Even though my internship in Ghana is a time and place very, very far removed from my current realities of air-conditioned apartments, eat-all-you-can dining hall meals, sociology class readings, and white people discourses, I still think about that little town in the north of Ghana very often.

Written 1 year and 2 months ago, and saved as a draft post.

Dug up 1 year and 2 months later, because here I am in my air-conditioned office room, trying to map out my 5-year plan (a new year’s wish I made at Christmas), as the faint nostalgia of a floaty, drifty, meandering time of the past starts to set in.

Wait, wait. Hold on a sec. Was it only last year when I was still irresponsible and reckless? Wholly surrendering to my naiveté, letting it take lead as I made decisions based almost solely on how I felt at that instant?

A floaty, drifty, meandering time when I made decisions for a Long Term that only went as far ahead as one, two, three months later.

Now my Long Term extends to one, two, three years from now.

Graduate school, career, personal savings.

What, unsure, not enough.

Not exactly a bad thing, though. I think it’s when you’re so set on a certain path, when you don’t allow space for meandering, that you forget there are other ways to get to where you want to go.

Also, that word leaves a bad taste. “Career”. Reminds me of Snake and Ladders.

The Card

“It’s not love, and it’s not not-love.”

I sometimes feel like we’re in a limbo here, doing a dance in which one is confident and sure-footed, the other uncertain and stumbling.

We go through life expecting to be dealt with a few tough hands. But occasionally, life deals you with cards you completely did not expect, cards you have no idea what to do with.

Like this one card. This card that came in the form of a person.

A person who had long black hair and an undercut, who swore like a sailor. A person whom I thought would be right at home at Sungai Wang, hanging with the Cheena homebois. A person armed with a repertoire of Cantonese insults, to be used on any unsuspecting soul who dares step on her toes.

I had no interest in this person. It was a card that I’d leave in my hand, to be ignored and left aside for as long as I had other cards to play.

But then the game I thought I knew so well changed its course. We got stuck in traffic. And I found it harder and harder to ignore that one card, that card that all this while didn’t seem to fit anywhere in my game.

If I ever was mistaken about someone, this is it.

This card, my Cheena gangster, is in fact a sentimental soul who listens to songs written with emotions and pens poems about Love and other Feelings.

A person who still has a repertoire of Cantonese insults, but a rusty one that hardly sees the light of day. A person who makes people feel at ease, who jokes candidly with strangers, who makes an effort to remember names and faces.

Someone driven, with a destination.

Someone so full of love, with so much yearning for all things beautiful — art, people, experiences.

This is a person who chose to open herself to me, for me to discover her, and to discover life with her.

And in my game of life, I took the leap of faith and played this card.

This card that came in the form of a person with an undercut and who swore like a sailor.

I can’t yet know if I’ve won the game, but it has also been one of those games, you know? The ones in which you’re playing with the loveliest people and you’ve been belly-laughing non-stop and no one’s winning because no one is trying to. Everyone is secretly trying to keep the game going. Even though it’s late and you have work tomorrow, you couldn’t give a shit because you’re enjoying things as they are a little too much to want it to stop.

It’s one of those games where the process matters more than the outcome. And if the journey is beautiful, who can say that anyone loses?

Stay forever?

Winter break last year.

My friend and I spent a week in Des Moines with an Egyptian family who welcomed us with open arms, partly because they’re warm people who love visitors, partly because they have 6 children, the youngest of whom is 3 months old, and the eldest, 11.

They’ll readily admit that they need all the baby-sitting help they can get.

One boy, Peter, is four. The last time I saw him, I was a college freshman, and he, a happy, bouncy 1-year-old. Back then, he seemed attached to me; we would be sitting around the den, and he’d waddle past everyone else, stop at where I sat, and in clumsy footsteps, climb over my legs and onto my lap.

Three years later, he doesn’t remember me.

“Peeta, do you remember Joo Yan? Do you remember her?”

He shook his head shyly, and for the first day, all he did was stare at me curiously.

He watched me bake an imaginary strawberry cake with his sisters.

He stood around as I helped his brother turn a pile of pillows into a defense fort.

During dinner, he asked if I liked baked yam, and if I could spoon him some.

Then he brought me his favorite book, Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, and there I was, in a deep, booming voice, refusing to try green eggs and ham in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, as this tiny boy sits giggling on my lap.

Before I knew it, I was his best friend again.

