The year has been eventful, to say the least. I ushered in the new year at the beginning of the year (last year, now) in a variety of circumstances; every year with the Hwa Chong people, screaming “Happy New Year” at the top of our voices around the swimming pool, and then drinking Raffles beer at the front of Block B, our cars parked in a perfect straight line along the parallel parking lots. I was wearing a red dress, I remember, and the rest were happy and drunken.
Every year one asks how it has all changed, and this year is probably one of the most unforgettable. A lot of things this year have been about moments of spontaneity — deciding one day during class that there was nothing to do, booking tickets to fly to Bangkok in the middle of term over a random weekend. Staying with my father, traipsing over the city, exploring unknown and wonderful neighbourhoods away from the madding crowd, and then jostling with everyone else at Chatuchak. The first of many Chinatowns to come — in anticipation of Chinese New Year — having shark’s fin and then tze char in the centre of a crowded road, with prawn heads framing our picture, taken by Mok’s experienced hands. In between the horrors of studying for exams we sat down and dreamed of all the places we could, and would, go; we started with Japan — booking everything and turning to the people behind us, declaring that our tickets were booked. And off we went, on our crazy little spontaneous adventure.
To say that Japan was one of the best trips of my life was not an understatement. One is always tempted to make sweeping statements, to make declarations that may or may not mean anything. Once labelled a superlative, it is hard to go back on your word, just like declaring that someone is the love of your life, only to have another come along and upstage them. Yet, even objectively speaking, there are few things better than being young, and in love, and travelling with the person that you love the most. There is nothing wrong in saying this, nor thinking it, and even now, after all that has been said and done, it must necessarily hold true — I know this better than anyone, that it is important to seize your youth, to enjoy being young — and yet, there are some people who also think it, even better than me. Sometimes we enjoy it alone, other times we enjoy it with someone else. There is nothing better than enjoying it while being in love, and knowing that you want to spend the rest of your life, travelling together, with this same person, over the same journeys, with different hills and roads and trains, in different airplanes, over different seas. It is not always about the journeys; but the company. Everything becomes memory; and some are better than others.
Memory has a way of modifying itself, and it makes everything seem better, or worse, than it actually was. This year people close to me have left — some permanently. As I composed eulogies in my head to the odour of chrysanthemums and the sound of peanut shells cracking across the table I remembered that I was not always the best of people, and yet, one must accord utmost respect to the person who has already left, because they will never come back again. In Japan too there were a lot of firsts; going together, just me and my boyfriend, away from home — without my parents, exploring the city by ourselves. Using maps, forgetting maps, getting lost without maps. Popping into random streets and cafes, eating our way through Osaka, getting caught in the rain and taking the Shinkansen, buying CDs from random buskers on the streets, traipsing around Tokyo in the suburbs for ramen and hunting down pastries and Muji in Ginza, taking photos to show our friends. I remember the streets in Kyoto, the geisha, mixing the old and the new. That night in Tokyo towards the end, in the rain with Pierre Herme macarons. The first of many macarons, but I will never have them in Singapore, ever again.
This year — there has been lots of glorious food. From having shark’s fin and tze char in Bangkok to having bowls and bowls of ramen in Japan, having tea at Sadaharu Aoki in Tokyo and Paris, queueing up at 5am at the crack of dawn to eat fresh sushi at Tsukiji and rediscovering that the RI chicken cutlet uncle has moved to the ABC Brickworks estate, the endless suppers and lunches at Thomson and Serangoon Gardens with bak chor mee, chicken rice, porridge and Penang laksa have given way to great pasta and pizza in Italy at every corner, freshly baked stroopwafels in Amsterdam’s markets, the sweet taste of home in London’s Chinatown and the ever-elusive confit de canard. Rice has given way to fries, just as an endless summer has given way to snow and sleet and pink scarves wound round my face. Slippers have given way to boots, and shorts to jeans, though they still remain at the back of the cupboard and the back of my mind, waiting for the day they will come out again. It is the way it is; everything must come full circle.
It is strange that I am writing this. I am trying to remain as objective about things as possible, because I have been told I often paint an inaccurate, though rosy, picture of the past. The fact is some people make it worse than it seems, and for everything that I have felt, there were times in this year that I felt genuinely happy, and I am not ashamed to tell the world that it was with J that I felt this the most. It does not hold true the same way for him, it seems, more now than ever, but this is my life the same way that his life is his own. In the summer the day before I left for Europe I was at Emerald Hill with Joel and Shuki talking about life and love and everything that it has meant; and our viewpoints have changed, from the times when we were younger — strange because we all admitted love is a concept we require but nevertheless cannot grasp. I thought I understood it at that point in time, while others were already doubting themselves, and it is funny in retrospect seeing how things have turned out. This is all that I have felt, all that I feel — he has been part of my life for so long, and all my memories of university have been with him, and it was and still is, the first truly serious love that I had — nothing has changed on my part, and I am not ashamed to admit this, even if I may be proved wrong in the future.
