The past year in Singapore

More than a year has past since I returned from the island of Útila in April 2020. It signaled the end of my travels as I had found a job back in Singapore at Republic Polytechnic. My views on work have changed somewhat during this time. For example, I no longer think that my passion has to be my work or I have to search hard for my passion. Instead, I relish each opportunity to experience and learn new things and once I’m done with it, I moved on to the next experience to learn new things.

But I was lucky that in the past year, I was able to still practice my craft of instructing through Apnea 42 after I picked up a freediving instructor certificate at Útila last March. In the short span of a year, despite it being a pandemic year, I taught students in 50 sessions in the open water how to freedive. And I realised that I enjoy conveying a set of skills to someone and seeing them transform from having no prior experience to now having the capability to continue on learning the craft.

And even though my interest in writing has waned in terms of becoming an independent writer, I had opportunities to write on the Singapore philanthropist, Tan Tock Seng, an opportunity shared and given to me by my cousin. And that experience opened my eyes to what goes behind the scenes of historical research and writing. And enabled me to meet people (Mr Kwa and Roney Tan) who sincerely desire to write and record history. I also had a chance to teach a writing retreat to a group of lecturers in Thailand, an opportunity given to me by my friend, Jan, and to be a copyeditor to two graduate students.

And then through my work in RP, I realised that my strongest skill set in research is in writing. I am able to quickly synthesized knowledge into a textual form. This skill is probably most appreciated in research, and explains my decision to continue working as a research assistant, despite my many past desires of changing my career.

I have started to accept the way the world works and that I will be paid for a skill that someone recognizes as valuable and they judge this from my past experiences. So I am going to stay on working as a research assistant and use this as a passport to help me achieve my other goals and purposes – learning and growing.

I also realised that my strength may lay in being able to take on projects and create something out of nothing – like I may actually be good at making something happen, sort of pioneering or completing something, and my interest and desire fizzes out once this task is completed. It helped me understand that doing a PhD may not be that good an idea for me, because instead of doing one big project, I may be happier and more effective doing 5 small ones. My sense of urgency and desire to complete things quickly, and my lack of fear of embracing the new and picking up something from scratch, are strengths and not weaknesses. Instead of fighting that, I have decided to embrace that and go with the flow and my natural inclinations. Instead of staying on long at a job or a place, I will complete my work and then move on.

And this is what took me to Hong Kong. I am now doing a two weeks quarantine at a hotel in Hong Kong. And getting ready to begin my work as a senior research assistant at the Education University of Hong Kong.

Doing a PhD in an area of your passion and how to get there

Photo by Windows on Unsplash

Why I Quit my PhD?” has been the most popular post in this blog since I wrote it last year, overtaking “Lost Islands of Singapore.” I think perhaps many, many people have found themselves in a PhD situation that they regret and are considering getting out of.

While there are many reasons why someone might regret doing the PhD programme, ranging from an unsupportive supervisor to unrealistic expectations of what the programme entails; there is one reason I hope to explore in this blog post. And that is that perhaps the person in question could have picked the wrong topic to do a PhD on.

The PhD is a chance to research deeply into a topic that resonates with your heart and find meaningful answers to questions that deeply trouble you and you have no answer to. But if you ask a PhD student why they had picked the topic that they did, you may hear other stories besides them being deeply interested in that topic.

You might hear them say that they found an advertisement in their area of specialization and didn’t mind doing it. Or that they chose a PhD specialization in a similar area as their Master’s research to tap on their past knowledge and network. Or that they picked something their supervisor was able to advise them on. These are all practical reasons where opportunity meets existing skill sets and experiences.

But how often do you hear about someone taking years to consider what topic to study for her PhD, not conceding to learn something just because it was convenient, but waiting to study something important to her. When she realised that this topic is not in her area of experience, she then took the required steps to gain the necessary exposure and experience to qualify to study for that PhD?

I am going to tell you a story about my friend, Hari, who did exactly what I just described, and so inspired me.

