It is now December. 2016 – whom I had welcomed with open arms just a year ago – is now about to pass. As I write this I am sitting cross-legged at a wooden table with a cup of tea, snugly enveloped not only in a sweater that does not belong to me, where natural light streams in through windows though not for much longer, and I – in both senses of the word – am in a special place where over two and a half years ago, the magic that had brought me here first began.
One day ago, sitting by the window on a regional train that had brought me where I am, I looked out on the wintry landscapes with warm hands and a heart so full, and contemplated the gifts 2016 has brought me. It has now become a tradition for me to pen my annual reflections, but somehow, looking back on the year about to pass, I seem to be at a loss for words. 2016 – oh, how shall I describe you? A precious gem filled with decision-making of the pivotal sort, dreams being fulfilled, and so infinitely much love.
The Decisions that Shape Our Lives
In every life, I believe there exists a handful of decisions – that we make, and that inadvertently make us – which hold the capacity to change the remaining course of our lifetimes. For me, 2016 saw one, or more, of them.
Pursuing further education in a foreign land has always been a dream of mine. Early this year, I was presented with unconditional offer letters to all three institutions to which I had applied. Freiburg. Geneva. London. I oscillated between the latter two as I took into consideration perhaps too many factors. By mid year, I had set my heart on Geneva, started learning French two workday evenings a week, and took the plunge to quit my first corporate job at the EDB despite all that and who attempted to persuade me otherwise.
But life often surprises you in ways you do not expect it to. Shortly after announcing my resignation, I opened my mailbox one evening to discover that I had been offered a full scholarship from the institution I had believed I would not be attending. On hindsight, the choice seems intuitive. Yet in that moment, I had been torn between excitement and a strange exasperation, with the prospect of my initial choice unravelling to make way for the new.
1 August marked my last day at EDB. It was a surreal feeling to bid farewell to a place in which I had spent four years – a place where I had toiled and grown and shed and reaped what was sowed; a place where I had not only worked alongside some of the brightest while striving towards the same cause but also found friends and mentors in some of the most inspiring and unique individuals; a place where I discovered the intersection where my true calling lies.
It has been a great journey, with each of my two-year stints becoming part of the formative years of my adulthood since I first ventured into the corporate world as a wide-eyed graduate. I look back and marvel at all the people, experiences, and opportunities that I have been able to engage and have had, and I know: I would not have chosen to have it any other way. That I am who I am today, that I have accomplished what I have to date, that I have been blessed with the opportunities that shine brightly before me – all this would not have been possible without EDB.
But it was time for me to go. My last weeks in Singapore were spent delightfully free of work, with loved ones, and preparing for the move to my destination that has become London. And finally, one night in late August, after a tumultuous administrative process involving much angst and two flight changes, I boarded my first one-way flight to Frankfurt, embarking on a whole new adventure, knowing that regardless of the ambiguity that lies ahead, the one waiting for me at the other end shall always be my one unwavering constant.
The Surrealism of Dreams Being Fulfilled
Of the wondrous moments of 2016, one of the most memorable was fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a published author, officially launching my debut book, The Desire for Elsewhere, at the Singapore Writers Festival 2016.
Two years ago, I had attended SWF 2014 as the sole creative nonfiction representative of the National Arts Council Mentor Access Project. A year later, I performed my first public reading at SWF 2015. Little did I expect that I would launch my debut book at SWF 2016, with the support of my beloved family, friends, and individuals I was privileged to meet for the first time.
13 November was a day filled with so much love, happiness, and magic that I shall never be able to find the words to capture the effervescence that continues to bubble within my being to this day, and I remain ineffably grateful to everyone who has been with me on this journey, each in his or her own way.
To be holding my book in my hands for the very first time was exhilarating in a hitherto unknown way – feeling its smooth surface, smelling its freshly printed pages, and taking in the beauty of the moment – and to spot them all over the BooksActually bookstore, for to see the words that once existed only in your head, now taking the form of real, tangible books, of the colour of your soul, if souls had colours, is a magical, magical thing.
