Are You What You Want To Be?

I’m actually writing this in the middle of an extensively exhausting yet endlessly entertaining (whadduup with the alliteration) orientation camp for uni. My thoughts are constantly on overdrive with all the interaction. So after so much running about and talking and shouting, I’ve found a small pocket of time to write this; so here are my thoughts so far.

During the course of my orientation week, I’ve managed to take in a lot of positive  responses for the last three posts I’ve posted, which (in case you don’t know) is a story about the life of my friend. It took a while to write and I spent the entire week before my orientation writing it at random Starbucks cafes, editing it at home and reading it again in bed. It was challenging to get it all down, but I’m glad it all gelled together so well at the end. I even had some great responses; hearts were touched, tears were shed, and most of all my friend’s story was finally put out there.

I was happy about that, and as orientation went on, the themes behind the entire story sort of followed me along. What do I mean by that? You may ask.

Firstly, it takes a lot of courage to do the right thing for yourself, especially when you don’t know if it’s right for you yet. Is what I’m saying making sense? As I wrote the story, I was following him along his life and I kept thinking to myself, how did he make that choice when there was no real logical reason to ever pursue it? For example at the start of the story one of his teachers presented him the challenges of going to Normal (Academic), but he merely retorts that he wanted to go to Express eventually.

It just blows my mind that so many leaps of faith were taken within those few years, with no concrete reason to.

All he had was heart.

(Here comes the link to my situation…)

And so I want to look at my situation now. It is a situation so completely opposite of the events in the story that I’m slightly embarrassed to even use it as a point of comparison. However, I still believe there are things we can learn here.

To be very honest, these few days have been tiring not just because of the interactions, but the mere observation of people as well. After all the shallow ice breaker questions are out of the way, you begin to discover just how complex, intelligent and ambitious each person really is.

I’ve met an American guy who speaks so fluently in rapid philosophical terms that you’re always staring at him in admiration.

I’ve met a guy who saves animals, a girl who had started a business enterprise in India, a Dutch who is insanely in love with European economics and talks about it all the time.

I mean, in my defense, I have this blog which I try very hard to keep thriving, but hearing how these people were talking,  they could have done much greater things in this world than a simple blog.

Simply put, nobody sits in a Starbucks, twirling their index finger on the rim of their coffee mug and suddenly thinks to themselves, I’m going to start a business in India, or I’m going to delve into the depths of Chinese philosophy Or just suddenly goes crazy and grabs every economics magazine published in Europe and gobbles it down (that was an awfully long sentence).

They had to have some sort of drive. They had drive, and they dared to go against the current to get themselves these ideas, these business opportunities and alas it culminates to form this beautiful network of conceptual knowledge, and a great shot at changing the world.

We have to struggle and go against something in order to be our best and have that lead us to what we love.

That is my biggest takeaway for the first few days here in orientation. Just like my friend who had to challenge every last idea about his place in this world, we have to ask ourselves, what is our place in this world? Is it to just sit back and let the days pass by, or are we going to do something amazing with this one life (or one of the lives, for some religions) we’ve got? Are we going to be brave with our choices or shy away from them like a nervous first date?

Ask yourself this if you’ve read thus far, and have faith that you have some sort of higher purpose. Understand that just because you dont know your happy ending, doesn’t mean you won’t have one. Meeting so many different people has given me that faith, and I will spend the rest of my life working towards the ending I want.

But first, I’ll have to go to sleep. A new day awaits 🙂

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The Man Who Can’t Be Moved, Part III

Those few months felt like the toughest moments in his life. Thinking back about it sitting in his office chair, it was remarkable that he could have made it so far. Every day felt like a fight to survive, dealing with unresolved emotions, deep-seated regrets, crumbling grades. Surrounding all that was a disastrous family situation; there was shouting within the walls of his home on a daily basis, and the terrible prospect of having less than enough to survive on scared him.

He felt like he just fallen into a hole on an otherwise normal day, and now he was stuck. His screams for help wouldn’t reach anyone outside, and before long even he couldn’t hear the sound of his own voice. He spent nights lying in bed, crying himself to sleep after chucking his books aside. It reminded him of the times back in Secondary Two when he would jerk awake with tears in his eyes and a back full of sweat. Back then, those were tears of fear. The tears he wept now, however, were tears of resignation and pity. The same liquid, but served for a different occasion. The dull ache he felt in his chest didn’t go away, all the way to the start of his ‘A’ Levels. It rendered him senseless and everything he thought was certain melted away like an ice cube sliding across searing asphalt.

He thought about what happened exactly one year ago. He had already enlisted and took time out of camp to receive his ‘A’ Level results.

“Eh bro how’s the results?” Came a text from one of his friends from exactly one year back.

“Bad” was his reply.

“Bad? You mean below expectations bad, or like really bad?”

There was a long wait for the next reply. “Like, really bad.”

“Oh.” Replied the friend. And it was the end of that conversation. There was nothing more to say. The sum off all the hardships he had faced in the final year had taken a toll on him, and this was the inevitable end result. He trudged back to camp, defeated.

He didn’t reply any more texts and inquiries about his results, and people could guess as much; it wasn’t good. He could hear the voices even before they reached him. This guy tried so hard but still met his fate. I can’t say I’m not surprised, said one. The juniors that looked up to him all these years need to find a new role model lah. This one at the start show potential only, but can’t even seal the deal at the end, came another voice, a higher-pitched one that he imagined to be that of his secondary school teacher. You have your place. I told you so. I was right, wasn’t I? Now go find your place. And oh yes, one more thing: stop trying already, ok?

 

All this while, the whistles continued blowing, and the sun pricked his scalp where his hair had just been shaved off. Enlisting proved to be a good distraction, and any negative thoughts were wrung out of his body due to sheer exhaustion. It taught him one thing, that life was going to move on whether he liked it or not, whether he scored straight A’s or straight E’s. Life was going to continue the same way the ghosts kept reviving in Pac man, it was just up to him to continue swallowing the dots.

Due to his injuries sustained during rugby, he was deemed unfit for combat and hence after his basic training was posted as a clerk. The posting itself was fortunate, but the location of his camp made it all the better for it was only a ten minute bicycle ride from his home. It was a rare stroke of good fortune in an otherwise turbulent existence the last few months.

And so it was, about ten months ago, he was sitting on the very same chair, twirling his pen expertly around the knuckle of his index finger when a colleague accidentally swept his entire cup of coffee onto the rug. The mug bounced once as if in slow motion, before it tipped and unloaded its entire contents onto the fabric. He immediately leaped over to help clean up the mess,  grabbing a box of tissues and getting on his knees. As the wad of tissues in his hand soaked up the dark brown coffee, a sudden, virtually irrelevant thought came to his mind.

I am going to retake my ‘A’ Levels.

 

Just like that, as he was cleaning up the coffee, he knew he had to do it. There was no reason for him to suddenly think this way, but made perfect sense at that moment; the time he had, the ease of transport and most of all, the unresolved bitterness he held so close to him. It was going to be straightforward. He was going to do this.

“It’s not so straightforward,” advised one of his close friends a few days later. “I mean, I’m not trying to spoil your party here. I also know that a lot of teachers and classmates have told you so in the past that nothing good can come out of you trying this, but lets shove all that aside. Back then you had a classroom, a whiteboard and a living, breathing teacher to help you everyday. You had an environment of learning, in other words. They may have doubted you then but at least you had a decent shot at it in the past.”

The friend was speaking with unusual eloquence, and it scared him.

“But now all you have is a camp, a table and — I don’t know, some freakish willpower I have no idea where you dredge out from. I think it may be over for you. I wouldn’t be doing you any favours sugarcoating my words here, but the chance has come and gone. I don’t know, can you really do this? And the money it would cost you as well! Eight hundred dollars just to retake, without any financial reimbursement, no real reason why you’d fare any better as well…I don’t know about your sudden urge to retake man. I really don’t.”

He thought about it for a while, before a wry smile crossed his face. “Thanks for the opinion bro, but I think you’ve just given me all the reason I need to retake this paper.”

The friend was taken aback. “Wait. I’ve been trying to convince you NOT to retake man. I don’t quite see how you can find any reason to. Everything I said makes perfect sense. You have no reason to put yourself through it again. Your results can still get you a uni course. So why?”

He cleared his throat in defiance. “Why? The real question I’m going to have to ask myself is firstly, why not? And secondly, to what extent can I prove you wrong? Besides,perfect sense seems to be the last thing I need right now.”

His friend now looked up and smiled to himself, impressed.

