Making Australia Home: The Expat Life

Moving to a new city, even a gorgeous one like Sydney, it can take a while to feel like a local. Whether it’s finding your go-to dancing spot, idling at your local farmers market or getting a motorcycle license and hitting the road, there’s more to it than just the big tourist landmarks. One newly settled resident recounts those early days and the people and places that finally helped her settle in.

One afternoon in February this year, wide-eyed and exhausted, I lugged my entire life’s belongings behind me, strategically crammed into two suitcases, and sauntered out of the Sydney airport into the blistering sun of Australia’s summer. It had been eight years since I graduated from college in Manila, and now, a 30-yearold writer, I found myself preparing to start school again as I embarked on my postgraduate studies at the University of Sydney. Sometimes, life throws you a curveball.

People often ask what drew me to this city, and I have to be honest that it was neither the postcard-perfect harbor or the wildlife — but the city’s ability to close shop when work ends at five and head to the nearest happy hour. Flying into Sydney, the view from above is one of my favorite sights: The Opera House glistens resplendently, surrounded by endless curves and coastlines, with yachts and sailboats dotting the blue waters. In the 1800s, Sydney was a thriving port town with roots as a penal colony. Settlers, traders, visitors and businesspeople often ventured to this vibrant hub. But the original inhabitants of the land were the Aboriginal people, who hunted, gathered and fished by these waters. This tension of land ownership and cultural friction is still very much felt today.

View of the Opera House from Circular Quay

I now live in the heart of university town, surrounded by the neighborhoods of Newtown, Redfern and Chippendale. Walking to school means gliding past centuries-old sandstone architecture, made of yellow sedimentary rock and adorned with gargoyles. The campus of the University of Sydney is filled with Gothic Revival design, and the quadrangle is a big attraction on its own. On Sundays, the carillon bells will sing a tune — when the final episode of Game of Thrones aired, the bells tolled the show’s theme song. The history of Sydney’s cityscape is so vibrant. A lot of the architecture is preserved, and many homes are well-kept Victorian- and Edwardian-era terraced rowhouses.

However, the city is also filled with fascinating urban renewal sites. It’s not uncommon to chance upon pubs housed in heritage-listed architecture. Central Park in the neighborhood of Chippendale is one of the interesting examples. “Central Park started as an abandoned brewery that divided a significant part of the city,” explains Gisella Velasco, a 26-year-old urban planner who moved here about five years ago as a student at the University of New South Wales. “Following its redevelopment, it has become a real hub for food, shopping and just plain hanging out,” she continues. “Since I’m an urban planner, I’m always keen to show people what I feel is a good example of the practice. Central Park is one of those: It’s a place that’s really unique and easily accessible, since it’s a stone’s throw from the Central train station, which I feel encapsulates what can be great about cities,” she muses.


Residential tower One Central Park, with its lush vertical garden

For newbies to town, the transition from visitor to local takes a while. The first few weeks are spent hitting the tourist spots — grabbing pints of cider at the famed Circular Quay with an iridescent view of the Opera House, trips to popular Bondi beach or sunny afternoons at the 30ha Royal Botanic Garden.

But one grows a little tired of these spaces eventually, and my impressions of Sydney as primarily an urban site soon faded when I learned that coffee shops close at 4pm, mall hours end at 7pm and the CBD is dead during the weekends. “I tried to establish a routine very quickly because I was moving to Sydney and starting a whole new life here with my partner,” says Ces Olondriz, who works as a graphic designer. She moved to Sydney two years ago from Manila, and now resides in the surf suburb of Bondi.

As we look at the sea from our perch on a cliff one Sunday, Ces tells me that what she loves about Sydney is that it lets her appreciate the little things — like the ability to take long walks and have the beach within arm’s length. “I have a compulsion to be by nature, so having vast national parks, countless beaches and hiking trails all within an hour or two from Sydney makes all the long hours working during the week worth it,” she says.

Once her routine was established, the real exploring began. “Do one new thing every week, one thing you truly enjoy every day, and constantly discover,” she advises. For Ces, this meant getting licensed to ride a motorcycle. On weekends, she hops onto her Harley-Davidson and rides both long and short distances in and out of Sydney. “Australia has the greatest roads for motorcycling. I’d recommend going up the coast on the Pacific Highway where you can stop to grab a meat pie at Pie in the Sky,” she says. “Alternatively, you can fly down the other direction to the Royal National Park, weave through the forest and pop out around the Scarborough Hotel for lunch cliffside.”

Finding Home In New Places

Spice Alley

Because displacement also means that one tends to look for the familiar, one of the things that struck me about Sydney was its strong Asian influence. My first meal was a plate of sushi, after buying furniture at the local supermarket. Chin Chin, a renowned modern fusion restaurant, which originated in Melbourne, offers some of the best Asian flair in the country. Imagine kingfish sashimi with lime and heaps of coriander for your starter, and pad seuw stir-fried noodles with wagyu beef for your main. “Not many people know this, but Sydney has a huge Thai community that is probably directly responsible for the great Thai food,” says Gisella, who recommends the crab fried rice at the popular eatery Chat Thai.

