On leaving behind a theater practice
COVID-19 frontline worker, 8 May 2021
—You were sharing that there was a point when it clicked for you that you couldn't continue on as a theater practitioner, because there were very real family and financial considerations.
—It was brewing even soon after I graduated from theater school in 2017. I've always held that question—the tension between an art practice or theater practice and real life was always active, you know, there was always that tension that I felt.
When I was in theater school, I kind of repressed that tension a little bit. I went full on as a theater trainee, and I trained really hard, I gave myself to the practice, the training. And for that period of time, at least, I could imagine—you know, it wasn't just imagination: I was being a theater artist. But at the same time, even then, at the back of my head, all the practical considerations, all the financial considerations were there, but they were repressed.

And I think what happened last year, after I graduated, what came to me very starkly was that I needed to face up to real life. In a way, for many years, after I graduated from theater school, I was lost; I didn't know where I could stand or sit, not just in theater, but also in fact, in real life. And so I felt like I had to find my path. Having given my life to theater training for three years and emerging from it, I felt like I was lost. I had suddenly nothing to work towards. Whereas previously, when I was in theater school, I knew I was working hard towards certain things, certain goals. But those goals suddenly just didn't exist anymore. I was lost for a long time. And it was hard for me to reconcile that with real life.

But what the COVID-19 situation last year did for me was that I went heavily into survival mode. And what that meant was that even more so, it was no longer a decision as to whether it was art or life; it was just, survive. If survival meant finding ways and means whatever they might be to be financially sustainable, I would do it. That was what took form on the onset of the pandemic.

I felt distinctly that it was no longer enough to believe that somebody or something would step in to help me get through. And, of course, there was a certain kind of anxiety that I needed to very much step in—to kind of bring me whatever it takes to ensure that I survive better than I was. And so, you know, whatever grants money that I could get my hands on, I had to try to apply for it. And in order to apply for it, it turned out that I needed to kind of pay taxes and have a record of my finances—my financial outlays and incomes. I also realized that I needed to do really practical things just to make money. And in a way, the dream, if there was ever such a dream, needed to just take a backseat.
Just to add to that, I think there was also this other part of me that emerged. After theater school, one of the big questions I had in my head was—and it's still a big question—What is my place in this world? Where can I be useful in this world? In ways that will sustain me as well? So it's the question that's still ongoing.

But what occurred, I think, when the pandemic came, when the pandemic struck, was that maybe it was an opportunity for me to do something, to be of use to society at large. There was this sense of emergency for the self of course. But an opportunity also emerged for me to be useful in very practical ways to the nation, to the country. And so that's how when I saw the ads—as I was actively looking for a job, ads came along, and there was this ad that called for people to sign up to become swabbers. So I thought, "hey, that could be a way by which I could be of use to my country, to people", and I thought the pay was decent. And so I thought it fulfilled what I wanted or needed at the time. I felt like I could do the job. I felt like the money was decent. Getting it will help me inject some much needed money into my bank account. So I took on that job.

At that time I was a relief teacher, I was teaching English to Secondary One kids. I was just two or three weeks into the job when the circuit breaker was announced. When the circuit breaker came about, everyone had to shift into home-based learning. And it was tough for teachers to do that. I distinctly remember that doing home-based learning last year, I began working long hours of 7am to midnight; practically my whole waking life was spent working because the work became more multifaceted than ever before. It was no longer about you as a teacher, taking material, taking knowledge, taking information and bringing it into a classroom and delivering the material orally, physically, to a class of 40 students. It was digital: it meant that you had to not only prepare your material, you also had to prepare the students for a digital lesson.

I could never imagine that it would be so hard, so tough, so much work, because I could never imagine that kids could have any difficulty working with the online platforms that we were using—at the time Google Classroom. But it turned out that for a lot of my students, there were various difficulties one way or another. And so as teachers we had to accommodate when we could, but more often than not, we had to troubleshoot. We had to troubleshoot so that they could turn in their homework on time and access the lessons that we had for them.

Sometimes we had to call the parents to ensure that there is a period of time where they get their laptops because sometimes they live in a household where there's only one laptop but three siblings sharing one laptop. Sometimes these students are new to the laptops and they do not have the sufficient knowledge of how to operate them. I mean, they know how to operate laptops in general, but when it comes to Google Classroom, they may or may not have the language to know what it means to ‘turn it in’. For example, there's a button that says ‘turn in your homework’, but they don't understand the phrase ‘turn in’ because it is a very North American phrase. In Singapore, we say ‘hand in’. As teachers, we say "please hand in your work". So there's all this language difference.

—How long were you teaching online for?
—A month—the month of May, exactly one year ago. That was painful, it was hard. And after that month, I asked myself if I could still continue on this job if I had to continue doing home-based learning. I found my answer to be no. So in June last year, I applied to become a swabber. So since then, I've been a swabber.

