Never Imagined: Sydney

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I never imagined myself to stay in an apartment with bricked walls, the sort I am used to finding only in cultural buildings or forgotten pieces of architecture. Never imagined to be here, on a wooden chair at the basement of a two-storey abode in the company of Fischer, a big black dog; and never imagined living with three older folks (from my grandparents’ generation) showering unconditional love on me at every waking moment. There are crows in the sky cawing as they past, as if to assert their presence. The electrical cables line the view of the vast, cloudless sky and the sun, awake as I am. It is a beautiful day in Western Sydney. Over a glass of milk with relaxing acoustics playing from my device, this piece is in celebration of this new land that will come to be my second home.

In my latest read, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the author writes a first-hand account of her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)  – the physical rigour, the emotional turmoil, the people she meets who gives her strength for every next step and the inner peace she eventually discovers with contentment. She describes her journey on the trail that stretches over 2,000 miles as “a journey from lost to found” as she had embarked on the trail at the lowest point of her life only to find strength to bravely be her own person.

Two weeks into the new beginning, I have said my ‘good-bye’s and reflected upon my intentions moving forward.  There is anticipation and apprehension, flavoured with fleeting anxiety. More than a year from leaving school and experiencing the adventure of a gap year, this is my next great adventure as the PCT was Cheryl Strayed’s. This chapter begins with a week of learning the names of suburbs, cities, states and territories; finding familiarity in foreign land while unpacking, lots of unpacking; and learning the ropes of the new dynamics with the family I will live with here. The wonder of meeting people completely different from myself in a myriad of ways has been a privilege. At Orientation week, every conversation begins with a hello of varying shyness and accents; everything that follows feels like a miracle – to meet individuals with stories of becoming so different from mine, worldviews worlds apart and perspectives built on a context I never imagined. I am travelling with astounding breadth through each of these inspiring individuals, constantly reminded that we have become this very version of ourselves based on the culmination of chance. We were born in this certain place, at this certain time to enjoy this particular landscape of possibilities at this specific point in the human evolution.

Still grasping the accent and still learning my white wines from the red, here’s to immersing with contentment similar to Cheryl Strayed’s revelation. To be miles away from home but to admire the flora and fauna that now surrounds me and to be reminded that we don’t have to do this alone; to know that this is all enough. That this life may be wild, as Cheryl Strayed writes, and that we can let it be so. I never imagined myself leaving Singapore to pursue an overseas education for 4 years but here I am on this wooden chair and boy, am I in for something spectacular. 

PS Two days to being student again.

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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.

Remember Singapore

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Turkey, ham and egg white sandwiched between wheat bread accompanied by a tumbler of white chocolate mocha; starting the day with breakfast in the comfort of Delfi Orchard Starbucks. Incessant traffic of vehicles, an abundance of sunshine through the full-length glass and background chattering in French, hello again. A little less than two weeks back in Singapore (after a month in America), the characteristics of this place I call home are more stark than ever. The pace of our footsteps, the daily choices that have become routine and the majority who look like me – these sights and sounds have become more pronounced given the wealth of time I have to slow down and immerse in the familiarity. This piece, written as I commence the one-month countdown in Singapore, hopes to capture the fleeting picture memories that would count more than I can imagine when I am living in Sydney. It is in my deepest hopes, that it inspires you to appreciate the subtle parts of our being we are not so mindful of.

First, on architecture. Remember the width of the roads – just enough for the cars to drive parallel to one another, with almost no room for careless shifting of the steering wheel. Remember the buildings: rectangles are popular because it is space efficient but they also make odd-shaped buildings representing an architect’s statement stand out. Remember the curves of Star Vista and the sculpted works of art in Raffles Place, the indentations of the walls in Outram Park MRT Station and the way the natural lighting brings life to Bras Basah MRT Station. I learned from a conversation with a friend doing architecture in university that the proximity of amenities in Singapore contributes to the livability of our community spaces. There is convenience and joy in everything you need in your living space being within walking distance along with an important by-product, the interactions with neighbours whom we live amongst.

