I had been in the USA for almost 10 years and was enjoying a blossoming career. I was an Associate Professor of Neurosurgery and Chief of Paediatric Neurosurgery at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. The previous Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, had invested wisely in health infrastructure and the neurosurgical facilities at my hospital in Little Rock were world-class and represented one of the largest units of its kind in the world. I had been head-hunted around the continent and was in an enviable position of being able to navigate my academic future. Genevieve was pregnant with our fourth child and life was looking pretty good. Although Genevieve had been hinting at returning to Australia, she knew the academic track that I was on and with my ambition in full throttle, Genevieve and I were confident that a department chair was just around the corner. It was time we had an in-depth conversation about our future. It went like this: Genevieve to Charlie…”I’m going back to Australia. Are you coming?”
It was a done deal. We decided to return to Australia for lifestyle reasons and for our children’s heritage. We both wished for our children to be Australian and to grow up in Australia. Our reasoning was as simple as that. The decision was made not because we didn’t like Americans, or that we didn’t like living in America. On the contrary, I found Americans to be gracious, diligent, positive and charitable people for whom a meritocratic workplace had paid generous dividends. My personality was not dissimilar to my American colleagues and I found my inquisitive nature and my challenging of neurosurgical dogma was encouraged and nurtured. I did express to Genevieve one note of caution. Did she understand that the academic road back in Australia would have its challenges and might be rocky?
So on a very simplistic level, what is it about Australia that makes it the greatest place on earth to live? Those of you who have lived overseas for any length of time will recall that it is very easy to reflect on your homeland with rose-coloured glasses. When in the US, I would recall Australia’s magnificent beaches and national parks and sunny summer days with flawless blue skies. I would reminisce on the irreverent humour of Doug Mulray, the natural beauty of Australian girls, the fresh and bountiful seafood, my friends from childhood and university days with whom I could be at total ease and the relaxed quintessential Australian way of life. I conveniently forgot about the Sydney traffic, the tall-poppy-syndrome, the flies in summer, the geographical isolation and the hidden and sometimes overt racism.
My parents arrived in Australia in the early 1950s, my father to pursue a medical career and my mother a nursing one. They were given a warm welcome by many Aussies who adopted them into their families, giving them financial and emotional support. I was born in 1957 in a rented apartment in Mosman and soon moved to Picnic Point into the house in which I would live on and off for the next 20 years. Although both parents were Buddhists, my parents felt strongly that immigrants should assimilate with the local culture, adopt the local traditions, and be cognisant that we were “guests” and as such we should always be on our best behaviour. If a Chinese person were to fall on the wrong side of the law, it would be to the detriment of the entire Chinese community. It always made sense to me that if a country was attractive enough to uproot your family, leave your loved ones and friends, learn a new language, travel for weeks on a boat across an ocean, then why would you wish to change anything about the local culture.