Live for Love

I was in Spain for the nine days before Christmas, and occasionally thought: It might be nice to post a Letter from Andalucia. Instead, I lazed around in the sun and enjoyed hearty Spanish food and the company of little dogs running around freely on the streets. We visited the Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazar in Sevilla, and watched the sun set over the famous gorge of Ronda. In the last two years I have done a fair bit of travelling, but this is the first time I haven’t had to rush somewhere every two days and pack a week’s worth of exploration into three days. The days were slow and languid, and the Spanish siesta makes it easier to breathe and let go. With a semester to go till the end of my undergraduate years — which have flown by — I have been thinking about the future. In coming to Europe for university I persuaded myself that these would be the formative years of the person I become, and in this I think I have been proven mostly right, for better or for worse; any other decision would have seen me become a much more different person. Maybe it is as Karley Sciortino’s mother says:

“If you’re happy in the present, the past seems perfectly designed—both the good and the bad—because you know if just one thing was different, you wouldn’t be where you are. But if you’re unhappy in the present, you can’t help but look back and try to pinpoint all the bad decisions you made, all the things you could have done better.”

Maybe I am able to live (fairly well) with the choices I have made because I can accept the person that I am, or — a horrid thought — because I have not really seen that person. Thinking about advice from one writer’s parent leads to advice from another. My favourite fashion blogger Garance Doré interviewed writer and actress Rashida Jones, and I have been turning a piece of advice from her father over and over in my mind for a few months:

What is the best advice they have given you?
I would say it’s not particularly career advice but life advice. My mom was all about following your heart and instinct. As I have gotten older, I have connected more with my instinct, which is good. And my dad always said to make decisions based on love, not fear. It’s so good. Why am I making this decision? Is it because I’m afraid I’m not going to get a job again? Well that’s fear. Or I love this thing so much I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it. That’s still a huge thing that guides me in my life.”

In short: Do it out of love, not fear. Coming to London and watching all these smart young people around me who know exactly what they want and have careers waiting, that put me in a huge state of panic. My peers have always been more pragmatic and realistic than I am, and most of them would have taken some of the more sensible decisions in life that I turned down. It’s never been more obvious, now that the dog days are over and the question of money looms ahead in the hazy future. At some point I was standing in the middle of London, a couple miles from The City, and thinking: Maybe it’s time to become a banker, or an accountant, or join a consultancy. (No, I had no idea what a consultancy was, either.) Later that day I came home and read the Rashida Jones interview, and it hit hard. I’ve tried to ask myself this question every day now: I am doing this out of love, or fear?

The question keeps coming back in different guises. Once in a while I will think of Marina Keegan, the only stranger whose death has really stayed with me, and I will try and find something she wrote that I haven’t yet read. Not longer ago I found this article written one year after her death, on how her parents were coping. Anything Keegan wrote always changes me — I read everything she wrote carefully and slowly, knowing that there would be no more to come — but these words, recounted by her father, made me smile:

One of the last times he saw his daughter, Keegan told her how proud he was of her. “She said, ‘I am going to live for love — the rest will take care of itself.’ That was her philosophy.”

“I am going to live for love — the rest will take care of itself.” Isn’t that amazing? Yet this is a story with the ending we already know: She barely lived, and then something in the universe clicked, the way it always does when all senseless things that shouldn’t, happen anyway, and the living came to an end. For me loving Marina Keegan always involves some vanity, because she was a young woman my age who did so much and had so much more ahead. I always wonder how many young women would have benefitted from reading Marina Keegan, the way we read Joan Didion and Nora Ephron, if that night had passed peacefully and she had gone on to her position at NYT. Then I look at Tavi Gevinson, who accomplished more at 16 than any of us will in a lifetime, and I think: To each her own, in her own time.

Take for example: John Hyduk. I discovered his work around the time of Marina Keegan’s death, through his essay for Esquire, The Loading Dock Manifesto. John Hyduk is a writer, more than many people who write for a living ever will be, but his source of income is blue collar work. I spent one night reading all over Hyduk’s work that was available online — much of it appeared in print before digital publishing became profitable. His pieces are short and to the point, and his sentences uncomplicated. Hyduk’s writing style reminds me of short story writers like Alice Munro and George Saunders, and for me he is the epitome of a writer gone undiscovered. John Hyduk is sixty one this year, and he has kept writing all his life. Mostly for Cleveland and Ohio magazines, with the Esquire piece being the highlight, but he writes most strongly when writing about his hometown and home state. When I think about Keegan I think about Hyduk. For me the two are two sides of the same coin, the two best possible outcomes of a writer’s life, rich but short, and a writer’s life, long but sparse.

