let’s talk about death

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Content Warning: I talk about some pretty morbid topics, not because I necessarily want to but because it’s become important to process some recent events.

Last week, after an already incredibly emotional series of events, as I was waiting to board my plane to London, I found out that Eric Judge, my fraternity brother and someone I always respected and looked up to had passed away. If you have read my post about pain, then you’ll know exactly what my body and mind went through at that point. I had to find a space, sit down and try to calm myself before I got onto the plane, because I had lost someone I cared about and the realization that I would never see them again hit me. This time last year, my paternal grandfather passed away of old age, and I remember feeling a reeling sense of shock. Now, my body knew what death of a close one was and immediately reacted emotionally.

Eric was one of the first people I met in my fraternity as I began my education process and immediately I knew he would play an important role in my understanding of Lambda Chi Alpha. Yes, he was known as the frequent caps player and the teacher of all things beer related, but he was also a brother in the most expansive form of the word. He would celebrate everyone who joined the organization, and he would shut down anyone who spoke poorly of another brother without regard for their dignity. It’s weird to speak praises about those who have passed only after they left, especially knowing that he was in Chicago and I only spent one other occasion with him before his incident. I wish I could have told him all of this – how I respected him and how my time in the US was made that much more special because of him. I will remember him dearly. Eric, this is my way of processing your death. I tried speaking to friends and family, but it helped little knowing that I had lost someone I cared for. My friends mean the world to me and it’s horrible that the cosmos wouldn’t give us any more times to celebrate our lives.

Eric’s death made me all the more resilient in speaking my truth to others. I am no longer ashamed of being honest and spontaneous in my expression to those I care about. It’s naive for me to claim that as we get older, death will be a more commonplace occurrence because so will marriage, birth and all kinds of other celebration. I am entering a portion of my life where the innocence of living is eroding and I have to choose how I interpret the things that happen around me.

There is a part two to this post, one that I feel I must write although I’m not sure how to write it. As if Eric’s death wasn’t enough to dampen my mood, as I landed in London I saw on the news that there was another terrorist incident in northern London. The cities I plan to visit – Berlin, Brussels, Paris – are also no longer strangers to acts of terrorism. I am literally living in a time and place where the concept of chaos is close and familiar and I have to adapt to the fact that I have to choose daily to live my best possible life. I have to also choose more than ever to be cautious, alert and smart about things around me.

But there’s this weird what-if question that remains. What if I do die? I know, I know – the human psyche is afraid of the question. It’s one of my biggest fears in life – my mortality. It’s very much why I continue to do the legacy work that I do. I feel like I should start thinking about it though, not to give the enemy any upper-hand in mental victory, but to give it the intellectual space it needs to provide insight. I immediately thought of my family and my close friends, the ones who actually do care for me the same way I cared about Eric and maybe even more. I immediately thought of the same pain crashing through them and felt awful myself. I want my life to speak for itself, my values and my character to continue beyond my existence. I want my conversations to have lasting impacts on the people I had them with. I want people to keep believing in a community that supports itself and is resilient.

Ironically, even considering the impact of my death made me so much more committed to fighting to live and to fight the forces that threaten my or any of my loved ones’ existences. There’s so much more work that needs to be done on this planet and no one should be able to steal that opportunity from us. I also recognize that the issue is so complex because of the politics involved. Terrorism only seems real because it happens in cities with people of actual power, but attacks happen in other parts of the world including Syria and Iraq, by countries like the US and UK. People all over the world are dying because it seems easy to detonate a bomb. Death is becoming a stranger topic until it hits someone close.

