may we never forget these days

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This post is emotionally wrought with stories of nostalgia, themes of reflection and thoughts on moving on. This isn’t a sad post, but neither is it necessarily an extremely happy one. But that is also how I feel right now – at the perfect state of bittersweetness.

I’ve heard how college changes your life. I’ve heard how it’s the best four years of your life. I’ve also heard how you make some of your best friends here. I’ve seen all of that come true, especially as the past month unfolded itself. I find myself at a really important point in my life, wanting to give it the time and space it needs to fully affect me as it should.

I’ve learnt so much about myself the past 3 years, constantly facing challenges and having to evolve as I learn more about the world around me. I came into college with a head bigger than it should have been. I had completed some significant chapters in my life, but it wasn’t experience that beget opportunities, but humility and curiosity. I learnt that vulnerability is where you are fully taking in what is around you because you have fewer guards to stop you. For example, when I signed up to produce a musical, I walked into rooms, shut up and learnt from others before speaking my part. I learnt to trust the knowledge of the community and my peers, and that made me even more important as a collaborator and manager.

It is also this humility and curiosity that stopped me from judging people who were different from me, something that is almost endemic to the conservative Singaporean psyche and allowed me to connect with a fascinating diversity of people. I am so so happy I got the opportunity to come to Chicago, which is the crossroads of culture, politics and experiences in the US. The days I’ve spent just wandering the neighbourhoods and the nights I’ve spent traversing the beautiful urban landscapes of the city will always be etched into my memory as some of the most classically romantic points in my life.

Before college, I thought I understood what friendship was and what it stood for. A step backwards, I was also a very angsty teen growing up. I really thought I was undeserving of love, that I was someone who had to claw his way up in every situation he was in and prove his utility to earn a place amongst others. It’s a huge part of the underdog story I had to live as a part of growing up, both as a minority and an immigrant. But in college, again in the past month, I’ve seen my real friends take their place and make their love for me known. I’ve felt my heart explode a thousand times over as I feel emotionally connected to the people who have surrounded me for the past few weeks, months and years. I’ve felt distraught as I realise that this chapter is ending, that this story is taking on a new turn and that the cruelty of the life will not allow me to have the privilege of being just a five-minute walk from any of these people. But I’ve also felt the showers of affection. The more I give myself away, the more I get back and the more honest I become, the more connected I become to the people around me. I’m leaving college having a vastly different understanding of friendship and love, and I really am standing on a bittersweet intersection of this realisation.

I am a product of my experiences, my character and the people who support me. I have never felt more connected to life itself, to the wider ways of the universe. I will always be that kid from Singapore, the one with dreams bigger than he can handle, but I will also always be your friend and loyal companion if you choose to be mine. I will take every adventure on with you, and I will promise that our memories will be laced with surreal moments.

These are my transformations in college. may we never forget these magical days and may we always remember who we were at this point in our lives.

hooah.

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have you ever seen a grown man?

Salar De Uyuni In The Rainy Season

04 Feb 2010, Bolivia  — Image by © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis

I’m taking a break from all the travelogues to finally write a thought piece. It’s been a while, and I’ve forgotten how much I enjoyed writing in this space. This has served both as a dumping ground for all kinds of thoughts and yet, paradoxically also a curation of who I am. Leaving this space to rot will give very little for future-me to reflect on.

I’ve been in a naturally reflective state recently, given the stage of life I’m transitioning through. I’m graduating out of college, and while I’ve always believed I came in here at a different stage from my class (given my experience with the military and running a company), I still find myself grateful for the maturity these 3 years have granted me. I find myself thankful for the friends I’ve made – I’ve never wanted to stay in touch with people more than with these souls who I’ve had the privilege to encounter. I pause at moments to breathe and appreciate the range of opportunities I’ve been granted – from governing over a council of fraternities to producing a musical to signing a big name artist for a festival to running a research project at one of the world’s best museums. I struggle with the difficult lessons I’ve learned and I contemplate daily how to apply myself to advance social justice, community building, and leadership development both in my daily life and the various contexts I’ve become embedded in. The worlds I have to straddle become discrete yet overlap and I feel challenged yet empowered to care about all of them. I think frequently about Singapore, my home, but I also care about Evanston, the US, the world I belong to and to which my friends around the globe live in.

