My father dug ditches in the mud every morning to irrigate his father’s paddyfields. To call him a farmer sounds odd to me. It’s just what he grew up with: the fortunate son who was born into a family that owned a decent enough land for paddyfields - fortunate to have been the only son. He would be so fortunate to have grown up with just three female siblings, by sheer luck. My grandmother did not believe in contraceptives, perhaps for the pragmatic reason that infant mortality rate had whittled down her brood to four children: three surviving girls and my father. Rural Sundanese agrarian families are irrevocably patriarchal and pragmatic.
I have had the fortune to have been born as the first daughter to the Only Son of the man who sold his paddy fields to have him study at pesantren - an islamic boarding school. His three sisters would go on to marry men much like my grandfather. Because they didn’t believe in contraceptive usage - this time due to religion - , they would give birth every two years amassing an army of young ones while my father, the prized boy in the family, would go on to study at a top tier Indonesian university to read public nutrition. It was here that he met my mother.
My mother was the eldest with 7 siblings in tow. She assumed care of her siblings almost like a mother at an early age, to help my grandmother and grandfather. She was born to a family of teachers: my grandfather was a teacher of kindergarten teachers and my grandmother was an aspiring kindergarten teacher who went on to manage an entire chain of 11 kindergartens in the city. Meritocracy and education has been so weaved into the very fibers of my mother’s DNA. As the first-born only daughter from a respected family of little means, scholarship was her ticket out of her small town.
I have had the fortune to have been born as the first daughter to the First-born Only Daughter of the man who had supplied her with an early diet of books. To call my mother an overachiever sounds strange to me. It is the only thing that she knows how to do and how to be: to work hard, study hard and be at the very top of everything she sets her mind to.
I have the fortune to have been raised by an eccentric, deeply philosophical man who - instead of taking on his father’s publishing business - went on to study Economics in the US during the 1970s when Indonesian PhDs were rare and few. An extraordinary man of his time, I have had the fortune to have gleaned his way of thinking, his confidence in being utterly and completely unusual and the patience to heal.
That’s where my story begins. I learned at the very early age of 11 that a reductionist view of the world is patently disorienting. Humans are complex, insecure, fumbling, wounded, resilient, conniving, corruptible, hypocritical and unyielding. Humans are ugly as much as they are beautiful. To cut a long story short, I witnessed the wide gamut of human life from birth to death to marriages and divorces before I turned 15 as participant, audience and sometimes, hostage.
Growing up in many different communities, from suburban Depok, West Java, to surviving on little funds in Southampton, England and inserted into the expatriate microcosm in Singapore - makes you incredibly finely attuned to the socio-economic status and preferences of the communities you live in. It also makes you feel like a perpetual misfit.
All the years after, I have tried so hard to deny, erase and pretend this prologue - this background story - did not exist. I did not want to be defined by life events and circumstances that were outside of my control. I did not want to become the prototypical ‘Girl From Broken Family Did Not Grow Up Into an Emotionally Balanced Adult: Fails at Life’. I strived for resilience and I did not want to be defined by the ill-wishes of the community we are a part of. I remember my English teacher’s quote, Mr Richard Butler “All excellence is an act of Rebellion.”
I need to excel and to prove that I am more than just the sum of history. In that denial, the sense of guilt and insecurity grew large and ominous. At times, I take an axe and hack it to pieces, trimming it down to size but sometimes, on bad days it grows and grows and grows.
So… this is why I have come to be the way I am: denying the chip on my shoulder that had grown to a size of a boulder.
My motivation that drives all of what I do now in my work is to reduce this burden to a size of a marble for my son or my daughter. If that’s not possible, then I will learn how to grow and train their muscle so that even if their responsibility to their body, their mind, their soul, their family, their partners, their friends, their team and their work grows heavy as an Earth on their shoulder - they’ll learn a thing or two from Atlas and make the burden feel as light as a marble.
I am not who I am without all the mentors who have given guidance on how i should shape my life. I am not who I am without all of the opportunities and hardships that I’ve had the fortune for enduring.
I am not who I will be without This: the acceptance that I am the sum of all history before me and all the choices ahead that has already been made for me.
Here I accept my past. Now, I accept my future.
Some days, all you can say is, aiyoah life goes on.
Two roads present themselves, out of the blue, equally attractive in the sights and experiences and yet, very different.
I wonder if this is one of those Big Major Moments, the kind I would tell one day and point: This.
This was When I Knew.
This was When I Chose.
This was When I Committed.
Flashes of faces, voices and memories reminds me of the kind of people I have come to admire. I’m seeking an answer that would guide me. The only thing they all had in common was that they were self-made men and women. They worked hard. They believed in what they do. Apart from that, there’s no common ways to success as much as there are no common definitions of success.
Perhaps the mark of adulthood is having to make choices with an even tempered mind, carefully examining the facets of each option with balanced perspectives between the logical and the emotional. No pressure. No escape. Just, informed decisions.
Thank you for giving me humble pie. I know now what I am and am not. I know what I can and can’t do. The choices we make every day determines our future. It energizes me to know that now, more than ever, I’m allowing my inner compass to guide me.
Let’s get up. Start over. Never too late to begin again.
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.