That has to stop. This desensitization to death has to stop. We need to feel emotionally connected to every aspect of the human condition and that means recognizing that it’s completely wrong that people have to die for acts they were never responsible for. I am carrying and will continue to carry this pain. I have a few ideas of how to move towards addressing these problems and am making efforts towards them, but I hope everyone who reads this recognizes they have that power to change their perspective on death in the world.

this is a perspective shift.

make a difference.

the roles we must play

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The Fujiwhara effect describes the phenomenon when two nearby cyclonic vortices (I am aware my title picture is not of a cyclone) orbit each other and close the distances between the circulations of their corresponding low-pressure areas. It’s really a fascinating thing to watch – a dance of sorts between two chaotic, unpredictable elements that ultimately lead to a blending. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently – a product of the void left after graduation and a bunch of other significant events recently – and I’ve been wondering about how I’ve chosen to interact with people around with me and what that says about me.

When I was in middle school, my class tutor wrote in a note to my parents, “People will feel the wake of Rovik’s crossing”. I was 14 when this was written, but it has since stuck in my head. I never comprehended what that completely meant till recently when I realized that I was definitely leaving a presence behind, not in an egotistical ‘People will miss me’ kind of way, but in the manner that I’ve always aspired to – a legacy that is evidenced in tangible change created. More important to me though was recognizing how I got here, as a matter of introspection.

Perhaps the biggest thing about myself that I realized is that I’m a provocateur and activator. Just like a cyclone, I choose to be bold, overwhelming and a force to be reckoned with, simply because I come with a hope to bring change and evolution. I choose to disrupt because too many things gone undone have been regretted by the quiet.

But what about everyone else? I recognize my role but I also recognize it isn’t everyone else’s. It’s team-building 101 – know who’s on your team, understand their skills and recognize the roles they will play to take advantage of their strengths. That’s simple enough.

How about if we extend it to inter-personal relationships in general though? Here, there isn’t an engineered effort to drive synergies. No, we’re forced by life to encounter people and choose if we want to be friends with them or not. But while we may start to piece together their personalities and characters, we inevitably also build a dynamic between us. These dynamics are again tied to the roles we have traditionally assigned to ourselves. So if two cyclonic characters meet, there will be a collision that causes a new set of chaos. If a cyclonic character meets a quiet calm sea character, you can expect some pain to be felt. If a cyclonic character meets a sturdy rock, you can expect erosion and challenge.

But the roles must be played, both for the individual’s sake to stay aligned to their character as well as for the sake of advancement of the existing state.  Things must move forward, and the roles people play will assign the attributes to the progress created. This metaphorical way of looking at things helps me understand why people do the things the way they do and how things evolve out of moments of collision. Other cyclones are rare to come by, and when you do meet them, history has taught me to brace full on for the impact.

hooah.

 

 

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.

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

opportunity-averse

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It’s always interested me how people become afraid of change as they grow up. We live our youth in hope; in aspiration that at some point our lives will be better and different. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don’t. But regardless of the outcome, as they grow up, some decide that they don’t want to bother with anything different any longer. Inertia has set in.

I’ve discovered this day to day in my own life recently. When I was younger, I lived a life one could say was limited in opportunities. I honestly saw no way to traverse the imaginary moat that prevented me from living my dream life. I thought for a long time that I was never going to leave Southeast Asia. Sometimes, I’d even find myself resigned to the fact, and I was only 10 years old. Even if an opportunity came along to live just a portion of my dream, I would question the true worth of the impact. “I’m going to have to go back to reality at some point,” I’d think.

Then, I grew and recognized how to be hungry, and I’ve posted about these times in previous posts, and the opportunities never stopped. In fact, in almost a self-serving cycle, the more opportunities I seized, the more came my way. The fire burned strong and burnt away any reservation or fear.

But right now, as I lie on my bed in Chicago, and think about what troubles me, I think about the fact that the limitless opportunities are in some way paralyzing. There’s so much one can do, so how should one choose? And even if he does, who else can come with him? One might as well resort to not exploring anything new, either becoming indulgent or idle.

