There are writing days, and then there are many more days in which the words just won’t string together.
The words just won’t align themselves coherently. I am near-tears.
It hit me the other day, how little we actually know about each other.
It’s funny how much time one can spend with another person for days to no end, only to realize, on the last day, that I don’t even know his or her favorite color. Maybe even favorite food, book – hell, forget pastime activities. As we sat side by side on the beach that day, in silence and in awe at the soft orange hue of the evening sky during sunset at Waimea Bay, I wanted to kick myself in the gut. I had that sudden urge; anger. This is why I have fractured friendship tales for the ages – ninety-nine percent of the time, I only see myself. This was true back then, it’s still true today.
I wanted to nudge you at that moment, though I didn’t. Hey friend? Thank you for being by my side.
“How often did you go on family trips when you were a kid?”
I paused for a second, trying to sort my memories of countless family trips.
“When I was younger, it was every year. We’d go around Malaysia, but my mum was great that way – she made sure the family did an annual trip, and pulled everyone together. It’s harder now, almost impossible, since we’re all adults and half of them are married.”
I paused, then asked, “What about you? Did you go every year too?”
She walked ahead of me and treaded the path with light footsteps. “We never did. When I was younger, I was surprised to hear that people go on family trips annually. We never did. Now that I’m working and all that, I try to bring them around a lot more.”
Behind her, my footsteps were heavy.
I am not me, if I don’t put my foot in my mouth.
“I didn’t grow up rich,” she said. I wanted to say I did too, because in my mind there’s always a clear distinction between middle-class and upper-middle class, so rich is an entirely different class altogether. Mum used to joke that I’d grow up a lot more comfortably had I less siblings, but she and I both know that I wouldn’t trade my siblings for all the money the world has to offer, even if they can be such pains in the heart.
I thought of all the days before, those where I happily and unthinkably shared my childhood stories without filtering them strictly. She took them all in good-naturedly and without any judgment, though her peppered responses here and there now made sense. None were jabs, simply quiet afterthoughts. I thought nothing of them, because rarely do my listeners not take in my tales of growing up as the youngest of seven siblings without awe.
“What does your dad work as?” I asked, not putting any thoughts into the question.
“He does construction work,” she replied. “My mum’s a housewife, which is why money were tight back then. He was the only breadwinner, but we made do okay.”
I remembered days earlier, when I had shared with her tales of my siblings’ mother-in-law nightmares. I remember the offhanded commentaries I made about housewives versus working mothers and how my siblings, myself included, have so much respect for the former, but can’t get used to them because our (working) mother is such a powerhouse professionally. When one grew up the way I did, with a mother who’s a force to reckon with in and out of the family home, alternatives don’t swirl in one’s mind. Even now, to wonder differently is an insult.
Mortified, I nodded silently. The breeze did not feel cool on my skin; it was blazing cold.
“You know my Dr Dre’s headphones I always have on in the morning to classes? It broke that day, on the last day. Imagine! Good thing exams were over by then. Luckily, I’m getting a replacement. It should arrive by the time we arrive back; I can’t wait. It’s supposed to be a red one, cos they ran out of the white.” I pointed to the earphones in my hands, a temporary substitute. “These are okay, but they’re not great. The music doesn’t sound as good.”
She looked at me and shook her head. A small smile formed on her lips as she simply said, “You are spoiled.”
I couldn’t even deny it.
It’s not that Kauai is a small island, it’s just that the areal space which are accessible and developed, is significantly small compared to the total areal space of the island as a whole. From the town, Lihue, which sits right in the center between the north and south coasts, it takes approximately 1.5 hours to the end of each coast. At each end, it is literally a dead end. Therefore in this sense, the island is small. The life here is modest.