I met Hari in NIE when I was working as a research assistant. Hari was also a research assistant. She had completed her Masters in Applied Linguistics. Before coming to Singapore, she was an elementary school teacher. So she was very qualified in the field of education with both teaching and research experience.

In June 2020, Hari told me that she was applying for a scholarship to do her PhD in Special Education and asked if I could look at her research proposal. Initially, I was surprised as I never knew Hari had an interest in Special Education. As I read her proposal, I was impressed. It sounded like something written by someone who really cared about the subject and thought deeply about her research questions and methodology to answer them.

She recently went for the interview and just a few weeks ago told us the good news that she was accepted for the scholarship.

What surprised and amazed me about Hari was how she took a long-term view regarding doing a PhD in an area she was willing to invest her time and energy in. Rather than doing a PhD in any topic that was easily accessible to her because of her background and experience, she searched within herself to discover an area that motivated and drove her.

After discovering that area dear to her heart, she realised she did not have the required knowledge and background in this area of Special Education. Over a year, she systematically proceeded to gain the knowledge and experience that she needed to do a PhD in this specialization.

I will let Hari use her own words to share her story:

How I took a long term approach… It is because I experienced a few failures before submitting the first application. In the beginning, I did not think of special education, but a topic that is related to my M.A degree. I had a folder for this “PhD_2017”. In the second trial, I tried to find a topic related to my current research work (teacher professional development). I had another folder for this “PhD_2018”.

Both trials did not work because of some reasons – usually, family matters, like children. And for the last time, this “PhD_2019”, I took it more seriously because if crafting a research proposal and submitting an application required so much effort, then the topic itself should be something that I really want and need to work on.

I prayed. As you know, I am a Christian, so I prayed and talked to God about what I should work on. And I remembered my dream when I was in high school, which was to become a special education teacher. Then, I had the idea of pursuing a PhD in Special Education.

Once I chose my path (PhD in Sped), I thought to myself – What are my weaknesses, and how can I overcome them? My weaknesses were:

(1) I may not have enough time to craft the research idea if I still work as a full-time research assistant (RA)
(2) I do not have practical experiences as a special education teacher
(3) My papers or the conferences I had attended did not show my interest in special education
(4) I do not know a current research trend of special education and
(5) I do not have a supervisor, someone who I already knew, and who is an expert in special education.

After that, I tried to address these weaknesses.
(1) I do not have time –> I changed to 50% RA
(2) I do not have practical experiences –> I signed up for classroom support in Rainbow Centre, and also a befriender programme.
(3) My paper does not show any interest in sped –> I sent an abstract to the RPIC conference, and it was accepted –> I worked on the paper.
(4) (5) I contacted a possible supervisor earlier, and she allowed me to audit her MA class for one semester.

Along the way, while I was waiting for the result, I was tempted to apply for other jobs. But, when I prayed, I got a message (it is not a voice, but through prayer and song) that I need to wait for the result before proceeding. So, I waited patiently. I am not one who can wait patiently. I usually take action faster than my thinking. But, this time round, I tried to wait. 🙂

While waiting, I also tried to have a small goal to achieve before enrolling in the programme, for example, writing a paper. So that I have something to focus on.

Hari shared with me that her interviewers were impressed by her strong publishing record that she has attained over the years of working as a research assistant. And by the time she was in the interview, she had already through her considered actions put one foot into the field of special education. It was not hard for her interviewers to be convinced that Hari was serious about studying this topic – her passion was genuinely supported by the experiences she sought out and her thoughtful pursuit of her new area of interest.

Because Hari chose something inherently important to her to study as her PhD topic, she was willing to pay the price to get there. It took her one year of preparation to gain the required knowledge and experience to show up prepared at the interview as a strong candidate who knew where she was headed and has what it takes to get there. Having spent many years in academia, Hari knew what she was in for and that this was the career and industry she wanted to be in.

