Dealing With Culture Shock As A Teenage Immigrant

Corinne Rootsey with her dog

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

Viktor Frankl

Late 1999. There were all sorts of talks about computers shutting down and the world ending. It scared many people, but it also motivated people to live a little. Even for a religious and conservative country like the Philippines, people “partied like it’s 1999”, Prince style.

Midnight struck. People checked their Nokias and their Motorolas. Nothing happened. 

A few more minutes. Nothing. Then an hour passed by, a few more hours, still nothing. The only thing that changed were people’s energy levels. They went from anxious, happy and highly-strung to being somewhat disappointed that the world didn’t end.

Nothing to report there, just another New Year’s Eve…

Late 1999. It was also the time that my family found out we were moving our small-town roots and planting them in the big city of Sydney, Australia.

Whilst most people would revel at this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I was actually scared. 

We were leaving our family and friends behind. Everything we knew and loved… 

We were leaving the familiar, so far from our comfort zones, it wasn’t even funny.

And then we arrived in Australia

Being a Teenage Immigrant in Australia: In A Nutshell

Corinne standing by the port with a dog

7th of January, 2000. My family arrived in Sydney with our boxes! Yes, boxes! We wanted to make sure we could bring as much as we could with us. 

After all the weird stares at the airport, my uncle loaded us up in his Tarago and we went on our merry little way to what we would soon call home.

“I was sixteen going on seventeen” around this time. *humming to the tune of Liesl’s song in Sound of Music* 

It’s a phase in your life where all sorts of insecurities creep in, such as worrying about body image, finding your purpose, and finding your identity.

This also means finding your tribe. I was just starting to feel a sense of belonging when we got that letter from the Australian embassy approving our application.

As if teenage life wasn’t overwhelming enough, life decided to take it up a notch.

For the first few months upon arrival, I was severely depressed and homesick. It didn’t help that I was already introverted by nature and it just caused me to withdraw from the world even more.

But even with severe despair and feelings of loneliness, I realised over time that the new culture I was about to experience was what would actually pull me out of the darkness.

Oh, and humour! 

When my family arrived in this strange but beautiful place down under, that we now call home, I had to deal with several interesting shocks.

Culture Shock #1: Food

Food in Australia

When we arrived in Australia, we were a bit shocked to find out that most people ate meat (of some sort) and potatoes. For example: burger and chips, chicken and chips, steak and mash, fish and chips, etc. 

Initially, we were a bit bummed that all we could really find to eat was dry food. But worrying about food was the least of our priorities as we navigated our lives as migrants. 

Back in the Philippines, we ate soup and rice with pretty much anything. Even for breakfast! I remembered eating noodle soup, dry fish, hotdog, eggs AND rice for breakfast. I also remembered sipping soup then pouring it all over rice, even on a 37-degree Celsius day!

Over time though, as health consciousness evolved and improved. We incorporated vegetables and salads into more meals – whether eating out or cooking at home.

I’ve come to love western food but Filipino food is my first love, so I’ve learnt to cook both. Even my husband has taken a liking to Filipino food as well, which is really nice. 

Culture Shock #2: Cars

Back in the Philippines, we didn’t own a car because we couldn’t afford it. Public transport was the way to go.

Then we came to Australia.

As we drove out of the airport, my mum and I were shielding our faces for fear of colliding with oncoming traffic! Crazy right? Because in the Philippines, people drive on the right side of the road whereas in Australia, it’s the opposite.

We were tripping! This was the first time we flew out of the Philippines and our new home was full of extreme opposites!

We look back at that experience now and laugh at how me and my mum reacted!

Culture Shock #3: School

Corinne with two kangaroos

The first thing I noticed when I stepped foot in my new school was how multi-cultural it was. It was strange yet a very comforting thing to know that schools here support diversity.

Everyone was also laid back and teachers were addressed on a first-name basis. In the Philippines, if I dared call my teacher by her first name, I would have gone to detention in a snap!

What I found mind-blowing was that students were allowed free speech and on equal terms with their teachers, as if they were peers, yet the respect was still there.

Another thing worth mentioning is back in the Philippines, high school was done and over with in four years. So you could imagine my shock to find out students here have to do six years of high school if they want to go to university.

Students could opt out of the last two years of high school, and pursue employment or go to a community college instead. Either way, my initial shock melted away when I learnt that the youth here have options, which I was, and still am, very pleased about.

