Sarah

A short autobiography.

My name is Sarah. Sarah Iman Onn. Or, Sarah Iman Binti Onn if we’re going to get technical. I am twenty years old. I will be twenty one in November. I was born in Malaysia, and grew up in Naarm (Melbourne). 

My family migrated here on Valentines Day, 2000. Because we were such a big family (seven children), we flew here in three separate groups.

All of the Onn kids! Crown, Melbourne, years ago (date unsure).

My family moved around the west in our initial years: from living above a shop in Laverton, to renting a (now million dollar) house in Altona big enough for all the kids, to a boring, deserted, far-from-everything nowhere suburb called Melton.

Melton is where I spent most of my growing up – a place I mostly associate with bad memories. Recently, I was asked what I remember about my childhood by a good friend. I think he expected a nice, quaint answer. I struggled to think of any memorably happy times.

I can’t say with confidence that I had a nice upbringing. It was riddled with domestic problems that wreaked into any memories I feel I should associate with family, childhood, going to school, love.

I can only speak one language: English. My father was obsessed with Western culture and its facade of progressiveness. He never stopped reminding us of why we migrated to Australia (“opportunities!”, “good universities!”). We all had to be good at English. No — exceptional. And so, we became A+ students in the English subject (and better than all of our Australian born, English speaking classmates). The consequence of this? I never came to know my mother tongue.

My father used to be a journalist back in Malaysia (so he says) and dabbled in photography. In Melton where we once lived as a family, there was one particular room solely for photography purposes. It contained all the equipment you could possibly dream of owning to yourself: tripods, umbrellas, flash devices, backgrounds, props. Cameras and lenses too, of course — cabinets full of them.

Alas, I never really got to play with them. Despite owning all these cool gadgets and knowing that in all of his children lied a strand of creativity that simply needed to be unwoven, my father did not like to share. Until today I reflect on this as a great shame.

He used to work as a security guard at the NGV. I remember days catching the train into the city after school to come back home with him after work. I remember being intrigued by Dali’s melting clock in primary school, and inspired by the serenity of Monet’s water lilies that I studied in VCE.

My siblings at I at the Dali exhibition, 2009

I remember the age of thirteen being the beginning of one of the most depressing, harmful periods of my life. At the age of fifteen I had moved out to live with one of my sisters. This decision felt unchoiceful. No happy fifteen year old willingly leaves the confines of what they’ve only ever known. The process was not easy, especially as a minor. It was full of legal considerations, family decisions, my immaturity serving only as a voice in my head that, for years, told me “you’ve gotta get out of this place”.

Thankfully around this time, the internet was the next best thing. It became my solace, and a place where I fostered and cultivated my many interests.

Before Logan Paul I was watching JacksGap. Before Jeffree Star I was watching Michelle Phan. Before fashion blogging became a thing I saw myself in Song of Style and discovered this activity called ‘thrifting’ through Jenn Im. Before travel vlogging became a job I was watching FunForLouis. Before milk & honey I fell in love with Lang Leav on tumblr. Before Instagram influencers, the first accounts I followed were photography pages like @natgeo and @joegreer.

I remember the first career I ever wanted at sixteen was in fashion styling. The careers counsellor laughed at me. Nevertheless, I continued to dress better than all of the adults around me and show out at school Casual Clothes Days.

I remember discovering Humans of New York on tumblr and thinking “oh my god, this is something I can do.”

I continued writing on Microsoft Word on my dad’s shitty hand me down laptop; attempting poetry, being melancholic.

Sixteen is also the age I began to care about the world. Ms K was my English teacher in Year 10: silver hair, perfect veneered teeth, nails always polished and clean, tall and impeccably intelligent and beautiful at her age. She introduced us to Socialism, the history of WWI and II, traditional values of respect and kindness. The idea of an elderly woman lecturing sixteen year olds on the shortcomings of Capitalism and why free universal healthcare is important seems absurd, but I owe so many of my values now to her. From her, I learned of this concept called racism. This was back when saying the ‘n’ word was ‘cool’ and racist jokes were the most passed around form of humour.

My first ever spoken presentation was on racism. I was nervous yet passionate – excited with my new found knowledge. Ms K loved it. At this moment I felt what it meant to be proud of being different and unafraid.

Presenting a speech at the AIESEC Volunteering Induction

On another occasion, I remember performing a monologue about a young girl troubled with her parents’ divorce at my school production. It was an angsty, simplified version of something familiar. Hours were spent rewriting lines, practicing subtle body movements, trying out different tones of voice. Performing in front of a crowd gave me a feeling I’d never known before; something invaluable, something beautiful. I made parents cry, and my siblings that came to watch saw a side to me I’d never revealed. I fell in love with drama and met another person in my life who I wish I’d had growing up in my teacher. Until this day, a voice constantly whispers in my ear aspirations of becoming an actress.

Giving a speech about plastic waste to students at the school in Thailand I was teaching at late last year.

There were a fair few other teachers who had an impact on me in later years. There was Mr Dangerfield, whose humour I never understood (and appreciated) until now; Ms Muirhead, who introduced me to theatre and acting; Mr Butler, whose dry literature classes actually made me pick up reading and writing again.

