The culture shock of living in Australia

I experienced a bit of culture shock when we went to Spain after over a year in Latin America, but living in Australia has really been an adjustment. One that wasn’t completely anticipated either.

I knew it would be a bit complicated going from 6 months in southeast Asia to a very developed and very modern Australia, but the biggest thing I had prepared for was sticker shock. I could easily get a whole meal and a beer for what a single brew costs here. In fact, I could probably feed both of us for that price.

But that I was prepared for.

living in Australia

Getting off the plane was odd. Instead of having people pushing and shoving, and me having to aggressively use my wide frame to block the aisle so we could get out of our row, people actually patiently waited their turn. They even stopped and motioned for me to leave first. All in an orderly fashion.

Was I on Mars?

I did not plan on being amazed at everything as I walked from the tarmac into the Sydney International Airport building. I felt like I was from another planet as I viewed all the threatening signs (related to bringing in food products) and tread down carpeted halls.

Yes, carpet surprised me. What can I say? You don’t see it in southeast Asia. At least not in the places we visited!

My friends greeted us. We had to stop in the bathroom (here referred to as toilets), and I was surprised that I had a proper lock on the stall door. I didn’t have to double check to make sure the stall had a Western throne instead of the earnestly avoided squat style. And there was plenty of toilet paper. In the stall! I didn’t have to preplan my paper needs.

living in Australia you don't deal with this

A few times we walked by some strange contraption that people could drink out of. There was no sign warning people to not spit, and nothing special to indicate the water was filtered and therefore potable. I was almost afraid to try it.

We went to a cafe for breakfast. I smiled as I looked at the crazy prices, especially “the big breakfast” which cost a whopping $25 AUD. Admittedly, it was a huge plate of food, but really? $25 for breakfast? I just couldn’t, even though my friend generously informed me it was her treat.

$25 is almost a whole day’s budget for us in SE Asia!

I felt momentarily saddened thinking how much we were going to spend on breakfast and knowing that for a typical Indonesian, it would represent almost a whole month’s salary.

Then the shock deepened. I could understand everything that was being said around me. I had to concentrate more deeply to focus on my group’s conversation because I had to tune others out. I haven’t had to do that in a very long time.

I hadn’t realized how blissful it actually was to be in a room where I didn’t understand the language. It provided a level of peace I had never really appreciated before. In fact, I often lamented that I couldn’t have deeper conversations with locals because of the language barrier. Suddenly, there was no barrier at all. I didn’t even have to speak pidgin English to be understood more easily.

I wasn’t prepared for that, and I mourned the loss of peace.

living in Australia

Walking into the supermarket was a bit of a shock, too. So many things that I recognize and so many foods I’d love to eat but really shouldn’t. Australia is not being kind to my waistline.

And surprisingly every country we’ve gone to in the last 2+ years has not resulted in any traveler GI issues, except for Australia. It took my body a few days to accept this new food, which I find really interesting.

I am enjoying some of the benefits of living in Australia, though.

It is so nice to be able to drink water from the tap and not have to carefully manage our supply of bottled water. It’s wintertime, and for once we aren’t sweating all day. I can also find shoes for my size 12 feet and clothing that fits my large, bagel-loving Western body.

We also don’t stick out like a sore thumb. And there are no touts. I think that’s my favorite part. I know Tigger was pretty sick and tired of “being a walking dollar sign.”

living in Australia

While I really like Australia and the Aussies we’ve met, some of whom have astounded me with their level of generosity, I can’t see living in Australia long term. Not only would I have to work more to be able to afford it, but I think I could easily fall back into some of the patterns of our former life in the US.

And that’s something I just don’t want to do.

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  1. Hi!

    It’s really interesting that reverse culture shock, we got that a bit after a few months in Asia and coming home to Australia. Especially having spent nearly a month in Myanmar. Whenever things get shit we say to each other, how lucky we are to have been born here and the opportunities we have to see the world…

    If you get up to Brisbane please let us know, we’d love to meet up and show you both around 🙂

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  2. Sigh…the cost of living in Oz definitely takes some getting used to! Enjoy =)

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  3. I love your comment about not having to pre plan your toilet paper needs! Brilliant!! What a treat we are in for when we finally make it over to SEA. We found Sydney to be a real financial headache, we were house sitting in the affluent North Shore suburb of Turramurra and although the area was stunning it was almost twice the price to buy milk at the local deli than in the next suburb! Madness.

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    • Oh yes, you don’t travel in SE Asia or Latin America without carrying toilet paper with you. In big cities like Bangkok, you’ll have better luck, but even then I always have some in my pocket just in case.

      I can believe it about Sydney! Those prices were amazing. We’re in a village outside of a small town about 1-1/2 hrs from Melbourne now, and things are more reasonable. Well, Australia reasonable. LOL It’s still crazy, though.

