Saturday, 23 June 2018

And the countdown begins

7.03p.m. Cambridge, Cambridgeshire.

I sit by my window and bathe in the full glory of the evening sun. Summer Solstice. It is the longest day of the year. Sun rays pierce through the window panes, lighting up the corner of my room with a golden hue.

I take a sip of my iced coffee and watch the water droplets fall down the surface of the plastic cup. I close my eyes and meditate on the lyrics of the song that is playing: Beautiful Birds by Passenger (feat. Birdy). When I open them again, I see the trees in the garden dancing gently to the rhythm of the song. I see an airplane flying past in the distance, leaving a white trial across the baby blue sky. I hear the birds chirping; and the children from next door playing hoops.

Five more weeks. Five more weeks till I return to the place where the sun sets at about this time of the day, every single day. To the place where the sweltering heat might leave me slightly light-headed. To the place where I will be greeted with the sound of cars swooshing through the streets and angsty drivers honking at each other every morning. To the place where my annoying yet endearing siblings are. To the place I call home.

The yearning to be home and the reluctance to leave this place - does it make sense to feel them all at once?

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Reflections of a passerby in Cambridge

The skies are blue and the sun is out today, as it has been the past few days. Unlike Manchester, Cambridge is blessed with clear skies most of the time.

It is exactly one more month till I submit my dissertation. I should be working on it right now but I've decided to pause, take a walk to the Midsummer Commons and breathe in the fresh Cambridge air instead. Because, it is also exactly one more month till I leave Cambridge for good.

I never felt like a stranger in Manchester - it was my second home. Walking to Lidl to do my grocery, hopping on and off the Magic Bus, and getting takeaway from Curry Mile were all so intuitive to me. I went back to Manchester last week and things were pretty much the same - except that it is no longer a quid but a pound fifty to take the Magic Bus. As usual, Manchester did not fill me with wonder. It was the same old and dull city - not particularly pretty - but somehow, it gave me a sense of familiarity and belonging. It was just. so. different. from Cambridge.

Perhaps it's because I've only been in Cambridge for less than a year, or perhaps it is because I am truly different from the Cantabrigians; but unlike Manchester, I've always felt like a stranger, a visitor, in Cambridge. Cambridge is beautiful - far more beautiful than Manchester will ever be. A three minute walk from home is where the boathouses are. Every evening, you will see the rowers diligently training for the boat race. Further down, across the bridge, is the Midsummer Commons, where cows roam and families spend the evening when the sun is up. Across the road is Jesus Green, where students play football, slackline, have picnics, or simply read a book. The trees in there are lined up so perfectly on each side of the pathway that it amuses me to cycle through them every day. They are especially beautiful in autumn, when the leaves take on various shades of red, orange and yellow. I don't think I will ever forget that mesmerising sight.

Yet, in spite of all its beauty, Cambridge somehow makes me feel lonelier, more foreign, and harder to fit in. I took my Japanese exam yesterday and as we were saying our farewells, our sensei complimented us, saying, "Cambridge students are truly different. If it was elsewhere, they probably wouldn't have been able to learn as quickly." Even though I am a Cambridge student, I felt slightly offended. I suppose it is because I identify myself more as a student of Manchester.

And this is how, I've noticed, Cambridge is so different from Manchester. Well, at least in university. In Manchester, I remember debating, a lot, about our political views in seminars. It was fun. Even though we did not agree on everything, and even though it wasn't always objective, it was fun to see everyone passionately defending their own views. In Cambridge, we rarely did such things. It was always about the readings. Always about being objective, intellectual, and having the correct answers. It made me very cautious to share my two cents worth. And perhaps, that is always why I feel that I am gradually losing my interest in Politics.

Manchester is a safe haven for refugees and I met a handful of them in church. Listening to them recount their times of distress back at home and how they barely managed to escape always put things into perspective. It made all my problems look so trivial in the light of what they had been through. It made me treasure my life, no matter what situation I am in, and never feel the need to be stressed. In Cambridge, all I see is people overreacting over the smallest of things. All I hear is students whining about how difficult university life is. And it is. The undergraduates have it really tough in Cambridge. And while I know that we ought not to trivialise anyone's situation, I can't help but think - really?! I feel too laid-back and nonchalant in this university town where everyone seems on the edge.

