In college, a well-meaning male friend told me that I was boring.
He phrased it in this manner: “See, this is the problem with you. You’re too — museum-y. You like going to museums, crafting, and school. In my mind there are only two kinds of women: those looking for love, and those looking for a career. I look at you and immediately I box you in the career bucket. You’re too…. boring to be in any other bucket. This is why you don’t have a boyfriend.”
We were sitting in a dark military chamber converted into a bar in Intramuros (a friend asked us to come to her party where an “up and coming band named Imago” was playing). I had just turned 18 and was enjoying my newly minted adulthood. Had he not seen the cool way I ordered a pina colada (the only cocktail I could tolerate at this point, because it was more pineapple shake than alcohol) just now? Had he not seen my very city girl outfit (low-cut tank top, flared jeans, glitter platforms)? How dare he suggest that I was boring!
I sulked on the way home and thought about my looming spinsterhood.
Not A Cool Asian, Not a JV Jock
Had I attended high school with Cady Heron, I would have fallen squarely into the Janis Ian -dubbed category of Asian Nerd.
At age 9,my parents took me out for a Smokey’s Hotdog at the corner because I was ‘burned out’ preparing for an inter-school math competition.(Wait, I may have been a Mathlete. That’s social suicide) You can ask my mother. She was in disbelief, too.
The fact that my math grades throughout high school were on the low side (‘line of 8’, or a B) can only be attributed to the fact that I had zero interest in numbers. When you spend your entire life being told by everyone that you’re smart, you tend to get snobby about the subjects you’re passionate about.
My friends and I were all ‘Asian Nerds’. During summers, we called each other up to see if we had already received our English textbooks. We tried to outdo each other in the game of ‘Have You Read All the Short Stories in the English Textbook for the Upcoming Year’. (‘Oh my god did you read Araby by James Joyce? No? OMG read it it’s so good!’) My friend Karen even coined a phrase that I have actually said in real life: “Excuse me, guys. I’m trying to learn here.”
High school was relatively wonderful for me (despite being bullied — more on this in later entries). With the exception of any athletic teams (I’m terrible at sports), I must have joined every single club in school. Art Club, Drama Club, Glee Club, Home Economics Club, even the Recycling Club. I was an active and enthusiastic member of the Student Council as well. You know that person who walked around campus promoting some after-school activity, or sternly reminding the ‘JV jocks’ about their graduation ball payments? That was me. I was blissfully unaware of how ‘uncool’ this made me and my friends in the eyes of high school cool kids the world over.
I really was trying to learn.
The Serious One
When I was 22, my boss told me that I was getting a raise. I sat in her yellow office facing Valero street, wondering why I was in a closed door meeting with my superiors.
“It’s quite obvious, you take your work seriously.” She looked at me straight in the eye before continuing. “You’re the only one among the AE’s that really takes to the work like a grown-up.”
I was taken aback. I was not aware that I was ‘the serious one’. Our team in the ad agency was on the small side, and in my mind every one was just like me. Sure, I complained about overtime just as much as my friends and went out drinking with them every week without fail. I knew all their favorite lunches. We even developed a secret language for passive aggressive reactions during meetings. Clearly, I didn’t know how to take my boss’s feedback about my work ethic because I thought we all had a work ethic.
“We’re here to develop your career, so we’re giving you an increase of (insert price of 10 Frappuccinos here). You deserve it.”
Come to think of it, I did spend an inordinate amount of time correcting all my client contact reports and job orders. But my mother said that I was a sponge at that age. ” You are a sponge that needs to absorb everything so that you can be great at what you are doing,” she told me one morning after a nervous breakdown caused by my previous boss (see here).
That’s what my hardworking parents instilled in me: work until you’re the best, but enjoy it.
I did enjoy my job. In fact, I volunteered for a lot of tasks simply because I loved what I did. Later on in life, I would discover that some co-workers would think that I was ‘brown-nosing’. But I can honestly say that all I have been in my work life is a happy worker.
And what’s wrong with that?
Then I Was The Lazy One
Then when I was 26, my boss told me that my teammates thought I was lazy.
This hit me quite hard. I have never been lazy in my life. It was just not in my DNA. My father would outright disown me if he ever caught me slacking off.
“I don’t understand that either, Paps. Maybe they’re just too young to understand that your job is different from theirs.” My boss Dang was always very cautious about her words. She sounded like a concerned parent. “But I thought that you should know this because the feedback might make its way back to you, and it will cut you. Know though, that I see you everyday and know that you work hard.”
I remember smoking 6 cigarettes after that feedback session. Where had I gone wrong? Was I too casual with the team? Was I too friendly? Maybe I finished my work too early? Did they expect to be handheld? Was I just a really terrible project manager? Maybe I’m really lazy?
