Penang- Night One. A foodie tour for someone who doesn’t feel like food.

Visa runs are part of the life of a long term traveler- no one can escape them. I’m particularly fortunate that with my visa all I have to do is leave the country (even for like, 5 minutes) and walk back in and I have another 60 days to my name. But while leaving the country for 5 minutes is convenient, it’s a lot more fun to escape to a neighbouring country for a weekend away! Which is what I did when I went to Penang- and a lot more fun it was! You’ve already read about my love for the place and the memories it sort-of held for me (maybe. If you haven’t, pop back a post and there you’ll find my lyrical waxings on the magic of shared histories.), but in terms of the trip itself, I didn’t go into much detail. SO. That’s what this post (and the next) is for.

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I woke up stupidly early on Friday morning to be greeted by the same lovely uber driver who took me to the bus headquarters to buy my ticket to Mae Sai- once you find a good one, see if they have a card and if there’s anything important you need to, give them a call- who drove me to the airport. The flight there was a noneventful, apart from the fact that despite my quite small amount of breakfast I wasn’t hungry at all throughout the day apart from briefly in BKK where I couldn’t find anything resembling a health food apart from overpriced coconut water which I drank- potentially a bad idea. Once I got into Penang, I made my way to the bus terminal and hopped on a bus for 1.5 ringgit- pro tip, as soon as you get your cash out at the ATM in Malaysia, buy some water so you have some change for the bus- otherwise you’ll have to run back into the airport consequently missing the first bus. The bus ride across the island was interesting- everything seemed really quiet, probably due to the fact that I later learned that I arrived in the middle of an extra long, long weekend- this didn’t affect my travels at all- except that it was exceptionally quiet and exceptionally busy at times when I wasn’t expecting it.

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Anyway, I arrived at the station around 3 and walked the 5 minutes from the shopping centre to my AirBnb where I was met by my lovely mouse of a hostess. Her name was Annabel and she was so, so quiet! Her beautiful heritage house reflected this- very minimalist and seemed almost empty but the minimalism was highly stylised- she was an artist and a pianist, the grand piano acting as an interactive monument in and of itself. I was lucky enough to hear her play when I came home on Friday night. My room was basic but with high ceilings and lourved windows I would soon see on many of the buildings around this awesome town. I dropped my bags and Annabell whispered to me about the George Town Festival which was taking place that weekend- pointing out a few shows which were free or which she thought I might be interested it. She also gave me a few maps showing all the amazing street art and historical spots around GeorgeTown. Gratefully, I deposited these in my bag and headed out into the heat to begin my food tour.

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Having not had lunch, I was expecting to be extremely hungry but I just wasn’t feeling super great (I’m convinced that coconut water was off). Nevertheless, I trotted off to find my guide, Lily and go on my (private) tour! I toured with Delish Asia and they were seriously excellent. Lily not only showed me food, but she also talked to me about the history of Penang and the reasons behind the amazing mix of cultures and cuisines which Malaysia in general, but especially Penang can lay claim to. We tried Char Kuey Teow from the best cart in the city who had a huge line up in front of him, Squid with Morning Glory and a dark soy with sesame seeds, a noodle soup (not laksa…), roasted duck, nutmeg juice, cendol… and that was only in our first stop. I had a bite of everything and already I could feel myself becoming full. This was NOT ok.

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So, we walked for a while, checking out some of the oldest bars and markets in the city, relaxing at a converted shop house and taking happy snaps of the amazing street art. She showed me where the locals drink (aka- where I would NOT be, unless I had a group of friends with me, it was the seediest back alley I’ve seen… and that was literally it, no real inside- just milk crates in front of an open window.) and showed me one of the oldest book shops in the city where I managed to contain myself and not buy anything- thank God for only having carry on luggage! She showed me Harmony Street, where there’s a mosque, a Hindu temple, a Chinese temple, a church and a Buddhist temple all on the one street.

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After a little while, the initial food baby passed by and so we stopped in Little India- what I was most looking forward to. We explored a market, had some masala tea, some ginger tea, dosa (or tosai as it’s known in Penang), some roti chanai and a famed murtabak which my mother had told me so much about. I literally had one bite of the murtabak and just could not do anymore, sadly, but if I had been at full health, than this evening of my holiday would have been the greatest.

