Recently on the production set for a commercial, I was asked to portray the older self of a 13-year-old girl, who looked uncannily like me.
With this striking resemblance came the inevitable question from the crew, “Did you look anything like her when you were 13?”.
I studied the young girl, whose sparkling eyes, long silky hair that coiled ever so slightly at the tip, and sunny smile made her seem much more confident than I ever was at that age.
The 13-year-old me lived in a terrace house in Subang Jaya and took the school bus to my secondary school in Petaling Jaya.
At that age, the thought of speaking to a room full of strangers would send me into a nervous fit.
The unflattering haircut, too-long-below-the- knee school pinafore, copious amount of belly fat all enhanced the anxieties of someone who was neither clever nor beautiful enough to stand out.
And it seemed that living where I was at that age, those were the only qualities that mattered.
The future was an unfathomable place, a vision that I can only describe as a blurry smog-filled sky.
Little by little in the ensuing years, light began to enter my adolescent life.
Whether it was because I made some good friends who shared my growing pains or that a teacher took me under her wing, I grew to see the possibilities of a promising future.
My mentor, my Form 4 Biology teacher, told me then – “You’ve to give yourself a chance”.
Her advice echoed through the decades, embedded so deep in my psyche that even now my 30-something’s sleep-deprived brain can recall.
My teenage self believed that a bright future was attainable if only I worked hard enough.
I was working hard to become someone others would look up to.
How different are my perspectives on this now from this view over the pond.
Today, 11 years after I first stepped on British soil, I can safely say that I know better.
On a blustery autumn night in Leeds, I arrived at the coach station on an airport bus.
Stepping out to unexpected strong and icy gale beating my face, I felt like a green grasshopper straight out of a green field.
What no one tells you about going abroad to study on your own is the sudden realisation that you’re completely alone once you get there.
Reflecting on those first few hours of arrival in England, the sea of blonde and grey hairs, the incomprehensible Leeds accent, the cell-like atmosphere of the student accommodation, and the aged building that appeared mouldy on the inside.
The loneliness was palpable, and along with it came a fear of never fitting in.
My first year in England was spent in Leeds, where I did my best to adapt, to learn more about the culture than I did my course.
Near where I lived were blocks of council flats, where I often saw pre-adolescent girls roaming the streets on their own.
One day, on my way back from grocery shopping, I walked past a pre-teen girl who was wearing make up and playing with a boy.
My friend, who was jaded from years of living in that part of the UK, commented, “You see this young girl there, in a few years she would be pregnant with his child and that would be her life”.
Of course that opinion was skewed and not all teenage girls in England lead the life that my friend described.
But this, along with countless other more positive observations made me feel that children grow up far too quickly in this country.
Young people in the UK dress and act a lot older than their age, much different from the jeans and baggy T-shirt that I wore at that age, bearing in mind it was also the 1990s then.
I came to understand that children are more independent from a younger age in the UK, and the general parenting consensus is to not push their children too hard towards a particular career path.
This was in contrast to my adolescent years in Malaysia, when you would only be deemed worthy of anyone’s time if you decided to choose one of the following vocations – doctor, engineer, architect, or lawyer.
With this revelation came the rebellion – I no longer wanted to become that brainbox.
Instead, I wanted to be cool, urban and to live the life that I missed out on while studying so hard.
I wanted to fit in, to become so assimilated into the British culture that no one could tell I was foreign.
When that was over, when I truly became a worldly person, I wanted to shed the personalities that were not me.
I spent a quarter of my life trying to become who I was not in order to fit in, then the next quarter trying to unbecome everything that isn’t really me, so I can be who I am meant to be in the first place.
It feels much more cosy in my own skin. As to whether it was worthwhile making that journey crossing oceans to get here only to find my way home, yes it was.
Had I stayed, I would never have known that life could stretch into so many different colours, even if I had just chosen the only shade that I’m most comfortable with in the end.
As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken”.
As published in Malaysia’s The Star Metro, December 5, 2015.