Nearly two years ago now, my mom dropped me off at the Guilford train station so I could begin the 3+ hour journey to JFK Airport, followed by the 24+ hour journey to Sydney.
“You’re moving to Australia!”, she blubbered while hugging me goodbye.
“Aw, but just for a year. They’ll kick me out after that!”, I assured her. But through her Magical Mom Powers, I’ll bet she knew that I was secretly intending to stay in Australia for as long as I could manage. And anyway, what kind of backpacker flies to Australia with over 100 pounds of luggage?
To be fair, only half of this is mine.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when the Australia obsession took hold of me, but my earliest memory of it is from my freshman year of college (2003-2004) when I suddenly became fixated on the idea of studying abroad. I don’t know how I landed on Sydney, but by that summer I was absolutely committed to saving up as much money as I could to travel Australia while I was there. I spent three summers working for $9/hour in a photo lab and ended up saving $9000 for my travels. Whenever it was slow at work I’d be immersed in my Eyewitness Guide to Australia, ogling all the photos of pretty beaches and making notes on the back of old receipts of the ones I wanted to visit when I finally made it Down Under.
In 2006 I “studied” at Sydney Uni and traveled all over Australia. I could hardly believe that my life was such that I could walk out my door and arrive at the iconic Opera House within 20 minutes, or book a flight to the Outback or the Great Barrier Reef for spring break. I’d never experienced so much freedom and adventure before – hell, I’d never been so HAPPY before.
I remember bursting into tears during takeoff as I left Sydney to return home. Not a single part of me was ready to leave Australia, but I knew that someday I would come back for Round 2.
You know what happened next. I graduated from Cornell University, hopped on that Corporate American conveyor belt, and gave my very best shot at adulting. I worked at offices where I was scolded for decorating my cubicle wall with photos (“Management is concerned it might be a little too colorful”, my former boss explained), coworkers got ahead because of who they knew (or slept with) rather than how good they were at their job, and everyone raised an eyebrow if I wanted to take more than 2 weeks of vacation time in a year.
I wanted so badly to live life on my own terms, rather than succumb to the inane games you’re expected to play at most any office job. I didn’t quite know how to do that when I had $80,000 worth of student loans to worry about paying back, so instead I sucked it up and endured each job until I couldn’t take it anymore and then quit.
Through all of that nonsense, I came to terms with two very important truths:
- Happiness is all about minimizing the things you have (or hate) to do and filling it with things you want to do.
- It is very ok to quit.
With that in mind, I left corporate job #3 in 2014 and headed back to Australia on the work and holiday visa without a plan.
I always make a point to mention the “without a plan” aspect of my story because I believe it’s been so instrumental in the way things have turned out. What if I had moved to Australia with a plan and diligently followed through with it like I had for pretty much every other plan I’d ever made up until that point? Would I have embraced yoga and energy healing, learned how to be less judgmental and rigid, become a house sitter (PS – remember the time I hated dogs?), and achieved freedom through freelancing and location independence? I’ll never know for sure, but it’s fairly safe to say that I wouldn’t have had half the opportunities and experiences that I did because I wouldn’t have been open to them.
Moving to Australia with a blank slate gave me the freedom to live authentically, become a much better version of myself, travel as much as I want, and create a life I’m thrilled to be living.
Photo taken by Alex, my German road trip buddy.
Being commitment-free opened up infinite possibilities for me, which I admit was super exciting and at times intoxicating, but you know what? It’s also EXHAUSTING to be constantly sifting through options. Where to stay, what to do, who to date, how to find more work, where to travel, how to get there – I found myself agonizing over all of these and more nearly every single day these past two years. And honestly, sometimes I wished I’d had these things all figured out because it would make my life so much easier.
Plus, you know how I feel about quality vs. quantity. Spreading myself thin across a million options doesn’t make me anywhere near as happy as focusing on a few awesome options that I love.
So over the past 6 months or so, I started envisioning a more evolved version of this life of freedom: one where I’m free to live exactly the way I want, pursuing the things that interest me most while fervently avoiding the crap that gets me down (e.g. office politics, people with negative energy, spending money on things that don’t bring me joy), with a bit more stability to make things easier as well as free up some time for me.
Basically I want to keep doing exactly what I’m doing, but have a place to LIVE. And I can’t imagine living anywhere else but Sydney, where all of the magic in my life has happened.
It’s time for me to commit.
Playing The Visa Game
(or alternatively titled: In case you were wondering where I was these past several months…)
Unfortunately for me, I can’t just rock up to Australia as an American and be like “Hey y’all, I’m moving in!”. There’s this entity called Immigration I have to contend with that I’m convinced has set up the most intricate and absurd set of hoops to jump through in order to prove my worth.
