IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Ageless wonder in lifelong learning

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 28, 2014

I first met Japanese retiree couple, the Ms, in 2006. We crossed paths because S, the husband, was doing research on his thesis about Singapore films, and T, the wife, was helping him with translation and note-taking.

I was intrigued by this dynamic duo. S, tall and bearded, was the image of a bohemian academic in his metal-rimmed glasses and dashing ponytail. The petite, salt-and-pepper-haired T wielded a portable English-Japanese electronic dictionary and was armed with a huge DSLR camera that looked like it weighed more than she did.

They were sincere and keenly interested in the Singapore film-making scene, unfazed by language barriers. S even picked up some Hokkien - which he calls "Fujianese" - in order to understand the getai songs in Royston Tan's 881.

We became friends because the Ms would visit Singapore for lengthy annual sojourns while I travelled frequently to Tokyo, where they were based. So we would meet over meals and chat about everything from film and politics to culture and travel.

The more I got to know them, the more I admired their energy and enthusiasm. S had travelled the world and worked long stints in the United States and Brazil. He also had a hand in helping to build the Studio Ghibli museum in Tokyo, a quixotically quaint building in Mitaka with curvy edges and cute corners which is dedicated to the work of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. T did her master's in anthropology, travelling through the jungles of Borneo to do research among the headhunters.

On my recent trip to Tokyo, I met them again and, over a lunch of tender anago, they chatted about backpacking through eastern Europe, loving Poland for its strong cultural identity, friendly people and good food, and heading to Ireland on their next adventure.

I have been thinking about the Ms a lot this past week because I have just changed jobs. After almost 20 years working in the same section, Life!, in The Straits Times, I have moved to the Online department.

As a classic conservative Capricorn, I have to confess I'm not big on change. On my first day at my new desk, I felt distinctly unmoored. I grew up - first as a rookie reporter, then an arts correspondent and editor - in Life! and knew its rhythms by heart.

At Online, I have to learn new processes and am feeling my way around. The impatient part of me feels like I should be doing more as I have become so used to plunging straight into work the second I arrive at the office. But there are new workflows to understand, new technology to learn and new colleagues to befriend.

Of course, I'm not the only one to feel dislocation during a job shift. Why else would books such as Who Moved My Cheese?, that much-derided management book about coping with change, sell more than 40 million copies worldwide?

But in grappling with change in my little corner of the universe, I have come to appreciate even more the resilience and, on reflection, the courage of the Ms.

It is a cliche, of course, to declare that one should embrace change. However adaptable one is, upheaval and insecurity are never easy to deal with. But I did opt to uproot myself, reasoning that learning new things would be good for my intellect, if not my soul, and a good test of my mettle.

That logic is sound in theory, but messier in reality when I have to deal with my own ignorance and doubts. That brings me back to my friends who provide an inspiring model, not just as the epitome of active ageing, but also as exemplars of the beneficial effects of lifelong learning.

The Ms might be in their 70s, but they tackle new challenges with the attitude of a person a third their age. They are constantly curious about the world about them, and I suspect this is one of the things that keep them young at heart. They engage wholeheartedly with the peoples and societies they visit. And this intellectual curiosity is something that I find most admirable.

The more the Ms travel and learn, the more engaged they are with the world around them - it seems to be a virtuous circle that keeps them going in life. S is now contemplating writing about Poland's cultural identity because he is curious about how that small country has survived multiple invasions, even vanished as a country at certain points in its history, yet retains such a strong cultural identity.

Talking to them, I am reminded of my years in university, when my brain was stimulated in a dozen different ways by the books I read and by the joys of figuring out explanations about the wide world around me. There is that same buzz of discovery when I talk to the Ms. They challenge me to think deeply about my opinions about everything from the arts to politics, to tease out the subtleties of various points of view.

Now that I am scrambling to learn everything from a new computer program to different ways of applying my journalism knowledge to my new job, I feel as if I have been thrown back to my university days when every subject was a novelty and each day brought new revelations. I could choose to feel overwhelmed, or, like the Ms, I could choose to delight in discovering new things.

Doubtless there will be both frustration and fun along the way, but taking a leaf from the Ms' playbook, I will treat it as an adventure.

If my open-hearted friends who display such joie de vivre are any indication, this approach to learning will serve me well not just now as I'm figuring out a new job, but also in my own retirement years.

sorfern@sph.com.sg

www.facebook.com/OngSorFern

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 28, 2014

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