I am also an artist – feel free to check out my art HERE>
Born into a family of self-confessed eccentrics, I was raised to treasure my imagination. Some people don’t realise the value of fostering this innate lust for thought and adventure in their children, but to my parents it was the most important part of being a child and, in fact, of becoming an adult. Because of this life view, I was encouraged to make art, music and to express myself through writing from as soon as I could hold a pen or was tall enough to climb onto the piano stool.
According to my mother, I was the one who found the piano and began to play. After that, they got me a teacher.
I fell in love with music first, devouring piano grades and developing a keen interest in precision that would soon permeate everything I did. I started to draw, and everything I drew had to be as accurate as possible. I began to write, and whilst my spelling was atrocious (and probably still is) I began to excel in placing words next to each other.
At the age of nine my family emigrated to Sydney, leaving our house and the life it represented behind in a guttural hook of re-contextualisation that left us with nothing but each other. It was at this time that I wrote my first song “Anna”, a piece for piano and vocals that completely embodied how we all felt. It was a simple, child-like mourning song for my best friend back in England, and when my mum first heard it she cried. We all did. As a family, we felt the move, but we had made that move for an adventure and as time passed we slowly tied ourselves to our new place, friends, and culture.
Moving into an Australian school, I was very young for my year. Despite this I was always conspicuously tall and I while I spent most of primary school wishing I was “popular”, the elusive hallmark of schoolyard supremacy, I was destined to stand out. Literally – I was a head taller than most people.
I loved school and once I had found my place, moving into high school and beginning that exciting path to graduation, I treasured the friends I found there. But social life aside, the Romeo to my Juliet was always my work. My studies. I would go and practise piano during the break, knock up a vocal etude at lunch time, hole myself up in the art room and cover myself (and countless pieces of art-board) in charcoal, write a poem or read half a book while I nibbled my sandwich. Class itself was fun, with the possible exception of mathematics, but my own personal striving for creative excellence was more so.
When I graduated year 12 in 2011 I left as DUX, with an ATAR of 98.2, a score of 100% for my Extension English Major Work, with my Extension Music Major Work on stage at the Opera House and with my Fine Arts Major Work in Art Express. I then went on to do, well, other things…
I began on the straight and narrow, so to speak. I was accepted into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music for a Bachelor of Composition/Bachelor of Arts double degree to begin in 2012, and I skipped along to my first semester with a head full of Ravel and a heart full of pride. Two semesters later and I was ready to get out of there. I think the most constructive way of expressing my situation at that time is to stress the need for conformity at the Con. If you want to study there then you must prepare yourself because, for all their musical and professional excellence, they will not accept anything more or less than what they are themselves.
So I left! I went off to India in my Christmas break to volunteer as an English teacher in Goa’s Margao slums. I worked with the beautiful kids living in this roaring contradiction of a place for one month, before travelling alone for a few weeks and then returning home. The children I worked with were Muslim immigrants from the North, living in an unofficial brick and slate slum at the top of a hill. The hill was a favourite amongst lovers from the Margao town and a clean, empty church sat on its crest looking over the waste. These people were a real mix. Some of the kids were terrors! Some would wiggle and wriggle and grin at you with their bright, white teeth, unable to contain that bright vivacity that all kids begin with, and some would be so solemn that it weighed on the room like a damp cloth.
When I returned to Australia to begin studying again I could feel something stirring. To be honest I knew, even then, that I was not meant to be in Sydney. People talk about wanderlust and for good reason – it is so tangible, and it will change your life if you catch it! I soon deferred and worked to earn enough money to go away again, and stay for a while this time. I had set up my own piano teaching business a few years previously to fund my everyday life, and I expanded it. I also worked at a cafe, and slowly raised the funds to get lost somewhere north of the Goa I had met already.
When I first went to India I worked through a local NGO, but going back I realised that less than 10% of the many hundreds of dollars I had donated to go and work there was going where it was needed. Ridiculous. So I visited the kids again but didn’t pay to work with them. If you’re looking for a way to volunteer that will get you right next to the problem at hand without taking half your life savings to pay some already wealthy CEO, then check out helpx.net. I must stress that you should be careful with this one though – things aren’t always as they seem on an unofficial website like this! More about that later.
My second trip to India lasted just over 4 months. I began in Kerala and having circled the southern-most tip of the country I headed north along the west coast all the way up to Kashmir. I danced with gypsies in Rajasthan, covered my hair in Pushkar, got lost in the gated compounds of wealthy Delhi, learned the lives of Mumbai’s Bandra Rajas, sat with dusty locals on a bus from Bijhapur, got high in Hampi and detoxed in Rishikesh. I tried to understand the way different demographics lived in every place I went to, but while I did manage to get a pretty broad picture, India is just so huge. You could live a life there and still not understand the place! That’s probably why I loved it.
