I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane + Life Updates

Life Update #1

I have miraculously finished packing everything when I only started two days ago. Now I have three HUGE 27-inch luggage bags — one pink, one blue, one black — which will accompany me to the faraway land of ‘freedom and opportunity’, of Donald Trump and Elon Musk, of baseball (??) and Broadway, of Apple and my dream college (since I was a kid) cum home-to-be for the next four years, Harvard!!!

Life Update #2

So, on 11 August, my mom suddenly told me to go downstairs with her for the third time in a day. Since I was intent on being the model baby girl in my last few days in SG, I obediently followed. But, upon reaching the swimming pool floor, she started forcibly dragging me towards the club lounge (which from a distance appeared dark and foreboding), all giggles and secretive smiles. Suspicion building in my heart, I threw open the glass door and proceeded to be gobsmacked when a bunch of people jumped out and shouted: SURPRISE!

IT WAS A SURPRISE FAREWELL PARTY!

Everyone + missing member Izzy who came all the way from Kent Ridge later + Xin Min (who only appeared in video form…)

Me in FBT shorts… and a rainbow boa

The lights were then switched off for The Farewell Video (made with love and iMovie by Tianyi est. 2017), featuring recordings from my closest friends alongside fetus photos that dated back to the hilarious Dark Ages of my pyramid-shaped hair. I think I started crying from the very first second. Everyone’s videos were soundtracked by my favorite artists (Taylor Swift, G-Dragon & Jay Chou), which made it incredibly tears-inducing. When Zhao (my best friend since 2008) started speaking with the nostalgic 朋友 by 周华健 playing in the background, I choked up and then immediately wanted to laugh because I remembered the times of belting 朋友 during weirdly animated P5 Chinese camps.

This entire surprise was hands down one of the most touching moments in my life.

We spent the rest of the night just taking photos endlessly once Shi Le unlocked the most glamorous photo angle.

To my dearest friends: Thank you for this, for caring, for growing alongside me, and for showering me with all your genuine no-frills love. I love you all. Memories of all the time we spent together will warm my heart on wintery nights in Boston and give me the strength to go forth bravely knowing that there will always be the best people I can fall back on. You guys fill my life with so much goodness and good laughs — it’s part of that magical concoction that holds hardships and humor, vulnerability and trust, and life and faith together. 🙂

*** WARNING: this post mutates past this line break into a photo spam (if you hate seeing photos captioned by a stream of consciousness, stop reading & jump to Life Update #3)***

These are some of the last pictures I’ll have together with my favorite people for a long long while, so here goes ❤

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103/203 gang!

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Sri Lankan Samosas (our Whatsapp group name??)

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S2WZ GIRL BAND (we slay SNSD!!!)

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The people I did 100000 projects with in Sec 2

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女汉子 cum buff girls

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NYPS buddies (missing Xin Min -.-)

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The amazing event planner (hint: your dream job) & my BFF for an unbelievable number of years (close to a decade ❤ )

Mouse over each photo for individual captions.

 

 

Life Update #3

It doesn’t feel like I’m leaving until my parents put my things away —

Medals, trophies, soft toys, memorabilia of growth into boxes;

A-level notes into bags to be thrown;

The books of my teenage years stacked against the wall in the living room to be given to their friends;

IKEA bookshelves dismantled and robbed of love.

It doesn’t feel like I’m leaving until they start talking and making plans about After: After we send her off…, After she is gone…, After the 23rd…, After the room is empty…, After we are back…

It doesn’t feel like I’m leaving until my dad’s eyes redden without a warning, on a windless afternoon, when he looks at my filled luggage spread across the room. Until my mom stares at me while I eat her steamed pork ribs and asks a question that she knows the answer to, Will you miss my cooking? and her smile creeps only halfway up the curve of her cheeks and she turns her head away.

It doesn’t feel like I’m leaving when my room is far too clean to be mine and my pink blue black bags stand zipped next to the door like guards to a new unknown and my 9-year-old mobile number is going to be stopped and I’ve heard more goodbyes and said more I’ll miss yous in the past week than I ever have in my entire life.

It doesn’t feel like I’m leaving, but on 14 August 2017, I am.

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

Jack Kerouac, On The Road

Lastly, to my alma mater, Nanyang, happy 100th anniversary tomorrow! 感谢南小和南中对我的栽培和启迪,勤慎端朴铭记于心 ❤

My Vipassana Meditation Retreat: 10 days of absolute silence, veggies & no technology

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The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness.

