Tag Archives: Choices

The Book

I didn’t want to read it
not because I didn’t want to read it
but because you gave it to me
and I was tired of fitting into whatever form
you chose for me.

So I held it in my hands and looked at it
put it away
took it out again
in spite of myself.
I didn’t want to read it. I knew where it would go
when I was done. I knew where I would leave it
so I didn’t have to look at it anymore.

I was angry,
and surprised that I was angry,
and not surprised because I’ve been angry. It’s not
the first time, and I no longer know
where the truth ends and the anger
begins. I no longer know
what the truth is and why
it tastes different

But so ferocious? So much
red energy, so much
white-hot attention?
There was suddenly so much
space and
in the space I thought of things I had never
thought of before and
in the space I may have changed the story,
may have rewritten the part I played and
the part you played, and
maybe it wasn’t all that it had been, and maybe
looking in from the outside was absolutely

Or so I’d been told before. And the reflection in the mirror
was uncannily similar.
Didn’t you do that to me once, too?

But you can’t make my decisions anymore
so I read it. And I’m glad that I did.
But I won’t thank you for it. I won’t be,
again, what you chose for me.
I won’t say, “But that’s not me!” for fear of
the response I had
once before
when your face opened into a question
that seemed to say,
“But I wanted you to be.”

Old Ideas

In a tea shop the other day, which also sells feminist-leaning books on topics ranging from sex to career, I came across a postcard that read (in German but I’ve translated it to the original):

I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones. – John Cage

I bought the postcard and taped it up when I got home. The last time I had the feeling of Yes, this upon reading a quote, I bought the piece of art on which it was written and hung it near my bed, where it has stayed for three apartments and two countries. Sometimes something just speaks.

But the more I think about it, the more I recognize that I need to pay very close attention to that gut reaction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about old ideas over the past several months, thinking, writing, and talking with about the way we grapple with such ideas. Some ideas from a different time remain at the forefront of how we conduct our lives today, and in this case perhaps it is unfair to think of them as “old”. Perhaps the fact that they still serve for us has given them a new life, a new understanding. So maybe these are just “ideas”.

However, there are also ideas that we discard when they no longer help us, ideas that belong in a different time and, we’ve decided, should remain there. People have diverse opinions on which ideas fall into this category, which has been the focus of recent discussion. At what point should we let an old idea go, and when are we right to cling to it?

Let’s say a traditional idea clashes with a modern view on how people should behave, or treat others, or be part of a group or society. Let’s say this old idea fits well into certain environments but sticks out uncomfortably in others. Where does this idea rightfully belong? And if it doesn’t belong anymore, where should it go?

Cage writes of fearing ideas, and it is important to acknowledge that old ideas are not bad ideas and new ideas are not good ones. There is certainly danger in blindly following new ideas, but fearing them does not mean they won’t eventuate. Rather, fear often prevents seeking to understand and this is a different danger. A new idea needs to be opened, dissected, examined before we can pass judgement. And then, once we know, we can like or dislike, accept or reject. And yes, in the case of some old ideas, we can know them well enough to fear them. But we should not fear what we do not yet know.

If we handle new ideas with caution, careful examination, and thoughtfulness, perhaps old ideas should be given the same treatment. We need not hold onto something just because it has always been this way. This, I believe, many people find threatening. And when considering certain ideas of my own, this thought makes my heart feel heavy and I can feel tears prickling in the back of my throat and behind my eyes. This contradiction is called cognitive dissonance in the language of psychology, and we are already well-acquainted.

On seeing the postcard, my gut instinct spoke in a way that, upon reflection, asks a lot of me. And I bought the postcard to remind me. I am certainly not afraid of new ideas, because I don’t know them yet. On the other hand, there are old ideas that should absolutely be feared. But, as I asked, how do we define that line? And once we reach a decision, what does that mean for the way we live our lives?

I cannot yet draw a conclusion here. But I am indeed looking for one.

Berlin, Germany – December 2021

Six Months and One Year

I arrived in Germany six months ago. This is significant because six months is generally my benchmark for how I feel being in a new place. In the past, it has taken me six months to adjust, to feel comfortable, to feel like I know how to live wherever I’ve landed. It was like this in Malaysia, in New York, and during both of my stints in Singapore.

