From PK to AU – A Survival Guide Part 1

Who are you?

O Hai, Greener Pastures!

For this post to be relevant, or even interesting to you, you should be someone who has lived in Pakistan all your life and are now considering, as many are, moving to greener pastures, this blog post is for you.

That is unless, of course, your idea of greener pastures is the no longer AAA rated United States or somewhere in Europe. To be fair, you may intend to migrate to Nigeria, for all I know, or the easier to adjust to United Arab Emirates or (arguably) your spiritual home, Saudi Arabia. Returning to the point, this blog post is of little use to you if you are planning/trying to migrate anywhere but Australia.

Who the heck am I?

When writing, one is told time and again to write what they know. In my case, for the past year or so, what I knew consisted mostly of things that are different “here” i.e. In Brisbane and Sydney, Australia, as opposed to how things used to be for the quarter of a century I lived “there”, i.e. Karachi, Pakistan. I moved to Australia with my husband around May 2010. A year has gone by and some of the shininess and has faded and I’ve learned some things that I’d like to share with my fellow wannabe-migrants.

Don’t sue (or worse, flame) me, yo.

Let me also provide a standard disclaimer before I begin that it is quite possible that you may find your own experiences to be quite different from mine. You may sit in Perth or Melbourne and be able to unequivocally state that none of what this silly woman is on about was relevant to yourself. This is fair enough, given that we leave room for local differences.

Why did I bother to write this?

Sydney at night

As a precursor to the information presented here, since moving here, I’ve lost count of the number of friends back home who have asked me one or more questions about the following, after asking about how hard it is to get in? For that information, refer to another of my posts that deals with the options available to move here.

The reason I write this particular post was that I have, over the last year or so, repeatedly had to formulate and convey the information I will put into this series of posts to people and I figured that I may as well write about it in one place. Why discriminate against people who don’t know someone here who can tell them these things to give them a bit of a head start into life in Australia.

Admittedly, knowing these things a year or so ago would have made my life and transition a bit easier, so that is as good a reason for me as any to put it down here.

Buy or Rent?

Rent? Pfft!

To begin with, let’s say you’re all set to come here, possibly to look for work and need a place to stay. One of the most basic differences you will find is the rental culture. Unless you’re someone in their thirties or have/are planning to have children, chances are you will be renting a home rather than buying one. That being said, it is a well known (and oft-repeated) fact that its a buyers market for houses in Australia just now, so if you can afford the upwards of 300,000 dollars required to purchase a house, go for it.

From my experience, when you’ve converted all your PKR savings to AUD, the resultant number is significantly diminished and slighty alarming! I believe that it’s safe to assume that no matter how much of a buyers market it is, when you first arrive here, unless your name is Bhutto-Zardari, you’re renting. This is not a necessarily a bad thing.

What you need to know about renting property in Australia.

The best and worst thing about renting a property is that you don’t own it. This is good because if you lived in one place for a period of time and grow to detest it with a passion usually reserved for Rebecca Black songs (click on that link, its hilarious!) and fanboys, you can simply move to another place and never have to see the place again. This is bad because the lack of ownership means that you are on a very short leash in terms of what you are allowed to do with the property.

When life gives you bat poo...

Depending on the terms outlined by your landlord you will most likely not be allowed to have pets, loud parties (neighbors operate as judge and jury regarding the loudness of your parties), hammer nails into walls to hang your stuff or put up shelves, install air conditioners or dishwashers, have friends over to live with you for an extended visit, sublet the place without permission, make structural changes, etc.

To supply an example that hits close to home, we have a tree in our property’s yard that serves as a nightclub for bats. Every night, they’ll silently gather, do the bat mating ritual or sit in a circle and smoke pot or whatever it is that bats do for fun and in the morning, I’ll be left with a small mountain of bat poo. I’m not allowed to get rid of the tree without permission from the owners of the property and I’m forced to clean the stuff and toss it every few days. It strikes me that this could serve as a metaphor for my life of some sort, but I’m too grossed out by the implied metaphoric connection between my life and bat poo to follow this up.

There’s always a middleman.

Acting as arbiters in this exciting new relationship in your life are the estate agents, the people who serve as firewalls between yourself, the troublesome tenant and the owners, who really don’t want to be directly bothered with the rubbish you get unto and your pleas for maintenance.

