• Atiqah Nadiah Zailani

Letters to My Past Selves

For my 30th birthday, I write love letters to all the people I used to be.

Dear 1-year-old me,

I don’t actually remember what it was like to be you. I don’t think your brain was equipped enough to hold memories, or to even understand much about the world around you, so all I have are pictures and stories to go by.

From what I hear, you just ate and pooped a lot. You cried way too much and way too often. Your favourite food was Kentucky Fried Chicken’s mashed potato. You had a pair of bulging cheeks that drooped from the sides of your face (probably from all the mashed potatoes you consumed), and those cheeks will see a lot of abuse for the next few years from overly-affectionate relatives.

The reason why your family will forever refer to you as Miss Chubby till the day you die

You also had the stereotypical Asian-Kid Bowl-Haircut, which was very unfortunate. Thank goodness that’s gone.


Your 30-Year-Old Self


Dear 5-year-old me

I still don’t remember being you - in fact, large parts of my childhood memories remain completely blank. I only know I existed as you because there are photos of a miniature me being alive and doing things 5-year-olds would do, like throwing tantrums.

Apparently, a year or two earlier, you pulled one of these antics and bawled your eyes out non-stop during the entire drive from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka. That’s 2 hours of full-on raging within the small confines of a car. What stamina! What lung power!

One of many tantrums

You also turned murderous at one point and made a grab for the steering wheel, effectively making your father crash into the side of the road. He claims the dent on the road divider from that crash can still be seen today.

You all survived that incident, and by now, you’re already joined by two baby brothers. For a long time, it would just be the three of you, but a surprise package will be coming along.


Your 30-Year-Old Self


Dear 10-year-old me,

You’re now joined by your unexpected third and last brother, and your mom decides to stop reproducing. You are outnumbered and surrounded by testosterones, and that’s probably why you ditched the pretty dresses your mother wanted you to wear and replaced them with grubby shirts and pants.

At this point, you’re in primary school, and just the year before, you were one of the guinea pigs being tested by Malaysia’s Ministry of Education for a little experiment. Every Standard 3 kid was made to take a newly-introduced nation-wide test that, if you passed, allowed you to skip ahead to Standard 5.

You were surprisingly one of the handful of kids in your school to pass, and you had to choose whether to remain in status quo and continue on as normal to Standard 4 with all your friends, or… leave your friends behind and start over in a new environment with older, bigger, and badder kids.

You with same-aged friends before all the experimental-national-tests nonsense.

I don’t think your clueless 9-year-old brain fully comprehended what was going on, or why the Ministry wanted to fast-track little kids through school, or what the consequences of either choices meant. You wanted your parents to decide for you (because you had zero decision-making skills beyond which crayons to use for your colouring book). However, they ignored the how-to-be-an-overbearing-Asian-parent handbook and instead insisted that you think through it yourself so you could take responsibility for your own choices.

Well, I now have the advantage of 20 years of retrospection, and I wanted to tell you that you made the right choice. By choosing the unsettling, difficult option of leaving your comfort zone and pitting yourself against people much better than you, you had unknowingly set the standards for how the future you would make her subsequent life choices.

As the future you, I’m thankful.


Your 30-Year-Old Self


Dear 15-year-old me,

You’re still in school, in your second-to-last year, and you’re plodding along. You were not the worst student, but neither were you the best student - you were just mediocre. You weren’t particularly competitive, you had no big goals in life, and you were happy with a handful of A’s.

Unbeknownst to you, by the end of this year, your headmistress will elect you as the Head Girl, effectively forcing you to step up your game. Suddenly, people will want you to be a ‘leader’, and expect you to get straight ‘A’s, and do magical, impressive things that you’re not even sure you could do. You will resent the appointment, along with all the unwelcome responsibilities and expectations that it will thrust upon you (in fact, you will immediately reject the appointment, but your wishes will be ignored).

Looking back, I don’t think you made a particularly great Head Girl (though, to your credit, I think you did the best you could), but the experience will definitely change you. You will unwittingly discover so many things that you didn’t know you were capable of, and when you graduate a year from now, you will leave this school more confident, more competitive and definitely more ambitious.

It was also around this time that you discovered the trick to free travel: get other people to pay for you by joining competitions (and winning them) and applying for international youth programmes (and getting accepted). It’s a trick you will continue to milk for years to come.


