[Speaker Night] Acceptance and Belonging

Dwelling came back after its mid-year break with a new season of topics lined up for the rest of the year. We kicked off the topic of Acceptance and Belonging with a full-house Speaker Night. Even the MRT train breakdowns did not hamper some of our guests from arriving anxiously to catch the intimate sharing by our speakers, Geri Ang and Alex Linh.

Julia opened the session by introducing ‘belongingness’ as such a fundamental human need that the desire for it, or lack of it, results in our competition for power, recognition, and approval to be part of another, or a group. She invited the audience to explore their edges and boundaries around giving and receiving in relationships, as well as issues about sexuality, age and race among other things that affect our boundaries for acceptance. How do we even begin to grasp what acceptance is, or isn’t? To start the inquiry, Julia introduced our speakers for the evening to come share their own experiences of acceptance and belonging. What was to come was honest, raw and real sharing of truths about themselves and their lives.

Geri went straight to the point to say that she was not born female, immediately challenging our edges around acceptance. Coming from a messy family background with her father having two families was enough to cause her to grow up in an environment that made her search for her identity a difficult one. Growing up with mixed emotions in her teens and a liking for guys, she thought at first she was gay. In this confusion and struggle with herself, she entered university and decided to work on herself. Through coaching and becoming a coach herself, her journey of exploring her self and her place in this world resulted in her coming to terms with who she was, and her choice to go through her transitioning process—and there was no turning back. Her choice was clear. She found her voice to speak out to the university hall management. Being assigned to the women’s floor in the hall was both a confirmation and homecoming for her.

Yet the journey didn’t end there. To a couple of questions asked by the audience, “How do you know that you made the right choice?” and “Does it end there?” Geri had this to say: She didn’t deliberate on her choice and went with it because it felt right. And then the next challenge for her appeared—to start dating again. So no, it doesn’t end there. The path has been filled with ups and downs. “How many men would accept me for who I am now, and who I was in the past?” In as much as it was a journey of acceptance for her, so would it be for them. But her choice to step into her truth opened up communication for her family that would otherwise not happen, because no one had the guts to talk about the problems all these years. In a poignant moment, Geri spoke about the vivid imprint of the hotel room she still remembers with her father when he visited her in Thailand just after her surgery. In a face-to-face confrontation, she told him about the hurt and pain he had caused the family, especially to her mother. In the same exchange, she learned that her father had a rough childhood himself, and lived his life the way he learned it to be. Is it all about blaming one’s parents? Not entirely. Said Geri, “We cannot choose our parents. What they do is what they do. How we deal with it is our choice and we must be responsible for our part.” That moment of understanding and forgiveness was the beginning of closer communications between all her family members. “We are all in different places, but we have a Whatsapp group to talk about things.”

By the time Geri came to the end of her share, the audience were deeply immersed in her story and felt truly connected to what she shared. Geri’s openness and willingness to connect with the audience instilled a sense of security that allowed them to mull over their own struggles with the different issues around acceptance.

It was Alex’s turn to share—a petite, feisty, young lady of 24 years who spoke with the wisdom of a person who has taken charge of her own life. But it wasn’t anything like this for her growing up in her village in Vietnam as the second daughter of a well-known father who had expected her to be a boy. Imagine her father throwing a ceremonial party for the birth of his son, only to be found out that the baby was a girl when the attendees peeked under her nappy. Alex spoke of her being brought up as a boy, and how she perceived herself to be in a family of strong leaders and ending up being a people pleaser to get acknowledgement from people.

Besides struggling with her older sister, she faced identity issues as she entered secondary school, where she struggled emotionally to come to terms with expressing herself to the opposite sex, being the tomboy that she was. She continued struggling through high school, this time with the same sex. If you think her woes had just about started, at this point in her life her family issues had escalated to such an extreme situation between her parents that she resorted to knife-point at herself to mediate the explosive fuse.

The actual change came when Alex was enlisted to go to medical school in Boston. She finally found the courage to tell her father that was not what she wanted.  Going through tirades from her dad, she kept her ground and stood firm about her decision of not becoming a doctor. She finally posed the question to him, ”Why do you impose what you want onto me?” and was greeted with silence. He sorted himself out and acknowledged that he had placed his dreams on his own daughter to fulfill what he couldn’t be, a doctor himself. After that, Alex was able to speak candidly and openly about what she really wanted to do. She went on to pursue coaching as her expression of saving lives. In the midst of that journey, when her father developed cancer, she momentarily regretted not being a doctor. It was then that she asked him, “Are you proud of me?” To her surprise, her father told her that he prefers her this way, not the doctor he expected her to be, and that he never once regretted that she stood up for herself. Learning that he father loved her as she was, Alex had finally gained what she secretly harbored—acceptance and approval from her father.

Everyone was uplifted after the shares from the speakers and then came an onslaught of questions. One question many grapple with was how to deal with criticism. Our speakers’ advice was to acknowledge the hurt and not be in denial of it. The next thing is to work on it and treat whatever that comes back at you as constructive feedback.

We left our audience in a rich soup of things to ponder over. What we learned from our speakers tonight was that it takes courage to speak your truth to be free in the presence of another. It is in being able to give another person our truth that they too open up to theirs as a gift for us.

In the crystallization of the session, one audience expressed that she was completely blown away by what she heard for the past two hours as she had expected to be sold a program, but instead felt blessed to be here with us in the room and being part of this empowering sharing session.

As a parting gift to our audience, Alex played a song by the late Whitney Houston, “I didn’t know my own strength”— a timely reminder to us that it is possible to change as our environments change, without losing ourselves.