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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Educated, so what?

Brexit just happened a few days ago on 23 June, and Donald Trump is still going strong in the race to become the USA President. Some people, depending on their background and the kind of friends they keep on social media, have posts all over their Facebook accounts that put down Brexit and Donald Trump supporters. They say that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and Trump’s popularity signal the end of the world. People say that it is a bad year for politics. Although there are a lot of people who agree with these views, these people are not everyone.

There are still a lot of Trump supporters and Brexit leavers who are not heard online. I think this is because people only add other people who think like them on social media, because that’s how people make friends right? But in the end, that means that when it comes to politics, we are only surrounded by like-minded friends. For highly educated people, we are mostly very angry at the Brexit result and at Trump’s ideas and speeches. We share these posts and we make fun of people who disagree. We don’t hear the other side of the story, and I think this is very dangerous for everyone. This is why I am writing today, even though Britain and USA are so far away. I am writing because I think society is becoming more and more divided. We are dividing into two groups – the educated and the uneducated. I can see that this is happening in developed countries, like USA and Singapore, because developed countries are where some people have the chance to be educated. It is important for us to understand that there is this problem, and it can be harmful to Singapore if we continue to be divided.

I understand the point of view of the educated because I am one of them. I am fortunate enough to be a university student. On one hand I really did work very hard to get into university, but on the other hand, so many things in life are not in our control. For example, I was born into a family that gave me a nice table and the time to study. Some people are not so lucky, and sometimes they don’t make it so far in school because of that. When we are educated in university (unless you do only science classes), we learn about politics, the economy, and society. I know that personal experience is a good teacher, but a lot of the books we read are based on many people’s personal experiences, so we tend to know more. We know more, so we think we must be right. We graduate, get our certificates and become experts. We are very sure that in order to succeed as a country, we must be harmonious with other races and nationalities (including PRCs and maids and construction workers). We are very sure that we must welcome foreigners into Singapore because they spend money here and it helps the economy. This way, Singapore is an international city, and we think that is a good thing. This is the same for Britain and USA. Most educated people think it is a good thing for them to welcome foreigners.

But we don’t see what uneducated people see. First of all, people who don’t get very far in school already feel left behind by society. I don’t believe that we live in a perfect world where everyone gets the life they deserve. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, that some people who work very hard in school just can’t make it. (Of course there are some people who don’t work hard and they end up not doing well, but I am just saying that things are not so simple all the time. Life is not black and white.) We see in movies that only the educated and the rich have fun and are respected. We end up living lives that don’t seem as important as the ones the higher-class people have. But nobody likes to feel unimportant and left behind. Nowadays there’s a lot of movements to help women, or minority races, or the very poor. But it seems like the government, or whoever that’s in charge, is not doing anything for the lower-middle class and the uneducated. You don’t seem to hear any news about that. When you look at the government, it is full of educated people. They know more things, but it doesn’t feel like they really understand how it feels to be you. How can they, if their own background is so different from yours?

So what happens is that uneducated people are more drawn to things that give them hope and meaning. I think this is why Donald Trump is so popular. He doesn’t use big words in his speeches, he sounds just like an ordinary guy who is confident and has dreams of making America great again. If a guy like him, who doesn’t know all the facts and the numbers, can make it so far in his life, then his life story is a hopeful story, and people want to support that. He is a rich man, but he sounds just like other uneducated people, so he must be on your side. It feels like he won’t let the rich elite people bully the lower-classes anymore. He says he wants to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants, and he also wants to stop Muslims from coming into America. I can see why this sounds like a good idea, because illegal immigrants are bad and terrorists are evil and are killing everyone. When foreigners come into a country, and you are already having a difficult time as a member of lower-middle class society, it feels like they are a threat. The country doesn’t have enough space. So it makes sense to chase away the people who come later, and protect the people who were here first. It is the same thing for Britain. A lot of British people feel that there are too many foreigners. Foreigners don’t act the same way as locals, and it feels like they are invading.

