Here and Elsewhere

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Eyes closed, the plane’s turbulence is amplified. We are somewhere in-between – “Time to Sydney: 4:14”, bold in white against the blue screen. On a flight between two countries, ‘near’ and ‘far’ is time-dependent, varying; emotional distance though, fixed. Weeks of basking in the familiarity and connectedness of Singapore (upon returning from America) fills me with gratitude and joy, like a light that fills you with faith, love and hope. I can ask for no more, for I’ve had enough in this beautiful home for the past 19 incredible years of my life. This piece is written in celebration of the beginning of a new chapter – where we can be certain only of uncertainty and where change is a constant.

In my latest read The Desire for Elsewhere by Agnes Chew, she writes about the “worlds we left behind”. In our transitions from phases of life to changing circumstances, we move geographically and emotionally through places and people. We grow, learn and sometimes without ourselves even realizing, change. As if each riding our own buses making rounds indefinitely, we pick up new individuals and allow some others to alight along the way. Our adventures through time is no different. The capacity of the vehicle representative of our capacity for meaningful relationships (see Dunbar’s Number), necessitating the give-and-take nature of passing time. We move to the rear of the bus and take turns alighting. Every couple of minutes, the configuration of those seated or standing, present or absent on board the vehicle changes.

Allow me to draw the parallel. Every given time corresponds with one of our countless states of being in our lives – the exact extent of closeness or distance to individuals, the precise sensations an experience offers and the moments that become memories in an instant. Our lenses, ever-changing, the world only looks this way with this complexity once. It is both liberating and surreal to be reminded that things are (or seem to be) the way they are now, only now. The liberation comes, then, in the realization that should these exact occurrences be fleeting, we must live now.

Seated on 31B in the Boeing 777, time is suspended in the moment of parting. I am at the in-between; desperately inking down emotions, inscribing the picture memory of those dear to me, remembering how their smiles look and how mine feels. I am, as Chew describes, both here and elsewhere. To all those who are wanderers like myself in their own way, constantly in travel, allow me to be the part of you the resides in Australia now so we may all be here and elsewhere.

Here’s to living in the present tense, for each is becomes was in a matter of time.

The Elusive Elsewhere

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Contrary to the connectedness I experience on a daily basis in Singapore, the elusive elsewhere remains an unknown – no more than a blank canvas filled with sketches of speculation. Sunny beaches and coffee houses interspersed along the streets and the rustic architecture of my university are all just probabilities, at best. There are fractions of my thoughts everyday stolen momentarily by the imaginative right hemisphere of my brain – painting different possibilities for the blank canvas of the elusive elsewhere where I will spend most of the next 4 years. 4 years feels like a long time.

I have acquainted myself with this feeling we call ‘uncertainty’ over time; the origins of possibly crippling fear and then shame for experiencing fear rather than excitement. (Expectations have it that starting afresh in a new place is exciting for one “adventurous enough”) In times where stakes feel incredibly high and control has hit an all-time low, I remind myself to breathe. Deep breaths.

Note to self: While our environment and circumstances change, we can choose the people that we are. With that, I find bearing in taking ownership over oneself and decide the practices and principles from the now that I hope to continue cultivating in the time to come:

1 | The choice for seeking stillness is grounded in the joys of taking deep breaths and practicing the mantra stop doing and just be. In stillness, with appreciation for the miracle of every breath taken, I hope for alignment in my self-awareness (emotional, mostly) and to exercise careful choices. This is about tuning out from distractions, tuning into self and pursuing clarity.

2 | Courage is contagious: the bravery to invest wholeheartedly in something that one believes in, spreads. The question transforms from What if I fail, embarrass myself or do terribly to What is worth daring even if I fail, embarrass myself or do terribly. I hope for the sort of courage that picks us up whenever we fall down; that empowers one to choose to enter arenas of our passion every time.

3 | In a time where we are so often operating from a place of scarcity, I wish to cultivate self-compassion. The ability to forgive ourselves and embrace the person we are is what I believe to be the birthplace of unconditional service, love and connection. With this basis established, I would expect no absence of mistakes, never perfection; and hope to respond each time I stumble, with it’s okay and you’re enough.

In my latest read, The Desire for Elsewhere by Agnes Chew, she writes that one of the hardest things in life is the act of saying goodbye. If only it were as simple as saying: goodbye for now, and see you again. Would it still be the same you I see the next time we meet? Or the same me, for that matter? For to part with a person or place often also means having to say goodbye to a particular state of being or phase in your life. Nowadays, I have become adept at planting myself in relaxing coffee places and immersing in some form of text – online storytelling courses, physical self-help books or pen-and-paper writing. Trying whatever means imaginable to slow this countdown. I experience moderate success. Noticing the wind in my hair and the warm yellow light overhead, mindfully as possible, the passing minutes feel like the flow of water through my fingers, from a running tap; impossible to grasp.

This piece is about the only choice that remains: to fully engage in every moment.

Connectedness: Why We Are Actually Related

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I am on my favourite bus ride. The one with the fondest memories from the four years of taking it to school and then the three months, four years later, taking it to work. On average, it is 45 minutes long – not too long or short, just nice; brings me straight from home into the heart of town. The Bus ‘106’ is double-decker three-fifths of the time, which assures me something closer to a bird’s eye view of the changing scenes more often than not. With my eyes closed, I can draw out picture memories of the sceneries we pass by – I could do cloudy or cloudless, downpour or sunshine. I know the stops in between, with memories at each one of them; I know where the favourite busker performs on Saturday afternoons and the fork in the road where traffic slows on weekday mornings. Every traffic light, each pedestrian crossing and how one is synced with the next. The bumps on the road, even.

