As young as nine years old, I had dreamt of leaving the life I was given. In my childish logic, suicide meant playing God and saying, ‘No, I don’t want this life, give me a new one.’
As I played with my lego and dolls after dinner every night, I let the thought of my imminent death simmer in the back of my mind.
How would I kill myself?
What life would I want next? The popular girl in school? Which one?
Nothing I did made me feel happy. I felt trapped in an existence I wanted to exchange.
Every other day I went to school late because my mom and dad had broken into a fight. About money. About responsibilities.
On the worst days, kitchen knives were used as props.
Screams, insults and death threats became a constant background noise. I could built a lego house with a nice garden and a swimming pool while a fight was going on in the other room.
The house I stayed in was one my father built with wood planks on a piece of land he rented from a local landlord. It was a big house with a workshop behind it where my father worked. My mother insisted on using wood planks rather than concrete because she did not want her precious children to break their skulls when they fall down.
Our living quarters was on the top storey and the ground floor was made out to be my mother’s hair salon. But only a few months after opening she decided to close it. She could not sustain the business after factoring in the high price of loaning a business registration foreign business owners had to pay locals in Brunei. As such the salon deteriorated into a makeshift storeroom for everything mom and dad did not want to keep in the top storey – old files, broken chairs, toys we no longer played with.
In that house I shared a room with my brother and sister that was right in front of the workshop. Almost every night the jarring sound of metal soldering would accompany me to sleep as my father and his workers worked past my bedtime.
Outside our room, a door separated us from our parents’ room. My overprotective mother had designed this so that if there were thieves or kidnappers, they would have to go through her first. But this design also meant that on top of the soldering sound from the workshop, my night time lullaby included the sound of the engine and wheels of my mother’s spinning tailoring machine as my mother worked into the wee hours of the morning.
The detached house was an isolated one, a forty minute drive from the nearest supermarket. There was a small mini mart in front of our house and nothing else for kilometres. We kids had no cousins or friends nearby to play with or parks to go to, so we entertained ourselves by playing with the cartoons on TV3 and the grasshoppers behind our house.
Sometimes when I felt extra adventurous, I would go into one of the rooms on the ground floor, hoping to find something interesting from what was left behind so long ago. I didn’t do this very often. I was too scared. The rooms were badly lit by yellowing lights that had hung there for as long as we had stayed there. Cobwebs were everywhere and there was a stench of aging and rat pee all around. Every time I went there I had to go back and take a shower.
But on one of the days when I was feeling particularly bored, I found my way into one of the rooms right next to the inner staircase connecting the top storey with the bottom. That room used to be my mother’s beautician’s room where she had imagined herself doing facials for other women. Now the beautician’s chair had turned from white to yellow and had lost an arm.
In that room, I found magazines from the eighties with covers of women with hair that I remember my mom use to carry when I was a lot younger. My mom had probably bought them to entertain her customers as they waited for their turn.
As I rummaged through the stacks of magazines, I found one that caught my eye. It was not one of my mother’s magazines but a yearbook from my primary school from years ago. I felt like I had found treasure amongst the rubble. I dusted it and flipped around to see if I could find anyone I could recognize.
I found my English teacher, my Math teacher and my principal with more hair and bigger smiles. They were probably still early in their teaching careers then.
As I flipped through the yearbook, I saw events remembered in highly pixelated photographs. Sports days. Club activities. I went past them quickly. There weren’t anyone I recognized from the photos.
And then, I found a section of stories.
There were maybe four or five stories in that section, seemingly to have been handpicked by the English teachers to have been good enough to be included in the school yearbook.
I skipped past the boring ones and ended up on one story about a nine year old girl just like me. And just like me, she hated herself. The only difference was that in the story, she had died and freed herself from her misery whereas I was still alive and in torment.
‘She was now asleep forever,’ the author had written.
I read and re-read the story a few times and then laid myself down amongst the clutter of dirty magazines. I closed my eyes and imagined myself dead.
‘How lucky of that girl,’ I thought. I wanted to be asleep forever too.
As I grew older, that story never left my mind. One day, when I was maybe fifteen years old, I read about an African tribe who would burn their tribe members alive in the belief that they would get a better life after that in the National Geographic magazine in school.
I placed a mental note about the ritual in hopes of finding it one day and then, if it made sense to me, burn myself alive too.
That is perhaps the reason why when my wooden house finally did burn, my first instinct was not to escape, but to continue sleeping.
How many medals and awards do you need to feel happy?
