I just woke up in my own bed for the first time in three weeks after a nice holiday to my home countries Australia and Malaysia. Jet lag crept up behind me a few short hours after I marched into my flat, following the initial burst of energy that saw me whizz through a truckload of laundry and frantically unpack misshaped snacks I’d dragged with me on two long flights across the Earth.
While my body adjusts to the time difference, my brain and its inner monologue is recalibrating from Malaysian English to Australian/British English. I think we can call this a rather successful holiday by the sheer fact I was able to detach enough from my life to re-immerse – albeit temporarily – in another. Sure I was still checking Twitter, replying to the occasional work emails, and liking thirsty selfies on Instagram where wifi was available. But on the whole, the goal of this trip was to reconnect with family and my Malaysian-Chinese and Australian roots, and see it from where I am right now in my life… as a single man approaching 30, living in his third country.
In a sense, this trip for me was a retrospective look into my past selves. Like a brainstorm session for a ‘best-of’ compilation, the kind they used to issue in a haste to wrap up an increasingly unprofitable recording contract with a flagging popstar. There won’t be a photo shoot for this one, they’ll just pick the cutest publicity shot from the last album campaign.
My sense of self has undergone stages of reinventions over the years. Much like Kylie Minogue’s career. At 7, I learned about ethnicity and nationality, what it meant to be a child of Chinese heritage growing up in a Muslim country and educated in a Malay school while speaking English at home with parents and two different dialects with both sides of the family. At 12 in Australia, I became an immigrant for the first time – I wasn’t just ‘Malaysian’ anymore, I became just ‘Asian’. Even though I’d spoken English my whole life, for the first time, I was told it wasn’t good enough. I changed my accent for the first time.
At 18, I came out as a gay man and started to understand what it means to not only to live as another type of minority, but as a gay Asian in a Western LGBT community. While I wasn’t particularly bothered by the lack of attention from girls at school, I craved attention and validation that I was attractive to other gay men. By this stage, I had already been through years of seeing mostly white men only in the media depicted as desirable, from James Van Der Beek to Jesse McCartney, Ben Affleck to Zac Efron etc. I’d go on to experiment with going blonde – to varying levels of failures – and even frequently wore coloured contact lenses to disguise my dark brown eyes. At 21, I became a presenter on Australia’s only gay and lesbian radio station. The attention wasn’t enough and the dates weren’t pouring in.
At 23, I hit my ‘Indie Kylie’ phase. Clever girl... I was no longer a student and I was trying different things. I was tired of working at call centres and telling myself ‘this job isn’t forever’. I had spent so much time figuring out my self in one aspect and going through that awkward phase you were only meant to have once during your teens that I had neglected to steer my career. What the fuck was I to do with my life? I tried to figure it out when 26 came along and I became an Australian living in London. Here my ethnicity and sexuality wasn’t as big a deal, whenever I speak, I was just another Aussie passing through this heaving and wonderfully multicultural city of 8 million people. As Taylor Swift would say, everybody here was someone else before. Now at 29, to people back home, it would seem I’ve arrived at my Light Years era. Independent, living overseas, exciting career in showbiz.
As I sat in near-empty carriages chugging past Melburnian stations I used to be familiar with – not missing the peak hour mayhem of Liverpool Street Station – I started to wonder what my train journey would be like I still lived here. As I hugged my cousins who have grown taller and become adults since I last saw them in Malaysia and overindulged in lavish Chinese banquets over the Lunar New Year with the family, I wondered what kind of job I might have, what my friends might look like, and what my taste in music would be (maybe I’d be really into Mandopop!) if I’d stayed.
‘What ifs’ are cute for a visit but not for a stay. There’s a real danger swimming in nostalgia because our memory is unreliable and filtered, much like our Instagram posts. But what I can take with me from looking back is this joy of being part of so many cultures and communities, and how it has enriched me and made me adaptable. I realised that through my growing pains and different stages of reinvention, I haven’t necessarily left anything behind… I have always carried traces of my culture with me. Eastern, Western, traditional, modern, liberal, conservative. It’s in my values, it’s in my philosophy, you hear it my accent, you see it in my personality, it’s in the way I relate to people. I think after years of trying to fit in with different groups and situations, I’m starting to figure out who I am and what works for me. I haven’t got a five-year plan, although I often tell myself I should probably have one. But I’m hoping this richer appreciation for what I’ve been through and refreshed perspective would give me the self-confidence I’ve been searching for to take on the next chapter. Bring on the Fever era.
I’ll be back with pop music musings next week. In the meantime, you’ll probably catch me tweeting about the state of Mariah Carey’s career here.