It was a classroom. An English class. I sat there listening to my classmates introducing themselves. One at a time, in front of everyone. Two things; your name and your ambition.
"Hello everyone, my name is X. I’m a… nobody".
Everyone frowned. The teacher frowned and immediately say that he’s not a nobody. Everyone felt sad for him and was really surprised.
I was angry.
He’s good-looking. He’s one of the smartest students in school. His family is rich. Everyone likes to hang out with him. And he’s a nobody?
I’m not good-looking. I’m not that smart. My family is pretty much below-average. People ignore me all the time. Then, what am I? What’s worse than a nobody?
I was really angry.
I couldn’t describe how I felt at that time. Perhaps it’s like sad and angry at the same time. I’m probably the only person in the classroom feeling it. And it doesn’t feel good at all.
I was born quiet. My mom told me that I don’t cry a lot when I was a baby. Most babies cry, but I don’t. She‘s proud of that.
I have a quiet personality. My family members are all the talkative type and I’m not. I felt that there’s no need to contribute to the noise pollution, thus I choose to be quiet. I choose peace. I choose to be different among my family members.
When I was a kid, my Dad always teach me how to be an “adult”. Behave yourself. Don’t cause any trouble. Don’t make noise like the other kids. Basically, I was trained to be quiet.
“So, how’s your school life?”, someone asked me.
“Uh… it’s…”, before I could finish my sentence, my Dad chips in, “Oh, my son, he just studies a lot. He doesn’t hang out with other kids…”. The conversation continues for a while. Without me saying anything. And this situation happens so often that I lost count of them.
Yes, I was trained to be quiet.
I could remember few times when I watch my cousins having fun together, running around, playing games and stuff, while I’m there sitting quietly, acting like an “adult”. I was naive. Really naive.
I couldn’t remember much about my childhood. It feels blank and empty. It feels like amnesia when I couldn't recall anything that sounds like a great childhood.
I tried so hard to be the ideal “good boy”. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what I should say. I always give one-word replies whenever people talk to me or ask me questions.
“What are you doing?” — “Homework”.
“Wow, that guy is funny, don’t you think so?” — “Yeah”.
“How’s your food taste like?” — “Good”.
It was terrible. It took me few years later to realise how bad I am in talking with people. I really suck at this conversation thing. It came to me that I need to fix this problem.
I need to fix myself.
The three groups
In school, I categorise students into three groups. Let's call them the Top, the Middle, and the Bottom.
The Top group is for smart, popular or active students. Middle group is for average students. Bottom group is for not-so-smart, naughty or useless students. The majority is obviously the Middle group. The Top students are usually teachers’ pets.
I’ve always been in the Middle group. At that time, I was curious to know how it feels like being in the other groups. I was thinking that I might be stuck in the Middle group for the rest of my schooling life.
Then, something happened.
In primary school, I notched a hat-trick, scored 100% in my Math examination paper for three consecutive times. Everyone was mind-blown. That was the point in my life where I got promoted to the Top group. It felt really weird at first. People start to look at me differently. Their eyes changed. The Math teacher who scolded me on the very first day of her lessons, start to smile at me. And I smiled back at her, in a rather awkward way.
It was a really awesome experience, but it didn’t last long. I got demoted to the Middle group within few months. After that, I moved on to secondary school and start all over again. Still, I manage to be one of the top 10 students in the whole grade which I'm really proud of.
I kept whispering to myself that I don’t want to demote myself to the Bottom group. The Middle group is fine but I would prefer to level up to the Top group because it feels great. At that time, I looked down on students from the Bottom group. I despised that group.
Then, something happened again.
I was transferred to another school because my family and I moved to a new house. It’s like starting from scratch because I was the only one among my friends who moved. I had to start getting new friends. It wasn’t a good school. Weird people. Weird teachers. Smelly classrooms. Broken windows. Broken chairs.
Things changed. Someone moved my cheese. I need to get used to them but it's not easy.
I became lazy to study. My grades started failing. I was scared to show the report card to my parents. I don't want my friends from the previous school to know how stupid I've become. I’m no longer one of the top 10 high-achieving students in school. I became one of the bottom 10 instead. I lost hope in myself. I start to question everything I do. I cried a few times before I sleep.
I joined the Bottom group.
Surprisingly, being in the Bottom group is the best life experience I’ve ever had. Teachers don’t respect you. They look down on you. I start to get E and F grades in the exams. I don’t feel the need to finish up my homework. I feel lazy to study. And I don’t care.
