I recently celebrated a dreaded “milestone birthday.” I’d been dreading it pretty much since I turned 29 (maybe even since I turned 28, since that seemed like it would be the last worry-free year of my 20s). I think one of the things that’s so scary about being 30 (aside from all these fun new lines on my face and the fact it’s harder to lose weight) is that it’s, like, undeniably an adult age. I mean, the world definitely expects you to have your shit together at this point.
I’m not sure anyone ever really feels their age; I don’t think I have since middle school (when I was 12 I felt so much younger than the big, cool 6th graders had seemed when I was in 3rd grade). I remember writing a college application essay at 18 about how things had turned out so differently than I’d imagined when I was younger. Twelve (!!!) years later it’s kind of dejavu all over again.
If you’d asked 18-year-old me what I would hope to achieve by 30, I probably would have said editor at a magazine (preferably Sports Illustrated or Rolling Stone), married, rich and living in New York City. I probably would have expected to have kids already, since 30 is freaking ancient to an 18 year-old.
Although I’m occasionally stricken with bouts of What are you doing with your life? And You are a career failure compared to all your friends and everyone you went to high school with! this old age has mellowed me a bit. I’m married to a smart, wonderful man who is my best friend and makes me laugh every day. Together we have literally traveled the world, which is certainly not something I could have fathomed at 18. If you’d told me I’d be living in Asia and eating most of my meals with chopsticks – after spending two years in Australia, no less – I would have laughed and said there was no way I’d ever sit on a plane long enough to get there.
I’m not editing a magazine but I did have the chance to work at SI, briefly. I spent a year getting paid to stay in resorts in the Caribbean and Hawaii. I have the pleasure of writing about my life abroad for a website sponsored by the largest company in Singapore. I’ve not had the steadiest career, but it sure has been an interesting one.
The “grass is always greener” concept is something you become intimately familiar with as an expat. Everyone at home instantly assumes your life is glamorous and exciting. When I’ve expressed doubts about myself and my career to friends in New York, they’ve all said “Yeah but you get to travel and live on the other side of the world.” On a more micro-level, when I tell people I work in online travel, they inevitably say “Cool! Do you get to go everywhere that you write about?” (followed by me umming and ahhing an awkward “not really”). When the hubs tells people he’s a lawyer, they say “Wow!” and picture Jack McCoy or James Spader or LA Law or whatever other TV character has glamorized the profession. They don’t think about his 18-hour-work days, the mountains of documents on his desk or the endless trips to Jakarta. He, too, will usually just say “not really.” On the other hand, I love my job, and we both know how lucky we are to be employed in the midst of global economic downturn.
My point is that things always look best from a distance. It was easy to state career goals at 18, before life and various other circumstances got in the way. But I’m not complaining. Every day I look out the window to see the sun rising over the Straits, and I feel lucky – and happy – to be where I am. Both physically here in Singapore, and metaphysically.
To celebrate my birthday the hubs took me and some of our best friends out to dinner when we were in New York. We drank margaritas and ate at a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn, and afterwards went dancing at a bar featuring “90s Night.” Yet another sign that you are officially old: the music of your glory days is ghettoized to a Thursday retro night.
We drank beers and danced in a big circle – just like we did at high school dances (the circle dancing, not the beers) – to classics like “Shoop,” “What I Got,” “I Want It That Way” and “Basket Case.” The DJ even broke out one-hit wonders like “Tubthumping” and “Steal My Sunshine.” If I closed my eyes I could have been 16 again. It was wonderful.
On my actual birthday we were back here in Singapore and it was my first day returning to work after our long vacation. I’d been dreading it. But then, I received messages throughout the day on facebook from friends here in Singapore and in Australia. My officemate surprised me with a mini-chocolate cake. The hubs took me out for xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung. The next day the facebook messages continued to roll in from everyone back home, starting with the early morning on the East Coast until late at night in California. I got a solid two days’ worth of happy birthday messages, how cool is that?
All I could think was, how lucky am I? I’ve had a chance to make wonderful friends on three continents, and this is what I have to show for it. Yes, it sucks to get older, but these 30 years have actually been pretty amazing.
My high school yearbook quote, courtesy of William Butler Yeats, was Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends. Obviously a lot has changed since I was 18, but my conviction on that point has only grown stronger.
One of my best friends from high school died last June after sustaining injuries in a car accident. I’d seen her just two weeks prior at the wedding of another one of our good friends. It was awful, and traumatic, and shocking to process – particularly from 8,500 miles away – and not a day goes by when I don’t think about my friend. Her death was senseless and unfair and her absence will leave a hole in my heart for the rest of my life.
But if there is one lesson to glean from that terrible situation, it’s that life is precious and could end at any minute. Whether we live to be 29 or 100, it’s such a short time in the grand scheme of things. I’m grateful for the many happy moments I shared with my friend, and I’m thankful I got to see her so close to the end on a fun occasion with some of my best friends in the world.
In a way, this has shown me that I’m lucky to be turning 30, and need to make the most of whatever time I have in this wonderful life. It’s a clichéd and corny sentiment to conclude with, I suppose, but it’s given me a great deal of clarity.