Friends at a Distance: Social Strangers, Existential Companions

What does it mean to be a friend, much less a good friend?

Not that I’m not surrounded by good friends, but I’ve noticed my incapacity to be truly vulnerable with them, even the closest ones. It’s hard to reveal my inner concerns without being prompted first. In this sense, my unsatisfied cravings for intimacy are largely of my doings. My isolating myself causes others to isolate from me.

Looking back, I was never really there for my friends during crises. More accurately, I was never called, and I, too, have never called my friends during my crises. The smoothness of my friendships was partially, and possibly, a delusion of closeness. My supposed best friend of 18 years, Kai, whom I went to primary and secondary school with, share a peculiar friendship. It’s one of those friendships that’s low-maintenance, perhaps, too suspiciously low such that one might question whether we’re even friends. Yet, it’s ironically robust.

We’ve never talked about “serious” things. And unsurprisingly so—we were young and naive, too focused on having fun to even think about who were and what we were living for. After graduating from secondary school, we met up once in a while. Kai spoke most of the time, not because he didn’t care about me, but because I was afraid of showing him who I’d become. I think he could sense that. Knowing how I’ve always been more on the quiet side, he eased my discomfort by filling up the silence. I was thankful, but I left every meet-up with an existential regret: If only I had the courage to connect with him deeply.

It was only after my university graduation that we finally met for dinner after a whole year of absence, and had our first ever “serious” talk.

In a world governed by superficialities, I’ve always feared expressing my existential concerns. I was afraid Kai would find me too serious or pretentious. Would he prefer to talk about the technicalities of his job or his hobbies? I wouldn’t know where to even begin asking: His social world has become too foreign to me. I was, instead, most interested in how he was doing existentially. Would he be comfortable sharing his existential vulnerabilities given how long we’ve been apart? With the increasing distance between us, the only way I believed could maintain our friendship was to deepen our existential connection.

I took the courage and decided to show him the self I’ve become. For the first time, we talked deeply about what meanings we wish to create, our relationship with our families, our selfhood, and our friendship both back in the day and what it is now. As he shared his stories, I was viscerally struck by how un-relational I’ve been. I found out he was once depressed and contemplated suicide because of a heartbreak. I found out when we were in Secondary 1, I allegedly told him that I wished I could be as happy as him, and he went home and cried because he couldn’t be any further from the happy person I mistook him to be. I found out he wasn’t that confident and charismatic guy I sincerely thought could take on the world all on his own, that he actually feared being alone and craved the company and comfort of other humans.


As heartened and connected as I felt during our conversation, I was awash with guilt.

I kept asking myself: Why am I only now finding out about these things? Who even was this “Kai” I thought I knew? Who even was the “I” who thought he knew his friend? How lonely must he have felt? Was he ever on the verge of texting or calling me for help? Why didn’t he? From the start, was I never someone he thought he could turn to in times of despair?

A connection and a gulf in our friendship were in paradoxical formation. I experienced simultaneously my adolescence and adulthood, my past and my present, as they clumsily shifted in tandem amidst my overwhelming and confusing emotions, to negotiate some sort of reconciliation so that I could figure out how to be in the future.

Was I to blame any of us for isolating ourselves? Is relationality primarily physical proximity? How do I explain my deep sense of trust in Kai despite the distance between us? Spinelli (2007) suggests isolation is not diametrically opposed to relationality, but isolation is one form of paradoxical expression of relationality. Isolation is still a way of relating to someone. Ultimately, Kai and I made decisions that relationally preserve our friendship in our own unique and seemingly un-relational way. Some would describe this as what adult friendships are quintessentially like—everyone is living their life, one that is as vivid as yours, and everyone seems to be diverging, ever-receding into the distant horizon. Without constant effort, adult friendships would eventually drift apart. Yet, despite acknowledging the increasing distance, I don’t doubt the strength of our bond.

We might not occupy the same social world of interests and careers, but we have very similar attitudes, characters, and philosophies in living and approaching the world. Between us, there might be a vast social chasm, but we’re existentially intertwined—a connection much more profound, and hence, robust, than any other forms of social connection.

