Happy Birthday, I Hope You’re Well

 

courtesy of veryfatoldman.blogspot.com

courtesy of veryfatoldman.blogspot.com

Date: 14/03/2015

 Hello,

 Today was an especially tough day because it is my fifth day outfield. I always thought from the movies and from what people said that it was quite a cool experience, to be out here fighting in the wild and being all macho. But now after five days, I have to admit, it is nothing like what they portray it to be. Now I know that it is tough, and it demands that you give it everything, be it your body or your time with loved ones. I am rather miserable now, and to think that it is my moms birthday tomorrow does not make it any better. I sincerely hope she will be fine, and I hope everyone around her will be fine. I just want to go home. I really do. But when I think of my family, I have no choice but to persevere. This is something I have to do.

 Cheers,

REC (Recruit) Tan Jin Hong

 

I read the diary entry and smiled. Yet another recruit seems to be finding this experience too tough, exactly what this experience aimed to achieve. Misery and heartache are inevitable side effects of being in the army. As a BMT (Basic Military Training) instructor, I knew this all too well. I sat there in the training shed sorting out diary entries. A lot of these entries had sweat stains on them mixed with dark green camouflage cream, the paper moist with the relentless humidity of the dense jungle. I gave it the chop of approval and signed it, before placing this entry on top of the “done” pile. The crickets formed a layer of thick noise above the mini tents the recruits have set up. From my vantage point atop my field chair I could make out two neat rows of tents. We had even forced them to dig up a mini drainage system around their tents so that any rain would be nicely siphoned away from their surroundings.

But of course, all of us knew that it wasn’t going to rain. The weather forecasts for the whole week indicated clear skies, which was highly unusual for such a tropical nation like Singapore. It’s almost cruel to say this, but it seemed to me that all these tents and drains were constructed purely for “experience” and nothing else, experiences that would not help them a single bit in life. I guess being here a few years before, and having experienced it all has turned me cynical. Before long I was done with the entire pile of sixty-six entries. With one leg numb from sitting too long, I hobbled over to my hammock. I had cleverly constructed this between two poles and my substantial frame filled it up to the brim. I fell into a deep sleep almost immediately.

I woke up to an astonishing sound. The sound of rain. It wasn’t just rain, it was a downpour. I sat up and looked around. The tents seemed to be shaking in anticipation in the wind and rain, as if their purpose had been realised. The drain system the recruits painstakingly created was filled with thick, brown, Milo-coloured water. So much for the forecast, I thought to myself. I silently hoped the rain would begin to flood the tents surrounded by shallower drains. Now that would be quite the outfield experience. Sure, it was a sinister thought, but it would teach the lazier recruits a lesson to dig deeper next time.

At this point, a dark figure appeared to my right, coming from the direction of the tents. The figure walked with such sloppiness that it scared me at first. There were many stories surrounding these jungles: genital mutilating female ghosts, and spirits of dead recruits looking for their disemboweled intestines. My freshly awakened self would have jumped out of the hammock if I hadn’t managed to compose myself just in time. It was probably just a fellow instructor or a stray recruit who lost his way to the makeshift toilet.

As the figure drew closer I took a look at his epaulette and saw that there wasn’t any rank attached to it. I let out a deep breath. He was just a recruit. “What you doing here, recruit? Can’t you see the rain is heavy? Go back to your tent!” Once he stepped into the shelter of the training shed he stopped. He stood before me, hunching over, face still partially green and black with camouflage cream. His uniform stuck to his skin and made him look skinnier. Not eating proper food for five days straight had made his face look gaunt and his arms seem lanky. “What are you doing here?” I repeated as if he mattered. He started, “Sergeant Ben, please understand, I didn’t come here for shelter…” I looked him straight in the eye. “I DON’T CARE! YOU GO BACK NOW BEFORE ANY OF THE OFFICERS SEE YOU HERE! THERE IS NO PLACE FOR YOU HERE!” I bellowed. I couldn’t accept this. He had no right to walk here like this, not in the rain or because of nightmares, not in any circumstance. “No, Sergeant. Listen for just a few seconds. I’m sorry that I walked here like this, but, I just came to ask of a favour, one that you will probably refuse, and it may sound very silly to you, but…” I was growing impatient. “Spit it out or leave,” I said calmly. He looked me in the eye. “It’s my mothers birthday today, and I really want to wish her.”

