Singapore

an army of lovers cannot fall

I had the minor epiphany that I was happy, as clearly and rationally as I could be, yesterday or two days ago, I think. I remember reading an article about the economics of hope in giving aid to developing countries, how the hope engendered by a token sum of money reaped financial benefits worth far more than the initial investment. In my case, it is less stark, naked hope than simply – direction. As difficult as it is now to plan all my vacations – and it’s novel, to plan them around family time, but if there is one thing I am fervently grateful for it is the rediscovery of my honest affection and gratitude for my family – it is a challenge I am at once pleased and humbled to have.

This was a deeply inspiring – and affirmative – article for me to read: “The habits you form here will be with you for the rest of your life.”

It’s true — the habits you form early in life will, most likely, be with you for the rest of your existence.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle once said. While I don’t want to sound all gloom-and-doom, and I believe your life can turn around at any moment, there is an important lesson here: life is a result of intentional habits. So I decided to do the things that were most important to me first, not last.

As we get older, life can just sort of happen to us. Whatever we end up doing, we often end up with more responsibilities, more burdens, more obligations. This is not always bad. In fact, in many cases it is really good. It means you’re influencing people, leaving a legacy.

Youth is a time of total empowerment. You get to do what you want. As you mature and gain new responsibilities, you have to be very intentional about making sure you don’t lose sight of what’s important. The best way to do that is to make investments in your life so that you can have an effect on who you are in your later years.

I did this by traveling. Not for the sake of being a tourist, but to discover the beauty of life — to remember that I am not complete.

Which was very, very comforting to hear, not less because it is such an eloquent vindication of my brimming wanderlust. A few friends have already said variations of these words to me, and I clutch at them often, but I grew up in a place that burned a practical edge on me. I have been reflecting almost not of my own volition the past few weeks, and observation come unbidden to me, thoughts, ideas. Evaluations of my life thus far, I suppose, but as always – and it goes without saying – subject to revision. Nonetheless, it was a little surprising for me the events that stood out. As segmented as Singapore’s education system is, inevitably I think of my childhood as divided into primary, secondary school and then six months of JC. Being taken into the gifted (i.e. accelerated? A less obnoxious moniker) programme was the first in a series of increasingly privileged opened doors, and I was young enough then that the prestige did not register. It was the last time I took a test in which I was unaware of the consequences of success – or failure. I was eight. But even then, I was conscious of who the smartest girl and boy in my class were, and it was with an unaffected certainty, as only a child could have managed, that I knew I was the third in that line-up, and how sure I was that I wouldn’t be selected because of that. But I was, and I transferred out. I didn’t study for it, either. Now there are all these cram classes and tuition for that single sorting, alone. The strongest memory of primary school was playing at the playground under the void deck opposite my school, a week before PSLE (the first in a line of national examinations designed to determine your future – though fortunately, also the last I took in Singapore). We did have fun, then. We ran around. It was incredibly, incredibly relaxed. I did extremely well for my exams, nonetheless.

But of course, my ‘gifted’ status had already gotten me a place in the top school a month or so prior to that. Of my secondary school, the single, most affective experience I take from it now was my involvement in drama, as difficult as it will be for most people to imagine (even the fact that I was in drama! Me!) I am reminded of it, of course, because my batchmates recently brought it up on FB, but nevertheless little things have come up over the past two years that have underscored what a huge blessing it was, and an unexpected one, at that. I auditioned primarily to help out a friend, who I have now forgotten, and in any rate, was not selected; I wrote her a rudimentary script, the very first one I have ever done. I had terrible stage fright – have terrible stage fright. But I was taken in as a script-writer, and I hated my CCA the first two years, I think. Dreaded going. But I was in a uniquely advantageous position, I can see that now, and being there both exposed me to people outside of the accelerated program and more importantly, taught me many, many things about people and organization and leadership, and the ethical choices that come with all of that. Re-reading the script for that two-hour play I wrote my last year was a little gratifying – it is no prize-winning, penetrating work, undoubtedly, but it is honest and still funny where it was clearly meant to be (and it is very clear where I meant to be funny) and it barely made me wince (always a good sign) or felt like I had to correct something and more importantly, it is representative of where I was, as a person, then, what the dominant questions in my mind were. The four years were a series of disguised, then under-appreciated opportunities. Some I missed, of course, not recognizing them for what they were, but then I have never seriously considered a career in theatre. It always surprises me to realize that the friends I kept in my batch are now six years old.