During my times of crisis, I always question whether I truly needed help. Is my situation so dire that I have to call Kai? I’ve never wondered why, but for the longest time, calling Kai for help has always been my last resort. As I reflect upon the nature of our friendship after that dinner, it became clearer, at least to me, that my isolation from him was not because of the fading strength of our friendship, but because of my having witnessed his resilience amidst adversities and how fiercely he confronts life. Until I’ve attempted to live as fiercely as Kai, and to once again uphold our shared principles of which I’ve momentarily lost sight, I will not call him for help. As always, things worked out. My “isolation” is my accountability to, and reverence for, our shared attitude and principles towards living. In that sense, we were never as distant as I thought. Kai has always been a part of me—living life together.


After every meet-up, we both always text each other something along the lines of, “Eh bro, I know I’m not really present in your life, but know that I’m always here for you and just a phone call away when shit hits the fan.” Is this an empty promise?

I can say wholeheartedly that it’s not. I mean every word I say. I’m sure he does, too. That’s how much I trust him.

It has been seven months since we last met for dinner. We haven’t talked since. It seems like nothing has changed; we went our separate ways, like always. But something has indeed changed, and profoundly so: We’ve finally validated each other’s new existence, as well as our past ones that almost drifted into oblivion. I don’t want to think about what would’ve happened if we did not meet that night. All I can say is that I’m so glad I had the courage to finally show him who I am and to ask him who he is.

I’m not expecting our phones to start ringing more often. It’s okay if our phones remain silent. What matters more to me is that I know when the phone rings, we will drop everything and rush to each other’s side when shit truly hits the fan.

We may be passing social strangers—but we’re lifetime existential companions.

Spinelli, E. (2007). Practising existential psychotherapy: the relational world. Sage.

We Are Called to be Responsible For Our Voices.

I’m so glad this CNA commentary came up. It says something about our voices.

As we find our voices as Asians, we also need to think about taking responsibility for our voices. Rightfully pointed out by Jonathan Kuek, there is “a fine line between trolling and calling someone out.”

Existentialism challenges us to confront the responsibility inherent in our communication, especially concerning marginalised communities. It urges us to recognise the power dynamics at play in our words and interactions.

Language isn't just a tool for expression but a means of either reinforcing oppressive structures or dismantling them.

When we engage in discourse, we are not just exchanging words but also shaping our shared reality.

Responsible communication, in an existential sense, acknowledges the weight of our words in creating meaning and influencing the world around us.

It is about recognising our agency in shaping conversations and relationships, and understanding that our words can either foster understanding, connection, and growth or sow discord, misunderstanding, and division.

Existential responsibility in communication invites us to engage thoughtfully, understanding that our words are not just isolated expressions but have a collective impact on the fabric of our interconnected existence.

It is easy to make a commentary on this because what the hecklers have done is obviously trolling. But what about the more subtle actions in our own lives?

This article reminds me of a speech by Dian Handayani at the National Conference 2023. She said,

As therapists, we should ask ourselves how we could be oppressing our own clients unknowingly in our work.”

Taking this reflection further, I would ask—how then are we, as family, friends, colleagues, and even just citizens, unknowingly oppressing others in our lives?

We Can Have Many Different Ways of Living

Tan Kheng Hua was a familiar face in my younger years and for many Singaporean millennials.

I remember growing up and watching her on TV in Masters of the Sea and Phua Chu Kang. She was also in some of my all-time favourite productions by Wild Rice and TheatreWorks: Animal Farm, The Eleanor Wong Trilogy: Invitation to Treat, Beauty World, and Descendants of the Admiral Eunuch.

Reading her recent CNA Lifestyle interview over the New Year’s weekend brought back nostalgic memories. But the real highlight for me was this quote she shared about her living off-grid experience:

"I also feel I don’t just stick to one way of thinking or one way of living; I have experienced many different ways of living. And I really feel that it makes me a more complete person. By the time I leave this world, I want to be as complete and as good as I can be."

