Regret, adulthood, and goose tongue

I used to be fearless.

I used to be spontaneous.

Do you need to be one in order to be the other?

The year I turned 26, I moved to a small-ish mountain city in eastern China – well, small for China. I’d finished my Honours and had no idea what to do with myself, as has often been the case after finishing something ‘big’. Late one night, randomly browsing the internet in an anywhere-but-here mood, I came across stories of people who’d taught English in China.

It sounded adventurous. It definitely sounded anywhere-but-here. I applied to two agencies. I got a response from one on a Friday, asking me if I was prepared to arrive in China the following Thursday.

I was.

After giving an ultimatum to my then-partner (who decided to come with me), I left a job, packed a house, flew to northern Queensland to give my two cats to my parents, and boarded a plane for a city I’d never heard of before.

I moved to China in six days, only able to say ‘hello’ in Mandarin (badly), and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The small-ish mountain city was Linhai, in Zhejiang province. If you’ve ever seen ancient Chinese paintings of bamboo and mountains, this was the area in which many were painted. It could be heart-stoppingly beautiful. There was the Southern Great Wall, East Lake, markets, seemingly lots of brothels, and the most amazing side streets. I can never resist a side street in a foreign country. I spent a lot of time hopelessly lost, and entirely fascinated by everything.

I was put in a primary school and so taught very small and deeply adorable children stories about foxes and grapes, colours and pronouns, and, most importantly of all, the hokey-pokey. At one stage, I was hokey-pokey-ing for about 16 hours a week. My ability to stand on one leg while waiting for an entire classroom of distractible 6-year-olds to also stand on one leg remains an impressive skill and one that is desperately overlooked by ARC grant reviewers.

I did so many things that year that I had never done before.

I was thinking about this the other day, as a new year started and I had found myself back in my office, having slid into the same routine, piles of marking and grants and papers, and never-ending to-do lists. Do our workdays sometimes blur together as we get lost in a theory, or an equation, or the paragraph that just isn’t quite right yet? Does spontaneity and fearlessness disappear just a little when responsibilities become slightly more adult and playing anywhere-but-here may not be the practical solution to ‘What do I do now?’

Can you still be properly adult and be spontaneous and fearless, or is it more about choosing what to be spontaneous and fearless about? Is being properly adult actually something to aspire to anyway?

As someone who would happily eat avocado toast, and wear pyjamas, all the time if I could get away with it, maybe I’m not the best judge of what ‘properly adult’ can be….

Is it more about reconceptualising adventures, and spontaneity, and fearlessness? Taking a day either side of a conference in a foreign city in which to get hopelessly lost down side streets? Make a concerted effort to do something not-routine every so often, no matter how small it is, or silly it feels. Being fearless in whatever makes your heart beat – putting yourself out there to be heard, no matter how many people hear?

I think maybe, in all of this, my greatest fear is regret. If I fall so easily into work routines, am I missing the beauty of the day? Am I not grasping every opportunity because I’m not open to seeing them?

In the end, I would always rather regret something I’ve done than wish after something I didn’t do. There’s a line in ‘Possession’ (sorry, it’s still very much in my head at the moment) which says exactly that:

“We must come to grief and regret anyway – and I for one would rather regret the reality than its phantasm, knowledge than hope, the deed than the hesitation, true life and not mere sickly potentialities”

Maybe then even the small things can make a difference here because they’re done at least, and not imagined.

The quote makes me think back to China. I know what goose tongue tastes like now. I never have to regret that I didn’t try it or wonder what it tastes like. Which is a great thing, and makes me very happy to vegetarian again.