For me, this is connectedness. If the environment (as in the place, its people, the visible architecture and the invisible energy of it all) were a score for a musical piece, connectedness sounds like a beautiful melody with bass to soprano aligned in harmony, in every sense of the word. The pace of our footsteps and the speed of the vehicles acting as the metronome, we transition from day to night with seamless continuity just like the turning pages of the music score. Tempo established, our crescendos and decrescendos come naturally across each day. The miracle of the eventual masterpiece, then, like an ongoing rehearsal that sees every one of us a member of the orchestra.

Connectedness is the practical reason for the public transport system and the essence of familiarity we enjoy while navigating through it – being able to draw the SMRT Systems map in the air with your finger and point at the vague positions of each train station on the different coloured lines. It is the reason for our ability to estimate travel times to uncanny precision and to stand at the ‘right’ cabin doors that would lead to the escalator at the next station. ‘Mind the platform gap’ brings visual images of the black, wide slit we once hopped across as children and today, it is the reason we hold our phones a little tighter when entering through the train doors. Connectedness is why I’ve told the story about the ‘secret station’ between Caldecott to Botanic Gardens a couple of hundred times to explain why the distance and duration between them is especially long. The station labels also skip a number. Each narration, with a timing so accurate that the punchline, “that’s why, in between these two stations, there is always an SMRT staff – dressed in red and black, holding a black Rover Bag across his shoulder, who would walk from one end of the train to another” is followed by a live demonstration. Our hairs stand on end and I get the last laugh, it is a story I like to tell.

This essence of familiarity plays out in more ways than one. It is due to connectedness that we know some extent of conversational dialect and a Mother Tongue besides our own; we wave at neighbours in the corridors of our heartlands and bumping into people we know at void decks come with little surprise. Each one of us would have a family member who knows a friend or a friend who knows a friend; “do you know XXX?” is a valid conversation starter with a 50% chance for agreement. What a small Singapore in which we coexist, allowing for an incredible sense of connectedness to wrap around us like a blanket of comfort and familiarity. It is in celebration of this connectedness I wish to remember as vividly as possible upon my departure, that I write this piece and that confidently, I can say: Dear Singaporean stranger, I am almost certain that you and I are connected in ways we have yet to discover.  

PS The countdown is at 11 days – 11 days before I am Sydney bound and student again.

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The Empathy Jar

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In a time where our stories can differ immensely, I would like to propose that the key to connecting with one another on an individual level, understanding communities around us and enhancing our international perspectives as global citizens is empathy – the practice of expressing emotions to draw similarities for connection. It is the ability to respond, especially in times of uncomfortable emotions, with the two most powerful words, me too. In this respect, the diversity of selves is an asset.

What we fail to realise is that each one of our stories is a book filled with not only facts and experiences, but emotions associated with them. Every book, then, comes with a deposit to our emotional banks that we turn to to practice empathy. The thing about empathy is this, it thrives on finding similarities. We must be able to listen to another person’s story, identify the emotions being experienced and immerse in it. What we have to remember is that we will rarely, if ever, have the exact same experiences or the same stories (as our minds have their way of drawing on our past to contextualize current circumstances); but we can experience similar emotions. Emotions is the language that surpass rifts of generations and barriers of cultures.

There are two dangerous practices in our culture, though, that are preventing us from embracing the diversity of selves and cultivating empathy.

First, we are quick in defining people with a single story. Growing up, I have most often been referred to by people who know little about me as “the Raffles one”. “You’re from Raffles what, this should be easy”, “She’s Raffles one mah, that’s why so zai” or the worst, “Raffles one, don’t study also can get ‘A’”. The last most frustrating because most of the afternoons that I remember as a student in Junior College were spent consulting teachers, doing and redoing my tutorials. What I have learned is that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. As a student, I struggled with competing expectations of effortless perfection. I was more often told what I should be like in conversations with people who were supposedly trying to get to know me better. “Wow, that sounds like a lot of commitments. But you’re Raffles one, so it should be easy for you right.” Each time we settle for ‘incomplete’, we compromise the diversity of selves and the countless stories every individual can tell about their being.

Second, we are obsessed with harmony. The opposite of harmony is the state of conflict. We are conflict averse to the point where we avoid any potential for conflict – run away from instability, shun uncertainty and settle down fast. The challenge is that empathy is built on emotional connection and emotions are one of the most unstable, uncertain elements of being human that we can never run away from. Conversations about intense emotions make us uncomfortable as it accentuates the deficit in our emotional word bank. We know happy, sad, angry, tired. Each of these emotions, though, are but a single point in an entire spectrum. The most incredible part of our beings is the capacity to experience the spectrum at its entirety – we can do ‘sad’ as in, slightly disappointed all the way to deep melancholy; or ‘happiness’ as in, tickled just a bit all the way to sustained joy that fills you with faith and hope. Yet, our only response to how are you, is fine.

Highly active in the youth volunteerism scene, youth workers often ask me, do you think youths today are empathetic? To me, every human being (youth or not) has the capacity to empathise. The diversity of selves enables us: it provides the repertoire of emotions and experiences upon which we can cultivate empathy as a practice. What differs from one individual to another, though, is our tendency to choose empathy. Every conversation that relates emotions presents to the listener this choice. The tendency to choose empathy, then, works like an imaginary jar. The contents of the jar, the common aggregate of an individual’s encounter with others – with every ‘how are you feeling’ and ‘what did you do today we’ add marbles into the jar. Conversely, with every ‘stop crying and be a man or get a grip, you’ll grow up and realise this doesn’t matter’, we empty the same jar.