Home Sweet Home

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My favourite place in Ben Lomond
My favourite place in Ben Lomond

No matter how adrenaline pumping the adventures or how exotic the locations, there’s always a point when it’s time to pack up your things and head home. While some travelers head home for good after their adventures abroad, I’ve always had to content myself with brief spells on home soil before jetting out all over again.

It’s the sad side effect of this life we choose to lead that we’re going to miss important things. Over the past year I’ve missed the engagement parties of three close friends, the birth of a niece, and the deaths of both of my remaining grandparents. I’d have to make do with emailing a eulogy, Skyping on Christmas morning, and hoping that messages sent on Facebook or via WhatsApp have been sufficient to convey my sympathies or congratulations (depending on the occasion, obviously).

Best family portrait ever
Best family portrait ever. Photo by Tony Grant.

When you’re exploring a new city, devouring a new favourite food, or checking off a bucket list item – it’s easy to feel like the sacrifice is worth it. But it’s when you’re away from upset family or celebrating friends that you realize the price you pay for choosing to live your life abroad. These bite sized chunks of family time (I’ve got three weeks this time around) have to make up for a year or more away from the people you love and if I’m being honest – every time I visit home after time abroad, the temptation to give up the footloose and fancy free existence of an expat rises just a little.

Have no fear though – I’m still a year or two away from deciding 40 hours a week, rent, and dealing with Australia’s awful internet is what I want in life.

The Plan

My contract in China has recently come to an end and though I’ve resigned for a second year, I did want the opportunity to catch up with family and friends before subjecting myself to another year of dirty air, dodgy Jiangsu province food, and bitterly cold winter. I love my life in Nanjing – as I’ve written about before – but China is definitely a different animal to living and teaching in South Korea. It’s a lot less Westerner friendly than my time in Gwangju or Busan.

With Heather unable to secure time off for a trip home with me, I had to make do with a short three week stint on Australian shores that I divided into:

  • A week in Ben Lomond & Glen Innes with my family
  • A week on the Sunshine Coast with the family
  • A weekend in Newcastle to see the Knights play and see some family
  • A week in Sydney catching up with old friends

Over the course of the three weeks I’d be aiming to eat as much awesome food as possible, fill the bag and a half of emptiness I brought along with me with food and touches of home, and savour the residual warmth of the Australian summer.

Coming Home

With work footing the bill for my flight, I opted to splash out a little extra cash on a trip home with Cathay Pacific. China Eastern and China Southern are essentially expensive torture, so the opportunity for in-flight entertainment and edible food was one I couldn’t pass up.

Before leaving China I took some time familiarizing myself with the process of sending money abroad in China. After spending a few months paying off my credit card, I had no desire to run up a huge bill of beers and food in Oz when I could avoid it. The secret to international money transfers in China? Persistence. The number of banks who told me it wasn’t possible to wire money home was just insane. I had a friend who had to try over six banks before one told him it was possible.

Just your run of the mill quiet country town
Just your run of the mill quiet country town

After spending the Easter weekend with my girlfriend, it was time to fly home. A two hour flight to Hong Kong, a five hour layover, and then nine hours of in-flight entertainment goodness and Robert Jordan’sĀ Wheel of Time series before I was touching down on a bright and sunny Sydney day.

My first order of business was to grab a local SIM card: Optus offered a $40, 21 day unlimited data/texts/calls plan that hit the spot. That ought to work nicely with the shiny new (?) iPhone 3GS I’d ordered. I couldn’t stomach the LG Optimus for another day.

A quick train ride into town and it was time for my first meal on Australian soil. What would it be? A steak cooked to perfection? A fantastic Sydney pub meal? Fish & chips? A good old fashioned meat pie?

Nah, I settled for Chinese.

Before you shout me down as a Philistine, remember one important fact: the Chinese food we eat in the west is Cantonese, whereas I’ve lived in northern China for a year. Northern Chinese food is a tad spicier and a tad more bland in flavour than the rich flavours we’ve come to expect from beef & black bean, spring rolls, and sweet & sour pork.

David and Jenny are very happy to see me home, apparently
David and Jenny are very happy to see me home, apparently

Alas, the place we went served northern Chinese food. Worse? The bastards gave me food poisoning.

But at the time I didn’t know the agonizing cramps and explosive…ahem…. well, you know, that awaited me in the future. It was simply good to be back with good friends in a city I’d called home for over two years.

My day in Sydney was a laid back one of good food, catching up with old friends, getting to know my mate’s bride-to-be, and then a 5.30am dash to to the airport for my flight to Armidale.

Actually Coming Home

While Sydney is always going to feel like my adult home, it doesn’t hold the place in my heart that Ben Lomond and its surrounds do. This is the area in which I changed from a ridiculously shameless kid to a shy teenager and back into a slightly less shameless young adult. This is the region in which I had first kisses and made lifelong friendships and discovered my loves of sport, geekery, and travel.

Stepping out of the plane at Armidale airport truly felt like coming home. The clean air, the first signs of colour in the leaves, and the smiling faces of my Dad and my brother announced that I was well and truly home.

It’s funny how little small towns change in the time we’re away. Armidale and Ben Lomond remained largely as I remembered them. Sure, my folks had put an extension on their house and I spotted one or two new storefronts in Armidale, but things felt much as I remembered them.

Dam in Ben Lomond
It’s night particularly exciting or glamorous, but I love home.

