The first time I noticed the disparity between who I knew myself to be and how other people saw me happened one cloudy afternoon in a lab in university.
I was standing in front of a machine, waiting for my algae samples to dry.
In the quiet of the lab, I was accompanied on most of my days there by the hum of machines. The Centrifuge. The Oven.
Except on Tuesdays.
On Tuesdays, I would not be alone. My friend who was working on the same project would be there with me.
‘Oh, did you just put it inside?’ she said from behind me, with her greenish sample on a filter paper on a petri dish in her hands.
‘Yeah – um, do you want to put it inside together?’ I replied.
‘Sure,’ she said.
I opened the oven, put her sample inside and reset the timer.
This wasn’t something we should have done, but we were getting by on caffeine and a few hours of sleep a night and weren’t thinking straight.
Once the samples were in, there was not much else to do but wait… and of course, do what university students do when they have nothing else do – chit-chat.
‘So, how long have you had your tattoo?’ I asked her, motioning to the artwork on her neck.
I’ve always noticed it but hadn’t found the opportunity to ask.
‘Oh, um, a few years now,’ she told me.
‘Thinking of getting another one?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, maybe around my hand or something,’ she said, smiling. ‘What about you Lu Wee? Have you ever thought about getting a tattoo?’
‘Yeah, I have. But I’m still thinking about what to put on,’ I told her.
On my reply, her eyes widened. ‘Lu Wee? Get a tattoo? I’m sure your parents would not like it!’
My parents? What did my parents have to do with this, I wondered.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked her.
‘I mean, you look like the type who comes from a family of doctors, lawyers, engineers or something… like, squeaky clean,’ she said, shaping her index finger and thumb on both hands into a pinch, placing them next to one another and then pulling them outwards, away from one another.
‘Really?’ I asked.
‘Yeahhhhh,’ she said, her head bobbing up and down.
I was surprised. Up until that point, I hadn’t known I had given people that kind of impression. At least, not intentionally.
I didn’t know what to reply at first. There were no doctors or lawyers or engineers in my family. I was the first.
And then, I told her something I had always known.
‘Nah, everyone except my elder sister and I have tattoos,’ I told her, ‘they’ll be fine.’
Taken aback, she took a pause before saying, ‘Oh gosh, Lu Wee. You really don’t look it. I wouldn’t have guessed – ‘
The timer on the oven went off, cutting her short of finishing her sentence.
Twenty minutes had passed and our samples had dried enough.
I took the mitts next to the oven and went about taking the hot samples out from the oven, all the while wondering in the back of my mind what else people were assuming about me.
Not that it made me self-conscious, but that it surprised me that I had portrayed myself so differently from what I imagined I did.
‘I guess, I do give off that impression, don’t I?’ I said.
She nodded, before taking her samples away for the next stage in the experiment.
People say, the more you are aware of something, the more you notice it around you.
When I became aware of the disparity between who I saw myself as and how other people saw me, I began noticing it more that year.
It was our final year and a few modules allowed textbooks as reference material during exams.
‘Lu Wee, can you lend me your textbook?’ one of my classmates asked me during lunch.
‘Sure,’ I told him, taking the book from my bag and handing it to him. ‘What do you need it for though?’
‘I want to photocopy it,’ he said.
‘Photocopy it? For what?’ I asked.
University policy didn’t allow photocopied textbooks to be used during exams so it felt pointless to me to make a copy of it since this particular textbook was most useful as an exam reference than anything else.
‘I just want to see what’s inside, so I can remember it during exams,’ he told me.
Remember it? I didn’t think it was possible. There was too much information.
‘But there are a lot of things inside… like numbers with a lot of decimal points and such, I don’t know if you can remember all of it,’ I told him, ‘why not just buy a copy and bring it in?’
At this point, he got a little agitated.
‘Well, Lu Wee,’ he said, ‘I’m not like you. My parents only give me RM200 of spending money a month. I can’t afford this textbook. It’s too expensive.’
At that point, I wondered how much my friend felt my parents gave me as spending money every month. RM500? RM1,000? RM3,000?
In reality, I was working part-time as a tuition teacher and earning between RM300 – 600 a month. That was the money I used to buy all my textbooks.
‘But I bought this myself using my own money. I don’t take money from my parents every month,’ I told him.
Hearing that, he went silent.
‘Just lend me the book. I’ll return to you on Monday.’
Years later, as I began my journey full-time into business, my then partner and friend lamented to me one day that his life was much worse than mine.
‘I’m not like you. I didn’t go to a private university. I went to a public one. I don’t have rich parents. You are lucky. More lucky than me.’
I didn’t really know what to say. I agreed that I was lucky but it was never because I had rich parents.
‘Everyone has a path that will give them the experience that makes them unique,’ I replied.
I didn’t know how to tell him that, in truth, I never spent a cent of my parents’ money for my university education. It was for by a kind scholarship by my university.
And I got it because I worked hard during high school.
He went on in his melancholy and I listened.
Perhaps by that time, I had already gotten used to the assumptions that people make of me, so I never did correct him.
Even though I have shared only my story, I am far from the only person in the world that people will make assumptions of.
My own experience of being stereotyped taught me to try to look on deeper and further into someone before assuming anything about them.
If someone is successful in business, I don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that rich parents were involved. It’s often not the only reason why someone becomes successful in business.
If a woman takes care of her exterior very well, I don’t immediately assume that it’s all that they care about and that they are not good with housework or don’t care for their children well. This is far from the truth. I’ve met very beautiful women who are some of the best carers of their homes.
On a more personal level, people will always have a perception of us that will not match our perception of ourselves.
The first instinct is to correct them or change yourself to match their ideas of you.
In reality, this is unnecessary.
Because no matter how much you try to correct people, they will never know everything about you and so, will make mistakes when it comes to seeing who you are.
And that’s okay.
And, no matter how much you try to change yourself, you will always be you in a lot of ways.
And that’s okay too.
The best thing to do is be yourself and let other people be themselves.
Don’t worry if you’re not good at this yet. I’m also still learning 🙂