By Premila Foster
“So, where’s your partner?”
I raise my eyes from the plate full of cupcakes incredulously. I thought this was the type of situation that only occurred in chick flicks: a line directed towards thirty-something single women who take the opportunity to look sassy rather than pathetic in response.
My interrogator is a small woman with greying coarse brown hair and a crimson cravat. Her olive skin is wrinkled in all the right places, as though she laughed and smiled her way gracefully into her early fifties. Despite the fact she is standing still, she seems to hover like a ballerina, tiptoeing around the plastic chequered table cloth.
I wonder if this kind of question somehow became appropriate while I was overseas.
“Don’t have one.” I shrug, wiping crumbs from mouth, feigning daintiness by using my fingers instead of my sleeve.
I contemplate whether it is necessary to say that I used to have one, but actually I guess you couldn’t really say that he was one, but rather he was someone I was seeing but was never really my boyfriend. Then I decide it could get awkward if I were to describe the parameters of my previous non-relationship and decide it’s probably better to simply change the topic.
I smile awkwardly.
“Delicious cupcakes.” I say, almost as a joke, suppressing the urge to speak in an over-the-top British accent.
We look down at the green coloured cupcakes with bright orange icing. There is something comforting about their extreme kitsch factor, they remind me of the type of thing I might have seen in Cambodia at a Khmer wedding, inside a moon cake or at Phnom Penh’s Russian Markets, not at a suburban Australian Easter party. No, at these type of events, I would only expect to see date scones and brownies.
She nods knowingly. “Yes well I think they’re a bit fun don’t you? A bit unusual.” She says mischievously.
“Yes.” I agree, mono-syllabically.
She returns to the previous topic: “Well I think it’s good to be single and fancy free. Much more freedom.” She says, accentuating words as if she were doing a read-through of a David Williamson script.
“Thanks” I gush, assuming this is a compliment.
My inner cynic wonders whether she has rehearsed this line as something deemed appropriate when dealing with supposedly strange single people at Easter parties or whether she genuinely believes it.
There is something about her confidence in her icing choice, her dancing toes and crimson cravat that makes me think it is highly likely that, as in most conversations that I have had today, she is adopting a mixture of truth and theatrics.
I decide to trust her, a woman like this must have some sense of imagination and individuality. However, one month into my period of re-socialisation into Australian dialogue, I am unsure of which line comes next.
I strain another smile, this time slightly wider and slightly more desperate, then quickly remember to bring my hand to my mouth hoping there are no cupcake remains in my teeth.
The lady continues brightly: “So, what do you do with yourself?”
I wince, worried that I might lose my audience with my next answer.
“Uh… nothing…” I say. New wrinkles appear on her brow, her darting eyes now look utterly confused.
“Nothing?” She repeats.
“Well no not nothing, I mean I’m presently unemployed.” Then rush to say, “I just got back from overseas really, so I’m kind of in between things you know… I just got back from Cambodia.” I chuckle nervously, speaking more quickly as though my desperation to appear gainfully occupied to this woman should somehow be exhibited by my vocal chords.
“Oh.” She pauses, as though I had said something terribly sad. “And you’re now living in Canberra?” she asks optimistically, raising her well plucked eyebrows.
I wonder how to explain this one without causing further disappointment.
I want to say in my best backpacker-in-India voice, ‘I’m a global citizen’, drawing out each word like it belongs to the air. I contemplate saying this then lunging into my interests in yoga and meditation and saying things like ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’ as though somehow it might be easier for her to place me into some socially acceptable category.
But I lose courage, assuming that kind of language would not go down too well and although I do indeed believe in the journey rather than the destination, I feel strange talking in that way, particularly to someone I’ve just met in this particular situation.
I decide to stick to the facts.
“Well no. I’m not living anywhere, I’m currently staying at my parents because I can’t afford anywhere to live…”
“So you’re living with you’re parents.” She says, certain as a full stop.
I sigh inwardly.
In Cambodia, I taught a class to my teenage students about adults who still live with their parents. In a chapter entitled “Meet the Kippers” the class was introduced to Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings, the British textbook spoke about the unusual phenomenon of people in their 20s or 30s living with their parents.
Unfortunately, the class bombed. It was entirely culturally inappropriate, my Khmer students just looked at me with this dead-pan expression. When answering my questions about how this compared to life in Cambodia they just replied “That’s not strange here”.
In fact, the concept of being somewhere where I had no family, only new friends and shitty wages in comparison to what they would be in Australia’s presently glistening economy seemed bizarre to most Khmers I spoke to. Particularly seeing as I had no intention of making my visit to Cambodia long term.
In Australia, it is quite unusual to be living with your parents at age 29. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the average Australian is female, 37, living in the suburbs with two kids. I guess that means I should have had at least one baby by now and presumably, my own house.
I automatically resent the implication that I may somehow be a KIPPER, conscious of just how far I have deviated from being an average Australian.
“No, I am not living with my parents, I just don’t have a home yet.” I reply matter of factly.
“Oh. Well that’s ok.” She says quickly, probably assuming by my pained expression that I need some kind of affirmation.
I recollect how my friend in Cambodia used to joke that three weeks was the maximum amount of time one should spend visiting home. I have surpassed this time by one week after nearly a year away from Australia, travelling and teaching English around Asia. I suddenly have a deep seated fear that my unemployed homeless stint, not unlike this conversation, could last longer than is desirable.
Socially awkward conversations are just part of the challenge of returning home after living abroad. While being single, unemployed or homeless are difficult conversation topics for most people of most ages, it is a startling slap in the face rather than a gradual realisation when returning home after living abroad.
Since I left, I became older, but with nothing to show on paper, and each time I go overseas, or move cities, the lack of accomplishments is even harder to show. On return, you are older, look older and people have bought houses, pets, had kids, built their careers and gotten married. You miss the building years when people establish their careers, relationships and vegetable gardens.
Your previous life abroad adopts a surreal quality and your new stories are about stealing basil from neighbours’ gardens. Lovers, jobs and homes may as well have not existed. Speaking about your time away is like telling a story about a magical fantasy land where people rode horses to work and ate funny Asian pixie food with wooden sticks.
If you come back without a job or a partner, your time away is even further in the realm of fantasy. You have no one to vouch for where you were or what you were doing. After long stints away, large parts of your life are confined to diaries, emails and a world where no one is validating what happened in those missing years.
I am not sure what the appropriate amount of time to chat with this woman is and have no idea how to end the conversation gracefully.
Luckily, the woman raises her eyebrows and smiles.
“Well, I guess I’ll give those lovely looking brownies in the corner a go…” She says pirouetting to a faraway side of the table.
“Ok… sure,” I say, gazing after her.
I guess this means the conversation is over.
I pick up another cupcake and further inspect the orange icing. Maybe I should have just had the brownie.
Premila is currently based in Australia. After completing her BA in Anthropology and Visual Culture, she volunteered teaching asylum seekers on Christmas Island, assisted an anthropologist working in indigenous Australian Native Title Claims, worked at an organic farm in India and cared for a puma in the Bolivian jungle. She is currently attempting to learn the piano.