Repaying a debt of kindness from 1996
Hello again guys, I wanna do a little short post today to thank two people who had been incredibly kind to me in the period 1996 to 1997. It would be wrong for me to forget the kindness of strangers or in this case, two people who barely knew me going out of their way to be kind to me and I wish to share this story on my blog. Many of my regular readers will know that I have blogged extensively about my time spent serving national service (NS) and one of the key themes that I remember from that period was a sense of isolation - I felt like nobody in my family understood what I was actually going through. After all, my father got lucky - he was deemed too old to do national service given that he was already 29 years old when NS was first implemented in Singapore. Obviously, my two sisters and my mother didn't have to serve NS as only men were liable to serve so I was the first person in my family to serve NS. Admittedly, I wasn't well prepared for it, I knew I had to serve NS when I turned 18, but as a teenager, I was only thinking about what I was doing the next day or the next week; planning ahead simply wasn't my forte as I focused on the present. Hence when the time came to enlist finally arrived, I found myself thrust into a very unfamiliar environment and struggled to cope. Given that I am autistic, it was also a massive challenge for me to quickly develop the right kind of social skills to cope with this harsh environment - naturally, I turned to my immediate family for help but actually, I got very little support from them when I needed it most.
My parents had such blind faith in the PAP and the Singaporean government - they believed that 'the system' was perfect and if I struggled to cope, then that was a personal failure on my part: it meant that I was weak, lazy, selfish, ill-disciplined and morally flawed. I then turned to my two sisters but was shocked at how unsympathetic they were. My calculated guess as to why they reacted like that was because the guys they encountered at university and work were never going to run to their female friends to share stories of the struggles they encountered in NS - on one hand, some of these guys wanted to portray this macho, strongman image of the rugged, brave, heroic soldier who thrived in such circumstances and this would of course, impress the ladies they were trying to ask out on a date. On the other hand, there's also a sense of "what's the point in telling women about this when they have no idea what goes on in NS? If I am after empathy, I should be talking to another man who has gone through the same process and thus would understand the context." So I think it was a combination of those two factors that led to my two sisters having this fantasy vision of NS, of boys playing with guns and having a rather extreme form of a holiday camp where there was a lot of fun but macho activities. Hence when I presented my version of the NS experience to my sisters, it was completely different from the kind of stories they were fed by their male Singaporean friends over the years and that's why they didn't react with as much sympathy or understanding. However help came from a very unlikely source at that point and thus I am sharing this story with you because I don't want to forget their kindness. I believe there are some important lessons to be learned from this episode.
In 1996 whilst I was still serving NS, I represented Singapore at the Pacific-Alliance Gymnastics Championships which took place at Kebangsan University, just outside Kuala Lumpur. Given that it was rare that such a major gymnastics competition took place just on our doorstep, Singapore sent a small contingent to take part. I even made two finals on pommel horse and vault, finishing 8th in both events. I loved taking part in such competitions as they were a chance to meet gymnasts from other countries - sometimes you would encounter a language barrier but the one team that the Singaporean gymnasts got along really well with were the team from Hong Kong as they spoke English really well and we were about the same age. After the competition, I exchanged details with loads of gymnasts and said we would keep in touch - remember this was 1996, there was no Facebook then, most of us didn't even have an email address in those days and so keeping in touch meant writing a letter, putting it in an envelop, going to the post office to buy a stamp and posting it. It was quite a tedious process compared to how we use social media these days but two of the female gymnasts from Hong Kong were great at keeping in touch. They promptly replied to my letters and we corresponded mostly in English. That was when I started telling them about the problems I encountered in the army, I don't know why or how I started but they responded with great empathy and kindness. I even told them the story above about why my sisters not sympathetic were fed stories about macho men being strong and brave by all their male Singaporean friends.
