Letter #14: On running away and coming home

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I recently returned home after 4 months of travelling around New Zealand.

If I am being absolutely honest, my time away was wholly an attempt to escape the pressures of applying for jobs. It was not because I did not want to work, but because my pride couldn’t bear the mounting reality that I just might not be as good a candidate as I thought. Strip of the routines and demands of school, I suddenly find myself waking to days without any purpose. I was increasingly stalked by the fear that I never will amount to anything more than a mediocrity, and all these ideas of a worthy existence were just part of a millennial’s delusion.

I am painfully aware of how small my existence is, in comparison to the world’s vastness. I am a mere speck of dust in space, a blip in its timeline. I feel incapacitated to make a dent in the grand scheme of things, and this awareness only makes me want to shrink further into my bubble of self-pity.

Yet, I don’t think I am just a spare component of the system. The moment I was formed, I was crying, and breathing, and grasping. My heart knew to beat, and my lungs to inflate, kickstarted by nature the moment I was born. I am made of earth and water and air, the same organic materials that fill this earth. 

How can I feel so insignificant, yet so troubled by this anxiety to make a difference while I still can?

The happiest people seem to be those most satisfied with their circumstances. It may not necessarily mean they are without ambition. Jiro, the sushi master from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, explains, “You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success.”

I think what he means is we find success by perfecting what we have been given. Rather than jumping from one station to another, praying that we will be miraculously good at something, we cultivate what we already have with love and dedication, and then use that to progress further.

The fates have been kind to me. I have a fickle but curious enough mind which urges me learn and write, healthy limbs that carry me through the world, and a community of family and friends who believes in me even when my own doubts threaten to overwhelm. How do I turn these blessings into a lasting legacy? How do I transform my fear into eagerness?

Perhaps as Rhonda Shimes says, I just need to start doing. In the same way my lungs inflate, my heart beats, and my guts digest, there is no need to overthink. My organs simply do, so that I survive.

“You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day, so start writing. You don’t have a job? Get one. Any job. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical opportunity. Who are you? Prince William? No. Get a job. Go to work. Do something until you can do something else.”

– Shond Rhimes, Dartmouth Commencement speech

Life is unpredictable, and in this unpredictability, there is untold possibilities. I have been so ensconced in my own worries that I have been unable to see this simple truth. I can start small, such as nurturing the relationships I have and starting conversations with strangers to find inspiration. Undoubtedly, there will be days when I can do nothing more than curl up on the floor and try to keep my panicked breaths in check.

But whatever it is, I am done running away.

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Letter #13 Independence and Vulnerability

I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be independent lately, especially when independence is conflated with values of strength and weakness.

I wear my independence like a badge of honour. I pride myself in being able to lift myself up after a bad fall (both literally and figuratively), and carry on with minimal tears. I pride myself in being able to make difficult decisions, relying only on my own instincts and experiences. I feel, as the word of the day goes, empowered. Yet sometimes, being independent also feels incredibly lonely.

I envy those who are able to expose their vulnerabilities with little hesitation. It seems such a relief to be able to share your fears and frustrations without automatically assuming that the other person is going to bail, or worse, wield these vulnerabilities against you.

Even more so, I worry that once I start vocalising my fears I won’t be able to stop, a verbal diarrhoea of insecurities tumbling out. Will they look at me differently, or think any lesser of me? Will I become reliant on the opioid of validation? How does anyone know the acceptable bounds of sharing anyway?

Humans are inherently social beings. We thrive on interpersonal exchanges and crave intimate relationships. We look to others for comfort and safety, and no doubt there is strength in numbers. But more than any other creature, humans also have the wicked ability to emotionally manipulate and hurt. Where animals can inflict grievous physical harm with their fangs and claws, humans can, on top of bodily abuse, plant doubt and destroy from within. Even when the let-down is unintentional, the volatility of other people means that there really is no one that you can count on except yourself.

So then, is strength when you don’t need to look to others for reassurance and support, or is strength the ability to trust over and over again even though people have proven themselves to be unreliable?

Édouard Boubat, the French photographer said, “You cannot live when you are untouchable. Life is vulnerability.”

On the one hand, I am inclined to believe that the French over-romanticises everything. On the other hand, the act of opening up often invites the other to do the same. The mutual admittance of fallibilities removes any power imbalance, and untethered by doubt, the relationship is able to grow.

I am still prone to backtrack, justify, or laugh it off whenever my fears and frustrations bubble over. Being vulnerable will never come easy to me, and I wonder frequently if my independence is just a paper tiger after all. Nevertheless, I am learning to let the warmth of the people around me soothe my wariness – these same people who though are flawed and unpredictable, often just have hearts full of love and kind- intentions

Interlude

This past month has been about taking things slow. It has been a month of basking in the beautiful words of others, rather than pressing myself to churn out letters. It has been a month of deep breaths, long walks, and trying to let the future take its own course, even though being still is the hardest thing to do.

