Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Far East and feeling guilty

Four weeks away from home is a long time. It's even a long time when your family comes and stays with you for ten of those twenty-eight days.

Now, I want to be very clear - I'm not complaining. Traveling is fun, doubly so when someone else is paying for you to do it. Traveling to places you'd never really planned to go to and finding them surprising and enchanting and wonderful and terrifying and challenging is what
the whole "be a traveler, not a tourist" meme is all about.

That was China. I spent less than a day in Shanghai, ten days in and around Beijing, and everything else was in places that many travelers - no, tourists - would never see. Hard, bustling, non-nonsense, sensory-overload places like Shekou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Dongguan; ordered, mostly-organised, planned cities like Chengdu; ancient, twisted Chongqing; gorgeous Suzhou (often called the Venice of the East on account of all the canals and arched bridges. And it was surprising, and revealing, and made me a little more aware of my place in the world.

Then Japan. Wow. Japan. What a place. And again, surprising. For me, the highlight of Japan was visiting Hiroshima, with its "stuff you, we're back" attitude and palpable optimism underpinned by a grim determination to ensure that their past is never visited on anyone else.

At some time I'll put together a more thought-out recollection of all of this, but for now, I want to reflect on something else: how does a family man reconcile traveling for work? And I don't really mean the kind of traveling I've just done, but the bread-and-butter fortnight in Brisbane/Melbourne/Adelaide/Albury/Dubbo/Collinsville kind of work.

It's easy to justify on one level. I have to provide for my family, my royalties aren't adequate, and there simply isn't enough work in my home town. And to not work in schools would be to go back to a job that I hated, and thereby make my family miserable.

Similarly, I can remind myself that the best writers are those who see more of the world than their own study. Of course. It's a no-brainer.

And yet coming home to feel like you're a stranger in your own home can be weird, and source of friction. Billy Connolly says that when he's been on tour, his wife sometimes has to remind him not to get into the back seat of the car. I sort of know what that's like. While I'm feeling sorry for myself as I slowly digest an RSL roast in a motel room in the middle of nowhere, my wife is helping with homework, making dinner, putting on the washing, making lunches...

Recently I had lunch with the wife of a writer friend, and I was saying how fortunate I feel, living the writer dream that I've always had. She began to cry, and asked me how lucky my family felt about my realised dreams. She talked about her husband going away for weeks, and coming home, and getting back into work, and meanwhile she' was left feeling somewhat forgotten.

So I want to say, to my family and to the significant others in the lives of my friends who travel for work, that with the exception of trips to places like China and Japan, it's not glamorous traveling for work. But we also know that it's even less glamorous for you, as you prop up your end while we ring for new towels.

(For Facebook Notes readers: this post is redirected from my 'head vs desk' blog at