“It’s funny, if you had encouraged me to retake I may have reconsidered the entire thing and backed out, but now that you’ve given me all the reasons not to, I guess all I have left to do is prove you wrong, do I not?”

* * *

The first problem in his quest to retake his exam was the prescient issue of money. There were many families out there who could easily fund the endeavors of their offspring, and truth be told, his wasn’t one of them. He scratched his head, thinking of where he could possibly get the cash.

He considered borrowing from his friends, and when he brought this issue up to his parents, his mother simply shrugged and told him he’d have to find the money himself, dad had lost his job and we cannot afford to fund any of your dreams. Dreams. Did his mother really consider this endeavor a mere dream?

The dateline for application was drawing near, and he had not a single cent.

This all changed during a hot tuesday afternoon, during a routine funds transfer. He queued patiently at the ATM machine, and when it was finally his turn he got a shock.

There was eight hundred dollars more in his account. He stood there for half a minute, staring at the figures. Whatever errands he had to run that day were soon forgotten.

Upon reaching home, he questioned his father about it. He was walking about the kitchen, tossing ingredients into the pan, where they mingled; sizzling wildly. His father wiped his sweat from his forehead. All he would tell him was this: “don’t tell your brother and sisters about this.”

He didn’t understand his meaning.

“But why? Wouldn’t this be hard on us?” He questioned.

“That isn’t the point.”

But that is the whole point!” He rebutted.

His father became stern, and a few years seemed to recede from his countenance. The pan was sizzling to the point of uncontrolled pops and crackles. How much oil did he add?

“Listen up. I don’t give a single damn about what you think about this, alright? If it is your dream to retake this exam, it is every father’s dying right to give his son that dream. This is my money, and you are my son.”

Father looked at son, frying pan in hand, ready to smack a baseball out of the park.

“You take that money, and make something of it, alright? I believe in you, son. I haven’t the means to show it and for all I know I may have been the lousiest parent, but God forbid I deny you this. You have an entire life ahead of you and it starts here. Now go.”

You have the entire pitch, and eighty minutes; now go.

His father returned to the pan, stirring the vegetables, a wizard over his cauldron. Leaving the kitchen, the son went to his room and closed the door.

In the dark, he clutched the wad of notes in his hand. His lower lip was trembling; his heart thumping fiercely. He had meant to return it to his father then and there, but he knew now, more than ever, the first thing he was going to do. He was going to make him proud.

* * *

And so started a whole new routine. The entire process was well thought out, painstakingly followed, and had no trace of his sloppy and distracted self from the previous year. He grabbed his bike in the morning, and the day would begin as follows:

He would cycle to work, wind playing with his emerging hair. The ride would take about ten minutes. When he was in his office, he would scramble to one corner and delve straight into his books, copying notes, solving math problems and physics equations. He would text his past teachers if he had burning questions, and some even offered to tutor him on his off days.

After work ended at six, he would cycle home. He spent a couple of hours scrubbing his own office attire and hanging it out to dry, wolfing down his home-cooked dinner and taking a quick shower. At about eight, he would get on his bike again, ride all the way to Novena Starbucks, and dig out his books and continue with a second round of revision.

He would read through his notes, memorize concepts, and focus on every last detail and idea that the notes seemed to be telling him. There were days where this revision would go smoothly and everything would flow into his head like clear water out of a jug. However, on some days, tiredness would creep in ever so unreasonably, and thoughts would not flow. His eyelids would shut as his resolve melted.

But he would always jolt awake. The images from the past, every failure, every last person that did not have faith in him waded in the waters of his conscience. He could not drown them out, and their triumphant cries kept him pinned to his books. He could not lose sight now.

On most days, he would study until three in the morning, cycle home, and collapse onto his bed at four.

He would be awake in four hours, and the cycle would start all over again.

Once, at work, a supervisor had a request.

Eh, can help Roger and I move some of the boxes?”

He looked up from his desk, leaving the world of nuclear physics behind. “Yes, sure.”

They moved a few boxes, and it took longer than expected. After the entire job was done, the three men were exhausted. Those were some heavy boxes, was all he could think. “Yup, that’s it,” he announced. “Need anymore help?”

His supervisor merely stared at him and nodded, his lips pursed in heavy contemplation.

There was a short intermission of intense silence, before his supervisor broke the tension.

“So, you really think you can do this eh?” He began. “You really think you can just hide in your corner, and study all day, act blur as we all do work behind your back?” Clearly, somebody wasn’t happy with his participation (or lack thereof) in the workplace.

“Let me tell you something,” he continued. “You may be in an office environment, but don’t you dare think, for one minute, that you can do your own thing and pursue your own agenda. The guys here may be slackers, but at least they will be present and do what I tell them to do. How about you? Just studying there as if you own the whole place. Tell you what; this is not a tuition centre or a school, you understand? I want you to participate more in the office and not bury yourself in your books anymore.”

“What’s the problem here?” It was the head superintendent. He was a tall Indian man in his fifties with a flowing moustache. He had eavesdropped the entire time from his office. “If the boy wants to study, you let him study. I know you all are not happy about these two years. You think you guys are wasting your time, but look at him! He’s putting in an effort to improve himself, doing something with the time he has. There are more than enough people in this office to do the work required, and there are more than enough people who are willing two waste two years. This boy is not one of them, do you guys understand?”

The supervisor’s face began to turn red, as the head superintendent continued.

“Boy, I want you take all your books with you. I have a spare table in my office; I want you to move there. You are under me now. If I tell you to do work, you do work, and if not I want to see you studying.” He turned to the supervisor. “As for you, I don’t want any more nonsense from you, understand? He is my business now.”

Flushed as a tomato, the supervisor strained himself to an exaggerated nod.

In the next few months he spent in the head superintendent’s office, he couldn’t help but notice that he was not passed on as many errands in the course of the day as compared to his colleagues. He did his work diligently in the light of this and studied even harder with the pockets of times he had. He would always owe this privilege to his head superintendent.

As he cycled back from his late night studies at Starbucks, there would be a downhill path, and in the dead of night not a single car could be observed. He rode his bike down the hill, wind in his face and his back to the entire world. The song “Eye of the Tiger” played from his earphones, and as the bike sped relentlessly downward, his spirits lifted.

 

Now I’m back on my feet / Just a man, and his will to survive.

 

His will to survive, he would think. He closed his eyes as the bicycle completed the last leg of the downhill.

If a car hits me now and I die, I would die happy.

 

He opened his eyes as his bicycle came to an eventual stop in the middle of a main road. He was alive.

He looked down at his left fist, clasping hard on the handlebar. On his fist he had scribbled the word “BELIEVE” in capital letters, bravely imprinted as a constant reminder, and a symbol of his struggle. It was like his days in NT, where he would scribble new words he’d learnt onto his left fist. How far had he come since then, and how much meaning did that word hold in his entire journey? How much further did he have to go before he could prove something to himself?

Not much further now, whispered a small voice, you’re almost there.

 

He kicked the ground softly with his right foot, and cycled the rest of the journey home.

And so, five months passed like this. Waking up, studying at work, asking help from his teachers, studying at Starbucks, listening to Eye of the Tiger on repeat, then sleeping again. Cycling, studying, cycling, studying, cycling, Eye of the Tiger, sleep. Cycling, studying, cycling, studying, cycling, Eye of the Tiger, sleep. This went on and on until the day the ‘A’ Level examinations visited his life once again.

* * *

He packed his things and said a quick goodbye to his colleagues. It was time to go. Go where? He thought. To see my results…yes. He chuckled nervously to himself, before bumping into the head superintendent on the way out.

“So, how was it?” His voice was stern, as if at a wake.

“I haven’t seen the results yet, Sir,” he admitted. “I’m going to see with my friends.”

He nodded in acknowledgement. “You have nothing to be worried about, boy. I’ve seen the way you worked the last few months. Sometimes I wish my children could take a page from your book. To put you in my office was the best decision I’ve made in my time here, I’m sure of that. You will do well, boy.”

To that, he could only nod. He wished he had half of his superior’s faith.

The car came and picked him up from his house at eight. He could only manage a few spoonfuls of dinner even though he had missed his lunch, and stepped into the car feeling sick in the stomach. Three of his best friends were waiting inside.

One of them poked out his head from the front seat. “How’re you feeling? Scared ah?

 

“A bit lah…” he replied. No shit, Sherlock.

 

They eventually decided to drive to Marina Barrage, and as the car moved along they discussed the possibilities.

