In 2010, seventeen-year-old Marcella Purnama moved to Australia to study Arts—the “unemployable” degree—and loving it. After graduation, she went back to Jakarta to work as a content writer, but quit her job due to “unfulfilled passion”. Facing quarter-life crisis, she decided to write her adulting tales on her blog. In this excerpt from her published memoir, What I Wish I Had Known: And Other Lessons You Learned in Your Twenties, which is out on June 5th, from Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, Marcella writes about redefining success after quitting her well-paid job.
I sat at the long, rectangular table with twenty-four other people. The light was dim, and it was one of the fancy restaurants in Central Jakarta. I was having school holiday, and even though I was reluctant to go, this time I made an effort to hang out, as I hadn’t seen my high school friends for years.
It wasn’t really a reunion. Well, it was a mini reunion. We had not met for almost half a decade, and stories had turned into gossips and gossips had turned into rumors and we no longer knew which one was true.
I heard that one of the boys who studies in the States gets a girl pregnant. Is that true?
“Nah,” one of the boys who studied there said. “It’s just a rumour. I’m not really sure who started it, but it spreads to everyone like crazy.”
I heard that so and so broke up, so did so and so, is that true?
“True,” a girl friend said. “Actually, she’s already dating another guy. It was rather fast, if you asked me.”
What about him? I heard he is dating a bule. How fancy!
“So true! She was quite pretty too.”
And so on. Reunion is the place to talk about how far so and so are in their relationship, and to bet who would be the first to get hitched. I thought of a couple, but then they broke up. A friend thought about another couple, but then they broke up. Probably, instead of speculating, we’d just need to wait for the invitation. Not sure that one would ever come my way, though.
I flicked through the menu and gasped. Expensive! I tried to find something nice but not that overpriced, but couldn’t find one. A friend suggested that we ordered a few dishes to share. I agreed and closed the menu.
“How are you doing, Marcella? Have you finished your studies?” a girl friend asked.
“I’m actually currently doing my master’s,” I said. “I went back to Jakarta to work for a while before going back to study. How about you?”
She smiled, “I’m working here at one of the banks. Long hours.”
“Ha ha, don’t get me started on traffic. Jakarta is so horrible! The pay isn’t much either.”
I wanted to ask how much she got paid, but decided that it would be rude since I barely knew her anymore. So I asked the usual question.
“So... any plus one?”
“Nope, probably not a good timing,” she said. I remembered that she had just broken up, and her ex was already in someone else’s arms. I wanted to ask her story but it seemed like a wrong question to ask.
“Open to new people?” I teased.
“I guess,” she said. “We’ll just see who comes along.” She began to talk to some other friends and I did the same too.
“Do you know that she had secured a good job at the States? Big figure pay! She had been very steady with her boyfriend too, probably they would get married!”
“I heard that he isn’t paid much. He’s been complaining about his job ever since. I wonder what he would do next.”
“Hers is a sad story. She wants to continue living overseas, but her parents force her to come home to continue the family business. She hates the work.”
“Ah, she’s currently living like a queen! After her graduation last year, she’s taking one year off and doing nothing. I envy her.”
“He’s very successful now, you know. He is the right arm of his mother’s giant business, and he is on the national newspaper!”
Gossips, stories and rumors. Clarifications and more gossips and stories and rumors.
Reunion is a place where we try to see where we stand among these other people that we once called friends. We used to stand on the same rung of ladder, but over the years, some of us have leaped ten rungs up. Others still stay at the same place.
I tried to see where I stood. I worked a full-time job before with a good pay, so that was a plus. I was now back in master’s, and it could be either a minus or a plus, depending from which angle you looked. But compared to those who (1) had opened their own businesses, (2) continued their parents’ business empire and excel, or (3) working professionally with a salary that was ten times of mine, I was at the bottom rung of the ladder.
Like, I knew a friend who had opened her own café. Another had opened a furniture shop. Others worked at top-paying companies. One friend worked at Google. The Google. One worked at Universal, you know, the one in Orlando. One became the face of Gen Y who succeeded, gave motivational talks and had his photo printed on Kompas.
