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There is a famous Chinese proverb, Sai Weng shi ma (literally translated as “Sai Weng lost his horse”), which means that in life, both gains and losses are unpredictable. The story that inspired the proverb concerns a man named Sai Weng, who owned a beautiful horse and regarded it as a personal treasure. However, the horse became a bane when his son broke his leg while riding it.
Later, his fortune changed again when his son was spared from enlistment in the army due to his broken leg. Like Sai Weng, I have had my fair share of initially disappointing experiences that turned out to be blessings in disguise. I attended vernacular primary and secondary schools in Butterworth. My school is reputable for producing many ‘A scorers’ in public examinations.
Yet I was a reluctant ‘A scorer’; instead of attending endless tuition classes, I spent most of my time reading Chinese literature, listening to the Beatles, and interacting with different personalities throughout my five years in high school. Like most of my peers, I knew for a fact that my parents could not afford private tertiary education. I was not the brightest student, and I did not earn titles like ‘10 A1s Scorer’ to win a PSD/JPA scholarship. Thus, I had it all figured out way before SPM – try out STPM with the hope that I could get into a public university!
Since I had it all figured out, the preparation for STPM was a long and torturous process – I was impatient and found it hard to tolerate cramming as the ‘only pathway to success’. However, I thought it would be fun to take up an additional subject in STPM: Chinese Literature.
Most of my friends and teachers discouraged my decision; they thought it would jeopardise my chances of getting into university and my desired programmes, since my school could not provide classes for the subject. I dismissed their thoughtful advice despite knowing that I had to face the reality of juggling five subjects, helping out my parents (they run a home confectionary), and learning an extra subject on my own.
Unexpectedly, I survived STPM as one of the top scorers in the nation and won the HSBC scholarship to cover my bachelor degree’s tuition and expenses. I was all set for the long-awaited and supposedly exciting journey ahead of me. Many would think that a smooth-sailing road had begun, what with my enrolment into my desired programme at Universiti Malaya: East Asian Studies and International Relations.
However, university life turned out to be quite disappointing. I soon realised that it was too conservative and stifling for both my intellectual and personal growth. Given my broad interest and thirst for learning, I became frustrated and upset when I found myself lacking exposure in all aspects: social, cultural, global, and technical.
I had a few options ahead of me: sulk about my less-than-positive experience, leave university, or simply make the best out of what I have in hand. To cut the long story short: I decided that I did not want to leave what I had started.
An abundance of rewarding and memorable experiences followed: I finally travelled to a foreign country for the first time when I was selected to participate in a global venture capital programme, in which I worked with eight team members from different continents for two weeks; graduated as the only student majoring in China Studies; travelled with youths from all over the world in various cities in China; recorded and launched a music album with my band; led two global conferences simultaneously with students from Harvard University; worked in a consulting firm and built strong professional relationships with colleagues and clients; volunteered with a local NGO; won a prestigious scholarship and got accepted into Yale and Stanford, and of course, spent months working with an amazing team to make this book possible for other Malaysian youths!
Opportunities come in various form and shapes. Retrospectively, I am more than fortunate to have been given many opportunities to learn and constantly challenge myself to reach higher. My turning point came when I changed my perspective: I eventually came to terms with the limitations I was facing and learned how to embrace and address them positively. This seemingly insignificant realisation has been my guiding light throughout the years, and it certainly smoothened my path when I failed terribly, and reminded me of where I started.
While I gear up for a new stage of my life – to live and study in another continent far away from home, I look back on my past with a smile. Things do change, but it is up to you to drive your destiny – you can always carve out your eventual journey.
Goh Jing Pei never left Malaysia before age 22. This small town girl has been blessed with more than one generous scholarship although she was once called “the laziest girl in class” by a local newspaper. She is heading to the University of Oregon as a Fulbright Fellow to pursue a Master of Arts degree.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.
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