I am sorry. I cannot pretend I do not love you. And I cannot let go the same way that you have.
It cannot be inaccurate to say that my viewpoint on life has changed. From discovering that marriage was a real possibility to trying to explain to foreigners what Singapore is like, how much I really grew up and saw the world as it really was remains a serious question that requires an answer. I have met new people, gone to new places, revisited old ones. I have jolted my memory, revisiting the places that I remember from my childhood, seen the Eiffel Tower in a new light. I have learnt how to cycle, lived on my own, cooked for myself, done things I have never imagined myself doing. Strange how the seasons must play a part now; and one finally understands how it is like to look endlessly forward to the coming of spring, with all the hope that it brings, after the desolate winter. I didn’t ride on the gondolas in Venice with my parents, the same way I did the first time, but it was filled with fun and laughter, and glorious new discoveries, traipsing along cobblestoned streets and appreciating warm weather for the first time, while trying to deal with my own fears, my own demons. I have been closer to my family than ever, and realised for once how important it is to have people who will always be there, who will support you all the way. More than ever I have appreciated having the truth told to me, even if it is painful to hear. It is something I know I must bear, hard as it is, and doing so will only make me stronger. I am grateful to have people who love me enough to do that for me, who love me enough to tell me the truth about myself, who love me enough not to walk away. It is hard for someone who has lived in the same country all her life to move out suddenly, and though it is a journey that many others before me have also undertaken before, and survived; it is a journey I have always dreamed of, and yet like many things we dream about, the reality is nothing like what we imagined. And then, again, in a moment of irony, bitter and intense as it may be — it cannot be inaccurate to say that, for me at least, this year abroad has been nothing like what I expected it to be, and the experience will always, always, colour my memories.
For others the fairytale has begun, and I am also not loath to admit that I say this with some bitterness — I am not pretending to be noble, because I am not, and I cannot be — and for them it has begun where mine has ended. It is hard to say this, because admitting that something is a fairytale suspends one’s belief, as if it were all just a brief pause, a pleasant interlude — and it was not — but it is probably true — it will be a long, long time, before I believe in fairytales again. Again I have learnt that defence mechanisms always, always backfire on you, but girls are girls, and being burnt is never a pleasant experience. Who was it that told me to let somebody love me? It was X; and the memory seems far away now. And yet, I cannot erase love the way others can.
I have known my limits, or perhaps explored them. In the short time overseas I have known more about what I want and do not want from life than I have in the long years I have spent in Singapore. As much as a broken heart tells me I should have stayed in Singapore, the fact is that a heart that does not belong to you will be gone anyway, and all that is left is yourself, which you must find at the end of the day. In doing so perhaps what belongs to you will come back, or appear; in the same way that sometimes we find people in the darkness though there will be other times where we must lose them there again. I have realised that people are not always what they seem, and that the strongest of us also must fall, yet we all try to be the best we can be, to do things the way we know they are right. More than ever, I now cannot bring myself to do things that cause other people pain.
At the end of the day, all this must become water under the bridge. One is powerless to stop the flow of time, small and insignificant as we are, and the best we can do is to make the best of life as we can. As I stood at the top of Montmartre at the Basilica Sacre-Coeur two days ago I prayed for strength, as I always have, though I was not strong enough to pretend that I was not crying. But maybe being strong is not all I have made it out to be; it is not always about pretending there is nothing happening, because there is no sense in denying the truth, past or present. Whatever that has happened, or is happening, we must live with it, and the world hurries on even if we do not. And having the strength to admit your mistakes, to live with them, to want to make amends for them, is the kind of strength that I want to have. To live life knowing full well what I am getting into, to have the strength to accept that there will be consequences whatever my actions may be. To have the strength to love myself and not hurt others in the process, to have the strength to comfort others and keep myself afloat.
This year I turned 21. It was the year I felt hopelessness and despair, and yet it was the year I discovered how many people still love me, strange and flawed as I am. It has been a good year, for the most part, even after everything. And I am aware that had things stayed the same, you would have read this differently, but I must say it all the same — it was a pleasure, and a real one, to have had you by my side.
The next year will be more beautiful than the last. I know this; I am waiting.