It makes me wonder how college is supposed to serve the individual. Yes, the primary purpose is the education. My Computer Science degree will serve me will in the future, both as a bolster for any career choices I make and a foundation to understand the world as it evolves.  But this environment has been rich in its experiences. I came to the US with an objective of transplanting myself away from Singapore – not because I disliked my home but because I loved it so and needed space to understand it from afar. Contrast and juxtaposition increase awareness of what makes us unique. Northwestern has provided me that platform to explore my passions and goals in a setting that is relatively free of expectations. I don’t have to fit a preconceived notion of a college student in the US – I can be whoever I want. Success belongs to those who find excellence in whatever form. It’s starkly different from Singapore, where as a country we struggle to appreciate the humanity of our society. We think in numbers, laws, and achievements – not in values that connect us. Because where the former keeps us safe and moving, the latter keeps us alive and excited for life. The joy of life is in our ability to choose our own struggles to earn the rewards that matter – not in inheriting struggles imposed by social hierarchy, hyper-legalism, and history and finding ways to accommodate our existence.  Our children must find meaning in their day, they must see themselves molding society. That shining sense of opportunity has to surpass the ‘needs of the economy’. The economy grows because of our ambition. Our ambitions should never be limited by the decisions of society.

College built my hope in change. I’m notoriously known for my optimism and it’s exacerbated by my youth. When I was running The Hidden Good, I remember the countless number of not only older people but also my peers feeling the need to provide a ceiling to my goals or a signpost back to their idea of reality. I’ve always been fearful that perhaps I do live in my own head too much – that perhaps my hope for society can only manifest itself in the smallest of doses. But college has given me the platform to shape my own future, not because it’s a magic bubble, but because if you look deeper it has similar levels of unfairness, inequality, and injustice. Yes, the progressive slant of Northwestern is enabling, but reality is encountered quickly when you push for anything more than a statement or declaration. Action requires getting down in the mud, and I’ve focussed my time away from the surface level politics and in the work of understanding and empowering change. The successes have given me momentum but the failures have only riled me up more to recalibrate and go again.

There’s so much more I could probably write about. From the thoughts on traveling as a student to the consistent effort to diversify my circles, but I think I’ve run out of mind-fuel. This post will continue to serve as my reminder of my optimism, just as my posts from the last 10 years have been equally charged with positive energy and the journey to improve the communities I’m a part of. I’m excited because I’ll be graduating college excited about possibility.

The world is a jungle and I’m excited to explore it.

hooah.

 

 

2016 : smoked up ham sandwich

Source: wixgram.com

Source: wixgram.com

It seems customary to have a reflection post. After all, I believe one of the best things I’ve done for myself is to constantly reflect, burdening myself with the impact of my past so that my future may be brighter. 2016 is a tough one to think about, though. In a lot of ways, this has been a hodgepodge of a year and maybe that’s alright, but that makes the reflection process a bit tougher. I think I’ll try to elucidate this into a few points and we’ll see where we get from there.

The Music doesn’t Stop

If I was to think of 2015, it was a numbing pain on the weekdays and a blaring party on the weekends. It was the drawl, the inching to the end of a painful beat that would provide the impetus for a no holds barred celebration at the end. The music would be loud and violent and then stop suddenly, bringing on the misery again.

2016 taught me to find the music in the day to day. I found the sweet melody in rhythm and consistency – in poetic peaks and lulls and in escalations but also declinations. I heard my soul’s passion for adrenaline and experiences and learnt to accommodate my body’s need for health and rest. It’s ridiculous to think that it took me this long to learn how to pause (not stop), or even better, lower the volume.  Now I have music every day of my life because as great man Chance says: Music is all we got.

A Common World

I still believe in a global world. I think with the depressing rise of neo-fascism and populism, I was faced to confront whether my views were simply overtly liberal and fundamentally privileged. Was the world of opportunity I was able to see different from the world of hopelessness many others were observing? Perhaps, and I must choose whether to give up or persist. Should I still champion a connected world or must I relent and accept the world of our grandparents was better off?

