Reflections on 30

Photo credit:Doni Marmer 

A dear friend once recounted to me his feelings about growing older:

In his youth, he lived in Perth and had a girlfriend. Both things came to an end (he moved to Melbourne, and now has a boyfriend), but every once and a while he would visit his ex in that far away land. As time went on however, he felt as if he was Peter Pan visiting an ever-aging Wendy. Every trip brought some new milestone; an engagement, a house, pregnancy, a baby. As these adulthood achievements piled up at his ex’s feet, he couldn’t help but feel like he was in some sort of stasis. A perpetual student, in a long term “de facto” relationship he couldn’t help but feel like he had ceased moving (his Dorian Gray esqe aging didn’t help either).

It was this image that was in my head as my 30th came and went. And it was this niggling feeling of stasis that drove me to write this exploration of what I’ve done, what I’ve achieved in my own eyes and then who knows, perhaps I’ll have some sort of idea of where to go next.  Another way to state this point is: for those of us outside of the heteronorm life narrative, where does that leave us when it comes to aging, notions of progress and celebrating meaningful moments? (look at that humanities degree peeking out from underneath the dust). This isn’t just what we personally celebrate but also what our communities allow us to celebrate. To a single gay man in his 30s, what achievements are left to “unlock”? What moments can we proudly state to the world and have the world smile back, instead of just give an apathetic shrug or chastise us for being attention seeking or narcissistic?[1]

Current capitalist hegemony means that the knee-jerk response to this question is to look at your career – what’s your job title? How much do you make? How does it compare to the other people your age?  But I’ve never been a good careerist. My resume is a patchwork of expensive degrees, call-centre/cafe work, and over-seas work placements. I can’t see my bank account having a savings function anytime soon and the end of a project or a position brings with it the inevitable existential spiral “but what can I do?” This is mostly fine by me – apart from the occasional daydream fantasy about wealth in the weeks where my week-to-week lifestyle has gone awry and I’m tucking into my 4th bowl of indomie. I’m not immune to this sense of achievement though. I too have compared friend’s linked-in profiles to my own rather patchwork career and like the self-defeating pubescent school boy, you’ll always find someone more impressive than yourself, and then you’re just left there detailing all the things you should/would/could have done. Perhaps you shouldn’t have read the Lord of the Rings 8 times as an adolescent, and learnt Mandarin instead?  One perk of being in late-capitalism however, is that by now we are all painfully aware that this path is a bit of a dead end. A mirage in a desert of casualisation, out-sourcing and “structural rationalisation”. The invisible hand of the market won’t be bringing life meaning in between it’s cold ruthless little fingers anytime soon, so where does that leave me?

In 2009 I tried my best to look my life straight in the eyes:

  • I wanted to travel but I still didn’t have a passport. I had never left the country.
  • I wanted to be an academic but I couldn’t even seem to finish my undergraduate degree.
  • I wanted commitment but hadn’t really been in a serious relationship.

A rather stock standard list of desires. Travel, career, love. The ingredients list of the modern late capitalist “global” citizen. Reflecting on these goals on my 30th, I think the most shocking thing to me was how I had reached my goals largely without realising it. I have had the privilege to travel throughout a majority of Asia. To visit the family homes of friends in Nepal, Taiwan, The Solomon Islands. To have my sense of self challenged and shaken through living and working abroad. I’ve heard I love you’s whispered in my ear in languages I don’t know. Shared laughter with indomitable old women across various countries, who all seem to have the uncanny ability to overcome language barriers through sheer willpower. But these moments, these challenges, however beautiful aren’t something I have been able to build meaning from. It takes a certain sense of arrogance to see travelling a nation, or even living in another country as an end in and of itself. What I am proud of however is expanding my worldview when I came from a place that insisted on keeping it small. Of staying in a place long enough so I could see more than the fantasy that we all inevitably bring with us. Staying long enough to realise how little you know and just how nuanced every location is. Staying long enough to encounter your own strangeness.

In 2012 I finally finished my undergraduate at the University of Sydney. Degrees have a satisfying way of screaming “ACHIEVEMENT” at the top of their lungs to the world. Yet mine have always felt surprisingly inert. Perhaps I just haven’t placed enough energy in making my degrees “work” for me. Or perhaps the sense of inertia comes from being in a family that largely responds to my degrees with a statement like “Oh it’s good you’ve done it mate but fuck, you couldn’t pay me enough money to go back to school”. The expensive pieces of paper aside, for me University was largely about having space to explore the world intellectually. Time to experiment, explore and engage with ideas in a sincere way that one so rarely has time for in the day to day. It was also important to me to encounter new ways of living. People who had built their own ways of being in the world. My time at USYD brought me all of that and more. The faculty I was in was humble, inspiring and nurturing. Yet, my honours thesis was like pulling out my own teeth, and quickly led me to the conclusion that the world of academia was not for me. I packed my bags and ran off to Melbourne to complete my Masters. In that new city, I had my first taste of what it’s like to build your life up again from the ground. It also came with the shocking revelation about how hard it can be to make friends as an adult and just how valuable the friendships we build are.

When I was younger, I was very intently focused on the love narrative as a concept, and largely avoidant of it in practice. My romantic relationships have been sporadic, short term and morph in and out of lover, friendship, and fuck buddy. I can’t find the need to problematise this, as I can honestly say that the most significant relationships in my life have not been the romantic or the sexual ones. Friendships have stood above and beyond any romantic relationships I’ve had, both for their emotional support, longevity and their contribution to the man I am today. To me, the queerest response to the love narrative is to deprioritise the ways in which monogamous romantic sexual relationships are conceived as the core achievement in a life. Where are the celebrations of a friendship maintained across time and distance for years, held through the highs and lows that a friendship endures just as much as a romance? My greatest regrets of years past have not been mistakes in love, but not maintaining and continuing lines of friendship over the gaps of time and distance, especially in my time overseas. So I sit at 30, single and proud of the deep and sustaining friendships, both past and present, that I’ve had the honour of building. Friendships that continue to be my main inspiration, comfort and guidance into the future.

Sorry we should skype more, I know.

We have meandered, as I tend to do when I get too reflective on the past. The older I get, the more material I acquire to feed my nostalgia addiction. I get lost in the mazes of images, desires and tastes of past times. But as I sit in this minimalist café watching the afternoon rain hit the broken Jakarta sidewalk, I’m proud of my time so far, I’m just not sure of what exactly.


[1] As a sidenote, I’m aware that in a lot of ways I’m showing my age here. In certain parts of the world the notion that homosexuality brings about a jarring with mainstream life narratives is quickly shifting for the new generation. In those places gays coming of age now, in the cultural moment of same-sex marriage, taking your partner to graduation and the loosening of adoption restrictions, standard life goals are very much viewed in the realm of possibility far more than I was ever able to conceptualise them.

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