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After we finished off, Lily took me to a little coffee shop where she was meeting some friends who had been out (like the rest of Penang- it was SO crazy!) and we chatted a bit about her life as a timeout editor/researcher and now as a tour guide and a writer. I picked up some hot tips about the festival for Saturday night but declined their invitation to join them. I needed to be away from crowds.

 

In an attempt to walk off my food baby and the nausea which was unrelated to the relatively small amount of food I had eaten, I meandered my way through the crowds, down to the harbour, onto a clan jetty and just sat there- listening to the water and the distant sounds of revellers.

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It probably wasn’t my best idea in terms of personal safety- if I had been cornered it was the ocean (where I would have sunk… or that’s about it- but it was so peaceful and serene and I was so out of it that I didn’t even think about the consequences. Soon, I stumbled home, into the shower, onto my very comfy mattress and fell asleep- ready for another early morning tomorrow…

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Revisiting a shared memory…

I’ve never been to Malaysia before. I’ve never even had a layover there. I’ve never had reason to use my tiny amount of Bahasa Indonesian which is leftover from years 3-8 and so very similar to Bahasa Malay…

But sometimes I feel like I have.

Not so much because so many of my closest friends have their ancestral roots in Malaysia and so when they travel to visit their families I see lots of photos and hear lots of tales of the malls of KL and the splashes of the theme park there.

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More because of my own family history. Despite the fact that I am as white bread as they come, I have my own roots laid down in Malaysian soil. My granddad was in the RAAF and as you may be aware, there is an Australian Air Force base situated in Penang which he was stationed at for about 2 and a half years. My grandmother, mother and two uncles joined him and lived there, in the humidity and the heat and exotic haze- a family of five forever intertwined with the cultural heritage of that tiny island which is already so culturally diverse.

So, when I set foot there and hopped on a bus across the island- I didn’t feel so much like a foreigner, but more like someone who was returning to a dream. I’d heard so much about this place of fresh seafood straight from street vendors who didn’t just pass on their wares, but also the dirtiest words of their language to my infant uncle; this land of Chinese Swimming Clubs and monsoonal rains; this land of murtabak and chilli and curries and the call to prayer. I was prepared for the experience of revisiting this new/old place to feel strange but I don’t think I was quite as prepared as I originally thought.

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Walking through Georgetown- with it’s heritage listed status and therefore it’s unchangedness- was like walking through a faded postcard. The houses were colourful, magical… an explosion of nostalgia and history which ticked every box I have. Cycling through the relatively quiet streets- especially on a cool Sunday morning- to explore and discover the street art before the hordes of tourists with selfie sticks descended only enhanced the feeling that I shared more than I knew with this old-new-familiar-foreign place. When I rode through the city to a hipster filled market, I knew that Penang knew me better than I ever thought it could.

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When I booked my flights to Penang, I wanted- more than anything- to visit the house, or at least the area, my family lived in. I love and miss everyone who lived there very much at the moment and my granddad passed away 5 years ago now. I thought by visiting their old neighbourhood, I’d feel their presence so strongly and while I was hoping for this- I didn’t really expect it.

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But when I arrived at the address and the trees were large and the house looked old- foreign- amongst the redone and renovated town houses surrounding it, I could feel the ghosts surrounding me. This was more than I hoped for. This was authentic and this road was the one my uncles and mum walked along everyday on their way to school. This tree which was once small, now shades the window of my mum’s old bedroom. This home housed my Grandma and Granddad, protecting them against the lashings of monsoonal rain- the cool tiles providing some comfort from the tropical heat. My uncle had a paddling pool in the front yard where there is now a motorbike. This house, this place, was a part of my history- despite the fact that my skin was now, after riding there in the hot morning sun, bright red- a feature that belies my EnglishIrishScottish blood.

The illusion of belonging was broken a little when a lady peeked out of the curtains- reminding me that this is not just mine and I am very much an outsider in this street, city, island, country, continent- but belonging is more than skin, it’s more than blood, it’s about where you feel you belong and where the people accept you.

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After my journey to the past, I rode to the aforementioned hipster market and got talking to a lady selling kefir (because of course I did). She asked what I had been doing in Penang and I told her that I had just visited my mother’s old house. She smiled wide and said she remembered fondly the Australian officers who worked in Penang and Butterworth, remembered the makeshift bars and remembered the RAAF school which my mum and uncle attended. She said- honestly and genuinely- that I should bring my mother and grandmother back with me next time, that she would take us to the places they would know, they would remember. She said “welcome back” to me.

