Notes to self in the dark


I hit four and a half years as a nomad, three days ago. I like to mark these milestones, because days pass in a blur and it is frequently hard to remember which day it is without consulting a calendar, otherwise known as the info bar on my smartphone. Observing this occasion back in my adolescent bedroom, while a parent watches TV outside and occasionally says things like “aiyoh, girl, how can eat so much instant mee? Your hair all fall out.”

(This is a timeless vignette of Singaporean life.)

But for the first time in these four and a half years on the road, when people ask where/when I’m going next, the answer is “nowhere” and/or “dunno.”

I mean, I want to go to the zoo, and the Botanic Gardens, and walk along the river (yes, we have those here, concrete banked and managed). Regroup. Work. Read. Do some navel gazing. Go to the library. Watch the new Star Wars. Pause.

I’ve been here almost a month and a half on my own and I’m not chafing… yet. My world tends to shrink when I’m back home, taking its cue from the surveilled monoliths we work, live and play in. If architecture truly does affect how we experience the world, it would be a perfect explanation – this city of careful, glamourous walls. It isn’t that easily explained of course, but much of being Singaporean, is to understand that fear of being the loser in the pack, the weakest link. We’re not unique in this, but how we twist ourselves around to make sure we’ll never really fail (we’re way too qualified / successful for that, after all), that’s the fun of it.

If I stay here another quarter of a year, it will start to make actual sense. What’s the point of this endless roaming around anyway, when I’m not really achieving anything except proximity to bankruptcy, and diminishing employability? I took a stab at filling a job application the other day. Almost hit submit. I mean, I’m nearly 40, the expiration age, they tell me, to potential employers. No one will hire anyone old and useless.

If I knew what was good for me, I’d be getting on it. My window for having any face at all to save * is rapidly closing.

Besides, like my mother says, I should really start saving for my retirement.

* concept of upholding the family honour / dignity / reputation. More here.


  1. Mark Kinsman says:

    I’ve read this post many times, wanting to, but not certain how to, comment. I think the time you’ve invested living the nomad life has a very rich return in something priceless: experience. You’ve been more alive than most, seeing more of the planet then most of us will ever see in one lifetime. And you’ve done it with one whom loves you and there is nothing more precious than that gift of love. Treasure it, celebrate it by writing, photographing it and sharing it with the world.

    1. Charlene says:

      You’re absolutely right Mark. Coming home is always such a strange experience, no matter how much I’m looking forward to it. The mental rollercoaster is inevitable. You’ll be happy to know that this particular aberration didn’t last very long. I don’t actually want to stop traveling, I’m just sick of the rash of stupid decisions I’ve been making. But there is time to get on top of those yet, I hope! I appreciate your kindness though. Thank you :)

  2. Mark Kinsman says:

    I’ve ridden that roller coaster many times myself. Somehow inspite of all the stupid decisions I made over my life, it always turns out alright in the end. I recall an old building in the small town my college was located in. One night while a group of us were discussing the future and what it would bring for us, we looked out and saw the sign painted on the side of the brick building: Guaranteed Always Alright. We smiled and went on our ways as the sun started to rise.
    Whatever you do, do it with passion, it’s what makes life worth living.

  3. Charlene says:

    Now that’s a sign (oh how punny!). I read a quote a while ago that went something like: sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes u make the decision right.

    Can’t remember who it’s by, and too lazy to Google it, but it does get to the heart of the matter!

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