What is this? As part of celebrating Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May), I am writing a story a day about my experiences as a Chinese Malaysian immigrant in America. My friends and family have provided numerous one-word prompts to help me create these stories. Today’s word prompt was contributed by Carrie PE. and the word is “Belonging”. Thank you Carrie for your contribution and thank you everyone who stopped by to read my story today.
When I was growing up, I didn’t like myself and how I looked. I had poor self-image and tried really hard to be something that others would like and accept. Whether it was for my parents, friends, co-workers or even acquaintances. I use to tell little lies or fudge details to make myself seem more than my ordinary existence. Culturally, I learned, it was more acceptable to lie than lose your temper. Losing your temper was a form of losing face (to lose the respect of others or to be humiliated publicly), especially in Chinese culture.
Some of the core narratives in my head that struck a chord with me during my formative years and stayed with me for a long time include: “you are not attractive, if you were attractive boys would like you without you even trying” and “you are not good enough that’s why you can never win”. There wasn’t one specific moment that I could point to that led to these core narratives shaping my self-image, but an accumulation of side negative comments by grown ups and peers during moments when I had accomplished something. Moments such as when my exams results came out, I was proud of what I accomplished but would hear grown ups take pride in their children who had straight A’s in their report cards and brag about it to my mother. In those moments, I felt incompetent and I didn’t make my mother proud to brag about my results.
In school, there was the constant bullying by schoolmates about being better than me academically because that’s the only reason they thought I ended up in the Arts stream — I didn’t do well in my exams. Also, boys in school avoided me like the plague and would never want to be known having a crush on me. I was either too direct, had interests that nobody knew about or spoke English only; characteristics of me that boys found unapproachable. The girls in my secondary class also enjoyed making fun of me, especially if there was something that took my character down a peg or just to humiliate me. One day, my school uniform had a slight stain on the back of my skirt. One of my classmates noticed it and loudly exclaimed to the whole class that I had period stains on my skirt and started to make fun of me. I was embarrassed and I panicked because I wasn’t suppose to be on my period neither did I bring any pads with me. I asked the teacher if I could be excused to the bathroom. The girls in the class continued to laugh and make fun of me as I left the classroom. In the bathroom, I learned it wasn’t period stain it was partially dried out bubblegum stain. It was the same uniform from last week where I sat on bubblegum someone left on the seat of my chair. The stain did not clean off completely even after going through the washing machine.
Most of these experiences fed into my core narratives, such as “if I were smarter, these girls wouldn’t be making fun of me and would be asking for help from me” and “if I were more attractive, boys would be interested in me and would have come to my defense when these girls were bullying me.” When I went to college, I had to confront many of my core narratives because I hit rock bottom where all these core narratives were working against me instead of helping me be better.
I liked a guy with an Australian accent who lived in my dorm. I had told one of my transfer mates, Serene, from Sunway College that I fancied this guy because he reminds me of an ex-boyfriend. He caught wind of my interest in him and decided to call me and tell me to stop it. I was shocked and appalled by his actions and I learned from him that Serene had told him. I was angry and fuming about what Serene had done. Serene lived in an adjacent dorm building and I walked over to her room to confront about this. She said, “Sarah, you don’t have very good luck with boys and you’re not very pretty either. I thought I’d help you out by telling him about how you felt.” I was so angry. All I could muster up to say to her was, “Why did you do that? Now he doesn’t want to hang out with me or even be friends. I can’t hang out with our group of friends anymore because he’s part of the group.” She didn’t apologize and I stopped talking to her after that conversation.
In a previous story, I wrote about Charlize, one of my best friend’s at the time and we moved into an apartment together. Her incessant criticisms of the way I looked and behaved added more fuel to my terrible self-image and I really hated myself. I felt trapped in a corner and I didn’t fit it nor did I belong anywhere. I felt alone even amongst a group of people. It was a feeling that gripped me at my core and refused to let me go. I didn’t like feeling this way and I needed something to change. When Charlize moved out, it was only then I started to work on myself because I had a lot of time on my hands and a whole apartment to myself. I was scared living alone the first few weeks but I started to make the apartment a place I wanted to be, my safe haven. I got my class schedule organized for months at a time and drew large scale calendars on the wall so that I had a visual on what my days would look like. I bought food that I liked from Meijer to cook at home or ordered my favorites from Campus Kitchen. I even bought beauty and hygiene products that I was curious about just to figure out how to take care of myself. It was the most nourishing care I did for myself physically.
What helped me work through my core narratives was meeting a few good people who were willing to reflect back to me how untrue those narratives were. Some are my friends today and some were acquaintances who were really good at lifting people up instead of tearing them down. Talking to someone helped a lot too. I participated in some student counseling through a student community theater and as a working adult continued to take on additional therapy to help me unpack these narratives as well as understanding the root of these issues that keeps me feeling othered instead of belonging. Many of those issues rooted from wanting acceptance from my mother. During my 2012 trip back to Malaysia, I was able to get closure with my mother on these issues and begin the process to self-acceptance and reclaiming my sense of worth. It sounds very linear but there were many ebbs and flows that took me off track of accepting myself and not allowing these old core narratives play this vicious cycle.
One of the best practices I learned from a therapist was to keep a list of things that I knew to be true and believable about myself and then recite those statements to myself on a daily basis as well as when my mind started to spiral into these core narratives. It was part of active participation in my own narratives to disrupt and rewrite what my new core beliefs and narratives. This process sounds easy, but I have struggled through this. I learned in this process that I need to prioritize healing myself in order for this to work well. Restoring my tank became more of a priority recently because I finally figured out after two decades that I am not my best self when my old core narratives take hold of me, which makes me incompetent not only as a leader but also as a human being.
One of my past co-workers and friend once said to me, “I see you and I hear you.” I don’t know why but no one has ever said that to me and those words sank in so deeply into my heart. Her words reminded me of what it felt like to belong. Thank you Kelley for saying those words, it has left an imprint on me that will never fade. I continue to hear and see those words in social media posts and conversations, especially in the work I am doing on myself as it relates to my internalized racial oppression and working on what being an anti-racist is as a Chinese Malaysian immigrant living in America.
When I shared with Chauncey the featured word for today’s piece, he sweetly shared that belonging is like a warm hug where everything melts aways and you feel like you belong. It seems like a simple analogy for such a complex process and yet it resonates deeply for me. My hope moving forward, beyond these 31 stories, is to experience that feeling of a warm hug (without having to hug someone physically) to know I feel like I belong and that feeling would start with self-acceptance as well as the continued willingness to challenge my old core narratives every day with a rewrite of my choice. It’s a work in progress and thank you for sharing in my journey.