“I got a job offer from a company in Luxembourg. Great salary. I think I’m going to take it.”
“Luxembourg?” I try to hide my shock. “But what about Singapore?”
“Well, yes, but I’ll make more at this job. Singapore was a dream, but I have to be reasonable.”
Denis* had started taking English lessons with me to achieve a goal he’d had for a few years: to move to Singapore with his family. He was trying to get transferred to his current company’s offices there, and needed me, he said, to help him hone his already excellent English skills as much as possible, since that would be the language he’d be working in. Over the weeks that followed, we’d memorized lists of phrasal verbs, worked intensely on pronunciation, acted out pretend job interviews.
And now, suddenly, Singapore was out of the picture. And money was the reason why. In spite of myself, I thought he was weak. Denis isn’t the first person I’ve met who’s renounced an ideal for cash, and I don’t think he’ll be the last. The thing was, though, Denis has a high-paying job that would still have been high-paying in Singapore. The extra amount he’d earn with the position in Luxembourg wasn’t necessary, per se. How much money, I found myself wondering, do you really need? How much money makes it worthwhile to give up a dream?
“If you decide to register yourself as a freelance writer, can you imagine how much they’ll probably take out of what you earn, for taxes?” My in-laws gave me a disapproving look. “There’s a difference between dreams and reality, Alysa,” my mother-in-law said. I knew they were thinking, how can this girl be so cavalier about money? It’s not like she has a lot as it is.
“You look tired.”
“I’m just really stressed out. I have to decide soon if I’m going directly to university, or if I should take a preparatory course first.”
I nodded, knowing that the “prépa”, as the French call it for short, is a notoriously difficult ordeal, where a person basically becomes a monk and devotes him- or herself to mathematics for a year or two before college. My boyfriend had to go through this, but he’d planned to study engineering. Adnan*, one of my favorite tutoring students, wants to go to business school.
“Are you really going to need to study math that intensely?” I asked, careful to sound neutral. In his family, over-achieving is the norm.
“Well, I mean, if I do, it gives me a higher chance of getting into a good school, and later, employers will think better of me if I did the prépa.”
I couldn’t help but tell him what I thought: “You know, Adnan, in business, like in most things, you’ll probably get hired because of who you know, or because of experience or talent. As long as you have a degree, you should be fine. You’re smart and a hard worker. Plus, you’ve talked about working abroad: in other countries, the prépa doesn’t mean anything. If you’re so stressed about it, maybe you should think about just going straight to university. You don’t always have to do what people expect you to, if there’s another way to get what you want.”
In his eyes, I saw at once a light of hope and the gaze of someone staring at a strange creature in a zoo.
Adnan’s path and mine will be different. We come from families with very different values. While my father, like Adnan’s parents, is a successful and high-earning workaholic, he never forced any of his kids to follow in his footsteps. Instead, he always told us – and still does, “Do whatever you want. As long as you’re happy and able to support yourself, that’s all that matters.” I’ve never stopped feeling grateful to my parents that I've never been under any pressure from them regarding my life choices. As I thought about Adnan’s situation, I felt another surge of gratitude. I’m free, and always have been.
When I get home that night, there’s a large manila envelope waiting for me. I open it with excitement: an article of mine was published in an expat newspaper here. It’s not a paying job, but it’s such a thrill to see my writing in a print publication. I grin broadly.
The boyfriend barely looks away from the documentary he’s watching, a grim report about the problems of the public education system. I can feel him getting riled up, filled with fear: the documentary’s a success.
“Did you hear those statistics?!” he asks me. “How will our kids learn to read?!”
I sigh. “You and I went to public school, and we’re fine. And so are LOTS of other people.”
He ignores me and fixes the screen again.
“And anyway,” I say, sitting down and opening the paper to have a peek at my article, “we love learning things, and hopefully we’ll transmit that to our kids. But,” I look over at him, “I’ll be happy if they’re happy.”
The boyfriend’s eyes dart up from the screen to shoot daggers at me. “As far as I’m concerned, your education was a failure.”
The French word for “failure” is “échec”. Something about its clipped shortness always makes it sound harsher to me than its English equivalent. “Failure” has soft sounds in it, and lingers, as though there’s still some hope. “Echec”, on the other hand, sounds final.
“Your father paid so much money for you to go to that university,” the boyfriend goes on, “and you earn practically nothing.”
He’s right. My father and I often joke about it. Strangely enough, though my dad’s life has been about building a successful business from scratch, he always says he’s so proud of me: proud that I made the dean’s list at school and took so much from my studies in art history and French; proud that I was able to make tough decisions to live where I would be happiest. I’m proud that since graduation, I’ve always been able to pay for whatever I've needed.
On the other hand, the boyfriend has a point. I’m just about thirty years old, work a low-paying part-time job, and have no savings. Maybe I shouldn’t have advised Adnan not to do the prépa. I’m a bad influence. And I probably shouldn’t have privately judged Denis, mentally looking down at him from a horse as high as Henri IV’s on the Pont Neuf just because he'd chosen not to make Singapor his priority.
But in all of our cases, is the word “failure” ever fair? I’ve come to find that our society can generally be divided into two kinds of people: those motivated by money, and those motivated by something else. Maybe I’m a part of the latter group, not because of the lack of pressure from my parents, but because, when they divorced and my mother and us kids became instantly poor, I realized that financial status can change in an instant. And when I first visited Europe, and had only a suitcase to my name and the world outside my hotel window, I realized that money really isn’t what matters, anyway. I’m greedy for time. I’m ravenous for it. Time to write, time to learn, time to travel, time to take in art and films and stories, time to spend with friends and family and myself. Money comes and goes, but time is something you’ll never get back. I don’t like to waste it. I don’t like to be stuck in an office or at a meeting, when I could be doing something else. I also learned that dreams can be lived in reality. It’s not easy, but it’s often possible. The way I live now, I have more time, but much less money than most of the people I know. I am living out my dream: to be a writer in Paris.
It's funny, the flimsy line between success and failure, wavering and distorted like a mirage.
*All names have been changed.