Discovering Oz, rediscovering me

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I have felt like Humpty Dumpty since my divorce, a round egg broken into a million little pieces. All the King’s Horses could not put me back together. I knew I was the only one who could pick up the pieces, but after being in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage, I suffered from self-doubt, even self-hate.

I am an educated and independent woman. How did I ever get myself into an abusive relationship? I wondered if I could exist without my ex-husband, without a man next to me.

Although I have traveled to more than 30 countries, most of them alone, I had gotten used to my ex-husband’s company on trips during our eight-year marriage. When I received a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study grant to research the Hmong community in Australia for three weeks, I was scared to go to Australia alone. Could I embark on a research trip without having a partner helping me make travel arrangements and carrying the heavy camera equipment?

It wasn’t just the practical parts of travel that were daunting-it was the memories of times we’d traveled together. Together, we’d watched the sunrise over the pyramids in Egypt and ridden elephants through the jungles of Laos.

I contemplated not going at all, making up excuses such as I shouldn’t take the time off from work. I even thought about asking someone to go with me. But I realized that my fear wasn’t really about traveling alone; instead, I was afraid of making new memories by myself because I still wanted to hold on to the memories of my ex-husband, even if most of the memories were miserable. Once I realized this, I knew I needed to go alone. I wanted be healthy and happy and Australia was the key.

I loved being myself and rediscovering me, my likes and dislikes, as I discovered Oz. I learned that little things such as a crimson sunrise over mystical Ayers Rock could still make me cry. I conquered my fear of the water as I snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef, being one with a kaleidoscope of fishes and coral. I pushed myself physically as I hiked the Grampian National Park, observing kangaroos and koalas. I even survived my first cyclone in the city of Darwin, attending my first cyclone party as Cyclone Helen hit the town with 100-mile-per-hour winds. Then there were those quiet moments on the buses, planes and park benches where I scribbled in poetry in my journal about my observations of Aussie life-some big observations, some small.

I learned that I really don’t like people in public places without shoes. It’s a public health issue. I don’t like or understand Australian slang (when Aussies say they are pissed, it doesn’t mean they are mad, it means they are drunk). And as for Australian food … I ate kangaroo, shark, crocodile and a whole host of bush meat when I was in Oz, but I have to say Vegemite was one of the most disgusting things I have ever put between my lips. Everyone in Oz eats Vegemite, a yeast-base spread, for breakfast. Avoid Vegemite if you go Down Under, or you might just vomit like I did at the breakfast table.

Enough of the negativity; I want to talk about the positive things I learned about myself and Oz. I am so proud to be Hmong. I spent a great number of days researching Hmong people from Sydney to Innisfails, a banana and sugar-cane farming community just an hour south of Cairns. Because I am a Hmong, the Hmong community in Oz welcomed me like a long-lost daughter. That experience taught me to never forget about my heritage.

I am as complex and diverse as the country I was exploring. There are both positive and negative sides to me. Sometimes I am boring like the city of Adelaide. Sometimes I hustle and push myself toward materialism like the city of Sydney. Most of the time, I am arty and snobbish like Melbourne. Always, like the country itself, I am constantly improving, progressing into a better version of me.

Now that I am back in Minnesota, I am so glad I went to Oz by myself without the help of a wizard or man. I am thankful for my divorce, knowing it was the most positive thing I could have done, because I wouldn’t have rediscovered myself-and discovered Oz-without it.

Ka Vang was born in Laos and raised in St. Paul. She is a poet, playwright and community activist.

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