June 9 was my second anniversary in Shanghai.
I first came here with the mindset that I would definitely return to Singapore after three years. After all, Singapore was home. Singapore was where I wanted to raise my kid (nope, no bun in the oven yet). Singapore was where I want to climb the career ladder.
I started my career in the media industry as a photo sub-editor. I then became an assistant section editor with a newspaper. I had my own photo byline. I was winning newsroom awards. I got to appear on television. Hell, it sure looked as if I was getting somewhere.
Another company then came knocking with a job that I wasn’t too keen on, so I just threw a figure at the HR woman. As it turned out, they were willing to offer me just that. My head was turned. I told myself that I would move. For the money.
A few months later I was running a couple of publications. It felt good. My blueprint to life looked as if it was coming together very nicely. Next? Climb the ladder, get more pay, be someone of influence, drive an Audi.
Audi cars are nice. BMWs are nice too. But they’re meant for assholes.
One random day, while driving my second-hand, 8-year-old Mazda 3, the wife and I spoke about working overseas for a couple of years. It sounded like a good idea. It reminded me of the fun times I had when I was studying in Sydney. Some time later, she told me she received a substantial offer from a company in Shanghai.
I said let’s move. Again, for the money.
Fuck this Mazda 3. I want an Audi. Or one of those sports cars that go Pssssssssst.
Ironically, my first job in Shanghai paid me just 50% of what I was earning in Singapore. I convinced myself that I would do this solely for the experience. Treat it like an investment. Learn the local culture. Immerse myself in a different working environment.
Many things about China irritated me when I first arrived. People rushing into lifts before I could get out. People rushing into trains before I could get out. People rushing to cut your queue before you even enter the queue. People spitting on the streets. People peeing on the streets. People shitting on the streets.
Having a horrid first job here certainly helped fuel the contempt I had for this place. It also convinced me that Shanghai was nothing more than a short stop.
But it wasn’t just the perils of the new job that bothered me – what made it worse was the realisation that I had given up a good job and great colleagues in Singapore to end up in a mess like this. I knew I had wasted months of my life that I would never get back on this failed project.
I had never failed in life before.
Well, except for that one essay assignment in university. It was worth 50%. I had gone off-point. The lecturer told me that I had flunked the assignment so bad that I needed to ace the end-of-semester exam (worth the other 50%) to pass the module.
And I did just that. I did mind maps. I memorised chunks of text. I had never put in so much effort in studying for an exam in my life.
Why was I afraid to fail? Maybe it was due to the environment in which I was raised. In Singapore, failure is not an option. It was always the carrot and stick approach. Do well, earn this. My parents always dangled new toys in exchange for good grades in primary school. I had ALOT of toys. Transformers. MASK. Ninja Turtles. Batman. Name it, I probably owned it.
Things went downhill in secondary school. No more carrot and stick. After all, they couldn’t give me girlfriends.
Also, failing this university module meant that I would have to re-take the damn subject, possible resulting in a longer-than-expected stay in Australia, which in turn meant spending more money.
Money. Money. Money.
But now, my first failure in life seemed imminent. It had only been three months into this Shanghai job but I knew I would not last the minimum 2-year occupancy period I had set for myself.
It’s okay, I told myself. I would settle for just a year.
Four months into the job. I started having anxiety attacks. Not because I did not know how to do my job, but because everything about it was wrong, to me at least. I could not understand why people would work in that particular manner. I could not understand how a human being could be so disorganised.
I became so depressed that I lost five kilos over the next two months, quite an achievement considering how I didn’t manage to shed any weight for years despite a semi-active lifestyle back in Singapore.
I would break out in cold sweat. I would resort to drowning my sorrows.
I knew I wasn’t going to make the 1-year mark.
And then something snapped. Thankfully it wasn’t my sanity.
I looked into the mirror and went, “What the fuck are you doing? It’s just a fucking job. Fuck it. For once in your fucking life, go LOCO. Go YOLO.”
Just six months into the job, I quit. For the first time in my life, I did so without having another job lined up.
I had failed. Terribly.
But strangely enough, I was happy to just let the winds carry me away in this hot air balloon that I have built for myself.
I did freelance work during those months of unemployment and rediscovered my love for writing. I had no official working hours to abide to. I had no direct boss to report to. Life slowed down to the point where I could better savour the little things that matter.
More importantly, I became detached from the norm; the system; the matrix. From this hot air balloon of mine I see things from above, from a macro perspective never once available to me.
And this deliberate isolation has turned out to be an empowerment. Because it was only when I wasn’t bogged down by all that stress and the usual humdrum of working life that I managed to see the world differently.
