Spring Came and Went in a Week

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.

I Wore a White Shirt to Art Class

I wore a white oxford button on the first day of school because I wanted to look presentable.  People who wear such attires often look presentable. And so I wanted to be that guy and so I wore a white shirt to my first class.

It was an art class. I should have known.

Charcoal in hand and white sheet in front of me where all the charcoal should go. We go through lines, curves, values. We go through the history of art from then to now to God knows when. And I don’t know when either because art seems to stretch on to the future as well because as long as there are people in that future and there will be art. There will be chances for 23 year-old men to get their shirts dirtied should they wear light coloured shirts to art classes. I think about lines.

I think about how you can’t quite draw an object fully, to represent it fully because no matter how you try, the distance between you and the object is something that already distorts. Lines aren’t as straight or as crooked or sometimes you draw lines when there aren’t even any lines at all. The object exists outside of you and you can’t ever just conceptualise it with 100% accuracy and as long as you can’t you realise the error is already in the blueprint. I pull my hand back to reevaluate my attempt at drawing a cluster of objects and all I manage is a thin line of charcoal across my shirt.

Objects in your mind are conceptualised and bubbling around in that fun space but now comes the terrible part; you have to get it from head to hand and hand to pencil and pencil to paper. You go through these manifold translations, where some are better at representing than others. The pencil to the paper portion can simply be decided by the quality of the pencil and the paper. Some pencils have the sort of rough quality to it that renders things easy to rub and make faded and form more veritable impressions of shadow and darkness. Other pencils are just nicer to hold. But in the end it’s not the materials you have that really define your work. It’s the whole head to hand portion which messes people up.

Sometimes you’re good at it; and for good artists on good days the idea of the object flows sumptuously to the page and on the page the art flourishes. For some other artists it is the emotion that they capture very well and how it interacts with the conceived object and that flows around in their head for a while before it leaks out from their hands and you get a work that is not objective but tainted with some emotional valence and you’re suddenly taken to a different place in time when maybe you saw her standing there beside you at a museum or when you saw rabbits playing in their pens. The soft fur, the languid stares. The potential to feel something is always in the art. But the feelings you feel and the ideas conceptualised sometimes when flowing out of unskilled or unsure hands looks many shades away from the truth you hold in yourself. And it that sense art can serve to really disappoint. You try and you try but your heart, you realise, is a fortress that doesn’t let any of itself out by virtue of a poor slight of hand, of unavailable resource, or inability to garner enough faith in yourself. All this disallows that which you feel to be cast out into the open.

I scratch my ribs and leave another dark, less defined mark on my shirt.

I think again as I sit there looking at scenery with pencil in hand, thinking of how I’ll miss home even before I leave it. And then when I leave home I think of how I’ll hate the place I might go to and I think about it so much that I hate it already, even before I set foot. I think about how sometimes learning a new skill is like that process of leaving and hating. You discover yet you doubt and through that doubt you unearth what is really expected of you. You feel so exposed that it’s almost unfair. You try to hold on to anything that reminds you of what you are. I think of the stories to tell when I try to draw and I think of how much of me, if any of me at all, is in the end product.

I wonder if untrained hands possess any soul at all. Maybe they do, but maybe those souls are…how should I put it… Yes, tainted, in some way or another.

All I know is that when I wore a white shirt to art class, I left my class with that shirt in various shades, with some sort of tiredness registered on the collar along with a irritability on the sleeves. This shirt might not have emotions, but I feel for the shirt. It must miss its former self. To have some ‘character’ isn’t all there was to life, it seems.

I feel bad for my shirt, but I know that in time to come this shirt will go through the wash and it will be as if nothing happened. It will be absolved of all its past filth and find new meaning in whiter shores.

But for now, the shirt remains as it is, hanging in my closet, tainted.







Being Busy is Ok if You’re Ok with Being Busy

I never thought I’d be one to say that I’ve been busy lately so haven’t been updating my site. But it has been as such. But no, I won’t say I’ve been busy but more like, I’ve had less energy. I’d attribute this loss of energy to the tremendous load of training I’ve been administered, but also from the energy that has been siphoned from me doing a myriad of meaningless things. Missing buses, running errands, scrolling from start to finish on my newsfeed. I’ve been preoccupying myself with the wrong things in all likeliness.

