To My Dutch Uncles

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The best part about being back in Singapore is to be living the dream of being in a place I can call “home” – an idea I increasingly appreciate with every new article released about the displacement of refugees from where they once called “home”. To know how to get from place to place easily, how to communicate your intentions with the locals clearly and to feel safe (safe enough to have dreams about the future); boy, are we fortunate. This month, as part of my hopes of leading an intentions-based 2016, the intentions of the month have included:

1 Learning to juggle new priorities in the new normal (ie family / exercise / driving lessons / internship / freelance work)

2 Making time for the NS fresh recruits in the exciting new phase of their lives

3 Self care: Dates with those in the Raffles Program who make a large part of my support network and dates with myself

I have as much praise for the people I’ve met up with this month as I do for this place I call home this January. This one is for the former – I call them my “Dutch Uncles”. Last year, at National Youth Council’s #YouthSpeakSG conversation held at SCAPE, I had the privilege of listening to Singapore’s first and only funeral celebrant speak. I vividly remember her blunt, but on point, words of wisdom to today – “People will say things to you, as if they are serving dishes to you on the table. You shouldn’t eat everything! Listen, think, then decide – if it’s good, you eat; if it’s shit, throw away.” The crowd laughed. Soon, it became my rule of thumb. Why would we take the unconstructive, dampening criticism guised as “feedback” as if we had no choice? There is always a choice.

This month, I find myself surrounded with the intelligent, kind people I have had the luxury of finding and keeping after my precious 6 years in the Raffles Program. They are the ones who tell me bad things about myself amidst the good things, pointing out my flaws and nagging at my bad habits (or memory). Even then, the good intentions remain – to make me better and to love me all the same. They are those I’d like to call my “Dutch Uncles”. In his book titled The Last Lecture, Professor Randy Pausch uses this term to describe “a person giving firm but benevolent advice”. For the long time friends or those whom I’ve recently met, I hope to keep them for long because they are exactly people capable of such valuable input. From the bottom of my heart – thank you, Dutch Uncles.

Here’s to keeping the people who are good for us: the ones who look into our eyes when we speak, thank us for our company and admire the zest with which we lead our lives. I guess in some ways, people are also like “dishes on the table, you shouldn’t eat everything… Listen, think, then decide” Let’s not be greedy though, take onto your plate only what you can manage. In the most recent Economist edition I’ve finished, Dr. Dunbar’s research is quoted. As a psychologist at Oxford University, he is responsible for Dunbar’s number, a rough measure of the number of stable relationships that individuals can maintain. According to which, it turns out we normally have a support clique (those you rely on in times of crisis) of about 5 and a sympathy group (those you would call close friends) of about 15.

This month, I am thankful for the Dutch Uncles in my life and I remind myself of the need to love and let go.

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The Story of the fOMidables

There is something magical about meeting people after significant time has past – the stories you tell of the memories once shared and the way you can hold onto the threads of constants that continue to bind us together despite the differences that have surfaced. Today I experienced exactly that with my second OM team from back in 2012: we call ourselves the fOMidables. Here’s our story-

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2012 OM was special for me because of the strong support network the team provided that had been prominently absent in my first year in the program – I learned to appreciate the art of costuming with careful guidance from fellow teammates (in particular, Sherby) and began to pride myself in the patience I had for the tedious details. On the left, I remember vividly how the purple and silver costume was made from square pockets sewn from plastic book wrappings, stuffed with purple or silver confetti and then put together in a collage. It took many sleepless, late nights from the team. With any crazy idea that we had, we would always try and with any stressful periods for the team, we would cover up for each other unconditionally. If the performance people needed help, we would rehearse lines in the DnT with the techies and if they needed help, everyone picks up a drill.

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I appreciate the unity that remained even in the subsequent year of the program – I was always comforted by the sight of these teammates who knew my work and play ethics through and through. They knew my breaking points before they came and the comfort food that would calm me when I’ve been numbed to my exhaustion. Unity was the strength that comforted our anxious selves as we huddled together before the beginning of our World Finals performance that would soon see us obtain record-breaking Long Term Problem scores.

