11. Seeing life from another country’s perspective
There are a few things that you always assume as a Singaporean. First is that there’s nothing strange about an Asian who speaks English. That’s not actually true. We just happen to be in an environment where almost everybody speaks the language. You can’t expect everybody to understand that. I’ve actually had to explain myself, as a Singaporean, to Americans.
Second question is, “who are you?” We’ve been in an environment where everybody did the same stuff, for the same reasons. Just get comfortable. Do what you were doing yesterday. Somebody asked me, “why are you studying here?” Could I tell them that it was because I didn’t get into Stanford? Could I tell them that I hadn’t actually heard of Snowy Hill until less than six months before I submitted the application, as opposed to other people around me who had slogged away for most of their lives to get in? And you were supposed to know. You were taking a place that would have gone to an American, just so that you could make an even greater contribution to the intellectual life of the place.
How could I tell them that I wasn’t actually as cool as they were, and that I spent much of my time primed up to becoming a studying machine?
That was when I realised that there was absolutely no way that I could walk around in the USA without telling a story of myself first. It was a bit of a conundrum for me that it was in a foreign country that I experienced real adulthood for the first time. At the time when I was the most eager to make a start in this world, I was miles away from those closest to me. Paradoxically, the time when they could have helped me the most was also when they were not available. And paradoxically, it was because I was away from them and forced to fend for myself, that I became more inclined to grow into an adult.
I would spend much of my time back in Singapore getting to know as much about it as I possibly could, so as to avoid being a moron in front of a foreigner.
One of the things about opening your horizons is that you stop seeing Singapore as a kind of prison, where you’re forced to live in against your will, and start understanding that you might have a choice, and you chose Singapore anyway. In Singapore, you are often taught over and over again, there is only one true path, one narrow definition of success, and everything must be ranked according to that measure of success. But after seeing how wide open the world is, I started thinking that maybe it would be better to have a broader range of experiences and live with an open mind rather than strive just for one thing. I started to understand that it certainly wasn’t true that Singapore was a cultural desert. What I truly figured out is that the economy was basically just one way of looking at your life, that art – even high art, was just another way of looking at your life. And no matter how you look at it, they are just facets of the same old question that you have to answer: what is your life all about? What gives meaning to your life? And most crucially, I also learnt that you didn’t really have to give a shit about how anybody else was answering this question.
12. How to be alone
I didn’t have that much of a social life during Snowy Hill. It’s a shame that I didn’t really try to fit in that badly. I’m starting to believe that secondary school was probably one of the last places where I could fit in socially without making too much effort. In JC I was a former gifted program guy in the midst of former express students. In NS I was pretty over-educated in comparison with my peers. In Snowy Hill I was the Singaporean amongst Americans. In the Factory, I was the English speaking egghead guy amongst the Chinese speaking, more hands on ppl. And now I’m in Mexico, I’m again the Singaporean amongst Americans.
In many ways I had already learnt how to be alone. I’ve always been a bit of a non-conformist, nobody had to teach me that. I wasn’t a Mummy’s child, I wasn’t a Daddy’s child. I just did what I felt like doing.
I had always been very interested in music. I was already into indie pop way before Snowy Hill. I had already travelled some way on my musical journey. Spin had released their guide to alternative music by then, an attempt to catalogue much of a very vibrant genre. When I was in Singapore, I loved indie / alternative music. But when I went to Snowy Hill, it began to feel a little strange that I was so in love with a genre of music associated with white ppl, that most white guys didn’t even care about. I loved the music. But maybe what I didn’t understand that it wasn’t the whole story. It was also about the lyrics, the attitude, the lifestyle. Maybe I couldn’t warm up to all of that.
That’s the dirty little secret about indie music. No matter how much it is about rebellion, about freedom, about sticking it to the man, it’s as white as sliced bread. There have been a few guys of color in indie music. James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins. Sooyoung Park of Seam. Miki Berenyi of Lush. A few guys from TV on the Radio. But to some extent, it was a culture that I had difficulty adjusting to. Very likely I fell in love with indie music at first because I fell in love with being able to say fuck you to the Guns n Roses, Bon Jovi, Warrant, that gang, rather than actually loving that lifestyle. Maybe I identified with the teenage angst and the anger and rage. Also, you can write very long essays about existentialism, but a lot of punk is about existentialism – forsaking a higher authority and trying to govern your life around principles and whatever you consider to be “integrity”. But the lives that those guys led, the aimlessness, the ennui, the mindless consumerism, the endless pursuits of the next big thing, the heroin overdoses – the rest of it didn’t appeal to me.
