Or How this Singaporean Chinese woman moved into the chilly North, the Swedish countryside.
My mother was raised on a village farm in Taiwanese. She became a nurse, met my father (a shipyard welder) in Saudi Arabia and moved to Singapore with him.
I was born in Singapore. I grew up in a small thriving city that became an international hit today. Well, at least in terms of the amount of coverage this 710 sqkm city state receives today on the international mainstream media. I was raised, educated and worked for 4 years till 2010, when I decided to study a masters program in Sweden. What a luxury in a first world context! I aimed for what most Singaporeans my age had in mind: higher qualifications would bring greater pay and career prospects. Unsatisfied with my then profession (laboratory work), I also hoped to switch career tracks to something more meaningful (public health). Little did I know how far my exploration of “meaning” would bring me.
I met my now-fiancé in late 2011 and moved in with him after 2 months. A bold move. (I’m Chinese. And I hereby invoke your ethnically-discriminating-stereotype-of-a-traditional-Chinese from the discreet-non-politically-correct-depths-of-your-mind, to empathize the struggle it was to practise such a taboo.) Fast-forward another 4 months, we decided to move into his uncle’s farm, 50 km from Umeå. In other words, we were moving away from the cities-of-opportunities to places where one may raise a red-neck family. (Hey man, when speaking from another generation’s perspective, it’s okay to go all out with prejudices.) My parents were hopping, hair-tearing mad. When they flew over to visit, we had such a bad time. When they left for Singapore, my face was a teary, mucoid mess at the departure gates. I felt like they had disowned me. (Which my mother suggested over email a week after.) It was a period of familial turmoil and uncertainty indeed. I was late on my thesis submission, staying on in a foreign land on a renewable visa, and uncertain of my career prospects (I did not even know the local language), whatever a career meant anymore. Most of what I had was intangible: my youth, ideals, the little in my backpack and bank account I scrimped my education funds. Toast — by narrow Singaporean standards.
Today we are more than a year into life on the farm. It was this writing I read that sat me down to put my thoughts together.
This is the 2nd time I have read it. That last time, my thoughts went straight to the fear of getting caught up in the rat race again if I return to Singapore. I first felt it creep up on me when I was home for Summer break: the first week was chill but by week 3 I was missing the space and tranquility in Umeå — the privacy of my student quarters and the wide roomy streets. This second read though, I am noticeably less anxious and fearful. I mostly thought about my life on the farm and why I choose to stay.
The decision to stay here, in Northern Sweden. on this farm in this village, is one I make everyday. To me, life feels like all its worth when I’m this aware of my life. I think about living with animals, not just our pet cats but also our chickens and rabbits whom we keep to eat. Animals wear their hearts on their sleeves. They are brutal because they need to survive, they are adorable because each has a personality. They are exactly who/what they are and they remind me of what life exactly is. Life is. Our interpretation of life and meaning is what our egos give it. In the great vastness of the universe and the infinity of time, what is the ego? Yet it is important to us with our brief 80-year lifespans to make it meaningful. The ego wants to leave a footprint, long after its shell has disintegrated and reintegrated into another form, many times over. Someone said the human DNA is the meaning, and the body is a living pod to propagate it. Or that humans only came to existence because the universe wanted plastic.
I thought about how I came to have time to practise and explore yoga and meditation. How important meditation may be for public health, as a way to get in touch with yourself. S and I discussed the other day, about it as a tool to let deeply-buried personal issues resurface to the conscious mind. It is perfectly healthy to suffer at the hands of your own personal ghosts, for it is through suffering that we find a way out. I suppose it is best for one to do this as early in life as possible. The subconscious mind is a dusty tomb where experiences came to die. Memories recalled by the conscious mind are but ghosts of our past. It is very important to spring clean and make peace with those ghosts, so they do not haunt us subconsciously. Meditation or quiet time, is a great way for calm and clarity of the mind. This allows for deep reflection and contemplation.
I thought about the tangibles and the intangibles.
How little money we really need to live well and happy.
How much of a mental struggle to persist as outliers. My fiancé chooses to work part-time all the time. I am unemployed. We are in our early 30s and we headed in the opposite direction, away from the cities, away from acquiring paper wealth and assets. The social pressure to conform, to contribute in tangible ways is both externally- and internally-asserted. (We have been groomed to police ourselves, wouldn’t you agree?)
On the plus side, relationships and ties are currency. Good ties with family and neighbours means accessibility to generous resources based on good will. We live on our sweat: we grow food and develop plans to expand our means of subsistence. In a society that bases value on quantification, the value of relationships and personal satisfaction is difficult to discern. How much do we contribute back to the society? (Taxation is the widely-accepted route, especially in Sweden.) That in contrast to: How is money valued? How valuable are relationships, good will and self-subsistence? (Will they become just an interesting accessory on our CVs? Good heavens.)
I thought about how, instead of serving the national army, young city-dwellers could serve their people by living and working 1-2 years on a family farm. Get down and dirty to the basics: where food comes from and who are the people who literally feed us. Work for free food and lodging. Study the political and financial system of the world and their own country in their down time. Ponder on life and what it means at that early point in their lives. Discuss at lengths with each other. Brainstorm on solutions to global and local problems. Take ownership of the Earth they will inherit.
The problem is not in a loss of direction and the depression that follows, but in burying problems and pretending that life is meaningful and happy.
This is why I chose to move out here. I wanted to get as far as I can from a system that sucks me in, drowns out my own voice and kills my creativity. What is this system? It is me, I guess. A worse version of myself who was stuck, confused, unhappy. Sure it is also mainstream media, consumerism, the 1%, our financial system, my race ,my gender, sure it doesn’t have to be me. But I’m not going to point fingers at anyone anything else because that means nothing. What I can do is to walk away and focus on solutions.
So here I am. I may not always know what I’m doing or why, but if there is a good life, it is this.