I recall sitting alone on the rocky beach of Bintan soaking in sun rays, inhaling salty breeze and feeling the ocean caress my feet when a couple walked over. “Why are you so sad?” they asked me with concerned expressions.
I was puzzled.
“But I’m happy!” I replied indignantly. They exchanged a bewildered look and left. I presume they thought their best intentions were not returned with equal fervor.
Yet unknown to them, the same scenario has unfolded many times before. Going to an all girls’ high school taught me that sitting/eating/dancing alone was basically committing social suicide, especially given the Asian cultural emphasis on collectivity and teamwork. Hence, I clung on to peer groups as if they were my life support, desperate for a sense of status and belonging. Ironically, doing so oftentimes only heightened my sense of alienation. I recall moments when I doubted if I was welcomed by my peer group due to my lack of self-esteem, or when everyone else was squealing with laughter but I didn’t seem to find the joke quite so funny, or when we gathered in a circle for games and all I wanted to do was take a walk alone.
Once, I was on a school trip in China and our tour group was taking a walk along a scenic river trail. I departed from the large group to take a breather and gain some space to think. The rosy color and delicate shape of fall leaves caught my eyes; they were something that you would never find back in Singapore’s perpetual summer. I began collecting the leaves, searching for the reddest, most beautiful ones I could find. Then I threw them back into the water so they would float on the river surface, as if returning them back to where they belonged. I was really enjoying the moment until I heard some classmates snigger at me, obviously unable to comprehend my actions. I dropped my leaves and scurried over to rejoin the group. Nevertheless, tears stung my eyes. Why should I be condemned for doing something that felt so natural to me, even if others could not appreciate it?
I have grown to realize that part of the reason why I am “unique” or “different” is because I spend a great deal of time alone. Whenever I’m alone, I am either lost in my head or on the Internet. Much of my social interactions also occur online – either through texts or social media – because I simply never had the habit of pouring every little detail of my life to someone else through speech. I keep most of my thoughts in, process them, then translate them into words, photographs or movements. These are the ways in which I speak best.
Living in New York City has also brought out the loner in me more than ever. With so much to do around the city, it seems to me that sticking to a social group all the time doesn’t make sense anymore. Why be stuck at a club meeting or social night when you could be attending a movie premiere, going for a tech conference, listening to a journalism speech, watching a dance rehearsal, and the list goes on… This little piece of land on the East Coast satiates my immense hunger for experiences unlike anywhere else in the world, so in the meantime I will let curiosity be my inner compass.
Until now, I have always hesitated to label myself an artist because it seems to entail a sacred meaning that should not be spoken of lightly. I do not dare compare myself to the great artists that have came before me, who have pushed themselves to the brim to shed some light on human existence. Nevertheless, this quote speaks to me at the current moment, so I had to share it.
“The primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.” – James Baldwin
And with that, here’s to basking in our solitude.
Photos: Samuel Ng
Model: Zikki Lin