During my first year, the dorm next to mine had a music program, and they had a big rehearsal room. I even had one or two tryouts, and I impressed one of the guys there enough that he was willing to form a band with me. But ultimately I just had too much on my plate, and I decided against it.
Being in the USA, I had the opportunity to acquire CDs for a cheaper price than in Singapore. I always thought that eventually I would move on to more advanced / complex music like jazz and classical. Interestingly enough, I only caught on to jazz. I had already owned stuff from Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but it was only in Snowy Hill when I began “getting it”, really understanding and appreciating what it all meant. My Antonio Carlos Jobim, Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill CDs began to make sense, and it wasn’t just fancy music that was more complex. (This blog was named after an Andrew Hill composition.)
I even encountered a real jazz legend when he turned up to teach in Snowy Hill for one year. There were auditions for a “Dr (insert name here)”. So imagine seeing Dr Thelonious Monk, or Dr Miles Davis, or something like that. I didn’t know who he was. There was an audition and I went in, in spite of not being trained in jazz. I played a bit of Jobim but I was crap and we all knew that. He saw that I was a mathematics major and asked if I would be interested in working with him on producing academic work centered around music and mathematics. I probably should have said “yes” but I was thinking very materialistically about “how am I going to explain this to my sponsors?” so I turned him down.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in Snowy Hill was learn how to write an essay. You guys may be surprised, but general paper was the only thing in my “A” levels I did not get an A or an A- for. Snowy Hill had a writing program in the first year of undergraduate that everybody was required to attend. I remember that I struggled like hell for it. The first course I took was with a music teacher who didn’t seem very sympathetic to what I was trying to achieve. The second course was with a more interesting teacher. She was ambitious enough to make the course ostensibly about English literature, but she also made us write essays about the different art forms: painting, music, cinema. The first essay I turned in got a C- but the last one got an A. It was probably some kind of a feel good effect, but I suppose there was an improvement because I felt like I was getting the hang of something.
I wouldn’t give myself an A for much of what I write in this blog, because there’s so much stuff here and I write it quickly. But there was the exercise of framing of an idea, developing a narrative around it, and developing it into something. It’s ironic that I had already won a couple of playwriting awards, and I was still struggling with my essays.
Later on, I would take a lot of reading courses. I don’t really know how much of them was useful. I took one anthropology class, about race. For the worst of reasons – you know how on the internet outrage is the emotion that’s the most contagious? That professor wasn’t even particularly inspiring, but he started talking about how the US screwed over the Indians and for whatever reason I just couldn’t look away. I think I would have been better of studying the classics or whatever. Towards the end of my stay at Snowy Hill, I was just acing the writing courses. Whatever writing course I took, I would get an A and it would pull my grade up, which is so unbecoming of a mathematics major.
15. Skiing / skating
Snowy Hill had a physical education program, and it was compulsory to take one or two modules. So one of the things we had was skating. It was a natural thing for me to take, and that also meant that I learnt inline skating.
There were also a few snow trips, and I got to learn skiing and snowboarding. I suppose it’s only fair to have these perks when you’re putting up with plenty of shitty weather.
As I mentioned earlier, I had always wanted to master songwriting. I had written music when I was 8. I was attending a class for musical prodigies and it was assigned as homework, so I just had to do it. In many ways, songwriting is similar to writing compositions or writing computer programs. After a while, it’s a skill you get familiar with, because you have some patterns or structures in your head that you can use over and over again.
I was walking down the hill that I named Snowy Hill for one day. Unfortunately I had chosen to live in a dorm which was downhill from Snowy Hill. One evening, I was walking downhill, into the beautiful sunset, and this piece of music just popped into my head. In a way it was similar to “I Can See For Miles”. In a way it was similar to something by Spiritualized. But it wasn’t exactly the same.
When you write something for the first time, you can come up with something that’s awkward, and you’d be thinking, “a real songwriter would not have written that.” What Yeats said about poetry is also true of songwriting. You could spend hours trying to come up with the right phrase, but it could sound like it’s not worth a moment’s thought.
We sat together at one summer's end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
In many ways, we Singaporean Chinese have this very brutally pragmatic and materialistic worldview. And at the time when I was in Snowy Hill, capitalism hadn’t yet become as reviled as it is today. But after being there for a while one of the things I realised was that there were a lot of people who did things simply because of this sense that one has to be great. This was the “mansion on a hill” ethos of Americans. You can be really cynical about it, but they’re great because they just want to be great. And there’s something a little more spiritual about it, which is why – unfortunately there are two main incentives to strive towards greatness, and both of them have their downside. It means that either you’re mercenary as hell and often ask for even more than you’re willing to give, or you become some kind of holier than thou sanctimonious prick.
