In a series of essays, Eunoians reflect on life, love, and loss. The essays were written in Mandarin, and translated into English.
As the saying goes, “Life isn’t a bed of roses.” Despite having heard this quote many times over, I still cannot help but grumble about my misfortunes in times of adversity. When I’d first started learning English, for instance, I struggled to learn all 26 letters of the alphabet. I often had to burn the midnight oil, writing till I was physically and mentally exhausted to finish writing a full essay. I had to constantly refer to the dictionary when writing, lamenting about my exasperating and difficult circumstances as I went. But in spite of the pain and suffering, I also realised that these were necessary challenges I had to endure on the road to success; if I couldn’t tackle them head-on, I would never be able to overcome those challenges. Smooth-sailing events will only stagnate me in my progress; rough times are the moments that keep me trudging forward.
Mankind has faced all sorts of trials and tribulations since the dawn of time. Some choose not to face these challenges head-on, hence failing to learn and improve in the process. Others choose to be tested by these hardships in order to become a formidable power. Mengzi once said: “Thou who is plagued with worry and hesitation is blessed with prosperity and growth; thou who is blissful in content will inevitably perish.Thou who is blessed with Heaven’s mandate is first made to suffer, tested by enduring hardships to strengthen thy resolve, and gifting upon thee unforeseen gifts.” A person who wishes to accomplish a huge task would first have to encounter obstacles, strengthen their resolve and renew their passion in order to reinforce their abilities. Conversely, a smooth-sailing life without ever facing challenges would lead one to grow content and fail to make progress.
Helen Keller’s incredible life story seems to prove such an understanding. She was born with numerous sensory defects but never gave up on life. Through her own hard work and some help from her tutor Ms Sullivan, she managed to overcome numerous odds to attain a Diploma in Literature. Despite being both visually impaired and hearing impaired, she held on tight to her strong sense of determination, allowing her to accomplish feats that others said were ‘impossible’; in doing so, she left a legacy behind her. After reading about her awe-inspiring story, I could not help but think: If Helen had been born without any disabilities, encountering none of the challenges she’d faced, perhaps her story would not have gone down in the books as it had. It is precisely the challenges and obstacles in her life and her determined character that made Helen Keller as inspiring she is.
However, the hardships we face in life aren’t only determined by our fate; a dysfunctional society can also manifest huge problems in one’s life. The Harry Potter series may be widely renowned now, but its author J.K. Rowling had been poverty stricken prior to becoming a famous author. She was also unable to find a job and had to raise her children independently. Rowling could only afford to write on tiny pieces of scrap paper, but never once did she bow down to her misfortunes. Instead, she persisted through writing and publishing her work, and was finally able to present the fascinating world of her imagination to millions of readers. This allowed her to not only become a famous writer, but also break out of the poverty cycle.
Similarly, Benjamin Franklin was also born into a poor family and had to drop out of school at the tender age of 10. However, that did not stop him from continuing to learn; the self-accomplished Franklin then went on to become an inventor, a politician, as well as one of America’s ‘3 Founding Fathers’. As Franklin once said, “Obstacles create opportunity.” The hardships that we endure don’t merely serve as a low point in our lives; they can also be a turning point for success.
Adversities aren’t something that only humans face; animals, too, have to fight for their own territory, escape from predators and hunt for food. They often have to face obstacles that their natural environment provides. This is explained in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution as the widely-known concept of ‘Survival of the Fittest’. In the ever-changing world of nature, competition abound; if animals are unable to overcome their evolutionary challenges and adapt to their surroundings, their species would be decimated. The species that survive are those who evolve in the face of hardships, and grow stronger. If these evolutionary challenges never presented themselves, these species would have never experienced the test of survival and evolved; apes would have never walked erect as Man. Evidently, adversities are the factor that inspires change.
Hardships are an inevitable part of life; everyone is bound to experience them on some level. However, what truly separates the victors from those who are defeated by their hardships is the crucial choice between submitting to your hardships, or achieving spiritual growth in the process.
Translated by Celest So Yee Suan 苏倚萱 (20-I4)
Those Unforgettable Days
In secondary one, I lived far from my school, so I had a full hour to immerse in my thoughts while travelling back.The afternoon after my first mid-year assessment, I counted in my head the number of semesters I had in secondary school. Watching the blossoming flowers through the bus window on the way home, my heart bloomed at the thought that I had just completed one-eighths of my secondary journey.
I had forgotten whatever happened before or after this, but this was the only moment that I remember as clearly as if it was yesterday. In those four years, those eight portions of time, how much had been forgotten and how much remembered? Just like the first time stepping into the secret darkroom at the back of the art room and soaking the film in the developer solution, what emerges from my memories is not the entire picture, but rather, fragments of it.