When I was younger, I witnessed my older sisters graduate university paid for by our parents. In fact, this is just how it is back there. Parents pay for everything right up until graduation. Or even until their children get married. Then it’s up to their children to find jobs and make money themselves.

So when we arrived in Australia, it seemed extremely foreign to me to see students working outside of school hours. But instead of questioning, I actually decided to try it out for myself. Nine months after arriving in Australia, I got myself a part-time job working as a receptionist at a real estate agency.

And you know what? This has been one of the best decisions I have ever made in my whole life. It taught me many things: independence and that even as a young person, I have a choice to tread my own path.

It also helped me pay for my OWN tuition fees, instead of relying on my parents, who are struggling with our new lives, themselves.

Culture Shock #4: Money

The very first thing we did as we were about to part with our first Australian dollars was convert the amount to Philippine Pesos. And for a few months after that, we converted every single purchase to Philippine Pesos. After a few tiring months, we realised we were mentally torturing ourselves every time we converted currencies but if there was anything positive to gain from it, it’s that my math skills actually improved!

I also noticed how easy it was for Australians to buy things. Everyone was able to afford nice cars and nice houses, until I was told it’s all borrowed money. This time, I was truly struggling to comprehend how people could “afford” to buy things with borrowed money. 

Growing up, my parents never owned credit cards (they still don’t!) and only bought things if they could afford them, hence we didn’t have a car. My sisters and I didn’t have new clothes and new shoes every month. We never went to the movies and our house was not finished in some areas. But we’re still here. We’re thriving and we didn’t turn out too badly!

Mind you though, I did get myself a credit card and because I didn’t know to use it, I actually went into some pretty deep financial funk. I got out of it but it took years! I learnt a lot from that experience and I’m proud to say that I’ve been debt free since 2007.

Culture Shock #5: Social

view from Sydney harbour

I came from a country where unspoken social hierarchies exist. There’s a certain way you talk to older people and people of authority. In fact, any hint of disrespect and you could instantly be told off, shunned or in some cases, reprimanded. 

So when we arrived here, it was surprising how equally everyone interacted, like everyone were talking to friends! It was a nice surprise but I soon realised that it was also a double-edged sword.

There are some young people in Australia who just downright disrespect authority and run riot, which really breaks my heart.

I also found that there’s a huge emphasis on “going out” every weekend, particularly at night. When I was growing up, I would always catch up with friends and relatives at our house or at their house. We would play music or cook. Or if we went out, it would be to get free air-conditioning at the mall! Even simple things like that made us happy! Perhaps it’s just a personality thing? I’m not really sure…

Culture Shock #6: Culture

Growing up, we learnt American English and grammar at school, and we also grew up watching a lot of American movies. 

When we arrived in Australia, it sounded like people were speaking another language even though it was “apparently” English! As a migrant, it was an absolute nosebleed of a task trying to listen, translate, think of an answer in my language then translate it to English Australians would actually understand. Thankfully, I got used to it. And I thank every single Australian who was so patient with me, my family, and all migrants who are finding their way in this country.

Growing up in the Philippines, schools had a huge emphasis on academics but here, extra-curricular activities are as equally valued as academics. Sports more so than others…

In fact, whether you like sports or not, you will most likely get sucked into it because it’s a sporting nation and every second person loves sports. When I was young, the only sport I knew was running around with kids on the street!

It’s also worth mentioning that Australians love their barbecues, beaches and sun-kissed skin. There are so many tanning products at the shops to choose from!

It’s so different in the Philippines! We love to entertain indoors (because it’s too bloody hot outside), swimming is usually for the rich and we have whitening products at the shops! 

Can’t get any more extremely opposite than that, can it?

20 years later….

I’m 37 years old now, it’s been 20 years since my family planted our roots in Australia. I still remember our boxes at the airport and our discomfort at being in unchartered territory.

It’s so important to acknowledge your past and appreciate how far you’ve come. And far we’ve definitely come. We have built our own lives, full of opportunities and full of hope.

And this wouldn’t be possible without the kindness and generosity of the country who has adopted my family, and countless other immigrant families, as their own.

Sure there will be bumps along the way, but you take the positives and learn from the negatives. Assimilate and accept the culture with both hands. It will be one hell of a ride but it will be worth it!

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Corinne Rootsey having a drink during sunset

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Corinne Rootsey

A personal finance blogger from Australia. When she’s not blogging, she loves reading, playing tennis and speaking in cute voices with their chocolate Labrador.