A few years ago, Deborah Chan was enjoying a pretty comfortable life in Kuala Lumpur. She and her husband Terence were climbing the ranks in their corporate careers, and enjoyed spending time with their family and friends there.
Despite all this, Chan, who worked as a sustainable tourism consultant, felt she was called for something greater. Which is why in 2014 she and her husband uprooted their lives, said goodbye to all the comforts of home, and moved to rural Cambodia to help the community there.
And if that wasn’t impressive enough, they did this with a one-year-old son in tow!
“It didn’t make sense to a lot of people. You’d think we just had a baby, we’d want to settle down! But we thought, if we don’t do it now we would always have excuses not to go. And now we had the time, energy and youthfulness to go, we had to do it,” Chan, 35, says in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
“Having a child really opened our eyes and pushed us into thinking about what it means to live out our lives. It was about walking the talk. It was so he would not just hear about being kind or helping others in need but actually be able to see us doing it.”
The story of Chan’s remarkable journey can be found in Live To Last, a memoir of her life. It offers a glimpse of the pivotal events that have shaped her journey so far and shares the lessons she’s learnt along the way. The book is an invitation to readers to live a life that counts and to consider the legacy they are creating.
“In essence, it’s about knowing yourself, and living your life to the fullest so that it leaves a positive impact. At the end of each chapter, there are life lessons or thoughts that can, hopefully, inspire people to think more about life, purpose and passion,” the author says.
Chan, who is now based in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah is also a freelance writer whose writing has appeared in magazines such as Travel And Leisure, Asian Geographic, Smart Travel Asia, and more; she has also written for The Star. She has over 12 years experience in community development projects and has worked with local communities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the United States.
She and Terence, 34, are co-founders of Short Term Operation Relief Mission (STORM), a volunteer programme based in Sabah and Battambang in Cambodia. They have two children – Seth and Enya.
Chan’s book is divided into bite-sized chapters that cover subjects like her quest for a suitable life partner, her bittersweet journey in becoming a mother, and her experiences on aid trips to Cambodia before their move there. Also included is a chapter describing a church internship in New York that coincided with the terror attacks of Sept 11, 2001.
The inspiration for Live To Last, Chan says, came from many coffee chats and dinner dates with friends, who encouraged her to pen her stories down. Her husband seeded the idea of writing the book.
“I realised that I couldn’t pass down my stories to my children unless they were written down. Sometimes our memory works against us and I may one day grow old and grey and not be able to recall anything. So this is a record I hope to pass on to them,” she says.
“Writing this book was quite enriching and therapeutic. I went back to my old journals, which I had written over the years, and flipping their physical pages, reading the stories I had gone through, was the best part of this.”
Some parts of the book are heart-warming: Chan describes, for instance, the culture shock she and Terence experienced upon reaching Cambodia, where they built literacy centres, trained teachers, and ran sanitary and hygiene programmes, among other things.
“People there are extremely warm and friendly. They leave their doors open to anyone to walk in any time. Our friends would pass by and think we weren’t in or didn’t welcome them because our doors were closed. So we learnt to open our doors – but this meant that cows could wander into our compound!” Chan recalls with a laugh.
Other parts are more poignant: Such as when Chan had to deal with a miscarriage, and the sorrow she felt upon leaving Malaysia.
While adapting to life in Cambodia came with challenges, the author and her husband got through them with a strong faith in God.
“In keeping it real, the two-year period in Cambodia wasn’t a bed of roses. We were stretched in every sense of the word. We were challenged to rethink how we lived and we had to learn new lessons and unlearn many lessons that had been ingrained in us since young,” Chan writes in the book.
“The experience instilled in us a discipline that we would not have otherwise developed. It made us stronger, more resilient and better people. It was training us for what is to come.”
Asked her thoughts about people who might want to make a change in their lives for the better, Chan has two pieces of advice. Firstly, to look in your own backyard: many local communities in Malaysia are in need of help.
And secondly, “If you do want to take a step further, I suggest people, especially city folk, try to go on a volunteer trip first. Going out to a rural place really changes your perspective. You come back with a greater sense of appreciation and also a drive to do more,” Chan says.
“It’s life-changing, in various aspects. Just step out. You really don’t know what kind of life lessons you will learn.”