rigid definitions ’22

My upbringing has taught me two lessons among many, between which I am still seeking balance:

One, if you do not define yourself, those around you will.

Two, rigid definitions restrict the possibility of growth and change.

I am the daughter of a man who broke his family out of the poverty cycle with nothing but sheer grit and stacks of English newspapers. My father grew up beneath rubber plantations but envisioned a life beyond that. He understood the power of education, fighting tooth and nail for scholarships and opportunities that would give his family — then and future — a better life. My father arrived at university only to be surrounded by more privileged peers who navigated computers with ease and spoke English with an uncanny fluency. But as the eldest of three sons (though he does have an elder sister), he understood the definitions of responsibility and perseverance. More than that, my father was and still is a true believer in hard work being rewarded.

Perhaps the only thing that my mom has more than the praises I have to sing for her is her endless outfit ensembles. My mother, in her well-fitted wardrobe choices and class, is the most beautiful woman I know to date, but her wardrobe and class did not come served on a silver platter. Here is the most brilliant, resourceful, and humble; the figure whom I have modelled myself after for a large part of my adolescence. The woman who spent her childhood summers making and selling ice lollies in front of her home. The woman who sat beside me at my study desk and came up with creative mnemonics to help me concurrently learn the rules of three languages. The woman whose silhouette I see in every reflection of mine. The woman whose waking and ending thought every day is that of my brother and me.

But, you see, these are the definitions I have attributed to my parents based on what I know about them, the life I have shared with them. Yet, it would be arrogant of me to dismiss the lives they had before me or even private lives in which they temporarily retire the titles of being my parents.

It would seem as if the only person I can accurately attribute a definition to is myself. So, I ask: What defines me? Am I the daughter of my parents? The elder sister of my younger brother? The friend of my friends? The overachiever who never got too far? The Malaysian who left her country in search of something more under the guise of higher education? The aspiring writer who has spent more years aspiring than writing? The jack of all trades or the master of none? The words that I write or the words that I never did put on paper?

All throughout this year, one could say that I have been through bouts of identity crises. Though I’ve tried to stave off the habit, I still crave external validation. While there is nothing wrong with craving external validation moderately (in fact, that is what our education system was structured to achieve), there is a line to be drawn between these validations affirming what you already know about yourself, and these validations defining you wholly. Needless to say, the existence of this essay indicates my crossfire with the latter.

I seem to have established an impression on those who know me as someone who is smart, likes to write, and takes up the world’s worth of responsibilities without failing. The more these attributions get repeated back to me, the more it chips away at my worth when I falter the slightest bit. “You’re Allison, of course you’ll do well”; I’ve heard variations of this sentence one too many times. And while I like to joke that you have never seen me and superwoman in the same room before, that is all it is: a joke.

Rigid definitions, as they initially appear, are pedestals. You carve stage after stage and stand taller with each step, but the catch is you eventually reach a point where you look down and everything is a blur. You seem to have forgotten why you started and where you are headed toward. There comes a point in life where both the starting and ending points are out of sight and reach. Then, what do you do?

“she is smart.”

I don’t like to call myself ‘smart’ for the simple reason that I don’t think I am. I read casting a wide net and I am quite decent at atomizing information to create my own thoughts, but that doesn’t necessarily make someone smart — at least, not in my books. I do not know what constitutes a smart person because of how distorted that concept is for me; the Malaysian education system is an expert at making you think being smart is memorizing what has been taught to you and regurgitating verbatim during exams; if you get an average higher than 80, congratulations, you are ‘smart’.

All throughout high school, I’ve managed to keep my place in the first class cautiously, which is to say that I was not the brightest bulb, but at least I shined. Intellectual prowess never proved to be my strength, and I attribute my IGCSE winnings to teachers and friends who never gave up on me. Then, college came around; it was as if I had ascended the pedestal without knowing. I’d like to think it is because my college modules strayed away from STEM subjects and geared towards humanities where my interests lay, but I began performing on my own without assistance. Lecturers and peers alike picked up on my performance and pointed it out from time to time, some sincere, some backhanded, but pointed out all the same.

