I was sixteen when I realized that girls should wear sports bras when they do, like, sports.
I saw girls from Shanghai, living in the same student hostel as me in Singapore, putting them on. I saw the metallic gray strap over my Singaporean classmates’ neck. They didn’t understand why I wasn't wearing one, and they didn’t expect that I had never heard of its existence before —— never. The normal bra felt uncomfortable when I ran, yet I made do with it. The “doubting” eluded me: can there be another choice? Can it be better?
In my hometown, a closed-off marginal little town in a marginal Northern Chinese province which people often mistook for being part of Mongolia due to its exotic name, people don’t know, and don’t yearn to know. Life is simplified into a multiple choice question: to men, it’s work, drink, or sleep; to children, it’s “study hard to leave this place” or “play and be forever trapped here”. Life is what is lived in a day and in twenty years. A day’s minutes are a line of gray, bankrupted and deserted factories crouching alongside roads like weather-worn cows, the soot-filled air being breathed in for centuries, unquestioned, unchallenged. When winter comes we bury ourselves in bulky down coats like polar bears in their fur, speaking loudly yet curtly to preserve warmth, to stay warm —— our life like that layer of fur, the snug temperature keeping everything orderly and familiar, keeping everything else faintly desirable but practically ignored. And we always come back home, a place with frost-smeared windows, blurring everything outside, leaving only the hospitable warmth within.
Ironically, it was also warmth that struck me when I first arrived in Singapore, but five thousand kilometers away, the warmth here is sharp, intense, and alerting. Perhaps because I, ultimately, don’t belong here, yet there is a certain piercing quality lingering in the humidity. Life becomes an open-ended question. Steering myself through a sea of possibilities, in school, in community work, in every global connection this tiny metropolitan offers, I see that the warmth here is to quicken people’s steps, to seek out what is happening at the other end of our society, at the other end of the sea —— people live in constantly throbbing news and adventures, wanting to see more, know more, try more, and aspire more, like the Central Business District forever buzzing with clicks and steps, each a note in someone’s music of dream. I remember one of my most vivid moment of living here, looking over the Singapore River, the shimmering reflections of skyscrapers bearing spots of office lights, a soothing Rhythm&Blues wafting into me together with the faint scent of orchid, and I suddenly recalled a line frequently traded on social media as a banter: “Poverty restricted my imagination.”
It did, as it did for me, and my hometown. Without knowing life’s dynamic fronts, we fail to imagine. And without imagination, we can never envision, can never aspire and reach closer to that something better, something more. I was one of the beneficiaries of the mass global migration, one of those that have “studied hard and left that place”, yet the thought of that little old town being coated with dust, frozen in eternal ignorance, tugged at me when I walked on Orchard Road, fascinated by life’s inexorable varieties.
I remember one of my hometown friends asked me: “Do you know where I can talk to foreigners? I want to know how things work there. ”
The desire for connection has to be fulfilled. A lens for discovery has to be built. So, Conversation Square was born, or more precisely, still in the process of its birth. Twelve pairs of initial participants in a trial, one from my hometown and one from Singapore, paired up to share their daily minutes, their ways of answering life’s questions. The idea struck me on a whim, and I started it on a whim, did research, circulated a survey, gathered a pool of participants and off they started talking, at two ends of the northern hemisphere, connected by algorithms. Building connection long-distance is a complex process, starting with trying to circumvent the Great Firewall of China, a safety net barring danger and dissent, but also possibility and perspective. Yet eventually it started sailing. I received feedback with participants from both sides enjoying the conversation, making new discoveries, and learning a little bit more about what’s possible in others’ life, what’s possible in our time on earth——us, dispersed into our own separate existences yet ultimately being one entity, harboring the universal desire for Gatsby’s green light, no matter how elusive, how improbable, how faraway it would be.
And, to reach out to that green light, we have to first see it. I am thankful that I can possibly be someone’s eyes, a ferryman bringing people to the bank of luxuriance, of lush, green hope growing and flourishing. That, after all, is what life should be.