Never watched the movie <那些年> but was introduced to the theme song my last day in HK, when we sang it with gusto at my first karaoke session. It popped into my head on the bus home from a late and very brief lunch with Zyd and as per my regrettable habit, has been on repeat every since. It’s plaintive, and very nostalgic.

My head is achingly full this evening, but my mastery of words is wholly inadequate, as always. To my mind, at least. I can only hope my schizophrenic train of thoughts winds through some interesting scenery.

The easiest: windsurfing Thursday was exhilaratingly, thrillingly productive. There was the usual moment of trepidation as I tugged the board and sail backwards into the rolling tide, and the antsy thought, are the waves too big is the tide coming in will i drown??, but to my sheer wonder, I watched another man angle into the wind and out of the bay, took a deep breath and told myself firmly I was in no way terrified of the sea, and clambered on to the board. Lifted the sails, grabbed the boom –

and off I went. I was so surprised I nearly fell right off – way to be counterproductive, Karen! But I was off, on my first try, and I was controlling my direction; I had finally figured out how to use the mast angle as leverage, as rudder, and it was phenomenal, feeling the board turn under my feet with each tilt of my hands. I just went back and forth after that. It was lovely. I went up close enough – far from close enough for my liking, but that will come in time – to those tanker ships to pick out the white words on the front. Can’t read them yet, though … maybe next time.

Went back and forth parallel to the bay. Still can’t do a jibe confidently enough, but the boom is starting to feel familiar and friendly in my hands, and my sea legs are more stable now. The waves are not unremarkable; I was jolted a few times, but it is something else altogether to ride them. No words for it. And me here still just a toddler at this.

Did not capsize a single time! Made it back to the bay of my own accord. All milestones.

Next: I flagged down a cab to East Coast because my meeting ended at 2.30 pm and windsurfing rentals close at 3 pm. It is too easy to be lured by cabs now that I’m making hourly pay. I will resist, though. Some expenses are not worth it.

Third: I have so many emotions regarding my job. A week now, and – I think I am gaining so much from it it is almost scandalous that I am getting paid, on top of everything. It has inspired, or at least necessitated, a renewed interest in literature and english, compelled a search for a more intimate acquaintance. There is no unpretentious, untrite way of professing my “love for literature”, and I sincerely doubt I have dedicated the time and energy and passion and sacrifice required to merit that claim, but … more times than I can count, words have calmed me when nothing else could, have brought me to my knees and humbled me into tears, rend my heart into pieces and pierce it whole again, carried me to the brink of despair and through it, a birdsong clearing a path through fog and the grime of reality, have illuminated the shuddering recesses of my thoughts with borrowed words far lighter and wiser than any I could imagine.

(Take this, for example: “I remember having thought of suicide, of its paradoxical usefulness.”)

But this feeling has been building ever since my first class, and especially over the past two days, when I’ve had my two lit classes. Reading reminds me of the joy and more importantly, catharsis, I derive from it, and I’m trying so hard to let my class see some of that. Most of them don’t appreciate literature very much, or haven’t learnt to, and many of them don’t read (as they admit, gleefully). At this point, I found Doris Lessing’s 2007 Nobel prize speech, which is very relevant and poignant and something I might show the class.

There is a goat trying to find sustenance in some aged grass. The headmaster has embezzled the school funds and is suspended. My friend doesn’t have any money because everyone, pupils and teachers, borrow from him when he is paid and will probably never pay it back. The pupils range from six to 26, because some who did not get schooling as children are here to make it up. Some pupils walk many miles every morning, rain or shine and across rivers. They cannot do homework because there is no electricity in the villages, and you can’t study easily by the light of a burning log. The girls have to fetch water and cook before they set off for school and when they get back.

As I sit with my friend in his room, people shyly drop in, and everyone begs for books. “Please send us books when you get back to London,” one man says. “They taught us to read but we have no books.” Everybody I met, everyone, begged for books.

That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is – we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?

I think it is that girl and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.

