Sunday, December 14, 2014

On trying to not be an anak derhaka.

(This actually started out as a Facebook post, and then I realised I had more to say)

Even though I was brought up to listen to authority, I now know that a well lived life is more than just being "obedient". As a child, I was told plainly to obey my parents and obey teachers. Presumably, this was to prepare me for life as a wife who should obey her husband. (That didn't go down well, obviously.) Obedience was prized as a mark of a good child and a good student - and in the context of Singapore, a good citizen.

At the root of this was love. We thought that if we obeyed well enough, we would be loved. But then when I was much older I realised that love should not be bartered for obedience, especially in a child. The ideal parent was supposed to be a benevolent dictator: the father and/or mother held power by virtue of being older/bigger/the parent, but s/he was supposed to exercise it with responsibility and kindness towards the child. So everything that the parent asked for was supposed to always be in the child's interest. 

But the saying "absolute power always corrupts absolutely" couldn't be truer in this case. When does this benevolent power stop its reign? According to what I was taught, for girls it was supposed to stop when you got married. Then you were passed over to your husband, who would be your guardian (in other words, for women it never stops).

The last four years have been life-changing for me in many ways. Moving to a new country by accident, getting married (multiple times), giving birth, raising a little boy, and another big life decision in the works. Along the way I have had to make many decisions which were not exactly the most popular ones, and faced a lot of backlash and drama for it. Soul-sucking, but I won't go down without a fight. 

Along the way I've learned strategies to deal with it: explanation, direct resistance and hiding (in that order). Unfortunately, the strategies don't always work out because there's always that cloud of anak derhaka (Malay, lit. unfilial/disobedient child) hanging over your head. At some point, you start to realise that this kind of power and control uses fear woven into cultural stories and myths.

The most important thing I learned is this: the worst thing is, in the name of obedience, to let someone else make decisions for your life that you regret and/or resent. If you want to do something for your life, whether mainstream or offbeat, then do it. Just take responsibility for it - that's good enough for me.

If you do something that someone else wants, and you think it's part of being obedient or a good child or whatever, then learn to own it or leave it. If you don't have the time, the money, or the physical and emotional energy to carry it out, then just don't do it. The martyr mentality really kills me: you do something because it's "the right thing" and then you totally find yourself in a rut or you totally hate it. Or you whine and make everyone else's life hell because your own life is hell. 

I don't want that for myself and I don't want to carry such baggage down to my own children. I don't want to teach them to suffer in the name of blind obedience. I want to teach them to make careful and balanced decisions, consulting me if they feel that I can help. It's my job to cultivate that connection with them so that they feel I can be someone they can turn to. No child is going to come running to their parents for love out of nowhere when the child-parent relationship has always been that of power and control.

I have been told I don't do what I am "asked to do". I have also been told I am "too educated" (a comment reserved exclusively for a woman, though I'm amazed to hear such a thing) because I ask questions and refuse to be bullied into life-changing decisions. 

Thank you, I take these as compliments. My life is more than the sum of other people's ideas. 

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