But if I have to be honest that this week has been the busiest of all. I’ve had to cover a lot of news in school, took over the chief role because the actual chief of newsletterland went overseas this week and passed most of the responsibilities to me. So it’s ironic that I’m writing this. I always write at the most inconvenient of times, like now when I’m supposed to plan out my 2500-word psychology essay.

Busy-ness isn’t just measured by work, but by the rate of change of effort from one week to the next. We can go for weeks at a time doing a fair amount of work and not feel busy, or exhaustingly so. But if you had an easy week before and suddenly had a fair amount of work slapped upon you then suddenly it feels tiring. That’s this week for me; things suddenly increased in intensity; two assignments chasing me and a presentation today that went horribly.

I’m the kind to set my own standards and chase them. No matter what the outcome, if I’m not satisfied then I’m not. Nothing can convince me of my worth but myself. And that’s the way it goes with most of the things I care about. I stumbled on the explanations, made a wrong interpretation of the experimental results and was rightfully corrected. It was to be a bad stain on the week, and no matter how small a stain it will still be called a stain. But what can I do but move on?

And move on I did, because following the blotched presentation there was some big news that hit my school. There was a change in leadership in the upper echelons, and my news organisation had to cover it and so I was newsletterland represent, and followed the media into a press conference area.

I clutched my laptop, got ushered into a room with my phone as a voice recorder and my heart fell in between my slippers when every reporter in the room was dressed in semi formal attire and I was dressed to greet Santa Claus in the middle of the night in my living room. And It wasn’t even christmas. And I found myself greeting the school’s Governing Board instead. Embarrassed but keeping up a strong front (power-play is all about confidence rather than actual ability, they say) I shook some hands, sat down, recorded the entire proceeding, took some notes, shook some hands again, and left. There were a bunch of straight up reporters in there, proper voice recorders that looked like Nokia phones, a pile of notes, serious voices asking a bunch of overlapping questions and frenzied scribbling. And there was me who was just impressed that I got a complimentary bottle of water for just being in the room. After I left, it was time to start on the article. I had a few hours and time was ticking.

I forgot to say that busy-ness isn’t just about doing more, but about learning more as well. If I gave you a bunch of things to do that you were already familiar with, you would be irritated but you wouldn’t be engaged. Which means to say, you’d do these things without thinking twice about them, a bit like what menial labour is all about. But give someone a list of unfamiliar tasks and a whole different realm of busy is unlocked. It’s not your compartmentalisable busyness where you can do one thing at a time because you know A should go before B and following that is C. This is a very frenzied, disorganised busyness, where the mind constantly works to make sense of the situation, of the different parts that go either here or there, the best way, the most efficient way, and most of all deal with the different combination of things that do and do not work and deal with it via trial and error and at the end of the day be ok with it. Many people do survive doing unfamiliar things, but whether they’re ok with is is a different story.

As the day draws to a close it feels very much like I’m ok with it. Sure, it was a hell of a day. I could have spent three hours on everything if I did everything to the best and most efficient of my abilities, but I spent 9 hours instead. But I’m okay with it. I’m ok with learning for now and letting new tasks dismantle my resolve and have me assemble myself again and again. I think that’s what choosing your struggles is about, to be unfamiliar with something but still say ok, I’ve got this.

Maybe I’m preparing myself for the future when I say such things. The way things usually play out, the chances of you winning every battle that comes your way is slim. You have to concede that you’re just not into some things in life. When I was 14 I went for flute lessons but I learned that I preferred running and so went with that. The busyness of flute-playing wasn’t one I could accept, the busyness of running in circles was and so I still continue to do the latter. Choice isn’t about the initial tick of the box but the hundreds and thousands of days that follow that you continue to tick that same box.

And this all follows nicely to the box that I ticked today after all the madness subsided. I declared my major today, and am strangely happy to say that I’ll be majoring in Arts and Humanities with the emphasis on creative writing. Maybe this was a box I already ticked back in army when I first wrote that short story. Maybe this was a box that I ticked again and again when I wrote article after article and updated this blog. But it feels real now, perhaps more real than ever, that this is a box that I will have to continue ticking, a busyness that I have to be ok with, over and over.

