Sky Lanterns & New Year Resolutions

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Get off the old train, step onto the platform, merging into the stream of bobbing heads flowing along at the speed of a sweating snail.

Squeeze past the human gantry, craning my neck for a look at the sky behind the canopy roof. See the miniature sky in the phone screens held up by the multiple raised hands, the real blue expanse split up, obscured, and obstructed from view by the sheer size of the crowd. There are many gasps of wonder around me. The path reaches the edge of the platform and now widens —

As the crowd cascades left and right, the sky unfurls before me. Baby blue. Rolls of clouds like crinkled leather. Suddenly, from behind a corrugated roof, a lantern rising. From between buildings on two sides of the track, a gap of light. Another lantern-like bird or bird-like lantern. A third. The sky dotted by lanterns rising, faint streams of smoke trailing, embers behind the paper.

Choose a lantern from a catalog of auspicious blessings. Watch it pinned up by worn, quick hands. Pick up a brush and dip it into an ink-splattered bucket.

Scrawl. Scribble. Signature. An imprint of wishes, prayers, and dreams by a railroad. Set against a sky full of lanterns, like the old, wise eyes of clouds watching from up above.

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There’s something reassuring about ritualized actions — writing prayers on paper, letting the lantern rise, watch it soar up and beyond until it’s a tiny dot. It will eventually land somewhere, wedged on a rooftop, fluttering in the mountains, resting on a rock. Yet, at least from what I can witness, its symbolism leaves me full of hope. Apart from the wishes I’ve released up into the sky, penned on all four sides of the sky lantern, I feel compelled to write down my 2019 resolutions after a break of two years (I used to religiously write all my resolutions down on a piece of drawing block and pin it up on my desk).

Some small things:

New Year Resolutions

养生 Health 🍵

  • Eat wisely. Lose another 3 kilograms, which I inevitably gained in Taipei and Singapore. T_T
  • Sleep early before 12:30AM daily. My mom scoffingly informed me of this phrase she read online — “用着最好的护肤品,熬着最晚的夜!” — which is me personified: slathering layers of skincare products on my face while staying up late.

On a side note, I’m bringing jasmine tea leaves(茉莉花茶), chrysanthemum packets(夏桑菊), and my beloved Chia Te pineapple tarts (THE BEST I’VE EVER EATEN) to campus. Guess which is not going to be helpful for my first resolution.

To be really honest, I can understand my parents’ strict standards for my weight. To them, it represents how much self-discipline I have. If it is within my ability to be healthier and to look more attractive, compromising that reeks of laziness and unchecked desire.

责任 Responsibility 🐝

  • Be punctual. Be punctual. Be punctual. I would like to apologize here to everyone who has ever waited for me. New year, new me!
  • Be better at responding to text messages.
  • Every year, this resolution remains the same: time management. Only when I can manage my time well enough to accommodate for emergencies will I have the room in my life for unexpected opportunities and adventures. ❤
  • Full attendance for all classes this year (even if I’m feeling unwell). On the first day of 2019, my dad did a ceremony where he paid my tuition fees for the spring semester. I’m immensely grateful for the freedom my parents have given me to experiment, to choose, and to figure out my dreams at my own pace. I’m going to remember that on the mornings when I can’t get out of bed.

情感 Relationships 👨‍👩‍👧

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跟爸爸妈妈在一起的时光是最快乐的。可是,快乐的时光总是那么的短暂啊。小时候,我觉得好女儿志在四方,向往着成为一个矫健的雄鹰,飞过天南地北,头也不回、勇往直前地闯天下。长大后才愈加发现,家是我最眷恋的港湾。似乎,暮然回首,那一场又一场考试,各式各样的申请,就是为了将我推上离您们越来越远的道路,一瞬间会很想哭。很多人都说父母子女一场就是一段渐行渐远的缘分,可是我坚信我们是例外。感谢您们让我明白成长虽艰难且不可避免,但依旧是奇妙、幸福的。所以,我就算舍不得您们也还是要长大呀。希望2019年第一次的道别我可以坚强,不要再流泪了。

  • To not cry when my parents are sending me off at the airport. Be stronger. Farewells are meant for teaching us how to better reunite.
  • Be a kinder, more peaceful person to friends and also to strangers. Be more considerate to those who love me. Often, we are careless to those who care for us the most. I would like to be less selfish and to get into the habit of thinking from the perspectives of others — make that into a first instinct!
  • Have more faith when God makes me wait. Let me see waiting as an opportunity to build my faith and to understand that there is a reason — 我想,有时候,上帝赐予我的礼物会有意晚一点递到我手中。也许,上帝只是为了更精心地绑一个蝴蝶结,让 ‘等待’ 抚平我的焦躁,好让我有一双更善于识别美好的眼睛。Thank you, Father. ❤

 

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May all your dreams & resolutions come true in 2019 too! 🌠🌠🌠

Lots of love,

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Confronting My Worldly Fears

At some point in your life, this statement will be true: Tomorrow you will lose everything forever.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

At the most random of moments, I consider my own mortality. One such instance was as I was seated in the cozy office of Professor Racha Kirakosian, which contained books so numerous that they seemed to be spewing out from the shelves with a life of their own. Half an hour ago, I had bumped into Carissa outside Lamont as she was on her way to see our Hum 10 seminar professor. I took it as a sign from the universe.