Mothers’ birthday? Why did that sound so familiar? Yes, I remembered the diary entry. One of the recruits said his Mothers’ birthday was soon. I looked at my watch, and it said 02:12 AM. Enraged, I looked up at him. “So what if it’s your mothers birthday? What can you do about it?”

He looked at me and motioned with his eyes to my pocket. I looked down and felt for my smartphone.

I understood his intention. “Wah! Call her now ah! On the stroke of midnight is it! You think this is Facebook is it? Want me let you log into Facebook then you wish her lah, tell her that you are two hours late, how about that!” “Sergeant, I just want to call her.” “GO BACK TO SLEEP!” I raised my voice again. “THE WHOLE PLATOON GOT PEOPLE WITH MOTHER, FATHER, GRANDMOTHER, GRANDFATHER, BROTHER, SISTER, GIRLFRIEND, BOYFRIEND, EX-GIRLFRIEND, EX-BOYFRIEND MAYBE ALSO GOT. TODAY IS THE 15th OF MARCH, ONE OUT OF 365 DAYS. CONFIRM AT LEAST ONE OF THEM ALSO GOT SOMEONE’S BIRTHDAY TODAY. I ask you, why do you think there is no queue in front of me now, all asking for my phone to call their loved ones? If you can answer that question, I will let you call.”

He stood quietly in front of me at first and said nothing but then suddenly got onto his knees. I stood over him and looked down at this pitiful sight. His lower lip was trembling. “Sergeant….please. Just thirty seconds. Please. Just grant me that. I beg you.” He glanced up at me, and I could barely make out the soft glow in his eyes, eyes that were pleading for a moment of humanity amidst the madness he was thrust into. But alas, he did not give me an answer. I calmly stepped back into my hammock, trying very hard to ignore his desperation. It pained me tremendously to say, “if I don’t see you gone in the next ten seconds, you’ll be having some special treatment tomorrow morning. This treatment may or may not involve you crawling until your elbows bleed. So look, you can choose. You walk away now, and we can call this a night, and pretend nothing happened. If not…”

I counted to ten, and as I counted I thought of myself as a recruit, breaking up with my girlfriend when I was in BMT and missing out on my father’s birthday as well. Towards the last week my Sergeant barged into our bunk to tell me that my grandmother was in a critical condition. Within an hour, I had to send in my weapon and leave camp for Tan Tock Seng. I remembered tearing profusely on the cab, and thinking how I would have stayed in camp for a thousand more days just for Grandma to be alright. I knew all too well, that serving your nation came with that sort of burden, so what right did he have to call his mother?

“Ten.” When I looked up, all I saw was the heavy rain in the background and rows of tents behind. I looked to the other side of my hammock to make sure. Yes, he was gone, nowhere to be seen. By then I noticed that my hands were trembling. It was tiring work pretending to be someone you’re not, and I knew deep down that I was this close to letting him make the call. I felt so cold and empty inside, but at the end of the day, I assured myself that what I did was the professional thing to do. It was my role as an instructor, after all. Like my Commanding Officer told us, once your heart softens, these maggots will not hesitate to crawl over your head. Relieved that I made the right choice, I fell back to sleep, comfortable amidst the rich smell of rain.

The next morning, I woke up to a bright sky. I shot up from my Hammock, startled, and immediately checked my watch. 09:34 AM. I had overslept for 2 hours! How did that happen? It wasn’t my shift as Duty Instructor today but still, it was my unspoken duty to be there and overlook the activities. Sure, I might not have set an alarm, but why didn’t anyone wake me up?

I stood up and toddled over to a group of instructors standing around behind the training shed. They looked smart in their new uniforms and branded sunglasses. Some were smoking, but most just stood around. “Eh paiseh I just woke up, gosh. Why you all never wake me up?!” Warrant Officer Josh looked up first. He looked solemn. “Eh Ben, sorry sorry, we thought of you but then some serious shit happened la.” Serious shit? Maybe last night’s heavy rain could be considered as serious? Anyhow, I probed on. “How come no activities today, I thought the recruits practicing for grenade throw, and you’re the conducting?” Josh sighed. My batch mate Ezekiel chipped in, “Activities are on hold, we had to send this boy back to mainland lah. The call came early in the morning at about 0700, he had to attend to family matters.”

