Progress: It's just choosing to Try

In another instalment of our Under the Skin series, Irving Chong reflects on a childhood of lessons.

 Irving (far left) with his family, including his mother, who has inspired so much of his activism.

Irving (far left) with his family, including his mother, who has inspired so much of his activism.

When I was in Grade 3, my mom took me to the Glenbow Museum. She felt the reason I didn't like to read, ask questions or do homework was because I wasn’t curious about the world, not because I was a restless 8 year old yearning to fit in. I didn’t know it then, but my life would be changed by my Mother, an African proverb and her determination to see me grow.

At the museum, I don't remember the sculpture this African proverb was placed with, but my mom never let me forget the quote. It read, "To not to know is bad; to not want to know is worse." As I grew up, she would never stop reminding me of this. My mother constantly challenged me to interrogate the world around me. To be active, and to not simply accept things for the way they are. She wanted me to care and not be dismissive. 

“To not to know is bad; to not want to know is worse.”
— African Proverb

As an eight year-old, I didn't want to do thispoke. Questions were annoying and for so long I’d been taught the world was the way that it was...there was no point in changing it. I was the one who needed to assimilate, said my television, my teachers, my books. You don't fit in by asking questions. And as pestering as it was at the time, my mother’s lesson was always there: I have to choose to want more. I must choose to try.

This trip to the museum was not an after-school special. It was not a vechicle for hope. It was, along with the lessons that followed, one of the ways my mom would attempt to show me that the world was bigger than my own. That it expanded beyond the basketball hoop on the driveway, the hallways of my school and the glow of the television. She wanted to show me that the world didn’t end in grade 3 and my story didn’t have to always stay in Calgary. However, another fact she impressed on me was the notion that nobody was going to give me the space to write my story; I’m the one who must do it myself. This is a lesson I’m still learning, unlearning and relearning constantly. 

Nobody was going to give me the space to write my story; I’m the one who must do it myself.
— Irving Chong

It’s been nearly two decades since that trip to the museum with my mom. I can’t remember the last time she’s recited the proverb to me. As I continue growing, finding and developing my own voice, however, the more it crosses my mind. I worry that I don’t have enough information, I haven’t done enough work to be in the room, or I’m straight up ill-prepared for the job. Even now, despite all I’ve learned, it seems like all I want to do most days is fit in. However, nobody got anything done by simply fitting in, did they? My mom knew (and bravely professed to me every chance she got) that trying to fit in with people who would never see past the way your eyes slanted, the colour of your skin or where your ancestry tied you to was a losing battle. She knew even back then that the only way for me to fit in was if I built my own space. 

This idea - of being a pioneer, a builder, a visionary - is something I struggle with. I’m not a leader. I don’t inspire people. Nobody follows me. I’ve been invisible my entire life. The story of my life is that of an outsider. When I was in Grade 3, I didn’t know anyone else whose parents would take them to the museum. I didn’t like or play the right sports. I didn’t listen to the same music as the other kids. I wasn’t white. I don’t think any other kid in my schools had siblings with a disability. I wasn’t a “model minority” student. It’s near impossible to figure yourself out without seeing a path to where you want to go. As someone who just wanted to fit in...these were the worst things. My differences were all points against me, bricks that built a wall between myself and everyone else. 

It’s near impossible to figure yourself out without seeing a path to where you want to go.

I didn’t realize it then (and the thought just came to me while writing this), but these differences were probably the best thing for someone trying to craft their own story. I’m starting to feel that, as we grow, there isn’t a destination, whether physical or in the mind, that will offer us "everything." The more you move along the path you believe is right for you, the messier the journey becomes. You find your ideas challenged, ideals in conflict, and learn and unlearn things from different, clashing perspectives. 

I’m beginning to think that there isn’t an idealized version of myself to reach or to find. There is no promised land at the end of progress. There isn't a self-made utopia waiting for me. It'll be a new reality with its own set of problems waiting for me to fix. Progress, is instead, a choice we must make each and everyday. It's okay if we don't always. But if we choose to do it enough it'll feel less of a choice and more of how things should be. A constant upward curve. A deeper pool. A bluer sky. 

The greatest thing we can do for progress is to try, each day. Because, as I learned in a museum when I was 8 years old, the worst thing to do is not.