May 28, 2020
At home

Expats at home – South Australians chat from overseas vol.4

Take a trip around the world to check in with some South Australians living overseas to see how they're faring during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

Claire Graves with son Frankie in Oklahoma.

Claire Graves, USA

Where do you live?
I’ve lived in the United States for nearly a decade, New York City is where my heart is and Brooklyn is my home. However, at the start of April, I flew with my partner, our toddler Frankie and our dog Omar to Tulsa, Oklahoma (the middle of the US), so that my in-laws could help us with childcare, while Jonathan and I both manage very demanding jobs.

When we left Brooklyn, the sound of ambulances outside our apartment was constant, day and night. We don’t have a garden, our apartment is less than 1000 square feet, and when we walk out our front door we’re likely to pass at least 30 people, so we’re grateful to have space and family around us.

What is the current feeling in New York and Oklahoma at the moment?
Unlike other countries where people have come together to collectively fight the pandemic, the United States is still very divided, maybe even more divided because of the pandemic.

There are some things uniting the country right now though. People in both New York and Oklahoma are very concerned about the economy. The US unemployment rate hit 14.7 per cent last month, millions of people lost their jobs and with that their health insurance. People don’t know how bad it’s going to get, or how long the economic downturn will last.

Oklahoma didn’t have a large outbreak compared to many states, so they started to open a few weeks ago. The reaction has been mixed, some people have been cautious about going out, they are wearing masks and not eating in restaurants, other people are not worried about the virus at all.

People in New York, and those of us waiting to get home, are still really anxious. We are watching the numbers of new cases slowly decline, but because there is no clear date set for when we can return to work and enjoy the city, we’re frustrated and angry at the lack of leadership from the federal administration.

In New York, there is also a massive weight of sadness, for the people who lost their lives from the virus and for those families who haven’t been able to grieve their loved ones with each other and their communities. There are so many tragic stories of people dying alone and not being able to say goodbye – the country is devastated.

One of the positive things to come out of this crisis is the collective acknowledgement that essential workers have always been essential; we are grateful for the doctors, nurses, janitors, store associates and everyone else who are working tirelessly to help and protect us.

I’m personally looking toward the November election and hoping for an end to this chaos.

How has your work been affected?
My team and I are learning every day how to work best while we are apart. We’ve navigated how to be efficient working from our respective bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms and home offices. We’ve worked out together, hosted a ton of happy hours so that we can laugh at the absurdity of life together, and on other days we’ve grieved, and cried together.

I run The Webby Awards, which is the most prestigious award for excellence on the Internet. We usually celebrate our winners with a star-studded event on Wall Street for 1000 attendees, but of course, this year, COVID-19 made it impossible to gather in person. So in March we pivoted to an Internet celebration, and it was really challenging to do something completely new in six weeks in this (also new) work from home environment.

We put a lot of thought into how to celebrate our winners and make sure they felt honoured even though we couldn’t do so in person. We asked our community to come together to help us celebrate. Webbys From Home launched Tuesday May 19, and we had people like Michelle Obama, Dr Anthony Fauci, Questlove, the co-Inventor of the Internet Vint Cerf, and artists like FKA twigs and Imogen Heap help us create a really special moment for each winner.

Our Special Achievement Awards were also focused on people who have used the Internet to respond to the COVID-19 crisis – we gave these awards to musicians, entertainers, tech companies, and everyday people who have quickly reacted to help inform, connect and support one another.

How have you been spending your time?
We’re now in week 12 of the New York shutdown and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster since the start. The first few weeks, after our nanny stopped coming I split childcare with my partner, he did the mornings and I looked after Frankie in the afternoon. Since we’ve been living in Oklahoma, it’s been very quiet, I’ve been working during the day (lots of Zoom calls) and spending time with my family in the evenings. Many of my regular yoga and workout sessions quickly moved to online classes so I have been practising with favorite teachers, making time to gather and meditate with my NY community. Frankie and I have also been taking a lot of long walks.

How have you been connecting with family and friends back in SA?
I’ve been away for nearly 20 years, and the pandemic has made me homesick like I have never felt before. I think when something so uncontrollable happens your natural instinct is to be with your people – I have desperately wanted to be with my people. One of the few silver linings of the shutdowns is that my family has made a real effort to connect more regularly. One of my sisters, Catherine is in Melbourne, my other sister Sarah and her family are in Adelaide with my mum and her husband, and my dad flew home from London as everything started shutting down there. We get together on Zoom twice a week so that we can check in on each other. Admittedly, as the pandemic has continued the chats have grown shorter but this time has reminded the importance of family and how fortunate we are to have each other.

Benjamin Packer, Germany

Benjamin Packer in Germany.

Where do you live?
I live in Berlin, Germany and have been here almost three years to the day.

What is the current feeling there at the moment?
We’re fortunate in Germany that things have been well-managed with a well-resourced health system. [German scientist and politician] Angela Merkel has been terrific at explaining the situation – even for people like me with less than perfect German. Things are slowly beginning to re-open now, starting with outdoor areas at bars and restaurants.

