My old counsellor once told me that when she first saw my Chinese name in my case file, she thought to herself, “How can the parents of someone with such a beautiful, unique name be so abusive towards her? Didn’t they name her?”
She said she took one look at my Chinese name and could tell that whoever named me was a highly educated Chinese person, because only such Chinese people in those days would have the capacity to pick such a name. And educated Chinese people in those days were rare. She said she immediately saw the amount of love, wisdom and effort that went into selecting such a name for me. She has never come across any other name like it.
I told her that my parents are illiterate in Chinese, and that my paternal grandmother named me. She died when I was still too young to remember her.
An educated Chinese woman — that is even rarer in those days, she said. She asked what my siblings’ Chinese names are, so I told her. She said their names are not as special as mine.
I said my maternal grandfather named them. He was not as educated as my paternal grandparents, and was the only grandparent alive when they were born.
“Appreciate your Chinese name, because it took a lot of time and effort to name you,” my old counsellor said.
The aristocrats possessed few special abilities and no taste for industry. They therefore lacked both the means and the motive to take over work. (Markovits, 2019, p. 9)
Like my father, an offspring of it: his father once owned a rubber plantation, which my grandmother sold upon his death to invest in her own real estate, and that is how she maintained her wealth — later squandered by all her children. She had four boys.
My father was accustomed to an aristocratic life when my grandmother was alive. He and his brothers were cared for by live-in nannies, and they could all live off the income generated from my grandmother’s real estate investments.
When she died, her children sold her estate but my father was reckless with his inheritance. He also, as Markovits puts it, possessed few special abilities and had little taste for industry.
His fortunes went into decline after my grandmother’s death. I have known only a life of working-class, dysfunctional, struggle.
In industry after industry, the labour market now fetishises the skills that meritocratic education produces, so that super-skilled workers dominate production. At the same time, mid-skilled workers become redundant. In some cases, middle-class employment never recovers: mid-skilled manufacturing, retail, and middle-management jobs have notoriously disappeared. In other cases, a new work order segregates subordinate and superordinate workers: mid-skilled community bankers have been replaced by subordinate clerks on Main Street and superordinate speculators on Wall Street. Some of the newly subordinate workers even supply the booming market for personal services provided to rich households, whose members now work such long hours and command such high wages as to make it unreasonable for them to do their own chores.
Either way, innovation increasingly divides work into what might be called gloomy and glossy jobs: gloomy because they offer neither immediate reward nor hope for promotion, and glossy because their shine comes from income and status rather than meaningful work. (As meritocracy advances, and more middling jobs give way to gloomy and glossy ones, the lion’s share becomes gloomy.) Meritocracy’s shadow, cast over mid-skilled work, accounts for the darkness that engulfs gloomy jobs today, and its brassy light gives glossy jobs a false sheen. The meritocratic culture of industry helps to prop up the intense work effort required when a society concentrates economic production on a narrow elite. (Markovits, 2019, p. 12)
So here I am, on the gloomy side of the divide, serving members of the elite as an “office girl”, 12 years and counting after I graduated with a BA in Journalism from Monash University, the original certificate of which I left rolled up in my old family home. I was plucked from that place very suddenly one day, and have not returned for years, leaving the original copies of all my certificates, transcripts, and published articles behind, like someone escaping a war zone. I do not wish to return.
One can be an “executive” librarian in an exclusively English-language library these days even though one is extremely poor in spoken and written English, and does not read English books. I am on the same level as her, and she can count herself well-paid for her role.
Not only has my salary not risen since my first job after graduation — it has even dropped.
The reader might accuse me of making bad decisions.
The central task of ethics is to ask what it is for a human life to go well. A plausible answer is that living well means meeting the challenge set by three things: your capacities, the circumstances into which you were born, and the projects that you yourself decide are important. (Appiah 2018)
One can make a decent living (“decent” being relative to what the worker gets compared to the capital owner s/he works for) with a journalism degree in Singapore, provided one is fine with writing what mainstream media wants their writers to write: lifestyle predominantly, or something in advertising and public relations. But those jobs, widely available though they are, are so vapid that they have driven me up the wall in under six months. Couple that with an abusive home environment, and one really struggles to function properly.
After my circumstances got so bad that the system conceded “home is not an option” and compelled my family to pay my rent until I could manage on my own, my old psychiatrist said to me, in our last appointment with each other: “You need options. You need hope. I can’t give you either of those.”
My old counsellor said to me, in our last appointment with each other: “Your problem is one that therapy cannot fix. I am trying to find the words for it … your problem is more … ‘universal’, like a search for meaning in life, for something that fits you. That is not therapy’s role.”
Maybe I am just unlucky that I did well in journalism school, only to return to a country with a government that silences “Fourth Estate” journalism so much, that Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranks it 158th out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
But it took the journey I’d gone through to reach this stage where everyone who knows me at work, right up to top management, knows what I do on the side, and that I would much rather be making a living doing something else, decent options for which are unavailable in Singapore.
People have asked me what gives me strength throughout the decades I endured this familial and systemic trauma.
Perhaps I can only attempt to live up to the gift from my grandmother …
And romanticise a long and distant past
I was my grandmother’s first granddaughter, and she only had sons
Maybe because of this I was especially special to her
And she saw me as her first and only daughter
Perhaps in so naming me, she was showing me:
“No matter how bad it gets, remember this gesture.”
And to those who can read the beauty and rarity of my name:
“Don’t fuck with my granddaughter.”
Perhaps all I can do is cling to a mark of love from a time
That grows more and more distant with every passing second
A mark of love that I was too young and Chinese-illiterate to comprehend
A mark of love that swaddles me for life, even after death — hers and mine
But, as the narrator in Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile says:
A human being has only so much in them, and yet you must learn through experience, until you finally reach the maddening conclusion that the world wrote you off a long time ago, or accept the prison sentence that your crime is your existence. And the world keeps turning as if nothing has happened. The forced smiles of the lucky ones say it all: It’s either this, or getting stabbed in the chest with a bayonet, getting raped, dragging yourself onto the highway overpass, or checking into a mental institution. No one will ever know about your tragedy, and the world eluded its responsibility ages ago. All that you know is that you’ve been crucified for something, and you’re going to spend the rest of your life feeling like no one and nothing will help you, and that you’re in it alone. Your individual circumstances, which separate you from everyone else, will keep you behind bars for life. On top of it all, humanity tells me I’m lucky. Privilege after privilege has been conferred upon me, and if I don’t seem content with my lot, they’ll be devastated.
Qiu Miaojin speaks to me from her grave. She died from suicide at the age of 26. I was around that age when police wrenched me from the widow ledge. To take one’s own life: I know that requires tremendous strength and courage.
1. Markovits, D. (2019). The Meritocractic Revolution. In The Meritocracy Trap (p. 9). Allen Lane.
2. Markovits, D. (2019). The Meritocratic Revolution. In The Meritocracy Trap (p. 12). Allen Lane.
3. Appiah, K.A. (2018, October 18). The myth of meritocracy: who really gets what they deserve?. The Guardian. Retrieved from hVps://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/oct/19/the-myth-of-meritocracy-who-really-gets-what-they-deserve
4. Reporters Without Borders. (2020). Singapore. Retrieved from hVps://rsf.org/en/singapore
5. Qui, M. (2017). Notes of a Crocodile (B. Huie, Trans.). New York, NY: New York Review Books. (Original work published 1994).
Lilith is a Singaporean writer, and sometime poet and photographer. An archive of her work can be found at https://www.onecalledlilith.com/