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On Occupying Spaces

I have a childhood photo of myself that, throughout the years, remained my favorite. It’s of me in a little blue dress, laughing while wearing my mother’s wig. That childhood photo was taken in our first family home in Jakarta, Indonesia that had cracks on the wall, back when my brother and I had to celebrate our birthdays together every year because our parents could only afford to celebrate one birthday. I remembered as a child wanting us as a family to move out of that house because I was afraid that the house was going to fall apart. To this day, we still call that house “rumah kretek-kretek,” or “the house with the cracks (on the wall).”

This past May, I graduated cum laude from a law school in Chicago, having served as Staff Editor on Law Review, in the middle of a global pandemic. About 12 weeks later, I sat for the two-day Bar Exam to earn my license to practice law in the United States.

As immigrants, we have very small margins for failure, and the world doesn’t allow us to be just “good enough” to deserve our spot at school, at work, in society. We have to be exceptional at all times, sometimes at the expense of our health, happiness, relationships. This, to me, however, came with the acknowledgement that I was very privileged, as foreign-born individual, to have had the opportunities I had in this country. Many who came from where I came from do not have the same opportunity that forever changed the trajectory of my life.

That small margin for failure, though, is not a big enough space for me to move the way other people do. The fear of failure, a result of both my cultural upbringing as an Asian woman and the societal demand to constantly prove my worth to occupy any space I walk into as an Asian woman, has always been a ghost that keeps me up at night. As a result, I continue to push myself to keep going and keep doing more, and then more, and even more. I never stop.

And then one day, once law school was over, and the Bar Exam was over, and I was finally allowed to sit still, I realized one thing.

I had been worrying so much about what’s next and all the ways I could fail in the future that I missed celebrating how that little brown girl in the blue dress and wig got to where I am today and became this woman I am proud of. As I am writing this, I still do not know whether or not I passed the Bar Exam. However, I am able to be at peace with the fact that I got so, so far, regardless of the outcome of this exam. And now I am able to look back at where I started, and all the places I was along the way, realizing that, this whole time, I did deserve all the spaces that I occupied on my way here.