At the request of my friends who are curious about my Singapore life in the military, I figure it’s time I compile a list of the things I have learned from this experience to give y’all a glimpse. This list is not as comprehensive as I’d like it to be, but I hope it’s enough to give all my readers some courage to think about their own lives and confront their own experiences in a personal way.
1. Hair is both so unimportant yet so important.
I didn’t think I was going to have a problem with a shaving my head. But as soon as it was done, something inside of me just collapsed. It’s a weird feeling realizing that everyone around has the exact same hairstyle as you in basic military training, except for those who hold military ranks. The buzzed hair is definitely not done for hygienic reasons as army folks may tell you, it’s there to break you completely so that the military can build discipline in you after you’ve been knocked down to the bottom, almost like an animal. It’s a strange feeling when you look into the mirror and realize you don’t recognize who you are for the first time. Yet I must say, over time, you get used to it. You learn to rock it or to hide it. I chose to rock it. But to this day, I admire those, especially women, who dare to rock the buzz cut fearlessly. It takes a certain amount of self-confidence and dignity. Below is a pic where my head was used for an art project on constellations.
2. Fashion is a statement, and wearing a uniform everyday is not for me.
I enjoy shopping. I enjoy using fashion and the clothes I wear to express my personality and character freely. The colors or the combination of clothing I put together for the day somehow defines how I want to feel that day. That being said, I really did not enjoy wearing the same camouflage green day in and day out. I couldn’t even decide for myself if I wanted the sleeves rolled up or down. It’s boring to me and I felt a little suffocated in my own form of artistic embodiment. However, I did learn the beauty in fashion identity. I became more sensitive to what people wore and on the weekend I enjoyed watching people and studying the way they dress. I started questioning and investigating the idea of individual fashion statements. Some people dress for comfort, others dress to show off a part of themselves that they love. Some know how to hide the parts of themselves they dislike…colors can often reflect their moods, etc.
3. The world is full of amazing creatures, some are often terrifying.
One of the most terrifying times I ever endured was when I had to survive out in the jungle of Brunei for a couple of days. Apart from learning how to survive out in the wild and swimming across rivers, I learned that this world is so incredibly full of awesome and beautiful fauna and flora, but some of them are honestly NASTY. I didn’t know ants could get up to the size of my pinky. Cicadas were the size of one’s palm. Crocodiles are more pissy if they are pregnant. Plants can have thorns longer than the width of their trunks. Scorpion stings can create crazy boils on the skin surface. Hornets really do follow people…etc. It’s all real, but it’s all the more beautiful in an ugly pretty way. (Here's a picture of a cicada in Brunei... one of these things literally flew into the fan in my bunk and splattered across the room)
4. Singapore is efficient and amazing. Like everyone should visit this country at least once before you die.
The perks of living in Singapore on the weekends are plenty. In fact, during my time in Singapore, I was spoiled by how efficient everything was. The metro was clean and came every 3 minutes. You can pretty much grab a taxi anywhere in Singapore. There are ATMs in almost every street corner and metro station. Singapore also has these ezlink cards which are essentially cards that allow you to tap on to almost any public transportation and pay for food in some instances. Services in Singapore are done super quickly and at top quality. All you do is grab a number, watch the screen show your number, talk to someone and fill up some forms, and generally wait for a few processing days, and then BAM…done. And food…. I swear you can stand anywhere in Singapore, make a 360 degree spin and find somewhere with delicious and international food.
5. Your mind can push your body to extremes and you’ll amaze yourself with how far you can go.
Simply put, I entered the Singapore Armed Forces with very bad physical fitness. I failed 3 of the 5 assessments. However, perhaps with the determination in my head to not think about how much I missed my home, I focused all my energy to improving my physical fitness. Within 4 months, I went from failing the fitness test to getting a gold standard. My 2.4km time went from 13 minutes down to 9.33 minutes. One year later, I never realized I could complete a half marathon. On another note, there was one time where I literally had 3 days to conduct research on military law, interview a man in military detention barracks, and write up a report and represent the guy in military court. Oh yeah, and I had to lead like a dozen men around a wild jungle for 4 days with only five hours of sleep on the previous night. Yup, those were the glory days… but in any case, it taught me that diligence and hard work can and will pay off.
6. There will be moments where I will feel completely alone. It’s not only okay, but it’s something we must learn to accept.
I remember my 19th birthday was spent prowling in the jungle of Thailand while it rained. That was one of the saddest moments of my life. I remember picturing my family. I remember wondering how many people even remembered it was my birthday that day. I could only feel the cold rain and the cold isolation. In the military, there are so many instances where one can feel so lonely. Due to time zone differences and my strict training schedule, it was a challenge finding time to call my family or staying in touch with friends. But I learned that crying a little and admitting that you feel lonely is better than beating yourself up for feeling weak. Today I realize that I wasn’t weak. I was strong enough to confront my loneliness. Those moments of loneliness made me stronger. It taught me that loneliness is unavoidable. Sometimes one can feel even lonelier being surrounded by people. But most importantly, it taught me to be grateful for the moments when you are not alone.