I’ve learnt this year that I’m a strange person. I see strength in difference, and in my hope to connect the world, I’ve pushed myself to not only see the world but also to share the world through my socials to my community. I feel a moral prerogative to ensure that my friends and family see the need to empathize with the rest of the world – to see beauty in the diverse terrains I traverse and more importantly, the regular people I meet.

This experiment has been successful. I feel excited when friends rally from my travelogues and social postings to their own travels. I feel inspired when they ask me for travel tips, but I also feel energized when they ask me about my learnings.

I saw an invite for submission recently for the Global Challenges Prize: A New Shape that invites people to rethink global governance. It was at this point that I realized that very few of the world’s leaders have had much-conflicted exposure to the global experience aside from political matters. In my travels, I’ve seen matters of corruption, inequality, ecological damage and so much more. But I’ve seen them from a narrative that is intimate with the people I’ve talked to. I don’t know what a new model of governance looks like, and I’ll try to think of one, but I know for a fact that one important factor is a political leadership that cuts the bullshit and has seen this world for what it truly is – a non-idelogical mess of real lives that need to be reconnected to a common vision for humanity.

The Story must Go on

2016 was a lot. I had many takeaways, most of them small and all of them important. I’m not sure of what 2017 looks like. I think in line with keeping the music to a consistent beat, I can’t make any lofty goals till I decide the next step. I want to do a lot, and a lot I shall do, but I have to graduate and to decide my Master’s program. I have to tie up loose ends at Northwestern and say my goodbyes. I have to kiss my family all on the cheeks and I have to tell them I love them. I have a lot I must do before I do any of the lot I want to do.

But the Story must go on. The quiet but bold narrative of the naive Singaporean kid who wanted to see a world less broken than the one he entered in. I think this is the first time in a while that I have to accept I don’t know how the next chapter looks like. I can’t pretend that I do and it’s scary. But I do know one thing.

I’m sitting in Buenos Aires, in the airport, writing this on my laptop. 3 years ago, as I wearing my HAZMAT suit learning to clean up dirty bombs in the Army, I never imagined myself here. My life will change, as long as I commit the same energy to my principles that I always have. I will keep believing, and I will keep fighting bullies.

hooah.

I

the swan song

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I haven’t written in a long time. Inspiration was lacking, but perhaps more than that, I felt tired. Bored, in fact. It’s a dangerous routine, when you see yourself allowing dormancy to avoid the effort of advancing. There’s a distinctive difference between rest and dormancy, one is active in promoting self-care and the other is passive in allowing decay. Spring Break came at a great time then, to allow myself to be re-inspired, reinvigorated and energized to start performing my Swan Song. I have Four Quarters left in Northwestern – and it’s time to start thinking about what they mean.

To my regular readers, I’m sure you notice the trend. I always come back after traveling with new energy and vision. This time, that force is coupled with my innate desire to leave a legacy everywhere I go in crafting this Swan Song. Four Quarters isn’t a long time. It’s a roadmap ; a runway to a bigger hope. I decided at the end of last year that my goal this year is to Heal the World, to move away from indulgence in the passions of the flesh and to think more about the pains of this generation. The next year ahead is dedicated to that goal. I’ve always believed that we must live by bigger themes, ideas that are bigger than the ‘Me, Myself and I’. It gives us perspective and a foundation for the tougher parts of our lives.

So what is this song? What is this story I am dying to tell? It’s the tale of the human soul and its energy. Imagine the soul is an orb, and if you look into it you see energy, innately attached to how you feel, dream and act. That orb can be tapped into for so much power, like when people cheer at a Football game and you hear the roar of emotion. Yet that same orb, like a nuclear device, is also so vulnerable. It can be cracked, broken or worst, corrupted. I’ve spent the last few years exploring the human soul, keeping an eye on the spectrum I’ve encountered – from the absolutely inspiring to the broken and battered to the uncouth and vulgar. My hope then is to help people realize the role they have in taking pride in their souls, to help heal the broken orbs and hopefully uncorrupt the dirtied ones.

