geneva, a girl, and a reckoning

On reflection, it shouldn’t have been surprising. The typical age when pursuing a PhD is a reasonable time to start a family (one that the Singapore government surely endorses). It was more that I couldn’t imagine myself in her place. In my Structured Life Plan, there might be a PhD, there might be children, but having children during a PhD? Out of the question.

Then again, why not? My friend here is a testament to the fact that it is achievable, and I have nothing but respect for her. Still, my knowledge of the woman’s double burden tells me something will have to give – if I refuse to compromise either work or family, the only thing left to sacrifice will be my sanity.

half the reason I came here – Prof Naomi Ellemers

The surprises kept coming. Another one of us was a dual citizen who had a unique family background. Without diving into too much detail, suffice it to say her experience was not one you would usually see in Singapore. Hearing her speak calmly, I was enthralled and intensely struck all at once – putting myself in her shoes made my heart go out to her. In hindsight, I even feel I was overreacting while she appeared at peace with everything she had experienced.

After all, how do we truly know what it’s like to be someone else without having lived their life?

I was also privy to shared experiences of labour strikes and protests in countries near and far. Apparently, in some overseas universities, there exist “Scholar Strikes” where professors do not turn up to class for weeks (and students pass by default, LOL). Again, another absolutely unfathomable thing to Gwyneth Thong from lawful Singapore.

What heightened the disorientation was that I knew these things. Of course, there are labour strikes overseas; of course, people do not usually seek permission to go on strikes, which are by definition extralegal. But knowing it is not living it – so I couldn’t link my abstract knowledge to the concrete tale until I heard it from the horse’s mouth.

The course lived up to its name. My classmates hailed from all backgrounds – France, Belgium, Netherlands, Sudan, Congo, etc. In a class of 25, I was the only Singaporean. We had lawyers, activists, and humanitarian workers. Intimidating, but it was this diversity that pushed me to grow.

with some of my classmates

Being in the city, I observed that one never really gets accustomed to the feeling of being a minority when you’re the majority in your own country. People approach you at the supermarket because you look lost (or exotic?), you get the occasional curious glance, or you get catcalled on the street by foreign men. Sadly, I reckon this is an everyday occurrence for women like me elsewhere – I just haven’t lived enough.

Indeed, sitting in the bar sipping my sour cola, I started to realise how little I’d lived.

I frantically texted PJ on my way home, each message building up to the reckoning that had eluded me for a long time. I finally caught up, and there it was – the realisation that people were living similar and yet so different lives from myself; that there were possibilities for a successful and satisfying life apart from the only version I had known; that the world was so much bigger than my tiny bubble. It had taken me a while to get to the edge of the space enclosing me, but now I could see beyond it.

One week and one round of drinks can only do so much, though – I haven’t necessarily found my calling; neither am I on track to Forbes 30 under 30 (or even any definitive job for that matter). What I do know is that the past 25 years of my life have been great, but there’s so much out there I haven’t seen and done. I want to live more. Even if I am compelled to drift in the direction of the wind, maybe I can chart my own path somehow.

All’s left is to forge ahead with this newfound spirit.

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