I grew up as a pretend-rebel. I abided by all of society’s “guidelines” – study well, get into uni, get married, have a high paying job. Still, I wasn’t happy. I felt empty inside. I looked at my life and asked myself “is this it? is this what life is supposed to be?” I always thought I did things according to my own will, but I was a walking cliche. I wanted to be a rebel, but I never dared to veer outside of the comfort zone. I never dared to dream of a different way of life.
Once, in my early 20s, I told my mom “I never chose to be born, it was you who decided to bring me into this world, but now I have to learn how to live in it”
I don’t know how she didn’t give me one tight slap across the face. I must have caused her so much pain, but if she did feel it, she didn’t show it. I don’t recall what she said, but she never did give up on trying to understand me.
I’m now aware that those ungrateful thoughts I had, stemmed from living an unfulfilled life. Other than just being naturally rebellious, I was born with a sharp tongue. Ever since I was young, no one in my family could argue against me. My words were my weapons, and they often attacked people I loved in the name of defence. I had all of this anger.….built up in me since I was a teenager.
Just as any other family, my parents and I had altercations over many things. I always had my mind set on doing things my own way. I would question them when they didn’t allow me to do certain things, and ask them to justify their parenting. I remember always saying “you’re not going to get my respect just because you’re my parent, you’re going to get it because you deserve it.”
Trust me, even I am appalled at my own audacity. But I understand where I was coming from. It’s incredibly difficult to be a parent. My parents never received a manual for one. They did their best, trying to make the best decision in every phase of my life. They made conscious decisions to raise their children the way they felt best, and not how they were raised.
90% of the time growing up, my family got along very well. My parents chose to treat me and my brother as adults, even from a young age. Whenever we did something wrong, they would sit us down and try to hear us out, then give us a chance to apologise and always end the conversation with a hug.
Still, there were times when I felt so unhappy with life. I was yearning for more – I just didn’t know what it was. I always felt a disconnect, between what brought me joy, and “real life”.
Growing up, my parents found the most joy in doing outdoorsy things with us. Every Saturday morning, we would cycle and roller blade at East Coast park. Sundays were for swimming classes. Every public holiday was a chance to be at the beach for a picnic. Every other week, my dad would bring us to Clarke quay, to catch mud crabs (this was before marina barrage was built). Foreigners would always come by to see what we were doing. We had a picnic set up right in the middle of the concrete path. Every fifteen minutes or so, we would go round to collect the nets and see how many crabs we caught. Sometimes we got two, one time we got ten! Imagine walking along Boat Quay, going to bars and restaurants in fancy dress up, and then seeing a father with two children catching crabs from the Singapore river. We had our fair share of tourists come by to take photographs of us.
My mum would often come back all excited, telling me she has signed me up for lessons. Other parents would sign their children up for tuition, my mother signed me up for windsurfing courses. She always had a thirst for life, but never had the same opportunities as me, because of her situation growing up. My grandmother lost both her parents in a week at aged 19, and since then, had to rely on herself to support her family financially. My mother, from a young age, had to go out to work and help out with her family’s finances. She didn’t have the same luxury that she gave me. She wanted me to live out the things she couldn’t. She wanted to gift me the experiences she never had. I just didn’t know how to appreciate it properly when I was younger.
When I started my travels in January, I had no expectations. I was lost, heartbroken, and utterly clueless. I saw my life from a third party’s perspective, and could imagine the shock and surprise. After all, I looked like I was living the life. I partied all weekend, gave tuition on weekdays, bartended at night, and had a lot of friends. Plus I was married to a husband who was a fighter pilot. On paper, I led a life that some sought out as a goal. What went wrong then? That was the one question that lingered on my mind. From sitting on the sandy beaches of Mexico, to exploring the museums in Paris, this question sat like an uninvited guest, always on a front row seat, watching me like a live theatre show.
What went wrong?
My parents of course, wanted to know as well. Of all the people in my life, they felt my heartache the most. If my heart hurt, theirs hurt a hundred times more. When I cried, they cried harder – they just didn’t do it in front of me, because they had to be my rock. They would cry later, at moments that caught them off guard. I heard my Dad cry for me while crouching down in my study room. He cried a deep cry that I had only heard once before – when his brother drowned in a boat accident. My mother cried much later on, at random moments, triggered by random incidents.
