In two weeks, I will be heading to Nepal, and I will be trying out the millennial way of independent solo female travel. The big ticket things are booked now, and no cold feet madness can be tolerated. So today I am in the mood for confessions.
The absorbing fascination of recent weeks are gently ebbing to a quieter, surprisingly re-assuring flow. For once, I am able to contemplate scaling new heights without the supporting swell of motivation suddenly disappearing, forcing me into the panic and pain of crashing, or gliding – or struggling to grow wings mid-flight.
Perhaps I am learning to depend more on my inner strength. This can only be a good thing.
I wonder if I would be as grateful, had I not previously known the terror of falling, and become accustomed to expecting and surviving it? Then again, what do I know?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
- My childhood fear of failure
- I was the quintessential ‘A’ student.
- The blessing and the curse of being an overachiever
- The mantle of expectations
- Post-independence Malaya
- Are you sure you’re Malay?
- The torchbearer of my people
- If I’m wrong, you can’t be right.
- But everyone fails someday.
- Embrace the phoenix and be re-born
- There is no success and no failure – only grace.
- So why did I take so long to try solo female travel?
My childhood fear of failure
I have a memory from school. I believe I was 15.
It was the start of Form Four and I was in English class. The teacher thought up an interview exercise and I was paired with my closest (guy) friend. I remember that, because we shared victory looks upon knowing the exercise was not going to suck. We had to ask each other a number of questions, jot down all of the answers, and just have a conversation.
We had a slightly kooky English teacher that year. That probably explains why the interview questions were sometimes surprisingly introspective and psychological. One of the last questions was about what you fear the most. When my friend asked me the question, I said, “failure”.
And then it hit me that it was a much truer answer than I first realised. I think the shock of the epiphany was why that moment in time is burned into my memory.
[However, I also remember I answered ‘Zombie’ by the Cranberries for my favourite song, despite having no particularly strong feelings about it. I have no explanation for this].
I was the quintessential ‘A’ student.
If you’re reading this from a Western perspective, you might even say I was the stereotypical ‘Asian student’, except that clearly, everyone was Asian in my school. So instead, you might say I was an overachiever, in a playing field of academic high achievers.
I was a prizewinner every year for the school presentation day, usually for more than one category. One of those categories would invariably be ‘top three’ of my class, which was invariably the highest performing class of the year-cohort. Often I would be the #1. My academic trophies were a prized collection. [Do you hate me yet?]
What’s more, while most of my rivals shift and change in their performance through the school years, I was consistent.
You see, with the schooling system we had when I was growing up, there’s a marked shift in learning demand between Standard 6 (the end of primary school) and Form 1 (the beginning of secondary school), and again between Form 3 and Form 4. And then between school and university, it is different again. It is quite common for high achieving students in one paradigm to struggle to remain so through each transition.
But I discovered that I had the kind of adaptive intelligence that allowed me to continually evolve to succeed in new paradigms. So, barring brief lapses during transitions, I continued to be a high achiever.
[Yes, I’m slowly getting to how this relates to my experience of solo female travel. Here, try this while I get there!]
The blessing and the curse of being an overachiever
I’m not going to lie to you and say that it isn’t a blessing to have this intelligence, and to have done extremely well in school. It is.
But I will confess to you what else it means to be an overachiever.
It means that I did not fail. Even in subjects I was not good at, such as Art, I did not fail. Even in the transition periods when I was adjusting to the different study styles required, I did not fail.
Now, I’m not saying it’s better to be a failure. Not at all. It’s not a bad thing to succeed early, and succeed often. That kind of head start is indeed an incredible boost to intellectual growth.
But when it takes too long for you to fail at something, you begin to dread the day when it might happen. When you see peers begin to experience it around you, while you continue to be spared, it gets worse. Especially when peers and even seniors look up to you, precisely because you did not fail. Failure then looks painful and costly. Humiliating.
So you unconsciously begin to play further away from the edge of discovery. The longer it goes on, the more you’ll play safe. Make excuses. Get addicted to admiration. Feel entitled to being rewarded simply for having your natural advantage.
This is how those high flying prodigies become the people you love to hate.
The mantle of expectations
I was the intelligent girl from a line of intelligent women. Each of them were teachers of knowledge in the world of their times.
