Article

All In

I turn 29 in a couple of months. T-W-E-N-T-Y-N-I-NE. This is doubly a shock because in my head I feel forever young, partly as a function of always having been the youngest person in every single circle I have run in, from friends to career to everything else really. I started blogging when I was 15 — nearly 15 years ago! — at a time when Tripod.com was a hosting provider, content management systems transmitted your passwords in plain text, and leaving a message on a ShoutBox was a valid way of engaging on the Internet.

That young life and everything that encompassed feels as faraway as the era in which I packed 30 Compact Discs to school in a metallic CD holder, and my music skipped — as I skipped — on the way to school through the deserted carpark of my housing estate at six in the morning, every morning. My peers are entrepreneurs and CEOs (being a high-flying lot), my friends are married and/or engaged, my contemporaries have published books, plural, and I show up in magazines occasionally as the Older Role Model For Younger Women. Wow, that’s old.

All of that just means it’s great fun. It’s more fun when you’re of age. At least that’s how it’s been for me. When it seemed dire — sometime around the final year of university, panicking, wondering: what do I do with my life? — when it seemed as though all that life had in store was some dead end office job and an indeterminate life (growing up gay in 1990s Singapore: hard), it’s been hard to really envision the sort of life I wanted to carve out for myself. For the most part it was even difficult to articulate what that life would be. At almost-29, having seen a bit of the world, having that much more clarity, I have to say Fuck Yeah, It’s Great. Anything is better than the black holes and the black spots that so terrify you when the alternatives aren’t immediately obvious.

A hundred and seven weeks ago I left this city (KL) in a mad haste. I didn’t know how to ship a puppy three hundred and seventy kilometres back to the city I was born and bred in. I didn’t know how to step away from that comfortable but middling life I had built for myself over a couple of years. I didn’t know how it was going to be. I’d set up a company at the tender age of twenty three, in an industry I knew nothing about. I learned more in those years than in all my years of education put together; I grew to love the hustle. That hustle was addictive, but I didn’t know measure, and I didn’t know the upper limits of my ambition and my ability. I got very, very ill. In a way, I had to lose it all in order to be a better person along the way.

I’ve now carved out a life for myself in the city I grew up in. The city I rebelled against and hated with every inch of my being (it was a much different place, then). It has been surprisingly good for me. Chalk it down to the stability of ‘home’ and a rock-solid support network I’m lucky to have back here; to the incredible opportunities I get from being here; there’s hardly a week which passes without the ability to reinvent myself in any of three or more amazing ways.

A decade ago I was a wimpy teenager with nothing but a half-baked sense of the general direction I wanted to move towards. The hardest part, it felt at the time, was to learn how to leapfrog the various handicaps I felt I had then: the curse of being female, gay, and opinionated. These days all of those things feel like strengths.

In the decade since, I’ve relentlessly pursued every single one of my goals in life and in love. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but at least I can say this: I failed, I stumbled, I felt I could not recover from some of those setbacks; I bounced back, even if it took a very long time in some of them. I’ve managed to create a life for myself across continents which appears charmed and easy and privileged and opportunistic to some, but which I’ve worked really hard for.

A few months ago while having a bit of an existential crisis, I’d written in my (paper) journal: I’m ambitious and a perfectionist in my career, so why not in happiness? That’s what drives me at the end of it all: the seemingly elusive happiness, defined by you and you alone. It was clear I could never be happy pushing paper behind a desk, so I ran from it. It was evident I could pretend to be happy in the sort of middling arrangement in which I had all of the trappings of comfort but none of the excitement of an inspirational love, so I had to learn to be happy on my own before I could hazard such risks again. I’ve spent the past hundred and seven weeks figuring stuff out, which is perhaps as self-indulgent as it comes, but I learned I just wasn’t ready. You grow up a ton when you have bills and thousands of dollars in taxes to pay for your youthful mistakes.

