Expats returning to Australia due to COVID-19 outbreak: Reverse culture shock hits home

Brad Singh had lived in London for two years, but his departure didn't involve the grand farewell he'd imagined.

There were no goodbye parties or final trips to ease the transition back to Sydney. The 33-year-old packed and left within days of receiving a phone call from his family in Cronulla urging him to come home due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Singh is one of more than 363,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents who have returned since March 13 – the day Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced all non-essential events with more than 500 people would be cancelled, marking the start of Australia's lockdown.

Four days later, the federal government advised Australians who were overseas and wished to return to do so "as soon as possible by commercial means". On March 20 the borders closed to all non-citizens and non-residents.

Singh, who recovered from a coronavirus infection several months ago, sums up the past few months as a mixture of the surreal and the familiar. The strangeness of his journey from London into hotel quarantine and then home to his family contrasted with the realisation that his life is not all that different from before he left.

"I'm not paying rent and I'm living with my mother and father," Singh says, just as he did five years ago when he was at university.

"It sort of feels like stepping back rather than moving back," he says. "It also makes me question whether going overseas is a complete waste of time because I'm coming back to the same routine." Despite this, he has no regrets over spending the past two years in London. "Although I feel Sydney is relatively unchanged, I feel that having been removed from Sydney life and now coming back, I have changed," he says.

"Even the little things like going out to lunch or dinner and sitting outside in a restaurant – that's not what you do in England, you don't sit outside to dine, rather you go to a food festival or you go to the museums or to the theatre. It's a different kind of lifestyle."

Since being back, he says he's appreciated how much Australians love food and their willingness to seek out new foods.


"I do notice the wonderful food culture here. There's such a great variety in Sydney compared to what there is in London, and people here are interested and wanting to try different foods and places." In London, he says, locals tend to have the one pub they always go to and they just stick to that. "That's the one thing I've missed."

But there are downsides, particularly due to the restrictions associated with the pandemic. "It's not like you're coming back to something exciting, like a new job or a concrete pathway or even the ability to go out and see your friends, and that has been quite a struggle," Singh explains.

"That's something that I didn't expect a few months ago would have such an impact. It makes me kind of long for the independence of living in London, when there was no lockdown and I was still going out and living life as normal, where restaurants, bars and clubs, shops and museums were still open."

Singh is among hundreds of thousands of Australians who were able to make their own way home, but many Australians needed assistance. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it has helped more than 26,600 Australian citizens and permanent residents return, with more than 330 flights – 64 of them directly facilitated by the government, most of them from Bangladesh, India, Lebanon, Nepal, the Philippines, Peru, South Africa, and Thailand.

Thousands of Australians remain overseas, with some choosing to stay and some wanting to return but as yet unable to.

For Luemma Pilcher, 33, the decision to return home was not easy. She and her partner had been living in an apartment in Williamsburg, New York, for a couple of years. By mid-March, the city had shut down and Pilcher, a florist, and her partner Pia, a chef, were no longer working. Concerned the situation was going to worsen, the pair sold their belongings and within 48 hours were on a flight home. Now living in Fitzroy, Pilcher recalls the ups and downs of the past few months.

"We didn't know where we were going to live. We didn't know what we were going to do for work ... there was definitely the feeling of a lot of emotions, a lot of really sad days and a lot of unknown – the unknown was very daunting," she says.

With social distancing measures in place, Pilcher wasn't able to do the things returning expats would usually do – hold welcome home celebrations, catch up with family and do a bit of travelling before finding a job and a place to live.

"We've started to put the pieces of the puzzle back together and are starting to slowly rebuild our lives here, but I think it's just gonna take a really long time," she says after three weeks of lockdown in New York, two weeks of isolation in Australia and another lockdown in Melbourne.

"Every day we miss New York, but also New York is so different from the New York that we know and it's hard to think of what it's like now. We're sort of missing and sort of grieving the loss of that incredible time ... but I know that we did make the right decision. I think we'd be in a much harder position if we were still in New York."

The decision to return home is not always an easy one, as Sophie Turner, 28, experienced leaving Vancouver, Canada, in a hurry, only six months into her working visa. Her housemate, also an Australian, had decided to stay, having been there for about a year, Turner and her Australian boyfriend Jackson however made the snap decision to leave. They left their jobs, their shared apartment, their belongings, their outdoor gear and the van they had purchased with plans for outdoor adventuring around Canada.

"Initially I was very relieved to be back in Australia with family and with access to health cover and government support...three months on and I really miss my life in Canada, especially seeing friends that stayed over there. It makes you question whether you made the right decision and whether you should have stayed," she says.

"We hope to get back over there soon but I'm not sure whether I will be able to get an extension on my visa or whether flights will even open back up."

Professor Frans Verstraten, an experimental psychologist and the McCaughey chair of psychology at the University of Sydney, says the pandemic would have found many Australian expats unprepared to return home.

"If you certainly have to go, and you have to live in an area where you didn't want to go or you would not expect to go, then it's always stressful," Verstraten says.

"Preparation is always, in all senses of the mind and even the body, a big thing and if you can't prepare then you will experience stress."

Verstraten, who is originally from the Netherlands and has lived in Japan, the US and Canada, says from his own experience living abroad, expats like to mix with other expats as there is greater commonality of experience.

However, during COVID-19 many of their favoured pastimes, such as catching up with fellow expats in pubs or sport or social networks such as InterNations, have ceased, making it harder to stay connected.

Social networks can play a key role in helping expats integrate or reintegrate on their return home. Harry Thynne, 36, a musician and drummer who has been living in Los Angeles for more than eight years, was forced to return home after his band's tour around the southern US was cancelled because of the pandemic.

"It's an unfortunate sort of reality when you're not a citizen of the country that you live and work in. You don't feel entirely equal to everyone around you," Thynne says of his experience in LA.

"You've got to really fight to prove yourself and be competitive. I'm lucky that I've gotten as far as I have with it and not had to come home right away, frankly."

Thynne spent many years working to establish himself in the LA music scene and he did. He and his band have signed on with management and for a tour, he has an apartment that has been his home for more than half a decade, and a good circle of friends who are like his family – all of which he had to leave to return to Sydney, a place he hasn't lived in for close to a decade.

"I was going through a great patch of resurgence," Thynne says of his music career, "and then this happened and it just took it all away. So it's been really frustrating." While his LA life is on pause, Thynne has found himself welcomed back into the music and artistic crowds in Marrickville – a different iteration of the circles he was part of before moving to the US. Thynne points out that his departure from Australia several years ago coincided with the construction of Sydney's first casino and his forced return in 2020 has coincided with the construction of a new one.

Some things, he adds, don't change, like the lack of a live music scene and industry for local talent in Sydney.

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See also: 'Everything's expensive': 13 things that shock expats returning to Australia