We need to talk about J

As the matriarch of our family – my 80 year old gran – had her afternoon nap at the end of the house, my aunt quickly and quietly shepherded me into the guest room to have a conversation. “We need to talk about J,” she said, gently closing the door behind us.

You see, J is my cousin (whose full name I won’t disclose), the “modern” young Chinese woman I talked about in a previous post of mine. J is my age, 27, and she lives in a centrally-located bachelorette pad around the corner from my grandmother’s house. J divorced her husband four months ago and she works during the week in the import-export business. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” J’s mother said.

I’d always seen J and her mother as two polar opposite human beings. Both were sociable, attractive and slender Chinese women, but that was just about where their similarities ended. J’s mother was highly conservative, critical and concerned about ‘keeping face’ – I didn’t really get along with her as I never really liked her parenting style or shared many of her values. J, on the other hand, broke as many of the traditional gender norms as she could, with her smoking, drinking and partying single self. “As a psychologist,” (psychologist in Chinese is the best term for what I study in Australia – art therapy) “what do you think is wrong with her?” Caught totally off guard, I made a note to take a deep breath and ask my aunt to elaborate.

It turns out J has kind of been going off of the rails. After the divorce, J borrowed large amounts of money from her then mother-in-law, her own mother, her father, her bank and her work. She lied to her parents about how much money she was earning, and she also lied about her new apartment too (she initially told her parents that it had been supplied to her by her work, when in fact she was actually renting it herself). J owed a lot of money to the bank, and without a fully functioning knowledge of what interest was, she wasn’t paying it back. And according to her mother, she didn’t seem to understand the severity of the problem. “You’ve been spending all this time with her,” my aunt said, “what has she been telling you?”

My heart started to race. She was right – I had been spending a lot of time with her. In fact, this morning I had just come back from her place, and we had been out drinking the night before. What should I tell her? I was being asked to divulge the personal life of the family member I felt most closest to, and I felt inflamed and confronted. I couldn’t tell her about how J was in love with a few young men, not knowing who she should pick. I couldn’t tell her about how one of these men was her boss, and that was why her work and her pay was getting complicated now. I couldn’t tell her that J partied so hard that she got an average of twelve hours sleep per week. I didn’t know how to tell her that to me it seemed like her daughter was struggling, hard, running from her troubles with shopping and food and alcohol, probably because she didn’t have anyone safe or caring to confide in. Her mother wouldn’t understand, and anyways, it wasn’t my place to tell her either.

Growing up I would come back to China every few years and be confronted with how different the worlds J and I were growing up in. I would come back to China after having lived in Canada or Germany or Australia, and I’d find J being pressured by her parents to do homework or being scolded for completely normal teenage-girl things, like wanting to buy makeup, or go out late, or kiss boys. Every time I came back we would have sleepovers and talk about our lives late into the night. I would bring my western influences back to China, like my girl-love of the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys or my teenage-love of Sinead O’Connor and Green Day, and J would make them a part of her life too. As we got older J would start introducing me to her secret boyfriends, or take me out to bars and nightclubs when we told our parents we were going to the movies. She’d show me a side of China that I never knew, always keeping me on the frontline of contemporary Chinese cultural developments. We’d relate to each other about having to deal with our grandmother’s anxiety, or feeling the pressure of different familial expectations, and even though we drifted apart in terms of taste in music, clothes and men, we still had a special bond.

And so it was with that in mind that I found myself sitting on the bed of the guest bedroom of my grandmother’s house listening to J’s mum talk in hushed and worried tones about her daughter. In her mother’s face I could see a lot of love, but it was wrapped up in confusion, criticism, fear and anger. “How does someone get like this?” she’d say, and I’d stumble and trip through my clumsy lexicon of the Chinese vocabulary to try and offer up an answer. In probably the most broken Chinese ever spoken, I tried to explain to her that I didn’t think people who did “bad” things were necessarily bad people. In terms of J borrowing all that money, I said I think sometimes when we do one bad thing, it’s easy to do many bad things, and then it becomes too many big bad things, and then perhaps it becomes too much to face. I talked about how sometimes the people who put on the most arrogant and confident faces are the ones who are also the most scared inside. I talked about perhaps trying to step into J’s shoes to try and understand why she would do something like that and what she might need, and I gently tiptoed around the fact that perhaps J wasn’t telling her parents what was going on because she was afraid she might be reprimanded. “But in our reprimands is our love!” my aunt would say, and as a child of Chinese parents I knew deeply and truly what she meant.

