Many years ago I remember sharing a fascinating insight with a friend of mine. Having migrated to Australia from England with her family twelve months before, she headed back to see her friends over Christmas. She was finding the transition to her new life difficult, but visiting the place she must have considered home wasn't much easier. She returned to familiar and normally friendly people calling her "skippy" and laughing at her slightly broadened accent. "When I am here I feel English and when I was over there I was Australian," she said. It struck me as a profoundly sad observation: she no longer felt at home anywhere. She might have no recollection of this conversation but it's a story that stuck with me.
Having never had any serious relocations to contend with during my life, my primary identity crisis revolves around class. I regularly invoke the blue collar/white collar dichotomy in jokes because these broad characterisations hit extremely close to home for me. My father worked for thirty years at a steel mill; his brother still works there after almost fourty. On my mother's side, we have three butchers - two by birth and one by marriage. My mum's father worked as a plumber and my brother is months away from finishing his electrician's apprenticeship.
I work for a federal government department.
In the interests of full disclosure, my mother worked in a bank for much of my childhood and as an accountant since, so it's not as if there are no white-collared shirts in the wardrobe. To know our personalities, that my mother's occupation and my own bear some resemblance makes sense, though on the male side of my family, you'd have to cast the net pretty wide to find someone whose most used tools were a keyboard and mouse.
None of this is intended to disparage or valourise either way of life; quite the opposite, in fact. My story is about being caught between aspects of both identities without ever feeling completely at home in either one.
My upbringing was essentially blue-collar. We lived in a nice, seaside outer-metropolitan suburb of about twenty-thousand people. Dad worked night shifts at the steel plant and Mum did four days a week at the bank. My brother and I both went to nearby, functional public schools; I played cricket for a few years and he played AFL. I spent my weekends playing video games with friends, watching football and practicing guitar.
It was clear that school was going to come pretty naturally to me from quite early on. While I was never a prodigy, most things we studied came easily. I first recall wanting to go to university at age thirteen, which was as soon as I had any understanding of what university was. And when the time came, it happened.
I remember sitting in political science classes discussing the impact of the Whitlam government on Australian society. Many of the teachers had their tuition fully subsidised by Gough's government, a stick with which they playfully poked us fee-payers. But even in this co-payment era, university is still fundamentally accessible to people from all backgrounds. And so with accessible university education, the white-collar life becomes almost a matter of choice, just a three year commitment from reality. We have take young people who years before may have worked in local factories or the family business and given them a license to construct brand new identities and desires free of old constraints. This identity reformation is fuelled by the new ideas, people, opportunities and feelings that further education fosters.
To understand this journey is to understand much of who I am today. I am proud to be a product of a public school system that gave me the opportunities I needed to grow, while being taught and encouraged by some of the most valuable and kind people I've come across. As grateful as I am for the classroom lessons, I am just as grateful that it did not shelter me; that it showed me the humility, strength and openness that I consider essential tools in living a humane and thoughtful life.
I am even more proud to be the son of two unfathomably decent, determined and generous parents who battled hard and took risks to give us all a better life. They brought me into the world and shared with me everything they knew: the sports, the music, the places, the big questions and the big opportunities. Every aspect of who I am has its origins in these things. When I needed their support to build the foundations for my own life, they obliged, and when the time came for me step out and become the person that I needed to become, they understood. I will be forever indebted.
I am conflicted by the tension between my inner-city, white-collar existence and the grounded and practical nature of my upbringing. I've taken to calling it blue-collar survivor's guilt: why was I the one who got away? Why am I the one who gets to sleep when at night time and leave the office right on four? Like few other men in my extended family, this is the life I have been granted. But like my English friend, I feel like the fancy guy amongst my blue-collar friends and the public school product amongst the fancy people. And I do understand that so much of this is my own perception of situations, which means it is something only I can resolve. Though perhaps it is not something that needs resolving; rather, it can be a source of great strength. Instead of being neither of these things, I can become comfortable being what I am, which at any time can be neither, either or both. Life demands that we be able to communicate effectively with every person we come across, and a fundamental part of this is empathy. This is something I believe I can offer.
We can't escape our past, and it probably shouldn't be something that we try to do. These formative years are too pivotal in shaping who we become. Sometimes coming to terms with what you are now is difficult, even when you've been as fortunate as I have. It is clear that I have work to do in these aspects of my life, but I see it as something to look forward to rather than dread.
Do you might have aspects of your past that you struggle with? How have you changed since your childhood and how has it affected who you are today? I understand how tough these issues are to think and write about, but if you've got something to share, feel free to do so in the comments box below. Thanks for reading, everybody.