Last Tuesday, in our airbnb in Adelaide where we were attending an anthropology conference, J and I mused about conference fatigue, academic precarity, and our plans for the future. And then she told me that she knows that I am ‘working very hard’ for my academic goals. I got shy and brushed it off in mock humility, then attempted to return the focus of our exchange to her.
That night I cried myself to sleep.
Often when people compliment me on my academic work, they tell me that I am strategic, a good networker, resourceful, meticulous, energetic, smart. Sometimes people use effusive words that are laden with agendas to guilt me into taking on more work, dissecting me into a young, childless, Asian, mobile woman to explain my achievements or self-worth. Most times during sincere exchanges, I genuinely feel grateful to be acknowledged. But rarely do people tell me that I am actually working hard.
J and I went to grad school together, and having someone who knows my backstory recognise my effort made me feel very cherished. I think back on the days I used to split a boxed meal across lunch and dinner, bask in the joy of having had 5 gelato icecreams in 5 days with J last week, and suddenly feel like I have progressed a lot in life.
My life has always been really fast-paced. As a master multi-tasker, I have always coped really well. During my undergrad years, I attended university full-time, tutored over 40 hours a week to fund my education, and rehearsed regularly with 4 to 5 wind orchestras, symphonic bands, and percussion ensembles. Completing my undergrad degree was my master goal, and while tutoring enabled me to afford my expenses, music was the thing that kept me happy. A similar lifestyle continued during my postgrad years, when I worked 7 concurrent casual jobs at the oddest hours of the clock for 3 years in order to fund my full-fee paying PhD, until I eventually landed a scholarship. I completed both degrees on time and with high honours.
I spent the first half of this year shuttling between Singapore (where my institution and fieldwork was based) and Perth (where I live with my person) for my first postdoc. I found myself on the redeye every other weekend in order to spend a precious 48 hours with my love before heading off for work again. After a brief respite in July, I spent the second half of this year shuttling between Sweden and Perth for my second postdoc.
My career decisions may make very little sense to many people, and it sure does come with a lot of fatigue, but I feel very fulfilled and anchored in the plans my person and I have made for ourselves, so that we can each pursue our dream careers and achieve our mini-milestones while committing to growing old together. When my mentor T told me that he understood my ‘front-loading’ and then offered to broker several opportunities for me, I felt even more assured that one day in the future all of this will make sense in retrospect.
I once compared my lifestyle to synchronised swimming – few people pay attention to the vigorous paddling under water since the swimmer looks effortlessly graceful above water. For this reason, I feel it is important to visibilise struggles and rejection and loss in everyday life, and to build genuine friendships with the good people of academia who will have your back when you’re down, care for each other, maintain conducive spaces for each other, and pay it forward in the generations to come.
Sometimes it is easier to preach than to practice. But in the most difficult hours, I remind myself that there is the work that I do for rent and the work I do for my heart, the things you have to do out of circumstance and the other things you do to keep yourself going. This keeps me balanced and rationalises away the bad feelings I have about needing to work literally twice as hard for my education or my job. Also, the things I pursue out of passion remind me that even though I feel that I am struggling, I am honestly already in a relatively privileged position in society.
I finally came home to Perth on Sunday after a super hectic year of fieldwork, academic work, and conferences across three continents. The next day, I couldn’t get out of bed and felt so fatigued beyond repair. I looked at my to-do list for the rest of the year, marked out all the seriously overdue deadlines and work owed to various people who have been exceedingly generous with me, and decided I wasn’t going to make it.
And for someone who is usually super meticulous with deadlines and meeting expectations, I felt a lot of shame and guilt. But I also firmly decided that I wasn’t going to make my body/brain make the sprint.
I have been playing catch-up since May. During my sister’s death anniversary, I fell into a pit of depression. And then my laptop/office PC/back-up hard drive crashed. And then my grandmother passed away. And then I went to work in a whole other continent. And while being away, trying things happened back home. And then my childhood caretaker passed away before I could see them again. And then I learnt that a friend is ailing from the same disease that took my sister and childhood caretaker away and couldn’t cope with seeing them. And then earlier this week some old childhood trauma surfaced again in the most unexpected of ways. It has been a very wild 8 months, and I don’t know how to begin to explain myself and my shortfalls other than purging my bad feelings in this comfortable writing space.
And so, despite feeling a lot of shame and guilt for all the overdue things and letting people down, I firmly decided that I wasn’t going to attempt or pretend that I am going to make the sprint. For the next few days, I am going to do the things that make my heart happy and spend all my waking hours with my person. And then come January I am going to work slowly but surely to clear the backlog. Come February I want to emerge recuperated, rested, and relaxed to take on the world again.
I am off to acquire Christmas decorations for our house and sit in the bathtub for a while.
Have a good break, everyone. Care for one another.