But... before I make it seem like Cambridge is a cold and heartless place, I have to say that there were many times when it surprised me. While the people here appear to be more detached and uptight, they are very warm-hearted and exceptionally kind. And unlike in Manchester, I have never been pick pocketed, catcalled or received a racist comment - not once. I remember falling off my bike with my groceries flying all over the place during one of my first few cycles back home. It was an utter mess; but at that moment, a female student came up to me, got her hands dirty while helping me clean up my mess, took her books out of her cotton bag and gave it to me to put the groceries that survived. I also remember falling off a route at the climbing gym, as I pulled the tendon in my left ring finger. I was distraught. But just then, a staff at the gym came up to me and said, "That route there...it's yours." Those five words brought me comfort. These are just a few of the many beautiful encounters that I had in Cambridge.

Next month, when I leave this place, I will probably leave with a heavy heart. When I am back in the grind of working life, I will probably think of Cambridge much more than Manchester - of its luscious fields, the River Cam and its earnest punters. But I will miss both places dearly - for very very different reasons.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Never would we have guessed...

I first saw you when I was eleven. Well, I couldn't tell which one you were, since there were two of you that looked exactly the same. Two little boys wearing similar glasses, with practically the same voice and the same mischievous look on their faces. Never would I have guessed that one of you would be my fiancé twelve years down the road.

I don't know why (okay, actually, I think I do) but I had a reputation of being a bimbo when I was younger. I remember that call that I received from you boys, just hours after collecting my PSLE certificate. One of you asked how I did for the exam. And when you boys heard that I got a pretty decent grade, you boys kept saying, 'stop lying!', over and over again. I was furious. Never would I have guessed that one of you would be my fiancé eleven years down the road.

When I was forteen, like most of the girls in my school, I was obsessed with a Korean boy band. I wore a key around my neck everywhere I went, symbolising a member of a boy band that I used to adore. I remember you joking, on one of the Sundays, that I should be wearing a cross instead. I'm not sure why, but the following Sunday, I came to church with a cross around my neck. Never would I have guessed that you would be my fiancé nine years down the road. I'm still wearing it today.

It was at one of our cell group gatherings over hot pot. I love prawns but I hate peeling them. I remember asking if you could help me peel some, since you were seated beside me. You replied, 'If you don't mind me peeling it with my mouth.' I'm not sure if that was meant to gross me out but I somehow found it endearing. I ate lots of prawns that evening. And perhaps, that was the first time I found you (mildly) attractive. Never would I have guessed that you would be my fiancé eight years down the road.

When you shared about your break up with the rest of us, I was heartbroken to hear that you were with someone else all this while. I guess I must have liked you quite a lot by then. But I had my own eye candy at school anyway. I remember asking you guys if I should garner the courage to add him on Facebook and you encouraged me to do so. Never would I have guessed that you would be my fiancé seven years down the road. I was too much of a coward to add him. We are still not Facebook friends till today.

We talked over the phone till 3.a.m. in the morning, sharing about our insecurities and telling each other about things that we had never told anyone else. I guess we were really good friends by then - friends that could emotionally rely on each another. But I think I must have loved you by then, for I remember yearning, with all my heart, to be in your embrace one day. Never would I have guessed that you would be my fiancé six years down the road.

We were at the rooftop of Nex. I remember it so clearly that the thought of it still makes me flinch today. There were many people hanging out and chatting around us but we were too absorbed in our argument. Our faces were drenched in tears. The break up card had been played. I was certain it was over. You were certain it was over. We tried our best to make things work but our differences were too drastic and it was almost impossible for us to see eye to eye. I couldn't - didn't want to - imagine going back to a life without you. Never would I have guessed that you would be my fiancé four years down the road. We somehow fought against the grain and worked it out day by day.

I came home from university one day, exhausted from a full day of lectures. When I went to the bathroom, I saw that my name was written on the cleaning roster. Strange. I hadn't done my duty for the week. Yet, the bathroom was sparkly clean. As I took a closer look, I saw that it was written in your handwriting. I knew in my heart that you would be my fiancé one day.