7. Leadership is leading by example and it's a huge responsibility...
One of the most crucial lessons in my life thus far is understanding the true meaning of leadership. I feel like compared to High School, where leadership is just simply holding a title and putting it on a resume and trying to show your classmates what it means to “represent” your friends or class, being a leader in the military means you are willing to put yourself in uncomfortable situations for those that you serve. You have to be the one to carry the 30L of water for your men. You have to work alongside them when they sweat. You have to take ownership over their mistakes. Leadership doesn’t always come with honor. Honor comes when you’ve earned the respect of those you serve. Honor comes with compassion, understanding and sacrifices.
8. Independence is so fun!
During my time in the military, I realized independence is amazing. I was able to explore different neighborhoods every day. I saw some amazing bars and performances. I attended 2 overnight large EDM beach parties on Sentosa beach. I was able to travel and had the privilege of seeing Angkor Wat and Taiwan using my own hard-earned money. I was on my own schedule. I was my own boss.
9. Independence is so hard!
Independence isn’t always fun. Paying bills and checking your bank account can be pretty stressful as well, especially before going into college. You also have to do laundry, feed yourself and figure out which friends you want to see and how to use the little bit of free time you do have on the weekends.
10. Don’t ever settle for a job that even pays well.
As much as I have learned some awesome skills such as blowing up bridges, operating different guns, stripping a weapon, and knowing how to mitigate a chemical threat should it arise, I realize the military just wasn’t for me. I was honored to lead men and honored to train alongside such strong and talented individuals. I was honored to serve as a lieutenant in the army but in the end, I know if it came down to a point where I must shoot someone in the head to gain victory for my country, I am unsure if I can pull that trigger. To this day, I am inspired by all those who have the personal conviction to serve in the military. However, my military experience taught me that no matter how much the army is willing to pay me, I will rather do something else to seek my own happiness.
11. Friendships come and go, but real friends don’t take daily maintenance but are there even when they seem invisible.
This is inevitable. Since I was young, I was used to being uprooted. From moving from Singapore then to Tulsa, then to a boarding school and subsequently the Singapore army…I realized friendships do fade. It’s not such a sad thing…nor is it a beautiful thing. It’s simply a fact in life, no doubt a very hard fact of life.I learn that people go through different phases in life over time. While I was in Singapore, I had friends who graduated from college, friends who just entered college and are having a blast, friends who got married, etc. As a result, there will be less in common with them. There were just things that I could no longer talk to them about. There were struggles that I felt that they couldn’t comprehend and vice versa. However, the great thing life is that you can always make new friends wherever you go, friends that share the same phase in life with you. Even if you say goodbye to them, you can always treasure and be grateful for the time you had spent with them.
12. Making friends isn’t that hard if you learn to appreciate people for who they are and know that you aren’t the center of the universe.
I remember that in the beginning of my experience in Singapore, I literally had no real friends. Everything and everyone was still kind of foreign to me. I couldn’t even understand the Malay commands or local colloquialism. On one evening, I decided to go out, and it was on the metro that I saw a group of flamboyant and energetic Australians (they were wearing outfits with the Australian flag). I remember I lowered my own ego, took up the courage, disregarded the fact that I had a prickly cactus head, and started a friendly conversation. Let’s just say we ended up going to a bar that night together to celebrate Australia Day and to this day, we are still facebook friends.
13. Goodbyes are hard.
They are so hard. Holding back tears on the plane leaving Singapore was hard. That was the point in my life when I realized I really may not see some of those people that have gone through so many struggles with me again anytime soon, or perhaps ever. Upon reaching back home, it was a struggle holding back the tears as I read the letters, cards and signed booklets that my friends shared with me. Goodbye never felt so bittersweet. Being back in the US felt like I had lived a double life. My American friends didn’t know anything or anyone from my life in Singapore, and the same was true vice versa. I felt like there were two stories in my own existence.
14. Always be grateful because the moment something is over, it’s over for good.
I remember the entire experience in Singapore was extremely painful for me. I repeatedly try to deny the fact that I was in Singapore serving in the military, choosing to erase many photos of my time in the military out of pure denial… but that was perhaps one of the biggest regret in my life to this day. My Singapore military experience taught me that I must always live without regrets even when the choices in my life have been made or when certain events simply unfold without my conscious consent. Life is too short to wish things are different. Things just are. Looking back, I am so grateful for the traveling I’ve done, the people I’ve met, and some very personal experiences that shaped me into the person I am today. Boys and girls, please, always treasure what you already have. You will never have "today" on another day.
15. My faith got me through my toughest time. God is good and I must have courage to admit that.
Lastly, I have to give credit to the God that gave me life and to the savior that died for me. Many may know me as a Christian who would rather live life showing others how to be a loving person rather than stick my faith directly down another person’s throat. However, my faith and the journey of my own spiritual life must be mentioned in that it was the only thing that kept me going forward in times of desperation and depression. As mentioned earlier, there are moments when I was completely alone and the only thing that gave me strength was my faith in God. I recall at my lowest point in Thailand, I was on the verge of breaking down. The military forced me to remain silent yet strong. My only option was to sing in my head 10,000 reasons by Matt Redman (a great song, and a song that my mother introduced me to) to push me forward. Throughout my time in Singapore, God has also provided me with a church family that was just the most loving group of people. They were Christians that all personally encountered God, Christians who still chose to love me while knowing some of the very personal issues and flaws in my life. They were and still are family to me. To this day, some of these people are still some of my closest friends to date. To discount my faith would be to denounce a very strong part of my own identity and to discredit a large part of my experience in Singapore.