There were other important things in my secondary school life; I was very, very happy then. I loved going to school, as retarded as that sounds. I had great classes, and teachers, and half of my closest friends remain those from my graduating class. I had a conversation with a junior recently and we bemoaned briefly the fact that our secondary school did not teach us to be calculating and aggressive and bold in the pursuit of success. It was, instead, nurturing and kind and almost, in fact, subtly discouraged excessive displays of accomplishment. I don’t think I would change that, though. I railed against ‘the system’, of course. I had problems interacting with seniors. I was a little awkward, in general. But it was an intellectually stimulating environment, and it was safe, and it was independent enough.

Oddly enough, the thing I take most from JC is canoeing, partly because it occupied so much of my time then, but also because it was so novel, and it gave me the opportunity to pursue physical fitness with intent, something that has put me in good stead for the next two years of my life, though I didn’t plan it that way. It was a fantastic opportunity to throw myself into an activity without being assured of success (in fact, we were fairly certain of failure, at least by Raffles standards), but to simply enjoy the intrinsic value of the process. I remember the free blocks I spent in the gym, the three-hour water trainings, the 12, 14, 16 KM I paddled, the J-block showers at 7 pm in the evening, the capsizes. For something that never amounted to anything and lasted but five months, I have an inexplicably strong attachment to canoeing. It wasn’t even canoeing, for me. This was another thing I never expected to get in, due to the complete non-existence of any upper body strength at all. I did consider rejecting UWC to be able to stay in canoeing and compete. I even briefly toyed with the idea of flying back to SG just to compete. I don’t even keep in touch with my teammates anymore. With RJ and canoeing and all this unfinished business, it is difficult for me to justify claiming a sense of belonging to them, since all I had was the initial six months. I had a good time, too – it was easy, too, with the pressure of exams gone.

This went in a different direction than I anticipated. But being in Singapore unearths all these recollections, of course. I suspect I have repeated these same sentiments often enough – inevitably, I will also contradict myself. But it is a chapter of my life I think I am soon closing, with a sort of finality absent in 2010 when I left for Canada. These days, it is a little awkward identifying and categorizing people by schools. I was excited to go to Canada, but I knew it was a sojourn of two years. But being in an international school changed – reconditioned – me in ways that I only realized through the inadvertent comparisons upon my return. I’m not going overseas to study this time. I’m returning overseas to study. It doesn’t matter that it’s a different continent across an ocean; it’s still a return. I will not by default return to Singapore. For many friends here, they are leaving with the perspective that it’s university for three, four years, and then home. For me, it’s being set loose, free, in the world. It is a few weeks in Singapore with family, a few more overseas with family, but always, always, wandering. It worries me sometimes, until I read an article like this. My internship and my search for work this summer (as well as countless episodes in my past, I’m sure) have revealed that I have a regrettable penchant for irresponsibility. Things must grab my attention, and hold it.

Maybe it is illusory and my fallibility shall be painfully evident in the very first weeks of university, but Pearson (and I use that word loosely to encapsulate the entirety of my experiences the past two years) has stripped me of a lot of my shyness (again, I use that word loosely). Maybe hesitance is a better word. Or fear. Of solitude, at least. I can’t count the times I’ve thought that this or that would be fantastic with friends, if only I could find the time with them or they could with me or whatnot. If there is anything I have learnt, at times painfully, truth be told, it is that some opportunities you have to grab alone. It’s ironic that it took my moving into a boarding school with almost zero privacy to understand or accept that, but it is also the culture of the people I have met there, many of whom are fearlessly independent, sometimes individualistic. It is a cold, albeit comforting perspective on friendship and people, and my acclimatization to it will serve me well in the future, I think. A dear friend, in his letter to me upon departure: there is little less reliable than people. It is with some regret that I say, if there has been anyone to teach me that bitter truth, it is myself. Pearson has stripped me of more  than that, of course. I still get disoriented before throwing compostibles in the garbage. I frown in disapproval at petrol stations and convenience stores. I endure twinges of annoyances when people pull out mobile phones in front of me. Malls bore me. I do miss the seclusion, more than faintly. Sometimes I find myself on the lead-up to things with a suspicion that I should be scared or nervous or fidgety … right about … now? But it never comes, and I sail in, smooth.

It is an infinitelycurious feeling, to be on the cusp of – something. One is always happy, anticipatory, with thoughts reconciled. I read about a scientific experiment that documented the very tangible pleasure of anticipation, which was almost commensurate and definitely as significant as the actual pleasure of an activity or receiving a gift.

i’ll love you, baby, but i know you don’t understand.
when the highway takes me, i ain’t coming back.
the best i’ve slept in a long time is when i was in your bed,
but tonight i’ll whisper ‘goodbye’ as you lay there

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