Sunday, 19 April 2015

F for "F" words....

So I haven't written in a while, let me explain. The beauty of an alphabetical blog is that you can predict which letter is coming next and I have been thinking of “F” words and themes for weeks, reluctant to commit to just one. “Feet” sprang to mind when I was at Pilates once; I never realised how important it was to think about what pressure we put on our feet everyday and to scrutinise how we stand, curl and spread our toes and the domino effect that our feet have on the rest of our body. Try this; spread your toes out when you stand and try to press your smallest toes down the most; can you “feel” the response in your knees, maybe even your back? I am “filled” with “fascination” by how the strength and manipulation of one part of a machine that is the human body, can have such power over how the rest of that same machine operates.

Blog on hold; we went to “France” for Easter. What a wonderful city Paris is, so easy to move around and so romantic to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night. We stayed with wonderful cousins, so hospitable and warm. So I considered this as potential subject matter; scribing about loving “feeling familiar” yet “foreign” in our neighbours' land. But our time was short and we were back home so soon and other “F” words floated around.

“Forgiveness” was something I had to talk about recently to a “friend” and I do want to give this its due; I have only recently learned the true benefits of forgiving, letting go and moving on. The most important thing for me to remember is that no-one ever really does something to me; my reaction and pain is my own to feel and I can control that. “Fear” is that other 4 lettered “F” word that we give so much importance to and I repeatedly tell the kids to overcome this, but sometimes this seems futile. They do understand what I say when they discover their own power over fear, through their own growing knowledge and confidence of themselves, but I still tell them anyway.

So what “F” word have I pinned down? Yesterday, my daughter celebrated her seventeenth birthday; I am still in denial! With each day, she grows more “free” and independent to choose her own path and as a parent I know it won't be long before she flies away. It is with that sense of sweet conflict that I write about “Family” as my chosen “F” word; these bonds are strong and cherished and learning to let go is really tough. I hope I will figure this out at the right time. What's funny is that the impact that the actions of one member have on the rest of the Family as a whole is not very different to the impact our movement of our smallest toes have on the rest of our bodies. You see that I have come full circle, appreciating that if I take care and love my feet, the rest of me will be okay too.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

E for Empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

When the kids have a hard day at school and come back complaining about how they “just don’t get that person”, I usually use this quote as a default aid. I studied “To Kill a Mockingbird” when I was fourteen at school and I still remember this quote today. The idea that you could even put someone’s skin on and walk around it may not appeal to some, but for me, I found that the metaphor was a really effective expression of trying to make someone feel like that other person.

The need to empathise pops up everywhere. At work, I see people who are having a bad day and need help with a problem;  at home, I am hit simultaneously by both sensations of buzzing elation and heavy disappointment and I have to ride that wave-like feeling with my loved ones, often. But I don’t think we need to learn how to empathise; it’s innate in us and even without knowing what we’re doing, we use empathy to understand characters in our own story and the part they play in the events that unfold around us.

I actually used empathy to get out of a difficult situation once, in my junior school playground. I was being bullied. There were two girls, one was small and sly, the other was slower but built like a tank, both were in my year group. They had spotted that I was a bit of a loner and they liked teasing me about having no friends.  One day, both girls cornered me as the bell went for break. Before they had a chance to remind me that I had no one to hang out with, I pre-empted, tentatively with “So I've heard that one of you is leaving town? What a shame (looking concerned at this point), the other will be all alone, I know how that feels!” The girls, thrown off-guard, stared at one another, confused and I made my escape whilst they argued about who was leaving and who would be left alone. Neither bully had worked out that I had bluffed; of course no one was going anywhere. But I figured that in order to get them off my back, I needed to make them feel like I did, vulnerable and alone.

They never really bothered me after that; if they tried, I’d just find another way to make them feel, to make them empathise. And I think that when I stopped looking like a victim around them, they stopped looking upon me as prey.

