Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Bride In My Head

Most little girls grow up dreaming of their perfect wedding day. What dress they will wear, the food, the shoes and who will attend. I was not one of those girls. In fact, I still remember playing the groom with my younger sister, a job she bore with sufficient humor, wearing a fluffy white approximation of a bridal gown around the house. 

During my college years it was uncool to talk about the m-word. In our seminars, we talked endlessly about the politics of marriage, its mercantile origins, its role as an organizing principle of the patriarchy. Every sitcom and comedian cashed in on the joke that is monogamy. People around me constantly complained about their spouses. I believed that spontaneity will stop, romantic gestures will become extinct and sparks will fade, once you get married.

“I’m never getting married,” I told my best friend, still living in London and tired of its miserable dating scene. “I’d be so much happier living in a beach-house with my two dogs and a high-powered career,” I added. It was near the beginning of my time in London, and coming out of an awful breakup, I spent the next few years "deep single," a term I coined to describe the fact that I didn't go on more than a handful of dates with anyone and never came close to using the words my boyfriend.

But in this past year, having entered into a serious relationship after a long time, and moving in with someone for the first time, I found myself giving the idea of marriage a thought. Being twenty-four, I’ve seen three of my cousins get married and they're all in their twenties. One of my best friends who recently got engaged is the same age as me.

It was only until recently, after a discussion with my boyfriend on the relevancy of marriage today, that I realized just how much it actually meant for me. And how little the concept of marriage had been on his mind. Partly because, his parents divorced when he was still young and was perhaps a little jaded about marriage. Or that, being from a Northern European upbringing, having children “out of wedlock” was common and marriage was never regarded as a ‘Must’ to start a family. Or more importantly, as a man, his entire life has not been shaped by a desire for, or a rejection of, a fluffy white dress.

The word that came up most frequently during our discussions was recognition rather than love. Today, marriage feels more like a public affirmation that subtly changes strangers’ perception rather than a loud declaration of private desire and devotion. Putting it that way may evoke the view that matrimony is a socially entrenched institution, aimed at promoting prosperity and domestic stability. Prompted by oft-cited societal shifts: dramatically changing family structures, declining marriage rates, the growth of cohabitation, and increasing numbers of young people purposefully foregoing marriage, we both recognized that the idea of marriage is almost always ideologically charged and can sometimes be misleading.

But recognition can have an important personal dimension too, I argued. To get married today is to announce, to yourself and to the world, your belief that you are capable of extrapolating your current wishes, priorities, and motivations into the future. Such an opportunity shouldn’t be out of reach for anybody who does want it, although throwing open the marital gates certainly doesn’t guarantee a secure and serene future.

My desire for a wedding, that I had also come to realize, made me question my confidence and assertiveness that I was so sure of in the past. My need to equate a solid relationship with a ring on my finger, made me feel like one of those conservative “Bridget Jones” types. Now, my desires were opaque even to me. Why do I, a young and educated woman in the 21st century, value marriage so highly? To do so felt like a betrayal of myself, of my education, and of my achievements. However, I reminded myself that the successful woman who is in a happy relationship is not the same as the “pining woman.” She's the one who is acknowledging the full range of her desires.

Raised by an Orthodox-Christian father, and a Buddhist mother - my parents were very different people and came from very different backgrounds. But they shared one thing in common -  similar life values. So they got married before it seemed too late, and now they’re happy. Celebrating their 25-year anniversary this year, my mother gave me a tip: “The way to stay married, is not to get divorced.” They belonged to a generation where if someone’s broken, you fix it - rather than throw it away. They stuck it out in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.

Western culture holds two paradoxical values at once: a culture of marriage and a culture of individualism. Compared with other European counterparts, Greek-Cypriots are far more credulous about marriage.  Complemented with my mother’s Chinese upbringing - where the agreed notion is that even if a marriage is unhappy, one should stay put for the sake of the children - it soon became evident where my own deep-rooted desires stemmed from. 

In both these societies, people tend to believe that a woman lives together with her partner out of wedlock not because she doesn't want to marry him but because he doesn't want to marry her. The society's doubts in the commitment of her partner and makes a cohabiting woman pitied and looked down upon, which can sometimes be detrimental for her self-esteem and psychological well-being.

