It’s hard to believe I first started a draft of this post back in September 2011. Almost a year on and I still hadn’t entered a single word into the body of the article.
It’s not that I don’t realise the immense blessing that is my family or that I am not grateful each and every day for their presence in my life – it’s just… it’s hard to do them justice. I’m not a guy who shies away from expressing his feelings (as evidenced by my posts on goodbyes or on my battle with depression) – but there’s just an extra pressure when I’m attempting to express not only how special my family is to me – but also what a vital role they play in my travels and in my role as a travel writer.
But it’s about time I try.
When I stop and really think about what it is that draws me to travel, I come up with a thousand reasons. The newness of experience, the ways travel challenges me to improve myself, the friendships, the romance, the distraction from ‘real life, the life lessons I learn… the list really could go on forever.
But if I look past the rewards I take from travelling and try to pin-point what it is that got me started on my journey, it would have to be my parents. From an early age, wanderlust was something that was ingrained into me.
My father’s role as a principal in the NSW education system meant we moved around quite a bit when I was a child. In fact, by the time I had graduated from primary (elementary) school in 1996, I’d lived in seven towns and attended a total of six primary schools along the way. One of those primary schools might have been because I was expelled for smacking my teacher after she told me to stop reading.
Seriously, what kindergarten teacher complains that her five year old student is reading while the rest of the class are still on phonics? I say she deserved a much harder slap than five-year-old Chris could have hoped to dish out.
From sleepy Merriwa to Menindee in the NSW Outback. From there to tiny Mallanganee on the northern NSW coast. From there it was out to the red center for eighteen months in scorching hot Tibooburra before a brief stopover in Newcastle. Then it was off to Mudgee in the heart of NSW wine country before we finally settled in idyllic Ben Lomond in 1995/6.
Over the course of eleven years I had more best friends than I care to count, experienced everything from bullying to first crushes to minor superstardom when my mother featured in a commercial for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. When moving house is such a natural part of your upbringing, I think it’s fair to say that sticking to one spot just doesn’t feel right. And while my family has been settled in Ben Lomond for the better part of twenty years now, I have never been quite as comfortable with standing still.
Once I’d left high school and graduated from university in nearby Armidale, it was off to Newcastle. Then back to Glen Innes. Then to South Korea. Then Newcastle again. Ben Lomond. Sydney. South Korea again. Now China. It seems I can’t go more than twelve months without my feet getting itchy and my eye starting to wander in the direction of greener pastures.
My First Trip
The year was 2007. I was 23 and found myself back in my home town. Despite graduating as one of the top three students in my year and breezing through my Bachelors at university, I’d somehow found myself manning a check-out in the same sleepy country town I’d thought to never see again after I’d graduated in 2001.
I lived with a good friend, played entirely too much World of WarCraft, was still a card carrying member of the virgin club, and got by on 14 hours a week at the supermarket and one night of underwhelming drinking at the local RSL a week.
Was I miserable? Not exactly. But there’s only so many times you can answer the question “So, what are you doing with yourself now? Honors? Masters?” with a half-hearted “Nope, this is all I do now” before you feel like maybe you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.
So, when a friend suggested I take a gig in Korea in ESL teaching, I immediately leapt at the chance.
About five hours after I’d received a formal offer to move halfway around the world, I panicked.
And that’s where my mother stepped in.
“I know you, Chris,” she said, “And I know you will be miserable if you don’t do this. You’ll beat yourself up ten years from now because you didn’t take a chance. You’re better than what you are in life right now“.
I paraphrase, of course. No speech, regardless of how inspiring it is, stays with you half a decade after the fact.
The point is, despite always having wanted me close to home, my mother urged me to travel to a country none of us knew much about because she wanted me to have more in my life than video games and “Do you need a bag for that?”
A month later (and not without several repeats of the speech), my parents and my youngest brother accompanied me to Sydney and treated me to a whirlwind tour of my future home before I flew out. We took in the iconic sights, ate ourselves into a sushi coma, and shed more than a few tears at the airport when I realised I wouldn’t see them for another year.
There were times in my first weeks and months in Gwangju that I regretted ever stepping onto the plane. But when I left two years, three girlfriends, dozens of friendships, and a whole lot of life experience later – I couldn’t have been more sure that I’d made the right decision. Travelling to South Korea to teach was (and remains) the best thing I’d ever done. I am a vastly improved person because of my mother’s selflessness.