This is what I do differently now:

  1. Write clear, concise emails. I wish I knew it earlier, but learning to ask for things clearly and briefly is a life skill.
  2. Talk about money without feeling weird. I don’t know about you, but I used to find it difficult to talk about money. Expected compensation, ballpark estimates, money you will render for a good or a service — maybe girls aren’t really brought up to be OK asking for what you think you’re worth? I don’t know. But ever since learning to do this, things get done faster, and more importantly expectations are met — or not — in a more efficient manner.
  3. Say no. I believe it’s a trait of many a person’s younger life that saying no is just the most difficult thing you can do, next to talking about money, often together. A month ago I was at the cusp of a huge career development: I had three major opportunities, each better than the other. At the end of it I realized (a) you already know what the best option is, if you trust your gut (b) but that takes time and experience to learn to trust. I said no to the first two opportunities, and I’m happier for it.
  4. Having to prove yourself is bullshit. There’s a difference between establishing credibility and having to again and again prove your worth — and that’s true in business and in love. With age I’ve also become more comfortable with the big idea of Who I Am and What I Stand for, and it’s (related to the previous point) been easier to move towards what you really want as a result. For example, social media contests for popularity in order to “Win Something” — that’s all bullshit. You have better ways to expend your time and energy.
  5. Pay It Forward. Your mileage may vary, but I truly believe that paying it forward is one of the best things you can do. I run an NGO, organize community events for causes I Give A Shit About, and mentor some younger gay and trans kids because… why wouldn’t you? It’s so much more fulfilling that way. You get back in spades what you give, and not solely in the monetary sense.
  6. Give A Shit, Or Don’t. This part was hard to figure out. I’ve had some arguments and lost some friends over this. My version of it: in general, I try to be a nice person, and perhaps succeed at it. But I feel I’ve come to that point in my life where I’m aware of the limitations — of myself, more than anything else. And when I don’t feel like it, or when someone or something has a negative impact on my happiness or that of a loved one’s, not giving a shit is the only way I know how to deal with it these days. Anything else — the awkward pretense? the song and dance of adolescent and young adult social niceties? Fuck that. My only rule is if a person or organization or thing has a nett positive effect on the things I care most about — that’s great. Life’s way too short for people who tire you out and worse still, people who subtract from the world.
  7. Sleep More. I’m late to the party, but I’m a new convert to the Sleep Is Really Important school of thought. It’s related to aging, but damn, it’s magic. Not sleeping, however, is toxic. No matter for what ends.
  8. Do What You Love. I’m not a fan of this pithy statement. It’s almost too slick. But there’s some truth to it. What I prefer, though, is a combination of that with “Change What You Don’t”. I love a lot of things — aviation, gin, India, travel, and so much more — but I’m not about to run out and eke out a living out of every single one of them. What helps me keep balance (and sanity) is the other part. What bothers me so much that I cannot sit idly by? For now, it’s girls’ education in India. Xenophobia in Singapore. In a couple of years it might be religious fundamentalism in Singapore. Or something else which will surprise me.
  9. Learn Something New. It wasn’t always so, but of late I’ve had a strict personal rule. That I should learn something I don’t know anything about, whenever it feels like I’m stagnating. Last year, it was diving. And swimming. This month, it’s classical guitar and gardening.
  10. Know Thyself. Then Adjust Accordingly. As I previously mentioned, I set up my own company at age twenty three knowing fuck-all about tech and business. I now know how important it is to have strict accounting and paper-filing standards. When I was ill in KL it felt like the sort of health-related traffic red light which made me stop to take stock of my life, health and my abilities. I have always known I’m not temperamentally suited to conventional employment, yet I did not feel ready enough — financially or mentally, since I was for a long time at that point in my life where I could not even remember passwords or how to populate spreadsheets, so I could not.

Lastly, this: Jump On The Train When It Pulls Into The Station. In my industry there are various ways to convey this. One of it is, when the rocketship arrives, get on and don’t ask which seat you’re on. The other one is, do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water? In that respect, I’ve just had my metaphorical train pull up into the station. So I’m going all in.

In a month and a bit, I get to pick up where I left off and call this past 107 weeks officially over. It wasn’t possible without a lot of hustling, but here I finally am. I’m starting a new company which combines the two things I Give A Shit most about, tech and female empowerment in Asia. I have a great team, enlightened investors, and nothing to prove this time but to see how far technology can improve lives (tech solutionism? perhaps.) in that part of the world I care the most about. We get started — first in Jakarta, then in Yangon, which also brings me back to how everything comes full circles and all the dots connect if you let it, that I spent the better part of my youth ‘aimlessly’ wandering around these parts finding things to do. When things happen, you grab them by the bloody balls.

None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the incredible people in my life, especially my family, my peers and the amazing woman I now call my girlfriend. They keep me grounded, in all of the best ways. My dad, because he’s never once flinched at being the rock of my life; my circle of best friends, because they never let me get too arrogant or too hurt, all at once; my girlfriend, because she keeps me grounded in some very real ways, sometimes literally — we are planting microgreens and crops this week. Mostly, because I have a home to come back to, in the literal and the figurative sense.