“So what if the result is damn good? Have you thought of like what you’d do?”

“I don’t think it’d be good, but here’s to hoping something improved. I’ve worked my ass off for this,” he replied in complete honesty.

“And if it sucks?” Probed another friend.

“Let’s not discuss that possibility,” he shot back immediately. The car ride was filled with an irreplaceable silence for the rest of the journey.

The group of four got off the car, and slowly made their way up the slope. The barrage was designed as one huge upward spiral, the ground rising steadily and paved with a huge lawn of grass and a hefty sum of taxpayer’s money. There was a gentle breeze that night, and the air was cool. There was no suggestion of any latent struggles, no fleeting symbolisms to pave the way for what was about to happen. The wind just continued blowing, and the grass swaying happily in its wake.

The four of them got up to the top, and sat down on a concrete slab that rose casually from the lawn. “Ok, here goes…”

He whipped out his phone, and from his email, accessed the link to his portal.

He held his breath. They all held their breaths.

“Log in” read the webpage.

His heart was beating excessively fast, pumping blood to irrelevant parts of his body, but most of all supplying much needed oxygen to his brain. His thoughts were on overdrive. I forgot to stay signed in!

 

Hastily, he typed in his username and password.

There was a voice from the past. Very useless one you know! You will be useless! It was his teacher from primary school. From an obscure corner of his mind, she had come to grace the occasion as well. You abnormal one! What good can you do!

He pressed enter.

“Invalid user/password” read the page.

Stupid! You try so hard also like that! Also can’t do well when it counts. You know why or not? Because you didn’t want to join the cool kids when you had the chance. See what you are now? Some loser! Some loser, a nothing! It was Solomon’s voice this time. He too, had decided to pay him an unexpected visit. His words rang in his head. If he didn’t remember wrongly, he had a very loud and obnoxious voice.

“Why is the password wrong?” He scrambled for the keys and retyped the password. He was frantic now. “I’m quite sure I remembered correctly…”

“Calm down, just type slowly,” suggested one of his friends.

His words did not register. It was drowned out by yet another voice.

You have your place. I told you so. I told you all along. There is no place for you here. Excellence is not something that will grace this fleeting life of yours. I gave you the option to continue on the path that was meant for you and you said no. Look at yourself now. Look at what happens when an ignorant student decides to forgo his teacher’s advice. Just look.

 

He pressed enter. This time, the screen hanged.

“NO!” he shouted. He sat on the floor, feeling nothing but defeat. “The damn thing won’t bloody log in.”

His friends stood around, powerless.

The voices all spoke in unison now, and amalgamated to form a singular, more sinister voice. It was that of a scream.  YOU’RE NOTHING…SUCH A LOSER….WHY DO YOU TRY SO HARD? WHY WHY WHY? WHY TRY WHEN THIS IS ALWAYS THE OUTCOME? THIS SAD SITUATION, WITH YOU SITTING ON THE FLOOR, DEFEATED AND FEELING SO EMPTY INSIDE? WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO PROVE? WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? The scream rang in his head for the next few seconds.

And then, amongst the voices, there was one he recognized as his own. How did I get here?

 

The screen lit up.

“Mathematics (H2) ––––––––––– A

Physics (H2) –––––––––––– B

Chemistry (H2) ––––––––––––– B”

It took a while to register. The voices faded away. His mind was as hushed as a vacuum.

It was his friends that reacted first. There may have been screams, but he couldn’t quite remember now. There were definitely a few hands on his shoulders, hands that were pressing down hard in congratulations, yet all he could feel was a tremendous weight lifting from the deepest recesses of his chest.

When it all sank in, he ran, faster than his legs could take him, ran with the wind behind his back this time, trailing along. From the roof of Marina Barrage, a man shouted to the skies in triumph.

* * *

 

“Hello Son,” spoke his dad over the phone. “How did you do?”

“Hi Dad. I got A B B Dad. I got A for maths and B for Physics and Chem,” he announced proudly, barely able to breathe properly or contain himself.

There was a long pause over the line. He thought about his dad sitting by his side after his PSLE result. The more people tell you that you can’t, the more you have to prove to them that you can.

He thought of the money transferred into his account, his father holding the frying pan, his only defense against a world that had been so cruel to him, the immense faith he had in his son.

Gosh. How long ago was that?

“Wait… stop right there,” his father probed. “I’m not well versed about how this works so… is the result something we should be happy about?”

“Yes, Dad,” his voice was trembling and his cheeks were damp.

“It’s a brilliant result Dad. It’s absolutely brilliant.”

 

Here. This is where I am. It has been a long journey. My legs are tired, my muscles ache and my lungs hurt. I have been pushed around, made fun of, doubted over and over again. But I am here, and this is now. I am here, and this is where I belong. No one can take that away from me. It is my destiny, and I am exactly where I want to be. 

The Man Who Can’t Be Moved, Part II

The lunch crowd was back, and brought with them an irritable rowdiness that clouded up his thoughts. He began to feel hungry, but had already missed the lunch window. He sat at his cubicle, and on his phone were what seemed like a thousand WhatsApp notifications. “How did you do for A’s?” Read one. “Improve from the last time?” Read another. It was all too much to bear. If he logged into the examination portal now, he would know his results. All the hard work, the struggles, the tears and misery; it all lay on that single webpage and in the seemingly arbitrary letters that appeared beside each subject.

He picked up his phone and sent a message to his secondary school friends, “tonight we meet and we see my results together?” These were the guys that had been with him since Secondary Three. If there was anybody in the world that was familiar with his struggle, it would be them. He pressed send, and waited for the reply.

 

There was nothing to fear, everything will be ok.

 

Secondary Three flew past with its trials and triumphs. Change, as he discovered, was a highly ambiguous notion. With his promotion to Express came with it a fair share of glory, as well as a fair share of competition and insecurities. The attitudes of the people around him changed vastly. He felt like he had swum out of the narrow canals and was now in a vast ocean. At times this was too much for him, but he had to adapt. With every change of slide, erasing of the whiteboard and switch in topic, he felt exhausted. Not that he wasn’t ready for this, but this change in environment was the confirmation that he had a lot to catch up on.

“Mrs. Lee, this formula only applies to right-angled triangles right?” He once asked in class. “Yes, it only applies to right-angled triangles. I thought I already told you guys already?” Replied the teacher.

Eh, it’s the first thing she said when introducing this theorem you know? When we stepped into class, immediately she said as we were settling down. Everyone heard it, so can you please don’t waste our time?” Chimed in Ravinder. He used to be from Raffles, but dropped out and ended up here.

“Now hold it right there, Ravinder,” spoke Mrs. Lee. “He has all the right to ask me questions, whenever he likes. And I will entertain every last one, because I can see that he is willing to learn. I know you were from Raffles and that you think you’re very smart. But please, I hope you realise that you are all in the same classroom now, and that he has as much of a right to learn as you have. I don’t wish to hear you making fun of him in future.”

The entire class spoke in hushed undertones, as Ravinder looked at the edge of his table, speechless.

Rugby training continued with increasing intensity. After all, he had made it to the first team. The way you pass the ball had a certain flow. You didn’t merely pass the ball to your teammate to advance. You had to think a few steps ahead, and have a rough idea as to where your opponents would be, where your teammate was going to run, and finally, where you should run to offer the maximum support; that is, to block off potential threats and get into favourable positions to receive subsequent passes. Every bone crushing tackle, knock to the head and abrasion on the knees was just part and parcel of this beautiful game that he had learned to love. He didn’t mix so well with his teammates at first, but after strings of successful passes, effective tackles and passionate dives, he became a permanent fixture in the team. Eventually, he gained the respect of his teammates the same way a golf ball rolls to the hole; quietly, but deliberately.

On a fine day in April, the final whistle blew.

The spectators streamed onto the field, and immediately, he was hoisted up to the shoulders of his classmates. It was a sunny Wednesday afternoon, and the Padang came to life. His team had just won the rugby ‘B’ Division Championships.

There were relieved looks all round, and scenes of pure, unadulterated celebration. He looked around at the field from where he stood, head above the entire crowd. He had achieved something remarkable. No more than two years ago, he knew not the touch of a rugby ball, and now he was a victor. He had won. And for that moment, no one could take it away from him.

“Good job bro,” said one of his classmates. “We were cheering our lungs out for you out there man. You should’ve seen the whole crowd, it was just insane.”

And then, from within the sea of faces, a pale hand shot out from the depths. He shook it instinctively, and the owner of the hand soon appeared from the crowd. It was Solomon, his former classmate that punched him in Secondary Two.

