When you come from a Chinese-Australian family as big as mine, childhood trips feel less like holidays and look more like a human trafficking operation. Getting to Gold Coast theme parks with five kids in the ‘80s and ‘90s meant sardining ourselves into a regular-sized car, closing the doors softly but firmly, then driving like the wind. We made the configuration work by sitting on laps or cramming our tiny bodies into the leg room. We were the Asian-Australian equivalent of a crazy clown car.
Flying that many people anywhere is an expensive exercise, so I didn’t leave our home state of Queensland or set foot on a plane ‘til I finished primary school. My first time crossing any border was on an international flight to Hong Kong to visit Mum’s side of the family. It was an emotional reunion filled with tears and laughter, punctuated by non-stop eating and insane trips to the mall.
Given it was my first time outside Australia – and considering the sheer scale and population density of Hong Kong – I really should’ve experienced culture shock. But here in Hong Kong, for the first time in my life, everyone looked like me. They spoke the same language as my parents, and ate the same food we did. It was as if my living room – so different to every other Aussie household I’d encountered – had exploded into the world around me. Hong Kong was the first place I weirdly felt at home.
At the end of those weeks away, each of us returned to Australia with suitcases so heavy, they may as well have contained solid gold. Relatives had plied us with souvenirs. Suitcase seams strained. Luggage restrictions were tested. And because I come from a family of massive hoarders, that stuff never left the house. We even kept two giant plush toys of Doraemon – the Japanese cartoon cat from the future –for so long, they started growing mould. Even then, Mum forbade us from throwing them out. It still makes me nauseous thinking about how much stuff we brought back.
Nowadays, I’ve trained myself not to buy souvenirs or purchase random crap. All I need are photos and stories. Part of this is about trying to leave the smallest footprint possible – something every traveller should probably do, whether we’re camping in the wilderness or cement-stomping in big cities. But for me, it’s also about embracing what I love about travel in the first place: casting off weight, acquiring memories instead, and forging a sense of belonging in places you least expect.
Many Australians grow up between cultures. One in five of us speak languages other than English at home (the top five being Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Italian). A quarter of us were born overseas. Roughly half have at least one parent born elsewhere. When we’re younger, we mightn’t feel like we belong anywhere. But when we’re older and start travelling more, the great thing about having straddled cultures your entire life is how you feel you can belong anywhere.
I barely remember any of the stuff we bought in Hong Kong in 1994. What’s stayed with me is connecting with family I hadn’t seen in a decade, wrestling with Cantonese, eating the most perfect wonton noodle soup of my life and being impressed by my grandmother’s farts. Every day there was a daily reminder that I had it better because my parents migrated to a strange and unfamiliar foreign country. In the end, the best acquisitions are the things you carry your entire life, none of it weighing you down.
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