Only the night before, my parents had bundled all six of us for the grand move of our lives. We were farewelled by everyone on the street where we lived in the Philippines and needed three Coca-Cola panel vans to haul our baggage on to the airport. It only took one sleep, and here we were in a brand new place – the Land of Oz – Sydney, Australia.
That was 50 years ago, and our first impression of Australia were red roofs we saw from the sky that seemed to dot the grounds below; the lady with the purple hair; and men in shorts and knee-high socks. It was odd to see a woman with purple hair but what was odder were the men in shorts. In the Philippines, men never wore shorts unless they were at home or headed to the beach. However, these were grown men in shorts and knee-high socks off to work! Also stuck in our minds were the nippy weather and that distinct musty smell that seemed to be stuck on the walls of the units in Meadowbank. It seemed to absorb the cooking odors emanating from all the units in the building. This was Australia!
My cousins immediately took us to the nearest shopping centre – West Ryde. It was a small quaint shopping centre that had one of everything: a department store – Waltons – that sold everything from clothes to furniture and appliances; a supermarket; a chemist; post office; a newsagency; a hardware store; a shoe shop; a jeweler that doubled up as a record shop but only accepted orders; a few milk bars that sold meat pies, burgers, milkshakes, lollies, and the iconic fish and chips; and a few more shops with bric-a-brac.
That was it! If you wanted anything more, you’d have to trek all the way to the City. What was worse was at the stroke of five o’clock, all shops were closed. On Saturdays, shops were open only until 12 noon. Much planning had to be done to ensure you didn’t run out of the essentials. However, milk and bread were delivered right to your doorstep, but they also did not deliver on weekends. You’d leave the money in one of the bottles for pick up the next day. Another shocking thing for us was ordering fish and chips from the milk bar, which was wrapped in an old newspaper. We got used to that, although I don’t think my mum ever did. Movie theatres there were none unless you ventured by train to Parramatta or the City.
After all the welcoming and reunions with relatives who were here before us, there was buckling down to get settled. There we were getting into the government systems, job and house hunting, plus furniture shopping. The younger siblings were enrolled at school, and the youngest, who was only two years old, was booked at a child care centre. That was another thing that my mum never got over. We found a house to rent at the top of Constitution Road, next to Meadowbank Park, to accommodate our family of eight. Again, it was an old wooden house, but there was not much of a choice.
We honestly could not see what they said was ‘better’. Sure, there were parks and wide open spaces, but we felt Australia was ten years behind the Philippines. Manila already had massive, modern shopping centres like Matsusakaya, movie theatres galore, and nightlife was thriving. There was none of that here. There were long walks to train stations – no jeeps or tricycles to carry us for short distances. And worst of all, by 6 o’clock, the sound of silence struck.
Then, it really hit us – there were no maids! Lucky, my mum was organised to military precision, and we survived. We were colour coded, and everyone was assigned a ‘duty’ and rostered on a specific day, whether it was washing the plates, putting the clothes in the washing machine, cleaning, etc. We eventually managed.
Meadowbank had a few resident Filipino families – the Ponces, the Aldeguers, the Calvos, the Bernias, the Morenos, and the Perezes, who all provided refuge for homesickness. And somehow, we managed to party and celebrate occasions as we did back home. Our neighbours on both sides were Australians who didn’t mind the raucous and joined us instead.
As shops were closed and there was absolutely nothing to do on weekends except the occasional escapade to Paddy’s Markets, we found things to amuse ourselves. There was much house hopping plus lots of dancing. We learned the dances of the elders, and they, in turn, kept in step with the younger generation. We could pull Uncles to dance with us and vice versa. Since there were no baby-sitters, wherever the parents were, the young ones were too. It perhaps provided us with a sense of closeness that would not have been achieved in the Philippines.
Another positive thing that came out of it all was that we bonded more as cousins. In Manila, we would have gone to different schools, and we would have seen each other infrequently. Our social status would have been defined by our fathers’ income and the location of our residences. But, here, we were all equal. The younger ones all went to the same school and caught the trains or bus together. Family picnics were planned for long weekends, Filipino style. That meant bringing everything – only the kitchen sink was left behind.
Work was easy to come by if you weren’t choosy. You could go to look through the jobs advertised in the weekend papers, go to personnel agencies, or go directly to the company where you wanted to apply. You could walk in and walk out with a job! There were no tests, only short interviews, and you were hired on the spot. There was no problem with the spoken language, except training our ears to get accustomed to their accents. An Uncle took me to Hoover (a 10-minute bus ride from where we lived), and I was hired as a junior clerk on the same day for $32 a week. Three months after, I was bored and found a job advertised for a ‘Girl Friday’ at Channel 9. I applied for it and got it on the same day. They didn’t even give me a typing test!
After 50 years – we can say, we’re definitely mixed, blended and fused – but somehow the spirit of the Filipino still burns within all of us. We’ve been blessed with the best of both worlds.
(Benjie de Ubago is a writer contributor to several publications. She was awarded the Premier’s Multicultural Media Lifetime Achievement Award in NSW. Check out www.filipin-oz.com for more of her articles)