister, making it exciting for me to get to show her how I live too. Exchange has humbled me and inspired me to be a more empathetic and friendlier person.
On a final note, I would like to thank Amy, her family and everyone in Australia who has been so kind and helpful to me (and Chloe) as we tried to make sense of a new place and new culture. A special thank you to Caitlin for her open heart and constant willingness to listen to all our rap music. And, of course, a big thank you to my family and friends back home for giving me a great place to come home to, one that I can appreciate more fully now. I can’t wait for Amy to experience all the diversity, entertainment, and differences from Tassie that California has to offer.
Sydney is rated the second friendliest city on Earth, and I truly believe it. Aussies are some of the most selfless and helpful people I’ve ever encountered. That became crystal clear on my very last day in Sydney. I took the bus alone into an unfamiliar neighborhood to get to a limited time, limited supply, limited location Pablo pop-up store (yes, that’s the Kanye store) in Bondi Beach. After waiting in line for hours, it became clear I wasn’t going to be able to get in before needing to return to Amy’s family in time to get dinner, go to the hotel, and eventually get to the airport. Defeated, I gave up my spot in line and decided to just peek in, when I saw a guy walk out with bags and bags of clothes. Jokingly, I asked if he would sell me one. He responded by calling his friend, who was still inside the store, and arranged for him to buy me one of the last shirts available in my size. He trusted me to run to an ATM to pay them back in cash. They didn’t want to resell it to make a profit and they had no ulterior motives. They just wanted to spread the Pablo love and help out a slightly disoriented, underprepared tourist. Already feeling appreciative and excited, I got several messages and Snapchats throughout the day from my friends at Scotch, wishing me safe travels and goodbyes, as well as mutual appreciations of Frank Ocean’s new album, which I had told them to anxiously await. I am so glad I was able to have this experience, to bond with people from all over the world, and to see it from a new perspective.