All that to say: I’m trying my best to live for love, in the big decisions and the little ones. To write like Hyduk and live like Keegan, to watch like Didion and laugh like Ephron. When I was six I read Chuck Jones’ autobiography, a huge, funny book with many family anecdotes and behind-the-scenes work of his animations and I thought, I want to be Chuck Jones. I never stopped feeling that for writers, artists, film makers and other creative individuals who didn’t fall quite into any one category — but nothing ever quite matches up to the first time I closed that big blue and orange book and realised that people get to make the things that they love. That it is possible to do what you do because of love.

Late Nights

It’s all quiet out there, in the hours that make it possible to exist without fully knowing where or when you are, like being in a tunnel on a long train ride between two points of existence. Being wide awake at this time has its pitfalls for me, a quicksand of moroseness and inevitability that I fell into last month. Yet when things go well, London is a beautiful city to be in. Things I am enjoying of late: Sparkling water, which I grew to appreciate while in France. Badoit is my favourite because the neck of the bottle is elegant, and occasionally Waitrose sells it on discount. Blueberry Green Tea, introduced at a high school gathering at a dim sum restaurant. Pubs, and beer, and pubs; cocktails in mugs and Sunday Roasts. Champagne — I miss champagne, and that one lovely afternoon where we had a fake surprise gala for J, with pink bottles of champagne and little pink flags. My college experience in France can be chronicled with the food we ate: Kebabs and butter chicken from the corner stores, crepes and potato hash made from scratch by my housemates, sinful duck confit in a restaurant by Opera, macarons crumbling on rainy Parisian streets, Swedish biscuits with seafood cream, handmade large and lumpy baos, winter hotpots that tasted like home, various microwave experiments gone wrong. For me buttered toast topped with sugar and instant noodles with ketchup are my mother and father, respectively; huge pizzas, my cousins in an amusement park; prayer noodles with vegetarian meat and fish balls, my aunt’s house with the scent of incense and the pandemonium of large families.

I love watching the shadows of couples holding hands on the street, and looking up and find a white-haired wrinkly pair smiling at each other. My definitions of happiness have changed rapidly as I enter my twenties, and in certain ways so has my single-minded pursuit of it. I try to be kinder. I try to slow down. I used to speed-read, but now I cover every word. I read. I re-read. I consume, give it a few days to settle, and come back to the article or book or video that I have been mulling over. Last night I finally finished Fahrenheit 451, which I’ve been consuming word by word, marking out the best lines and rhythms I can find. It’s a good book for remembering why life, and why words. I’ve loved Bradbury a long time, but I love him more now. His words reminded me at first of Kafka, which brought to mind Murakami’s most recent short story “Samsa In Love“, a reversal on and tribute to Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, and a long way from anything I’ve ever read by Kafka. Fun fact: I’ve never finished any of Kafka’s novels. I tried “The Trial” and “Amerika”, and got about halfway through both before giving up in despair. I never “got” Kafka — I understood what he was doing with his books and why he was doing it, but never derived any joy from them even at the fundamental level of learning. This was a long time ago, and I may have been too young to appreciate him. I am hesitant to promise myself to try again, because what if I fail? I am terrified of not understanding Kafka. He is one of the greats, one of the ones everyone reads. If I am twenty one and still cannot appreciate his books, what does that make me? Eighteen year old me would have said, not smart enough. Twenty one year old me knows: Missing out on a part of vital knowledge, and a part of life. Nowadays that is the thought which terrifies me the most.

I juggle three other languages in my mind all the time. One is ancient, luxurious and succinct, and always welcoming. One is tricky and frustrating, a little distant yet very sentimental, one of the peaks in life I may never reach, having been stuck at a waystation for a few years now. The last one is new and, as with all new things, fun! exciting! stupendously interesting! Sometimes I think in one language and another comes out, or the words and idioms mingle in my mouth and come out wrong. All that to say, language is a certain sort of magic. All that to say, nowadays I am thinking more harshly about everything around me, but words still give me joy and the ability to suspend disbelief and appreciate the made-up sounds of a made-up culture of a species that has survived against all odds. Somewhere on the internet someone wrote that before the Internet there was an internet known as books and libraries, where you could find links between ideas which wormed their way into your mind as you read and made up your own worlds. That is to say, I am nostalgic for a childhood of libraries. That is to say, lately work has been neglected in favour of solidly good books. What has kept me up lately? Mostly thoughts of a hazy future, and the small steps through the fog.

Vivo bien. The nights are long and maybe good again. I feel wide awake, and ready to live.

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” — Douglas Adams

Quasimodo

My first apartment in London is an attic room, with plenty of space and light streaming through two skylights. Unlike my previous rooms in Europe, I have no heating problems here — the built in ceiling lights are so hot you could fry an egg on them. I had plenty of plans for this room before coming arriving, posters and pictures and several tiny details, but as it stands it just looks like the average college room now, with an unmade bed and laundry everywhere. My dad used to come into my room while I was preparing for the A’levels and shake his head at my messes; I would shake my fist back at him and yell, “THIS MESS IS MY FUTURE.” The room is not stuffy, but it is very warm — a combination of the natural ascension of hot air, well-powered heaters, and the oven-like lights. I open all the windows and dress as I do in summer, even at night. My room smells of rain and fallen leaves, the cusp of autumn sighing into cold, cold winter.

