Arranging a Room Full of Possibilities
“For me, the bedroom was never a shelter for self-preservation. It was a room full of possibilities, where I wandered on a journey of self-discovery through the ritual of arrangements.”
For years, I did not sleep on a bed. While many people had to fuss about making their beds and buying the right mattress, I have never had to think of these things as I slept on a tatami mat.
Such rice straw mattresses are more commonly used as flooring material in Japanese-style homes. Between 1990 and 2013, I lived in a public housing apartment in Singapore with only a single mattress, four inches thick, and just big enough for me to lie on. It could be folded into a compact accordion in seconds. Folding up and laying out the mattress to start and end the day became a ritual. After arising from slumber every morning, I would flip the bed up on its side, and fold it to keep at one corner of my room until it was time to sleep again.
The impermanence of where I slept turned my bedroom into a space of possibilities. Some days, I woke up to the sight of my neighborhood through the window. And on other nights, I turned in under the watchful eyes of the world map and graphic posters I had plastered on the wall. With the bed tucked into a corner, whenever I was awake, the room became my office, a sanctuary to read, a spot for meals, and a cocoon for contemplation.
This flexibility mirrors the regular shifts in a room where I assembled and formed my identity for over two decades. When I was five years old, my family and I moved into a two-story apartment on the sixth floor of a twelve-story building. I used to share one of the three bedrooms with my grandmother until she passed away after I turned twelve. With the room to myself, it became a canvas for my teenage self to fashion who I wanted to be.
At that point I did not have a tatami mattress. But I was already without a bed; a nomad in my room. The adults had decided it would be more spacious if my grandmother and I slept on mattresses without bed frames so they could be kept aside in the day. When my grandmother passed away, rather than filling the void, I kept this arrangement and cherished the newfound spaciousness.
Arranging your room is an act of constructing self in material form. One of the first things I moved in was a shelving system from IKEA. This became an early framework to house my life. While the room’s built-in cabinet hid my clothes along one wall, perpendicular to it were the open shelves that displayed my youth: books by Roald Dahl, science fiction novels like Robotech, and space-aged LEGO toys.
As I grew up, so did the contents of the shelves. What once took up half a wall next to my door eventually stretched to the full length up to my window. Throughout the years, I periodically re-arranged the shelves and its contents to make room for new interests in my life. First came the computer magazine, MacAddict, and books on Steve Jobs and his company, Apple. Then I started buying CDs: Matchbox Twenty, Fastball, and Oasis. Into the mix also came political manifestos and guides, as Bertrand Russell, Karl Marx and Michel Foucault moved in. They became neighbors to a growing book collection on Singapore history and culture. The newest kids on the block were the stacks of design books as well as flyers and catalogues picked up from exhibitions and galleries.
Like sediment layers, these reflected my own evolution. But I treated the shelves more like a jigsaw to my life. Often, I appropriated, adapted, and arranged the artifacts on the shelves to create self-portraits. As I cleaned the dust and looked at these things through time, I could review my life, revisit my memories, and rewrite my story. Things that no longer mattered were thrown out, others gained prominence and, oftentimes, new connections were discovered.
The annual spring-cleaning that comes with every Chinese New Year was always an opportunity to give the room a major reconfiguration. For a while, I had a table integrated with the shelves as I sat facing the wall of books. When I wanted to expand my worldview, I shifted perspective to the windows instead. As the room’s edges ebbed and flowed, the only constant was an open space in the middle where every day I laid out my tatami mat—a gift from my parents who decided if I was to sleep on the floor then I should lie on something intended for it. Although they did not mean it that way, it was also a reminder that my room was still a part of their apartment.
As I approached thirty, it became more and more difficult to keep reshuffling my room. The shelves multiplied in numbers and, as more books and artifacts weighed them down, they sunk roots into the floors. The posters left their shadows on the lime green walls and clung on more desperately than before. Maybe, I was growing a little old too. Most definitely, I was settling in.
That was when I decided that the only arrangement left was for me to leave the room and start afresh. To put down everything I had and lead a life of permanent impermanence again. That led me to the United States. For me, the bedroom was never a shelter for self-preservation. It was a room full of possibilities, where I wandered on a journey of self-discovery through the ritual of arrangements.