And with all these different accomplishment levels, it seems like everyone is wondering where they stand. They coax more stories from me. I coax more stories from them, inserting a joke or two in between to find out how they are living at the moment. Are they still being supported by their parents? How could they afford going out every weekend without breaking their own meagre savings? Do they save at all? Do they budget their spending? Are they thinking of the future? Is getting married your goal? Are you ready to support yourself and your partner?
Envy is a strong word, but I was envious of my friends every time I heard of their success stories. But more than that, I grew a little bit more disappointed with myself. Wasn’t I the “Top Performing Student” back then? What happened to that girl?
I hated reunions. It made myself feel so little afterwards. When I was there, I couldn’t help not knowing. But after I knew things, I couldn’t stop comparing. I was congratulating people when they told me the good news, but deep inside I was wondering whether their good news was better than mine. Life wasn’t supposed to be a competition, but it really felt like one.
And it was harder to listen to their good news compared to their bad news. In listening to their good news, you had to feign happiness for their accomplishments. Then you would try your hardest to not be jealous of their success. I blogged about this once.
“Their success is not your failure,” I wrote. I would remind myself that they had earned their success. And besides, I wouldn’t want to live a life like them anyway. I didn’t want to work like them. I just wanted the success. It didn’t work that way.
But when they told you that they were in a not-so-good position, or that they were doing just okay, it was easier to offer them support – to encourage them to get back to their feet – as you were going through the same things too.
In the old days, reunions mean talking about studies and majors, and how is living overseas like for you. Now, it means career, salary, relationship, marriage and so on. Who is going to be the first one who got married? Who is still single after all these years? Who, do you think, is the most successful of us all?
I wanted to go because I wanted to know and I wanted to socialize with old friends, but I didn’t want to go because knowing would make me pity myself. It was agony.
And wait until the wedding invitations come. Oh, it would be “Whose Sweet Seventeen party was the best one?” all over again.
Of course, it doesn’t help that social media are so advanced nowadays. Back in primary school, there was only one social media platform and everyone used it: Friendster. But with Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other social media that I don’t use, we become too involved in each other’s social and personal lives. I know what you have for lunch. It’s the egg benedict at a fancy café that is popular at the moment. I know you couldn’t function without your coffee, you have posted your third cup of takeaway skinny latte at two in the evening. I know you really love your boyfriend—you adore him, and are clearly very proud of him. I know you have just broken up—you’ve deleted every photo in Instagram that has the two of you in the picture.
Nothing is lost in the social media. And it is as addictive as coffee.
Social media is like reunion, but the catching up is done through the comfort of your own bed. Scrolling through photos and statuses are too easy to not be done. You know about their social life and where they’ve been last weekend. Then you wonder why they have such flawless hair and makeup. How could they look so effortlessly awesome?
I read an article once. I am pretty sure that you have read the article too. It is titled Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy by Tim Urban. If you haven’t read it, go Google it.
There, the author says that our generation is unhappy. And that happiness is generally defined to a simple formula: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. Simple, right? And how true it is. The problem with our generation is that we see our 181 reality as being very bad, and we see other people’s reality asbeing very good. Sam has been traveling Europe and post the photos on Instagram. We spend last weekend at home andnot even going out for dinner. Nia has been sharing picturesof grandiose food at that three-chef-hat restaurant she went with her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day. She then follows up the food pictures with candid-but-staged pictures of her and her boyfriend (and her enormous bouquet of 100 red roses), having the best time in the world. We spent Valentine’s Day with a group of mates. Our boyfriends didn’t even buy us a cheap Happy Valentine’s Day card.
And as if these others’-lives-are-better-than-ours news are not enough, all the viral articles that get shared talked about only one thing: pursuing our passion. Work shouldn’t be a chore. It should be delightful. If not, we are doing it wrong.
Are our expectations too high?
Our Peter Pan generation is unhappy. All our lives, we want to grow up—to be treated like adults, to have freedom to choose. Then we get here and it turns out being an adult sucks. We pay the bills and taxes, watching others succeed while we are forever waiting for our turn. We believe we are special, but nothing special has come our way.
The grass is always greener on the other side, but often this is just an illusion. Most probably, everyone is as unhappy as you.