I had the fortunate opportunity to attend a TEDx event this past Saturday in my hometown. I can’t remember when or how it was that I first discovered TED, but the talks, in its various incarnations as TEDx, TED-Ed or other localities provide a valuable resource which I use in class for students.
Criticism of the general TED talks aside, for me it straddles that in-betweenness of entertainment with academia, technology, science, psychology — and the list goes on. It’s a different (and important) platform to reach out to, and inspire people, myself included, when engagement is on everyone’s minds and is often one of the hardest things to achieve.
For years I’ve wanted to attend one, but never had the opportunity while still in London, either because I couldn’t afford to go to one, or the timing was just never right. So when the opportunity presented itself to attend the first TEDx event in my hometown, it felt like a dream come true. One talk in particular resonated more than others, and another was such a disappointment that I felt offended. I’ll start with the latter.
When I first saw that the event was going to start with a female speaker, I was ecstatic. When you’re in a culture which doesn’t give much thought to gender inequality, where majority of students actually believed that women have broken the glass ceiling (because they can be CEOs and entrepreneurs without bothering to give much more thought to anything beyond “earning a lot more”), it feels like a step forward. Coupled with the fact that the speaker is a qualified professional and co-founded a charity to boot, I thought this was going to be something different. That the hometown had finally taken a step forward to engage in something that’s not only progressive, but worth more thought. What gave me pause was the concentration on the speaker’s other credential: beauty queen. It wasn’t so much that I had — or have — anything against beauty pageants (even if I do think the industry is a problematic issue); it’s more that I thought a TEDx talk is an important platform which has global reach. Thus, shouldn’t it have better engagement strategy than emphasising on the beauty queen aspect in promotions?
I was persuaded, however, to reserve judgement. That perhaps this talk was going to prove me wrong. That this emphasis on the superficial (that attendees would be interested in hearing a woman talk if only she had the looks to go with it, so thanks for actually dehumanising and depoliticising women to this extent!) was an issue with the organisers, or even the vocal sponsors. On a sidenote, one thing I learnt, and god, I learnt very well is how small the hometown still is and people talk. But I digress. So, on Saturday, when I was actually feeling excited at being surrounded by countless other people, I sat in to listen to the first speaker start this inaugural event.
Only to leave the room less than 5 minutes later.
Perhaps you’d think it unfair that I was placing that much scrutiny and pressure on someone because she didn’t choose to be a representative of (professional) women who are struggling for recognition everyday; who face an uphill battle at having their work, their passion and dedication belittled into nothing because they’re not mothers or wives; where inner-misogyny is lauded and accepted, because if you don’t fight for something — attention from men and from your employers — then you’re of no value whatsoever. But to have that stage at your feet, and TEDx as your platform, what is the message you’re sending out to youths? That nothing else mattered as long as you’re beautiful; beautiful enough to participate in beauty pageants which doesn’t give you a path to make a difference, no.
God forbid. No, it’s a pathway to your next dream: to meet a man and marry him.
This was why I walked out. Maybe it’s petty. Maybe I was being too idealistic. But as an attendee and a professional, I personally thought it was a wasted opportunity to tell the audience so much more about what prompted the formation of the charity. For once, I wanted to be proven wrong, that I was being judgemental because someone identified themselves as a “Beauty Queen” and my preconceived notions would immediately assume they have nothing to say that’s of value to me. So, no, I didn’t regret not listening to the rest of the talk (which, from what I heard from a friend who sat through it all, didn’t get much better).
For what it’s worth, despite the disastrous start, the day did get much better. As the curation of speakers did get more inspiring. The academic in me, starved of worthwhile events that wasn’t just focused on how to be the next, best entrepreneur was craving for something to make me think. To inspire me again when everyday life and its homogeneity has made me compliant, I felt. At work, it felt like I was being constantly asked to toe the line, to depoliticise everything, including my own world views, my liberal sensibilities. It was made clear that no one in a higher education institution was interested to engage with difficult topics about gender inequality, feminism, racism, homophobia and religious radicalism.
So when Charles Liew came on stage and started talking about the “art of going home”, about finding one’s sense of belonging, be it the place you live, work or the career you’ve chosen for yourself (or in the Asian case, chosen for you), it resonated. Deeply. My sense of belonging in academia was clear — I never regretted my chosen field of research even if it remains an uphill battle to fight for recognition, to be taken seriously.
But in the year and a half since I’ve moved back, that light — that passion and belief — dims now and again. At conferences, it takes me time to fit back in because I feel like I haven’t been subjected to the kind of rigorous conversations about research and meaningful things. Here, I’m not creating meaning, I’m just adding to the status quo. Where every thought, every battle to do something worthwhile feels like a betrayal to the training I received. Where is my sense of belonging when everything feels like I’m selling my soul to the devil?
I drown myself in coffee because that’s the only sense of belonging I feel here. “Here”, in the symbolism of coffee, I find friendship and understanding, and an opportunity to learn about values, creativity and ideas that constantly challenge and enable me to explore. So the question remains: how does one straddle the in-between?
Or perhaps the message is to finally accept that I have found a sense of belonging in the hometown. But isn’t it a precarious one when a cup of coffee tastes different everywhere, under the hands of a different barista?