Monthly Archives: May 2011

Courage of conviction

Courage of conviction

Yesterday my brother walked in his Commencement ceremony, where he received his scroll and pretended to have officially graduated with a double Bachelors in Civil and Environmental Engineering, the day before beginning his final summer class. I say pretended because in the United States, you can walk in the Commencement ceremony even if you are still one class short of graduating; this saves you from waiting a full year just to don the cap and gown. So yesterday, my mother sat as close to the stage as she could and tried not to bawl too audibly when it was my brother’s turn (I assume she did this because she did the same thing at my Commencement back in 2006).

When I tell people that my brother is graduating, especially the ones who have known him since he cried his way through his first year of elementary school, they naturally ask what he plans to do next. And I tell them, very matter-of-factly, “He wants to join the French Foreign Legion.” This is met by immensely puzzled stares from the ones who have never heard of the French Foreign Legion, and when they realize what it is after I tell them that his first, but less possible, choice was the U.S. Navy SEALs, they wonder aloud what he studied in school that made him choose the military as a career. Equally matter-of-factly, I say, “He’s in engineering.” More baffled looks, and then silence, before the next question: “Are you sure he wants to do this?” And I say, “No, but he seems to be.”

At that point, they give up trying to understand why, and just ask how he plans to do this. I tell them that he wants to go to Marseilles for the recruitment program in July, and let the chips fall where they may. And if he doesn’t get accepted, he will go to another country — Australia, maybe, or New Zealand — to look for a job. Then finally, my listeners concede, “Well, at least he has a plan.”

That statement, put forth to me by a friend last week, struck a chord. I don’t remember answering these questions so certainly when they had been about me five years ago. I had probably given my usual “I’m not sure yet… Find a job here, I guess, because I don’t want to go home,” because the only thing I knew I was absolutely sure about was that I never wanted to come back here. Aside from that, I never knew — I have never known — what I really wanted to do (that wouldn’t pit my physical shortcomings against me). It is most likely this ambivalence that has landed me where I am now, mentally, geographically and emotionally. I still don’t quite know what I want to do, and I have only since made progress by realizing that I finally know what I don’t want to do, and am trying desperately to remedy that situation now.

And so, although I don’t always approve of his actions or his methods — risking life and limb, in this case, included — I salute my brother now for knowing exactly what he wants, even if he has a change of heart later, and knowing how to go for it, without the fear of failure or my father’s perpetual convictions that his children are doomed for failure.

At least one of us got it right.

What reason to stay?

What reason to stay?

My brother will be walking in his school’s Commencement ceremony this weekend, even though he has one more summer class left to take before he officially graduates and his Degree is conferred. My mother is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, right now to witness him walk, as she did when I walked in my own Commencement five (five!) years ago. Before she left, I asked him if my brother really did have his heart set on becoming a military or naval officer, to which she replied, “I think so. I hope he doesn’t try to enlist, but if he doesn’t, I hope he won’t try to come back here.”

It was the same thing she told me after Commencement weekend five years ago: “Don’t come back if you can. There’s nothing left for you here.” Obviously we all know how that worked out.

This is something I’ve never written about, primarily because I’ve always clung to the principle of not paying attention to or getting riled up by the stigma of politics. However, there’s only so much even an apathetic can take.

The uproar in the Malaysian media of late seems to consist largely of racial and religious grievances. The Malays are terrified that the Chinese are plotting to overthrow them and thus strip them of the rights to Malay supremacy that they have so long hidden behind. Consequently, the Malay Muslims are convinced that the Church is plotting to start a new crusade and put a Christian Prime Minister in office, effectively turning this country into a predominantly Christian one (cue scenes of heretics burning in the film Elizabeth).


The Chinese and Indians are bone-tired of being treated with unspeakable social, economic and professional injustice, and have begun plotting (yes, and here I use the term plotting accurately because even I am doing that) ways to leave this country and seek greener pastures, bluer skies, redder roses, you name it, in different parts of the world.

Some weeks ago, I casually mentioned to a friend that I would love to find a way back out of this country as soon as I can. Predictably, she replied, “Haaa? Why? No la!”, to which my irate, tired, but very matter-of-fact, response was “Because this country sucks.”

I couldn’t fault her for her ignorant response, because it takes being abroad for a certain number of years and then coming back for a taste, however bitter, of what one has been missing to realize how different, how lacking this country is in its mindset and its development, that its citizens (and more damnably its minorities) feel they have no other choice but to up and move to a different country altogether just to feel as though they could be worth even a little bit more than they are made to feel here.