Last week I went to a Neil Gaiman event at Central Hall, Westminster, where the line went around the building twice and there was an inexplicably large number of adults excitedly awaiting a reading of a children’s book. Neil read and his friends performed, while Chris Riddell drew beautiful sketches to go with the performance. The best moment of the evening was when Neil, reading from Fortunately The Milk, said, “Ah ha!” and almost instantaneously, a young voice somewhere in the audience rang out gleefully, “AH HA-AH!” It was the perfect moment of a perfect reading. Neil’s face split into a wide grin for a split second as the crowd roared, before composing himself and moving on with the reading. I loved that — the most unforeseen bit of the reading became the best part of it, one of those moments brought about by coincidence and sheer will of the things that are. Such moments have not arrived often, these couple of years, and I am grateful when they do.

This week “I Am Malala” was published, she did not win the Nobel Peace Prize, and the world exploded with Malala rapture. I admit, she’s a very eloquent sixteen year old girl. She is charming and speaks with a soul much older and wiser than most other sixteen year old girls. Yet the novelty and adulation surrounding Malala unsettles me. Much of the hype surrounding her is just that — hype. People are able to get feel good vibes off this beautiful girl from Pakistan with a tragic story and who has found the happy ending: A new life in Birmingham, new opportunities, a spokesperson for her village and all Pakistani girls. Malala-worship has become admiration verging on fetishising; the latest Messiah figure in a tiny package with steel plates protecting a precious mind. Yet what happens to Malala, when she is no longer on the NYT bestselling book list? What happens when she is older, harder, championing rights that not everybody believes in? Even now, it is the developed world which is loving Malala. Christina Lamb‘s (co-author of “I Am Malala”) profile of Malala and her family makes that much clear. She is, after all, still a sixteen year old girl trying to figure out the world around her. She misses her friends — some of whom may resent her for the opportunity she has been given. Malala’s courage, passion and intelligence has been rewarded by the protection and privilege living in the United Kingdom offers; she no longer has to worry about being shot on a school bus, and may graduate from the prestigious Oxbridge universities. Yet what lies ahead for the rest of her family — her conservative mother who feels isolated here, her brothers who are missing out on school? What happens to all the girls in Pakistan who are not Malala? For this one girl who is Malala — a survivor, an outlier, an example — so many more are not, and the world seems to have conveniently forgotten that.

That we find Malala’s maturity so amazing is worrying. Malala is who she is not only because of media publicity and luck of the draw, but also because her father set a clear, outstanding example for her from young. It’s called good parenting. Yes, I have been an atrocious sixteen year old myself, and yes, I know that privilege and hormones can take you places where parenting can’t even keep up. Yet if everyone put a little more consideration into their lives and their beliefs that way Malala obviously has, wouldn’t the world be a little nicer to live in? Wouldn’t it be easier to live with yourself? I imagine governments of grown men and women with humble souls like Malala’s, and it blows my mind that maybe this is the way humans are meant to be.

I am a hopeless believer; I believe in truth and goodness and possibilities. I believe that I will be able to make a living off words and curiosity. (In the past month, this belief has been shaken on a weekly basis as everyone around me seems to be going into banking or have set their sights on academic or government career paths.) I believe in poetry — the sort that exemplifies /r/verse, not the sort my friends and I wrote when we were thirteen and utterly irreverent about words — and there’s one that’s stuck with me through the years. It sticks with every one it touches, and the older one gets the more the poem really sings to you. Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is always initially taken by the young and excited to be an ode to wandering off the beaten path, where no man has been before, and forging (presumably) a life of fame and fortune that way. Then I got older, had the fortune to study literature under good teachers, and it was explained to me that the poem really is about how it really does not matter which road you take, in the end. I understood, but I did not know, and after high school I had more pressing things to worry about. Poetry was forgotten for a while as I dove into novel after novel, looking for ways out of this world. Last week, I was mindlessly scrolling through poems when I remembered “The Road Not Taken”. At the age of twenty one, about to complete an undergraduate degree with no clear sense of where to go next, I reread it. Slowly, carefully. And I found, to great astonishment and sorrow, that I knew. Not every word, every line. But I finally knew what I could not have known, properly known, all those other times I read it: That life is a flow of decisions you make, a path down which there is no return. One decision opens up the next few others and while nothing is a dead end, time is the devil nobody can run from — eventually, your life is an inevitable story of each and every choice you have made, the closing of each door that was within reach only because you opened the last. Finally understanding this poem was like accepting that we are all going to die one day, and being all the better for it.