This is a function of blessing; blessing because all of a sudden I traversed that impossible moat and yet am puzzled by how I got here. But that blessing is not complete if I am one of only few who can enjoy this side. So I must balance exploring this side of the moat and enjoying it, and yet finding ways to create bridges over the dark depths of the moat for more to come over.

One must explore, one must be hungry. One must want to keep encountering change, from both sides of the moat. One must be ready to take risk and play it dangerous. I’d never be who I am if I played it safe, and I don’t know who I’d be otherwise, but I’m pretty darn happy with who I am now.

hooah.

never aging

David Mould, Glasgow, UK

David Mould, Glasgow, UK

This is the second year where my birthday gets ‘lost in time’. I fly out on the 10th, and reach Singapore on the 12th, and at no point do I ever experience the ’11th of June’.  Now, I know it’s all about frame of reference, but I think it’s a great practical joke that’s played on me every year. Regardless though, my favorite birthday present is being able to see my family and be reunited with them after a whole year once I walk out of the Customs point. In some way, the practical joke redeems itself.

When I was young, birthdays were all about me. It was about celebrating my existence, and who I am. I’m glad I’ve moved on from that. Loving yourself is different from indulging in yourself, and I think I’m coming to that distinction in a clearer way as I grow up. Being 23 now, it’s interesting how much of the world makes more sense, and how much issues that seemed frustrating as a youth appear more realistic and clearer as a young adult.

So as a 23 year old, let me share some of the lessons I’ve learnt. This is a combination of lessons I’ve learnt from traveling the world, starting my own company, mixing with celebrities, serving in the military, being in a fraternity and going to college in Chicago. These lessons are in no way final and ultimate – in fact there may be more nuances that I have to discover but I feel like I’ve reached some form of an opinion on all of them.

  1. You cannot disregard a person’s experience. Someone’s experience is deeply personal and tied to their identity, and to attack any aspect of their identity means to reduce their lives, which goes against any aspect of equality. Physics follows laws, but social laws and rules are constructs that serve the purpose of their society, and we all know societies change and evolve, and so must the laws and rules.
  2. Rape Culture is a thing. Laughing at the use of the word ‘rape’ and being an apologist for rapists is all too common in communities I’ve been around, and it makes me sick that laws do not recognize the violence that is rape in completely scarring a person’s version of reality and taking away the agency of a person over their body. Getting drunk is not the same as raping someone. Blacking out is not the same as raping someone.
  3. Humanity has immense potential to move forward. We have made amazing strides since our primitive societies, and can continue to move forward, but we must believe that every life is important and that there is a need to believe in causes beyond ourselves. Yes, we must take care of our careers, our families, our health. But we exist in an ecosystem that gives and takes, and if we want change, we must be the agents of it.
  4. Money solves 90% of all problems. So be smart, make money smartly, and use it well. Invest, show value by spending your money on the right people and right priorities, and using it to challenge the norm. Everything ca be tied back to how the money flows, but if you control the money, you have a say in how the future is shaped.
  5. Develop people. People are absolutely amazing in what they can do with a little bit of investment. Build leadership, and they will bring back cities. Train them in skills, and they will carry your work further. Appreciate and affirm, and they will surprise you with their effect on the world.
  6. Privilege is real. In all societies. In forms of patriarchy or the dominant race, we have an obligation to recognize the systems we benefit from and ensure that it is not at the expense of someone else, especially if its without reason other than systemic control. Challenging one’s privilege is difficult, it means recognizing aspects of your life have essentially been handed to you on a platter, but it doesn’t necessarily mean taking away the platter from you – it means making sure the platter gets to everyone.

There’s so much more fundamental lessons I’ve learnt and I’ve been grateful for constantly being challenged by the situations I’ve been in. Keep throwing yourself into difficult situations and wrestle with the pains, and you will come out flexing with new perspectives and stories.

Because what is life, but a grand story. A story of how we seek to find utopia – the perfect state of being – and fail so much along the way. But we must keep believing, because if not, we cannot move forward.

hooah.