Essential life lessons about independence
This is my story about the first taste of freedom and gaining independence.
By Karen E. Chin
FREEDOM HIT ME LIKE A TON OF BRICKS
Fresh-faced at the age of 17, I left my hometown Kuching, the town famously known as ‘Cat City’ in Malaysia where I was born, educated and bred.
After finishing secondary school, I aced a scholarship interview and was on my way to study to be an occupational therapist at the College of Occupational Therapy in Hospital Kuala Lumpur.
They had given me two weeks’ notice to uproot myself.
So on a highly-emotional day in July 2001, I left my family, friends that I hung out with every single day, and my teenage-love boyfriend (with the delusion of surviving a long distance relationship) for Kuala Lumpur. I had no idea where I was going to stay, what I needed or who would be around me.
Once I stepped off the plane, the future looked completely blank to me. With every step I took, I was writing new chapters into my life story. Freedom was bittersweet, and it started to taste better after that initial step.
Independence can hit you suddenly and harshly, but once bitten by the freedom bug, it can be addictive.
Having the freedom to do whatever you want without anyone stopping you is wonderful. All too often, people associate this with having fun and partying until you drop, but the consequences of making the wrong decisions or having a run of bad luck can be sometimes overwhelming to bear alone.
In Kuala Lumpur I rented a small, dingy room in a shared loft in a shop house. It was situated in a lane that a friend who visited me once, described as “ghetto”. I stayed in that area for more than a year and in that time I was ‘privileged’ to be initiated into the dangerous city life that everyone had warned me about.
Two tiny men took a knife to my neck and snatched my bag. They took my cellphone, my wallet (which only had RM15), my identity card, drivers’ license, bank card… everything I had… including my darn house keys and a book I had just rented, ‘The Joy Luck Club’. (I loved the movie so I was really excited to read the book).
I went to the nearby train station for help. They looked at me with some sadness but did not even offer a telephone to make any calls. They just offered me this advice: Lodge a police report.
With no money, I walked all the way home. With no house keys to enter my own place, I sat outside on the steps waiting for somebody to come home.
While I was hanging out the laundry, an old man was outside my apartment putting his penis on show – masturbating. He was apparently getting too excited about the variety of drying women’s underclothes hanging on the clothes line.
I did not leave my room that day.
I was followed home by a weird man who kept trying to talk to me. I walked briskly to my fierce landlady’s house and she yelled at him until he left. He actually looked scared of her. I had never liked my landlady that much until that defining moment.
There is a phobia that sticks to you when things like these happen. You learn to recover and to build some sort of preventative mechanism so that it would not easily happen again.
If you spend most of your time alone, avoid attracting danger by acting like danger itself. I perfected my don’t-mess-with-me expression and shamelessly flaunted a pepper-spray in my hands while walking alone all throughout my college years. Being the potential troublemaker works as a great deterrent. No one likes extra work, not even muggers, flashers or stalkers.
NO MORE MR. NICE GUY
There is a big social lesson to learn regarding independence. I was truly naïve when I was 17, thinking that people were inherently good. Thinking back, even I think my mentality back then was ridiculous, but unfortunately it was true. I believed people too easily, and it was disappointing. I have met a lot of horrible people while I was building up a new social life.
Just after two short months, I made a short trip back to my hometown. An old friend asked me, “You lost the spark in your eyes. What happened?” Just as Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened to the world after eating the fruit from the forbidden tree, independence opened my eyes to the real world.
There are people who seem like they are your friends but spread rumors about you. There are guys who only want to take advantage of you. There are people who take your money for rental deposit and then run away with it. Liars, cheaters, con men, you name it, you will meet them all.
However, I learnt to withhold judgment.
We do not know what makes people the way they are. I learned a valuable lesson, and that is to have a strong sense of who you are: find the balance in being a nice person, yet strong enough to weed out those who create a negative impact in your life and assertive enough to get what you want or to reject. Be polite, yet firm.