I’ve been struggling to live with my extended Chinese family recently. I made a decision a few days back not to go explore far away parts of China, but rather, to stay close to home exploring if anywhere, our local province and my family’s story. My grandmother said, “you’ve got all these places to see and visit, and you’re going to stay here with me?” I replied with all of my conviction and feeling, “I’ve got you, and there’s so much that I haven’t even explored or understood about you yet. Yes.” And whilst it was a clear and emotional decision to make, it was also hard. For someone who likes to be alone on the road with my future in my own hands, living with your elderly, frail, anxious Chinese grandmother is one of the most unglamorous things on the planet. But I knew that whilst the cities and countryside of China would stay for a while, my grandmother might not.

And so recently I’ve been living with the consequences of my choice to stay. Living in the family home, staying within the city, I had just chosen to let myself get entangled in all the ties that come with living with family. Most days I spend half my time trying to get to know them, and half my time seething from the irrationality and unfamiliarity of Chinese family dynamics and customs. Half of me resents living with them, and the other half tries to whip myself into shape to try and stay detached and curious and observant. And when it was just beginning to feel like I was banging my head against a very hard cultural wall, something gave. I thought my extended family was going to be the way I’d always experienced it – closed-minded, anxious, stuck in the past and isolated – but in my conversation with J’s mother today, I started to see some cracks in the woodwork. “I think I understand,” J’s mum said. “I know I’ve been really critical of her. And I know her father has been quite harsh too.” She mhmmmed and sighed, deep in thought. “I know it must be difficult to watch J go through this,” I said, “because I imagine all you want to do is help her and change her and make the problem go away. But you can’t. The only person that can fix things is J. We as her family, can only support her along the way.” I’d said something similar to this to my grandmother recently, who has pretty bad anxiety. “You can’t completely protect me grandmother,” I said, in response to me riding a bicycle around the city, “you can’t always be by my side. If something bad is going to happen, it might just have to happen. I know it’s scary, but you know it’s true.”

These conversations were becoming more and more present in my interactions with my family. We had never really talked very deeply, but suddenly we were entering more intimate and vulnerable terrain. With my decision to stay in Nanjing, I knew the terrifying bit was that I had also made a decision to let myself be more seen. With every question or favour that I asked of them – can you tell me about this time in your life? Can you teach me this recipe? Can you help me find someone to teach me the guzheng? – I was letting a little bit more of me come into the light.

As my aunt and I left the guest room, we both were a little less anxious and a little less on edge than when we entered. The last thing I said to her – an offer for connection – was, “being a parent is tough!”. We both laughed in relief. I could see that whilst my aunt had come into this looking for an answer, she left feeling perhaps more heard. And I could see that whilst I went in defensive, judgmental and scared, I came out a little more bravely authentic, and a bit closer to my aunt in a way that I never thought I would.

I was talking to an Australian friend about China the other day, and she told me about how her Chinese coworker once said, “I have to make sure I go back every year – it is changing so fast, if I don’t I will be left behind.” I didn’t think much of it when I heard it at the time, but as the days go by here, the wise words of that Chinese coworker stay with me in the back of my mind. My experiences day to day are varied and diverse, and often I feel like that – like each and every day I am witness to a dozen new changes and differences that happen right before me. I’ve noticed the developments in technology, the amount of cars on the road growing in quantity and size, I’ve noticed Chinese people living less in the country, and I’ve noticed the increase in capitalism – but this was a change that startled me today. I came to China looking to preserve some of the lost traditional skills in the hills and the countryside far from my home, and I arrived finding cultural change afoot behind our own family door. And I’m starting to see that I’m very lucky to have family here, because I’ve got an in into the most personal of cultural situations. And whilst sometimes it’s incredibly lonely to straddle the space in between the two cultures and ways of being, on other days it proves remarkably enriching.


It’s been five days since I arrived in China. Since then I’ve had a whirlwind of experiences, all showing me a different side to this place that I guess I want to call home. I arrived in Shanghai and immediately went to a place called Tianzifang. Tianzifang is a hip arts and culture area in the old French Concession part of Shanghai. From there I took a bullet train and raced at 300 kilometres an hour north, to Nanjing. Nanjing means ‘jewel of the south’ and I was born there. I lived in Nanjing until I was about five, after which I emigrated to Australia. I lived with my grandmother and for a brief time with my mother and father too (they emigrated before I did) and our apartment was located about 10 minutes walk from Xinjiekou, the heart of the city.

