Tribe Talk

Once in a while – perhaps five or six times a year – I’ll find myself standing next to an Asian girl on the train silently wondering what she’s like as a person. She’ll usually be like me in many ways: not über glamorous but not exactly Waynetta Slob either; dressed conservatively from a western point of view, but liberally from an eastern one. Perhaps I’ll catch a snippet of her phone conversation or see her pause at an interesting poster, and suddenly I’ll feel an overwhelming sense of wistfulness.

You see, over the last 10 years, I’ve seen my pool of female Asian friends drain painfully dry. It’s true that we all have a string of faded friendships behind us, but I’ve found this specific flavour particularly hard to maintain. In the early years it was because many of my friends married young, had kids or moved away, their absences punctuated by occasional stories of overbearing parents or controlling in-laws. Our bonds splintered in the way our lives already had. Then onto university where I studied Computer Science – not a subject known for its proliferation of female grads.

A few years after graduation, I began to lose more friends to marriage. Some fell out of touch because they were happy and busy with kids and husbands and jobs and lives, which felt natural and of course I was happy they were happy. With others, however, there was something more pernicious at play. The last time I met a particular friend, she had told her mother-in-law she was working an extra shift when in reality, she was having dinner with us. Another recently told me she was at her mum’s for a week rather than at her in-laws and was therefore able to meet up. I hate talking about this because it reinforces ugly stereotypes about my community and portrays these women as weak when in reality they are strong and intelligent, but also mindful of their families’ rules of respectability.

I was reminded of just how much I take my lifestyle for granted when I came back from a trip abroad earlier this year. A 24-year-old Asian girl I worked with at the time looked at me wistfully and said: “That’s what I’d do if I was in control of my life: travel.”

“You are in control of your life,” I insisted like some second-grade therapist. She shook her head and said plaintively, “No, I’m not.” And it’s true: she’s not – just like I wasn’t when I was 24 and living with my parents, blindly walking into an arranged marriage I knew I didn’t want. But I digress.

If you’re wondering about the emphasis on Asian female friends, let me try to explain. I have lots of white British friends (of course), but I need some friends with whom I can share ‘tribe talk’. I’ll use an example to explain what I mean: When I was at Asian Woman magazine, one of the girls (who was dating a white man, shock horror) told us how weird she felt calling her boyfriend’s parents by name. We all murmured in agreement, commenting on how odd it would feel. Our one white-British colleague said: “What on Earth’s wrong with that?”

I explained that we don’t call any elders by their names. Everyone unrelated is a kala or sasi (aunt) or mama or sasa (uncle). Elder sisters are afa while brothers are bhaisaab. Calling an elder (particularly the parents of your partner) would be deeply disrespectful. I was met with bewilderment at which point another colleague stepped in and said, “Don’t worry. It’s just tribe talk.”

It was a great way to describe something rather intangible. Many, if not most, Asian girls of my generation share a common bond. I suppose you could liken it to Jewish guilt. It’s a bond forged by the patriarchal culture we grew up in, by the freedoms that were curbed, by the marriages that were arranged, by the heritage that we bear. There’s a comfortable understanding of each other’s lives that doesn’t come as easily with others. This is why I miss those faded friendships so much. It’s why I wonder silently about those strangers on the train. They are women I could be friends with, but haven’t quite found my way to. Sometimes they make me hopeful, but mostly they make me sad because they remind me of everything that is lost and all that could have been.


7 Tips for Travelling Alone

As someone who lives alone and who has spent much of her career freelancing, it’s safe to say that I’m pretty comfortable in my own company. When it comes to travelling, however, it’s a different story. I like sharing the experience with someone else, be it a friend, boyfriend, family member or colleague. I like having someone to share thoughts and ideas with, someone to put me right when I'm heading down the street in the wrong direction, someone to fret with when it's 3am and the bus that's meant to take me from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville is 2 hours late.

I recently stood over the spot Hitler's bunker used to be ­– the place in which he spent his last days before taking his own life. I looked around at all the residential buildings in the area and thought: 'Jesus, can you imagine waking up every morning and looking out onto this?' Alas, there was no-one to whom I could ask the question, for I was in Berlin alone. I don't make it a habit to travel this way. I’ve been to around 20 countries, few of which I visited without some sort of company. As such, I may not be best placed to issue this advice, but I have a couple of stories to share that might be useful...

Read the rest of this post at atlasandboots.com.



Z: What are you listening to?
Me: The Weeknd.
Z: Aren't you too old to be listening to The Weeknd?
Me: You know The Weeknd!? I'm impressed.
Z: *Giggles*
Me: Wait, you're blagging, aren't you?
Z: I think it's safe to assume you're too old for anything you listen to.
Me: Fucker.


