Happy New Year! Happy 2020!
In Chinese zodiac tradition, 2019 was the Year of the Pig, which was coincidentally MY zodiac year (which is supposed to be very auspicious for me- not that I’m superstitious like that, but it is fun to celebrate!) and I had also recently returned from my big “Chinese Diaspora” trip and self-discovery into my cultural identity and what it means to be a 藍 (i.e. my family name).
I thus had a lot of fun doing a specific Chinese New Year (CNY) headpiece in February 2019, which I share with you now as a farewell to the year that’s been.
2019 was also a huge year for me for many other reasons. And so I will supplement my usual photoshoot discussions with another letter to my late sister, reflecting on the year. Thank you for your patience everyone xx
One tradition for CNY is to buy new clothes. I wanted to buy a cheongsam (see my old blog post for more background info) It would have been more fitting (and cheaper) to buy one in China (especially Shanghai!), but I was backpacking and didn’t want the excess bulk/weight until my final destination of Singapore. Plus my Chinese is still quite poor and I felt more comfortable shopping in a combo of Chinese and English. I was looking for something blue (because my family name is 藍, the colour blue) or red (always an auspicious colour in Chinese culture!)
I found this navy lace number at Love Bonito (a local Singaporean ready-to-wear label) and fell in love. The flared polka-dot chiffon was a Western twist on the traditional cap sleeve and the cut out back a modern touch. Plus I loved the fitted waist and dark colour- in keeping of the “Chinese tradition” theme, I was also on the look-out for a dark dress that would emphasise my pale skin (something traditionally sought after in East Asia)
I chose orchids for the headpiece. In my eyes, they are a stately and delicate flower and are also greatly representative of Singapore. Rather than a circlet crown, I created an asymmetrical fascinator and used a variety of jewellery charms and delicate change reminiscent of the ornate feng guan (鳳冠) of the Ming Dynasty.
I styled my hair in a stereotypical “Chinese” bun whilst also letting down a long tress of hair as a fringe. My mother thought it looked kind of ridiculous and un-traditional, but at least my sister-in-law thought it looked cool! It was our first photoshoot together since she and my brother got back from a traveling gap year– check out their photos.
The vibe/artistic direction for this photoshoot was to be a cold and mysterious, strong and ruthless Chinese princess who knows her duty but is always somehow looking for something beyond the horizon, whether that be a life beyond her royal duties or for the chance to mercilessly take more power. Maybe it was the dark dress colour, maybe it was part of my wanting to be stronger and less of a pushover for 2019, maybe it was to recapture the surreal, lonely yet beautiful feeling I felt whilst wandering the Summer Palace in Beijing the preceding December… who knows?
We had a fun time with this photoshoot- it was a technically more challenging headpiece and a more creative direction than usual, something a bit different. And I had fun with 2019- it was also a more challenging and creative year than previous ones, and something a bit different too. My letter of reflection to my late sister continues below.
“我是藍 , 我属猪.
二〇十九年 是我的本命年. 二〇十九年 是 我的一年了”
“I’m a 藍, I’m blue (藍), I’m a Pig.
2019 was the Year of the Pig. 2019 was my year.”
January 25 2020
Dear Jie (姐/Older Sister)
It’s really the end of 2019 and of the decade already! And what a year it has been!
2018 was an enriching year of living away from home and working as a rural medical student- even now, a part of me remains as a “city-to-country convert!” It was really hard- I felt isolated, and it felt like despite seeking out my friends old and new, my efforts weren’t reciprocated. My work ethic and cultural identity were constantly being questioned and made to feel as if they were never quite legitimate. My wellbeing and rights to equal healthcare access and a safe working environment were not valued by personal and professional friends/mentors. I was burnt out and deeply hurt, Jie, and I was frustrated at myself for still being as earnest and as trusting as that broken-hearted sixteen year old baby you said goodbye to all those years ago. Even compared to trying to finish Year 12 so soon after losing you, 2018 somehow ended up being one of the most difficult times of my life (isn’t that ridiculous and sad, my dear?)
But 2019 was to be my year, Jie! For I had finished 2018 on MY terms. Under Yi Goh’s (二哥 /second older brother) instructions, I booked a one-way flight to Hong Kong before even knowing I had passed my final exams of medical school (despite underperforming, I still took the risk- sometimes I consider it a big f*** you to everyone who left me be hahaha) Suddenly I was on a one and a half month “Chinese Diaspora” voyage through Hong Kong, Macau Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. I declared to myself “I’m sick of other people dictating how I feel- no more!” I found myself somewhere where my heritage was celebrated instead of something that had to be suppressed to “prove my Aussie-ness” (as if the two are mutually exclusive- I find that idea shameful, Jie). I made some inspiring new friends who helped me feel a bit more confident in myself and in the world outside of the insular little bubble I had known for the last few years.