In the neighborhood of Chippendale, I found some creature comforts I could run to when I craved something familiar. I would frequent Spice Alley, Sydney’s own attempt at a little hawker market with stalls offering everything from fried noodle dishes like char kway teow and mee goreng to handmade Chinese dumplings. True to its name, this narrow open-air alley fills with the waft of fire and spices. They have a bring-your-own-alcohol policy too, so it’s common to find women clutching bottles of Sauvignon Blanc here on weekends, heads thrown back in laughter.

White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale

Just a five-minute walk from Spice Alley, I would spend quiet afternoons checking the new exhibits at White Rabbit Gallery, a private art space owned by Zimbabwe-born philanthropist Judith Neilson, who mounts and champions the best contemporary Chinese artwork in Australia.

Whenever I missed karaoke, needed Japanese beauty products to address a skincare crisis or longed for the charcoal-filled air of a good Korean barbecue, Chinatown in Haymarket became the place to find solace. These little pockets of Asia make it easy not to feel homesick, and is a reminder of how Sydney is so diverse that if you really want Filipino food, locals can easily point you to spots nearest you.

Exploring Again

Desire Books & Records

The toughest part about moving is making time to explore. Exploration needs to be squeezed in somewhere along with the errands, chores and deadlines. But what’s great about Sydney is that when the city gets tiring, escape is not that far away. Ferry rides, which can be taken from Circular Quay, will usher you to the other port suburbs like Manly, Watsons Bay and Rose Bay. This is another way to get an unparalleled view of Sydney: riding a ferry across the harbor, breathing in the salty air and fleeing, just for a day.

Manly, whose beach is less crowded than Bondi, is smaller and more intimate — though it can get pretty packed during the weekends. The first world surfing championships were held on Manly’s shores in 1964, and it’s remained a favored surf spot since.

But instead of coming just for the beach, try heading to the back streets, away from the sand and the sea, because the alleys are filled with some hard-to-find favorites. Here, I’ve found solace in the shelves of Desire Books & Records, one of the best secondhand book shops, a treasure trove of vintage finds. A few blocks away, is the 4 Pines Brewing Company, one of the more popular homegrown Sydney breweries, which originated in Manly.

Paramount Recreation Club

In another harborside town, Rose Bay, the Hermitage Foreshore Walk has one of the most stunning views of Sydney, taking you past some splendid mansions lining the coast along the way. Rose Bay used to be an aerodrome, so its seaplane heritage lives on today, and it’s likely one can catch sight of a few seaplanes landing on the water on any given day.

For a swim, I’ve learned that locals hardly go to the likes of Bondi or Manly — its waves are too strong for a nice dip anyway. Instead, they flock to the secret beaches where the waters are calm, like the tiny shore of Camp Cove in Watsons Bay, or the pocket of sand by the suburb of La Perouse where, apparently, it’s better to go buck naked.


Settling Down

Freda’s, a bar set in a century-old warehouse space

We might think of home as a place, but on a more conceptual level, it’s really the people within this place. You need to look beyond the landmarks to pin down your idea of home, as home is usually handed over to you generously by locals or the people you will come to call friends. And experiences with these friends feel warmer than coffee and a good book on a chilly day.

Clark Kent Koga worked with Google when he relocated to Sydney with his wife, Paulina, in 2015. The couple now lives in the chic Surry Hills neighborhood, with all the best brunch spots. “As immigrants, we had to build our family from scratch. I feel like we’ve done that with the friends that we’ve made,” he says. “The easiest way to get to know a city is to meet people. So, more than places, we tried to make as many friends as possible.”

In the meantime, Gisella believes that a big part of moving is ensuring you are not comparing your new home with your old one. “Don’t just seek out things that remind you of home. Find things that are different, because you could definitely learn something new about yourself,” she says. For her, it was establishing a set of friends that helped ease the transition. “I sought the company of friends more than anything, and they showed me the ropes of where to go. To this day, I still bring my visitors to the places where my friends first brought me to when I moved.”

The strawberry watermelon cake at Black Star Pastry

For me, Sydney started to become home when I started making emotional connections to spaces. Like knowing where to go to eat a hearty meal after a long, hard day: at Haidilao, the nondescript stall of a charming Chinese auntie selling malatang — that hot, spicy, build-it-yourself dipping soup — tucked away in the lobby of a building on Broadway. It’s getting an invite to go dancing on a Friday: at the Soda Factory in Surry Hills, an American-diner-themed bar whose dance floor is filled with twenty-somethings bumping and grinding; or the eclectic Freda’s on Regent Street, which, Clark says, is “grungy and messy — but the music is always fun”, full of artists, musicians and other creatives. It’s raucously laughing with friends over coffee at the social media-famous Black Star Pastry in Newtown, serving their well-hyped strawberry watermelon cake with pistachios and rose petals.

And when you learn to kick your shoes off, throw your hair down and set your worries free to the wind, it becomes obvious why people eventually find comfort in Sydney, why it’s easy to make this place home and, in some cases, why it can become hard to leave.



This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Smile magazineCebu Pacific flies to Sydney from Manila.

Written by

Kara Ortiga

Photographed by

Kai Leishman

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