“Yeah, cancer lor. Terrible, feel damn sorry for him.” Josh added, “speaking of which the boy is from your platoon eh, Ben. Yeah anyway damn sad lah, his mother battling cancer for quite long already then this morning she suddenly slipped into a coma. The chances of survival seem slim. I know because the father called, told me the doctor told them she had a few months left so the family still let him come here to Tekong for field camp. But who knew right? Few months can become few weeks, that life can be so fragile and unpredictable? Don’t know how he can take it at such a young age. And the worst part is, we just found out also, that coincidentally, today is the mother’s birthday. Poor boy, poor boy.”

The other instructors nodded along in grave agreement. The crickets continued chirping in the background, invigorated by the entire night of rain.

The Value of Reunion

There is a great coming together on the eve of Chinese New Year, where family members from all corners of the world gather for the yearly reunion dinner. I’ve been thorough a few handfuls of them, starting from as young as I could remember up till to now, as a twenty year-old. We will always gather at my maternal grandparent’s place. I believe there was once an era where my grandmother would cook everything from the soups to the mains, but for the last few years we have been relying on takeaways from nearby restaurants.

This year’s reunion dinner was satisfying. There was roasted chicken and duck, braised pork, boiled vegetables, ee fu noodles, sea cucumber, yong tau foo soup and a tantalizing seafood stew consisting of baby abalones, scallops, fresh prawns, pork knuckle, boiled chicken, fish maw and preserved oysters. This was all preceded by the traditional Lou Hei (prosperity toss). Shredded vegetables were topped with golden crackers and crushed peanuts, drizzled once over with a cinnamon powder, pepper, a sweet dressing, and finally the most important ingredient: strips of raw salmon. Chinese idioms in the form of homophones (the Chinese are obsessed with puns and wordplay) were used when each ingredient or dressing was showered over the plate, symbolizing hopes of abundance and wealth.

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The annual spread

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The most amazing pot of seafood and preserved delicacies in a hearty broth.

The toss is the most interesting part, where we all gathered in a circle around the plate of well organized ingredients with our chopsticks and began to mix it all up with exaggerated tosses. It is tradition to exhaust your vocabulary of Chinese idioms pertaining to wealth and prosperity as you toss, the height of your toss also symbolizing the “height” of your success in the coming year. So as we were doing this, my one hand was Snapchatting the moment and the other was making frantic attempts at hearty tosses. It was a harried way to make up for my limited range of idiom vocab.

At that moment I couldn’t help but feel fortunate. This is not something I normally feel at reunion dinners. For the past few years it was always just a routine to me, the same old tossing, feasting and red packet collection. But what changed my mind was that a few days ago, I was discussing with a friend about the value of reunion dinners.

I proposed that it was the size of our nation that undermined the significance of the occasion. I read somewhere that “all children are expected to travel from the farthest corners of the world for a reunion dinner with their parents on the eve of Chinese New Year. To ignore it is to be deemed unfilial, the worst crime a person can be accused of.” But then, how can you show you sincerity through a physical journey when this journey cannot take you more than an hour? Our country is just too small for any sincere gestures of filial piety. I observed this because I met my grandparents for dinner almost every week, through stressful exams and my grueling national service. We lived nearby and it was convenient. There was just nothing special about such meet ups anymore.

But you see, he told me, distance need not be physical. Not every family is separated by physical distance. There are families that drift apart and lose touch with each other despite living so close by. Ironically, being so close physically may even contribute to an erosion of kinship when we begin to take each other for granted. Like the roots of a banyan tree, family politics run deep and are tremendously complex. More than just being taken for granted, past quarrels, unpaid debts and character differences may even cause families to consciously avoid each other. Yes, distance may not be physical. How true. Sometimes all we need is an excuse to get together and to put all our differences aside, and the eve of Chinese New Year is the perfect time for that. We sit around good food and have a few drinks whilst ruminating about how it used to be, discuss the future and above all, are reminded of one inescapable fact: that this is where we come from, and that in at least one point in our lives, we had called this home.

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The Whatsapp chat with my friend that led me to believe that indeed, distance need not be physical

To say my family is fortunate is an understatement. As I reach for my food my grandmother would smile at me and encourage me to take more. We talk about our daily lives, and about minor domestic issues. My grandfather asks me about how I’m taking my job from across the table, and I give him a short summary of my progress. We meet often so this is no different from all the other mealtimes. I can see from one sitting that we are comfortable with each other as an extended family, and this feels like less of a reunion than just a casual dinner. And it is somewhere between feeling comfortable and having them constantly there that I might have taken all this for granted.