It is truly a surreal feeling to have your words released into the world – I wonder where each of the thousand copies would wander to, who might become its bearer(s), and what it might do to its reader(s). I guess I shall never fully know, and so that November afternoon as I signed a tall pile of copies I enclosed within each a heartfelt wish that whoever you may be, The Desire for Elsewhere may momentarily transport you to new worlds, as it has always done for me.
And, London. London had stolen my heart the first time I travelled here in 2011. Walking along the cobblestoned streets, I was completely entranced by her history, architecture, and culture, wondering what it would be like to live here as a local – going to the medley of world-class museums, musicals, performances, talks, and events she had to offer, exploring her charming, hidden bookstores, having afternoon tea of freshly baked scones, jam, and clotted cream during the weekends while exploring the richness and diversity of the world’s cuisine in a single place. It had been a mere dream then; I did not think that five years later, here I would be, awaking each morning thankful to be living in one of the greatest literary cities of the world.
And to now be pursuing my master’s in international development with full scholarship at the one university which years ago I had yearned to attend for my undergraduate degree is simply incredible. Most days, I believe the reality of my everyday has yet to fully sink in. As I crossed the Thames one evening at the end of my first week of graduate school, I paused on the Golden Jubilee Bridge, looking out on the icons of London, and was overwhelmed with a sense of wonder and near disbelief that someone, some entity, some institution had believed in me enough to offer me a generosity without which I probably would not be here today. And so each night I count my blessings – thankful for this amazing opportunity; for the wonderful friends and people I meet here, and my loved ones back home for their invaluable support; and to be learning each day, and striving towards my goals and ultimately, my raison d’être.
2016 has also been the year in which I have been able to begin marrying my passion for writing and development. The first part of the year offered exciting opportunities – with my poetry being reinterpreted into graphic art and showcased at the National Library Board’s PressPlay Festival 2016; being invited as a panellist for the NTU Literature Festival 2016 alongside the esteemed Nicholson Baker and Jon Gresham; and my travel essays being published in Eastlist, Mackerel, and Swag.
Beyond that, I was thrilled to become a volunteer writer for UN Women, writing on gender issues that resonate strongly with me. Drawing on my past experience working with key international organisations, I was ecstatic to have my article on the value of innovative cross-sector partnerships published first on the London Globalist, and subsequently, the LSE International Development website. Currently a graduate consultant for UK DFID, I am eager to continue making the best of these learning opportunities and look forward to contributing to the development sector during my time in London and beyond.
Love, in its Infinite Forms
This year has been filled with much travel, many of which were delightfully spontaneous – Vietnam with an old friend; Thailand with family; a semi-solo trip to Australia where I befriended a lovely German girl through a walking tour, with whom I wandered about the city of Sydney and its beaches thereafter, having deep conversations, sitting in the shade giant trees offered, and even spontaneously going for a play at the opera house; Korea on a whim to visit a dear friend, turning a year older on a plane amid twinkling stars, and arriving in Seoul where we shared laughter-filled adventures; and last of all, to Germany and France once more with my favourite person, twice three months apart, with whom I found infinity in the fields of green and gold, and white and snow.
The last month of 2016 has brought much joy and warmth amid the winter cold. I have had the best Christmas of my life thus far, and have one person to thank for filling it with so infinitely much magic, adventure, and love. Experiencing traditional festivities that I had only been able to dream of as a child – baking Christmas cookies, going ice-skating, exploring Christmas markets and sipping pseudo Glühwein, decorating a real Christmas tree, singing carols, having traditional festive meals, experiencing a cosy evening opening presents from under the tree and receiving an absolute dream of a Christmas present. All of this has made my heart so ineffably full, and ever more thankful for my Heimat that is you.
2017, and Beyond
As we now bid farewell to 2016 and welcome the upcoming year (with raclette and fireworks no less), may we all bring forth with us a heart full of love, a mind full of curiosity, and a being full of childlike wonder, empathy, and adventure. In the words of Neil Gaiman, because his lines ever remain a timeless truth:
May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously. Don’t forget to make some art – write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.
Be kind to yourself in the year ahead. Remember to forgive yourself, and to forgive others. Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time spent waiting to begin. Hug too much. Smile too much. And, when you can, love.
– Agnes Chew