It is not fair for educated people to simply laugh at uneducated people, and say they are not right without explaining or reaching out to them. If both sides don’t talk, then we will never know how other people in the same society feel. 

In Singapore, I often hear people complain: “Educated, so what? Being educated doesn’t mean being smarter than everyone else.” A lot of uneducated people think that educated people only know how to read but are still very stupid, so we cannot believe educated people’s opinions. I remember that in a recent debate competition between prisoners and Harvard students, the prisoners won, and uneducated people on Facebook were saying that it proves that education is useless, and real smarts is the most important.

I have things to say to educated people and uneducated people, and I think it will help society and help us work towards a better future.

To uneducated people,

I agree that being highly educated does not mean being smart. I have seen a lot of people in university who don’t seem to have common sense. However, the kind of smarts that people learn through books and school cannot be learnt anywhere else, because the information we get in school is through years of collecting from thousands of people. Society is unfair because not everyone gets to go to school, but that doesn’t mean school is not important. School is very important. The prisoners won against Harvard students because they were part of a prison school programme, and they wouldn’t have won without the programme. I hope that you give educated people a bit more trust, and that you start to read and learn more about the decisions you are making so you are more informed. When you are more informed, people like Donald Trump cannot trick you and make use of you. (Donald Trump was born into an extremely rich family, and he was always part of the elite social class. He pretends to understand what you are going through, but he has never lived a day like yours. When he becomes elected, the American lower classes are going to suffer more because he will only support rich people like himself.)

 

To educated people,

I hope this sheds some light on an oft-neglected perspective. It’s blatantly obvious to us that we shouldn’t cave in to anti-foreigner sentiment, and many of us are afraid to see right-wing nationalism transform into belligerent fascism. But what isn’t blatantly obvious to us is why the other camp garners so much support. Society is polarising because anti-intellectualism is on the rise, and it’s an indication that we are not doing enough to educate the masses. The UK’s membership in the European Union was largely beneficial for every level of British society because its grants the UK greater trade access etc., but uneducated people don’t know that. And people cannot make decisions based on what they don’t know. Information that’s been gilded in jargon won’t reach all audiences. We shouldn’t dismiss Trump supporters and sit merrily ensconced in our Ivy League/Oxbridge/Liberal Arts bubble. No individual wants to destroy their own country – the dreaded Trump supporters are doing what they genuinely think is best. We should, instead, make a concerted effort to communicate across different demographics. I don’t propose that this is a panacea for the political chaos we are in but I do think it’s a necessary step towards nipping the problem.

 

“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.

 

 

A Little Something for NSKs

Baking matcha cakes with lavender sauce is not the same as learning how to cook with Campbell soup and frozen peas in your uniform. When we’re done we don’t instagram the plates. You can pout about your meringue cracking on the wrong side but if our canned tuna pasta sauce is lumpy we eat it all the same.

Throwing an emphatic lah or leh in your English and laughing about being ahlian is not the same as struggling to keep up in class because your parents only speak in dialect.

Finding a good bargain in your Thailand holiday is not the same as rummaging the sales bin for spectacle frames that look like the Ray Bans the cool kids wear.

Going on an immersive overseas trip for “personal growth” will not impart the same independence that working at a supermarket counter will. It will not give you the same strength of character as a 15-year-old who has had to bow their head to a raging customer.

Wearing your “ratchet” (Havaianas, no less) flip flops to the mall is not as embarrassing as the teacher pointing out in class that there are holes in your school shoes, and that the sole is separating from its base.

I have no doubts that you really think riding in the back of a cargo van is “liberating”/”interesting”, but some people do that every day to get to school, and they always smell like the musty upholstery.

You can go up the stairs in your semi-d at night and think about how you’re so down-to-earth, and so one with the people, and so neighbourhood. But at the same time a neighbourhood school kid will go to bed at night wondering how much harder they have to try.