“You were amazing out there. Don’t stop the good work, bro,” his voice was shaky and filled with a long overdue tinge of wistfulness.

They made eye contact for a split second, and what he saw in them moved him to tears. It was the look of utmost respect, the sort of look that one human chooses to give another in only a handful of occasions through the course of a lifetime. It was a look that would stay with him for a long time after the shriek of the final whistle had left his bones.

Ah yes, the rugby finals. He thought to himself while spinning about in his office chair. It may have been many years ago, but the sensation of lifting that cup had never left him. It was the last time he had felt a genuine sense of triumph, and a moment that he truly thought himself to be invincible. It was as if the sun decided to shine for a day after months of rain. His skin basked in the rare sunlight on that day, as sweaty palms hoisted him up high. It was an image he couldn’t help but smile along to.

His phone buzzed, and pulled him straight out of his fantasy. One of his friends had replied. “Yes, tonight we meet, the few of us / We can drive somewhere quiet if we want. All the best,” was what the message read. It shall be tonight then, he sighed. He thought that if nobody replied, he could just forget that he took the entire exam and forgo the revelation of his results altogether.

It was the same group of friends that accompanied him the day before the ‘O’ Level results arrived. This was more than four years ago. He suddenly remembered this with surprising clarity. They were walking down the Promontory at where Marina Bay Sands now stood, and had not a clue what life was about to bring. The saltwater was lapping at the walls of the embankment like a thirsty dog after a long walk. The night was still and a few couples ambled leisurely, whispering their sweet nothings along the otherwise quiet shores. The five of them walked along, uncertain of what the next day would bring.

“Hey man, you’ll be fine,” one of them assured. He was unusually quiet tonight. “You’ve always done well, there’ll be no difference here, alright?”

“I know,” he replied. “As in, I don’t know if I did my best, or if I will do well, but I know I’ve come a damn long way. It was hard. There were many times I just felt like giving up and also many times I felt unworthy. Back in Secondary Two a teacher told me something to do with our place in this world, you know? That we were all meant to be somewhere, and she sort of implied that I was destined to stay in NT and fulfill this role. It really sickened me, not because she would say such a thing, but it sickened me to think that there were so many times that I almost believed in what she said. I had to always guard myself against these thoughts. Where do these roles come from anyway? To put it simply, what I’m doing now challenges that notion in its entirety. And the hardest thing to fight isn’t necessarily exams, or peer pressure, but these sickening ideas. The idea that we all have our place, or that we all have a destiny; it was difficult imagining anything more for myself when my entire life has been a series of obstacles. So yes, it was hard to shove all that aside and live out everyday believing that I belonged. It was the largest battle I had to face, you know?”

He stared at the water fiercely before continuing.

“Sometimes I look at you guys, all ready and eager to face the world, and I wonder if I can ever have that confidence. Maybe the results will be good tomorrow, maybe not. But one thing is for sure, I want to continue chasing that better version of myself. It’s something I vowed to accomplish from the start. If I lose that desire within myself, all my struggles would have been for nothing.”

A hand reached over and rested itself on his shoulder. It was a thick shoulder, strengthened tremendously from all the rugby trainings. The high-rise offices cast a contemplative eye over the group, their office lights sporadically dispersed along the glass facades.

One of them spoke after a long silence. “Bro, whatever happens, we’ve got your back. Trust me, we’re all worried too, worried sick in fact. We just don’t know how to express it. None of us have tasted failure like you have, and we’re weak and vulnerable for that. All I know is, that whatever happens, we will be there for each other, alright? We will remember this night, the night before our ‘O’ Level results, where we stood by the water and promised that we wouldn’t change for the worst.

“I know you’re sick of hearing this, but with all sincerity, you’ve come a long way. Longer than most people could even dream of, so I want you to step in there, and know that the results will be good, alright? Because I know, that amongst the five of us, you’ve had the biggest heart in this fight.”

He smiled at himself, and the echo of his father’s words from what seemed like a lifetime ago came back to him like the aftertaste of brilliant coffee.

“Maybe,” was all he could say in return.

The day he received his ‘O’ Level results would always haunt him. It wasn’t because he did badly, or that his teachers were disappointed in him, but the fact that he fell sorely below the expectations he had set for himself. All his subjects fared reasonably well, but his English pulled his grades down tremendously.

He made it well within the requirements to enter JC, but deep within the ravines of his conscience, he knew that he was capable of so much more. He had a hard time clawing himself out of that ravine in the next few days that followed.

“I would advise you to go Poly,” said his form teacher straight off. “I’m giving you very serious advice here, and based on what I see from your abilities, you are clearly capable of a lot and an overflowing dam of potential.”

He could see where this was going.

“But,” continued the teacher, “your pace of learning may not suit the Junior College curriculum. It requires consistency and rigour, critical thinking and constant evaluation of your study methods. Trust me, I was there once and even I had quite the time of my life there. I’m sure you’re capable of the above, but I don’t know if you can continue playing catch up the way you have in Express.”

He stared at his form teacher blankly, unsure of what to say. Everything sounded very serious and confrontational all of a sudden.

“So what I want you to do is, to go home and really think about what you’re good at. Don’t just go to JC thinking that it’s the popular choice. Don’t follow your friends or your heart or whatever. Do what’s best for yourself. The path from Poly is way more direct and catered to your strengths, which I believe is in math and science. Don’t let the language component in JC continue to pull you down. I can rant on forever about this, but just know that it’s for the best. It’s for your best. Please make the right choice.”

Please make the right choice. He shuffled his teacher’s words in his head. “I’ll think about it, sir,” he blurted out. “Thanks for all your guidance through the two years. I wouldn’t have made it so far if not for the faith you had in me. ”

Smiles were exchanged. Teacher and student shook hands, and then were off on their separate paths, one back to his job, and the other to the rest of his life.

* * *

The school hall was much bigger than what he had envisioned school halls to be. There were crowds of unfamiliar faces streaming in, all looking for which Orientation Group (OG) they belonged to, and all finding a place to sit before activities began. He took a few cautious steps under the scrutiny of the fluorescent lights, and treaded carefully to his OG. This was a much bigger institution than he had expected, but he was up for the challenge all the same.

The principal walked up to stage, and tapped her index finger on the tip of the microphone as a quick test. “Good morning to all of you, welcome to your first day of Junior College.”

He took a deep breath. So begins my life in JC.

As expected, the pace of work was considerably more rigourous, and the teachers didn’t really have the patience to answer every last question. It was up to him to listen carefully and take everything in his own stride. And he did this very well — at first. He made friends carefully, and immersed himself in the JC culture like a pirate to his rum. He scored considerably well for the mid year exams, and, yet again, surpassed all expectations.

Sometimes he wondered if his life was going to be one huge honour roll of the number of expectations he surpassed. Why can’t people just expect the best out of me from the beginning? He would always think that to himself. And to that, he had a point. Why did he always have to start on the losing end only to exceed expectations rather than to meet them? Why couldn’t he be at the top from the beginning, instead of play the pity card like the surprise performances at Britain’s Got Talent? It was something he had to think about, and every look of amazement and compliment that flew his way, he took with a heavy pinch of salt.

And then disaster struck. During one of the rugby trainings, he tore a ligament.

Sure, he had faced concussions, scars, been winded for minutes, and it all hurt him tremendously. But all those injuries were brought about by an opponent. This particular case was brought about by a sudden change in direction during training. His knees couldn’t take the strain of his bodyweight, and something in there just gave way. He was immediately taken off the field, hobbling between two teammates who supported him to the side.

“What has happened is that your anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, as most athletes call it, has torn itself,” announced the doctor as if telling him a mathematical formula. “So this means that your knee can no longer support your body weight. This is due to the fact that it is right inside the joint; it is the central ligament that connects the joints. Remember, the bone is the door and the ligament acts as the hinge. Without the hinge, there will not be effective movement, if any movement at all. I would advise you to rest for a few months, and stay away from any high impact sports.”

He could only nod along to this, as disappointment and anger took over. It wasn’t even an opponent, he began to think, I did this to myself.

 

The end of his first year was when things started to go wrong. Coupled with his newfound confidence in his mid year results and his time out of rugby, his life was thrown off balance in its entirety.

It all added up: without training, he should have had more time to study, and so he indulged in this freedom. He stayed out late, procrastinated frequently, and didn’t bother asking questions during lesson. He made crude remarks during lesson time and poked fun at the teachers’ word choices. His classmates laughed along and encouraged him, and for a moment, it felt good to fit in.