Nanjing has been my base for the last few days, and looking back it feels like I’ve been all over the place. For some time I’ve lived with my grandmother in her clean, renovated apartment, spending time with her during the day chatting about my life and hers too. She’s housebound because she’s too frail to climb the single flight of stairs down to leave the house, and so she spends the day sleeping, eating, watching TV, listening to the radio, and sitting. Her son, my father’s brother, lives with her and cares for her. It’s a full time job so he’s currently unemployed. In contrast to the domesticity and the rawness of that experience I’ve also spent a few nights staying with my cousin, who is what I would call a ‘modern’ Chinese woman. Recently divorced, she works hard and earns quite a bit of money. Living in a flash bachelorette pad in the centre of town, she drives a red Audi, smokes and drinks with the boys and travels in Asia regularly on business. I’ve also spent some time with my oldest cousin, who is in another sense a different kind of modern Chinese woman. She’s married, has one young child who is treated like a little emperor, and has her parents live with her. Her parents look after their grandson, who goes to a prestigious English language kindergarten, and mum and dad go to work on weekdays and sometimes on weekends too. Their free time is filled with extracurricular activities, like badminton, going to the gym, going out to eat, and regular playdates for the little bub.

I’ve been to the heart of Nanjing, with its bustling streets filled with department stores galore. From small boutiques to large chains, Nanjing is a modern Chinese city that houses over eight million people. I’ve eaten all kinds of food in different sorts of places, from street stalls to authentic little Japanese boutiques to big Chinese restaurants where dozens of tables heave under a dozen more plates of food. I’ve eaten fermented tofu, duck’s blood, eel, century eggs and pig’s feet. I’ve visited Western style bars where they play the Eagles and Tom Petty and serve beer on tap. I’ve been invited to KTV (karaoke) palaces so glittery they could rival Los Vegas, and I’ve sat amongst American, Chinese and Japanese businessmen and their numerous ‘princessess’ – beautiful young Chinese women that you pick from a line up and who are paid to celebrate the night with you. They’ll drink with you, converse with you, dance with you, and let you touch them and kiss them to your heart’s content. I’ve been to nightclubs in Nanjing’s famed 1912 nightlife area, and danced to music that’s pumped out nonstop till the early hours of the morning. I’ve been accompanied by gaggles of handsome young Chinese men – ‘models’, they’re called – who, if you are a female, are similarly paid to entertain you, drink with you, play dice games with you, and be your gentlemanly chaperone during the night. I assume the potential of kissing and touching was also a part of the deal too, but I didn’t venture that far to find out. These nightclubs are intense, and reek of hedonism, sex, and money.

I also took a road trip out to the countryside. Jiangsu, the province in which Nanjing is located, is a very highly developed province, being the home to port cities like Nanjing and close to big cities like Shanghai. Compared to the urban jungle that is Nanjing, the countryside holds a completely different feel. Traditional farming is still being practiced, with rice paddies nestled amongst vegetable gardens full of spring onions, eggplants, cucumbers and beans. Cranes fly in and out and water buffalo rest in the fields. The roads climb uphill revealing old and new communist style houses, little children running around, elderly citizens speaking the local dialect and timid looking stray cats and dogs. The fog moves slowly in the distance, revealing a small mountain range far away. There are also signs of industrial development too – power lines soar over the rice paddies, workers in traditional farming attire stand knee deep in the fields talking on their mobile phones, roads are paved, and cars roar up past me on my leisurely stroll. ‘Putonghua’, the standard Chinese dialect disseminated from the country’s capital, Beijing, is also spoken by a few of the inhabitants of this little farming town. Being thankful that the dialect had spread to the villages, I was able to have a conversation with a few of the elders as we crossed paths on the road.

Experiences like that make me recognise that on some levels, I’m incredibly lucky to be travelling through China as the person that I am. I look Chinese enough not to attract too much attention and I am able to converse fluently enough that I can pass as a Chinese person too. On the other hand I hold the values of adventurousness and openness, which in my opinion come from me having grown up all over the world in developed western counties. Armed with language and curiosity at my side, in some ways I have the perfect entry point into experiencing Chinese life. The reserved and somewhat hostile faces of the people I meet all break into wide, welcoming smiles as soon as I say ‘ni hao’. But on a slightly more personal level, things aren’t all that picture perfect. Culture shock has really grabbed a hold of me, and I’m still finding my feet. Whilst I’m sure you could say this of many countries in the world, everything really is different here. China is a hard place, and you can see it in the people, in the cities, in the traffic, in the economy and in the landscape. There is a coldness, an indifference and a distrust that I’ve never found anywhere else. Many people on the street don’t know what to make of me – I may look mildly Chinese, yet I can’t speak their language completely fluently. A lot of them write me off as being Korean or Japanese, but the majority of them probably don’t care.