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  4. interesting post!! it must be very bizarre to be here after so long in asia. It is definitely way too expensive in australia, but it does make it great for us aussies whenever we go pretty much anywhere! There are also definitely many of the same problems here with chasing the bigger house, more money, etc here as in the US. We are shocking people at the moment as we are choosing to go back to being renters (and basically prioritising lifestyle over the so called dream of owning a home on a 1/4 acre block – like thats actually possible for anyone with the price of property in melbourne!!). So ridiculous

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    • House prices up here in Ballarat are MUCH more reasonable. I was blown away by the prices in Sydney. Basically a shack goes for $600K in a meh neighborhood. My friend rents a townhome that was $800K when they bought it a while ago. Can’t even imagine what it would sell for now. Absolutely insane. Can’t blame you for renting!! While I know owning is a good investment, when you can afford it, I really like the freedom of renting so I can just up and go.

      We’ll actually be visiting Melbourne next week. Looking forward to it.

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  5. Interesting comparison to the USA. I can see that for me living permanently in any Western country would also take me back into habitual norms and a pretty routine lifestyle. Don’t want it. But it is nice to visit these places every once in a while!

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    • I wonder the same about Europe long term, but when we were there it felt very different for me. Australia feels and seems more like the US in many ways. I plan on spending more time in Paris next year as I want to see if I still enjoy it as much when I’m there for a longer period of time. I wonder if it will have a similar effect. I definitely have no desire to return to the old ways long term.

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  6. The thing about being able to understand EVERYTHING EVERYONE says without trying is really so weird. It hits me every time I’m in an English-speaking country. The other stuff, that all makes sense, but I’ve never really thought about it; interesting to read other people’s reverse culture shock experiences!

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    • It never occurred to me either. I’ve met up with English speakers in the past and enjoyed being able to communicate more deeply, but to be surrounded by it everywhere was such a different experience. I kept feeling uncomfortable in restaurants and things and wasn’t sure what it was until it finally hit me that I could understand EVERYTHING, even the chatter happening in the kitchen. Before it was just all white noise to me. Really surprised me.

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  7. It’s so expensive! One of the reasons we left, that, and being “over” kangaroos. Have fun, I’ll be interested to read how you go.

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    • Very similar to US prices. Thankfully, the USD is stronger than the AUD right now so that’s helping a bit. Definitely a little tough going from $3 meals to only being able to buy a drink for that price. And I’m missing inexpensive booze!

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  8. Ouch $25 is bad even for Australia! You’ll find NZ a bit cheaper (but certainly not Asian prices!) I hear you about reverse cultural shock. I can recall walking down the street and noticing no one was staring at me – I was no longer the only blonde around!

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    • That $25 breakfast was really pretty large, but still insanely priced to me. That isn’t the norm for sure.

      My son is especially loving that part of it. In Vietnam, he wore a Vietnamese conical hat, and they just couldn’t resist him. They have no sense of personal boundaries when it comes to touching you, and they were always hugging on him and pinching his cheeks and stuff. Here he just blends in with everyone else.

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  9. It’s very interesting to note your level of comfort you had grown so used to and not know about it until now in Aussie. I loved the feeling of always knowing that my dollar was stretched a very long way in Thailand . When I came to France – looking at our grocery prices is a bit unnerving at times. I think you may have grown use to that wham in your face culture intensity that may be lacking in Aussie? I could be wrong. Europe is still very much different from Canada but should I visit a country similar to Canada – I may feel the same as you do . Lovely post Talon ! As usual you keep it real .

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    • Parts of Asia are definitely much more “in your face” for sure. And they have a different concept of politeness. While almost always friendly and helpful, there are things like standing in a line, walking down the street, etc., that are considered very rude by Western standards. It took a bit to adjust to those, and now I’m having to adjust back. LOL

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  10. Glad you’re enjoying the differences (if not the breathtaking prices!) between Asia and Australia.

    As I spent a near month there in Oz not long ago – two of your initial observations especially struck a chord w/ me:

    “I hadn’t realized how blissful it actually was to be in a room where I didn’t understand the language.”

    Indeed, nearly 2 years here living amid a sea of Vietnamese gibberish – a surprisingly lovely and peaceful sea. When I arrived in Oz it was suddenly like I could hear every blessed conversation within miles around me – it was verily DEAFENING! I must say, I too rather enjoy my state of linguistic “bliss” here in Vietnam. 😉

    “We also don’t stick out like a sore thumb”

    Oh my goodness, YESSS! Speaking of “bliss” – the fact that I was suddenly no longer a gargantuan physical spectacle as I lummoxed down the streets of Sydney – was absolutely heavenly. It took me awhile to realize that… why NOBODY’S gawking and snickering at me! 😉

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    • Deafening is a great description for it! I just had not realized how much peace I had by not being able to understand the language. Really surprised me.

      And it is SO nice to be able to walk down the street without being hassled!

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  11. How interesting to hear about the culture shock of returning to the western world. And yes, Australia is super expensive. Even as an Aussie who is used to those prices, I look back now and wonder how I afforded the life I once had there. Nether the less, I hope you have a wonderful time there with lots of amazing experiences (well, hopefully they will be amazing with what they will cost you hehe)

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    • On the flip side, the wages are good enough to make things livable it seems.

      Yes, am definitely enjoying Australia, though. Some really beautiful towns and cities, and the people have been so wonderfully friendly.

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