In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, society is always telling girls that “you can have ambition, but not too much”. To move away from home in pursuit of academic or professional goals is a public declaration of personal ambition on a scale that women, and in particular women of colour, are simply not expected or encouraged to possess. Rather than celebrating women boldly taking their lives into their own hands, Australian culture, rooted in tall poppy syndrome and gendered and racialised norms, perceives ambition in women of colour as narcissism or a delusion of their own grandeur.
Uprooting myself at all, let alone to pursue the vastly undervalued field of Gender Studies and especially as an Asian-Australian, was a deeply transgressive act. In mid-2015 UWA cancelled the Gender Studies major. As a final-year English/Gender Studies student, left with no prospect of the Gender Studies honours program I had my heart set on, my choices in Perth were limited and unfulfilling. I decided instead to do honours at ANU, which is one of the few universities in Australia to offer Gender Studies at an undergraduate and postgraduate level. The discipline is undervalued precisely because it is research primarily by and about minorities – women, people of colour and queer people.
Moving out to become an unpaid sex nerd is the apex of the multitude of ways I have failed to be a good Asian.
When I was at UWA it was assumed I would become an English teacher; not an ideal occupation for an Asian girl, but respectable nonetheless. Leaving that respectable charade behind to study sex and gender was not something I was supposed to do but, then again, I have always provoked some form of disapproval from the Asian-Australian community that I grew up in. Having been raised in a mixed-heritage household far away from our extended family, I can only speak English. I have always been too dark and too fat and too loud, and throughout my childhood in Perth I always felt ostracised from the tight-knit Asian community. Moving out to become an unpaid sex nerd is the apex of the multitude of ways I have failed to be a good Asian.
In the summer of 2015 I entered in my first relationship; my imminent departure embedded this with the irresistible drama of being star-crossed lovers. We were only together for a couple of months, but my partner came to represent all the things I was leaving behind – all the familiar comforts of home that I realised I had been taking for granted. It was ludicrous to even consider dropping all my plans to stay at home just for this extremely short relationship but I’ll admit that I thought about it – I still consider that summer to be the happiest time of my life. We dropped hints to each other – that he should come to Canberra, that we should try long-distance, that maybe we’d reconnect if and when I got back – but the greater pressure was on me to stay in Perth.
I’m not saying that women shouldn’t make professional sacrifices for their personal relationships, but the timing was all wrong. I couldn’t throw away my future for a boy I had known for a few weeks and the reality was that I never wanted even the best-case scenario for this relationship. I didn’t want to settle down in Perth, with its limited opportunities and aggressive anti-intellectualism, and I knew that no partner in the world could separate me from that conviction. Throughout history men have left women when reality beckoned, but when I did the leaving, I was wracked with guilt. This emotion had to be largely left unexpressed, however, because a double standard emerged: whilst he was allowed to feel upset that I was leaving, I was not, because leaving was my choice. Things ended rather catastrophically and I haven’t heard anything from him, even though I’ve been back in Perth for six months now. I miss him every day, and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had made different choices.
This context haunted my year at ANU, compounded by the reality that Honours is a lonely year. Independent research is not conducive to a bustling social life, I didn’t know anybody in my classes, and anxiety obstructed any social opportunities even further. In the deafening silence of my room I dwelled endlessly on my failed relationship, on my homesickness, on the pressure to prove that I could somehow make a life out of the choices I had made. I was heartbroken and lonely and slipping back into depression, which I had struggled with in my early teens. Some days I didn’t make it to class; some days I didn’t make it out of bed to make a cup of tea. Having the opportunity to move interstate to chase your far-fetched dreams is a privilege and a luxury, but it was also the most difficult thing I’d ever done.
It can be incredibly discouraging to be punished not only for having left but also for having returned, and to be treated like the failure I’m pretty sure I’m not, at least not yet.
After graduation I came back home, exhausted. I was proud of what I had achieved at ANU, but I hadn’t quite hit the very high bar I had set for myself. I decided to take a year off study – having never taken a gap year, by the time I had graduated from ANU I had been in one institution or another for 20 of my 21 years. Now I live at home, I help out around the house, I work in the childcare industry, and I’m working on trying to get a doctoral position lined up for next year. In the Asian community I know tongues are already wagging; to them I am not a kid on a gap year, I am a boomerang millennial, home from a very expensive failed experiment.
I made some very difficult choices and gritted my teeth through a very rough year. It can be incredibly discouraging to be punished not only for having left but also for having returned, and to be treated like the failure I’m pretty sure I’m not, at least not yet. I don’t regret it though – these difficult years have only confirmed for me that I am allowed to seek what is best for myself and for my future, no matter what others think.