Wow. The timing of this message and its impact on me was spot-on. I couldn't help but feel that this sums up the New Year energy I’ve been seeking for myself and for everyone else: To have the flexibility, adaptability, curiosity, and, most importantly, acceptance of different ways of being—the seeds to cultivating a healthier and more wholesome sense of self. ❤️

Asian family taking a group selfie

Filial Piety and Obligation

The other questions I have long struggled with are what is love and what is obligation?  To put it simply and dichotomously, it seems that the West values love while the East values obligation.

I’ve conducted my own informal research in this matter by bringing up the example of Jack and Rose.  You know them!  The Jack and Rose from the Titanic.

In my understanding, what was so appealing about Titanic was how it beautifully portrayed some fundamental existential themes such as death and limitation, meaning and meaninglessness, isolation when it comes to choice, and of course freedom and responsibility.  Rose is confronted with painful choices.  Choices becoming more and more urgent as the mighty Titanic, her very foundations, begin to sink!  Her choice is between filial piety and authenticity, obligation or love.

How would you choose if you were Rose?  Your family pool all their resources to send you to the finest university.  Your father has now passed away and you have now a rare fortunate chance to pay them back.  You are living the life of a good daughter.

Yet, in the river/ocean of life, you encounter Jack.  He shows you that there is more to life than adjustment or functionality, familiar “treatment goals.”  He inspires within you a desire to live a life of vitality . . . with a price.

How do you choose?  As Titanic sinks, Rose becomes more and more aware that existence cannot be postponed.

Decisions can be extraordinarily painful.  We are condemned to freedom and decisions and responsibility are ultimately inescapable. 

Filial Piety/Obligation                      Rebellious Love

Tradition                                            Revolution

Ancient Practical Wisdom               Youthful ideals

Head                                                   Heart

Family Loyalty                                  Selfishness

Collectivism                                       Individuation

Millionaire Husband (Arranged)    Poor Lover (Serendipity)

Eric                                                     Jack

But wait, I thought Titanic was just a Love Story.

A (Chinese) Father-Son Relationship

 My own love-obligation confusion played out in my own relationship with my father who passed away a few years ago.  I had the fortune of being able to spend a month visiting him in the hospital two years prior to his death.  He fell and incurred some injuries which required a month of rehabilitation in the hospital.  I visited him every afternoon.  I went because of obligation and love.

But it felt mostly like obligation.

A big part of me did not want to go because my two hour visits consisted of sitting by his bedside and sharing just a few words.  I wish I can tell you that it was a meaningful silence that reflected connection.  But honestly, it felt like an obligation because of filial piety.  It felt like a waste of time!

Was it love, or was it guilt?  Honestly, it was mostly obligation and guilt.  My friends would remark, why do you go?  If anything, I felt more love and nurturance in my friendships than my familial relationships.

However, Nobel Peace Prize winner Dag Hammarskjold taught me that, “It is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions that life puts to us.”

It was not until my father’s death that I came to better appreciate the time spent in the hospital with him.  Once again it is Kahlil Gibran who offers insightful words of comfort:

Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.

When you part from your friend, you grieve not. For that which you love in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.

I’m grateful for those boring hours even though they were difficult to bear and felt meaningless at the time.  The time spent together could have been much better.  For a long, long time, I struggled with the wish that it “should” have been much better.  Why was there such a disconnection between my father and I?

And here it is the advice offered by one of my colleagues, Myrtle Heery, who helped me to let go of much of my longing.  Myrtle shared that her supervisor told her that after a long career of seeing many people and families in therapy, she’s learned that we all have our biological families AND our emotional families and blessed are those few for whom these are the same.

In other words, for the majority of the clients that this seasoned clinician has seen, their emotional families are NOT their biological families.  Putting it more crassly, another colleagued offered me the following words of encouragement which he found from a bumper sticker, “If you think you’re enlightened, go visit your family!”

My father is part of my biological family, but not my emotional family.

It took a long, long time for me to be at peace with this.  As time passed, I began to accept that the few words were as much intimacy as the both of us could have tolerated at that time.  What helped me to grieve his loss was the obligation and love that I was able to show him by fulfilling my filial duties.

I wish that it could have been more.

I wished that I would have gone because I really wanted to, out of love not obligation.

But for me, love and obligation is not so easily distinguished.

