A World of Adventure
On Twitter, where I live, I posted snippets of the things I have done, the places I have been, the places I have gone. Where they might have felt jumbled up and messy on a blog or Facebook post, the Twitter thread / tweetstorm format seemed to be a natural home for my adventures. I am grateful for the mess that my early adulthood sometimes felt like.
Growing up in Singapore, my future felt as small as the country of my birth.
A mere 31 by 17 miles, it was the island that was also a city that was also a state that was also, somehow, a country.
When you bought anything online you’d get tired of typing or picking: city, Singapore. State, Singapore. Country, Singapore. Credit card issuance country, Singapore.
Singapore, Singapore, Singapore. Singapore.
Yet when I was in school, it was not the lay of the land that felt suffocating. It was the geography of the mind, the mountains we did not have, never even got the chance to climb, that I could not stand.
The moment I could, I ran away.
At first, it was for a few hours at a time. Age 13, I would grab my passport from my mother’s chest of drawers where she kept all of our passports, passport photos, and other important things like that, guessing (correctly) that she would not notice.
School ended at 1.40 P.M. Everyday felt as warm as the next. If you grew up in the tropics you don’t describe the weather as ‘sweltering’ or ‘oppressive’. It simply is. In my school uniform, with sweat patches under my armpits, I would board SBS Bus 170 bound for Larkin Terminal, Johor.
It was a trip I had made many times. My grandmother was born there, Johor Bahru was the Teochew homeland outside of Swatow. Johor. It wasn’t Bangkok or Phnom Penh, the capital cities with large numbers of Chinese people from the same patch of southern China like I supposedly was from. Johor was more like Pontianak. Sleepy on the surface, but a different world on its own if you knew its secret language.
I did, and I liked that.
In those days, it was not surprising to see children dressed in the school uniforms of another country wandering the streets of Johor Bahru. The city was joined at the hip with mine, except it was tethered to another. Pass all of the rubber plantations, seeing the landscape become more oppressively green and witnessing the heat become even more so, and you’d end up in Kuala Lumpur, three and a half hours later (two if you drive really quickly, like my ex used to).
14 years later.
I made the journey in the reverse. It was the morning I was to pack everything I owned, and a dog, which I now owned, alone, into the Proton Kelisa.
Five years before, that car would speed southwards to say hello, a few times a month.
That day, it sped faster than it ever had, eager to dislodge its contents after a few difficult months. There’s never an easy end to a story, even when you try hard to make it so. I moved north with two bags, a vacuum cleaner and an ice cream maker. I moved home with two bags and one dog.
In less than three hours between Bangsar and Tuas, I was ready to present Cookie to animal control. We had to join a line full of chickens, which is maybe my only memory of that hazy, no good day.
What would her life be like in the country of my birth, I wondered. I hoped she would like it. In 2012, I thought I was going home for good.
I have had a life of adventure. I have lived in more cities than most people have visited; I have gone to many, many more.
How did I do it, people often want to know, expecting some kind of secret like “I was an influencer and people paid for my trips”.
There isn’t one. It didn’t feel glamorous, not when I lived in $5 rooms and avoided rats on 30 hour train journeys.
I used to think the secret was that I jumped headlong into anything fun or exciting that I saw, with barely a consideration for the cost or trade-offs.
I now know that I was handed a huge amount of privilege, and that’s the secret. I worked two to three jobs all through college, at the same time, so that I could make the hard cash to go on these adventures. That wouldn’t work if I wasn’t also making Singapore dollars.
I had the luxury of taking off for months at a time, not having to be the caregiver for anyone at home, because everyone was healthy and financially okay, and I could live off the SGD to THB or MYR or INR exchange rate for quite a while.
Eventually I rearranged my life to lead this sort of life. Even before graduating from college, I made GBP and USD and EUR as a freelance writer and photographer, on top of the other two jobs I had in Singapore when I wasn’t traveling. And when I was done with the freelance industry, because print media was dying, there was no shortage of even-better-than-SGD-paying tech jobs for me with the skills that I had.
My life has been a series of opportunity after opportunity, of good luck following another, upon layers and layers of privilege.
I turn thirty five this year. When you get to your thirties, you no longer say “in three months”, or things like that. You’re officially thirty-something.
My wife thinks that I am the luckiest person she’s ever met, even after accounting for privilege. Maybe.
I am lucky. If there is a random game of chance, whether it’s to win prize money or an inanimate object or a piece of bread (actual thing I won, a few weeks ago), I usually win it.
I was almost in a suicide bomb attack, but I wasn’t. I boarded the wrong bus instead.
Coming back to the capital, I was almost in another suicide bomb attack, but it wasn’t. It hit the car ten cars down instead.
I was almost in the worst flood to ever hit Nepal, but I couldn’t find my train that was going to take me into it.
I was almost in so much shit, all the time, but I wasn’t.
I have had a ridiculous combination of luck plus privilege plus little to no trauma, which, now that I am thirty-something, makes me feel like an alien at times. I have, at most, been a spectactor in bad things happening to people, and when I have been in the thick of it, it has been brief.
Good things happen to me, all the time.
A combination of pandemic and visa woes means that right this moment is the first moment in time I haven’t been constantly on the move.
I thought it would feel more suffocating, but it hasn’t.
I’ve since learned that the contents of the life that I wanted to shape for myself were just as important as the shape it took on. Earlier, the frequency of the travel, the blur of airports and bus stations, were the external symptoms of the why behind why I sought out a life like that.
Now, I know why, I think.
I’ve always been interested in people, and their stories. Travel gave me the easy stories. Go everywhere, and it was bound to be different. Some places, more than others, feel like stories waiting to happen. Some lives are lived in the open.
I want to know what drives people. On my travels in my early twenties, I would frequently devour every historical book about the country. I wanted to know why a country existed, how it came to be, what their scars and bruises were. When I got there, I would read, or attempt to read (if it was in a foreign language), the lifestyle pages of their local media. I thought I was looking for ‘people who do interesting things’ and ‘things I have never heard of’, like poets from Sudan who do spoken word poetry about displacement, like ‘sheikhs who race camels using robot camel jockeys'.
The writing, the photography and the videos were just ways of telling other people’s stories.
Now I know, however, that what I’m really interested in is in learning new things from people and situations I know very little about.
I don’t go anywhere these days, but there will never be a shortage of things I don’t know.