Last week, I spent Christmas with my classmates and masters at the Maling Shaolin Kungfu Academy in China. Master Bao, the main master, and his family decorated the school and prepared for the students a festive dinner worth talking about. We then sat in the school yard and got warm around a bonfire.
It was one of the more unique ways that I have spent this day, away from home and in the middle of an isolated patch of Chinese agricultural soil. Noone else in the area were celebrating with us, with Master Bao setting off fireworks in a quiet, empty sky.
We did not get held up in last-minute shopping traffic, nor get bombarded by public party invitations or TV commercials or songs on the radio. If it weren't for cues like tinsel and paper snowflakes, Christmas trees and Santa hats, we could have easily let a day like this pass us by.
I am close to completing my fifth month at the school, my life wholly focused on an intensive 5-day training routine. Days melt into other days, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell one week from another. Both rest and progress start to feel insufficient; ten hours of training a day leaves us exhausted, yet the yearning for more time to become better becomes insatiable.
On the social side, my classmates' faces are the first I see upon waking, and the last I see before bedtime. We grow together – sometimes unexpectedly - through the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Now, it feels like the people I have known here for barely a few months are people I have known my whole life.
We have all agreed that since being at the school, we find it increasingly difficult to grasp the concept of time. The environment here is so distant and extreme that it seems to morph the very structure of it.
I don't know if this is something I could or should get properly used to. Regardless, it is a fascinating state to be immersed in.
Back home, I would be filling up my work diary with appointment dates, rushing around town for theater rehearsals, and trying to do damage control for double bookings I have made in meeting friends. My success as a person depends hugely on how well I plan my life around the rigidity of time.
In late 2012, I had a most inspiring conversation with a friend who was visiting from London. Earlier that year, he divorced his partner of 8 years, and resigned from his corporate job to fully pursue his lifelong passion for acting. At the age of 39, he was uneasy about starting his life anew.
He decided to take on a friend's recommendation of pitching himself as someone ten years younger, especially since he still had the cherubic face to pull it off. Being 29 years old all over again did wonders to his acting career, and his outlook on life. "Imagine, all the people who lived before us, who did not yet create the concept of time," my friend mused.
"There was no such thing as 'running out of time'. All they must have done was just make sure they were happy for however long they had on earth. I've decided to live like that now. I think everyone should."
These words came to mind as I joined the bonfire circle, sharing laughs while roasting bread buns over the flames. It was a special occasion, but our spirit as a community has always been indulgent enough to make an occasion out of any other regular day of the year.
And at the rate of how quickly students come and go, I find myself valuing all the time I am granted to enjoy their company. Having fun comes a lot more spontaneously when we know that trying to set a deadline for it is pointless.
When I return to Malaysia in April, I will be bracing myself for the time-regimented lifestyle that I was previously accustomed to. There will be things to do and people to see, bills to pay and dogs to look after. I'd be lying if I said that I don't at all get worried witless about how this year will unravel for me.
But at least I now have a stronger conviction that as long as I make sure that I always do things that make me happy, everything will work out fine.