Second, on nature. The fraction of our views that is the sky is usually no more than one-fifth, unless you stay in the East or go by the sea. Then, the days where you chance upon the view of the sky being anything besides one shade of blue dotted with white, remember the joy of basking in nature’s beauty and inadvertently, smiling. Remember the assortment of trees and bushes that line our streets, representative of our pioneers’ dreams of making Singapore a beautiful green space all over. Of which, approximately 95% of the greenery is imported from elsewhere, symbolic of the efforts we have made to be a hub of synergy and diversity. Remember the park connectors and the good memories associated with cycling adventures made on these trails. Some say Singaporeans too often, forget to slow down to ‘smell the roses’ and embrace nature. What little know is that our furrowing of eyebrows while we are heading to work or heading out for lunch, is not an indication of our unhappy selves but merely a response to nature shining brightly in our faces (literally). We are constantly in touch with nature, alright.

Third, on people. Remember the chapalang of languages and expressions that have become so uniquely Singaporean: our own version of English. An exquisite beauty, we rarely realise the poetic device applied when rojak is both edible and an adjective. Singaporeans are poets. There is, too, an adaptability we give ourselves little credit for, that shows in our code-switching based on fellow Singaporeans’ age and race. We know the lehs and lahs that help us connect in an instant and the jiak ba bui (‘Have you eaten?’ in Hokkien, a dialect), characteristic of a nation that appreciates food as an experience and privilege. When all else fails, we point at pictures and get creative (or impatient). Remember the conversations and what was often talked about – amongst peers, school and grades; amongst youths, the change we wanted to see and be; amongst working adults, various indications of purpose. The most precious, though, the conversations over the dining table where family is present. Remember that home is a feeling.

Days ago, on an UberPOOL towards the airport to meet a friend stopping over in Singapore, the vehicle passed by the Bugis area and then Orchard in the wee hours of the morning. Slightly before daylight and while the fluorescent street lamps accentuated the sky line, I noticed numerous new buildings that had still been surrounded by white hoardings (as they were under construction) before I had left for America. These changes taking place gradually every day, put together in a short span of a month, can be testament of our astounding pace of development and evolving landscapes. This leaves the possibilities of this space in the time from my departure almost unimaginable.

Remember the way you know how to get around and where to get the best foods; the perfect conversation starters and the deep connection with Singaporeans that you have practiced in all the years of your life. These are the days you walk a little slower, breathe more deeply and enjoy coffee at coffeehouses that give your panoramic views; here are the moments you close your eyes and take picture memories you can refer back to once more and the times you accommodate the schedules of all whom you love, to hold comfortable space with them. Remember these, and come what may.

Perhaps, It’s…

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I wonder what keeps him going: the man in the yellow helmet and fluorescent outer wear. Brown boots, expressionless and his hands in orange gloves, I wonder what he’s thinking as he drags the bulky orange barricade that lines the road across the bumpy terrain of grass and lugs it onto the pavement. He uses his entire body weight to do that; when he turns, he pivots on one foot skillfully. It is drizzling and the view beyond the window that encloses this safe space is blurred. This morning, with the taste of hot chocolate in my mouth and the bus’s air-conditioning at just the right temperature, I am curious about the stories of those I see around me. So, I wonder.

Purple polo T-shirt and khaki pants, this man looks curious as I am. Curious, and firm; he slouches over seated at the bus stop, with one hand supported by his umbrella standing before him. His makeshift hand-rest is at odds with the sunglasses resting over his cap. He was prepared for rain and shine, clearly. I wonder what he thinks as he remains seated, looking more carefully at the people boarding or alighting the buses that arrive than at the bus numbers. I wonder if he’s going to be at it all day.

Ladies with their long hair tied into a high bun always carry with them a sense of elegance in their footsteps, especially when they are in stilettos like hers. There is something about her V-neck, knee-length black dress that suggests she has an office. One with a one-way glass door and a 2-metre long desk, two chairs opposite her for people who come in for a review (by her) and a sofa nearby, that she sits on with important clients she’d like to have feel comfortable in her office. Most of her time, though, spent at her table that is marble, probably. She possibly has more people working under her supervision than I can count with my fingers and toes. I wonder what brings her out of bed and into that office every day.

