Lauren Mukae (C’24) is an undergraduate student majoring in history with a minor in Chinese. She is studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of Sydney and enjoying the Aussie summertime. Coming from Hawaiʻi, Lauren enjoys outdoor activities and good food and has been enjoying exploring the city even with the rain! She is part of the spring 2023 cohort of the Doyle Global Dialogue.
Arriving in Sydney in February, the middle of Australian summer, seemed to change my pace of life almost immediately. Before the “study” part of study abroad intensified, I toasted myself in the sunlight and balmy air (with many layers of SPF, as Australia is infamous for its high UV) while listening to the cacophony of cockatoos and ravens. I took my time lounging in the parks scattered throughout the city, observing the new scenery and how people of all ages, accents, and places seemed to be present, from the central business district to more “hip” parts of town with cafes and secondhand shops galore.
As the semester continued, I started to look past the shining image the city initially displayed to me. Discussions with Sydneysiders (Sydney residents) detailed a parallel but longer COVID-19 experience than that of the United States. Although it varied by state, by late spring of 2021 most U.S. states were “opening up” after the nationwide quarantine. In contrast, my Australian classmates mentioned that quarantine for them was until fall of 2021—and that most classes had only returned in-person in 2023. Many hangout spots or city-wide events that Sydneysiders adored and loved had either closed or returned in a different fashion than what it was previously, leaving them simultaneously excited and happy for the reopenings and recovery of city culture while also feeling a little unmoored and disappointed in the changes.
But it was not until I saw a post about my own hometown that I really considered the mix of feelings my classmates were feeling for their home. An Instagram post listed local shops and businesses that were closing back on my home, on the island of Oʻahu, including a diner that my family loved called Like Like Drive Inn. For a while, the drive-in sign was still up at the front of its parking lot, making it feel as if the diner was still there and sheltering us from the reality of its closing. Every time we drove past, it still felt as if we could pull in, order our usuals, and leave happy and full.
Before I left for Sydney, I went to the new restaurant that bought Like Like’s old location and enjoyed a meal with my friends. I thought little of it at the time, actually enjoying the meal and the big portions. However, looking back on it, it was a bittersweet meal. Although the menu and food were completely different, the interior was the exact same layout as Like Like’s. It was an odd feeling to be in a place that was so familiar but also so changed. Seeing places that should be familiar and comforting transform before your eyes brings a kind of grief and adjustment. And this grief was something I felt immensely in the context of my own home. But here in Sydney, I felt less of what my Sydneysider peers felt, even though I claimed Sydney as my place of residence and colloquially as “home” with my friends.
With this in mind, my question thereafter throughout the remainder of my exchange became: Where is my place in Sydney? And what is Sydney to me?
The beauty of exchange is that sometimes, in the brief months that you are there, you can see the best in a city and enjoy its best in ways a local cannot. I could enjoy the comfort and tranquility of green spaces within Sydney without worrying about beating the rush of commuters. I could happily try a piccolo or flat white (Australian coffee orders) without blinking at the price, which apparently sharply increased since reopenings in Sydney. I could enjoy the restaurant offerings still around without feeling any sense of loss for what may have been lost or what was no longer around because of the pandemic.
But it is simultaneously because I have that cushioning as an exchange student that Sydney is not quite “home” for me. If it were a home for me, I would care about it differently. If it were a home for me, I would feel the same mixture of bitter and sweet that Sydneysiders are feeling. If it were a home for me, the recovery and loss would be felt much more than merely a mental acknowledgment.
People who claim Sydney as their home see through the glamor and shine of the skyline and worry about the literal and metaphorical cracks and weakened areas. I know now that Sydney’s culture was wounded, although recovering, throughout my semester. But as an outsider who arrived later in this process of rebuilding, I could not feel that damage. To me, the city still had a strong pulse, with protests comprised of both young and old Sydney residents, its screeching birds and evergreen greenery, and accents from everywhere floating through the air. I still grew to love the Sydney that I was experiencing throughout the semester and am grateful for what it showed me.
The period of exchange is too short for Sydney, or any place, to be anything more than feeling like a home rather than being one. But that does not mean that a place does not have the potential to become a home for someone. Perhaps given more time, I could claim Sydney as my home. But for now, for all its familiarity and comfort it gave me, Sydney was just temporary: a transfer stop for me to reflect and see reflections of my own home before flying back.