The Yearbook Entry on Being Special

“Nothing is so common-place as the wish to be remarkable.”
Oliver Wendell-Holmes Sr.

When I first stepped into this school we wore “best and brightest” proudly brandished on our sleeves. I remember sitting in the MPH, looking around and genuinely believing that I’ve found safety and security. I’ve worked so hard in junior college and I’ve slept over in the art studio for so many nights and now I’ve finally found my Eden. Years of the Singaporean education system have led me to believe that once I set foot into the pearly white gates of NUS, my life will be an air-conditioned cruise. I looked around at the bobbing blue and orange balloons and the bobbing heads of equally starry-eyed students and beamed. We are the 0.something accepted students. We are smart. We are special.

Now fast forward four years and I’m hurriedly typing my yearbook write-up from a beige cubicle at my internship. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t an article about the grand failure of the liberal arts college education system. It’s about its success and, more importantly, about my expectations. I do have a little bit of a save-the-world thing going on, and if anything it’s been amplified through my studies here at Yale-NUS College, but I also learnt something crucial for every fledgling adult – I am not special. I may be passionate, I may be smart, but for the most part, so are other people, and it is mostly my socioeconomic position that determines where my cards fall in the game of life.

Above everything, my college experience has taught me that life isn’t about me. The fabric of the world is made up of 7 billion subjectivities, all woven together in a network where I am but a data point. The world doesn’t owe me anything. It doesn’t have to realise how supposedly wonderful I am. Instead, I have to be useful to the world. Much like Liam Neeson in his endless pursuit of stereotypical Eastern European mob bosses, I have a very particular set of skills, but I have to work hard to make them relevant to the people around me. Not a lot of people have been given the opportunity to learn things at an intersection (most people learn things narrowly, or they didn’t get to learn at all). I need to use this knowledge to lift communities and perform my little bit of the world’s act, and if I’m not doing my job well, then I better roll my sleeves up and put some elbow grease in it. There are things far bigger than myself that are worth fighting for, and I’m going to devote my time and my skills to them.

I know it doesn’t look it, but I’m optimistic about the future. Call it the foolishness of youth if you will, but I think we’re at a pivotal point in human history. More information is freely available on the internet today than in the last hundreds of years combined. Young people continue to innovate to close both physical and institutional gaps in our social environment. There are more literate people today than in any point in history, and rapid globalisation has made it possible for us to identify the common humanity in vastly different peoples. Who knows, maybe after the Big Robot Replacement, we’ll overcome the ravages of capitalism and then all of us will be freer to work jobs that require human interaction. In any case, I’m excited to be a part of all this, and I have been fortunate enough to be educated and to understand how the world is evolving. Former colonies are negotiating their relationship to the West, the rise of secularism has been met with a resurgence of religious fervour, the supply chain is expanding (further separating workers from their products of labour), populations are slowly congregating and homogenising, and the internet has formed new visual vocabularies (literal memes). Interesting times to live in.

In situating myself in functional society and in writing my final thoughts down for the school yearbook, it would be odd, and even suspicious, to leave school culture unmentioned. I still stand by the opinion that the school doesn’t produce special geniuses. What the school has a knack for producing though, are people who would walk with me to Cheers at midnight, and people who make a really good cup of genmaicha for a sobbing friend. This school is more than a school to me. It has been my home for the last four years. And it doesn’t matter what building we’re in, because we’re not held together by institutional rules – we’re friends. I know every single face from the Class of 2017, and I know at least one factoid about each person, because we’ve all crossed paths at some point in our college career. I don’t talk to everyone on a regular basis (regrettably), but everyone plays a crucial part of our community, and every absence is felt. The school didn’t quite feel complete when so many of us were abroad in our third year. The dining halls were noticeably quieter when David wasn’t around to tell me about some independent play in Malaysia. Drawing sessions were duller when Chen Xi left for a bit. I remember returning from my first summer internship and everyone was excited to see other Yale-NUS students again.