Interestingly, it has not been like this here. I’ve been here six months but I’ve felt right about being here for much longer, right in that the world I am living in makes sense to me. It’s been a while since I’ve known this feeling.

Certainly, it took time. July in particular was a rough month, one of those times I expected but for which there is no way to prepare, and my chest tightens just thinking about it. School started in August, which meant I had a purpose and a schedule, responsibilities and things to do. I met some people, started climbing in earnest again, met some more people. I felt and continue to feel incredibly fortunate.

Time moved. The weather changed. Days and weeks found a rhythm, the weather changed again, life took on a new pace. I learned to let go a little, to walk a little more slowly. I have become more comfortable focusing on walking rather than arriving, being rather than doing. Questions that had once been scary seemed not as scary, and the things that keep me awake at night (I’ve never been good at sleeping) have shifted in form and morphed in time.

The first time a friend said, “Welcome back,” I really was glad to be back. That has been true each time since.

If I’m honest, I am surprised and it’s a lovely feeling.

I had hoped for this, even as I tried not to have expectations. It would be nice to rest for a while.

It has been a year since I knew I was moving to a town in Germany that I needed a map to place. A year since the pressure of finding a job morphed into the anxiety of actually moving. A year since almost everyone, laughing with me, asked, “Are you sure? What are you going to do there?” The comment that reassured me was a simple one: “You’re not really a city girl,” a friend said. “You’re a kopi at the hawker girl. You’ll love it.” (I’m not though I’ve tried; I really am; I think I could.)

One year ago, I couldn’t sleep because of all the silly but critical things that ran through my mind once the big things were decided and then immediately put on hold. I was preoccupied with a concern that, once raised, became a focal point, a representation of simple things that become difficult when life changes. How was I supposed to get a driver’s license?

Where do we go for answers in the modern age? Google. And then down the rabbit hole. Past midnight, of course. (My mum always told us that nothing good happens after midnight, which reverberated in my sore head as I opened tab after tab.) I read this page and then this page.* And then I read them again. I sent a panicked message to a friend and kept reading.

The problem is that my driver’s license is from a US state that does not have reciprocity with Germany. At that time, a year ago, I knew the German words that everyone knows (Guten Tag, Auf Wiedersehen, Danke) and I knew that there was no way, absolutely no way, that I would be able to pass a written driving theory test in German. Now that I’ve been learning German for a year, I’m a lot more optimistic that this would one day be possible. I have also since learned that this test is available in English, though I don’t know whether this is also the case with the practical exam.

Six months is important in the world of foreign driver’s licenses, which brings us to the present. In many countries, including Germany, you are allowed a foreign driving license for six months. (In Malaysia, by contrast, I owned a car and drove on an International Driving Permit for a year.) I haven’t yet driven here, but I did get very, very lucky. In the end, I converted my US license to a Singapore license because I could easily manage a written test (available in Singapore’s four official languages), photocopy, passport photo, and several fees. Singapore has reciprocity with Germany. More copies, official translation, passport photo, more fees. Give up the Singapore license and collect the German license.

Moral of the story: Always look into the process of getting a driver’s license wherever you happen to live, whether or not you plan to drive. You never know when it will come in handy.

Six months and one year later, and my world has taken on a form I haven’t known. An adventure, they say, a journey. It is and it continues to be.

I have often returned to a line from Coldplay’s “The Scientist”: Nobody said it was easy; no one ever said it would be this hard. We played it over and over in high school, and it got old to the point where people would leave the room when a certain friend sat down at the piano.

We didn’t know it at the time, but it was right. To live (and this is a verb) a life is not the same as letting life pass by. It is not the same as passively accepting whatever comes because that is what has come. But it is also not about fighting. In many circumstances, though certainly not all, to live is about the attitude and behaviour with which we walk through the world. It is about open-mindedness, curiosity, flexibility, and being part of what exists around us.

Six months and one year later, I can say that it is not easy and sometimes, it really is hard. But I can also say that I am at peace with the choices I have made. This in itself has a been an adventure and continues to be a journey.

*I include the German Way blog not because I get any kickbacks – I do not – but because it was helpful to me and will hopefully be helpful to others.