Spring came and went in a week. In the middle of April the weather was still a chilly 5-10 degrees celsius but when it turned to May saw a shooting up to the twenties. I took my coat off, the trees wore their leaves and endowed themselves with flowers and the birds called out unafraid.
I believed that as long as winter stayed that I would as well, that I’d stay here in my room forever wrapped in woolly warmth and hearing the cold wind pound the side of the building. But spring came and went in a week and by the week after, I had already packed my bags and was gone.
It all feels very fast.
I thought that I’d always be suspended in this space that I had slowly started to call home. Not that it was spectacular, or much of a home. I didn’t make many friends, and many nights felt like they could have been potentially lonely. Not like I was savouring every moment and writing about my day to day like I wanted to at the start (didn’t really get to it in the end, did I?) At the start I would take pictures of dining halls and lecture theatres, frame a bare tree onto the backdrop of blue sky. I would step on snow and feel it crunch under my feet as if trying to warm it up. Everything was beautiful back then, but so so cold. So cold that water on the ground turned solid black. So cold I would look into cameras and force a smile. But that changed soon enough because the story was never so rosy.
Soon I fell into a routine. I felt like a body at the mercy of some tide that swept me along and I went with it. For the first time in a long time I had a chance to hit the refresh button and be in a place with people I didn’t know so well at first, in a place that was so far from home that soon any thought of it faded away, though slowly at first. I wasn’t fighting anything anymore. It is incredibly selfish to say this, but it was just me out here and I let myself be. I just let myself float. Where I was floating to or how long I could stay in this position didn’t quite cross my mind. I lost the sense that duty and accountability (remnants of back home in Singapore) and I felt the damning need to put myself first in a country where everyone seemed to be doing just that.
I quit Instagram, and didn’t really update this blog. I did this partially because I did not want to see the world through a screen, but now that I look back, it was really because all these platforms would invariably remind me of home. And home came with its burdens. Manifold burdens. It came with feeling too much and wanting to be somewhere else when you’re at home, and home when you’re somewhere else. I didn’t know a lot of things, but I knew that I didn’t want to be somewhere else, even if that somewhere else was home. I knew deep down that I was not made to always miss, or always chase, or always feel lacking. I wanted to just focus on things that were in front of me and feel that those were enough and in turn feel that I was enough.
The only way to feel that way was to be in those experiences the best way I knew how. Winter was so cold and dry that I forgot what the wet and humid Singapore eternity felt like. It probably feels like this: when walking two blocks resulted in a patch of sweat on your back, or when your hair would stick to your forehead (I know now since I’m editing this back home). The sticky sensation that often prompts a shower. I forgot about these minute sensations almost entirely. And if I could forget something as simple as that, what could be said about other memories of home? Sure enough, I could no longer imagine how food back home tasted like, or how exactly the streets smelled of damp soil after the rain. I forgot how my dog would curl up beside me when I was back home and lying in bed. I forgot about how it felt to run in the warmth. I let routine wash over me in the cold and the darkness. It chiselled me into something different.
They say that every single cell in your body is replaced such that your physical body seven years ago is entirely different from your current body. The replication is immaculate, with the old cells passing down their information to the new cells (this is definitely not how this works, but for the sake of allegory please grant me this) and one seems like the same person with the same features and much of the same memories. And with that, you appear like you are you. I wonder if the same can be said for a table or a chair. If you take one screw out of it today, an armrest the next day, and replace every part of the chair over a sustained period of time; would we still say that it’s the same chair? Does the chair retain its essence and remain as the chair at the start?
As I spent 4 months in Yale I ate the food from here, talked to the people here and ran down roads dry and cold. One thing that remains certain is that parts of me, like the chair, were constantly being replaced. My cells were dying and replacing themselves with the nutrients from food made far from Singapore, my brain cells encapsulating new memories made oceans away and my lungs taking in air that didn’t come with the weight of humidity and growing used to it in ways too subtle for me to understand.
And in that way I feel that the person I could confidently say I would always be in December is not the same person who writes this in May. In December I was wary, unable to think of any new experience as being intrinsically valuable, I was always finding a way that an experience could be better, more precious. I was trying to settle but could not. When I travelled I couldn’t sleep well. I was restless to no end. I was always conscious of how I wanted to protray my life. I didn’t know it then, but I wasn’t the person that I wanted to be at all. As the months went by, from January to April I learned to settle. The world turned on its axis as cells replaced themselves. Yale, as big as it was, was my teacher. Buildings that looked like heritage sites at first began to look less spectacular as time went by. What seemed extravagant began to take a practical foothold. The cold became less of a novelty and more of an accepted fact.
Maybe it’s good that things live and die, and that our bodies replace themselves every seven years. I let conversations flow and drinking sessions show me the way. I talked to many people and then just a few. I didn’t talk to myself but there were many hours in my room alone, so I might as well have. I travelled to a few places and loved every moment so much because I let myself just not care so much about the experience. I let it hit me but, but wasn’t bothered if it didn’t. Time gives us all the chance for growth and reevaluation and the fabled letting go. I found all that in the cold of winter, and realised that I had found it when Spring hit like a car against a concrete wall.
I didn’t find myself, that would be too cliché and frankly arrogant. And also a little millenial. But I’d like to think I made some progress. I wrote a few articles. Made a few good friends (never write anyone off because of what you think they’d be like, and always try to understand people with all your heart because everyone has a story to tell). I seriously felt like writing was not something that I was looking forward to as much as the days went by so I dug something out from the past, polished it and posted it online and its reception was encouraging (I believe that Singaporeans have a heart, and it is this heart I write for). I wrote a long manuscript that I am still embarrassed by but will whip up to perfection. But am glad I stuck to writing, even at the lowest points where I severly interrogated my passions. (I also ran a lot. It was cold and my ears almost fell off but I got used to it.)
The lesson from this time abroad if there ever was one? 6 months ago I almost didn’t apply for this. I was stuck in a metaphysical winter in my mind that just wouldn’t thaw, and wouldn’t budge and if not for Zhi Hao telling me to do it I might not have. Have I not done so I would have been in Singapore the entire semester and not have had this chance to know how much more I could have become in those months. Entering this country in the middle of one of its harshest winters felt like the blooming of another sort of spring. The lesson is perhaps, to slap that voice in your head now and then.
Winter lasted for 3 and a half months before spring came around in less than a week. Jackets came off, smiles returned to faces. By May it already felt like summer. In the heat that I dreamed of for months is where I find myself again but in between then and now a lot had changed.