Two weeks ago I went to this conference and I noticed something. Almost every speaker who went on stage had a formula: the five ways to achieve your goals. The top five myths about marketing. Five interesting facts about shoelaces, etc.
I thought to myself, hey I could do that too. I don’t have a whole lot of interesting things to say about myself, but I could come up with five.
Dear madam toastmaster, fellow toastmasters and guests,
I was born in Malaysia, on a beautiful tropical island called Penang. My parents were both teachers and very creative people. I was their first child and they decided to name me after an animal.
I wish I was kidding but I wasn’t.
So that’s the first thing you need to know about me. My name in mandarin, 奕羚, when translated into English, literally means Crazy Antelope.
Three years later my brother was born. You’d think my parents would have given him an equally ‘creative’ name, but no. My brother’s name when translated means ‘beautiful wave’. How poetic and utterly non-crazy!
The good thing is, growing up I never had the same name as any of my friends. So well done, mum and dad!
My mum started to teach me how to play the piano when I was four. And ever since then music has been a staple of my life.
When I graduated from high school I got a scholarship to study in Germany. I will have to learn a new language but I thought that shouldn’t be hard. I wanted to become an engineer and everyone around me told me Germany is the best place to do that. What they didn’t tell me though, was that it can get really, really cold in winter.
I arrived in Germany on the 10th of January in 2004. It was the peak of winter, and I didn’t have a winter jacket with me because we don’t sell them in Malaysia.
And here is the second thing you absolutely need to know about me: I hate cold weather.
On the bus ride from the Frankfurt airport to our hostel we stopped at a restaurant. I needed to use the washroom. Thinking that this would be my best chance to practice my German, I approached a kind-looking lady and asked her in perfect German, “Koentten Sie mir bitte sagen, wo ist die Toilette?” In English, “Could you please kindly tell me, where is the toilet?” She looked at me, and replied in English, “The toilet is over there.” And I thought to myself, “ooh boy, this is going to be tough.”
And it was. The first year in Germany was the toughest time of my life. I was away from my family and friends and everything I have ever known. During the first few weeks in university I could barely understand anything because of the language barrier. But over the years, things got better, and I became happier. Five years later when I graduated, I could speak fluent German and even a bit of dialect, and I never needed to ask for directions to the toilet again.
After graduation I decided to move to another country to work. I found a job as a software engineer at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. The organisation is in Geneva, Switzerland. And guess what? I now need to learn another language. French!
During my second year at CERN I joined the CERN Salsa club. On the first day of class we had to pair up with a random person and I ended up with this guy from Belgium. He was blonde, very tall and was doing his PhD in accelerator physics at that time. We started dancing. He was pretty good, had the nice moves and all that, except for one thing: he wasn’t following the rhythm. That frustrated me to no end because I am a musician and following the beat is the one thing you should always do.
So I decided to tell him in the most gentle way possible, “Hey, I think you are missing the beat.” He looked at me sternly, and with this intensity that could have set the sun on fire, said to me, “Would you like to go for dinner with me?”
His name is Glenn and I married him two years later.
The second year into our marriage, we were both pretty settled down in Geneva. We both have interesting jobs and a bunch of even more interesting friends.
But something was missing. I loved Europe and living there for ten years has been a transformational experience for me. But I felt like it was time for something new. Glenn and I always wanted to live in a new country and last year we decided that we will do it.
So he applied for and got accepted to an MBA programme in the Macquarie University in Sydney, and I quit my job at Doctors without Borders. Six months later and here we are and I am head over heels in love with Sydney.
So that’s the third thing about me: New experience excites and motivates me.
The other day I accidentally spilled coffee on my white shirt. So I was looking for a bottle of bleach to clean it. I found the bottle, and I turned it around to read the instructions. It says ‘stand upright in a cool place’. I gasped, turned to Glenn, wide-eyed, and said to him “I think I just found the meaning of life”. Unperturbed, he said, “Do you want to go for dinner?”. Do you see a pattern now?
Anyway, that’s the fourth thing you should know about me: I am fascinated by words. I love reading and I love stories.
By now you might think that I must have it all figured out already, at the ripe age of 31. So this might be the best time to tell you the last thing you need to know about me: I don’t. I am sometimes still clueless about life.
What I do know is that I am not young enough to know everything anymore. In fact, the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. It can be quite frustrating, really.
But over time, I have come to appreciate my name. I think I finally understood why my parents named me after an african goat with long sharp horns and runs very fast. I think they gave me this name because that is their hope for me: that like antelopes, I will be brave. Sure there are lions and crocodiles out there and I might be their dinner. But ultimately the world is my savannah and I think my parents wish for me is that I will never stop running and wandering, that I will travel and explore, that I will not be confined by norms and expectations and ideologies and dogmas. That I will be free.
And then perhaps, I will be able to truly, stand upright.