These days I am in pain, observing my youth through my mind’s eyes.
I know I shouldn’t blame myself, that it changes nothing and more importantly, how else would I have gotten to where I am today – who I am today – had the events of my personal history not unfold as they have? But understanding alone doesn’t absolve the guilt and shame that keeps filling my insides when thoughts of my childhood and schooling days come to mind; I struggle to reconcile the naïvety from my youth and my sheltered upbringing. Sometimes I think, memories are truly a funny thing. What I was able to glimpse with limited perspectives for so many years and thus, foolishly convinced myself I know the whole forest from one viewpoint alone… I am grateful for the safety net that they have offered me, mentally and physically, but I am also in pain over the heavy weight of ignorance on my conscience.
Her strongest image was always of time, both past and future; it was an immediate horizon, at once orienting and containing her. Across the limitless spectrum of years, the brief tenancy of her own life was superimposed.
— Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowlands
The other day, a memory from high school paid a visit:
It was the school canteen, bustling with chatters and laughter of schoolgirls in their respective clusters – cliques – and all dressed in straight-laced school uniforms. Amid the crowd, there I was, dressed in my uniform – maroon-colored long skirt and blazer with a white shirt and purple tie underneath – surrounded by peers with the same outfit. We were the school prefects – students who ruled the school, sometimes I think you could think of us as that – and I was their Head Girl.
It’s not so much that we were cool – I think it is more accurate to say that we thought we were cool – but we were all destined for bright futures, I knew that even then. We came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, used English and Malay interchangeably and comfortably to communicate with each other, spoke of holiday destinations the likes of the world’s cities – London, Paris, Melbourne… – and of college life with the four seasons as backdrop; Malaysia has a tropical climate.
When school was over, most of my friends were picked up and driven away by personal chauffeurs in imported cars, most of whom flooded the gates long before the school bell rung, ready and waiting. Mum always insisted on making do by ourselves because this was her way of teaching us about independence and self-sufficiency, so I didn’t grow up with house helpers and a personal driver like most of my closest friends, but in the overall scheme of things, those were small quibbles because like them, I grew up comfortably. Privileged, one might say. Sheltered is how I would put it.
In my mind, we were the true It girls – those who excelled academically and outside of the classroom; we held positions in school organizations, represented the school for various competitions, and filled the top spots of class rankings. So it is probably not surprising for you to hear that for many years, truthfully speaking, when I think of my childhood days and my group of friends back then, it is images such as the one described earlier that comes to mind: a force to be reckoned with, this tight-knit group of intelligent and confident girls bound for futures all over the world.
I had conveniently edited out our surroundings.
Amid the cheers and laughter in the school canteen with us at the center, there were for instance, girls at the far back of the canteen who huddled together and kept mostly to themselves. Unlike the rest of us who mingled freely among ourselves of different races and religions, they were all Malay Muslim girls who also donned the headscarves, probably because that was the formal instruction of the boarding dormitories they lived in. Some of them were orphans, though most were from out-of-state with modest backgrounds. I think some of them attended our school on government financial aid. They spoke English just fine in my opinion, based on what little that I had communicated with them back then, but were more comfortable holding conversations in Malay. They were bright young things too …but with a different lot in life.
Similarly, there were micro-groups of Chinese and Indian students huddled together by themselves too, providing solace and support for each other. Then there were too, the rest of my friends. When I think of us, I often think of us all as sparkling and crackling fireworks, ready to launch and unleash ourselves out to the world …in my ignorance, I had closed an eye to those from modest, middle-income backgrounds. They lead a life similar to mine – comfortable in the urban setting with parents who do halal work and not well-connected politically or whatever else – but with different challenges in their lots in life that make our opportunities and therefore, outcomes, unequal.
I had forgotten how they would stay silent when say, topics like overseas holiday destinations were brought up, and made no fuss about their belongings because there were no brand-name items to draw attention to. Like me, they didn’t have drivers waiting for them at the end of a long school day, rather parents who took time out from busy schedules or school buses and vans that would send them home safely. Where I came from and was raised, none of us were in poverty, thankfully, but truthfully for many of us, limitations still exist to keep dreams as dreams.
Not everyone found their way through the Exit door.
I recalled several names the other day, totally randomly, and looked them up in – what else? – Facebook. Admittedly most of my close friends are now all over the world, dividing their time between Malaysia and US/UK/Europe/Australia/name-a-country – that much is true – but just as many ended up staying at home. Sometimes by choice, mostly by circumstance. Most turned out favorably of course, having graduated from local universities both public and private, but the stories they share and the tones in their voices are different. Not less or anything but… different. Over the past six years since we broke away from the bubble of high school – what they had experienced, engaged in, and observed through their mental eyes are different from mine.
Our lots in life and opportunities… unequal. And these same aspects have shaped the young women we are today. In a way that’s strange, because our starting points were the same but our outcomes vary, sometimes so diametrically.
I am in pain over this realization.
Lately I’m discovering, like peeling a layer of my identity one by one, that one can’t be on the fence and ‘neutral’ forever. That’s cowardice. Where I deliberately steered away from Malaysian politics and its tumultuous history for instance, now I feel the weight of my ignorance heavy on my conscience. Just like now, thinking I knew of the world, only to find that all the wealth and security in the world do not necessarily make a person. There is more responsibility than just taking up space.
How can words convert to actions if the understanding is absent? How can anyone fight and stand up for something, someone, if you believe in nothing? What is the point of all this richness, all the time and all over the world, if empathy and compassion are absent? What is the point of seeing, but not observing? Hear, but not listen? What is the point of having grown up and now experiencing countless societies the world over with fascinating tales to tell and colorful, poignant pictures to share and happy social media statuses, if the most basic comprehension and understanding are absent?
Some of my peers, even today, chatter and complain over what they coin ‘first world problems’ – I cringe at the term alone. Their Facebook and Instagram accounts are filled with beautiful people and places both at home and worldwide. We are financially comfortable; we are compassionate to each other; we are educated and know to hold our own; we are everything and yet, we represent nothing. There is so much responsibility than just taking up space and being a good person.
These days I am in pain, observing my youth through my mind’s eyes.
But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light in a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens and the moment’s light prints on my silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim of Tinker Creek