I learnt that students from the Bottom group don’t care about the grades. They don’t care about how other people see them. They have a carefree life and continue to be happy. Yes, happy. At first, I was dumfounded. How could anyone be happy when they are failing? How could anyone be so relaxed when everyone, especially the adults, keeps demoralizing them?
I start to see things in a whole new light. The reasons for us to study or work. The motivations for us to spend time finishing up our homework or preparing for an interview. The awkward moment when students get A in a subject that they have no interest in, or when people work hard at a job that they don't like.
From this experience, I've learned a valuable lesson. You’ll never know how to appreciate success, if you’ve never failed. You’ll never know how to really appreciate people around you, if you’ve never been alone. You’ll never know how it feels like being invisible, if you’ve never been one.
I’ve never thought that I could have the chance to experience all the three groups. I realised that understanding is key to everything, and to understand them is to try experiencing them hands-on.
By the time I realise that I need to fix myself, I start to put all my attention into improving every single aspect of myself. I was in my teenage years and I knew that if I don’t fix it from that point, it’ll be a huge problem when I get older. I treated this very, very seriously.
I started to observe people, learn their behaviours, memorise the words they say, look at the clothes they wear, and always figuring out what they are thinking. I asked a lot of stupid questions and did some research of what I’m lacking and try to patch my weakness with whatever I could copy from others.
I copy my friends’ talking styles, jokes, hand gestures, standing postures, facial expressions, and even fashion senses. It’s kind of like I’m collecting all these details and compare them, then try them out of some people who has never seen them. I don’t feel like it’s me; I feel like there’s multiple personalities inside me. If I’m not an interesting person, then I’ll change myself into one. You know, fake it ‘til you make it.
I realised that this is called “acting”.
It was fun but very tiring. In front of my parents and relatives, I have to act as the “old” me, being a quiet and obedient kid who’ll never shout and run around the house. In front of my school friends, I have to act like a smart and sometimes eccentric person. In front of girls, I have to act like an interesting person who can talk a lot. I did the “switch” so many times that sometimes, I forgot who I am. Eventually it became a natural thing for me when I’m able to switch between two personalities instantly without sweat. Though it could get a little complicated when two groups of people got mixed in the same place, say my parents and my friends, hanging out in a school event.
I got tired of “acting” ever since I graduated from university. I felt that no one will ever know the real me. How do I know which one is the real me? Would anyone care or be interested to know the real me? What difference does it make even when people know the real me? Why would anyone want to know the real me when they have more interesting people out there to hang out with?
Fortunately, things do work out well. I’m really glad to know a few friends whom I don’t have to act. Friends who accept the real me. Friends who don’t treat me like an invisible person.
There’s not a lot of such people, but I wish there are a lot more out there.
It’s hard to get people’s attention. Some people had it easy but some just couldn’t have it at all. And I’m part of the latter group.
I tried really, really hard to get people to notice me. To be aware of my existence. To look at me in the eyes even just for one second. To ask me questions even though I don’t look like I could answer them. To give me at least a little response when I talk to them. To tell me there’s a grain of rice stuck on my face when there’s one on my face. To pay attention to what I say and not interrupting my words. To treat me like an adult even though I look like a kid. To treat me like a somebody instead of a nobody.
It’s really amazing to observe how people ignore me. I tried having eye contacts with them. I tried waving my hands in front of their faces. I tried tapping their shoulders. I tried calling their names. I tried shouting their names. I tried almost everything.
I understand that some people can only focus on one thing at a time. I understand that some people need time to respond when someone calls them. I blamed myself for being too invisible that no one knows that I’m standing in front of them. I blamed myself for being too quiet that they don’t get used to my voice and instinctively not responding to it when I talk. I blamed myself for not being attention-seeking enough that people got used to not paying attention to me. Ultimately, I blamed myself for not being caring enough to other people so that other people would care about me.
I tried to fix myself.
I look like a kid. I have pimples on my face. I couldn't grow a mustache or a beard. That usually means that people don’t treat me or talk to me like an adult. Looking young also means that I lack experience, thus my opinions don’t bring much value than those who are experienced or look experienced. People won’t take me seriously, and it gets worse when I make stupid jokes in front of them. It’s hard to garner respect. Most of the time, people say they don’t judge a book by its cover, well, they still do.