Just being in Prof Kirakosian’s office, in the presence of someone whose interests and expertise range from German to Religion to Medieval Studies to Game of Thrones, someone so winsomely at ease, witty, and genuinely passionate about life, I felt almost ashamed of my own fears—those that emerged with the onset of sophomore year, creeping like vines over my humanities-centric class schedule (the next blog post!), over the obstinate, inarticulable aspirations I harbor, and harnessing my vulnerability to the capitalist onslaught on campus, emblazoned in two words: Recruiting Season.

As a freshman, cocooned in the bubble of the Harvard Yard, my days were largely buffered by a sense of exhilaration and lethargy, the four years of college unfurling before me like an unending yellow brick road. As a sophomore, I am now suddenly catapulted from the periphery of real-world concerns to the precipice of worldly success outside of college gates: the moneyed prestige of Wall Street, the ascendancy of Silicon Valley, coupled with the irrational but still visceral fear of unemployment.

I can’t recall the conversation between Prof Kirakosian, Carissa, and me in complete specificity—I just remember laughing a lot, feeling at intervals, a sense of wonder and the budding certainty that life can work out in magical ways for those faithful to what they love. The professor confessed, after I hesitantly voiced my fears, that she never expected to be doing medieval studies or to be where she was today, but it was all about following her instincts at every stage in life.

I think about it sometimes, she said, the fact that we don’t live forever. I ask myself if I want to be doing this today if I were to die tomorrow. 

There’s an army of people doing CS, she said, why force yourself to do that? 

I see you as someone constantly reinventing yourself, she said.

In that small room almost suspended outside of time, like being in an interstitial space between two selves coming of age, with the soft afternoon sun seeping in like egg yolk, I felt many things crack open over my head—the purpose of our individual humanity, the power of instincts, and how even as she said those words, I drew strength from what she saw in me.

Often, in a place like Harvard, I feel the simultaneous pull of opposing forces: the allure of worldly success and the devotion to growth in wisdom. On days like this, I am grateful for God’s gentle reminders and life’s role models.

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Professor Kirakosian ❤

Lots of love,

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PSC Scholarship: Yes, Maybe, No

psc choice

I write this so that, years down the road, I can remember my exact state of mind when making this choice that had a bearing on how I choose to lead my life. It’s arguably the most monumental decision I’ve had to make in my brief 19 years of existence. This is a raw, honest, reflective account that is ultimately personal. I don’t intend to extol or belittle, but to interrogate and ask questions. It’s important not to accept easy answers.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

What is a life worth living?

The question haunted me in the empty dining room. My table was a realm of spilling notes, mockingly optimistic highlighters, and the ticking tension of dwindling hours. But this revision orbit was like a vacuum in time — it balanced on the pinpoint of desire for straight As but easily took over my life; yet, it was peripheral to all achievements and sufferings of mankind. My stress levels had overshot the mark and I was suddenly aware of how laughably trivial this entire endeavor was.

Exam revision was at once obsessive yet alienating.

I was having a crisis, in the twilight weeks of September 2016, right before my Preliminary Exams.

I had questioned myself on what I wanted to do with my life at many junctures. But the answer I had gripped tightly in my hand for years now paled in the face of an expanding abyss of disillusionment.

I want to give back to my country by joining the civil service. 

My mind clamored for some sort of meaning behind that. Something, anything that could put all the opportunities and insights my education has given me, this having of knowledge, all the ceaseless striving to wield it, and this grueling pre-‘A Levels’ period in perspective. It rang hollow.

***

YES

To be very honest, my dreams have taken strange turns and detours and roundabouts.

I wanted to be a writer for years, before deciding to be a lawyer when I was 11.

Sometime in my secondary school years, before I knew it, my dreams had shifted in one direction — to be a civil servant, specifically, a foreign service officer. In retrospect, it was so widely endorsed by everyone who heard that I never bothered to think too hard about it.

I had a lot of other dreams that ebbed and flowed over the years. To excavate the stories of obscured histories and marginalized peoples, to question assumptions and drive action with cultural understanding, to be a cartographer of the heart… These dreams were nebulous, without the reassuring sturdiness of an occupationally safe and established aspiration.

The society feeds us words through which we filter our beliefs and experiences. Cloaked in those other dreams, I had felt insecure and adrift. Saying the two words “civil servant” offered a resounding sense of certainty, backed by societal endorsement and centuries of veneration for entering the government that is rooted in the Asian psyche. The nugget of truth in the age-old adage handed down to my young mind was powerful — Confucius had said, “A good scholar becomes an official(学而优则仕).” How could he be wrong?