And so it is no wonder this choice didn’t feel like a groundbreaking one, not at all. This choice was already made, and in many ways I feel like I’m not in control here. As a friend said, it’s the inevitability of dreams. It’s just the way things will turn out, and the reason why I feel like there’s something to look forward to in the future. Busy it will be, but I’m ok with that.



51 Things to be Grateful for Before School Starts

  1. I have a 1 litre water bottle that holds its own.
  2. I have a room to sleep in.
  3. The water pressure in the shower is perfect.
  4. So is the warmth of the water; just impeccable.
  5. Thirsty hippo is in abundance where I live.
  6. My suite mate got me a Filipino snack.
  7. There is a lift that goes up to my floor.
  8. I have fingernails.
  9. My watch is working (since 2013!).
  10. I have friends that judge me less than I judge myself.
  11. I got some articles published over the summer!
  12. I can run and jump.
  13. But most of all, I can run and that wasn’t the case one year ago.
  14. The morning and evening sun does not affect me due to the orientation of my room.
  15. I have parents that check on me.
  16. I have a brother who is probably smarter and more sociable than I am but doesn’t know it yet.
  17. The lights from the distant buildings look magical at night.
  18. Tap water is safe to drink.
  19. All my friends made it through summer okay.
  20. My family made it through summer okay.
  21. Sheng Siong is a 10-minute walk away.
  22. My bones are not broken.
  23. I have a female physics professor who tells us that anyone can do anything if they are willing to acknowledge the stereotypes and fight them.
  24. The air is cool in the morning.
  25. There are songs I can be sad with and songs I can be happy with.
  26. I have stories waiting to be written.
  27. I know what my passions are but also know never to settle.
  28. Working life looks dreadful, but I am still in school.
  29. My leg hair isn’t too long/curly.
  30. I have my own values (surprisingly) and I stick to them.
  31. I am not afraid during a thunderstorm.
  32. Long walks.
  33. Singing in the shower.
  34. I am happy to call Singapore home; not always proud, but always happy.
  35. I have friends that know what’s best for me, even if I am afraid to admit it.
  36. Pickles and strawberries! (Of course not at the same time)
  37. Supermarkets sell all sorts of things and you can walk through them for an hour just looking and thinking.
  38. I can hold chopsticks properly.
  39. I read slowly so I don’t miss a thing.
  40. I can stand up for myself when someone attacks my ideals.
  41. Plain food is fine, as long as it’s food. Basically, I am not a picky eater and it helps in many situations.
  42. I have friends with various food preferences, who, instead of limiting my diet, show me an array of alternative diets I would never have considered before.
  43. No one can force you to do anything you don’t want to. Consent still lies with you.
  44. I am eager to learn.
  45. Youth is on my side and I will not let it go to waste feeling lousy about myself.
  46. I am able to stand up for my friends if someone takes a piss on them.
  47. We have each other.
  48. I do not see a point in comparing, we are all different, and thankfully so.
  49. I always seek to improve myself because no one else will be there for you more than you.
  50. No matter that happens this semester, I know I will be okay.
  51. Also, I know we will be ok 🙂

What You Tell Yourself on Week 13

Week 13 is here! And honestly, I’m still not ready for it. I’m like a gymnast mid jump in between two poles and realizing mid air that I may not actually reach the second pole. But I have to reach out anyway, have to give it some sort of try, lend my voice some sort of honesty.

So yes, it’s halfway through the week. I still have two and a half assignments to go, one presentation and one group report. I also have rehearsals and three performances. A lot of things are on my plate and honestly I’m quite full as it is.

A big part of me wants to feel like I want this. I want to live in the now. I don’t want to miss the past, constantly ruminate on trivialities like free time spent in army, the guidance received from teachers in JC. It all seems better, sure. But it wasn’t. It isn’t better because we tend to isolate the pleasantries of the past, put them on a pedestal and think; hey, that’s where I want to be. The past constitutes so much more than those occasional glimmers of sanity. Humans forget pain like a goldfish forgets yesterday’s chores. Our past is misshaped, misconstrued as easily as we want it to be, it will always seem a place where things were easier. I know this to be untrue. In the past I had definitely been pushed harder, both physically and emotionally. I have grown to be someone who thinks highly of the now, because past me urged present me to treasure this time to truly challenge myself in (somewhat) the ways that I want to be challenged. I cannot throw these past promises away simply because some assignments pile up and I feel lousier for it.