“In three words I can sum up everything I know about life: it goes on.” – Robert Frost

This week I sat at the back of a class where everyone was in their third year, well-learned and eager to show it. Listening to the discussion of abstract political theories, my mind began to wander. What is true? I wonder at man’s ability to build worlds. We built a structure and called a chair; we carved rooms out of rock and bricks out of stones and now we sit upon our thrones of steel and glass, having invented the machines needed to create little self contained rooms; we built universities, jobs, social roles that allow for young people to sit around doing nothing much for years. We built words and theories atop words, and then we went to war for our ideas. We go to war for our ideas — or money, which, also, we invented from seashells and papers and then put them into the air to exist as numbers on screens in a tower of powerful people yelling at each other over the phones. When, really, when you think about it, we are just these hairless mammals who learnt how to love. (I told you I was a believer.) L and I used to muse, late at night when the world had gone to bed, on what would happen if suddenly all that mankind had created were to vanish and all that was left were human beings, women and men, standing on grassy plains staring at one another? What would we think, or do, or say — and wouldn’t it be extra awkward if everyone was naked? Sometimes I think that we write science fiction and make so many movies about meeting hostile aliens and starting wars because our other fear is far greater: That we are all alone in the universe and we will never meet another being which might be able answer the question that has driven our greatest thinkers and religions and civilisations:

Why?

That Time of the Year

It’s been swinging between chilly and warm, and the leaves, still desperately clinging on, have turned red overnight. Autumns in France were torturous and taunting, full of rain and gloomy days. Any romantic notion I had had of fall were replaced by “that awful month before everything freezes to death”. Winter in London looks to be no different — actually, having spent a month here over Christmas two years ago, I know it will be no different — except that here there is the merit of big city excitement to stave off the cold dark days.

A bit of musing I began and never completed, autrefois:

It’s easy for me to fall into the rut of depression all alone in a city without a network of people to love and see all the time. I lie on my bed and stare out of the little attic window, unable to enjoy the time and opportunity I have been given and hating myself for it. In London, thankfully, all it takes is putting on my shoes and coat and leaving the apartment to push myself back into action. I can take a walk to the Strand, where everything is always beautiful, or to Chinatown, where food and faces are familiar. If nothing else I have been good from young at ignoring negative feelings, the way one tries to ignore nausea on a long bus ride, or a fear of turbulence while flying.

Growing up in nineteen years of summer and monsoon, the cold dryness of Europe always takes me by surprise. I forget things: where my gloves have gone (in the pocket of my winter coat), how cracked the skin all over my body can get (in places you wouldn’t expect), the importance of a good scarf. I forget, too, the feeling of not belonging. Returning from Malaysia Night with some friends two weeks back (we went, like almost everyone else, solely for the food), we stopped at a traffic light with a black cab stuck in a jam right in front of us. It was a chilly night; the windows were rolled down, presumably by the group of well-dressed young men within. The one with ginger hair caught my eye — he looked at us, looked away, and looked back again. It was a long enough stare to not be accidental. Oh no, I thought. I am familiar with The Look. Sure enough, he began mocking us quietly to his friends, shaking his head and gesturing a little, going, “Ni hao! Ni hao!” I could feel a quiet rage bubbling up in my chest, and as we crossed the road I, making a hasty decision, stuck him the middle finger. Not the most elegant of gestures, but very concise.

I thought that I wouldn’t have to worry about this in London, but obviously (obviously!that was foolish. London is a city made up of people, and people are all the same everywhere. I have never used ni hao as a greeting in my life. Before I came to Europe, I was not aware that it could be anything but a greeting — or that my eyes, my race, or my skin colour could be used as insults? The first time, it was almost midnight. A group of us were on our way home from a college-organised party in a quieter part of town. F and I were walking near a roundabout when a car pulled up next to us and a couple of black men stuck their heads out of the window. “Chinois! Chinois!” they yelled, before speeding off again. Drive-by racism. I was stunned. F, whose parents are from China but moved to Morocco fourteen years ago, tugged me away. “Ah, let’s go. It’s normal.” And she was right. It was. I stopped counting how many times I got yelled at. Sometimes it was friendly, and sometimes, it wasn’t.

Do I sound defeated by these experiences and the ignorance propelling them? I am — for a few minutes, maybe an hour, depending on the kind of day I have been having. But things could be worse — I have never been assaulted or seriously discriminated again. My life is privileged and easier than most. Sometimes I think about how to solve these problems. How do I explain that I’m chinese but not Chinese?* How do I explain that this is my name, yes, both words, and that it is okay to not be able to pronounce it but for the love of god, please try? Most of the time, more and more since leaving Singapore, I think about how cruel and unpleasant we have been — and still are — to the minorities in my country. My mind always goes back to home, this time of the year, when the world gets colder and my dad looks a little older.