With my food poisoning starting to rear its ugly head, my first day at home wasn’t all I’d hoped it would be. Mum pulled out all the stops in cooking a few of my favourite foods (pizza scones and lasagna), I handed out gifts from my year abroad, and I chatted with my siblings. I got to meet my adorable niece for the first time and I had a quiet moment wandering the grounds of my family’s property just savouring the quiet. Quiet is something I don’t think I’ve experienced much of over the past year.

Meeting my gorgeous niece for the first time
Meeting my gorgeous niece for the first time
Mum making pizza scones
Mum hard at work making one of my all time favourites: pizza scones!

It’s funny how a year that featured three Chinese provinces and visits to Thailand, Cambodia, and the United States lay stretched out behind me – but I was just so bloody excited to stare up at the countless stars that dot the night sky in Ben Lomond. There’s a sort of magic that exists only in and around the places we grew up, and the opportunity to experience that was enough to make the cramps and frequent dashes to the bathroom seem like minor annoyances.

What’s Next?

I’m on my third day at home and I’m pleased to say I’ve done precious little. I’m making a guest appearance in my brothers’ indoor volleyball team tonight and we’re heading to Armidale tomorrow, but there’s been a whole lot of not much going on. I’ve helped my youngest brother do an assignment on aboriginal history, slept in, played with my shiny new(?) phone, and spent a lot of time just listening to my parents and my siblings talk about the year that’s gone by.

Not everybody shamelessly shares their life on the internet, so it’s been necessary to play a bit of catch-up.

We head up to the Sunshine Coast together on Sunday. Eleven of us descending on beach-side apartments for a week of sun, board games, and whatever other mischief we can get up to. I can’t wait.

Coming Home for Good

As I approach the big 3-0, I think it’s inevitable that I start to ask myself a few questions. When will this lifestyle of teaching ESL abroad and taking life easy lose its lustre? When will the desire to be close to family and the familiar overwhelm my desire to have as much fun as humanly possible? When will a wife and kids and a career feel like the right choice for me?

My nephew eyes me off
My nephew giving me the eye. No respect!

I’m not yet ready to surrender the freedoms my lifestyle affords me, but the temptation is definitely growing. As I see more and more friends find the loves of their lives and settle down, I do wonder when that urge to start a family will hit me. I miss a great deal from home. From little comforts like the food or the footy or weekends at the beach to the bigger things like the birth of nieces & nephews, the deaths of family members, or the triumphs of those I love – the reasons to come home build up every year.

I’m not there yet, but every visit home gives me fuel for that eventual return to a less adventurous life. But who knows? Maybe it’s keeping these visits home bite sized that makes them so precious? Whose to say I wouldn’t be crawling up the walls after two or three or four months without an adventure and some new faces?

Who knows. All I know is that, for now, I’m happy to be home and I’m happy to know home will always be here for me to come back to. In the meantime, I’ve still got places to see and bucket list items to check off.

Your Say

How do you feel when you get home after a long time abroad?

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15 comments

  1. I live in South Korea where I’ve been for going on 4 years. The US (my ‘home’) feels like a foreign country. To me, home means safety, and I feel more at home getting off the plane in Incheon than LAX. While many people miss home, I feel like I am doing fine away from it.

    • I tend to believe I’ve been happier in my times living outside of Australia, but I do miss my friends and (especially) my family leading this life I’ve chosen. If I could find a way to drag them along with me, I’d be sweet.

      What is it about the US that you don’t feel safe with?

      • I don’t exactly mean physical safety. But, if I arrive in Incheon Airport, I know exactly how to get to any part of the country efficiently and cheaply. The airport also has great facilities including a place to stay on the cheap, and good food. LAX is a mess. If I miss the person who is supposed to pick me up, Im screwed. Furthermore, LAX staff is not as friendly or helpful.
        I guess I should have said ‘convenient’ instead of ‘safe.’
        Many of my friends and even family have spread out around the country too, so returning ‘home’ is rather ambiguous to me.

        • Ah, that I can certainly understand. While I’m lucky in that my immediate family all live in the same area still, my friends certainly aren’t as central as they once were.

          Australia is a pricey bitch to get around as well. I just spent close to $2000 in a three week visit there and I was pretty conservative with my spending.

  2. I totally know what you mean… even though I’m at the start of my adventures and just arrived to teach in Korea, I can already feel the weight of missing out on things back home and I wonder how long I’ll be happy doing this. But I don’t think life has to be quite so black and white… it doesn’t have to be “a settled life back home” or “an adventurous life abroad”… maybe you can find a way to fuze the two together! That’s what I’m hoping to find someday anyway. šŸ™‚

  3. Such a fantastic read Chris – – Jillanne recommended I read it after a brief chat with her on the wonderful world of Facebook. I can certainly relate to most things you’ve said on here. I missed a wedding last weekend and will be missing two more the coming weekends. I have found myself asking the question “is it all worth it?” It’s definitely a hard call to make…. especially as we get older!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Erin. I’ve got three weddings next year that I’m hoping to make, but I’ve already missed so many big days being overseas. You weren’t able to make it back for Erin’s wedding?

  4. When I got home from Korea, I was in culture shock but it was so nice to be with my family. I liked all your pics of your hometown. I too come from a small town and it’s all precious in its own way. That pic of you and your niece is too sweet :). You will figure everything out with time about when to “settle down.” šŸ™‚

    • Being with family definitely lessens the impact of the culture shock. Some things still surprise me (like paying $90 for a taxi ride last night), but it’s always nice to come home for a brief visit. Not sure I’m ready for a full time return just yet.

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