Meet Me Halfway

It’s a conversation better left un-had and it goes something like this:

“We missed you at the party last night.”
“Yeah, I would have liked to have been there.”
“You could have come.”
“I wasn’t invited.”
“Well, it wasn’t at a time that was really convenient for you anyway.”
“I could have moved things around, or you could have moved the party an hour.”
“We didn’t think you’d want to, and someone else was in charge of organizing. But you should have said something when you found about it.”
“But I wasn’t invited.”
“Don’t worry, it really wasn’t that much fun anyway.”
“Okay.”

The point is not that the party wasn’t fun or that I couldn’t be there. The point is that nobody thought to ask. Nobody in the group of nearly two dozen people in two countries thought that the person farthest away, completely separated from everyone else due to the pandemic, might have wanted to be involved. And even if there was a momentary glimmer of thought, nobody spoke up and nobody asked.

It’s a little bit like the time several years ago when I heard through a friend that another friend was mad at me for not attending her wedding. My response was one of genuine amazement for I hadn’t been invited. Likely, I hadn’t been invited because I live overseas and the wedding was at a time when I could not have feasibly gone. But to be mad at me? If she wanted me to be there, she could have gotten married a month earlier when I was there, just like another friend did. Or she could have invited me and let me work it out. If you’re going to make a choice, at least own the choice.

And likewise, give me the chance to do the same.

A different example: Last November, a friend planned a birthday party over Zoom. She sent me the invitation and wrote, “I know you can’t be there but I wanted to invite you anyway.” I called as she was setting up and wished her a happy birthday and fun party. It really can be that simple to do the good thing.

The issue weighing on my mind is that people don’t think. They don’t think beyond what is immediately in front of them. And I don’t know why.

As a friend said over tea yesterday when I was agonizing over this for the second day in a row, “Just because we think about them all the time doesn’t mean they’re as focused on us.” This seems accurate. Having not seen my family in nearly two years because of the pandemic, and with the need to make decisions about my next move far too soon with so many variables in flux, I think about my family all the time. They are not together in the same place or even the same country, but they have time in common and I do not. This is why I make phone calls before work. This is why I watch the calendar and count hours to get everyone’s birthdays right in their time zone. This is why I send emails just to say hello.

When I first moved overseas, a friend had her watch set for the time in Glasgow, seven hours behind us in Malaysia. I asked why and she said that even after four years of living away, she had never stopped thinking about what her family were doing.

I have never been an adherent of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, and I fully understand the power of the contrary. However, I know a little bit about the power of shared experiences. People who spend time together deepen the connections they have with one another. This is among the reasons experiential education brings people together. This is why a late-night conversation is so often a turning point in a friendship or romantic relationship. When we no longer have things in common, it is easier drift apart. Our conversations remain superficial and it is easy to grow disinterested or disengaged. It is already difficult to maintain a sense of connection through text messages, email, and too-short phone calls. It is impossible when we are so used to others not being there that we neglect to include them at all.

It seems fitting here to mention the exceptions. I am very lucky to have friends with whom I can pick up after months of no contact, and it will feel like we last saw each other the day before. This is possible because our relationship was forged through years of shared experiences. In that sense, we have a reserve of togetherness that allows us to maintain close ties. We have done the hard work of becoming and staying friends, and this is significant. The bonds exist because we took the time and energy to build them. Exclusion does not allow for this, and so the cycle continues.

I wonder where this leaves us as humans. Are we so fixated on the present that we are unable to ask questions that look beyond? Are we too focused on feeling good about ourselves to remember that our choices impact others? How is it that we are so certain of our own wants and needs that we fail to consider that the wants and needs of others might differ? And do we make choices along the way that take away others’ ability to make choices of their own?

By no means do I need anyone to make allowances for the fact that I live on a different continent in a very different time zone from all family and many friends. This is an unreasonable onus and I understand that. But is it really so hard to meet me halfway? Is it really so hard to hold out your hand and ask?

Leoben, Austria – January 2020

Language Learning

After finishing my Master’s degree, I took a short break from being a student. I started my Master’s program the day after my undergrad graduation and it was nice to have a little time in which I wasn’t working on assignments. But it was not long before I realized I missed being in school. I have always enjoyed learning and, for the most part, being in classes. So I enrolled in an Italian language night course at our local community college. I’d taken a semester of Italian my first semester at university but wasn’t able to continue. (And unfortunately, the community college course became a daytime course after the first semester and again, I wasn’t able to continue.) It was such a nice way to spend one evening per week. I enjoyed the professor, the classes, and the way Italian sang in my ears and danced on my tongue. I enjoyed making connections to French, playing with words, and learning the idioms that teach us about cultures. I recently came across my notes and written exercises tucked into the textbook that has followed me across the ocean.