I’ve taken on multiple projects to help me write my Swan Song. The most prominent is that of my role in IFC as VP Membership Development. I’ll be honest ; when I was elected I was sincere in my hope of promoting better education but was ignorant of the realities of the community. Yet as I let myself be open to hearing people talk and share their stories, I realized the immense gap we have in addressing real issues, and the burden of the role. That burden has become more and more my own , a weight I’ve started to carry to build the empathy needed to make this role as useful as it can be.  This project is to build an Development Culture in the Greek Community as an example of the positive and open attitude needed to build awareness, discuss and act on important issues in a college environment.

The next is to use my vocation as a nexus to do be a positive influence in the world. While the first project looked at improving culture, this looks at starting a new trend, where we realize we live in a new era, completely dictated by us, that can see doing good as just as profitable and sustainable when integrated with the skills we’ve learnt. Lattice is a collective built with friends of mine, that aims to use technology to do good, not as a side effect but as a main goal. We’re trying to engage the paradigm shift in technology and design that is either divided in non-profit or profit work, and blur the lines to show that they are not dichotomous.  Innovate and create, but above all aim to do good with what you do. We have a few design projects we want to push out before we graduate, and this is honestly one of the most exciting things I’ll look forward to doing in college. Promoting dialogue, increasing empathy and healing wounds are all themes addressed by our projects.

The last project I have in mind is one of storytelling, something I’ve always been passionate about. Through my work in video production and writing, i’ve become confident in the ability of content mediums to influence and change perspectives, to transform culture. I have yet to decide exactly what medium I plan to use, but my hope is to produce a series of content that talks about the human soul and how we can come together.

Ambitious projects are my signature. I think there’s value in dreaming big and taking the challenges others shy away from. But beyond all of that, the biggest value here is the opportunity to potentially figure out solutions to some of the most common problems in the human world. Hate, distrust and ignorance could be eroded if we figured out how to talk to the soul.  That in itself is worth all the effort in the world.

Hope must win. Hope will win.

hoo-ah.

take a day off

It’s easy to fall into the trap of obsession. You focus on one thing, and your world starts getting smaller and smaller. In the end, all you’re left with is that one thing, and you look around and there’s nothing left. Many of us let ourselves fall into that trap – we’re so determined and focussed that we don’t give ourselves time to breathe and look around.

Tagging onto this though, is the negative effect of disappointment. If your life isn’t balanced out, failure in your one domain of focus, becomes failure of life as you know it for you. ‘This was all I cared about, and now it’s failed’ is the sentiment.

I was here on Friday.

For good reasons, Lambda Chi has been a core part of my life and college experience. It’s literally a commitment to brothers, and as you would know, reader, I take commitment seriously. I became obsessed with the house to the point that I depended on it for some sense of meaning to my days here. I was conscious of the path I was taking, but at the end of the day, I kept going simply because it was convenient and it was easy. Why go out of the comfort zone when you don’t have to , right?

Now the person I pride myself on being would never let that slide, and I guess I caught myself before it got bad, but it took one emotional moment for me to realize it. Friday night got me somewhere, and I re-evaluated why I felt so many ways. That’s when I realized it was all to do with my own environment – I had built a comfortable space for myself and locked myself in, but the moment it became difficult to breathe, I had nowhere to go.

Saturday let me drop everything and take a day off from my own life as I know it. All my assignments had their deadlines shifted, and I was able to do whatever I wanted. I ended up going for a long run, having brunch in town, help set up a cultural fair, watch two comedy shows and just have an amazing time completely unrelated to my role in Greek Life. I reminded myself why I loved traveling, simply because it forces you out of indulging in comfort, and enjoying diversity. I kept telling people I wish I could travel soon, when honestly there was so much I could do right here while I wait to travel again.

My mind was given space to breathe, my heart was given time to recharge, my soul was refilled. I was on the path to obsession, and I tapped out the moment I realized it. And that made all the difference.

hooah.

i know nothing

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I haven’t told a story in a while. I feel like I have words lodged here and there, attempting to come together like colors form a picture. The mind gets clear when I can write, when I can put down the emotions and the sensations in a form that exceeds itself. So write I will, and perhaps I can understand then.

____

This story starts with a man not too different from me. Eazy was at his regular spot, on the roof of the building he lived in. He had his notebook in his hand, a Moleskine that was gifted to him by his ex-girlfriend, and that he ironically had never used till she broke up with him.