There is a pregnant lady, her hair a mix of brown and blonde. Seated at this bus stop right outside Holland Village, she is texting without looking up to watch the buses come and go. Not once. I wonder if she’s heading somewhere at all. There is a blue lanyard around her neck, the only other thing she brought out of her house. My work at the Early Childhood Development Agency finds me more empathetic than before towards pregnant mothers – the physical changes they go through and the societal expectation that they continue to do things as they would in spite of the immense discomfort they sometimes experience. I wonder if this is her first child, and if she has named him/her. I imagine that the first and last thought of her every day goes something like My dear, I can’t wait to show you the world as she rubs her tummy.

He is looking at something – facing down into the condominium swimming pool, with a stick of sorts in his hand. In a light blue uniform and casual black pants, I wonder if this is what he does at 845AM every morning. He is definitely looking at something in the pool. A stain he is trying to scrub off the floor of the pool? A bracelet the last person who was swimming in the pool left behind by mistake? Or maybe he is gazing into the blue of the pool, thinking about the people that really keeps him going. His family, maybe? A girlfriend? Actually, maybe, what he is really looking at is at the future that he dreams of for his loved ones, for whom he wakes up every morning to commit to his duties at this pool.

This part of Orchard Road, slightly busier, has a mix of working professionals, retail staff and early birds of the tourists. The rain has stopped, as if finally allowing the day to begin for us all. I am occasionally brimming with curiosity, as I am today, about the thoughts and motivations that we find to do the things that we normally do in our every day. I appreciate that I have some sense of purpose that countable others yearn but cannot seem to find; I wonder what keeps us all going, I do. Perhaps, the day–to-day tasks that keep us excited. Or perhaps, the sense of love and belonging that we derive from connection to others.

Perhaps, it’s hope, where hope is not an emotion but a way of thinking. In my learning from Brene Brown, hope is a cognitive process where emotions play a supporting role. This morning, I am thinking that perhaps, it is hope, the way we make sense of our present by linearly predicting the possible future that lies ahead, that keeps us going the way we do. How timely that this morning I am heading to the Scape Ground Theatre for a Singapore Youth Conference, discussing the future of Singapore. Where shall we find hope for the years that lie ahead?

The Amber Light

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Exactly one week to my Driving Traffic Police Test, this evening is air-conditioned, one spent on board Bus 106. Travelling down these roads I can memorise by heart and taking a route on which I have shared memories with so many, this 45-minute bus ride is always conducive for writing. (How certain I am, by the way, that this is a ride I will miss dearly along with the Singapore public transport system once in Sydney). In light of the friends close to heart whom I’ve gotten the chance to catch up with recently, this piece is in celebration of the cross junction we are at in our lives – where we leave “Holiday Road” for the journey ahead along “University Drive”. If there were a traffic light at this cross junction, it would probably be faulty for it signals a perpetual amber.

How strange it is that time should pass us by like water through our fingers – with no way of gripping onto moments that have passed, only granted with the feeling it gave us as proof that it had come and gone. “Where did all the time ago?” is the new frequently-asked question and it feels like yesterday that we had embraced the new normal of liberation. I can vividly remember how most of us had bid farewell to the episode we call “’A’ Levels” as if it happened just a while ago.

At this point, even with our University places secured, some privileged with scholarships or sponsorships and with a break we had been dreaming of since our time in Junior College, the uncertainty has only reduced but not disappeared. As if driving in a vehicle that has left an expressway (that was the comfort of school), towards new crossroads that have emerged, new road signs, traffic lights (few faulty ones) and bumps in the road. One of the most heart-wrenching moments in my first few driving lessons were what I’d like to call The Amber Light moments. You’re slowing down nearing a traffic light, prepared to stop if necessary. A more experienced driver (clearly, judging from the speed and his frustration towards your amateur ‘L-plate’) comes close behind you, as if ready to send death threats should you stop at the junction to even think. Then, The Amber Light. There is no clarity from the structures put in place – no green to say a definite ‘yes’ or a red that says ‘no’. Just Amber. It is entirely up to your “driving judgment” as my Chinese driving instructor calls it.