We all come from diverse backgrounds, and bring with us our very own baggage. This baggage may have brought families closer together, or torn them clean apart. I am more than fortunate that it has been the former for my family, and I am aware that good fortune does not exist in abundance. We dream of prosperity and happiness, good health and long life, but forget that we can find all this right there with the ones that care about us. We are so obsessed with pursuing worldly possessions and self gratification that we often forget the importance of reunion.

We come together to reconnect with what we may have lost, and we reconnect to remember who we once were, and who we are today. What can be said of us if we start taking such festivities for granted? It would be as good as an abandonment of self. So let this festive season be the reminder to never take those around you for granted, to count your blessings like you count your red packet money, and above all, to be grateful that you have a family to reunite with once a year.

The Lou Hei is set in motion. The tosses get higher, and our voices grow louder as Chinese idioms fly across the table like arrows. Some of the ingredients spill out onto the table and many of our hands are stained with sweet dressing. There are twenty separate and seemingly unrelated vegetables, condiments and dressings, and these are tossed and tossed. But finally, when I scoop some of the mixture into my bowl and have a try, it is delicious.

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新年快乐 万事如意

The Green Man

“I need to borrow an umbrella,” I inform the front desk of my workplace. The clouds outside are ominous; grey turning to black, staining the world below with its hues. It will most likely mean a torrential downpour, and the Subway is about half a kilometer from my workplace. I would not be risking anything, as I had some important documents tucked under my left arm. Once they get wet, I get fired, ironic as that sounds.

I walk out three and a half steps onto the pavement before the first drops of rain roll down my forehead. My prediction is correct. With one quick action, my black umbrella is swiftly deployed like a parachute over my head. I hug the documents close to my chest, as the rain increases in volume like the ending of a rock concert.

Finally, I reach the first traffic junction. I wait as the light turns amber and the cars slow down cautiously. The wipers are furiously at work and my brown leather shoes have become visibly darker. Thankfully my pants are black and my shirt is a dark shade of grey. The watermarks wouldn’t be very obvious. The green man pops up and I walk steadily forward with acute awareness of the folder, whilst keeping a careful eye on the cars on the side. I’ve heard of people who perish because the cars don’t brake on time in heavy rain.

I walk through a few shop houses and give my umbrella a rest. The shop owners look on glumly into the rain, looking more aged in the gloom. I walk past five empty shops, before positioning the umbrella over my head again. I tread carefully to the next traffic junction. The green man disappears just as I step to the curb, and is immediately replaced with the red man, like guards on sentry duty. Ninety seconds. It would take ninety seconds for the green man to be back on duty. I knew this from years of walking this route. I hug the folder closer to my chest.

That is when I hear splashing from the side, and a flash of yellow. She is beside me all of a sudden. She is covered in rain. Not drenched by any means, but still, it struck me as a cause of concern. I turn to look at where she ran from, and see an open field with large buildings behind. She must have been walking there halfway when she got caught in the downpour. My umbrella is huge, and she takes a while to notice that she is actually under it. She looks at me and smiles a shy smile, a smile that seems to say thank you and sorry at the same time. She isn’t particularly attractive. Her eyes don’t sparkle like in those magazines you see beside Big Gulp at seven-eleven. Her nose is slightly crooked, the bridge of her nose not totally centered. Her eyebrows are too thick perhaps, and her chin a little too sharp. The rain doesn’t ruin her dress. Not yet, at least. It is a brilliant yellow with strange white pleats at the collar crafted with an intricate, flowery pattern. It is sleeveless to reveal slender, white arms that probably haven’t seen any form of physical labour. Her legs are skinny as well, but aren’t the type to buckle under pressure. Overall, she has an average figure; skinny but not spectacular, and not exactly meaty at the right places. And of course, being a guy, I could attain all this information in one quick glance.

Despite that, I felt that all at once, she was perfect. In other words, I felt like she is the one. This is a huge realisation for me, and there is nothing else to base this on, but a feeling. She stands there, with bright pearls of rain on her curly, black hair, casually brushing droplets off her dress. The patter of rain forms a chorus above our heads. There is no other sound, and no other hues filled the world besides the gloom of the surrounding world and the brightness of her dress. To me, it is that simple: it was a feeling that suddenly spilled over so violently that I couldn’t help but feel surprised. It was the feeling of such intense warmth I was so afraid I would never feel again after all these years.

