During our flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong, our plane flew over the International Date Line. Instantly, we were propelled into the future. At the same time, my mind delved into the past, uncovering memories of my childhood, my family, and the country I once called home. Late night suppers at hawker food courts, annual reunion dinners, and high school shenanigans flipped through my head like an internal View-Master. But while I was a tiny bit apprehensive at entering a strange yet familiar city, I was most nervous about reuniting with my father’s family (My parents divorced when I was in my early twenties, and I haven’t seen my father or his side of the family for about 14 years).
It’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the pleasant times we’ve had together in the past. I certainly do. But the bad moments so heavily overshadow everything else. The feeling that you’re constantly being judged, that you’re never good enough, that you’re expected to do so much, is one that never really fades. Perhaps if I were born into a different sort of family, I could just brush those expectations aside. But I wasn’t. I never felt like I really measured up to what people wanted of me, and worse, I had the ingrained cultural training to feel guilty about it. Additionally, my immediate family did not make the happiest of households. Calling it dysfunctional would put it mildly.
Perhaps as a result, I learned to keep my head low. The worst thing in the world was to have unwanted attention heaped upon me. So I tried the best I could to get decent grades, though it didn’t always work out so well. I kept to myself most of the time and didn’t like rocking the status quo. I didn’t know it then, but I owed my sanity to three things: 1) Books, 2) The few friends I had, and 3) The fact that I insisted on attending public school instead of the private one my father wanted. Being around spoiled rich kids as I was growing up would definitely have worsened my already well-developed inferiority complex.
School was the center of my universe. As an only child, this was one of the only chances I had to socialize with people my own age (aside from one of my cousins, who was a fantastic friend while growing up, especially during those awkward family reunions). Through some miracle, I did actually make a few friends at school. The only way I can explain it is that despite the miseries of life at home, I had an incredibly healthy sense of humor and found a way to find joy in even the most dire of circumstances. I smiled and laughed all the time, perhaps because it was far away from the confines of home. That isn’t to say school was all fun of course — it takes me a long time to warm up to people, and I made a couple of faux pas in high school that put me on the social pariah list (aka I was most definitely NOT one of the popular kids). Still, I did make a couple of good friends, especially towards my late teens.
Recently, I’ve had to face a few challenges in my adult life. Everything from finances to my job to my relationships have taken some kind of hit. Some of it is my fault, and others aren’t. It’s made me terribly cranky and I haven’t felt that depressed in ages. As I reminisced about my childhood, I couldn’t help but compare how I felt back then to how I feel now. How did I survive all of that crazy family drama despite being so young? Even more bizarrely, how was I able keep smiling and laughing despite all of the issues at home? How the hell did I do it?
It seems that I was a harder and tougher little girl than I realized. I remember just forcing myself to suck it up and deal. I found solace in books and school and television. I also wrote a lot — in fact, I kept a private journal for most of my life. Sometimes I would call my friends and chat on the phone for a few hours. It’s not to say that I never cried — of course I did. I cried a lot. But I somehow figured out a way to soldier through it all.
In a way, little 14-year-old me has a lot to teach 34-year-old me. She was strong and brave, even if she wasn’t happy all the time. She created her own happiness, her own little moments of joy, far away from the harsh reality of the outside world. She sucked it up, and she dealt with it. She grew the hell up. Which is exactly what I need to do.
Which is exactly what I WILL do.
Oh, look. I apparently have a Tumblr account. Weird.
Next week, I will be returning to Malaysia for the first time in 13 years. I will be seeing my father for the first time in 13 years. We haven’t spoken in nearly a decade.
This is my birth country. This is where I was born and raised. Saying that I have a love/hate relationship with Malaysia is a serious understatement. My roots are deeply and unquestionably Malaysian. But my roots are under nourished, rotted out from pure neglect. Even though I spent my childhood in Malaysia, I owe my entire adult identity to the United States of America.
I had my first drink in the US. I had sex for the first time here. It was in the US where I learned to say “fuck” with abandon, where I flipped my finger at strangers, where I attended concerts, where I sat in the studio of a live television audience, where I read adult-oriented graphic novels, where I learned about Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, where I watched stand-up comedy for the first time and fell in love with it, where I made actual real-life friends, the sort you can actually share jokes with and hug in person. I met my best friend here, and then I married him.
My childhood, on the other hand, is a blur of familial expectations, crushed hope, pain, and betrayal. I found joy in books, devouring every printed page that crossed my path. I found relief in television, watching American sitcoms, British comedy, and Saturday morning cartoons. I found momentary respite in food, glorious food. Friends were few and far between. I was at my most comfortable talking to people over the Internet, where my shy and quiet exterior was no longer a barrier to what turned out to be a clever and witty personality. The latter is still the case today, but I’m not as reserved as I once was.
You could say that I traveled to the US to escape my past. In part, this is true. But I also traveled to the US to find myself. To find the true, inner part of me. The part that was hidden underneath all that fear and all that pain. The part that could finally breathe.
Do I miss Malaysia? Sure, I miss the food, the sun, and a few family and friends. But that’s about it. I don’t miss my childhood. Not one bit.
Which is why my return next week will be bittersweet. I will come face-to-face with my demons. I will look at my painful past in the eye. I will also have some of the best food in my life, and reunite with cousins, aunts, uncles and ex-boyfriends.
So stay tuned to this humble blog, my friends. I will try to recount some of that here in the coming days. Wish me luck.
We head to a concentration camp, a convention and do a few movie reviews before someone’s nose starts to bleed, at which point the show unravels.
Source: SoundCloud / sideprojectcast
Hey kids, I’ll be in New York in November. If you fancy meeting up, feel free to contact me via the usual channels. I’ll have time to kill, believe me.
After a three-month holiday from each other, someone has finally trapped us in the recording studio to record yet another episode. So we turned to Reddit for inspiration, wank on a bus with underwearables, have a go at Ellen’s game of Celebrity Impressions and more.
For more of this silliness, visit The Side Project.
Source: SoundCloud / sideprojectcast