geneva, a girl, and a reckoning

I’ve been at Geneva University in Switzerland this past week for a summer school course on cultural diversity. It’s been spectacular – highlights include learning from my research idols, yummy cheese fondue and French accents, on top of a time zone that respects my sleep-wake cycle. Unbelievable!

hijinks at a cheese fondue restaurant

But we all know our core memories are not made by knowledge — they’re created with people. Inspiring lectures aside, the event that defined this trip for me came over drinks with my classmates at a Mexican tapas bar. As the five of us self-disclosed, I quickly discovered that I was the least interesting person at the table, so I spoke less and listened more. (Instead of talking, I will brood and write more from now on. To all my readers, beware!)

The first surprise of the night was when one of us, a spunky, freckled PhD student from France, explained her decision to opt for a non-alcoholic drink – she was expecting.

She also happened to have a toddler at home.

What! I thought, mouth agape (subtly and respectfully).

a love letter to secondhand bookstores

The voice of a prepubescent boy broke the silence. It was directed away from me and to the bookseller behind the counter, seated there since I entered.

Not that it was hard to eavesdrop since, at a modest 200 sq ft, the tiny secondhand bookstore was smaller than a kid’s room. Still, I looked up from the book I was admiring with my ears perked, hiding behind the ceiling-tall bookshelf that separated me from their exchange.

“Where’s the receipt?” The bookstore owner was probably referring to a “record of purchase” receipt that often comes accompanied with books rented at bookstores like the one I was standing in.

“Er – my friend tore it away, so it’s not there anymore.”

That’s suspicious. I don’t – should I say – buy it. My inner voice, unconcerned by the fact that it had no influence over the situation, nevertheless decided to comment.

“Huh? If you don’t have the receipt, then how do I know you bought it from me?” A gruff response from the older man, but not unkindly.

“But I bought it from here. It’s just that my friend threw the receipt away.”

Was that uncertainty I heard in the kid’s response? I held my breath for the outcome.

Uncle sighed. “You can’t do this, you know? Without the receipt, there isn’t any proof that you got it from here.”

But it was a resigned sigh because he gave the kid the benefit of the doubt anyway.


A few weeks ago, I learnt that where I stood, the Beauty World Book Centre would be closing for good by the end of the year. I was more flabbergasted that I didn’t know it existed, actually. Me? This proud bookworm whose identity is built upon owning books (and not reading them)? I had to pay a visit, and I wasted no time doing that.

It was as much as one might expect from a neighbourhood secondhand bookstore. Arriving at the entrance, I was hit by an inorganic nostalgia for the ’80s. The architecture was foreboding, the storefront illuminated by a cold grey light. On the metal shelves outside, I spotted children’s books on sale, a Vietnamese translation of a Lee Kuan Yew memoir, and a VCD set of My Fair Princess (a series as old as I am).

It wasn’t clear whether sales were great or restocking was slowing down, but the inside of the bookstore was sparser than old photos had led me to expect. While I would expect shelf space to be at a premium in the humble place, many of the shelves were now empty. I scoured every nook and cranny, one hand sifting through curiously-titled books (think “Life Management for Busy Women: Living Out God’s Plan with Passion and Purpose”) and the other navigating my trusty guide Goodreads. 

After all, it’s important not to judge a book by its cover.

I like to think of secondhand bookstores as treasure islands. With established brick-and-mortars like Kinokuniya or their online counterparts like BookDepository, there’s no book you can’t have on-demand. But in Uncle’s humble store? You never know what awaits you.

You’ll find time-tested classics, regrettable relics (I saw one on the inevitable rise of Japan to defeat the US as World #1), and many texts promising you riches. In fact, you’ll find all sorts of things, except the books you’re actually looking for, as the following exchange between Uncle and me demonstrates:

“Hi Uncle, I’m looking for The Intelligent Investor.” (I finally made my way to him after ogling the shelves for an hour.)

“Ah, that book… it’s an expensive one, so I don’t have it here. It’s selling for $30, $40 outside?”

“Anything by Peter Lynch?”

“Peter Lim? The billionaire?”

“No… like, the investor.” (Not a good response.)

