Recognising Love Away From Home

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The sun rays peeked through the blinds as a tinge of illumination; the sky first a rosy pink and then a fiery red, as if the sun was negotiating firmly for its turn to dominate. The dark blue gave way, leaving behind only the smell of rain washing the air fresh overnight as proof that night had once come. My back upright and distractions aside, over a bowl of milk and cereal, I take slow and deep breaths. There is a sunset and a sunrise every day, you can choose to be there for it, writes Cheryl Strayed in her novel Wild. For the past week, I have chosen to be entranced by nature’s beauty at the breaking of dawn – the only show we get to watch for free and yet holds priceless value. Overwhelming me each time is joy (different from happiness that is fleeting), a light that fills you with love and faith and hope because of the knowledge that the blessing of this new day presents such immense possibilities.

Every day has brought with it conversations and interactions, no short of awe-inspiring individuals each with incredible stories of being and becoming. As if touring an endless bookstore where each conversation is merely a chapter, every instant amplifies the vastness of what this place and its people has to offer. Within moments you least expect, there has also been random acts of kindness and love taking unfamiliar forms. This piece is about these indications of love that have come to teach me invaluable lessons in the midst of the tumultuous transition from familiarity.

It seems, the shapeless, colourless thing we call emotion that has no texture or mass can truly only be felt with consistency and not seen. The ways in which each individual, based on context of culture and social environment, expresses something as universal as love can take on such diverse forms. The danger of being uprooted from a place of familiarity comes with the danger of finding acts closely associated with love, kindness and joy absent – not because they no longer exist but because they now come in shapes and sizes you do not recognise, forms unlike those you have grown up to link closely with the deep emotions of connectedness.

The danger exists not because unfamiliarity always equates loneliness or that cultural differences necessarily form barriers; it exists because we too often look for connection with our eyes and not our hearts. We have subconsciously externalized our sense of belonging to those around us rather than affirming that sense of belonging within ourselves. We recognise love by matching them with persons we are certain love us dearly from family members to the closest friends – we play a ‘spot-the-similarities’ game to make conclusions about others we are new to and how capable they are at loving us. It is dangerous to try seeing something you can only feel and more so, to conclude falsely that we are unlovable beings as a result of what we think we cannot find.

Brought to the forefront of my awareness in being mindful of my interactions with self and others during this first month in Sydney, is how our worldview about where and how to find love, connection and belonging is made up of these small interactions and fleeting instances. It is that split second where we talk to ourselves after an awkward conversation with a person or an uncomfortable interaction with an experience that says that most to us about our worthiness of love and belonging. We have, oftentimes, looked for love and belonging outside of us rather than engage from a place where we believe we are worthy of it. In our moments of struggle, we first respond to ourselves with judgment and blame rather than the kindness and love that we would typically give to others around us if something similar had happened to them. In face of our imperfections, we conclude too quickly that this is why we are different or alone. What we forget in these instances, is that imperfection and struggle is a part of life and it does not separate us.

When we fail or make mistakes, that does not separate us from others; that is precisely what unites us. Slowly but surely, as we engage with love and belonging within us, may we begin to find space in our hearts for ourselves. Maybe then, truly, love is all we need.

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3 Minutes: Harmony in Diversity

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Thankful for the opportunity to speak at the International Women’s Forum, themed ‘Harmony in Diversity’ as part of a soapbox session titled ‘Perspectives Across Generations’. The forum was organised with International Women’s Forum Singapore. Singapore identifies itself as a multi-racial and cultural society – the session was about hearing from Singaporeans from different walks of life on their views and experiences growing up in this environment. The soapbox is a raised platform on which one stands to make an impromptu speech. Along with two inspiring individuals (Quek Siu Rui and Michelle Khoo) representing the ‘young people’, we took turns standing on a small wooden crate, before 20 tables of 10 curious eyes each.

On the wooden crate, with a mic in one hand and nervousness in the other, we each had 3 minutes. Here’s my 3 minutes, on the emotional connection that I believe will take us forward:

“I am a 19-going-on-20, growing up in the most exciting of times. Choices are in abundance – Local universities or overseas? Doctor, lawyer, finance or a job not created yet? The privilege of these choices we get to make today contributes to the increasing diversity of selves. Within a single generation, we are more different from one another than ever before. As we bask in infinite possibilities, though, there are inconsistencies.

The paradox of our times has shown itself. Our material possessions and consuming power are greater than ever; but we still feel short of something. Our cities are denser than before, but more and more admit to being “lonely”. We have created medicines and done research to live longer and better, yet suicide rates amongst young adults are at an all-time high. I am 19-going-on-20, but in the past year alone I know of 2 people close to heart who have taken their lives. I would like to propose that against the backdrop of our diversity of selves, the ingredient we have overlooked in the recipe is empathy; our ability to connect with one another on an emotional level.

A frequently asked question today is do you think youths today are empathetic? The thing is this, 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, is our tendency to choose empathy. And now imagine this: if the ‘tendency to choose empathy’ were an imaginary jar, the contents of the jar would depend on an individual’s encounters with others – with every ‘how are you feeling’ and ‘what did you do today’ we fill this jar slightly. And with every ‘stop crying and be a man’ or ‘showing your emotions makes you weak’, we empty that same jar.

We are, today, adept at comparison and measurement of all things tangible but we are highly lacking in heartware. May the presence of this imaginary jar flow into our stream consciousness so we remember that our every interaction every day, fills us up in a way immeasurable with just numbers.”

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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.

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.