14.7.05

What are we going to do now?

Eight years ago, I showed up for my first day at the National Institute of Education (the putative teachers' college in Singapore). Jetlagged, grumpy and filled with a general animus towards towards everyone and everything Singaporean, I spent most of the first six months frantically calculating how much I could save of each month's salary towards paying off the scholarship bond. The answer, given my profligate tendencies and the demands of filial piety (i.e. the distinctly Asian expectation that children give money to their parents after they start working): not much. Eventually, after a lot of adolescent soul-wringing and drama, I tossed out the scheme as completely impracticable.

My mother always says that it wasn't till after I took a trip to the US at the end of that first six months, to see the then-boyfriend and college friends, that I settled down. To me, it wasn't a farewell trip, it wasn't a breakup trip, but maybe what I needed was to see that the people I'd known and loved in college were moving on with their lives, for me to realise that I should do the same. Quit whining, accept the period of indenture, and get on with it. Besides, eight years is a bloody long time to be grumpy.

I made friends, settled down, got married, bought a place to live and a car, worked reasonably hard at my job, got over all the things Singapore doesn't have, appreciated anew the things it does (chief among them: being able to get good food at all hours, especially Teochew moi (porridge) with pigs' intestines and salted eggs), let my accent go and gave up on the government.

What didn't change: I kept my eyes fixed on the date in 2005 when the scholarship bond would expire and talked about plans for life thereafter. Every now and then, someone would ask me how much longer I had to go, and the precise answer (okay, rounded to the nearest month) was never difficult to give. Once I hit my late twenties, I knew the countdown more readily than I knew my age. Year by year, it ticked off --- slowly, but surely. Meanwhile, I laughed in the face of people who asked me why I wasn't applying for a government postgraduate scholarship. Sign another five years of my life away to another scholarship bond? As if eight years hasn't been enough.

I can't say I didn't get anything out of it. If nothing else, it paid for four years in the US, not a moment of which I regret in the least. (Okay, there were the weird boyfriends sophomore year, but I blame that on my own ineptitude. And I'm embarrassed, but not regretful.) And no one held a gun to my head and made me sign away these eight years on the dotted line. For the money and the opportunities, I'm grateful. And I've paid in kind for every damn cent of it.

Hardly anyone ever asks me why I took the scholarship in the first place. Perhaps, to most Singaporeans, the rationale is self-evident: prestige, glorious career, secure employment, serving the nation.

Yadda yadda.

Yadda.

No one asks whether nineteen-year-olds are in the right state of mind to make a legally binding decision about the next twelve years of their lives. No one tells you about the opportunities that wait just around the corner, or that are even right there before you, if you'd only open your eyes and see, open your heart and let yourself find what you really want to do with your life.

For the few that ask, I tell them that taking the scholarship and its concomitant bond "seemed like a good idea at the time." I'm not being glib; it was a good idea at the time. It paid for school, teaching was something I thought I could do, way better than an office job anyway. Who'd've thought so much would change in four years?

Of course, things have changed in these eight years too. When I looked ahead to this day, I used to imagine the triumphant flourish of a resignation letter, the packing up for graduate school, the exit into sunshiney liberation. Today, it turns out to be a day like any other: I woke up, got to work on time, did some work, went to class, and will meet friends for dinner tonight. I'm not resigning. Grad school seems an increasing impossibility given my inability to find anything that interests me enough to justify putting down huge wads of cash for it.

But hey, the sun is out.

It's been such a long day in coming, that a person can't help but get a little choked up over it. And it's oddly invigorating to know that from today, I can quit my job, just like any other salaried employee. I may not choose to exercise that right for months or even years to come, but the possibility is there --- just as other possibilities for work, dreams, passion, life are suddenly a lot more within reach than they were yesterday.

My mother's a funny lady. She asked me last week if the scholarship board would give me a letter or something, to certify that I had completed my bond. I chuckled and said I didn't think so; from what I'd heard, the bond lapses without fanfare and they don't care how long you "stay in service", as long as you don't owe them anything when you decide to quit.

So I guess this is me certifying myself bond-free. From here on out, it's all up to me.

This last bit is just for those Buffy fans that read my blog. I don't usually quote the villains, but this one from Season Three seems particularly apt:
"Sunnydale owes you a debt. It will be repaid. Yessir, we'll mark that invoice paid in full."
--- The Mayor, "Graduation Day Part 1", Buffy the Vampire Slayer
PAID IN FULL.

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18 Comments:

At 7/14/2005 1:33 pm , Blogger Elia Diodati said...

Like the NSmen say it: ORD-loh!