The resources invested and the opportunities available, your driving decisions the only uncertain factor to determine the outcomes. This pressure is familiar to us, seems like it’s going to take a little more than a little bit of reframing to get us past this cross junction with confidence. I learn from adult mentors I have been incredibly blessed to have found that the road ahead carries endless adventure and our fear will be as big an obstacle as we allow it to be. My dad always says, that sometimes, “you just have to press hard on that accelerator and drive on”.

Counting down the weeks before most of my peers enter the new chapter we call “University”, may this be reminder to us to stay true to the values of resilience and verve that we had lived and breathed in school. Never settle for less.

Uncertainty: What Would Dory Do?

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For the past 6 months, I have had the privilege of serving patients in the capacity of a “Patient Service Assistant” at the Raffles Hospital Rehabilitation Centre through the Frontline Service Experience Program. Tomorrow as I step into the workplace once more, I would be counting down the last two days in the space that has now become comfortable, familiar and filled with countless memories. The ‘normal’ will begin to evolve from the (upcoming) Tuesday evening when I step out of the Rehabilitation Centre, changing out from uniform for the last time. Henceforth, I plunge into a month of uncertainty – attempts at driving tests, attendance at scholarship commitments and a series of talks, plays, workshops and museum visits to enrich myself. The ‘normal’ that lies ahead holds surprises and prized experiences valuable for me. And yet, I am slightly nervous amidst my excitement.

The anxiety finds its origins in the uncertainty. This uncertainty is one that years of formal education have made me uncomfortable with. I wish someone told me this before. This time last year, with the end of Common Test 2, there was celebration and contained happiness. ‘Contained’ because we were all aware of how short-lived this break would be – just a time to catch a breather before proceeding towards months of closed-door studying, endless practice and mastery of exam skills. Then, one of my biggest motivations had been the ‘freedom’ that would necessarily follow this ‘‘A’ Levels episode’. “Things would be different then,” I had promised myself. Perhaps it was the desperate hope for space, for rest, to be away from the routine that had made us naïve and clouded our judgment. To my juniors who are treading the path I had trodden a year ago, the ‘freedom’ and ‘change’ is real, I still promise. But be careful to associate only negative feelings to your current mundane routine and only positive feelings to what the future may hold – this narrative you tell yourself may translate into disappointment. Nothing is only good or only bad.

I have seen the past half a year of uncertainty incite very real fear and anxiety; in myself and in my peers. It seems some have spent more time worrying than enjoying. Granted, there are those who thrive in this context but fact remains that our years of formal education have dished out ‘Scheme of Works’ and ‘Syllabus Outcomes’ as checklists to determine ‘success’. Additionally, formal education has paved the way with assessments and lecture tests to ensure timely milestones of ‘progress’. Thrown into this uncertainty, the meters of ‘success’ and ‘progress’ are to be determined by ourselves. I wish someone told me this before. The reminder that in every challenge we can discover some form beauty came this time last year as I was struggling to prepare myself for the ‘A’ Levels – I was reminded to appreciate the protection of a school environment, to be thankful for the community of learners I could find effortlessly in a school I call home and to savour the uphill battle of challenging my own academic limits. Today, the weekend before I welcome a new wave of uncertainty, this same idea is revisited.

One of the best movies I have watched in the preceding month for Digital Detox was Finding Dory. Pixar does it again, encapsulating important lessons in animation. A recurring line in the script was “what would Dory do?” which (in my opinion) represented a two-fold message. One was the intended lessons to be taken away from Dory’s character – the sense of adventure, the fearless risk-taking and the willingness to take chances. After all, “the best things happen by chance, because that’s life.” Coming to terms with uncertainty is not easy because we have to acknowledge that little we do today can guarantee us something tomorrow, as much as we wish that these promises can be kept. Mistakes can be made, people can be forgotten, memories can slip past us and words can be empty. A university graduate could very well be jobless and we could change our minds about what we hope to study in the middle of our degree programs. The uncertainties are endless and it is the presence of them that is the only promise that can absolutely be kept. How ironic, that our only certainty is the lack of. The sooner that we embrace this uncertain adventure, the earlier might we discover ourselves truly and forgive ourselves for what we cannot achieve in society’s definition of ‘success’.