She is definitely the one, I would tell my friend later. It just wasn’t like anything I’ve ever felt. There was certainty in how I felt, a deep certainty and strong foundation in these feelings, one I couldn’t explain. It was as if these moments only occur two to three times in an average lifetime. And that was MY moment. My friend looks at me and rolls her eyes. If you say so, she retorts between sips of beer. But deep down, I am convinced.

So I stand there in the rain, clenching the umbrella handle in my right hand, folder gently pushed to my chest by my left. I think of a way of talking to her. I figure that when we start walking, would be a good time to start our first conversation. I imagine how this conversation would go, imagine it as if it has already happened.

Hello. Hi. This is going to be strange. So strange. But you look really familiar. I am certain I’ve met you before. Yes… I have. No recollection? Wait, no, this may sound weird but it makes total sense to me and it may to you. Let me take you back to when I was in primary school. I’m sure you took the school bus back then. You look like the type who’d take the school bus. Even if you didn’t, please take a minute to listen to my story.  

There was this girl back then. We took the same school bus home everyday, and she lived only a few blocks away from me. She was quiet at first and so was I, and we both couldn’t find any friends on the way home. Until one day, whether by pure chance or not, I sat beside her. She looked crushed that day, and her eyes were red. She was definitely crying in school. That was when I asked her why, and she didn’t answer at first. A few of the girls around asked me to leave her alone, but even at such a young age; I knew there was something she wanted to tell me, something deep within. She didn’t talk to me the whole trip despite my efforts. But before stepping off the bus, she looked deep into my eyes and smiled at me. I suddenly had a new focus to my simple life.  

So I sat with her from that day on, and she didn’t seem to mind it. Slowly, she started opening up. She told me about her anxieties at school, how the teachers didn’t understand her fear of people, and her classmates mocking her for it. I was young, and I was naïve, but I understood every word she said. I wasn’t afraid of people, but of their intentions, I told her. She looked at me and said as a matter of fact, “aren’t they the same thing?” I could tell she was incredibly intelligent. It was with these conversations that I started looking forward to these bus rides home.  

We got closer through the year, and talked about happier things like food and the future. One day in June, we secretly started holding hands under the seat where no one could see. We were young and it felt like the most perfect thing that two people could accomplish. We were both amazed and at the same time terrified of these feelings. Outside the bus, we hardly talked; just a small wave or smile at the school canteen, and we never met privately outside school. The shelter of the bus was our little space.  

Then one day, everything changed. Without warning, her family moved. Rumour had it that her parents had a divorce, and there was sudden mortgage of the property. Either way, I had her beside me one day, and the next day she was so suddenly taken away. She was gone without a trace, and for months I was heartbroken. Call me pathetic, but I still think of her now, even after all these years. It probably makes as little sense to me as it does to you, but the heart does its best remembering things that the mind does its best to forget. It may be a long shot, but all I remember about her leads to this moment. I can still remember her features; she had curly black hair like you, was skinny like you and had that same smile you wear right now. There is no mistaking it, as you smiled at me I immediately knew. Even if you aren’t her, and by no means do I blame you for that, would you care to walk with me for a while? I really want to confirm if it is or isn’t you. Would you care for just one walk?  

That sounds absolutely terrible as I silently rehearse it, but the frantic thumping within my chest is the strong affirmation that I will have to deliver that story to her in one form or another. I could go for a more subtle approach, but it wouldn’t have justified the magnitude of this feeling. I look at my watch and notice I have ten seconds before green man takes up his position.

The traffic light turns amber, the cars slow down carefully to a stop. We are about to start walking. Just as the green man climbs up his post, she turns her head and smiles at me again, a smile that keeps me rooted on the spot, a smile that makes my existence suddenly inconsequential. I can almost hear her say a quick thank you before I can feel the blood in my legs again. But by then, she is off. She sprints off as if having just activated a landmine, sprints off as if afraid she got the weight of the soil wrong. I watch as she runs across the road to the other side, watch as she doesn’t even bother checking the road for cars and puts total faith in Mr. Green.

Perhaps, I should have chased after her. I should have held her shoulders firmly in both my hands and told her all I had to say. I should have realized that these feelings only come about twice or thrice within an average lifetime. But alas, I just stood there and watched the brilliant dash of yellow fade into the raging mist and rain.

On the Way to Work

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The silence as you stir amongst the sheets. The crisp air that hits you as you sit up. You lie back down on your bed again. You are unwilling to accept the day that is to come. You are imprisoned by your own insecurities of what the day might be like. You are lost in what used to be your sleep. You get up for real this time, and prepare to leave.