Towards the end of secondary school days, we were all very busy. I moved, and my new house was only 10 minutes away from the school. My travelling time to and fro school was almost 2 hours less; however, it also meant that I lost the time spent pondering in the bus like I previously did. I was so busy that I didn’t even realise that that had been the last of the eighths of blue pinafore days I had spent in my ‘second home, St. Nicholas’.
As I gathered the memories captured in the films, I realised that my bittersweet struggle with art had taken a huge part of the last eighth. Nonetheless, the days where art forcefully stayed by my side turned out to be my most unforgettable ones.
Thinking back about the art room, you could say that it was untouched by light under the spectator stand; it would be in complete darkness before we switch the lights on. The windows that line the two walls are always open, but the air in the room always had a trace of paint, clay and some kind of chemicals. The art classroom is stubborn – it doesn’t let light in but doesn’t let smells out either. In that very classroom locked the days of my youth, and the only gift I had gotten out of the generosity of the art room were the memories which I could bring along with me.
My memories relating to art seemed to be gleaming with a tinge of gold. It’s not that those memories were precious, but that for every art class, we would have to stay back in school for additional three hours closer to the “golden hour”. So, as we neared the end of the lessons in the evenings, the last rays of the sun always crept past the door of the art room.
That golden light was just like the lamp in the corner of the room that illuminated still life. I am still baffled about why the sunlight only illuminates a few tiles before the door, just like I’m equally baffled about why the lamp only brightens the still life under it, leaving the rest of the room in darkness.
Back then, we often scrambled to keep our laptop and art brushes after our teacher urged us out and switched off the lights in the room. Just before walking out, I would glance up and observe the reflection of the indistinct orange rays on the ceiling. We rushed out of the classroom under the rays of the setting sun, which made us squint and rushed us home. Those orange rays gilded the days of our youthfulness, imprinting the silhouette of our youth onto the ground whilst we unknowingly hurried home with the falling rays in our eyes.
The days nearing the end of my secondary school days might have been the longest time I had spent with my oil paintings, spreading the pungent and unwelcoming oil paints and turpentine onto the equally unwelcoming canvas. As I rushed the final project, time slowly crept on to the days of our last examination of secondary school. In the day, I would be attempting what seemed like never-ending practice questions. After school, I would rush to paint in the art classroom. I visited the art classroom twice a day, up from once a week. Overwhelmed with art and my other schoolwork, I felt like I was drowning.
The smell of oil paint and turpentine can be dizzying after a while, so I moved my easel from indoors to the space outside the back door, hoping that the fragrance of the plants in the backyard would overpower the pungence. Under my brush, the paint felt soft and slippery on the raw canvas. The blend of the paint, brush and the canvas seemed to make my stress from school briefly disappear.When the sky started to dim, I knew that the sunset would be waiting for me on the other end of the art classroom.
I finally submitted my final oil painting after months of struggling with it. At that time, my mind was preoccupied with starting my revisions as soon as possible, in order not to lag behind the rest. So, just like that, I bid farewell to the final eighth of my secondary school journey, not realising that this was my farewell to art as a subject, too.
To a photographer, dusk was a magical moment. After my final exams had eventually concluded, I flew back home to my homeland, China. I was strolling with my cousin under the golden rays of the setting sun one evening when I suddenly turned to her and said, “The lighting is nice. Let me take a picture of you”.
She squinted against the sun, looking at me in confusion. Through the camera, her face was gilded with a layer of gold, reminding me of the days when my artmates and I rushed to leave the art room. In that instant, the setting sun seemed to freeze in what seemed like an eternal moment.
Those were the unforgettable days.
Translated by Lim Ying Xin 林映馨 (20-O2)
You are my Youth
Just like the splendour of rainbows and the beauty of shooting stars, my youth was fleeting yet so beautiful. It was marked by your amazing hands, unwavering care, constant encouragement and so much more. Grandma, did you know? You are my Youth.
Grandma, your hands were neither extraordinary nor exceptional. As they aged with time, they gradually got rougher too. But these hands were always filled with warmth. In kindergarten, the innocent me always wanted to hold your hand. I wanted you to accompany me to school, and only agreed to go home if you fetched me. And this was because I liked how you held my hands so tightly while you told me the story of the Big Grey Wolf and the Small White Rabbit as you walked me to and fro school. Even though it was always the same animals, always the same story 365 days a year, I never, ever got tired of it; it remained my favorite story for a long time despite the many more stories I heard later on in my kindergarten days. “My grandma’s stories are way more interesting than our teacher’s!” was something that I often proclaimed to other kids at school. Grandma, did you know? Your stories and the touch of your hands became such precious memories of my childhood. I also came to understand that good begets good and evil begets evil. (And I know that the evil big grey wolf would definitely get his just desserts).
