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.

You Can’t Solve the World’s Problems in One Night

You can’t solve the worlds problems in one night. There’s just too many, too many, way too many.

You may want to solve them, but that’s quite a different thing as opposed to actually solving them. You stay up restless, looking up on people’s lives, watching self help videos, falling deep within the clutches of a Wikipedia black hole. You send a desperate text, comment blindly, let slip somethung you shouldnt have. And for what? So you can prove to yourself that nothing happens? Or that it gives you hope that something might? Or perhaps you can fall into another bout of deep askance as to the meaning of your existence?

For what? Perhaps it is for the moment of rediscovery. We all need that don’t we? That moment where you look up and feel truly happy, so happy in some sort of drunken stupor, eyes glazed over, stomach turning over in contentment. You have discovered something more. Why not tonight? Why is it that the darkest depths of the night always prove themselves to have nothing more, than darkness itself?

But let us remind ourselves, that the darkness is what makes the light, that the valleys are what stands between towering mountains. There will be light, you may just not be in it yet. Sleep easy, don’t you?

Sleep easy, for your time will come when some of your problems are solved.

Sleep easy, for even if your problems are never going to be solved, navigating through the night will not get you any answers.

Sleep easy, and dawn will come soon.

The Only Thing to Fear is Yourself

I opened my eyes. It was still dark. Rolling over to one side, I checked my phone. I read 3:26 AM. I sat up and got out of bed, making my way to the toilet.

I walked past my brother’s room, down the corridor, and turned into the toilet. I’ve sort of trained myself to memorise the number of footsteps, the position of the furniture, the height of the toilet bowl and the small step that meant the entrance and exit of the toilet. You tend to sync yourself with the very design of your house, a peculiar intimacy that comes with time.

In the light of this, I could do everything in the dark. Upon executing my business, I quickly run my hands through the tap water and waltzed back to bed. I took a quick turn in the dark, and my eyes travelled quickly across to the study room at the end of the corridor.

Wait a minute. I noticed something.

I looked back at the study room. The entire room was bathed in darkness, only the streetlights filtered through the curtained windows. The room stood vacant. I could have sworn I saw something, or someone in that room as I made that quick glance.

I walked cautiously back to my room, not daring to look back, and quickly pulled the blanket over my body. 3:29 AM was the time on the phone. I fell asleep shortly after.

***

I opened my eyes. The room was as still as a mausoleum, damp and dark. I checked my phone. 3:26 AM. I needed to visit the toilet.

After I was done, I guided my foot just a few centimeters over the small step at the door of the toilet and made my way back to my room.

“Silly Justin.”

It was barely audible. But I could hear it. Barely. It was a very soft call in a nonchalant tone. Somebody called out my name. It came from directly behind me. It may have been from the study room. There was nothing very emotional about it; it had a sluggish tone that was similar to the reading of 4D numbers. It was not a voice I recognized but it still sounded strangely familiar, like someone recounting for you a dream you had forgotten.

I didn’t turn around. I walked straight up to my room, locked the door, jumped into my bed and pulled the blanket over my head. Just as I got comfortable, the doorknob started to throb violently. It was as if someone outside was trying to open up the door and barge into my room. Or maybe I was imagining this too. I counted my racing heartbeats to calm myself down. None of this is real, you’re imagining all of it. Damn it! Get to sleep!

Sleep did not come so easily this time.

***

The next morning, I woke up in a cold sweat. I looked at the clock. 8:53 AM. I tried falling back to sleep, but despite my exhaustion, I was unable to. I walked out of my room and into the kitchen. Dad was there, having his breakfast before work.

“Morning, Pa.”

“Morning Ah boy, how was your sleep?” My dad replied, looking down at the morning papers.

A casual question, but one with an unusually complex answer this time.

“I have something to tell you, something happened last night. It was horrible.”

My dad looked up this time. “Tell me more.”

So I told him what happened. What I thought I saw two nights before, what I heard yesterday, even the banging on the door. I told him everything as he looked on intently.

He paused for a while before continuing. “I heard nothing last night.”

“I know, but you have to believe me. Something is out there.”

My dad thought for longer this time, his vacant index finger playing with the handle of his coffee mug.

“Boy ah, let me tell you something. I’m fifty-six this year, and I’ve had tens of thousands of nights, thousands of sleepless ones, I assure you. There may have been a few hundred nights where I’d woken up and felt that something wasn’t right. Just like you last night. Let me just tell you one thing: the only thing you should fear is here.” He pointed to his temple before continuing, “so please, don’t go exploring. Keep to yourself. There is nothing out there that is trying to get you. The only thing there is to fear is yourself.”

With that, he held me firmly by the shoulders, nodded at me, and trudged off to work.

I was not sure if he even vaguely understood what I had experienced.

***

I opened my eyes. The room was dark as death, and still as amber. 3:26 AM. I put my phone down. I made up my mind. I’m just going to lie here. Until I fall asleep again. I didn’t want to go out there. No, I didn’t want to at all.

3:46AM. I could no longer hold it. I stepped out of bed and walked out of my room. There’s nothing to fear. I thought of what Dad said. The only thing to fear is myself.

I switched on the lights this time. The corridor illuminated and hurt my eyes, which I had to adjust for a second. I walked to the toilet and did what I had to. I switched on the toilet lights this time.

Shortly after, I switched off the toilet lights and was just about to make my way back to my room.

The study room, it stood at the end of the corridor shrouded in darkness. Its darkness was more apparent when juxtaposed with the brightened corridor.

He stood there, a dark figure beside the study table.

He stood there, staring at me. I, too, stood there in the light, gazing at him, knowing I should run, run back to my room. Don’t go exploring; I could almost hear my Dad say. He is not real! He is something, someone from your imagination!

But I stood there. I could not move.

I closed my eyes and counted to three, straining so hard that my eyelids hurt. I opened my eyes again.

In the middle of the study room stood a fan. There was no longer any dark figure. You must be seeing things. Silly boy. What were you thinking? What kind of mind games are you playing with yourself?

 

I walked forward just to be sure. I had the courage of a man, a sudden surge that propelled me forward. I had to be seeing things. I had to. I needed to face this. All this time, the fan just stood there. I took a deep breath and stepped into the study room. The room itself wasn’t huge and it became immediately clear, there was no one in the room. There was only the fan and the table, and the table had three chairs tucked under it. All the windows were closed. There was no one. I walked over to the fan, and looked under the table. Nothing there as well. I stood in the darkness and chuckled to myself. Silly Justin, I whispered quietly.

I stood up again and faced the bright corridor.

I held my hand to my mouth and stifled a scream. There was someone standing in the middle of the corridor, in full view, under the light. My heart tumbled.

That person was me. Or at least someone who looked exactly like me. Same white plain T-shirt, same blue shorts, same disheveled hair. It was me. I was standing in the middle of that corridor, bathed in that courtroom spotlight. I was staring intently at me. But no, I was also here in the study room. So it couldn’t be me. He was staring at me, and I had no idea how we had managed to switch places. Upon locking eyes at my dark figure in the study room, a look of terror enveloped his face, and he strode straight back, back into my room. He didn’t even turn off the corridor lights. I stood there and watched, as he shut the door and locked it behind him.

I took the courage to walk up this time. In my head there could have only been questions. I tried for the doorknob and twisted it violently in both directions, but it wouldn’t budge.

The doorknob wouldn’t twist. The damn door was bolted shut. I was trapped outside my own bedroom.