Nearing the end of my first week here I’m also getting sick – it’s a result of fatigue, stress, and eating low-quality food. In the west I would usually turn to a healthy organic diet, supplements and rest to strengthen my immune system. In a city like Nanjing I should’ve known better than to go looking for organic food. Going to one of the biggest supermarkets in town, I walked the aisles with dismay, unable to find anything that wasn’t processed, fake, sprayed with pesticides or raised in cruelty. I went home with a confused bag of groceries: bleached white bulbs of garlic, overpriced German muesli and American dried cranberries.

Language has been another issue too. The Angela that I’ve always known has always been able to make herself known and understood through the words she’s used. Being someone who craves deep and meaningful connections, I’ve learned to be able to reach out and connect with others through the English language. I can eloquently express precisely how I’m feeling and I love that I’m able to give expression to all the nuances of my being. In China, that Angela doesn’t exist. On a very basic sense I get by, buying food, asking for directions, making small talk. However, get me to talk about anything like emotions, experiences, thoughts and opinions, and I’m stuck. I can’t express the conflict that I might feel about wanting to go out and experience all that Nanjing has to offer versus the internal pressure that I feel about staying in and spending time with my elderly grandmother. I can’t put into Chinese words how I spent the entire evening deliberating over whether the friendship I made with the ‘model’ that I spent the evening playing dice games with was real or inauthentic. I can’t tell you about my future plans to travel around China by bicycle, because I want to document the traditional crafts and skills that are slowly dying out in some kind of cultural and personal repair. None of my extended family will be able to read this blog post, nor know me fully. It’s a very lonely feeling. But I knew that this would be the case when I arrived. I had talked to a friend about it – how do I express who I am when I don’t have language to express it? How can I still embody the values and the qualities I hold dear? Wading my way mutely through the Chinese cultural norms and ways of being, I’ve felt the loneliness of not being seen, nor understood.

But there is one place where I feel the most myself. On my first day in Nanjing I got ahold of a bicycle and made my way through the streets. Even though the traffic is all over the place – it’s a hodgepodge of cars, electric scooters and bicycles all making their way to a thousand different places – as soon as I was on two wheels I fit straight in. There’s a saying in English – that there’s a method to the madness – and riding along, I felt it. Riding a bicycle here is so intuitive – you stay alert and watch out so that you don’t get hit, but apart from that you simply join in with the flow. And there is a flow. It looks daunting but it’s felt like the most natural thing to do, and I may be an idiot, riding around sweating on a humid 30-something degree day, but I’ve got the biggest smile on my face. Some of my happiest moments here have been on a bicycle, being in motion. And I guess I’ve been able to embody and express those qualities that I was talking about – adventurousness, openness, curiosity, connectedness and most of all: a freedom of being. Unlike the realm of words, on a bike I can go wherever I wish. And seeing a city by bicycle is like nothing else: you’re alone, but you’re also immensely and deliciously in it.

I talked to a friend in Australia today and he laughed jokingly at something I had said about the culture shock I was experiencing. “Did you think that just because you have the eyes, you could just fit in?” He said it sweetly. And I guess with each and every interaction I have, my hopes of ‘fitting in’ get stripped away. I become more and more aware of how different I’ve grown up to be. I want to eat different food, I want to enact different values, I have different kinds of relationships, and I want to do different things with my life. But a few decades ago in China, before there were cars, there were only bicycles and they filled the streets. And in a funny way when I get on my bicycle, I am transported back to that past, back to that specific heritage. It’s a past that feels more familiar, and it’s one that I can feel connected to. And it’s not much, I know, but it’s a start. So let’s let the adventures begin.


Flying out of Australia I sat next to a man called Ron. I never quite know how to be when I’m on the plane next to someone. I find it difficult to ignore the fact that I’ll be spending the next few hours of my life alongside them. Should I fall into the reserved custom of silent recognition of the other and nothing more? Or can I shine a light on the fact that in one way or another we’re two people meeting, and name it up? In this instance, I shone the light, curious to see what might unfold.