But the promise of 'happily ever after' is a larger part of the problem. Societies at large, seem to believe that marriage is a kind of end point and a solution to all ills, rather than the start of a complex process that largely depends on who we are and how we deal with it. The central question is: “Can [a marriage] tolerate the process of disillusionment, the facing up to limitation that all long relationships have to go through?”

It’s nearly impossible to detangle personal preference from social conditioning, and our deepest desires from the codes we have been taught to follow. Over time, the argument for marriage has shifted. It’s no longer about external forces having power over us: churches, the state, the legal idea of legitimacy, the social idea of being respectable. What we are now focused on is the psychological point of making it hard to throw it all in. People acknowledge it is a myth but the myth still wields a dangerous power - an idea that marriage, if only we surrender to it, can make us better, happier, different, and more complete. Maybe it can. But surrender doesn't seem a healthy message. Cultivating the self matters more. And today, in a happy relationship, instead of feeling as though I’m living within a restrictive set of rules, guiltily desiring secret things, I feel like I’ve finally found someone I can write the rules together.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Kids Are Actually (Sorta) All Right

Every generation finds, eventually, a mode of expression that suits it. Cavemen drew lines on their cave walls. Sixties kids marched. History has dubbed us “the millennials.” At best, we are engaged, upbeat and open to change. We have hopes and dreams, YouTube links and five-year plans. At worst, we are those urban-dwelling, incessant social networkers who just want a trophy for showing up. Hopelessly self-obsessed and dependent on gadgets, we eschew real human interaction.

It seems like every industry is trying to “figure us out.” How we behave, how to reach out to us, and make us feel at home in the workplace. And for good reason: we are reaching an age of independent consumption, starting to have children, and becoming a presence in the workforce. It’s no wonder every company is trying to tap into the Millenial market.

While this line of thinking is seductive, it is misguided. Millennials, like all generational cohorts, have as much that divides as unites. Treating us as a homogenous entity is likely to fail—or worse—backfire. This may be a personal bias as a “Millenial” myself, but as someone who is friends with other millenials and of other generations too, there are certain misconceptions that are particularly frustrating.

Faced with a slow economy, high unemployment, stagnant wages and student loans, it makes reasonable sense that these factors constrict millenials’ ability both to maintain a reasonable lifestyle and to save for things like cars and new homes. The sad truth is the most educated generation in history is on track to becoming less prosperous, at least financially, than its predecessors.

As part of redressing this imbalance, let’s at least start with a greater acknowledgement of the plight of millennials and the role that in many cases, previous generations played in creating it; and in other cases – these imbalances are universal and cross-generational. Many millenials feel like they didn’t create this mess; came late to the banquet and were served crumbs. What’s worse is when these elders chastise us for the bleak situation we’re in.

One of the perks of getting old is that you are allowed to complain about the young. From rizzled business pundits, stuffy employers and media headlines like “Do Millenials Stand a Chance in the Real World?” “Dear Millenials, You’re Ruining the Economy. Move out,” or “The Worst Generation,” abuse the privilege of age as much as anyone ever did. A Washington Post article on “Cracked Cellphone Screens are a pride for some Young People,” sounds like a parody of something to write when you have a deadline in three hours and nothing to say.

Employers, they say, must adjust their management styles to meet the expectations of millennials—those born between 1980 and 2000, also known as generation Y. It is often pointed out that millennials are the first generation to have grown up in the digital era. Though this is a fact, there are several other contradictions not hard to find. Millenials are said to be natural collaborators. Everything from our education in kindergartens to our participation in social media has turned us into team players. But at the same time we reject careerism and are allergic to being managed. Companies need to turn their offices into open-plan playpens to attract and retain these highly-strung, fickle individuals.

