Over the years, thousands of people have made a brave leap and left family, friends and the familiar behind in countries like China, Korea and Japan to make Warrnambool home.
Some stay in the coastal city for just a few years, working and experiencing what it has to offer, while others want to dig roots in, raise their children and make it home forever.
Mark Zhuang, from China, and Temis Kao, from Taiwan, shared what it’s like to take the step of coming to Australia as foreign-born workers.
Beginning of a journey
Mark Zhuang has been in Warrnambool for a year, and although he is positive about his new life, times are pretty tough. He works tirelessly in a beef-processing job at Midfield Meat, and his family is split between Australia and China as he attempts to forge a future for them all in the south-west.
Until this time last year, 30-year-old Mr Zhuang had spent his life in a city of about 50,000 in China’s south-eastern Fujian province, where he was born.
Mr Zhuang worked in a meat-processing factory, and heard of an opportunity to come to Australia where his skills were in demand. He secured a job and left his wife and three young children behind.
Mr Zhuang’s wife, Judy, and son, Henry, 8, flew out to join him in Australia late last year. A younger son, 3, and a baby daughter remain in China, being cared for by his parents. He says the motivation behind the decision to uproot and embrace a move was simple.
“People told me the environment here is better and there’s a better education for my children,” Mr Zhuang said. “That is the most important reason for us to come here.”
Mr Zhuang starts work at 5.30am and finishes in the afternoon, meaning he can pick up his son from Warrnambool Primary School each weekday. His wife also works in a packing role at Midfield Meat in the evenings, meaning the couple barely cross paths during the week.
Henry is still learning English, but he is all smiles in his yellow school shirt. He’s told his parents he loves school in Australia, which is quite different to China’s education system.
The family shares a house with two other 457 visa workers and their families, also from Fujian province, but different cities. They are tight-knit, and they cook and eat together.
Eventually, Mr Zhuang hopes he can transition to permanent residency and bring his two other children and his parents out, and buy a house in Warrnambool.
“I hope I will stay here forever,” he said. “It’s exciting to learn a new language and culture, and I know if we stay here we will have to learn local culture and language.”
Mr Zhuang has been attending weekend English classes with Warrnambool tutor Doreen Risbey, and also watched videos online to improve his skills.
Ms Risbey sings the praises of her students, including both Mr Zhuang and Ms Kao. She says they have both worked enthusiastically.
“It’s not just English, it’s also fitting into the community and being able to get more out of their time while they’re living in Australia,” she said.
In between shifts, Mr Zhuang likes to go fishing or play basketball with a group of other foreign-born workers.
“We can speak English together very slowly to help each other understand,” he said.
He remains positive despite challenges.
“Life is tough,” Mr Zhuang said. “We have to fight for it.”
On Saturday, Ms Kao will board a plane and journey back to her home in Taiwan after two-and-a-half years in Warrnambool.
The list of her achievements during her time here is impressive. She greatly improved her English, made a diverse range of friends and got promoted to different roles through Midfield Meat, but there’s one thing that stands out – her passion for fostering connections between foreign-born workers and the south-west community.
Ms Kao set up a Facebook group that translated important information about what was going on in Warrnambool into different languages, and it grew to more than 700 members. She met with Warrnambool City Council and local businesses to disseminate information.
“My purpose is to try to translate (into) different country’s languages for our backpackers to let them know what kind of fun and activity is in Warrnambool, because I was trying to connect the backpackers with the community,” Ms Kao said.
Warrnambool City Council senior economic development officer Phil Hoggan said Ms Kao was a “real asset” to the community.
“She’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to replace. Temis is quietly spoken but has the well-being of the broader community at heart, particularly her fellow backpackers and recent arrivals,” he said.
Mr Hoggan said the Facebook group served as a “tremendous portal” to get information out to migrant workers, and Ms Kao had made it work quietly but effectively.
Ms Kao said more needs to be done to bring the Warrnambool community and foreign-born workers living in the city together. She said people she knew experienced racism, especially being shouted at from passing cars.
“If they are speaking ‘f’ words they can understand, but after that maybe they can’t understand but their voice and their action looks really angry so the backpacker will sometimes feel, ‘What’s wrong? Did I do something wrong?’,” Ms Kao said. “I think it’s a serious problem now.”
She also said many people would smile.
After her 457 visa application was unsuccessful earlier this year around the time the federal government announced changes, Ms Kao reached out for help, including contacting politicians. Wannon MP Dan Tehan said he was aware of her case, and that his office met with her on a couple of occasions to assist her, providing advice on her ability to return to Australia in the future.
Ms Kao said she had mixed feelings about going back to Taiwan, now the time has come. She will see her family again, but she will also miss the people she met in Warrnambool.
“Everyone said it’s not really fair for me, but this is a life and I really appreciate that I can have two years of time to come to Australia,” Ms Kao said. “It really changed my life. It opened my eyes and I met friends from different countries. I would get more sad if I didn't come. I think every backpacker gets a good story and experience if they come. Even if something bad happens, they are stronger and more independent.”
Ms Kao hopes she can find a job where she can use her English skills and live overseas again.
“The world is so big,” she said.