I introduced myself and started a conversation with Ron. We talked about what our plans were, why we were flying to Malaysia, and what our lives comprised of back in Melbourne. For Ron, he was flying to Malaysia to see his family before heading off to Russia for a holiday. For me, I was heading to Malaysia en route to go visit my own family back in China. The conversation continued, and Ron turned out to be a lovely man full of stories he was willing to share and explore. As the hours passed we talked about music, art therapy, Malaysia, China, family, culture, heritage, work, passion, and life in general. I talked about how I was heading to China to go visit my family but also, to do so much more than that. I talked about the Cultural Revolution and about how destructive that had been not only to my family’s past, but also to China’s collective rich cultural history. I talked about my grand plan of how I wanted to ride a bicycle to all of the provinces in the future, finding and documenting the lost trades of the land of my ancestors. I talked about how I regretted not identifying more with my birthplace and my heritage until now, and how it was beginning to feel like it was too late. Both of my grandfathers had already passed and my chance to speak to them about everything from my childhood to our family to their experiences had slipped out of my grasp. I talked about how a lot of young Chinese people don’t seem to value the traditional skills of their forefathers but rather seem to prize capitalism, consumerism and progress, and how I felt like without the passing down of skills, trades and stories we were facing a tremendous loss in the documentation of our cultural history. And I talked about how I wanted and needed to start to get to know China better in order to understand some deeper and more obscure part of myself.

Ron talked about his passion for classical music having played at a very advanced level back in Melbourne. He talked about how classical music was not only a beautiful art form but also a great way to get to know and understand the world. He followed his passion to Europe where he studied German, French and Italian so that he could have a better understanding of the compositions that came out of those countries. Ron also talked about food, explaining that his mother was an incredible cook. He described a Malaysian dish she would always make, of sticky glutinous rice with various fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves. She would spend the whole day slaving over this dish. Of course, as a child Ron was also be coopted into helping out too – his job would always be to help her make the rice parcels and to be the watchful eye adding water every 30 minutes to the boiling pot as they cooked. His mother was Peranakan Chinese, and her culture and her cooking encompassed the rich melting pot of both Malay and the Hokkien cultures. Ron was really drawn to the complexity of the Peranakan culture, and listening to him talk about his roots in Malaysia and his life in Europe, I also saw him creating his own unique fusion of cultures within.

Eventually we paused for a bit and I stopped to think about what was happening. Here we were, two people from different parts of the world, sharing the stories of our lives. This is exactly what I wanted, and this was part of my plan for my trip to China – to engage in rich and meaningful conversations with people off of the street about their relationship to their culture, whether that was in the form of art or cuisine or a relationship to the land. I was hungry for stories, and here I was being fed. I wanted to commemorate this, to remember it, and so I plucked up the courage to ask Ron if he would be willing to share a recipe from his mother’s legendary home kitchen with me. He laughed, and agreed, very willingly approaching the delicate task of putting into words and into finite details what was essentially an intuitive recipe, passed down throughout generations in his family. And so thanks to Ron, here is a recipe for his mother’s Peranakan sambal. And thanks to this recipe, here is the beginning of many more adventures and stories to be had.

Ron’s mum’s Peranakan sambal (as dictated by Ron off of the top of his head and as documented by Angela)

In a mortar and pestle combine a small amount of shrimp (belachan) paste with some chopped fresh red chillies, dried red chillies (previously soaked in water, then fried in oil), and a handful of finely chopped shallots. The quantities are not exact and you will most likely need to go by estimation, taste and trial and error. When you’ve got the quantity that you want, pound it all until it’s a very fine paste. You may add some lime juice at this point if you like. Then fry up the sambal paste until it’s very fragrant – you’ll know because the smell will fill the whole house. Ron recommends wearing clothes you don’t particularly care about when you make this incredible fragrant paste! At this point the sambal paste is ready.

You can use this paste as the base for many dishes. For example, a popular way to use it is to fry it up with some green beans. Simply fry your beans in some oil, take the beans out, fry up the sambal paste again, and when you start to smell the aroma wafting into the air add your beans again. Voila. 

Tales from the Orient

For the next few weeks the posts on this blog will be about a trip that I’m currently making around China. A bit over two and a half years ago I had tickets to go to China to undertake a photojournalism trip. As a twenty-four year old I had plans to ride a motorcycle to some of the poorest and most remote villages in Southwest China so I could document the people and the stories that I would hear there. With my tickets in hand and a motorcycle license under my belt I was ready to go, but alas life got in the way in the form of a boy and I decided to follow that route instead.

The story of the boy is a tale for another time but suffice to say, a bit over two and a half years on, I found myself searching for a some sense of who I was again, and lo and behold I remembered this trip. I remembered those fantastical plans to visit the land of my ancestors, but this time around alongside those memories arose new plans, new dreams and new curiosities. I was born in China twenty-seven years ago and whilst I’ve been back every now and then, I feel like I’m finally going back with the intention of trying to discover of who I am, both in the context of a family whose history is heavy and complex and of a country whose roots are tremendous and long. And so I invite you to follow along for the next few weeks, where I plan on sharing the thoughts, reflections, skills, photographs, and tales that come from the Orient.

