When I grow up I want to..
Did you always know what you wanted to be when you grew up? One thing I remember, not hugely fondly, from my childhood was "What do you want to be when you grow up?". My go to answer as a child; a giraffe. I was adamant on becoming a four-legged, long-necked, spotted creature who lived in the plains of Africa where my fellows were going to be Policemen or Nurses, Firemen or Spice Girls, Lawyers or Ballerinas. Its funny how that question vanishes for about a decade and then it reappears in your life with a vengeance.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" only now I couldn't claim that becoming a giraffe was my life-long ambition, regardless of whether it was true or not. By the age of 17 you need to know the answer (or at least have a vague inkling). So with A levels completed and all my classmates heading off in their various directions do you know what I did? I ran. I ran from a decision and I travelled. I went off to Australia, solo, as a young naive girl of 19- or so my parents assumed. Before I left, my family all questioned my decision: "Are you sure you can do it on your own? Are you sure you're going to be able to manage? Don't you think it'll be sad?". My family weren't the only ones, my friends questioned it too.
I know one lovely misogynist who is friends with some of my friends who turned to me at a pub gathering two weeks before I left and informed me: "I don't think you should travel alone. I don't think any girls should ever travel alone. You're asking for trouble going off to foreign countries on your own. It's almost like you want to be robbed, or assaulted or..." he rapidly trailed off from the look I was giving him. The fact that he had instantly decided that, because I was a girl, I was unable to protect myself like any boy who travelled on his own would. The fact that I was unable to look after my belongings or my sense of self to the same effect that a man can was in my opinion, completely unfathomable.
It didn't matter however because I was off. I left Heathrow and got on a plane, made it to Australia totally alone, made friends and moved from Brisbane to Melbourne. In Melbourne we separated. They went off to do their thing and I went to do mine. I found myself in a hostel in central Melbourne unemployed and alone. I went straight to reception to see if they had any work; here I was offered a job instantly. This was odd- their reasoning: I was a 19-year-old girl traveling on her own, so they thought I needed something more than the others who had been waiting for weeks. Don't get me wrong, I was unbelievably grateful but all the same, why did I deserve a job more than a boy in my position? Why would it be harder for me to survive without this job than a bloke?
When I met people when I was traveling they used words such as "brave" or "impressive" or "inspiring" when I told them that I was traveling alone. There was nothing brave, impressive or inspiring about the fact that I'd run away from making decisions about my future. I wasn't brave. I wanted to see the world and my friends were creating their futures. It's a funny thing how the stereotypes follow you, even if people don't realise it. As a girl on my own in a foreign country boys were insisting that they walked me back to my hostel on a night out, they insisted that I didn't do anything alone. Did they not realise that I'd done everything just fine on my own before I'd come out here? Did they not realise that I could cope just fine on my own? That I could read a map and work out a very simple block system completely fine all on my own? Apparently, this was not the case. Apparently, I could not do anything on my own due to the fact that I was a girl, in a foreign country on my own.
It was the same throughout my travels- wherever I went it was followed by: "Are you sure you can do it on your own?" "Do you need a hand?" "You're very brave for doing this by yourself." When I spoke to male friends who'd done similar expeditions as myself, they didn't have anyone question their ability to navigate a city or walk home on their own or work a new transport system on their lonesome. No one questioned their ability to survive alone, no one was unsure whether they'd be able to do a trip on their own. Yet although they were lonely and they found it hard, they worked it out as did I and their ability to do so wasn't constantly under fire. Their adequacy to survive wasn't being questioned. They weren't having to prove a point- like I was. I was constantly having to prove myself. And actually, when people say things to you enough times you start to believe it: I began to believe that I couldn't do this, I started to believe that it was too hard. I wasn't just having to prove to my friends and family that I could cope, I was having to prove it to myself as well.
The thing I have carried with me throughout my travels was even though I felt like I had a point to prove, I proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt. It didn't matter that I was a girl travelling on my own. I had the stereotypes to overcome and you know what? I shattered them. I came through stronger, braver and with the knowledge that I could do or be whatever I wanted. I could become anything I wanted to be whether it be a Policeman or Nurse, Fireman or Spice Girl, Lawyer or Ballerina. At the end of the day I learnt that it didn't matter whether I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, only that now I know that when I figure it out I'll be able to do it because I showed myself that I could do anything.
The 18 months that I spent traveling were the best and hardest 18 months of my life. Yet, here I am back with the question of "What do you want to be when you grow up?" God I hate that question. You know what though? I think after meeting so many different people, after being questioned constantly and after watching so many different types of people from different cultures and backgrounds you know what I've realised? No one knows what they want to be when they grow up, because ultimately no one grows up. We mature, we age but grow up? Na, we're all just looking for the next great thing to move us on to greener pastures not looking to grow up. "A grownup is a child with layers on." Woody Harreison.