Saturday, October 11, 2014

If you can't be happy here...

Some myths you have buried in your core so deep, they surface only in the liminal space between sleep and awakeness, in the moments when you are totally relaxed and mentally defenseless, when you have no plan and allow every thought to pass your mind, unfiltered, unjudged - and therefore looked at properly for the first time as a thought, as a hypothesis, and not just a fact of life.

One of my myths is: I would be happier somewhere else. I would be happier in a developed country. I would be happier, not here. Not where politics rules the day, and there are potholes and traffic jams everywhere, and my standard of living seems to be significantly lower.

But really, is that true? Just because it is widely accepted doesn't make it true.

If I look back at the different places I've lived in my life - Ipoh, Hong Kong, Claremont, London, DC and all the shorter traveling stints in between - I don't think I've been happier anywhere just, or even mainly, due to location. Surely there were pros and cons to each place, and while living there it was always more about the company I had, the specific challenges I was facing, that determined my happiness, more than the location itself.

But to be really honest, embarrassingly honest, while I was in the US I didn't really see Malaysians as having full lives. How could they, with their terrible dress sense and horrible politicians and scandals, and bad Western food, and excitement about new developments that I took for granted? I absorbed this sense of Western superiority, of being more human or worthy of interest simply because I lived in the West. A terrible way to think, but one that isn't uncommon, I'm sure (just look at how Americans view Africans and Ebola, as a 'developing world threat' that needs to be quarantined, and framing it as us vs. them).

Now that I'm back though...yes of course I compare. And in many ways I don't have as comfortable or easy a life as I did in the US. But I can't totally blame that on this country (though the low wages here do make me mad). In an absolute sense, I am outrageously privileged: I have a home, I have rich social networks and assets, I have enough hard currency to last for a while, and most importantly, I have the love and support of loved ones. What more can one ask for, such a soft landing when things don't work out?!

In so many ways, I'm so blessed: to have the time to pursue other hobbies and developmental projects, to think beyond a surface level about my life and my purposes, to give my energy to causes that I value. I only hope that I stay true to this purpose, and remind myself that I still have control over my life, and my decisions.

But really, even if I didn't have so many blessings, one thing is true: if you can't be happy here, you can't be happier anywhere else.





Sunday, October 5, 2014

The bearable loneliness of the new and familiar

Maybe this was why everyone sympathized when they heard the news, when they knew I was coming back, with no plans to return to the US. They knew I had to cross a bridge and burn it. I might come back the same way, but no matter what, it and I would be different.

Others may have experienced this before, my trials (cost of living! find a job! a good job, that isn't drudgery, that pays well! find friends to hang out with!) commmonplace...but I still feel so alone.

Alone is bringing your toiletries back into your room after you're done in the toilet.

Alone is smiling and strength on the outside, but yearning for someone, someplace that feels right and not finding it.

I have faced alone before. I have survived, and gone on. I will again.

I only fear a lowering of standards and expectations, a shrinking of worldview, a changing of my whole self in order to feel like I'm doing well. Re-orienting the limits of my world, so I can be a central figure in it again.

I have to remember, in absolute terms, I'm still doing swimmingly. Even in terms relative to those I know (which can be a dangerous comparison), I'm not doing so bad.

But to feel so absolutely friendless, so bereft of a close old soul, I have not felt this for years - not since starting LPC (which was a lot offset by the excitement of a new environment) and starting Scripps (ditto) and going to London (ditto). I think this is just the biggest challenge because it feels like a step down, not up or sideways; this is a terrain trodden and yet difficult to my unaccustomed feet, and for once in my life I don't know where I'm going. I don't know what tomorrow brings.

The tension, between futures great and mediocre, hangs in the balance, and the string is taut in my mind.

I must remember I have a choice - I can keep that string tight, worry it obsessively, never let my eyes off the goal lest it run away from me.

Or I can let it slack - remember that I am more than a job and a paycheck, that I have other dreams and self-development goals - and only ask to manage the trouble each day can bring. And for the strength to answer the call, and the challenges, of each day.

