Australia has been our safe place to heal

“After the large earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 and the thousands of aftershocks that eventually destroyed our house, my husband and I began to look beyond Christchurch, New Zealand for stability. Our lives were so disrupted, and we knew we couldn’t afford to make a wrong decision, to make things worse for ourselves. My husband had travelled to Melbourne once and had loved it, so after much consideration, we chose that city as our new home. Our family looked forward to the safety of a stable landscape and exploring new, safer surroundings.¬†

I was not in a good state when I arrived on Australian shores. I had PTSD, was anxious and jumped at every loud noise. A week after my boys started school, my older son was due to go on a school camp, and I had no idea what I was doing. A friend I had just met quietly left a bag of her son’s old clothes and shoes on our doorstep and texted it was there. She knew the camp involved a mud run and suspected I didn’t have much in the way of old clothes to give my son to wear because our belongings were still on a ship in the Tasman Sea. Small acts of thoughtfulness like that meant so much to me in the early days. As I grew to trust the land not to shake, I went to a few meetups, joined a walking group, and found a writing group. Slowly my social circle expanded, and now, nine years later, I have a wider community than I ever enjoyed in New Zealand. In retrospect, I can see how important it was to keep trying.

I had been a print journalist in New Zealand loved working in newspapers, but to retrain for the Australian market, I completed a bookkeeping course and later, an industry floristry course. The idea for my memoir had been bubbling along in my mind since the time of my sister’s death, a few months after we arrived in Melbourne. When I stood at her grave, I had known I would need to write about it, and that’s how my memoir Ten Thousand Aftershocks was born. It documents the unpitying nature of consequences, literal aftershocks, and the breaking point we reached in Christchurch before leaving, as well as the vast and numerous repercussions of dysfunction in my family of origin.

It wasn’t easy to feel forced out of my home country by trauma, but Australia has been our safe place to heal. I’m extremely grateful to this country and acknowledge the Aboriginal owners of this land and how my being here is an extension of colonialism, that this land was never ceded. I do feel content and happy here, but I look back on New Zealand like I might an old boyfriend; I will always wish it had been different, that I might have been able to stay. 

Here’s my best advice to new migrants: be proud of your country of birth and don’t lose sight of your culture, but be open to engaging with the people and culture of this land, too. If you have children, it will also be theirs, and I have learned to respect that my sons will grow up with a different set of parameters and influences than I did. It’s a delicate line to walk sometimes, but only by acknowledging this fact can we navigate it successfully. 

Also, make sure you take all the required paperwork to apply for a Medicare card. I think we had to go back three times before we nailed it!”

Michelle Tom’s memoir Ten Thousand Aftershocks is published by 4th Estate and is available now at all good bookstores and online.