And, we always knew how to have fun – I strongly believe that is what kept us going on the nightmare of a night before Full Dress Rehearsal, no doubt the most nerve-wracking milestone for any OM team. The night before, we stayed till 130AM in the DnT looking at the vehicle (that cost bulk of the points in our problem) that was unable to move on its own. I remember, then, our coach had said, “If all else fails, tomorrow we will carry the vehicle from place to place and laugh.” With that, we all laughed. That night, none of us slept a wink and reported back to school at 430AM the next morning to brave the Full Dress Rehearsal with whatever we had. It was knowing how to have fun that gave us strength.

That afternoon, we lay side by side on the floor of the gym and fell asleep after the rehearsal. Who knew we were capable of all this?

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Pretty Ugly

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Still counting up: 14 days back in Singapore, and counting. This morning (going on afternoon), I am on a routine bus ride of 19 stops from Bukit Batok Driving Centre after a theory lesson to begin a day of exercise, family time and self-care. Today the sky is clear, an incredible shade of blue and Bukit Batok has beauty in its sporadic clutters of trees along the roads and a familiar quiet in the industrial parks. This weekend is the first book out weekend for many friends dear to me, who recently became fresh NS recruits – characteristic of them are their tan and bald heads (reminding me so much of my bald episode). Along with sharing their milestone and conscious comparisons to my earlier month away, I am learning to appreciate Singapore’s pretty ugly.

Last night, I enjoyed the production put together by the talented crew of NUS USP’s Drama team titled “404 Not Found”. Interestingly, the exploration of the distinction between ‘unreal’ virtual relationships and ‘real’ familial relationships left the audience in tears by half time: you could hear distinct weeping from different directions, some softer than others. I thought the beauty lie in the intensity of emotions that could be evoked from an ‘Internet friend’ – the first play saw a man and woman devastated by emptiness in the ‘loss’ of each other as ‘Internet friends’ and the second play tested the friendship of a group of ‘Internet friends’ who searched high and low for one who went missing. So often, we underestimate how attached we can be to ideas. From the play in its entirety, there was careful thought put into the depiction of what idea every ‘Internet relationship’ represented – an escape, a safe haven or somewhere to be someone we wish we were. Similarly, our comfort in Singapore itself is an idea.

It is the idea of home – the comfortable space we can lead our lives the way we hope, admittedly with exceptions. Listening to the stories of 5-storey bunks and assigned toilets, or the mandatory marches that replace walking, I can only imagine how much we take for granted in Singapore – the “having someone else clean up after us”, the “Sun that doesn’t kill you with its blazing heat”, the “easily accessible toilets”. In short, we are unknowingly attached to this freedom that we almost always fail to be content with.

Back in the month-long retreat, I found myself singing praises quickly about the countries/ states I had visited – for the beautiful scenery, friendly culture, all the pretty hiding the ugly I couldn’t see. Back at home, I am many more times critical. If there were a point system where we rate our own home country, there is a tendency to deduct 10 points for every demerit that are present inevitably and to add only a fraction of a point for every blessing that comes (too) easily – we label ‘ugly’ and fail to appreciate the ‘pretty ugly’.

Let’s Talk (About) Rubbish

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I am counting up my days back in Singapore – 11, and counting. Slightly more than a week has past and I’m gradually settling into a new routine: 5.5 work day Raffles Hospital Internship, freelance administration (a part-time job), regular exercise, making time for family and driving lessons. The first week has left me no more than excited. Allow me to share my proudest moment at work (from the first week):

First steps as an Intern have involved long hours sitting by the Reception – preparing toilet paper for the treatment rooms or folding plastic bags. I am told to observe closely the reception work of my colleagues and I take advantage of this luxury to ask them all my curious questions about work in the Rehabilitation Centre. My observations (amongst other discoveries) led me to notice that there were newspapers thrown away daily, rather than recycled. At the end of my first workweek, we have created a recycling bin for the office to use (to contain these newspapers). I have proudly volunteered to clear it at the end of every week. The agreement of my colleagues the best affirmation and the cardboard box as a makeshift recycling bin sits in the storeroom like a trophy.

