While I Await a Lover, I Can Love Bok Choy

Written by Aida Safiyah
Art by Holly Warburton

I did not love myself for a very long time. The pandemic became a vacuum in which I was distilled in this state of resentment and dissatisfaction and recurring reminders of past traumatic experiences. Even now, two years later, I feel I’ve yet to sober up from the shock of it all.

The days were uniform, and I had to confront the two decades of suffering that were haunting me—or die. At some point, I was at the bottom of an abyss now permanently seared in my memory, and the most important question was then presented to me as I laid paralyzed — to pull myself up anew, or to succumb to the destructive hate I had unknowingly grown comfortable with?

I’m choosing the former. Not ‘chose’, because it is a choice I have to actively make day after day. Sometimes I become hesitant, and the temptation of comfortable negativity would be so enticing, but I would sigh and think about the life I want to build and remind myself of this line from a poem by Warsan Shire —

I’ll rewrite this whole life and this time there’ll be so much love, you won’t be able to see beyond it.

So I had learned the necessity of loving myself in my early adulthood. Nothing original. ‘Learned to love myself’ instead of ‘learning to love myself’ because I’ve decided that loving myself is not necessary. Yes, it was, but no longer now. Now I understand that I, and my life, have value. On the days I love myself, I’m grateful I possess so-and-so qualities, and it adds to the value that I have. On the days I loathe myself and feel like a worthless sewer rat, still, my life has value. Whether I love myself or not does not matter anymore because I understand my life has value regardless. Yes, axes of oppression and discrimination and generational hardship and the way things simply are—that largely made me the hateful person I was—still exist to this moment, but changing my perspective from “I’m a horrible person” to the more somatic and escapable “I feel horrible” has liberated my mind greatly.

I have zero interest in being in a relationship.

I perfectly understand wanting one. But to me, it’s just like any other endeavour, which would either happen as a silent surprise, bulldoze its way through my life, or gradually be built by my own decisions. I have so many other wants, I want to be an educator, and share what little—but fascinating—that I’ve learnt in life. I want to love the Earth at places I haven’t been. I’ve only experienced Malaysian shophouses with beautifully haphazard interiors and I’ve only breathed Malaysian petrichor, and yet I am so in love, still, so surely the world outside can offer more love. I crave those experiences too, in my dreams, daydreams, in my decision-makings, just like how I dream of a proverbial apple of my eye.

I understand the concept of having your person, but chance reigns over all of life. ‘Right person, right time’ is a simplified observation of how randomness dictates a lot in life. So within these parameters of chance, and with the power that I have, will I ever befriend someone who would understand love the way I do? Someone who would understand that ‘you complete me’ and ‘you complement me and in our parallel, complete solitudes, I choose to accompany yours for a long, long time’ are different, and someone who would also want the latter? I’ve been in love, of course, and the light that floods in when you look at a maybe-lover is absolutely breath-taking, but I’m yet to assign that light more value than the illumination I receive when I’ve read a transformative piece of poetry. Or when I laugh with my friends. Love is still love. Light is still light. Of course I’d enjoy having my person, but it’s not so I could be given chocolates or flowers or suffocatingly be categorized under the mundane and gendered label of ‘girlfriend’, but rather, to have someone who would grow with me as I deconstruct and unlearn all that has weighted my existence, and learn what would grant me lightness. Someone who would sit with me in attentive silence as I ask them, What are the current state of your hands?

I sometimes mourn the childhood years in which I should have learned about love in the world. As far as I remember, even my admiration of my surroundings as a child were scientific and calculative. As if rambutans, too, would dislike the ‘me’ I had to offer, and inevitably turn away. Now, I find love in the crunch of leaves under the soles of my cheap sneakers as I take a walk. I find love in observing catastrophically messy families in restaurants late at night. I find love in the colours and scents of watermelons and mangoes, and how they grow from the Earth, and they taste so different from each other. The world is very human and I love all that is human, even the ‘uglier’ parts. Of course, I’m not saying that loving a person is the same as loving the ocean or loving bok choy. What I’m saying is, while I await the appearance of a lover, I can love the many ways I can understand the sea. The many ways I can cook bok choy. And love it very much.

I’ve decided I’m a lover, and alive, and I’m steadfast in my understanding of how love is elemental. Open arms from a grandmother, from a friend, from the Earth, from someone’s eyes — they all feel equally loving. When the chest opens up, it all feels gloriously the same. As if this common denominator love that underlies all forms of love is something undeniable, ever-reliable, and belongs to you. Belongs to me. It does. I’ve decided to befriend this patience and wonder that makes life worth living.