In this delightful, funny, and thought-provoking memoir, Canadian Ashley Kalagian-Blunt convinces her career-obsessed husband, Steve, to relocate to Sydney for a year of carefree frolics along Bondi Beach and limitless sunshine. A vision that is a far cry from the frigid Canada winters Ashley has spent their first years of marriage (and entire life) dying to escape. As she embarks on her Masters’ in Cultural Studies, Steve attempts to navigate the perplexing task of securing a job in their new city, so they can get out of their cockroach and pigeon-infested apartment above a chicken shop.
Things don’t work out quite as Ashley hopes, however, as she quickly comes to realise that Australian culture is not all ’G’Day Mate’ and barbeque invites. The nuances of learning how to engage with those around her and make new friendships become an ever-widening hole Ashley can’t seem to navigate. It dawns on her that while the endless summer sun is great, the high UV index and prevalent skin-cancer diagnoses in Australia are a big downfall for an anxious pale-skinned girl (relatable). As Steve struggles to find work that aligns with his own professional career goals and he puts the pressure on whether they have made the right decision, she too begins to question whether her Australian dream is what she wants after all.
Fast-forward to the end of their first year, Steve is finally back on track and doing great in his new job. They have a much nicer apartment in a suburban part of the city and things seem to be working out. But Ashley still can’t find her feet. The past year has caused her to call into question certain aspects of her marriage, her own career ideas including why she’s studying her masters at all and whether to become a writer or not and how she takes up space in the world. She finds herself relying on the notion that Steve will still want to move back to Canada and she’s ready for this.
Then Steve drops a bombshell: he wants to stay.
I found myself feeling more connected to Ashley’s plight than I initially expected. I nodded along empathetically with the challenges Ashley and Steve faced, especially around finding work and getting along with fellow Aussies (having moved to Australia four years ago from London, I recognised some of the struggles, which although manageable were certainly highly unexpected). With a quick wit and dry humour, Ashley pokes light-hearted fun at some of the questionable things she discovers, not least the preferred snacks and dubious cultural linguistics:
“‘Have you had an iced vovo?’
‘I’ve seen them.’ I had declined to try them, not because the pink-striped biscuits were covered in desiccated coconut, which looked like an elderly person’s pubic hair, but because the biscuits themselves looked unsettlingly like women’s private parts, and the term ‘vovo’ didn’t help.”
But her memoir is more than a side-eyed glance at the slightly hilarious albeit confusing names of things. Ashley’s interrogation of her experience goes to a deeper level. A self-confessed travel-a-holic, Ashley lived and worked across Asia, South America and Canada throughout her twenties. She made those journeys alone, returning to Canada to reignite her relationship with Steve, a love that never faded, and eventually married him. What her relocation journey with Steve highlights for her is that her need to uproot is connected to a larger theme in her life:
“This is what I realised, lying awake night after night, my heart racing: I knew how to move. I didn’t know how to stay.”
Ashley decides to go on an Australian pilgrimage to correct her own faulty thinking about the place she must now call home, seeking to understand what it is that makes Australia tick and how she can fit in. There are some truly heart-warming moments, not least when she befriends another girl at university who has Armenian heritage, like Ashley herself, something she is keen to explore and learn more about. Ashley is invited into their home and quickly begins to place her own experiences into a broader scheme of relocation, struggle, and resilience; reflecting on the journey of her own great-grandparents and grandparents fleeing the genocide of their people. Ashley calls us to think and reflect on an important idea, that where we choose to lay our roots is more political than we may think.
While this memoir could so easily slip into #FirstWorldProblems territory, what I admired most about Ashley’s journey was her refreshing and deeply honest reflection on the pressure some of these growing points placed on her mental health and her relationship with her husband. She subtly details the loneliness, sadness, and dismay that comes with questioning the path you’ve put yourself on in life. One part of the book that really stood out for me, was Ashley detailing her experience of visiting a psychologist for the first time. We’ve all seen movies and TV shows that depict this experience in a very specific way, usually with the patient spending a chunk of time talking all about themselves and their problems and then the psychologist/therapist delivering a hard-hitting solve-all statement in the final 10 minutes of the session. This was certainly what Ashley expected, but not what happened:
“I spent fifteen minutes unpacking a selection of my most pressing worries, Steve’s reaction to my worries and what I wished his reaction had been. I’d barely scratched the surface when Linda cut me off.
Linda proceeded to talk for the rest of the hour, emphasising her points with both arms raised, like a loose-wristed orchestra conductor.”
The reality of a session like this is that the psychologist, as Ashley discovers, has the aim to provide a person with the tools and resources to overcome their worries and challenges. In my opinion, there aren’t enough realistic depictions of this, so I found it really refreshing for Ashley to include this, along with her own honesty around how it didn’t match her expectations but was ultimately a very effective and helpful experience.
Ashley doesn’t really answer the question of how to be Australian, but what she does do is draw some of her own answers to the bigger questions we’re all faced with from time to time: how to take the challenges of life and grow through them, how to find your feet and forge a path you love, and perhaps best of all, how to find yourself, no matter where that path leads.
How to Be Australian
Ashley Kalagian Blunt
288 pages. 2020