January 1986. It was my first road trip from Sydney to Adelaide with my young family. Correction, very young family. First Son was 3 years old, the other two were still in nappies. I was a young man of 28 years – naively confident, ambitious without any definite goals, and a no-nonsense bloke (to put it kindly), or in other words, humourless. I was well entranced, caged in the trap set by societal norms of the day. Norms which have not changed much, not even after these last 34 years. Not even during a pandemic. Society still dictates that we have to find a job, and keep a job when we find one. If we find one. Bleary-eyed commuters, frazzled drivers on grid-locked roads, desperate shopkeepers in quiet malls, zoned-out factory workers bored out of their minds. We are all trapped in this setting we call life. All of us, in pursuit of happiness. In pursuit of a livelihood, or for those luckier or so we think, in pursuit of greater wealth. With the advent of consumerism, we now have more pursuits. Ancient life did not require us to work 9 to 5 or in many cases, from 7 to 7. To live well, all we needed to do in ancient times was find some plants and berries or kill a prey for food and protect ourselves from harm. We were free to roam the land and eat only when we were hungry. If we didn’t find any food, we went hungry. But, there will be the next meal, we just did not know when. But, later on, some urghhlings decided to form a tribe. Tribes invented land ownership and we became territorial. The concept of territories meant we were no longer free to roam anywhere we liked. Limited freedom to travel and hunt where we needed to, and the vagaries of the weather combined to force us to settle down in a single place – that led to agriculture. It was the Agricultural Revolution, also known as the Neolithic Revolution some 12,000 years ago that changed our lives forever. We lost our freedom. Since then, we may have invented human rights but we still have not rediscovered our freedom. Being territorial has also meant urghhlings cannot avoid wars – the pursuit of more land for more resources means our history is never short of conflicts, conspiracies and conquests.
I enrolled in a local gym a couple of years ago. They provided me with a free personal trainer, which made me feel special. That feeling of importance did not disappear a few days later when I recalled that my youngest son had paid Sam’s fees in advance. Sam, a well-sculpted Aussie male was perfect as a gym instructor, passionate about fitness and body-building, and importantly, he was a most affable chap. But he was also trapped in life’s pursuits. For him, he wanted to win a body-building contest. Every session started and ended on a treadmill. To warm up and to wind down. When I was on the treadmill, my mind took a snapshot of my own reflection on the mirror a few meters in front of me. It was in fact a snapshot of what my life was. On the treadmill, I began by selecting the machine settings required for my desired attainment targets, be it calories, time, speed or whatever. Much like what I want to achieve in any endeavour. I then pressed the start button and the pursuit started. Running, running, running. On the same spot, never venturing away from the machine, thinking only about reaching my goals. Dripping wet with sweat from my effort, I stepped off the treadmill at the end of the session feeling satisfied that I did my best, maybe I even managed to reach my targets. That snapshot in my mind woke me up. Life has been no different. We get up in the mornings, and almost immediately, we are on life’s treadmill. Grinding away, always with a target to zero in on. Get that customer, complete that project, seal the deal. Bring home the bacon. But, I missed out on smelling the flowers, meeting the neighbours and admiring their gardens when I spent all that time on the treadmill. Did I ever stop to truly enjoy a cup of coffee? Or pause to ask my colleagues how they were. That first visit to the gym was like the lobster dinner I had when I bit at a claw and lost a filling. The moment on the treadmill felt the same as when I discovered a tooth that was missing its filling. No matter what I told myself, I had to probe it, examine it, push on it with my tongue. I knew the filling was lost. Likewise, I knew I had lost something in this life. As we grind away monotonously, life becomes greyer and greyer, losing much of its vibrant colours. Familiarity makes us blind. Last week, First Son had his ear pierced. He needed to tell me that because I could not see it with my own eyes. I was too busy pre-occupying myself with life’s inconsequential demands. Why have I worked so hard? Why do we get up in the mornings? I hurt my back after three visits to the gym, and had to spend two expensive sessions with a chiropractor. Maybe I should say, Sam hurt my back. After all, he was supposed to be the expert. Experts should make sure their clients are well looked after. But, I was on a treadmill. So was he. Society dictated he had to earn a living, to pay for his rent, his bomb (an old car badly in need of a tune-up) and the 3 whole chooks and 2 plates of pasta he consumed daily. Running wheels are not just for our hamsters or pet mice; we too have our own running wheel. Life.
