Work in progress: Turning 30, seeking answers

A quiet birthday as the nation claws its way to recovery.

I mulled over these reflections for a while because it feels like all the advice for 30-somethings and letter to my younger self kinda articles have been written to death, with varying levels of quality. Those I’ve linked are the better ones I’ve seen. 

But while the advice may be generic, we all relate differently to these words. Sometimes it is the granularity of an experience that makes it resonate. So this is how it feels to turn 30, in Singapore, fresh out of the Covid-19 circuit breaker.


I was 21 when I got my first real backache slouching for hours in a foldable chair on student exchange. Since then, it’s all gone downhill. I don’t know how the science works, but once you’ve strained a muscle, it becomes prone to the same injury. My lower back is now chronically twingy and I could recite a litany of other body parts that have developed new aches over the years.

A couple of years ago, I reviewed Daniel Pennac’s Diary of a Body, in which the protagonist describes his physical state from pre-adolescence to death. Up until his mid-20s, I could relate. Everything after that – backaches, forgetting, disease – shook me because I knew these fates loomed from a distance.

To be 30 is to lament the weakness of your body even as you know you ought to cherish the things it can still, effortlessly, do. 

Like virtually every other university student, I used to drink till dawn and then stumble into a morning lecture a few hours later. Now, the mere suggestion of staying out until 4am makes my friends and I shudder. We disband parties just after midnight and it feels wholesome, safe, healthy. Have we become boring? Maybe. But does it feel great when I wake up early the next morning for brunch and yoga? Always.

Because being 30 is also realising that, like a favourite silk dress or a precious piece of art, one’s body must also lovingly cared for if it is to last the years. 

These days I work out regularly and cook for myself almost every day, healthier meals than greasy coffee shop office fare, and for that I feel healthier, stronger. I still snack too much to have visible abs but after three decades, I’ve made peace with my body.

As long as I’m strong enough to climb mountains and hoist my own bags into an airplane overhead compartment for the next three decades, that’s good enough for me. As for decreasing my screen time, and sleeping earlier – well, one must pick their battles.


30 is a strange age, as I am sure my peers will attest. We are legitimate enough to head teams, host webinars and hold court among older and more experienced panelists. People I went to school with are now reporting live on the news. We meet at conferences, swap name cards, win awards. And we cannot help but ask ourselves: What next?

Covering travel is my dream job, even now, with actual travel halted by the coronavirus. I don’t dread Monday mornings and have spent enough time in the workforce to know how rare this is. Yet I, too, wonder what else there is out there in the world.

For 30 is young enough to wander, to take calculated risks. I still dream of travel but would love a stint abroad, long enough for my heartbeat to thrum in time with a different city. To put down, if not roots, then tendrils. 

Once in a while, this is the fantasy I allow myself: A studio apartment in a gentrifying suburb. Writing until dusk, yoga in the evening; alone at a bar, anonymous in the city, letting it shape me. This could be anywhere in the world but in my mind, I always come back to New York City. Might I take a different job or earn a scholarship? Then Covid and Trump came along, death knells to public health and general decency.

I visited NYC at 26 and swore I’d be back. I gave myself a few years to figure out how. Now, at 30, I still don’t have the answer. I guess it’s ok not to have all the answers? I tell myself to put my head down, keep hustling, keep opening doors. One day I will walk through the right one. 