You said that when we were younger, you told your best friend that even if I was the last girl standing on this earth, you wouldn't marry me. I was a selfish, crude, and perhaps crazy, girl back then. Never would you have guessed that I would be your fiancée a decade later. But today, I want to say, thank you for eventually seeing the good in me. Thank you for coming to love me. Thank you for writing this epic love story together with me.

Thank you for being alive. Happy Birthday my dear ♥

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Dead people, dying people.

I held my hand bag against my chest, kept my head down, and strode as fast I could through the dark and somber alley. Melancholy, despair and rage filled the air.

'Screw those filthy bastards!' a hoarse voice startled me. I kept my head down.

'Keep going. Just keep going,' I chanted to myself.

All of a sudden, an slender but firm arm reached out for my ankle, stopping me in my tracks. 'Look up! Look. At. Them,' a young woman with a glare that could slice through iron demanded.

I looked up and saw that we were not alone. We were sandwiched between two buildings of about three storeys high. In each building were pairs of elegantly dressed men and women, sipping away at their wine glasses and savouring their scrumptious dinners. With chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and candles resting on the tables, I reckoned that they were probably fine-dining.

Another hand grabbed my other ankle. And the next thing I knew, dozens of hands were wrapped around my legs. Dead people, dying people. With a unified pull, I was dragged through the earth, as I tumbled through a hole that was forming rapidly in the ground.

I woke up in a different land. I was surrounded by old people, young people. They wore the exact same thing - a grey robe that extended till the ankle. I was wearing it too. People were coughing, crying, sneezing, and vomiting. The man behind me bumped me forward. 'Move, young lady.' I realised I was in a queue.

'Wh...what are we queuing for?' I asked the man.

'The physician? Get out of the queue if you're not here to see her!' he replied

I walked around, clueless, in an attempt to make sense of what was going on. The people here seemed rather listless and sometimes angsty - although not quite as angry as the alley-people I had previously encountered. I found out a few things: one, these people were ill and waiting to see the physician. Two, there were no 'filthy bastards' here. Everyone wore the same thing, ate the same thing, and saw the same physician. Perhaps, that was why they were less resentful than the alley-people. And three... about half a mile away, I could see a pile of bodies reaching up to the sky. Dead people, dying people.

'Who are they?' I asked the child beside me.

'They are the ones who never got to see the physician... Who knows? I might be next,' replied the child, as he inched forward in the queue.

That was when the horrible stench gave me a sobering slap in the face. I opened my eyelids and found that I was back in my room. Praise the heavens, it was just a dream.

I crawled out of bed, turned on the radio and grabbed my toothbrush.

'The people have voted. All hail our great and wise leader. As promised in her campaign, all aliens will be executed if they do not leave this town by midnight.'

I scurried around the room, packing my luggage as fast as possible. I had an entire day to gather my fellow alien friends together and leave for another town. It would be fine.

I ran out of the house and headed towards the campus. It was too late. It was all too late. Dead people, dying people. The town people had already begun to cleanse their homes of aliens.

Capitalism, socialism. Democracy, autocracy.

Everywhere, people are dying. No matter what we do, people are always dying.

I felt a huge blow across the back of my head. I fell to my knees, and then to the ground, as my knees gave way. Blood trickled down my forehead, and I was gradually surrounded by a pool of my own and my fellow aliens' blood.

I hope that this time, I will wake up in a better place.

The end.

Friday, 30 March 2018

We are engaged!

As little children, we dreamt about the day when we would become that policeman, teacher or chef that we have always aspired to be. We played make believe with our childhood playmates, walking down that imaginary aisle in our 'wedding gowns and suits'. We put our soft toys to sleep, as though they were our precious little babies. We bubbled with excitement at the thought of, one day, becoming an adult, and being able to finally pursue all the things that we have always dreamt of.

But as the years go by, as we begin to have a glimpse of how mundane, tiring, frustrating, and sometimes nerve-wrecking, adulthood can be, we start to lose our wonder. Perhaps, that dream job is not as exciting as it seemed. Perhaps, weddings are more of a diplomatic event than a genuine celebration of the union of a couple. Perhaps, marriage is a constant tug of war between a husband and wife, rather than the epitome of an unbreakable bond. Perhaps, children are more of a nuisance once they outgrow their cute and cuddly phase. Our idealism turns into skepticism, and then, finally, to cynicism. 