“Ah… no leh. I don’t recognise that name [Peter Lynch], though I do know [Robert Kiyosaki],” he spoke slowly, pointing to a copy of Rich Dad Poor Dad beside him. (Never underestimate the ability of secondhand bookstores to hold that classic, lol.) As we spoke, it began to dawn upon me that he might not have a complete record of all the books he had. He was operating using his memory rather than a machine.

photo source

As we spoke more, he shared that not all the books he stocks are secondhand books from customers. One source of “new” books is rejected copies from wholesalers – either those that failed quality checks or lay in the warehouse too long before yellowing. So the books would come with imperfections, but they would be a steal to the undemanding consumer.

I saw more popular reads on the same transparent display shelf – Thinking Fast and SlowThe Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, and even Murakami. Noticing my gaze flitting toward the stack of new books behind him, he smiled and pointed to a certain What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. “How about this? Good for someone young like you.” His polite surprise when I said I was older than that made me chuckle.


What drew me to the bookstore was a desire to capture that neighbourly connection I never had. I believe that everyone deserves a Friendly Book Uncle in their lives, just like we have a favourite hairdresser or caifan auntie. Considering how essential reading is (and the sheer number of people who read), it’s a pity how this intimate, collective connection is a rarity than the norm – not to mention one that is fading. For all the free books it offers, even the library is ultimately devoid of memory if it has no defining relationships that tie us to it.

My encounter with Uncle, minuscule in the grand scheme of things, was a tribute to this feeling I never knew and could only imagine. If I had known earlier about the Beauty World Book Centre, would I have gone there more to get books? Would I have made friends there? Would Uncle have known me, and would he have remembered me? 

Would the bookstore have been more than a fleeting memory?

Determined to leave the place with a souvenir, I paid $7.50 in cash for a 400-page manual. Uncle was surprised that he had two copies of the book because I found both (and picked the nicer one). Before I walked out, he directed me to Kinokuniya to get the books I was looking for, which was cute.

I replied that I just wanted to support him.

Gwyn Reviews: the NTU Counselling Centre

Mental health in youths is the In Thing now. There’s been a proliferation of ground-up and top-down initiatives targeting this issue in the past year, with even the Singapore government publicly committing to progressive improvements (albeit not reforms). This leads us to the questions: what resources are available, and are they adequate?

For me, there was one FREE resource under my nose I’d neglected for the longest time: the school counsellor. Yes – after more than four years in university and pursuing two psychology (!) degrees, I finally reached out to the NTU University Counselling Centre (UCC). This post will describe my experience seeking counselling services from the NTU UCC.

Sections to be covered (Ctrl-F to skip to a section directly, e.g. [1]):

[1] Why people don’t always seek help
[2] Booking the appointment + waiting time
[3] The actual counselling session

Even though I visited a university counsellor, I expect the overall experience to be generalisable, so youths of other ages and institutions may still find this post applicable. Students not from NTU/uni may skip [2], though I’d still recommend you read everything.

My goal here is to encourage help-seeking on my readers’ part: if you feel like you’re facing difficulties with your mental health in any way, go to a professional if you can. Don’t wait until your stresses boil over and you find yourself in a state of burnout (speaking from experience).


[1] THE PREAMBLE: WHY PEOPLE DON’T ALWAYS SEEK HELP

Considering I’m a psychology graduate, it’s ironic how I’ve never seen a counsellor. I mean, I’ve studied under clinical practitioners. Hell, I took a counselling module once, where my counselling skills were assessed. (Minor flex: I was the “top performer” in the cohort for that module. But look at where I am now. So.) Either way, I’ve never been a client.

That’s not to say I never considered the prospect of seeking help – I just never got around to doing so.

The point is: there’s a gap between intention and action that many of us find ourselves stuck in. You know (from the indelicate “oh mental health is superrrr important and we shouldn’t neglect it” narrative that we’re bombarded by) that seeking help is good, but… you just can’t seem to bring yourself through the steps to get there.

Granted, not everyone has the energy or time to seek professional help. There exists a multitude of (valid) reasons people don’t. Here are mine in the past that I cycled through at my convenience:

  • I am busy / I have too much work / I don’t have time / it’s too much of a hassle
  • It might not help me / I could just talk to my friends or family 
  • It’s too expensive* (high-SES private therapists can go up to $180/h)

*So I found a free service. Baby steps, my friends.