Belonging is about how you feel, where you feel accepted, where you feel a part of a shared past.

And Penang- against all odds- held that for me.

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//

Also- I wish Identity and Belonging was still a part of the English curriculum because dayum, sample piece for Mind of a Thief for days…

I’ll post more about what I actually DID in Penang soon. I just felt like writing something other than what would essentially be a review post.

Poem- Same Same

The air here smells different.
It feels different.

My hair blows with a different scent and
my sweat takes a different trail as it
snakes down my calves.

My eyes are clearer and
my skin is sticky with the juice of mango, coconut, inspiration.

I can feel more of the things that matter to
the One who everything matters to

I take more

Time

I give more

Time

I have more

Time

To rest and be

In
This
Place

In
This
Space

In
This
Breath

Of a moment that is all too fleeting and which moves like the canal before the rain.

Steady as she flows.

The air here smells different.

The warmth here is of a different sun and yet
the rays which tattoo my skin with indelible ink are the same which

pierce through the fog on a
different mountain top with
a different mud to that which bathed my legs today.

a different mountain with different sounds
which I miss in a numb throb which awakens only
while waiting for clothes to wash or shoes to dry.

The air here smells different;
Intermingling of gas and spice.

It sounds different here
Confident inflections which do more than
reveal the self doubt I’m leaving behind
pepper the atmosphere with a sense
of
Something I Can’t Control.

The air here smells different.
It feels different.
Or maybe it’s just
me.

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[Two] nights in Bangkok- Day One

Apologies for the heinously cliche blog title but I love me a good piece of politcially allegorical musical theatre and I love me a bit of Bangkok too.

But I think, only a bit.

I spent my first 2 days in the original Sin City of Thailand and it was everything I was expecting and more- overwhelming, busy, chaotic and delicious.

I knew I wanted to make the most out of my time in BKK but not be so wrecked by the time I arrived in CM for my volunteer experience so I definitely scheduled in both exciting activities and active relaxtion time.

Let’s begin!

I arrived at 8:30 on Sunday morning- not the best time to get to a new city, I’ll be honest. It’s tempting to let jet lag and the weariness of travel overwhelm you and just nap and so, knowing this, I chose (to the utter disbelief of everyone I met) to go on a cycle tour of the city in the afternoon followed by a food tour by tuk tuk which finished up around 11:30. Perfect!

And it was. I was picked up by a driver (a perk of my Stray Arrival Pack), got to my lovely hotel, the Dewan, in good time- mesmerised by the changing vistas outside the airconditioned comfort of the car as we sped along the highway and bustled through the traffic which is synonymous with many cities but especially Bangkok.

I checked in super easily, immediately found myself a coconut to sip on (unfortunately, it wasn’t very good- but fortunately, the only bad one I’ve had!) and wandered through a VERY quiet Khao San road area to the Stray Shop. It was dead- everyone was sleeping off big Saturday nights and the vibe was decidedly one of hazey regrets. I didn’t mind KS area, but to be honest, next time I’m in BKK I’d rather stay somewhere a bit less tourist focused, the bars and nightclub scene is just not really my jam and I found the constant presence of pasta, pizza and burgers intrusive. There were little street food vendors around but their prices were significantly higher than many of the places I’ve been since.

That said- the Dewan was awesome and I’d stay there again in a heart beat.

After popping into the Stray Shop to confirm all the details of my tours on Monday, I walked to the pier and caught the tourist boat down the river to where my bike tour was starting. It was so lovely and the cool breeze was stunning in  the heat. I was hoping to just catch the local boat but I wasn’t sure what boat was what and in my worry that I wouldn’t make in time for the tour, I caved. The tourist boat was probably much more expensive but ultimately? It’s hardly an issue. It was still only just over $1. It was a beautiful way of getting around the city and I would highly recommend the river over the road.

Once I located Co van Kessel bike tours, (right next to a Coffee Club- dubbed as being home of Australia’s favourite brunch… um, sure CC.) I grabbed lunch from a local hole in the wall and then, it was time for the tour! We had a few Dutchies (the man who originally started this now Thai run company was Dutch), a few Brits, a couple of Australians and a lady from the Philippines. I was the only one wearing a helmet so Mother, you should be proud I didn’t bow to peer pressure etc. The bikes were great quality and very comfortable.

