• I took a job in a rural health centre (Getty Images)
Accepting the job was also my way of proving I was not the Asian stereotype of being quiet and unable to take risks or innovate.
By
Seraphina Seow

17 Feb 2020 - 2:11 PM  UPDATED 17 Feb 2020 - 2:11 PM

In a small town, not far from the floodplains of the Goulburn River in northern Victoria, Shepparton, I told my friends of the pleasures of living alone. I was several months into a new job at a rural health centre. My first real full-time role as a dietitian. I loved having the nurses’ quarters to myself, a two-bed unit with a couch facing a glass door that featured a daily showing of the late-afternoon sky.

I boasted that it took only four minutes to get to work. I stayed home every night because shops always closed by five in the afternoon. My life was within the cream and white walls of the health centre and the nurses’ quarters.

Come every weekend, however, I would abandon those walls for Melbourne, returning home to my friends and the city’s nightlife. The ritual soon became a reward for lasting the week of work. When colleagues suggested I stayed a weekend to explore town, I’d often respond with a congenial, “One day.” My workmates were older than me and had friends and family to go home to. I, on the other hand, had no real connections — and in those idle weekend hours, quietly dreaded being alone.  

What I didn’t know was that this routine of escaping to Melbourne would become the first stray thread to unravel my time in the rural town.

What I didn’t know was that this routine of escaping to Melbourne would become the first stray thread to unravel my time in the rural town.

At university, my lecturers had sung praises about working in rural communities. The idea is that it would make you a well-rounded dietitian who is self-sufficient and resourceful, able to help people of various socioeconomic backgrounds manage their medical conditions. Only someone brave, strong, and truly passionate about their career would ‘go rural’. I saw myself as these things and needed to confirm that I had what it took to one day reach my goal of working in a developing country. My time in the rural clinic would be the first step towards that dream. 

Accepting the job was also my way of proving I was not the Asian stereotype of being quiet and unable to take risks or innovate. I liked that people were surprised when I told them where I worked.

A month passed, then two. I realised a little too late that I hadn’t made any genuine connections. My newbie status had faded. Routine settled. The only people I had extended conversations with were my clients. I stopped eating lunch in the staff room to avoid being the awkward spectator of banter between my colleagues. There is something unique about working in a rural community. Although unspoken, people can downplay your ability to contribute because “Ah, you’re from the Big Smoke.”

At the six month mark I received my first invitation to catch up outside of work.

At the six month mark I received my first invitation to catch up outside of work. A lady who worked at council kindly told me to contact her whenever I wanted to have coffee because she remembered how difficult it was for her and her husband to settle into a rural community when they first moved from Sweden. I was struck by how elated I felt. A connection, at last.

But as the rush from receiving that single invitation faded, it left a clear picture of how lonely and isolated I felt. My supervisor suggested seeing a counsellor, but I didn’t see a point. I knew I was pining for genuine connection and was too prideful to try to force myself to be integrated into this community. I was from the Big Smoke, and I was going back.

The emotional aftermath of quitting your first job doesn’t end after throwing in the proverbial towel. The Are-You-Sures whined incessantly on the journey back. Are you sure that you’ll be able to work in a developing country someday? Are you sure that you are tough enough to endure when difficulties arise?

I know now why my lecturers said it’s a brave thing to work rurally, because it magnifies your shortcomings. In the quietness of a small town, especially when living alone, I was unable to get away with pretending to be self-reliant after realising quickly that I was not. It also reveals how passionate you are, whether you would forgo the comforts of home and longtime connections to advance your career.

But is ‘going rural’ truly the best way to prove that you are strong?

But is ‘going rural’ truly the best way to prove that you are strong?

In my seven months at the health centre, I have reluctantly discovered that I am not as fiercely independent as I thought, and I possess a need to be known and well-connected in a community. These traits aren’t traditionally associated with strength. But choosing to acknowledge and embrace these limitations that I am embarrassed by is, ironically, a step forward.

I am still struggling to accept my newfound ‘traits’. And as for my dream of working in a developing country, I am still aiming for it. Though now I am armed with the knowledge that I need to be willing to reach out and extend ‘coffee invites’ to others, and with the expectation that once I get there, something else might be lurking, and I will once again have to look a new challenge in the eye. Perhaps being strong is ultimately just that — a continual process of facing your weaknesses patiently, sometimes imperfectly, with faith. 

Seraphina Seow is a freelance writer.

This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_

RECOMMENDED
Jay Carmichael’s 'Ironbark': growing up gay in rural Victoria
Author Jay Carmichael draws on his experiences growing up gay in a tiny rural town with a population of 70 in his debut novel 'Ironbark'. “No one wanted to talk about it or even acknowledge it,” he recalls. “I guess that was what I found more isolating than the actual location.”
Hairdressers in rural Australia double as counsellors
A farmer might be more likely to chat to her hairdresser about the tough time she’s having than seeking professional help.
An identity complex: growing up gay and Asian in rural Australia
“You’re not alone. There are many people out there just like you. You will always be loved for whoever you are.”