Yet another person has given me a certain ‘look’ when I told them about my situation. We were standing in the middle of a shopping mall in one of East London's towns.
“So, you’re working?” asked A.
“He he…no. Staying at home,” I replied. “Taking care of my kids.”
(A pause - as A pretended to look around for a while and then ended up looking at my shoes)
“Why?” asked A with a familiar ‘look’ on her face. Disapproving. Unimpressed. Curious.
“ I just want to take care of them. Plus, I don’t want to go to work!” I said, trying to sound cheerful – face to face with that look she gave me, it was a wonder I could do anything else but sweat.
“OK…” she answered, her tone unsatisfied, as if my answer was the most ridiculous thing that she has ever heard in her whole life.
And that probably wont be the last time I get these looks from my fellow Malaysians. It seems that when you have a degree, especially a degree from here (the UK) and you’re not taking advantage of it by working – you’re an oddity. You’re downright weird. You’re absolutely bonkers!
Funny how throughout my life, I’ve always felt pressured to prove myself. No matter what happens, I must get number 1 in class because I’M CLEVERER than everyone else. No matter what, I am going to do better than that person because hey, even though her dad drives a BMW and she's got the latest SWATCH (it was quite a craze when I was at school aeons ago), I am better because I’M CLEVERER. What? She did that?! OK, now I’m going to do better than that because I’M CLEVERER than her, surely? And then at work it was always, What? She got that project? Hey, I’m more competent than she is so I think I’m going to ask for something even better than that. What? She’s got that post?? And it goes on and on and on…
But that’s not the case anymore. At least not in matters of intelligence or career. After all, I'm just a housewife now - I simply don’t feel the need to prove myself to anyone anymore.
Or so I thought.
I didn’t even realise that the ‘urge to prove myself’ has really been deeply ingrained in me and has really 'passed the point of no return' until during my son’s birthday party a few months ago. We decided to cook nasi ayam as the main dish, spaghetti marinara as an alternative, tiramisu and jelly and of course the birthday cake. This is more than an armful for me alone, so I had to ‘delegate’ a few simple chores to my dear husband, who readily agreed to help, provided I tell him exactly what to do. And by 'exactly', I mean EXACTLY.
It was the chicken. He was supposed to marinate the chicken. And a host of other minial things that I could have done myself except that there was the cake that needed to be frosted, and the decorations, and the tiramisu, and the cleaning..and the list goes on. So the deal was: I take care of the major stuff and instruct him on the minor stuff. The ingredients and measurements of the marinade were clearly written on my little recipe book and he did not have any problems to follow that. Only he had to spoil it all by rubbing the chicken with the marinade by tumbling the chicken so roughly that the cooked chicken skin came off and accumulated at the bottom of the large bowl. So that when I finally got on to fry the chicken pieces in the morning, I found all the skin at the bottom – the chicken skin which I have purposely left on so that the chicken wont easily dry and harden when it was time for me to fry them. It would have turned nice and dark and crispy and the chicken flesh would still be soft and juicy.
You’d think it was a trivial matter and of no real importance at all but I was horrified! Horrified enough to yak and yak and yak until my husband - already defensive and proclaiming that he didn’t get any ‘instructions’ from me to be 'gentle with the chicken' and so he did as he liked! And who was the person who didn’t give exact instructions to do the chicken?
But isn’t that common sense? – the chicken skin was left on exactly for THAT – for it to be ON the chicken! Well, how would I know that? - lost his patience and we started a war of the beaks.
That’s right, to quarrel in the morning of that party, just a few hours before our guests were supposed to arrive, when there were still so much to be done and readied. Of course, our hands were busy doing this and that but we were quarrelling nonetheless - that was, until both of us slipped into the ‘silent mode’ – which was always the way for us after a heated discussion or a quarrel. Time to make each other suffer by simply ignoring each other. At least it was, until he murmured, “ Orang nak party ni nak happy- happy – dia nak gaduh-gaduh pulak!” (We’re having this party to have fun – but you’re spoiling it with this quarrel.)
Obviously, that made me feel guilty and so we made up – I hugged him and said sorry, you’re right, let’s not quarrel BUT..
But you must tell all our guests that YOU are responsible for the 'hard' chicken. Fine, he said, that wouldn’t be a problem. And we laughed. I laughed happily with some relief. He laughed sarcastically, also with some relief.
And so my husband announced with a smile on his face to all and each of our guest - who did not come all at the same time, so he had to repeat his 'announcement' a few times - apologising for the ‘hard’ chicken and telling them that he was the one who ‘spoiled’ it, adding, of course, had 'my wife' prepared the chicken, they would have turned out a lot better bla bla bla. And a friend sitting next to me reassured, “No lah, the chicken is fine – very nice!” And I said, Thanks, but it was supposed to be etc. etc. etc. And she said, don’t worry about it! It’s not like it’s an exam! The chicken is fine! And then I said; But to me this IS an exam! – What else do I have to show for all the time I have staying at home?
And then it hit me. (Actually it hit me a little later when I was thinking about that conversation.)
I was out to prove myself again, it seems. This time in the skills of the housewife. All my friends here are either doing their PhD or working so I had to show them that I’m better than them at cooking because apparently, that’s what a housewife does everyday - so shouldn’t she be damn brilliant at it? It doesn’t really matter if I really do enjoy cooking, even if it is something that I HAVE to do everyday. What mattered was that people know that I excel at it. Oh, she’s just a housewife? But at least she’s a brilliant cook!
I suppose I do feel a little intimidated by all the people around me – they work, they pursue their PhDs, they make money, they’re doing something for themselves, they’re going somewhere, they’re grabbing opportunities – while I’m just staying at home, being so very sedentary - in everything. So I had to go and prove myself again. Try to outdo myself yet again. But is that so wrong? I don’t think so. So what if I take cooking and preparing my food to guests seriously? It only works to the benefit of all.
Except that sometimes I work myself up over silly things like chicken skin.
Except that it lead to a ridiculous quarrel with my husband.
Except that I find it a little pathetic.
It’s pathetic because I’m 30 years old and I have yet to find something I’m really good at. And I keep trying to prove myself in little things such as this when others are already sailing solo around the world. Have I ever told you that THAT is my dream? To be able to sail my own boat and travel the seas? When will I ever get to do the things that I want and really prove myself to myself, most importantly, and then to everyone else?
I'm still waiting for my chance.