A few years ago, I convinced a major tech company that I should write for them. I had been a freelancer, banging out blogs, doing my thing— foolishly hoping to make “real money” as a writer. But then, suddenly, I had a real job with a real salary, 100% covered health insurance and these insane perks. My parents and my wife were all proud of me. I’d landed a gig that they could tell their friends about, that the kid who moved to New Orleans with $300 in his pocket only a few years before figured it out. I felt like an adult, kinda. When I showed up for work, I still hoarded snacks like Gollum, even though they were plentiful and free. I was like, Wow, do you otherwise intelligent people not know I’m a fucking clown who was dancing for dollars on Bourbon Street stages to T Pain songs last Christmas Eve?
The company was headquartered in Sydney. They made it a point to make Australian culture a part of the company’s culture, which meant they were pretty cool about people visiting HQ if you had a “business reason.” Naturally, I put the business case together — complete bullshit, no doubt — and fooled them not once, but twice into paying my way to The Land Down Under. These, kind, I repeat otherwise-intelligent people let me on a gigantic Airbus and gave me money to buy food and I got a hotel, and they were paying for it. Jesus, lord. I needed to church-fan myself.
For someone who has a Richie Valens complex, and by that I mean seriously, I was stoked to be on a plane for 17 hours. Each trip down was for 2 weeks. Outside a trip to Winnipeg, this was the only time I’d been outside of the US. As you may recall, being a freelance writer doesn’t scream robust financial health, it’s more like Russian Roulette.
Here’s the thing:
I am a straight-ass hoe for Australia. You wanna talk geography? I’ve got the states memorized. Only five, but do you know them? See? Who’s got a Steve Irwin Funko? This guy. I also love koalas. (Hours spent watching them on YouTube, there’s one where this guy gives a koala a sip of water, it’s incredible.)
Oh and platypuses. I LOST MY SHIT seeing a platypus in real life. It was just a weeny little marsupial that emerged from its hidey-hole, but you’d have thought it was The Beatles by how I was carrying on. I can name Prime Ministers and even know the capital (Canberra). I’ll drop random-ass facts on you about Australia’s treatment of its indigenous people or that they have penguins specific to the island. I’m an Aussie trivia vending machine.
I love how calling someone a cunt won’t result in said cunt throwing his or her hands up as they would in linguistically flaccid America. Instead, cunt is a term of endearment. “Aye, your mate Shirley? She’s a sick cunt!” And the person on the other end of the conversation is like, “fuck yeah, she is!” Shirley herself would be honored to know where she rates in cuntdom. Aussies don’t refer to rock and roll legends AC/DC like the rest of the civilized world, instead, they call them “AKKA DAKKA.” What a place! They call underwear “jocks” and call getting drunk, “maggot.” Don’t ask me, ok? I’m here for the kangaroos and packs of cigarettes with dead people on them.
From the minute I signed my name on the dotted line with that ‘serious writer’ job, I didn’t have imposter syndrome, it was more like “how the fuck did I fool y’all into hiring me?” syndrome. I was sitting in weekly meetings and people wanting my input on million-dollar marketing plans. Holy shit, I was in over my head. I could write a few witty sentences, but once I was assigned things relating to “Return on Investment,” “verticals,” “bandwidth,” or talking about “alignment,” I knew I was fucked.
I didn’t waste any opportunity, any trip they’d let me take. I’ve been broke and I’ve paid my rent late, this bitch wasn’t about to hit the snooze button when I’m in koala country.
And I also mean that literally. Not one day did I sleep in. I hit the streets every morning fresh as a goddamn golden wattle (Australia’s national flower). I made new friends, saw homies I knew from the power of the Internet, and discovered this rad little bar called Spooning Goats, getting shit-hammered every other night. (Luckily, I’m a battle-tested veteran at hangovers. I lived at the regional fast-food chain, Oporto and hit every used bookstore in town.) I bought first-press UK vinyl of Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero off a guy under a tent on a street corner, two records I’ll never sell.
