I used to have a strange shoe habit.
When I had them on, I walked gently so I did not create creases on them. When I took them off, I wiped every speck of dust off of them.
I wanted to keep my shoes clean and new forever.
For some reason, 15-year old me felt that my shoes were so important.
Once when my sister accidentally stepped on my shoes, I didn’t talk to her for an entire night and an entire morning.
Her step left a crease and stain that I could not remove. I stopped wearing the shoes. I did not want to further damage them.
In my wardrobe, I kept my neatly ironed clothes. I arranged them by their colors and shade.
On the far right of the wardrobe, I kept my new clothes. They were meant to be worn during Chinese New Year, which was four months away.
Below the clothes were boxes of things that were beloved to 15-year old girls in 2005: idol cards, magazines of my favorite band, original CDs.
‘Wake up, there’s a fire’
I was asleep when I first heard the shouts.
I looked at the time. It was late. Why were people shouting?
Suddenly, the lights in my room came on. I covered my eyes with my pillow. I wanted to keep sleeping.
Someone shook me. It was my sister Lu See.
‘Lu Wee,’ she said, ‘you need to wake up now. There’s a fire in our house!’
I didn’t want to wake up. I felt tired. I wanted to keep sleeping.
‘Leave me alone! I want to sleep!’ I shouted back.
Lu See forced me up anyway and half-asleep, I was brought to the bottom storey of our house where my elder sister and brother were.
In a daze, I did not realize the seriousness of what was happening.
Up and down my father went to collect his things. At one point he came down, with his face plum-red and forehead covered with sweat, and said, ‘I think that’s it. The smoke up there is getting really thick. We should go.’
So altogether, we gathered in my mother’s car and drove out of our house. My mother parked the car in front of our house and we watched the entire house burn and burn.
I felt scared. All of us felt scared.
But for a long time, no one said a word. Everyone was thinking it but nobody wanted to ask: What if one of us was trapped inside?
About an hour later, the firefighters arrived. After some time, we left.
In the wee hours of the morning, my father asked his friend to house us for a night.
It was the first time I slept in a stranger’s house. I was uncomfortable but relieved that at least, for that night, I was not homeless.
The next morning
I heard a shuffling in the room, so I opened my eyes. It was already morning and I could see my parents getting ready to go out.
At first, I was confused. Where was I?
Then I remembered I was not in my room anymore. I will never be.
So I jumped out of the foam bed I had slept on and got ready too.
We made our way back home, hoping in our hearts that some of what we had remained.
‘All our fishes and tortoises burned to death,’ my father told us after he looked at where his aquariums used to be.
When I passed by the aquariums, I saw the tortoise shells but didn’t say a word. I knew he was sad. His pets were his beloved.
Then, there were our dogs. We had many dogs. Some of our dogs had been with us for more than ten years.
Yet, most of them burned to death. Only a few survived, and then some died later from their burns.
Each went their own way to look for the things they used to possess.
My mother found some of the crystals she owned, still beautiful after the fire. ‘So the seller didn’t lie to me!’ she said, ‘they are indeed real because they survived the fire unscathed!’
While my parents dug around for gold, I unconsciously began looking for our family photographs.
We used to keep around 40 albums, big and small, in my brother’s room. From time to time I would go and view them. This was one of my favorite activities to do at home.
I loved this one photograph of me and my siblings when we were between five and seven.
We were in front of our house verandah, playing stick fireworks. In front of us, a bright light and behind the bright were our smiles, marks of our innocent happiness.
I went to the area where they were most likely to be found. Most of the photographs had been reduced to burned plastic. But out of the many burned photographs, I managed to find a few remaining photographs.
But even then, I could not my favorite one.
I cried, even though I did not intend to do so. I was overwhelmed with what I had lost.
‘Please find pictures,’ I told my brother and two sisters, ‘they are important.’
The only thing that comforted me that day was knowing that at least, everyone in the photographs survived. So we can take new photographs together.
Having Many vs Having Enough
I lost many things in that fire.
All the notes I had taken to prepare myself for ‘O’ levels that year – gone.
The Nokia phone I left on the table beside my bed – gone.
The new clothes I had planned to wear during Chinese New Year – gone.
The shoes I kept new – all gone.
But strangely enough, though all of these things were important when they were still there, now that they were gone, they didn’t seem to matter as much.
I missed them only for a while. Then I forgot about them.
The only thing I thought about a lot were the photographs. They would become the only documentation of my childhood.
I became very fond of taking photographs after that.
What would it matter if I had many things, but not the things that I needed the most?
After the fire, I realized I needed much less than I thought I did.
I stopped buying things I didn’t need. I threw away everything I couldn’t find a use for. And I stopped collecting things ‘just in case I need it one day.’
All my notes and books from O levels, A levels and Degree – I recycled or gave away.
Shoes and clothes I thought looked nice but I didn’t see myself wearing them a lot – I didn’t check them out at the counter.
Books I read but did not like – I donated to the libraries.
These were all valuable things, but I found it a burden to own them. When I threw them or gave them away, I felt the dead weight lift off me.
I was free again.
And this is the reason I throw away everything I don’t need: for freedom.