It’s funny, how a change in one facet of your life can indirectly affect another seemingly unrelated area such as his studies. Too caught up in the moment as he was, it was something he failed to realize. That is, until it was too late.

Eh what you get for your chemistry? I got D sia damn sian. Thought I studied harder but oh wells,” lamented one of his classmates. He looked down at his final year paper in shock. He would have been more than happy with a D grade given what he saw on the arbitrary little box, with a seemingly arbitrary number inside. It was a grade he was too used to seeing, one that he had sworn to never let appear in his life again. He listlessly showed his classmates his grade, and they looked on in silence. They knew how hard he had worked to get to where he was, but then they also saw the way he had played in lesson, fooling around and distracting the class in those few months. “I’m sure you’ll be alright,” one of them ventured. He sounded as convincing as a weight loss commercial, and rightfully so, for how was one to console him when none had ever felt the abject weight of failure as he had?

Retaining in Junior College, he thought to himself. It was one event in his life that brought with it such mixed emotions. He made another quick spin in his office chair before pretending to do some reports as his supervisor walked past. He thought about the events that unfolded just three years back, and made a mental note of the things that had happened. So much was lost, and the events that unfolded still haunted him as he made another quick spin.

Retaining meant that he would repeat his first year again, as a lot of his friends progressed to their final year. It was a prospect he dreaded at first, but as the days passed it gradually sunk in that it was a life he had to accept. Well, not just a life, but an identity as well. Maybe they were right, he thought, in their eyes, I’d never have a higher standing. I’d always live my life exceeding expectations and surmounting the odds.

 

Being more senior, he broke into various social circles, running about the place and talking to people from his old class, rugby, his secondary school and mingling with his new class all the same. He gained a reputation after his audacious antics during his second orientation, and it didn’t take long for his underdog story to emerge. He gained a strange bout of popularity that he wasn’t used to up till now. It made him feel good and accept all that had happened to him up to now.

The year passed by like an uninterrupted gust of wind, and it wasn’t a surprise that he promoted comfortably. Things were looking up, and he was beginning to feel a lightness in his chest.

To add to this lightness, his torn ligament recovered, and he was able to play for the school again. Through the course of training, he had multiple concussions, one of which landed him in hospital. He vomited, had leg cramps, but was careful this time never to pick up any season-ending injuries. It was his final year, and his very last chance to prove something for himself on the field again. He could not afford to mess things up.

He remembered the ‘A’ Division Rugby Finals. The ball was still in his hands, warm from the entire game. And then the final whistle blew. He dropped the ball and sank to his knees. The entire crowd cheered violently from the stands, and the ground seemed to shake as scenes from four years back flooded his senses. Groups of supporters, friends and teachers ran onto the pitch. There was the school mascot, players on the field sobbing; some in triumph while others in anguish. It didn’t matter to him now. As classmates approached him for hugs, friends stood beside him for pictures, and teachers leaned forward for handshakes, he couldn’t help but feel one singular emotion: that he had made it. The feeling he now cradled in his chest was just as he had remembered it. He was sure at that moment that nothing could stand in his way from here on end.

However, it was right after this remarkable triumph that everything went dramatically wrong.

A few months later, they found him at the back of the hall, his body wracked with violent sobs, his right sleeve soaked to the tip and thick droplets leaving their mark in the concrete. He grabbed the first friend that arrived and sobbed onto his shoulder. There was no controlling such sadness, the first tear rolls out and your expression cringes up like the crumbling walls of a collapsing dam. Every last feeling of self-pity, spite and anger seemed to seep out from the corner of his eyes. There was nothing more to observe but sheer misery.

“What’s wrong man?” Started the friend. “I came all the way down here from home, so I hope you can just tell me. It really sucks seeing you like this.”

“She’s gone la. She left. She’s gone and I can never get her back,” he started in between sobs. Irrevocably, irretrievably lost, he thought.

“So she’s gone. So what?” His friend felt a sudden surge of impatience, and decided to go for the tougher approach. “She’s gone, but you’re still here. You’re going to be you no matter what, do you understand? Can you even listen to me right now? I don’t think it’s fair to let one person ruin the entire party, so why don’t you get up and stop this self pity. You owe this fight to yourself, not some girl who decides to call it quits the moment things get tough.”

“I know what you’re saying…I’ve thought of it myself. But look. It’s not so simple. Everyone who told me they’d be there for me just got up and went off as well. It’s like we were brothers and everything right, then when the break up happened they all went to her side. It probably sounds damn lame to you, but now they study together, and I don’t know. You think you won’t be affected by it but soon enough it just gnaws at you and boy, it hurts. It fucking stings. Things are happening behind my back at a ridiculous rate and I don’t think I can take it any longer.

“You know in Secondary school people would make fun of me, but that was fine. They were all decent enough to do this in front of me and so I took it like a man. Besides, I always used their words to motivate myself, to show that one day, I could do better, you know? But this! There is no fighting this sadness. It exists just for that purpose, to make one sad. It is not inspiring or motivational in any way.”

He brought his right sleeve up to his eyes at the end of the monologue. He was right. This ‘sadness’ was clearly tearing him apart. His eyes looked haggard, his once bulky frame had dramatically lessened, and worst of all, strands of white hair were starting to poke out of his hairline like streaks of contrail from fighter jets. The friend let him continue.

“And to top it all off, my father lost his job. Apparently the bus is no longer registered or something, I couldn’t even bother to ask more.” His voice trailed off and he buried his face into the hollow of his friends shoulder once again.

“Wow, that’s a lot of problems for one conversation,” ventured the friend. There was nothing one could say to make the situation any worst, so he figured out he wouldn’t be doing any harm stating the obvious.

“Why does it all have to happen at the same time? For the life of me, I can never understand that. ‘A’ Levels is in two months’ time, and here I am, a wreck of a human being, with everything falling apart all around me. Really, I won’t mind if it all spread out over the course of the last two years. I would have been strong enough to take every last punch one blow at a time, I really would have. I would have had it all planned out but this…”

The friend let him go on about the situation. He didn’t offer an opinion, didn’t make another sound. No words came to his mouth. When life presents one an unsolvable riddle, the best thing a friend can do is listen.

The Man Who Can’t Be Moved, Part I

Since somewhere at the start of March this year, I’ve been wanting to write this story. It tossed and turned in my head for a while but I couldn’t find the right time nor place to start. I also didn’t have enough faith in myself. I didn’t have faith that I could encapsulate the struggle that this story so sorely revolves around. 

But now I think I’m ready to show you guys this story. It is a story about one of my best friends, and is very closely based on facts and actual occurrences. In life there will be struggles, and then there will be the overcoming of it, and this is a story that encapsulates such a journey.

This is the first of a three part series, and writing this was like having one long conversation with him through the night, exploring every facet and defining for myself what the word struggle truly meant. I hope you guys enjoy reading this as much as I did writing every last word.

* * *

He woke up with a violent jolt. His white singlet was bathed in sweat. He felt light headed and nauseous.

How did I get here?

It was the question he asked himself the moment he sat up. Not that he’d woken up beside a dumpster, or an open field. He had woken up in his own bed.

How did I gethere?

It was the day of his ‘A’ Level results. He had taken the entire examination, every last paper, as a private candidate. He had gone against everyone’s advice, and decided to take this one last final chance to make things right.

And today, well, today was the results day. At this very moment, there were students all over Singapore, all freshly graduated and waking up to a day where, like it or not, things will never be the same. Life ambitions jubilantly realised or tragically crushed, whilst tough decisions will be forced out by circumstance. All these things, they will take place today in various schools, various halls where students sit, packed like sardines, the atmosphere pregnant with wild anticipation.

But it was not the same for him. Private candidates take a very different course. Their results will appear online in the SEAB (examination board) portal. That would have to wait to the afternoon. His head was numb with uncertainty as he slurped down his breakfast in tentative gulps. He had work to attend to first.

On his bike he rode, wind flitting through his hair. It was an ancient contraption, gears about to give way any moment. He paddled on to work. He thought of where it all began. It wasn’t an easy journey. That he knew.

He entered primary school knowing little to no English. He did not have the luxury of attending a proper kindergarten, and his family spoke conversational Chinese at home. Neither were they well off. “Not well off” may be an understatement. They shared a three-room flat, with six people crammed in, hardly any space for each individual, let alone a boy who just needed space to grow.

