Rambling thoughts of an unemployed graduate

Dear World,

Do you ever have a dream that you held on so tightly, that you repeat so often to anyone who will listen, even though you are not sure if it is what you want anymore?

These few days, I have been in anguish after blurting out to a potential employer my dream of working in publishing. I regret that recklessness, in part because this was for a position entirely removed from publishing. The possibility that I might have screwed up my chances at an amazing work opportunity is killing me. Worse still, I don’t know if I was being entirely honest during that word vomit.  I am ashamed to admit that my love for writing has been lukewarm at best, something I blurt out only because I am expected to have a passion, because a passion leads to a purpose, no?

For the longest time, I have been very firm about my aspirations to be a writer. I longed to write about women who have made their mark in the world, women who have lived and loved and now have a lifetime of stories to share. To give myself some credit, I am not half bad as a writer. My words have a certain cadence about them. They are at times poetic, and always raw, if not the most sophisticated.

I started writing when I was 10. I started beneath the covers of my sheets, writing embarrassing Harry Potter fanfiction (yes, I was a dork). Then, in school, some of my essays received praise from my teachers, and that’s when the idea of becoming a writer seeded in my head. I did not always know what sort of a writer I would be. A scriptwriter? A columnist? A novelist? It mattered little. All I know was that the possibility was endless! As a chubby little kid with a funny fringe and mouth full of braces, I was ecstatic to know I had this smidgen of a talent. Writing lifted my fragile ego.

Yet, recently, it seems to take an awful lot of cajoling for the proses to flow from my fingertips. I don’t always get that endorphin rush you are supposed to get when pursuing your passions, the way athletes feel when they pound the track, or painters do when their brushes connect to canvas. My mind is like a faulty typewriter where the letters come out gibberish sometimes.

Writing does bring me clarity occasionally, especially when my thoughts are shrouded in an irrational fog of anxiety. The knots in my chest are more stubbornly tangled, but a temporary relief is better than none. And am I not here, resorting to words to vent my frustrations?

I have always been struck by the idea that our phobias tend to veil a deeper fear. Underlying the phobia of heights is a fear of falling; underlying the phobia of deep water is a fear of drowning. My apprehension towards writing conceals a fear of not having anything worthy to say. If I cannot offer poignancy, if I cannot offer entertainment, can I still claim myself to be a writer?

Maybe my turmoil is a consequence of growing up in the age of perpetual public scrutiny. Where other obsess over their photographs on social media, I curate my words in exchange for validation. Admittedly, I don’t think I will ever be able to stop writing entirely, even if it’s only for myself on this private space. There is a perverse pleasure in accomplishing what has not been easy, just like pushing myself off the couch to go for a jog.

As Mr. Keating, played by the legendary Robin Williams in the Dead Poet’s Society, asserts, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

If this is true, if words can change the world, then writing should not be easy anyway. After all, world revolution is no walk in the park.

 

 

 

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Is my Chinese Food more or less Chinese than yours?

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I love watching documentaries about food. I love watching how ingredients move from farm to table, soil to plate, and the delicate methods of preparation, whether it’s by following a recipe passed down for generations, or invented by the new age chefs who challenge our senses beyond imaginable realms. It is fascinating to understand the intimate ways food is tied to a culture, especially how a simple dish can invoke race, class, and gender politics. As Sarah Mink writes on Bitch, “Food is deep reflection of our identity”.

Lately, I have been drawn to documentaries about Chinese food, specifically, the ways it has morphed to suit the American palate. The most recent one is a three-part series by AJ+, which examines how food has been historically, and even today, a means of survival for Chinese immigrants. In the hostile new land, thousands of miles away from home, food became a non-threatening way for them to perform their precarious identity.

It is fascinating how most, if not all major cities in the US has a Chinatown. Those ethnic enclaves are ubiquitous not only in their aesthetics – jade green roofs and vermillion arches – but also in the menus displayed proudly outside the restaurants. Once you navigate past the rapid-fire exchanges of Cantonese, the overwhelming neon signs of “Best Price!” or “Today’s Special!”, and the general cacophony that is Chinatown, you can find restaurants serving General Tsao Chicken, Chow Mein, and all kinds of Chop Suey. While fortune cookies are not guaranteed, takeouts really do come in the iconic white boxes familiar to any one who has seen American programs.