I cried in the bathroom.
I spent the next couple of years fighting that stigma, nearly pulling my hair out because of stress. I even won a Company Award that year for hard work.
You never challenge an Asian Nerd.
The Conversation About Marriage and Motherhood
Then suddenly I was 31 and engaged.
“Don’t wait too long to have babies. You’ve already had a career. There are rewards in being a mother too.” My friend had just given birth and she was preaching the gospel of Motherhood.
This was an already familiar refrain. There had been a rapid change in the
judgmental phrases that I hear at every family/school batchmate reunion since I hit 30.
“It’ll be hard for you past 35. Try to have babies now.”
“It’s good that your fiance lets you work this much.”
“Life isn’t Sex and the City. Time to get serious.”
“Enjoy your job while you can, because when the babies come you won’t be able to.”
“Naku, you won’t get to travel as much when you get married and have kids.”
My friends and family might have had good intentions in saying all of those things, but they all made me uncomfortable.
First of all, “let me work as much”? I wasn’t aware that I needed permission to enjoy my work as much as I can. I understand why a partner might feel bad about being left to have dinner night after night alone, and I’m completely against one-sided relationships too. But why was there that undertone that I needed to have my partner sign-off on my personal decisions for self-fulfillment? Compromise is different from approval.
Secondly, why was I being threatened with “while you can”? They must be coming from years of experience, but I also have women in my life who were able to balance a rewarding career and an equally rewarding home life. They had partners who supported their need to have fulfillment outside of the home (if that was what they needed), and every career decision was thought of in light of their family’s happiness. Why place this burden of expectation over my head when I have yet to make my home the way I want it to be?
And thirdly, why was having a career pitted directly against having a family in all these conversations?
What’s the use of having all these “Women Can Do Everything” campaigns when I’m given the pamphlet entitled “Nah, You Really Can’t” past the age of 30?
How To Love An ‘Asian Nerd’
Surely, I can’t be alone in this boat.
For one thing, an article about how men are threatened by smart single women makes the rounds on social media almost every month. I also see how my own friends struggle with the Career Woman/Nerd stigma. (It pains me to say that there is a stigma. Society is screwed up) My friend Tricia even has a troll that periodically attacks her on the basis of “biological failure”. (She’s a badass business journalist who travels the world. She’s also my age, single, and FABULOUS.)
If you’ve ever passed silent judgment on a woman who enjoys having a career, this next part is for you. If you are (like me) an employed childless woman faced with constant judgment about her choices, this is also for you.
First of all, stop telling me what I can and cannot do. If it was hard for you to juggle your work and career, we respect that and we honor your struggles and successes. But please stop stipulating about how I’m going to live my life. Honor my successes and appreciate my struggles, too. How I’m going to “do it all” is my journey, and I will create the life I have always wanted.
Secondly, stop pitting marriage & motherhood against having a career. You heard me. While I am not a mother yet (and I do welcome the possibility in my own time), please stop telling me how I do not appreciate motherhood. I have the example of my own loving mothers and many other mothers outside of my family who constantly remind me how fulfilling it is to raise amazing children. I love them, I honor them, I celebrate them.
But the truth is, not everyone wants to be a mother and not everyone wants to be married. Stop assuming that your journey to self-realization should be the same as everyone else’s. Stop constantly trying to make us feel guilty for wanting self-fulfillment in a different way. There is no exact formula for living a happy life. Don’t force your equation on us.
While you’re at it, stop assuming that having a career is less fulfilling. Having a job that you love and are passionate about is a blessing. WORK is a blessing. Don’t rob me of this satisfaction. George Lois said that “Work Is Prayer”. Stop trivializing my joy. I am not a one-dimensional Cathy comic.
Thirdly, stop assuming that I need anybody else’s approval to be happy. Stop telling me how fortunate I am to have a partner that ‘lets’ me work the way I do. (He doesn’t let me. He lovingly accepts and celebrates me) Stop telling me that I should think of how my own family will be devastated if I don’t have kids. (I’m sorry, are you in my family?) Stop demoralizing me because I chose to live my life the way I want. I’m happy. We’re happy. Remember that and accept it.
And lastly, stop dictating the timing of my own life. Did I miss the instruction manual or is everyone just accepting that someone must be hitting personal life milestones between the age of 25 to 35? Let me create my own path. Let others trust their own timing, whether or not they are in a relationship. We’re all rabbits and we are all hares in different areas. No life is exactly the same.
I ask everyone reading this to please honor, love, and cherish every woman in your life regardless of her personal life choices. Life is hard enough without having the weight of expectations on one’s shoulders.
Let us live our lives. We’re all trying to learn here.