Isn’t it funny, that all the while while we are having these profound experiences (that we do not believe to be profound at the time), the world continues to spin?

The reality was, that although I loved all of these things at a young age, I feel as if I did not get the chance to properly nurture them. Back then, creativity wasn’t some commonly known notion. There were kids who could draw, and kids who couldn’t. I did not know it was the reason I pursued certain things. For me, creativity was this annoying, non-human object that craved human desires: a wanting to escape, to be loved and cared for and to see the great depths and nuances of the world.

The reality was that I would come home to fighting everyday. That while other kids went home straight after school to happy domestic lives, I was rushing to the train station, because if I waited for the bus, I’d miss the one train that would get me on another train that would get me on another bus that got me home before it got too dark out. While other kids went home to freshly cooked, nutritious dinners, I was arriving home to food that’d been left out on the stove three days prior.

I never knew what it meant to be able to see my mother everyday. Nor did I understand what it meant to not have something to worry about. I wish my biggest problem was having to wait at a friend’s house after school because my mum or dad finished work late, or having to miss out on someone’s birthday party. I never understood the problems the other kids around me faced — I couldn’t.

My nights were tainted with long train rides standing on the VLine (if I didn’t find a spot on the floor); the only way of getting around by public transport and consequently hours of standing in harsh Melbourne winters; walking into a home that never felt like home but a prison that was extraordinarily somehow colder inside than outside.

A lot of times in my young life, I struggled. I had to grow up early, at a time when all my other siblings had already gone through their own shit and moved out of home. People often associate independence with strength, maturity, determination. It was hardly that at all. It meant waking up fighting: grappling to find a reason to keep on going knowing that that day was going to be as sad as the last. It meant going to bed hoping for a miracle, and waking up with an overwhelming realisation that this is my life. Independence meant that at moments where my sorrow felt like it was going to swallow me up whole, the only little sense of support I could garner was through a phone call to my busy, working mother.

It was not a choice for me, or my siblings who’ve all undergone their own uniquely traumatic experiences. Independence meant learning to fend for myself, and worrying about things that kids just shouldn’t be worrying about. Independence meant letting go of my innocence, and spending the rest of my life wondering where it could have been better. I imagine that at best, my parents could have made it work even without being together.

How is any of this relevant?

The thing about struggle is that once you have experienced it, it is much easier to recognise the struggle of others. Although I describe my turning point at sixteen, we fail to recognise how every little experience shapes our identities, our perspectives, our values and outlook on life. Struggle shapes our existence.

Independence for me meant that now, at twenty, I am faced with the issues accumulative of my experiences as a growing child. All my life, I never knew I’d been wheeling around a suitcase with ’emotional baggage’ written on its name tag.

I care because at some point in my life, I realised I wasn’t the only one busting my ass to survive. I realised there are many people struggling on greater levels than me: from famine, unemployment, exploitation, civil unrest, torture, lack of access to education, gender inequality, effects of climate change, homelessness… the list goes on.

It’s why I fall in love with everything: strangers, connections, random conversations at work with customers, quaint coffee shops, bookstores, being home alone, art, music, philosophy, films, nature, photography, travel. It’s why I ask the important questions first, because it’s from the information revealed we realise just how unique and intricate humans really are.

The first night I met my host sisters! From the left, two volunteers from Vietnam (Shi-Shi and Rosy) and my host sisters (Nam-Tip, Nam-Wan, Nam-Hom).

It’s also what makes me disconnected a lot of the time from these same situations of people and environments. It’s why I can’t relate to just anyone and why I get so hung up on the little things.

It’s what makes me go to things alone. It’s what makes me opinionated. It’s what makes me so critical of the world, and terrified of it at the same time. 

It’s what makes me so hungry to explore the world, while constantly battling with an invisible force holding me back.

Although our struggle is not always mutual, we are all citizens of the world. And if there are issues affecting people everywhere, as well as the ones I love, why shouldn’t I care? If we are simply out here living with the limiting idea that our own problems are the only ones that matter, if we forget to consciously remove ourselves from our little bubbles of comfort and selfishness, then there stands absolutely no chance for the how many other billion souls on the planet.

People will tell you that you’re too serious, too politically correct, too sensitive. Your co-workers will become distant and afraid to even ask you how you’re doing. Strangers will judge you for your opinions, speak over you, correct, shame, belittle and humiliate you. People will constantly undermine your ability to make informed judgment.

My first rally – International Womens Day, Melbourne, 2018. Sign reads ‘MALAYSIAN WOMEN SAY ENOUGH’. I came alone and met the coolest fellow Malaysians ever.

On the flipside, however, there will be an abundance of souls who seem to come into your life at a strangely perfect time. There will be moments where you can’t help but wonder how it could ever be different. Conversations will be held with strangers that you’d never anticipate. They will be enlightening; they will serve as an extension to the questions we are so afraid to ask ourselves; they will make us self-reflect.

A lot of the time, it hurts to care. But I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t.

Love and compassion always,

Sarah

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