‘Never could understand what was so special about these’ he said, running his hand over the page. ‘I could just as easily write on a notebook from the C-Store.’

The landscape in front of him always had a way of inspiring him. It was Toronto, 2016. Young and bold. This was going to be his break , his big entrance into the world of literary stardom. He had already traveled enough and he was ready to summarize the world in a singular expression. No longer would he be subject to the whims of a system, he thought.

‘It’s time to tell my own story’ he mumbled under his breath.

He uncapped his pen, and moved the top to the page.

‘He…’

He continued staring at the page. Where are my words, he thought. The sensation was a tightness in his brain, blinding his ideas and stuttering his thoughts.

‘He… lived an exceptional life’

Eazy stared at the words he had just wrote. It was only his first line and he already felt unhappy with his work. There was a different story he was trying to tell, and yet, he didn’t know how to say it.

“Eazy, are you there?” he heard someone call out.

He turned around to see the silhouette of a long-haired woman walk towards him.

‘God, she’s always been beautiful’ he thought as he continued sitting.

‘Hey Tina’ he replied. ‘Of course you’d know where I’d be’

‘Everytime Eazy’ she said , as she sat next to him. ‘How’s that story coming along?’ she asked as she peered over into his notebook.

His hands quickly covered the one line he had written. ‘It’s not done…not yet at least’ he mumbled.

‘I saw the one line you wrote’ Tina said as she laughed, ‘It’s not your best work’

‘You’re a great friend, you know, Tina.’ Eazy retorted. He continued staring at his Moleskine for a while more before turning back to her. ‘I’m having problems figuring out what I really want to tell. There’s a story that needs to come out , but it just isn’t.’ he said.

‘Talk to me Eazy, I’m here’ Tina said, placing her hand on his. Eazy turned to her and smiled.

‘Well, alright. Tell me something, Tina. What do you think is a universal theme in all stories you’ve read or seen?’ he started.

Tina stared out into horizon, thinking. ‘It’s about good vs. evil’ she said. ‘It’s always some good guy fighting a bad guy, and saving the day’

‘That’s exactly what I thought as well. Yet it didn’t make sense.’ Eazy replied.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well think about this. In this world, is the fight really against evil people?’

Tina stared back at him for a while. ‘Of course. There’s ISIS, there’s North Korea, heck, there’s disgusting people in this very neighborhood. What on earth are you saying if you’re insinuating that there aren’t bad people out there?’

‘I’m not saying anything like that. There’s absolutely no denying that there are incorrigible people out there. But I’m a writer, and as a writer, it’s impossible for me to see someone as good or bad. ‘

Tina pulled her hand away from his.

‘Listen to what I have to say. Just hear me out. I don’t think you can ever claim someone to be good or bad without recognizing the limitations to the label. You’re talking about a person at a specific point in time, detached from his past and his future . What if he turns evil at some point in his life? Does that mean he was never good? Being good had nothing to do with him becoming evil, yet for all sakes and purposes, the label is stripped from him because his evil is his legacy. What would have kept him from evil? Good? I doubt it.’

‘So you’re saying that evil people are naturally bound for their futures? That they’re destined for evil?’  Tina probed.

‘No, no. But that’s an interesting idea’ he said, as he scribbled the thought onto his palm. ‘What I think I’m trying to say is that there’s a bigger thematic war going on, in both the literary world and ours. One that actually makes more sense. That’s where I’m stuck.’

‘I hear you’ Tina said. She turned back towards the horizon, and Eazy did too. He heard her take a deep breath and sigh heavily. It was funny how Tina was here all this while. She had been supportive of his writing from the beginning, the one and only. If anything, she was the reason why he was back on the roof.

‘Look at that skyline, huh?’ she muttered. ‘Sometimes, this is what I need to take on the day.’

‘Hope!’ Eazy shouted.

‘What?’ Tina said, as she turned towards him.

‘The thematic battle. It’s between Hope and Despair. Both are forces, dynamic and unstable , unlike good and evil.  But more importantly, they are both pure, sincere and absolutely consuming. That’s the bigger battle in our lives. We have to continue hoping, because the loss of hope, the start of despair, is when we have truly lost.’