—You said that your dreams had to be put sort of like on a backburner?
—Maybe it wasn't so much dreams that were put on a backburner, but I think there were... how do I put it... I think that soon after I graduated from theater school, I told some friends of mine who were still in the theater school that I will no longer be involved in theater. I said that with all seriousness because I knew within that tension between art and real life, which I've talked about earlier, I knew after graduating that it was time to get back into real life. And for me, it was hard to reconcile real life and art. I thought my time in art was up and I needed to go back into real life. And real life very often meant getting a full time job and earning a full time wage.
Even after the decision was made, I was never really successful at doing that because that tension was still very alive. There was still a part of me that was still challenging myself, asking "What if I perhaps try my hand at a role and I get somewhere with it? You know, what if I'm lucky? What if I don't know it for myself but that I have a talent for a particular kind of role and I get this role and I make a full time career out of it?” That never happened. I gave myself time for that, but that never happened. In any case, that tension was still alive. And I was just trying to explore and find my way amidst that tension.
What COVID-19 did for me, what the pandemic did for me, was to kind of push myself totally into this real life realm. How I rationalized it at that time... in all honesty, I found it very difficult to... I asked myself, "if I were an artist in the midst of a pandemic, would I be happy?" And the answer was no. I didn't feel like if I were an artist, or if I were spending my time writing my play, I would be fulfilled because I didn't feel like I was responding to the kind of emergency that was emerging in me—the sense of anxiety and emergency, the fear that was emerging that was truthful in me that I felt. The signal that I got from within was that I needed to do something that was practically important for people at that time. And swabbing was practical. And also practical for me because it was financially pertinent.
Another thing that came to my mind was that... I was busy writing in May last year, even as I was teaching, I was trying desperately to write an article that was about a workshop that happened in November 2019. It was a very complex time given the kind of fears that were emerging within to write that article. It was about a workshop that happened in November 2019. And so firstly, I was writing about an event that has passed. That was very clear to me from the beginning. And because of that, I was already kind of questioning why I was writing it: whether it's fresh, how do I make it fresh, whether there's any benefit or use to people having written about an event or workshop that happened in 2019 given it's six months after the fact.
I tried my best to write something that I felt was relevant. And I think to some degree I succeeded. But on the other hand, as I was writing the article, I distinctly felt that as I was writing I could not justify the writing anymore because it wasn't responding to the immediate concerns of the crisis. It couldn't say anything novel, it couldn't add anything to the crisis. It was just about a distant past. And as much as I struggled, I could not do anything that was relevant, that people would read and find meaning and take meaning out of it given the emerging unfolding crisis. So I felt that it was a dud. I felt like I wasn't contributing at all. As a writer, I felt like I wasn't able to do anything. And so that added to the despair that I felt at that time, the despair around my intentions of being a writer writing about art. I really questioned myself as a writer, why am I writing about art at the time of a pandemic and unfolding crisis.
My instinct then, interestingly, was to return to an earlier time in which I was maybe more aligned practically with the world. A time when I was more concerned about reading the newspaper, keeping abreast of current affairs, learning about what unfolds. So I started reading the news more, following the news of COVID-19 and how it emerges. That was part of the practically oriented me. Also I distinctly remember I found myself wanting to immerse in the world of books. In terms of my consumption of art, I was no longer interested in theater, I was not interested in Zoom theater. I found myself no longer interested in even visual arts or attending any museum exhibitions.
I found myself going back to this habit I had as a child, which was to read—read fiction. That didn't transpire very much. I actually began reading more about psychology, about spirituality, about emotional well-being, which made sense in hindsight. So it became an opportunity for me to acquire emotional knowledge, emotional intelligence. I also began to meditate a lot last year—I meditate twice a day, for an hour each time. So the pandemic as it unfolded became an opportunity for me to go inwards and to kind of get more knowledgeable about my emotional life. Yeah, there is that.
As things transpired, because of the circuit breaker, it became an opportunity for me to also spend time at home—to learn how to spend time at home in ways that are constructive, in ways that are not just about me physically being at home, but to kind of engage with my parents, the surroundings of their home, the physical spaces—to engage or to disengage meaningfully. It wasn't that difficult to be honest.
But I think for me, what I learned, and what I tried very hard to do was to really engage my mother more. This was an opportunity because I have had the intention of reconciling with my parents since 2017. It's been challenging, it's been really difficult. It's been challenging both for myself and for my mom and my dad, but circuit breaker kind of forced things to happen more quickly. So the great thing about having circuit breaker happen in May was Mother's Day. I bought her cake last year.—Did you buy her a cake this year?
—I can't because I'm here talking to you. Anyway, I bought her a cake last year for the very first time. It was a really challenging time to be honest; reconciliation is a challenging thing to do. But circuit breaker accelerated that process. So in a sense, I'm thankful that we had that time and that I could constructively use it in such a way.
—Out of curiosity, did you come across any artists or work during the course of the pandemic that you thought were relevant?
—I totally stopped consuming art. And when I say that, I meant also that generally I stopped patronizing the cinemas. So I haven't seen a lot and I haven't seen anything on Zoom. I definitely have not been to the museum. But then again, like I told you, I have been reading. So literature, yes. So what I've gotten from literature is some wisdom. I've always grown up feeling like my first resource for wisdom would be through books. I think that was my first brush with art.

So last year, I bought a ticket to the Singapore Writers Festival knowing that Zadie Smith was going to talk. She gave a lecture on Zoom. The Singapore Writers Festival was the only event that I bought tickets to this whole pandemic. I bought it because I wanted to hear Zadie Smith. I knew she wrote a short piece at the time of the pandemic, and I think she was writing in a very urgent way, speaking to and responding to the situation at hand. And I think, from her work, I felt like it resonated with me in some ways. It did. I just can't recall how at this time. I could feel like there was something that resonated—she was calling for a certain kind of response.