In my experience, estate agents belong to either one end or the other of the niceness spectrum. They will be either extremely accommodating, sympathetic, cooperative and understanding, or they will be the estate agent from hell: late to return your calls, holding you responsible for wear and tear to extract repair costs out of you and insisting on judging not just condition of the house on the quarterly inspection, but also your life (“tsk, tsk.”, “what?”, “oh, nothing at all, dear. “).

A nice agent can make life in a not so perfect house feel like a good trade-off while an evil agent can easily make your dream house feel like a test of patience and, to stumble head-first into a cliche, a nightmare.

How long am I stuck here, again?

The shortest lease period allowed is six month. Yes, you can get out of your contract before your lease expires, but based on the amount of hassle and expense you’ll likely end up with by the time you manage to move into your new place, you may well wonder if it was worth it.

To get an idea about this ordeal, let’s say that for any one of a myriad of reasons (found a much more appealing new place, hate your flatmate, hate the neighbors, moving into a need place with significant other, etc.) you want to exit your ongoing lease. Once you’re certain you want out, you’ll approach your agent and give the bad (or good, as the case may be) news. The crux of the ensuing discussion will be to locate a worthy candidate to take over your lease. The catch is that until one is found, you’re stuck paying the lease as usual, even if you don’t actually live there anymore.

In addition to paying rent for two places, you also have to take care of the moving costs (Around AUD 200 for a moving service) and apply for electricity, internet, a phone line, etc. for your new place.

If you thought the concept of paying rent twice when you don’t even live in one of he place you’re paying for was punishing, wait till you have to pitch the place you are vacating to friends, relatives, strangers in elevators, anyone really, who might mention a passing interest in moving. Aside from this, you’ll also likely have to show people around your property, most of whom will likely not be interested enough to apply. This can potentially go on for a month or two if you’re terminally unlucky.

In summation, weighting the mental and monetary cost of finding a suitable candidate to take over your lease, showing strangers your living areas and facing judgement (“tsk, tsk”, “WHAT!?”, “Oh, nothing.”) may lead to serious reconsideration and/or abandonment of the idea of breaking your lease.

Fresh off the metaphorical boat.

When I first arrived in Brisbane, I was coming in from Pakistan and needed a place to crash. Since I didn’t know anyone in Brisbane, I was forced to either opt for a motel (AU$ 50-100 per day if you’re into a decent motel room with some semblance of comfort, and more for a hotel) or opt for one of the few shared living facilities that allowed booking without actually seeing you first. We picked the latter, a seemingly charming little student accommodation called UniResort in Brisbane’s Upper Mount Gravatt area.

In theory, the idea of living with students sounds like fun. I like to think that a temporary madness took over our thought processes wherein we fancied ourselves as more the early twenty-somethings we used to be, and not enough of the married, nearly thirty-somethings we actually are. Less of the “Par-TAY!” and more “Get off my lawn, you darn kids!”.

Your Shared Uni Accommodation Living space

Suffice it to say, three months into our six month lease and the idea of paying AUD 235 a week for more or less one room and bathroom with paper-thin walls and a messy common room shared by three other people had completely lost is appeal. I believe I had to either blog about it or release my tentative hold on sanity and indulge in leaving absurd messes and making a ridiculous amount of noise every weeknight.

To be fair, at the time, we had little other choice: either paying through the nose while looking for a more permanent residence, or Uniresort. If you have the chance to, I would highly recommend crashing with an acquaintance who can barely stand you to avoid this horrible choice with no win.

Links:

Gumtree is the Australian equivalent of Craigslist. Given enough time, you can find anything there, from people looking for someone to move in with them to used furniture.

Real Estate is your go-to website to locate a place to rent or buy.

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Friendliest people on earth?

Admittedly, I have not been to many foreign countries. My travels are limited (those that I can actually recall) to the UAE and Malaysia and Australia and of course, my own country, Pakistan. In my short travelling span, I have come to the conclusion that Australia people are the friendliest you could possibly encounter.

Example 1: When you’re crossing the street, people in cars will randomly stop to let a whole bunch of pedestrians just cross. And not even on a shared zone where they have to, but on a regular street, 9 out of 10 people will stop their cars to let you cross first if you are a random pedestrian. For someone used to being nearly run over every time I cross a street in Pakistan, this is a jarring, but refreshing change.

Example 2: For my first big job interview, we took the public transport system in Brisbane for the first time. Having left, several hours earlier than required (better safe than late), we were trying to navigate the complex bus system and arrive at our destination. This consisted of asking every second bus driver is his was the bus we should go and an apologetic prelude of “We’re new to this city, so we’re not really familiar with the bus system here yet”. When we found the right bus, the driver waves us on, and told us he would break our large currency note later with the appropriate fare when we would get off. After a long drive to the city (Fare AU$ 5 for each of us), we finally recognized the name of our stop and stepped forward to pay and exit the bus. The bus driver ignored our attempts to give him our money and instead gave us a smile and waved us out, saying “Don’t worry about it, have a good day!”. Stunned (in a good way), we profusely thanked him for his guidance and general niceness and got off.

Example 3: We were making a long, grueling journey by train from Sydney to Brisbane. Lugging around nearly 80 kilos of luggage and staying up all night because the train motion wouldn’t allow us to sleep comfortably was taking its toll. In the seat across from us, a New Zealander man was chatting with random people seated around him about where they were from and general things about their lives. He finally got around to us and struck up a conversation. Pleased to find someone interested in Pakistan, we told him a great deal about life in Pakistan and what the place is like, a good deal of which greatly surprised him, being so different to what he was used to in Australia. After three hours or so of chatting, we finally stopped and said goodbye and good luck to each other as our station neared. When the train stopped, my husband ran forward to secure our luggage stored at the back of the carriage, while I accumulated our bags and hand-held items at our seats. A presumably Australian lady seated just behind us, who we had not noticed through the 14 hours journey smiled at me when I stood up and said “I wish you the best of luck for your new life here in Australia!” and exited just ahead of us, giving us a goodbye wave as we parted ways outside the train.

Example 4: You know when you’re at a supermarket, or any store, and you are having your items checked out and preparing to pay for them? My typical experience in shops or all sizes was sullen silence from the cashier and only a brisk statement of the total amount and handing me the change without further comment. Turns out in Australia, they consider that sort of behavior highly rude. every single customer receives a warm and cheery “Good morning/Afternoon/evening, how are you today?” or a “Hullow there, how are you doing today?” sort of greeting. The checkout session ends with a cheery “You have a great day, dear” or “Have a lovely evening!” sort of farewell. Every single time. And when you ask someone stacking boxes or otherwise busy with some task in a gigantic supermarket for help, they’ll drop what they’re doing, and tell you which aisle you should find your item in and always ask you if you need them to help you find it. If you should say yes, they’ll promptly escort you to the exact item places on said aisle and make sure you don’t need anything else before they tell you to have a great day.

Just a few examples of the random coolness of Australian people. And bear in mind that we were armed with stories of hostility and racism against brown people in general and Muslims in particular, but nobody here seems to care about the color of your skin, just the warm friendliness they can offer you.

Australian Immigration

Okay, so it turns out I’ve recently been advising a lot of friends, relatives and even random acquaintances about requirements and their chances for Australian immigration. Since we have, so far, been one of the extremely lucky ones, having two people both with chances at applying for a Permanent Residency, and getting it, and landing a job that not only pays quite well, but has the exact annual pay that meets the requirements for company sponsorship.

So, for starters, for anyone interested in Australian immigration, let me advise you that it’s tough. The first thing you need to know about is PR. PR stands for Permanent Residency and it basically means that you are now authorized to permanently reside within Australia without having any sponsored job or a study visa. This is the golden ticket which you will be aspiring to reach if you should stat this arduous process.

The next keyword is the SOL (Skilled Occupations List). This list can be your best friend and your worst enemy. The occupations on this list mean that if you should be one of them, you get an automatic number of points in the Aussie point system for PR. You can imagine that if you are, say a Taxation Accountant (60 points), it’s great news for you, because you only need forty more points to qualify. If you’re not on the list, long term there’s  not going to be much in it for you to come here and work or study, you won’t be able to quality very easily for PR.

Apart from this, let’s talk options for getting you onshore. Say your profession is actually on the list, which is great, but it may not be for long, so you’ll have to take action fast. The quicker you can apply for PR, the better your chances of your occupation still being on the SOL.

The first route to getting onshore is obviously the job route. Ideal situation would indicate that one could, sitting in their own country, apply for a job and get someone interested and get a work sponsorship visa based on this interest. The reality is that jobs are not easy to come by, not even the really low paying ones, and if you’re a well educated person, (bachelors or above) you’re probably overqualified for lower paying jobs anyway. What you need is essentially:

  • A job offer
  • The company should be willing to sponsor you for a work visa
  • The company should be offering you a package of AU$ 47,000 a year minimum.

The chances of getting that offshore is not good at all, so you need to be onshore. Now one, risky, way is to get a vacation, collect your savings and get a visit visa and go camp out in Australia and apply as hard as you can for a good job before the time limit is up. However, you need some stability and some time to find a good job. The chances that you can find a job in a month or so are not too great. In addition, the chances that this employer will pay you enough to make you eligible for sponsorship work visas is limited. Additionally, further decreasing your chances, employers will rarely bother to get into your case if they know you are here on a limited visa (as they would have to file sponsorship proceedings and wait a few months for them to get through to actually start using you). Unless you’re someone in a technical position and some specialist skills or 10 years of higher management experience, the chances that a company will risk it all for you and wait for you is pretty low.

The second option, the one I used, was studies. If you have a decent four year bachelors, you can apply for a one to two year masters program that will assist you in getting PR. It’s the more costly route as your visa depends on your payment of your fees and enrollment so you need to continue paying a good 15,000 dollars a year (or more) just in buying your reason to be in Australia. Pricey, yes, and on a student visa, an additional caveat is that you can only legally work 20 hours a week, no more. The best way to do it is to get a well qualified spouse on board. One spouse can get the study visa, while the other spouse (on a spouse visa) can work unrestrictedly and earn a full time income. This offsets the costs of tuition and living expenses by a steady income. However, initially to find a job, you may need to use up a large part of your savings, so this is still a bit of a risk and very pricey as an option but if you’re on the SOL, it may be your best shot.

So anyway, that’s the basics thus far. For detailed checking into the situation and what you can make for yourselves out of it, I would recommend visiting a good consultant. We used Auspak for our educational needs. For professional based services, you’ll have to find your own as I don’t know any to recommend. Also, check out and keep an eye on the Australian Immigration site for changes and updates on the PR policies and requirements.

Good luck and G’day!

Foreigners

Don’t you just hate it when you make courteous and friendly overtures to someone just to have them rebuffed by aloof and cold responses, most of them borderline rude?

A little context: we moved into a shared housing arrangement a few months ago. Our biggest worry was, in fact, what kind of housemates would be we get? There are traditionally four rooms in an apartment, two of which can be used by a couple, which meant that at full capacity, we would have 3-4 others living with us in different rooms and sharing the facilities.

Now once we moved in, our fears were alleviated. We met a young man, studious and athletic, originally from South Africa. He was the friendly type that gets along with everyone and mostly spent his time out playing sports or at home quietly studying or taking in a movie on weekends.

We then met a bubbly young girl from a nearby town, who was extremely excited at having another girl in the place, surrounded as she was by two boys at the moment. Turns out, she was extremely chatty, had late shifts and enjoyed quiet times watching some TV shows on her laptop and cooking or cleaning on the side as a diversion. So far, so good.

The last flatmate was another young man, coincidentally at the same university as my husband. He was also Egyptian, and of the same religion, hence in theory much closer in relatablity to a Pakistani couple. However, as it turned out, the guy is an ass. He tends to hang out with his noisy friends all the time, not take his studies seriously, share his passkey to our flat with random friends, allowing them to enter our housing unit at random times of the night and goes away on vacation to his home country a good bit, allowing random friends to use his room while he is away. While we enjoy thoroughly the periods in which he is away (the place is so much quieter and less filled with random people milling about or coming in at will for no apparent reason) but when he finally came back, we decided to thaw out and give him another chance. Surely a fellow brown brother couldn’t be all bad? And if we can get along with a South African and an Australian, how could we not relate to an Egyptian guy? Turns out he’s still the same. And he’s back.

To summarize, we can’t wait till our lease is up at the end of the year and we can go back to living alone.