Ten years ago the Internet was a different place. Singapore was a different place. While it wasn’t exactly the sort of pitchfork-wielding, gay-vilifying environment you would imagine, you certainly did not feel like people understood. You felt, at that time, at odds with large swathes of society, as though it would never accept you. Worst of all, you felt doomed to forever be avoiding the marriage question at Chinese New Year. It did not seem like your Asian relations would ever stop asking you intrusive questions about your personal life, when there was none to share because your chosen pronoun would cause you to be thrown out of the house, ostracised, prayed for, or otherwise politely ignored.
This year, the climate cannot be more different. The hate groups have openly stepped forward to identify themselves. They even have their own colours. Like in the US, and anywhere else this theatre of ‘cultural war’ is being waged, they’ve chosen to usurp the word, ‘family’, for themselves. No matter.
Each year the dot gets bigger and bigger. Each year the LGBTQ community gains strength in multitudes; and its allies, even more. Each year I see more and more families; each familiar face is not the girl I last slept with in a club, unlike what they think, it is a friend, ally, collaborator, or all around interesting person.
Challenges abound. Hatred reeks. Certain religionists (that’s really what they are, and I won’t even sully the term religious by associating that with them) desperately hope to roll back the tide. In 20 years I will be happy to never have to hear a squeak from them ever again, for their present struggles against demographic and cultural sea change will seem as bizarre, absurd and archaic as opponents of interracial, inter-religious love a couple of decades ago.
Here are a couple of things I’ve written in the past decade. My sexuality has been a big and defining part of life; but love itself comes through, above all. Hope to see you at Pink Dot, and say hi if you see me.
P.S. Also, a friend and I are hosting Rabbithole, a brand new party for queer women who like good drinks and older company. 🙂 Come by at Life Is Beautiful, 99 Duxton Road, from 10.30PM on 28 June 2014.
I wrote this piece some time ago about video games for Memory Insufficient, a games history ezine. This is it.
Click this link to download the PDF.
I’ve spent the last couple of nights binge-playing through the Mass Effect trilogy, which reminds me a little bit too much of the late nights I’ve pulled work- ing on political campaigns and social causes in the past. The setup is about the same: all of the above require a single-minded approach to The Goal. Total dedication is best. Showers can be skipped. So can sustenance. The Goal can be anything: win an election, stay out of trouble, vanquish aliens or make some connections. All other objectives, like rescuing civilians or being a decent person, are often secondary. The joy you feel from completing a mission on a planet feels as real as any real life political victory you’ve ever thrown your weight behind.
One day you’re editing a speech for a politician, the next you’re fighting a fire — in the hull of the ship, or on Twitter. It’s all interconnected. I’m an avid gamer, political otaku and all around nerd, so perhaps I feel that way because my favourite games are the ones that in- clude, even combine, some elements of all of the above. Just like history, games — and their plotlines and char- acters — are written by the victors: those who control the battlefield. Some gamers like to believe that the game worlds we so love are or should be free of the in- fluence of politics and ideology; that they exist as works of art alone in a vacuum and should be appreciated as such. Others have written volumes about identity poli- tics and video games (and indeed there are many prob- lematic aspects associated with being a female, Asian and gay gamer).
Political capital is often spent by the ones who don’t know they possess it. Games are often presented as being mere works of fiction. Some of them, like Assassin’s Creed, even tell you as much, by starting off with a disclaimer calling it a work of fiction inspired by historical events. Yet being the nerdy amateur writer and political historian that I am, I’m more keen to line up the story they don’t tell you — in-between the cutscenes, behind the sto- ryboard and everywhere except onscreen. When you make a decision to assume a character or interact with one, how much of it was already made for you?
Let’s start from the beginning.
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:
- Write clear, concise emails. I wish I knew it earlier, but learning to ask for things clearly and briefly is a life skill.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.</li>
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. 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. 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.
As you may know, I set up The Gyanada Foundation last year. We’ve spent the past year building the organisation and learning as much as we can.
Last year, we supported 150 girls in India. This year we hope to raise that number to 350, including the existing students we have onboard currently; also expanding geographical reach alongside enrolment numbers at the same time.
Yesterday evening we had a great event at Artistry where we talked about what we’ve done so far and what we hope to accomplish in the near future. Here’s a summary and how you can help.
Watch the Video
Support A Girl Today
- I got a Battlestar Galactica tattoo
- I’m pretty pleased about that
- It’s one half of the pair of wings and Caprica constellation that Starbuck gets when she marries Anders
- Within a couple of hours of getting it, a random stranger proposed to me — saying she would get “the other side”
- Which would be romantic, but that would also mean (a) she’s a Cylon (b) we’d have a tumultuous relationship (c) she’d better be damn good at Pyramids
- It’s unbelievable that 10 years has passed since I first started to watch this show
- I don’t generally fan-girl anything, but this was special
- I identify with Starbuck in far too many ways, if you know what I mean
- It’s potentially far more meaningful than anything else I could have gotten
- After getting this done I do kinda feel like nothing can frak with my qi
I love BSG.
Two years ago I found out I have an autoimmune disease. I will always have it. It changed everything about my life from what I do for money to where I live. It prompted a reinvention of myself which was at turns painful, but ultimately necessary. This is what I learned.
Never forego sleep. “You’ll sleep more over the weekend” is bullshit. Not sleeping is bullshit. There is no amount of money in the world anymore that can make me sleep less, even if I grumble about it: I’m convinced sleep is the single most important thing I will never, ever give up again.
Make your own destiny. The single best thing I have done in my 20s was to grab every damn opportunity that came my way. And there were plenty. Even if people can’t see the method in the madness, every little thing adds up. I truly believe that.
Be nice to your family. At least for me, they’ve been the foundation upon which I’ve been able to build a life. Through illness and in health.
Home is home. There are many reasons to not want to live in Singapore, but returning here to build my adult life here in my late 20s was the best decision. There are a ton of opportunities and we are in the centre of exciting things, at least for what I do in tech and business.
Surround yourself with smart people who care about people. I’ve been lucky to have some of the smartest people in the world in my direct orbit. I’ve learned an immeasurable amount from them. It’s the only way to be better. If they’re douchebags, nothing you learn can ever be of use.
If you need anything, just ask. There’s a longish essay in this that I need to write sometime. If you don’t know anything, ask as well. Only good things can ever come out of asking.
Don’t date people who want to hold you back. Or down. Ever.
Do date someone who inspires you to get up every morning and change the world. Who won’t laugh when you say that. Who will ask you what part of the world you would like to change today, and how she can help.
Milestones are a sham. You’re expected to check certain boxes by a certain time: degree, first job, first apartment, blah blah. It’s not that they’re not important, but following someone else’s timetable for your life is the biggest lie we’ve all been told.
Corporate conferences are never worth any amount of money you are asked to pay. Ever. If there is a giant billboard and a roomful of suits, go to the bar and do some real work instead.