Of course I cannot generalize this to all Asian Americans nor all Asians.  I’ve witnessed many families which espoused the best of filial piety and love.  For them, love and obligation need not be distinguished.  Yet for me and I suspect many of us, love and obligation is confusing.

A Mother’s “Unconditional” Love

The Chinese culture is not the only one who struggles with filial piety, obligation and love.  Here is a Jewish tale about filial piety.

Once, a long time ago, there lived a poor widowed Jewish mother and her son. By herself, she raised him. He was not a bad boy, but when he was eighteen, he fell in love with a shicksa. Plenty of nice Jewish girls there were in his village. His poor mother told him to stay with his own kind, but youth is deaf and blind and foolish. So  …   what can I tell you? These things happen. It came to pass that he fell in love with this beautiful shicksa, the unthinking love of the young.

His mother, of course, knew he was troubled (a mother always knows) but she did not know the reason because this foolish boy did not confide in her. Now the shicksa was not serious about the boy, fool that she was. She only played with him. What can you expect from a Christian head?

At last she tired of him. This was his chance to escape back to his mother. But a boy, a fool, what he cannot have, that he must have. He told the girl he would do anything she asked, anything, if only she would marry him.

At last, to be done with him forever, the shicksa made a terrible covenant with him, knowing he would never fulfill it. Not even a goy would ask this in seriousness. But she did not know the fire of this boy’s foolish infatuation.

She told him  …   she told him  …   I can hardly bring myself to tell you  …, she said to him, “I will marry you only if you cut out your mother’s heart and bring it to me. Only this way can you prove your love.”

The boy was filled with horror. To kill his own mother.… Yet, he must have this forbidden girl.

And so he stole into his own house like a thief in the night.  He knelt beside the bed in which his mother slept the sleep of the good, praying that the Lord God would understand and forgive him for what he must do. This ungrateful boy took from his belt a knife from his mother’s kitchen and plunged it into the breast of his poor sleeping mother. He killed her and cut out her heart.

He could feel the warmth of her heart in his blood-stained hands as he rushed from their home to the house of his shicksa. As he ran up the cobblestoned street of their village, with the heart of his mother clutched in his guilty hands, he stumbled and almost fell.

And, as he stumbled, he heard the voice of his mother’s heart speak to him from his hands.

His mother’s heart said, “Be careful, my son.”

That is a mother’s love.

What is your first reaction as you hear this story?  What emotions come up for you now?  Love, guilt, shame, desperation?

Note the themes in this story:  The son’s needs and love versus her mother’s love for her son?  What if the mother was able to trust the son and let him go?  Would he have killed her still?

How could the son and mother loved each other better?  It’s complex.  It’s both/and.

And the more I’ve had to chance to listen to the struggles of families here in China, the more I’ve come to appreciate how this Jewish story is also a Chinese story.  The often enmeshed relationship between mother and son and the often contentious relationship between wife and mother-in-law.

What is the moral of this story?  Does it matter if it’s true?

This is a Jewish teaching story, a myth.

What would sciences say about this myth?  Myths are not true, are they?  Or are they truer than true?

I would contend that this story may not be objectively true.  There was no boy, mother and girl and no Jewish boy have literally cut the heart out of his mother.  But as I say this, you know that this is commonplace isn’t it?  How often it is that as we pursue our own paths, we disappoint and even devastate the one who loves us.  Do we not have their hearts in our hands?  And what words do we hear from that heart?

Freedom and Self-Determination

 These are the themes that us existential psychologists focus upon in our work.  There is no doubting the fact that our past shapes our behavior.

However, the words of Nietzsche reins ever powerful true: “You determine me but you do not define me.”  “Beggers can’t be choosers, but I chose not to be a begger.”

 Similarly, Victory Frankl in teaching us about freedom states:

It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.

Victor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning wrote of what he witnessed in the German concentration camps of WWII.  From both guards and prisoners, he saw some behave as swine while others behaved like saints.  Some of the most brutal foreman were selected from the ranks of the prisoners.  At the same time, the prisoners were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from a few of the guards.

Man has both potentialities, good and evil, within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions, not conditions.  After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz;  however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer on his lips.

Ultimately in conclusion, we are all shaped by our destinies.

