I STOOD alone looking at the horizon.
It was sometime in August 2011, along the Wellington waterfront. I was probably holding a kebab and a hot chocolate from New World, wrapped up warm and waiting for the early sunset.
It was painfully pink, with a slight tinge of grey creeping along the sides that encased the sea. The walk here was almost 45 minutes in the cold, and for the first time in a long time, it felt like what it was; a relief from the hustle of the cityscape, of metropolitan life, and above all, an escape from what I was expected to do.
2011 was my first year in New Zealand. It was also my first year in law school, and I needed to do well to get to the second year. Legal education in New Zealand is divided into 4 years of study, with the first year providing a platform to be accepted into second year, where “proper” law school began. From 1,500 students, 300 were to be selected on a purely meritocratic basis and given the actual chance to graduate with the LLB. In short, for every 5 students enrolled in first year, 4 students will not make it to year 2.
In the midst of all the competition, I had a mindset shift, an epiphany, and it was something to do with a state of mind where the more I stopped competing with others, the better my mental health was — and the better my mental health, the better I actually performed. Coming to an environment like New Zealand in 2011 from a relatively elite/elitist educational institution in highly competitive Singapore was for a lack of a better word, drastic.
Midway through that year, whilst I had done well enough in my first law paper, I felt a dreading sense of foreboding, that it was the only paper I could only do well in, and the rest of my time in law school would be “short, brutish and cruel”. I had spent the first half of the year effectively cooped up in my room, studying 14 hours a day, while my peers had a considerably more enjoyable time socialising along the common areas.
And then it snowed.
2011 was known as the year it snowed in Wellington, and according to my neighbours, that was the first time in 40 years that happened. Wellington was one of those cities by the sea, where due to certain atmospheric phenomenons, winters are not white, but wet, windy and cold. I distinctly remembered holding one thought about how lucky I was to be able to experience these sights, but at the same time, ruminating the fact that I was woefully unprepared for the fact that I needed to trudge to school across wet snow and sludgy roads.
It would perhaps be overly literary to speak of how a single snowfall changed my life, but it was close. I had been reluctant to explore the wider world around the confines of my room, much less the surroundings of the Kelburn suburb of Wellington. That afternoon, in the snowfall, I hooded up, grabbed a sandwich I had made, and headed for the surrounding hills.
For a couple of hours, I was disconnected, and for the first time in a long time, I was at peace with myself. Two things came out of it that continue to sustain today;
First, I realized that competition was inherent in life, and it was how I dealt with it. I could look at what everyone was doing, how everyone was doing, and how I was perceived by everyone else… Or I could just focus on improving myself, improving my academic performance, and achieve mastery for mastery’s sake.
Second, I learnt what it meant to live.
To sit in the outdoors with a stiff breeze in my face may seem like colossal waste of time for many, but to me it was what heaven should feel like. It was also a time of introspection, of self-mastery and a time of detaching myself from the vagaries of this world; its societal pressures and the infinite varieties of xenophobia, class discrimination and materialism.
I resolved to live away from all that.
WELLINGTON has a natural harbour and an inner city beach along Oriental Parade. The waterfront promenade overlooks the Rimutakas mountain range, and one can even catch a tinge of snow on the hilltops in the middle of Autumn. If one were to take a stroll along the waterfront on a bright and cold mid-winter day, one also gets a stiff breeze in the face. Late Autumn and early Winter became my favourite seasons. Hot cocoa made up a huge part of my diet, and running as an exercise became a colossal endeavour due to frigid fingers and ears.
For days in town, I would usually chuck on a cricket sweater over an oxford shirt, and layered up with a wool scarf and a thickset peacoat. In terms of footwear, brogues were de-rigueur and heavy corduroy trousers topped everything off. When it rained, I carried a windproof umbrella from Blunt, and it was perhaps the only umbrella in the world that could withstand the brutal winds that terrorise the city every few days. On days where the weather was bright and sunny, a blackwatch navy blazer was the go-to outwear. It made me look a lot more intelligent and cultured than I was.
After all, I was just this wee lad from Singapore trying to make sense of where I was, and where I wanted to be. Wearing clothes that evoke emotions from a Brooks Brothers lookbook was perhaps my way of overcoming this identity crisis that plagued me. Over time, it just became who I was. This was perhaps what they called assimilation.
Even today, 6 years on, a navy sportsjacket (in a summer weave) is still my go-to for anything that requires a trifle bit of formality and more importantly, when I need that additional layer of comfort.
Clothing choices aside, Old Government Buildings (OGB) was where I spent almost 8 hours a day. It is a terribly old wooden building that gets drafty in winter, and shakes during an earthquake. It was also where the colonial government in New Zealand used to function from, but now houses the law faculty. The cosy carpeted flooring used to emit this musky smell that startled me a little on its first encounter, but gradually gave me a sense of comfort and cosy warmth, especially on the coldest days. Having a tutor’s office gave me a home in faculty, for it gave me a sense of camaraderie and belonging in an otherwise foreign land. It gave me roots and a sense of connection to the academic staff, my fellow tutors and above all, it gave me access to the lifeblood of the faculty — its people.
Wellington gave me all that — a sense of style, a sense of belonging, and a very expensive taste for coffee and hot cocoa.
THE SNOW - It was that very revelation that gave me the building blocks of my values today. It made me understand that while life can be a competition in a shark tank of a world, it doesn’t mean that I have to embark on an endless chase of the elusive green light at the end of the pier. While it wasn’t terribly fleshed out then, nor is it anywhere near its concrete state now, it was a start of a thought process that rekindled my love for life, my perspectives on many things, and what my ideal life should look like.
Surprisingly I did well academically, and that was that.
Looking forward, 2011 was in a sense, a seminal sort of year. It was the first time I was away from home for an extended period of time, but it was also a time of tremendous personal growth. It taught me the importance of living a life where one can have the time to smell the flowers instead of merely looking at maps and wondering where one was in the grandest scheme of things.
It gave me a springboard towards how I wanted to live my life — decency, constant growth, and doing things the right way. Ten years on, these principles remain more relevant than ever.