Visits on the Road
My mother might have nudged me out of my shell and into the wider world, but that doesn’t mean she left me to deal on my own. I remember teary eyed Skype conversations around Christmas where I expressed the doubts that I’d ever survive my year. Thank God for the ability to make free calls.
In April of 2008 – five months after I’d moved to Korea – my parents and my youngest brother visited me. Their two week visit somehow managed to reinvigorate me and ultimately stopped me from leaving Korea much earlier than intended.
Over the course of two weeks we explored my home town and its surrounds and I learned first hand how much fun it is to play tour guide for the people you love. I’d later show my family around Seoul in 2011 and introduce my other two brothers to travel when we toured Fiji for two weeks in early 2011.
The support wasn’t just visits or phone calls, either. It was care packages and messages on Facebook. It was the unspoken but understood fact that – no matter what happened – they’d be there to take care of me at the end of the day.
“I was worried we’d have to fly over there and collect you,” my mother once confided as we discussed my battle with depression and how it ruined my stay in Busan. I would never have let it get to that point, but it’s always been something of a safety net to know that my family would be there in a heartbeat if I needed them.
And that brings me to my fantastic…
For a long time in my life, it felt like it was my family against the world. Whether we were dealing with bullies (something my siblings and I all had to endure at some point in our lives), school politics, or a hostile or isolated lifestyle – we always had one another. Growing up in a family of six (and later seven) is the greatest blessing I’ve ever had bestowed upon me.
Regardless of the time of night – there’s always somebody in my family home I can talk to. No matter the topic or the turmoil I’m going through, there’s always a shoulder there to cry on. I’ve consoled siblings through break-ups and disappointments; given (hopefully) sage advice on dealing with difficult work situations; and played every role from tutor to relationship counsellor to psychologist and the roles have been reversed as well.
I know that if I needed anything from any member of my family, they would gladly provide it.
- In 2009 my brother, Dom, stepped in when a drunk and his friends looked like picking a fight with me. He knocked one of them out in the resulting ‘blue’.
- When I was dealing with my very first heart-break in 2002, Izaak (then only three years old) listened to my sobbing explanation of my heart-break, put a tiny hand on my leg, and matter of factedly replied “Bitch”.
- In 2011, fresh off the end of my two year relationship, Dom and Leigh flew to Fiji (on my mother’s dime) to ensure I wasn’t alone in the wake up my first real heart-break.
- Countless assignments were completed with the help of my mother at the last minute.
- My sister, Heather, put me up in her own home for weeks after I returned to Australia following the abortion that was my stint in Busan.
- Every single sibling has, at some point, loaned me money. I’m pretty sure I’ve loaned all of them cash at some point too.
The above is just a sample of the selfless things my wonderful family have done for me over the years. I’ve doubtless forgotten more than I can recall, but I’m sure my family knows I would be there for them in a second if they needed it too.
I know how lucky I am. I know that not everybody can say they have a family as uniquely wonderful as mine. We’re not without out dysfunctions or quirks, but underneath it all, we all love one another unconditionally. It’s that knowledge that lets me spend so much time away from them.
It’s knowing that I can go back to them and slip seamlessly back into their lives that makes it okay for me to spends years abroad teaching or exploring.
My mother summed it up best when we spoke last night:
“I don’t want you to come home,” she said honestly, “I want you to stay in China as long as it’s making you happy. I haven’t read or heard a single down moment from you since you moved there. I’d rather you be happy and far away than close by and sad“.
I paraphrase again, of course, but you get the gist. My family understands that I may never be happy leading a ‘normal’ life and they don’t begrudge me my time away.
I don’t get to see my youngest brother grow from an awkward kid into the cool teenage kid he is today. I won’t be around when my adorable nephew, Ezekiel has so many of his big moments. I’ll miss birthdays and Christmases, good times and bad. I can’t be there to help when my sister is having a difficult time or to offer advice as my brothers move away from home and start lives of their own. I can’t help my mother prepare for Christmas or tag along for a motorbike ride with my father.
Not a day goes by when I don’t miss them. That’s the sacrifice I make to do what I love, and I love my family all the more for allowing me to do that.
Thank you Mum & Dad. Thank you Heather, Dominik, Leigh, and Izaak.
Thank you to Mumma for watching over me as I travel.
Thank you to my aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins, and grandparents.
Get your asses to China. I owe you all about a thousand hugs.