So it was expected that I would be smart, and I did live up to that expectation. It was expected that I taught from what I had, and fortunately I lived up to that too. And it was expected that I could earn the highest of academic accomplishments.
There was no doubt about it at all. (It was only later in life that I understood the enormous privilege of this belief, this lack of doubt.)
So although I always felt a yearning to be seen for something additional to just my brain, these were expectations I bore relatively easily.
Because of my heritage, unlike those who were the first generation in their family to become people of knowledge, I was taught early about the obligations of power and advantage. So I even received a kind of immunisation against both the temptations of predation, as well as selfish indifference.
It left me with a natural conviction that value was inherent to myself rather than conferred by others. In a hierarchical culture, it was an upbringing that gave me the expectation of leadership and authority, rather than as a follower.
On top of all this, I grew up as a Malay* female in Malaysia of the ’80s and ’90s. It was only one – maybe two – generations since Malaysia’s independence from Britain. It was a time when attempts were still ongoing to transition the society from post-colonial divides to something else, while grappling with rapid modernisation at the same time.
You see, despite technically winning independence, the Malay people continue to have latent confidence issues. The loss of the living history of the Malay states, its loss of cultural dignity and prominence after centuries of subjugation and diminished sovereignty by foreign powers – these are not things that become restored just by a declaration of independence.
But, I was anomalous. I did not exhibit these ethnicity-based confidence issues.
Are you sure you’re Malay?
I represented my school once in a national science quiz, together with two friends who are ethnically Chinese. Together we were the top three in our school. We went to another school that hosted the quiz.
When we were there, the students at this predominantly Malay school kept watching us, and me. Eventually a boy came up to me and asked who we were. And then he asked, whether I was in fact Malay. Even though I obviously looked it, and was wearing the baju kurung** uniform.
Part of the mystification was probably due to how friendly the three of us were with each other. I experienced this again in university, when I surprised my class by simply doing the Subang Jaya thing of expecting friendship across ethnic lines.
I still get asked this as an adult, by my own people. Unlike some urban, westernised Malays, I have never rejected my Malay identity. Yet, people still feel the need to check if I’m local. Perhaps it’s something in my manner.
But hey, at least they don’t ask anymore if I’m ‘sure’!
The torchbearer of my people
Despite being of the majority race, like many Malays I grew up with many negative scripts about being Malay, and to a lesser extent, about being a girl. For example, I was not supposed to be good in math and science – these were things Chinese kids are good at, not Malay kids.
And yet, I grew up as a high achieving Malay girl anomalously absent of doubts over her academic parity with Chinese Malaysians and with boys.
I was a Malay who was good at mathematics, and took it for granted.
I was a girl who was good in science, and took it for granted.
I’ll confess a secret further down, that explains why I was immune to these scripts. But needless to say, a succession of teachers and lecturers keen to change generational mindsets projected many things on my little shoulders. I grew up a reluctant poster child for a whole race, and sometimes also a gender, well into university years.
These expectations were harder to bear. Unlike the obligations of knowledge and influence that I was brought up to embody, these did not seem either fair or necessary. For my young self did not understand why others couldn’t simply step up.
If I’m wrong, you can’t be right.
Once, when I was in university surveying camp (like for land surveying – it was part of the civil engineering Bachelor’s Degree), we had a treasure hunt style traverse surveying assignment. Essentially if we did the traverse correctly, we should reach the ‘treasure’.
Most of my assigned team members were friends, from my own class. But there was a guy from a different class, a first class honours dude. Being the highest ranking academic high achiever, naturally he took it upon himself to be in charge of the calculations.
At one point, I had a hunch that he had made an error in one of the calculations, which meant that we were going the wrong way. I tracked down the error in my sheet copy and informed the team, then corrected all subsequent calculations from the error to take us back on the treasure path. My classmates, used to trusting me, began to decamp back to the error point.
Little did I realise the skirmish I precipitated.
First class honours dude would not accept being corrected by me. For math! It was preposterous. I was a Malay and he was Chinese! I was a girl and he was a guy! And how can a second class upper be correct where a first class student was wrong!
I can’t remember how he came around. Perhaps because it was impossible to press on without the others, and they wouldn’t go without me. (It must be mentioned that some of them were themselves male and Chinese – homies had my back!).
