A new fear

It’s one of the greatest ironies of life that the more we want something, the less likely we are to get it, or the more bridges we have to cross in order to reach it. But just as we are about to reach it, something stops us in our tracks and makes us wonder if we really do want it after all.

Back in December, a day shy of my 31st birthday, I had to sit for the Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) exam in order to apply for a teaching position in Colombia, because apparently, the Colombian government requires candidates to have a C1 score in order to be able to teach English. In retrospect, I suppose that isn’t asking too much, considering English teachers in Malaysia can barely speak English to begin with.

So with as good a grace as I could muster, I took the exam, which lasted an entire Saturday — literally 9AM to 5PM — and emerged from it limp and ashen-faced. There is a reason Masters- and PhD-holders strongly recommend going to graduate school fresh out of undergraduate: better to get all the exams out of the way while the mind is still young and in studying mode. It had been a very long time since I sat for any kind of exam — paper-based, no less — and it was the first time my own proficiency in English was tested to the point where even I second-guessed myself.

After the exam came six weeks of waiting; the results would be announced by or before February 1. I had to scrape at least 180/210 in order to qualify for a C1 score, which left a very small margin for mistakes in the exam. I didn’t want to think about what my mother — and my pride — would say if I couldn’t get that score when, in my final undergraduate year, I scored high enough on my LSAT to apply for Harvard Law School (yes, at one point in my life I actually considered studying Criminal Law, which, in hindsight, I think I really should have). I definitely didn’t want to retake the exam, and I didn’t want to have to think about what my Plan B would be if I couldn’t find another teaching program that would accept someone from my country.

It didn’t help either that right around the time I had to sit for the exam, business opportunities were suddenly falling at my feet, leaving me with very little room to refuse them, and resulting in my mother happily and unhelpfully quipping, “Well, life never goes the way you plan it!” Barely a week after the exam, I realized that even if I did manage to score 180, I would have to end up deciding which was more important: my dream, or my business.

Then, on January 18, I received an email from the exam website notifying me that my results had been released. After 15 minutes of staring at the ceiling, I downloaded the results statement and had my score read aloud to me before I could register or believe it.


Immediately after it sank in that I had managed to get a score higher than the required 180, C1 — 207/210! C2! — it dawned on me that I could now do it. I could apply to the teaching program and stand a chance of being accepted. I could leave this life behind and start over in a totally foreign land where nobody knew me, or talked about me, or cared what I posted on social media or wrote on this website. I could — but did I want to?

I had been terrified that I wouldn’t be able to get the C1 and move away from this place. But now, regardless of what had driven me to decide that come July, I couldn’t spend another minute in this country, a new fear has stolen over me. It was a fear of the unknown, a fear of being disillusioned, and above all, a fear of being unable to escape, no matter how far away I run.

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