I turned 28 a week ago — a seemingly terrifying prospect for my younger self.
At 20, I was deathly afraid of growing “old”. The truth is I was so young that I couldn’t see past my twenties, the way children are terribly poor at guessing adults’ ages because they have no sense of time beyond ages six, seven or eight.
My twenties seemed synonymous with adulthood. Fearing I would never be legit enough for proper adulting, I chose to shun it instead. As an exchange student in Taiwan, where beer was cheap and plentiful, that was easy to do. When my friends turned down my nightly invites to drink around our living room table, I ragged them endlessly.
“Omg, stop acting like an old person,” I’d say, delightfully reminding my male friends that they were already 23. I know, I want to smack my younger self too.
Ironically, that year was also the first time I felt the effects of age. The only chair in my rented room was a plastic foldable one, the kind with no lumbar support whatsoever, although of course those words were hardly part of my vocabulary at that time.
After spending many nights on the internet slouching in that chair, I woke up one day and felt a sharp pain in my lower back when I tried to get out of bed. That morning, I had to prop myself up on the sink while brushing my teeth and inched my way down the staircase with two arms draped across the bannister. My friends were gracious enough not to laugh.
At that time, 28 seemed like a lifetime away. I might even have carelessly said that my late twenties seemed like a good time to have kids. Today, I still balk at the prospect of motherhood.
But surprisingly the older I get, the less I fear getting older.
The first night in Taiwan at the start of my student exchange was the first time I truly experienced winter.
By global standards, Taiwan’s winter isn’t even that cold. But that first night, watching my breath condense before me, I was entranced. I had only ever seen that in the movies. “Look,” my housemates and I giggled to each other as we walked to a convenience store, puffing dramatically into the dark.
Of course, I’ve experienced that many times since. Today the memory feels almost childlike. Yet I had many similar moments over the course of exchange, and later throughout my early twenties. Visiting California was seeing pop culture and Disneyland come alive, and watching Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe was surreal after many years of reading about it. Those days, I was still enthralled by the feeling of takeoff.
It was probably around my mid twenties that I stopped taking novel experiences for granted. Two years ago, on vacation with my parents in Japan, we stayed at a ryokan and ate an exquisitely plated ten course dinner, each dish tasting as good as it looked.
My mother cooed at the every serving and it struck me how wonderful it was that she could be 65 and still experiencing something for the first time. She’s a former stewardess and well-travelled, yet Japan found a way to surprise her. I wondered how many more times life would get a chance to do that. Anything can be bittersweet if you think about it long enough.
Travel no longer surprises me as much. On a recent work trip to Hokkaido, the cherry blossoms were beautiful and delicate but I had seen them more than once before. I watched my companions’ flurry of excitement as they filmed and photographed it, and remembered when I had done the same.
It seems pointless to say don’t lose your sense of wonder, because that feels inevitable. You can only experience novelty once.
Still, it’s not like I’ve seen everything in the world. There are many more peaks to scale and glaciers to walk on and animals to photograph in the wild.
The difference now is that every new experience has become more precious, more important to remember — not just what I see but how it made me feel. These days I make more of an effort to detail as much as I can in writing. The palest ink is stronger than the best memory.
Does this awareness make travel more poignant? Or was it more enjoyable when I didn’t have to think about enjoyment at all? Anything can be bittersweet if you think about it long enough. But growing up doesn’t give you a choice in these matters.
Having more/having less
I am far from rich and will probably never be wealthy, but financially I am more comfortable than I have ever been and if social media is any indication, so are my peers.
We buy Dyson vacuum cleaners and leather shoes and activewear that costs over a hundred dollars apiece. We shell out for experiences, whether it’s skydiving or an omakase meal. The subtext, of course, is that we are willing to pay for quality. But this willingness must come with the spending power to afford it.
Of all the things I miss about being a student, being broke — which, as Roxane Gay writes, is not to be confused with being poor — is not one of them. Singapore is an expensive city, the kind where it’s rare to eat a nice meal for under $15, and a night out costs at least twice that.