I’m skinny. That means I’m an easy target for bullies. And heck yeah I got bullied a few times during my school days. Verbally and physically. It’s not fun at all. I’ve always been called names. I know that the names are meant to be funny, but if you're the victim, it's not funny anymore. There was one time that I got locked in the toilet from the outside. Those bullies steal things from my bag when I'm not around. Some of them even kicked me in the butt multiple times for no particular reason. It’s really not fun at all.
From time to time, people who meet me for the first time always mention to me that I look skinny. Yes, I know that. It’s the truth and I can’t stop them from stating the truth. Every single time. It’s like I don’t even know that I’m thin, so I need other people to tell me that. I don’t call obese people “fat”, but they call me “thin”. Still, I try so hard not to be emotional and call them “fat”, no matter what happens.
My face is weird. There was a time when I was angry, my friends thought that I’m sad. When I’m sad, they thought that I’m angry. When I try to make a joke, people thought that I’m serious. When I have a stomachache, they thought that I'm fainting. My god, how does that even work? I personally find this so funny that sometimes I just act my way through. That was the point when I start to wonder if my facial expression doesn’t really match my real expression.
So what can I do? Well, I try to fix myself.
I try to eat a lot because people keep telling me to eat a lot. I force myself to eat a lot. My relatives always put food on my plate so I'll need to respect them by finishing the food. During dinner gatherings, I'm always the last one eating while everyone else are done with their food. No one's complaining because they think that I should eat more. In other words, they feel better that a thin person like me eats a lot while they could have the excuse of not eating much in order to keep fit. Unfortunately, I couldn't get fat at all, regardless of how much or what I eat. Genetics, I guess.
I realised that by having a long hair, people start to treat me differently. More like an adult, less like a kid. I try to exaggerate all my expressions so that people can understand my real expressions. When I make a joke, I purposely make it sound funny, like a cartoon character. When I'm angry, I'll purposely punch the table to create a loud noise. I learn all the necessary body language to assist my facial expressions so that people could better interpret my real feelings and thoughts.
This is “acting”, all over again.
Sometimes “acting” doesn’t really solve everything. There’s always a small percentage of people who will be ignored no matter what they do. I know, because I’m one of them, and I don’t ignore them. In fact, I always pay attention to people who are ignored and don’t get the attention.
These people, like myself, exists. I tried my very best to blend into the “culture”. I invite people to go places and people don’t invite me sometimes. I organise events and even push people to organise events. I tried to be loud. I tried to be not myself and somehow blend in.
In a group, there will always be one loud person who acts like a leader. The rest would be followers. What happens when there are more then one potential leaders in a group? Well, things will still work out fine as long as there are leaders, right? But what happens when there are none?
In a group, there will also be one quiet person, sometimes but not always. That person could be a leader, but quiet. Do people notice him or her? Well, no, because I noticed people who don’t notice them. Even if they do, they simply ignore the situation as if nothing happened. That sucks.
I tried to fix this.
When a leader talks too much, I’ll chip in and divert the attention to another person in the group. When a topic gets too heated or out-of-topic, I’ll need to change the topic or do something stupid to break the flow. When one person in the group feels left out of the conversation, I’ll need to pull that person in. When the group gets too quiet, I’ll need to be the loud one. When one person is left behind the group while walking, I’ll need to slow down my pace and constantly look back to see if he or she is catching up.
It doesn’t just happen in a group. It happens everywhere.
Imagine you are walking down a small pathway with a friend, side by side. Few meters away in front of you, another pair is walking in the opposite direction, towards you. What do you do? Think about it. Just continue the conversation with your friend? Pretend not noticing the people walking towards you? Seriously, think about it.
Here’s what I would do. Few steps before the collision, I would stop talking, slow down my pace and step behind my friend, so that I can create a two-way lane on the pathway. I do this all the time, in any situations. It's just walking, something that everyone do every single day. Some people might think, why would I put so much thinking in this at all?
It's not easy. It requires a lot of effort to reduce ignorance. It requires a lot of observation to notice the unnoticeable. It requires a lot of awareness for things to become better not just for yourself but also for people around you.
A good listener
A dialogue is a conversation between two or more people. Minimum two. It has to go both ways. When one person talks, the other has to listen. Vice versa.
During my secondary school days, I accidentally became a good listener for a few of my friends. I don’t chip in when they talk. I make constant eye contact with them. I show my concern about their worries and issues. I initiate questions for them to tell me more about their story. I show my interest to know more. I give them the chance to talk as much as they want. Even if I don’t understand what they are talking about, I pretend that I understand. I will try my best to understand. Most importantly, I enjoy listening to them.