I started to accept that I could be smart, that other people thought of me that way, that if you handed me an essay topic, I might be able to serve five pages. University, however, has a sadistic way of tripping you down the stairs and laughing in your face.

When people cast out judgments like ‘smart’, they aren’t just stating a fact; they subtly attach their expectations that you will continue to prove their judgment correct. So imagine how I felt as if I had disappointed the whole world and beyond when I sat in the dark of my room, face lit up only by my laptop screen, on which my first university essay grades were displayed, two digits foreign to me, larger than my age, lower than my expectations.

“she likes writing.”

This, I can take. I am doing no one justice by discrediting the fact that I do quite well in the realm of writing. It is something I have worked at for ten years, and I am not about to dismiss my efforts. The problem, however, with everyone knowing that I pride myself on writing and that I have a blog, is, quelle surprise, the expectations that come tethered.

This year, I seem to have ventured back into what I call “comfortable writing”. Instead of challenging myself to write journalistically, analysing arising issues from unique perspectives as I used to do, I retreated into personal pieces. Don’t get me wrong, these personal pieces where I dig into the ugly parts of myself aren’t any more fun to write either, but they are comparatively easier to write. The words flow out of me and I have something to show for. But is this the kind of writing other people want to read? Is this what people expect from me?

It felt as though I was only writing about myself because that was the most original story I had to tell. I feared I had not an ounce of authentic thought or angle that I could exploit into an article, an essay — something! How can I claim to be a writer when the words stay in my head? Am I any less of a writer if I don’t publish something for months on end? Will all my previous works be nullified, a punishment for my inconsistency? These questions plagued me for the longest time, and my barren blog seems only to be evidence of my own failure.

“she can take the responsibilities.”

I thought so too. But the many times I have succumbed and crumbled under the sheer pressure says otherwise. I have always prided myself on thriving under pressure, on finding challenge in the chaos. In fact, I have a grave suspicion that I will fall ill if I’m idle.

There is no denying the fact that I have bitten off more than I can chew this year, and instead of spitting it out, I dislocated my jaw trying to prove a point, unwilling to ask for help. In this respect, I think what happened was that I could still take the pressure, I could still stay up late to finish work that others had thrown my way, but I didn’t want to. This year, more than ever, I’ve been trying to set boundaries and limits as to how ‘above and beyond’ I was willing to go, and the guilt of that ate me alive.

Who was I to demand time for myself? What qualifications do I have to show that I deserve personal space and time? Is my value discounted if I do not perform as much as expected by my colleagues? Am I even worthy of all the hats I wear if I stop wearing them so often?

“Aiya, you are Allison!”; with all due respect, I have no god-forsaken guess what that is supposed to mean. I come to realize through these nonchalantly uttered sentences that the definitions most closely associated with me have come to be attached to my name.

Then, I feel like a fraud. “Allison” isn’t even printed on my birth certificate; it is a corset I had sewn with my own two hands and forced myself to suffer until I could lace myself up in it, until there was a presentable image of myself. Presentable to who, I haven’t the slightest clue. But it isn’t wrong to create an aspirational image of yourself to strive toward; in fact, that is what most people do. This fraudulence comes from feeling unoriginal, uninspired, as if I am made up of things not of my own.

It is a feeling so existential that I almost gave up trying to describe it to myself. Until I stumbled upon the words of Argentine essayist Jorge Luis Borges, and a click went off in my head:

I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities that I have visited, all my ancestors.

Jorge Luis Borges

Why do I need a consistent definition? What good does it serve to have one? What harm does it bring to not have one? What defines me — my identity — can certainly revolve around the people, things, places, and situations that I happen upon in life. Should that be the case, my definition is ever-changing as I go about my ever-changing life, and that sounds terrific to me.

In a world where there is so much noise and so many people telling you who to be and what to do, I’ve found comfort in my own voice telling me things that I know to be true — and that includes who I was, who I am, who I am supposed to be, but also who I am okay with being sometimes. I find that to be enough for now. But, I wonder, what defines you?