What’s your rite of passage?

18 Jan

There’re a number of things in this country that can be considered rites of passage for men: the consumption of alcohol (18 years), watching movies classified as Restricted (21 years), completing National Service (about 21-22 years), and completing tertiary education (about 24-27 years). National Service, in particular, is presented in media and propaganda as the dividing line between boyhood into adulthood. Anecdotally, women here (i.e. mothers and girlfriends) seem to accept this.

Yet we know many men who feel lost and unsure about their place in society, even after they have formally graduated into it. We’re supposed to be there, but we don’t feel it.

There’s many reasons why these rites of passage don’t work for everyone. One big one, I think, is the lack of autonomy. In Singapore’s context, unless parents deliberately set out to instil autonomy in their children, decision-making is actually a total non-necessity for the single man, even years into adulthood.

In school, that universal formative experience of this country, most young people don’t choose their academic specialisation or even college major—their parents make the choice for them. This is actually not a parenting fault–it’s a rare teenager who knows what he wants out of life. But it’s a factor nonetheless.

Nor is National Service necessarily preparation for male adulthood. The so-called “hardship” of military training is hardly universal: every year, a significant proportion of young men are relegated to non-combat roles, thanks to the military’s hyper-conservative medical screening regime. Regardless of whether they are in combat or non-combat positions, however, most guys will never made a single decision of their own in the Armed Forces; their superiors and the encyclopaedic operational manuals have everything covered. Following instructions is a sure way to stay out of trouble.

Thirdly, thanks to the totally urbanised landmass, skyrocketing rent and a conservative society, most people in Singapore would never have lived alone in their lifetime, unless they are affluent (they will eventually afford their own apartment) or they are old and penniless (they will be renting state-sponsored public housing). Like in other countries, this has a big influence in how society is shaped. For the typical young man, outside of staying with parents, they would only have experience living in barracks (with fellow enlistees,) or student hostels (with room-mates.) And always just an hour’s journey from home. There’s always someone to fall back on when we need it.

This lack of autonomy–a fundamental inexperience in decision-making and self-support–is a big invisible social hurdle for many single men. Every social circle they’ve ever been in–family, schoolmates, army buddies–they have found themselves in it by institutional design. They don’t have experience in creating a social circle from scratch. Outside of their professional environment, they don’t know how to strike up a conversation with strangers. They see friends hook up and get married, but this supposedly universal process is a mystery to them. They wonder how their friends got a copy of the “How to Be a Human Handbook.”

Many men have no idea what “normal” behavior is in social situations—they wonder how a “real” adult would act. Ironically it’s not the lack of social skills that kills their chances with women. It’s their intense self-doubt and self-criticism. They can’t be themselves, because they don’t know who they are.

The good news is, there are ways to gain personal autonomy. And the journey of personal autonomy doesn’t involve women at all–in fact, I would recommend learning personal autonomy before getting into relationships, though the process of dating itself might be a part of that journey.

Personal autonomy is about taking responsibility for your life and its outcomes. If you’re not happy with your life, now is not the time to blame society or your upbringing. If you feel your life’s stagnating and state-sponsored dating isn’t working for you, you need to exit your comfort zone.

Don’t spend your free time exclusively in gyms. Or in front of your game consoles, waiting for life to happen to you.

Take a leaf out of women’s books. They’re so much better at this. You don’t see many of them sitting around doing nothing. They’re constantly developing themselves. They travel with friends. They travel alone. Compared with men, women in Singapore always have so much to talk about, because they’ve accumulated so many life stories.

If you’re stuck because you think you lack social experience, you’re in the proverbial chicken-and-egg situation. You need to start making decisions of your own. And not just of the consumerist kind—there’s many guys I know who’d buy a car (an expensive investment in Singapore) and still be man-children at heart. You need to make a radical change in your lifestyle.

Find new hobbies that lie outside the peripheries of familiarity. You need to find out where your passion is, in- and outside of your work. You need to get out and have fun.

If you find it difficult merely to name what you find fun; if you find there doesn’t seem anything worthwhile doing in your life—start by searching your heart. Finding something fun to do for yourself is as good a rite of passage as any.

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