2019 comes to an end, and so ends another decade. Like any other, but also not; I think this decade particularly significant for those of my cohort. 2010, I finished my A levels, and went on my first overseas trip with friends – to Krabi, Thailand to climb. In the intervening decade, I have traveled much more and further, on my own, with friends, with family, and as a couple (and also realised that my travels need to be limited). I finished two degrees and embarked on a third, found a special person, and discovered a cause and a reason for hope, beyond the usual environmental despair. I feel as though the past decade was time spent searching, trying to understand life, purpose, and society, and stumbling, have seized on a vision. Realising that what I seek from life is communal, convivial, simple, self-limiting living, and that just working (even for a cause, for ‘charity’ or for a better environment) without questioning the systemic and structural inequalities would still result in a ‘mid-life crisis’.
It’s the decade between being a child and being a contributing member of society, an in-between stage where I am allowed to explore and forge my path, a privilege I acknowledge that others may never get to enjoy. These ten years have been very formative, changing my outlook and perspective on many things in life (that many things/people cannot and should not be generalised and pigeon-holed, that there are different realities and perspectives different people have and hold depending on their circumstance, privilege, learning etc., and from accepting the dominant political-economic structure to questioning that and re-imagining what society could be). I sometimes feel I have shifted so much, that I am in-between, neither here nor there. Neither completely comfortable in Singapore (where my views and opinions seem more radical perhaps, making it hard to find common grounds to make friends), nor wholly relaxed in the UK (where I’m no longer a privileged majority, though I’ve since gotten better at blending in with my speech). I’ve had to learn new customs and norms, not just of British humours and slangs, but also that of my new family. I’ve really felt in-between different identities and cultural traditions, being a Teochew Chinese Catholic Singaporean and blending in with Palestinian Arab Muslim Greek Cypriot British cultures (and understanding all of the associated histories, nuances and grievances).
What’s resulted is an explicit recognition of power, and how much it shapes our reality. Of the colonised and colonisers, in the Singaporean context, not just of the British as a coloniser, but also in some ways, of the Chinese in the Malay Peninsula, and also of the government in deciding that Mandarin Chinese will be the official mother tongue of all ethnic Chinese descendents. Seeing two sides simultaneously, and the power wrought by one over another. But not just that of racial, ethnic, or economic identities, but also of knowledge. Whose knowledge is legitimate and valued, and whose is less. I’ve been struggling to make positivist, applied ecological science gel with more normative social sciences, with my inherent preference for and ability to apply methods provided by large-scale remote-sensing data that seeks to prescribe what’s the ‘best’ thing to do without necessarily knowing local contexts, yet wanting to also engage with more nuanced, case-specific and practically-relevant but time-consuming methods. It is tiring to translate between two worlds, with their different world views and normative ontologies and epistomologies, particularly when one does not acknowledge the other.
Yet perhaps this constant tension, of different views and cultures, and different powers (as long as one is not completely disempowered and marginalised) is just what life is. It becomes a struggle to find an identity and fit into a box, to find comradeship and solidarity, flitting around but never fitting nicely. Yet it is not completely necessary to fit into a box, in order to live one’s life well. More in-betweens, rather than false dichotomies like introverts and extroverts, would probably more suit the diversity of peoples in society, with less pressure to conform and so keep the cogs of the machine turning. And so, the next decade will be spent pursuing a more pluralistic vision of what the ‘good life’ is, and trying to resist hegemonic societal economic pressures to conform and succumb to an individualistic neoliberal capitalist globalised world.
And a special mention to my 公公 (maternal grandfather) who passed away a few months ago at the grand old age of 96, whom I don’t recall speaking except saying “来公公 sayang” (come to grandfather to be doted on, vaguely translated) once to my cousin’s 2 year old son, but loves durians and oh ni (yam paste) and will always get up to have a little nibble. May your soul rest in peace.