It’s easy to lose sight of all this when we’re in such a competitive environment. We live from deadline to deadline. Work is never done. In the first two years, we had problems with event attendance because we were all too busy planning our own events to be audiences for someone else’s. We are preoccupied with ideas which are either spatially or temporally distant, such that we don’t live in the proverbial here and now – upcoming interviews, case studies, model conferences, exhibitions, fellowships. These things are important, but so is the reality in front of us. We are, immediately, human.

I’m struggling to find the words to close this write-up. I’m typing this at the end-of-year break, a good semester away from our actual graduation, so I only have a vague understanding of how anyone would be feeling. It’s a quiet kind of sadness that wells up in my chest when I walk to the dining hall with my friends. I know drifting apart is inevitable for most of the people I’ve met here. But I hope that after our graduation, every Class of 2017 student reading this knows that they have a friend in me, even if we didn’t quite speak to each other. I hope Facebook does what it’s supposed to do and gives me updates about your new experiences, and you can always count on me to provide a scathing feminist comment on your political statuses.

 

Love,

Natalie

 

 

 

 

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Me Before You: The Value of a Disabled Person

Me Before You was released in theatres about a month ago (June 2, 2016) and the film featuring a mellowed-out Mother of Dragons and Finnick Odair has been showing for enough time to draw rightly-deserved flak from the disabled community for its storyline.

SPOILER: Emilia Clarke’s character falls in love with Sam Claflin’s quadriplegic character à la a Nicholas Sparks novel sans notebook plus wheelchair, and in the end of the movie Sam goes ahead with his plan to end his life through an assisted suicide programme. Sam also happens to be deliciously wealthy, so he leaves Emilia a handsome amount of money. This was how the central conflict in the movie was resolved—it’s okay if he’s disabled because he’s super hot and rich, and you’re going to be happy in your life anyway, because he will conveniently dispose of himself before he becomes a burden.

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I actually kinda like romantic movies (I teared up recently when Saoirse Ronan came back from Ireland to be with the Joey Tribbiani lookalike in Brooklyn, which I 100% recommend by the way), but there is a problem when the movie paints the suicide of a disabled person as a happy ending. In this “ideal” world, disabled people are supposed to bear the responsibility of sacrificing themselves for the greater good of less burdensome humans. It’s a movie that clearly serves the interests of the able-bodied majority. Studio executives could, theoretically, come up with something that depicts the realities of head-to-toe paralysis but carrying Sam Claflin into the toilet wouldn’t do much for the chiseled aloof character they’re gunning for. His muscles also, miraculously, did not atrophy from lack of use. Oh well movies have to make millions and essentially that’s what the condensed goal of humanity is, right? Who cares about responsible media representation.

I’m pretty much optimistic about the millennial generation and the changes we are making for our collective future, but at the moment Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand still hovers above our lives and economic rules work backwards to determine the intangible values in life. Women are less valuable than men because we menstruate and get pregnant and this shaves off productivity in the workforce, elderly men are a burden to society because they can’t work as much as young men, young men who don’t want to be drafted into wars are a burden too because they’re not protecting our national interests and assets, and finally, people with disabilities are walking sob stories because they can’t do the same things able-bodied people can, and by things I mean work. Me Before You presents the only escape for disabled people—they redeem themselves if they are born rich and then leave money behind, which makes up for the otherwise lost economic value.

That’s the trap we are so caught up in. Everything is about money, moving faster, building taller, eating more, and this mentality has creeped into even the most intimate and personal nooks of our lives. There are a lot of CSR campaigns pushing for the inclusion of disabled people in the workforce, and these campaigns make tear-jerking claims that everyone is equally abled and we all have a right to a job in this day and age. I think, though well-intentioned, this is a misguided way to create a more inclusive society, because we are measuring everyone with the same cold-blooded yardstick. You can’t judge a fish by making it climb a tree. Similarly, you can’t judge disabled people based on how well they can work at jobs which were originally conceived with abled people in mind. What happens if they fall short of expectations? Do we cast them aside yet again?