Tl;dr: in deciding to seek help, you must believe that the value you’re receiving is worth the investment you’re making. In describing my experience with counselling below, I hope to demonstrate the value that counselling can bring. It will not solve all your problems – but it might get you closer to addressing them.


[2] BOOKING THE APPOINTMENT + WAITING TIME

Send help, am suffering

What prompted me to request an appointment was a stressful episode midway in the semester. Long story short, I felt that I wasn’t living up to my unattainable standards and doing terribly compared to my peers. A common experience, I guess, but with sufficient intensity to shut me down for three consecutive days – a significant amount of time when you’re running on weekly deadlines. Then, I saw an email advising students to seek help at the UCC if they needed it. LOL. This whole scenario reads like a comedy advertisement.

The appointment request form is on this page (login credentials required), but you can email the UCC at ucc-students@ntu.edu.sg or call 67904462. Getting to the request page is NOT an intuitive process (take note NTU); from a Google Search of “NTU counselling”, you need a minimum of four clicks on the correct links to get there.

The specific order is Student Intranet > Student Wellbeing (under Student Services) > Counselling > Making Appointments (Students) (under Student Wellbeing) – like how many Student Wellbeings do I need to see before I get to my destination LMFAO.

hello sgsecure? i am insecure

The intake call

Surprise, surprise: the appointment booking form I filled was not, in fact, for the counselling appointment. It was for an intake call. They contacted me through my email to arrange a call, and after some back and forth, we agreed on a timing. Anyway, they forgot to call me at the stipulated timing on the day itself, and I had to write in after a 15-min period of radio silence to remind them.

The intake call is a means of gathering initial information about the client through a series of questions (for the nitty-gritty, read here). The lines of enquiry that stood out to me were:

  • Any current issues/life transitions/symptoms experienced in the past month
  • My reason for seeking counselling; what I expect to get out of counselling
  • Any intentions for self-harm? (They were particularly meticulous about this)
  • Existing sources of social support I could draw upon

Naturally, I wanted to see the counsellor ASAP, but they informed me that the next appointment wasn’t available until a month later. I remember responding: the semester would have ended by that time – what would I have to talk about then? Can’t be helped, the caller essentially replied. It was crunch time for them because everyone gets stressed around the exam/assignment period. So, ironically, the time when students are most vulnerable is precisely when they are least likely to get opportune help because the centre can’t cope with the demand.

OK, well, whatever. I booked the appointment for the following month and promptly forgot about it. Later, I had to postpone it for another week because I had an urgent deadline that cropped up, which was a hassle. The other thing about UCC’s booking system is that it is internally and manually managed. There is no convenient online portal that you can log onto – like that of polyclinics – to book or reschedule appointments. You have to write/call in to deconflict and haggle for the timing that works best for you AND them.


[3] FINALLY, THE ACTUAL COUNSELLING SESSION

24 for me but same same

Counsellors, therapists, and psychiatrists

Before we proceed, a note between the differences between a counsellor and (psycho)therapist because there is a common misconception that they are the same. If you’re wondering where clinical psychologists are, they fall under the umbrella of therapists. Finally, neither counsellors nor therapists are psychiatrists, who are specialised medical doctors and the only ones that can prescribe medication for mental disorders. (Confused? This resource may help clarify.)

Therapists undergo more specialised training focusing on diagnosis and treatment, and minimally require a Master’s to practise professionally. Counselling does not require a Master’s, though there is a certification requirement of a few hundred hours of supervised training. The above does not mean one profession is better than the other – it just means they address different needs of the client. A counsellor is well-equipped to handle immediate problems causing distress and is a resource bank of coping strategies that the client can draw upon during trying times.

Think of counsellors as the “first line of defence”. If your symptoms are severe such that a counsellor’s assistance is insufficient, your case will be escalated to a psychologist or psychiatrist for further attention. But for many, seeing a counsellor will be enough. I think of counsellors as similar to GPs. We all get sick once in a while, and so seeking regular check-ups is a good habit to cultivate. But sometimes we have severe or recurring symptoms beyond their expertise, and that’s when they refer you to a specialist.  

Nice to e-meet you

I opted for an online call because I didn’t want to travel down to Pulau NTU. Ah, the joys of technology! My counsellor was randomly assigned to me – I didn’t get to choose. I won’t disclose her name for privacy reasons, but she was sweet and approachable. And a great listener.

