It’s been a while. Some life updates.

Hello! I know it’s been forever and a half since I wrote anything here (I barely even remembered how to navigate WordPress, to be honest). But it’s been quite a year for me, and I thought I’d take the time to share some of my recent life updates.

My first ‘adult’ resignation

I think most people who know me would have known that I spent the past two and a half years working at BFM as a producer on The Morning Run. Well, I resigned from that job several months ago.

I had been thinking of leaving because I felt like I had done what I wanted to do. Things day to day started to feel a little bit repetitive, and I just felt like I wasn’t challenged enough — like there wasn’t an avenue there for me to sufficiently grow in the ways I was looking to grow. So I took the plunge and left, before I even fully solidified my next steps (which, if you know how risk averse I am, is kind of surprising, but more on this later).

I’m very deeply grateful for my time there. I learned so much about Malaysia, about economics, how to tell stories through different mediums, how to learn new things quickly and how to work with others. Working on my microfinance piece and the one about the “lost generation” of COVID-19 were highlights. Helping create Season 3 of Rumit was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. And knowing that my work on The Morning Run day in and day out has helped keep thousands of Malaysians engaged and informed with the world around them every day has been tremendously meaningful to me — something that I know will stick with me for a long time.

I have always thought of my job at BFM as a form of public service and I know I’ll continue to seek that purpose in all my future work.

Me with my farewell cake that my friend Shin Yiing made for me!
Obligatory last day photo with some of my work pals!
Check out this amazing drawing my friend Lyn made of me! I’m never without my sunnies, so that was on point
The farewell cards I had commissioned for my team (my brother in law made them and I was super pleased with how they came out!!)
They’re gonna *kill* me for posting this but this was my last production meeting with my team ❤

My last day of work was May 24th. Coincidentally, it was also the day I received the first dose of my COVID-19 vaccination. It was such an emotional day! It just felt like such a benchmark of a new beginning.

After getting my first dose after my last day of work

Volunteering at a vaccine center

After leaving BFM (like, literally the next day) I began volunteering at the IDCC vaccination centre.

I had such a great time and I am not exaggerating at all when I say it has been an honour to have spent my time doing that. I think vaccinations are so important for us to be able to resume our lives safely and I’m humbled just to have been a tiny part of that effort. It makes me happy to know I have done a small part to help thousands of people stay healthy, and to make that process as pleasant as I possibly can.

Me at the IDCC vax center with the dorky government-supplied vest for volunteers lol

The other reason I loved the experience was that, in many ways, the life I lead is so segregated. My neighbourhood, my grocery store, my friends… they’re all within a bubble of this upper middle class, progressive Malaysia. But the people who come for vaccinations truly come from all walks of life — rich, poor, of every race, age and profession (teachers, hawkers, dato sris, business owners, fund managers, actors, Grab drivers, footballers, retirees, priests, even Latheefa Koya and Amy Search). It’s a little corny but my brief conversations with them have taught me so much and helped me appreciate the diversity around me. I even picked up a few words in Chinese. And it makes me so happy to be able to connect with such a wide range of Malaysians, which is something don’t get to do regularly.

Morning briefing with all the volunteers

I tested positive for COVID-19

And if you kept up with the news, I think you probably know what happened next. I unfortunately was one of the more-than-200 volunteers who caught the virus in early July. Anyone I worked with there would have been able to tell you that I took all the precautions — I double masked, wore a face shield everyday and sanitised my hands ’til they cracked. And yet I still got it.

Alhamdulillah, I was asymptomatic and felt perfectly healthy the entire time I spent quarantining. My viral load was really low, too. In fact, the evening I found out my results, I had just spent over an hour playing badminton and Active Arcade with my family. I even climbed onto my roof to grab a shuttlecock. I am certain that being partly vaccinated helped. I’m also confident that’s what helped ensure I didn’t pass it to any of my family members, despite the fact that we live together, eat together and spend quite a lot of time together. That was a huge relief, and I’m super grateful for that.