The tour was so interesting! We rode through the back streets of China Town, around some very extravagant houses and past some places where it was clear the people were only just scraping by. We rode, precariously, through tiny alleys and even through busy market places. I will admit, I felt a bit intrusive at times and did wonder how good this voyuerism was for the community, but they didn’t really pay attention to this bevy of white folk trundling past on our cycles. We also boarded a shuttle ferry and went to the quieter side of the city and visited a temple which was just beautiful. I’m constantly struck by the respect and devotion that the Thai’s have toward their faith and while I’m glad that, as a Christian, I’m not bound to any physical expressions of my faith, but rather spiritual ones, it certainly causes me to pause and think if I’m really giving my faith the respect God’s glorious grace deserves.

We also visited the flower market- absolutely one of my favourite places in BKK. Filled with spices, tea, flowers and fruit, this place is a feast for the senses and the intricacies of the flower designs blow me and my fat fingers away. I almost bought my weights worth of spices and teas but showed a modicum of self control knowing I’m not allowed to bring anything into the country- least of all, tea (though that rule is probably more heavily monitored by my father than customs).

We finished up the tour, along with some fruit and random Thai snacks, at about 4:30, giving me time to walk to the meeting point for my next tour- the street food extravaganza!

This was run by Bangkok Food Tours and was faultless. We hopped into the waiting tuk tuks and were ferried around all night until we were full to bursting. We sampled some traditional Northern food (tom yum, duck larb, sticky rice, grilled tilapia, cucumber salad), had a version of pad see ew which you could get with either a runny egg or cooked, omeletteish egg. I got the runny egg and it was delicious. Because the egg was cracked in with the food, hot from the wok, it cooked slowly and became the most delicious sauce. We also had mango sticky rice, a few little desserts, longan, and pad thai from the most famous pad thai in BKK. It’s featured in a bunch of TV shows, the Guardian rated it as the best “fast food” in the world in 2014 and it is consistently busy. I had the modern version (which is the one I’d seen on Luke Nguyen’s show) and while it was delicious and looked amazing, it was a little sweet. I preferred my friend’s traditional version which was less attractive but less sweet. I’m yet to try any other Pad Thai over here though so it remains to be seen if it is the best.

We finished the night atop a rooftop bar overlooking the river where I had a mocktail and enjoyed the rain and the city lights. We were then each dropped around the city to our various hotels, concluding the night in comfort and style.

I slowly climbed the stairs to my room and collapsed into bed… looking forward to my floating market tour and massage which I had in store for tomorrow….

Though not before brushing my teeth with local water…a decision that thankfully, didn’t hamper too much of my much needed sleep.

Day Two, coming soon.

Amy xx

South East Amy So Far…

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It’s been 5 days that I’ve been in this country and it already feels like I belong here. Yes, I can’t read any signs and I definitely miss the grid system of Lovely Melbourne and I can’t speak the language and I’ve probably been over charged and I’ve probably unwittingly offended people but this place is just beyond what I thought it would be. The spirit of the people is as intense as the damp heat and the sense of possibility is as sweet as the fruit I’ve been eating off street stalls. I know it will be a challenge at times (I’ve just realised my wifi in my apartment only allows one device to be connected at a time which is fine, I just have to get used to it) but it’s hard to get used to for someone who’s used to being connected to everything, all of the time. Other challenges I forsee:

  • Cycling on these roads.

When I went on my cycling tour of Bangkok (post to come) I was struck by how quiet the back streets were… but how narrow and scary they also were. Chiang Mai- as far as I can see doesn’t have the latter issue. The back streets seem nice and wide and easy to get around, but the main streets are just as busy and mildly terrifying, I’m not going to lie. Although, I have mastered (that term has never been used more loosely) merging across a 3 lane road to turn right or do a u-turn. People are actually super tolerant of cyclists so I think I’ll end up ok… it’ll just take some getting used to, I suppose! I’ll come back fearless!

 

  • Managing my thermostat.

I don’t like sleeping with the air conditioner on. At all. But, if I leave my doors open, the carnival/night market across the road is really loud AND I’m paranoid about insects coming in. Not because I’m scared of insects… I’m just scared of the blood borne diseases they carry.