About a year ago when my first visa was about to expire, I met with a migration agent to see what my options were for remaining in Australia. I knew that I wanted to stay here, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do or how I wanted my life to look. The easiest and cheapest option appeared to be leaving the country and then returning on the tourist visa. It was definitely easiest in terms of obtaining the visa, but it created so much stress and hassle for me this past year that I’m not sure it was the best option after all. I had to be careful not to leave any evidence of me trying to reside or work in this country, and not to remain here for more than 3 months at a time. Hence all the house sits and the visa runs to Bali, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines. I’m sure that all appeared to be super glamorous, but there was always so much stress around where I’d store my stuff, where I’d stay when I got back, and whether I’d get let back into the country upon my return.
Headstanding at Wave Rock.
I’m now convinced that the easiest visa option is to get an employer to sponsor you. All you have to do is work for them for two years and then you’re eligible to apply for permanent residency. But see, I didn’t go through this amazing transformational journey just to run back to the corporate world. I’m intent on leaving more space in my life, not filling it back up with all the crap that goes along with working at an office. Nothing about the sponsorship option ever felt right to me, so I never seriously considered it.
In June, I finally sat down to begin the process of figuring out a way to stay in Australia long term. It was looking like I’d have to somehow start my own business here and then sponsor myself to work (yes, this is actually a thing aspiring expats do here). But then I realized that I actually had a skill on the Skilled Occupation List that would qualify me for an independent skilled visa (the 189, to be precise), which means I don’t need to be sponsored by an employer or start my own business, and I’d get instant permanent residency. Basically it’s exactly what I need in order to live in Australia indefinitely and freelance.
The next couple months had me crafting reference letters and begging past employers to sign off on them, and bugging my family back home to find various documents, make copies of them, and get the copies notarized. And let’s throw in a generous helping of stress around whether everything would be done correctly and mailed to me in Australia before I left the country for my next visa run, not to mention whether I’d even pass my skills assessment with them.
I did thankfully pass the assessment, but it was a short-lived joy that was quickly stamped out in October when I found out that I needed to retake the English language test because I hadn’t gotten a perfect score on the writing portion of the TOEFL, which meant I didn’t quite have enough points to submit my Expression of Interest for the skilled visa. Worse than that, I also learned that the current wait to get invited to apply for the skilled visa is about 6 months after submitting an Expression of Interest (this varies by skill).
Well, shit! With my tourist visa set to expire in December and my skilled visa invite not likely until at least next May, I’d have to either leave Australia indefinitely or figure out a Plan B ASAP.
I could leave the country and continue traveling, doing the digital nomad thing from other exotic places until I’m able to come back to Australia to live for realsies (which would be in about 9 months, including the time it’ll take to process my application once I’m invited). That sounds like a complete dream, doesn’t it? A year or two ago I would have been all over it, but you guys – I’m SO TIRED. I feel very, very strongly that right now I need a home. All I want to do is unpack my bags and live by Bondi Beach again, be able to hang out with friends on the regular, re-develop healthy fitness and eating habits, and get a bike.
Since I nearly got deported the last time I re-entered the country from a visa run, going for another tourist visa is probably a bad idea. The only option I had that could guarantee my return to Australia in January was the student visa – gulp!
So in November I handled two different visa processes concurrently (double the torture!). I retook the English language test (IELTS this time), aced it, and finally submitted my Expression of Interest with enough points to qualify for the skilled visa. While that was going on, I also feverishly researched course options in Sydney to find the cheapest and least mind-numbing certificate program. Then came the shockingly tedious process of applying for the student visa, which includes a 25-page application that asks for, among many other things, a list of EVERY SINGLE TRIP ABROAD you’ve taken and a list of all periods of employment and unemployment in the past 10 years – all with exact start and end dates and explanations. A few days later, I had to go in for a medical exam and chest x-ray. All this for a measly student visa, can you believe it?
Needless to say, It’s been a really stressful 5 months. I’ve been so immersed in visa nonsense that I haven’t been able to get myself into the blog writing flow as often as I’d like. I’ve had to prioritize the visa stuff above all else and would always drop everything I was doing whenever Immigration requested something of me, or whenever I found out I had passed something-or-other and could move on to the next step in the process. In my mind, the sooner I took action, the sooner this whole process could end and I could resume life as a reasonably normal human.
I very nearly left all of my belongings in storage in Sydney without knowing for sure if I’d be able to return to retrieve them, but thankfully I got word the day I flew out that my student visa was granted. As of February, I’ll be enrolled in a Marketing & Communications certificate program at a little school in Bondi Junction in Sydney. Though I absolutely positively DO NOT WANT to be a student again (I mean hello, I am still paying off my student loans from Cornell), I’m willing to endure a few months of school until I get my skilled visa invite.
Mostly I’m just beyond relieved to know that I can return to Australia and not have to leave again in a few months. I feel a million times lighter now knowing that my work is finally done, and that it should be a matter of time before I’m a permanent resident here. This is my PLACE.
It’s been a long road to get here (almost exactly 10 years, in fact, since I left Sydney the first time) – but Australia, I’m yours.