The below essay, “rest begets rest,” was written by Bianca Ng, TSW’s 2020-2021 Artist in Residence, for Issue 13: Rebellious Joy. This essay is one of three parts to her featured artwork for the issue. In addition to this meditative inquiry into rest, Bianca also conducted 16 conversations with TSW staff members, Issue 13 contributors, residents, and others, and curated 10 pieces of art based on those conversations; they are currently on sale in our online store, foregrounding a community of voice speaking to the power of art, rest, and activism. See the postcards here, and read more about Bianca’s process here. And get to know more about Bianca’s body of work at her website here.
rest begets rest by Bianca Ng
As a child, my mom would brag about how I could tolerate the most bitter Chinese vegetables that even adults didn’t enjoy eating. I wasn’t taught how to listen to my needs; I was taught how to keep my head down, to quietly swallow the bitterness.
I watched my parents work multiple jobs to make ends meet as immigrants from China. After 20 plus years of working as a sushi chef, my dad finally retired in 2020. When he retired, my mom proudly stated in Cantonese, “Since he started working here, Dad’s only taken five days off.” My mom, sister, and I had been trying to convince him to quit for the last few years; he only retired because of the global pandemic. Otherwise, I’m not sure when he would have.
Perhaps like my parents, much of my life has been spent numbing myself through output.
After college, I worshipped the creative industry, which I felt privileged to be a part of. It was a rite of passage that in a single week, you had to work a full-time job for 50 hours and have a side hustle you worked on for another 30 hours. Otherwise, you could barely consider yourself a designer. I remember reading articles, books, and talks from leaders in the industry romanticizing the grind. I accepted their truth as facts. I became addicted to productivity. Ironically, the more overworked I became, the more work I took on. I would rather say yes to five no’s than unpack why I kept saying yes. I needed to be overworked because if I wasn’t, then how would I define my self-worth? I was so distracted by my exhaustion and desire to feed my ego that I couldn’t see beyond my tunnel vision of surviving this current thing and then the next thing.
Somewhere between middle school and post-college, I believed being high-strung and stressed was just a part of my personality. Even when I was succeeding in my early 20s, defined by traditional, capitalistic standards and exhilarated by the thrill of it all, I knew I was deluding myself. But how could I reimagine a different way of being when this was all I’d ever known? This is how capitalism keeps you on its leash without exerting any force: You’re so deep into the grind that you believe these are your values, and this is who you’ve always been, and this is how you want to live your life.
When I reflect back on moments in my life when I needed rest the most, I remember how hard I pushed myself to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, worn as a badge of honor. My exhaustion is proof that I care more than you. Look how strong I am because I don’t need rest. I placed my self-worth on what I did, so by that logic, if I did the most, regardless of my well-being, that meant I was worth something more.
When did I learn that the definition of my worth was from doing and not from being? Am I only as valuable as what I can offer? The creative industry scoffs at the concept of work-life balance. Is it really impossible, or are we just too tired to imagine a life where we can live in balance with rest and creation?
I’ll never forget when I reached the deepest pit of my addiction to productivity; that week I cried in therapy, I cried on the city street corner while on the phone with my best friend in the morning, I cried in the bathroom at work, I cried on the subway going home, and I cried in the shower. I’m not someone who cries easily, especially not in public or with other people. I was physically exhausted, overwhelmed with student loans, and living such a precarious life that any mistake felt like the end. I let what I do define who I was and when I no longer wanted to do, I didn’t know why I still needed to be here. I defined my value as a human by what I could do and believed that if I worked hard enough, money and prestige would not only give me security, but also fulfillment and happiness.
But from that low point, I realized that no job would ever be worth making me feel that way again; no job is guaranteed and no amount of money would ever give me the sense of security I was seeking. I vowed to focus on paying off my student loans and self-fund a three-month creative sabbatical backpacking through Japan, the one place I would have regretted not visiting in this lifetime.
