Bootstraps and Boleh

Guest article by Alana Deluty
College of Wooster


Some of Alana’s Form 4 students at the ETA led Superteens Teen Empowerment Camp 

During orientation, the program coordinators had us read an article Called “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person,” an excellent piece by Gina Crosley-Corcoran. This blog post isn’t really about white privilege, it’s more about cultural narratives of success – but I’ll get back to privilege later.

I mention this piece because there is a paragraph that I find particularly striking:

Having come from a family of people who didn’t even graduate from high school, who knew not a single academic or intellectual person, it would never occur to me to assume that I could be published. It is absolutely a freak anomaly that I’m in graduate school, considering that not one person on either side of my family has a college degree. And it took me until my 30s to ever believe that someone from my stock could achieve such a thing. Poverty colors nearly everything about your perspective on opportunities for advancement in life. Middle-class, educated people assume that anyone can achieve their goals if they work hard enough. Folks steeped in poverty rarely see a life past working at the gas station, making the rent on their trailer, and self-medicating with cigarettes and prescription drugs until they die of a heart attack. (I’ve just described one whole side of my family and the life I assumed I’d be living before I lucked out of it.)

As a white, middle-class, able-bodied female from the left-leaning and relatively wealthy region of New England, I found Crosley-Corcoran’s article quite jarring. Her article specifically mentions the way poverty affects one’s belief about potential. Working in a poor, semi-rural area of Malaysia has made me realize that beliefs about success and achievement exist at the intersection of wealth and culture. To a very large degree, our beliefs (however accurate they are) about what we might consider attainable reflect the level of wealth we grew up with. However, the values we consider important and the standards by which we measure “success” are more culturally shaped.

I found this article useful because it made me think about the ways in which my beliefs about success are uniquely defined by the environment in which I grew up. (Perhaps I’m thinking about this a lot because my grant finishes soon and I’m still trying to figure out what kind of organization might want to hire someone who spends all her free time taking photos of the many kittens that roam her neighborhood.) I grew up in a split-level ranch in a middle class neighborhood with two parents, a brother, and a cat. My parents worried about money but they shielded us from that pretty well. On one level, I sometimes feel a bit out of place in my liberal arts, international education world, where many friends grew up steeped in the kind of success that come from families with academics and doctors and lawyers and summer homes. I know that’s mostly in my head. On another level (and this is the important point here), I fit right in because most of my friends grew up in the same cultural narratives about success and achievement, which I’ve come to think of as nearly as influential as wealth and social connection. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people in this program grew up with a multitude of different types of privilege, and, for me at least, those conceptions of success that follow privilege have been challenged in Malaysia.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family where I never wanted for anything. My parents always told us that we had limitless potential and could achieve anything. Regardless of financial means, that kind of emotional support means a lot; it encourages kids to dream big, to hope for the best. My parents were always confident in my abilities and there was never a question of whether or not I would move out of the house at 18, attend college, and be self-sufficient. Unlike Crosley-Corcoran, I grew up with this set of expectations. I attribute a lot of my immutable personal qualities to having grown up steeped in this set of beliefs, but this “you can do it” attitude is as much cultural as it is personal; it is a reflection of my American culture and my family’s financial status. I was chatting with one of my girls this week – one of my top students. She’s a free-spirited 17-year-old who, unlike most of my students, is passionate about English. She studies in her free time and her goal is to become fluent and work as an English teacher. (This is a desperately needed position in a state with a shortage of over 300 English teachers.) Her parents are making her attend nursing school, not because nursing is more stable or profitable than teaching, but simply because they always envisioned having a daughter who is a nurse. When pressed, she shrugged, and said, “Well, this is what they want.”

A couple girls celebrating Hari Raya, or Eid-Al-Fitri 

The “you can be whatever you want” narrative is, of course, available especially to those who grow up in families with stability and disposable income, but the “bootstraps” mentality is also a cultural phenomenon that permeates our American media, literature, and personal beliefs. We are awash with the idea that we can get anything we want if we just believe. While this belief is quite untrue, and I have very few friends who have grown up to be POTUS or the next Britney Spears, it does push us to constantly strive for more. It shapes the way we envision our own lives and dream about our futures. This attitude certainly has its failings. It’s materialistic. The story of the person who pursues material success at the expense of family and friends has become hackneyed. In the U.S., people often focus so much on the “bootstraps” narrative that it leads to a peculiar kind of ignorance – one that ignores the fact that not everyone grows up with it. It leads to a lack of public sympathy to a degree that is simply unforgivable. Watching the news sometimes is upsetting. I see people chanting, “All lives matter!” “Build a wall!” and I can’t help but think: are we so hardened by our own cultural narratives, our own privilege, that we fail to see the ways in which others are struggling?

American culture developed out of the idea that rugged individualism IS success, that the entrepreneurial spirit is what pushes us to do better, and that success can be measured in dollars and cents. My experience in my Malay-Malaysian community has been quite different. Success is measured less by wealth and more by titles, piety, and one’s standing in the community. The titles someone earns (Datuk, tuan, puan, haji, etc.) are regarded very highly.  As a general rule, people care deeply for being seen as successful in the eyes of God, and that has a pretty significant influence on the way people behave and present themselves to others. It’s not uncommon to hear people bragging about how they are good Muslims or doing things to make it seem like they are more pious. Maintaining the image of religiosity is of the utmost importance; since piety is so valued in this society, it is a matter of public judgement and a measure of success.

Some of Alana’s top students participating in a pantun competition; imagine a cross between classical Malay in iambic pentameter, and slam poetry. 

My students are growing up with a different measure of success than what I grew up with. Culturally, things like piety, one’s status in the community, and family relations are immensely valuable. However, most of them live in rural, less-educated areas, and that also colors what they think they can achieve. They come from families with an average of 8 children, many earning less than 20,000 ringgit per year, per family (that’s about $5,000). It is likely they will live the same kind of lifestyles when they grow up. Chinese-Malaysians, Indian-Malaysians, and Malaysia’s many indigenous groups often have very different types of lives, economically, socially, and religiously. My placement is 100% Malay, and I can really only comment on life in my Malaysian community. What I do know, however, is that the immigrant experience has shaped life for so many of America’s diverse ethnic groups, and the “sink or swim” mentality can take a few generations to drift away. In the same way, the histories and experiences of Malaysia’s multiple ethnic groups provide context to understand the measures of success that dominate cultural narratives here.

The way in which I grew up has done a lot to shape my teaching style. I like to think that one of the more significant things I do with/for my students is speak to them under the assumption that they will graduate high school, earn high marks on the SPM exam, apply for college, get in, and graduate with a degree. This might not jive with what they consider the most important achievements, but that’s fine. Sometimes they need a little reminder that the status quo isn’t forever, that high school sucks for everyone, and that people change and grow up. I am confident of one thing: They will all grow up and seek success – whatever that means to them.

Alana’s Form 5 students and “the loves of her life.” 

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