By merit through faith

As I sit this evening on my desk in my small apartment in London, I am thinking, how so many things about today makes it different from the other days I have experienced throughout this dreadful year. Today everything seems to be hanging by a thread. Will we move on for the better or for the worse? My American friends have yet to find out. And so have I for myself on the other side of the Atlantic. On a normal weekday I’d be writing a paper and working, and when I’m not working I’d be making applications, when I’m not making applications I’d be reading. Reading and writing is what keeps me sane these days. The quietness and security of my apartment complex, the convenience of the shops downstairs and the busyness of the centre of London, though it is right in the middle of danger in this pandemic, the presence of strangers with whom I know I share similar values with at least in the most basic sense, and the freedom that I have of being my own person and the independence, is what I cherish the most. It tastes like a nice hearty hot sandwich to a hungry young child on a rainy day.

I remember that conversation I had some time ago with an old childhood friend that I recently reconnected with. We were talking about the diaspora kids, the third culture generation and how they choose to make of their lives and careers. We talked about the age-old division between the East and the West: filial piety versus individual freedoms. Brie* says, of a mutual friend we know, “you know Anna in the end, she chose her family over herself, over her freedom. But there are still a lot of people I know who chose themselves over their families. And if that’s what you choose to do in the end, that’s okay. I’ll support you no matter what.” I replied, “But why should it be just either or?”

Why can’t I love my family and find myself at the same time?

I cannot fathom this absolutism.

There was a tinge of reluctance in her word of support. The desire, the love that I have for my right to my own personal freedom, my right to exercise freedom of movement and my right to work, my right to build my own career with my own hands and to see the world, to meet, to work and to learn, is somehow a selfish desire. Ignoble. It’s not considered a fundamental right, at least over there, but a privilege. An extravaganza. Sometimes even evil. But if I choose to suppress all that, come home to a place where it is hardly safe nor has much of a future at least for me and the kind of career I want for myself, that I have invested and worked hard for all this time, is one that is praiseworthy.

This division of the two worlds cuts me open every now and then. It’s heavy. It’s a rigmarole. These endless conversations just go around in circles. But I will never understand, why something so fundamental, something so normal such as freedom, is considered so wrong.

I think of the kids of my generation, some of whom I have conversed on my course. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, from Indonesia to the United States. The prejudice that foreign students face here, being no more than just eye-sores not worthy of equal dignity and respect, only sticking around for visas, is harsh but also plain truth because they say it so themselves. This whole thing prickles my skin. Like an itchy cardigan I am forced to wear sometimes but I’m struggling to get off. And I find it hard to call it mine, though it is on me, I had not willingly put it on nor am I comfortable with it. I wish to be in a place where I can thrive and be judged by my merit. My experiences. My competency. My intellect. Judged by the things that matter and not by the things that I have no control of. It can be anywhere in the world, it doesn’t necessarily have to be here. I’m so tired of it all. But this is only the beginning. I hate to be so German, but sometimes I wished people stop internalising the inferiority of the politics of wherever they come from. You are the master of your own worth.

I was attracted to the world of the UN because my nationality matters no more. Not my race. My skin colour. My background. It’s my competency. As a 16 year old I looked forward to institutions and “the West” as opposed to the Far East, I believed my merit will pull me through. That it will hopefully have the last word of who I am. That I’ll get my freedom if I work for it. We put so much faith in institutions and rules and regulations, yet often times forget that they are made up of and made by individuals. There can be change in a positive direction, a fairer, freer society. There just isn’t enough desire for it.

I remember a few months back I was wishing my American friends on Instagram a “Happy Fourth of July”. It was also concurrent at a time where the #BlackLivesMatter movement was at the climax. A friend then messaged me, “independence for whom? Who’s free?”

I knew what she meant and understood. My heart sank.

For most kids here freedom is a birth right. I remember that tinge of resentment I felt as an undergraduate, seeing some of my peers throw their lives away and me thinking, “I could do so much more with what you have.”

I just want to find out how far my merit, my brains, my enthusiasm, could take me without the constraints that I had no role in being imposed on me. What’s so wrong and evil about that?

People think when I study human rights as part of my studies and part of my career, usually it is assumed that it’s always for the less fortunate. And it is, but also not exclusively. Not interested in being the next activist or an “emerging young leader” – whatever that means these days. I just want to be part of the crowd, part of the team just doing my job and do it bloody well. Thank God this global hero worship culture has faded, though of course traces of it still remain in some unfortunate parts of the world. For most of us I think we’re back to reality. It’s not that great either. When I learn about the rights of others I am also learning of my own. What I have and what I don’t have. As I fight for others I’m also fighting for myself.

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