At a young age, he struggled. He could barely keep up with conversations amongst his classmates. During lessons, he struggled to learn new words and phrases, while his classmates seemed to have everything figured out.

“Come here.” His teacher shouted out to him one day. “Tell me, how do you spell beautiful?”

He was primary three at that time. He should have known. He thought of whether the “e” came before the “a”, or the other way around. Was there an “o” huddled somewhere inside? He kept silent at the end of it.

“You don’t know right?” barked the teacher. He looked at his feet, lips trembling with disappointment. Then, she softened her gaze, and spoke in a softer tone. “I don’t care if you know or not. A lot of your classmates also don’t know, I assure you. But look at you. You don’t even want to try. Don’t waste my time. Go back to your seat. Don’t come asking for my help until you decide to try.”

So back to his seat he went. And for a long time after that, he decided not to try. Better to just be invisible and let the world pass above you than make waves.

“Sit here!” Shouted the same teacher a few months later. He shuffled to the front of the class and sat under the whiteboard. “Why do you always have to be the abnormal one?” Asked the teacher. There was some laughter from the class, and echoes of abnormal. Then total silence.

He held it all in, and barely managed to compose himself before a teardrop managed to stray from the corner of his eye. He kept silent all the same as his teacher continued, “You always skip lessons, cannot even speak properly. What do you aim to be next time? Like that very useless one you know? You will be useless!”

He continued cycling to work, leaving those thoughts behind. Some words, no matter how meaningless you make them out to be, always manage to creep back at you at the most inopportune times. This was one of those times. He sighed as he placed his bike on the rack and ambled into the office.

His superior greeted him. “Today is the ‘A’ Level results hor?” He started, “I think Jevin told me his brother getting today. You studied so hard the past few months. I think you will do well lah.”

“Well, let’s just hope lah,” he uttered without much conviction. He had been working hard. He knew he had. He walked over to his desk and sat down, taking deep breaths.

How did I get here?

It was in primary five that things seemed to lighten up. Mrs. Singh was in charge of the EM3 students of his batch, and for once he saw a light. She was firm yet kind, confrontational yet patient. She nurtured him, and believed in all the students under her wing. She put in every effort to improve each individual.

There was once he decided not to attend lessons. She called his house in fury, and when his father picked up the phone, she demanded that he brought his son straight to the doorstep of her classroom.

It was in front of his classmates that Mrs. Singh caned him on the palm. It was a firm stroke, one that shocked him and almost brought fresh tears to his eyes. Yet after the fray, she approached him the same way she did yesterday. “Do you know how to do this question? Don’t know please ask, ok? I’m here for a reason.” And this time, ask he did.

Then came PSLE. As expected, it didn’t go so well. What shocked him though, was just how badly he did. The cut off point to go to any normal academic course at that time was a score of 118. He missed by a good margin. That’s what I’m capable of then, he thought to himself. After all the jeering from the express kids, all the mockery from my friends and teachers. It all amounted to this. How right they were! He felt worst when he thought of people who had faith in him. What was he going to tell Mrs. Singh? He was stunned into silence. His brothers and sisters could make it. Why couldn’t he? Was he really doomed to be the abnormal one?

He stood at the steps of his school, stunned and in a daze. He let his results slip slide through his hands, and it landed softly on the floor, like a fallen leaf onto a still surface of a tranquil lake. It didn’t take long, before a hand that was not his own picked it up. It was his father.

“Boy. I tell you what. I know this area quite well. Your score may not be good, but what matters is…” He noticed that his son wasn’t listening. He straightened himself out, and held his son’s narrow shoulders in his thick, rugged hands.

“This is not the end for you. Look at me!” Father spoke firmly to son. He looked up. “For all I care, the whole world thinks you haven’t done well. But look at yourself! What I see within you is so much more than what they see from this sheet of paper. For all I care, I may not have been the best father, neither was where you grew up in the best environment for a child. That I know. But what I want you to know, is that I expect nothing less from you but a big heart.”

“But how?” Croaked the son. “I have nothing. I am nothing. The teachers have told me…I am useless.”

“That’s the thing. I want you to learn the first big lesson right here. That the more people tell you that you can’t, the more you have to prove to them that you can. Take every negative and turn it into a positive. In this life, everyone imaginable has stepped over your father. Past employees, your relatives, friends who I thought I could count on…everything that can go wrong in this life for me, has. But look at me. I still drive my bus around and I still do my best every dying day so that we can survive. This isn’t something everyone can do. You need a big heart for this and I believe that in this family, you have it within you. Especially you. I can see it. You do your chores diligently even after your brother has gone to bed; you always offer to help out when I wash the bus. These little things give me faith, and are the reflection of who you truly are, not this lousy excuse of a paper, alright? The only person with the right to say you’re useless is yourself. I want you to remember that.”

And remember that he did. Well, at least not immediately. But soon enough it would sink in, that such lessons would carry you on through life.

It was lunch break all of a sudden. Three hours had passed while he was in a daze. “Eh we going to the kopitiam you want to follow us?” Yelled his colleague from the opposite cubicle. “It’s fine, I can settle myself. I had a heavy breakfast,” he yelled back. Truth was, he could hardly swallow a grain of rice at that moment. Anxiety was attacking his gut as thoughts reeled through his mind.

Secondary One came and went, and with it a bunch of things happened. He had trouble adapting and the class was always rowdy.

“Eh you ask so many question for what? Later the teacher think you retarded or something,” remarked one of his classmates. Ignoring the comment, he raised his hand again. “So the noun will always be after the adjective?” The teacher sighed. “Yes, in most circumstances, the adjective will precede the noun. For example, ‘fast runner’. Fast is the adjective and runner is the noun. You can’t say ‘runner fast’, right?”

“Yeah la stupid, ask so many question for what? It only shows how stupid you are!” retorted the same classmate as the entire class roared in violent laughter. On his fist, he scrawled down another new word he had learned today. He couldn’t afford to waste paper and pay for more foolscap.

He got first in his class that year, and fourth in level for Normal Technical (NT).

Only the first in level progressed to Normal Academic (NA), whilst the rest would just continue in NT, and in the light of that he was visibly disappointed. “Don’t worry,” said his teacher after class. “You have all the reason to be proud of yourself. You’ve done so much more than all your classmates. Don’t worry about a thing, I’m sure you’ll do fine next year.” He nodded along, but deep inside, all he had was worry. What if I slip up again? What if, for some reason, next year gets way too hard for me to handle and I never get to progress? What if I seal my own fate to be the ‘abnormal one’? He thought of all these possibilities to the point of hyperventilation, but uttered not a single word. He was going to work twice as hard next year.

Around this time, he joined rugby as his CCA, under the coercion of a teacher. He was worried that it would affect his studies, but decided to go along with it anyway.

“I want you all to repeat after me,” yelled the coach. “That if it is to be, it is up to me!” The boys echoed with conviction, “IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME!”

“Yes, I want you to learn one thing today, that it is always going to be up to you. Rugby is a team sport, but down to every individual, you have to be the best version of yourself. The decisions you make, the bonds you keep; everything is your choice and your effort. Ok? I want you to take a shovel, dig a deep hole in your mind, place this idea inside and fill up that hole again. This is YOUR life, and you have the whole pitch, and 80 minutes to make the best of it. Now go.”

He didn’t know if he had just attended a sermon or a rugby training, but one thing was for sure: he loved the challenge. Every last fibre of his being ached for it.

Secondary Two passed, and whatever negative thoughts he had, he channeled towards progress and learning.

“Eh guys, you know who is Derrick? Last year the guy who got first in level for NT?” The classmates surrounded Solomon. He was the cool kid in the class and demanded such attention. “He doing damn badly now you know? He got second last in level for mid year I heard. He may be joining us again in Sec 3 I think. He’s such a loser right? Try so hard then nothing happen in the end. Might as well just join us, lepak all the way still can make it.”

He ignored his classmates, or at least made a show of it. But either way, the news that Derrick wasn’t faring well shocked him.

“Eh, look at that poser, writing away at the paper.” The entire class turned to look at his direction as Solomon continued, relentlessly. “You can afford paper meh? You never hear ah! Derrick is dying out there. You try so hard for what? Just to be like him is it! I tell you what, you join us still got more future. You try and fail ah, the feeling is damn terrible one, brother.”

He looked up this time. “What did you just call me?”

Solomon looked perplexed. “I called you brother, brother. You got a problem?”

