My plane landed in Sydney on the 24th of January 2010. Three days later I moved all my worldly possessions into the room at Moore Theological College that I have now occupied for almost 4 years. Four days after that I spent my first night here. Then class started.
For the 13 months previous to this I had lived Mexico City. I lived with a charming Mexican family in one of the more pleasant parts of that megacity. When I was 24 I decided that I wanted to do one year of my MTS Apprenticeship overseas. I knew some people there, they invited me to train with them, I said yes, bought a plane ticket, and was on a plane within 7 months. I spent the year working with Compañerismo Estudiantil (it’s the AFES equivalent in Mexico).
But I digress.
Living in a megacity is a bit like living between the emergency department of a hospital and a rave dance party. All day and all night are marked by sirens, people shouting, dogs barking, children yelling, and noisy buses. All day. All night. It is a huge city, and it never sleeps. This, mixed with worsening digestive problems, produced in me a highly strung, intensely stressed personality. I didn’t know any of this until I got back to Australia and slept at my parents house. It was so quiet. I felt like I could breathe. It took me a long time to unwind all that pent up stress.
But this was the least of my problems.
As I was reunited with friends and family, I felt both there and not there. My body was there, but something was missing. And it wasn’t just jet lag. That bit of me never came home. The Tess that I knew was somehow no longer with me. This perplexed me no end. Australia is my home. Sydney is where I grew up. I expected to be comfortable here. Instead, everything felt foreign. I expected to know what language to speak. Instead, I would go to say something and it would come out in Spanish. I expected myself to be able to relate to people. Instead, I found myself wondering why people were being so cruel to me. I’d never had these problems before. I’m not socially awkward, I am pretty good at making friends, and usually love being in new places with new people. Not anymore. Now, the list of things I no longer knew how to do was endless. And extremely disconcerting.
I had expected to be able to slot back into my lovely Australian life as I had left it 13 months before. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only did I not know how to slot back in, as I watched others live their lives I wasn’t entirely certain that I wanted to. It didn’t look as appealing as it used to. I knew that I had lived like that for many years, but I wasn’t certain anymore. All I had was zillions of questions. And no answers. Again, disconcerting.
I had never consciously decided to live the way I had before going overseas, it was just the way it happened. I adopted my familial ways of doing the washing up. I emulated the fashion and music tastes of my friends. I wanted to fit in, after all. I travelled, because that’s what you do in your early 20s. I went to uni, because that’s what you do when you finish school. I never questioned any of this. I never asked why we do things the way we do. I just copied. I grew into well-worn patterns that had been trodden by many people before me. What could be so wrong with that?
Because I had travelled, I knew that moving to Mexico would mean learning a whole new way of living. I had prepared myself to consciously think about new ways of both verbal and non-verbal communication, of thinking, of shopping, even of doing the washing up. A thousand things, some big, some little, needed to be learned. It was fun, for the first two months. Then terrible for two months. And then, it just was. What never struck me was that I already had learned ways of doing these things in Australia, it just hadn’t been conscious. So when I got back, everything came crashing down. I had to learn everything. Again. Like a child. Every single moment was plagued by this learning, but was mirrored by my internal dialogue which persisted with the phrase: ‘you should know this’. I came to know this constant companion as reverse culture shock.
I watched as endless nameless faces paraded before me asking what I did before college, what living in Mexico was like, what I hoped to do afterwards, and then paid me out for all those things. Confusion was the order of the day. I cried a lot. A LOT. I skipped most of my Greek classes that year because I was having enough trouble figuring out whether to speak English or Spanish. I didn’t need to add another language into the mix. I would sit in the sun and quietly cry behind dark sunglasses.
I was focusing on surviving. Anything more than that was a bonus. At almost every point I questioned why I was here. Most of the time I didn’t even want to be here. I struggled through essays and exams and classes. I almost dropped out once or twice. I had always planned to stay for three years but on a spur of the moment decision I had enrolled in the one year diploma. I vacillated between staying and leaving maybe half a dozen times that year.
My whole life had been ripped apart. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know how to live here. I didn’t know how to relate to people. It was a total disaster.
Through the tears and exhaustion, I knew something had to be done. But what? How was I going to put a life together? And would I be happy to live it? Only questions. No answers.
From pretty early on I knew I didn’t simply want to emulate those around me. There had to be another way. I couldn’t really put my finger on why I thought this, but I was certain. Whenever I caved, my heart and mind would chime in, asking, ‘Why are you doing this? Do you really like those jeans? Or do you just like them because she thinks they look good on you? What do you like/want/think?’ It was a question that I didn’t know the answer to. And it happened over and over again. It was exhausting.
So I embarked on a journey of self-discovery. I would open iTunes and look through music I’d never heard of until I found something I liked. I would wander down King St, Newtown and find some clothes that I liked on me. I needed to spend a lot of time with myself to get to know myself and my likes and dislikes. It was unpleasant. I was a total mess. I was no fun to be around. I did not enjoy my own company. All I wanted was to get out of my head, and here I was intentionally spending time with myself. Surely that is the definition of madness. Not only unpleasant, it was also really hard. I had been conditioned to know what I think only as I know what others think. What did I think? How would I even figure that out? It took a long time. And I’m not even finished yet.
There has been some beautiful fruit from this long and painful process. I am more sure of who I am than I was four years ago. I like electronic and rap music. I never knew that. I like having my books in colour order on my shelves. I never knew that. I like to write, and I certainly never knew that. I have opinions. That scares me, but it’s a bit fun to know what you think. I am creative. I think I knew that, but it has taken on a whole new level in the last few years. I am whimsical and dream up blanket forts. I love to be the date night enabler for my married-with-kids friends. The funny thing is that I would never describe myself as confident, but maybe for the first time in my life I have a sense of myself.
I’m certain that I would never have done this or ended up here had my life been not pulled apart by moving continents a couple of times. Why would I have messed with something that worked? But now that I can actually think about it, I am so grateful for the chance to discover the person that God made me to be. I’m not done, I’m sure I will keep finding out more stuff about me as time rolls on. I’m a little bit excited about that. Who will I be? I don’t know, but He does, and I actually can’t wait to find out.
For now, I like this Tess. I might even like her better than the old Tess.