I share Hari’s story with you because it is a story that inspires me. Until today, I still have a desire to do a PhD. But this time round, I am not going to do it for the sake of doing it, even though I enjoy research, writing, and teaching. But I want to give myself enough time and space to discover something significant to me that I am willing to do a PhD for.

My new advice to people wanting to do a PhD? Give yourself time to discover what you want to pursue for the long run. Find something that makes you feel proud when you say you are an expert in that area. After you have found it, create a solid plan to prepare yourself by getting exposure and experience, and then going for it when you are sure!

By the way, if you like kimchi, you can make your own with Hari’s Kimchi Recipe!

Remaining Employable when Unemployed: How to Avoid Hysteresis?

I recently got to know a friend, Chris, who told me that he had never had to write a single resume or cover letter of all the years he has been working. The jobs were always offered to him by someone else. He has been in the food and farming industry and is currently writing a memoir on his experience!

He told me he pursues what interests him through attending events and speaking to people to find out directly from them about what they do. He is a polite, passionate, curious, and capable young man. And I understand how anyone who speaks to him can be keen to have him on board and part of their plans and team.

One of the undesired consequences of losing your job or being unemployed for an extended period is that you begin to lose your network of contacts who would usually facilitate your job search efforts. Chris, who naturally likes connecting with people, did not have such a problem, as he remained within his network even at times when he may be unemployed.

There is a phenomenon in the world of economics called ‘hysteresis.’ This word means to lag. It is used to describe how the unemployed continue to remain unemployed even when opportunities become available because of what happens to them during their initial unemployment.

Here’s what possibly may have happened: During this long break, the lack of opportunities to use one’s skills eventually lead to the erosion of these skills. Also, the lack of contact with former classmates and colleagues (and new friends) leads to a disconnect with the people who can open doors for one.

Should we eventually like to return to the workforce, how can we, the unemployed, remedy or prevent ‘hysteresis’ from personally happening to us?

You may have taken a career break, like what I did last year, be retrenched from your job, as many have during this pandemic, or be delayed in securing your first job fresh out of graduation. Whatever your situation, how can we keep ourselves meaningfully occupied to avoid ‘hysteresis’ from happening to us?

It is important to continue to use and upgrade your skills in one way or another. Whether it’s taking up a small part-time opportunity or starting to freelance or picking up new skills – do it even as you are not employed.

Even if you’re not paid, such as doing an internship or volunteering for a cause you care about, any opportunity at all that allows you to continue to use your skills or give you chances to learn, grow, and pick up new skills should be pursued.

Being meaningfully occupied not only helps you maintain the sharpness of your mind and skillfulness of your hands, but it also gives you the confidence that you are needed, wanted, and useful!

(We often neglect the importance of confidence in a job search. Confidence affects what opportunities you go after and how you present yourself to others.)

Moreover, these are things you can put on your CV. It would not look like you took a complete break from work. It will look like you changed from full-time to part-time or freelance. This would help you retain your competitiveness in the market and, more importantly, your confidence in your abilities.

I unintentionally did this during my career break because I was quite ambitious. I worked part-time to do occasional writing for the Molchanovs freediving education system, I wrote a book about academic writing, I took courses to pursue my interests – Thai massage and face massagefreediving instructing (I even taught two students!); even taking advantage of the Covid-19 situation to take a course offered by the government on the donning and doffing of the PPE.

So don’t discount anything that you do during your break.

To be honest, there were a lot of things I had wished to do and achieved during this break but did not manage to accomplish them. I had wanted to become a freelancer and even make a career change. It was too difficult for me to depend on my passions for a living and too short a time to discover what other kinds of work I might have more interest in.

Even though I was not able to achieve these things, I realized it’s not a big deal. It’s okay that I tried and found out what worked and what didn’t. Maybe in a few years, I will try again.

And then there’s the other part about remaining in a network. Stay in touch with your friends and former colleagues. Continue to update them about yourself and be curious about how they are doing in their respective paths and lives.