Shaver, toothbrush, towel and cologne. These items scratch, scrub and stain your body in one way or another. Before you forget, you apply a dollop of wax to your scruffy hair, still disorientated from sleep. And just like that, you realise you’re fresh again. You walk to the front door with folder in one hand and wallet and handphone in the other. One sock shallows your left foot and the other devours your right. The shoes then take this opportunity to swallow the socks that have swallowed your feet. It is a snug fit. You walk out of the door, feeling a sense of heaviness. Like an ant carrying a grain of rice, there is the burden of the day ahead weighing down on your shoulders.

The morning air is still as it is cold. An occasional gust of wind runs through your hair, wraps itself around your bare neck. The sky is painted in brilliant hues of almost orange, nearly blue. The sun is shy in making its appearance but will regain its composure in time. You walk to this new day, the world around you waking up as well. Cars humming past on the road as the street lights switch off. Buses pregnant with the working crowd, motorcycles weaving between traffic. A pigeon lands on a streetsign just ahead. You notice the horizontal of the streetsign is decked with pigeons. One of them observes you as you walk past; studies you for all it’s worth. It soon loses interest and continues staring into the distance alongside its friends.

You walk past an overhead bridge that links to your workplace. The dark blue of the expired night is being steadily replaced by the brilliant orange that bleeds across the sky. The sun hides itself cleverly behind a building. When you finally see it, it is a small orb in the distance peeking at you in between building and greenery. It tells you that it will be yet another gruelling day, but it also promises that it will rise again tomorrow.

You walk along, take a right turn that brings you down the bridge. The stares of the pigeons and the glare of the sun is still throbbing in your vision, and you find the will to walk on. As if this day would be any different than the previous day, as if this day will make all the previous days worth it; you walk on, a steady lengthening of your stride. This is when you tell yourself, today will be a good day.

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Lifeguards, Job Fairs and Passion

It was after work and I felt like it was good weather for a swim. My long distance running dreams are currently as shattered as my right ankle, so to maintain some sort of fitness I had no choice but to switch to swimming for the time being.

I am not proficient at swimming nor do I enjoy it. I tried to maintain my form and strokes but wasn’t strong enough to fight through the resistance. I swam with my lungs the whole time, while my muscles did just enough to keep me afloat. After a few laps I got out and sat at the stands, exhausted.

That was when I started talking to one of the lifeguards there. He donned the familiar yellow shirt with red shorts and had a pair of sunglasses propped above his hairline. He was probably in his fifties, and sat comfortably in his plastic chair. I told him about my injury and how I was swimming to maintain my fitness, and he advised me to take it slow.

Then came the interesting part, I asked him about his job.

“So how’s it like to be a lifeguard?” I asked. “Not bad, lah,” was his reply. Not bad? That’s all?

“I know a friend, he works as a part time lifeguard. He goes around hotels and public pools, but he still tells me it’s really boring.” I tried to be indirect with my words because I didn’t want to directly insinuate him and his job. I guess I was just curious as to what he had to say about this bit of popular opinion, that being a lifeguard is “boring”, so to speak.

“Well, you see. That’s the thing about human nature,” he started. “When the job has a lot of requirements and is very complicated, people complain that it is very tough and tiring, restrictive and rigorous.” I nodded along. “But then suddenly you give people a job with nothing to do, they will definitely complain that it is boring and purposeless.” The fact that he brought up human nature straight off the bat made me like him from the start. And yes, what he said made a lot of sense. It seems like we are never contented with the work we are given. It’s either too hard or too easy, and both have such devastating side effects.

He continued, “so I think it’s important to find that balance, to have a job that doesn’t kill you and at the same time doesn’t bore you to death. That’s the main idea. Many youngsters now will obviously be bored with this job. Plus nowadays there are so many job fairs, and so many engaging and challenging jobs out there. You all should go out there and find your own paths.” I couldn’t agree more. I told him I was trying out teaching now, and to that he said, “Teaching is interesting. It ties in very close to nursing, and they are jobs that people don’t appreciate for how tough they are. You deal with so many different people and many of them will not appreciate you or simply forget you after they leave your care. It’s tough but many do enjoy it. I’m sure there’s a reason why.”