Watching these commentaries on the Chinese-American community got me thinking about what food means to me as a Singaporean Chinese. I am well-acquainted with conventions like the takeout boxes, but only in so far as what I have gleaned from watching dramatised tv. That is, despite the common claim of ‘Chinese’, they present an exotic culture that isn’t quite mine. Yes, we too have grand banquet halls festooned with paper lanterns and calligraphic scrolls, serving steamers of Dim Sums for brunch. We have Ma La Hotpot restaurants lining a whole street, and these aren’t concentrated only in Chinatown. However, quintessential Chinese food will always be to me Zi Char (literally: to cook and fry), eaten at open-air coffeeshops with no pretensions to frill or fancy.

Zi Char dishes are prepared to the symphony of clanging cast-iron woks and roaring fires, with the intermittent sizzle of liquids interrupting the happy banter of the hawkers. I do not know who General Tsao is, but our chicken comes in Gong-bao (dried chilli) or Xia Jiang (prawn paste). It is not Chop Suey, but Chap Chye, not Chow Mein, but Hor FunIf you have ever had Zi Char or any version of home-cooked Chinese food in Singapore, it becomes apparent quite quickly that they taste little like the food consumed in America, or even what is traditionally eaten in China. One reason for this is because our ancestors hailed from different provinces, and hence brought with them different spices and techniques.

More importantly, what we acknowledge as Chinese food here is, to use Mink’s terms, a deep reflection of Singapore’s dynamics — our strategic position as a trading port where foreign cultures meet and inevitably bleed into each other; our modern multiethnic make-up that is admittedly skewed towards a Chinese majority, but varied nonetheless; and of course, the influences of our country’s largely Muslim neighbours. Even on occasions like Lunar New Year or Mooncake Festival, when the homage to tradition is explicit, the offerings have dramatically evolved to include items like Durian Mooncakes and Peranakan Dumplings. Similar to the Chinese-Americans, the food we eat has changed to fit local tastes.

At home, my grandma was the custodian of our ancestral recipes. I have fond memories of her standing in front of our makeshift outdoor kitchen, hands akimbo as she kept a watchful eye on whatever concoction was simmering in the soot-blackened wok. There, she would whip up Kai Lan stir-fried with savoury oyster sauce, Batang fish fried to a golden crisp, and every kid’s favourite, the simple soy sauce eggs. There were also other classics like braised pork entrails which made frequent appearances on our dinner table, but I never developed a liking to them.

It is with some regret that I did not make a bigger effort to learn how to cook from my grandma. In time to come, as the thread to our forefathers becomes more tenuous, as recipes get lost over the generations, how will Singapore Chinese food once again change?

Letter #14: On running away and coming home

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I recently returned home after 4 months of travelling around New Zealand.

If I am being absolutely honest, my time away was wholly an attempt to escape the pressures of applying for jobs. It was not because I did not want to work, but because my pride couldn’t bear the mounting reality that I just might not be as good a candidate as I thought. Strip of the routines and demands of school, I suddenly find myself waking to days without any purpose. I was increasingly stalked by the fear that I never will amount to anything more than a mediocrity, and all these ideas of a worthy existence were just part of a millennial’s delusion.

I am painfully aware of how small my existence is, in comparison to the world’s vastness. I am a mere speck of dust in space, a blip in its timeline. I feel incapacitated to make a dent in the grand scheme of things, and this awareness only makes me want to shrink further into my bubble of self-pity.

Yet, I don’t think I am just a spare component of the system. The moment I was formed, I was crying, and breathing, and grasping. My heart knew to beat, and my lungs to inflate, kickstarted by nature the moment I was born. I am made of earth and water and air, the same organic materials that fill this earth. 

How can I feel so insignificant, yet so troubled by this anxiety to make a difference while I still can?

The happiest people seem to be those most satisfied with their circumstances. It may not necessarily mean they are without ambition. Jiro, the sushi master from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, explains, “You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success.”

I think what he means is we find success by perfecting what we have been given. Rather than jumping from one station to another, praying that we will be miraculously good at something, we cultivate what we already have with love and dedication, and then use that to progress further.

The fates have been kind to me. I have a fickle but curious enough mind which urges me learn and write, healthy limbs that carry me through the world, and a community of family and friends who believes in me even when my own doubts threaten to overwhelm. How do I turn these blessings into a lasting legacy? How do I transform my fear into eagerness?

Perhaps as Rhonda Shimes says, I just need to start doing. In the same way my lungs inflate, my heart beats, and my guts digest, there is no need to overthink. My organs simply do, so that I survive.

“You want to be a writer? A writer is someone who writes every day, so start writing. You don’t have a job? Get one. Any job. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical opportunity. Who are you? Prince William? No. Get a job. Go to work. Do something until you can do something else.”