There is no point in feeling like these challenges are bigger than they actually are because they’re not. These challenges are there because we signed up for them, we had concrete choices and we chose this path, to follow this particular course. I can’t say for sure that any other path will be easier or harder. I mean, every path we choose will have its challenges for sure. But we chose this so we owe it to ourselves to press on. Once you question these choices is when your resolution will unspool and you will be left a traveller without a passport, an athlete without his granola bar. You just can’t go on doing what you do. You’ll feel everyday that you should be somewhere else and there’s no worst feeling than that. So at many junctures, then, it’s not that the work is too tough that you’re overwhelmed by it, it’s just that the inane desire to function within a certain system has gone awry. Once you lose this core motivation you lose a lot of things. So make sure that once you’ve chosen a path that you stick by it, don’t ever feel your choice to be second best.

And once you’re done comparing with the past, once you’re done feeling like this isn’t where you belong, spend some time on your own. I believe in my own little world that stress comes from people. People hand you assignments, deadlines, people will mark your work. You will always be answering to a person, we live in these tight communities where it only makes sense that we do. When we talk to our friends we think it helps but it doesn’t always. A lot of times a group setting can be triggering, people remind you of your insecurities, frailties. People are so real, yet so abstract. You can’t ever fathom just how these connections pan out without any particular logic. People, though good intentioned, may not always make you feel better about yourself.


So I got away today, from all that. I took a long bus ride to Hougang to get my haircut, went back home to drop my stuff and went for a long intense swim. I did 20 laps, almost died from the heat, bought some groceries, went back home then went back to school. I did all this under the close supervision of no one. And no one, at many times in my life, was just the person I needed.

Of course, these bouts of alone time are all but temporal. You can’t solve your problems by ignoring them, by ignoring life. Life is the coming and going of people in your day, some just rushing past and some staying for longer. Your time spent alone is like the short recess where you can just sit at a corner and count the number of birds that pick on the leftover bowl of fish ball noodles. Where you can stare out of the window to your hearts content without fearing the teachers irritated yell, pulling you back into the banality of focused attention. My point here is to savour your time of rest, but gear up when you have to get back to the crunch. Let gravity do the work on the downslopes, but climb fiercely on the inclines. Something like that.

So that’s week 13 for you. Not the most pleasant week, but definitely not your toughest week by a long shot. If you’ve read so far then you’ve probably related to these struggles enough to know that the worst had already come and gone. The worst has been buried in your past, and will continue teaching you to be a stronger person. Week 13? What’s that going to be to us in a few weeks time when we’re basking in our Bermudan Sunsets? Look up and see yourself for all you’re worth and enjoy the challenge. Talk when you feel like it and hide away if you don’t. Drink lots of water and sleep enough to last the day. Eat hearty breakfasts and liquid suppers. Live and learn. Love and grow. And before you know it, it’ll be over.

The Hardest Thing to Give is Yourself

I had a good first week of University after the long awaited recess week. Now that that’s over, here we are again, in the depths of week 8, where assignments have been pouring in like sweets into a halloween basket. Stress is what I need at this point, to really function at a 100% and force myself to do some useful work. Other than that all has been good. Sometimes it’s better if life is boring.

I was at a gathering for my school newsletter on Friday. We were just lounging around, having some drinks and snacks and talking about random things regarding ourselves, when the topic of relationships came up. It all started when one of the sophomores leaped into the room wearing a t-shirt with a pie chart labelled “things I look for in my lover” or something along those lines. It was colourful and had silly expectations like “will watch my favourite movies with me” and other trivial comforts. We took this as a prompt, and went around asking each other what we each desired from our hypothetical significant others. A lot of matters concerning love for the outdoors, compassion, admirability, insane intelligence and “good taste” came up. Basically, we listed the attributes that 99% of us covet but 99% of us fall short of possessing. Ideals can be a bitch.

The sophomore with the t-shirt (that particular t-shirt, to be clear), the one who started the entire conversation then came up with her own rendition of her ideal significant other. “I just feel like…a lot of people out there have so much talent, and they invest so much in themselves to become the perfect person, so much so that they don’t have a piece of themselves to give anyone. You know what I mean?”