About 9 days ago, I had the privilege of attending a Future of Us Engagement Session titled “Keeping Singapore Clean”. Issues discussed included (1) the massive amount of wastage embedded in today’s consumerist culture, (2) proposals on how to encourage litter-picking or discourage litter-throwing, (3) systems installed in HDB flats to facilitate more effective recycling etc. Amongst which, the issue of litter resonated with me for its prevalence and preventability. This one is about rubbish.

From the time of the “Keeping Singapore Clean” Engagement Session, I have been inspired to open my eyes a little wider to notice the litter that line the streets, hide in the grass patches or go ignored (rather than unnoticed) on the corridors we take. I realize there is a conscious choice we are too used to making – the choice to walk past litter, rather than pick it up. The excuses are many – “it might be unhygienic to pick it up”, “it’s not my fault”, “I pay fees to have these cleaned by others”. It is embarrassing to admit that they were, for me, paraphrase for “I don’t care enough”. On this note, I begin to question if we truly treat this place as home. At the Engagement Session, a point that stuck with me for long after was that while education plays an important role in clearing litter off our streets, there is a contradiction that downplays everything learned about cleanliness. The contradiction lies in the environment in schools and everywhere else – at schools, littering is strictly not allowed and inconsiderate acts as such as corrected immediately; contrary to that, the external environment students are also exposed to has litter all over. How then, do we intend to let “education”, alone, be the solution? (After all, what we teach is what we get)

It was heartening to learn of the Singapore Glove Project that encourages Singaporeans to take action in their own means, clearing litter off our streets as we did 50 years ago. Let’s take none of this for granted. The trouble, I have decided, is as with any environmental movement, that the benefits of the act of picking litter involve an absence and absence is hard to prove – there is no instant gratification to speak of. In the words of The Lorax, unless someone cares a whole awful lot, things are not going to get better.

The future of us starts now.

 

Closure: The Lie We Tell Ourselves

941057_10205574952353035_8315334924941546789_nThis piece has been a difficult one to write:

Days ago, when revisiting the RGS campus, I went by the DnT Lab for what became a conversation of 3.5h with Mr Asman. Somewhere in between, he had shared that sometimes, “the more you want to get something, the more you wouldn’t get it.” This one is about the closure I have been seeking from the latest episode of JC and how he is absolutely right.

Rather than attending the Graduation Night’s put-together of well-dressed schoolmates in a fancy hotel, that night was spent with a classmate close to heart, by the sea, in search of the silly thing called ‘closure’. We had hoped for spoken word poetry, letter-writing and silent star-gazing to be avenues of reflection about the past 2 years – part of the plan was to write on a piece of paper the “People we have loved dearly” and “People who have brought us great pain” in these 2 years, roll it up into a scroll and place it in a small glass bottle. I suppose, from the act, we had hoped that memories of the pain and sorrow that had been brought would be taken away with the scroll. This was how ‘closure’ was supposed to work (it did, in our heads), but to today, the memories with these people remain as vivid as before and I can remember every detail of our memories with great clarity. Everything, every single thing, remains crystal clear.

I recently read an online article that viewed the concept of closure with skepticism, “because our life isn’t a dry erase board, it’s a concrete sidewalk, where the cement is always wet, so people will walk through it and their footprints will remain.” As much as I wish to believe that I have put behind the memories of people who have brought me pain (sometimes unintentionally), they remain so much a part of me, enduring through time. It is as if these memories have moved forward with me, rather than having been left behind while I moved on. In my holiday read The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, psychologist Dr. Grosz describes closure as “delusive” for it is the false hope that we can deaden our living grief. It is a reflection of our desire to permanently end the feeling of grief and recover from it.