The latter way has its disadvantages (less long-term planning, perhaps?) but I think that's a better way to live.

I'll try to do that from now on.

All good things come from real struggle, and creating a new life here (or anywhere) is no different.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Oceans move and the fish think they are the force that pushes it gently off its balance

My employee portal tells me I have worked for exactly 1 month and 9 days. Wow.

When I look underneath the daily frustrations, elations, and low-grade tedium which characterizes the fresh-grad office worker's day, there's actually so much to celebrate.

What I say next must be taken with a generous amount of sodium, taking into consideration my circumstances of being a 'knowledge worker' in one of the most developed countries in the world, of having oodles of free time (I work until 6.30!) and having the luxury of knowing I have more than enough financially to meet my needs. And probably most pertinently,

Keeping that in mind, I say I am relieved because work isn't as bad as I thought it would be. In so many ways my life has changed, in terms of place - position - relationships - friends - family, and yet I still have the same habits. I still keep flitting from one intoxicating idea to another, I still love making plans and not doing them, I cannot concentrate on one thing without getting into a rut, and I still learn. A ton. Every day.
The life of the mind has become only more interesting, more practical, and more life-giving to me.

I yearn for and dread responsibility in equal measure. Today, it hit me that my work actually goes into exhibits which goes to the very top of the managerial food-chain, and represents my company. It is so different from college, where you do in some settings represent the institution, but you are only called to represent yourself and your failures and mistakes mean little more than a grade.

I decided today (but tomorrow this goal may change, who knows) that my aim for the rest of this calendar year is to be mediocre. To be a good analyst, and even a senior analyst, seems as unrealistic as becoming the CEO in a year. Rather, I aim to satisfy the lowest common denominator, which for me will take a considerable amount of effort since the type of work I do does not come naturally for me the way writing does. In my work there are definite right and wrong answers, a quality that is not present in writing where for most of my life I have used ambiguity, with its pleasingly creative and inefficient quirk where you can say the same thing a hundred different ways, to my advantage. Now, I have to adapt to a system where that does not work. So, achieving mediocrity will be an accomplishment for me, and I'm glad I've recognized that at least.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Half lies

In this blog, as far back as I can remember, I have tried to be as honest to myself as possible, even if it meant being excessively emo. Most of the time, I try to stylize it and make my words and thoughts flow more beautifully. The writing is not a direct output from my intellect and my feeling, it goes through a medium that is meant to be heard, and in that process the thought changes as well.


Today as I was writing something promotional for a program I am very indebted to, I realize how easy it is to spin a half-truth or even a lie, and make it sound earnest and heartfelt. I have become so used to writing these half-truths, spinning progress narratives to advance myself professionally, that I don't think twice about it. Until today. How much I've changed from the person I was even five years ago, when more things were black and white, when heaven and hell were real, when I was still moving along the conveyor belt towards what? success? fame?, before I had already arrived at a destination that was the result of elimination of other options deemed unsuitable.

Those who have arrived cannot speak to those who are on the journey (both 'arrived' and 'on the road' being extremely subjective concepts) because really, nothing is the same.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Loss is like thirst

At first, you don't miss it that much. It hits you in a detached way: yes, you have no water, but you're not that thirsty, are you?

You try to cope, remind yourself that you don't need water to live, you can get by on: papaya juice, watermelons, soups, milkshakes...

But at some point, you just crave, crave a glass of water. Just to remember how it tastes like, how that cool liquid feels like sliding down your throat. That familiar pleasure which you took for granted, for so long.

And you realize you cannot have water, and never will again. Never see it, never taste it. And even worse, your crystal-clear memories will soon fade like old pictures.

It gets better, maybe, as you learn to live without. But I don't think you ever forget, and remembering brings more pain than joy.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day

"You would never get through to the end of being a father, no matter where you stored your mind or how many steps in the series you followed. Not even if you died. Alive or dead or a thousand miles distant, you were always going to be on the hook for work that was neither a procedure nor a series of steps but, rather, something that demanded your full, constant attention without necessarily calling on you to do, perform, or say anything at all...
Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars." - Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon
___________________

Like the commitment of gravity to the stars.

