Culture Espresso sits at the junction of 38th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, New York City. Seated at a high stool before a marble table facing the full-length glass panels that surround this café, I’d like to think I’ve found the New York equivalent to the Delfi Orchard Starbucks where I have incredible memories I hold dear – the pace of footsteps has significantly decreased at this junction, population density even more so. The fireplace exits of the residential bricked-buildings create uncanny symmetry across the street and most of the remaining stores remain closed. This is the street that awakens naturally; as opposed to the ever-awake Broadway Avenue where lights and sounds are no less than a sensory overload. This is the morning of the last day of 2016 for me, there is a playful sense of victory as if I’ve ‘bought an extra day’ by spending countdown in America. That aside, this piece is in reflection and celebration of the year that has come and gone.
I guess you can say this was my gap year. If you’ve heard this story before, please skip this paragraph completely and go to the compartmentalized lessons I have attempted to draw from the countless, precious experiences and people from the year. Awaiting to read Occupational Therapy in the University Sydney, I only commence studies in March 2017 (departing for Australia in February). A vastly different new normal from the one I have imagined while I was studying for ‘A’ Levels, I never expected to take anything more than an 8-month break nor leave this country that I feel deeply connected with. In my family, we don’t call this a gap year, the word is almost taboo – it comes with connotation of too much uncertainty, even a ‘waste of time’. There is a slippery slope projection into the future that comes with the idea of a gap year that ends with my retirement alone and failing in my career. Of course, I respond to the ridiculous ‘timeline of life’ that we too often subject ourselves to with more laughter than pressure. (For now, at least.)
There is immense importance in the stories we tell ourselves: they reflect certain principles and beliefs we hold dear and sometimes act as reinforcements to our character; other times they can mislead us or contribute to a narrow-minded conviction that it’s ‘our way or the highway’. The only antidote is non-stop learning. My WordPress pieces have often attempted to achieve that balance in separate pieces, but for my series of ‘Celebrate (insert year)’ pieces (see Celebrate 2013, Celebrate 2014 and Celebrate 2015), they have more often been about the former.
Uncertainty and Learning
The ‘A’ Levels, in theory, is a series of exams that lasts no more than a month and a half. It is widely accepted that the implications are felt even before the month of exams commences – they say ‘It is not about the outcome, it’s the process.’ Now though, I can vouch for the anxiety that persists even after the series of examinations. Like a knot in our hearts, the tendency to place the worth of the years of hard work in a single result transcript is tempting; the social construct has it so. The first important lesson from the beginning of the year, then, was to forgive ourselves and unlearn what we have learnt about self-worth growing up in education characterized by paper chase and portfolio-driven assessments.
More than ever, I miss dearly the structured environment for learning that I have been blessed with. The unchartered terrains of internships in Raffles Hospital then in Early Childhood Development Authority have been space for self-discovery and continued learning, a legacy left behind by being in the Raffles Programme for 6 years. Persisting from July, is the space of Healthcare Scholarship and a Giving Week Stint raising funds for the Room to Read Global Organisation at the end of this year was very much dedicated to the appreciation for quality education that was an immense privilege. As I exit through the Rafflesian gates, I find myself in spaces where learning opportunities are abundant but must be actively sought after. I continue to craft the questions and revisit them out of habit but answers are no longer found in a single conversation with an inspired educator and knowledge-hungry peers, they are found in the processing of numerous sources and days of research. A newfound appreciation for the community of learning and excellence has found me visiting my alma mater and Junior College countless times across the year, each time rejuvenated by the unconditional love and desire to inspire of the teaching and non-teaching staff.
In face of the uncertainty post-Junior College that people don’t talk about enough, there has been necessary reading and reflection on solitude and being my own person, an idea not unfamiliar but necessitated only in this year.
Gratitude and Giving Back
In Junior College, I was always reminded that grades matter, but who you are matters more. The privilege of crossing paths with Halogen Foundation Singapore and Youth Corps Singapore was the constant source of this important reminder. Built on a foundation of educators and of family, who believed that I was worth a whole lot more than my achievements and that my achievements were simply reflections of more important values that I possessed, I owe my resilience today to these people. I used to negotiate for a gap year to devote time to not only the abovementioned learning, but also to the service I hoped to give back to these people and communities.
I am incredibly thankful for these spaces that have continued to embrace me in spite of my formal departure and regardless of my absence while I was a full-time student. The opportunities I’ve had to represent teams or causes larger than myself have continued to reaffirm my belief that nothing important gets done alone, and together, we can do great things.
In one of my favourite reads in the world, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, I have learned of the ‘culture of scarcity’ that has plagued us. We never find anything or anyone enough, including ourselves. The time never enough to accomplish our tasks, the resources never enough to go around (so we ‘must compete’), the recognition never enough to feel worthy. In the past, shame was a two-person affair, at least. Today, we learn to do it all by ourselves – we convince ourselves we are not enough (not skinny enough, not smart enough, not capable enough). In a lifestyle of service, I have learned to be more empathetic, mindful and compassionate – these practices central to the person I want to be. This keeps me focused on personal development and being thankful. This is the antidote I have found for scarcity. Remember this: the opposite of ‘scarcity’ is not abundance (because abundance suggests excess); the opposite of ‘scarcity’ is enough.
