America and Australia

4 minute read


I’ve been an immigrant my whole life. This is a consequence of being born in Hong Kong to Malaysian parents, whilst mostly growing up in Australia. Moving to America was, on the surface, not that big of a change. I never felt that attached to any particular country growing up - never quite belonging anywhere.

I figured that moving across the world (as far as one could get from Perth) wouldn’t be too difficult, given the broad similarities of the two countries. I was a little wrong. Let me explain how.

The differences between the US and Australia are subtle. Most obvious is its slightly weaker democracy. Institutions not as free from partisan interference. Voting rights are not as strong. A Senate which declines to check the presidency. This shapes its policy goals - lower taxation, more (inefficient) spending on defence, less on social services, education, health. People are more polarized - politics sits above science and common sense. There is not a sense of a community, at a national level. Transportation and infrastructure are underfunded, and when it is funded it is usually a highway, rather than a metro or bus line.

Some of it traces back to the original sin of slavery. The history of racism was never quite dealt with - indeed, it thrives in certain parts. You can see its effects in the hollowed out neighborhoods in Baltimore, for example, where the practice of redlining was used to exclude Blacks from acquiring property in White neighborhoods. Australia did not have slavery to the extent that the US did.

Not all of the differences are bad. There are opportunities that as yet cannot be found elsewhere - the best universities, some of the most vibrant companies. Faster cable internet.

So on whole it was fine, if one did not look too closely. Being privileged as I am, I could easily do so. I earn enough to live in a neighborhood unblighted by poverty. My employer pays for my health insurance. My existence in the little bubble formed around the university was quite comfortable.

I want to say that everything changed when the pandemic arrived, but in truth it was always like this. It only took a pandemic to expose the extent of the rot. Historic unemployment as the government bailed out companies over people. With their health insurance tied to their employment, thousands went uninsured into the pandemic. Despite having some of the world’s best public health experts in universities and the CDC, the public health response was disastrous. An early failure downplaying the effectiveness of masks quickly turned into a political issue. Knowledgeable experts were forced to contend with ignorant politicians as if it were a level playing field.

Amidst the chaos, the government has turned elsewhere to assign blame - the WHO, China, immigrants. In the shadow of a new Cold War, they started targeting the skilled workers under the H1B program. This program is about the only legal path to immigration in the United States for many, short of marriage to a citizen. Before it was suspended, it was already quite difficult to obtain - maybe 30% of the people who applied would get it on their first go. This week, the F1 program upon which I rely to study in the US was curtailed - students in online only programs are being forced to leave the country this Fall.

To be clear I seek no sympathy. After all, I chose this path for myself, in search of a better life.

The only thing I can do is to ensure that Australia never turns out like this. Preserving immigration of all people, talented or otherwise. Protecting universities, not pushing up tuition for the arts. Keeping an informed and educated electorate. Keeping healthcare accessible. Defending democracy. And above all, retaining a sense of community - that I should sacrifice some for my fellow Australian, as those who have gone before me have done. If this means I must pay more tax, so be it. There is enough to go around, if everyone takes and contributes their share. It will be worth it to ensure that all Australians, current and future, are treated with dignity and respect. To ensure that these people can go to school and work, without fear of being deported.

I write this ten thousand miles from home. I’m waiting to find out what will happen to all of us F1 students, while my roommate’s boss awaits a pending COVID-19 test. And yet, I’ve never felt more Australian.