Mine is that I was born of parents from China who immigrated to Taiwan and then the United States.

I am caught between two cultures.

I live in the tension between the East and the West.  I know of the autonomy and love that I’ve witnessed and experienced from the West. At the same time, I also live the Chinese-American dream because of the sacrifices my parents have made in their own lives.

I know love and I also know guilt.  It is not so clear to me which is what sometimes.

I am from both the East and the West.  Nevertheless, what existential psychology has taught me is that ultimately, I am the uncontested author of my own life.

Yes, the choices I make impacts my family and I can never be separated from them.  But at the end, it is still my own choice that no one else can make for me.  This is the truth of existence as I’ve learned so far from both the East and the West.

Filial Piety and Love

Having spent about half of my life in both the US and various parts of Asia, I endeavor to incorporate the best of the East and the West.

From the East, I experience deeply that “blood is thicker than water.”  I learned about family pride and honor.

I recall the pride and relief I felt upon being hooded during my doctoral hooding ceremony.  The important thing is that this event took place in front of my extended family.  The pride I felt was not for myself but for the honor it brought to my family.  My degree was not my own but the culmination of countless sacrifices that my immigrant parents made in pursuit of the American Dream.

At that point, I became aware of how Chinese I was.  Though I received very little tangible family support as I labored through my doctoral program, the pride that I felt was not my own, but that of my family.  I’m sure many of you can relate to this.

On the other hand, from the West, I learned about individual expression.  I learned about the importance of expressing our deepest feeling to each other even though my father did not model this for me.  I also learned how to offer hearty hugs from my American friends.  Boy was it awkward at first!  Most of all, I learned about how parents loved their children by giving them freedom.

I saw how American children grew up to be less burdened by guilt and obligation.   For:

Unto us a child is born

Unto us a son is given

Not out of us

by us

from us.


Not we are going to make

we are going to have

we are going to get or produce


But unto us a child

is born.


Additionally, in the beautiful words crafted by the Poet:

Kahil Gibran – “On Children

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you

but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love

but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies

but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit,

not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.


You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

What is love and what is filial piety/obligation? (Which often feels like obligation to me)

Filial piety and family harmony is lived out differently across various different cultures.

For example, I’ve lived in Hong Kong for five years.  It was somewhat amazing to me that many people in Hong Kong have dinners with their families of origin and even extended families once a week.  More accurately, I should say that my friends in Asia are amazed to learn that the last time my entire family of origin shared a meal together was at my younger sister’s wedding, 24 years ago!  Obviously geography plays an important part in the difference.

In addition to cultural, geographical and economic differences, there are other important psychological differences.  How filial piety is lived out differs across cultures in regards to the following psychological themes:

  • Isolation and Enmeshment
  • Individuation/Differentiation and Filial Piety
  • Freedom and Responsibility
  • Harmony and Authenticity
  • Love and Obligation

My understanding of these themes is informed by my practice as an existential psychologist.  But these are universal themes, not particular to existential psychology.  It’s just that as existential psychologists, these universal themes/struggles, existential “givens” constitute the central focus of our clinical work.


Life Is Not a Problem to be Solved

Note that I did not construct these contrasting themes as dichotomous and opposing.  Not either/or but both/and.  This way of understanding is informed by my readings in existential psychology and philosophy which seeks to integrate such contrasting themes and embrace them as paradox.  Indeed much of therapy and life is about living with the tension and integration of such contrasting themes.

For indeed life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.  It’s not that we don’t help our clients to find solutions for sometimes solutions are called for.  But more importantly we respect and trust that clients will arrive at their own answers, their own “ways of being” when they begin living a more authentic life.

But more than that, Carl Jung reminds us that The greatest and most important problems of life are all fundamentally insoluble. They can never be solved but only outgrown.”

When it comes to the existential givens, such as death and loss, the transience of time, detachment, freedom and responsibility, existential isolation and meaninglessness, there are no solutions but “stances or attitudes that we can adopt towards these” universal struggles or concerns.

Freedom, Authenticity and An Existential Attitude 

For clients come to therapy when they are in pain.  Often times, if we adopt more of an existential lens, we’ll come to appreciate that they pain that brought them to therapy is existence pain.  Ontological pain.  The pain that is inherent in existence.

