I woke up on the first day of 2005 — the twentieth year of my existence — in an overnight train from Adelaide to Melbourne.
It was summer vacation; I have been living in Melbourne for three years then but it was my first solo trip. When the train pulled into Melbourne’s then-Spencer Street station, I felt like I had conquered something big. But I didn’t have the audacity to think it’d set me up on something way bigger.
That, will be my entire life.
Ten years later, after living across four continents and some of the best cities in the world, pioneering non-profits, teaching, gallivanting in a range of media jobs working with presidents, royalties, celebrities, and always always doing what I love while living off and clinging on to my Faith, that, entering the first year of the third decade of one’s life, it hit me: I did it.
We did it.
My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.
“Travel” Edna St. Vincent Millay
I was born in Singapore, which though is as privileged as it gets for being of Asian-blood, to parents with just high school education. I burst into the world when they were way too young for their liking, so my grandparents raised me throughout my childhood. I was sent to a Chinese school for my primary years and a strange twist of fate saw me in a ‘socialite’ high school.
Truth: I might have spoken Hokkien 福建 better than English at that point. And I do love being able to speak, read and write in Chinese to native level.
My mom is the sole breadwinner. An accidental entrepreneur (she runs a neighbourhood tuition school) after my dad became un-entrepreneur and is still recovering from the trauma sixteen years since. There ought to be a medical term for a recovering bankrupt victim (and now a recovering stroke patient). My dad has a good heart.
I have two younger brothers, the youngest is still in school and the middle one a recent graduate. My mom likes to think she has succeeded in putting us through university — though I questioned more of why is a degree even necessary? (I was accepted into Law School, so Asian, but I couldn’t afford it, so I picked the cheapest course on the list: Arts. Liberal Arts that is.)
The trauma of being told you will be losing a stable home at 13 is perhaps what made me brave for the rest of my life. Mom broke me the news. It was a night that is etched so deeply in my goldfish memory. I was angry.
So we lived like nomads since then. Moving from year to year. That which explains why leaving home at 17 was not that much of a life-changing event for me. Eventually, mom’s business grew miraculously. They moved into their own apartment in the west of Singapore, three bedrooms, the parents took one.
The two boys took the other two. (The youngest one was kind enough to rent me half his room and cupboard space when I moved to Singapore for three years to start off my media career.) The rooms were bare for a while.
I didn’t have the most glorious teenage years — I would be a “wild” child though being around studious classmates and athletes kept me “good”. I don’t look the stereotypical Chinese, either, which made me an easy target for ‘mean girls’ out of amusement during my primary school years where I was hyperactively a dancer and an athlete who sang in the school choir too.
I also joined the drama club. Took art classes. Being un-parented meant I was always trying out new things I am wildly curious about since I was a child, I was never a kid obsessed with academic grades or “a good future”.
Little did I expect my life would unfold to break many Asian stereotypes.
Still, for my dysfunctional teenage years that I ain’t proud of, I will just borrow the words of J K Rowling:
“There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”
I was a misfit for the exam-based Singapore education system — I do not blame it, it’s me. I developed an unusual real phobia of school exams, they paralysed me. Or I just didn’t believe in it. I quit school at 17.
I suppose that makes me a college dropout.
I left for Australia solo, with some money my late-grandfather left behind.
I wasn’t really planning to study but I had to to fulfil my visa criteria. I did fall crazy-in-love with learning in Australia. So turning down Law School wasn’t as painful an ordeal because I just wanted to learn about anything. And I was after all entering Australia’s top university so anyway.
Liberal Arts was to be the best thing I could have read at university. I had gone into it thinking I was going to major in Psychology — just because I could answer to people what “job” I’d do with an Arts degree — standard story. (I wished someone had told me earlier that what you studied in school had little bearing on what job you do after school.)
I was miserable. That year I found myself waking up in the overnight train — I was halfway through my degree — it came with the awakening of how I only get to live once, and it gave me the courage to be reckless. So at 20, I took a gap semester to “figure out” what I should be doing with my life.
I took up a full-time job in the tourism industry in Singapore during my gap semester; and I went on a spontaneous trip to Thailand with my aunt and her friends — that trip intrigued me to no end. Thailand has such a rich culture, history, language, that I remembered reading about them in my history classes back in high school.
Then something in me grew hungry.
(More on that later in Of ‘Thai’ Kingdom Come.)
I went back to Australia decided to switch my majors to history and politics so I could understand the world better, passionately, and become an expert in global matters. (I must say I took a Management 101 course in my freshman year, which the professor stressed how good top management need an expert global eye.)
It felt like I had hit the jackpot. I was scoring first class in almost all my history modules. I love all my classes and professors — one in particular really inspired me. I grew a fascination with World War II, in its politics and strategic thought.
To overcome my exam hall phobia, I chose modules that had coursework as assessment instead of exams. It was helpful as well as I had to work 20 hours a week to pay off my rent and bills. (I loaned from mom my tuition fees with what she could help, I had narrowly ‘escaped’ the fee hike era, and taking my time to complete my degree over five years so I was able to finish school without debt.)
In my first student job at an Asian cafe on Bourke Street, I was abused. Being an inexperienced teenager, I was not paid the minimum wage and made to work poor conditions and eventually was scalded with a scar on my wrist, reminding me of where I had come from. I was made to leave the job as they feared I would go to the authorities about the scalding incident.
The day I left that job I cried myself to sleep not knowing what was next.
But it was all to be a bittersweet start. I had my first cafe job on my CV.
And it was a start to teaching me how to live paycheck-to-paycheck and enjoying it. (I’ll have a classic story on surviving a $0-and-no-food week.)
Later on, in between working as a waitress and barista at a super amazing Taiwanese cafe, a sales girl for a cookie shop, and a Research Assistant, I finished my studies. But I also wasted no time to conquer the world and nine years later, I have yet to attend my convocation to collect my scroll.
A living example of how a degree could really be just a piece of paper.
I did have the best university life I was focused on having out of — it was the only way I could explain to myself why I needed to be at university!
I was involved in a million and one things — constantly volunteering in a variety of students-related initiatives, I made lifelong friends at fellowship and church. Dance and drama rehearsals, late-night coffee and supper, recess road-trips and camps, they were all my regular fixtures. I was reacquainted with sports when I had the opportunity to represent my university and club in competitive sports, traveling across Victoria and Australia to compete. Then in my final year at university, I signed up to volunteer at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games — working at that global event was a stark contrast to how I felt working in a regular office job — I knew I’ve found a passion.
I started writing creative stories. Sports stories. Stories of inspiration and courage with sacrifice not sold separately. Because the world needs them.
And I was 21.
This story is part of the #livebig series here.