If even a basic, staple thing like public transportation becomes such a big problem because the funds that should have gone to improving it have been siphoned off into other more questionable pockets, then something is wrong. If a local newspaper has absolutely nothing newsworthy to slap on its front page other than its version of the Crusades, then something is very wrong. If someone as powerful and influential as a Cabinet minister insists that proficiency in the English language plays no part in life’s successes, then something is terribly wrong. If the government and the people who run it spend their waking moments worrying that their statuses, their wealth and their ‘birthright’ will be wrested from them by the minorities, then something is so wrong that the government itself should be wrested from its own self-destructive paws.

Friday the 13th: “We don’t hate you. We just want to make sure you know whose turf this is.”

And still, somehow, it’s not entirely — by about 3% — the government’s fault.  The people have yet to educate themselves on what needs to be done to make sure this country doesn’t end up becoming a barrel of headless chickens — or chicken heads — instead of sitting on their complacent posteriors and taking what they think they deserve (in both a good and bad sense) from the government. But as complacency gives way to the blatant spoonfeeding that the politicians use to win the masses’ favor, the cycle of taking what the government gives and then bemoaning the price at which it all comes will be allowed to continue. So will the increasingly severe brain drain that the country is suffering now, all because the people no longer feel as though they are welcome in a country that they love but cannot survive in.

I hope with all my heart that someday not too far in the future, the relevant people in this flailing government will be able to see sense and realize how important it is to put aside the issue of race, religion, status, money and birthright, in order for the country to recover and finally take a step forward in the right direction. And if it doesn’t, then I hope with all my heart I — and more importantly, my children and grandchildren — won’t be here to see it fall even farther.

Behind closed doors

Behind closed doors

Last weekend, while on the phone with Shirley, she asked me a random but very loaded question: “Do you think you’ll ever stop looking for whatever it is you’ve been missing in your relationship?” It took me a few moments before I could answer, and when I did, I said, “Yes, I think I will.” But when I hung up, I realized, I think I already have.

No relationship is perfect, we all know that. Granted, some people may have regressed into thinking that there could be a perfect relationship, no doubt a manifestation of watching the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. But it’s when we recognize the flaws and take it upon ourselves to live with them and adapt to them that we reach what can be called a perfect arrangement for an imperfect relationship.

I was made ever more aware of this some nights ago, at the dinner table with my parents. My father was talking about his cousin Ruby’s daughter’s Bharatanatyam performance (which I missed, thank the good Lord now), which led to him saying that Ruby’s sisters, Rosemary, Rosanna and Rina (yes, I know), had all recently confessed to being astounded the first time they met Afham. “Couldn’t your daughter have done any better?” they deplored. Now, aside from the obvious fact that he is of a different race and color, when my father told me this I could see absolutely no other reason for them to profess thus, as they do not know him, and clearly now have no intention of so doing.

Although I was careful not to let my face betray me the way it always does, I was seething on the inside as my father relayed this conversation to me. It was a statement completely uncalled for, and even if it had been otherwise, I thought it profoundly unfair that they would speak so freely about this to my father, and without me present to defend myself or Afham. That said, I am well aware that the moment such thoughts leave a person’s lips and judgment has been passed, nothing I or anyone else says will change anything. After calming myself down by thinking up all the responses I could have given had I been there to hear their opinions (“Looking at your husbands, I’d say y’all could do better too!”), I realized that it really doesn’t matter what they think of him, or of me for being with him.

It’s true that many people have spent the last two years telling me I could have done better as far as getting a man was concerned. The men who want to share my bed have told me that. The racists who consider my consorting with any other race but my own repulsive have told me that. And the religionists who find the possibility of my taking up a new faith in the future inconceivable have told me that. “You can so do better!” these (so-called) friends would say so thoughtlessly. “I mean, you look like this! And he looks like… that.” That was when I decided that these people were not worth explaining anything to, because anyone who knows me would remember that outward appearances have never really been a big priority for me, as all my previous relationships have clearly indicated.

But it’s also true that in spite of all the flaws and all the issues we’ve had to face in this relationship, he is the only one who has been willing to put up with me for as long as he has. And that is something I have tried never to lose sight of, because when I think of the aberration that was Gregory Chang, whom I once thought was everything I had been looking for in a man, I have to remember that even he eventually found me unlovable as well. And truest of all: no matter how good-looking, how wealthy, or how well-connected someone is, if they don’t accept you the way you are, you would be no better off than the ugliest pauper, which is one of the most painful lessons I’ve had to learn over the last nine years.

So now, when people tell me that I could do better, I recognize that even if I could, I wouldn’t. And ultimately, it would make no difference or be of any importance to anyone. Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors except the ones behind them.