If your loss or lack of a job was unintended, you may feel bad about yourself and isolate yourself. But don’t do that. Don’t be ashamed. What you are experiencing now is not unique. Everyone experiences unemployment at one point or another, whether by choice or not.

There is no glory in holding on resolutely to a job for many many years. It does not always reflect your intelligence, capability, or passion, in uncertain days like ours. There is, however, glory in remaining hopeful under challenging circumstances.

Acknowledge how you feel, apply self-care, keep yourself meaningfully occupied, and share your situation with people and continue to reach out to others for support or help.

I am grateful that the current research job I found was recommended to me by two of my friends.

There is a flow in the universe. Don’t be afraid to follow it—that path of least resistance.

If you feel life leading you in a certain direction, go with it. Don’t be hard on yourself that you were re-directed another way and don’t insist on always going the most difficult route. And don’t beat yourself up over your situation.

Stay calm, take a deep breath, and may your eyes be open to the opportunities that await you in this new phase of your life.

It may well be a very new beginning!

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Photo by Christian Joudrey on Unsplash

 

Back Home, with a New Job

Those who have followed my blog for some time know that this blog started off as a portfolio. It was started by a fresh graduate who was figuring out her way in the world of employment. It shared her CVs, her first job experiences, her struggles with her job, her burnt out, and trying to find her footing again during her career break, and soon it will chronicle again her journey back into employment.

I have currently found a new job, requiring the skills I have honed over the past ten years of my working life, but in an industry I am passionate about – work and employability. As you know, this blog started out with the title “A Job Hunter’s Guide: Helping the Fresh Graduate Find Their First Job” – and served to help the unemployed navigate the confusing world of work. I enjoy encouraging people, especially the unemployed, in their search for a job. I also enjoy encouraging people to change their “boring” jobs, to something they find more meaningful, whether environment-, passion- or skills-wise.

I think it’s the greatest shame that one gives up the joy of work and settle into something meaningless to one, merely to sustain a living. Sustaining a living is important, but never should one become stagnant and unproductive in the process of doing so. If you find yourself hanging on to your job, no longer contributing in a meaningful way, even becoming a burden to your colleagues and workplace, it is time to self-reflect or find another job!

I sound so idealistic but this is what I believe – work is meant to fulfill you. You don’t have to change your work if you don’t want to, but you need to change your attitude and expectation that work is nothing more than something that sucks your life out of you.

Don’t waste your time and don’t waste your life. Use your work to learn about yourself, about others, about the world and become a better person because of what you do. You have no choice but to work, so make the most out of it.

Don’t lose hope that you can find meaning in work. Bring to work your best, your talents, your efforts, your enthusiasm and your love. When you do, you can rest without shame and give yourself the self-care and work-life balance without any guilt!

Even if this crisis means that you need to settle for something less, do it with all your heart. Uncertainties need not imply only anxieties and challenges but it also suggest new opportunities and surprises!

Embrace work and embrace the whole of life!

Staying Calm in the Midst of the Pandemic

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I did not know I was susceptible to panic buying just like any other.

After all, few of us (lucky as we are) might have faced a crisis of this scale before. Naturally, behaviors we did not know we might have, might surface.

The day when my neighbor came to my door and showed me a message that said the last shipment of goods had arrived in the supermarket, I shuddered in fear.

We stay on a small (and lovely) island called Utila in Honduras. If the cargo boats cannot get to us, we are doomed. (But also on a small island, misinformation gets around faster than facts do. The truth was that the cargo ships continued to come to the island, and there was no food shortage at all.)

I quickly took my backpack and rushed to my bicycle and cycled to the supermarket.

In my panic, speeding along a bumpy path, my mind far away, I scraped my toe against a post. I was so distraught, and I felt so much pain that I cried.

It was at that moment that I realized something was not right. My actions were overly impulsive, and I was not handling my emotions very well.

I stopped, cycled back home to treat my wound, and re-evaluated the situation.

A preoccupied mind can cause us mistakes.