I knew what she meant. I guess what she said really hit the spot because for many years now I’ve been feeling like this is what has become of me. I’ve become hyper obsessed with being a good version of myself. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the best version of myself but a lot of what I’ve been doing has been very focused on me. It’s very easy to defend this way of life. As a young person finding himself it’s incredibly easy to feel lonely in a world so deceptively interconnected. The more you seem to be comfortable with being on your own, the more you seem to have it together. Taking long walks by myself, finding time to sit down and write, sit down and read, lie down and listen to music, jog around campus, sit down and write again; almost everything I’ve done that has made me feel incredible, I’ve done on my own. And I’ve never really questioned why this was the case. If you’re feeling good, you’re not supposed to question it, you’re just supposed to feel good. It’s just so hard to admit to yourself that maybe, just maybe, you might need something more, someone more in your life.

Otherwise, to know if you’re really shut off from letting anyone in is a tall order; the whole notion of emotional aloofness can be made up by being more open to possibilities, giving yourself chances. But of course, I know to be careful, there is a fine line between openness and sheer desperation. And then who’s to say that someone who is closed off to possibilities will always be that way? Perhaps they just haven’t found someone that they have been truly interested in or who they feel is finally “worth it”. Maybe a lot of us don’t allow our hearts to bleed unless it’s for an extremely important occasion. Maybe extremely important occasions only come by once in a long while. It’s all so cringe worthy, but like it or not a lot of us do think that way. We wait tirelessly for the right moment to the point where we question whether the right moment even noticed us whilst we were standing so still, camouflaged amongst the leaves.

So I’ve been thinking lately, heading into 2016: what do I really want for myself? Do I want to always be this way, or do I want to take some chances? I might have reflected upon this before and I feel like this is a recurring desire in my life; one that prods at me and continues to challenge me like a teacher seeing his student get complacent. What should I do from here? I really have no idea.

The hardest thing to give someone is yourself, but hey, it may very well be the best gift.

The Arts Student’s CNY Cheat Sheet

A relative walks up. You hand him two imperfect oranges. He is an uncle, twice removed. You and him will shake hands. He will hand you a red packet, and you will say thank you as you hesitate between nodding and bowing, and end up doing a little of both.

And then he will ask: “what are you studying now?”

You can predict the entire conversation before it happens. Your cousins are all around, varying slightly in age but all on the same path towards adulthood. You almost forget the answer.

“I’m studying the arts.” You blurt out. Brace yourself.

“Oh,” he begins. “So…what do you want to do in the future?” Bingo.

“I may want to be a teacher. Maybe a journalist? See how it goes lor.” You don’t even know what you’re saying at this point. Your uncertainty is exposed.

“So basically, you don’t really know what you want to do yet.” He is almost barking now, like a detection dog sniffing a drug-trafficker’s ass.

Your eyes shift. Your cousin at the next table is in law school, her brother beside her from business. They are speaking comfortably to an aunt, about their plans for the future, telling her how the stocks are volatile, how an internship at a law firm went stupendously well. How they have a good shot of earning big bucks in the future. The aunt wears a smile that resembles the infinity pool on top of Marina Bay Sands. Prosperity, good fortune and wealth. Everything that embodies Chinese New Year resonates in the flow of the conversation.

But back at your conversation, the water is still. You don’t know what you want to do, but your uncle expects you to. He doesn’t actually care if you succeed or fail, he just expects you to have a plan for the future to facilitate the continuation of the small talk. But there is no plan. He holds the oranges behind his back, adjusts his collar to deal with the heat. “At least you enjoy what you do,” he adds. Wait, what did he mean by at least?

By now you realize you need to say something, but how does one even begin? Alright, let’s give this a shot.

You start by telling him that you accepted an education in the arts based on your interests. Perhaps you were fascinated by certain historical facts, philosophical viewpoints, and geographical occurrences. You loved a nice novel, appreciated the art house films all your friends hated and didn’t mind observing human behaviour for hours at a time. These were things that you wanted to explore and wanted to do, even if it was only the tiniest of inclinations. You chose this path, not because you had nowhere else to go or that it was a safety net. This is a path you actively want to pursue.