So, I tend to turn the aircon on, wake up freezing, turn it off, wake up boiling, turn it on… and it continues ad nauseum.

 

  • Cold showers.

My ex-personal trainer will be thrilled to know that I’ll be adopting his fat burning recommendation of cold showers while I’m in CM as it seems my shower has two settings- cold and slightly less cold. Which, to be honest, I don’t mind. It’s actually really refreshing and I don’t really want a hot shower at this point in time. But… it’s still a shock to the system, no matter how hot and sweaty you are post in-room workout.

 

  • Making decisions.

For anyone who has ever dined with me, you know decisions are hardly my strong point. It is why I love chef’s menus which don’t give you any choice, combination plates which let you try a little of everything and fro yo bars which let you put as many flavours and toppings into your cup as your heart so desires. It’s why I love HIIT hybrid workouts so I can practice my lifting while also getting my cardio in. It’s why I’m a “plan in advance” person so I can know precisely what I’m going to do and when I’m going to do it. This is a bit harder when I purposely did not plan much for this portion of my trip… which means I need to decide what I’m going to do each day. This has been interesting thus far but I’ve sort of settled into a routine-

 

  • Wake up around 6:30
  • Do an in room HIIT workout- either self run or using Fitness Blender
  • Have breakfast (this either involves having some fruit and yoghurt [I found a tiny little fresh yoghurt place that sells tubs of homemade, pro biotic, natural yoghurt w. NO SUGAR! Win!], and vegemite on these cracker things I found which are sort of like saladas OR strolling down to the wet market and getting a traditional Thai breakfast of egg, rice and some sort of stirfried dish.) and do my quiet time.
  • Linger over the beautiful Nancy Chandler map of Chiang Mai and decide what incredible thing I’m going to do this morning.
  • Ride bike/walk in general direction of that thing hoping for the best.
  • Find thing (it’s closed)
  • Ride/walk around aimlessly, taking note of cool looking places to visit. Meander like the locals
  • Head to TFH by 10am if I’m not teaching that night…
  • And to be honest, I’m not sure what I do there. Today is my first day so it’s still v early stages- I’m basically learning where things go.
  • Have a delicious lunch. I’m going to work my way through their menu, it all looks so divine.
  • Back to work…
  • Ride home around 5- if I’m not teaching that night…
  • Chill for a bit while I decide what to do that night… I’m not really a massive party animal so I need to be sure that I get my sleep. I also don’t want to spend loads on red trucks and tuk tuks, so I want to be able to walk/ride to most places myself… but I’m still not very confident on the roads. So… we shall see. I would like to go to documentary screening tonight about the Burmese Civil War which is still affecting many of our students, but I think I’ll take a red truck there as I’m not 100% confident in riding to the location… or rather, riding back in the dark. Most nights I’m envisaging heading over to the night market or one of the many vendors/restaurants in the area, grabbing some food and enjoying it while people watching or reading my book.
  • Have an earlyish night and fight with the air conditioning as to ensure a good nights sleep, ready for another day tomorrow.

 

The freedom is divine and actually really challenging for me, so it’s been a good learning experience ALREADY, and it’s only week 1! I think it’ll get easier, or just be different, when there’s another volunteer who I might be able to do things with. Someone is starting tomorrow (Friday!)

 

  • Coming home.
    It’s already dawning on me how quickly this year will go and all the things I’ll miss when I’m at home, or even while I’m travelling. I don’t want to dwell on this though as I know this year will be life changing and life at home will be so rewarding when I return and all the more richer for this experience.

 

  • Visas….
    Still scared. Don’t want to think about the border runs I need to do.

I’m certain this list will grow and expand but at the moment, this is it. Which is pretty good, so far I think!

I’ve been so struck while I’ve been here how blessed I am to be able to do what I’m doing. I’ve always known that I’m privileged to do what I’m doing but I really think this trip is such a gift and I thank God every day that I’m able to explore my world so freely, so safely and hopefully, have an impact while I’m doing it.

Thanks for following along and supporting me in your prayers and thoughts. I’ll post more about what I did in BKK soon!

Sawadee Ka!

