By Emily Ding
After I passed my bar exam, my parents hung an ornately framed graduation-day photograph of me in my barrister’s wig and robes on our living room wall. But having completed my undergraduate degree and my masters, I realised with a sudden certainty that in fact, I didn’t want to become a lawyer.
I guess I never really did, but I had always thought I would just do it anyway because it was a good thing to do. Studying Law had inspired grand ambitions of posh suits and noble visions of fighting in the name of human rights, jaw muscles working maniacally in a Tom Cruise-esque fashion, shouting, “I want the truth!” in a tense courtroom, but it didn’t truly inspire me. Still, that photograph remains on the wall. I tried to take it off, but it had been nailed to the concrete and refused to budge even a mili-inch. My parents can’t understand why I want to take it off.
* * *
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to write. It started with an essay about my mother when I was eight, which my father helped me with, because when I’d asked my mother she’d shooed me away and said her English was no good, “Ask Daddy instead.” I was surprised by this, because she, being a stay-at-home mom, pretty much taught me everything, sat for hours by my side as she tutored me in every subject, learned Mandarin just so she could test me on it.
My essay came back with a large ‘A’ circled in red, and I was convinced that my father was a secret writer beneath his stoic civil engineer exterior.
That first essay sparked something. I started reading early – earlier than most kids, my mother said – and I spoke fluently. But I had never actually written anything before. Yet, that single lesson in composition and structure from my father must have set something in motion, because after that I started writing my own essays, short stories and poems. My first published piece was a write-up of my experience at a Boyzone concert. I must have been about eleven years old (we loved Boyzone and all boy bands without shame back in the day) and if I remember correctly, I had a full page in The Star, though a photograph of the band took up a rather large chunk in the center.
Of course, my mother filed it away for posterity, but as with most things she dubiously “kept”” (such as my Enid Blytons, Nancy Drews and Archie comics) during the austerities of the exam season, it went missing. She could never remember where she put things. And somewhere, now forgotten in an imaginative little nook in apartments and houses we no longer live in, must hide a stockpile of hidden books and other items my mother had deemed “too distracting”.
I’ve enjoyed many interests and hobbies, some of which come and go as “phases” do, but reading and writing have always been constant. Partly, I think my love for these things came from being an only child. I knew how to be by myself, immersing myself in the worlds I found in the many books I borrowed from Novel House in Petaling Jaya, and in the stories I created.
Once – and my mother remembers this vividly – when I was supposed to be studying for my Geography exam, I slipped an Enid Blyton between the folds of my textbook and read about Elizabeth’s escapades as The Naughtiest Girl In School. When my mother caught me at it, she flew into such a rage she threw the entire thing out the window into the pouring rain, including – unintentionally – my textbook. I was incredibly calm, she said, surprisingly so, and in the end it was she who hurried out to retrieve it, dabbing remorsefully at the blotches of fading ink, fearing for the consequences on my report card. This would become a trend during my school years – constantly having to inhibit my hobbies so I would get homework done.
Still, as much as I loved books and fiction, if you had asked me, even then, who my heroine was, I would have said, “Brenda Starr”. I first saw her on TV as a child – Brooke Shields when I didn’t know she was Brooke Shields in flaming red hair, high heels, and a life of adventure that seemed the stuff of the best stories ever made.
These days, I have moved on from comic strip heroines to real ones, one of whom is a young Malaysian journalist based in India: Poh Si Teng – for proving that freelancing doesn’t mean “part-time”, that it can pay, that it’s really possible to live the dream of travelling and reporting. Most of all, I admire her single-minded pursuance of journalism, and the thing she said that I can’t get out of my head: “Countries don’t really matter anymore. I will stay wherever I can be effective.”
“Daft Punk got to record the Tron soundtrack because they’d already recorded the Tron soundtrack.”