Something about the arts had you gravitating towards it, but why was that so? You learned about the exploits of Alexander the Great and wrote a 3000-word paper on cognitive biases. You studied different modules unrelated to your major, wrote countless papers and swore that you were not writing another paragraph again after submitting your final essays. Through that you found out exactly why you took up arts in the first place. It was a humbling journey about what it means to be human. Alexander the Great conquered empires but was defeated by a fever. You now know that our minds are consistently biased no matter how we choose to tweak our rationality. You learned, after all, what it meant to be an emotional being and that it was ok for you to feel vulnerable and small once in a while.

Best of all, the arts taught you to imagine, to think further than what you saw and trust in how you felt. You pined over the deaths of your favourite characters in your literature texts, wrote about a walk down Orchard Road for your creative writing module. You discovered so much about the world without actually seeing as much; surprised yourself by feeling so richly in a city so dull.

And from that imagination, you learned to create. You drew the historical narratives of civilisations long gone, filling in the cracks between excavated relics, piecing together incomplete stories. You wriggled your way through an argument to make your own stand. You interviewed the elderly, construction workers, professors, students and hawker stall owners. It started out as a school project but halfway you realised you were creating a conversation that would otherwise never have happened. You wrote these transcripts at two in the morning, and felt like you were talking to these people for the second time. That didn’t bother you in the least.

The ability to create will get you far. You will chart your own path. You know that money is essential for basic survival but have the courage to assert that your happiness will not be dependent on it. You will do much more than that. In the future you will open a bookstore, write plays, get published, act, dance. Sing. You will give a lecture on post-colonial art forms and your future students will be mesmerised by your words, your readers will love your articles and firms will value your unadulterated creativity.

Being in an arts course is nothing to be ashamed about, after all. You hope that your relatives will understand this by the end of the conversation; that you made a choice to do something you wanted, and that they will have no right to impose their preconceived notions and dictate what you should want from your life. Don’t be shy to share your dreams. At least you enjoy what you do? No. Enjoying what you do is the one thing you should fight for in this life. Start believing that, then perhaps they can begin to understand why you chose to pursue the arts.

Yes, this is what you will say.

The Opposite of Success is Not Failure, it’s the Fear of It

It has been a long week. I’ve had rehearsals, assignments due, and assignments that I’ve fared badly in, coming in all at once. Responsibility doesn’t always get to you, but when it does, it happens all at once; multiple deadlines and test dates falling upon you simultaneously. The education system here has prepared us all for this, I am no stranger.

It has been a long day. I was scheduled to consult one of my professors after lessons, and I planned to talk to her about how my assignment went wrong. Though I sort of knew why it went wrong; I chose the creative option for the essay assignment, and attempted to rewrite some of my readings in a different voice. I thought it was ok, and it felt right as I was writing, but apparently it wasn’t what she was looking for. I scored abysmally, and to say the least I was discouraged. Perhaps I should have stuck with the conventional options.

I walked into her office and sat down to talk to her about this. I started off with the usual excuses; I may have read the question wrongly, didn’t understand what the question really wanted from me, was confused as to what I was supposed to do.

She listened to my concerns, patiently, and when I was done she said something along these lines:

If you’re only concerned about getting good grades all the time, you wouldn’t dare to try anything new. This is why I included the creative option in the first place. One of my teachers in the past would always tell me, that if you’re going to expect to do well all the time you wouldn’t be writing. Because this entire process of writing is about trying new things and learning from your mistakes. So I’m glad you didn’t score well, and in fact I’d rather you didn’t score well. Because it shows me that you tried, that you didn’t play it safe. I wouldn’t be so worried about this if I were you.

I remember these words clearly because I don’t think I’ve heard this from many teachers in my life, for it takes tremendous courage for a teacher to say something like this to a student. Most of my teachers I’ve had wouldn’t encourage too much creativity; there was always a safer option, a more straightforward, albeit more rigorous way of memorising, structuring and conceptualising everything that can make sentences look like math equations. It takes tremendous courage for a teacher to tell a student that it is ok to be creative, that it is ok to embrace failure and learn from it amidst a system that cruelly denies those that do.