Growing up

The last few days it’s really felt like shit has gotten real. This blog was meant to be about ‘growing up’ and suddenly I find myself thinking that perhaps I should’ve been more careful about what I wished for. And over and over again these past few days the same image has popped into my head, the image of two signposts pointing the same way down a rocky road. The top one of the two signs says “LEARNING” and the bottom one of the two signs says “PAIN”. Ironic, isn’t it, in that familiar way that life always seems to be. And so here in response to all of the pain and the learning is a poem that I wrote (because honestly, I’m too busy going down that road to form cohesive paragraphs for now). Enjoy x


Thorn in my side


They say that our eyes are trained to see difference

To spot what lies in contrast from the rest



What fits in

And what stands out


You stood on the horizon of my seeing

And as much as I tried to get you out of my sight

You stayed


And try as I might to make you disappear

I was transfixed


I couldn’t make you look at me like all the others did

And I couldn’t make you feel about me like all the others felt


You were the thorn in my side

And you stuck


I couldn’t get you out


I tried my hardest with the best tweezers in my set

I used the new ones

With the sharpest point

And the best precision

Annoyingly you didn’t budge

As much as I wanted you to


Or as much as I needed you to


When the tweezers didn’t work I tossed them away

And I clawed at the spot where you lay inside

I tried to scratch you out

But the red mark still remains

And it’s etched into my skin:

A memory of when I tried to make you disappear


When my fingers didn’t work I used my intellect

Hands by my side I closed my eyes

And with all of my mind’s power

I wished you away


I saw you differently

I reframed what you were


I have the power to control my own world

And you will no longer be a thorn


But perhaps you can be a seed for something new?


(I peeked with one eye while I was doing this)

And I looked down

Damnit! You were still there


And the truth is you were still there

The truth is your truth stares me down

Tugging at a deep discomfort

Far, far below


I don’t fully understand what you have to say

And I don’t fully understand why you have arrived


But you have

And I know

It is something I don’t like


And so we sit here

This fucking odd couple

Me and you

Me and the thorn in my side

And every now and then I’ll attack you

Or I’ll approach you

And plead

Please please please


Just go away


And I keep on doing this

(it’s the definition of insanity I know)

Though maybe one day

I might learn

Or I might understand

Just how to be with you

Just how to sit with you




With your pain

And with your fear




With your pain

And with my pain


With your fear

And with my fear


Because they say that our eyes are trained to see difference

And you’ve arrived here standing apart from the rest

And I’m transfixed on you

Because you’re the one that sticks

Thorn in my side

Dawn on my horizon

And here you stand

… and here you stand. heart

like a four-poster bed. heart like a canvas.

heart leaking something so strong

they can smell it in the street.

— From Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell

A few days ago I sat on a chair in the middle of a busy city street and I had a sign that said “Need to talk? Hopes, dreams, fears? I can listen.” An empty chair sat next to me and for the rest of that day I waited for random strangers to come off of the street and fill it. I waited for them to fill that chair and tell me their stories. I waited for them to share with me the intimate details of their lives. In the times in between when the chair sat empty I practiced a form of sitting meditation. I sat there with my metaphorical hand and heart out, asking for someone to join me. I didn’t let myself shy away and pretend like my heart wasn’t exposed, vulnerable and open. Instead I worked on building inner resilience. I grounded myself in what I was doing as much as I possibly could, whilst hundreds of people walked by with their silent eyes, curiosities and judgments. I paid attention to the small, scared voice inside me that felt lonely, worried, like an other. I took care of her gently.

When people did come to fill that chair, I felt immense gratitude. Even though this social experiment (the idea which is credited to an artist in Berlin called RallitoX) was an attempt to give something back to the greater community, selfishly it was for me as well. I’ve always craved connection. I’ve always needed to know the other deeply, for in the depths of the other I see the depths of myself. And when a person would come to sit down next to me and greet me with their shyness, excitement and their smile, I would see my own shyness and my own excitement and my own smile. I would feel less alone. And I would feel more connected.