“I tried to imagine what it would be like, had I grown up here. In a small town, in a small island surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. What if I lived at the edge of the coast, like these houses? Would I know what lies beyond the blue, blue ocean water? If everything is so beautiful here, would I thirst for the world out there? Would I know that there are whole other lives, entire continents beyond the island? I tried to imagine what it’s like to grow up here -“
I squinted my eyes, trying to avoid the bright rays of the sun.
“- but came up empty.”
“I know you grew up in an island, but Singapore’s different. Singapore’s an island that’s self-sufficient – it literally has everything. What’s it like to have grown up in a tiny town, in a tiny island, like here y’know what I mean?” I posed my question openly and honestly, not caring if I sounded foolishly ignorant.
“Maybe they don’t imagine or dream that far – of worlds beyond their hometown. Not because they don’t desire them, but because this is the life they know. This place is the only one they know. This is home, and home is sufficient as it is, tiny or not. Maybe they love it this way, you know?”
She paused for a minute, deep in thought.
“Maybe the borders of this island is all that they can afford to know.”
I recalled a conversation I had had with her about a month ago, about our Californian classmates.
“I understand the lure of California because heck, I wanted it too, you know? When I was in the east, my friends in undergrad would mention California with wishful thinking. So I understand where they are coming from when they tell me that they want to stay, because this is the place to be, supposedly, y’know – everyone wants to live here, so why the hell would they want to leave? But… forever? To have absolutely no desire to venture beyond the borders of the state? To not even want to attempt living in the opposite coast? He was scared at the thought of the east coast; scared. How do you ascertain that this place is the best, if you’ve never seen or experienced for yourself, how other places are like? I understand if money is a factor, but this country is large enough to be diverse depending on where you are. There’s no need for them to fly abroad to live differently.”
I picked up speed as I biked alongside her.
“Maybe I can’t comprehend because I come from such a tiny country – wanting to live differently meant having to do so elsewhere. It’s just… strange, incredibly strange to me, the absence of their wanderlust. Can one grow, internally I mean, if one stays rooted in one place from birth to death? …Forever?”
Now I think back, and realize the irony: I have traversed the globe some, yet I’m the one who has failed to see.
I am the one who is rooted and stagnant, stuck in a tiny spot within the peripheries of my mind.
In the next few months, I will exchange letters with a young Malaysian dreamer from a tiny town somewhere in the state of Pahang. I am informed that he is seventeen and comes from a humble background, with dreams of visiting Las Vegas someday. I know very little about his school – a sports school, I’m told – and even less about his hometown. I’d signed up because I thought the program was a great platform to fuse together my passion in writing with my role as an overseas scholar. I’d thought I’d be able to inspire those younger than me to believe in the power of education.
“My life would turn out so differently had I not gotten the scholarship,” I once said.
I was just like him, was what I’ve always believed.
I had hoped to tell him to keep on dreaming, to indeed believe in the power of education, and most important of all, to remember that there are entire continents out there beyond the only borders he’s known and seen. Who am I kidding? My growing up privileged is something to be extremely grateful for, but these days it makes me feel ashamed too. How do I impart wisdom, if I’ve had it fortunate from the get-go?
At the end of Kauai’s south coast, the majestic view of the mountains lie, 4000 ft above sea level. Nature has an effortless way of humbling a person, putting perspectives back in their respective places. At the end of the north coast, the mysterious beauty of the Na Pali coast rendered me speechless and in awe. I’d only ventured the first two miles of the 11-mile Kalalau trail, yet the view was gloriously breathtaking. Magnificent. Lush greens occupied the sides of the mountains which overlooked the vivid blue that stretched beyond the horizon. Nature is indeed fully aware on how to play its given deck of cards, especially when it comes to embedding life lessons.
Maybe this is what I’ll impart to him:
The world we desire is based on how well we cared for that tiny, unsuspecting bud within each of us; what it blossoms into is wholly dependent on how well we nurtured, watered, and cared for our respective buds. They vary from person to person. The world we desire begins with our outlooks; it is all in the perspectives.
The world we desire exists within us.