The Things I’ve Learned at 24

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Graduation is coming soon in a few months and I guess I’m feeling a little self-reflexive lately. So I decided to write about the things I’ve learned so far, having lived 24 years in this life.

I’ve learned now that growing up isn’t easy.You’d think growing older makes you wiser and that it would answer a lot of questions you used to have when you were a kid. But while a lot of things become much clearer as you age, a lot more others become foggier too and you’re left with more questions instead. The person you thought you’d become 10 years later when you were 14 turned out completely different from the one you’ve imagined. The things you thought you would finally have as you grow older still seem so out of reach. People you thought you’re going to be with forever become strangers instead. The path you originally planned for turned into a dead-end and you’re forced to go back to square one and find a new path instead. And you have to be okay with that. And you have to somehow live with that.

And things do get better after that.

Because I’ve learned that the world is in a constant state of flux. It’s always in motion. And even if it kills you inside at the point where you realise you have to let go of some things in your life despite holding onto  them for too long, in time things will get better. Because other things would come to fill the void and some others would replace it completely. And you move on. And they move on. And the world will inevitably move on.

Yet having said that, I’ve learned that there are some things in life worth fighting for. And these are the people who’s been there the whole time, who’s made that effort to show that you’re worth keeping in their lives, who cares about what’s happening in your life and who accepts you for the difficult and childish person that you are. But relationships between two people were never one-way. And if you want to keep them by your side, you’ve got to be there for them too, and make that effort to show they’re worth keeping in your life, and care about what’s going on in their lives, and accept them for the difficult and unique people that they all are. And should one of you ever fail to do so and grow distant, I’ve learned never to place blame on anyone. It’s no one’s fault.

Because I’ve learned that sometimes life happens, and things change, and priorities shift, and no matter how much effort you put into it, and no matter how much one tries to hold on, if the other doesn’t reciprocate anymore, if the other doesn’t do the same anymore, then it’s time to let go lest it turns into an unhealthy and unbalanced relationship. And you have to be okay with that. And you have to somehow live with that. And you will learn how to. Eventually. Inevitably.

And there will come a point in time in your life where you would realise that letting go isn’t being cruel or heartless.

I’ve learned that these decisions were sometimes the best decisions that I’ve made in my life. In letting go, you take away the noise in your life and you give yourself more space to put everything in perspective again. You open yourself up to focus on the things that really matter. Your energy is better spent on meaningful things that make you happy and this will in turn make your life more fulfilling. Because at the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters? To minimise the noise and lighten the baggage in your life and find what makes you truly happy?

Forget pride, because it withholds you from reaching out to things that truly matter to you and would eventually cause you to lose them all. Forget fear, because it keeps you from putting things in perspective and going after the things that might make you happy. Forget anger, because it puts you further apart from the things that matter.

But I’ve learned that there are a lot of things easier said than done. Like growing up, or letting go of toxic relationships/friendships, or going after things I think might make me happy for fear I might fail or lose “face” or get mad at myself for making the wrong decisions.

However, I’ve also learned that life is a never-ending learning process and with more experience, you’ll grow stronger and will learn to bounce back faster. I’m still growing, and there’s still so many things I’ve yet to discover and explore. But if I keep an open mind, maybe someday, I’ll learn to be okay with them all.

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Hints of a long goodbye

Ever since a date has been set, the agreement signed, and an impending farewell is almost inevitable, it feels like time has become so tangible and finite that it feels every minute and every second spent in negativity seems so much of a waste.

Hugs, long heartfelt talks and words of support, love and appreciation for one another come easily now.

A simple “Daddy, can I hug you?” request now would make him spread his arms wide open immediately without any hesitation. In the past, he would dismiss it away, say I’m crazy, and ask how old I am to still be asking hugs from him with a grumpy expression on his face. Now, he hugs me warmly and tells me I better hug him all I want because I won’t be able to do that when I leave for Japan. Whenever I call his name and smile at him, he doesn’t give me that grumpy expression on his face or tell me I’m crazy or childish like he used to anymore. He smiles back. Every. Single. Time. And he answers brightly whenever I say goodbye just before I leave the house. Simple things like that break my heart a little more each day, knowing full well the underlying messages in between them all.

I feel his struggle with letting me go. On good days, he tells me objectively that he sees and understands this is a good opportunity for me to grow. He tells me things like: “You’ll learn a lot more than just skills beneficial for your career there. You’ll build character and strength. You’ll learn resilience and faith and belief. You always say you’re weak, but I know you’re strong. And, if things don’t work out, you can always come back. You always have a home here.” On bad days, he sees the way I am now, how I am unable to take care of myself properly, and tells me not to go. To be honest, I think this is the only time I feel like I’m really getting to know him for once.

My mom expresses herself by providing and catering to my every needs and demands lately. If I made a casual remark that the chee kueh she bought was delicious, I’ll find chee kueh for breakfast the next morning, and the morning after, and the morning after that, until I tell her having chee kueh every morning may not be a very good idea for my health in the long run. If I made a childish demand that she’d sit beside me and watch me eat my late dinner every time I come back home late from my night lessons, she would shut her laptop down without the usual dismissal that I’m used to, and would sit there beside me, telling me about her day, mostly reassuring words that she’s at ease now with the way things are with her three children.

Friends whom I’ve shared the news with reacted differently. But it was clear who truly regarded me as important to them and who didn’t in their own ways. And in that sense, I am grateful to have this opportunity to really rethink about the friendships I have in my life and know which are the ones truly worth focusing my time and effort on.

