Another December

I had a conversation with my childhood best friend (let’s call her E) a week ago, and at one point she started talking about the things we take for granted. And because we were both feeling vulnerable at that point, because I’d been keeping it to myself for half a year, having her at the other end of the line at that time, both of us being on the topic of taking simple things for granted because they’re so simple, had me spilling everything I’d bottled up since June.

I lost my then-remaining grandparents in June, just three weeks from each other. I know these things happen, they’re not that unexpected, that they would happen sooner or later, but it was just like E had said, they’re part of the many normal, everyday things we take for granted. Family dinners, being fussed over, silly squabbles over the dining table, seeing my grandparents every year when I go back, they’re all things I take for granted because there’s nothing particularly novel about them.

Last year, because I was on exchange, because I was in England for the first time, I told my parents I’d give the annual return to Burma a miss. I’d thought, I go back every year anyway, and I’m not missing much. I see my relatives every year. I’m not missing much. I’ll see my grandparents again next December. It’s just one time. It’s just one more year. I was too busy immersing myself in the freedom and novelty of this new country, this new environment, of travelling solo, of seeing new places, that I took taking the ordinary for granted to new extremes. I’d forgotten that the reason we visit every year is for my grandparents, because we don’t know when the last time will be. I didn’t think December 2015 would be my last time.

The whole of last semester (Year 3 Sem 2), I didn’t see my mum much; not because I was always at school (I wasn’t) but because she had to keep going back to look after her ailing mother. It was a period when I was feeling particularly stressed, having just got back from England and missing it there, not being able to fully enjoy being with my whole family again after 3 months away because one of us was missing, having to come home to a bunch of chores that I had to split with my sister, having to figure out what to cook for the family almost every night when I had been so looking forward to my mum’s cooked dinners whenever I thought about my return to Singapore. Then I thought about the fact that I’d be in Year 4 in August, and how I don’t think I could handle this if my mum is still missing from home, juggling school work and chores and my part-time job. I think I must have grudged my grandmother at that point. I wondered why she couldn’t get better. I wondered why my mum had to keep going back if it didn’t make my grandmother get any better. I resented everything. I wondered if I could last the rest of my time as an undergraduate this way.

Over my year-end break, my parents brought my youngest sister to Burma with them. Very unexpectedly, our cousin dropped the news that our grandfather had passed away, after just a few days of falling ill. He was 94.

Towards the end of June, when our whole family was finally back under the same roof, my mum received a call from our aunt. She had to go back to Burma yet again. After less than a week of being back in Singapore. Of course I was displeased. I wondered again how much longer this would have to go on. My mum said our grandmother’s condition was worsening, but I asked aloud wasn’t it always fluctuating between getting worse and getting better.

The next morning, I woke up to my mum crying. At 7 o’clock, the call came that my grandmother, too, had passed away. I know it’s ridiculous and illogical, but a part of me felt like it was my sentiment the previous night that killed her. I wanted to call someone but I didn’t want to bring in people outside my family. It was 7 o’clock; too early for my friends to be awake during the vacation. I wanted to just cry my heart out, but I didn’t want to, in front of my mum, who’d just lost her own mother. I felt so helpless and useless, that all I could do was accompany my mum to the airport as she went to send her own mother off. More than that, I felt guilty. I’d taken for granted both time and grandparents. They’d been around for so long, a part of me simply assumed they’d always be around. I’d thought I could catch them one last time. I thought those extra two weeks in England couldn’t hurt, because there was always next year. ‘Next year’ didn’t come the way I’d assumed it would.

In December 2016, my grandmother was in Burma, waiting for the granddaughter who never returned. But I don’t want to remember my December of 2017 as the December I don’t have my grandmother waiting for my return. I don’t want to remember her as the fading 82-year-old I never got to say goodbye to, because she didn’t want me to see her in that condition in June, so much that she said she wanted to get better before she saw me again. Even if she never did. And I never got back in time. I never felt sorry in time. Time’s a funny thing, isn’t it?

I don’t want to remember my frustration at my grandmother’s fear of foreigners, because her only experiences with them had been nothing short of unpleasant, having lived through the final years of British colonial rule and the Japanese occupation herself. I don’t want to remember her as ailing, fading, waiting. I want to remember the grandmother who took my cousins in because their parents couldn’t raise them. I want to remember the times when, as a child, I ran into her waiting arms on our annual returns. I want to remember watching Swan Lake with her, because she loved that movie, even if she couldn’t understand English. I want to remember all the things I’d taken for granted about her: I want to remember waking up in the middle of the night to her silhouette as she tried to cover me with an extra blanket, because she didn’t want her granddaughter to be cold, trying hard not to wake me up, I want to remember the times she waited excitedly, counting down the days to my return. I want to remember returning to her waiting for me.