Our roles as psychotherapists (attendants to their souls) is not so much to ameliorate the pain, but help the clients to develop a different relationship with that pain.  This may include initially helping the clients to lower the pain to a manageable level so as to get back to functioning in their daily lives.  But a fundamental level of that pain can never be removed.

Instead, we help our clients to realize that the pain they want to avoid is also an incredible life force.  We help our clients to develop an An Existential Attitude towards life that comes from a deeper awareness and wisdom that results from a confrontation with our existence.

In regards to the existential givens, much of western psychology that I’ve learned stresses the importance of individuation and differentiation.  From existential psychology we talk about the importance of authenticity, congruence, freedom and responsibility.

Authenticity and congruence has to do with having the courage to be true to oneself; a self that can be at times antithetical to familial and cultural values.

Existentially, we’ll talk about freedom as paradoxically being condemning and inescapable.  Sartre, a French philosopher believed that we are condemned to freedom.  Similarly, Eric Fromm an American psychologist wrote a book titled Escape from Freedom.

That in order to live a full and meaningful life, we need to accept and embrace that we are the uncontested author of our own lives.

That to live responsibly, we must not allow others including family and society to write the scripts for our lives.  This is what I’ve learned from the West.

And then, in my clinical practice and supervision, I sit across from Asian and Asian American students who struggle with choosing their majors, their career paths, at the risk of being disobedient to their parents’ wishes, stated or implied.

In addition to their family values, they must also contend with societal values as well.  Filial piety and societal harmony would have them be obedient to these two powerful institutions.  For such obedience, they shall be well rewarded.

How about you?  Does this apply to you?  I know many of you have made tremendous sacrifices to follow your heart and be true and authentic to your beings.  These include substantial financial, physical, emotional, and relational sacrifices.

Yet, what is your reward for such sacrifices?  Misunderstanding or silent disapproval from their parents and loved ones.  Being “jokingly” referred as being crazy by your friends.  A more authentic self?  The uncontested author of your own lives.  Isolation is the price for authenticity.  Living with the tension of filial piety, family harmony and authenticity.


Becoming Human: The Ceaseless Pursuit of Authenticity

The Singaporean Student: Robot or Human?

I recall vividly—I was 18, when I experienced a meltdown while studying alone in a classroom for my International Baccalaureate exam. I desperately held back my tears, mind dizzy, short of breath, and asked myself: “Why the f*** am I doing this to myself?”

That moment was the height of my burn-out and disillusionment with Singapore’s education system, and more broadly, the standard Singaporean life trajectory. I recognize I was in an iron cage, a mere cog in the machinery that is the Economy. But I am no damn machine: how else can you explain this quivering heart? Yet, I was overwhelmed by momentum as I continued studying like a machine in overdrive—automatic and mindless. I couldn’t let my efforts go to waste, but something’s got to change.

This is not what I truly want. This is not who I am. All I felt was an inarticulable frustration. Would university education still prioritize the meaninglessness of rote memorization and the over-emphasis on grades? What would I become if I continue down this path?

I instinctively knew what I would feel: regret. I was terrified because buried deep within me was a potential longing to be nurtured. My being ached to be articulated. I yearned to be heard and seen. I desired to be my own person. I was on a mission to seek authenticity.

Like many others who were forced to tread this path, I was sick of being evaluated primarily by an exam transcript. I know I am so much more than a letter grade. Yet, my personal growth and worth as a human being are reduced to an abstract economic potential to be exploited by the state, to boost the country’s economy. Within this abstract structure of production line, I am merely a faceless but productive (what a great consolation) member of the workforce. How was I to find authenticity in this inauthentic world?

Bad Faith: The Subtle Art of Self-Deception and Betrayal

As luck would have it, I found out about Yale-NUS College (YNC), the first liberal arts college in Asia and Singapore. In many ways, YNC was radically different from Singapore’s education system. The YNC common curriculum offered the flexibility to explore a range of core modules—philosophy, natural sciences, social theory, coding, literature—and major electives from a wider selection of disciplines.

