Turning time forward and backwards, revisiting “But one wrong decision does not define an entire life yet lived.”

i.

Three years ago, on my last day of the internship in Miri, Sarawak, I found myself alone with then-newbie colleague. He’s great fun to be around with cos he feels familiar – another city/KL person in small-town Miri – but he’s admittedly half the time really annoying because he’s always – at least back then – acting smart-assy. I remember his constant jabs about my not wanting to come back to the company, “You’re not interested to work here, aren’t you?” An hour or two later, “Just admit it. You don’t actually want to be here, work here.” I remember weighing my options several times that day – to tell the truth, or half-truths? To tell the truth, or spin it? To tell the truth, or bury it in silence for life?

At last, I made up my mind: ah, to hell with it. I chose the truth. I told him I wasn’t done with school – a bachelors degree felt insufficient to me. I wasn’t done learning and I wasn’t, in all honesty, ready to come home. “But I’m realistic,” I told him. “If it’s the best offer and provides me financial security, a job scope I can do – I’ll take it.” Of course he didn’t back down after that – he had an annoyingly huge grin on his face, this I-told-you-so smirk. I had to hold back from slapping him. After much prodding and again, jabs of “But why grad school? Are you sure you can enter? What’s the point?” Hoping to silence him once and for all, finally, I turned to him – we were seated with our backs to each other – and said, “I tell you what. If you don’t see me here next year, joining the company and team, then it means that I’m pursuing my masters at Stanford.” 

I didn’t actually mean that – it was a statement made in a moment of annoyance – but…

ii.

Two years ago, when I made up my mind and formally submitted my decision to accept the offer to continue my masters at Stanford, I’d promised myself I would return. This is a two-year detour, I’d told myself.

I’d promised myself that because the months post-internship and throughout the grad school application process were humbling. Absence, for once in my life, made the heart grow fonder. I’d returned to Philly realizing how much the small-town had changed me. Philly was both familiar and foreign; I’d come back for senior year grown. There was also a period when the future seemed genuinely bleak – the offer had arrived but there was just no way I could fund myself, I’d sourced out until I’d exhausted all options… I was ready to decline, to be honest. I’d raised my white flag. But alas, on the week I was due to submit my reply, my scholarship coordinator sent a short email, “Congratulations N. You’re an extremely lucky girl – the board decided to continue sponsoring you for your masters.” Crazy, nothing short of a miracle.

This is a detour, I’d reminded myself.

Two years and I’m going home and back to the place that turned me into a person, I promised myself then.

iii.

But Stanford turned out to be an experimental, difficult, fulfilling – all-in-one – experience.

At Stanford, I was constantly in a game of tug-of-war, losing and finding myself, growing up with each passing day. It’s a period and phase in my life that means a lot for many reasons – the people I’d met and befriended, the exposure and firsthand observations, the opportunity to live in and experience California, the opportunity to be amongst (supposedly) the best… Stanford was a surreal experience, but it was also where it wasn’t just the(my) bubble that burst; I broke, too.

In the end, I came home – decided to, it was a conscious decision – in one piece, albeit with a battered but stronger soul and a reaffirmed sense of self. I came home to the best version thus far of myself, but possibly the worse economic and social conditions in Malaysia. The company too, isn’t doing too well what’s with the low oil prices and stinkin’ Asian economy. I wasn’t sure if the job would still be there, if the company was even hiring – I came back to uncertainties and decided to just embrace the new. I’d try and apply out, I told myself over and over, trying to come to terms with a new reality.

And then a phone call. Several phone calls. More emails. Long waiting period. More waiting.

Documents, documents, documents.

The calm after the storm and long, broiling mad wait – it’s official.

I am heading back to that small-town in January 2016, one I fully realize that I romanticize as the years pass by. This time, it is for a lot longer than 10 eventful weeks in summer of 2012 – try at least 100 weeks. The friends I’d made back then, most have left the town for elsewhere. People have moved – physically and with life in general. Three years is a long time. 

I know what to expect, yet I don’t. It’s familiar, yet not. In a way, it’s like a strange homecoming – it’s like returning to Philly for senior year after that eventful summer, realizing that I’d come back different. Grown. Matured. Different perspectives. Except… Philly’s a much bigger beast than this small-town, more sidewalks to tread on, more little alleys to discover…

Will I survive two, realistically probably three, years in a small-town?

Epilogue (…or is it Prologue?)

About five weeks in – the halfway point – of the internship, I found myself having dinner with then-newbie colleague. We were exchanging stories, like I do with everyone there, and the topic of the small-town versus the life I had – have, at the time – Stateside came up. I was limitless, literally borderless and free as a bird then – without a contractual bond, I was free to leave and start over anywhere opportunity or interest lies. Without any relationships to commit to, I belonged only to myself and the decisions I would make. Until now, I remember this analogy I’d made to him, complete with hand gestures.

“Honestly,” I admitted aloud, “I think I’m afraid that my life would go from this” – I stretched both hands to form a wide circle – “to this.” I created a dot using my right thumb and forefinger, barely noticeable.

“I literally had the entire world,” I said, “but I gave it up for Miri, you know?”

“That’s what scares me the most.”

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