In writing, as I believe is similar in the other arts, we all go through cycles of failure and discovery, where we explore our voices and fine tune the way we express ourselves. Sentence structures, rhetorical questions and management of emotions all go into the way our words turn out, and it is a nuanced act, not one that should be girdled by the fear of failure, or the imposition of structures. I think I’ve reiterated this before in another post.

More than that, it traps beauty. In math and science subjects, we are told that only a limited set of solutions exist for a single problem, and concepts exist within a fixed paradigm and this makes success or failure a straightforward affair. Arguably, math and science possesses beauty and is inextricably linked with philosophy as well, but our education system has made this point of compromise something very difficult and in fact almost impossible to see, solidifying these otherwise fluid ideas into concrete concepts. In a world where clear, concise curriculums have to be cooked up, this is not entirely surprising.

I believe that the arts is our last frontier for creative expression, and I hope more than being tolerant to failure, that teachers can actively encourage the chance of it. Encourage their students to attempt new styles, to delve out of their comfort zones and to find a true voice within cluttered minds pounded numb by a system only concerned with results.

Within government doctrines, “education” is but a passing down of knowledge from one generation to another, and whose effectiveness is fuelled by numbers and percentages. To me it means something much more. It is the interaction of one human and another, the passing down of essential values and our guide to finding our role in this world. A latent fear of failure should never be the backdrop in the way we approach this world.

And so I thank my professor for telling me it was ok to fare badly. I thank her for encouraging creativity, and I thank her for showing me that it was ok to keep trying in a world where trying seems so inconsequential. We need more teachers like that, for only then will education be a journey and not a destination.


If You Haven’t Solved Your Problems By 2 AM, Go To Sleep

The first half of semester one has officially ended, and so has Recess Week, and so has our overseas vacations with tenuous links to education ‘learning across boundaries’ week. Seven weeks have passed just like that; and so this is officially the start of the rest of the semester!

I was taking a shower just now and for some strange reason decided to turn the tap to the coldest and just stood there in shivery contemplation. It was then that I realised that life was getting a bit out of hand the last few weeks, with the vacation mindset seeping in and how work just piled up so effortlessly that it all now sits precariously balanced on my desk. Things tend to spiral out of control very easily when you’re flustered, and so I knew I had to get typing if I wanted to keep it all in check and remind myself of a better tomorrow. So I’m just going to list out the things I need to constantly remind myself of for the upcoming term, and hope I don’t forget it all by Wednesday (though I probably will).

In every study environment, at least one thing/characteristic/aspect must be less than ideal to ensure optimal productivity. 

I’ve noticed that I cannot study in environments with an overly ideal setting. Good examples include my room, my house living room, libraries, cubicles and perhaps quiet classrooms. Such places with surroundings perfectly catered to information transfers from paper to brain just turn me off in all their productive entireties. I’ve come to notice that I need at least one flaw in my study environment to really focus. It could be the haze, or a comfortable buzz of the crowd, a hot mug of tea on a 32° day or simply a chair that I will try but eventually fail to mould my ass to. I just need a source of discomfort to focus my energy on so that I don’t get distracted by other more lethal disturbances like the new Voice of China episode or just the entire social media package in general. I thought I was pretty disciplined but the entire last term has proven me wrong. I just need that subtle irritation in my environment to keep me driven. I realise that this may not make any sense to you.

Moving on together is the best kind of moving on.

Having been through so many phases of life starting all the way from Primary School to University, there have been a lot of transitions, the next one being more heartfelt and complex than the previous. I guess as we mature we find more meaning in our relationships and it becomes harder to acknowledge that the bulk of time you used to spend with a certain group now has to be refocused on another. It is that mysterious “another” that we have to delve in fully and try to make sense of (like I am doing so right now). In the process of that it is tragic yet totally sensible to loosen our grip on our old friends from our previous life stages, and if you would allow, I would label this act as ‘moving on’.

So in the case of moving on, a lot of conflicts and disturbances do arise, and it is so because it is almost impossible to expect everyone to move on at the same pace, or for everyone to understand the gravity of change in relation to how it used to be in the past. People get annoyed and hurt when the past is incongruous with the future, or when the moments that seemed framed in eternity were but passing thoughts.

