Several nights in Vancouver meant several nights of late night chats with my favourite cousin D.
We reminisced about the music we used to listen to, and sang them out loud when driving around. (Apparently, he remembers “Barbie Girl” as the first song that I introduced to him when he was 7. Although I distinctly remembered it as “Tarzan and Jane” by Toybox. 🤔)
We reminisced about growing up together.
About how close we used to be with two other cousins when we were growing up, and how we suddenly drifted apart from them when we reached adulthood.
“Yeah, I really missed those days. The four of us used to travel so much together.” I quipped.
“Yeah, but I have to say, I really feel that it was them who drifted away from us.” – D.
I also had that sentiment, but couldn’t quite pinpoint why. Perhaps it’s just the passage of time. Or not enough effort on both sides to initiate contact. I don’t know. Relationships suddenly become harder to maintain once we get older, with more responsibilities, no matter how close we all used to be.
But then again, D and I are so far apart. He’s 12,813 kilometres (or a 12 + 4 hour flight) away for a huge portion of the past 8 years of our lives. Yet when we get back together, it still feels like the good old days and all hell breaks loose (in a good way).
And I’m really happy about that.
We spoke about how we were both brought up in an extended family culture where relatives pitted us endlessly against against one another.
Grades comparison were endless, and unfortunately, I was often the basis of comparison. (I.e. “Why can’t you be more like Che Che Brenda? She studies so hard.”) A fact that I used to be proud of – that other parents wanted their kids to be like me, but only later on realized there’s really no point in studying so hard when it only about grades chasing (as I did in the past).
We spoke about our own upbringing and what we liked/disliked about it. And it was at this point I realized that indeed, the personalities and attitudes of the elders that surrounded us did shape us substantially while we were growing up. We both went through periods of self doubt during the impressionable teenage years (which we did not talk to each other about back then but only just confided in each other).
For me, I grew up with a very low self confidence and was constantly doubting myself. And since late-Primary School, I was criticised endlessly for my looks.
“Why do you have so many pimples on your face?”
“Why are you not taking care of your skin?”
“Why are you always wearing jeans?”
“Why can’t you dress more like a lady?”
I was pressured to do facials when I was only fourteen. I refused, only to be labelled as “stubborn” and told that “I had to start these things early”. Extended family members chided me each time I broke out into spots. And there was plenty of pressure to conform to gender identity, especially since I had a rather tomboyish persona.
Perhaps my relentless grades-chasing back then was my own way to compensate for my lacking self-confidence. Good grades seemed to be the best form of morale boost to me.
And being young, most of us don’t really confront all these negative pressures in the face. Although, several times I did bring this up, only to be told the following.
“It was just a joke lah!”
“You have to stop being so sensitive!”
“Aunty ___/Uncle ___ was just being concerned.”
Concerned, my backside.
“We were young back then. We don’t really have the power. Adults always think they know better just because they are older. But they don’t always do. And they don’t realize what they say can really impact us.” – D.
“Unfortunately, both of us are only-children, which means that our parents were forced to learn on-the-job when we were born. And no parent is perfect.” – me.
The conversation about our respective upbringings went on and on, but most of it are too personal so they shall just remain in my mind.
When I looked up at the clock, it was 12.35am and we had yammered on and on for three hours.
It’s time to pack up and go home to Singapore.
My dear D, please choose the path you feel suits you best and never succumb to parental pressure. Be happy always and I’ll see you again soon!
Has our society degenerated to a point where people are no longer seen as human beings, but a commodity?
The world I’m seeing right now is one of where the following has been happening.
“Can you do this by tomorrow if I pay you double?”
“If you guys don’t do ___ by this coming week, I’m not paying you.”
“All the other vendors are working through the weekend. We’re also paying your team so why can’t you do the same?”
The best part is how everyone simply tells me that “this is what it is”.
But what happened to the fact that we are all human beings; Living, breathing creatures with our own ideals, beliefs and personal lives, and varying circumstances, and not just “something that you pay for”?
We are people with our own lives to lead, beyond what we do for a living.
We have other commitments.
Some have their own families.
Some have other hidden battles (eg. health) that you don’t see.
And of course, the basic right to adequate rest because our bodies are not machinery.
Does simply waving additional money in our faces/threats of withholding payment quantify for all that?
And newsflash. Paying extra does not magically add an additional 24 hours to a day.
My heart is breaking watching my teammates getting shoved around like pawns, and not being able to help much because I myself am exhausted and already on the brink of a complete mental breakdown.
While we were growing up, we encounter this stage of life known as teenhood.
Not sure what the official definition of teenhood is, but I definitely felt it as soon as I stepped into secondary school.
It was a building full of girls discovering their identity and trying to find their own place in this world while breaking free of their childhood.
And for a secondary one kid like me, I was trying to do all that while settling in a new place at the same time, one with a completely different vibe from when I was in primary school.
Bitchiness, gossip and politics were rampant, compared to the innocent games and conversations that I was used to in primary school. Words to put other people down like “pathetic”, “loser” and “moron” were flung around carelessly, as some girls sought to establish superiority over others. (I admit, I also used these words freely back then in an attempt to “fit in”.)