The Gap Between My Legs is Closing – A Poem.

the Gap between my legs is closing

                                                                      and with it- the gap between my eyes and my size. I know-

most-

…some

of the time

that I Look:

                STRONG

                HEALTHY

                WELL

                HAPPY

I Am:

                STRONG

                HEALTHY

                WELL

                HAPPY

 

but

sometimes

my eyes still glaze and the haze of “flashback fog” takes me back to no rack-
ed plates on barbells
and jutting collar-
ed shirts that don’t swell
and space between thighs
and try as I might

the head doesn’t always win over the ghosts of ill fitting sizes of obsession

 

BUT

it’s worth it when it does because my cheeks are flush
and my hair is –annoying!— but lush
and I can sit without pain and I can
lift without shame
and I can run without needing to
and I can rest without feeling…                                                                                                                                                                                                                               too
lazy.

And I can take my own advice
to “look after yourself”
instead of shelving it on the “not for me” shelf”

… most… some… Sundays.

And I move ‘cause it feels good
and I eat not just because I should
and I eat well not just because I said I would
I want to, I want to, I want to and it’s just
the best.
And I don’t fear anything…

most… some… meal times.

                                                                                       and the gap between my legs is closing
and with it, the gap between what I say and what I write and what I think when I look in the mirror

is,

slowly, most times, sometimes…

closing too.

//

This is a hard one to press publish on. For all sorts of reasons. It speaks of my no.1 biggest sin- my need to control my life instead of giving everything over to God. It speaks of my no.2 biggest sin- finding my identity in things other. But it also speaks of a struggle for so many women and girls and boys and men. It speaks of this need to be thinner or leaner or whatever and that anything that gets you there is worth it and that lean = the best when actually, lean doesn’t necessarily equal healthy or even that fit. It also speaks a little to comparison and the way we distort ourselves when we look through a warped mirror like that of social media, or even the people around us. This isn’t an issue for everyone but I know that I can very easily fall into the comparison trap and it plays into my natural competitiveness. But I need to reject that and focus on what’s important in my life:

My God
My health
My purpose

And all of these things point to the same ultimate conclusion: stop looking at yourself. I was going to say “stop looking at yourself through a distorted lens” but I think it’s more poignant (for me) to simply stop being so concerned with the perception of ME and instead be focusing on what God’s doing through me, what I’m doing to help others, what my gifts and talents are and instead of focusing on something so fleeting as my physical appearance, instead be focusing on things of a more lasting and even eternal nature. I am still always going to care about my health and my fitness which will be reflected in my body, but it shouldn’t be my number one priority. My priorities should be my relationship with God, my relationship with others and my relationship with the world around me. And in each of these priorities my love of fitness and love of healthy food plays a part.

Let me explain, if I truly value my relationship with God, I truly value every gift he has given me- including my body- and I believe He wants me to be physically fit and strong to do what he has designed me to do. I know I couldn’t have lost the weight I did, the way I did, with the ease I did, without Him. I not only lost weight but other things in my life which had a hold on me were shed too. I also think He took me down in order to demonstrate the hold control had over my life, even when I didn’t realise it. He continues to work on me in this area and I know fitness is somewhere in this plan. 

Secondly, my relationships with others have developed and grown and my fitness has played a part in that. I’ve been told countless times that I inspire people and that I spur people on. I like to think I’m encouraging and a good friend. I hope I am and that my love of fitness can help others come to a similar place. I also think my “journey” has enabled me to better understand people who are coming from a similar place at both ends of the scale. While I was never a full blown victim of an ED, my thinking around food, exercise and my body was not healthy and I think I can relate to people better for it.

Thirdly, my relationship with the world around me. There is so much to be done. So much to get passionate about and to change. Today is National Sorry Day. We continue to reject refugees and asylum seekers. Racism and sexism is rife. People live in fear. I want to be a part of this change and community engagement is part of that. Food is part of that. Fitness can be a part of that. I believe my purpose is to use my passions- writing, food, fitness, education, social justice, faith… to affect some of this social change- even if on a small scale. I want to make my students think about their words. I want them to think about their vote. I want them to think about their voice. I want my students to make ethical choices. I don’t want them to buy into the economy of fear. I don’t want my students to hate themselves. I don’t want them to make others hate themselves. I don’t want my students to compare themselves to others. I don’t want my students to live unhealthy lives. If I can be a role model- I can change lives… I hope. 

So… even though posting this was scary, I hope it did something for someone. 

If I were you… tackling the social, historical and cultural context. [VCE English]

Ah, the old “understanding of the social, historical and cultural context” criterion. Everyone’s favourite. I think I’ve received more questions about this point and how to include it in essays than questions about anything else in my teaching career.