To the green girl

The most common question I was asked as a tour guide was “What made you choose CAPT over the other RCs?”

It was my second time giving tours for Open Day, and even though I didn’t kill myself with three shifts like I did last year, I still left the event tired. But it was a good kind of tired. The kind when you look back at a journey, looking how far you’ve come. The same kind of tired when FOC 2015 came to an end. And I will look back on my days in CAPT with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, probably of the same degree that I got looking back at my childhood days in Cambodia.

I was never one to approach people first, so even when giving guided tours, I had to be assigned the tour groups. So I could never be a rover. And my favourite thing about being a tour guide is that I get to share stories. Back in Speakers’ Ink sessions in CJ, my friends in the oratorical wing always said that I had a flare for telling stories in my speeches, I had a way of making myself relatable. So maybe it was the skills I’d acquired in CJ that helped me with my tour guide duties, maybe it’s always been in my blood. Who knows? But they came in handy, because during the briefing itself, we were told that the most important thing was for us to leave an impression. That the people we gave tours to could have a look at the CAPT website to find out all the details anyway, so we needed to tell them stories. We needed to reach out to them and make them remember us.

My answer to the above question was always: my tour guide.

So maybe this post is dedicated to my tour guide. Whether or not she reads it is another thing.

I’d forgotten her name and forgotten what she looked like. All I remembered was that she was bubbly and that she was from Dragon (because she as good as told me she was in the green house). I remembered her name sounded Japanese. It was only towards the end of my first semester that I learnt her name: Honami. I don’t know what the odds are, of her ever seeing this post, but I guess this is just a ‘thank you’ to her.

Thanks for being the reason why I chose CAPT, because CAPT was my gateway to so many new experiences and opportunities. I’ve grown in so many ways, met so many interesting people, and made some of the most amazing friends in university. CAPT helped me grow into someone that my younger self would always have wanted to become, yet never could have imagined myself to be. Honami was the reason I went from wallflower to what I am now. I’m not the most outstanding person in CAPT, but I’m glad I’ve been able to contribute to it in the best ways I can. O Comm and CAPTheatre were some of the best decisions I made in CAPT.

I was discussing the idea of sharing stories as a tour guide with a friend, and although said humorously, I really meant it when I said that it would be the best feeling to learn from the freshmen that I, as their tour guide, was the one who made them decide to join CAPT.

We can touch people’s lives in so many ways. I think as a tour guide, Honami had touched mine. I hope that I managed to touch a few lives today, when the incoming freshmen decide they want to join the CAPT community, and grow like I did.

Childhood Innocence

Childhood is a mystic walled garden
We each begin in innocence.
We all become guilty.

LEONARD F. PELTIER, Prison Writings

Unfortunately, I don’t remember where I got that quote with the picture – ‘Childhood is a mystic walled garden’ – but it hit me the moment I’d read it, and I couldn’t help but scribble the quote down. And as for the above quote, I strongly agree with it.

Childhood. Whenever I see that word, the words that pop into my mind in association with that word are: innocence, memories, naivety. I often catch myself thinking, there really is no such thing as innocence in this world, not today. I, unfortunately, have been dismissing the young children, whose eyes have not yet seen the world, who still find even the most simplistic of things intriguing. I don’t want to go back to being unaware of the real world, but there have been countless occasions where I can’t help but miss my innocent carefree days as a child, curious about the world around me. Before everything just became dull and boring, and I saw and knew too much – of the wrong things.

Most humans, if not all, started out pure and innocent, with souls as white as snow. As they grow older, the whiteness fades away. Like the pages of a brand-new book which yellow and lose their whiteness with time, I think the human soul loses its innocence, its whiteness, with time as well. As we grow older we learn and see things, but they aren’t exactly what we want to learn and see. More often than not, they’re the wrong things, from swear words to crude behaviour, to how cruel the world really is.

In our childhood, the only drugs for us were cough and cold medicine, the worst pain we felt was from injection needles, our greatest fear was the dentist, our dreams were all possible and achievable, the only danger was talking to strangers, the only pains we felt in our hearts was from being reprimanded/hit by our parents for something we did (or did not do) wrong, and we were caned for disobeying our parents rather than for breaking the law. As we grow we realise that, in reality, life is never that simple, never that easy. And it probably never will be.

