Memoir: Visiting Australia, 2013

On a sunny afternoon in August 2012, I entered my supervisor’s office at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He greeted me, then got up from his chair and closed the door behind me. I became anxious a bit as he never did that — -have I done something wrong that he wants to talk to me privately? Then he told me the news: he was planning to move to Australia! He got a prestigious position at Monash University in Melbourne and would start in January 2013. The news was still confidential, that’s why he had closed the door.

He wanted to discuss my options as his PhD student. There were four. I could move to Australia and do my PhD there, or stay in Waterloo and change my supervisor, or move to the University of Toronto. The fourth option was the most complicated: I could officially be a PhD student at Waterloo, but practically he would continue to supervise me. This would have meant that I must spend considerable time in Australia during the following three years.

I was terrified. I had gotten used to my simple, comfortable life in Waterloo, was enclosed by a wonderful circle of friends, was involved with many social activities, and loved working with my supervisor. I was happy in my comfort zone and hadn’t expected a change. Then I remembered the pleasant dream of the night before this meeting: I was looking at a beautiful drawing of green trees. As my dreams are often black and white, I thought perhaps there’s a sign here, maybe there’s something good in moving to Australia. Indeed, it turned out there were many life lessons in those visits.

After careful consideration of the options and talking with a potential PhD supervisor at the University of Toronto, I decided to go with the complicated option. My department (the combinatorics and optimization department) was very supportive and offered to pay my tickets to Australia and to increase my funding by 2 grands per year to compensate for the higher value of the Australian dollar. Monash University helped with the visa process, which was the most painful part of the visit. It took 100 days to receive the visa, and I had to fill infinitely many forms and do a medical test.

I decided to move in January. This way I would avoid most of the Canadian harsh winter. Melbourne does not have a winter at all, and it’s in the southern hemisphere, so it would be summer when I arrive there.

On my way to Australia, I spent a month in Tehran, Iran, visiting my parents, and spent a week in Lahore, Pakistan, visiting my uncle and grandparents. I must note here that my Mom was born and raised in Lahore, and her brother and parents still live there. This was the last time I saw my grandfather, as he passed away a few months later. Because of the delay in receiving the Australian visa, I arrived in Melbourne in February 2013 and stayed there for five months.

My life was quite different in Australia. First, I had left a close-knit circle of friends and a super active social life and entered a city where I only knew two people: my supervisor and his wife. In Waterloo, all my friends were Iranian. It was difficult to pass the language and culture barrier and communicate with non-Iranians at a personal level, and I didn’t really need to do so, so I hadn’t even tried to break these barriers. But in Melbourne, I had to break them. Thus, I found a Chinese friend in the office and an Australian one and a Mauritian one in Christian groups at Monash. I also had three Indian roommates with whom I didn’t interact much, as I had a separate bathroom and rarely used the common areas. They were very clean and kind and shared their meals with me a few times. I also found an awesome Italian friend in the department with whom we went to a couple of daily trips. The next year when I visited Italy, he invited me to his place, and I spent a week there. We also co-authored two mathematical articles.

I started being physically active. I had always found it embarrassing that I couldn’t swim. So, I took swimming classes at Monash and now I can at least keep my head above the water. There was a certain revelation during one of these swimming classes. The instructor was teaching swimming on our backs, but my body tended to sink. She looked at my face and said, “you are so tense!” And that was the revelation. I stopped contracting my muscles, I let go, and I wasn’t sinking anymore. It was as simple as that, but I couldn’t observe it myself, I needed someone to tell me. Then I generalized this to all aspects of life. I was an over-planner and over-thinker, and the lesson was that I must let go of things, stop trying to control everything, and things will float on the water naturally.

I also started camping in Australia. I joined the awesome bushwalking club at Monash University and went hiking, camping, and rock climbing with them. I observed the healing power that spending time in nature has on my soul. Why hadn’t I camped before? Because I was afraid of going out of my comfort zone and try unfamiliar things. I was a perfectionist and worried that I would do it imperfectly. But what great pleasures had I had lost because of this way of thinking! Since then, I go hiking often and camping at least once per year.

Another thing I started in Australia was volunteer work. I worked at a university restaurant 2 hours per week chopping eggplants, zucchinis, and pumpkins. That was a valuable experience and the habit of volunteering has stayed with me since.

I conclude with some lessons from that 5-month visit. I learned to be flexible in life. I am naturally a planner, but life doesn’t proceed as we’ve planned, so instead of despising life, one must relax and dance with it; the diversion is likely to take us to a better destination. I also realized that I’m a perfectionist, and how harmful it can be. It will detain you in your comfort zone and doesn’t let you try fresh things and grow. The number one new year resolution for my following year was “don’t be a perfectionist.” Finally, I learned to leave my friends and belongings easily, to be able to live like a nomad and move around with little pain.

Here is a picture of one of the camping trips in Australia. It encapsulates many of the principles I’ve discussed above: spend time in nature, befriend people from different cultures, let go of things and don’t take life too seriously.

A freelance journalist and a Google DeepMind AI researcher, an Iranian-Canadian living in Montreal with a journalism degree from Concordia University.