On the intricately carved Balinese teak wood coffee table sat an exquisite floral arrangement of fresh orchids and palm fronds in a Baccarat crystal vase. A lightly scented towel that hinted at jasmine flowers sat beside a glass of freshly squeezed java plum juice on a polished rosewood tray, the plums harvested from the hotel’s gardens that morning. And the pièce de résistance of the open-air lobby: a stunning vista of treetops as far as the eye can see, with majestic Mount Agung framing the background, reassuring the world all was well, a far cry from the bellicose rhetoric between Trump and Hillary on the campaign trail, a time when we still believed that people were sane and would never vote for a pathological liar.
The concierge was kneeling beside the coffee table, explaining the check-in procedures and various amenities available to me. Still, I could barely hear her, my eyes soaking in the majestic views and my thoughts going on repeat:
This is real. This is all me. I can afford to splurge on a week-long vacation at a fancy resort without batting an eyelid.
At this moment, I felt that I had finally become an adult.
Growing up Chinese, money has always been an essential part of our culture, to the point where we have a God of Money that we worship. During Chinese New Year, the biggest holiday of the year for us, the universal greeting wasn’t Happy New Year but 恭喜发财 – May You Be Rich! To be rich meant being admired and lauded, while the opposite brought about constant denigration and unsolicited admonishments from family and perfect strangers.
I had been bucking against this trend my whole life – motivated by meaningful work more than money, I was shot disappointed looks and received “concerned” phone calls from distant aunts twice removed when I chose not to go to law school but into the realms of non-profits and policy work. As many of my aunts and family friends have said behind my back (because 笑里藏刀 (a dagger hidden in smiles) is ubiquitous in Chinese culture):
“Meaning my ass. That shit doesn’t pay bills. The real meaning in life is to make money.” Ma would grimace and try and play it down in an off-handed way, “what can you do, kids are like that these days.” That was when she still hid her agreement with such statements by relaying the various nasty remarks to me in an indirect but transparent attempt to get me to see the error of my ways.
“Mrs. Foo? Mrs. Foo?” Your bag ready in the buggy, you want me to get Mr. Foo’s bags? We got another buggy for the children” The young bellhop’s earnest voice breaks my reverie. “Ah, yes, Anwar, did I get your name correct? Yes, um, no Mr. Foo or children, just Miss Foo here on my own.” To which his eyes widened slightly for a split second, then a mask of professionalism descended across his face, a faint smile that did not meet the eyes, and a brisk nod, as he ushered me to the golf cart, where the concierge was waiting to bring me to my clifftop villa.
As an Asian woman in my mid-30s, there’s the nearly universal expectation that I should be married with kids. From the targeted ads online for baby formulas, raised eyebrows from Anwars of the world, and disappointed sighs from my parents and relatives, it was a constant reminder of my first and foremost expectation as a woman: Do well in your career, yes, that’s very nice – but what is most important is that you get married and have children (in that order). Because that is a true marker of adulthood for a woman, a continuation of life cycles since time immemorial.
During Chinese New Year, money stuffed into red packets is given from married couples to kids and unmarried adults- it does not matter if you are 80 or show depths of emotional maturity few possess – adulthood is officially conferred only when one is married, and for a woman, having kids.
Unfortunately, I had failed on both counts and added a third to my crime: An acrimonious divorce, while chants of “Yes We Can! Yes We Can!” electrified the world, one filled with hope for change against Romney who only had his binders full of women to choose from. Tired of being myself while screamed at for the shame I had brought to my parents, for all the choices that made me, me, I capitulated and gave in to the Dark Side. I might be miserable, but at least I would be rich.
And maybe, finally, my parents would love me and be able to hold their heads up high against the backhanded putdowns by the Mrs. Wongs of the world:
“Oh, my daughter just had her second baby! I am now a fortunate grandmother of two, they are such a blessing, but I guess you won’t know how it is, you poor thing…how’s your daughter these days?”
“Oh, Shan? She’s so busy with work, poor girl, she’s been flying between London and Shanghai for the last few months working for Samsung. I am so worried about her long hours and constant flying…but what can you do, the company paid her very well for a reason.”
If I were a man, my career achievements would be lauded and met with looks of approval. But as a woman, my successful career was an explanation for my failure, a shield to survive the oneupmanship game rife among Chinese parents. But no matter. I am a fully independent adult now, with the financial stability and wherewithal to support myself. I am free.
As the buggy came to a gentle halt in front of my clifftop villa, my phone’s message notification beeped, an almost imperceptible flash of anxiety gripping my chest. “Can you edit section A of the report to include a statistical analysis of these figures from pages 1 to 30. Have the findings presented in about 4 to 5 slides. I want it in 20 minutes. See you on the client call in 30.” Frantic, I told the concierge I don’t need the walk-through thanks for your time here’s a tip and here’s a tip Anwar yes set it there or anywhere thank you thanks thanks.
“Um, here, Mam?” Anwar asked tentatively as he and the concierge exchange looks of mild confusion since guests flock to the Luxurious Balinese Sanctuary for Inner Discovery and Serenity. Then a flash of understanding, a look of pity mixed with relief, thank god it’s not me, while I fumbled with the zip of my laptop bag, my upper lip peppered with cold sweat like soldiers gathering for battle, a mad dash straight past the immaculate outdoor living space and into the villa to get to work. Luckily for me, as part of theluxurious wondersof the villa, it came equipped with a Cisco touch screen conference phone and various international electrical sockets and computer ports, discreetly tucked away below a small wooden panel in the dark chocolate Brazilian Rosewood desk, anticipating guests who could afford such a stay had to pay the price when the devil came to collect his bargain.
I spent $700 that day holed up in myuninterrupted rainforest views villa, clacking away at my laptop, stuck in conference calls and fighting fires, with no memory of what I ate from my room service meal other than a vague memory of shoving food down my throat. Finally, as dawn broke and the day’s crisis was over, I washed down another Xanax with a glass of wine to help me find that elusive thing called sleep. But sleep was not to be, for I was woken up shortly by a text message from Ma:
“How’s the resort? It must be really nice and high class. Let me see some pictures! You are so lucky!”