That’s when I realised, I’m the listener type, which probably explains why I’m quiet.
The more I listen to people, the more I find it hard to get people to listen to me. I felt lonely. I felt that no one understands me. Sometimes I just want to say something. Sometimes I just want to rant. Sometimes I just want to have someone to be interested or at least pretend to be interested to listen to me.
Every time I talk with my friends, I feel like want to open up my mind and just talk about my frustrations and concerns. And before I could start doing that, my friends will interrupt my words and speak even more words than me. I accidentally turn into a listener, again. The dialogue changed into a monologue.
I realised that not everyone can be a listener. Not to mention, a good listener.
It’s difficult. When people say that they want to improve their communication or conversational skills, they simply learn how to speak. They don’t learn how to listen. They want to grab your attention instead of paying attention. They listen with the intent to reply, not to understand.
In the end, the best listener I know is… myself. Admittedly, I talk to myself all the time. Which also means that I listen to myself all the time. This might sound insane, but in fact, this is what keeps me sane for the past two decades. Instead of keeping all the things inside me and waiting for them to explode one day, I speak out loud to myself, even when nobody else is listening.
I’m a perfectionist. Or perhaps I should say, I used to be a perfectionist. I like things to be, well, perfect. As a kid, I used to cry for the whole day when I applied the wrong colour with watercolour on my drawing, say a slightly different shade of green than the one I imagined. I organise everything in my room, write checklists for everything I do, and sometimes can be a bit OCD type.
However, reality kicks in. The real world is not perfect. It’s unfair. I’m fighting against it. I can’t be upset for every single thing that’s not perfect every day. It’s depressing when I think how imperfect things are around me and I couldn’t do much to make them perfect.
Slowly, I turned into a more realistic person. I started to accept the reality, the truth and the imperfections. The world is unfair.
No. Sometimes when I ask a question, the answers are always the same.
“Oh, that’s our culture.”
“That’s how we do things here. Deal with it.”
“Yeah, because people here are like that. Can’t do much about it.”
Excuses. These are not reasons, these are lame excuses. Just because things are fine now, it doesn’t mean that it’ll be fine for the next few months or years. Just because no one’s complaining, it doesn’t mean that everyone is happy. Just because everyone else is doing the same thing, doesn’t mean that you have to follow their footsteps and do things without even asking why.
I accept the reality, but I will not give up on the ideals.
I know that I’ll never be able to achieve 100% perfection, but I’ll never give up trying to achieve it and keep pushing the limits. Yes, it’s an unfair world, but I’ll deal with it and try my best to make it fair. For me, the moment I give up on something is no different than not living at all.
I remember Jeffrey Zeldman’s talk at An Event Apart San Francisco 2015, on how he describes his facial features and how impressions last. For example, once you make a mistake, people around you will start becoming wary and fear that you’ll repeat the same mistake again.
It takes time for people to adapt to the new you even though you’ve slowly changed for the past few months or years. Even when people know that you’ve changed, they will still remember that first impression of you and sometimes judge you based on that. People’s perception doesn’t change over time easily.
I personally believe in change. I believe that everyone can change. Some people fear change because things might get worse after that. However, I believe that constant change is better than no change at all. Things might get worse, but as long as you keep changing, it might get better again later. Along the way, I might change and make a lot of mistakes, but I'll continue changing and fix my own mistakes. Making mistakes is not a bad thing, but not learning from your mistakes is a bad thing.
I’m invisible. I’ve experienced my ups and downs. I’ve faked my way through and failed terribly a few times. I blamed myself a lot and tried really hard to fix myself. I acted in front of a lot of people, with multiple personalities. I tried to help others, listen to others, and care about others. I’m a perfectionist and realist at the same time. And I’m not going to give up on everything that I believe in.
Every year, usually at end of the year, I’ll look back at my life and ask myself a few questions. Have I really fixed myself? Did I help anyone? Is the “me” this year better than the “me” last year? Have I improved anything? Have I done anything wrong? What mistakes have I made? Do I have any regrets?
Am I still a nobody?
Even until now, I have no idea what I'm doing or going to do. I have good friends but haven't contacted some of them for years now. I felt distant as my friends start to feel more like strangers to me. Last time, I never did a good job in connecting with them and now I'm seeing the consequences. I miss the old days. I wish that I could go back in time and fix things. I regretted not being friendly enough. I failed as a friend.