People from all walks of life came by. They talked about all sorts of different things. One young man talked about relationships and trust. He talked about how he puts up a barrier when he gets into intimate relationships. He reflected on how that barrier stops him from being hurt, but how it also stops him from feeling connected. He told me about how he learned long ago that you can’t trust anyone but yourself. He talked about his immense loneliness. Another man came and sat down to tell me about his life and his gambling. He told me about all of the houses that he had lost and about how enormous amounts of money had often passed through his hands from one day to the next. He talked about how there was no meaning for him in his life anymore, and how he wanted to stop gambling. He was becoming interested in collecting gold though, and perhaps that would be something interesting to do for the next little while. Another woman came and she asked me for life advice – should I study this course? Is this the way to go? She looked into my eyes hoping to find the answers to her questions. I told her I thought she herself would know the answer best. She looked at me with utter confusion. She walked away looking dissatisfied. Finally a beautiful young man came and sat down next to me with the biggest grin I’ve ever seen on his face. His family were refugees from the middle east and he had lost two of his brothers to the conflict that was happening back home. He had just come from a protest advocating for the rights of asylum seekers. He had the most beautiful way of seeing the world and an enviable affinity for words. We spoke like we were old friends.

And in a way these people were all my friends – they were my human community. I knew their confusion, loneliness, questioning and worry well. I had swum in the places they were swimming. To me, they were my community in this messy, vulnerable, confusing experience that we call life. And each time someone broke the flow of the current of reserved passers by, each time someone stepped out of the masses and stepped deliberately into that space with me, I felt so alleviated to know that I wasn’t completely alone.

Then, in the times in which the chair was empty, I couldn’t help but ponder what that emptiness meant to me. What kind of person was I hoping would fill it? What am I looking for in terms of the empty chair in my life? What am I looking for in my other? And what qualities, people and conversations help me feel less alone? Being recently single I’ve been working on filling my life with all of the things that make me feel more whole. Being recently single I’ve been working on simply becoming more whole.

And today I thought about how healing can happen so much in community. When something happens to someone, the impact is definitely not isolated. Rather I see it as ripples in a pond. A stone gets thrown in, and the stone affects many people’s lives, not just the person at the centre. For me one example of this has been my break up. I went through shit, and it not only affected me, but it also affected my relationship with my friends, housemates and family. And to some extent it affected their relationships to themselves too.

For example, my father recently came up to me and said, “you know, you mentioned the family therapy thing to me. If you still want to, well, we could still go.” This is the man who one year ago told me firmly: “you won’t ever get me into therapy. Wait another ten years and maybe try again.” This is the man who broke my heart with those words, but who was now coming around. I firmly believe he came around because for the past few months, he has seen me in my humanness. He has witnessed me confused, in pain, lost, searching, trying to figure things out, feeling alone, and working hard at being a better person. I firmly believe that he saw my realness and it reminded him of his realness too. Of the stuff he wants to sort out. Of the places in which he is also lost and searching. Of how he wants to be a better person.

I firmly believe healing can happen in community. Even tonight, I met with two very good friends, and we placed our lives all on the table. Conversation flowed like a river down the rocks of experience, and we felt nourished, we felt seen. We felt accepted, and we felt real.

You all know I’m working hard at becoming more real. And I hope you know that I’m grateful for you, for witnessing me in the process.

Need to talk?

Hopes, dreams, fears.

I can listen.

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Seven things I learned whilst being on a bike tour

Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

– A.A. Milne

This post has been a long time coming. Having sat stagnant on my desktop for a few weeks now, I’m finally posting it up, even though I know that my list of learning still keeps on growing. But for now, here are seven things I learned whilst being on a bike tour:

1. You are so small, and the world is so big.

I’ll be the first to admit it – I’m very often in my head. I don’t know why that is (well, I’m sure if we sat down and had a real deep discussion about it I could find out), but I’ve always been the kind of person who thinks a lot. The bane of that way of being is that eventually you can get stuck there. And at one point in my life I did. I tried to venture back into being in my body, but I just couldn’t remember how. It was like my body (and as a result my feelings) was an old house to which I’d forgotten the directions to.

Bicycle touring was a great avenue for me to reconnect with my body. My body would tell me how it was feeling, when it needed rest, what it wanted to eat, and when it was out of fuel or water. And not only that, I began to experience myself no longer at the centre of all experiences. Instead I started to see myself as a small piece in the whole larger puzzle of life. It’s hard to convince yourself that the entire world only exists in your head when you’re just a tiny speck of a person on a tiny tin can bike out on a vast freeway surrounded by a limitless landscape that stretches as far as you can see. You start to get a much clearer, and in my opinion, a much truer sense of the scale of your life in the greater scheme of things.

2. Things will come and then things will go.

When you‘re bike touring, that excruciating feeling in your legs as you’re doing a lengthy climb up a hill with the weight of all your panniers and racks and your bike underneath you will at some point not be there anymore. And on the other side of that, the exhilarating joy that you feel rolling down the side of a mountain will soon be gone too. Bike touring taught me a lot about the impermanence and transiency of feelings.