We started in an open-ended fashion, where she invited me to share what I’ve been up to and any challenges that I’d been facing recently. I’m a great rambler (ideal client type), so I wasted no time and jumped straight into rattling off all my problems. Throughout my monologues, she remained highly engaged, interjecting appropriately during my pauses.

When I shared my chronic belief of never being good enough, she gently guided me to elaborate and interrogate the causes of this belief. Examples:  

  • When did I start feeling this way?
  • Is it really feasible to be the best at something (all the time)?
  • How do I deal with situations when I do not meet my expectations?
  • What is my relationship with myself?

As I attempted to answer these questions, I found myself exploring dusty places in my mind. I realised I possessed thought and action patterns that I had simply accepted as normal and automatically used without noticing their impact on me through the years. It was a pleasant surprise when her questions decentred me, throwing me off my usual line of self-talk, and pointed me in new directions to explore. It was exciting.

What I really liked was the new perspective that she offered to the things I took for granted. It’s easy to believe that we know everything about ourselves – after all, we live with the voices in our heads 24/7. And I’d already had extensive conversations with my loved ones and mentors before about the struggles I faced. While they are indubitably a valuable source of social support, I stopped learning anything new about myself from those repeated conversations at some point. So, gaining an outsider’s perspective was illuminating.

Problem-focused coping is my passion

Before ending the session, she provided me with a few coping methods to try over a few weeks. She mainly proposed journaling with specific adjustments. I mentioned that I have a habit of reviewing my day in writing, so she commended me (LOL) and recommended further minutiae I could try. Namely:

  • Write down the events of the day. Next, identify and label the emotions I experienced – positive or negative. Then validate them: was it reasonable to feel this way, given the circumstances? Would others have felt the same in similar situations?
  • If there are negative thoughts, create a separate column to reframe them: rewrite them as valuable takeaways to learn from.
  • Write one positive thing about myself every day (basically gratitude journaling), e.g. “I am proud of myself for powering through the day!”

You might think these sound commonsensical. I’d already learnt all of it before, and I know that these are helpful in theory. The thing is (again): it never occurred to me to practise doing these things. She reiterated that I don’t have to be ambitious or perfectionistic about this whole journaling endeavour: start small and build up slowly. The same goes for mental health, really – it’s a process.

Finally, we scheduled our second appointment for a month later, since one hour was grossly inadequate to work through two decades of self-doubt. Afterwards, she emailed me a cute diagram with tips on cognitive restructuring.

i will NOT break down today

UNTIL THE NEXT APPOINTMENT…

In summary, I would rate my experience as:

  • Appointment process: 2.5/5, as mediocre as me, needs improvement
  • Counselling experience: 5/5, exceeded expectations, would recommend to all

I firmly believe that counselling is a resource that everyone deserves and should use to better their well-being. I say this based on my experience seeking counselling and as a psychology graduate. The good news is that there are now many free counselling services available (see the end of this post for a list of community resources), and one’s educational institution is a great place to start.

Ultimately, my hope is that seeing a counsellor can be as normalised as going to your GP for a physical ailment. Fortunately, with mental health awareness steadily increasing in Singapore, that doesn’t seem such a far-off goal now. That being said, there’s always room for improvement… but that’s a story for another time.

Wishing you all wealth and health and that you will meet the counsellor who helps you flourish and be your best self! 

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Update (4/1/22): Dr Lim from the University Wellbeing Office commented on this post with further resources for NTU students!

Thank you for promoting and your championing of mental health and wellbeing for our youths. Regarding my suggestion to include a link for the students, you could consider this: https://ts.ntu.edu.sg/sites/intranet/student/dept/uwo/resources/Pages/default.aspx (NTU student intranet under UWO webpage). This page has different categories of self-help and will encourage exploration of the different resources and services available to the youths.

