What Happens Once You’ve “Found” Yourself?
We all go through a Mulan phase. Not so much the cross-dressing our way into the army, saving China and cosying up with mega dreamboat Captain Li Shang part. It’s more like looking in the mirror and offkey singing, “Who is that accumulation of cells and bad-choices I see / staring straight back at me?”
Jump cut to spontaneously booked flights sponsored by Papa Tax Return and waking up secretly impressed that you’re not dead (psst it’s called plot armour), and add a spicy twist of cash disappearing – potentially because you spent it – and you got yourself one in every five millennial’s response to that internal crisis: the quintessential “find yourself” backpacking trip. It’s the traveller’s version of a Bachelor Party, the final send-off before you decide to root your roots and do life.
Yes, that’s magical, and I could serve as your personal Mushu to guardian you through it all (okay, I’ll stop with the Mulan references). But what happens next? What happens when you’ve returned home from your grand adventure, slightly tanner and “found”, only to seamlessly slip back into your humdrum daily life? What happens once Mulan defeats the Huns (I lied) – after Happily Ever After?
Once Upon a Time (the start of this year), a Princess (that’s me) booked a solo trip to some castle (Japan) to find Prince Charming (herself). The main motivation was because I had the money and the time — or more accurately, had half the money, was two weeks late to start university and was very naive.
Over the course of five weeks, I learned how I am when I get homesick, guilty, sick, hurt from snowboarding, drunk, nervous, invincible, extroverted, hungover, poor and lost-in-translation. I felt like I was holding my hand out to myself, screaming “Hey, this is me!” like a sad solo version of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. A final stint cycling seaside in Naoshima inspired me to declare to my family that I was going offline (and my subsequent lack of communication was by no means an invitation to contact the Australian Embassy in a panic – I was just a girl having a 24-hour-and-16-minute moment, which is exactly how long I lasted). Even if my break from social media was fleeting, I felt certain this newfound “me” was permanent.
Seven months and a whole lotta mirror-staring sessions later, writing this, I feel so far removed from the Japan version of myself, as if she’s the Season 1 to my Season 8 – kinda like when you watch a video of yourself drunk the following morning with zero memory of it happening. The sad truth about travelling alone is that you don’t have someone you can share your memories with. Instead, you become that twat who, months later, is still clinging onto the same stories at parties that begin with, “This one time in Japan…”
The #LivingMyBestLife you blends into a caricature; stories get shaped into icebreakers ready to plop into any unsuspecting fizzy drink; memories are frozen in face-tuned throwback posts accompanied by the dreaded “Take me back!” caption you swore you’d never use. The mundanity of it all sets in – we feel different, but nothing else does, so we end up reliving that trip.
Why? Travelling is about breaking a routine, whereas most everyday lives are built on one. If the road to enlightenment was simply to catch the next plane, then maybe Buddha would have taught us how to navigate an airport than to sit still. I know I can’t speak for everyone, but at some stage, I became lazy. I became expectant. Cocky. Travel was the seed that I planted, and then I sat on my fat ass waiting for the harvest.
I don’t regret Japan. I regret my inaction afterwards. I’m not saying don’t tell stories of your wild adventures or post pictures of good times. That stuff is golden. I mean, did I ever tell you about this one time in Japan where during my first onsen experience? I didn’t bring a towel and a kind Japanese lady gave me her wet one to keep. Dammit there I go again.
What I’m trying to say is this: don’t leave it at that. Don’t leave it as small talk to whip out whenever you find a crack in the conversation you can conveniently slide into. The question shouldn’t be what happens next, it should be what do we do next?
The answer is easy. Even easier than surviving a journey fuelled on short-lived wealth that ends in instant ramen, or winning the war despite being an exiled female. Keep being a traveller.
I don’t mean continue to tout around three-week-old laundry ’cause you’re too broke to pay for a ¥100 machine wash. Hold onto that do-or-die mentality. Continue to explore; continue to break your routine; continue to put yourself out there. Home doesn’t have to be a trap or a coffin. It can be equally as great if you just put in the same amount of effort you did when it was costing you six months’ worth of savings.
A wise but fictional Emperor once said, “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of them all.” Travel will sure as hell do that to you. Without question my friends, you will bloom the second you step off that plane. Just don’t forget to water it when you come back home. Your best is yet to grow.
Cover by Micaela Parente; inset by the author