For me I also found that this lent itself to other life situations as well. That loneliness that I might’ve felt on a Friday night wasn’t there forever – it eventually passed. That sense of awe at my own physical ability that I discovered on my first bike tour – that feeling of surprise and appreciation has slowly come and gone. Bike touring made me understand so much more clearly and tangibly that feelings come and go.

Funnily enough I also started to value and pay attention to my feelings a whole lot more. When you recognise that they are just feelings – just clouds in the sky of your existence – it frees you up to be a lot more curious and non-judgmental about yourself and about what you think and feel.

3. At the end of the day, sometimes the only option left is to accept, accept, accept.

Being someone who has often liked to be in control, one of the biggest things I learned whilst being on a bike is that often you’re not, and the only thing you can do that will bring about any good is to accept it. For example, that hill isn’t going to go away and there may be no way to get to the other side but to ride over it. Your destination isn’t going to get any closer unless you continue riding in that there direction. You’re not going to have any more food until you pedal yourself to the nearest gas station or town. And those trucks and cars may not drive any safer no matter how hard you try to ride defensively or to assert for your space on the road.

When I was adventuring on a bike I naturally and inevitably came to accept just how small I am in the scheme of things, It was a real tangible and lived reminder that the only thing that you can control is you. For me it then became less about changing my external world, and more about changing how I interacted with it.

4. When you learn to accept your external world, eventually you learn to accept and love your internal world too.

So what if you need to stop and rest five times as you’re going up a tough hill? Or ten? Or twenty? If you do, you do, and on a bike no amount of pretending or trying will hide the reality of what you actually can and can’t do. Are you feeling like you should ride faster, but you really want to stop at some scenic lookouts or small towns? Do you find yourself singing as you’re riding, even though you hate the sound of your own voice?

I found that when I was on my solo bike tour, I couldn’t help but be confronted with a growing sense of who I was. Sometimes it was uncomfortable, and sometimes it was surprising and pleasant. And eventually armed with the realisation that no one else was going to show up in that space but me, I figured I might as well start to appreciate and love myself for all that I am. As a result, I started to get curious about who she was. Who was this person, to whom I’d been so disconnected to my entire life?

5. Your inner critic sometimes just gets in the way.

Eventually I also realised that there comes a time on a solo bike tour when it gets old to be so judgmental and snarky towards yourself. I heard my inner critic appear over and over again as I was riding: “What, you can’t ride as fast as she can?” “Geez, you’re so sweaty and dirty: you look terrible.” “Look at you, reaching for junk food again. I knew you couldn’t keep up that diet.” And I came to realise that all that voice did to me was judge me. It didn’t really help me get up that hill. It didn’t really help me get any more comfortable. It didn’t made things any easier for me. It just got in the way, and as the days passed, it slowly became a pain I chose to do without.

6. Your day, your night, and your life are all in your hands. It’s completely up to you.

When you tour solo, every decision you need to make is completely in your own hands. How much do you ride today? How much will you commit to riding up that hill? Where and when will you take your breaks? It’s all up to you. You’re the one responsible for making sure you’re safe, and that you’ve got everything you need. You’re the one responsible for knowing if you’ve had enough, or if you go or could push yourself a little more. You’ll be the only one who knows what you need, and it’s your responsibility to be on top of that.

In that sense solo bike touring is an amazing way of not only getting to know who you are, but of then coming to own your life and your shit. Every missed opportunity is an opportunity you chose to miss, and every detour is a detour you choose to take as well.

7. Lastly (and if you’re like me, you may not have realised this before), you are pretty freaking awesome and you will be able to do it.

I think this one is pretty self-explanatory. For me, I really surprised myself on my bike tour. I’d just come out of a relationship in which I started to think that everything was my fault – all of our fights, all of our problems, and all of our issues. I believed it too. As a result, I forgot how to love, appreciate and be kind to myself. I forgot my own worth.

When I went on this bike tour, I went and did something that scared the living daylights out of me. I still remember how shit scared I was as I was packing my bike up. “What are you doing?”, I’d ask myself, “You don’t even know how to properly ride a bike”. But what ended up happening was that I massively impressed and surprised myself. I came to realise that anything really is possible, as long as you set your heart and your mind to it. I mean, I was living proof of this.

And sure, some things take longer than a 10 day solo bike tour, but the theory is the same. It’s just about sticking to it. And who knows? You’ll be surprised where you end up.