To the women who keep quiet

For the longest time, I couldn’t tell myself this one thing. This one thing that caused me grief, confusion, self-correction and self-loathing over and over again, that made me a chameleon forever in camoflauge: No, there is nothing wrong with you.

As much as we’re bombarded with blatantly cheery, feel-good messages of self-love and acceptance, we still live in an era where women are never enough, where women blend in to stand out and adjust our microbehaviours to the tee to avoid being labelled a subversive, non-cooperative and disagreeable anti-team player. I’ve noticed my persistent, awkward inability to just state that I don’t agree.

When I’m speaking with over-arrogant, entitled men with free abandon over their indisputably accurate ideas and God-given opinions, I never just say what I want. I am non-confrontational, quiet, and I nod along when I really want to yell. Perhaps we’re all conditioned this way- happier to not rock the boat and be relegated to the bad side of a man with much more privilege, liberation, and power than we were ever given, happier to accomodate for now because it isn’t worth it and who’s to say I would win any conversation over someone who’s already developed such foundationally-strong self-belief?

And with this came a whole myriad of questions: Why am I always accomodating others? Changing my personality dependent on the audience? Why do I not take a stand? Why am I so agreeable, and why do I need to comply with others’ preordained perceptions of me? Is it because I’m scared of being hurt, or ignored, or shunned, some feelings I’ve become acutely aware of, from dominating co-workers and insensitive peers and aggressively opinionated men, as though their word was king and mine some secondary echo? Is it because I think they could hurt me if they tried? Is it because I’m subconsciously aware of my lack of power? My place in society?

Sometime between my younger years as a cheeky, outspoken child at home and my adolesence as a second-guessing, self-conscious teenager, I honed my habit of keeping quiet unless I was absolutely sure. Sometime in that era, I developed a hyper-precise yet emotionally-dissonant ability to calibrate my demeanor, bluntness, and agreeableness depending on the situation. I would be more agreeable around self-assured men, more abashed in a corporate setting, more white around white people. I became exactly what I was expected to be, faster and quicker each time. But trying to adapt all the time was just a symptom of believing I wasn’t enough just as I was. That I needed to both hide and perform under disguise to earn affection, approval, or acceptance.

As little as I knew it then, there was nothing wrong with me. Feeling socially awkward in the boardroom, not understanding the jokes, being more shy than usual, whatever it is you do- there is nothing wrong with you. I used to feel ashamed at not hitting it off with people and put the blame of poor social interactions on myself. Never once did this magical concept emerge: Could it be that I did nothing wrong? That I didn’t have to keep tweaking until the right, most-liked me came out? That I might be normal as I am, and that I didn’t have to change for the world, and that if this didn’t sit well with someone, they could walk away?

When I was fourteen years old, I remember being the shyest, quietest little Asian girl at my primarily Caucassion church. I’d talk if spoken to, smile at everyone, but never talk too much. At a fundraiser dinner in the gym decorated with large round tables veiled with white sheets and balloons that outlined the stage, I was sitting at the youth table instead of with my parents as I usually did, and I spent most of the night sitting and listening. The youth were all teenage boys my age, and we never really talked, because why would we? And most distressingly, I always had this innate need to be better, to not let myself get comfortable, to not drown myself in complacency and inferiority, to be challenged. One part of me wanted to just ride out the rest of the night in the typical timid silence I embodied, live in the expectation that I wouldn’t say a word and that was okay. And yet, another part of me, the place where dignity and resolve and conviction reside, thought, I’m better than this- I can’t go the whole night being excluded from conversation. She conjured up all the courage she had, and launched something right into the center of the table, and I don’t remember what the conversation was or what I had said, but I do remember the three words a white boy on the other side of the table said back:

Nobody asked you.

And the conversation went on.

And with that, my heart sunk, a lump lodged into my throat, and with my tail between my legs, the other part of me won out and I said nothing the rest of the night, simmering in some cocktail of self-protective condescension (they’re not good enough for me anyway) and humiliating subordination. As little as I liked to admit then, before those three words had even been said, they were already the fundamental bedrock of my self-worth and the very lens with which I lived my life.

You can live your life with that moment securely carried in your heart, forming a pillar of your identity, value, and sense of self. That you shouldn’t speak because nobody really wants to listen. That your voice is an attention-seeking nuissance of someone with nothing to add and primarily a half-heard sound to occupy the diversity quota. Even when you’re knowledgeable and prepared, you can so easily convince yourself you don’t really need to say something, because someone else could say it better and smarter and rally the momentous type of influence you could never. You can carry it in your chest between your ribcage like a stone, dictating the idea that you don’t deserve being heard.

Or, you can choose to listen to the better half of you. You can put aside every demeaning attack, every instance when the crowd of men leaned back and turned away the moment you started talking, every time you’ve felt inferior, and move forward without it weighing on your self-worth. You can question the validity of their perceptions of you, lay the injustices at your feet with an honest awareness of the world we live in, and keep going, for as long as it takes. You can realize, there’s nothing wrong with you. There never was.

So, which is it you will do?

A young person trying to figure out life. A misadventurer, an explorer, a philosopher, a risk taker and a mistaker.

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