Some say I’m arrogant. Others say I’m lonely. Some say I’m out of touch with reality. Others think I’m unrelatable. There seems to be a variety of them, but on closer look, I think they’re all quite similar. There’s a running theme of how people has been treating me over a significant course of my life: a degree of deference, some dose of distance, and just a sprinkle of relationship. For me, it feels very much like living in a glass showcase.
I have been trying to avoid it from time to time. I’ve tried to break through the showcase, but in the end I have found out that I would cease to be me anymore and that is something I cannot do. I just can’t to be not me. To some degree I have evolved and indeed I am evolving, but that bit remains at the core of my being: the showcase syndrome; the combination of deference, distance, and relationship that has been the hallmark of most – if not all – of my relationships.
When I was in elementary, I thought people treated me with some degree of deference because my Mom was at the top of elementary teachers’ pecking order – a respectable Grade 6 Mathematics teacher. But it also happened when I moved to a different school for my high school, where my new friends didn’t even know who my parents were. It has happened at public places – I once took a taxi to hospital on a Saturday and the driver just assumed I was a doctor and he complimented me for my “sacrifice, working to help people in need, even on Saturday morning”; at another time in a economy-class train, someone approached me, thinking I was a pastor …. This kind of things just happen so many times, even with strangers.
You may think it’s nice to be treated that way. It can be. But often it’s not. There may be some perks when people treat you with some deference, but the other side of the coin is it’s hard for people to accept that I can be tired; that I can be exhausted; that I can be needing their assistance, their presence, their friendship. Hence in my times of greatest needs I have learnt to find solace in solitude, not in friendship nor any person nor any kind of relationship.
Doesn’t it hurt? It does. How to make it go away? It doesn’t; I just grow to get used to it. It has become a fact of life – something to numb off, not something to get rid of. How so? It just happens to be the only feasible way and as a matter of fact, it works! It works without getting anyone hurt nor any relationship burned down.
Now I’m in Guangzhou for a sabbatical year. It’s a totally new world. No one here knew me before. My friends come from more than a dozen different countries. Yet it happens again. On the second day I’m here I was asked to deliver a commencement address. On the second week, I was chosen as a monitor of the class (a kind of Chinese-style prefect). A series of ultimately wonderful things have happened … I’ve gained a remarkable reputation in a very short time … but then again, that other side of the coin also comes along: the aloneness (I hate using the word “loneliness” because in my case that’s far from accurate and I’m certainly not lonely; I’m just being alone), the distance, the solitary pathway in charting the pathways less travelled.
A couple of weeks ago I asked a friend who’s studying for his Ph.D. here, “What’s your life like as a Ph.D. student? Is it solitary?” When I later received the answer, I thought I had asked a foolish question. I think he actually has so much more fun in his life as Ph.D. student than I do in my sabbatical year. Being here in a totally new world confirms my belief that this strong and omnipresent sense of living a solitary life isn’t about some external factor; it’s just me being me.
The series of serendipitous events with their accompanying darker shades that have been repeated in this new world has confirmed that at the core, it’s just me being me. That is a good thing to find at the beginning of this sabbatical year and see how this core can and need to evolve and what the future holds for me.