Poll data from a global consulting firm, CEB, finds that the millennials among them are in fact the most competitive: 59% of them, in the latest poll, said competition is “what gets us up in the morning”, compared with 50% of baby-boomers. Some 58% of millennials said we compare our performance with peers’, as against 48% for other generations. As for the idea that we are anti-careerist, 33% of millennials put “future career opportunity” among the top five reasons for choosing a job, compared with 21% for other generations. Or to the idea that firms should communicate with digital natives through digital media - more than 90% of millennials said we wanted to receive performance evaluations and to discuss career plans face-to-face. Millennials are more likely to seek and value feedback from their managers than members of other generations are. But this is because we are still young, and not because of the particular generation we were born into. Young people in every generation change jobs more frequently than older people because we are looking for the right one. Young people also look for feedback because we are still learning the ropes.

It would be going too far to say that there are no differences between the generations. Of course variations in consumption patterns are different. However, millenials getting more of their news via Buzzfeed than baby-boomers does not necessarily translate in different attitudes about work. There are some differences across the generations that are more apparent. For instance, those millenials who have been in the same profession for a few years have more conventional attitudes than those who are still in university.

I’m one of those young people always calling themselves lucky: I’ve been employed throughout the downturn, finally in the industry that I wanted to work in. But at my old job, there were several hardships. Stress, pressure, sexual discrimination, verbal abuse – you name it, I’ve experienced it. I have now learned to set the bar beyond which satisfaction supposedly waits. My demographic (under 25, with a steady job with career prospects and decent salary) seems equivalent of a two-headed unicorn. For most people my age, they live with their parents or in shared housing. Jobs are often crappy, if they’re lucky enough to have one or having work exploited for free by dodgy internship merchants.

Young, employed, and with our whole life ahead of us, our twenties are often billed as the most fun a person is likely to have. However, there are two components to this decade: feeling as if you should be doing and having more in what's supposed to be most exciting decade of your life; and a reality which often fails to match up - a situation commonly known as a “quarter-life crisis.” Young people today lucky enough to enter the workplace are aiming high – they want a great job, as well as a brilliant flat and a cast of great friends and if they don't have all this before they hit 30 they feel a failure.

We hear the grown-ups urge us to calm down. Just like when we were praised for almost everything since childhood; our parents often take the blame of this generation’ s naïve sense of “Entitlement.’ They tell us everything will fall into place, that if they could give advice to their younger selves it'd be to send the butterflies away and have a good time before age catches up with us. Millenials hear them say these things, but don't believe them. Things don't just fall into place. It is up to us to put them there, and we feel like every second they don’t put themselves out there is a second wasted. Time is wasted the same way we did in college, only now doing so makes us uncomfortable. 

Then there are those who don’t feel uncomfortable at all; who decide the idea of moving into the financial world of big cities and working long hours inside a massive company does not sound appealing. These respondents often come from individuals who don’t necessarily see “better off” as simply a question of wealth. The ones whose parents may be better off financially; but are more concerned with cultural wealth.

For an intelligent study of this demographic, one must also not ignore the socio-political, geographical differences that exist. For example, 93 per cent of young adults surveyed in China said they were optimistic their country's best days were still ahead. In South Korea, only 77 per cent expressed the same sentiment. In India, 81 per cent did. Pessimism dominates in North America, where only 47 per cent expect their future to be bright. In Western Europe, it's only 41 per cent and in Japan, the pessimists make up 81 per cent, the highest in the world.

These issues remind us that the supposed problems with millenials are things people have been worrying about since forever. From a 1910s concern over women delaying marriage till they are a “full 17 years old”; to a 1969s headline on baby boomers threatening to destroy society with their “awful music,” it is easy to imagine that the emergence of millennial trends could even be traced back to the 8000 B.C as “Agriculture frees teens to dream of unrealistic career options.”

Companies are right to be exercised about the millennial generation. Nothing is more important for a firm’s survival than recruiting and retaining the best of new talent. But in their enthusiasm to embrace that generation, they risk de-generating into banality. At best their generalizations are inconsistent; at worst they are destructive. To get the most of young employees, companies need to recognize that individual differences are always bigger than generational differences. Every age group contains introverts and extroverts, high-flyers and low-riders. But they also need to recognize that human commonalities swamp both individual differences and generational variations. We want roughly the same things regardless of when we were born: to be given interesting tasks to do, to be rewarded on the basis of their contributions and to be given the chance to get ahead – whatever that means to the individual.