Of course, we reached the treasure.
But everyone fails someday.
So it was that I went through my formative years at first simply coincidentally never failing, and then acquiring a growing pressure that I must not.
And then one day, I did.
It was just a tiny bit of failure. It was my driving license test. Nothing to speak of, certainly not deserving of any drama.
But it was the first exam I failed.
And because it happened well after childhood, the crash bore with it the momentum of a long winning streak coming to a screeching halt. Like, crash test dummy hard.
By then, it was no longer just ‘something you tried and didn’t succeed this one time’. It carried with it all the beliefs that you had cultivated about success and failure.
It’s ok to fail. It’s like getting vaccinated.
Today I see many parents try to shelter their children from the bitter anguish of failure.
You are not doing your children any favours. Like chicken pox, it is better to get it early. What my parents did right, was to let me feel its full force without trying to explain it away.
So. what. You. failed.
Not an easy thing to hear at the time. But necessary.
Getting the booster shot.
The second failure was more subtle but more stinging, because it was an academic one. I dipped from a first class honours CGPA to a second class upper at the end of my second year in university [yes, I know, boo hoo].
Here I made a milestone life choice. I could throw in all my resources to recover the top distinction. Or, I could choose to keep my reservist navy training and other activities, and graduate at a comfortable second best.
Bear in mind, a large chunk of my self-identity at the time took first class honours as validation of itself. For others, this validation could be their looks, or their cultural identity, or their rank, or their children, or their Instagram likes.
But this was my thing. And if you have ever felt that something core to your identity was about to be lost, you will know the irrational desperation of the threatened ego.
I chose to forfeit first class honours. I chose to evolve my identity.
Embrace the phoenix and be re-born
Many of the best things you can possibly do for yourself in life, seem impossible to do the first time. Yet you only need to do it once, and thereafter you can do it again and again, and acquire the most valuable resilience.
You see, usually the barrier is not real – it’s in your mind.
It isn’t easy to override the aversion to failing. It is part of my nature – you can see it in everything about me. There is aim and precision. I bob and weave and tenaciously, try everything to avoid failing at something. I often have a plan A, then a B, then a C… My adaptive intelligence can keep me going a really long time.
But I dislike fear. It is like a cage that shrinks and shrinks. So when the situation gets shadowed by the dread of fear, I turn ‘suicidal’. Smash my precious planning to pieces and walk into its jaws. Endure the scorching heat and be reborn.
It’s actually not that big a deal.
There is no success and no failure – only grace.
Today I still get asked, in our hierarchical worldview, to define how high I am in the pecking order that we’re all supposedly in. Who employs me? What are my titles so far? Am I a manager ‘yet’? How high am I in the company?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found there is profoundly more freedom when you do not care what you answer to these questions. Only in its grace.
To trust the cyclical nature of life, you have to allow yourself to ride the troughs of ‘failure’ as well as the crests of ‘success’. Only then can your light rise steady upon the land.
And this is the achievement that gives you peace. You can’t ‘over-achieve’ this.
So why did I take so long to try solo female travel?
And how does all this at all relate to travelling solo to Nepal?
More importantly, why did I take so long to travel independently, even though solo travel was objectively the kind of travel that would give me the experiences I wanted to seek in the world?
I hereby confess the biggest failure I grapple with. It is a thing that no exam measured, but the assessment is constant and unrelenting. The assessors are everyone around me, everywhere, every day. And I know it is unrelenting because of my constant failure. It twists like the unhealing wound of Chiron, because it is a constant mockery of my outward achievement.
Underlying a life that’s outwardly successful by Asian standards, was the constant awareness that I cannot do the simplest thing – I cannot do socialising.
By this I do not mean introversion – although I am that too. I mean that I somehow could not learn social skills in the way and pace that my peers do. I could not really work out how people just know what to pick up on, and then know what is expected by others in social interactions. I’m told, you ‘just know’.
But I didn’t.
Even after understanding it is learned by mimicry, it still doesn’t help, because I could not ‘see’ what it is that should be mimicked.
What’s more, I grew up in an Asian culture. The social cues are subtle and many. So I’m really sorry to everyone who may have been hinting whatever at me all these years. I probably simply didn’t see it.
