I was never been a natural at planning and structure – it’s something I’ve had to work hard at – the what ifs have always been the more interesting. Plans seemed like they might shut out serendipity and structure enclose people in a world of grey routine. And what happens when a plan goes awry, as plans often do – the more flexibility allowed the better it seems at times. This may be a smidge melodramatic but there’s always a small voice in the back of my mind saying ‘If you do this, can you still run away to the windswept cottage?’, even if the windswept cottage has still yet to appear in reality.
I like lists of things to do and to aspire to and love writing to be published, so that’s always helped, something very tangible to work towards. I’ve always trusted in the universe that things work out as they’re meant to, that as long as you work hard, put goodness out, and keep your eyes open then all will be well. The burning need for my work to be challenging, innovative, and positive for the people involved helps drive me in a good direction.
Apparently though, other people (most people?) have more structured strategies about life – and have made decisions in life based on clearer and less serendipitous ideas about where they want to be in the future. As I work on different grants at the moment, particularly Deczilla, I’m learning that not everyone else has fallen into their fields. Or maybe they just narrate their story more coherently than I do.
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished school. All the choice froze me. I knew I couldn’t do anything maths- or science-based but other than that – nothing…. I just wanted to go to uni and study something interesting. I had a Japanese class just before the absolute final due date for the forms to apply for university. My Japanese teacher was awesome so, in desperation, I asked her what she had studied. She had done Modern Asian Studies at Griffith University and had loved it – so that’s what I put on my form.
I too loved Modern Asian Studies but at the end of my first year, I was drinking coffee with two friends – Richie who’d started uni with me that same year and Carlos who was about to graduate. Carlos worried that his degree wasn’t enough to get a job, that he should have done law. Richie then worried about this and decided she should do a law degree – and that, it would be fun, we could do a law degree together. The next day, my paper work went in.
And I loved doing the law degree along with Asian Studies – it felt like I was reading people from so many disciplines. It felt like a proper education. But at the end of my third year, my brother died by suicide, my world turned completely askew, and I realised I didn’t want to be a lawyer. The theory inspired me more than the occupation and – in a moment of deep irony given I now work as an academic – I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in an office. Also, heels and suits and ironing aren’t my favourites.
So I had to decide what to do after the undergrad degrees. At the end of my final year, I was having coffee with a classmate who said I should do Honours – apparently coffee inspires life-altering decisions. With no idea of how my brother had died, he said that female suicide rates in China were really high and that why not investigate that – I’d done a lot of subjects on women and China. This felt far away enough from my brother to be doable. The forms were due that week and I started Honours the next year on female suicide in China and the power of ghost stories, gendered oppression, and tradition.
I never planned on doing a PhD but it seemed the natural progression after a year in China wondering what to do with the rest of my life – why not do all the uni I could possibly do? And as much as this story sounds like the old lady who swallowed a fly, this is the field in which I’ve stayed. For all the serendipity and twisty roads, I’ve found the long way home to a place which constantly inspires and challenges – in making me want to be a better researcher, a better person. It makes me want to write new lists and eke out more minutes within the maelstrom to write more words.
*With obvious thanks to the very wonderful Tom Waites