I knew my parents were hurting. And still I chose to stay away. Still, I chose to keep my distance away from family and friends. I wanted to answer the question. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to show my parents that I was going to be okay. So I sought out the answer, and I didn’t want to stop until I figured things out. My parents understood, and stood by my side. They supported me emotionally and patiently waited.
It isn’t easy, as a parent in Singapore, to witness your child go from a good career to working in a hostel in Albania for free. My mother’s friend likened me to a ‘hippie’ and asked her if she was worried I was going to be “lost and aimless” for the rest of my life.
On one hand, my mother knew why I was traveling this way, and she supported it wholeheartedly. On the other, she couldn’t help but be affected by people around her, whispering things to her and pressing their own anxieties upon her. I felt like telling her “just ignore those people”.
Instead, I decided to bring them around Croatia, and have a taste of my nomadic life.
I didn’t feel a need to explain myself to the majority of Singapore’s society, because I never wanted to be in the majority anyway. I wanted to belong to the people who made decisions for themselves, listened to their own desires and walked down unfamiliar paths. I’ve always been inspired by friends who made mid career switches, moved overseas to start new lives, and defy societal gravity by rebelling against what the world thinks is ‘happiness’ and ‘love’.
During the trip, we talked about many things, very honestly and openly. Even though I am my parents’ child, they listened to me intently. They gave me their ears and their minds. When I got impatient trying to prove some of my points, they told me “Jane, we’re only just starting to see your world through your eyes, give us time, we will get there.”
They didn’t tell me “you don’t know better,” just because they had more experience than me. They even thanked me for showing them a different perspective, and I saw a shift in their mindsets.
I saw how much they wanted to understand where my new found love for life came from, and during the trip, we enjoyed each other’s company so much. The simplest pleasures were much more appreciated.
When we were together, all we cared about, was being together.
We enjoyed going to the markets in the morning, buying fresh seafood for dinner.
We marvelled at the rainbows we sighted, and took time to stop and take in sights that we found beautiful.
I thought I would be the one teaching my parents how to enjoy life. In actual fact, after observing them during the five weeks, I realised that one reason I have come to be this way, is precisely because of how my parents are. I started to see myself in them. My source of strength and thirst for life came from them.
My mother did a mid career switch when she was 38, she has battled with back pain all her life and still makes it a habit to run, cycle and hike every week. She has trekked through the Gobi desert for charity, and is planning to hike up ABC before she’s 60.
My dad started his business in the middle of a financial crisis, and has always advocated playing with your children, not just standing at the side of the playground and watch them play. Even though his parents never gave him any physical affection, he decided from when we were young to always hold us close and tell us he loves us.
They insisted on bringing us out every weekend, to East Coast park for inline skating, or to Bukit Timah hill for hikes. We all dive as a family, marvel at the underwater world together, and also climb mountains, windsurf, swim, do marathons.
The reason why I find city life so boring is exactly because my parents have always brought us outdoors, to love camping and sky diving, to love trying new adventurous things that might look daunting.
I witnessed how my parents spoke to people we met, with a lot of warmth and curiosity. They asked them good questions, gave them lots of interesting insights into Singapore, and were great company! They were never afraid of being silly in front of others, and could make conversation with just about anyone.
As we traveled together, all of us fell into roles we were all good at. Daddy at organising the bags and groceries, me at planning the itinerary and finding us places to stay at, mummy with making breakfast and injecting her laughter into our daily lives.
I began to view my parents as people, not just as people who raised me. Throughout their marriage, they’ve hit bottoms and struggled with communicating well. They committed to going for counselling and through it, learned how to understand each other better. They’ve been together for 38 years now, and you can still see the love they have when they look at each other.
It gives me goosebumps still, to see them so in love. It makes me proud to be their daughter.
This trip to Croatia was such a precious bundle of memories for me. It’s the last trip I take with my parents before I leave Singapore for a while. I don’t know how long I’ll be away for, but my parents have already said, “okay where are we going to next?”
I’m grateful to my dad and mum, for always being my best supporters, my best friends. They teach me that life is full of opportunities to better yourself, and this phase of my life was a great time for me to reflect and recuperate. They show me that you have every right to live your best life, if you only have the courage to dream for it. Because of them, I know that I’ll always be loved and supported. Love you, daddy and mummy, thank you for everything.