It took years. This search for the answer to “who am I?” She doubts if she is any closer to the truth, assuming there is one. Each time she thought she was near, the road lengthened. She felt a sense of belonging in her world, moving within it with ease and confidence, only to be jolted by an unkind word or an ignorant perhaps innocent question. “Where are you from?” Betrayed by the colour of her skin.
Frankly, she never fully belonged in any one place. Something other always beckoning. Certainly not in her childhood. In that place far from where she is now, she was the loner. Children played on dusty streets, delighting in the after-school romps and occasional ice-cream from the ice-cream man, sweaty from the tropical sun as he leaned out from the little van. She was in her room immersed in her own world of words and thoughts, sometimes annoyed by the of sounds of glee punctuating her hard won quiet. Living in a modest single-storey 3-bedroom house and accommodating six, her moments of quiet were precious and rare. There in pages of her books she dreamt of a world far away, in fact quite similar to where she is now, where children are seen and respected as individuals with voice. Where her female-ness is cherished for more than its pretty-ness. It is easy now to look back and identify the insidious manner in which she was undermined. Being a young girl, her accomplishments, and there were many, were badges worn by her parents, an honour ascribed to her family. Where she was not a person yet but she would soon, or so she thought.
That did not come to pass. The struggle to be her own person intensified throughout her adolescence and teenage years. For every intelligent gesture, she was brought down by a fact she could not deny, she was a girl. For every intelligent word, she was told she would marry anyway and they would be in vain. For every little act of kindness and love, a show of vulnerability and compassion, she was confirmed as weak.
So she learnt to be tough, to armour up against a world which sought to “protect” women by disempowering them. She learnt to be like a man, though penis-envy did not last long. She learnt to use her intelligence to convince the rational men of her “right-ness”. Little did she know, she would only be labelled arrogant, a bitch. For intelligence in a man is privileged, in a woman it is threatening and deserving of scorn.
She left that oppressive world with cunning and great effort. Appealing to her father’s pride, she arrived in a land antithesis to hers. The freedom exhibited by those around her was exhilarating and full of promise. She had found the world of her childhood books. The possibilities inspiring and … intimidating. That was when she discovered she had not escaped after all. While she might peer into this world, she found herself restrained by an impulse to hide. While she longed for the limelight, she suspected she was not good enough. She played in the shadows, daring only to step into the peripheral of light in one aspect of her life which had never failed her – academia. Here at least she could be queen for a day. She knew then that unless she kept up with her efforts, this too would be lost to her. And she paid the price of self-sufficiency willingly, withdrawing further into a world of thoughts. The bars of her self-doubt and unworthiness caged around her, seemingly never to leave.
And when her knight in shining armour arrived, it was not on a noble steed but a black charger She found what she had lost many years ago in that far away land. The expression of her freedom and care free existence, and the power that came with giving the world the proverbial middle finger. She was happy, at last.
DINKs (Double Income No Kids), they were called and remained so for many years. She continued to exist within the boundaries of her cage, not that she knew or cared. Her world beguiled. And she met the expectations for a corporate professional living in a capitalist Western urban environment. Yet her past whispered incessantly, reminding her of what she had denounced. Amidst the oppressive world of her childhood, light did shine. The sense of connection and belonging to familiar rituals and common purpose; attuning to a sense of community and doing for a greater good than the self. Again, she fought. The self she had claimed within her so-called new world had equipped her with stronger armour – that of social and financial independence, freedom of speech and the language of rights – reinforcing the battle lines between old and new worlds. She had chosen, yet unease remained. She ought to be happy, contend at least but even that was slipping away.
Losing herself was something she never thought to experience or believed possible. But some things, she saw with hindsight, were beyond her control. That was at least a comforting thought. And this loss and the emptiness did not stand in her way of success and family. Ironically the portent from the life she thought she had escaped, the words “you’ll just marry and have children no matter how clever you are” had come to pass despite the resistance. She can now smile at her younger naïve self who believed in the dichotomy between marriage and family, and success. It is but an exercise in interpretation.
She had never fought so hard, but she did then – for herself and to know what she wanted from the one life she had. She saw now the lessons of her youth. The travels from being caged by her past through recriminations and blame to acknowledging the lessons of her youth. These well-intentioned lessons delivered via suspect means were valuable after all. Together with a parallel exploration of the flawed self and the integrated life she must live, change was inevitable.
She would not be a fugitive forever, running away, hiding and avoiding. She would be all of herself – the old, the new, the one to come and everything in-between – embracing them in her world that she has created. Yes, she has rediscovered her creativity too.
So it is that she is still taken aback when she is required to locate herself in one world or another. Where is she from? Where will she begin?
Life does not exist through binary choice – old or new, success or failure, married or single, holding on or letting go… It is a journey of continuous connections and separations, relationships and aloneness, belonging and isolation, lost and found; measured by the subjective internal barometer of “right-ness” which evolves.
And her heart still aches for that younger person who had experienced much, and fills with compassion for the one who is naming them.
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