In a nutshell, be smart and protect yourself. It may seem selfish but there are people who will not have your best interest at heart, so it is understandable. If others do not like it, learn not to dwell over it and move on. I came to understand why people from the city become indifferent and cold zombie-like individuals.
It is an acquired skill and defense mechanism required to survive.
Learn to be a better judge of people’s characters, and learn to be a more tolerant and understanding person yourself. Find real, good friends and cherish them.
REMEDY FOR HOMESICKNESS
My parents were the best throughout my transition from a sheltered life. They were my support in the holistic sense: emotional, physical, and mental.
They came with me during my move, sorted things out and bought me a lot of stuff to make sure I was comfortable. They worried endlessly, although they knew it was time for their little bird to spread her wings and fly. Although I messed up a lot, they always assured me that I would always have a place to run to, to seek help or refuge.
It was a touching realisation to finally break away from the teenage angst and finally see your parents’ unconditional love.
Being homesick is an inevitable process of moving. Although I adapt quickly to new situations, I wasn’t spared the heartache of longing for home.
They would call me daily and check on me, and I would cry because I missed my old life. The first two weeks, I felt lonely and lost in the big city.
Eventually, my dad told me, “If you are not happy, I will bring you home.” That was my father’s soft spot for me speaking. I told him no, I will stay on. I was sorely tempted to give up, but I didn’t want lose respect for myself.
After two weeks – just like that – the home-sick feeling disappeared.
I am not sure of the phenomenon but I believe that given time, people just naturally adapt to their new surroundings. It is believed that it takes about 21 days to form or break habits, and I believe the same for adaptation too. I just adapt a little faster than average.
From that point onwards, it was more common for my parents to complain about me not contacting them for weeks (back in those days circa 2001, cellphones were a luxury and we didn’t have the Internet at our fingertips).
It reminded me of what my mother told me: as a child, I didn’t have separation anxiety, not even on my first day of kindergarten. I did not throw a crying fit or run after them as they drove away. I blended right in with my classmates and adapted.
Adapting to your new environment as quickly as possible is a good thing to do, and while you are doing that, get excited about your new life and find simple pleasures in it every day. The remedy for homesickness is time. Fake it until you make it.
HOW INDEPENDENCE MADE ME WHO I AM TODAY
Let’s face it: when you are alone, no one cares if you don’t shower, eat junk all day, or don’t sleep. I learned that although it is cool to do whatever I wanted, there were a lot of truths in what my parents usually nagged me to do.
Dirty dishes left in the sink will smell and attract unwanted life forms. Not doing your laundry means you won’t have clothes to wear. If you don’t buy food, you will go hungry. All of these decisions are yours now and no one will sweep up your mess. This cold realisation is worse when it comes to you when you are hunched over in the bathroom with no water heater and scrubbing your mountain of dirty laundry, tired from a long day and freezing.
Yes, independence may be sweet, but it is not all rainbows and butterflies. Count your blessings and appreciate those who make your life easier.
Independence and freedom works well for those in the right state of mind. You need to be strong enough to psych yourself up for an adventure and emerge a wiser and stronger person after making mistakes and surviving them.
Through the tough times, I am grateful for the lessons I learnt and the skills I honed. I try not to let myself get too bitter about mishaps because the life skills I acquired are priceless.
Now, I love living alone. I love deciding my own time. I have confidence when I go out alone. I run my errands and pay my bills on time. I can go up to a stranger and extract information that I need. I am self-sufficient.
Freedom and independence gives you the chance to truly know yourself and what you are capable of doing, and then you mold yourself into the most awesome individual you can be.
Karen is a born-and-bred Kuching singer/songwriter who made her debut with her single ‘Cold’ in 2011. She is a trained occupational therapist, experienced makeup artist and has been a writer her whole life. She writes on a variety of topics and the tried-and-tested lifestyle as she sees it; direct, witty and down-to-earth.