Me in a Tiki Bar, October 2020
It is the job of a parent to separate their child from the harshness of the world and let them roam into it slowly and at a healthy pace. How much they are able to shield their kid is dependent on their resources and their resourcefulness. It’s also natural that parents with too much can create such a deep and impenetrable membrane that their kid never grows up, never really touches the ground and will always remain abstracted and aloof. The opposite can happen when the parent can’t do anything but let the world intrude with all it’s demands and ugliness before the kid knows how to deal with it.
It is important for a child to know and feel up to a certain point that their parent is invincible, that all their needs are met because they are then free to demand everything they think they need. Kids are insatiable and they have every right to be. They should always be hungry and never go wanting either physically or intellectually. Kids are also very attuned to danger and if their parent is seen to be worried, that worry is passed onto the child. The role where the child worries about the parent should be delayed until adulthood, I think. I’m not a psychologist, I just think things.
I have been very fortunate in my life. I have had this membrane, this cushion. I have been shielded from the harshness of the world and in some ways that’s made me idealistic and allowed me to retain that idealism but in other ways I think it’s made me quite naive and careless. Part of being cushioned is that the downsides are limited. Nothing really can go wrong, or can it? Having too much cushion makes one unaware of the stakes and life is actually a very high stakes endeavor. It’s made me quite rough at times in moments I regret to this day.
Growing up in Malaysia, I was always aware of class. I went to swimming training and my brother and I were the only ones who spoke with an international school accent. It felt weird and alienating. We had fun and got along with the other kids but I always felt guilty somewhat for wearing different clothes and speaking in a different way. I was ten but I remember speaking to a friend between sets and he was complaining about the heat and how it was too hot for him to do his homework. “Just turn on the air conditioner!” I said. He looked at me for a second and asked me if I had an air conditioner in my room. I kind of got it then.
Privilege compounds. You go to private school, you meet a certain type of person from a certain family, you go to a certain university where the same kids or kinds of kids went to, you come back and either start in companies that your friends parents run or you start up companies with easily accessible capital. You marry your old classmates and the cycle continues.
I know of people who have the organisational and monetary ability in Berlin to actually plan pregnancies with their friend group. This means all the kids will be friends, go to the same kindergarten and Waldorf schools and the families will be joined. It happens in Malaysia and in Germany. Clan building, Simon called it. It makes sense.
I can only listen and empathise with the stories those close to me tell me about the other side of things. The bitterness at parents who let the world in too quick. Or maybe even the sadness that their parent didn’t have enough even for themselves. I think there’s a burden that some people carry from having to parent themselves before their time. Some wear it heavier than others. All are stronger for it but some carry more damage.
As time goes on and I meet more people, I am slowly awakening to the privilege I was bestowed. My parents were always greater than me in all the ways that it mattered. I knew I could count of them. All of my poverty has been simulated. It taught me skills but I will never have the gripping fear that many people have. The calmness I have in the world being alright, I can’t take it for granted and I can’t let it get to my head. Some fear is good but I’ve been lucky that The Fear is something I willingly pick up as opposed to foisted upon me and forced to be worn around my neck.
I’m not sure why I’m like this but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every single one of my closest friends have come from working class backgrounds. Maybe I don’t hang around the right places but maybe there’s something within me that calls for their streetsmarts. Maybe there’s something within me that is repelled by the manners of truly bougie people. Maybe there’s something in me that denies myself.
People are often confused by me because I present as coming ‘from somewhere’ but that somewhere is hard to place. Maybe for some Malaysians I’m as easy to place as any other kid from one of these schools but part of me thinks I’ve come further than that. I remember sitting on the tube in London once and seeing two Malaysian students debate something about their Law homework. It was like looking in a mirror, one that was so close but also one that I didn’t relate to at all. I had just finished a master’s in computing and was on the way to Tromsø. I had a friend tell me once that there was a middle / upper class expectation of me, a way that I had to do things but to my credit I danced in my own way. I don’t pretend that I ever escaped my privilege but I hope that I’ve learnt to own it and use it well.