Anxiety or a mind preoccupied with thoughts associated with negative potentialities and possibilities can make us clumsy and irrational. Our minds are not in the present. Instead, we are worried about something amorphous and not within our grasp. We may feel a continual sense of dis-ease, like an anxious current running through our veins.

Panic causes people to go into a fight or flight mode, and in this state we may neglect to take care of ourselves and others.

Our brains switch to survival-mode thinking, where rationality switches off, and our animal-like instincts switch on. This happens whenever we try to protect ourselves in a dangerous situation. This causes us to forget that when we bulk buy more than we need, it denies others from getting what they immediately need.

So during this time, it’s important to not go with our instincts but to take deep breaths and calm ourselves down, and allow our minds to guide our actions.

And a tip for you. Counter-intuitively, rather than mass buying items that everybody needs, why not give yourself a treat?

Yes, poor you, who is suddenly thrown into this unexpected situation. I think you need a treat. Yes, get yourself that tub of ice-cream that can calm your nerves in any stressful situation. Yes, perhaps we can do exactly the opposite of what our survival instincts tell us to do.

I picked up a pack of chives and mint and some hemp seeds – non-essential items – and made my way home.

Now, let me share what helped me regain my composure:

1. Knowing I was not alone.

Though I was in a foreign country, I had friends. If I did run out of food, I have many people who would help me out in that aspect. Having different people to share my many worries with also helped put them into perspective and gave me ideas about how to resolve my problems.

(Special mention to Gaye, who gave me the confidence I needed to do the required research to plan my path home. To Ivan, who taught me how the virus spreads and how to protect myself on flights and transits. And to my many friends in Utila who always share your food with me. When I think of you guys, I know I wouldn’t starve.)

2. Reminding myself that I was capable of getting myself out of deep shit.  

Because we are each facing this situation for the first time, we may panic because we are unsure whether we can actually make it out of the situation. I remind myself that I am intelligent and capable of resolving any problems I face.

Yes, I am capable of finding a way back to my home country, though it is far away, and flight cancellations are the norm. Yes, I am capable of meeting my basic needs and happiness, even in a time like this. (If I have to, I can plant my own vegetables! I should have enough fats to last me while the plants grow. I will not die of starvation!)

Trust in your lived experiences, your intelligence, and/or your resourcefulness. You can handle any novel situations. Yes, including this Covid-19 Crisis!

3. Breathing and staying calm regardless. 

How to catch yourself in that moment of panic and not to go along with it?

One way to regain composure is to focus on taking a deep and slow breath in and a deep and slow breath out. By focusing your attention on your breath, instead of following the rapid-fire train of thoughts in your mind, you ground yourself in the present moment and stop yourself from being carried away.

This puts you in better stead to handle any situations that come your way. When you are calm, you have access to your judgment, your intelligence, and your resourcefulness. In contrast, in panic mode, your raw, spontaneous, and wild emotions can lead you astray.

Living the Dream – Farm Life in Colombia!

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While I was working in Singapore, every few months, a strong desire to work on a farm or do manual labor would arise. For some reason, I always felt that the kind of intellectual work I did as a research associate in a university was not real work. I felt that real work involved using my hands. I wanted to feel each cent I was earning, rather than to receive a fixed salary no matter how hard I worked.

So number one on my list when I searched for Workaway opportunities (a low-cost way to travel for those of you who are concerned with cost) was always farm work. I enjoyed my previous Workaway, helping Jeanne and Alex restore Alex’s grandfather’s old home. So I was looking forward to my next Workaway.

In my imaginations, the farm was a place where your sweat nurtured the ground and produced the food you eat to survive. Farming was going back to the basics of life – self-sustenance! There is no work purer than this.

And yes, so one of the places I volunteered at during my travels was a farm near Anapoima, a town near Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia. In May, after a ‘perilous’ bus journey, I spent two and a half weeks in this mango farm, the site of CultivARTE, an eco-center started by Eyal and Natalia.