Well I did enjoy it so far, I told him, and may very well consider it for the future. It is tough, but there is value in the children you invest your energy in. He nodded at me and concluded, “you may very well teach in the future, but in the end, you must remember the most important thing, and that is passion. Above all, there is passion. People will do the toughest jobs for passion, and look at me. I’ve been doing this for 34 years. I sit here all day and to me it means a lot. It is relaxing and I get to talk to people and have become friends with many of the regular swimmers. Many of us give lessons after our shifts but right now I’m too lazy to do that. I just enjoy what I do.”

I smiled at him and nodded. Words of wisdom do come from the most unexpected places.

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Why St. Andrew’s?

I recall an instance when somebody exclaimed “my blood runs white and blue! (white and blue are the St Andrew’s (SA) school colours)” To that, I smiled back and nodded in approval, for deep within, I knew exactly what this person meant. I’m not the most knowledgeable in regards to SA, but what I do have is a load of experience here. I have been in the Saints family for over fifteen years now. I started my journey at Ascension Kindergarten, then moved on the the junior school (SAJS), followed by the secondary school (SASS) and then finally ended my run in the Junior college (SAJC). Or so I thought. After army, I found myself holding a red pen and some markers, walking around SASS as a relief teacher. So yes, in a way, I’ve gone full circle, all the way as a student through St. Andrew’s and just to come back as a teacher. I thought it was a good conclusion to my time at the school. It was also good for me to give back to the school that raised me before I went off to uni. So as you read all this, you may be wondering: why St. Andrew’s? To answer that, I have to first go way back.

From Primary School...

From Primary School…

To Secondary School...

To Secondary School…

To Junior College!

To Junior College!

Recently, I’ve been meddling a lot with the thought of what makes a Saint? A Saint is what the students here are generally addressed and identified as. However, the term Saint didn’t roll off the tongue very well for me. It was just a mere label, and I already formed that conclusion late into primary school. I looked around when I was in Primary 5 and decided that there was nothing special or spectacular about the students here, and so the term Saints, with all its grandeur and prestige, meant nothing to me. Coming back, I did take some time to register some fleeting opinions on what this school meant to the boys. I got a lot of lacklustre answers such as “like that lor,” or “everyone is here because of the affiliation from Junior School.” I smiled at these responses because they were so blatantly honest, and an exact reflection of how I felt back then when I was in secondary school.

So what would lead to such an opinion of St Andrew’s, even within the psyches of the students? It all began with the notion that no one is here by chance. These are the words displayed at the entrance of SAJC which ironically requires much more than just pure chance to enter. To me, this motto applies more to the junior and secondary school. It is the notion that the school will accept anyone with various backgrounds and abilities and work to value add to every individual. It is a highly idealistic notion, that no one is here at random, and that every student serves his role; that every student has a higher purpose here. And from that assumption the school is willing to go all out to develop each child.

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And we stick close to our ideals, knowing that having a few triumphs among the majority makes everything we champion worth it. (That's my best friend on the left by the way)

And we stick close to our ideals, knowing that having a few triumphs among the majority makes everything we champion worth it. (That’s my best friend on the left by the way)

However, any lofty ideals I have reserved for this school have been shelved in a deep corner of my mind. In the final analysis, there isn’t much about it really. Besides our strong rugby culture and some signs of life from our school band, what else is there about our school that really stands out? I’m not putting down any efforts made by the school to improve itself, but one must recognise the nature of competition out there; not just in academics but in sports. It is ruthless and goal oriented, and many institutions we are up against are backed by prestige and substantial funding. I just want to make the point that ideals aren’t something that makes this village stand out. To me, what this school represents is the struggle of the average Singaporean student. There will be distractions and there will be hardships, and somehow that student will just have to suck it up and battle through it all. That’s the reality of our education landscape, not the dream stats of 50% straight A’s and 99.9% University eligibility some schools effortlessly achieve.

Here they are, ordinary students living their ordinary lives. And there is nothing wrong in that.

Here they are, ordinary students living their ordinary lives. And there is nothing wrong in that.

But a lot of how I felt has since changed. I still accept that this “four schools one village” concept is a far cry from perfect, and that a lot of problems lie deep beneath the impressive facade you see as you pass by St. Andrew’s Village (SAV) on the PIE. I accept that these problems have led to a lot of unhappiness both inside and outside of the school, because back in the day, I faced some of these problems myself.

