Monica embarked on a 30,000km solo road trip around Australia. Here’s what she learnt

By Angela Heathcote 4 April 2019
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Author Monica Tan chats to us about her solo trip around Australia and how she reconciled her Chinese-Australian heritage.

IN 2016, MONICA Tan embarked on a 30,000km solo road trip around Australia, beginning in Sydney, where she led a comfortable life as the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia.

Monica had hardly given a trip like this a second thought in her early 20s. “Like many Australians, I thought I would do this when I was retired, when my ‘real life’ was over, that’s when I’d explore,” she says.

But, like many non-Indigenous Australians, Monica began grappling with the question: what makes an Australian, Australian?

“The connection to country is a specific notion. It’s not just ‘oh I like the Australian landscape’, it’s a deep spiritual connection to place, where you feel your very essence is created,” Monica says.

“That’s a massive concept and I had no idea whether that concept is wholly reserved for Indigenous Australians and any attempt to get a feeling for that is an act of cultural theft.”

An Australian-born woman with Chinese-Malaysian heritage, Monica grew up embarrassed by her ancestry and had little understanding of Indigenous Australia beyond what she’d been taught in high school.

“Indigenous was communicated to me as a sort of relic of history,” Monica says. “Supposedly, they were unfortunate people who were decimated by colonisation, but their absence allowed for this great thing called Australia. That’s the narrative I’d absorbed from school.”

This lack of understanding eventually inspired her trip around Australia, but it was a long journey to finally pack her car and get on the road.

After living in China for four years, Monica became fond of all the different ancestral traditions and languages held by just one country. “It was China that opened my eyes to the fact that Australia is rich with those things and somehow I’d never recognised that or accessed that.”

After returning from China, she landed her job at Guardian Australia and had more opportunities to interact with Australia’s Indigenous history. “There I had to opportunity to do stories about Indigenous Australian culture, artists and history.”

monica tan

But it didn’t quite reconcile for Monica what it meant to be Australian. “When you work as a journalist you go to an interview with an agenda, like an artist has a show so you want to interview them about the show. There’s a very specific box you’re trying to colour in.”

After a couple years, Monica quit her job at Guardian Australia and started her journey. She began by pinpointing areas on a map of Australia where she had friends, the local tourist spots she wanted to visit and places with interesting histories, which then formed the direction she would take. She headed west, then up north and finished along the east coast, taking hardly anything with her.

“I was very lo-fi with my equipment and I didn’t take a 4WD,” she says.“I had two spare jerrycans and a tent. Honestly, there wasn’t much difference between what was in my car for a one-week trip and this six-month trip. Anyone can do it.”

A defining moment of the trip, which aided the question she’d set out to answer, happened while she was staying in Pine Creek in the Northern Territory. There she met a Chinese-Australian family that went back five generations. The father of the family was a descendant of Chinese gold miners and labourers.

“He took me out to where his family lived and worked during those days,” Monica says. “I was so moved by this evidence of my people’s contribution to Australia. Thinking about how hard my people worked and how lonely and sad they must have been in such a strange continent took me by surprise.”

Throughout Monica’s trip, she tried her best to learn local Indigenous histories, forming a better understanding of what connection to country meant. “There is some space for non-Indigenous people to have some version of connection to country,” she says.

“We could never understand what it’s like to have over 60,000 years of ancestral connection, but my experiences with Indigenous people has been real generosity and a desire for non-Indigenous people to learnt to appreciate this continent.”

In reflecting on her trip around Australia, Monica feels she has a better understanding of what being Australian means. “Being an Australian is unique because it does not require ancestral membership, it’s a purely legal requirement, so anyone can be Australian.

“It’s an unusual society and an extraordinary club to be a part of. Realising that gave me a deep sense of responsibility to be a part of important conversations, especially the healing from this country’s painful colonial history. It gives me a responsibility to be a guardian.”

Monica Tan is the former deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and co-host of the Token podcast. Stranger Country is her first book.