Of Things Old And New

I’m back in my old hometown this week and I admit, every time I make a trip back to this part of the world, I am filled with bittersweet memories. As I rode the aerotrain that connected the arrival gates at KLIA to the main terminal building, I didn’t know what to feel. The first moment of setting foot on my native country was always confusing. What was it that I was feeling? I didn’t know for sure. All I knew was it was a swell of mixed emotions, a confused sense of familiarity mixed with strangeness, of relief mixed with anxiety. It always felt like this—this disorientation, the anxiety of not really knowing where I really belong and what really belonged to me.

Days later, when I disembarked from the smaller airplane that ferried me from KLIA to the small airport of my hometown, I was met by the red state flags that hung from the walls of the arrival hall. Seeing the gold shield that adorned the top of the flag and the two paddy stems that crossed beneath it, my entire childhood flashed before my eyes. Suddenly, I remembered all the things I have never thought to remember when I am living my life in Melbourne. Suddenly, I was reminded that some things still remained the same no matter how much I have changed.

The bitter-sweetness came when I was sitting in the backseat of my father’s silver Toyota Rush, looking out of the window at the inky night, marred only by the dim orange glow of the street lamps. Watching the shabby wooden houses with corrugated iron for roof sped past the car window, I felt a deep sense of gratitude mixed with sadness. Gratitude from knowing I have plenty, sadness from realising that not everyone else does. I am suddenly faced with the rude shock that I had been living in disillusionment. It’s easy to assume that society as a whole has progressed to a higher standard of living when my own life has seen that fortunate metamorphosis but when I came face to face with the reality that not much has changed for a lot of other people, I suddenly felt very sad. I also suddenly realised how lucky I was to have found my ticket out of that sleepy town.

I never take anything in my life for granted. Ever. Every night before I fall asleep, I sit on my bed and count all the blessings that is my life. I think about all the small moments of decisions from the time I was eight until my current breath, every person I have met and every opportunity that had been presented to me, without which, my life would not be what it is right now. I know I have a lot but nothing quite drives home that point than being face to face with people who have much, much less. To think that I had spent over seven hours sitting on the plane two days before, agitated with a lack of clarity in what to do as a next step in my career, lamenting to God why I couldn’t see past the options before me. Suddenly, when I was sitting in the backseat of my father’s car, that agitation seemed trivial. It seemed ridiculous even. I was lucky to be able to travel by plane. I was lucky to even have the privilege to agitate over which option to choose. Those were luxuries not many others could afford.

I know because I was once there too.

I learned very early on in my life that I had to work very hard on my academic credentials if I wanted to find a passage out of my small town upbringing. I knew—at a very young age—that I did not want to remain there. I did not want to live in a community that was content with no progress. I did not want my children (if I had any) to live amongst people who had no desire to venture beyond what they knew. More than anything else, I did not feel I could live within the kind of thinking that was firmly entrenched in the community that I lived in—the kind that was outdated and fear-based, one that judged everything that was new or foreign, one that was quick to come to conclusions or slap on a label on anything and anyone based on nothing more than gossip or rumour. But finding a passage out of that life was not easy—unless you have a lot of money. Money is the only solution to most of the problems in that part of the world—that and political connections. We didn’t have much of both. I was not born into an affluent family and we weren’t wealthy in the way one had to be in order to be able to afford an education overseas. Add to that the wrong type of ancestry and suddenly my options were few and dismal.

My only ticket out was through a scholarship. Even that was hard to come by as many large corporations that funded scholarship programs limited their pool of candidates to only a few selected elite schools. I was convinced that the odds were against me—I was the wrong gender, the wrong skin colour, in the wrong school and born into a family who did not have any connections. In the final months of high school, I often found myself sitting on my own, crying tears of frustration, feeling that my hands and feet were bound by shackles that were put there by fate. My entire future hinged on whether or not I could go to a good university and my best bet was one application form to rival several thousand others for one of only twenty scholarships up for grabs. I must say, I was very, very lucky. Fate was on my side. The white envelope that came bearing the conditional offer of the scholarship changed my life. That is why I never take anything for granted.

It’s easy to forget to be grateful for what we have when we are consumed by the demands of everyday living. For many of us, it’s easier to notice what we don’t have than what we do have. When I sometimes read other people’s tweets or Facebook status updates complaining about their iPhones not working or something similar using the hash tag #firstworldproblems, I am tempted to remind them that first world problems are not problems at all. The thing is gratitude cannot be taught, it has to be experienced. Unfortunately, for many people, it takes a tragedy or some monumental loss to occur before they realise the value of what they have.

Never take anything for granted, no matter how small. What you have today may not be yours forever, so give thanks for it while you can. Appreciate it while it is still yours. As the saying goes, gratitude turns what we have into enough. So, wherever you are right now, take a moment and count your blessings. Not only will it fill you with peace, it will also make you realise the abundance that is your life.

To Gratitude,

Chiao Kee

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