Despite, Not Because


This writing first appeared in Yayasan Khazanah's Newsletter Vol 16.

Have you ever stared at your palms and wondered if those squiggly lines hold your destiny or are they merely biology? 

Looking at my own, I’m realizing that these lines sprawl across my palms like map lines, with my unsightly calluses anchoring the roadmaps of my life’s journey - the highs, the lows and everything in between.

As a kid, whenever Chinese New Year rolled around, we would go house-visiting and Mom would proudly show off my palms to my relatives. After all, both my palms had 断掌 (duàn zhǎng) — in Chinese Palmistry, a single definitive line straight across the palm that ‘foretells’ great destiny for a man. Ever since Mom learnt of this from her friend who was a Palm-Reader, she would randomly hold my hands and beam in pride, convinced that I was destined to achieve great things, certain that my success was written in the stars.

So I did. Throughout Primary School, when my peers were playing Angry Birds after school, I was memorizing my Syarahan script in preparation for the National Competition. While my friends were hanging out at each other’s houses, I was working through problem sets to prime myself for Math Olympiad Competitions. 

Although I partially bought into Mom’s conviction that I was ‘meant for success’, I worked as hard as I could because I couldn’t risk losing out. I couldn’t risk breaking my ‘destiny’ and shattering Mom’s belief that I was on track to success. And the hard work always paid off when I saw Mom’s proud smile from the crowd below the stage. 

The general trend continued in the early years of High School. I fought hard to be elected into leadership roles and worked tirelessly to prepare myself for competitions. 

However, as I progressed through High School, the time came for life to start throwing curve balls at me. Hard work wasn’t enough anymore. Success wasn’t set in stone anymore. During my SPM year, although my peers were confident that I would secure the Valedictorian award and they patiently assured me that my CV indicated that I was the favorite among the candidates, I missed out. My academic performance also started to take a sharp nose dive when Dad was diagnosed with leukemia and eventually passed on.

For the first time in my life, I saw doubt in Mom’s eyes. After all that has happened, she couldn’t bear to expect me to push myself further. I started thinking, perhaps, I wasn’t meant for greater things after all. Perhaps, I could only play the best hand based on the cards I was dealt. And perhaps, I wasn’t meant to be dealt the Royal Flush.

If I wanted to pursue an education overseas and achieve my dream of becoming an actuary, I had to secure a scholarship. Now that we lost our family’s breadwinner, I couldn’t expect Mom to fork out decades worth of her frugally saved retirement money to fund my education. The situation I was placed in didn’t allow me to opt out. My back was against the wall and I knew that the only way out was to move forward, to find a way to roll with the punches and deal with the curve balls. 

That was when I realized I wanted this to be an ‘Despite’ story, not a Because’ story. Despite all the curve balls, despite how harsh life may be, I want to come out on top, to come out the other side a better person. I refuse to make Dad’s passing a reason, and worse still, an excuse for not making it in life. I wanted to show that he did a great job in teaching me to be a man and to take responsibility for my outcomes, instead of blaming it on my circumstances. 

So I reshuffled my cards. Performing well on SPM and catching up on academics meant that I needed to compartmentalize my emotions and focus on my studies. My calluses came from picking up my slack around the house and helping with the chores, alleviating some burden off Mom since she had to drive me to school, tuition and everything else that used to be a two-person job. At the same time, as the only child at home since my sister was working out of state, I made sure to keep Mom company and ensure that she didn’t feel alone at home.

In that one year, with Mom and my sister’s support, I managed to turn my Ds and Es around and achieve straight As in SPM, eventually securing Yayasan Khazanah’s Global Scholarship programme to pursue my education in the United States. During my YK interview I still remember Mr Kamarul and Pn Intan asking me to promise that I would call home everyday if I was boarding in KYUEM or staying abroad. While I continue to work hard to ensure that YK’s investment in me will pay off for Malaysia, for now, I can only show my appreciation by keeping my promise to Mr Kamarul and Pn Intan to this very day.

Perhaps, hope comes from taking destiny in your own hands. It’s not about 断掌, or what is written in the stars. If we are able to take responsibility for our successes just as much as our failures, we learn that everything that doesn’t go our way is merely another chance to write a ‘Despite’ story. As long as we open our eyes to a new day, it isn’t the final chapter yet. We still have the power, potential and privilege to write our own story, to steer the ship around and tell the world that you made it despite the curve balls that came your way.  

My callused hands may be hard on the eyes and jarring to the touch, but they tell my story. In the limelight when I make small achievements, they ball up in fist and assure me that my hard work paid off. In the darkest of times when all else seems lost, they wipe my tears and tell me to tough through the toil and to keep having hope. And hopefully, they’ll touch lives in the future. This is why I always introduce myself with a handshake. Shake my hand, and you’ll know my story.