In his chapter titled “Going Back”, he talks about the birthday trip he had organized for his father’s 80th birthday, bringing him back to his hometown, Hungary. Over time, the names of places had changed and boundaries had shifted, so the itinerary had to be planned carefully in order to trace back the exact locations of his father’s childhood memories. Upon visiting various locations (his grammar school, his grandparents’ farm and the surrounding countryside), his father would walk around in silence, insist the place found was wrong and refuse to delve into any conversation about his memories (contrary to what was hoped for). The author recounts that he hadn’t understood the silence. Instead, he was frustrated because he felt that his efforts at planning the trip had gone unappreciated. One day, after his cousin’s death, Dr. Grosz was on a phone call recounting his cousin’s life along with another cousin of his. They mentioned the Nazis and Auschwitz, amongst other things. At the end of the phone call, his daughter who had overheard the conversation shot him questions about the Nazis that left him absolutely speechless. In his words, “(he had) found (himself) struggling to find the right words. Then, (he) saw in (himself), and now recognized in (his) father, the desire to keep such horror from (his) children.”

I see parallels between his father’s and Dr. Grosz’s desire to leave memories of the painful past unpacked and my own in my delusion of closure – both of which are avoidance of pain that can easily be revisited with memories that never fade the way we wish they would. The notion of closure has its roots in the works of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1960, where she identified 5 psychological stages in the experience of terminally ill patients: the last of which is acceptance. However, I refer to Dr. Grosz’s analysis in arriving at the conclusion that the psychological stages of ‘dying’ and ‘grieving’ should not be confused – there is no end to the person who mourns as he goes on living and for as long as he lives, there is always, always the possibility of feeling grief.

With that said, it is in my hopes that I courageously embrace painful memories to be part of myself and learn to adopt hope and optimism as cure to the suffering they brought and continue to bring. Between a painful truth and a lie too absurd, I’d prefer to live with the truth.

On Optimism and Hope

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There is something incredible about returning home: the comfort of safety and the newfound appreciation for beautiful details you have long forgotten the value of. Across the road from my place, there used to stand a grey and blue building that acted as a temporary space for schools – schools whose campuses were undergoing construction would take turns making use of this space for classes instead. Then, my morning alarm clock was always the school bell across the road. For months now, the compound has been demolished and a green grass patch takes its place. When I look out my window now, I enjoy the lush greenery in the distance and buildings I never knew existed just a stone’s throw away. This morning, I revisit the dream-like feeling of hopefulness that this scenery brings me.

The warmth from the sunlight is comfortable and the ceiling fan in my room whirls above me. Breakfast was Hazelnut coffee and toast, accompanied by conversations with my parents and brother. It is good to be back home. This one, today, is in light of my returning home and restarting the gears to move forward into 2016. It is on optimism:

Walt Disney once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” It is the sort of cliché encouragement we hear at motivational talks that we attend at turning points in our lives. The paradox of cliché is that we brush it off without making sense of it because we hear it too often, but we hear if so often exactly because it makes sense to so many. I wrote earlier about the uncertainties of the year ahead, towards which I hope to embrace by riding the waves of change, but there is a gap between acknowledging the uncertainties and practicing embracing them – a gap only to be filled by optimism and hopefulness. It is about reframing. There are far too many preconceived ideas about what outcomes will follow our actions that become hindrances to our comfortable embrace of uncertainty. I admit to having convictions about outcomes shaped by past experiences. Allow me to tell you the story of “The $10 Charity Scam”:

This story is one about the teenagers who approach you on the streets or at bus stops and train stations. They introduce themselves, armed with a license that you gloss over with skepticism, and proceed to tell you their story of a broken family and low income. The introduction ends with them giving you the opportunity to ‘help’ them – a $10 purchase of a commodity that is usually of little practical use. My skepticism towards these programs by corporations meant to ‘help’ them was derived from my conviction that it was all part of the company’s ploy to earn ‘sympathy points’ with these youths’ stories and earn some cash for themselves. I also believed that these teenagers would earn more from taking a part-time job at an F&B outlet that paid fixed wages for the work that they did (the former only allows you to earn as much as you sell, offering a relatively less stable flow of income). I believed strongly in having these teenagers grow out of their own story, rather than using their stories of pain and sorrow to earn their income – something I felt took away dignity from them as people.