But then, what’s the big deal with problems? Parents make a huge fuss of it because they want to protect their precious children. Teachers fuel their staffroom talk with student problems, administrative problems, etc. But then when you think about it, it makes sense that every educational institution has it’s own problems. In fact, there are no perfect institutions. Even the comparatively ideal schools at Bukit Timah and Bishan get the occasional student outcry that goes viral on the blogsphere. Problems will plague any system that caters to the masses, so saying that we have problems is as good as saying that there are clouds in the sky. It would be mighty weird if the sky was cloudless all day, wouldn’t it?

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Except it WAS cloudless on this day when I took this shot of our neighbourhood!

Problems aside, I believe that in those formative years, we made the most of what we had and learned to have fun in the process. That was my most important lesson learned. In a strange way, this was only possible because our school gave us space. In the secondary school, we were a fun loving bunch, that was often immature and didn’t get our priorities right. We did silly things and never looked back. There was this once that a group of us decided to skip lessons to leave school and study ourselves outside. Well, that was what we explained to the discipline master the next day, and I was sure he didn’t believe a single word we told him. But the truth was, we were really studying outside. We studied and laughed in between conversations, and received multiple phone calls from different teachers telling us to come back. We diverted our attention to how we could cover each others’ butts on the next day. Thinking back, it was really silly to skip school just to study on our own, but somehow this memory remains a very fond one. Why? Because sometime in those few years, I learned how to have fun and not regret it.

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Being young and having regrets were two mutually exclusive events. We had fun and weren’t sorry for it.

I see a similar culture in the staffroom. Not the skipping of lessons, of course, but the learning to have fun part. There are jokes exchanged and students discussed. Amidst all the administrative problems, and the occasional lack of motivation, I would suddenly see a packet of fruit juice on my desk or a Ninjompeipakoa (throat relief medicine) suddenly pop up. We weren’t afraid to help each other and that made my experience strangely heartening and fun.

The kind of thing I see now and then, sore throat remedies and flu medicine appearing out of nowhere on my table. It helps a ton especially when you're thrust into a new environment.

The kind of thing I see now and then, sore throat remedies and flu medicine appearing out of nowhere on my table. It helps a ton especially when you’re thrust into a new environment.

Of course, I’m not saying that fun is absent from other institutions, or that SA is especially fun. I’m just saying how I felt, and what I remembered. In other words, I’m talking about memories. And these are memories that I have no other school to compare to, as all my memories were forged within these walls. The feeling that you had fun or that it was worth it are all attributed to what happened in the past and how we choose to remember certain phases of our lives.

Memories are dredged up every now and then as I go around my business at school. I’ve bumped into a few primary school teachers who (to my surprise) still recognised me (must be because of the occasional teachers’ day visits). Travelling out to have lunch I’d sometimes end up on the same table as my SAJC teachers. I had a relatively smooth time in those institutions, and nothing exceptionally bad happened under the watch of these teachers. So with that assurance I was able to snuggle up in the warmth of my recollections from three to ten years back, and feel a sense of closure. This was the sort of closure I didn’t intend to seek, but was more of an indirect result of my return. Like I said, it was about going full circle, and right now, this circle feels pretty complete.

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Of course, I’ll always choose to remember the good times.

To round it all off, I’m glad to say that my blood, too, runs white and blue. I’ve had my doubts before, but right now I’m more sure than ever. The school has stuck firmly with the values of our forefathers, and because of that, I was accepted into this community. St. Andrew’s has accepted me and taught me a lot through the years and I can never forget that.

Featuring the alumni of the Primary school, Secondary school and Junior college. I didn't realise the significance of this photo until now. Clement, the guy in the pink shirt, even followed me through army!

Featuring the alumni of the Primary school, Secondary school and Junior college. I didn’t realise the significance of this photo until now. Clement (the handsome guy in the pink shirt) even followed me through army!

So, back to the question: why SA? I must be honest, there has been good and bad, from feelings of absolute joy to outright misery. I was allowed to dream, and occasionally pounded headfirst into the cruel depths of reality. I’ve had the privilege of interacting with the most fun and diverse groups of people imaginable, and many of us still keep in close contact. There are memories, good and bad, but in the end these memories made me who I am, and I am glad for that.

There’s no reason really, nothing for me to utterly convince you as to why SA should be an institution you would want to invest in. This is not an institution that is spectacular in any way, nor does it pride itself in being over-the-top or elitist. But alas, after being here for so long, I can say that this school is as much a part of me as I have been a part of it. And for me, that has always been enough.

Thank you SA, you've always been enough.

Thank you SA, you have always been enough.