(Almost) a gap year

A visit to friends turned out to be a transformative retreat with lovely people

A visit to friends turned out to be a transformative retreat with lovely people. I’m very thankful.

I just came back from a retreat. It was the best New Year’s celebration I ever had with reflection, tranquility and companionship. I was asked two questions which I very much enjoyed answering.

 First, what has ended or is ending?

My 9 month stay at home has ended. After 4 years of high school in Singapore, I was very much looking forwards to this break. I had a lots of plan (and failed to finish them) like traveling or learning but my number one goal was to stay at home with my family, specifically my mother.  I remember one summer morning 3 years ago my mom was so upset with me when a friend came very early to ask me out for breakfast. “You are home for only 3 weeks and you go out everyday with your friends? You may as well just not go home at all”. These words have bothered me ever since. I knew in near future I would be overseas for even longer, so I must make full use of this break to stay with her. There’s so much I learnt from her during this time that will write another note for it. For now all I can say is that I’m contented in having striven for this #1 goal.

My teenager years have ended. If I can choose a single activity that dominated my teenagers then it will undoubtedly be gaming. I remember my mom upon coming home from work would not go straight home but go to the corner near our house with all the Internet Café/gaming shops. She knew I was there: I was such a loyal attendant that the folks there would always point my mom to the gaming shop I was in. None of them knew our names; they just knew this kid was the son of that lady. (and I was such a nice son because I rarely changed my  shop to somewhere too far away. I wanted my mom to be able to find me!) (Nah I wasn’t that noble; if my mom couldn’t find me she would lock me out of the house as a punishment. I certainly didn’t want that). I can still play this following scene in my head now in high definition:
I was totally immersed in a 5 vs 5 strategy game when I suddenly felt an excruciating pull in my ear. As soon as I turned around, barely able to discern what the heck was going on I would receive a full force, no mercy slap in the face. For a few seconds, all I could feel was the stars and the burning sensation on my cheek. As I gradually regained my senses, I started to cry. Truth be told, these tears were less about the physical pain or even about the guilt I felt for mom. It was about the shame I had in front of the eyes of my teammates, about the terrible feeling I had for quitting a game half way and thus spoiling it (most of the time it had to be 5 vs 5) and about the fear that the next time they would not let me play in the team because who on earth would want this goddamn guy whose mother’s slap could come at any time and spoil the whole game? I hoped and thought I would be repentant, but mom knew my nature better than I did because she would go that same route in a few days…

Now, can you believe that spoilt brat is also the one who a few years later will long for the end of exam not to play video games but to read a book? I often jovially tell people about the two things I learnt that changed my life completely: English and Googling. I was pretty serious. Coming to Singapore, properly learning English and searching online have opened my eyes like never before. SO MUCH KNOWLEDGE IS WRITTEN IN ENGLISH! (I almost cried a few years ago when my favorite website to download ebooks was closed down). You know the feeling “Oh my gosh this just totally changed my worldview” when you have the chance to hear a very insightful person speaks? Think about the overwhelming possibilities for transformation when these knowledge and insights are not only recorded but also disseminated to people. Few things in life can thrill me more than that. Yes, not everyone cares that much about learning and expanding their minds, but I’m pretty sure there are still many  people out there, especially youngsters who just haven’t had the exposure to that amazing world of knowledge and ideas. Sometimes merely showing people the possibility is the greatest thing we can do to them. That’s why I am deeply sad that library isn’t a big deal for most schools in Vietnam.

Anyway, the reflective mood in writing this brought up a common emotion: regret. I have a not so secret admiration for those who have spent a great deal of time practicing and becoming good at something, from maths to music to knowledge to cleaning the floor. I thought to myself: “If I had spent less time playing when I was younger I could also be like them now”. It wasn’t jealousy; it was regret.

(As an aside, it’s funny how a few of my mother’s friends came to me with the hope that I would be a role model for their children. They would complain about their children’s laziness, and despite my mom’s introduction to my inglorious past, they still insisted “No I don’t think he played that much. Even if he did, he still managed to do so well”. How on earth then could they expect me to inspire their children? “Play hard and you would be fine”?. Most of the time their children were reluctant to see me anyway, so when the parents were chatting among themselves I ended up talking about gaming with the boys. (They were impressed by my knowledge! However, my gaming skill has very much atrophied over time). I reminisced with them about these good old times, about how I went to class way earlier so that I could go to the game shops with my friends or about spending hours to complete some side quests. I asked them why they liked to play this game more than that game, and I loved listening to them because the truth they were telling was so compelling: they were so genuinely interested in talking about it! )

I don’t regret anymore. As we grow up, we continually piece together our experiences to create coherent stories for our lives. Here is my version so far: Gaming trained me to love genuine fun. My definition of fun changes over time, but the idea remains. I’m still very much a gamer at heart; I just changed the games I’m playing.

Now to the second question: what is beginning?

My most enjoyable activity for the first half of 2013 is reading books. I didn’t read much because I’m a terribly slow reader, but the few books I’ve read over that break contributed more to my intellectual development than anything else. More importantly, this long break in contrast with the hectic high school life forced me to slow down, observe and reflect.

Comparing to high school life where scheduled exams, assignments and holiday reigned, there seems to be much less happenings during this gap year. Yet, it is considerably less smooth. I’m very lucky to experience just enough rejections which force me to question myself rather than debilitating me completely. I’ve come to accept this mantra: work hard and I will do fine 80% of the time.

There is one thing that schooling life has taught me: practicing skills is just as important as learning ideas and facts, if not more. Ideas get me started, practice keeps me going. Similar to many other early twenties, I’m somewhat clueless about what I will do. I feel the need to do something grand: save the world, build something cool, improve my country etc… How can I balance that with my not-so-few petty desires? How can I move from far-fetched ideas to execution? Practice making decisions and dealing with their consequences.

I was thinking about setting some goals for the year when I realized this whole idea of setting goals and achieving them is very Western. More people in the West have New Year resolutions and to-do lists. This is in stark contrast with the Eastern emphasis on acceptance (or at least from what I learnt from my mom).

Then I remembered Scott Fitzgerald’s quote: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise”.

Both viewpoints are valuable, but at 20 I think I want to put a bit more emphasis on the striving part.  Now is the easiest time to explore because I already have a safe base – I know I just cannot let myself be screwed up too badly.

So instead of having a plan for the year, I set a theme for 2014: Practice and Exploration. I think I’ve got some know-whats and it’s now time to translate them into the know-hows. Also, some guiding stars to remind myself of what matters:

  • Personal relationships: long-lasting and fulfilling. Quality over quantity.
  • Work: challenging and engaging. Right now my main occupation is as a student, so I’ll focus on learning as much as I can. I’m glad that I had a decent relationship with my work as a student in the past with a fair balance among learning facts, drilling skills and expanding learning capacity (i.e not letting school interfering with my education.)
  • Connection with something greater than myself: Because humans can be selfish and selfless at the same time. I have always want to become part of communities that do something together and care about each other.

I ended my answer by my favorite prayer – one of the things I learnt from 4 years in a Methodist institution: “God, please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can and the wisdom to know the difference”.

Happy New Year everyone. I’m excited to see how our lives continue to unfold 🙂

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3 thoughts on “(Almost) a gap year

  1. Pingback: 2014: Practice and Exploration. | Khuyen

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