When my family first landed in Perth at the start of January, it was 40C. The stifling heat was such a contrast to the European winter we had left behind.
It’s one of the things I remember about migrating to Australia with my mum and step-dad when I was six; that and the extremely long flight leaving Budapest – with stopovers in Helsinki, Karachi and Singapore.
On our very first evening in Australia, we ate watermelon as we dangled our feet in the sea, watching the west coast sunset. Earlier that day, I’d lost my (very special) toy kangaroo. I ran back to the park where I’d accidentally left it, tears running down my face, then found it on top of a bench. Someone had kindly placed it there for its rightful owner to claim.
But not all my memories were so nice. I was enrolled in kindergarten, and while most kids would’ve been excited for their first day of “big school’’, I was petrified. Not only was I in an unfamiliar country and incredibly shy; I did not speak a word of English. I had no idea how I was supposed to understand anything.
School was scary. I clearly recall one teacher putting a pencil in my hand and ordering me to “write”. Write what? I couldn’t even introduce myself or say hello in English.
Then I met Natsumi.
Natsumi’s family had recently migrated to Australia from Japan. Like me, she couldn’t speak English. Our only method of communication was nodding or shaking our heads, pointing, and smiling. No words. And yet, we became the best of friends.
I would beg to go and visit Natsumi at her house.
Throughout the year, we learned enough English to start speaking to each other. My mum has a clear memory of one car trip when Natsumi and I were sitting in the backseat, giggling, and whispering to each other in English. It was the first time I was confident enough to speak the few words I’d learned.
Unfortunately, at the end of that year, Natsumi’s family moved to Queensland and mine moved to New South Wales. Despite one visit not long after that, unintentionally we lost touch.
Continuing school in Sydney was just as much of a whirlwind – a mix of excitement and utter confusion. In Year 3, I hid in the corner of my classroom for months on end because I didn’t understand the weekly comprehension task we had to do.
Desperate to be invisible, I’d mastered the art of deception. When my mum was called in (I eventually did get busted) – the task was explained to me again. After that, I became determined to do well.
After I graduated from high school, I completed a primary teaching degree at university, eventually training as an EAL/D teacher (English as an additional language/dialect). I had come full circle, teaching English to newly arrived secondary students and adults.
I taught a mix of migrants, refugees and international students. Between 2014 e 2018, many of my students were Japanese. Teaching them reminded me of Natsumi – often, I thought of her and wondered what her life looked like. I had searched for her in the past, as had my mum – but to no avail.
tuttavia, on a visit to Japan in 2018, I picked up the trail again. I spent a long night online, searching Google, Facebook and Instagram. But how do you find someone when all you have is their name? I didn’t know where she lived, what she did for a living or if she was even on social media.
I did come across a few people with her name, and ended up with some dead-end messages (sincerest apologies to all the Natsumis out there). I almost gave up. But then I came across someone who looked my age, called Natsumi, and with the description “actor/tv presenter/model’’. Taking a final gamble, I sent her a message, then went to sleep.
The next day, there was a reply: “Oh my god. Gabi? Gabi from Perth?"
Grinning, I exchanged a few messages with her. It turned out that Natsumi was living in Queensland, but would be visiting Sydney the week after I returned from Japan. What timing.
We agreed on a date and met up for dinner. Seeing her again for the first time – more than 25 years since our last meeting – was incredible. But there was one huge difference: this time, we could speak to each other in English, fluently. If you’d heard our reunion and conversation at dinner (which was not quiet, a proposito), you’d have thought we were both native English-speaking Aussies.
It was the strangest experience, reminiscing about shared childhood memories, when at the time we’d had no words for them. She was so different from the quiet, shy girl I’d known back then – and I was so different too.
Despite living in different states, Natsumi and I keep in touch regularly and often see who can remember the most about our time in Perth.
Social media has so many downsides but in this case it was responsible for something really special. I’m so glad I kept searching for my childhood friend.
We can’t wait to catch up face-to-face again once borders are open. We have no intention of delaying our next catch-up another 25 anni!