APPENDIX: USEFUL COMMUNITY RESOURCES

Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service
ec2.sg
[Live chat] Mon-Fri: 10am-12pm; 2pm-5pm (Closed on Public Holidays)
e-Counselling Centre

Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH)
1800 283 7019; 6283 1576
Toll-Free Helpline from 9am-6pm on weekdays (except public holidays)
counselling@samhealth.org.sg
A helpline for all mental health-related matters

Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT)
https://www.chat.mentalhealth.sg/get-help/About_webCHAT/
6493 6500 / 01
chat@mentalhealth.sg
webCHAT operates from Tues to Sat, 1pm-8pm
Provides a confidential and personalised mental health check for young persons between 16 and 30 years old. CHAT is NOT a counselling or crisis service

Touch Community Services
1800 377 2252
Mon to Fri from 9am-6pm
TOUCHLine Youth Counselling Service

Care Corner
1800 3535 800
Daily from 10am-10pm (excluding public holidays)
Toll-free Mandarin Counselling Hotline

National Care Hotline
1800-202-6868
Provides emotional and psychological support to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic

IMH Emergency Help Line (24h)
6389 2222
Urgent intervention for those experiencing acute difficulties in their mental health

Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) (24h)
1800 221 4444
pat@sos.org.sg
Facebook Messenger (6pm-6am on Mon to Thu and from 6pm-11:59pm on Fri)
A 24-hour suicide prevention helpline to provide emotional support for those in distress

Mental Health Services Resource Directory

*The above are unabashedly taken from a school email, no shame, thanks NTU

on the failure to fail

Two weeks ago, I had my first classes at McGill University. It is a gorgeous, sprawling institution located in Montréal, a city in Canada’s province of Quebec. (Took me a while to get that sentence too – geography eludes me.)

Introductory day was spectacular, setting my existential crisis into motion. I walk into morning class to be greeted by a course syllabus with no exams and massive class participation. Anyone who knows me recognises my enthusiasm for group work. And a poster exhibition worth 40%. What? But the module is on the sociology of science! I’d be a fool to let that go for some adjustment issues.

Three hours later, I am late for a seminar because it is a 15-minute hill away from the second lecture, and also because of my abysmal time management. (There’s no way around either.) I awkwardly fumble for a seat at the makeshift discussion space, made up of four rectangular tables aligned such that sixteen people can stare daggers at each other simultaneously. Sixteen. The instructor is devastatingly charming, up to the point he casually mentions that everyone in class will inevitably and individually lead a class discussion. You could pull that phrase apart into single words and I’d be as horrified. Individually / lead / class / discussion.

I share my personal difficulties with being nervous in social situations with two friendly classmates, as they walk me to my fourth and final class out of goodwill. They are mildly sympathetic. Or not. Could I chalk it down to cultural differences or personal weakness? I have no answers, and it doesn’t matter.

I attempt to strike a conversation with an aloof, if cordial, student seated beside me in the lecture theatre. She doesn’t catch my accent half the time. It’s fine. I won’t be seeing her in the next lesson, or the next, or any of the following lectures really. We sit in silence, and I make a comment on how the theatre is packed.

She replies: “Ah, don’t worry about that. The numbers start falling off in a few weeks.”

Me, intrigued and dumb: “Why? Is it because they drop the class?”

Her, blandly: “No. They just stop coming.”

well, there’s that.

I leave the theatre confused by my professor’s rambling on development, colonialism, and what the definition of “betterment of society” really entails. I am emotionally and socially depleted, and I don’t have anyone to go home to. To mitigate my nagging loneliness, I go searching for John William’s Stoner near my place as an alternative to the more scandalous books I currently possess. It’d be easier to read in public. There, on level 2, an older man’s fingers dance across the piano at an adjoined café as mine run across pages and glossy covers. The book’s not available.

On my way home, I ruminate on why I’m so worried about my performance when I’m being graded on a pass/fail scale. I could even get away with missing class occasionally (obligatory disclaimer: not that I intend to). The answer, introspectively derived, is that it’s not only my performance that I’m worried about. I’m worried, and I always have been, about how others perceive me. And that is inextricably intertwined with my fear of failure, in the words of my lecturer on human motivation. To be precise, it would be inaccurate only to say that I want to do well; it’s more that I can’t accept not doing well.

I am positively sickened at the prospect of sitting in a group discussion feeling like I’m the only one who hasn’t done the reading. That happened on the second day of class, actually. I forgot to read one paper in advance, I admitted it to the four other girls I was grouped with, and the discussion promptly continued as if Thanos had snapped his finger and scattered my humiliated ashes to the wind. For all I know, half of them didn’t do the reading either, a suspicion that was highlighted when they went off-topic multiple times. But I still hated every moment of being in that situation. I don’t know how the exchange student in my group last semester back at NTU managed to pull it off (not reading any assigned articles), though I do know I did not hide my contempt for him.

don’t do shit, get hit.