So let’s stop worrying about “Millenials.” I’m all so bored of it. Thank goodness we’re on to something new - here comes Gen Z.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

There’s No Country For Malaysian-Chinese-Greek-Cypriot Girls

To my mother, food was something to savour, to relish, to study. She loved cooking. More precisely, she loved food. At the grocer, she – and only she – would first choose the very best spring onions, broccoli and green peppers. Then she picked up the meat, to be sliced thinly at home in our kitchen. As she's of Chinese descent, she would fire up the wok and throw in the food, ingredient by sizzling ingredient, each according to its cooking time, each according to its flavour.

To my father, food to him was nothing more than the drudgery of shopping, storing, preparing, eating and cleaning, all for a mere few hours of stomach satisfaction. His greatest culinary achievement would be getting the pasta boiled at just the right temperature to stick on the walls of the kitchen. Lucky for him he married a good enough cook he could leave cooking to the professionals. So much so that he and my mum together opened up a Malaysian Chinese restaurant. I still remember the times I would get off school and stop by for a stir fry take-away box for lunch and a plate of Makaronia (Greek style layers of béchamel sauce, cheese, pasta, mince meat) for dinner. Oh and of course lots of garlic and a hint of chili flakes if my mum had anything to do with it.

No one ever said that Western people like my dad cook with ovens and Chinese people like my mum cook with woks, but as a biracial child, that's the rule I came up with. It didn't help that I was growing up in a small seaside town in Cyprus called Limassol, in the middle of the Mediterranean, where other minorities were few and far between. At the time, we were the only Eurasian family I knew in the neighbourhood, probably the only one in town.

I was born, raised, educated, primed and prepped in Cyprus. But behind my fluent English, my TV Americanized brain, my Greek-Cypriot citizenship, my philosophies, my outlook on life... is a bi-product of both the proud and rich Greek and Chinese cultures. In elementary school, I excelled in reading and writing class for both English and Greek languages, yet, certain words were always pronounced with a heavy Ching-lish accent, an innocent feature of being my mother's daughter. Sandwich was “Sand-grich.” Lettuce was ‘Let-chus”.

My diet didn't always consist of stir fries or pastas though. It was "Bah Kut Tee" – or “red berry soup” the nickname I gave to the ginger chicken broth my mom would make, rich with meat and goji berries. And for special occasions, like Chinese New Year, where we were probably the only family to celebrate it, it was "hot pot" -- an annual smorgasbord of fish balls, thin flanks of beef, Chinese cabbage, and imitation crab legs that we would throw in a large eclectic pot that bobbed up and down in the soup like red buoys in the ocean. – until, in my 20s after moving to the Far East, I learned that the Chinese have very traditional dishes and foods, none of which I had recognised or heard of. It was then that I realised that my family had simply invented the hot-pot Chinese New Year; somehow, in our mixed-race family, the hard and fast traditions could be softened, bent, reshaped.

My mum tried to bridge the gap by adapting some of the Greek dishes with a hint of Malaysian Chinese influence. Lemon chicken served with saffron yellow rice. Tofu meat dishes. Sheftalia with sweet chill sauce. She somehow made it work. Which me and my sister almost always celebrated. Perhaps unconsciously, my sister and I were tired of standing out in this monoracial world, of not quite fitting in anywhere: as we couldn't look like entirely like white people, at least we could eat like them. Kind of.

Of course, I wasn't always this amorous toward my heritage. Adolescence, after all, was a decade-long culture shock. The mannerisms and customs my classmates subscribed to were radically contrary to mine and I didn't understand why I, born and raised in the same land, acted so differently.

When I was in middle school, in Cyprus, in the early 2000s, I was often singled out by other children for my almond-shaped eyes, beige complexion and jet-black hair — essentially, my Asian features. They’d ask me if was from China and got ignorant comments for not being of “pure” blood. These adolescent experiences planted within me seeds of identity-crisis, and for years I tried to water-down or suppress myself of my cultural heritage.