Sometimes it can be a lot easier to tell your problems to someone who doesn't know you well. These two gymnasts from Hong Kong knew little about Singapore, which was a good thing. They had no concept about what NS was and so I started with a clean slate, I was able to give them my story without them having any preconceptions. Contrast this to telling my sister about NS, her judgment is clouded by the fact that she knows me very well and she has been hearing all these stories about NS from her friends over the years so before I get to finish my story, she has often jumped to her own conclusions instead of hearing me out. But to be fair to my sister, people who know me well often make that same mistake: I recently tried to tell a friend at my gymnastics club about something that happened at work and he made a couple of assumptions based on what he knew about me - perhaps he was desperate to prove to me that, "hey Alex, I know you so well, we've been friends for a while and I know so much about you so I am going to demonstrate how close we are by using that knowledge to make some calculated guesses about your story." That really annoyed me because I would have preferred it if my friend had simply listened to me. But with the two gymnasts from Hong Kong, we avoided that problem because they didn't know me well enough to have information about me to make any assumptions at all, so instead they just listened to me and asked many questions about what I was going through. They seemed interested, I felt like the genuinely cared and the conversation flowed - letter after letter, most of which were painstakingly handwritten and quite long as well. There were things that I only told them and I never told any of my friends and family in Singapore.
So these letters went back and forth for about a year from May 1996 to April 1997 - it seems really odd that in that period, I felt that these two gymnasts from Hong Kong whom I only spent a few days with at the competition in Malaysia seemed to understand me so much more than my own family. Sure they were very kind and nice people whom I felt I had a genuine connection with, but I think this kind of communication worked because it is very different telling a stranger (or at least someone who barely knows you) about your problems. The stranger doesn't have any preconceived notions about you, they don't know enough about your situation to rush to judgment, so they do two things: they listen and they ask plenty of questions to try to gain a better understanding of what you're dealing with. They were also good at responding to the fact that I was clearly very stressed out and unhappy with what I was dealing with - if I told my parents that there was someone difficult in my unit who was a nightmare to deal with, my parents would say things like, "what do you expect me to do - I can't go to the army and beat him up for you! You have to learn to deal with people like that yourself." Since I expected them to say things like that, I never told them anything. But my friends from Hong Kong had a different tact: one told me to find the time to go to the seaside, find a peaceful place and just listen to the waves crash onto the shores as she found that sound very soothing and calming. Then once I felt relaxed and calm, I should talk to the sea as if I was talking to her. She told me I could say anything and the sea will simply listen - the sea would never judge me and I would feel better after that. Guess what? I did it and yes it worked. Those trips to East Coast Park were so therapeutic.
I'm afraid our correspondence came to an end around 1998 - I left Singapore for my further education in Europe in May 1997 and I was having so much fun in France. I did send a few postcards every now and then from Paris and London, but gosh - I feel so guilty for saying this. Life as a student at university was good, I was no longer a miserable soldier stuck in Singapore - I was having such a wonderful time instead at university so the letters became shorter and shorter. Pretty soon it was just whatever I could write on the back of a postcard rather than a super long 12 page letter. Eventually the communication stopped altogether in 1998 and I suppose we had all just moved on with our lives. Looking back, I now feel so guilty now having been the kind of friend who used my two friends in Hong Kong when I was sad and miserable but when life became much better once I had left Singapore, I promptly neglected and forgot about them. I really shouldn't forget their kindness - they were under no obligation to listen to be and be there for me the way they did, but the two of them really did so much to help me to through the most difficult times I had to suffer in NS. Having experienced such kindness from these two gymnasts from Hong Kong, I feel the best way to repay them is to always keep a forum open on my blog through the comments section where anyone can leave a comment anonymously and chat to me about any kind of problem they have because I know from experience why it can sometimes be so much easier to talk to a complete stranger about your problems rather than approach a friend or a family member who knows you very well. I want to be that kind, understanding stranger who is happy to just listen and ask questions without passing judgement - this is my way of repaying those two incredibly kind gymnasts from Hong Kong I met back in 1996.