So whenever I am in a tricky situation with someone these days, I stop and remember that they are human too, thinking that there must be some way to understand their point of view and I try to tune into how they are feeling. Just like climbing inside their skin and taking a walk around in it. 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

D for Deception

Have you ever considered the distinction between lying to someone and deceiving someone? “I must not tell lies.” We are taught this as children, from a very young age (even poor Harry Potter in penance, had to write lines and lines of this repeated mantra, in his case, to his own physical detriment). But to deceive someone, is that as wrong?

In my youth(!), I had auditioned for a singing part in my senior school play, “The Card” and was chuffed when I got a role in the chorus. So what if it wasn't a solo, it was the taking part that mattered, right? Guess not, because when I went home to tell my Mum about after-school rehearsals that I was committing to on Monday nights, the “taking part” bit was mitigated by the not-straightforward logistics of getting home in the dark alone, aged 13.

Reluctantly, I approached the School’s Music Director, Mr. B, the next day to withdraw my name from the show. I apologised for my change of heart and explained that I normally took the school bus home and so would only be allowed to attend lunch-time rehearsals. When he enquired further, I clarified to him that I wasn't permitted to take public transport home on my own after school and so would have no way of getting home on Monday evenings. The annoying thing was that I suspected Mr. B didn't believe me and while I could appreciate that he knew other 13 year olds that were free to roam around town in the evenings, I wasn't one of them and was too embarrassed to spell that out.

As Mr. B grew more suspicious and embarked on a “you've committed to this now” lecture, I suddenly, without thinking, blurted out, “But I also go to the temple on Mondays and won’t make it there in time if I stay for rehearsal after school!”

I still remember how quickly his countenance changed. In a split second, eyebrows were raised and dropped, his voice transformed from an almost indignant, authoritative bark to a demure, passive murmur, suggesting rhetorically, “Now, wasn't it just better to tell the truth in the first place?” I still believe that he took patronising pleasure in telling me how disappointed he was but ultimately, I was excused from the show and that was that.

Well, I was disappointed too, but also marvelled at the irony, I still do today. I hadn't exactly lied (we did go to the temple on Mondays, sometimes) but I had definitely deceived him, albeit unintentionally. I guess lying and deceiving are both wrong, but when someone doesn't want to believe the truth, then deception is the lesser of two evils. At least I don’t have “I must not tell lies” tattooed on my hand, poor Harry Potter indeed!

Monday, 9 February 2015

C for Charity

Some of my readers are wondering where I am going with this blog. I am writing about the themes around me (contrived in alphabetical order for fun!), influenced by my 20th -meets- 21st century lenses so that someone (most likely only me!) can look back on these thoughts as a historical-learning exercise.

My mother-in-law always used to say that “Charity begins at home”. I think this was in response to the frequent doorstep visits of Save the Children, Battersea Dogs Home, Greenpeace and the like. Young individuals have often invariably pressed the doorbell at dinner time, looking cold and tired but smiling despite this, asking for a direct debit pledge – only £2 a week or something like that – and promising that this needn’t start today (homage to Casablanca alarm bells sing “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon and for the rest of your life”)…Anyway, she would always politely turn them away (sometimes with a biscuit) and then return to the kitchen, shaking her head and would reiterate to me that “Charity begins at Home”.

My interpretation of this was that you should help those around you first; your family, those that are closest to you. Now, I completely agree with this but given the accident of birth that gives us our family (on most occasions), it seems a bit unfair to ignore everyone else. In any case, my mother-in-law always used the word “begin” and I only really appreciated what that meant when she passed away.

I used to drive her to her dentist appointments and so it was with a heavy heart that I returned to the dentist’s clinic to inform them about my mother-in-law. While I was waiting in reception, an elderly lady was sitting down looking a little lost and confused. The dentist had called a taxi for her but it hadn’t arrived. Long story short, I felt the need to give this woman – a total stranger – a lift back to her house. Without hesitation, she accepted my offer and was soon chatting away in my car, telling me about her daughters that lived far away and how she had good neighbours who looked in on her from time to time but otherwise she just got on with life, by herself.

