It was my first day at school. I don’t really remember feeling nervous. I learnt to speak English at nursery (or kindergarten for non- UK readers) so, as far as I was concerned, the hard part was done. My mum and I got to the school gates and went to say goodbye. She put her hands on my face and told me to have a good day. All pretty standard. She then handed me a bag of pick-and-mix sweets – not the penny sweets kind, but the fancy ones from Woolworths in the pink stripy bag! She instructed me to share them with the other kids so I could make friends. This was one of those innocuous memories that I had that I didn’t realise left a profound message on me – at least not until I explored this with my therapist as an adult.
In support of my mother, this was fair. She grew up in the UK as a teenager, after my grandfather moved the family from Hong Kong. I grew up in a Norfolk town where, let’s be honest, isn’t known for its diversity. Like lots of first generation British Born Chinese (BBCs), we were the only Chinese family in our town, especially in the early days. One of my classmates was of Asian descent and we contributed to the handful of ethnic minorities in our school. So, on that first day at school, she unintentionally implanted a belief that I still struggle to shake off on a bad day –
As a child, I never really fit. I was too Chinese at school; too English at home. I was taught to integrate by my parents and taught to embrace and celebrate my family’s heritage by my grandparents. I stereotypically worked in our family friend’s takeaway as a teenager. I would deal with racial slurs from some customers at the counter and then be ridiculed for using the wrong Chinese words in the kitchen (if you’ve ever tried to say “wash” or “die” in Cantonese, you’ll know what I’m talking about!)
It wasn’t just about race. I was told to work hard, to make a better life for myself. This wasn’t the general culture at my school, so I was torn between studying hard and fitting in. I tried desperately to be good at sports and the arts. I was lucky to have found a great group of friends, even it changed about sometimes. We were working it all out together. However, I stood out like a sore thumb for some people. After a childhood of bullying, when it started to happen to my younger brother, I learnt to fight back. I became a defender and a champion for those who were being victimised. This certainly meant it was harder to keep a low profile, so I got on with it. As lots of us felt as teenagers, everywhere felt like a battleground. The clash of different cultures, expectations, and languages shaped my upbringing of conflict.
And then I left home. I finally finished school, I packed up my stuff into a car, kissed my tearful mother goodbye before I drove off to university – with my two youngest brothers dragging their mattresses to claim my newly vacated bedroom. To cut a long story short – this is where I found my people. Other outcasts, geeks and freaks. My longest love – my best friend – told me a few years back that she was so grateful this unlikely band of misfits found one another. We all grew up feeling the same – like we didn’t fit, for lots of different reasons. We had also picked up the same skill to “fit in” or “fight it out”. Our adult version of the bag of sweets at the school gates was servitude and usefulness.
For example, one of my fondest memories was hearing a rabble outside, chanting. When we went to see what the fuss was, it turns out the rugby teams were outside of my house, chanting “Mama Lou” en route to their social.
Of course, it’s nice to liked. It feels good to be needed and important. But as I argued in my previous blog, agreeableness isn’t always helpful. I developed an unhealthy relationship with boundaries – or the lack of. I gave so much of myself away, I had nothing left. When I had to take time off work due to my mental health, I hated myself for being so selfish, for being a failure. I then felt complete loss. How am I still me if my driving purpose wasn’t to take care of others? It took me three months of crying, therapists and hard work to begin to unpick and rebuild my core identities.
It – and some incredible support from awesome people – eventually helped me unlearn the unintended lesson my mother taught me on my first day of school. I didn’t have to show up with something to make friends; I just had to show up. I didn’t have to pretend to be something I wasn’t to make other people love me. If I did the things that made me happy, I would meet other people who loved what I loved; luckily for my former colleagues, one of these activities was learning to bake! If I was excited and enthusiastic, people around me were too. If I was happy in myself, then I could help others with energy, generosity and authenticity.
So now, I nourish different aspects of my identity – I am a British Born Chinese person, who connects with other BBCs; I am a Magic: The Gathering player, who spends too much time and money on cardboard; I am a budding miniatures painter, who really wants to win my first painting competition in a year’s time; I am a compassionate, loving friend, who is anything between 20 minutes to two hours late for social engagements (patience is pretty mandatory for my closest people); and I am writer and coach, who is still working some of this stuff out herself.
There is so much fear and uncertainty out there – no wonder we’re all a bit anxious. I know the only thing I can truly do is to look after myself and doing the things that gets me “talking hands” excited, so that I can keep helping others find and maintain their joy.