I Am Unapologetically Myself

Sorry seems to be the hardest word. Unless, of course, you are Asian.

My family emigrated to Australia from China when I was nine years old. I remember very little of the lead-up to the Big Day, and even less of the months of acclimatisation that followed, much of it spent in tears of self-pity and self-denial that the once familiar way of life was no more. Suffice to say that I grew up in a constant state of confusion; exposed as I was at a tender age to a concoction of belief systems, values and ideals that were as polar opposites as they come. Growing up, one Confucian value was painstakingly instilled in me. Humility shadowed me everywhere and it would go on to define me, for better or worse.

I recall a time when I happily returned home waving a perfect report card, only to be chastened by the looks of consternation on my parents’ faces. I learnt quickly then that blowing our own trumpet was frowned upon, that it was up to figures of authority to define our own self-worth. We let our good deeds do the talking, they’d say, and it wasn’t up to me to question that.

My parents also taught me to say sorry almost before anything else. There might be no direct equivalent of how’s it going, but there is certainly no shortage of ways to express that you are sorry. I was led to believe that this magical word – along with thank you and please – underpins the winning trifecta of Asian social currency. Not only does it permeate the Asian lexicon it permeates every fibre of our value system.

I carried those ideals with me as I entered the Australian workplace. My signature emails would preface with sorry to bother you, or my apologies for having to inconvenience you, although why I was sorry for asking others to perform their jobs remained a mystery, even to me. It just seemed as innocuous and second nature as hope you are well.

My urge to be self-deprecating would take centre stage time and again, from client meetings to work functions, even to performance reviews where displays of chest-puffing and fist-thumping are as commonplace as death and taxes. Yet there I’d sit, downplaying my strategic involvement amidst fluent recitations of my inadequacies, silly mistakes and unfulfilled promises.

Little did I know that I’d just bagged myself a one-way ticket to corporate bondage.

Whilst isolated incidences of humility in overdrive can be rationalised and are often suppressed, its impact on future prospects can be frightening. Efforts to break down the lack of gender and cultural diversity (known as the glass ceiling and bamboo ceiling respectively) are progressing at glacial pace. In multicultural Australia, for instance, female representation on corporate boards of the ASX200 barely registers 25%, whilst Asian representation is a mere 4%. This is despite women representing ~60% of university graduates, and Asia being our closest neighbour and the number one source of migrant population.

Could it be that this one Asian virtue – as revered as it is in one part of the world – is the damning culprit behind workplace imbalance in another? As I paid closer attention to the environment around me, I realised that taking a perpetually apologetic stance is not only unnecessary, but is in fact doing a disservice. When we place the power in others to define our self-worth, we inevitably apologise our way into obscurity. True humility awaits not the subservient and ingratiating, but the quietly confident and assertive.

There were things I learnt which must now be slowly unlearnt. I could no longer allow a crisis of identity and belonging to be escalated into a crisis of self-worth. I could no longer allow a conversation about everything that I am to be overtaken by everything that I am not.

But before all that, I must recognise that I am unapologetically a minority; and that I am unapologetically myself.


Feature image courtesy of S. Chen

32 Comments Add yours

  1. alawrenceg says:

    Although I’m not Asian, I am hard on myself and have always been quick to agree with the criticism of others. I actually think I am good at some things because I am hard on myself, but while others inspire confidence with their egos, I am limited by my own humility. As some point I learned that there was value in being honest with yourself as regards your weaknesses, but also your strengths. And that’s the part I was missing. Nothing wrong with saying, “I know I’m good at this.”

    1. Jolene says:

      Thanks Lawrence. I think you are right. Humility is good to a certain extent, but beyond that it can be debilitating. It’s good to recognise ourselves clearly – weaknesses and strengths.
      I hope you and your family have been well during these very strange times? Are you in lockdown where you are? 🙂

      1. alawrenceg says:

        Pretty much. All the adult kids are home. Things are starting to open up. I’m not inclined to take any more risk than necessary, working from home, which I’m fine with. You?

      2. Jolene says:

        That’s good, I’m sensing the US is on the mend, or at least I hope that’s right, it’s been such a disastrous start to the decade. Australia has been relatively insulated (we are geographically blessed). We have 103 deaths and 7100 infected and Sydney is opening up to 50 people from tomorrow. Life is slowly getting back to a new norm. WFH will perhaps be the new norm. Take care!

  2. Canuck Carl says:

    This would have been a major adjustment going to live in Australia when you were nine Jolene. I have a great admiration on the Asian culture on how courteous and polite they are Jolene. And I so appreciate the awareness you shared about low self worth and how it reflects in the workplace environment. Extremely well written.

