Where do you see yourself in the future?
In recent years, this is a common question that has been asked most every time I meet someone new. When I think back on the times I’ve answered this question, I’ve recognized an interesting shift in the way my answers have changed the last 3 years.
Had it been during my university years, I would have given a very detailed plan on how I envisioned my future to be. As someone whose passion lies in the Chinese language, I’ve always wanted to push for interest in the language and culture through media platforms. At the same time, it had always been my dream to work in the Chinese radio station I grew up listening to. This seemed like the most ideal way to kill two birds with one stone, and hence became a huge portion of my career plans.
In terms of personal life, I had planned to get married by 27 and have children, despite not being in a relationship. While there was no pressure from my family to start a family that early, I was idealistic, and 27 seemed like the perfect age. It was the age where there was financial stability, and you could start planning for children. I had a “perfect plan” of how I envisioned my future to be and I was determined to adhere to it.
However, my answers have become much vaguer in the past year. It’s changed to, “Let’s see where this takes me.” Other than Covid-19 playing a larger role, I’ve realised plans are not always fool-proof, which shifted the way I viewed life.
It wasn’t that the future was not important to me anymore. In fact, I held much more hope for the future than I did in all my university years. The shift had come from me realising that I’ve forgotten to live, while working towards the future.
I’ve forgotten to breathe and experience the present
At the age of 19, I left for Shanghai to experience a totally different culture and lifestyle from Singapore. It was a wonderful experience – I grew and learnt so much from the people in university, the small, but close-knit Singaporean community, and from my internships. There were countless opportunities that I grabbed onto, and each step I took, I was working hard so I could go further.
But then, the most horrible feeling came when I was back in Singapore. When I was asked about the most memorable experience I had in my life in China, I couldn’t remember a single thing. My entire mind just went blank, and it was as though living in China was just a blurred dream. While trying to sift through my experiences, nothing came to mind.
For a very long time, I racked my brain and couldn’t understand why. If you were to ask me now, I could tick a few things off my head, such as interviewing Singaporeans in Shanghai on their lives, even planning and hosting a 700 person event for Singapore’s National Day. I had achieved so many things during those 4 years, and I knew how much I grew. Yet, at that time, all these achievements were all jumbled up in my head, like scattered jigsaw puzzles, and it didn’t make any sense to me. That was a wake-up call for me as I could not grasp the memories I had built up in the past year.
Looking back now, I felt like I lacked a sense of security. The moment I stepped into university, getting a job straight out of uni was top of mind. Within those four years, everything I did was with the aim of upskilling myself in order to be competitive in the job market. I forgot that I was there to learn and observe, and that I was in China to experience the culture and lifestyle. In the midst of my own anxiety to hit goals for the future, I’ve forgotten to take a step back and truly experience the present.
I remember recounting these feelings to one of the DJs at the Chinese radio station last year (I actually did achieve that part of my plan to work at the radio station). What he said to me was really thought-provoking, “Why are you always so worried about the future that hasn’t happened? How will you have the energy to focus on the present?”
I realised I had allowed my uncertainty to control me, and as a result, I was on “defense” mode and wanted to prepare in every way possible. In the environment that we live in, it seems as though many people are afraid of “uncertainty.” We don’t like the idea of having something thrown at us, and most want to be prepared for every single battle, in case we get stuck. It is the uncertainty that breeds fear in us and causes us to be worn out in the end.
I probably would have lived this way forever, if not for the pandemic that ensued and my years of careful preparation went down the drain. The pandemic had caused major recession globally, and all fresh graduates were at a loss – we couldn’t find employment. What had caused me anxiety during my university years of not being able to be employed came true.
For consecutive months, I sent out job applications every day to no avail. It came to a point where I was mentally drained, staying up nights worrying about my future, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided to let go.
For the next month or so, I stopped thinking about anything related to work. I read a lot of fiction and biographies, started my own podcast to share thoughts on being abroad, and wrote Chinese articles on my reflections on life. I expanded my headspace to fill in creative projects. I still didn’t have a job, but I was much happier. The pandemic had unexpectedly led me to what I wanted to do, which was create, and focus less on the future.
The funny thing is that because I let go of my plans for the future, I managed to clinch a full time job later this year. The podcast that I was doing out of personal interest became one of the reasons why I got my job. It was surprising how a passion project became one of the things I was valued for.
Ending off with a quote by my professor, I have now stopped living for the future, and that is because: the present is the future. I savour every moment and feeling (even the joy and frustrations) of working on my project, instead of focusing on the endpoint of producing results. I have dinner with my family daily and laugh at all the silly moments we have at work during the day. I lose myself in the feeling of just holding hands with my significant other, and find joy in taking long strolls together, even if we don’t talk. It’s these current moments that made me feel that I could breathe again, that I’m grounded in where I’m supposed to be.
It’s not that the future isn’t important, but more of the fact that with every step we take towards the future, we need to be grounded in the present too because that’s where the essence of life really lies in.
Joanna Ng is the Community Coordinator at Oasis, by KrASIA. Her time in Shanghai has broadened her horizons and inspired her to share personal stories of not only herself, but others as well. When she’s not hearing stories, she’s usually pursuing her passions in the Chinese Language and Culture, and writing her thoughts on the world reflected in her eyes.
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