And now I come to my confession. This failure is the reason why I could not travel independently as a solo female traveller.
Conventional travel has a limited avenue for growth and experience precisely because it is much more packaged. You pay someone else to entirely solve the logistics and manage the risks for you.
When you take over those tasks yourself as an independent traveller, you need to reach out to real people, whether local people or other travellers. You must be able to socialise, irrespective of the barriers of culture and language. It’s even more important for the solo female traveller, because there are additional risks to female travel, and there are more variable social rules for women.
For the longest time, this was an insurmountable barrier for me, because I had received very little help to overcome my weakness. Because I could teach myself in so many things, it occurred to nobody that for certain things I needed special help.
That said, the fact that I grew up an Asian woman in an Asian country in a pre-social media world was also a blessing. At least I had easy resort to the sanctuary of feminine dignified reserve – a mask and a crutch, until Galatea learned how to step out of stone.
If I’m human, I wouldn’t need to ask how to socialise.
This was what I internalised from how people responded, when I gave out signs that I do not know what response is expected from me in the myriad social interactions we encounter in daily life. So I stopped asking. Instead, I tried to puzzle it out across years of silence.
It’s probably made worse, because I was otherwise admired.
When people admire you, it never occurs to them to help you. When they think you’re highly intelligent, they assume you will know everything. It never crosses their minds that you have something you need help with.
And even if it did cross their minds, most simply dismiss it. You’re smart, right? Surely that means you can diagnose whatever it is that’s wrong with you. You can then devise your own cure. And then apply it to yourself, all on your own. So many people have it worse than you, without the advantage of your intelligence. They need the attention more. And of course, how can one argue with the justness of that morality?
This was the expectation laid on me, at the wise and ripe old age of early teenage-hood. So I tried. I tried to be my own psychologist. I tried to create my own coping strategies.
And yes, you guessed it. The plus side of being unable to pick up on social cues, is that I was also insulated from peer pressure and other negative messaging from society. I have a resistance to what society tells all of us is the way things should be seen, and the way we are supposed to feel about stuff.
Ironically, not being able to pick up on social cues gave me more control over my subconscious beliefs than everyone else, in the long run.
It’s not all bad.
Am I on the ASD spectrum?
I’m not claiming to have Asperger’s or something like that. I never got tested, nor was that even possible back then. And I don’t think I will get tested. It’s moot now, anyway. What I’m saying is, I can relate.
I know about desperately trying to decide whether there is or isn’t subtext – and what that subtext could be. I know the impatience and dismissal in people’s eyes when you plumb for the wrong choice.
And the secret routines and rituals that only have a nominal purpose, but is really about maintaining a sense of control while you’re overwhelmed by expectations you don’t understand. I know about that.
And there’s the flippant comments about being robot-like. The dread of wondering how true it might be. Wondering if I could pass the Turing test. Whether it’s possible to be born to human parents and be objectively disqualified from humanity via a test meant to qualify robots for human traits.
For the longest time, I held this secret. That maybe, possibly, despite passing every exam, I could not pass as human if I were truly tested.
Evolving to the challenge of solo female travel
But of course, that isn’t quite true. I can no more ‘fail’ at being human than I can at being a girl, no matter how different I am from the average. Both are inherent to your DNA. The deficiency is actually in other people, for not appreciating the natural range these categories can have.
It took me longer and slower, but I am getting there with the help of friends who helped me down from the pedestal.
They are those who are wise enough to see through to the fact that there are things they could help me with. Who loved me enough to accept me into a community just as I was, explained to me blindingly obvious things they do all the time, and answered my questions. Who have no need of idols and torchbearers because they understand all people have different needs and strengths.
Protected me from other people, as they helped me out of the prison I finally broke in my Blue Period odyssey.
It turns out that all I needed was extra help. Just like the extra help I had given to others weaker than me at the things I am gifted with.
So I turn around and walk into the shadow, this time ahead of the fear. I know I will evolve once more. I know, from the previous times I had ‘failed’.
*Malay: The dominant race in Malaysia, comprising the majority of the political ethnic group who are considered ‘native’ to the land.
**baju kurung: traditional female dress of the Malay people.