Your 30-Year-Old Self


Dear 20-year-old me,

You have just completed two years of university, and you’re really enjoying this American Life thing. It’s a decidedly different one from the life you had back home, and you're enjoying exploring new things while still doing your best to stay true to your roots and the values your parents taught you. (You made your mother very nervous when you told her you were taking an Introduction to Feminist Studies class. “Don’t!” she had gasped. “It’ll turn you into a man-hater!”)

On a more serious note, your competitiveness and ambitions are getting a little out of hand - for some reason, you thought it would be a great idea to simultaneously do your Masters while completing your Bachelors in half the time it typically took other people, while taking on the maximum allowable load of classes each semester, also while holding down multiple part-time jobs, also while writing a thesis, also while keeping your social life and extra-curricular calendar intact, and not dropping dead of exhaustion all throughout.

You are cramming too much in too little time, rushing everything for… for what, exactly? I don’t think you even know. You're just caught up in a lonely competition against everyone else (who don’t even know they're participating), thinking that doing twice what everyone else was doing constituted ‘success’.

And then graduation day will come, and you will receive both your degrees at the same time — the culmination of the four years of hard work — and all you will feel is empty. “Is this it?”

But that’s another 2 years in the future - for now, you have ahead of you an exciting summer job in Japan (where you will end up getting arrested), and an amazing fall semester in Australia (where you will see your first ever manta ray during a dive).

You will also try to shower affections on an Australian starfish that will tolerate none of it

You’re about to have the time of your life, and I envy you.


Your 30-Year-Old Self


Dear 25-year-old me,

By now, you’ve realised that adulthood is not all it’s cracked up to be. And to think you couldn’t wait to grow up when you were a kid (mostly because you wanted to qualify for the bad-ass rollercoaster rides with their stupid age limits).

You’ve been in the Real World for a few years now post-graduation, and you’re still trying to find your place on this big, big planet. You’ve gone through a few career transitions, and you’ve had hits and misses - times when your job was the best job in the world, and times when it wasn’t. You remain naive, stupid and bubbling with optimism, but you’re starting to realise that changing the world is actually really hard.

This year is going to be especially crappy and tough for you, and you’re already feeling it, though you have no clue what's going on or why (you poor idiot). I’m sorry to say that it will only get worse, and you will be the saddest you’ve ever been in your entire pampered, happy life.

Having a life-sized teddy bear for comfort does help a little bit

But don’t fret, things get better eventually (as they always do), and you’re going to come out of the other end stronger and even grateful for the experience. You will change to the point where your mother will look at you and remark: “You’re more human now.”

(Not because you were an alien or an ape prior to this, but because you have become less of the unsympathetic and unforgiving perfectionist robot that you were before.)

You’re tougher than you think you are. But still very stupid.


Your 30-Year-Old Self


Dear 30-year old me,

Happy birthday! You’ve made it this far, with all your limbs still intact. Good job!

By now, you’ve surprisingly achieved a good number of your life goals (not all, but a decent amount).

You recently lost your mother, and understand for the first time what it truly means to want to turn back time.

You’ve always lived your life forward, only looking ahead, forever in a hurry, but death and age are starting to slow you down and make you glance back a little more, to reflect and maybe even learn from your past selves.

Hence these letters.

You’ve had a lifetime of chasing goals. Maybe it’s time to take a breather.


Your 30-Year-Old Self


Dear future 35-year-old me,

Haha, just kidding! I have a few goals for you:

  1. Obtain a pilot’s license

  2. Be able to pull snowboarding stunts that involve flipping around in the air

  3. Complete the 1-acre self-sustaining property already, jeez

On less trivial matters, I hope you’ve been able to perform Hajj by this time, and that you’re much more spiritually grounded than I am now. I hope you're working really, really hard on the things you love, that you continue to learn random, interesting things that may or may not be useful, and that you enjoy every second of it.

Hopefully, by now, you have figured out your place on this big, big planet, and how to best contribute what little knowledge and skills you have to society, in your own small way, because that’s something I’m still struggling with.

Lastly, I hope you’re that much closer to becoming the kind of person that both you and I want to be, even as I continue to define and refine what that is, exactly.

Maybe you can write me a letter and tell me how things went.


Your 30-Year-Old Self

#lifestyle #tales #lifelessons

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