I’m now trying to learn a new language without taking a course and I can definitely see a difference. On the one hand, with the aid of two online programs and a number of websites, I can go through lessons quite quickly and review at my own pace. But on the other hand, my speaking practice is non-existent and one cannot learn a language by reading alone.

That being said, I’m having so much fun. I genuinely look forward to the time in the evenings when I review vocabulary, work on grammar exercises, and take notes on verb conjugations. It’s fun to try out new words and sounds and to realize that my face has never quite moved in that way. And I am excited when I notice a pattern that I hadn’t quite recognized before. I’m learning!

And that’s the thing – learning is fun. When we’re engaged in the things that are meaningful to us, we are learning and this is fun. Much of this is aligned with how I think about education and school, but that is a post for another time.

To be honest, there’s a lot that I don’t like about technology, a lot that I think technology has done to damage who we are and how we interact with one another. I watched The Social Dilemma over the weekend and it corroborated much of what I already know from reading and my experience teaching teenagers, but it led me to immediately turn off notifications to the two social networking sites where I have profiles. Technology is a tool and a resource, and I’d rather be the one using it than allowing it to use me. But technology also provides us with easy access to resources that would be too distant or too expensive for many people otherwise, and I am grateful for this. I would not be able to learn the rudiments of a language on my own and from the comfort of my apartment without technology.

I don’t know how well I’m actually learning this new language, but my brain is doing something rather than nothing. I’m thinking, working, and trying something new, and this alone means it is time well spent.

Shifting Ground

My mind is in a weird place, somewhere between finishing my time in Singapore and moving again, though with little knowledge of what will come in the month between jobs. I’m looking forward to what’s coming next, but the thought of what may or may not happen first keeps me up at night.

There’s so much I wanted to do and whether any of that is possible remains to be seen under the Covid regulations of four different countries. And it doesn’t help that every time I try to talk about it, I end up fighting back tears. There is no good solution to a problem that shifts every time I look at it.

It’s interesting to hear my students, who have been in school, clubs, and recently also the cafeteria since school resumed in August, say, “There was Covid last year so we couldn’t do X.” This was further highlighted as I read National Honor Society applications earlier today. “Because of Covid, X was cancelled. Because of Covid, we did X virtually instead.”

Life has stopped and yet goes on. Life is ruined and yet this is living.

Spending this pandemic in Singapore is fascinating and I am going to carry the lessons I have learned from here for a long time. We are very, very lucky to be able to live relatively normally but with masks. That being said, being a foreigner in Singapore has meant that we could not leave because we would not be allowed to reenter.* This has been an enormous hurdle and one that has led many of my colleagues to resign when they otherwise would not. Additionally, we have all learned that something we loved and miss about living here, the privilege of travelling frequently, was indeed a privilege. The way we used to live was not normal and it’s good to relearn this.

And so I find myself in an interesting place. I am preparing to move countries at a time when the status of international borders is tenuous. And this reminds me that my pretty blue passport is what allowed the borders to be so porous in the first place. I am again between worlds and there’s life everywhere I look.

A friend from yet a different country asked recently, “Is it normal for people from your country to be so far from home?”

No, it’s not normal.

No, it doesn’t get easier.

And what’s home? People, not places. I’ve written about this before, but mostly I’ve constructed it. Home has to be fluid for my heart to make any sense at all.

So we arrive at now. Now I’m questioning the life I’m pursuing because the premise on which it is based has changed. And this means that it will change again. And likely again. There are many more “what ifs” now, at least in my awareness though they were probably always there, and I’m grateful to have a moment to reflect on the axioms we grow up with – “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” – and that sort of thing.

But life hasn’t handed me lemons. Life is this day and the next day and the day after that. And life, as we remember every time we forget, is ours to be part of every day and never ours to control.

To live is to learn and to learn is to make choices, choices that we never thought we’d have to make. And the thing is, we never thought. This is an opportunity to do just that.

The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now. – Henry David Thoreau, Walden


*This was the case over the summer holidays and has now changed. Instead of being denied reentry, there’s a mandatory $2,000 per person 14-day hotel stay upon return, which renders travelling impossible for me and my colleagues.

Kranji Marshes, Singapore – December 2020

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place