Safely depositing my temporary charge, I drove away, feeling quite good about what had just transpired. I rang the dentist to finish the conversation I never started and she remarked that although my mother-in-law’s absence left me feeling a little less useful, there were others that could benefit from my help.

Looking back, I reflect on my mother-in-law’s words and her example and come away with this: Charity does begin at home and it is at home where we first learn to serve with our hands and our time and not by making monthly payments. And once we’ve learned how, Charity doesn’t end there; it really has no end.

I do the direct debit thing too, it just doesn’t make me feel as good.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

B for Bias (and Book Bags)

As a female Sindhi teenager in Hong Kong in the ‘80s, growing up with bias was a given. There was an underlying assumption that as an Asian woman, regardless of how clever I was, I would eventually be a married mother one day. Oddly, this was never suggested at home; on the contrary, I was always brought up to be an independent thinker and self-reliant. Instead, the assumption came from “society” (society in my mind equating a picture of lots of aunties sitting in a living room at a lunch party, gossiping), not voiced directly but recognised as a quiet consensus. Other blatant biases were easier to identify: the taxi overshooting you in the queue to pick up a Caucasian or Chinese client or the less-than-friendly reception from the immigration officer at Hong Kong airport. It’s bizarre but blatant bias was easier to deal with: once you figured out how people were going to treat or perceive you, you could prepare yourself for the worst, have your response ready and sometimes be pleasantly surprised.

But now living as an adult in a politically-correct London in 2015, blatant bias is taboo; bias is more subtle and therefore more deceptive. I sometimes feel like I experience subtle bias when I talk about the choices I made; not returning to work and being a full-time mum. I am a happy in this role and yet I often feel that society (yes the same aunties, just older) is pointing a finger at me and saying I have an obligation to do it all.

No one is shouting this from the rooftops but I feel that there is no room in the 21st century for the original “Asian woman equals married mother” assumption. However, there is now an equally definitive premise that an “Asian educated woman equals woman that should do it all” assumption because biases are no longer holding us back. But I wonder if the new premise should have “if one wants to” at the end of it; isn’t less bias supposed to offer more choice? Otherwise we are just replacing one assumption with another.

My response to this less-blatant bias is this. I have a huge amount of respect and time for women that are mums and have a career too. But I know that it is hard to do both well and without help, corners do get cut. Acknowledging these successful role models publicly is easy; accepting my limitations (knowing that I can do one job well but two jobs badly) and dismissing the bias around me to conform has been harder to do. My point is that bias comes from not knowing or understanding something fully – just look around you, all that violence and anger in the world is driven by people’s ignorance, fear and bias. Accepting that we will always be subject to bias, subtle or obvious, is difficult but it is realistic. But what I have found out about myself is that it’s the way we react or give in to the biases around us that defines us.

P.S. Having been a mum for a while now, I miss book bags, with little heads peering into them, tiny fingers clutching on to their handles with the same sense of urgent importance that the Chancellor of the Exchequer holds his red Budget box. Talk about social conditioning!

Thursday, 15 January 2015

A for Acceptance

52 weeks in a year, 26 letters in the alphabet, this is week 1:

Before I got married, I would always sign with just my first name, never my last. When asked, I explained that I assumed that one day my family name would change, so there was no point in getting attached to something that had to go. Later, when I did get engaged, the event prompted the great name change debate. Being Sindhi, our tradition has an expectation that if the stars dictate it, a girl should change her first name (as well as adopt her soon-to-be-husband’s family name) to match and support that of her new family.

The problem with this cunning plan was that I liked my name and didn’t want to comply. To make matters more complicated, my husband liked my name too and despite many horoscope readings and dialogues exchanged with Hindu priests, he wasn’t having it either. So long story short, I didn’t change my first name, just my family name. And who did I annoy in the process?

The very people that chose my name in the first place. They got over it, they have been on many of my bumpy rides and they’re still standing.

Why did they want me to change my name? Because they love me and thought my new family would accept me and treat me as one of their own if I started my new life with a new name. But “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” which I hope means that I am always going to be who I am, regardless of the label. Believe in who you are, name aside. My new family accepted me, not just my name.