The Code

From 5 to 16 July 2017, I completed a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation in Johor, Malaysia (with Xin Min! ❤ – but we couldn’t communicate with each other). The course is taught by S. N. Goenka (1924-2013) through evening discourse video tutorials and by one of his assistant teachers in person, in the tradition of Burmese meditation master Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Courses (of various lengths, going up to 60 days) are run solely on a donation basis, with over 177 centers worldwide. The meditation technique is open to practice by all religions. More information on course dates, locations, timetable and the code of conduct (Noble Silence, no meal after midday, no writing/reading materials etc.) can be found here: https://www.dhamma.org/.

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 FOUR Small Stories

  1. My Complicated Relationship with the 4.30am Gong
  2. The Art of Doing Nothing
  3. I Find Some Modicum of Equanimity
  4. Everyone Has A Story

 

meditation 2

I don’t give up easily, most of the time.

But, by the end of Day 2, I was tired, lost, and incredibly lonely with my agitated mind as the sole company for the impending eight days.

On Day 3, in the concealing darkness of the morning, when I heard the gong sound again and again at 4AM and then at 4.30AM, some chord within me broke with a forlorn twang and I stayed still. Corpse-like on the mattress, I stared at a stained part of the ceiling and numbly listened to the shuffling noises of everyone around me as they ambled off for morning meditation until… The returning shroud of silence washed away the guilt at my escapist tendencies and lulled me back into uneasy sleep (I still woke up at 6.30AM for breakfast).

Not waking up was essentially admitting defeat.

I made slight headway on Day 4 when we finally switched from Anapana (observing the breath) to Vipassana (scanning the body from head to feet for sensations). I was so bored and distracted with keeping my attention confined to the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip that I had a new surge of optimism when the area for surveying expanded. Yet, a plateau inevitably followed every short burst of progress — invariably around evening time when hunger pangs hit (because no eating after midday!).

Battling with the 4.30AM gong became a daily affair.

On Day 6, I became mindful of how my complicated relationship with the early morning gong was strangely akin to the suffering that the Buddhist doctrine outlined; my anxiety was a fear of disappointment, all rooted in my desire for some sort of shining nirvana moment and my appetite for comfort.

During a noon interview slot with the teacher, I haplessly confessed that I simply couldn’t feel anything. My legs were numb and the pain obliterated all other sensations.

The teacher smiled and slowly said, “Do you not realize that pain and numbness are sensations too? There is nothing you ought to experience. All you have to do is observe the numbness as it is, in the moment.”

Once upon a time, I could never identify with certain parts of Seneca’s writings. The Stoic philosopher argued, by quoting Hecato of Rhodes, that limiting one’s desires helps to cure one of fear —  ‘Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear.’ However, on Day 6, I suddenly grasped some truth in those abstract words.

Maybe everything was less about what I should do, but simply about what I can. Maybe the point was to be compassionate to myself — to disengage from expectation and observe the reality of what I experience without judgment.

I will never be a morning person. But, on Day 7, at last, I rose at 4.30AM.

 

meditation 3

When you clear the clutter from your life, there is room. It’s unfamiliarly empty, but by some law of physics, something new has got to enter eventually.

When I surrendered myself to the monastic way of living for ten days, I started experiencing pockets of time when I literally had NOTHING to do for the first time in my life. No books, no wi-fi, no conversation, no contact with the outside world. Since I was sick and tired of meditating outside of the 11 hours, it also meant no meditation. So break times were just a huge blank. It got really weird.

I set a record for a bunch of things:

  • Stretching for the gazillionth time
  • Brushing my teeth four times a day
  • Savoring a slice of pineapple for over 30 minutes (I was so hungry and completely reluctant to part with the last edible thing I had for the day)

I also did mildly crazy things because I was just bored out of my mind:

  • Counting my steps to 1500 as I strolled around the walking area (no jogging allowed)
  • Lovingly washing my clothes in a different colored pail (o what a sparkly burst of variety)
  • Experimenting with various combinations of milo powder, Lipton tea bag, milk powder, condensed milk and water during meal times (THANK GOD FOR MILO! THANK GOD FOR CONDENSED MILK!)
  • Memorizing the Chinese words on my herbal medicine pack and scrutinizing the English instructions on Xin Min’s skincare products for intellectual stimulation
  • Rearranging my pillows in the meditation hall in new creative configurations at the end of each session

In the end? I came slightly closer to doing nothing than ever before, but obviously, I was not very good at it.

