Growing up in Malaysia in a Chinese household, there has always been a path I was expected to follow. As a daughter, I was taught to excel academically, play one or more instruments, be thin, to be obedient and not to ‘stir the pot.’ Looking back on my childhood, I appreciate my upbringing as it made me work hard and many opportunities came about because of that. However, this path that I was meant to take was suffocating and I often felt like I did not fit in within my own community as their ideas of ‘perfection’ never resonated with me.
I started pole dancing when I was 17 and initially joined the class as a way to stay fit. At that time, I misunderstood being healthy as being skinnier, and so I danced to attain what I thought was the ideal body. However, the opposite happened. The scales that I desperately checked weekly showed me a number that kept going up. My frame that was relatively slender became bulkier with muscle and was met with disapproval from my family. I was wearing clothing that was an AUS/UK size 12, but I started to struggle to find local or Asian clothing stores that would cater to my size. I had apparently outgrown the constrictive mould of Asian female beauty. My body had changed and for the first time ever, my ‘perfect Asian daughter’ façade also began to crack.
I developed such a love for pole dancing as I started to marvel at what my body could do and continued to dance when I moved to a new country and city for university. I had successfully placed at one of the top UK universities for my field of study, Linguistics. It seemed like such a natural path for me and I believed I would thrive. Afterall, I had spent my school years preparing and fighting for that place. I won multiple Academic awards; I was an active volunteer at school events; I was a Deputy Head Girl. Why wouldn’t I succeed at university?
Above photo: The stunning Zoe absolutely killing it on the poles!
However, it soon painfully dawned upon me that I was not enjoying what I was studying, and despite my efforts, I noticed a decline in my mental health during my time at university. I stopped pole dancing as I struggled more with my education and eventually decided that I could not continue my studies this way. This led to one of the most terrifying decisions I have had to make: to drop out of university. As dramatic as it sounds, when you stray from a life made up of step-by-step plans and calculated expectations, it feels like you have failed your life. You become lost trying to figure out if it was worth it.
Thankfully, with the help and support of my friends, I started to recover. I started pole dancing again as a way to stay in touch with my friends, but soon discovered something that potentially scared me even more than dropping out of university. I realised that my goals and happiness materialised in the form of dance and I wanted to pursue it. For a while, I pushed the thought away. “I am too old.” “What would my family think?” “How could I ever excel?” Denial plagued me for months until I ultimately made the decision to audition for dance college at 21 years old. It was such a frightening and liberating experience. By making that choice, I was discarding this persona constructed by tradition and filial piety I had spent years trying to uphold. But it meant that I was finally taking control of my life.
Fast forward to today, I am in my second year of dance college and I can honestly say I now understand what it means to enjoy working hard, instead of just pushing myself for prescribed goals and ideals dictated by family and tradition. Not only have I managed to find a path for myself, but the pole dance community has opened my eyes to what it means to embrace myself and embrace others. In many ways, pole dancing has made me an ‘imperfect Asian.’ It empowered me to show off my body, encouraged me to speak up on taboo topics, introduce me to communities I would have otherwise been ignorant towards. While I may have been told to not ‘stir the pot,’ I seem to have completely knocked it over and I have found myself to be more outspoken, prouder and more comfortable with myself than ever before.
Note from the Author
It is scary and challenging to feel like you do not fit the mould. Breaking down these preconceived notions of what it means to be the ‘perfect Asian daughter’ has been a difficult journey, and I am still constantly fighting to be true to myself within my own community.
Something that has really helped me is the liberation and acceptance I have found in the pole dance community. This post will go through how I battled with my identity but eventually appreciate my individuality.
I would like to thank Mary from Soy and Spice Lingerie for giving me the opportunity to share my story. I would also like to thank Sabrina, Callum and Fei Ya for reading my story and helping me get my message across as best as I can.