But it’s something that is so difficult to explain. I need narratives. Reading Pico Iyer’s pieces on Nepal, Tibet, India, made me long to tread footprints into those foreign soils. I have showed this excerpt to the girls too, because it was related to the pieces selected for their comprehension passage

I dreamed about it for so many years. I used to go to English movies just to look at the streets. I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he nodded and said: “It’s there.”

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Looking around the rug one thing’s for sure: it’s here.

(On that note, too, it makes me a little giddy, to think about going to England. It won’t be anything like I’ve imagined, of course. There was a thunderstorm this evening, grim clouds crowding up against the last of the evening light, dusk eaten up by grey and ominous lightning. It was electric, and the darkness forebodingly thrilling. I’ve missed thunderstorms. Nearing the aftermath of the rain, it was mystery and romance on the streets, the soft puddles of orange light and the shadows stretched like branches, the occasional car slipping on the slick-shine streets. Singapore is beautiful like this, but the word ‘miserable’ comes unbidden to my mind sometimes.)

But language is important, and literature is visceral, and they save lives. There is nothing I want more than to give my borrowed classes the opportunity to feel that, even once. For email/letter writing, I showed them a few personal correspondence, and the response was gratifying. I think they saw how effective or ineffective tone could be, and format, and style.

Back to the class, I am trying the hardest I can to make classes fun and engaging and non-stressful. Personal experience, of course, but … it matters to me that everyone in the class learns, or is getting something out of it, and it matters to me that everything I say be important and relevant, and that I speak only when necessary. Class is faintly exhausting, truth be told, and thinking up new exercises and activities that include both productive use of technology and sufficient interactive class discussion and are fun and are useful for the learning outcomes is … ridiculously difficult and time-consuming. What a surprise, right?

I’m one of the teachers I despise, of course. All the group work and class presentation and ‘fun’ activities. But I like to think there is substance behind it, always, and the girls are bright enough to eventually score without help, anyway. The irony of me teaching, gosh. At least my class attendance record here is by leaps and bounds better than my Pearson one (;

Fourth: What else can you say to this?

We travel, then, in search of both self and anonymity — and, of course, in finding the one we apprehend the other. Abroad, we are wonderfully free of caste and job and standing; we are, as Hazlitt puts it, just the “gentlemen in the parlour,” and people cannot put a name or tag to us. And precisely because we are clarified in this way, and freed of inessential labels, we have the opportunity to come into contact with more essential parts of ourselves (which may begin to explain why we may feel most alive when far from home).

For if every true love affair can feel like a journey to a foreign country, where you can’t quite speak the language, and you don’t know where you’re going, and you’re pulled ever deeper into the inviting darkness, every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair, where you’re left puzzling over who you are and whom you’ve fallen in love with. All the great travel books are love stories, by some reckoning — from the Odyssey and the Aeneid to the Divine Comedy and the New Testament — and all good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.”

And the end of Pico Iyer’s article on travel:

And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.

I remember one of my first few conversations with KM after I returned this summer, and confessing my guilt at moping about staying in Singapore for a paltry 12 weeks when some of my peers and friends have two, three, four years ahead of them. She brushed it off, said laughingly that it wasn’t that bad for them, that I probably wanted it – needed – it a lot more. Can I ever think that? But whatever it is, I do have the chance now, so there is nothing to it but to exhaust it, I reckon.

Five: I am quite wrung out now, but in a recuperative sense. Looks like an early night. I said during lunch today how … routine my life has become. I wake up at 6.15 am bleary and disoriented, stay in school for at least 6.5 hours to get a full day’s pay, either hit the gym or go windsurfing or beg off due to fatigue, return home for dinner, and then start on my french and germand podcasts and maybe some lesson planning all the while (usually) chatting to K online (if he deigns to purchase Internet in his unreasonably glamorous and spacious hotel room) and some others, besides. I do not go out. I read. I wash my face thrice a day and brush my teeth twice. The Singaporean version of rural tranquillity?

Goodnight. This is an inordinately long post.

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