“If I want to get hired to do something, I should already be doing it. People can’t always see potential energy. Instead of allowing a current job description to stand in the way, turn off the Scrubs re-runs and start a side-project. Draw a picture, code a site, or write something and share it with the internet.”
— Trent Walton, “You Are What You Eat”
This is probably the best advice I’ve ever heard, and one of the reasons why I started The Long Way Home, a hybrid blog-online magazine about Malaysians overseas and how we engage with the world, earlier this year. I was looking for a way to build my portfolio freelancing while applying for internships and jobs. As somebody who never did a journalism degree and is not NCTJ-qualified, and who didn’t want to waste time or money studying further, the only way I knew to prove that I could write and report as a journalist was to pretend to be one, until someone really let me be one and get paid for it. Come to think of it, that’s nothing new. I’ve been doing that for a while now.
Back around the time IRC chatrooms went vogue among teenagers, I started to teach myself HTML and how to make websites by sourcing the code of websites I liked and editing them – taking one line out to see what disappeared from the page, taking another line out to see what happens. That way, I learnt what was what and what did what, and I built a couple of websites – one (surprise surprise) on Leonardo DiCaprio and another on wild horses.
I guess, even as a kid I liked to explain things, share what I knew about what interested me. I also wrote in a diary as Anne Frank did, called it “Kimmy”, wrote some wildly descriptive fiction only amateurs write and slowly moved on to blogs and photoblogs as technology moved things along. One blog in particular did rather well. It was called A Hole In My Head and was a running commentary on social issues from a teenager’s perspective and was even featured in The Star back in its heyday.
Later, throughout my secondary and university years, I was an active student journalist, a sort of jack of all trades – writing, editing and designing. I also published three magazines online, soliciting articles from writers and illustrators whose work I liked, and was awed when they expressed enthusiasm and when I realised that most of them were older than I was. The very first of these was Culture Shock, then Melange Magazine, then The Suitcase Generation – all amateur, but fun.
What sparked these experiments, I believe, was a childhood whim: when I was twelve I had a pen pal in Singapore, with whom I exchanged 20-page letters dressed up as a magazine. She did the same too, and it was a perfect meeting of minds… until one day, she simply stopped writing. I liked to think that her mother had grounded her because she was spending too much time writing to me and neglecting her studies, the same way my mother had threatened to.
I guess my point is: if there is already something you do often simply because you love it – but more than that, because you are compelled to, then pay attention to it. Don’t dismiss it as a mere hobby. Don’t think you’d rather be something else more glamorous, more prestigious, or more respectable. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Don’t let you talk you out of it. I can’t say enough how much I admire those who, at a young age, possess an unwavering certainty of who they are and who they want to be, and who set out with every step to get closer to their dream. I have always wanted to write, but when others steered me gently elsewhere, I lacked the conviction to stay on my own true path, to insist.
But, you say, not everyone can be who they want to be. And sure, I’ll admit that a dose of realism is healthy if you’re aiming for more “creative” ambitions like acting, singing or being a prize-winning author, but journalism is realistic enough, and like most things, can be developed with practice, practice and more practice. So do it, and do it some more – and maybe someone will take notice. The Long Way Home, humble as it is, has certainly opened some doors for me.
As someone who is still working towards her goals, I am not in any way qualified to dish out career advice, so instead I will move you on to those who can – and they will be different people depending on what you want to do with your life. Look out for those who are already doing what you want to do. For me, it’s the new breed of global reporters who have struck out on their own.You’ll find that everyone, myself included, propounds their own way of life and their own life’s experiences, and all of us are right and wrong at the same time.
If what you want to do differs from the norm, many people will tell you that it’s impossible, or that it’s so difficult it’s best to go for the “safer” option. But those who have done it, they will tell you different, and it’s their perspective you need to propel you. There is no one way of doing things, and the best you can do is look for people of your own generation (I guess because trends change with the times) who have paved the road you want to tread, and learn from them.
All images used in this article were provided by the author.