Having returned from India in 2014, I tried again to study. After the first semester I went to Vietnam for what was meant to be a one month trip during uni break, with nothing but $800 and the pack on my back, and I never went home.
This is a very long story in itself which, I hope, you will eventually be able to read on my blog. I was poor when I came here and I spent some time volunteering in exchange for rent and food on the remote, northern part of Phu Quoc. This was arranged through helpx.net, and I saw it as a way to make a difference and learn about local life, while also making my funds stretch. T, my host, was a brilliantly eccentric woman who owned a shack on a beach and nothing much else. She now owns a successful and beautiful backpacker resort, but at the time things were strange and not comfortable at all!
I returned to HCMC after about 10 days there. I was drawn to the place, even then, and as the months passed I honestly fell head over heels for the lights of this crazy furnace of activity! I drew henna tattoos and made sketches of the city and its people to sell to travellers for money. This paid for a bed in a dorm and for a few bowls of soup each day.
I eventually had to get a “real” job. I was literally living hand to mouth so I decided to embrace the stereotype and found work as an English teacher. To be honest, I didn’t know what else I could do to earn money. My funds were so low at that point that I had started eating once per day for free at a friend’s restaurant. I shared a tiny room with a lovely Cambodian woman a the top of a guesthouse down an alleyway. It was semi-outside so was half price but it had a tiny balcony and was so bright – I find that light is what makes a living space. The walls can be old and the furniture poor, but if the sun can kiss your floorboards then the place is instantly warm and inviting.
I had been in HCMC about two and a half months when I met Nguyen. There is a park close to the backpacker strip in District 1 where young Vietnamese uni students go to practise their conversational English with tourists. I was riding my bicycle there with a friend one evening, pausing to watch night around us, when a group of Vietnamese boys walked up to us and asked if we had time to practise. Honestly I was so irritated – they had interrupted what was promising to be a very relaxing evening – but we could not refuse. We sat and we talked, and I found myself looking into a wide pair of deep, solemn eyes. I couldn’t look away from them, and yet, I didn’t want to look into them because they would know I was looking. The eyes belonged to him, and when he smiled they flicked upwards into tiny little half moons with the joy of it all. His face went from beautifully sad to bright like the sun, and his smile was so wide it split his face in two behind big, elegantly curved lips. It was from that point that I fell in love with Nguyen, though it took me a while to admit it. We started talking that day, continued the following day on Facebook, and have not stopped talking for one single day since then.
At the beginning of our relationship I was still a teacher. Teaching English is a joke here in Vietnam. People get paid extortionate rates to babble in their native tongue, often without any qualification or any standout reason for employment other than the country on their passport. Honestly, there are expats here who complain about earning “only” $1500USD per month, while their Vietnamese counterparts earn $500USD and are grateful for the luxury. This angered me so much, so when I was offered work in a French-owned travel company I jumped at the chance. CityPassGuide.com became my ticket to self respect.
I worked with that company for just over a year, and I learned a plethora of invaluable life lessons and work skills in doing so. Nguyen supported me through it all, and I left half way through 2016 to freelance full-time. I contracted as a writer and an artist via peopleperhour.com, wrote for other Vietnam publications such as AsiaLIFE and The Word Vietnam, and designed tattoos for people around the city. I would go to markets and draw people’s portraits, sell my art at local events space Saigon Outcast and at one point I sang covers in the local bar Acoustic! I was grateful for my creativity. But a few months later I was tired of foraging for work. It felt like I was floundering again even though I earned well over $300USD per month and was safe and well. I was offered a position on staff at The Word Vietnam, and I took it.
And that brings us up to now! I started working with The Word Vietnam halfway through last year and am still currently doing so. I am a feature writer for the magazine which publishes both a print and an online version of their publication each month. I have illustrated for them, and I also take the photos for a lot of my own articles. I also work in illustration and am currently part way through two children’s book contracts, whilst also occasionally taking freelance tattoo design or graphic design jobs.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know where to see myself in 5 years. People ask that, and my gut reaction is to wonder at how boring it would be to know where I will be. I can, however, rely on a few key things. I will be with Nguyen, my inspiring partner, working towards our next goal together. I will be creating something and telling some story, and I will be working hard.
I know I will always be drawn to exploration, to telling peoples’ stories and capturing precious parts of life wether it be visually or with my pen. And I know I will always love to imagine. For me, and for so many people, being creative is both an answer to a call and a call in itself.