I miss writing though, so here we go, a quick sketch of my morning:

The phone chimes, first a few calm rings, then building to an urgent crescendo. I struggle to rise from the warm weight of my blanket. The blinds are up as always, and I take a quick peek outside through my half-opened eyes. The tendrils of first light reaches gently through my windows, a different scene altogether from the roiling sea of grey yesterday.

As I step out of the steamy shower, skin fresh even as my brain remains dull, the whir of the coffee machine tells me breakfast is almost ready. A sip of the bitter brew, a bite of bread slathered in jam. Most days, I do not have the luxury of a languid breakfast, but today is one of those days where time is on my side. The sun is fully up now, lighting the sky in a glorious blue.

Morning rush on the train. I try to secure a nook away from the swarm of harried commuters, even as the crowd ebbs and flows around me. Thank goodness my stop is second on the line. The journey flies by if I have a good book in hand. Today though, I turn to my phone, feeling slightly guilty for succumbing to the lure of Facebook. In a few minutes, the sway of the train lulls me to sleep.

“Next station, Botanic Gardens.” Ten more minutes to the start of another work day.

Letter #6 Why I am ‘Such a Feminist’

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I learnt from a young age that girls were no different from boys. Growing up, it rarely occured to me that being ‘female’ was disadvantageous.

I grew up in a household where my grandmother was the matriarch of a large extended family. She had eyes on all manner of the house, knew the comings and goings of all twelve of her children, and inspired invariable awe amongst all her grandchildren. Her words could be as cutting as the cleaver she wielded, but she also had an empathy that drove her to invite roadside workers into our house for a cold drink on a sweltering day. No such thing as stranger danger for my grandma, who I am certain could have fended off any attacks. Somehow, she never fit into the docile good-wife stereotype that characterised  so many of the women from her generation.

Lucky for my sister and I, our parents never bought the maxim that girls needed to be sheltered from the big bad world. We were allowed to run and play in the mud if we wished, and we scraped our knees just as often, if not more than our male cousins (I was a clumsy child. I still am.) We had dolls that we dressed up and played house with, but we also had bikes and scooters that we terrified the neighbours on. More importantly, we were taught to speak up about injustices, even if it meant questioning a figure of a higher authority.

When the time came for me to choose a career, I eventually gravitated towards the female-dominated social sciences. However, this was a decision based purely on personal interest rather than any pressing expectations. In fact, a good number of my female friends are happily situated in the environs of STEM industries.

In the absence of any overt gender discriminations, why do I still feel the need to fight the good fight of a feminist then?

There reasons are two-fold: 1. just because sexism is not in-your-face does not mean it does not exist; and 2. just because I was blessed enough to enjoy these privileges does not mean every woman enjoys them too.

It is true that Singapore has come a long way in terms of the local women’s movement. We have equal voting rights and access to education; female representation is increasing in boardrooms, albeit at a less than ideal pace; and calls to protect victims of harassment and trafficking have been growing since the two acts were first passed in 2014. Across all fields – sports, science, health and more – women in Singapore are proving themselves an unstoppable bunch. Even so, these progress, as much as they are worth celebrating, does not mean that our nation has moved past the notion of gender typecasting.

As many of my friends can attest, being a young woman in Singapore is a perpetual balancing act of conflicting standards. We are expected to strive for the picture-perfectness of Instagram girls, with their impeccable hair, toned bodies and outfits to die for, as much as we are taught the most desirable compliment any girl can get is “You are not like other girls”. We are expected to look good, but not too good or it will scare off the guys. We are expected to dress up, doll up, but also accept that these are frivolous pursuits that we should not subject our men to. In short, individuality is appealing only if it still fits within the bounds of femininity, and femininity is desired only if it is deemed effortless.

Of course, these convoluted subtexts by which women are evaluated are not confined to the throes of youth. More eloquent and well-informed writers than I have spent years documenting the paradox plaguing women in Singapore – that between the homemaker and the productive worker. Given that girls here now have equal access to education, there seems to be little reason why we should not have big ambitions and build successful careers. And we do. Yet at the same time, women who choose to seek fulfilment through their jobs are stymied by cultural expectations of them as caregivers. As Amy Poehler, queen of all things important in my (biased) opinion sums up:

There is an unspoken pact that women are supposed to follow. I am supposed to act like I constantly feel guilty about being away from my kids. (I don’t. I love my job.) Mothers who stay at home are supposed to pretend they are bored and wish they were doing more corporate things. (They don’t. They love their job.)

To be honest, I have no clear solution for these problems. To be even more honest, I myself am far from being a good feminist. I spend too long checking out girls’ butts in the gym (and this is where I am tempted to launch into another essay on self-objectification). I oscillate between wanting a Prince Charming to validate my  desirability, and being Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph who is ready to fight my own damn battles  (“Flattery don’t charge these batteries, civilian!”). Perhaps most heinous of all, I make snap judgements about someone based on how appealing they look. In fact, a quick google search will show you what a disparate bunch feminists are. We can barely agree on what we want!