Still learning from each volunteer I work with and still immersing with every partner in service, my perspective of the world is constantly recalibrated in a way that reminds me that we are all global citizens in a place so much larger (both physically and metaphorically) than ourselves. Only when we engage with the world around us from a place where we believe in enough, will we find joy.
I mention in my earlier piece on Wholehearted Living about the concept’s principles. The idea, in a nutshell, has it that we find peace with the earlier mentioned culture of scarcity so that we can meaningfully engage with those around us. This has been a struggle that surfaced in this year relatively distant from the tight-knit communities I have found strength from. In having to actively reach out and be a part, there has been self-doubt and no short of self-assessment about the person that I am.
The challenge to living with wholeheartedness is that we often lack courage to be who we are bravely. It makes us vulnerable to a point of discomfort. In the month where I investigated the issue of suicide prevalence and the roots of depression, it was painful to find that we have created a society where so many cannot feel okay being the person that they are and even more so to have these thoughts of self-doubt find resonance within me. I am still practicing. On this road of self-compassion and mastering vulnerability, I owe thanks to the closest of friends who truly, truly love me not regardless of my flaws but because of them. It is because of the genuine company of people like you that I am slowly learning to believe that people, in general, are always trying their best (and so am I).
If you’ve heard my quote the Man in the Arena Speech by Theodore Roosevelt before, you’re welcome to skip this paragraph. Here goes – it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Ever since I’ve fallen in love with this quote so telling of true bravery, I have newfound courage to pursue feats, tread untrodden paths and take calculated risks. If I played word association with the phrase ‘Daring Greatly’, the outcome would be: Strong Mind Fit Body, Empathy Taskforce, Dreamcatcher and newspapers.
- Born from a dream to bring neighbours together for functional fitness, Strong Mind Fit Body is today, a budding social enterprise that works extremely hard to create meaningful experiences to impart strength training awareness and promote inter-generational bonding. We believe that together, we can build a nation that is unafraid to age. With Champions and Fit Elves, like those who helped us pull off the biggest event of the year hitting at headcount of more than 200 at SMFB Christmas Special, we believe so more than ever. If you’d like in on our better tomorrow that we commit time and energy to work towards, please let us know at SMFBgeneral@gmail.com or apply to be a Champion (regular volunteer) at bit.ly/SMFBchampapply
- Before Youth Corps Singapore’s first Empathy Taskforce was formed, we pulled off a Human Library surrounding the theme of service and giving. Today, we explore various issues of concern by curating programmes that bring life to the Red Box and inculcate empathy in our fellow peers and Youth Corps members. There are immense opportunities that lie ahead in what we can do. This year, peppered with uncertainty and surprises for us, I am thankful for how whenever I look at these teammates that I’ve only gotten to know for less than a year, I always always know that we can do it.
- Dreamcatcher, a camp for a Primary 6 cohort on imagination, creativity and problem-finding/solving was an opportunity that I stumbled upon. Setting the record for one of the most enjoyable camps I’ve experienced (along with the Youth Corps Induction Camp), being Camp Captain was no less than a privilege. Reflecting upon this experience, I owe immense thanks to the 56 strangers-turned-friends who earned my trust from giving their best to create an experience that we can today, call our collective masterpiece. Thank you for reigniting hope for me in a time that was trying. They say house is a building and home is a feeling; the way we lead the camp shoulder-to-shoulder felt like home.
- Finally, newspapers. I started a record of social and traditional features of my face, story or reflection pieces I have once written – when you have your opinions and thoughts rewritten that many times or quoted (sometimes out of context), you start to learn the diverse standpoints that each site has and these features are about anything but you. As an individual, I have found to represent something other than myself in these media features. Still undecided about some of these articles, I am certain of the gratitude I have towards those who have stood by me and kept me grounded to the person that I am amidst razzle dazzle. Thank you, also, for appreciating my WordPress pieces as I articulate my thoughts and self in pursuit of clarity and authenticity.
My cup of latte is three-quarter full and the latte art on the surface is long gone, whatever remains is bittersweet. The espresso stronger than the milk, the aftertaste of caffeine lingers. Here’s to a beautiful last day of 2016; where we aren’t closing a chapter, and the adventures are truly only just beginning. Happy New Year, may this (actually arbitrary) time for celebration and rejuvenation also be one of reflection for us all; where we ask important questions like What have I learned about myself and the world around me in this year? How does that change who I want to be in 2017? and How do I get there, what kind of choices can I make? It is a pity if we live in constant inconsistency with who we hope to be and what we hope to be doing, where we “claim to believe in something but constantly act otherwise” – let’s live in a mindful way so we can never say this about ourselves. Carpe diem.