I took trains and buses for hours to see koalas at Featherdale Wildlife Park on my first trip, which for the record smell like cough drops and their fur is filthy, like a street dog. They’re also stoned to the gills off eucalyptus.
I got a picture with one but tragically on that trip, I’m wearing a fucking fedora. No, not like a gross how-do-you-do-ma’am fedora, more like a cool, expensive Jack White fedora that any time I wear it, it gets compliments, but it photographed like I’m a neckbeard. Once-in-a-lifetime shit, and I get up at five a.m. to take mass transit and I leave my goddamn safe-bet White Sox hat at home. Typical American.
I saw the coastal waters crash against the beach. I took the ferry to Taronga Zoo my second time down, which felt like making a pilgrimage to Jurassic Park. I walked with gray kangaroos, and I saw the Tasmanian devils, snapping and growling at one another.
Anyway, this trip to Taronga Zoo, I wanted to see my other favorite animal, the platypus. Platypuses typically die within a month in captivity. There are like, three zoos in the entire world that have them. And they’re nocturnal, so the chances of me seeing one in the first place were rare considering it was around nine am.
It was a small, quiet and dark room. I hung at the tank, waiting, waiting, probably breathing through my mouth like a typical American, but at least I wasn’t wearing a fucking fedora. People came and went, bored that the animal didn’t come out after a few minutes. They knew they’d get another shot, but I wasn’t going to take that risk. I had my headphones plugged into my iPod and had all the time in the world.
I waited for her to emerge from her cave, to let me know that when everything in my life sucked, all the regrets and missed wins, to do this thing, no matter how fragile, writing for this monolithic billion-dollar company, this moment was mine alone. Still, I waited, and refused to budge. After thirty minutes passed, I lost hope. I walked outside and the sun was vicious. I’d walked a couple of feet down the stone walkway and saw a wooden cut out of the animal, taunting me. I turned around and went back inside, resolved that I’d wait another hour, if I had to.
After about five minutes, I saw her stir in the little box you could peak inside, but not quite see thanks to it being dark, and then she popped out in one, smooth glide into the water. My heart leaped with her.
She was smaller than I’d imagined. As she dug for shrimps in the bed of rocks, I was entranced, remembering when people from Chicago asked, “What does a writer actually do for a living?” If I could really pin this experience down, I thought, that’s what I’d do for a living. More of feeling like this when I’d felt so much the opposite more times than I could count. She made a few laps around her tank, and I made peace with my screwups. I watched her glide through the water, sleek, innocent, and purposeful. I gave that jumping heart to a little complicated creature, something that felt like me.
After that encounter, I went straight to a tattoo shop to get her on my arm. Sadly, they’re not as plentiful as my Austin shops and the guy blew me off because he was too hungover to work on me.
The next day, I started earlier than I had before. I walked from my hotel in Newtown all the way to downtown Sydney to the Royal Botanical Gardens. The interior was a lush canopy of flowers and trees, the greens greener, it felt like I was lost in some ethereal place not of this earth. Cockatiels, flying foxes, lizards squeaked and squawked. Folks jogged past while I drank it all in. With my flat white in hand, I grabbed a seat at Miss Macquarie’s Chair, an enclave of rocks where you can look out toward Sydney Harbor, where the famed Opera House sits just to your left. I was keenly aware that, when my lights go out, this would be on the highlight reel.
On both trips, I’d hang with my friend, Andrew, an Aussie, who is also half-Japanese with an immigrant mother, so he’s got the legit food spots down.
While the nationalized cuisine is suspect outside of meat pies, steak, and chicken schnitzel, the Asian food scene in Sydney is insane. We’d grab laksa, which is a soup that’s lightyears better than ramen. It’s like if Thai Tom Ka and Ramen had a baby. The broth is Nikki Minaj thick, there’s a ton of spice, coconut, and lemongrass, with a ton of umami. Maybe it’s because we don’t have a big Malaysian food scene, I don’t know, but trust me when I say we’ve dropped the ball on turning some dude into the next David Chang.
