Another Christmas Comes and Goes

Not winter, but always Christmas.

My mom sweeps into the room and starts shaking me by the shoulders. She briskly turns off the air-conditioning.

WAKE UP! she thunders.

For the first time in twenty years, I know that Christmas starts with no immediate present to unwrap on the morning itself, and so I roll around in bed and burrow my head under a pillow. I know that because my parents have already given me presents in advance. My mom has revamped my winter closet with new sweaters, skirts and a pair of boots after I fulfilled her condition of losing the freshman fifteen over the summer. My dad has allowed me to plan for our family vacation entirely from scratch — we will celebrate the New Year from December 29th to January 6th in Taipei, the cradle of bubble tea (≧◡≦).

Wait, so there’s really no surprise? No Santa? I mumble to seek confirmation, peeking from below the pillow with two narrowing eyes.

Go open the fridge, my dad calls from outside the room.

Against all odds, all past coercion to compel me into weight loss, and all the snarky remarks they’ve heaped onto my appearance, my parents — who currently would gladly trade one fewer A on my transcript for less 5 kilograms on the scale (indeed, a true paradigm shift in priorities since I got into college) — there are three pints of my new favorite ice cream flavor glittering in all their loveliness on the shelf: my beloved White Peach and Raspberry from Häagen-Dazs.

I have no time to taste it because my mom then shuttles us out of the house for dim sum at Mouth Restaurant. There are baskets of har gow and chicken claw and crispy liu sha bao and fried shrimp balls in Chardonnay sauce and the best carrot cake of my life and panfried chee cheong fun and crystal dumplings and squid ink char siew bao and the list (of items that go into my tummy) surges on.

We then watch Bumblebee, who is now my newly-crowned spirit animal. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind that much having to express myself through songs exclusively. Quite unexpectedly, the film also reminded me about hospitality (as often associated with Christmas) when faced with the Other (Autobots and Decepticons!) — a topic I wrote about in a paper last week comparing Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

As today draws to a close, another Christmas comes and goes. This year, there’s the taste of childhood, the glow of content on everyone’s faces, the thrill of being in that liminal place between childhood and adulthood (I still get presents, but they come with more responsibility), the drawn-out festive feeling that’s no longer as anchored to a particular calendar date —  Christmas is captured in an accumulation of moments: persistent photoshoots along Orchard Road, matching pink and red t-shirts under the sun, fake snow, illusionist performances, and mumbling lyrics through lemonade-coated tongues at Gardens by the Bay — and the immense gratitude I have for my parents who have given me the best gifts of time and love not just on this special day but also every day while I was growing up.

Thank you also to God, who further unearths with each year the magic of Christmas beyond the traditions and the symbols, the wrapped presents and the tree. Thank you, Father, for helping me find Christmas in my heart.

Wishing all of you and your families a wonderful and blessed holiday season. ❤

Merry Christmas, 🎄🎄🎄

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🎅🎅🎅

Happy 53rd Birthday, Singapore!

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Local icons for the 2017 National Day designed by homegrown illustrators The Fingersmith Letterpress & Festive Folks, http://thesmartlocal.com/read/quirkiest-hdb

To the sunny island-state who fed me a diet of chicken rice, pineapple tarts, dim sum, herbal soups, bubble tea, zi char, and Pokka green tea,

To the towering institutions, well-worn wooden lecterns, scribbled whiteboards, laughter-filled halls, bleary-eyed mornings before sunrise, and the strict, snarky but wise teachers who educated me, equipped my mind and oriented me towards the world,

To all the exams I’ve taken, the essays I’ve written, this looming belief in meritocracy that pulsates in the system and dominated much of my life, all the invisible privileges I’ve received growing up in a place that values the mind and its gauged merit, the unprecedented opportunities that would not have been possible for an immigrant family elsewhere,

To this country that anchored a girl to a metaphorical homeland that rises to the fore, even amidst the many heritages that crowd within her frame,

I say: Singapore, you have a big heart—you embraced into your fold a family with three nationalities and, although your own culture is hotly debated and nebulously defined, you embedded in an itinerant girl something she can never abandon—a love for cities that are created in the shape of you.

I also say: in times when people tightly grasp at territorial borders and erect concrete walls between one imagined community and another, I look back in wonder at the path that led me to where I am today,

And I could not have stood here, were it not for you.

So, happy 53rd birthday, my dearest Singapore! 🎂❤️☀️

As I Stand, I Feel

Minutes before the day ends in my time zone, Merry Christmas everyone!🎄🎄🎄

1. Christmas

Today, I am grateful for

  • Funny presents (the wrapped mango slices still win)
  • This year, my dad told me with a straight face: “I’m no longer going to be Santa because you’re nineteen.” My parents pretended to be Santa for years in order to make me happy (till I was eighteen!) ❤ I’ll always be the girl who ardently believes in Santa but I guess I’ve finally grown up in their eyes. 😦
  • Many many hours of sleep
  • The yearly tradition of unwrapping a Moleskine planner for 2018 (here’s to better time management skills, as always)
  • Singalongs on the way to lunch and back with my family, with light from the sultry Singapore sun streaming into the car and falling softly onto our crinkling eyes and pink faces
  • Sending the same poorly photoshopped picture of my face on a chubby Santa’s body to random friends and receiving replies ranging from “STOP REUSING THE SAME PHOTO EVERY YEAR” (old friends) to “SO CUTE” (new friends)
  • The geniuses who wrote Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (Mariah Carey herself and Walter Afanasieff)
  • God, who is always here for me, and on this day, his magic is everywhere. Thank you for loving me and bringing all these people into my life. I love you.