Back to 1986. My first road trip with my wife of 5 years, and 3 kids was not meant to be a holiday. It was never the journey but the destination for a young man in a rush. A new career beckoned me in Adelaide. A senior role, a well-paid executive position. It came with a company car, and with the other perks, it meant I could quite easily upgrade and buy a you-beaut full-brick house in a blue-ribbon suburb and call it our new home. We no longer had to live in the fibro house that bore the brunt of silly jokes; no more sighs of exasperation from Pa about a “Chao-Chu” (rubbish house). We no longer had to live near a “ghetto” for aborigines and worry about our kids mingling with “those” kids in a “backward” school more attuned to success in rugby and success in ridding their compounds of drug addicts. I planned to arrive at our destination within 16 hours. The idea of grabbing the opportunity for my family to enjoy a rare Aussie holiday in the vast continent we call “our country” did not dawn on me. It was only about getting to our destination. I did not realise it, but I was already stuck to my treadmill even then. So, I avoided the route to Melbourne, and missed Jervis Bay and the famous Kiama Blowhole. Mornington Peninsula? Scratch it off the list too, “too bad, we do not have time” was my reply to a friend’s suggestion that “the kids will enjoy picking strawberries at Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm and the nearby Hot Springs”. Why visit Melbourne’s Chinatown on Little Bourke Street? Why? When we have our Sydney Chinatown all the while? After that, we could have left the hustle bustle of Melbourne and spend 3 days driving along one of the world’s most scenic coastal routes. The Great Ocean Road still escapes me although it has been on my bucket list. Back then there were 12 Apostles to marvel at – today, there are only 8 limestone rocks left, the rest have been washed away. We missed visiting Mount Gambier also, a region that reminded many people of the Bordeaux of France. The kids would have loved a short-stay in a nice country cottage and waking up to the sounds of roosters welcoming the sun. Past the vineyards, and soon we could have arrived in Murray Bridge, and then the German town of Hahndorf and then Adelaide! Instead, I unfolded the brand new Gregory’s paper map, smoothed it with both my palms and sought out the shortest route with my index finger. Showing the journey to The Mrs, my finger followed the route which was mostly dead straight on the map. See? Sydney, Wagga Wagga, Hay, Berri, and hey presto, Adelaide! Time required, 14 hours, 14 minutes. But, we have three boys, all 3 years and under. There will be lots of toilet breaks, tantrums and nappy-changing, I reasoned. So, my plan was to reach Adelaide in 16 hours. They will be comfortable – I bought a new Tarago van, well, it was a demonstrator model. Savings? $1,000. I did not like the rego number – it ended with 114. In Cantonese, 114 sounded like “yat yat sei” (die every day). I wanted the car dealer to change it, but The Mrs stopped me. In Mandarin, it is auspicious, she convinced me. 14 means “for life”. The number “4” is a good number. We need the four seasons, four directions (North,South, East and West), four elements (Earth, Water, Air and Fire) and we have four limbs. A day is divided into four sessions – morning, afternoon, evening and night. Four is a symbol of earthly balance and completeness. The Buddha already pointed out to us the Four Noble Truths. How could I disagree? I should have. A few months after we had settled down in Adelaide, our good friends Richard and Cindy missed us so much they came to visit. We took them to the Barossa Valley and on our way to the third cellar door for the day, a car smashed into the passenger side of my Tarago with the “yat yat sei” rego at an intersection. Apart from some minor cuts and bruises, no one was seriously injured. Since then, I avoid the number “4”, preferring the number “8” whenever possible. “8” in Cantonese sounds like prosperity, which until recently was another life pursuit for me.
We got to Hay in super quick time. Hay, as the name reveals, is a country town where one would see stacks and stacks of hay on the plain. A major wool growing area, the only memory I have of the town on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River was the many mini whirlwinds that escorted us out of the town. To get to Berri from Hay, I used the Sturt Highway travelling westwards. It was the most boring journey I ever encountered, all 5 hours of it was pretty much dead straight, dead flat and dead boring. The Mrs kept changing to the radio stations that played our favourite songs to keep me awake. 2CH was my favourite channel; I was keen on Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Don McLean and Anne Murray. I was very pleased when we reached Berri. If anyone tells you people can’t die from boredom, tell them they have not driven from Hay to Berri. To be sure, I can confide now that I almost fell asleep behind the wheel many times on that stretch. Berri, the Riverland town in South Australia is famous for its apples, citrus fruits and grapes. Nope, they do not produce any berries at all. Quite misleading that, until I found out it is not an English name. Berri is an Aboriginal word meaning “a wide bend in the river”. For me, Berri is the first place that welcomed me as a new “immigrant” of South Australia.
P.S. Sehchee, my sister in London, still remembers the fruit classifications from biology lessons in Penang. Believe it or not, grapes, lemons, oranges are technically berries but strawberries and raspberries are not!