He’d take me to rad sushi spots, and we’d kill beers at Manly Beach. On one of my last days on my last trip, he hit me up for an early dinner, swearing he had the hook up on a place so authentic, there aren’t even menus in English. I’m bout that life. (If you know my fat ass, it’s no secret that I am down as fuck for pork fried rice, dim sum, dan dan noodles anytime. Bring me all the Asian food, from any country.)
Sydney’s layout is weird. In fact, many of Australia’s downtowns aren’t like American downtowns, which become dead zones when corporate commerce isn’t conducted. Instead, there are these odd underground malls with supermarkets, and food courts, and high-end stores, but then you’ll hang a right and go up the stairs, and next thing you know, you’re lost in a tiny neighborhood where the signs are in Chinese and Malaysian. This is where Andrew took me, excited for “cold chicken.” We sat down in this small Vietnamese + Chinese restaurant, where in fact, the menus were not in English. This was most definitely not the Vietnamese food I was used to - not a basic bitch grilled pork Banh Mi to be seen. (Look, I ain’t a picky eater, I love breaking my cultural expectations, but I was in over my head once again). We ordered, him getting his cold chicken and me getting pho, with him swearing it was the best in town.
When our food arrived, he got cold, I mean gelatinous, from the fridge chicken chunks of every variety sitting on a pile of warm rice. Tasting it, I was not prepared for the flavor and texture combination It did not feel like good ole’ chicken fried rice like I get in Austin’s China Café. Digging into my bowl of pho, it smelled amazing. I slurped the broth, pulling out wads of noodles with my chopsticks.
As I shoveled something that tasted let’s just say “not fun” down my gullet, I commented to Andrew that I’d never had something like before.
Looking down at my chopsticks, he manages to get out before laughing at me, “Ah, you had a bit of liver, mate.” And there in my chopsticks was the liver of what? I have no idea. Dropping the gray matter back into the broth, I dug around, pulling out tripe, kidney, and then other offal I was not designed to consume. Andrew goes back to work on the chicken and rice like a professional, while I pushed my bowl politely aside, accepting that the universe had humbled the idiot tourist once again. The meal wasn’t horrific. It was 100% me and being driven from my world of what my concept of what food is, which turns out is a highly-Americanized version, complete with orange chicken and a bunch of other stuff that they wouldn’t serve on the mainland.
Later, I ended up grabbing a double Bondi burger at Oporto, with my tail tucked between my legs, grateful to have one more meal with a friend in a place I’d have never walked into randomly, supporting these warm people whose food they wanted to share.
In the end, of course, the job got wise to my slapping off-brand Band-Aids on cancer. I tried to make a move around onto a different team, but it didn’t work out.
I tried, I put in the work and I wrote my ass off. Believe that.
But eventually, I was out of a gig. I was lucky to have spent the time on so many airplanes, crisscrossing America, and hitting this place I’d dreamt about as a child. I’d met these talented people, I got to hug a koala, I ate food from San Francisco to Sydney, and I did it because I was still the same 17-year-old kid who wanted to be a writer, and I was one, but not a marketing genius. I know how to put a few sentences on a page, I’ll die for you to get it right, but when investor money wants to know how we fit within the machine, I was an excess cog.
On my last day, as I was led out of the office, I cried. I’d never felt like a bigger failure. I had a wife and two very little boys at home, one being brand-new. And yet here I was, the broke fuck up, once again. Doing what you love isn’t easy.
It’ll break your heart more than once. But they’ll never take those nasty bits dangling from the end of my chopsticks or me jumping like I’d won money when my platypus left her den. Those are mine. Oh, and that reminds me… I still need that tattoo.
Robert Dean is a journalist living down in Austin, Texas. His work has been featured in Forbes, Consequence of Sound, Austin American-Statesman, Mic, Fatherly, Daily Grindhouse, and Farce the Music, to name a few. He's also been on CNN and NPR.