What I’m trying to say is, very often, a disabled person will not be able to do the things that an able-bodied person can. A person in a wheelchair requires the bus uncle to get off the bus, set up the ramp, and wheel them in.  A blind person needs someone or somedog by their side in a world made for the visual. Yes, they require more care, they incur “lost dollars”. But that should not be how we measure the worth of a person. If a person with autism says she is as smart as the average person and she can confidently work the cash register, then I say great, but even if you can’t, you’re not a burden to society, you’re a valuable person, and I’m sorry we live in world where you have to contort yourself to constantly prove your worth. Also, you don’t have to be super hot or rich, or kill yourself, and I’m sorry this Me Before You movie is doing well at the box office.

Capitalism is the Killjoy of the Internet Age

Hey, hope everyone is recovering from yesterday’s Pink Dot festivities. It’s not easy to avoid stepping on so many expat picnic mats/immaculately bedazzled Pomeranians for 8 hours, albeit for a good cause. Ok I kid, but only in tone, because objectively there really were too many people on the ground in Hong Lim Park, which is a happy problem I guess.

So I’m writing today because, being an undergrad, I often feel like I’m locked in a slowly flooding room, and recently the waterline has gone up to my neck. What am I going to do after I graduate? Will I even be employable? What if I become one of those Instagram people who are perpetual “aspiring artists”? I’ve always cached these problems at the back of my mind for Future Me to handle, but right now I am Future Me. I can’t avoid thinking about these things, and I literally cannot afford to think about these things on abstract grounds. The real numbers have to be churned and crunched, I have to start doing tangible research on actual opportunities and costs. Eventually everything boils down to whether or not I can put food on the table. At this point in our rapid economic development, it doesn’t matter if someone has talent or compassion if they don’t meet the principle criterion. The universal bottomline in this capitalist hellhole is – does it make money?

I think we live in such an exciting age. Our generation has created more products and accumulated more information in the past decade than the history of humankind combined. I don’t think Aristotle and his musty ass would have even dared to dream about the number of books we have (then again he was wrong about a LOT of things, and the first thing that would shock him is probably that women are not by default slaves to men). You know the queasy movies from the 80s about time travel and everyone has their own messaging device and we’re all in silver jumpsuits? We’ve arrived at that stage, we are past what people imagined to be the Great Technological Revolution, but without the jumpsuits. The most amazing thing to come around is the internet, the omnipresent omnipotent entity in the sky (cloud). It moves and it operates through each of us, and truly, it works in mysterious ways.

I read this somewhere and I forgot the source, but you know George Orwell’s 1984? He predicted correctly that we will live in a future under 24/7 surveillance by a hovering entity, but he didn’t predict that we will WANT to be watched. We want our posts to be liked and shared, we want our internet browsers to remember our passwords, we want Google maps to detect our location, we want people to know where we work. We willingly put our personal information up on the internet, and we’ve entered a self-recording future. Is this threatening? Yes, but at the same time so immensely powerful, when the uploaded data is used for the right reasons by the right people. That’s how everything gets done so quickly – everything we need to know is online and readily accessible. But then with this accessibility comes a whole host of problems.

Suddenly every competing company is catapulted into an international arena. There are so many overseas companies that have a lower cost of production, and they can ship those products out to you for a lower price. Things get cheaper and cheaper until companies can no longer break even, and the only survivors are the large corporations with economies of scale and atrocious sweatshops (hello H&M). This isn’t so bad for products which must exist in a physical form, like clothes or furniture, but this is catastrophic for ideas and digital media i.e. intellectual property. Any industry that deals with intellectual property is in a crisis now because there are talented, entertaining, generous and interesting people online who are more than willing to upload free content. Right now, you can get free coding lessons, makeup tutorials, listen to free lectures, and illegally stream Game of Thrones without paying a single cent. The content online is also very often superior to what you can get on a DVD. Why on earth would anyone pay for the substitute products then? Why buy cartoons for your kid when you can show them free animated shorts on Youtube?