The conviction I once held so closely to my heart was one day wavered by a young boy to explained to me his attempts at various part-time work – he had settled for this $10-per-sale job because it allowed him to maximize his flair for convincing and earn more than what would be a fixed $5/hour. I was impressed by his determination and desire to maximize his potential, so the $10 I whipped out following that was an investment to his dreams rather than to the A4-sized gift card he sold. A single boy overturned a conviction I once believed would never sway and waver. This story, to today, reminds me that the convictions (or preconceived notions of outcome) that we may so strongly believe can change. Things can turn out differently from how our past experiences thought us to believe.

One of my holiday reads was The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. In which, he says, “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand”. In between the analysis of the cards and the playing of the hand, lies the important essence of optimism – the belief that playing the hand as best as we can might bring us somewhere better. In the popular myth of Pandora’s box, terrible things are unleashed by the curiosity of a single character. We are taught the importance of suppressing our desire to quench our thirst of curiosity (including curiosity towards how things might pan out different with a choice being made). But so often, we forget that at the very end of this story, the last to have been unleashed from Pandora’s box was the beautiful thing called “hope”.

2016: Resolution or Revolution?

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“New Year, new me.” – That’s what they all say. It is tempting to take advantage of this annual change in calendar as the New Year dawns upon us, creating a list of “New Year Resolutions”. The idea is always “this year will be different”. Two years ago, I wrote about resolutions like this with skepticism (I have, since then, approached the New Year with a “Find Courage Resolution”: I make a list of 12 things I have never dared to or committed to sufficiently to accomplish over the years and promise to achieve them within the year ahead). The skepticism and change in approach became the recipe to adventures in 2014 and 2015, for which I am incredibly thankful. For 2016, I am almost paralyzed by the uncertainty.

The paralysis is derived from the innate resistance towards change. In my recent read The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, Dr Grosz (a psychologist) writes of our resistance towards change shown in our incredibly irrational responses to fire. In 1985, 56 people were killed when a fire broke out in the stands of the Valley Parade football stadium in Bradford – close examination of television footage later showed that fans did not react immediately to the fire alarm and continued to watch both the game and the fire, instead of moving to the exits. On another occasion, forensic reconstruction after a famous restaurant fire in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky confirmed that many customers sought to pay before leaving, dying in the fire. (p. 121-124) We have an incredible resistance towards change to the point of being completely irrational – when change arrives we refuse to face the inevitable and trap ourselves with the thought of “what it should be like” or “just the same way it has been, it has to continue to be”. We paralyze ourselves. This 2016, as we leave school and the school life, a fire alarm is ringing – will we resist the change and wait around? What are we waiting for?

As we proceed to tell the story of our lives that is so much shaped by our own decisions from hereon, my greatest fear are the brick walls. At this point, I have a dream: one involving a scholarship and Occupational Therapy studies in the United Kingdom. From where I am and where I want to be in a year, I foresee brick walls – the challenges that will stand in my way. These brick walls might come in the form of people, unforeseen circumstances or unthinkable constraints. Before this current read by Dr Grosz, I read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. It is from Professor Pausch that I learned that “brick walls are not there to keep us out, they are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something: they are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough”. So I hope, for myself, that it is with this attitude that I respond rationally to this fire alarm and embrace the change that feels so much like a revolution.

Resolution or revolution? Revolution and I’m ready.