* My way, in my mind, of distinguishing between my race and my nationality. C, my lanky, cynical friend who knows it all, looked at me and said, “You know they’re both written with a capital letter, right?”

A Love Letter

Right behind me at that moment, a buxom model in red was having her photo taken.

To Brussels –

I was told, repeatedly, that you would be boring. I was told that you were not beautiful and not worth my time. When I arrived I agreed. You might have some lovely old buildings and the dainty chocolate shops, but it seemed that once I left the radius of tourist honeypots, the magic dissipated. I went to sleep feeling pleased that I had arranged to spent only a day with you before moving on to other small towns.

Yet today I walked in and out of your heart for half a day, and Brussels – I am crazy in love with you. Here I am, sitting in Bruges, your little “postcard town” neighbour – voted one of the most romantic and beautiful places in the world yet again! Here I am, having just watched Felix Baumgartner survive his record-breaking free fall (to be honest, all the time waiting for his suit to catch fire) and yet my mind keeps going back to the view from the Palais du Justice and the smattering of glass buildings amidst baked red roofs along your skyline. Dear Brussels, I can’t believe I almost left you without this morning’s breathtaking exploration.

There are little to no words for the manic high I was on, walking without breaks from the Grand Place, my little valise in tow, through the Petit and Grand salons and the lovely Egmont Park, past the Museum des Beux Arts and the Palais Royale, returning again and again to the street running from the Palais du Justice. There are no words vivid enough, when I try to recall the eclectic shops that litter your streets, the bookstores which made me smile, peering in, even though they were all in Dutch, the very nature of this city and its love for art and music and poetry which has me craving for more. I miss now, even, the tall office buildings lining King Albert II Boulevard. Dear Brussels: How could anyone say you were boring?

How could I explain to friends and family that the city I love is you, more than I loved Paris or London, both places which lived in my imagination years before I ever stepped foot on this continent? That I want so badly to return, to hop on a bus one weekend and spend more time with you, but I am horribly afraid that the magic will have faded the second time around. What is it about you, Brussels, that has captivated me so? It cannot be normal – look at the scores of people proclaiming their love and laying their lives on the line for London, Paris, I would say New York City but I have never been – how can it be that I have fallen for you, the city whose unfortunate name brings to mind an unpleasant vegetable? How do I explain this: That you satisfy both my excitable city girl and my quiet history-craving hippie, that I have secretly always dreamt of a city which marries classic solid stone mansions of Europe and shiny glass skyscrapers of Singapore, that coming where I come from – maybe every city I love will have to be a contradiction.

I love you so much that I Google You.The internet tells me that the phenomenon of haphazardly destroying old architecture to make way for modern glass buildings – the result being a sight which I admired so much today – has been named after you, Brussels, you with your European Union technocrats and your lack of proper city planning. It tells me that you are being overrun with foreigners – people like me, but not quite, who stick out like a sore thumb and plague the city. Yet, Brussels – who will tell you that something blossomed in my heart in Park Egmont today, when I discovered the poetic words of Marguerite Yourcenar carved into the walls and ground? Has anyone else seen the antiques market at Sablon, where I found the most exquisitely tiny silver spoons – and Brussels, damn, you love your silverware. Nobody else knows how it makes me feel to find the first city which smiles in surprise when I respond with weak French, rather than disapproving of my accent. Like all the best people I have met, Brussels: I stared at you in dismay for a while before falling deeply in love.

– Dear Brussels: I don’t think that this infatuation, like all other ideas worth their while, is something I can fully explain. Yet I have tried anyway.

A/N: This was originally written and posted as A Letter to Brussels on 14 October 2012. Last weekend I was in Brussels again to see The Script in concert. It was rainy and cold and the ground was wet with snow and slush; despite plans we spent our time hanging out in hippie cafes and chatting instead of visiting the Palais du Justice to admire the view. Second time around my love is no longer a roar, but a satisfied hum.

Between Two Worlds

Windows I know so well

One of the quotes which wormed its way into my mind many years ago and which still rides the coattails of my quieter moments, is from a band whose music I don’t even listen to. In a BBC interview, the frontman of The Drums says, “We only write about two feelings – one is the first day of summer when you and all of your friends are standing on the edge of a cliff watching the sun set and being overcome with all of your hopes and dreams at once. The other is when you’re walking alone in the rain and realise you will be alone forever.” Neither The Drums nor what they write about matter to me, but the quote rolled around in my mind for a few years, and after spending some time back home this summer, the phrase “two feelings” came to mind.