It's almost two months, but the wound and the emptiness still has not gone away. Grief is a pain that comes suddenly and intensely; a child with a tantrum, who won't listen to reason.

As I forlornly play Bejeweled on this celebratory day, I reflect through the miasma of loss on (one of the) most important things my father imprinted on me, his life reflected in mine. In the end all that matters is who you are, not what you've done.

My father did well in his life, coming from a pretty poor background to rise to middle-classhood, with a job that matched his interests, a wife and two kids. He would have been set to work for a number more years and retire gracefully, having saved well, and spend more time with his kids. Although it didn't quite work out that way, with an early retirement from downsizing, followed by successive rounds of cancer a few years later, my father did not descend into despair or bitterness. He was kind, loving, had a quirky sense of humor with occasional lapses in spelling, and always showed us affection. Despite the physical suffering and tedium he faced, and probably fear as well, during his cancer, he remained faithful, strong, and steadfast; facing challenges hopefully and honestly.

"Everything you ask daddy to do, daddy takes it seriously!" - And he would. Files full of mundane events and the detritus of life, meticulously organized, from my SPM and IB results, to a copy of all our IDs, and a detailed holiday calendar...even after his high-wage career was over, he took the business of household seriously and loved to improve, improvise, and delight in the small and big things he could do to make all our lives better. When I came home after he passed away, I saw that he had recently put a cup into the CD compartment/middle-of-the-car storage compartment, so he could drop the house keys in there, for easy fishing out when we needed to open the electric gate. Classic daddy workarounds.

I will miss him in innumerable ways, especially for his patience, his humor, and his love. I wish so much that he could have spent more time with us, good days and years with the family he had put so much of his life into.

But not all is lost. His great gifts to me I will always carry. One of the most precious being the example of his own life, a life marked with accomplishments of the spirit and character. In an achievement-oriented world, where one's worth is determined by money and power, my father's life and words remind me to check my own desire for achievement - not to let it warp my character, and not to let the fickle winds of fortune determine my attitude to life and take precedence over the things which are true, noble, and eternal.

I love you, daddy. Thank you for leaving us with no regrets.




Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Restless again

Tonight I think I could run for a long time but my mind flitters from bright spot to bright spot, buzzing and settling on nothing. I feel no feelings except the not-being-here-ness of plugging into the internet and the aimlessness of our generation.

Henceforth what I write will be stream-of-consciousness, which I hate in other people's writings generally but when I write for myself it feels like a good thing - not the best thing, but something between a photo and a portrait - not quite a crystal clear impression (which we can never capture anyways, all memories are reinterpretations) and not a portrait where every line has been considered, where ideas are formed into neat sentences and pruned into bonsai paragraphs and it does not at all capture the mixture of profound and pedestrian thoughts that run through my mind everyday ("Why does anyone keep on living when their lives are terrible?" "Do I have enough time for a nap?")

_________

I think that in the end the only things that matter are what we produce and what we can give and transform from what we've been given, and I've been given so much and produced so little that I can authoritatively point to and say "mine". But maybe that is the problem of living too - that everything you create is ephemeral, that nothing is certain.

This is why people have children. They are at once something you create and something you can call your own and something that definitely could not have existed and survived without you. But all those years of drudgery...that's a lot to pay for the privilege of having some(one) you can call your own.
_________

I suppose in the end we can be made happy by just having very few things: friends, good food, showers, books...but being happy and being purposeful are different things. And while I feel happy I don't exactly feel purposeful right now. People who seem purposeful don't often look happy. I suppose they cannot be totally happy until their purpose is achieved, and if that happens, they will see another cause they need to go for anyway.

Why is it that everytime I write I end up sad? I think the imbalance of sad/happy things in the world is lopsided as to be laughable. Maybe this whole writing business just reminds me of that.