The first time I changed significantly was in my second term of secondary school. I’d been attending as a day student, but it was proving too difficult for my mum to keep up. By the end of the first term, I certainly had to be moved to the hostel. Getting into boarding school was my first break from a conservative, middle-class, Christian upbringing. There was so much I didn’t know and was eager to find out. I made new friends, crammed “secular” songs and memorized dance moves. I learned about so many things for the first time and picked up more than a few new habits.
If you’ve ever woken up to realize that you gained 10kgs while you were asleep, then you know that change can really just creep up on us. Sometimes though, like my first boarding school experience and this year, we literally feel ourselves change. I observed myself fully morph into my new character: a neater, always-smoking, happy-to-give, contemplative, upper-middle-class, non-religious, non-committal, better-mannered person with a new taste for music! It’s still rough around the edges, but it feels like I’ll be wearing this one for a while.
Like many people I know, I grew up stifled. Communication is frequently hard and can be very one-sided. Strict religious and/or cultural values usually mean there can be a lot of intolerance from parents, teachers, and even siblings and friends. There are many tough restrictions on how and what you should be.
Humans are homophilic and we bond over an appreciation of the same things. When an individual starts to live differently, it has damning effects on their relationship with the tribe. If x is what keeps us together, the absence of x will mean we no longer feel connected. In my conservative upbringing, that bonding agent was a sour mix of dependency, religion, and proximity.
For the relationships we can’t get rid of (like family), we learn to either deploy an entirely different personality or a subdued version of ourselves; for others, like old friendships, we “awkward” our way through. We learn to banter guilt back and forth — “Nawa o, you don’t even send us again”, “Ahn ahn, too busy to pick calls”, “I understand you don’t need us anymore” — even when there’s no clear effort to attune these relationships to our new habits.
This year I brought the guilt to the surface. Oh yes, now I smoke, is that something you can tolerate? Indeed, this is how I like my relationships and why. Is that something that works for you? Okay, my family will never accept my habits, but can we brute-force a new bond based on neutral values and regular communication? Oh, we’re not close anymore because there’s not much left of what made us friends? Are we interested in finding new shared habits to rekindle the friendship?
This year, in acquainting with who I am now, I contemplated a lot of questions. Some of them were existential, some were character-building, and others, like the ones above, were focused on my relationships with others.
Where should I sneeze when I don’t have a hanky? What values are important to me? How do they intersect with my friends’ and family’s values? How much could it possibly cost to just tip everyone that asks? How do I stop belittling myself with anxiety in wealthier circles? What if another city could feel like home? How do I behave so people can be themselves around me? What’s a good sitting position in public? How do cars work? How should my economic growth uplift people that do menial jobs for me? What do I mean when I say I want intimate, non-commital relationships? How do I perform class on my own terms? How do I find new music? How do I have better sex? How do I rekindle old ties where we now have so little in common? How do I learn to mix drinks? How do I fold clothes better? How do I welcome solitude and use it for self-reflection? What is my civic responsibility?
In a previous iteration of myself, I’d have been glad to share my internal dialogue and publicly document my process. This time though, I stuck with echoing the answers to myself because they seemed to never get fully resolved. l kept changing things as I refined my idea of who I wanted to be. There was no point hitting publish.
I’m making conscious efforts to create my best work, to carry the people that matter along, to be kind and fair, to be aware of every other person that contributes in some way to my experience. I want to live without a speck of guilt for who I decide to be. I’m in charge here.