After walking out of the arrival hall lugging my giant red suitcase and being overwhelmed with love, after making my rounds between friends and family, and after recovering from jet lag and a ridiculous week of sleeping at five and waking at noon, I found myself frequently slipping between two distinct feelings. Not those two of The Drums’, swinging between joy and extreme pessimism, but two which are known to every person returning home from a lengthy stay abroad, long enough to have adopted new homes away from home. The two feelings arise from the duality of one heart trying to straddle two continents and two timezones.

The first feeling envelopes me when I step into my room for the first time in eight months, lie back on my soft bed and look out of the window at the lights all around the neighbourhood – so many other people out there awake with me. I had forgotten what it was like to feel safe, comforted, well taken care of. When I lay down an immense wave of relief washes over me. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding in. Here, there are people who have always loved me unconditionally and will continue to do so indefinitely; here, I have everything I might ever need and everything I had taken for granted until I moved ten thousand miles away. The entire of the first week, I laid there in my bed watching the world blink and I thought: I never want to leave again. This is home. This is good. This is enough.

The second feeling is jarring. It begins as a slow crawl under my skin, fraught with confusion and ambiguity. In the first few days back home, I felt like a time traveler. Like the past eight months I had spent in a whole new world, starting from scratch and getting to know myself all over again — as if those past eight months had just been a long, vivid dream. Things were exactly the way I had left them: The clothes in the wardrobe, the places I grew up, the friendships that were waiting for me. I kept thinking that nothing had changed — which could not be less true. Everything is always changing. Yet with each day I spent back in Singapore, my memories of France were fading exponentially. Whole months, reduced to dreams. It was scary. I didn’t return home to feel as if the entire of the last year had been an alien abduction.

I couldn’t put my finger on the discrepancies I felt until a conversation with A., who had whole a year on me in moving from food paradise to the town of dog poop. She confirmed that I was not being a dramatic, over emotional teenage having a psychotic episode — well, not the only one, at least — and summed it up with: “Nobody has changed.” She didn’t mean it literally, of course. What she meant, the way I understood it then and now, was this: That people here, people we grew up with, have changed — but we have changed so much more, by throwing ourselves into the deep unknown, that they seem to have stayed the same. A.’s eventual conclusion was that she was living two separate lives: One in Singapore, and one abroad. I don’t feel the same way, exactly. My lives are not separate — they are one linear narrative, weaving between continents. What I have, instead, are two separate souls, each tied to different places. I am a different person in France than I am in Singapore, in ways that is difficult to explain to friends on either side. I talked to Z. about this, and he said: You feel as if you traveled back in time because eight months of things have happened to you, but none of it happened here. He hit it spot on. In my last year, there has been no progression tied to my home of nineteen years. It feels weird because it is weird. Two years in literature classes discussing place, time, space, identity, limbo – and still this irreconcilability of worlds catches me off guard.

Two worlds and two selves. When people tell you about the costs of studying abroad they mention: The money, the culture shock, the friendships. Nobody informs you that it will cost you a linear narrative, or that one night after returning home you will find yourself standing stock still, wondering where you are and what is happening and whether the last eight months happened the way you think they did. Nobody tells you that every time you take a twelve hour flight in either direction, somehow your personality gets rebooted and you forget important things about yourself, like your ability to be a dedicated person, or how sunshine makes life better in the winter — a few months ago I learnt something about myself and I thought, Oh! But I already knew this. I am different people in different places. Which self do I prefer? It’s hard to tell. I am juggling several worlds which may never meet. If this is going to happen each time I move, and for the rest of my life I am going to be several people, these people are still less important than the person I want to be. More than being accustomed to airport security, or selective geographical amnesia, more than any of the traits of either person, I would like to be someone who can live with both of these feelings and know that I do not necessarily have to give up one for the other. That maybe being a time traveler is not so bad after all.

Addendum: Originally titled “Twin Souls”, this was written on 17 June 2012 in Singapore. I have come to peace with myself on the issue: After, you are who you are, not where you are. After the first summer, straddling two worlds has become more comfortable. In the fall of 2013 I will be on exchange in yet another country. More worlds and more selves await.

Boldly Go

Home is the simplest of things.

It is April 2011. We are at the crematorium to send my mother off. The doors open and the flames lick at the coffin; the system is ruthlessly efficient and within a minute the fire has subsided, the doors are closed, what was there is now no more but ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The viewing room bursts into wails. I do not cry. I try to, but I cannot, and it does not surprise me very much. Days ago when my mother’s funeral wake had first begun, we were the first people to look into the coffin and see her face made up gaudily, a pane of glass separating us. There is much more separating us, of course, although the make up artist does not seem to have realised this. The funeral director explains that this is to prevent her colour – or lack thereof – from showing over the days. A thought settles into my head from first glance, and takes root so firmly I never dare to breathe it to a single person for fear of the shame that will follow. I look in the coffin and I think: This is not my mother.