I was able to effectively compare and contrast life here and life back in Singapore. When this happened, a lot of the preconceived notions about China disintegrated. A lot of the beliefs I once held when living in Singapore came under scrutiny.
I came to realise that life in Shanghai is in many aspects (not all) actually more affordable and convenient. Not everyone here is a crook. Not everyone here is uncouth. Yes, it can at times be a crazy cowboy town but that’s the beauty of it. The intermittent blurring of lines in this society – between sterility and creativity, chaos and order – is utterly fascinating. It makes the city a multi-dimensional entity.
Singapore, in contrast, appears like a one-dimensional stick figure, defined by its clean, rigid strokes. Sure, stick figures are easy to understand. But they’re also lifeless.
I’ve recently signed a contract extension with the company I’m working for. I won’t return to Singapore till at least after July 2017. Actually, I’m not even sure if I would return next year. Maybe 2018? 2019? I’ll see where the wind blows. It’s no longer imperative that I have to return.
Besides, there’s little reason to go home. Even my parents are in the midst of moving away from Singapore. They say it’s too expensive.
I say it’s too oppressive, too.
The recent Cooling-Off Day arrests made me sad and angry. To be honest, if I were still in Singapore, I would’ve probably just shrugged the whole thing off and said,”Aiyah, just another bunch of jokers trying to mess with the government. Serves them right.”
I know it’s a little ironic I’m saying this considering how I’m currently residing in China where human rights aren’t all that better. But as a Singaporean, there’s a natural affinity to love and hate your own country.
I suppose it’s a little similar to parenting. Most of us would never attempt to cane someone else’s kid but we would have no qualms disciplining ours.
I’ve read a blog post written in response to one of my earlier posts that said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
While citizens have a part to play in not being jackasses and creating chaos, a government is ultimately supposed to be serving its people. No?
It’s funny how many of us only get to see our ministers in the lead-up to the general elections when they suddenly appear at our doorsteps and speak of this desire to serve our needs. Some of them then seemingly disappear for three years and a few months before reappearing to make the same statements.
Another thing that we hear every general election is the need for us to play it safe and vote the ruling party back in.
Because they’re seasoned. Because they’re the safest bet. Because the opposition are filled with noobs who have zero experience in running a town council.
I’m guessing a good number of people within that 70% majority thought this way during the last GE. I can’t say I blame them. I might’ve done the same (alas, I missed the overseas registration deadline and didn’t get to vote). I mean, why gamble on the future of the country with a largely uncredible opposition?
And so we Singaporeans decide to play it safe. We like to wear condoms over our personalities, our identities. Some call it being kiasee. Some call it apathy.
We think that by keeping our mouths shut, nothing bad will happen. We are taught to always stand behind the yellow line, because you might just fall onto the train tracks. We are taught not to be “itchy-backside” and burst this safety bubble. Everything will be fine and dandy if you just move along with life.
Pay your taxes, your ERP charges, your conservancy charges and what have you. Don’t think. Just do it. Else the rubber might tear. Bad things lurk outside the rubber.
Play it safe.
Some have said that you can take a Singaporean out of Singapore, but you can’t take Singapore out of the Singaporean. It’s very true.
Even here in China, my Singaporean friends would scowl at me for buying or eating “too local”. They say it’s not safe, it’s not worth the risk. When I first arrived, a friend told me never to eat anything that costs less than 40RMB ($8). Just recently, she scolded me for buying my contact lens from China. She said it’s safer to buy from Singapore because there’s “more quality control”.
I told her to YOLO a little. But this is me, now.
I would’ve probably agreed with her two years ago.
Admittedly, I erected many walls when I first came to Shanghai, desperate to maintain my own standards and avoid getting too sinified. Now, I’ve taken off that condom to explore this cavernous place. And it has injected in me new experiences in life that has given birth to fresh perspectives.
Let’s be honest and open and it — no matter how thin a condom is, it always feels better not to have it on.
Of course, exercise common sense. Don’t fuck everything.
Come think of it, two years is a pretty short time. But so much has changed.
I first came to Shanghai determined to harness professional experience that would pave the way to success. I guess I ended up with something much more poignant than that.
I’m now paid more than that first job but still lesser than what I got in Singapore. I can’t be too extravagant in my life. But that’s fine with me.
I guess I don’t really covet money that much anymore.
I no longer harbour ambitions of scaling the career ladder like before. Instead, the focus is on honing my craft. I want to write a book some day. I’m currently 4670 words into a novella but I don’t think it’s all that interesting.
You know what? I think I’ll start all over and explore another topic and genre.
I guess I’m not that afraid to fail anymore.
I’ve said this several times before and I’ll say it again — it pays to eject ourselves from the confines of comfort and see the world for a bit.
Take off that condom. Turn it into a hot air balloon.