A Reminder to Live

Updated: Jul 9, 2020


| This is the 134th story of Our Life Logs |

My family rang in the New Year of 1983 with my arrival. I was the youngest of three daughters to a happy and busy family in Malaysia. Both my parents were hardworking owners of a printing press. Although Mum and Dad were busy, they were magnificent parents. Growing up in our household was an adventure. We lived in a house with four floors, offering ample personal space for nine people, including my family and close relatives. Among them was my Aunt Dot whom I was very close with. We were a short 10-minute drive away from the bustling capital city of Kuala Lumpur. Our backyard opened to lush green jungle that occasionally brought surprising animal guests to our home.

Playing with my grandma, age three.
Playing with my grandma, age three.
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My sisters and I were encouraged to read widely, to understand politics, attend church weekly, enjoy classics of both cultures like the West Side Story or Chinese opera. We also had to spend a minimum of an hour practicing the piano (which I didn’t truly enjoy) and to be involved in “adult-talk” at the dinner table.

By the time I graduated from primary school, I scored well enough to get into the private institution my sisters attended, but unfortunately failed the entrance exam. It was clear that my Dad did not accept this failure. He met the school’s principal with my government exam score and I was given a place in the lower class.

On my first day of high school, my sister Pam eyeballed me, “You know all the trouble Dad took to get you into this school, so you better make them realize their mistake for not originally letting you in.” Every year during roll call, teachers called my name and asked, “Ah, you must be Hsien and Pam’s younger sister?”

And usually ended with, “I hope you do as well as your sisters did.”

Spending time with my family (I’m on the far right).
Spending time with my family (I’m on the far right).

For three years after that, I wrestled with my studies. I did well in certain subjects and was abysmal in others. Remembering the weight of the expectation on me, I decided if I wasn’t strong in academia, I needed to excel in other areas. So, I joined the volleyball team, was involved in clubs and societies and worked hard in my favorite subject, the English language.

In Asia, a scientific mind is considered smarter and better. I resented this because my passion and strength were in the arts. In retrospect, I think I was subconsciously determined to fulfill what Pam demanded of me on my first day.

Throughout my years in high school, I had this impression that life overseas would open new avenues to my dreams. The Asian society may not appreciate humanities and the arts as a career, but I was fairly certain that was not the case in the Western world. So, I decided to go to college in Australia.

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When I first arrived in Australia, I met like-minded friends and soon, we introduced Asian theatre to our Western audience. I combined my strength in organization with the vibrant, creative minds of the theatre. Together, we created amazing performances and began to make a name for our theatre group in Perth, Western Australia. I wanted so badly to stay on and grow a career in the arts.

Sadly, in 2004, after I completed my degree, my application for permanent residency was denied. Disappointed, I returned home and a year later I moved to Singapore to work as the production manager in a small theatre company. For almost three years I poured my whole life into building a career in that position believing that if I put everything into it, my dream of being in the arts, no matter how people scoff, would succeed. During this period, my whole mind and focus was on working and getting to my dreams. I skipped family functions, ignored invites from friends and was minimally involved in the process of caring for Aunt Dot who was fighting cancer. I’d even stopped attending church and praying.

The role at work was grueling – mentally challenging and physically taxing. I was in charge of the annual international arts festival as well as in-house productions every three months. Lead up to major events would have me working almost 15 hours a day and during the festival, I hardly got any rest.

My bosses realizing my tenacity after the first six months, increased the work load by creating more events and productions thus giving me less time to catch my breath. By the second year, I was traveling between Singapore and Malaysia to run productions in both countries, acting as tour manager on top of my existing production manager role. There were no “off-peak” seasons and I barely allowed myself to slow down as there was so much to do. I was interested in what I was learning and doing but I didn’t realize that my body was struggling under the strain.

I spent my birthday in year 2010 suffering from a blocked nose. I chose not to take medical leave since there were two major events coming up. The flu eventually left like all those other discomforts I’d experienced in the past two years of working.

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Then one day while working, I started to feel dizzy, like I was bobbing on an unruly sea in a tiny boat. Thinking it would eventually wear off, I ignored it. But after a week, I could not gauge distance in traffic, working on the computer made me nauseous, and I could not focus on anything. When I shut my eyes, it felt like I was being rocked off my center.

The doctor was mildly interested in my symptoms. He reckoned it was vertigo, so he gave me a round of pills for the week. They had no effect at all. When I returned, he was more detailed in his inspection and asked about my family history. We had lost Aunt Dot to brain cancer two years prior to this and I feared cancer would be the culprit.

The doctor’s voice after he learned this was anxious. He suggested that they give me a brain scan. It was possible I had a tumor, but he assured me that it was possible it wasn’t that serious. He wanted to make sure.

I hardly remember how I got home after that session at the clinic. That night, the word “cancer” loomed over me; I had an image of a gigantic lump, malformed and rotting in my head. I remembered when Aunt Dot forgot who we were, a side effect of chemotherapy during the final stage of her brain cancer, how she squirmed and pulled away from the family members like a caged animal caught in fear and pain. I felt eerily numb and guilty, thinking that this was my punishment. It was a small voice amplified in my head, and I relived those moments of impatience with my aunt when she was sick. Although I did what I could, I always felt, as her favorite niece that my heart was not in the right place and I could have done more.

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The days leading up to the MRI scan were a blur. The whole family was informed, and it created a wave of panic. My bosses and work colleagues were shocked. Personally, I continued to feel strangely detached.  My mum traveled to Singapore to give me the comfort and strength I needed as I waited for results.