 
At 7/14/2005 3:39 pm , Blogger kungfuzi said...

That was a wonderful but saddening piece. Wonderful, because at points we're almost speaking in the same voice; saddening, because I don't want to reach the end of my six (hah, *only* six!) years and feel the same way. I too want to go to graduate school: mostly because I love History and (from what I've tasted of it) the academic life, and partly because I want to show this country that, despite all the forces militating against intellect, Singaporeans are capable of pursuing the life of the mind. We aren't all destined to become Top Civil Servants.

Drop me an email sometime if you can spare the time (don't know if you've read my second reply to your earlier post) - cwkung at alum dot dartmouth dot org.

 
At 7/14/2005 3:55 pm , Blogger  said...

congrats! at least u blogged abt it. me, i didn't even note the date, and when it had come and gone, i was reminded (i think - by you) that i had previously announced that i was going out to celebrate and get silly drunk, which i didn't do. oh well.

 
At 7/14/2005 4:37 pm , Blogger Woof! said...

Sterling piece...

I once had ambitions of doing an MBA in Wharton or Chicago GSB, but those have faded way into the background with years of work.

I never took a scholarship (was too playful in NJC to qualify for "S" papers), and today I tell people that if their parents can afford their overseas education, not to take a scholarship. As you say, what does a 19-year old know (or want to hear) about the legal obligations that come with it? Few people in Singapore tell you that if you are smart enough (as you quite possibly are since u got the scholarship), you can get more varied and better paying jobs in the US for example... and for all you know, you might fall in love with other subjects which you are exposed to in a liberal arts education, but which the scholarship is not flexible enough for..

Me? If I could turn back time, I'd gone to college in the US on pop's money, and become a sociology / anthropology prof...

 
At 7/14/2005 4:41 pm , Blogger Agagooga said...

Damn elia beat me.

ORD loh!

 
At 7/14/2005 6:14 pm , Blogger Kiv said...

Congratulations! Finally no more ball and chain...

 
At 7/14/2005 11:45 pm , Blogger ampulets said...

you said it all in this post. strange what an "anti-climax" this end-of-bond thing is...i remember 8 years ago we talked about keeping a 1997 bottle of wine and drinking it this week/year. the wine, like you reminded me, has probably gone all vinegary.

oh well, next week (mine's 25th July i think) we should at least have a celebratory drink? the bond and that bottle may have expired, but we haven't!

 
At 7/15/2005 12:07 am , Blogger vandice said...

As you say it, paid in full! Hopefully, you have not felt too chained up in the last 8 years. But I admit, it is invigorating to feel free once again. Then again, there's the car installment, road tax, mortgage payments... the chains that bind us city slickers

 
At 7/15/2005 10:43 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

When liberation comes, you won't need to celebrate it with much fanfare. - D W

 
At 7/15/2005 11:07 am , Anonymous justme said...

Hey there, this is the first time i am reading your blog and this particular entry struck a chord with me- I am also counting down to the day i can finally leave. You didn't quit (yet!) but i know when it's my turn next yr, I will already have my resignation letter written and in my drawer (of this pathetic desk that I am working from in sch). Thanks for saying all that has been on my mind!

 
At 7/15/2005 11:22 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We set out to change the world... ended up just changing ourselves."

"What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing, if you don't look at the world."

 
At 7/15/2005 4:50 pm , Blogger khelath said...

Thanks for giving me some hope... 4 years more before I finish my own bond!!!

 
At 7/16/2005 1:06 pm , Anonymous ming said...

i really like this post. =)

 
At 7/16/2005 6:31 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

this one brings tears to my eyes. congrats on the "exit into sunshiney liberation"!

 
At 7/17/2005 11:23 am , Anonymous kk said...

congrats!! hard to believe it's already been that much time since we were in my apartment with Elaine and Pat, drinking hawaiian wine and you turning red...
looks liks i'll be missing the Hobart reunion this July...but hopefully soon. Congrats!

 
At 7/17/2005 1:36 pm , Anonymous kf said...

well mine finished last year... 8 yrs of it. Now coming September, I will be doing my own stuff. All the best to you too!

 
At 8/08/2005 5:21 pm , Blogger Azzurra said...

Hi Tym, you are the first to bring poetry to this issue.

 
At 9/12/2006 2:22 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

My gf pointed me to this post. as my 'day' is 72hours away. And I suppose it will be just another day too, if I hadn't set that as my last day at work as well.

Liberation may be great, but the price has been paid with the time loss. Opportunities missed. The bond is never just about the duration itself. Nevertheless, if one desires a change, it's never too late to live the rest of one's life.

 

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