***

MAYBE

I received a thick package in the mail on a warm February morning this year.

Thank you for applying for a PSC scholarship and for considering a career in the Singapore Public Service. I’m pleased to inform you that the PSC has decided to offer you a scholarship. Congratulations!

A yes was lingering at the brink of my mind.

I thought about what will probably be a sufficiently fulfilling career in the Public Service, playing a part in protecting, building and advancing the potential of this magical country that has given me so much. I thought about what everyone, most of all my parents, expected me to be. I thought about my hefty college tuition fees that the scholarship would cover and the calculated comfort of a firm 6-year job offer.

I thought and thought and thought.

***

NO

It is dangerous to avoid difficult questions or even answerless ones.

What is a life worth living? Right now, I say this: a life worth living is a well-examined one. That means to interrogate and to interpret my motivations behind every choice and what I truly want from life. To ask, self-aware, why this, but not that? To seek to not lose sight of what gives me meaning.

I had thought very carefully about the prospect of a 6-year bond in the Public Service, or what might even turn into decades there. My thoughts had unwittingly crept towards the whimsical idea of writing a novel in my free time, in anticipation of one day when I would finally have the money or the opportunity to delve wholeheartedly into creating creative content.

Why this winding, circuitous path filled with digressions towards my keenest dream?

Let me admit this: I was cowardly. I wanted to leave as many doors opened as possible — to have the financial security of a formulaic career while dabbling in the unpredictable. I did not want to break free from the habitual momentum of being on a smooth-sailing path that will lead me to conventionally defined success. Call me risk-averse or afraid of failure. All these labels were spot-on.

It was very telling by the direction of my thoughts that I sought to postpone my dreams of writing and that I saw a public service career as a safety net that might enable my dream, not as a true calling.

After all these reflections, my true ambition did not grow more apparent to me. But being painfully honest with myself revealed to me that right now it for sure was not the public service.

On 28 April 2017, I replied to the secretariat. I decided not to take up the PSC scholarship.

***

There is nothing wrong with the first part of this sentence:

I want to give back to my country

It is most admirable and also what I aspire to do. The logical extension of this is to then ask: How can I create the most value for the society?

In an ever-changing world, there exists a limitless array of callings for each of us.

But, why is it that most of us, by a certain age, begin to subconsciously gravitate towards one rote path? Why is the widespread mentality that we can only give back to the country if we are in the civil service?

I do deeply admire those working in the civil service who find it their true calling in life. But I wonder how many have lost sight of their true ambitions, trapped by their yearnings for what is financially secure and what society deems prestigious. And I do also ponder about those, bound to the words they signed on a page at 19, who feel their dreams slowly die in the claustrophobia of bureaucracy and who, in their thirties, settle with resignation and listen to their souls heave a sigh at the opportunities that they are too tired to fight for. What we do inevitably alters the fabric of who we are — we are the sum total of our choices; every choice to postpone a dream might just mean that you drift further apart from it.

Interestingly, one argument that won my parents over was the fact that Singaporeans are the only ones who are confronted by an abundance of safe, prestigious options. It’s not like every other 18 or 19-year-old in the world doesn’t face immense uncertainty in life. The existence of lucrative government scholarships in Singapore has fostered a unique situation: many Singaporean youths are fearful of taking a less trodden path. An unprecedented number of top students choose to be civil servants when they could have become entrepreneurs, artists, mathematicians, scientists, writers, innovators, public intellectuals in civil society and whatnot.

Nowhere else in the world do other youths our age have such an option of immense security. So, how can Singaporean youths be less risk-averse when the opportunity cost of risk-taking is so big?

I admit that uncertainty is daunting, but it is the inescapable truth of life. We all constantly face the looming void of blank, unwritten next chapters.

But uncertainty also means freedom. Freedom to not have your life figured out at the age of 19, freedom to explore every dimension of you, freedom to mold your sense of purpose with the pressing challenges of our era, freedom to experiment with failure and learn how to not fear it, freedom to shape the trajectory of life with all the new possibilities that you could not have known of at 19.

Freedom to combine what you love to do with giving back to society.

Freedom to see the world as a young idealistic mind, to stand independent, grow informed, and to have both the wisdom and the ability to choose. Come back to join the public service after you’ve seen more of the world, understood more of yourself and know that it is your calling.

Value this freedom. It’s quite underrated in our society. Many things in life are far more important than a sense of security. Value the promise of uncertainty over the comforts of the predetermined.

Such is life: I don’t know what’s next, when it ends, or what it means. So I choose to tread the path that leads directly to my yet unarticulated dream — I will likely stumble, pick myself up once, twice, again and again, but I keep in heart a powerful reminder: the shortest distance between me and my dream is reliably a straight line, not a constantly deviating path. So, I embrace the autonomy I now have, and boldly, foolishly move forward with faith.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost