Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Freedom Part 1 - from Malaysia to Australia

I painted this painting of the 12 Apostles in the Victoria coast, Australia as a tribute - to Australia and the young people of Australia whose spirit of independence and adventure inspired me to take charge of my life and gain the freedom I had always yearned for.  

This is also a tribute to the kind Australians who crossed my path at critical moments and gave me direction when I had none.  

I am forever grateful.

For most of us, it is in our nature to fight for our freedom when it’s taken away or if we’ve never had it In the first place.  But when born into it, we tend to take freedom for granted.

I have lived in 3 countries that have all fought for their independence from the British – Malaysia, Australia and the US.  I wonder what would have happened if the British had taken a less arrogant approach to running their colonies and took a position of leadership instead.  To allow every nation its own identity, to preserve and respect their culture and help the local people develop, prosper and live the life of their dreams.

Yet after achieving independence, each of these countries proceeded to practice their own form of discrimination, restricting the freedom of groups of people, which resulted in conflict and sometimes resolution.  These conflicts included:  women’s rights, the civil rights movement, gay rights, etc. in the US; discrimination against the aborigines and other non-white races in Australia, discrimination against the aborigines, Chinese and Indians in Malaysia.

For most of us, we have little control on freedom at the country level, other than getting into politics or immigrating.   It is at the personal level where we have the most control and opportunity to affect changes on the amount of freedom we have in our lives.
When we have good parents, it is easy to take for granted the freedom our parents give us - to be ourselves, to find our true talents and our direction in life.  Instead of appreciating and being joyful of parents who unconditionally love us, we may resent our parents and use that as an excuse for the unhappiness and hardships we experience later in life. 

I am frequently reminded by life events how important freedom is to me.  I was deprived of my own basic rights at an early age, and later as a young adult, obstacles came my way which compromised my freedom and taught me many valuable lessons.  Also, as a two time immigrant – first to Australia and then the US, I was exposed to different levels of freedom.

As a teenager, I equated freedom with happiness; the freedom to make my own decisions, to have my own thoughts, to say what I want, to have my own feelings, to make mistakes or fail without the fear of being beaten.  As an adult, the freedom to make my own life choices and not being held captive by debt, obligation, guilt or anything else that would compromise my happiness and make me stay in toxic situations.

I was born in Malaysia and started life with 3 strikes against me.  The Chinese are treated as 2nd class citizens in Malaysia.  Preferential treatment is reserved for the Malays.  Girls in old school Chinese culture are secondary to boys.  I was adopted and treated more like prisoner than cherished daughter which demotes me to 4th class citizen.

I resented my adopted mother deeply for taking me away from my adopted uncle and aunt when I was 6, only allowing me to see them once or twice a year.  My adopted uncle and aunt had raised me from 2 months to 6 years and gave me my only early memories of happiness.  I ran away twice when I was 7, walking 5 miles from kindergarten to my adopted uncle’s house but I was always sent back. 

My adopted mother didn’t like me and tried her best to beat me into what she considered a good obedient girl.  It seemed irrelevant to her that I was a happy, high energy and curious child.  I learned quickly, was bored easily, had a mind of my own and an independent spirit.   

It was hard to please my adopted mother; she had very high standards and I always fell short.  She was under a lot of stress at her work and I bore the brunt of her frustration and rage.  I was beaten and threatened with being thrown out to the gutter like how she found me and I would die as I was too stupid to survive.  That’s the ‘aha’ moment most foster kids can identify with - “You mean they can give me back?”.

I eventually resigned myself to living in prison.  Every day, I went to school, cleaned the house, cut grass with a pair of scissors, watered the plants, cooked rice, prepared food and did my homework.  I was prohibited from playing with other kids or participating in sports or extra-curricular activities.   

By the time I was 17, the confident, happy carefree child had grown into a nervous, timid, sullen and miserable teenager.  Sudden moves near me I flinched, anticipating a slap to my face.  I didn’t have feelings or knowledge and could not speak about anything.  I was an invisible sullen mute at home.  Even though my basic needs were met - food, education, and housing, I was miserable because I didn’t have freedom, love or friends.  

Me at 5 years old.  When I was still living with my adopted uncle and aunt.  Happy.           
We lived in Malaysia until I was 17.  Everything was controlled by the Government.  TV, newspapers and radio were heavily censored.  There was no real opposition party … the opposition leader was in jail.  Government policies discriminated against the Chinese and Indians, in business and in education.   

I didn’t really know I was at odds with Malaysia until I arrived in Australia.  I picked up a newspaper and read a letter someone had written calling the Prime Minister of Australia an idiot.  I was astounded, yet oddly delighted.  Ah I thought, this is what a free country means.

At school in Australia, it was ok to ask questions in class and even challenge a teacher’s point of view.  Gasp … a younger person challenging the view point of an elder?  This is a no-no in Chinese culture.  I was taught to respect all elders and not to question their authority or their opinion – regardless of how obnoxious, stupid or nonsensical.

It was in Australia that my tolerance for my lack of personal freedom and abuse reached breaking-point.  Being exposed to young people of my age in Australia who had the freedom to make their own life choices highlighted to me how wrong my own life was.  

Young Australians have a great spirit of independence and adventure.  They chose their friends, chose their careers and activities, and had their own thoughts and their own values.  Their parents encouraged and supported their dreams and their passions.    Most young Australians travel the world after college before settling down to careers and family.  I didn’t have any of that and I yearned to be free like them.

By this time, my spirit was almost completely knocked out of me but after 8 months in Australia I made my first decision and walked out to my own freedom.  That was one of the happiest days of my life.  I had no money, no plan and no friends.  My first job was picking raspberries.  Through a series of remarkable events and kind Australians who crossed my path at the right time, I put myself through college, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry and Computer Science and a graduate degree in Chemistry.  I was on the Dean’s role of Excellence in my undergraduate year and in my graduate year, I created 15 new compounds and my research was published in 2 scientific publications.  
In a small way, I proved to myself I was not stupid and definitely could survive on my own.  For the first time in my life, I had friends – my Aussie buddies at college – it was 5 boys and I.  They were the top Science students, I was just grateful to be part of the group.  It was the fun and laughs we had together that made it so easy for me to excel in college. 

Since then, I have made many difficult life-changing decisions with my freedom and happiness as the main priority.  I have never given another person, job, money or object the power to control my life again and I do not depend on anyone to take care of me financially.   

Thank you for reading my blog posting on part 1 of my freedom journey.  I would love to hear from you, please post in the comments box your thoughts about this blog, freedom and what it means to you.


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  1. Karen --

    You've recounted some of these experiences in your past to me before. Now reading it, I respect your journey even more. I will look forward to reading your subsequent posts. There is a nugget of learning for everyone when someone shares candidly their journey....

  2. Karen, You have much to be proud of. I am honored to have 2 of your art pieces in my home. They are some of my most treasued items. Thank You.