Farm life followed a fixed schedule. We woke up every morning at 7 am to do our duties. For me, I recorded meteorological data (temperature, rainfall, humidity), fed the chickens, and released Margarita, the donkey from her enclosure, and brought her home in the evening. My farm mates fed the cats and dogs, watered the plants, and swept the area.

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At 7:30 am, we went to the hut for our daily session of yoga, led by Eyal. It was my favorite time of the day! Inspired by how good morning yoga made me feel, I bought a mat and continued my morning practice until this day.

At 8:30 am, we went for breakfast, prepared by Sara. And then at 9:00 am, we put on our boots and were ready for work. We took a break for lunch and continued another few hours before we rested for the day.

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My work included dealing with plants (picking mangoes, weeding, planting), construction (sanding the bamboo floor to make it smooth, dealing with steel rods to make concrete for bamboo structures) and animals (exterminating chicken fleas and caterpillars, making a new home for the chickens, throwing away rotting mangoes to prevent fruit fly infestations).

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Through this work, my rosy picture of farm work shattered. Farm work was tough, and you worked hard. Physical prowess was never my strength. And I struggled with digging channels in the ground to drain off excess rainwater.

And then farm life was interspersed with boredom. After work, there was nothing to do but hang out with the animals and your friends. It was at this farm that I found time to complete and publish my book.

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Like most farms, this mango farm was located in the countryside. It is a beautiful place surrounded by mountains. But the nearest town was a 15 minutes ride away. And we only go there once a week to get groceries for the weekend. This made us feel like happy kids on Friday evenings.

In Anapoima, we would stop for empanadas and beer at a bar and then head to the supermarket or pharmacy to get our supplies. It was here where we find the ATM.

I enjoy the solitude and hard work of farm life, but living this type of life made me realize that (even though I so often complain about city life), I was still very much a city girl, used to the convenience of city life. If only I can find my sweet spot between quiet and activity.

I am not good with animals, the way I am not so good with children. I knew it already because my dog back home does not obey me. I don’t have that authority and assertiveness that animals respect. I was unable to command the obedience of Margarita, the donkey (who despite my countless ‘Vamos Margarita! A la casa’ refused to budge), and neither did the chickens obey me when I was tasked to lead them to their enclosure. (I also preferred that chickens run wild and free.)

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Another thing I learned about myself was that I was prone to allergies. Back home, the only thing I was allergic to was dust. But out here, I realized I was allergic to insect bites and plant saps. Oh and here there is also the dreaded chicken fleas!

It was here that I was infested with chiggers who made a home in my body. I would have wanted to stay longer in this farm had it not been that I was continually scratching my body, and the only time I stopped was when I took an antihistamine that puts me to sleep. (Since then, antihistamines were added to my medicine bag as another essential.) It was no joke, the itch of chiggers’ bites is way more itchy than those of mosquito bites. And they happen not on exposed skin but where clothing contacts the skin, so on inconvenient places like under the waistbands of your underwear.

I decided to leave the farm to save my skin, and I went to Bogotá to disinfect myself – sending all my clothing for laundry and systematically cleaning my wounds with hydrogen peroxide.

So this farm experience satiated my desire for farm and manual labor. I no longer crave so much to work on a farm.

Sometimes we are taught to rationalize away our strong desires to do certain things, but these cravings keep coming up. What I have learned is if you give in to your desires, they may actually dissipate.

Another thing the farm taught me was what family means. As a traveler, who you end up with is your family. It’s just like when we were born, we did not choose our family. So family means learning to live with people who are different from you, accepting and embracing them as your own.

I am so grateful for the people I have met through this farm stay. We worked hard together, cooked for one another, did the dishes, played ‘Cambio,’ and danced together.

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On my last weekend there, we went partying. I never partied before because of my more traditional upbringing. And I never learned how to dance. And my family here in Bogota ensured I came to the party with them, held my hands, and moved with my stiff body. We drank beer and aguardiente together.

Many times during my travels, I felt like a teenager all over again.

