The Different Settings of My Life and How It Shaped Me

It’s currently week 11 into Year 1 Semester 1 and the theme for CSI (Comparative Social Inquiry) class this week is urbanisation. Our seminar discussion started with sharing personal connections with the environment we grew up in, which got me to reflect on some things.

Mostly, living environments can be roughly categorised as rural, suburban, and urban. When our professor asked us to raise our hand if we grew up in an urban and dense setting, most of my classmates put their hands up without second thought. But I, along with a few others, hesitated a bit before half raising our hands, shaking it in the “so-so” kind of way.

What the few of us shared in common was the aspect of having moved around throughout our childhood. Yet the impact of the moves manifested itself differently on each one of us.

I shared with my class my journey: I spent my first five years in a secluded, suburban neighbourhood in Boston, my next eight years in a semi-suburban school district in Shanghai, and then finally moving to Taipei, a very busy and crowded urban setting. When I went on exchange in France, I lived in a border town that seemed more rural than suburban. To some extent I had lived in locations that spanned across the spectrum of rural-suburban-urban, though not necessarily fitting perfectly into one category each time.

How did that directly or indirectly shape me into the person I am today? I’ve never thought about this prior to having this question posed by the professor in class. I always only considered the language differences, hence my multilingual ability, or at most the change in environment, which trained my adaptability. Never did the characteristics of the environment cross my mind when asked what aspects of my childhood contributed to my personality and abilities.

I am a fun-loving person. When I’m energetic, I can wake up early for a full day schedule around the bustling city. But I also get drained easily, both physically and mentally. There was one time when I was out of the house for several days straight, and that resulted in my body crashing down. From time to time I just really need that peace of mind. And I wonder if it’s because of the different settings I’ve lived in, from quiet driveways to apartments where the sound of busy streets echo into, that made me a person who enjoys the hustle but also needs an equal amount of rest.

For a lot my friends who were born and raised in Taipei, it seemed to me that they never got tired of the busy life. Or perhaps they did, but still continued with it because that was the norm since they were young? I have no idea, as it is not something I can handle. Back in Taipei there were certain districts where I would almost always run into people from my school or of the same acquaintance circle. Sometimes it got very overwhelming for me. I cherished the brief seconds here and there that allowed me to take a deep breath.

One thing I know for sure is that I certainly enjoyed my 14-day quarantine upon arriving in Singapore. It gave me the retreat from society I didn’t know I needed, a chance to recharge before I step into a new web of social connections on college campus. I’ve begun to change the way I interact with the world, trying to find a balance between socialising and me-time. Shocker, I’m actually more introverted than I thought, and that’s a side of me that I’m growing to like. I see it as a built-in mechanism to prioritise my wellness above other things, as my wellness depends on getting enough retreat from the buzz.

As we discussed in CSI class, there are obvious pros and cons to an urban setting. The urban is extremely convenient and accessible with everything close by; there is a larger variety of activities, opportunities, culture… just to name a few; there are diverse people and more social relations. But at the same time, the social relations aren’t necessarily strong. In a busy city, people are more individualistic, not caring much for others because everyone is so occupied with their own packed schedules; This is where the paradox comes in – individuals, while going about doing their own things, are actually more dependent on each other, but mostly for mutual exploitation in order to get things done. An example would be a customer at 7-11. The customer would merely see the cashier as someone who processes the payment in a timely manner. While there is interaction, the customer would rarely regard the cashier with any sense of friendliness. For the cashier, the customer is just one among many who frequent the convenience store every day. The urban seems to be characterised by mandatory interconnectedness with fragile bonds. Most of the time, there is more interaction, but less warmth.

Would I still prefer to live in an urban setting? I actually don’t really have a clear stance on that. What I do know is that Singapore is an urban hub and it is going to be my home for at least the next seven years. While there’s really no choice, I do believe that I can accommodate my balance of extrovert/introvert levels to the urban lifestyle. I’m continuing to explore ways to retreat myself physically or mentally, or both at the same time. And perhaps there is also a way to create more warmth in the urban, where people are so close to each other, but also so far away.

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