The friends that manage to stay are the ones that fully acknowledge this tragedy. They acknowledge that there will definitely be less time spent around the other, and that conversation topics would never be as relevant as they used to be. At the same time, they’ll have the ability to move on together, and put in the effort within the relevant pockets of time. These are the friends that don’t purely delve into past experiences, but also work alongside shared hypotheticals, loosely shared experiences of the new places they’ve been and rejoice in how their lives may have managed to coincide again, no matter how far fetched. Understanding personal differences and working to reconcile them is one of the hardest things to do, yet is an act of such high order. Perhaps there is no better framework than that, for true friendships to flourish.

You can’t solve your problems after 2 am.

Well, technically, you can. In pivotal moments of the previous term I have finished my assignments, completed my readings and wrote a lot on this space in the wee hours of the morning. But I want to stand by the above because I feel that this whole sleep issue is taking a huge toll on me. I never planned to leave everything till late but it’s the sort of tendency that arises in a hyped up social setting that every residential college seems to represent. It came with its consequences; in the day I feel hot under the collar and very restless, very sleepy, then suddenly just full-on restless again. It’s not the best state to exist in for sure. I just hope the next few weeks will come with it an active readjustment to daylight, where 2 am will find me cooped up in my room, shut eyed and snoring, dreaming of the day I actually find out what the purpose of (my) life is.

Where Did Creativity Go? (And What’s With All This Structure?)

Coming into this whole university thing, I’ve been doing a lot of writing. I’m working on a short story now, have two essays on philosophy and sociology to write, and have a news article due really soon. It’s immense, it’s nerve wrecking and it’s a bit too much at times.

But worst of all, it’s structured.

The whole thing is so damn structured you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Of course, it’s all supposed to be structured; if it wasn’t then what’s the whole point? It’d be like playing soccer without goals and with players just passing the ball around. Some skill would be evident, but no one would pay to watch. Structure remains a product of divinity, passed down by the academia Gods, a royal concept for generation after generation of student, scholar, professor, proofreader, editor. A lot of people out there love structure.

There’s really nothing wrong with structure. It keeps things in place, and keeps us from feeling insecure. It almost feels like a spillover from the sciences, with all their formulas and precision. As long as you have a template to constantly refer to you can be sure that a base level of quality will be assured. We were taught this from a young age. We have an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion. One of your body paragraphs can be a counterargument, but a rebuttal has to lithely slip its way into the mix. That, they say, is a good essay structure. That, we have been told, will get us the A’s.

What all this structure has failed to teach us is creativity.

The saddest fact is not that most of us shut out creativity from our lives. The saddest thing is that many of us are ashamed of it. Back in secondary school we had five essay questions to choose from. Four of them would be either discursive or argumentative essays, while the fifth would have the creative writing component to it. You could write a story about a fireman saving cats, or just wax lyrical about your dreams to become the first man on the sun. If you had a teacher that actively promoted the last option, then good for you. Because in most cases, the teacher would warn the class against it, and proceed to train students specifically for the argumentative essays. If students did progress to JC, then they’d find the creative component to have disappeared altogether. It is no surprise, then, that we distance ourselves from creativity like the plague. We were subtly denied of it as we grew up.

Creativity, I believe, stems from human chaos. If you were to sit down and attempt to plot out the essence of creativity, I assure you, you’d fail. Creativity is an active rebellion; it does not like to be confined. We all have within us this huge, dark storeroom of dusty relics, antiques from our pasts, waiting to spill out violently when the door opens. Within all this chaos in our hearts and minds, something beautiful happens, and occasionally this beauty spills onto a film reel, from the tips of a paintbrush, the hem of a dress, onto the pages of a book. 

I wouldn’t go as far as to blame this society for it (that would be deliberately controversial), because ultimately, I feel that creativity is, and will always be, a personal choice. I think as humans we all have a duty to embrace this creativity, to go crazy every once in a while and show the world what we really want from this life.

Above all, we need not be ashamed of any inconsistencies, or any kink in our infallible armour. We are but the product of our failures and shortcomings. We do not need to disassociate ourselves from chaos or the fact that our lives have been, and will always be, far from perfect. All we need is the courage to try.

The world should not expect us to organise this mess because the mess is the whole point.

This mess makes us, us. We should always be proud of that.