For why should it be? I can pinpoint the exact moment my mother left. When she took her last breaths and then stilled, when we leant over her to change her into clothes for the coffin because the funeral parlour workers would not come till morning; I touched her leg and in a matter of seconds it was ice cold. Here I will only speak of the moment when she left and thereafter; I refuse to speak of the days in the hospital, or the eternity that passed between bringing her home and the long goodbye. Those days live still in my head, and it is dangerous to write about days you are still living. From the moment my mother left us, a bitter calm took over my head and my body, and although the events that came after were new to me none of them truly took me by surprise. Only this – I never expected her to go so cold so soon.

I walk through the funeral wake in a haze. I go through the rituals with a newfound obedience my mother would have thanked the gods for, after years of fighting her: The year where I refused to apply to RGS, the year I expressed immense revulsion at the thought of trying for the bilingual studies program, the year I chose not to put a religion on my identity card, the last year where she had cancer and I was still a selfish child. That last year passed through me as I typed those words, and when I catch my breath again I already have tears halfway down my chin. What did I say about writing of days I am still living? In the days after, people hold me up and I let them down. Friends who come to the wake keep me sane and awake; friends whom I forgot to or couldn’t bring myself to tell I face with shame much later, when they have heard through the grapevine.

In the days following I grow more awkward and recalcitrant than ever. How does one say, my mother died last week, or last month, or last year? The first time I had to do it was on the phone with an old neighbour, who burst out crying and all I could say on the other end of the line was nothing. The last time I had to do it was telling a university senior when the fact came up in casual conversation, and I said I wouldn’t cry but before I had even opened my mouth my lower lip was quivering. How does one go about these things? I still do not know. The best I had ever felt about it was at the house of a former teacher, when she looked straight at me and asked ‘What does your dad think about you going to France?’ and I thought, she knows. It was a parting of the clouds.

Days turned into months turned into a year. Some days I wake up with sunshine in my heart and think, alright life, come at me. Two hours later I see something which makes me want to run up to her and talk about it, a child, an ipad, a new television show, watch the smile on her face because I know she will love it – until I remember that that is no longer an option, and my insides collapse all over again. The worst days are realising that I have in fact forgotten, for several hours, that my mother is dead. It comes with a little gasp, oh! Oh. Oh.

I keep walking on.

It is February 2012, and one of my best friends tells me that a mutual friend is gone. Then, she says, probably suicide. I hear my heart stop, and then drop. You don’t think about people you know killing themselves. When they do, you wonder: What did I miss? Where did I go wrong? Selfish thoughts on a selfish deed, because we are after all each man for himself. I get tired of hearing and saying, “You couldn’t have done anything.” It is not the truth, and we owe the truth to ourselves and to her. Selfish are the people who miss the cues; more selfish yet is the person who leaves us behind, each alone together with only silence.

I become furious with her, more furious than I ever was while we sat side by side on sunny afternoons in dusty classrooms and she doodled and took notes for the both of us as I slept. My rage boils over, first from knowing that our friends will only grow older now – the way I aged after my mother left – then from reading ignorant, gossipy comments left on the news article on her death. The article itself is a bizarre occurrence – the words ‘woman’, ‘twenty’ and a name which I said every week for two whole years should have no place there. If I stare hard enough, they are not the same names. I wonder how the journalist could have written so carelessly about her, then I am shamed by the number of times I have read an article on someone’s controversial passing without a single thought for the people who loved them. Facts become difficult to reconcile. Losing someone I talked to almost every single day for close to nineteen years was like sitting up into a brick wall each morning; knowing that I will never again talk to someone whom I hadn’t seen in months is a pea under an abundance of duvets.

In the week that comes she haunts all of us. My friend sees her everywhere, hears the way she calls her name. My ghost is the unrelenting reminder of her – I cannot remember the last thing I said to her, the way her tiny ponytail stuck up in the air, or a single unpleasant conversation. I sleep, I stare, I fail a math test. I decide to stop caring about anyone, because everybody leaves you. I go to a party and drink. I dance, I drink, I dance, I drink, I steal other people’s lightstick bracelets and drink some more. This is probably the happiest any of these people have ever seen me. At the end of the night something gives way inside, and I remember crying and blabbing everything before being brought home. I say, why why why do these things happen. I do not remember much else, only this: Y telling V that if this is true it is sad, and then telling me that she’s been in this place before. I remember thinking: So, it happens to everyone. So.

When I wake up I feel like shit, have to call V to ask where my keys are, and swear off drinking. When I started drinking that night all I wanted was to forget. Now I do, most days, and I am sorry for it. In the end we all forget.