Nevertheless, friends do come and go. I don't need a lot of friends. The numbers don't matter to me. I just need at least one good friend. The ones who can understand me. The ones who support me. The ones who I don't have to act.
I've never been in a relationship. I've tried, yet I failed. A few times, in fact. It's rather embarrasing, yet it hurts so much. The relationship never got started but it still hurts. It feels great at first. It changes me a lot. I became a totally different person. But when things don't work out, it hurts. I felt suicidal once and it was really scary how emotions can take over everything in my brain. I still can't forget that moment when I was looking down from the 4th floor and my mind just screams at me to jump. I still can't forget that moment when I couldn't sleep for the whole night, crying and thinking why such things happen to me.
Honestly, I'm scared. The fear is always there. The first time I move into a new house with my family. The first time I move into a new school and meet people I've never met before. The first time I move from Penang to Kuala Lumpur, stay in a hostel with strangers, and start studying in a university. The first time I work in a company. The first time I experience office politics. The first time I quit and move into another company with people I've never worked with. The first time I travel solo. The first time I have a crush on a girl, despite me thinking that I'm an "emotionless" person. The first time I got rejected. The first time I got admitted into a hospital. The first time I fell from a raft and nearly drowned. The first time I got burned out from working. And… the last time I see my Dad… last year.
I'm scared, yet I know that I need to keep "acting". I always tell myself that, what if one day, my life becomes a movie that you can watch in the cinemas? The moment I think about it, I realised that I have to make my life interesting somehow, else it'll be too boring for people to watch. I need to be stronger. I need to keep finding answers. I need to keep trying things out, making more mistakes, and learning from them. I need to keep moving on.
I'm not alone. Or at least I want to think that I'm not alone. There are others who are like me; scared, constantly acting, and sometimes invisible. I know some of them had worse experiences than I did. When I talk to people, I start to look at them in the eyes, trying to figure out what's their story. What happened in the past that makes you… you? Obviously it gets awkward as I also have a hard time keeping eye contact. When I look at a person, I see a story, waiting for me to unfold, yet I know that it'll take time because it's not easy for people to open up to strangers like me.
I'm invisible, and now I don't mind being one anymore. I think instead of trying so hard to make myself visible, I would rather spend all my time making other people visible. I want to help people. I want everyone to have better mutual understanding with each other. I'm willing to sacrifice myself so that other people would become better version of themselves, constantly changing and improving. I don't mind being ignored, bullied, misunderstood or even blamed. I'm not doing this for admiration or popularity. I do it because I want to.
So, this is me. The real me. Feeling clueless, unwanted, anxious, pretentious, curious, and selfless. I admit my own mistakes and weaknesses. I admit that I'm not perfect, and haven't even try hard enough yet. Sometimes I feel very tired but I think it's worth the effort for me to keep changing and helping others.
Every time I close my eyes, I always feel like I went back in time, and back to that classroom. It's a different classroom this time.
It's something that I used to do when the teacher is absent or give us a whole-hour self-study session, which is like a "do-whatever-you-want" session. I always sit at the back of the classroom, by myself, and start taking out a pencil and a piece of paper. Slowly, I draw the whole classroom scene from my viewing angle.
The decorations on the wall. The ceilling fans spinning. The chalk stains on the blackboard. The dusty louvre windows. The sound of raindrops and thunder outside of the classroom. Some of my friends sitting together in a group, chit-chatting about random things in life. Few couples talking to each other on the other tables. That girl is looking at the window, with a hand on her cheek, probably having some deep thoughts. That guy is writing on an exercise book, probably trying to finish up his tuition homework. The guy sitting beside me, is taking a short nap, probably he didn't have a good sleep last night.
I love this feeling. I enjoy observing people and turn it into a drawing. I see all the little details. I see people and keep wondering what's the story behind what they're doing.
When I see my own drawing of the classroom, I feel proud that I could capture a snapshot of that moment. In the drawing, I always feel like something is missing. My friends are in the drawing. All the tables, chairs, windows and fans are in the drawing. Even the chalk scribblings on the blackboard are in the drawing. So, what's missing? It took me a long while to figure it out.
Me. I'm not in the drawing. Oh wait, perhaps… I am in the drawing.
It's just that I'm invisible.
P.S. It took me two years to write this story and I'm glad that I finally have the courage to publish this. I'm greatly inspired by Winnie Lim's writings and her article on the power of writing. Also not forgetting Zeldman's powerful quote, "Blog Like No One’s Reading".