What if one day you wake up and see that you don’t like this person very much? That this person is more selfish than you think? That you’re seeing this person in a new light, something different, something which you haven’t discovered until now?
What if I tell you that this person is yourself?
There are events that have happened in the past few months which force me to see myself differently. It shocks me. It unsettles me.
One of my friends told me a few months back that she’s not quite sure who she is. She doesn’t have Alzheimer's Disease. Neither does she have temporary amnesia. She’s just confused about her cultural identity. I can fully understand what she’s talking about.
As a child, there was no such ambiguity. I was fully aware of my duties and responsibilities towards my family. At that time, most of the important decisions; what school to attend, how much allowance I should have, which school trips and various other things I was allowed, etc. were made for me. It was either I learned to accept these decisions, or to live entirely on my own.
I chose the former naturally. It was easy because I had no choice or rather I didn’t know I had other choices. I assumed that this was the right and normal thing to do.
Now, being an adult, I’m being presented with choices because I’ve seen and knew what kind of life I can have. Nobody can force me to do something I don’t want to.
Sure, the cultural expectations still exist. Families and societies will always expect me to lead a certain path; be obedient and dutiful to your family, community and country, and if you come from a religious upbringing, to your religion. Sacrificing my individualistic wants and needs for the benefit of others is what defines my culture.
For years, I went on living with this identity imprinted on my mind. There were the occasional dilemmas during my own pursuit of individual happiness, but nothing so significantly to cause others to suffer. I hope not anyway.
When I first left home to further my studies at the age of 17, I was constantly feeling homesick. My housemates teased me and most likely thought I was a spoiled child. Surprisingly, Mom always told me that as a child, I was so independent that she didn’t have to worry much about me.
At the age of 6, like most children, I attended my first year of formal education. On my first day at kindergarten, Mom accompanied me to meet my new teacher. Other students were seen jostling with their parents, begging to go home while some simply burst into tears. All I did was ask Mom to go home without me.
I was always bad in Maths and Mom would get so frustrated tutoring me at home. One day, she threatened me that if I didn’t improve, I would bring back a “chicken egg” (in Chinese, it figuratively means zero inspired by the shape of an egg) for my Maths test from school.
I replied solemnly, perhaps even with a hint of haughtiness, “I wouldn’t have brought back the egg. I would have eaten it in school.”
In my childish ignorance, I had literally interpreted the meaning of the chicken egg. Later on, I often joke with Mom that I would never go hungry because I will always find a way to feed myself.
My tendency to be homesick in college had become so notorious that whenever I was in a foul mood, all I needed to do was to use homesickness as an excuse and my friends would buy it and left me alone.
Even when I finally got used to living abroad, falling in love with foreigners, having unlimited freedom and plenty of opportunities to pursue a career and family of my own, I was reminded of my cultural identity. There was no ambiguity. I needed to return to my roots.
So, I became convinced that I could be a homemaker, if that is a choice I have to make. I could sacrifice everything for my family and would be happy doing it too.
Lately, I discover that I am not that type of person.
I am the type who gets lost not knowing who I am, what I want and what I can do. I am the type who wants to achieve things on my own, in my own space and at my own time. If I have to include someone else in this decision making, I get extremely frustrated, upset and nasty.
Sometimes, all I want is to be left alone and answer only to myself.
Having some time to think about this new revelation, I come to understand more about individuality versus responsibility. I think the key word lies in responsibility. I don’t think there is anything wrong with pursuing individual wants. The problem lies in shunning responsibilities while doing it.
I have girlfriends who get upset when a guy they like a lot refuses to commit to a relationship with them. As frustrating as it sounds to the person in favour of that relationship, I personally find it fair and honest from the other party. If you can’t be responsible towards others, then don’t commit.
It often boils down to the decision you make and the responsibilities you take. If you decide to commit to something, then you should resume the responsibility of taking that commitment, despite how uncomfortable or inconvenient it is to your own individual self.
If you can’t, then don’t. At the same time, you need to understand the consequences for not taking that commitment and learning to live with it. Basically, you can’t have it all and that’s where life is fair because it applies to every single one of us.
Some people are wise enough to know earlier on who they are and what they want and hence are able to weigh their decisions carefully. Others, like me, relish on the concept of sharing responsibilities without fully comprehending its consequences or readiness to execute their side of the bargain.
We often feel unhappy about many things that are involved in our lives; jobs, friends, families, marriages, children, lifestyles, properties, etc. What we don’t realize is that we are the ones making most of those choices.
We choose to keep that job, we choose to befriend someone, we choose to get married, we choose to get pregnant, we choose to buy that house, we choose to stay unhealthy and above all, we choose to ignore life’s realities; with every cause, there are consequences.
We can always choose to extricate ourselves from the choices we made; break up a relationship, get a divorce, quit a job, leave home, etc. but often, we ourselves do not have the courage to do so and as a result, put the blame of our unhappiness on others.
So yes, most of us have individual wants and have the choice to pursue that want but it comes with a disclaimer; only if you’re entirely on your own and answerable to yourself alone.