It’s possible to mitigate that with savvy use of discount apps like Entertainer, Fave and Eatigo; when I dine out I rarely pay full price for a meal if I can help it. Still, you need some disposable income to have fun and for some people that just isn’t the case.
Having more has made me acutely aware of the people who live with less. There are people who order Foodpanda, and there are the guys who deliver it in the rain.
Perhaps this sounds like a trite realisation this late in life, and perhaps I have known this since my early 20s and even before, but only now am I in a better position to act on it. In my younger days, trying to eke out every last dollar for my next plane ticket, I was less compelled to give.
These days I am far from rich but I do what I can. If I can take a train ride instead of a Grab hitch, and pass on that slice of cake for dessert, that’s 10 extra dollars to fold into the plastic cup of a blind man. Sometimes even this feels woefully inadequate, because inequality is a systemic problem and I am just one person.
I feel that this is an issue I will spend many years pondering, and even then not have any more answers than I do now. But in her recent release This is What Inequality Looks Like, author and sociologist Teo You Yenn writes that “once we see, we cannot, must not, unsee.”
Teo adds that “in the years to come, we will open up the conversation, we will deepen it, we will turn words and ideas into action. We may choose to act or we may choose not to.”
I hope growing older will offer some insight into this conversation and bring some understanding of how to act, so that when that happens I’ll be in a position to exact meaningful change.
As any (ahem) sensible person would realise, growing up means finding out how much you don’t know. I’ve been very lucky to meet various people who have helped me plug those gaps. Being 28 is being old enough to adult, yet young enough to have adults in my life whom I look up to.
A former professor coached me through the process of writing Stay Gold; a social media marketing guru explained how to get the word out to buyers. So many prolific people wrote endorsements blurbs for my first book. Sometimes I ask myself why these people, established as they are, make time for me. Sometimes I wonder if I am imposing.
Then again, when younger people come to me for advice, I never turn them away. At 28, I’m one of the oldest in the Travel Intern community where most people are undergrads or fresh grads.
They ask me things about crafting a media pitch or shaping an angle or how to quote for a freelance gig and I respond willingly, glad there are young people driven enough to seek the knowledge they lack.
“How do you write like that?” They ask incredulously and I smile because it’s the very same question I’ve posed to more seasoned writers.
Sometimes I see my younger self in them — in their triumphs and insecurities — and perhaps it’s the same thing older folks see in me. Perhaps that’s why they help me too, why they extend life advice that can’t be found in books or Google. And while I used to wonder what I could offer in exchange for their time, these days I’ve come to realise that advice well taken is thanks in itself.
Inherently we’re all willing to lend a hand, as long as somebody reaches out. In truth, maybe nobody has all their shit together, but we’re happy to help someone else figure theirs out along the way.
Where you are/where you’ve come from
Somewhere in the second half of my twenties, I began to realise that my peers are really freaking accomplished. Former university course mates have gone on to win journalism awards, radio competitions and found startups dealing with everything from co-working spaces to yoga.
It’s easy to feel inadequate in the face of so much accomplishment. Somewhere along the way, the people winning reality TV singing competitions and olympic medals got younger — or was it just that I grew older?
When everyone is moving so fast, it can seem impossible to keep up. To be a millennial is to constantly wonder if you are good enough. And in Singapore, where a mortgage, renovation loan and a five-figure wedding is still the norm, to be 28 is to also wonder if your savings are on par with your life goals.
Sometimes I get caught up in this anxiety too, until I force myself to take a step back and look at how far I have come.
In 2015 I wrote about my aspirations for a freelance career; on my birthday last year I wanted so much to see my first book published.
Today I’ve made both those things happen. The book launch of Stay Gold at the start of June was the happiest day of my life.
If 21-year-old me could see where I am today, I think she’d be pretty damn proud. I’m already 28 but the great thing is I’m only 28, and with any luck I’ll have many more years to live hard, hustle, work (work work work work) and make good things happen for my future self.
Here’s to the rest of my twenties, and all the years that will follow.