I’m excited to embark on the next phase of my life with the sum of every single goddamn part, and so much more.

Article

The Geography of Hope

At 18 I certainly believed I knew everything. I did not know just how much it’d hurt this boy’s heart if I told him the inevitable: that I was in love with someone he could never be—a woman. We went to our favourite bar and sat glumly while he tried to drink away his pain and anger.

At that time it felt as though life simply led me into various unforeseen encounters, at turns dramatic and at others explosive, as if I were but a mere spectator. The woman I loved walked into the bar. I stole a glimpse. I could not look away. Even without saying anything at all, he knew it was her.

She met the man she was to marry that evening after I left.

***

There was a girl I noticed at the campus coffee shop.

I liked her pants. And her hair. It helped that I sat at that coffee shop every day nursing a cigarette because that’s what I did when I was young and stupid. She would walk by, and I would try to find out who she was.

Every day we passed each other in that little corridor or at the coffee shop. I don’t remember how, but she agreed to come on a date with me.

We went to a place I still go to, then on a 46-day backpacking trip to India. I bravely led the way. By the second week we were at the Taj Mahal. We had waited to see the sunset because I thought it might be good to attempt romantic gestures sometimes. As the sun set over Agra I reached for her hand. She pushed it away.

We broke up at the Taj Mahal, which was fitting because we had also fallen in love at the Angkor Wat. From one wonder to another, she still could not erase the shame she felt from being with a woman. Even in a country where no one knew her name.

The next 30 days were epic and vengeful, full of sadness and train schedules.

***

The woman I loved four years ago did not marry the man she met at the bar. I may or may not have had anything to do with it.

The truth was that the more I sunk into the sadness, the more I elevated our mythology. It was not the great love which never was. We were not star-crossed lovers. Not only had I not grown from that point, I had even regressed. Waking up with her every morning made me feel I would lose her any time now. I was a little bit older now but really I was still the awestruck girl in my school uniform and my tie, wanting to know how I could punch above my weight because I can, and God she’s hot.

We were the cartographers of silence which began with a lie, later snowballing into a mountain of mythology and characters with their own CliffsNotes and paths strewn with sad poetry and despair and sadness.

When you throw yourself at a wall repeatedly, it’s okay not to know when to stop, especially if you enjoy feeling sorry for yourself.

But I had adventures to go on and mythology was too heavy to come along for that ride. I threw it away.

***

I don’t dream very much, but that year I had a vivid dream: I dreamed of a tall, slender woman with a soft voice who captivated me completely in that dream. I felt happy in that dream. I was a new person in that dream. I grew to be a better person with this figment of my dream, in my dream.

When I awoke from that dream I was with such a woman barrelling down the River Skrang in Borneo on a hare-brained plan to see tattoos and drink moonshine with the tribal elders of the tattoo artists we knew in the big city. We hit a rock and the river rushed around us as if it wanted to have us whole.

We went places without names on maps. Places without maps. We were apart a lot, but she drove 300 miles to meet me all the time and we travelled tens of thousands of miles together when we could. I ended up travelling tens of thousands of miles each time I needed to see her, which was all the time. We met in Istanbul. We made video postcards about the places we were in without each other, and we sent them to each other every other week.

Eventually we decided it was time to try to steer our way home.

I don’t even remember what home means any more. I had wandered a few hundred thousand kilometres, some of it by foot. Mostly by bus, train or taxi. Even boat.

Home was where she was. Some days it was London. Others, it was Kuala Lumpur.

I found a little house I thought we could be happy in, got a dog, and perhaps for a time we were. It feels as faraway as all of my 18-year-old memories.

***

I don’t remember when I stopped trying. I was back at the Taj Mahal again, and everything about that monument still fills me with despair. I’m never going back there ever again. I looked at her. I felt despair. I didn’t know how to fix us. I just stopped trying. Or talking. I held her hand on a cold New Year’s Eve in Jodhpur. I felt nothing. I kissed her. She did not want to kiss me back. I fell asleep with my back turned, full of anger and secret tears. It had been that way for a while now.

A few months earlier I asked her to marry me. I was met with nervous laughter and panic. In hindsight, it was a bad idea. Everyone knew she would say no.

Except me. Ever the optimist.

The computer says no.

