The last time

The last day of the Chinese New Year period has recently passed. As someone who has faced accusations of being a banana,[efn_note]Meaning I’m “yellow on the outside, but white on the inside”. I’m glad to report that these accusations are becoming fewer and farther between.[/efn_note] I can’t talk too much about the various origins and meanings of the festivities. I know what some of them mean, but neither me nor my family are very rigid adherents of them.

Instead, the CNY period is more about visiting family and friends. It’s a time where my family and I make the journey back to my dad’s hometown in Sarawak, Malaysia. And we got to do that this year in 2023. It’s a relatively short flight over, about one and a half hours from Singapore (or Johor Bahru) to Kuching, Sarawak. But it’s a world of difference. There’s little to no public transport in Kuching, so you drive everywhere. Shophouses line the streets and dot the city. And as you get ready to sleep, you really start to notice the silence.

Landing in Kuching for CNY (2023)
Driving around Kuching (2023)

During my time in Sarawak, especially during CNY, I’ll get to meet many relatives. Some have lived in Sarawak all their lives, while their children may have returned from countries like Australia, China, and Canada. During these meetings, because of how infrequently I visit them physically, I may need to subtly ask my parents what I should address them as.

And this segues to the main idea of this piece.[efn_note]I know, it’s a poor segue.[/efn_note] Everything we get to do in life, we get to do for a finite number of times — and we don’t always get to know when the last time is.

Before CNY 2023, the last time I got to visit Sarawak was in February of 2019, also to celebrate Chinese New Year. But if you had asked me then, in February 2019, when I would next get to visit Sarawak and celebrate CNY there — as I often had — I would have thought next year, or at most in 2021. Little did I know that a virus would have swept the world and prohibited all those travel plans for almost 3 years.[efn_note]And I distinctly remember in 2021, as our families video called one another (on Zoom no less) that we would all get to visit each other next year. Surely, we’d get to meet again in 2022! Of course, that wasn’t the case.[/efn_note]

In other words, we don’t always get to know when we do something for the last time.

Sometimes this is trivial. Like the last time I wasn’t able to fall asleep because it was too dark in my room might have been when I was 12 years old.[efn_note]I used to have a fear of the dark.[/efn_note] But other times, it’s more meaningful. When I used to live in a snowy country, I would often head out the door, fully wrapped in snow clothing, and spend hours playing with my friends in the snow. We would play American Football, made possible by the dense snow on the ground which would cushion our falls and impact. And when walking around, I would use my gloved hand to swipe the top layer of snow from a hedge, and put it in my mouth and treat it as a flavorless snow cone. You could hydrate yourself that way. Little did I know that the next time I would get to do that is almost a decade later.

In December 2022, as my friends and I were carefully walking on snow filled pathways in a European ski park, my friends and I took our gloved hands, swiped a little snow from the top of what looked like a untouched part of the park, and put it in our mouths. As childish as it was, it made me think of the time I last did the same, probably in 2013.

Snow in a Indiana freeway roadstop (2015)
Snow in a Switzerland ski park (2022)

Again, this may seem insignificant, but to me, one of the things that make travel so special is the fact that we don’t know when’s the next time we get to return.[efn_note]Sometimes the answer to that question is never.[/efn_note] It’s because of this that I was savoring my visit to a regular Lidl supermarket in Bicester, United Kingdom. I walked the aisles, took photos of them, and even sent a picture of it to a friend. Because I knew that it would be unlikely that I get to visit the same place ever again.

The Lidl in question (2022)

That may have been a weird or lame example. But if you’re a parent, when was the last time you got to lift up your child off the ground? And when you were doing it, did you recognize that this could be the last time doing it? If your grandparents or parents have passed away, when was the last time you said goodbye to them? Did you know that would be the last time? When was the last time you laughed with them?

And all of life is like this. We get to do things, every thing, for a finite number of times.

So this time, when I visited Sarawak for CNY 2023, I tried to do things a little more mindfully. As I lit firecrackers and quickly chucked them out of my hand and into the street, I asked myself, when was the last time I got to do this? And when’s the next time I get to do it again? As all my paternal cousins[efn_note]Except one[/efn_note] gathered round two portable, plastic tables to eat a homecooked dinner, I asked myself, when’s the next time I get to do this? This trip, I took more photos, was a bit more mindful, and this Chinese New Year just felt a little more festive.

I hope you had a good Chinese New Year and break.

Relative’s home in Sarawak (2016)
Same relative’s home in Sarawak (2023)

All photos shared are mine. Credit for this idea however, comes from Sam Harris and Waking Up (a mindfulness app). You can listen to that recording here.

Comments? Text or email me.

First published: February 5, 2023
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