Grandma, your hands were neither extraordinary nor exceptional. As they aged with time, they gradually got rougher too. But these hands were extremely skillful. Since young, I loved changing outfits for my Barbie dolls, and you were their exclusive fashion designer. You always sewed dresses for my dolls, one prettier than the previous. To this day, I still vividly remember that white princess dress that you sewed ever so beautifully. The rim of the skirt was edged with purple cloth, the shoulders decorated with a handmade ribbon and the dress flourished with purple flowers that had gold rims. Somehow, the doll dresses that you made always turned out to be exactly what I wanted. No matter how complicated the design was, it never seemed like a big deal to you.
After the 2008 WenChuan Earthquake, I donated all my dolls and their beautiful dresses to the kids who were hit by the disaster. I can still clearly remember what you told me, “Many kids lost their fathers and mothers because of the earthquake. They don’t have a home of their own and need the company of these dolls way more than you do.” Grandma, did you know? I really loved every single doll dress that you made. However, I still chose to give them away because of your words. Thank you for teaching me what kindness and empathy was when I was still an ignorant young child.
Grandma, your hands were neither extraordinary nor exceptional. As they aged with time, they gradually got rougher too. But these hands were magical. To me, you were basically a magician,making sumptuous dishes appear on the dining table ever so quickly. Whenever you cooked, the aroma of the dishes never failed to waft up my nose, making me drool. Whenever it was meal time, my younger brother and I always fought to hurry to the kitchen. And when we got there, we would be greeted by the vast variety of dishes, leaving us completely clueless about where to begin. My favourite dish was your braised ribs, poached pork slices, hot and sour potatoes, salted vegetable fish and many, many more… Whenever you cooked, I would always have a huge appetite and a huge smile. You would always remind me, “Don’t hurry! There’s still half a pot of rice left for you.” Grandma, did you know? Your dishes were the best in this world,peppering my youth with mouth-watering aroma; my baby fats stayed on me way past childhood.
When I was 10, because of my parents’ jobs, our entire family had to migrate to Singapore, a beautiful country. I had to say goodbye to my hometown, my friends and you — the one who loved me the most. At the airport, I couldn’t bear to part with everything I had here, especially you. But with a big smile, you told me, “Singapore has everything. Study hard when you get there and remember to call me often.” Whatever you said afterwards was completely a blur, but I nodded non-stop, all the while struggling hard to hold back my tears; Grandma, did you know? Singapore has everything except you, whom I loved the most.
I could not have felt more alienated when I started schooling in Singapore. Every student and teacher spoke in a language I did not understand. Communicating with them was impossible. I was completely lost during lessons, and had no idea how to do any homework. I felt like giving up. Whenever I called you to complain about my plight, you always encouraged me with your gentle voice. “A tree can only thrive after it has experienced harsh weathers; one can only achieve success after they have gone through tumultuous times.” Your words left a deep impression on me. Whenever I was on the verge of giving up, these words never failed to dry my tears, giving me the strength to carry on.
Over time, I started to adapt to life in Singapore. I made a bunch of interesting friends, started to answer questions in class enthusiastically and actively participated in various school activities. Gradually, my life in Singapore was getting better, but you were not …… Your health started deteriorating and you started to sound weaker, slurring over the phone. Over time, we called less frequently. I started to look forward to and treasure the holidays when I could return home. I’d treasure being reunited with you, holding your hand and walking through the mall with you, lying next to you at night as you told me your story slowly but steadily.
“Grandma, I’ll surely be back next year! Please look after yourself!”
“Of course, I’ll be waiting.”
Grandma, did you know? I loved every bit about you, except that promise that you never kept.
When I was sixteen, you taught me one last lesson: we would never be able to avoid getting old and passing away… This time, however, you did not teach me this through your words, but through your actions. When I found out about your departure, my whole world shattered. I came to realise that no one can be by my side to protect me forever, not even you, the one who loved me the most and whom I loved the most. This realisation ushered me away from my youth and into adulthood. Grandma, your hands accompanied me throughout my childhood, bringing me so much joy; your words wiped away my tears, teaching me perseverance, kindness and how to treat this world gently. Finally, your actions led me to recognise that I have grown up. Although my youth was fleeting, it was never boring or uninteresting because of you. Grandma, did you know? You are my youth and I really miss you!
Translated by Andrea Yap 叶惠宣 (20-O2)