An obligation to succeed

Posted on September 14, 2012


It’s one thing to be the pride of your family, but when, year after year, your achievements are paraded to an entire community as the stock of credibility for your family, the experience becomes simultaneously infantilising and head-swelling. This is a strange emotion to which most successful Asians (particularly males) will relate with a mild cringe and a wry smile.

My aunt was the chief culprit. She had reason to be, having raised me since the age of three. My parents’ financial predicament at that stage of my life was dire, and I was placed in the care of the woman who would give me the best possible chance in life (a practice not uncommon in East-Asian cultures). I had the distinctly piquant experience of being orphaned from parents who were still very much alive. While the decision was beautifully selfless on the part of all involved – particularly my aunt, to the mind of a three-year-old, it was anything but the endorsement of my potential it was supposed to be. My hypothesis, at the time, was that I had been rejected by one family, and would always have to earn the trust and approval of another.

From that day on, as in the departure lounge where I had found myself (in a manner of speaking), I was always on my best behaviour. Over the ensuing years, sporting championships and awards for academic excellence at the high-school and collegiate levels, and later various distinctions from the research-biomedical fraternity had been won and worn not boastfully with honour, but dourly out of duty. They had not been for me the rich trappings of success, just the humble wages of deliverance.

At some indefinable point of my life, the drive to climb had evolved seamlessly into the obligation not to fall. In essence, the trips home would give an audible voice to an otherwise silent fear. ‘Keep out of trouble’ and ‘Are you working hard?’ lay behind every quip and comment. Of course, she said these things because she was concerned for my well-being (and because it’s a Chinese mother’s duty, her bosom swelled with pride). Ultimately, her only goal was my happiness. But the thought of those words still had my inner-child wetting himself with the irrational fears only a tenuous and often traumatic childhood can bring.

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