2. Homecoming

After more than twenty hours suspended in flight, starving (I can never eat airplane food because I get airsick) and groggy-eyed, a swift transit in Dubai, and four movies (I rewatched the Christmas classic Home Alone which is laugh-out-loud hilarious and so cute; Reese Witherspoon’s Home Again which cannot be salvaged by all the prettiness on the screen; the immensely satisfying Captain America: The First Avenger; and the 4-hour-long monster of a movie, Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton which left me feeling wistfully disoriented on a dark plane), I finally land in Singapore at 8.30 am SGT. Stepping off the jetway and into the arrival lounge, I suddenly understand how much I want to be here—clean carpeted grounds doused in warm lighting, the staccato hum of Singlish with lahs freely tossed around, harried parents ushering skipping kids on December holiday family trips so much like a scene from my own childhood—and all the latent feelings of homecoming erupts. It’s like becoming aware of my own breathing.

Mayday Concert on 17 December 2017 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium

3. 青春(Youth)

在我心中,青春所有的感动都有一个最好的代言人:那就是五月天(Mayday)。去听一场他们的演唱会就好像是再次祭奠一次那似乎刚刚离我而去的懵懂时光。这是几万人一场的盛大缅怀。那种倾心的感动,可能是当阿信嘶喊 “至少在我的心中还有个尚未崩塌的地方” 时我那狂跳的心脏,也可能是当《干杯》接近尾声时我和十年的闺蜜相视一笑然后齐声激昂地高唱:“有一天 就是今天 今天就是有一天 说出一直没说 对你的感谢 和你再干一杯 再干一杯永远 喝了就能万岁 岁岁和年年!” 也许,如五月天所唱,青春是挽不回的水,转眼消失在指尖。但,我们依然年轻,依旧热血,无名却充满了莫名的渴望,等待着此生一次的发光。所以,坐在驶向远方的车,摇晃着脚丫,塞着耳机,哼着歌,继续谱写着我后青春的诗篇。一生一次,足矣。

A direct translation would be “LIFE Private Unlimited Company”. The official title of their world tour is Life.

4. Memory

Waking up naturally when sunlight is peeking through that slit between my curtains; the humongous life-sized Winnie the Pooh that meets my eyes at belly level when I face the right side of the bed; Natasha Bedingfield’s husky voice crooning “We got all the memories” from my vibrating phone at 10.05AM sharp; my mum’s hot ginseng honey lemon tea in a white Pooh Bear mug (anything can be skipped for breakfast except for this because my mum will resolutely not let me out of the house); my favorite Pokka green tea—bought religiously as a substitute for coffee from the Nanyang Primary drinks stall to the Nanyang Girls’ High vending machine to the Hwa Chong café—arranged neatly in packets of six in the pantry; the Kinokuniya main store at Ngee Ann City, renovated but still where I immediately feel at home (no other bookstore in the world makes me feel this way, probably because I spent hours there as a kid whenever my parents went shopping at Orchard Road); the chewy golden bubbles in the Koi green milk tea; my mum’s tomatoes with eggs; sitting crossed-leg on the sofa hugging a fluffy, pudgy Android soft toy while watching Chinese singing variety shows with my dad; rearranging my bookshelf by color; trekking along the Bukit Timah Rail Corridor with the exact person I was with five years ago; meeting up with friends and magically picking up at exactly where we left off; loving this city and its breaths, compressions, sinews, words, and you, you, you.

Trekking with one of my longest friends, Xin Min!!! We’ve known each other since we were nine and awkwardly squatting beside each other during orientation.

5. Writing

The longer I don’t write a post, the harder it is to try to process everything in words. It seems so much easier to upload an Instagram story peppered with emojis and geotags than to pause—and think, How do I want to remember this? What is this story of my life that is being written at this very moment? I have opened this WordPress page a number of times since coming back to Singapore and found life too fulfilling, too familiar, too vanilla, too disarming, too soft to be made sense of in words. This gentle gentle life.

Since arriving back at home on 16 December, it feels like I’ve fallen out of the orbit of one hemisphere to another, shedding one outer life and slipping into another. Yet, my inner life remains stretched across time zones, pulled between disparate tent poles—weirdly shaped and not fully-formed as of now. Everything shifts, nothing unfolds. I ought to be geographically removed from college enough to contemplate what 2017 has been like, but it’s like my mind refuses to think; Just feel and let it wash all over you, it says.

So I feel and let it bleed over the page.

Ho Ho Ho 🎅

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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 ❤

PSC Scholarship: Yes, Maybe, No

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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