How has your job been affected?
Before COVID-19 really became such a big thing, I had planned to make the jump from being employed to working as a freelance colourist in post-production for mostly TV commercials. As my role usually happens towards the end of a project schedule, things haven’t been as bad for as for others. My girlfriend and I set up a basic work-from-home studio in our flat – complete with blockout curtains and controlled lighting that has meant we could continue to work on projects that had already been shot and edited. Thankful our collaborators are very trusting and with tools like Zoom and Skype it is almost like working in the same room. Things in post production have been slowing down the last couple of weeks but as restrictions ease it looks like production companies will be back to shooting soon.

How have you been spending your time?
With summer right around the corner, I have been enjoying our Kiez in the suburb of Neukölln. Long, relaxed (and physically distanced) walks with our dog through the neighbourhood, time spent on personal creative projects and a more relaxed speed of life has been quite enjoyable. And of course, as much gardening as I can manage in our little apartment. For my girlfriend’s birthday, we even organised a virtual house party. It was a somewhat complicated setup but meant guests could hang out in our kitchen, living room and balcony, which was a lot of fun in these weird times.

How have you been connecting with family/friends back in SA?
Like most, a lot more time spent video chatting. What would have been every two to three weeks is now a weekly activity. I have also found I’ve been using various forms of social media much more, but I tell myself that’s okay when I’m sharing it with friends. Maybe I will have to host another virtual party and get even more timezones involved!

Susan Bennett, Malaysia

Susan Bennett at home in Malaysia.

Where do you live?
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

What’s the feeling like in Kuala Lumpur at the moment?
Malaysia announced a Movement Control Order on March 16 and all businesses except for essential services were closed. All gatherings were banned, and restrictions were placed on all movement, unless it was for food, medical needs or if you were an essential worker. I live in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, and it was eerie to see the city come to a stop over the initial MCO period. There have been three extensions to the MCO and at this stage, it will stay in place until June 9, but with fewer restrictions. Some businesses have now been allowed to operate with strict guidelines to ensure social distancing and sanitisation.

Most people have been trying to stay at home and keeping visits outside to a minimum. However, it has been a challenge for some, especially with the importance of family, prayers and sharing that goes hand in hand with Ramadan. All mosques have been closed and this was a brave move by the new government. Many people, of course, have lost their jobs and with limited infrastructure to look after the escalating number of unemployed, the government has been agile and creative in trying to find a way to sustain the population. Malaysia has large numbers of immigrant workers who work as cheap labour in construction and markets and this situation has raised awareness of the inequality and substandard living arrangements for many. Hopefully, the change will improve the lives of these workers.

The proactive, aggressive testing and shutting down of “hot spots” have been successful and the number of cases has been reduced significantly. However, May 24 was the end of the fasting month and many people got together with families for “Eid Al Fitr” (the feast to mark the end of Ramadan). Interstate travel is banned but many people are trying desperately to get home. I think we will see a spike in coronavirus numbers from this.

What do you do for work and how have you had to adapt your role/way of working?
I work as an education consultant in school transformation. My role is to lead a team of consultants in programs to facilitate school improvement. The goal is to improve teaching and learning, systems, processes, and student outcomes. I have worked in this field across several countries for over 16 years and I still love my job.

The reality of the situation changed dramatically for me as I was meant to move and start a new project in the state of Perak in March, but with borders closed, it was put on hold. The project is focused on Orang Asli (indigenous) communities and the success is very dependent on establishing trusting relationships. I have been busy trying to establish links online with teachers and leaders, however with schools closed, and limited access to internet resources in rural areas, it is a challenge.  My workday from home includes management meetings, researching and coaching. We try to keep it fresh and less isolating with “wellness activities” each day and build in an element of “fun” to support colleagues who are separated from family and friends.

How have you been spending your time away from work?
I found it difficult during the first eight weeks of MCO as we were restricted from going outside for exercise. I am a keen jogger, and I had to resort to running up and down the stairs of the 55 floors of the condominium, together with yoga and tai chi to stay sane. Now the restrictions are relaxed a little, I run or go for long walks every day after work. There are some beautiful parks and tree-lined avenues to explore with more native animals returning due to the traffic reduction. The monkeys are particularly prolific, and quite scary in a pack.

I also spend some time dabbling in “future retirement ideas” now that travel restrictions have made an impact on my plans. The inability to randomly travel internationally has demanded a “rethink” of my priorities and consider an alternative to the lifestyle that I have been lucky to enjoy.

Have you been connecting with family back here in SA?
I have worked overseas for a long time and my family and friends are all very used to staying in touch with me via social media. My grandchildren have never known me to live in Australia and are very accustomed to our online relationship. However, there have been some moments of sadness and regret with the passing of my sister during the lockdown, and the inability to go home was emotionally hard.

I feel lucky to be still working and look forward to moving to another state in Malaysia, sometime soon. It may be some time before I can return to Adelaide, but I will endeavour to keep positive and look forward to some big “hugs” when I do.


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