Checking my oxygen levels everyday

Despite getting infected though, if given a choice to go back in time and decide again whether or not to volunteer, I would have made the same choice. It was unfortunate that I had to quarantine, but I am also privileged with good health and ample space at home. Plus, I am financially secure enough to be able to volunteer my time and spend 10 days at home without work. I believe it’s my responsibility to use these privileges to benefit others, and I think the risk was worth it for me, given my specific circumstances. And again, like I said, being able to help other Malaysians get vaxxed was really an honour for me.

I also want to say sorry to all the people I didn’t tell. I really didn’t want to answer questions about it, or have anyone take pity on me. It really bothered me to think that other people would be discussing my condition, or just talking about me. I really just didn’t want anyone to be talking about me and I hope you understand! COVID is such a tricky thing because with contact tracing and the need for support (because the rules can be so confusing and whatnot) it can be so difficult to maintain privacy, but I really really just wanted as much privacy (and normalcy, honestly!) during that time.

I am really thankful to my parents and my sister Julia who kept me fed and comfortable all the days I spent locked up in my room. Thank you also to everyone who sent me snacks and treats while we were stuck at home. Some people did small rounds of groceries for us. I’m also grateful for each one of my friends and family members who video called me, sent me tiktoks, Netflix partied with me or sent me songs to play on my ukulele I really can’t repay everyone enough. Your generosity means so much to me.

Modern Family was my best friend
Had to set up a mini desk in my room because I had no where else to work
I really cried tears laughing during this game of skirbbl.io
My *pathetic* drawing skills
At the Covid Assessment Center
What I looked like when I went to the CAC to get my release letter from home quarantine lol

I’m going to attend Columbia Journalism School

In March, I was accepted into Columbia to do an M.S. in Journalism. If you knew me in 2017, you might know I’ve been saying I wanted to do it for ages. At first, it was supposed to happen a year after I moved back to Malaysia. But a year slowly turned into two, and then three. When the December 2020 deadline rolled around, I nearly didn’t apply just because I was lazy to write a few essays. It sounds silly, but I was so tired with work and all of that. Plus, I had actually gotten into another program in the UK earlier that month. In the end, I wound up deciding to give it a shot anyway so I put together the entire application in less than a day (!) and I’m so glad I did.

Columbia when I visited a few years ago

I’m really excited and I think in the end it happened at the right time. I found out that I got accepted on March 17th. But after that, it was a long stressful few months while I tried to figure out my funding situation. Columbia provided me with some financial aid and while I am grateful for it, at the end of the day, it was a tiny fraction. And without sponsorship I would honestly have had to turn it down. I applied for scholarships, sat for round after round of tests and interviews and for a while, I didn’t know if it would come together. Khazanah turned me down after a few rounds. I did Yayasan Dayadiri and got pretty far along but they were only going to give me a decision by mid-July, but I would have needed to start my visa application process by late June in order to arrive in time for the program. I didn’t qualify for many other scholarships because so few of them were willing to sponsor a Journalism student. In the end, alhamdulillah, I managed to get MARA’s help (again, I might add — without them, I also would not have been able to go to Penn).

It came to the point where I was ready to let it go, honestly. I was concurrently applying for jobs in case it didn’t work out (since I had already quit my BFM job earlier in the year) and some of those other options were actually quite exciting! Also, I had really come to love my life in Malaysia… and with that life being more or less on hold for the past year or so due to lockdown after lockdown, I really just missed it and wanted to see all my friends again.

Ultimately though, I’m glad I decided to do my Masters at a time when I was actually pretty satisfied with life here because that helped me feel quite prepared to accept whatever the eventual outcome might have been. I’m glad I’m not making this decision out of an urge to run away from my job, or because I was unhappy here for whatever reason, or to run back to an old life — it just simply felt like the right thing to do at the right time.

