of reverse culture: question everything.

In all honesty, my decision to study abroad is probably one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life thus far. When I remember my seventeen year-old self, I always feel a kind of relief and gratitude towards her because although she did not know much back then (okay, I still don’t), she knew enough that she wanted an educational experience beyond her hometown and country borders. She knew that much – that the world’s pie is large, and she wanted a slice of it for herself.

Now that I’m about eight months shy to returning home for good – a conscious decision that I still scrutinize over, truthfully speaking – after five years in the US and am taking classes that keep challenging this developing versus developed countries school of thought, I find myself really having to delve deeper about what this means, all of it. Home, opportunities and foregoing one for another, potential …and responsibility.

Whenever I think of young Malaysian dreamers, I get a little emotional – I can’t help it. Those who are granted the opportunity, seldom appreciate and understand the value of it. Why is it so hard for them to understand that the thousands of ringgit invested towards them to get an education isn’t just thousands of ringgit? Cost does not equal value and you taking up that spot but not wanting to realize the return of investment is akin to robbing the many more young dreamers who want and deserve this opportunity, yet are denied for various reasons.

I understand each of us has our prerogative, yet this question lingers:

If we don’t fight for our own country – at least try – then who will?

A month ago, an email arrived in my inbox that touched upon the topic of reverse culture, which I’m sure all international students and really just anyone who’s lived for an extended time away from their hometown would relate to. Funny, I recently discussed this with my best friend’s sister during our summer break, who’d expressed similar sentiments. After chewing on it for exactly a month, I finally wrote my response on Friday morning, emotionally exhausting myself in the process. Later that evening, I told a close friend here – a girl from West Africa who is intelligent and wise beyond her age – and her genuine and passionate response about this surprised me:

“I wish someone told me that. I wish someone had told me that when I was younger – question everything, deny nothing. Not emotions, not experiences, just… go ahead, question everything. I probably wouldn’t fully grasp the advice, but I think it would’ve stayed with me until I’m ready for it.”

So I figured… maybe it’s worth sharing the key paragraphs here, now with tweaks and additions here and there, on a topic I’ve chewed upon for… you could say over the past five years. An early disclaimer: it’s an actual personal correspondence between two friends so ha, please go easy on me on my overly emotional tone and cheese, as well as any biased or inaccurate and highly generalized viewpoints about Malaysia.

I don’t fault anyone for this reverse culture [of going away from home, and coming back to realize we’re now wearing different lenses and have different perspectives on the same landscapes and people who’ve defined our formative years] because to a degree, it’s inevitable that we would eventually start questioning and drawing comparisons, and from there, feel all sorts of dissatisfaction and frustrations etc.

There’s also that we live completely different lives away from home, and I mean this not just literally, but also in a soul-inducing way – independence, self-sufficiency, and freedom: the only real rules are the ones we make for ourselves. These days I think of this condition/situation as an illusion – you can’t live on a pseudo-reality forever, away from commitments and hardships that you don’t have to bear so long as it’s not yours …but of course I win on some days, and lose on others. Sometimes the weight of other people’s circumstances are too heavy for us to shoulder, despite the best of intentions. But I think that in general when you’re 21 and 2 to 3 years into your living abroad years, that’s when the hunger builds up to its peak and is most felt; the hunger for the larger world and the understanding that even though home holds your heart and anchors you to solid ground, maybe it’s not enough.

And here’s the interesting part, at least my take-away and acceptance: it’s not.

Don’t fool yourself otherwise, just so to chew on it easier. It is fact that it is not, and as much I hate the developing versus developed countries school of thought, fact is fact that because we chose to study in countries more superior than ours in terms of modernism and resources, we will always, no matter how hard we deny or try to fight it, realize we’re slightly behind- always just a few years too late or something of that sort. Not necessarily lacking, just slower to catch up to the things they’re already enjoying. I find that where our – my – responsibility lies in realizing this fact is exactly that: it’s not enough. It’s not the same. It’s not going to be equal, here and home.

The question is, what are we(I) going to do about it? What has to change?

For me, truthfully it scares me, this realization that the things I’ve grown accustomed and used to here might be unavailable at home when I am back for good next year. But you know, the profound realization that I’ve come to is that we work with the reality that we are in… the sooner I accept that these two realities are different, the more at peace I am. Why? Because I realize it’s silly and unrealistic of me to place the expectations and experience I have in a different setting to one that I’m already aware is totally different.

Why do I keep insisting that the two realms need to be similar, putting home to unrealistic expectations and therefore being judgmental and hard on it when it doesn’t – no, can’t – fit into the mold of the US? That’s selfish of me, especially when I know how things are done at home. It’s not like over here everything’s perfect but admittedly maybe they’re more efficient and okay, say that’s true, that the systems are murkier than where you and I are studying in right now, plus with adulthood and exposure to the greater world- our rosy-tinted, romanticized ideals about home keep being shattered as one ugly facet after another is revealed – the politics, the racism, the religious extremism just to name a few big ones – but here, for me, is where responsibility draws the line.

Responsibility as a citizen yes, but I think it’s even more important to look at it as a person. Briefly remove the responsibilities we have towards family, sponsors etc, let them not influence the weight of the responsibility we have on ourselves as a person who takes up space. There is responsibility in our decisions, that in whatever we choose – we honor them.

I’m really speaking about myself honestly, for choosing the reality that is supposedly ‘lacking’ – it is my responsibility to enter it with different sets of expectations and perspectives; the old ways that I’m used to isn’t going to work here, stop trying to force something that isn’t there to magically appear. I’m being unrealistic and selfish if I keep insisting and therefore complaining that Malaysia doesn’t offer me what the US offers. Of course that’s so. When I think of this responsibility, I- I don’t know if I’m explaining this well, I apologize – but I think of it as: this is the choice I pick for myself. This is the reality choose to be in. So I need to learn to make my around it, create my own micro-reality that works within an entire system that people claim has failed, if need be. If it’s true that the exterior has failed, the key is for me to carve for myself an interior within that which does work. Because it comes down this: this is my decision – that I chose home, so I must learn to make it work for me with full knowledge, awareness and thus acceptance of its shortcomings.

So if you’re looking for advice, and while I don’t know if I’m qualified to give one, here’s mine: feel that hunger, embrace it. Live to fill it, live in the moment. Live in your present, whatever and wherever that is in any moment. Ask all the questions you must, scrutinize the ugly sides of all the realities presented to you. Put yourself in every frame and contextualize your responsibilities in each because how long are we going to keep running away from ‘unpleasant’ realities? Don’t close your mind’s eyes to only what you want to see because they’re easier to chew on. This is hella cheesy, but Rilke comes to mind, that quote which decembi shared with me and one I hold dear:

 “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Everything he said- it’s really, really true because this is the time when your maturity and conscience are stewing, just simmering slowly, waiting for when you’re ready for them. What’s important is that as you continue to experience places, things, and people, as well as keep chewing on increasingly-difficult-to-answer questions, ground yourself to reality. Don’t remove yourself from its equation with the excuse that it’s more convenient that way – no, place yourself in each reality and take responsibility as a person who takes up space. Your contribution matters, and you decide where that will be.

My last set of advice: life isn’t a deck of cards containing only all-or-nothing, this or there. Similarly, ‘forever’ is only as long as you define it. You must make decisions to move forward, but you will always have choices – keep that in mind.

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3 thoughts on “of reverse culture: question everything.

    1. You’re seriously so kind towards me. Thank you so much :’)

      PS Admittedly you did freak me out a lil – just a lil! – with that face for your icon! :p

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