Two Ends Of The Same Decade

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I think this whole “end of the decade” thing is quite silly because in a way, time is arbitrary. Who decided that January has to be the start of the year? And you can pick any two dates ten years apart and call it a decade. And you can make resolutions for the next 365 days any day you want! But as it turns out, my brain is very good at partitioning the part of my mind that thinks all of this is ridiculous from the part of my mind that has been absolutely fixated on how overwhelming it feels to close out these 10 years in particular.

I suppose part of this stems from the realisation that I am not the same person I was at the start of it. Granted, this was also true the last time we wrapped up a socially-agreed-upon definition of a decade. I was most certainly very different at six and 16. But I think that’s why this has been on my mind. Because at 16, I didn’t really have a lot of memories of what my life was like in the ten years prior. I couldn’t compare the way I saw the world in Form 4 with the way I did when I was in kindergarten. I didn’t have a comprehensive body of knowledge of cringe-worthy things I said or funny things I did when I was six. Six-year-old and 16-year-old me felt like completely distinct people in that regard.

But I do actually remember what it was like to be 16. I mean, I still think about that year from time to time. And when I do, it doesn’t even feel like that long ago.

And so at 26, I have just realised I am suddenly a person with… I suppose you can say a person with a past. I know that sounds like dark and mysterious or whatever, but I don’t mean it in that way. I guess it just dawned on me that I’m now a person who actually has a consciousness of the prior iterations of myself, which I can always refer to and compare my present self with. I’m now a person who has made consequential, deliberate choices for myself. A person who can say I have memories that have stuck with me for over 10 years.

***

I don’t think many people stay the same in their twenties as they were in their teens because the years in between are often monumental. I’m no exception. Yet, I find the difference to be exceptionally salient and sobering.

The thing is, 10 years ago, the same bedroom I live in now was lavender and covered with notes on chemical equations and physics formulas and labelled drawings of organs that I was really proud of. I had just turned 16, and was about to enter the most important year of schooling for Malaysians. I was going to take the seemingly-life-defining SPM. Things felt clear cut: it seemed as though I just needed to ace the national exam, get a scholarship, get into a good university… and that would be it. It felt to me at the time like all I needed was to just steer my ship right, and I would be off on the right course for life.

The SPM exam was done and dusted with more As than I had hoped for. The scholarship was generous. Then I spent half the decade halfway around the world, where the good university gave me a very good degree.

But just over a year ago, I returned to where the decade began for me.

So 2019 was my first full year living back in Malaysia. And not just in Malaysia, but in the same neighbourhood, in the very same bedroom I grew up in. The walls are different now. I made sure of that. The school girl notes have been scrapped and the super girly lavender painted over in … I don’t even know what this whiteish greyish blueish colour is called.

But because I had vacated this place for so many years, when I came back, it took a really long time for me to be able see it as it really is in the present, since I didn’t really have a current, active life here. Everything I saw, I felt was tinted by the lens of my adolescence. Because that made up some of the last working memories I had of this place — some of the best memories I had of living here before I left. And in the years I was away, my mental images of this place became stuck in time.

In this way, I felt like I’ve been forced to get reacquainted with the old version me ever since I came back. I catch myself not only thinking about my life as a 16-year-old at the start of the decade but also, on occasion, even occupying her headspace. Think of it like returning to a room for the first time in a long time, and recognizing a lingering scent — but instead of taking in an old smell, I got a whiff of an old frame of mind.

I think wistfully from time to time about who I might have been had I never left this town. If you knew me back then, you might know I never really dreamt of living abroad and had more than half a mind to stay close to home and study at UM. I also picture what my life might’ve looked like if I had gotten married to a nice Malay guy with a super respectable profession, like 16-year-old me imagined I would’ve been by now (I used to think I would meet my significant other the same way and time my parents did, which is in university, married by 24).

And what gets me is not just the comparison with who I thought I’d be by now… it’s also this sort of longing I have to reconnect with parts of that self which I miss. I try to draw from 16-year-old me’s sense of connection to a community. I scour for the openness and generosity to give and receive warmth to others less discriminately, which I feel like I had and lost. I try to remember my sense of hopefulness (I wanted to “help the country” and all that good stuff), as well as feeling of accomplishment (an A+ for add maths for example, felt so tangible, so enviable, so promising).

But the decade had a lot in store for me which I hadn’t and simply couldn’t have anticipated. I wonder what I would’ve said if someone told me at 16 that this is who I’d end up being in 10 years. Maybe old me would be proud of current me since I went to an ~ivy league~ school or whatever (I don’t think I even knew what those were in 2009) and worked abroad and travelled to lots of different places and met people from all over the world. But I also think maybe that’s just because the me at 16 just thought that less was possible to accomplish.

In some ways I envy that old version of myself. It was easier to feel good or like I was ahead of the curve in measurable ways: by looking at what number I placed in class, how many extracurriculars I did, how many people said they had crushes on me. It’s more difficult for me to say whether 2009 me would be proud of me today because I didn’t really have a particular ambition. Many of my friends back then wanted to be doctors or lawyers or accountants. And they can now look back, pat themselves on the back and say, I’m a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant.

But me, I can’t really draw a line between where I was at the start and the end of the decade. For better or for worse. Not only in terms of ambition but also my sense of self and the world around me. The only thing that seems to help tie the two ends of the decade is this room, this town, this place.

***

Just a few weeks ago, I was rummaging through my old things. I’ve always liked to keep little memorabilia like ticket stubs, letters, photos, filter paper from my high school laboratory, chipped pieces of wood from floors of past apartments and hardened rubber bands from I don’t even know what. But this also applies to remnants of my life online.

Hidden among MySpace and MSN messenger screenshots and old photos and poems in .txt files was, to my surprise, a folder of nearly 50 minutes of voice recordings which I completely forgot I even had from 10 years ago. I listened to all the excerpts of conversations with people I don’t speak to anymore. They were the most inane, innocent conversations. (Why are penguins’ bellies white? What phrase of Malay would you teach to a foreigner?) But I was rapt.

I think a lot of times when we remember our old memories, we really only remember fragments. Our brain’s strong desire to form coherent narratives automatically fills in the blanks. So when I see photos of myself from 2009, or think back to my own memories from 10 years ago, I recognise with a tinge of regret that I’ll never know how true to life my images from those times were.

And yet when I listened to those old conversation recordings, I was startled when I discovered that at several points, I coincidentally thought of some of the same responses I said out loud in the voice note. It was like anticipating the responses of a friend you know really well. I even laughed at many of the same moments I did on the phone call. The same laugh at the same times.

That voice — my own voice! — felt like the most unfiltered account of who I was back then. And there I was in 2019, laughing in cross-decade unison.

With a deep ache in my belly, I missed 16-year-old me and the simplicity of the life I was living. I miss that version of me like you might miss an old friend you had lost touch with but often think fondly of. But I was comforted at least by the fact that there was still a tiny part of me from 2009 that persisted through the decade, and will probably always be embedded in me.