Thank you my Colombian family (Eyal + Natalia +Sara, Tomek + Rahel, Shane + Elly, Alexis, Manu,Charline + the animals).

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Thank you for making a lonely wanderer feel so at home.

Kindness (and Food) – the Universal Language(s)

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I don’t pick up languages easily and often have difficulty communicating in a foreign land with locals. I get by through gesturing and trying my luck with the little bit of vocabulary I’ve picked up.

Many incidences over my travels have, however, shown me that language is not a barrier to friendships.

Two of my most memorable encounters were with senior men who do not speak English at all.

The first friend was Gonzalo who I met in Puebla, Mexico. I was wandering the streets and as usual, I would slow down my pace whenever I pass a street food stall. I am always curious about anything edible.
Gonzalo, who was sitting by the stall, having his meal, invited me to join him. It was there that I had the most yummy braised pork wrapped in my choice of dough or bread.

That was during my first month of traveling and I still had trouble making friends. Touched by his invitation, I stringed out a sentence in Spanish, ‘Tú es mi primero amigo,’ which translates to, ‘You are my first friend.’

Gonzalo took upon himself the role of a friend and took me to his home and showed me photographs of his daughter and grandson who now live in Denmark.

Over the week, I often came over to his place for coffee and he brought me to the city center to have the best mutton tacos. Besides going out to eat together, he also brought me to visit his friends, gave me some clothes and we even went to church together.

We did so much together even though there was clearly a language barrier and a lot of guessing what each of us really meant to say.

My second friend was a man whose name I do not know. He was my neighbour in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I don’t ride a motorbike or bicycle so I always walk past his home slow enough to smile and greet him every day. I only know how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Thai. But it seems that was all that was needed to start a friendship.

He had a kaffir lime tree and I always eyed it as I like to pick fruits from the ground. One day, there was a heavy storm, causing kaffir limes to be shrewn all over the road. He caught me picking a kaffir lime, and with enthusiasm, passed me a bag full of them.

This incident sparked off a friendship that involved a fruit exchange. Touched by his kindness, I returned it by giving him jackfruit I bought in the market. And then he gave me a pomelo and lukus. One day, he even gave me a chicken leg with sticky rice. He works in this backyard making soy milk, and twice, gave me pots of it, a very welcomed familiar drink for me.

One day, he gestured to me to something rather complicated. He gestured the sign of a baby, of being far away, and pointed to his heart. After many tries with Google Translate to understand what he was trying to say, I understood him. He was telling me that I reminded him of his child who lives far away and he cannot help but treat me like his own.

I have never tasted such pure love in friendship where people gave so freely without asking for anything in return. They were so kind to a foreigner who could not speak their language.

It showed me that there’s no barrier to love. Neither nationality nor language could stop someone from loving another person.

Both touched me with their kindness and their simple acts of providing me with something to eat.

Soul Searching Questions

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One of my biggest rewards from taking a step away from my career was the time and space to ask myself the questions, “What do you want from life? What will make you happy?”

When I was working, I rationalized my work, I tried to make sense of why I worked by telling myself how it was going to eventually lead to something I wanted, something worthwhile.

I wanted to be a writer so I told myself I was doing a PhD so that I can write my dissertation – a book!

I wanted to be a teacher of writing so I told myself I don’t get to teach now but after my PhD, I will have the qualification, and then, I will find a job as an academic writing advisor, and then I can fulfill my dream.

Little did I know that by just quitting that PhD and writing a book on academic writing I had already fulfilled two of my deepest desires, without even needing the PhD.

Leaving the comforts of my country and home and traveling to strange new lands and experiencing life in its raw and uncut version – having a clean canvas to paint my hopes, dreams and desires on – helped me understand myself better.

I learned from experience. Heart breaks made me ask what kind of relationships do I want to build with people in my life.

Realising I was happier overseas than in Singapore made me question what was it that was lacking here at home that I did not have lack of overseas?

Space and time alone.