In a place where doing nothing was the norm instead of the anomaly, I learned to embrace it. In the past, minutes of idleness would totally disturb my peace of mind — I was obsessed with the external reality; my productivity barometer; and what I ought to be doing. Yet, in a secluded environment devoid of worldly responsibilities and contact, I began shifting my attention toward my inner reality. I stopped wondering about what the heck was going on outside, stopped thinking about the social media action that I was missing out on, and stopped worrying about the future. I started living in the moment and unpacking the present: What sensations am I experiencing right now? What troubles me? What makes me happy? What thoughts keep emerging? What am I attracted to? It was no longer unnerving to be alone with my mind that used to constantly stray ahead toward some fear or another. I was beginning to be my own friend.

 

meditation 4

16 July 2017, 8.31AM, On the Johor-Singapore Causeway. 

I stared intently at the bar on my phone screen. It flickered and then…

Yes! My 4G was back, and I was back in the arms of modern civilization.

16 July 2017, 2.45PM, On the LRT.

In the morning, I had rushed home to shower and then headed straight to Korean class. After a lunch catch-up with a friend and a long-awaited bubble tea fix, I finally had all the time in the world to delve back into my social media accounts.

Enter: some unpleasant comment about me on a stranger’s Facebook post.

Even fresh out of all the equanimity training (we should neither desire pleasant sensations nor grow averse to unpleasant sensations), I was hit by an overpowering wave of anger and icky feeling.

In just one moment, I lost the equanimous mind that I had strived so hard to cultivate over ten grueling days. One comment was enough to make me almost physically recoil.

I’m not sure how long I sat on the LRT upset — maybe for a few minutes — but anyway I missed my stop.

It was only when I glanced at the date of the comment, 6 July 2017, that I saw the humor in this entire episode. Here I was, nine days late to the party, fuming by myself when the rest of the world had moved on with its short attention span. Can there be a better demonstration of what the course had sought to repeatedly drum into our minds, the lesson of anicca (impermanence)?

Had I been present to witness how the social media reactions unfolded toward my previous post, unpleasant comments like the one I came across would have ruined my day or even my week. In the whirlwind of action, I have often easily been caught up in extremities of feelings and in a self-pitying game of wallowing. It’s hard to snap out of it.

But this episode was powerfully incisive and illustrative of the wisdom of impermanence. Because by the time I had processed the responses on social media to my previous post and was instinctively propelled to react, life had gone on for everyone else. What was the point? In fact, even if others had not moved on, why should I stew in negativity when I had so many other things to enjoy?

I stood there on the LRT platform and did the strangest thing — I observed my breathing and then scanned my body from head to feet for sensations.

A throbbing at my jaw. Obviously heavy breathing. An itch on my hip…

The anger subsided. My urge to respond and to disprove petered out. And I was suddenly okay. I went to buy a froyo and trotted back home to watch a Chinese reality TV show.

I am unbelievably grateful for the incredible timing of this whole chapter. The world works in magical ways to show us the laws that it is governed by — everything is impermanent, life always goes on, and so we might as well learn to how to quietly and nimbly let go.

 

meditation 5

Throw a bunch of strangers together, prohibit them from ‘any form of communication, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc.’and you get a lot of judging, wandering and overreacting minds.

It’s 2oz of natural curiosity, coupled with 1 jug of the human propensity to distort and magnify the reality around us.

In ten days, I subconsciously gave everyone a label in my mind (boho European backpacker! housewife seeking peace! person who shifts 167543 times in 30 minutes!), spun stories about their background, and sometimes, even unnecessarily imagined their perception of me (e.g. oops I just cracked my knuckles for the third time in an hour; the person beside me just coughed; she must hate me). My mind was out of control with making assumptions based on my subjective perceptions.

On Day 10, when Noble Silence was lifted and we could finally find out just what exactly we thought of each other, the version of reality I had built in my mind crumbled into dust.

The downfall of one reality that I had constructed brick by brick with hypercritical eyes stands out in particular.

Introducing: P.

She was allocated to the mattress next to me in the living quarters, the seat beside me in the canteen, and the cushion diagonally in front of me in the meditation hall. In fact, we seem to like doing our laps in the walking area at the same time. I started observing her. She liked smiling into space, occasionally hummed, and excitedly fiddled with her smuggled goods (a journal and a pen) when she thought no one was looking.

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of her, but she was 10000x more optimistic than I was. I was having quite a hard time throughout.

On Day 10, we finally spoke to each other. About three sentences into the conversation, she said, You know, I had depression when I was 17.

My jaw dropped.

She shared her story. Parts of it were raw and painful (her family’s overreaction, how her medication led to the ballooning of her weight, and her spiral into anxiety), but her candidness with a near-stranger was an incredible display of strength. She was only three years older than me, but a thousand times wiser. Her parting words to me were to dwell on the happiness in life — not to crave and grow needlessly attached to some version of it, but to find it from whatever reality throws at us.

Thank you, P. 🙂