    1. Jolene says:

      Thanks so much Carl! It is an extremely personal piece and yet at the same time I needed to ensure the message is delivered. Diversity is a buzzword in any discourse about the workplace, however, too often do we just pay lip service at best. Low self worth unfortunately becomes the byproduct. I’m very grateful to have the WP platform and kind readers like yourselves whom brighten my world! 😊

  3. fkasara says:

    Ah! Story of my life! I always say that for me “sorry seems to be the EASIEST word”, haha. I come from a corner of my country, where showing-off is seen as really bad form and you always have to be humble, so I can totally understand where you’re coming from. Some of my friends have started to say that I should stop saying sorry, though, as “saying it too many times diminishes the value of the word”. Like, if you say it too many times, it’s like not saying it at all!

    “I realised that taking a perpetually apologetic stance is not only unnecessary, but is in fact doing a disservice” YES, definitely. And I loved your last sentence ❤

    1. Jolene says:

      Hey Sara, I’m so glad we are coming out of our shells with this issue… I agree, saying sorry is cheap and meaningless when we don’t even know what we are apologising for! I hope we can one day shed the need to subordinate ourselves to others. Thank you friend, and best wishes to overcoming the sorry syndrome! 🙂

      1. fkasara says:

        We need group therapy 😂

      2. Jolene says:

        You’ve said what’s been on my mind… The powers of collective healing. 😂

  4. Fantastic post…. I especially appreciate this phrase

    “True humility awaits not the subservient and ingratiating, but the quietly confident and assertive”

    While I am sure I use “sorry” enough… You have given me much to think about…

    1. Jolene says:

      Thank you… I’m sure you use sorry enough (just never enough in front of your wife and family).

      1. you are so right… !!!

  5. glendabjack says:

    You sure have a way with words. Very well written. I am a paradox. I am self deprecating in certain areas and arrogant in other cases. I never thought that was possible.

    1. Jolene says:

      Thank you Glenda. I think I’m jealous, isn’t that called the perfect balance? Everything is great in moderation. Thank you so much for sharing your feelings. 🙂

      1. glendabjack says:

        You’re welcome.

  6. Great article. I have an Italian mother, and she taught us to be the same way your parents taught you. It’s taken me a while, but I have learned to be stronger and have my own voice, in a nice way, but be assertive. My mother said that is what she was taught, so she passed this to her children. 🙂 http://www.brilliantviewpoint.com

    1. Jolene says:

      Thank you for reading. 🙂 I’m glad to hear that this is more prevalent than I thought it would be and that you could relate. I’m comforted though that you have asserted yourself when the occasion called for it. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

      1. It took practice. :).

  7. Interesting how people around the world raise their children differently. Love your post… I feel a little bit Asian right now 😃

    1. Jolene says:

      Thank you for your kind words! Feeling Asian right now? 😂 Hope you don’t get caught up in a downward humility spiral. 🙂

  8. I like the sound of that. Quietly assertive. Now I’ll be thinking of glass ceiling and bamboo ceiling, new expressions for me. Wishing you well.

    1. Jolene says:

      Thank you Manja, this is something very personal and it is wonderful to hear that those ceilings will get a good crack! Thanks very much for your support! 😊

  9. I saw so much of myself in that article of yours. At each para, I was marvelling at your sensible and witty description of how many Asian parents have raised their kids. There is an actual overdose of etiquette and modesty even in my upbringing. And just like you, I also downplay my achievements and capabilities.
    When you downplay your achievements under the mask of modesty and bring out your mistakes, you’re giving the other person a look at your flaws which might have stayed unnoticed if we hadn’t pointed them out. But now they definitely know and so their focus shifts to your flaws only.
    This behaviour is so detrimental to self growth and to an extent that you yourself start questioning your capabilities after a point.
    I don’t know how to get rid of this behaviour and I’m working on that. I sure hope you’re doing the same. And by the way this was such a gem of an article. I related to it so much, friend.

    1. Jolene says:

      Thanks so much Ms Twinkling, great to hear from you, what have you been up to? 😄
      Absolutely, we all know that it takes a lifetime of good deeds to undo a bad one, yet all the good deeds will be undone in the instant a bad deed is uncovered. I must say that all manners of a one dimensional education are intrinsically flawed. I hope we are able to unlearn some of the things that we have been taught. This is not saying that we ought to go out there and ostentatiously brag about our supposed skills (as some might do) but at least give fair credit to our strengths and the essence of who we are. Good to share our learnings over time! 🙂

      1. Great to hear from you as well 😄😄 I was busy, Jolene in a lot of things. How have you been?
        Yes I know we need to at least give fair credit to our strengths because who else will if not us?

      2. Jolene says:

        Exactly, no one is obligated to stand up for us if we fail to believe in ourselves.
        I think there are times when I struggle with it all. Having a platform like WP, and friends and readers like you, definitely help. Thank you 😊

      3. We’re all struggling with a lot of things, so WP and friends like you help me as well. Thank you😄

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