The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Isabella Kwai, a reporter with the Australia bureau.
It was the slow pace that struck me most when I returned to my hometown, Sydney, three years ago from Washington, D.C.
Walking behind strangers, who always seemed to amble slowly, was unbearable. Old friends invited me to lazy afternoons in the sun to catch up. Sometimes, the conversation lapsed into brief silences.
I found this relaxed attitude quite alarming. The feeling was apparently mutual. “Highly strung” was the diagnosis for me, according to one friend.
But by then I had absorbed the lessons of studying in the United States, where there had always been somewhere to rush and never enough time to slow down. They called it “the American Dream,” the belief that with hard work you could realize your deepest, most cherished ambitions.
In me, it took the form of a constant striving: for bigger visions and endless possibilities, which, in an odd twist of fate, led me back to Sydney and a new New York Times bureau set up in 2017 to expand coverage of Australia and the region.
Today will be my last day in that role, and writing for this newsletter. I’ll soon be moving to London with The Times to become a breaking news reporter there. And while it’s exciting, leaving is bittersweet.
Coming home showed me a different side of Australia, and reminded me how to appreciate the fundamental things in life — and there has been much to appreciate.
Despite some stumbles, Australia’s handling of the outbreak has held up compared with other Western nations. Access to universal health care and easily available Covid-19 testing during a pandemic is a relief, which I discovered firsthand when I had to get tested.
While we are heading into the first recession of my lifetime, our relative political stability and history of careful monetary policy offer hope we will pull through in better shape than most. Living here made me wonder: How much of American hustle culture is born of a need to have the basics to live?
There are criticisms too, of course. It’s easy to recall the outrage I heard in the voices of so many I interviewed. The treatment of asylum-seekers remains controversial, and many are asking for accountability in the deaths of Indigenous Australians in custody. Another fire season, exacerbated by climate change, lies ahead.
There were moments as a journalist when I grew frustrated with a culture of caution and the tendency of officials to be as opaque as possible.
But I am glad, above all, for the privilege of seeing so much more of Australia than the small corner of it I saw growing up in western Sydney. I had wanted to tell the stories of the Australia, outside of the sand and sea, that I knew from my own experience. That led to articles on the origins of a viral Facebook group for the Asian diaspora, and on two centuries of Chinese immigration to Australia — a history sometimes forgotten amid today’s geopolitical tensions.
Along the way, I learned about the unfamiliar too: The joys and loneliness of rural life, exactly what a leadership spill involves and the nation’s strange appreciation of Very Big Things. I learned, mostly, that a simple life with simple pleasures can be more than enough.
As I depart, thanks go to the Australia team and the editors that made my words sound much better. And to you, our readers, for following along.
Since nothing seems to bring on mindfulness more than an impending deadline, I’ll leave you with some small things I am especially grateful for about Australia that I know I will miss. The green-blue look of the ocean when the sun hits it just right. The sound of the birds and the crunch of leaves underfoot on a bush walk. All the different passive-aggressive ways that the word “mate” can be read. The casual friendliness of people on the street. A country that, for its faults, is still home.
Now, onto the stories for the week.