Everybody knows it. But I didn’t get the memo. It was always no.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a lesbian in this society, and it all comes down to this: other people. It’s that I have to automatically assume that all of the following are bonuses, not expectations: having my love recognized for the purposes of property, tax and inheritance; attending a partner’s family functions without unnecessary outcry and suspicion; knowing that if I were to be in a medical emergency, my life partner would be legally allowed to make decisions on my behalf. In other words, to even hope for my future life partner to be perceived as anything other than a complete stranger, is going to have to be taken on other people’s good faith.

As outsiders, that’s all we have to go on: the goodwill of other people. The readiness of other people to stop thinking of us as criminals, sexual deviants and perverts. If I hold hands with a woman I love, I am rubbing it in a conservative society’s face and being too declarative about my sexual orientation; if I walk side by side with one, the man who catcalls and makes lewd comments at us bordering on sexual harassment, is just, after all, being a man and is entitled to his opinions about my body and hers.

As for someone who generally feels like there is nothing in the world I cannot do, all I can do is to keep on doing what I do best—live my life as best as I know how, be kind to old people and animals, donate to charity sometimes, avoid premature death—and dream about the day I hope to see in my lifetime: when our lovers will be our equals, and our love as deserving.

Article

And The Living is Easy

Weddings, funerals and fortune tellers depress me.

Weddings, I’ve been known to say, make me linger too long on the idea of happiness. Not that it’s ever been bleak on the romantic front. The wedding type of happy simply seems worlds apart from the love type of happy to me, but then I was the odd one out in too many ways. I was that strange little girl who distressed, not too silently, over the idea that any impending happiness had to come from a Prince Charming, a white dress, a ring, or a HDB flat. I squinted hard in the horizon and tried to see some kind of prince heading my way. I made mental concessions, I had to. “If this prince has long hair, a beautiful face, and soft hands to hold,” I often wondered aloud, “then I guess it’s okay.” Maybe that’s why I didn’t have too many friends in primary school. I like the idea of marriage. But weddings, and ceremonies or rituals of any sort that spell out the rules of what can’t be done more than what can, just depress me. Gay people usually feel we have to work twice as hard in everything: to excel at sports even though you’re a faggot, to make it at the workplace even though you’re a dyke, to be happy even though you’re a sad homosexual. And now I have to work twice as hard to fly somewhere else, book a vineyard, buy two dresses, find the right girl, and fly everyone there and know not everyone I love will be happy for me? I don’t know. I don’t know how that compares to cold jellyfish, PowerPoint slides, sharks’ fin, yum sengs and bad singing from the groom. Maybe happiness doesn’t need other people’s approving — or disapproving — looks.

Funerals are something else altogether. Losing a loved one is a terrible thing and, I’ve been told, doesn’t get any better with practice. There is nothing pleasant about a funeral. Grief and loss is the sum total of the pain of heartbreak and disappointment, magnified. They remind us of our own mortality, the things not yet done, the things we will never do. Aspirations, ambition, dashed dreams, lost loves, happiness, the abruptness of death, what little time you have left and what you still need to do. Death makes every obstacle in life seem ridiculously small in comparison. My grandfather died a few days before Michael Jackson. It destroyed me. My ex is getting married in three countries to the same person, just a few months after my niece was born and a few days after one of my good friends gave birth. It’s supposed to be revitalizing. I find this all chilling. Exciting, eventful, but some days I crave normalcy. Yet I’m finding, rather late into young adulthood, that everything we did in English Literature class — love, loss, death, other such milestones and the cycles of life — are not overwritten cliches. How Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in Stoppard’s version, spent all their lives trying to find out their destiny only to be ultimately disappointed; trapped within the wheels of pre-determination?

And those high priests of pre-determination, fortune tellers. They are to most people, beacons of light. For the less superstitious like myself, they disappoint me greatly even if they have only good things to say. That’s it? That’s life? That’s all love is about? How the hell do you know this anyway? I’ve been to quite a few from Singapore to Dhaka to Antalya and Istanbul, just out of curiosity, and I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe I just don’t want to know. Maybe all I want is to fumble my way through life attending as few funerals as I can. Travel even more. Give up smoking. Drink as much good wine and spirits as I can, not at the same time. Be a good person. Send my parents on nice vacations every now and then. Give my best in everything I do. Love bravely, truthfully, fiercely and without fear; not of anybody else, not of each other. Be loved in equal amounts. Have a long distance relationship only once, but make it count. Give to charity. Be kind to cats. Live in as many cities as I can. Turn 24 in three months time but not 10 000 kilometres away from the person I love, ever again.

Maybe even learn to be more optimistic about weddings if I expect to still have friends in my middle age. Or do a better job of pretending.