I recall one class presentation where it was readily apparent to me that I was putting out inferior work. Relatively speaking, at least, because the bell curve dictates that one’s work is judged only against the performance of compeers in the same module. Standing under the watchful eye of the lecturer and classmates, I remember thinking, why are you guys paying attention now of all times!? I was wringing my hands desperately, looking anywhere but at the lecturer (and the other students too) in case they discovered my incompetence.

Throughout the ordeal, the irrepressible urge to simply up and bolt out of the classroom held me hostage – a classic flight response to a situation rapidly spiraling out of control. Thankfully, I was too petrified to budge. It was not a good day. Failing is an incredibly noxious sensation that I don’t have the resources to handle.

The problem, then: isn’t failing a necessity for growth?

I can’t bring myself to relax now, because I’ve never allowed myself to under equivalent conditions. I’m deeply terrified of mediocrity, and my talent is escaping from that inevitability.

Still, I’m learning. I missed one day’s worth of class earlier this week. (Obligatory disclaimer: whoops.) I’m telling myself it’s okay, even if I didn’t understand half of what the lecturer said in the class on development today. (At this point, I’m inclined to think it’s him and not me.) Even if I don’t have anyone to help me catch up on the content. I will get through it as I always have. There will be no caveats here, only a commitment to self-acceptance. After all, exchange promised to be a time for growth. I’m going to make the best out of it – even if it means pulling apart and rebuilding myself in the process.

bibliophilia

Chanced upon this extract in an email from BooksActually. I’m so blown away by its wit that I figured the best compliment I could give the author was to quote it. It’s exactly how I like my reads: social commentary and an exploration of sexuality at once, bundled together via a tribute to literature.

lamenting the lack of private spaces in our country

in order that we will not have to roam
two miles down rifle range in search of dark,
or circle round the lots of kent ridge park
to find a spot; that rooftops may be home
to birds alone, that smokers may have stair-
wells to themselves, that public toilets might
be less mysteriously occupied,
that cinephiles need never turn and glare,

we humbly bid the government to erect
more libraries. Since all books lead to sex,
the inevitable best place to shag
is back against the shelves or on the stacks —
and there, we’ll find our private cul-de-sacs
to make the beast with many paperbacks.

Joshua Ip (in Sonnets from the Singlish)

meta on oversharing

I used to have a (even more) personal blog where I overshared about everything under the sun. I even posted love letters there. Look, I have no justification, but in my defense I thought they were sweet. (Don’t ask me, I’m not telling.) Well, everyone has their big cringe phase. But all good things must come to an end.

A friend asked me why I write. At least part of the reason I do so – though not entirely – is for others to read. Social connection is, quite simply, the essence of humanity. It always has been. For my friends, lovers, peers – for anyone that’s reading. Few things are quite as intimate as reading the stream of consciousness of another person. Especially when pieces are not written with a specific audience in mind: take away the grammar and all that’s left is a projection of the self.

And oversharing is a high. It feels great to be validated by others, even if they’re faceless figures whose existence is represented by a series of numbers. Add to that basic need the technology of instant gratification and you have the billion-dollar industry that is social media. All of it, for us to come to this point where we say too much and take back too little because we can’t anymore.

OB markers and fake news aside, I’ve been told to refrain from saying too much online if only for fear that it will someday come back to bite me. The vulnerabilities that distinguish my person, the arguments that I construct my identity with, and the emotions that tie me to moments of lived reality. Because anything can and will be weaponised against you if you’re not careful – even when you’re careful. I don’t deny it’s true. Yet, if we live like that all the time, where censorship is not merely an external force but coming from within, then we have been defeated even before we begin.

Where would the space left for self-expression be? In a draft hidden away in the unpublished virtual space, or in the dusty corners of the backs of our minds? If it’s not cherished here in the moment, something we’ll never recapture otherwise, where does it go? If social reality is constructed by two or more people, and a secret is not shared, did the latter ever exist?