Last night, we strolled down the beach, hand-in-hand, pondering about the prospects of adulthood. The taste of sangria and garlic prawns from dinner still lingered in my mouth. The sound of the waves gently lapping on the shore, and the colourful lights emanating from the ships afar, set the mood for a romantic evening stroll back to our Airbnb apartment. Our trip in Tenerife had thus far been spectacular - from seeing an orca for the first time, to watching the sunset above a sea of clouds and kayaking in the ocean with dolphins jumping around! Yet, in spite of all that, the thought of adulthood unwittingly dampened my spirits and created a domino effect of negativity. We talked about home ownership, and weddings, and children; and the deeper we went, the more emotional and angsty I became. In the past few years, I've started to become cynical about those who idealise having their own homes, getting married, and having kids. And with confirmation bias, I became cynical of those things in themselves. I guess it is all part of that quarter-life crisis that immature 'young adults' like myself tend to go through. We just cannot accept the fact that we are growing up.

Throughout the conversation, you kept telling me that everything would be okay as long as we go through it together. To be honest, it didn't help. In fact, it made me all the more annoyed that you always have a way to make things seem so simple. Simply loving each other will not solve all our problems. It will not make them go away. It. is. not. that. simple. I kept trying to put that across but all you did was to assure me, and reassure me, that it would somehow be okay. We just had to take things one step at a time. Deep down, I knew that you were probably right and I was being unnecessarily negative but I just couldn't brush off the feeling of apprehension. We couldn't come to a conclusion, and so we left it as that. 

While I was showering, guilt hit me like it always does after we bicker. 'Again. I always have a way of ruining something that would otherwise have been perfect,' I thought, as I started to sob in the shower. I recalled the night that we argued to the point of tears over phone, and meeting each other the next day with puffy eyes to celebrate your birthday for the first time together. I remembered the multiple times we walked out of a fancy restaurant in the midst of a date to settle our disputes. I thought of the days when we were on the verge of breaking up, and how we somehow managed to work our way through them, with our faces soaked in tears and our hearts clawed open. Those days were long gone but the fear of an unknown future with brand new challenges gripped me. I didn't think I could go through those heartbreaks and self-bashing all over again. It seemed so difficult to step out of the status quo.

I wiped away my tears, chucked those irrational thoughts aside, stepped out of the shower and headed back to our tent. And that was when I saw the candles on the floor. You held my hand and said that you had something to tell me. 'Wow. He is really overdoing his apology,' I thought, until I saw the camera on the tripod. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that you would ask me for my hand after what we just went through; after what we just talked about. You looked me in the eye and started stringing up slightly touching but awkward sentences, in an attempt to recall what you had written. You finally gave up. And that was when you started tearing up. You said you didn't know what the future would be like but you could never imagine it without me. That sentence yanked at my heartstrings. This was the boy that I first fell in love with, standing right in front of me, being completely honest, vulnerable and sincere. I didn't need you to tell me that everything is going to be okay. I didn't need solutions. What I needed was to hear was that you cannot do life without me, as I cannot without you. And that gave me the courage to brave the storms of life with you, and to have the confidence that we would somehow stick together through it all. You asked if I would give you the honour of spending the rest of my life with you. I said yes. 

Just a few days ago, I told you how I didn't understand why people say 'congratulations' when a couple gets engaged, and why they say 'sorry' when they hear that someone's loved one has passed away. Marriage is not exactly something to be celebrated and the passing of someone's loved one is not the fault of the person who utters the apology. But I think I see it now... When people say 'congratulations' or 'sorry', they are not unaware of the problems of marriage or the fact that their apology will not bring a dead person back to life. They say them because in spite of these challenges and impossibilities, there are things worth celebrating and comfort worth giving. 

So, I will accept all your congratulations with heartfelt gratitude, knowing that the road ahead will be an arduous one. Marriage is such a big and scary word but I thank God that of all the men in the world, I am going to wrestle it with you. I love you, my fiancé.

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