Nevertheless, what I do know  is that there is a need to dismantle these ingrained expectations of women. Even before changes are made at the structural level, even before better policies can be legislated, we can make a conscious effort to think before we pass judgements. Don’t try to speak for the experience of others. Listen when they explain. Boys, stop having unrealistic expectations about girls. Girls, stop validating your worth at the expense of other women. We work damn hard to become the person that we are.  Be proud of that.

Letter #9 Hello 2017

I have been thinking long and hard about how I want 2017 to be. Unlike convention, I did not begin the year with a piece brimming with naive hope and optimism. Ignorance is a bliss I lost last year, although I cannot bemoan the clarity that it has given me.

Today marks slightly more than a week after the new year. In this brief week, I have felt the brevity of life. (Qian Yi, we were not close friends but your warmth and exuberance is something that I will always remember. I am not religious, but I pray nonetheless that you find yourself in a better place now). I have witnessed the beginning of a lifelong unity, of participants who were thrown together in the most random of circumstances after bearing through the tribulations of youth. And then there was my first kite flying experience. I was reminded briefly of the joys of running barefoot in the soft grass, the warm sun dancing on our skins as the wind ruffles our hair; a picture perfect moment of untethered youth.

Live well, laugh often, love well – maybe those overpriced inspirational posters do have a point. Perhaps then, I should dedicate this year to exploration. Instead of chasing after vague goals, and running after a perfection that does not exist, I will commit to figuring out what kind of person I would like to be, the kind of values that I want to live by, and the kind of relationships that I would like to develop.

I will breathe, and count to ten whenever I feel overwhelmed.

I will cherish my body for what it allows me to do, and nourish it without dousing every bite with guilt.

I will hug, and hug often.

I will give praise with sincerity and without restraint.

I will celebrate my strengths, and know that they are not diminished by my weaknesses.

I will learn to accept the fallibility of humans.

I will be brave. I will be brave.

Letter #5

I think I cursed myself the moment I announced to the world that I wanted to be a writer. I set an expectation, and then worried that I was not good enough to meet it.

I have all these words in me, but I hesitate to write them. I want to write about that old man in the train, fingers clutching a pink backpack that is entirely incongruous to his neat button down and sensible black shoes. I want to talk about the little girl next to him, pigtails slightly askew after what I guess was a busy day at school. She is chattering on about something, face plastered to the glass even though there is only black in the underground tunnel. The old man is clearly inattentive, but his affection for the girl cannot be denied. It is in the way he places a protective handle gently over her when the train jerks to a sudden stop.

I want to write about the Bangladeshi man who sits tentatively on the edge of the seat. His clean but worn buttoned-down shirt, frayed jeans, and dusty sandals peg him as a worker. The hesitation is all over his face. He knows he has to be the first to stand up if someone wants a seat. Despite all the campaigns and reassurances, he is aware of the prejudices. Skins make statements. He scrolls through his phone, an almost prehistoric Nokia that displays only monochromatic colours. Is he reading messages from his family, or work notices from his boss? His face is a blank, and I cannot discern a thing.

And there is more. I want to write about how the wind brushes my face when I cycle. How it caresses my cheek, but only if I keep moving, moving. About the sun that warms my skin, just enough to leave an odd tan by the shirt line, but not enough to burn. As a child, I used to go down the slopes in a free fall, legs off the pedal as the ground rushes up to meet me. Now thrill is replaced slightly by caution, and I grip the brakes just a little to slow the wheels. As I cycle along, well paved roads give way to gravel. The way is still clear – after all I am not the first traveller along the path and I am far from the last. But it is clear that I am out of the city. The trees along the way are no longer planted at  deliberate distances. They are unruly, a hodgepodge of species that came together to create a patchy ceiling that filters sunlight in uneven bursts. The crickets are calling. Their cries are distinct, even through the gaggle of school children that rides by me. Don’t they only come out at night? The bicycle bumps along the unpaved roads, a city bike not meant for the roughness.

And I am a city girl, unprepared for the vast unknown.

Letter #4

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A list to close 2016:

  • Find your strengths, and accept your weaknesses.
  • Settle into a job that you love. Apply and apply. Don’t take rejections personally.
  • Start on the newsletter. Write an article. Have at least 4 pieces to edit by January.
  • Have an honest conversation with the boy. The time for pretences is over.
  •  Tell my parents that I love them. Accept that they are fallible  creatures, as are you.

2016 has been one heck of a year.

Just a few brief months into the year, I have had to learn to take charge of the chaos that is life, even as I realised that I was not ready to release the reins of childish ignorance.

One thing that I am certain though, is that I cannot go through my days with bated breath. I will not mar good days with the worry that bad days will inevitably follow. They will come, without a doubt. But I will handle them with my head held high. Deep breaths. Take the plunge.

I will do all things with guts, and with grace.