It is April 2012, exactly one year on from my mother’s passing. I spend the day before hiding in normalcy, and when midnight comes and goes I think, it is not going to be an awful day. I will just stay in bed all day, and this anniversary will be a non-event. I am an ostrich. I can do this. Then, the news begins to spread amongst friends and alumni on Facebook: Our university’s director, found dead and naked in his New York hotel room. Rumours abound. A flood of posts come in, some shocked, some grieving, all respectful of his accomplishments and grateful for his service to higher education. Official emails arrive from the university: Condolences, a memorial, a book left in the office for us to write to his family. I do not go to the memorial. I do not write in the book. I do not grieve on Facebook, because for fuck’s sake people, some of you who said you would miss him very much only saw him once from afar. The only thing I produce is an angry tweet raging at the universe for the cruel joke, a tiny fist shaking saying how dare you be discovered dead on my mother’s anniversary, and how dare you be important enough to be raved about. The hype surrounding the great man’s death utterly undermines the non-day I was hoping to have. If news of Richard Descoings’ death had broke any other day I might have shared in the loss of thousands others; as things stand now, all I feel is the injustice in the excess of public grief for this great man which drowns out the grief for my mother, who was greater still to me.

It is today. May, 2012. In the middle of a busy stressful morning, the same friend from before messages. It is about a boy I barely remember sharing a classroom with, but who is part of a tightly knit circle of old classmates, including said friend. There was a child, a son, a boy with a very bright grin, and now there is a man of twenty who died while training to serve his nation. I search for and read the article, which reeks of the article from February and the strange distance in reading it which I had forgotten. A freak accident, a flipped jeep – another name in the papers that does not do justice to the person behind it. Another kind of rage, another special sorrow, I am not sure why I feel so much this time. After leaving the school almost ten years ago I only saw him twice, both times coincidences, both times without conversation, and once standing behind him in line at the supermarket when I didn’t go up and tap him on the shoulder and say hi because I was shy and awkward and with a boy I really liked. I thought, what’s the point? We will go our own ways in life. Now he has gone his way, and I have gone mine. Never again will the two meet.

Never is too much for me to take. Never, four times in a little over a year, I cannot accept. The first thing that flits through my mind upon the news hitting is: I quit. There you go, world, I quit. Nevertheless this is one of those days I cannot, and I grit through hours of nonexistence, not wanting to recreate the ten minute breather I gave myself, staring into infinite sky, going deaf from not hearing. When I reach home after a long day of trying not to let anything get to me – everything does – I decide, screw it. I go and get fried chicken at an Indian fast food place where I run into M, who makes me smile but even he cannot make me forget anything today. I go home and settle down to my worst vice, television, which somehow feels unjustified by the passing of someone I did not know. I let myself be distracted anyway. Twenty minutes later, at the end of the season finale, Sheldon says, “Boldly go, Howard Wolowitz.” as a Russian rocket lifts off into space. For reasons unknown, this strikes a chord in me.

In the months after my mother’s passing, the same words lingered in my brain each time I cried, or sat still staring. In my head someone was yelling to my mother, BUT WHERE HAVE YOU GONE? WHERE HAVE YOU GONE? WHERE ARE YOU NOW? It is trivialising to take my answers from television shows, even if they are very well written. Yet I will do it anyway, because before she went to sleep, I told my friend: This is shit, man. Maybe life is just shit. It probably is. Life will take away from you people who loved you more than life itself, people you never had the chance to love, people you will never know. It takes away mothers, fathers, son, daughters, lovers, strangers. It takes good people. It takes good people.

It is dark now and it is cold, and still I am here typing. Still, here I am. I do not yet know where my mother has gone, but I now know this: All the people who have left, wherever they may be, they have boldly gone. If dying takes the good people away from us, at least it gives them something: They are going where no living person has gone before. I began writing this with, ‘It is April 2011,’ and then I hit enter and move on to talk about the losses that are not truly wholly sincerely mine because it is, after a year, still too hard to write about my mother’s passing. Of all the goodbyes that have come to pass, hers is the only one which has not made the papers. Hers is the only one to which I am privy to every detail. I want to keep the words all for myself, hefty chains built from narratives that run in my head every waking moment. Yet this goes against every bone in my body. After I write the last of these sentences I will scroll up and follow those first four words with more worthy ones, and this is why. A few hours ago M asked me what I want to do in the future, and I said: I don’t know. That was an outright lie. A few days ago in an email to a friend I trust with my life and secrets, one of the most intelligent and sturdy people I know, I said: I know now that whatever I do with my life, I will do it with words, words – for words are all I have.

So here I am, putting these words down before you, one after another, climbing a mountain of grief. One day I will be where my mother is, but till then I will boldly go, with death my friend who walks me all the way.

Addendum: This post was written on May 12, 2012. It is the first of a few posts which, I feel, deserve a place here. This is my raison d’être, if you will. I wrote the whole thing in one sitting, unedited, sobbing. It is still difficult for me to reread, let alone alter, and remains raw and amateurish.

Further reading: The Long Goodbye, I Remember You, For Better Or For Worse.