In the past, the concept of time seemed infinite and never-ending. If I felt like simply staying at home in my own little introvert comfort zone, I’d turn down any request to head out. I’d do a rain check. I tell them there’s always next week. Or the next. Or the next. Now, it feels like staying at home all day or stressing yourself out too much because of work is such a waste, because there are only a finite number of hours today that you won’t be able to simply take back tomorrow. Now, I grab onto every chance I get whenever I have the free time. And if I want to tell someone I’m truly thankful to have them around in my life, I’d say it  out to them even if it means making them feel uncomfortable at the sudden confession. I say whatever I truly feel nowadays and don’t hold back. I’m okay with being vulnerable now. Because the people I care deeply about need to know just how much they’ve made me who I am today and how thankful I am to have them in my life, to have been able to put up with and continue to want to be with such a difficult and complicated person that I am.

It seems that too often we tend to live like our lives are infinite. But put the possibility of an end in the near future and you’ll be surprised how everything can change so quickly in a flash. Now I wonder why it has to take an impending long farewell for people to sprint into action, seize the day and hold loved ones close?

The Verdict

Two weeks after the trip, I received a call while I was at school.

The man on the phone asked how I found the trip, whether I enjoyed it and made small talk for a while before saying ‘congratulations’. I got in and I was given only a week to decide if I want to accept the offer.

I thought I would have felt happy, but I didn’t. Instead, something sunk and decided to sit at the pits of my stomach. I knew a serious discussion is needed with my parents. I was already half expecting they would tell me not to take up the offer, while the pessimist-fatalist in me started doubting a lot of things about myself – Was I ready? Can I really manage a life so different from the one I’m having now? Am I really sure I can do this? Was I being foolish? What if I fail?

“They called. I got in.” I said with a message first.

“Ah, I see,” came the only reply. I decided to leave my phone aside and let the news sink in. I could have gone home early that night, but my feelings were a mess. Instead, the first thing I did was to call a trusted friend. Sitting at the lobby of my home, I related my fears and worries and we talked until midnight with my feelings more or less settled.

“Gina, this really boils down to what you want. Is this what you want? Can you imagine a life working in Singapore for the next half of your life? Would you regret not taking up this offer years later? What do you think?” My friend asked. I fell silent and bit my lip.

“If I go there, I’ll be giving up my friends and family here, I’ll be far away, I’ll–”

“Your friends and family will still be here, and there are ways to manage the distance, no matter how difficult, and who knows what the future may bring and what priorities that may change later. If you turn this offer down, what else is there on the plate? And 5 years later, would you regret not taking this offer? What is your heart really really telling you right now?” my friend asked. I fell silent again.

“I don’t know about the future… but I want to try,” I said.

“Talk to your parents tomorrow then, tell them what you really think,” he said.

“Okay, thanks for listening,” I sighed. “And hey,”

“Yeah?”

“… I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, but you know I’m thankful I have you as my friend, right?”

“Yeah.” We hung up.

The next morning, my parents and I sat at the table. I compared the different challenges that I will face with all my options that I have available, what I feel about each different option, I told them all the possible risks and consequences involved if I make the decision to go Japan to work, the reasons why I want to do this, why I think I need to do this for the sake of myself and them.

They nodded and listened patiently. Both were silent for a while. My mom has always been accepting of the whole situation. It was my dad that I was afraid of.

He looked down, deep in thought, blinked once, twice, then he looked up at me.

“… As much as my heart doesn’t want you to go, if I looked at this objectively, I think this would be a good opportunity for you to grow. I think stopping you from going would not do you any good, to be extremely honest. So if this is what you want to try, who am I to stop you?”

“… really?” I asked, half expecting him to say it’s all a joke.

“Yes, really,” he said. “Do it,” he said.

Within the next few days, I signed the deal and that was it.

…6 months to say my goodbyes.

A Trip To Remember (Part V)

Taking the van to the station, we took a train, switched to the Shinkansen, and took another super express train to a hotel near the airport.

Yet another long and tiring trip.

I looked out the window and thought about the experience I had for the past 3 days. It still feels like a dream. I think it always will.

It was like something in me that I never knew existed stirred and woke up within me, and is seeing the world again with the same curiosity of a baby, trying to relearn the ways of the world, trying to rethink and reshape several perspectives that I’ve gained to make sense of it all. Maybe in time, I’ll forget again. Maybe in time, I’ll go back to how I was before – disillusioned and jaded and just settling for whatever works.

But reflecting on this trip a little bit, I guess Steve Jobs says it right.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

Don’t settle.  Never settle. Find something that fits you as an individual. Find something that you want.

Maybe this might not be the right job for me. I’ll never know. But if I spend my life cooped up here, I’ll never be able to find what’s right. I’ll die never knowing, always wondering, and for the first time in my life, I want to do something for a change. If I become disillusioned and jaded again, maybe then, I’ll know it’s time for a change. Because I know staying the same and being stagnant won’t help. There’s so many things to learn and see. We just need to pick a direction to go forth with. The closer we were to reaching the hotel, the more my heart was slowly hardening to a resolution.

That night, the three interviewees and I didn’t sleep. We spent the time talking the whole way through. Our dreams and aspirations, sharing our beliefs and thoughts about the trip on a whole.

When it was time, we packed our bags and left for the airport. On the plane, I simply slept the whole way through.

7 hours later, I was home. My parents were already there waiting. I went up to them without a word and gave them both an appreciative hug.

“我回来了 (I’m back),” I said with a tired smile.

“累了right? 回家吧, (you’re tired, right? Let’s go home.),” my mom said. I pressed my lips hard together to form a smile, trying to swallow the lump of tears that was forming in my throat back down. Suddenly, something as simple and casual as that could mean so much more.