Second to that, in this two-fold message is the idea that there is value in seeing things differently. In the movie, Dory’s fearlessness as a result of her ‘disability’ (short-term memory) is applauded. There are debates within the online community about Dory’s predicament representing that of persons with disabilities in society – that her ‘difference’ by birth leaves her in a disadvantaged position in the community, even considered ‘less valuable’ than others. This explains the intuitive anger and irritation towards her from Marlin, during their search for Dory’s parents. Parallel to our society, these are common perceptions of persons with disabilities that form the basis for society’s general sympathy or ostracism towards this community. We think them so different because their productivity to society is compromised. Similarly, we put greater emphasis on applauding the achievements of people with disabilities when they do productive things “despite disability”. Recall the articles about students with disabilities completing the ‘A’ Level examinations and think about the celebrity motivational speaker Nick Vujicic. Our conversations have, for so long, been about how persons with disabilities can ‘overcome’ their disabilities as if they were a problem because they hindered their productivity to society. I reckon it might be time to shift the conversation to answer questions about why it is so difficult for persons with disabilities to be valued in society. What does that show about how we value ourselves and each other? And are we okay with that?

An inspiring role model to me recently reminded me that we should not base our worth on our productivity to society and rather, recognize that we all have inherent value as human beings solely based on the persons that we are. Hoping that embracing this understanding will allow me to accept the uncertainty of what lies ahead, here’s to a hell of ride from this Tuesday on.

 

Dear Detox Diary

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19 days into digital detox in June, I am counting.

The “social media fast” (as a good friend has decided to label it) has been one filled with questions more than answers. Questions that dig deep for the intentions behind my urges: What underlies my subconsciously looking for the social media applications on my home screen? Why do I scroll through my Whatsapp conversations occasionally tempted to reconnect with others? What makes the endless swipe through my Facebook Feed so addictive? It is easy to say that visuals are captivating and the illusion of connectivity is alluring – but the truly difficult part lies in coming to terms with what these ‘urges’ reflect about our society and the large fraction of our beings that is a product of society.

As part of the attempt to find time for myself and my thoughts, spontaneous dates with ones who are active enough to accommodate my agendas (while I remain relatively passive) has found me reuniting with a senior who has inspired me immensely for years since we first met. Nights ago, she taught me to first understand that none of these ‘urges’ are completely natural – they are natural responses to the environment we have grown up in. Our fast-paced lives have necessitated our caving into our own spaces on public transport, seemingly addicted to our devices, as it is possibly the only time we can find time to be with ourselves. The emphasis on doing things to measure self-worth has distracted us from the fact that we have inherent worth as human beings regardless of our productivity to society; hence, the social media announcements of “things we do”. We so often think of our (over-)reliance on virtual relationships as a problem posed to our real-life interactions but rarely do we consider the possibility of this reliance being a symptom of a society impoverished of time and place for meaningful real-life interactions.

At the end of last month, my sister and I had the privilege of representing Strong Mind Fit Body at the Singapore Kindness Movement Appreciation Dinner. The invitation was especially meaningful because it came personally from Dr. William Wan who sat on the judging panel for the Housing Development Board’s Good Neighbours Project 2016. I have, for a long time, admired Dr. Wan’s belief in a better ‘us’ as a society – it encourages me to know that there is a Singaporean who so genuinely and deeply believes that we can be more caring and more gracious. He inspired my exploration in the movements of kindness in Singapore – the work of The Hidden Good and embarking on my own #TreatsOnGivingTuesday Movement. Increasingly, though, I find that our actions are based on beliefs and attitudes so much more embedded than I earlier imagined. For this mindful month, as I discover how this manifests in our social media habits, I can only imagine the gargantuan extent to which social construct has influenced our way of living as a whole.

These ‘urges’ simply do not “just happen”. They were not inherent but learned. Social media is but a tool and I am beginning to recognize that how and why I use this tool the way I do is a product of society. Then, I am carefully picking and choosing those I might want to amplify to more effectively achieve balance and those I need to gradually but surely, un-learn.

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