Most important to me, the curriculum only required students to declare their major at the end of their second year, which gave me time to actually explore and experience what I truly enjoy learning. The western liberal culture encouraged students to express their idiosyncratic selves. Furthermore, the student body is half local and half international, a social environment I believe would encourage and force me to step out of my comfort zone.

During my first year in YNC, I reflected on how “YNC assesses students not just through their academic prowess, but also their character, passion, dreams, and most importantly, as humans, not robots churning out perfect grades.”

However, even though I received an offer from YNC, there were countless times I almost backed out, and instead chose other local universities.

My anxiety overwhelmed me with second-guesses: Is this truly what I want? Am I trying to be someone I’m not?

My fundamental worry was I’m biting off more than I could chew; maybe I was too naïve to believe such a fantasy. I tried to convince myself I would be more at ease in a purely local environment because, after all, that’s where I truly belong, right? Jean-Paul Sartre (1943) would argue my cop out as an instance of bad faith, where one engages in self-deception, pretending to be other than one is, thereby reducing one’s vast possibilities to one singular reality that one pretends to be absolute.

To be in bad faith is to subconsciously avoid self-confrontation and to limit one’s potentialities. Indeed, I attempted to lie myself out of a commitment that may trigger, I surmised, the most anxiety I would ever experience. But it was also a commitment that would catalyse a radical growth in myself. Who even is the real me? Who should I listen to?

Honestly, I didn’t know. But one thing was certain: I had a strong intuition that the right thing to do was to choose YNC. Otherwise, I instinctively knew in my gut I would feel immense regret and guilt. I would’ve betrayed myself. Thinking back, the dilemma of choosing between YNC and other local universities felt like I was putting my life on the line. Given the frustration I felt, this seemingly straightforward decision became much, much bigger for a kid whose wish was to be “human.”

Freedom and the (Dis)comforts of Authenticity

In my first year, YNC truly felt like a utopia. For the first time, I, and I’m sure many others as well, had a space to breathe and unabashedly be ourselves. As with any place, its culture (e.g. YNC’s liberalism) demands an extent of conformity. But, by and large, YNC embraced its students’ idiosyncrasies and celebrated their diversity. Regardless, my pursuit of authenticity was anything but smooth.

The freedom to explore brought more disorientation than clarity. Before finally declaring anthropology as my major, I explored psychology, urban studies, computer science, environmental studies, and philosophy. As I experienced each discipline, I hoped at every exploration that this will be my final one.

As the uncertainty and anxiety were often too overwhelming, there was almost a silent desperation to merely settle on a major based on superficial practicalities (e.g. computer science majors are generally paid well), especially given how my friends had all figured out their majors.

I felt left behind and inferior. What if I don’t become who I thought I’m capable of becoming?

Without a stable identity marker, I almost couldn’t recognise myself. But as with my decision with YNC, I knew it was against my conscience to settle for a major with which my being did not truly resonate. This wasn’t any simple decision: my choice could make or break my life. I resisted the impulse to settle and continued with my exploration and pursuit of authenticity.

The funny thing was I did not attend any anthropology modules before declaring it as my major. In fact, I first declared environmental studies as my major, and at the last minute, switched to anthropology. While I resonated most with the nature and philosophy of anthropology, my initial aversion towards anthropology was its emphasis on reading, writing, and speaking, which I was at best mediocre at.

Rather than listen to my heart, I cared too much about how I may be perceived by others, but most critically, by myself. I feared the amount of work I had to put in.

Most poignantly, considering how so many intellectual YNC students wrote and spoke so exceptionally well, I feared that crippling sense of inferiority. I didn’t believe in myself—I didn’t think I was good enough. And I almost walked away to protect my ego and pride. Once again, I tried to lie myself out of an opportunity for growth.

I avoided my conscience, and almost settled for something I did not truly want. Part of pursuing authenticity is understanding how the authentic self isn’t always who you already are, but more often than not, it’s also who you are trying to be—the self you have not yet become. Authenticity, then, is a state of becoming, which entails taking a leap of faith away from comfort and towards anxiety and uncertainty. Authenticity isn’t always comfortable.