This is actually a fantastic place to be. Knowledge is power, and content is key. I think it’s brilliant that we can listen to music from indie musicians from South Africa, and I think it’s revolutionary that people from lower-income groups can access tutorials online to get an education. Education and the internet could be the great equalizers. So many doors are opening for people with smartphones. (Fun fact: more people have access to smartphones than to working toilets, which implies that even people in abject poverty have access to the wealth of information on the World Wide Web.) I also think it’s miraculous that people are volunteering to put up free, quality content. This would be an Information Utopia, if not for the primary assumption of a Capitalist society.

Every reasonable economic player is profit-seeking.

One line to destroy everything.

Right now the game has evolved so that companies which would otherwise be 100% awesome have to re-organise their activities to milk money from customers. Some examples of companies/industries which have found their way back into the game include Spotify and Netflix, and some companies have created entirely new markets, like Google and Facebook (the market for a database of our personal preferences and whereabouts). But what about the other creative companies which are left behind? What if they don’t want to be a company and they were just trying to make something really cool and useful for everyone to use for free?

So many useful apps are free for use and the fact that they are free is indispensable to the app’s function, because a free product attracts a high number of people, including people from lower-income groups. High number of people = more data collected on people and a bigger pool of users = incentive for using the app in the first place, like Tinder.

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(Copyright me because I’m so clever and this is a diagram based on meticulous research.)

Developers scramble to find ways to get a slice of that revenue pie (through ads or other means), and they don’t just do it because they’re money-grubbers, but because money is needed to keep the app running, and they can’t possibly devote their lives to making no money at all. People have to eat. It’s such a shame that we live in a world where we have all the resources available but we still have trouble making ends meet. It’s kinda like how the Chinese government is pumping money into condominium projects to stimulate employment and economic growth, but the houses remain empty. We have so many vacant houses but the homeless remain homeless because they didn’t “earn” the right to live in a house (as if the rich have earned the right to be born rich). Figures.

If you feel like I’m just raking up problems and I have absolutely no solutions to offer, you’re right. But how could I? Capitalism is a self-validating system, meaning that it makes itself thrive. If we take away capitalism, then the first question on everyone’s mind would be then how are we going to earn money, what about economic expansion? Well, we’re asking capitalist questions about capitalism. I don’t think our current diet of condominium investments and sweatshop labour is sustainable. A capitalist indicator of a healthy economy is economic growth (GDP), but limitless growth? Eternal expansion until we run the rivers on our earth dry? When do we stop? How do we expand while being socially responsible? As it is we’re doing a dismal job right now.

So while we’re stewing in our own mess, here are some great links to free online resources to better yourself, and non-profit projects which have taken off because kind and creative internet users have come together.

Project For Awesome

Every December, thousands of internet users post videos on Youtube to advocate for their favourite charities. The Project For Awesome is parked under the Foundation to Decrease World Suck, Inc, and last year they’ve raised $1,546,384. I think it’s great that they celebrate the agency of each individual internet user by using personal opinion to sieve out the best charities to support. They raise money through digital downloads and artwork from users etc.

Coursera

Free, quality online courses in a wide range of fields, including arts and humanities, business etc. The courses are offered by established institutions from all over the world like the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Yonsei University, and even that Emma Watson school.

Codecademy

I think my coding friends might not find this very impressive but I’ve been using it so far and it helped me to get through my Python classes. They walk you through free lessons on different programming languages, and you complete them at your own pace.

Crash Course

This series helped me to more than scrape by for my A levels. Over the years the show has grown to cover subjects like economics, physics, politics and governance, history, literature etc. They are incredibly entertaining, feature updated information on global affairs, and the show acknowledges and embraces an international audience i.e. they’re not America-centric, and that’s rare in a Youtube channel.

The School of Life

They also offer free, quality educational videos on Youtube but they zoom in more to individual theories, as opposed to looking at the world’s trajectory of history and proceeding chronologically.

“Best and Brightest”: Being Okay with Being Okay

“Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable.”

– Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
– And also a very dear friend of mine whom I treasure because she periodically wakes up my idea and I sorely need someone like that in my life.