Solo traveling was the first time I found peace within myself and recognized that I am more than my output. Being in a new environment, taking myself completely out of context from all that I’ve ever known to be true, gave me the spaciousness to imagine a different me. Each person I encountered wasn’t concerned with what I did or could do, but who I was in that moment. Suddenly, my output didn’t have as much value as it used to have, but it didn’t feel debilitating. It felt liberating. Traveling was not a vacation; oftentimes, my mental and physical limits were tested, but I was humbled by strangers who welcomed me into their homes, shared food and stories with me, and showed me their values. Time and distance away from the structure of the life I had been living made me realize it wasn’t the life I wanted to continue living, and most importantly, it wasn’t the only option either. After finding security within my sense of self, I finally felt able to trust myself to choose the values I wanted to live by.
The Western educational system drilled into my brain that there is one correct solution to every problem. I could never be the student my teachers wanted me to be because I never understood how to find the solution; you were either right or wrong. In creative problem solving (and life), there is never only one solution. How much time did I spend distracting myself on being “right” so that I wouldn’t need to reimagine the life I want to build based on my own values? Maybe the fact that there isn’t one right answer can feel exciting and liberating because each of us has the agency to determine what we value.
When was the last time you reflected upon your values? Not your parents’, sibling’s, partner’s, friend’s, or society’s. Your own.
The first time I did, I was terrified that I picked the wrong values, and it would lead me down a path of despair. Now, I reflect on my values every year, and the more I do it, the clearer my values become. I am constantly changing and evolving as I gain more insight and life experiences, so it’s only natural my values should change to reflect that. My values for 2021 are abundance, grace, interdependence, daring, vision, and presence. My responsibility to myself is to make decisions that align with my values; this is my definition of success.
Admitting my values do not align with the capitalistic society I grew up in and that I want a different life feels scary. But I don’t want to brag about how busy I am anymore. I want to celebrate how present I am. I want to brag about how prioritizing rest allows me to show up more fully for the people in my life.
In the brief time we’re on this earth, don’t we owe it to ourselves to figure out what rest is and what it can be, and how to live in alignment with values we set for ourselves?
My definition of rest is embodied presence, solitude, quiet, nature, slow movement, warm water, nourishing food. I imagine meditating, lying in the grass, being submerged in water, strolling through a garden, having a deep, dreamless sleep, drawing in my sketchbook, cooking a meal, listening to the wind blow through lush trees, or sitting at the peak of a mountain. It’s being careless with time and getting lost in taking photos of different colored rocks because wow, did you know rocks could be all shades of pink and purple?
Sometimes I feel guilty, worrying that rest is selfish because I’m not serving or thinking of anyone, and there isn’t necessarily an output. I connect resting with being a bad person who doesn’t care about my loved ones and neglects my responsibility to society. Capitalistic values have been so ingrained into my being that no matter how far I run, it will still make me second guess actions that benefit my own well-being. Rest is an act of rebellion when you were born into a capitalistic society that tells you rest is an opportunity cost.
The truth is this: The ability to care for ourselves directly correlates with how well we can care for others. The way we care for ourselves is to tend to our needs. From my observations, so much of my parents’ lives were about survival. I finally realized that I can honor my ancestors, who struggled through famine, war, violence, and immigration, by healing my family’s intergenerational trauma. I owe it not only to myself but to them to not just survive, but to thrive. Part of healing that trauma is finding wholeness and peace within myself and living a life based on the values I believe in. And rest plays an integral piece in my healing process.
When I am rested, I can breathe deeply, think clearly, listen actively, and make embodied choices. I’m alert and grounded. All my senses are engaged with the environment around me, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming. It feels expansive and nourishing. I am open to life’s possibilities and allow my curiosities to guide me. What I’ve come to realize is that my presence and attention, not my output, are my greatest gifts I can offer in this lifetime.
Bianca Ng (she/her) is a Cantonese American visual storyteller and facilitator, creating brave spaces for BIPOC folk to affirm their intersectional identities and creative voices.
She began her career in NYC as a designer working at an award-winning branding studio and a fortune 500 company before becoming the Creative Director for The Cosmos, an intentional online & offline community for Asian women. With The Cosmos, she helped produce the first large-scale summit and curated marketplace celebrating local Asian women artists, brands, and small businesses in the tri-state area.
Her work has been recognized by the Type Directors Club and featured in People of Craft, Ladies, Wine & Design, and more.