But with the workload of secondary school being significantly heavier, the whole process of “finding my identity” took a backseat. I was that student who chased good grades and studied plenty.
Four years of secondary school soon flew by, but I doubt I ever found my identity. All I remember was establishing my own small group of close friends and sticking to them, never quite speaking to anyone else beyond this group. Otherwise I kept mostly to myself, worried that I might somehow become the target of all the politics and bitchiness that seemed to be so rampant. It’s no surprise that to this day, I’m not in contact with anyone from secondary school.
Junior college days came along, and I found myself in a much more comfortable situation. Not sure how to best describe it, but I no longer feel as if I am surrounded by hormonally-charged teenage angst. The careless use of words to put other people down has dropped significantly, and I suddenly felt … safe.
I was also in a class that made it a point to uplift and encourage one another (very very evident especially during sports meets and when major exams were approaching).
Being in such a safe zone, I was comfortable enough to finally start sniffing out what my identity was.
But back then, at still a relatively young age of 16, definitions of identity were more rudimentary.
What did I seek out of friendships? I just wanted to feel like I belong, and that our topics of conversations were similar. (But being in a school setting, topics of conversations never veered far from school-related so I feel like I never really got to know them.)
What do I really like and dislike? I mustered up the guts to pick up tenpin bowling competitively, and learned that I’m terrible at performing under pressure. And I really disliked failing. It was also at this point I realized that I was exceptionally hard on myself, but somehow I took much pride in that (for reasons I still cannot figure out until today).
What do I aim to do every day? Study as hard as I can so that I can go to university.
That was my 16 year old self. Pretty short-sighted.
Then I went to university. Again, new setting with new situations. But still, I felt similarly safe as I felt in JC.
My notion of self-identity continued to evolve.
What was the impression I wanted to have on people? Happy-go-lucky and not being afraid to speak what’s on my mind. I cursed and swore freely, and would get aggressive when threatened (I used to pick fights). I also wanted to be “that girl from JC who can code” that everyone wanted on their project groups. But all in all, I just had this extremely cheerful persona regardless what came about.
That happy-go-lucky bit. I really felt it and it really stuck on people.
Then 2008 rolled around and from then on, health problems after health problems struck.
Suddenly I wasn’t so happy-go-lucky anymore.
Everyone noticed it.
“Bren, you’ve changed.”
“You used to be so happy? Where did this depressed person come from?”
“You didn’t used to be like this.”
Fast forward to today. At the age of 30, I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of this whole self-identity thing.
Am I still happy-go-lucky? Maybe. No. I’m not sure. It seems like some people still think I am, while others don’t.
My illness(es) have largely defined my self-identity now, which people say is not healthy. Even my Instagram and Facebook descriptions read “daily battle with #autoimmune and trying to live a normal life”. And recently, my mom asked me why do I always refer to myself as “a sick person”.
I don’t know. Part of me thinks this is a step forward in trying to make myself accept it as part of my identity, considering that this affects my life to a large extent.
As to what constitutes my self-identity? The definitions have changed.
What do I have to deal with on a regular basis? Hence, the above.
What do I seek to do with my life? I would like to append this question with “despite my medical situation”. There you go, guys. It influences my notion of self-identity in a huge way. My medical situation is so violatile, so I want to seek stability in everything else. And after putting my life on hold for the larger portion of my twenties, I want to rediscover my sense of adventure by wandering aimlessly with a camera, travelling more and perhaps doing something I haven’t quite done before (eg. fashion design). Basically, just living life on my own terms again, and not bound to circumstances.
What do I seek out of human relationships? Not much, because I keep most people at arm’s length. I let very very few people into my world now, the few whom I know exactly where I stand with them, the few whom I know won’t judge me even after knowing my story, the few whom I can just spill out my thoughts to, unfiltered. I have serious trust issues with this aspect, because you’ll never know who will be judging you secretly while putting on an empathetic front. I’ve learned the hard way before.
Why such a long post on self-identity anyway?
My thoughts have been everywhere lately on the notion of self identity.
I felt lost.
I have absolutely no self-esteem. (I used to largely derive my sense of worth from my work. But after a major health crisis in 2014 that made me drop out of regular working days, my sense of worth is all but gone.)
And the words of someone I used to work for back in 2005 set the benchmark of how I thought the general society perceives people with medical problems.
“Can’t stand this kind of sick people. So useless and a waste of time only!”
It echoes into my ears until today.
And now, it’s well visible. I have to wear a face mask in crowded places (pretty much everywhere that’s public). I walk with a slight limp on several days. I get stares. And I cower under those stares because I keep remembering those words.
I feel slightly better after writing all this out.
And I seek comfort in the fact that no one reads this space now so I can just go on as long as I want. (Even if there was someone reading, I’d have probably lost them at the first paragraph).
Re-reading all of the above, I noticed two themes that have stayed consistent in my constant search for self.
Lack of self-confidence.
Need for acceptance.
Yep. Guilty as charged.
“Stop obsessing with whether people will accept you. That’s not important. You need to accept yourself first. Be confident with who you are okay?” – exact words of my best friend when I spilled everything out to her like diarrhea a couple of weeks back.
Yep. It’s a match.
As to how my self identity (for now, theme seems to be more like ‘self-worth’) regrows from now, it’s work in progress.