I write to remember. Each piece is a fragment, a piece of broken glass. Put them all together someday, and maybe I’ll see in it a mirage of the entirety of lived experience, along with the people who mattered to me. I hope it’s a reflection worth remembering.

modern mediocrity

These days a string of conversation I had keeps making its rounds in my head. It winds itself in and out of my awareness, lodging itself in between as it sees fit.

I was speaking to someone I know. He’s enrolled in a prestigious university overseas, pursuing a degree of the future. At that point, he was reflecting on his time there. I don’t remember the specifics, so a lot of liberty has been taken with the exact words exchanged, but the essence is accurate.

Him: … Like you know, it’s not easy. I struggle to keep up with the material sometimes, and projects can be challenging.

My intuition told me he wasn’t being upfront about something, so I probed. Maybe I just wanted to know. There are one too many maybes in this world.

Me: So, how well are you doing among your cohort?

I knew he would’ve delicately sidestepped the entire topic if I didn’t ask – the Asian norm of humility is pervasive. No one asks about a peer’s ranking without expecting to be either humbled or skewered for it. In this case, my question was merely a confirmation.

He looked at me, eyes sharp.

Him: … I’m first.

Then his gaze darted downwards, almost bashfully.

Something about that exchange got to me. It might have been his discomfort. It might have been my own sudden sense of alienation. Either way, that something etched its way into my consciousness, burrowing itself deep in my self-doubt, where it lingers. And the blood from those wounds seep into my thoughts ever so delicately.

Maybe it’s envy.

Have you ever sat in a room and realised you were scraping the bottom of the barrel? I had that experience recently. It shook me to my core: I wasn’t ready to stand face to face with my insignificance and ignorance relative to a group of people like me, much less in the grand scheme of things.

I was told – and I wanted to believe – that just like that senior from my course who graduated with a perfect 5.0, who was extensively painted in the brushstrokes of a model student, an ideal, that I could be the best too. It was almost as if that such a feat could be possible for anyone who made an equivalent effort. It should be attainable, granted I could make the necessary sacrifices.

I’m surrounded by so many competent people I feel like an impostor. Except it’s a little more than that. It’s more of this nagging sense of impending doom in a form of a train charging towards me at full speed where I’m stranded on the tracks, and its name is The Force of Mediocrity.

Maybe it is mediocrity.

What happens when your best is not good enough?

We are all trying, but in this system there can only be a few who make it. What happens, then, to those who are left behind?

chocolate ice-cream

I had an odd experience earlier. I was at a school (Union) event, walking side by side with a friend while slurping a melting chocolate ice-cream, when she suddenly gasped in delight and rushed forward. She embraced a guy who was beaming as brightly as her. In the resultant flurry of happy laughs, I learnt they were old friends who had not seen each other for a few years. They launched straight into reminiscing with great fervour, drifting away into their own corner figuratively and physically.

I was left standing there not quite sure how to react – after all, it was their moment. So, I turned my attention to his friend, who was in the same predicament as me. He had turned his back to me, occupying himself with a performance onstage. Since it was part of my duties anyway, I whipped out my phone and asked him to complete a survey about the event. He politely obliged, before asking a question about the Union, which in turn led me to snap into Student Representative mode and blabber away. He followed with more questions, and I more answers, and so a tenuous back-and-forth was born under the blessing of the music in the background.

Anyone who knows me well enough realises I’m the awkward type. I typically compensate for it by rambling so there are no uncomfortable silences, but there wasn’t a need with this guy. He caught on to the trails in my sentences, added his own flair, and hit them back into my court seamlessly. Earlier in the day I had brushed shoulders with an old friend: yet when we made eye contact, the shared recognition that we had nothing to say to each other hung sombrely in the crowded silence between us. On the other hand, there I stood with a stranger, bantering away.

Still, he didn’t strike me as the smooth-talking, charismatic type – perhaps it was this disjuncture that made our encounter stand out in my memory. We were yelling at each other over the music half the time, yet the conversation progressed organically without me feeling like I had to say something for the sake of it. That and he kept telling me that I had chocolate ice-cream all over my mouth, the mere thought of which continues to make me cringe in embarrassment.

I never asked for his name. He says that since my friend knows his friend, we’ll probably see each other again. I don’t think so, though. But it was fun while it lasted.