Fly-by Shooting

Two months ago, I jumped out of a plane at 13,000 feet. According to some friends I saw this week, I haven't done a good enough job sharing/bragging about this fact. As such, here's me, well, jumping out of a plane at 13,000 feet:

45-second freefall followed by a 4-minute float down to Earth

(I can tell you I was less cavalier about it when my sisters decided to show the video to my mum the last time I went round (no, I didn't tell her before I did it)).


Things I know at 30 I wish I knew at 20

A 30th birthday is an anomalous creature. For some, it’s a day of genuine celebration; for others a time of wistful reflection. As mine fast approaches, I find myself suitably philosophical. I look back on the last 10 years and, while I agree that we are who we are because of what we’ve seen and done, I wish I could reach back through the years with these five simple truths:

When you get there, there's no 'there' there
As with anyone, my twenties were a maelstrom of soaring highs and gutting lows, the latter of which involved arranged marriage, divorce, estrangement and bereavement. Today, one might say I have finally found peace. I live in a spacious flat in one of the world’s greatest cities, I travel far and wide, I work at the world's biggest publishing company, I’m writing my third novel and, most importantly, I’ve figured out that true love is the most precious thing one can have. Am I happy? Yes. Am I ‘there’? No. Because ‘there’ doesn’t exist. Human beings are hard-wired to want more; to chase the next thrill; to set the next goal; to want bigger, better, faster and NOW. There are days I question if I’m wasting my life on the London Underground. I dream about relocating to somewhere warm, living near a beach, revelling in a simpler life. I’d like to tell my 20-year-old self to stop chasing ‘there’ and instead enjoy here.  

Don’t be with someone you don’t love
I went from a working-class Tower Hamlets girl who wore a hand-me-down coat for six years to a lady of leisure in a 3-bedroom Greenwich semi, courtesy of my high-earning husband. I had everything I wanted – freedom, stability, space and time – and yet I’d find myself staring out the kitchen window, repeatedly asking a single question: ‘Is this it?’ My unhappiness stemmed from a single cause: I didn’t love the man I married. When I found his incriminating emails to another woman, more than anger or betrayal I felt relief; overwhelming relief that I could finally end our charade. Fast forward to February 2012 and I’m signing for a delivery at the office. It’s a stunning evening gown sent by someone who read in a column that I wanted it. My fashionista colleagues do some reconnaissance and we find out that it's worth several thousand pounds. They tell their friends about it, they tweet about it and they tell me in no uncertain terms that I have to keep the dress – alas, I am compelled to return it. My 20-year-old self would have been completely enamoured, but at 30 I know I can't be with a man that I do not love. Perhaps I had to earn this wisdom the hard way, but things would have been so much easier had I always known it. (I probably should have kept the dress though.)

Niceness is not a weakness

According to the professionals, all our issues and neuroses can be traced to back to childhood. I hate to admit it, but they might just be right. Growing up in a violent household with a drug addict brother meant that I was constantly striving to prove how strong, unafraid and invulnerable I was. The guilt-tinged relief I felt every time he chose to beat one of my sisters instead of me hardened instead of softened me. I dismissed kindness and compassion as weaknesses, and trained myself into the cynical, aloof, world-weary twenty-something I’ve been for the last 10 years. In my previous job, my staff would liken me to Anna Wintour, notorious for her steely demeanour, but I took it as a compliment. After all, who’s going to touch you when you’re made of ice? I don’t think I’ll ever have the optimism or open-heartedness of a well-adjusted adult, but I’m slowly learning to thaw. If I could tell my younger self that being nice is not a weakness, perhaps I wouldn’t have to work so hard at it now.

Smart and pretty aren’t mutually exclusive
I’ve never dyed my hair and I don’t own a lipstick. I have five pairs of decent shoes and even fewer handbags. I’ve always dismissed women who spend hours on hair, makeup and shopping as vacuous fools, blindly following the whims of fashion. I haughtily dedicated my time to more noble pursuits – learning a foreign language, taking horseriding lessons and reading Camus – while other girls found their perfect foundation, learnt to backcomb expertly and amassed a vast array of accessories to suit any occasion. I would like to tell my younger self to lighten up about this stuff; that being feminine doesn’t make you stupid; that you don’t have to try so hard to prove yourself; that it’s okay to want to look good. Sure, Camus was fun but so were the secret superpowers endowed to me by those semi-permanent lashes I trialled last summer. Enjoy your youth for it won’t last long.

Your parents (probably) did the best they could

This is a cliché I wish I had heeded. Alas, somewhere between my brother’s addiction and my parents’ inertia, my relationship with my mother disintegrated. I despised the fact that she protected her son as he destroyed her daughters. My family’s Asian conservatism won’t allow for the kind of angry, accusatory but ultimately cathartic and reconciliatory mother-daughter exchanges you see in the movies so I don’t know if I’ll ever work my way through this one. I guess what I’d say is: try not to get so angry with your mother. She’s probably doing the best she can and, one day, you’re going to have to forgive her.

If you could reach back through the ages, what would you say?