There was a season in my life when collecting awards actually did make me feel happy. I enjoyed being recognized for my hard work and I enjoyed getting more attention from my peers than I ever did before.
But soon enough, as the years went by and my cabinet filled up with awards and certificates from the most prestigious institutions in Malaysia and around the world, I began feeling apathetic toward them.
On the day I collected the Gold Medal from the Institute of Engineers Malaysia, which apparently was meant to recognize the most accomplished engineering student from each university in Malaysia, I gave up on collecting awards.
I realized that awards were never about the people accepting the awards. It was about the people organizing the award shows. It meant nothing. I wasn’t really the most accomplished engineering student. I was merely one of the most popular ones among my lecturers. So naturally, when an award nomination was to be held, my name came up among all the lecturers in different faculties.
I was not the best choice. I was the most convenient one.
I let all my awards collect dust in a shelf and in a cabinet somewhere. I don’t look at them anymore. None of my friends know what these awards mean.
I am debating throwing all them away. I think I will. So I can clear the space for some photographs.
I gave up chasing accomplishments, started traveling and found a similar problem
When I was 20, my biggest goal was to quit my job and backpack around the world. For a steady five years after my 20th birthday, I planned my life around my travel goals.
I took a job where I flew a lot. Whenever I could, I would slot in weeks of traveling. A few weeks at a time every month I was somewhere else but home.
One day, after almost 300 flights, I felt exhausted.
After so many hours on the road, I looked back on my life and saw a vast emptiness. What did I have to show for so many hours and so much energy spent?
I had nothing.
I tried to commit myself to projects that were meaningful to me but had to stop halfway because my flights were getting in the way.
I could comfort myself and say that, hey, at least I’ve been to all these places. But for me, checking off places was not meaningful enough to justify the time spent.
At the age of 26, I felt lost and disoriented. I asked myself: Is this what I want to do for another 26 years?
This was not what I had in mind when I imagined myself as a backpacker. What I failed to imagine back then were the sacrifices and opportunity costs I had to bear in other to make the backpacker and travelling lifestyle work.
At the end of the day, I asked myself, ‘Is this worth it?’ and found my answer.
I had spent too much time moving around and too little time sitting down and having real conversations, doing real work and living slowly and meaningfully.
I cut down my traveling by half. And then by half some more.
I read this year this note that changed my ideas about traveling:
Build a life you don’t want to take a vacation from.
I think, that is the definition of one kind of paradise.
It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy traveling anymore. I do. I love it. But unlike my 20-year-old self, I no longer plan my life around my travels. Instead, I plan my travels around my life.
The Boring Solution: Creating Your Life’s Work
Everybody is looking for a magic bullet. The one thing that can turn their life around. From mundane to exciting. From torment to bliss.
Ever since that day in that room when I was nine years ago and contemplating suicide, I have been searching for a higher meaning in life.
I tried to find it in entertainment. I spent a lot of time on cartoons, games, movies and found myself exactly where I started.
I then spent the time to build a cabinet of awards for myself, thinking that outside validation of myself would at least be more meaningful. I was wrong. This validation did nothing to make life feel more meaningful. They just make me waste money buying cabinets to keep them.
I traveled to the countries of my dreams… and found only a tiny improvement in my quality of life even after spending more than RM50,000 and many hours of my life on them. No matter how delicious the food and how beautiful the sights, if you close your eyes at night and don’t know how to love yourself, it doesn’t really matter.
So what does matter?
If you really want to know I’m afraid I will disappoint you with the answer.
But first, let me tell you something.
When I was younger, older people said to me…
Don’t chase accomplishments. Cherish your parents. I did not believe them. I spent my time building my awards shelf. Until I was 23, I never quite had a proper meal conversation with my family. Now, my parents are almost 60. How much time do I have left?
They also said to me…
Don’t try to be everything. Just do a few things you are good at. No, I did not believe them. I spent my time hopping around, trying to be a little bit of everything. Trying to taste a little bit of every world. In the end, all I had was a bit of this, and a bit of that. But nothing that was complete. So I had nothing to show.
In the last two years, I finally took their advice.
I finally put my focus on the areas that I feel I could do my best in. I finally said no to great opportunities that did not fit into my life.
I’ve never been happier and more content.
So what does matter?
Doing the work that only you can do. Leaving a focused legacy.
Being the person that only you can be. Not trying to be someone who you think people will like.
Living the life true to yourself without wanting external validation. Without wanting to impress important people.
Cherishing the ones close to you.
Being kind. Even when doors are closed and no one is looking.
I told you the answers were disappointing.