Those closest to me will know it took a village to make this happen. My parents and sisters helped me a lot with my Visa applications, logistics of getting my passport renewed in the middle of a total lockdown, taking a passport photo at home since all the shops were closed. I’m deeply grateful for my Uncle Asaraf — without his help, I wouldn’t have been able to apply for a visa since MARA’s letter came quite late. I’m grateful to my former bosses, Shou Ning, Noelle, Melisa, Caroline etc for taking a chance on me and nurturing me these past 3 years – I’m absolutely certain the experience made me a stronger candidate. My former editor, Neva, political science professor Mark Pollack and most recent supervisor Wong Shou Ning graciously wrote my recommendation letters. My friend Q helped me so much in navigating the scholarship application process and I’m so grateful I had her on my side.

You need to bring proof that you have a valid reason to renew your passport but if you can do that, I recommend doing it now because usually the Immigration HQ office is so packed but there was only one other family there that day!

My mum’s cousin, my Mak Long Eza and my neighbour/friend’s mum, Aunty Raz, helped me tremendously with completing my MARA agreement in the middle of a lockdown when I can’t easily get documents certified. I really really hate COVID for making errands that were annoying before (like going to the post office, LHDN, or commissioner of oath) a pure pain now. But we managed to get all my documentation done with everyone’s help.

So many people also talked to me about job opportunities that I might have liked to take had the Columbia thing fallen through — the potential of these backup plans helped me sleep at night while I navigated the uncertainties. Philip See and Rahmah Pauzi were some of my best supporters. And I know that all my family members and dearest friends (I can’t name everyone! And anyway this isn’t the Oscars!) kept me in their prayers during this stressful time, and I really just cannot thank them enough for that.

Moving to New York

I also want to shoutout to … myself, honestly (lol) for juggling all the nightmarish logistics of moving across the world amidst a global pandemic.

No one ever told me how difficult it is to rent an apartment in New York City. It’s so unlike anything I saw in DC or Philly, where I lived previously. You have to be able to prove (with tax returns, bank statements, employment letters and pay slips) that you have an annual income 40x the monthly rent. So naturally, most students won’t be able to do that and have to rely on a guarantor. Guarantors need to prove that they make 80x the monthly rent in annual income (with all the same documentation). The catch is that if you’re an international student, you likely won’t have someone in the US who would be able to do that for you. There were third party guarantors (corporate ones) that would act as a guarantor on people’s behalf, but in the end you wind up paying more and that sucks when you’re on a student budget, right. Anyway, I’m super lucky and grateful because a dear friend of mine (who I guess I won’t name just for privacy?) agreed to help me out and be my guarantor.

But the pinning down an apartment was a whole lot of work too. I spent hours and hours in the middle of the night (yay 12 hour time difference!) viewing apartments virtually and doing roommate interviews. There was lots of nights while I was on quarantine where I was up at 3 a.m. discussing security deposits and all that good stuff. It took me 3 weeks before I found a place but I’m very happy with how things worked out.

My unamused face at 1 a.m. doing an apartment viewing

Getting a US Visa in the middle of a pandemic was also a concern, because I needed to cross district lines to make my appointment, and I wasn’t even sure I could get an appointment on such short notice since I had heard that the embassy was taking emergency/citizen appointments only. But that all worked out too, alhamdulillah.

The only photo I took in KL on the way to my US embassy appointment and probably my last in a long time 😦

Of course these are just the main things. But that’s pretty much all the updates I wanted to share today!

It’s pretty downright sucky that I have to leave in the middle of a pandemic. My friend Fahmida said recently “I don’t want to make new friends, I just want to see the friends and family I already have” and I totally feel the same way right now. I already miss all my friends and family. To miss them more now, just sucks. But inshaAllah I’ll be home before long and I’m praying those will be better times for us all.

All in all, 2020 was a time of a lot of stagnation. And 2021, in some ways, brought even more grief and heartbreak but thankfully, also a lot of hope. It’s crazy for me to think about how much has changed for me in the past 6 months or so. I guess sometimes a bit of stagnation can really get you going, no? This is the most hopeful, excited and optimistic I’ve felt in a very long time and I honestly pray the same for all of you.

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.