“Let’s make 2019 our year!” I had excitedly urged Eddy, my new American pen-pal that I had met while traveling solo in Taiwan.
And 2019 was indeed going to be an exciting year. I think of it as a series of chapters: Semester One back home in Adelaide after a year away, followed by a trip to Europe for a medical placement in Montpellier, then a GP placement with Goh (哥/Big Brother) in Port Lincoln and a brief two months in Adelaide before a sponsored medical placement to Ulaanbaatar. I would then come home for Grad Week and then finish the year with a yet-to-be-determined graduation trip. Not only was the programme of events exciting, but my mentality was different. The year started with many new paradigm shifts. I had come out of a long-term relationship and had decided on a specialty with much more flexibility (after 2018, I’m a big believer in the specialty of general practice!), and I suddenly no longer had any short-term obligations to Adelaide- the future was suddenly so open and free! I wasn’t going to be naively exploited this year like I was last, I was going to be more intentional and selective with my time/efforts and I was going to be more (respectfully I assure you haha) assertive. I was going to use the time I had previously devoted to study to be SO productive with studying French, my blog and art and music. I was going to focus on taking care of myself (after all, my 2018 experience had taught me that nobody else was going to do so) and keep well, including joining a new church and finding new doctors by changing specialist and replacing my trusted GP who had moved interstate.
But things rarely go to plan. And making 2019 my year was harder than I thought.
I felt stifled by the small-town mentality of our beloved city. Coming from Kapunda where I would do ward rounds by myself, had my own clinic appointment list of regular patients and much more impact on my community, I was suddenly the most insignificant of insignificant cogs in the machine that is a major metropolitan teaching hospital- my “Keen Bean” sheen of Fourth and early Fifth Year had died during the burnout of 2018. I struggled with my physical health and wasn’t able to do my planned early morning productivity routines. Finding a way back into my familiar Adelaide social circles was also challenging- the fact that many of my old friends seemed indifferent to my 2018 absence was juxtaposed against others who were offended at my not being present or at my new attempts to gently pull away from toxic relationships. Friends and family were struggling to adjust to the new “Assertive Esther”- apparently my no longer saying “Yes” to every single request was inordinately rude. I tried visiting two of my old church communities and to become involved in a new one. They ended up all being very painful and disheartening experiences- unfortunately I’ve developed some sort of distress reaction to church (but I’m working on it, Jie! it’s just kinda hard to do so alone) I was unable to find a new GP and was disappointed when one of my potential new specialists gave the opinion that I had been undertreated for a few years and that the new treatment regime would have to be longer and more intensive as a result- I wish I had been offered medical advice earlier in the piece.
But God always offers hope and a way out. Like always, all my medical placement teams had at least one person to advocate for and support me. I invited Andrew to be a mentor, something that was immensely helpful in the void of being without close Christian friends nor a familiar GP. I had Tash and her bunny to invite myself over to as a safe haven when I needed space; I had Ellen to gently listen and critique me without judgement and I had a motley crew of various friends from med school to support me in some of the ongoing social misunderstandings that were taking place. And I still had all sorts of fun adventures- my first interstate DJ gigs in Melbourne and Perth; my first time properly attending Medcamp, boiler suit and all; our biggest AUMO Hip Hop concert yet; my first live music and photography jobs; talking more openly with friends new and old; and despite being less passionate about medicine I still learnt and participated as best I could.
Still, by the time it came for me to depart for Europe in mid-May, I hadn’t made much personal progress. I was as physically exhausted and burnt out as ever. I didn’t even want to go but I sure as heck didn’t want to stay any longer in Adelaide.
Do I use travel as a form of escapism, Jie? It didn’t start out that way, but in recent times the short answer is yes. And it was exactly like that one-way flight to Hong Kong- I arrived in Berlin a cynical shell of my usual self, but left the city better rested and confident with the dream of coming back someday. The rest of this solo voyage through Germany and France continued to be extremely formative for me- I revelled in the independence, I learnt to ride a bike in busy metropolitan traffic (it sounds small but it’s so great! lol), I made some inspiring friends from very different walks of life who taught me a lot about the world and about myself, and I overcame a lot of shame and anxieties that I used to overthink- as two of my new German friends very aptly and simply pointed out to me, “Esther, you’re too nice and you also care too much about what others think of you.” After a month backpacking around what is now one of my favourite countries (I really vibe the German psyche and also the bread Jie, oh the bread!), I moseyed over to France. Maybe I actually have grown up a bit since I last saw you- the isolation and the heat and the language barrier was challenging but more bearable than I expected. I always remember how impressed you were with the tiny bit of French I used in a market in Montreux. It seems so long ago now. I wish I could show you how much my fluency improved in just three weeks!