‘We have to keep believing.’ Tina smiled. ‘I like it.’

‘I like it too. And I think I know just the story to write.’ Eazy said , smiling back as he grabbed her hand and held tightly onto it.

Their eyes locked onto each other, and they continued smiling. Tina turned her head back to the horizon and paused for a while before finally, with hope in her voice, uttered ‘Tell me the story, Eazy’

And that he did.

____

hooah.

and then I said no.

I’m marking today as a milestone in my life. I’ve begun my first steps of saying no ; of choosing what is important over what is necessarily visible. Strangely, I’m feeling displaced , as if a rock has been placed in my gut and I don’t know what to do about it. All I can do is think about it, appreciate my new place and somehow get used to this discomfort. It’s refreshing – being displaced. Today, I made the decision to not run for leadership in my chapter.

Giving some context, I joined Lambda Chi under a contract to myself to commit to improving the state of affairs in the chapter. What is a great brotherhood, lacked the momentum to inspire initiative and project its true self on a community that was obsessed with image. As the Vice-President, over the past year, I overhauled frameworks and planted seeds for a culture of self-motivated external involvement. But my proudest take-away from the position was when I was tired of doing well and wanted to empower others to do better. The game had become easy – it was as if I was an advanced character playing on beginner mode. That’s nothing to say of my own absolute ability – there’s so much I have to gain in experience – but I also came from two significant leadership experiences ; leading in the army and running my own private company. I realized quickly the challenge then was to captivate the chapter to adopt my vision and make it their own by finding meaning in it.  One year later, and I’m incredibly satisfied with the distance we have come as brothers and the vastly different perspective and energy we have for things. There were leaders within the chapter now – voices that mattered. I was no longer the shining tip  – I was part of a bigger foundation for the future.

Joining IFC was my way of playing on ‘very difficult’ level. The issues I’m faced to confront are so much more complex and dynamic ; and ever so scary. Mental health, inclusion, sexual assault, wellness are all topics that are so embedded into college environments and yet perpetuated in echoes throughout society. There’s so much I have to deal with just by tapping on the string that unravels into a mess of related issues and personal lives. But there also lies the opportunity to heal brokenness and potentially transform the future. I know I frequently talk in big ideals and visions, but here I see myself possibly dealing with my biggest challenge ever. And I’m excited.

We went on a retreat this past weekend to have a first touch on our leadership councils and see what we want to plan for in the year ahead. Amongst many other things, the displacement originated from a realization that the scope of my job was very real in its effects. If I did my job well, I could do the same I did for Lambda Chi – I could build a culture that perpetuates itself. I traveled back to my chapter, thinking about the election that was to happen that day. I had expressed intention in the months before of running for the first Vice-President role – a role I wanted to transform in a similar way to how I had transformed the second Vice-President role. The chapter seemed favorable to the idea and I simply had to run to prove myself. Regardless of whether I won, the decision to run itself started to become difficult for me.

I had to choose between two roles that demanded so much from me and it tore me that I cared so much about each community. The decision came finally in the comfort of my brothers, who above all else, reminded me that I had pioneered such a self-starter culture that there was a new brand of leaders emerging in the chapter. One of my mentors once told me ‘The best type of organizational leaders are the ones who empower others such that they are useless by the time they leave’ . I finally realized I was experiencing some semblance of that. I could finally say no, no because it was important that I let this culture perpetuate itself, but also because I needed to see to the bigger task at hand in my new role.

It’s here that I’m displaced. I grew up fighting for roles that allowed me to transform my environments and make them better. Yet, here I am , realizing the success comes in my saying no. In saying that I should not be involved this way – still involved, but in less prominent ways. And if this is the trend, then I’m truly growing up. I’m truly moving into my senior year and making something out of both my youth , and out of my college experience. I’m inspired, and I’m ecstatic, because the final lap is ahead, and oh boy, they’re always so sweet.

As I type these final words, the displacement is starting to sweep away. I’m starting to understand how powerful leadership can be, and how I’m still learning. The world has so much more to beat into me, the stubborn idiot that I am, but every lesson is a ballad in itself.

It’s good to be alive.

hooah.