As Canberrans depart for Singapore on the first direct flights out today, Sumithri Venketasubramanian tells us what it’s like to go in the other direction.
OMG where am I?!
I know now that it’s common for people who arrive at Canberra Airport for the first time to react like I did: Where am I? Has the flight been diverted to a remote town in the middle of the continent? Have I been tricked? Perhaps I’m dreaming? Nope, my ears have popped and the flight attendant definitely said “Canberra”. This must be it.
I cringed at having to pay for a trolley at the airport (they’re free at Changi and I didn’t have any change). And I was surprised to see that there was no train into the city. Then I found out that there was no rail system at all. This added to my impression that as a capital city, Canberra is somehow incomplete.
So I resigned myself to jumping into a cab and cringed again as I watched the dollars on the meter rack up. Like many established residents, I was already griping about public transport and the price of living.
At first I missed Singaporean food: always available, inexpensive, anything you could want and lots more that you wouldn’t. And of course I missed my family and friends.
I even thought of the less desirable aspects of Singaporean life, like the exorbitant fines on everything from littering ($1000) to bringing durians onto the train ($500). There’s a tourist t-shirt that says, ‘Singapore is a fine city’. I’ve sometimes wondered if you could get fined for wearing it.
Hitting the ground running
So this was going to be home, at least for the next four years. And thankfully it wasn’t long before I warmed to Canberra.
It’s clean and highly organised just like Singapore. There’s lots of trees and greenery. The air is so very clean. I’ve come to treasure the wide open spaces that evoked such anxiety in me on the plane. The sky is big and the mountains are impressive without being imposing.
And I’ve found Canberrans to be, by and large, lovely and generous.
It helps to exercise. Indeed, I’ve come to realise that Canberrans are the fittest and most culturally active people in the country.
Not long after arriving I went for a run to get to know the city better. As I crossed Commonwealth Avenue and entered the parliamentary triangle I was I struck by the most wonderful vista and knew I could get used to this place. Lake Burley Griffin got me good.
Many Asians coming to Australia are worried about confronting racism (the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson and her party hasn’t helped). I had read lots of accounts of racist encounters in online forums from students and new arrivals. Thankfully, I’ve never personally experienced it, but people close to me have, regularly so.
It’s also valuable in this regard to compare and contrast Canberra with home. Growing up Indian in Chinese-dominated Singapore, I’m only just beginning to understand and unlearn the insecurities and inferiority complex that comes with being me.
It’s there on my national ID card: ‘Sumithri Venketasubramanian – Indian’. I used to think it was just a label. But it’s more than that and labels themselves can be a big deal, especially for racial and ethnic minorities.
Back home, talking about race is a no-no. Keeping the peace tends to mean hushing things up. The indigenous peoples are not acknowledged as the original inhabitants of the land. There are racial quotas on public housing among other policies, but discrimination boils beneath the surface. I haven’t been here quite long enough to judge, but over time I hope to learn more about how Australia struggles with race.
What I can say confidently about both Canberra and Singapore is what Bill Clinton said about the US: that the bad things are no match for what’s good about it.
Canberra isn’t home yet, but I feel like someday it could be.
What were your impressions of Canberra when you first arrived? How would you compare and contrast Canberra with Singapore? What does it mean to be Canberran?
Sumithri Venketasubramanian studies environmental studies at the ANU. She is the social media manager for Kim Huynh, Independent Candidate for Ginninderra (which is why this appears under Kim’s byline until Sumithri gets one set up). Check out their work at GoKimbo.com.au or on Facebook.