I will never be a Christian because I am not authoritarian enough to be one. I will never submit to a higher authority. But maybe I became a little bit more spiritualized. Sometimes I felt as though I didn’t have to drag myself through things anymore, that there was a greater spirit which would carry me through things.
As Singaporeans, we just have too many out of bound markers, and we are nice people, but there are too many constraints on our behavior. There are too many things that we were told not to do, and we worry too much about transgressing on other people that we hold ourselves back too much. When I was suddenly in an environment where anything was possible, I just decided to test the boundaries a little bit more. That got me into a bit of trouble during the first few years of my working life, because I had a few bosses who didn’t like that, but things got better once I had earned their trust (but I took too long to earn their trust).
The problem is that a lot of things in Singapore are a lot like earning 100 marks for a test. We just become trained seals. To a certain extent, I reviled that and I still do. Too much of what grade school in Singapore does is too similar to getting all of you to validate yourselves by submitting to a higher authority. That is obviously not healthy and only in your ECAs are you ever taught anything close to what real leadership skills are like. Too often you are told that there is only one right answer, or else there are a certain set of talking points that have to be raised in an essay question.
I had become a little bit more brash once I embraced the spirit. Maybe I learnt a little bit more to use my gut emotions. But since I am who I am, I very often temper those gut emotions with a good dose of reality.
When I was in secondary school and junior college, I was a good mathematics student, and at one or two points, I was chosen to represent my school, but not really often enough. I was overshadowed by a few of my peers, and, rather ignominiously, my little sister. In fact, in Snowy Hill one or two of the Singaporeans knew my sister, and asked me straight in the face what it felt like to be overshadowed by her. (The answer to that is that she does not have as much musical talent as I do and I’ll always be better than her in one or two things.)
I probably took it because it was labelled as the “honors course” and I wanted to stretch myself. My sister was one year after me, so she got to enter university before I did, (guys are delayed for 2 years because of NS). And she went to a really good school and told me that the advanced maths and physics courses taught stuff that was far ahead of anything that people in the Olympiad training teams were learning, so I just wanted to see what that was all about. After all, what I felt was that in secondary school, I achieved a lot of my aims, except for being able to regularly represent my school in academic competitions.
As usual, my zeal for it quickly wore out. But thankfully there is an emotion that is more durable than youthful zest, and that is … for me, it is easy to be persistent. I’m a naturally stubborn person. I’m also a procrastinator, but I usually throw things at the problem until the problem gets done.
So I set out on a crusade, early on in my time at Snowy Hill, to take on the hardest maths classes. At the end of my first year, my decision on a major was three ways between computer science, physics and mathematics. Snowy Hill was really famous for physics and computer science, but in the end I chose mathematics because it was the closest to what I felt like doing. I took the courses labelled as the hardest introductory courses in all three subjects, and ended up screwing up my grades for the first year, and paradoxically that just made me go down that path over and over again: I just ended up taking the harder courses and not giving a shit about my grades because they were all screwed up anyway.
But for me it was not straightforward. No matter how much I worked (and I worked hard), and how talented I was (and I was talented), I just didn’t have the discipline or the focus to truly excel at mathematics. It requires a certain kind of temperament, a coldness, a focus, and a lot of patience. I just coasted along. I liked what I learnt in mathematics, I liked learning about how a proof works, and how understanding how ideas were related to each other. But I absolutely could go no further than that in pure mathematics. There was one course, abstract algebra, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful branches of mathematics. But one day after spending three hours writing a proof for some obscure theorem, I put my pen down and yelled out “WHO GIVES A FUCK ABOUT THIS SHIT?” Mathematics is something that’s so unworldly that in order to succeed you truly have to not give a shit about the rest of the world and just like logical structure for its own sake. Even I was not that much of a nerd.
At Snowy Hill, the introduction course to Psychology was famous. Psychology was probably one of the most important courses I could have taken, although I could not have known it back then. It was one of those rare courses that didn’t count towards my degree in any way. I had always been bad with people, and not very aware or not very good at reading them. There was a period of time when I opened my feelings up to an extent that was rather unusual for me, part of the reason was the girl I was seeing (online, at least) and the other part was how my taking psychology taught me how to think about motivation.
The thing about life in Singapore, when it’s so structured, is that many of us don’t really think very much about psychology. It’s not really taught that much in school, except obliquely, in subjects like literature. Even when people were deciding what to study, people did not treat psychology as a serious subject.
