36 and counting, age is just a number

Ok, so I have just entered my 36 years of age. It’s a significant number, considering that I am Asian, and we follow the 12th Chinese Zodiac sign. 36 years means I have finished another full circle, and now entering a new circle, starting again with my zodiac animal, The Rat. And while not much positive has been predicted about those who were born in the year of the Rat for this year, and it might be even worse, considering that we are going through the worst pandemic of a century, which may as well last until the year of the Ox rolls in, it is still a cause for celebration, since a new age is always a milestone to remind yourself of what you have achieved, what you are aiming for and what you have missed in life.

The first twelve years of my life was quite lost to me by now. It was a distant past, something I could not really recall in much detail anymore. It was a difficult period, when my homeland, Vietnam, was still under isolation and trade embargo from almost all other countries in the world. We had a hard period of life by then, where everything was lacking, and livelihood literally means struggling to put food on the table on a daily basis. Salary from official job was not enough, and the distribution system applied by the government of the day meant we might have double the amount of rice we could consume during the month, but not much meat and only barely enough vegetables. So, naturally, black markets sprang out at every corner, to balance the supply and demand, and people scrambled to find some part time jobs to earn more money just to get by day by day. However, I was too small to remember that, since I was just staying at home and quite immune to the harsh reality of the world outside my front door.

Fortunately, bad things did not last, and the country opened up in 1990, when I was about to start going to school. It took a few years, but the people sprang up fast, like a spring that had been pressed down for too long. So, by the second part of my first 12 years of life, the situation has improved significantly, and I did not recall many hungry days. We still had only simple meals, but we had food on the table, and life was getting better day by day.

My primary school years were quite peaceful, unlike what children are going through nowadays. There was almost no tuition, and not much homework or pressure to do well, at least in my school. I just went to school every day, then back home to have my meals, and play around in the small playground downstairs my block. And that basically wrapped up the first twelve years of my life.

The second twelve years of my life was defining and transformative. I spent the first 6 years in Vietnam, where I entered secondary school, and then high school. I studied more, school work became more serious, and I started learning more about the world out there. Of course, it was nothing compared to those children in developed countries. I had my first flight when I was 16 years old, as the aviation industry in Vietnam did not open up for commercial flights until recently. Prior to that, we travelled mostly by train if we had to go long distance. And I had my very first overseas trip, fatefully to Singapore, the country I am calling home, when I was 17 years old. At that time, travelling by air was a luxury that not many people could afford, and going overseas was rarely heard of, due in part to affordability and also to the visa restrictions, which is still a big problem of Vietnamese passport holders nowadays.

Thanks to an award in English competition in high school, I was selected to participate in a 1-week summer camp in Singapore. So there came my first overseas trip, which really transformed my life. Although Singapore at that time was not as modern as it is nowadays, it was still a totally different world from what I saw in Vietnam. It was the first time I set foot in a subway, and I was overwhelmed with so many machines at the train stations, in shopping malls, on the streets. I knew there was a different, better world out there, and so when it came to the time when I had to choose a university for me, my first choice was NUS, the university that I had also visited as part of the camp program. I got in, and it changed my life totally.

National University of Singapore

And so, the second part of the second 12 years of my life was spent mostly in NUS, where I studied Computing. To tell the truth, I was no computer genius, and I even sucked in programming in high school back in Vietnam. I did not even fully understand what computing was, so when I was offered the course, I was a little troubled. I wanted to study business, as the common perception was that business means money, and in my innocent mind, studying is for working, and working is to earn money, so it’s best to study something that can help me earn more money when I go to work. However, after weighing it against all the local alternatives, I took a leap of faith, accepted the offer, and it has practically driven my working life all the way until now.

NUS SOC, my alma mater

I left Vietnam, went to Singapore, studied, felt in love, found the girl who would be my wife, and graduated with a decent degree, much better than I had thought, and better than I felt I deserved (some kind of impostor syndrome here I guess). Fortunately for me, at that time, the government’s immigration policies were still quite open, especially for graduates from local universities, and so shortly after finding a full time job, I got my Permanent Resident application approved, and it basically started my process of growing roots here in this new home.

My first job upon graduation was with SingTel, a local conglomerate and Singapore’s largest telco

That wrapped up my 2nd 12-year run. I got out of university, found a girlfriend, and had a job. Pretty normal, right? But then in 2008, the financial crisis happened, right after I left Singapore and joined CyberQuote, a subsidiary of PhillipCapital, the largest local stockbroker in Singapore. And so my third 12-year period started out with a global financial meltdown. Jobs were lost, but luckily I was not impacted, thanks to the recession proof nature of technology industry. In fact, with business slowing down, companies flocked to IT to automate processes in order to reduce costs, so we had quite a lot of things on our hands and we were pretty busy. The only drawback was that increment was frozen, and bonus was dismal as companies tried to increase reserves to tide through the storm and invest in future recovery. Anyway, it was not too bad and we got out of the crisis quite quickly in Singapore, so no long term harm.

After the global economy bounced back from the recession, it has been a rosy 10 year run. Economies were doing well, there were plenty of jobs created, and life was pretty normal. I changed jobs a few more times during that period, and finally got in financial services industry, working in IT developing banking products. So it’s kind of going full circle for me. I have been in love with financial markets for a long time, but I got into IT, and now I can finally marry both my love and my profession, which can be considered quite a good career path for me. And I moved up the ladder a bit, from a developer to a project manager, which is also a good thing for me since I am no programming genius of any kind at all, even though I can do some coding now and then. So, my career path is more or less set, maybe for the next 12 years or so.

Career aside, my personal life was also transformed during these 12 years. I got married. We had 2 lovely beautiful children. We bought our first home. And we officially became Singapore citizens. All those significant milestones paved the way for us and defined our path for the next 12 years of my life. Of course, plans may change and nothing is set in stone, but unless something very significant happens that veers us off course drastically, I don’t think we will change direction so much.

So, what will the next 12 years of my life consist of. It’s quite a long period to predict, so let’s not go into detail and just have some broad strokes to define the direction while not limiting ourselves to unexpected things that may come on the way. For me, what I will want to achieve in my next 12 years include:

  • See my son through to college and help him to get into a good school that can maximise his potential
  • Accompany my daughter on her education journey and help her discover what she wants to do in life
  • Spend more quality time with our ageing parents and see them as frequently as we can
  • Buy a car
  • Move house
  • Have a stable career. Be on top of my game and be “so good they can’t ignore me”
  • Start building a solid foundation for future retirement
  • Travel to new places. See the world and gain new experiences
  • Maintain good health and healthy lifestyle. Strive towards work life balance. Find the sweet spot.
  • Aim for quality instead of quantity. Fine tune our life, relationships and possessions. Only keep what sparks joy.
  • Give back to society. Volunteer. Donate. Provide help
  • Keep on learning and upgrading myself. Try new stuffs and discover new hobbies. Find something I will want to do for the rest of my life (other than work)

Ok, 12 goals for the next 12 years. Not a lot, but I believe that if I can achieve all those 12 goals by the end of the next 12 years of life, I will be in a much better shape for the subsequent 12 years of my life. So, time to stop daydreaming and start working hard while keeping my eyes on the goals, and if Godspeed, I will be there.


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