And that’s because it is tricky. It’s a fine line to walk between showing you know the social, historical and cultural context of a text and accidentally changing your wonderful English essay into a historical or sociological exposition. Despite being a history teacher, I also never really enjoyed teaching this bit because I often found that I wasn’t able to go into enough depth and students would rarely do their own extra research to come to a thorough understanding of the time of place that the text was both set and produced in.

Thankfully, VCAA seems to agree and have since REMOVED this pesky requirement from the VCE English and EAL curriculum.

*cue celebration*

HOWEVER…!

Even though it’s no longer explicit part of the criteria it’s still 100% necessary to think about the time and place the text is set and produced in because of a new part of the KEY KNOWLEDGE and SKILLS for the Reading and Creating AOS and the Reading and Comparing AOS.

In these two AOS’s you are required to show an understanding of the audience, purpose and context of different texts and how these three things influence an author.

To address these aspects of the criteria and show an understanding of how they are affected by each other, and how they affect other components of the text, you still need to know those historical, social and cultural components of the text itself and when it was released.

Why?

For the following reasons:

  • To address how the audience comprehends and understands the purpose of a text, you must first know the context of that audience.
  • If a film was written/released during the Cold War, it will have very different influences to a remake of the same film filmed today. This results in different themes coming through to the audience and also, the different author/director will have a different purpose, in part, because their audience is different.

It may have similar ideas or themes, it may have similar character, quotes, shots etc but it WILL be responding to a different audience and have a different purpose. Consider the horrific remake Guess Who with Ashton Kutcher in comparison with the original Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Same basic story, vastly different purposes, vastly different audiences, vastly different worlds.

BUT, the fact remains that you need to know how to include this stuff in your essays and the KEY word in this whole messy equation is

PURPOSE.

As I’ve said many times before, you need to be aware of the authorial intent and this needs to shape your piece of work. Authorial intent should be an element of your contention and THIS is where your understanding of the audience, purpose and context can come into play.

So, if we’re wanting to be able to develop contentions with true authorial intent in mind, we need to know the context they’re writing in and for and why they’ve chosen the context they’ve set their work in to achieve their purpose.

It’s also important to know this so we can develop alternate perspectives. To a 1950s housewife, All About Eve is probably extremely feminist and counter cultural. To our eyes now, while it has feminist points and some extremely strong female leads, the final outcome for Margo suggests that the intent of Mankiewicz is not as “girl power” as we may originally think.

BUT AMY, HOW DO I ACTUALLY INCLUDE THIS STUFF IN MY ESSAYS?

Well, lovely student, you will pleased to know that if you go with the idea of the context informing the authorial intent which you are already including in your content, you’re already doing it.

Every time you infer that Perkins is presenting Mabo as a flawed by powerful leader who needs the support of those around him, in order not to glorify the man but instead, the movement you are acknowledging that in her context of 2012, Rachel Perkins is encouraging her audience to step up and be a part of said movement. You’re recognising that this film could be as much about her own father as it is about Eddie Mabo. You’re acknowledging that while Mabo is an Indigenous hero, this film is for a mainly white, middle class, reasonably well educated audience who has the power to change.

And you could include this contextual information explicitly in your introduction as the starting point (instead of starting with something that makes me want to die like “In Rachel Perkins’ 2012 biopic Mabo…”) or as a way to enter into that deeper interpretation. You should also be able to incorporate into your conclusion as you finalise your answer and broaden it out to wider significance.

Throughout your body paragraphs consider using language which leads to contextual inclusion. “Despite audience expectations of women…” “Although the film is set in the 18th century, the authorial context of Cold War paranoia…” “The original audience of the film…” “The contrast between the ancient setting and the modern audience…” “The text, while unfamiliar to a modern audience, explores universal themes- a fact made more obvious through the directors use of modern music and shooting techniques.” This technique will also help you tick the metalanguage box. Two in one! Yessss.

Remember that your essay is ultimately an answer to a question and to truly answer that question, you need to know what has shaped your evidence and answer. If you don’t, it would be like using a scientific study to prove your point about hair removal creams being ineffective without knowing that this scientific study was performed using gorillas as test subjects.

Remember, those who forget their history are doomed to repeat VCE!

Or something like that.

Happy writing!

Amy xx