And so without consciously doing so, I rebelled. I neglected the Chinese songs and texts I, at the time, my mum had tried to make me memorize, and slowly the lyrics and characters drifted from my consciousness. Just like I wanted them to. She herself took this with a grain of rice. Everyone knew sophisticated European languages like English, Greek, French, and German were the way forward.

In time, such experiences made me seem to think that Western culture is superior - though they may not say as much. I would often describe something that my mum would impose on me, for example, someone's outfit, hairstyle or manner, as "so Asian", with usual negative connotations. Chinese became a secret language that I could understand in private scenarios when my mum wanted to scold me, but I would never speak.

It took living in the Far East to realize what I had done.

I've come to realize, within the past four years, that my ethnic background is a beautiful blessing in disguise. Within me is thousands of years worth of cultural knowledge.

I have learnt to re-assure people in China that I am half Malaysian “Hua Ren” (meaning of Chinese descent) and not of the ethic Malaya origin -  as if that in some way makes me “one of them.” Underlining of course the deep parochial prejudices of people with different physical appearance; darker skin, distinctive customs and lower level of development, the Hua ren peoples or Han population in the mid-17th century saw them as the Other, as "barbarians".

I have learned to smile and nod politely as my mom and her family in Malaysia laugh and share stories in Hakka or Cantonese dialect. I can understand many of the words she speaks now, since deciding to take on Chinese language studies, but feel isolated by the tangible sense of kinship between my mother and the Malaysian side of my family -- a shared history, culture and understanding woven into each word they spoke.

I have learned to answer in amazement with “Of course” when my Malaysian Chinese cousins who haven’t seen me in years ask me if I can use chopsticks.

I have learned to respond with a passive aggressive “I can speak English just fine , thanks” answer when innocent English language school flyer-distributors ask me if I am interested in learning English.

I have learnt to smile at “Are those eyelashes real?” questions from people, especially women. Followed by “oh you’re so exotic” comments that often feel synonymous to being compared to an exotic breed of dog.

I have learned to sit around for hours enjoying the sun, sipping on an ice-cold Frappe, listening to Greek pop songs, attempting to blend into the sea of olive skinned, dark haired hair crowd at the latest “in” hangout spot, back in Limassol, Cyprus.

I have learned how to ignore the awkwardness when people assume that I am my Cypriot dad's young wife or mistress(!) (since there is no possible way that I could be his biological child, this is the next "logical" assumption).

I have learned to say that I am "from Cyprus and half Malaysian" -- even though I have never lived in Malaysia. People often ask me "where are you from?" – taxi drivers, waiters, random people on the subway. Who often tell me I look Chinese, but not exactly. I look Western, but not quite. I used to stubbornly answer, "from everywhere" because that’s essentially how I would feel like sometimes. Then when they finally find out, are most comfortable with “Oh, you’re a Húnxuěr” or person of mixed blood in Mandarin Chinese.

I concluded that although I hadn't ever felt like an "outsider," I will never fully experience what it's like to be an "insider." My mixed identity has forced me to navigate the world in a different way and "learn" to do a lot of things that other people don't have to learn.

Lastly, I have learned that there is no country for half-Malaysian-Chinese-Greek-Cypriot girls on this Earth. We don't have a special language in which there are special words for "always being told you need to dress as a Pocahontas at costume parties," and " I will always be the Asian girl at the Christmas Eve church service and the guai mui (foreigner) at the next Chinese New Year gathering - thus I am always slightly lost in translation. 

Today, I am a foodie. I agree with my mother: food isn't just sustenance, it is a part of who you are. And for anyone who has eaten comfort food, it is a metaphor for home. Being biracial prompted me to reflect on what it was really like being this human amalgamation of different cultures and histories. I no longer live in the small town of my youth; here in Shanghai, one of the world’s biggest metropolis cities with an expanding desire for international palates I can enjoy food from all around the world within blocks of my apartment. Today I'll eat Peruvian food. Tomorrow Moroccan. The next day, who knows? Maybe I'll stay home and cook a fusion dish myself. God knows I'm getting better at it.