“Yeah. I got a big problem. Because what the fuck makes you think I’m a brother to you?” He spoke now with unrestrained rage. The entire class was silent. “You all only know how to pull each other down, laugh at people who try to be better. Look at Hafiz! He tries during lesson but you all pull him away from his work. And I admire Derrick. You know why? I admire him because unlike you guys, he’s fucking trying! He tries to be this person that all of you are so fucking scared he’ll become. And you’re scared, you know why? Because the idea of succeeding fucking blows your minds and you have to wrap yourselves up in all these fancy hairstyles, altered pants and stick after stick of Marlboros to get you through. So look, you all can insult me all day, laugh at my dreams and tell me I’ll never make it. Do all that; go ahead. I can handle it. But don’t you dare, for one minute, call me a fucking brother. You guys can go suck your own dicks before I…”

Before he could end his speech, he found himself in the discipline masters office with a black eye.

At the end of the year, he got himself onto the first team for Rugby, and more importantly, got what he had always hoped for: a first placing in his level.

“Come in,” ordered his teacher. “I want to talk to you about your options.”

He sat down opposite her and she looked deep into his gaze, dismantling every last resolve. “I know it’s very tempting to want to go for Normal Academic after your results. But think about it. You have a lot to catch up on. Firstly you’ll have to retake your secondary two year. Then there’s so much more on that syllabus. How can you be so sure you can cope? You’ll be spending 6 years in secondary school, and by then all your peers in NT would have moved on already. Some may be close to getting jobs by then.”

“I want to promote to Express after next year.” Spilled out the words. He never wanted to reveal this but at that moment, it felt like the most sensible, albeit outrageous rebuttal.

His teacher gulped. She looked like she just received news that aliens exist, or that they’ve found Yamashita’s gold in her backyard. “You do know, that this has never happened before right? No one has promoted to express while starting off from NT, ever, in the history of this school. We’re all part of this system, where everyone knows his or her place. Everyone is acutely aware of where they belong, and strive to be the best within each packet. That is how the education system is designed. You were supposed to graduate from NT. Now the option to go NA is already quite a privilege. So what’s with the sudden urge for promotion for Express? Biting off more than you can chew, don’t you think?”

“I just want to do my best, and going to NA is just the first step…” he mumbled. But he knew that this feat would require more than just his best.

“Very well then. In all accounts, me being realistic is merely a guide for you. You’ve surprised all of us, you know that right? If it is your dream to go to express, we will be behind you, all the way.” She shook his hand. “But first, congrats on your promotion to Normal Academic.”

He was back at his workplace again. The desk beneath his elbows was of a different consistency as the teachers’ desk. The desks they used in school was much rougher on the surface. Strange that he would be thinking of desk surfaces now. He shifted his thoughts to the support the teachers gave. Some harsh remarks were made, but to be fair, they were merely being realistic. The teachers were pivotal in his struggle. They gave him the help he needed, and continued teaching the class although he was the only person listening. He smiled at such a thought. They never gave up on me, was all he could conjure as a concluding statement. And by all accounts, that was enough.

“Good morning Sec Three’s,” greeted the principal in her beginning of year speech. “As you all know, this is upper secondary. You have taken your baby steps in lower sec and now, it is time to get serious. Time to run, or even sprint for the finish line if you have to…” Beginning of year speeches all sounded the same to him.

“I want to pay particular homage to one particular student. He comes from a humble background, and entered our gates in secondary one as an NT student. He has worked tremendously hard, and more importantly, consistently. He has promoted to NA last year, to repeat his secondary two year. Right now, he joins you guys, the express cohort, as sec threes,” announced the principal in clear, well-measured chunks. “I want all to look to this example, and realise how one person’s innate motivation could have brought him so far. And also, I want you to look at yourselves. Where did you start, and more importantly, where can you go from here? The sky is the limit, and I want all of you to remember that greatness is never in short supply. You just have to be determined enough to look for it. Let’s give him a round of applause.”

The entire cohort broke into applause, panning their heads, searching around for just who this guy might be. All the while he looked down at the courtyard tiles, counting the number of red tiles amongst the blue ones. He thought about the days in 2NA he spent hunched over his textbooks. Every time he fell asleep during revision, he would jolt awake, tears in his eyes, his mind still fresh from the prospect of failure, still raw with the admonition of his teacher. Everyone has their place. You should know your place. But no! I know my place! It is to be great! My place is to prove you wrong, time and again, until you get it in your head that I am able.

He looked up, and immediately saw the teacher that had told him more than a year ago that express was too tall an order. She smiled at him and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. It was truly a beautiful day.

* * *

How I Failed my Driving Test

I started driving lessons again today after a 5 month hiatus from the steering wheel.

So while driving on the congested roads of Bishan today my instructor instructed me to make a highly illegal left turn to avoid congestion up ahead. While making this highly illegal manoeuvre, I was violently reminded of why I failed my driving test in February. I wanted to write about it at that time but felt that it would be too depressing. So now that I’m well over it, here’s how it went.

Ok so I arrive at the test centre and my instructor is there. He looks ancient, and I always fear he’d collapse from a heart attack and I’d have to GTA my way to the hospital. I’ve actually imagined the roads I would drive on and in every version of my daydreams the car crashes and we both die.

So we practice in the circuit, and I feel confident. I don’t graze any kerbs, park rather stunningly and my instructor seems all confident. So he asks me to get out of the car and drives me to the test centre to meet my tester.

This is when it all starts to go wrong. The drive to the test centre is only a hundred meters, and my instructor, as old as he is, has had more than thirty years of driving instructor experience. And yet, on the way to the drop off, he stalls the engine.

There is an awkward silence as we both stare at each other, and he hastily restarts the ignition. Thirty years of instructor experience and all I could think about was the stalled engine. I am going to fail.

Now I’m not blaming that little event for anything, but as a general rule, when your instructor stalls the engine right before your test, you can be sure that the sun isn’t going to be shining on you on that day. This is known as foreshadowing.

And sure enough, it starts to pour. The rain is so vicious it could turn a muddy car shiny in seconds, or scrub clean a shampoo-lathered mane. More foreshadowing to ponder upon.

And so I meet my tester. He looks so friendly. He goes all Willy Wonka on me and says something like “let’s help you pass your driving test today!”

Naturally, I am massively reassured and I let my guard drop to an all time low. As we walk to the car, any notion that I may fail is washed away by the violent storm.

The circuit goes well, except that I scrape the kerb on one occasion. I look at the tester right after the kerb was struck but he looks to be in total zen. He looked like he just came back from a pilgrimage through the Chilaen Alps. He didn’t even look like he noticed anything (later I would be told otherwise, the sly guy noticed everything).

I’m feeling good after the circuit. I calculate that if on the off chance that he noticed the kerb strike, I would have ten points to spare. Not a big issue, I tell myself. I just have to navigate the roads very cautiously. Very very cautiously.

I did not navigate cautiously.

I just felt so confident, and since it was raining I had this skewed notion that the faster I went and the sharper I turned the more confident and skilled I would appear. So off I went, changing gears manically, accelerating loosely and braking with little to spare. I felt like such a pro, and the entire time the tester just kept quiet. He didn’t even scribble anything down, didn’t flinch. Naturally, I thought I was totally fine.

I wasn’t fine at all.

The tester walks into the waiting room and starts off by asking me a simple question, “I have good news and bad news, which do you want to hear first?”

“Of course the bad news,” I say. I am optimistic that way.

“Ok the bad news is that you failed.” He casually just announces this information as if telling me the sky was dark. Well, the sky was pretty dark.

So apparently my tester was, first of all, very good at acting. He had the most convincing poker face you’d ever see because he didn’t so much as frown at any mistake I made. And there were tons of them! Missed blind spots, the struck kerb which he obviously could feel and a lot of reckless braking and incessant acceleration. What an actor. I could almost hear the Golden Horse Awards song play in the background as he recited the mistakes.

Secondly, this guy had an insane memory. He pretty much memorised every error, every blemish on the report card he inscribed within his insanely diabolical network of deceitful expressions and deliberate optimism. I just felt at total ease and committed every single mistake I would have as if he wasn’t there. That was how he rolled and I fell right into the trap. Ouch.

And at the end of it, I didn’t even remember there being any good news. I don’t even know why he mentioned the idea of good news anyway. Above us, the electronic LED scoreboard read, Tester: 1, Justin: 0

Excuses will always abound, but it was ultimately poor planning and a ridiculous attitude that led to my demise. So the advice here is, plan ahead, get enough lessons, and contrary to popular belief, don’t treat the tester as your friend. He’s going to make you pay for that.