People lead a blinkered life in Singapore. You were supposed to achieve economic success, and you had a few ways to do it. If you wanted to take some subjects like arts and sciences, they weren’t very well regarded, and people often thought you did them because you didn’t meet the points cut off for STEM / medicine / law.
I’m a person who was relatively alright with the Singapore system, but I never bought into their ideas completely. It gave me a lot of grief. I never felt alright with that. There was some psychological barrier to me giving it everything I got. The preceding years, in JC and in NS were some of the worst years of my life, because there was a lot about my life that felt wrong. I couldn’t understand the meaning of my life. I was probably seeing a psychologist at that time, just a few sessions. The way I saw it, my life ahead of me was a lot of doing things I didn’t want to do (probably the soulless acquisition of wealth), in order to achieve the things I didn’t want. I hated the rat race. I probably was a bit of a misanthropist at that time. I believed in higher, more abstract ideals, and I didn’t trust what I considered to be baser things, like money and sex. The more highfalutin it was, the more I wanted to believe in it.
I suppose, there were three things that happened at around the same time. First was the opportunity to see life from a different perspective. I saw a side of the Americans that was very practical. They were just allergic to bullshit, or another way to put it was that I saw what life could have been like if it was unencumbered by the sort of bullshit that we see in Singapore. Singapore is a highly developed, highly civilized country on the surface, and we have a very good structure and system. But we have also mostly absorbed the wisdom from other civilisations – the West, China and to some smaller extent India and southeast Asia. And we don’t always understand the deeper context in most cases. Like the Indian civil service, we adopt what we think are the right practices without understanding why they came about.
Secondly, I developed a form of independence after living abroad for a year. I wasn’t behaving like a superstar or anything, but I did push myself a little. I lacked discipline, though and I bit off more than I could chew.
And last of all, I started to have a lot of movies that taught me how to read people. I used to be truly, truly bad at it, but after a while, I learnt to ask a few questions. What motivates him? What is he like? Psychological motive is the thing that distinguishes us from mindless automatons. Our concept of pleasure and pain is what makes us who we are. I learnt that it was very important to understand how to psyche yourself up, how to manage your mood, and how to manage other peoples’ mood. But unfortunately this coming of age took place at a time when I didn’t have a lot of friends. I wish that I had learnt all this in JC and NS when I was surrounded by people all around me to practice this knowledge and understanding on. I might have made a lot of friends who would put me in very good stead for my future.
I used to be quite foolish, and I don’t think I’m very good at it, but at the very least, I stopped being laughably incompetent. I developed a theoretical framework about how human interactions work, and before this, I didn’t even have a theory to work with. I would say this was crucial to my life getting better. After I returned to Singapore, my first few years in the workforce were tough, but I was able to put this knowledge into practice and that’s how I grew as a person.
20. Jerking off
Yes, well, there wouldn’t be a number 20 if not for that. And just as well that I only got into this during my second year. During my first year, I had a roommate, and it is very inconvenient to jack off when he’s around.
On the minus side, I probably made very few friends outside of the community of Singaporeans, that I would still be able to contact today. I probably would have been forgotten by now, if I were to go back. But I would still want to go back. I promised myself that if I were to get married, I would bring my wife there, in the middle of winter, to show her around.
I didn’t attend any frat parties. I didn’t make a lot of American friends. I probably had enough talent to be in a band, but I never formed a band. I didn’t learn about the pleasures of alcohol and caffeine until much later, when I was in my thirties. I didn’t have any exciting ECAs. I was very often guilty of doing nothing for days, and sitting on my ass. When you go to a place like Snowy Hill you immediately realize that you will, for maybe four years, have the door open to a world of possibilities, and you only have a limited amount of time to grab everything you can until it closes. But I had one big item on my agenda and I did fulfill it. I was there to understand the meaning of life, and I believe that after I left Snowy Hill, I had some notion of it. It wasn't completely coherent, and actually it's not that important for this vision to be coherent. But this vision must be broad reaching enough to inform most of the things you do. You should already come away with a set of processes and values that are going to shape everything you do, everything you touch.
These are the last two paragraphs of Tolstoy’s masterwork “Anna Karenina” and it reflects what I felt about finally making a passage towards being an adult:
"This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed, just like the feeling for my child. There was no surprise in this either. Faith—or not faith—I don’t know what it is—but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.
"I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it."
I used to ask myself, what would I do with all the opportunities that I had missed out on? Singapore is different. Singapore, to some small extent, blinkers you, and keeps you on the straight and narrow. It’s not exactly conducive to letting you take a step back and see things in perspective. When you go to a great university like Snowy Hill, the world is wide open. And if I had gone to a university in a major urban center, it would have been an even greater experience.