On hindsight, of course choosing YNC has inspired profound personal growth for which I cannot be thankful enough. Philosophically, considering the immense growth of selfhood and the meaning from experiencing such growth, I would choose YNC all over again. However, experientially, I do not wish to go through such a growth again.

I was so, so anxious every day because class participation was most encouraged, as well as the pressure to sound intellectual. I dreaded going to classes; I was always listless because I dissociate as a coping mechanism, which meant I was never fully present during class.

My heart raced in anticipation before and during my one-minute participation, rehearsing obsessively what to say. I couldn’t focus on what my classmates were sharing. Once my participation was over, my body would shut down from mental and physical exhaustion, unable to focus any more. I’ve always wished I wasn’t so neurotic. I never hated myself for it, but I’ve always subconsciously worked to rid of it.

I felt that this neurotic and inferior self is not the real me.

But part of those experiences of anxiety is understanding how authenticity is also accepting who you are, especially parts you do not like, and from that acceptance recognize how those “bad” parts are not intrinsically bad. Authenticity is acknowledging those “bad” parts’ potential for growth, not its “badness.” Authenticity is accepting yourself in whole.

Me “Against” The World: The Authentic and Relational Self

Now, while I’m insecure, I’m also ironically self-assured. I casually read philosophies, such as existentialism and stoicism, to arm myself with perspectives to counter the superficialities of life, like caring too much about what unimportant people think of me. I turn inwards, constantly reflecting on my own values, actions, and what is most meaningful to me.

It is amazing to be able to withstand the forces of conformity, especially when collective values contradict personal ones. Such an unwavering authenticity and sense of self requires much discipline, trust, and reflection to understand not just yourself but the multiple intersecting worlds in which you exist. Such an unwavering self reminds me of a quote by Albert Camus:

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

Indeed, being alone doesn’t necessarily mean feeling lonely. In fact, being in bad company, however big, makes for a lonelier time. However, as human beings, we are fundamentally relational. I speak from experience, as someone who valorizes his own solitude and sense of self, sometimes to the point of cynicism. But, inevitably, I will feel lonely. I speak only for myself, that my summer is undoubtedly far from invincible.

Some of my happiest and most meaningful moments are undeniably those spent with people. In archeology, authenticity refers to something “original,” such as artifacts displayed in a museum or sold during an auction. To establish authenticity requires authenticators, those who authenticate. This suggests that authenticity requires an externality to determine whether you are real or a counterfeit, which contradicts Camus.

I borrow this analogy to make the following claim: we all need our own authenticators—but we should not bend our knees to anybody just because you seek validation. Know yourself first. Then, find worthy authenticators. With your own heat withstand the unflinching, stinging winter that is the inauthentic crowd until you find people willing to embrace your summer, people who find your heat not too overbearing nor not hot enough, but just right—warm and cozy.

I am lucky enough to have found my own authenticators, but let me tell you it was not an easy journey. I am still learning how to be a relational being; I still doubt my own authenticators at times for not capturing me in totality. However, the authentic self need not be a constant, uniform self.

It is not possible to capture one’s being in totality for you are constantly changing. So, instead of resenting my authenticators, I remind myself of how lucky I am that they continue to stay by my side.

At the beginning of my desperate pursuit of authenticity, I was chasing after an ideal image, someone I must become. I’ve since learnt that authenticity is not some sort of essence that you will one day fully possess. We usually take a “human being” as a noun or a static state. However, “being” is a verb, which means we are constantly becoming human through our daily doings. Viewed this way, we never really are, but we are becoming.

If we are constantly becoming and emerging, it also means the horizon of our potential grows in tandem. Authenticity, then, is not a complete state that which we can possibly reach. Yes, authenticity may still be staying true to your values and who you are. But, perhaps, in a more existential sense that speaks to the core of your being and existence, the nature of authenticity is something processual, a doing, and being human means fulfilling your potential. More precisely, perhaps, it is the very striving towards an ever elusive fulfilment that makes you an authentic human being.

Ultimately, I am still wrestling with the idea of authenticity. As I graduate from university, and transition into the “real” world, I will continue thinking, doing, and relating, in hopes of fulfilling my 18-year-old self’s humble dream that was an ironic impossibility—being an authentic human.


Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1943. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Washington Square Press.