And what do you do after you fail? Yes. You mope about it for a few days about the two hudred plus dollars that you wasted. And then you nurse the more prevalent issue of your damaged pride before convincing yourself that public transport will serve you just fine. But let’s face it, it won’t. But you’ll lie to yourself all the same. And because of all the overseas trips I couldn’t even book a new test date with ample time to practice.

So there we are, five months later; I present to you the very sad story of how I failed my driving test.

What do You Want to be when You Grow Up?

We’re at this point in our lives where people around us like to ask this peculiar question, that is, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I think people treat this more as an ice breaker question; no one really cares about what you want to be (except maybe your parents but sometimes their concern takes a trajectory independent of your passions). Perhaps we’re too caught up with our own lives to really care.

But what do you know? After a while, this question does get annoying. It creeps into your head and before you know it, you’re asking yourself the very same question. Except, for this once, you actually care. What do I want to be when I grow up? Geez, get your act together, you how old already?

It was on a cool, quiet night when this question presented itself. I was walking with my friends, down a secluded street in Potong Pasir in the dead of night. It was so quiet that I swore I heard the traffic light click as the light changed from green to red. It was then that one of my friends turned to me when we were lagging behind, and asked the question. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It was as abrupt as a dense cloud on a sunny day.

I wouldn’t tell most people what I want to be when I grow up. But you can sort of infer what kind of job suits me, as have I. I didn’t do all this writing for fun, and I’ve decided I sort of love it. And with that little passion arose certain dreams and what not. But look, lets be realistic. We’re in Singapore, and every Chinese New Year I’m rudely reminded of the harsh reality of what the future holds. My relatives are very realistic people. Money and success is as scarce as colourful butterflies and being mediocre as common as the soldier ant.

But strangely enough, on that cool night, I told him. I could have made up something like editor, or teacher, and those aren’t bad jobs. It just wasn’t something I really wanted to be. So in the end I just told him what I truly dreamed to be, along with all the doubts that surrounded such a dream. He looked at me, a large, indian fella probably twice my girth and maybe twice my weight as well. He has been through a lot in his life, I grant you that. But then at that moment his gaze softened up, and he spoke in absolute sincerity, “never underestimate yourself.”

Now I’m not the kind that’s easily inspired. It takes a lot to inspire me and run of the mill stock phrases like “don’t give up” and “every failure is a lesson” inadvertently makes me feel uncomfortable. But at that moment, with the cool night air and the absolute quiet, those words really meant a lot. It was like a thick blanket on a cold day. Never underestimate yourself. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Ultimately, it was a reminder to have courage. Perhaps we don’t like risks. We’d rather take a safer path than bash through the bushes for a shortcut. We plot everything out predictably and sensibly. But look. This is the rest of our lives! We owe it to ourselves to have a shot at greatness, and we owe it to ourselves, especially, to do things with a big heart and approach every challenge with oomph and sincerity. That’s what it means to do what you love, to know deep within yourself that it’s worth fighting for. And yes, it makes sense. In the pursuit of this ideal image, you cannot, for one moment, underestimate yourself.

And at the same time, it reminded me of the beauty of words. It was uncanny that three simple words like that could draw out such vivid, coherent thoughts given the right situation and delivered with the right emotion.

It was like a baseball bat striking the baseball dead centre. It’s the same sort of feeling. Those words really hit home.

If I ever end up doing what I love as a living, I’d think back to that cool night walking through the quiet streets of Potong Pasir and the words that were given to me. I will think back to that time when it was so quiet you could swear you heard the click of the traffic light as it turned from red to green. You can bet I will.

We Fight for the Nation, But Who Fights for Us?

SAF day was actually quite a few days ago, and I wrote a post on that day, only to delete it. That post simply wasn’t good enough to show you guys the true essence of serving the nation, and all the burdens it foretold. So here’s another attempt. Lets get away from the typical army rant, and focus on what actually happens in the course of two years. These four short excerpts are actually surprisingly commonplace examples, and anyone who has served has probably heard of or even been in the following situations. So do take some time to appreciate them! 

* * *

It is deep in the jungle. Nabil has been sitting at the same spot, waiting for the convoy to pick him up. His uniform is dripping wet, wrecked by last night’s rain and horrendous humidity. He is waiting, aimlessly, for nothing to happen. He smells like a stale kitchen rag. His stomach growls. His buddy is asleep, gone to another world, his rifle by his side and field pack laid out neatly beside him. He uses the protruding root as a pillow, exhaustion prompting such a desperate choice. A thought fills Nabil’s mind, I need to eat. He is starving, and feels like he is about to faint. He knows he shouldn’t be eating. It was the sacred month. He had already finished all his rations last night, chewing mouthfuls of dry biscuit voraciously. But no, he thinks to himself, I am about to faint, any more of this and I won’t even make it to tonight. His stomach growls again, he feels light headed and inadequate. The cold was beginning to make him shiver. He looks over at his buddy’s bag. He knows exactly where he keeps his food, and knows that somewhere in there lay a pack of butter flavoured biscuits. He reaches over, and rummages through the bag. If I do this quickly, no one would ever know.

* * *

Jin Hong wasn’t used to this at all. He choked in between puffs, but he was persistent. He needed to relax, and his platoon mates (those that smoked) looked so relaxed doing this. He needed to get used to this. He thought about his last book out. It was supposed to be simple. They made each other a promise, that she was going to stay with him through this tough time. It was supposed to be like some sick Fault in our Stars plot. They would be there for each other! She promised! Why then, why did she leave? Why was it, that on a rainy Saturday evening along a quiet walkway, she let go of his hand? Why did she let go and tell him that they needed some time to themselves? He took another puff and coughed harder all at once. He could feel his insides groaning for some sort of reprieve. But I don’t need reprieve, he thought. Maybe if he smoked enough, this poison would drive out the thought of her, of the words she had said before they shaved his head. Maybe.

* * *

Shawn gripped his rifle harder, and looked straight ahead. A car stops by the guardhouse, and he notices that there is a red car sticker on the front window. Following routine, he salutes by raising his rifle to his eyes. The car stops beside him, and the window winds down. It is the chief of the camp. Shawn doesn’t know what to do, so he stays still. “Put your weapon down, recruit,” orders the chief. He sticks his hand out of the car as a friendly gesture. “Thank you for serving the nation during this Chinese New Year.” Shawn awkwardly steps forward and shakes the chiefs hand. “It’s ok, Sir.” Sean says this without betraying any sense of revulsion and contempt, because how was any of this ok? How was it ok that his family would not have him there, that there would be one vacant seat at the dinner table, a million questions asked and his mother hurriedly explaining to everyone that he had this absurd thing called guard duty to perform. How was it ok that his relatives hardly got to see him, and the one day in the year that they could, he is cruelly denied? No sir, he thought, save your thanks. I didn’t choose to serve this nation, and if you can, for one minute, believe that i’m ok with this, you must be as brainwashed as the people who put me here. 

The car drives away, leaving Shawn standing there, a mere instalment in an otherwise empty camp.

* * *

Alvin looks over at his bunkmate as he tosses in his sleep. As the fans rotate above, he stares adoringly at the shape of his body, and the curves of his face. It was a tranquil look, and made his heart skip a beat. The entire bunk was thick with sleep. At that moment, he felt something more than friendship. He already knew that this would happen, but how could he declare anything? No one would understand, less his parents. Hell, even he couldn’t accept himself! He sat there, nursing these thoughts. These feelings are real. That much he knew. He also knew how the entire world painted such emotions and tendencies. Disgust, fury, blatant rejection. The law was one thing, but to be an outcast, an alien from the norm? He certainly couldn’t deal with that. But in between his ears, in that little space called his brain, he knew his feelings to be true. He knew them to hold weight, and with that, he knew he would be burdened forever, down to the very core of his soul.

* * *

What I’m trying to show with the above examples is, that the fight to defend our nation isn’t the only battle we face when we, as guys, head into the army. There is also another unspoken battle that we often ignore, that is, the battle to not lose ourselves. You could even paraphrase this as the battle to find out who we truly are. It is easy to shrug it off and believe that after two years you “grow as a person” or “do some cool shit” but let’s look at ourselves a little harder, and ask ourselves: have our experiences changed us into something we didn’t want to be? Have we entered this journey called NS with certain ideals, promises and hopes, only to have them shattered, or at least obstinately challenged? The struggle inside our heads is always the hardest to identify, and even harder to acknowledge, and I hope the above examples have helped you gain a better understanding of our (or perhaps your) struggle in facing yourself out there.