Of Childhood Dreams and Epiphanies

text by Yi Peng Yap
collage by Dani Epstein

What did you envision yourself to be when you were growing up?

Growing up, I told everyone that I wanted to be a fashion designer. My fascination with fashion ran deep. I devoured any fashion magazines I could get my hands on. I read and re-read Nylon and Dazed. Cover to cover.

Eventually, my dream of becoming a fashion designer shifted to magazine editor as I discovered a love of writing, and The Devil Wears Prada. Yes, the movie is deeply problematic, but, to the eyes of a teenager growing up in the late 2000s/early 2010s, this was my idea of success. After high school, I interned at an online fashion magazine. I fell in love with the business, “I want to do this for the rest of my life “ I thought. My lack of patience during sewing class, solidified the fact that I wanted to pursue a degree in fashion, but not in design. 

I set my sights on New York after being enchanted by movies and Tumblr. I researched for months. I narrowed things down. Fashion Institute of Technology or Parsons. Due to financial restrictions, FIT became my school of choice.

There were roadblocks, but I was eventually accepted to FIT. It felt as if my life goal was unlocked when I received the news. Moving to New York City was so surreal. I couldn’t believe that I had made it. No one ever tells you what happens once you’ve achieved your dreams. The sparkle never lasts. Still, I’m grateful I called New York City home for the years that I lived there. 

As a Fashion Business Management major, I learned the real fashion industry. The glitz and glamour that had inundated my teenage brain—the magazines, the TV shows, the movies were fast overshadowed by the grimness of the industry. I learned about the Rana Plaza tragedy, the environmental consequences of fast fashion, the marketing tricks used to increase basket size… after three years, my interest shifted to classes outside the industry. What more is there in this world? Women’s Writing, Chinese Cinema, World Literature, the Philosophy of Ethics. In tandem I interned, learning styling, trend forecasting, and marketing. Upon graduation, I wasn’t afforded the luxury of time and money to job hunt based on my passions. Instead, I was given the choice: find employment fast or lose my OPT visa. 

I applied to just about every job listing even remotely related to fashion business management. 

In order to pay rent, I took on a retail role at a small boutique and moonlighted at an internship at a now-defunct online store. I was overworked, stretched too thin by my 7-day work week. I was a mess. 

I sustained this for about 4 months before breaking down and getting a job FAR from the fashion industry but still requiring business acumen. I was an Assistant Buyer with a decent salary. More importantly, I was happy with my 9 to 5 schedule, Monday to Friday only. I no longer had to work on the weekends, no more breaking my back to hit sales targets for a lousy extra $50. The initial happiness of stable livable employment wore off quickly when I realized that none of these jobs brought me joy. Only when my basic survival needs were met did I have the luxury to think about my fulfillment. 

To cut a long story short of visas and farewells, I found myself back in my childhood room with remnants of my life in New York City surrounding me in suitcases. 

Back to square one. 

So much of my experiences and network were based in the States, yet here I was across the world with no knowledge of the average salary. Trust me, when I found out how much fresh grads made in Malaysia, I was appalled. Everyone is severely underpaid.

After two months of job hunting and many ghosting companies, I landed a job in the beauty industry. 

The excitement of being able to work with luxury brands fueled me, but much like anything shiny, you eventually lose interest. The shine is never enough to sustain an inner spark, especially since my beliefs did not align with the company’s vision. The tipping point for me happened during a team meeting at the beginning of the pandemic. We were asked to brainstorm ideas to boost sales once the lockdown was over. I knew then that I needed to leave. How could I contribute any more to this machine concerned about profit over human life? 

There were many factors that encouraged me to leave, but that in particular drove me over the edge. 

Again, I was back to the drawing board. After all my different job experiences, I knew I no longer wanted to contribute to the capitalist system, despite being trapped in it. I knew I couldn’t leave the system, but how could I not be a cog in the machine? Non-profits were the closest answer I could find during my epiphany. 

Miraculously, a suitable role opened up at a non-profit media movement and I leaped at the opportunity. Even more of a miracle, I was hired!

Honestly, I never saw myself taking this trajectory in life, but I’m glad that it did. If you asked me 10 years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to process the notion of transitioning away from fashion into the non-profit world. It’s okay to dedicate your life to an idea only to realize that it isn’t for you. It’s okay to change your mind and change paths. 

I hope that whichever path you’re on, you find some clarity in where your passions lie.