It’s easy to feel lost in the ebb and flow of kaleidoscopic data bytes. We’re all permanently hooked onto the information motherboard now and it’s very much become an extension of our own bodies, i.e. behold, the phenomenon where we resolve to close Facebook only to mindlessly open it in another window. It’s like muscle memory now, like opening an empty fridge in the hopes that somehow chocolate you never noticed before would appear.

Every other post on the internet claims to house the secrets to an “amazing”, “you won’t believe it” life. We post the milestones in our lives up on Instagram and it gets buried somewhere in the mix. Every starry-eyed Thought Catalog entry is asking you to drop everything and travel. We’re all supposedly living wanderlust lives and we’re aspiring so-and-so’s and we’re all inspired to continue being awesome. We all want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, cos we buy that overnight wealth story and we hope our coding courses will pay off in school. And people generally like to feel different. We want to think ourselves special, we all think we’re smarter and more reasonable than the average person. We can’t all be right.

I think the most important lesson I learnt in the last few years is 1) that I’m not special, 2) and I have to accept that. I don’t mean this in a crusty “we all turn to dust one day” way but I mean this practically. I have to stop thinking that I’m so talented and fresh and witty that people are going to stop in their tracks and hand the world to me on a silver platter, and I have to stop anticipating that somehow I will end up famous anyway. You know what I mean right? It feels like we’re all in the phase of the story before we invent something really cool and useful. But odds are, probably not. (Yesterday I had the idea for biodegradable disposable drain covers but apparently someone has already thought of them so there goes another get-rich-quick scheme.) We have to be okay about being okay people.

I don’t mean to discourage people who have big dreams, only that we have to stop expecting that these things will always become a reality. We have to grind and churn to make these things happen, and even then sometimes they don’t, because sometimes, circumstances are not in our favour. And we have to be positively driven, such that we’re motivated by our insatiable desire to make the world a better place, or we’re really passionate about something we love. We can’t be pulled towards something negatively, where we feel we have to be special and the fear of being ordinary creeps up our neck. We don’t have to be a Fortune 500 company founder to be happy.

It’s especially tricky for me to talk about this because I do think I’m in a school environment which could come off as the Achievement Theme Park extravaganza. Everywhere people are doing seemingly amazing things and going off to *insert country on another continent here* to kickstart their respective whatevers. But when it boils down to it I don’t think we’re that special. I think we have brilliant resources and a smorgasbord of opportunities, but people in the office got us these opportunities. It’s not like we impressed these companies so much that they reached out from the blue to grasp at our youthful finesse. It’s that they were like “oh ok I guess we could partner with the school, they seem keen” and we competed with maybe 5 other students to get the internship/programme. For me specifically, I’m just a university student who’s somewhat under-performing. I like to paint and cook and write, like a gabazillion other people. And I photoshop the school logo on posters to get funding for stuff. I occasionally work my butt off for things I care about, but I’m sure other students pull their own weight too.

This reminds me of “How David Hume Helped Me Solve My Midlife Crisis”, which I read some time ago (thanks Michael).

“Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.”

I think David Hume also helped me with my quarter-life crisis, because, long story short, I realise that we experience life in two modes.

ABSTRACT MODE

There’s the abstract mode where we have ideas, and projections and wishes and perceptions of ourselves and others, and our long-term commitments etc.

PRESENT MODE

And then there’s the present, immediate way we experience life. It’s how funny the joke we just heard is, it’s how comfortable your t-shirt is. The creaminess of your froyo, the sickness of a bass drop in a song, how soft your dog’s fur is, how sharp your eyeliner looks etc.

The realisation that we’re not special will at first be a big blow to the abstract mode. But then it doesn’t really affect our present, immediate mode, does it? We won’t be the next Uber CEO but then, if you let go of the fear of being just okay, and you hold on to a financially secure and reasonable job, how different is your life really going to be? We’re still going to be surrounded by loved ones (except if you’re some creep but that’s your own fault), we’re still going to have our favourite songs and shows and books.

Maybe if we learn to let go of this debilitating fear of ordinariness, we will have the confidence to do the things we love, and move on if we don’t strike the jackpot.