On Sunday, we packed into the family van, all 10 of us, and drove off to attend service at a Greek Orthodox church.

As we were driving home, we passed a house that was having a garage sale. A large van was parked outside. Every inch of that van was covered in paint and multi-colored glitter. If ever there was a rainbow van, this was it. It was a little bit kitschy, and a lot of cute. The kids loved it.

The older children started shooting off questions at their dad, questions like, “Can we go out to touch it?” and “Isn’t it preeedy?” and “Can we do that to our van??”

The father fielded all questions with a single, less-than-enthusiastic, “Maybe. Maybe we can do that to our van.”

The response set off a volcano of further queries. “When?” “Really?!” “Wouldn’t it be nice to ride in it?”

And as the torrent of questions let out by the older kids continued in escalating decibles, a small, soft voice next to me, one that has remained quiet all along, suddenly went, “Joo Yan, will you come into the van with us?”

I looked down at that 4-year-old. He looked down at his feet, which were slightly sticking out over the edge of the car seat. Then he turned to me. The seat belt, a little too big for him, covered part of his face, and made him look tiny. His hands were clasped, his lips colored a glossy shade of baby pink by his mother’s lip balm, his brows slightly furrowed.

He was concerned!

He was concerned that I’d leave him.

And when the time came for me to really leave, because I could only stay in some one else’s place for so long, he grabbed my hand and tearfully asked, “Can’t you stay with me forever?”

Kids have bad memory. Little dude is not going to remember me a year later. Still, it broke my heart to have to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon, okay?”, knowing that it was more lie than truth.

I’m just writing this down so I don’t forget.

Oh, the mother of this family has now given birth to a 7th child, a healthy baby girl!


Granola cereal and vanilla yoghurt.

Granola cereal and vanilla yoghurt in large amounts, for breakfast, lunch, or late-night munch-time.

Granola cereal and vanilla yoghurt at 3 a.m. on a weekday to stay awake during an all-nighter, and at 3 a.m. on a weekend to satiate a drunk food craving.

Granola cereal and vanilla yoghurt, just because I feel like having it, because it’s my comfort food.

Sometimes, when I don’t feel like going to the dining hall and am too lazy to make real food for myself, I decide to allow myself a heaping bowl of granola cereal and vanilla yoghurt for a meal. And such a decision is always met with a little bit of excitement and a little bit more of anticipation.

Honey granola, oats, mini flakes and toasted pecans, with large spoonfuls of thick, heavy, creamy sweet vanilla yoghurt.

Having granola with yoghurt is one of my Grinnell habits, one among many that make a regular, typical day at Grinnell regular and typical.

I bought a box of granola cereal and a large tub of yoghurt from Tesco in the new Paradigm Mall the other day. More than just to have something in the house for my breakfasts, I really wanted to reclaim a little bit of my Grinnell everydayness.

The yoghurt here, I am sadly reminded, just isn’t the same. I forgot that Malaysian yogurt is watery, runny, thin. Tangy, sharp, unpleasantly tart.

It’s not just granola and yoghurt that I want, it’s the taste of combining that granola cereal with that vanilla yoghurt that I desire, that I’m trying, and failing, to recreate.

Guess it’s time to let go of this Grinnell habit. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Two weeks

Two weeks of school left. 13 days till my brother and sister arrive in Grinnell, and 15 days till they see me walk the stage during Commencement and finally get my bachelor’s degree.

How do I feel about this? I don’t know.

I am ready to move on to the next phase in life, cos college is starting to seem so old — four years of classes and homework, of weekday sleepless nights and weekend drunkenness, four years of complaining about professors and papers, of waking up on Sunday mornings feeling like a mess — four years of these is enough.

But I will miss this place. I don’t know how to explain the attachment I’ve developed to Grinnell — the college, the town, the culture.

Oh the Grinnell culture. So intellectual, so politically correct, so big on social justice, but even bigger on substance use. Naked. High. Happy to experiment. Safe bubble. All sexualities accepted.

I am, of course, sugar-dusting what Grinnell is, but I can’t help it, I’m two weeks from leaving this small place, and I don’t know when I’ll be back.

Graduation and leaving in two weeks seems so inopportune, because there are still relationships issues that should take more time to be dealt with.

Leaving Grinnell for the “real world” will be like leaving home for the unknown, ironically, much like the first time I left Malaysia to come to Grinnell.