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One morning, three weeks ago, I stopped by the Oculus on a walking tour. Tourists and shoppers milled on the ground floor, and light was filtering through glass and steel, but I was too busy marvelling to take a good photo. It was my first day in NYC, when everything was still novel and exciting, like storybook-yellow school buses and bagels from a corner deli. That day was a crash course in New York 101. I picked up a variety of touristy factoids – that New York was formerly called New Amsterdam when it was colonised by the Dutch, or that Wall Street got its name because the Dutch once built an actual wall there – but I barely understood the city. It took some time and confusion, but eventually I figured out the Uptown and Downtown directions on the subway, and learnt to navigate the subterranean system by map and memory, because Google Maps doesn’t work underground. In the mornings I boarded the train, coffee and kindle in hand for the journey; at night I fell into step with the evening peak-hour crowd. New York became familiar, in the way cities do when you’ve spent enough time in them. But how much time is enough? New York is a lover that does not give up her secrets easily. I sensed that I could spend any amount of time in NYC – three months, six months, a year – and still leave major parts of it uncovered. I promised myself that if I did, I would write every day, photograph every moment, record every possible detail. Do one thing every day that scares me. Make friends with a homeless person; take a naked yoga class. That was when I realised – in my mind I had already begun making love to this city. On my last night in New York I found myself in the Oculus again. It was a chance encounter – I was heading for the 9/11 memorial museum – but I paused and watched the same scene unfold. Dusk had fallen and the tourists had gone, replaced by a sea of black-clad commuters moving briskly, purposefully. In that moment New York thrummed with possibility. One day, I promised myself, one day I’ll make you mine.

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For Valentine’s Day a couple of years back, instead of flowers, Dean bought me a book-quet – a bunch of books – still one of my favourite gifts from him yet. I’ve read all but one of the titles, The Power of Kindness, by psychotherapist and philosopher Piero Ferrucci.

Quite frankly, at that time, kindness wasn’t a quality I strived for. I wasn’t horrid or evil, I just fell somewhere in the middle of the Hitler – Mother Teresa spectrum. 

I used to think describing someone as kind was tantamount to using the word “nice”, a pleasantry you dole out when you have nothing more compelling to say about a person. Better to be intelligent or ambitious, I told myself, while hustling through my freelance career. I used to pride myself on rarely losing an argument, and aggrieve partners with my reluctance to apologise. (Ok, maybe I was kind of horrid.)

Growing older mellowed my spiky edges. Being home with Dean 24/7 has sped up this process. We live in a one-bedroom apartment which means there is nowhere to escape when we argue – and no office the next day to rush off to either. Under the circuit breaker, I’ve learnt to take more deep breaths and offer more olive branches. Better a detente than a cold war. Sometimes it feels skin-crawly and uncomfortable, which I take as a sign of growth. 

Staying home compelled me to pick up the book again. One aspect of being kind, writes Ferrucci, is to do no harm, just like the Hippocratic oath. This means choosing to step away from gossip, envy or suspicion (barring extreme examples), something I’ve made an effort to do in recent years. At 30, who has the time or energy for drama, amirite? Ferrucci suggests that the ability to do no harm indicates a degree of self-assurance, in order to go against popular opinion. A practical quality to cultivate, with kindness as an end. 

I like the idea that kindness in its various forms, such as honesty, forgiveness and patience, is a muscle you can train and has the power to improve various aspects of one’s life. Goodness knows I could do so much better in some of these fields (patience! ha). Kindness over ego – I ought to keep working at this.


At the start of the circuit breaker, I made a list of all the things I’d like to accomplish, also known as the basic bitch lockdown starter pack: Bake bread/brownies/cookies (all of the above), do Chloe Ting’s two-week ab workout (gave up at day 7), organise parts of my home (yes), read more (no).

Also some boring things like study the stock market, clear out an old phone to sell, etc. No surprise that I didn’t get any of the practical things done. But I decided that it’s good enough to have emerged from the circuit breaker with my sanity intact and grateful for the things that have gone well even in this shitty year.

If you’ve stuck with me up till now, you might realise, as I did while writing, that this post offers no conclusions. Everything is a work in progress. I would love to have more things figured out but hey, this isn’t a job interview, and nobody has a five-year plan. I’ve emerged, after three decades, with my sanity intact, grateful for the people who have grown with me along the way. It’s good to be 30, excited, and hopeful.

Main photo: The Boudoir Photographer


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