I was apprehensive coming back- would I lose my new-found inspiration and self-confidence the moment I set foot back onto Australian soil, just like my return from the Chinese Diaspora trip? I was also grieving the loss of our dear Gong Gong (公公/maternal grandfather). But I didn’t lose my spark, Jie! I felt able to put into practice what I intended at the start of 2019 but I didn’t have the capacity to- I threw myself back into medicine, I managed to invest time into my interests. I cared less about what people think of me and as a result was able to invite some old friends back into my life with forgiveness whilst also cutting burdensome ties without guilt, including making the decision to no longer attend church for the time-being. My ongoing relationship with one of those aforementioned German friends was integral to this- without his support, I wouldn’t have had the fortitude to follow through. Even now that we’re no longer dating, I still think so well of him- you would really liked him, Jie. I was so content during those two months back in Adelaide- it was so different from the first half of the year, and my physical and mental health were the best they had been in a long time.
And soon it was time to jet off again for the next chapter in Mongolia. It was fascinating- I experienced many different medical departments, I toured the Gobi Desert and I spent some time living with a nomad host family, away from modern conveniences and technology and barely speaking a word of English the whole time. I had new dreams of making more ecological changes for myself, of improving the sustainability and economic efficiency of our hospitals, of improving the cultural competency of our clinicians and medical students, of future work in Aboriginal health and of overseas medical mission, and of living abroad to improve my language skills further. I finished the trip with a few weeks backpacking in South Korea- it was the final frontier for me in my exploration of East Asia. It fascinates me, the love-hate relationship between nations that share common cultural features and yet are so different. I met more inspiring solo travelers, I expanded my world view on cultural identity. I had the opportunity to befriend a lot of locals and I also developed a deep connection with an American military officer- when he comes to visit me in Adelaide, we’ll definitely make time to visit you- you’d really like him, and it’s important to me that he meet you, the most significant person in my life.
I was more excited to return to Adelaide than previous times, and yet I also tired of this society quicker than ever. By the end of the week, I was SO ready to depart for Morocco and Europe with Tash and Ellen. It was my first time traveling with girlfriends- it was a really precious and unique trip for me (I’ve always wanted to try traveling with girlfriends, but to go with anyone other than you seemed impossible- look how much I’ve grown Jie!) Three weeks together was followed by two weeks of independent travel. I prioritised visiting friends, as I had no idea when I would next be in this part of the world. It’s funny, despite the brevity of our acquaintance, some of them are amongst the most significant and trusted people in my life- I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see each of them.
My reflections on this rollercoaster year is best exemplified by this anecdote, Jie: My Christmas Day plans had fallen through, so I found myself rocking up alone in the dark to a random dinner party in a stranger’s apartment hosted by a local Berlin church. The icebreaker game was to share something significant we were thankful to God for in 2019. And rather than saying “I graduated from medical school as a doctor!” or “I travelled to so many amazing places!”, the first thought that occurred to me was instead “I’m thankful for all the people I met this year- they really changed my life.”
2019. It was the year of the female solo traveller (seriously Jie, there were so many more than when I started travelling alone some two years ago), the year of deepening female friendships and of girl crushes (these are so foreign to me Jie, I don’t easily come to admire and trust girls because no-one could ever be much next to you) It was the year of rediscovering and supporting old friends, of reconnecting and giving thanks to the parental figures in my childhood (I’ve managed to catch up with most of our friend’s parents in the past six months haha- it feels like something you would do, Jie) It was the year of leaving old relationships and finding new love. It was the year of letting go of expectations imposed upon me by those around me and by wider society and being comfortable with doing what I believe is right. The year of accepting that everyone will continue making assumptions about me (such as my race, my religion, my family, my choice of career or specialty or workplace, etc.) and feeling comfortable with the fact that those who matter will respect me and with being misunderstood by the rest. It was the year of completing the long journey to become a doctor- I’m glad I was able to achieve that dream for both of us.
I still feel conflicted about some of the experiences and decisions of this year, and a part of me does wish it could have just been a straight up trajectory of positive growth. But that’s life and I feel ok with failure. I take ownership of every decision I’ve made without shame. All I can pray is that next year I can be wiser and healthier.
I’m excited to be settled home in Adelaide for a more prolonged period, to work in my dream job as a junior doctor at my favourite hospital and to invest in the local friendships and projects and goals that are important to me (e.g. I hope to be able to return to church one day) I think most of my friends back here have missed some of the most important chapters in my life thus far during my past six months of adventure, and I theirs. But we’ll be able to catch up and for those who aren’t able it, it doesn’t really matter. 2020 will be a year of transience, for I’m already looking ahead to what’s beyond the horizon- I still haven’t decided where I’ll spend 2021, but I’ll be venturing out from our little home here.
2019 was a year of growth and adventure, of a few downs but many more ups. Despite everything, I do think I was (miraculously) somehow able to make 2019 my year after all. Here’s to 2020- I’m going to make you proud, and I’m going to be the best doctor and best person I can be, Jie.