One logical question you may ask me is why I chose to open up to two people I hardly knew rather than try to pick someone closer to me. I had this friend in the army, let's call him Tony (not his real name). We were close and hung out a lot but Tony had his own fair share of problems in the army. I wasn't convinced that I would get sympathy from Tony because if I told him about my problems then he might have turned around and said something like, "you think that was bad? Wait till I tell you what happened to me last week, it was even worse!" Admittedly, I suppose I was being selfish - I didn't want to end up listening to his problems when I wanted to talk about mine, so that's why we never talked that much about our problems when we chatted. Whereas with my two friends from Hong Kong, they were keen to chat to me, to continue talking to me through the letters no matter where that conversation took us. We had just come back from an amazing experience in Kuala Lumpur, we had just been at an international competition representing our countries, being treated like VIPs by the Malaysian hosts and none of us wanted that experience to end. Thus in continuing to chat to the friends we made at the competition, we continued to relive that wonderful experience even after we returned to our humdrum lives. Of course, they could have chosen not reply to my letters the moment I started telling them about my problems in the army, they were not obliged to be spend that much time and effort corresponding with me but they did for the simple reason that they were such kind people. They were there, they had compassion and they were happy to listen.
There is another reason why I found it a lot easier to open up to these two friends from Hong Kong - I was unlikely to meet them again and sure enough, that never happened. By the time I finally returned to Hong Kong in 2018 a good 22 years had passed since I last met them and I didn't think they would even remember me, hence I made no effort to contact them. We may feel uncomfortable talking to our friends and family members about our problems if we feel that confessing to such problems may invite their judgment, that it may then affect our long term relationship with them. So for example, whilst I am on very friendly terms with my work colleagues, I am rather guarded when it comes to what I do tell them because I don't want anything to affect our working relationship. It's not that I don't trust them or that I question their social skills when it comes to handling such a situation, it's just that if things go badly wrong, like if they react badly to me talking to them about my problems, I still have to face them at work all the time and so that's just a risk I don't think is ever worth taking under such circumstances. Whereas when you're talking to a stranger with whom you don't have a preexisting relationship, you have far less to lose even if that relationship doesn't work out. This is why people often find it easier to call up a helpline like the Samaritans (now that's a great charity worth supporting!) to talk about their problems so it's not like they don't have any friends or family members to turn to in such a situation, but it is much easier to discuss your problems rather openly and honestly with a complete stranger who knows absolutely nothing about your problems.
Some people do come to seek advice from me on my blog as someone who has a lot more worldly experience, I am after all 45 years old and I have given a lot of advice to young people who have come to me via my blog over the years. In some instances, they really needed my insight to solve the complex problems they were facing but actually, in many other cases, they simply needed a listening ear - they wanted to talk to someone who was a complete stranger who knew nothing about their situation at all. I do know what it is like to feel desperate for someone to listen to your side of the story when people around you are simply making assumptions about you because they think they know you so well. Part of the reason why my two friends from Hong Kong were such good 'listeners' was because we communicate via letters, that's right - good old 'snail mail' so there was no interruption. I could simply sit down and write my side of the story down, they would only respond after the letter arrived in Hong Kong some days later. By the same token, a reader who wants to leave a long comment on my blog is effectively doing the same thing - there's no risk of me rushing in, interrupting them, annoying them by jumping to the wrong conclusions. There's something very civilized about this very old fashioned way of communication where each party gets to have their say in full before the other side can respond. The format of my blog does facilitate this kind of communication and if I can help people who find themselves in need of a listening ear, then I'm honoured to be of assistance. In so doing, I think I'm repaying that debt of kindness shown to me back in 1996 by my two friends from Hong Kong - I'd like to think that they'll be very happy to know I'm doing this today.
I will end on that note - what do you think? Have you ever been in a position where you found it quite hard to open up to your friends and family about something that has been bothering you? Why might we find it a lot easier to open up to a stranger when discussing our problems? Or have you ever been on the other side of the equation and provided a listening ear to a troubled person whom you didn't know well at all? Does this simply boil down to social skills and learning how to be a better listener? Let's spread the goodwill: please leave a comment below, many thanks for reading.