Back when we were children, we were blissfully unaware of the dangers and cruelties of the world we lived in. Our parents would’ve built walls around us, walls of white lies and twisted truths, shielding us from negative and undesirable influence from the outside. And we’d remain in that beautiful walled garden, where everything was simple and in black and white, cast in stone. That is, until the day we grow old enough to challenge the boundaries and break through or climb over the walls surrounding our little Heaven on Earth, breaking out of our little Paradise of harmless lies, and stepping into the real cold and cruel world – we truly open our eyes for the first time, and face the world, see the world around us for what it really is. To make this unavoidable ‘discovery’, we trade our innocence. Before we know it, we are no longer innocent. We are ‘guilty’.

The Foreigner

Now that I think about it, I’ve been a foreigner all my life, even in my own country. I was a foreigner when I was living in Cambodia, I am a foreigner in Singapore, and I feel like a foreigner – or might as well be one – when I’m back in Myanmar. Everything back in my country is just so foreign to me, and I especially felt that way after my last visit. I guess that’s the result of moving out of your home country at a young age (six months old, in my case). I’m not saying I get that feeling of alienation or that I don’t feel like I fit in where I am now; I haven’t felt that way in ages. It’s a feeling I definitely don’t miss.

All I can say is that I might as well be half-Burmese and half-something-else, I couldn’t care less what. The thing is that I notice how I’m more defensive – I never said ‘loyal’ – towards Cambodia than Myanmar. I guess my degree of loyalty for both countries is about the same, though I hope my loyalty for Myanmar is at least a little bit greater. Someone points out how ‘poor’ and ‘undeveloped’ Myanmar is, I let it slide, though I think, ‘Just don’t overdo it.’ Someone says the same about Cambodia, I say, ‘Hey, watch it buddy, I lived there! It’s not as bad as it’s made out!’

I’ll have to thank them for opening up about their ideas of both Cambodia and Myanmar and the people from there for one thing: they gave me this thirst to prove myself, to prove them wrong, to prove the abilities of a Burmese-Cambodian, as I like to call myself. Their idea of someone from either of these countries: hardworking (check, hopefully), weak at English (cross – though that’s because I studied at an international school), strong at Math (double cross), and, in the case of my new schoolmates, a scholar (I’d wish, so yeah, cross).

In terms of friend-count, I can count and tick off the number of Burmese friends I have, no sweat. Cambodian friends… that could take a while. Seeing as I grew up outside Myanmar, I hardly had any Burmese friends until I came to Singapore. Because of that, I’m not too good at conversing in Burmese either, even my friends who aren’t Burmese can tell that I’m not so fluent in Burmese, that I sometimes end up speaking like a person who’s still picking up the language. Then again, I can hardly speak Khmer at all, even if I did grow up in Cambodia.

I guess the only country I feel least like a foreigner in is Cambodia. For starters, I look Cambodian (even the locals can mistaken me for one of them) and I’m very used to the lifestyle there, naturally. In Myanmar, I find I have conflicting views with the majority of the people there. They have that ‘women should stay in the kitchen’ mindset, which I am violently against. ‘For goodness sake people, look at Aung San Suu Kyi!’ is what I’d like to say to the whole lot of those anti-feminists. The ones from the country are the worst, the way they expect girls and women alike to be very demure, lady-like and all that. Tomboys are a big ‘no’ in those parts – not that I’m a tomboy, though I find them really cool.

I suppose I also changed my secondary school teachers’ views of Burmese people. As a general rule, Burmese students who have just moved into Singapore are strong at Math and weak at English. I’m just the opposite, though my O Level results ended up speaking otherwise (but it involved a lot of hard work on my part).

One very Burmese thing about me though is the pride I feel when a Burmese student does well in school. (Then again, that may be because I didn’t have any Cambodian schoolmates after I moved here.) Perfect example of one of those students is a senior of mine, whose name is very similar to mine, and whom I idolize. Ever since my first year in Singapore, my first week in school, when I saw her – I knew nothing about her yet – something about her was just admirable. I didn’t even know she was Burmese, yet she was already like a hero to me. It was as if my intuition was telling me, ‘She’s your role model.’ And how right I was. After I found out she was Burmese, my respect and admiration for her more than doubled.

I think I can relate to Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence. She’s American yet she’s seen as a foreigner by the people in Old New York after she returned to them to escape her husband, they see her as being European. Similarly, I’m Burmese but I feel like a foreigner (and am sometimes mistaken for one, or even a half-Burmese, half-something-else) in Myanmar since I’ve lived in Cambodia for more than ten years. We’re both foreigners, both ‘outsiders’. All my life, I’ve been a foreigner, and I guess I might as well accept the fact that that identity’s going to stick with me.