It made me realize that maybe I can be happy here in Singapore too. I just needed to make enough money to rent a place that gives me quiet and privacy, possibly near nature where I can getaway from the busyness of it all. And I need to love myself enough to prioritize my needs and wants and be able to say, ‘No,’ or ‘I’m tired and I have to go.’

If not at home, perhaps I may find somewhere in the world where I can fulfill these. Who knows?

‘What do you want in your life? What will make you happy?’

These two questions, I am still asking them, and I am still seeking answers. And during this sabbatical, I am giving myself opportunities to experience different types of lives, alternative versions and visions of living, to help myself answer them.

So perhaps I have lost a year of establishing a career and a year of potential earnings and a year of progressing forward with my peers…

But I have gained a clearer idea of what I want in life and a deeper appreciation of who I am and what I need to be happy.

To me, frankly, that’s more important.

Traveling is Good for the Soul

I am trying to think what are some of the benefits I have gained from getting myself out there into strange lands and meeting people of all sorts over the past months of my life and allowing myself to experience life and be surprised by it.

One of these benefits is how I feel I have become more open-minded “faster” or mellowed a little faster, than I would have if I stayed put here in Singapore. In a short period of time, I met many different people who have different backgrounds, dreams, motivations and limitations. I think you can get such an experience wherever you are based in too depending on where you work or how open you are to new people and friendships. But perhaps for some people like me who had already rather fixed routines in life, it may have been easier to get such an experience by getting out.

I saw how the world worked in different countries and for different people. When I came back home, I feel less inclined to make judgments on people and I gained respect for people who humbly make their living given their present life circumstances. I also realised I am only a small part in someone’s life and everyone has their own lives to steer and live. I too have to find one so that I will be happy with my own life.

There is a saying here that the world is our university – the one we all have to attend – the university of life.

Now, when I meet someone, whatever their situation or quirks, I have a bigger group of people to compare them to, instead of just myself. I’ve met the business owners, the people who work for them, those starting out and working hard, those retired and winding down, the self-made person and he who cannot hold down a job for long, the students of languages and the students of life, the married, divorced, the-single-forever, the children and their parents, people with different beliefs and practices about sex and sexuality, the worldly and the spiritual (and find that we are not too different after all, all of us seeking ways to find peace with ourselves and peace with the world)… Everyone just getting by…. by a stroke of luck, sometimes our paths crossed, for just a moment in time; but we all are still placed together in this little planet, we call ‘earth’.

This makes me more compassionate and appreciative and understanding of who people are and what they have been through. I look people in the eye when I talk to them now (when my state of mind does not get in the way). I feel I understand humanity better, a little better than before.

As for myself, whilst struggling in my journey to make sense of life and the world, in the great multitude of humanity, I find a place for me, somewhere in this big world we call home.

The Simplicity of a Traveler’s Life

When I was traveling with my little carry-on sized luggage, it was all I needed. There was nothing excessive or superfluous about it. Every item was exactly what I needed or wanted or chose to carry with me.

My most important items were my Spanish notes because they gave me a better chance at connecting and having deeper conversations with others.

I had just enough clothes and I rotate among them, handwashing the day’s clothes every day, readying them for the next wear. Just one dress for special occasions like dinner with friends. All other clothes can be used for multiple purposes – my massage pants are my yoga pants.

I did not have space for bulky items like MTG’s Pao Facial Exercise Equipment or Neilmed’s Sinus Rinse.

The one luxury I afforded myself was the book. I keep most of my books in my Kindle, but I still occasionally splurge on that book that takes up a cuboid amount of space.

No, I don’t carry plants with me or anything that requires a lot of care.

I guess I knew exactly what I have and carried with me.

Coming home is a big shock because suddenly, I don’t know. I keep discovering items that I have forgotten that I owned.

And, no, I’m not the sort that can just rid myself of all these baggages. Each item, I carefully consider whether I will use it, what it means to me, whether someone else would want it, whether I should give it away or sell it…

Is it a wonder that a traveler sometimes fears coming home?

 

 

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