– Shond Rhimes, Dartmouth Commencement speech

Life is unpredictable, and in this unpredictability, there is untold possibilities. I have been so ensconced in my own worries that I have been unable to see this simple truth. I can start small, such as nurturing the relationships I have and starting conversations with strangers to find inspiration. Undoubtedly, there will be days when I can do nothing more than curl up on the floor and try to keep my panicked breaths in check.

But whatever it is, I am done running away.

Letter #13 Independence and Vulnerability

I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be independent lately, especially when independence is conflated with values of strength and weakness.

I wear my independence like a badge of honour. I pride myself in being able to lift myself up after a bad fall (both literally and figuratively), and carry on with minimal tears. I pride myself in being able to make difficult decisions, relying only on my own instincts and experiences. I feel, as the word of the day goes, empowered. Yet sometimes, being independent also feels incredibly lonely.

I envy those who are able to expose their vulnerabilities with little hesitation. It seems such a relief to be able to share your fears and frustrations without automatically assuming that the other person is going to bail, or worse, wield these vulnerabilities against you.

Even more so, I worry that once I start vocalising my fears I won’t be able to stop, a verbal diarrhoea of insecurities tumbling out. Will they look at me differently, or think any lesser of me? Will I become reliant on the opioid of validation? How does anyone know the acceptable bounds of sharing anyway?

Humans are inherently social beings. We thrive on interpersonal exchanges and crave intimate relationships. We look to others for comfort and safety, and no doubt there is strength in numbers. But more than any other creature, humans also have the wicked ability to emotionally manipulate and hurt. Where animals can inflict grievous physical harm with their fangs and claws, humans can, on top of bodily abuse, plant doubt and destroy from within. Even when the let-down is unintentional, the volatility of other people means that there really is no one that you can count on except yourself.

So then, is strength when you don’t need to look to others for reassurance and support, or is strength the ability to trust over and over again even though people have proven themselves to be unreliable?

Édouard Boubat, the French photographer said, “You cannot live when you are untouchable. Life is vulnerability.”

On the one hand, I am inclined to believe that the French over-romanticises everything. On the other hand, the act of opening up often invites the other to do the same. The mutual admittance of fallibilities removes any power imbalance, and untethered by doubt, the relationship is able to grow.

I am still prone to backtrack, justify, or laugh it off whenever my fears and frustrations bubble over. Being vulnerable will never come easy to me, and I wonder frequently if my independence is just a paper tiger after all. Nevertheless, I am learning to let the warmth of the people around me soothe my wariness – these same people who though are flawed and unpredictable, often just have hearts full of love and kind- intentions

Letter #12

Dear various people who have asked me, “What is the worst part about being a long-distance relationship?”

I always go on a long spiel about not being able to see the other person or miscommunication blah blah. But really, what I miss most is having to wait months apart for a hug. There’s something about hugs that strike me as more intimate than any other form of physical contact.

I like the way two bodies can press so closely that you can feel the heartbeat of the other person. I like the way the warmth emanating from the other person encompasses you, shrouding the bodies in a shared energy. I like the way the tell-tale sign of the relationship is in the arms. Backs are casual. Shoulders traverse the in-between. And waists, waists are sacred territory. I like the way a hug is good enough on its own, whereas there is the expectation of something more following a kiss.

I believe humans share a universal desire to be touched. Perhaps this desire is borne from a lingering memory from when we were infants, swaddled safely in the arms of our mothers. Hugs tell you everything is okay now. That you are safe. That you are loved.

So yes, that I have to accept verbal assurances as the best alternative to this physical connection is one of the worst parts of a long distance relationship. Which is why, the ‘run-towards-each-other and throw-yourself-into-their-arms-without care of judgement’ is also the most magical feeling in the world in my opinion.

Interlude

This past month has been about taking things slow. It has been a month of basking in the beautiful words of others, rather than pressing myself to churn out letters. It has been a month of deep breaths, long walks, and trying to let the future take its own course, even though being still is the hardest thing to do.

I miss writing though, so here we go, a quick sketch of my morning:

The phone chimes, first a few calm rings, then building to an urgent crescendo. I struggle to rise from the warm weight of my blanket. The blinds are up as always, and I take a quick peek outside through my half-opened eyes. The tendrils of first light reaches gently through my windows, a different scene altogether from the roiling sea of grey yesterday.

As I step out of the steamy shower, skin fresh even as my brain remains dull, the whir of the coffee machine tells me breakfast is almost ready. A sip of the bitter brew, a bite of bread slathered in jam. Most days, I do not have the luxury of a languid breakfast, but today is one of those days where time is on my side. The sun is fully up now, lighting the sky in a glorious blue.

Morning rush on the train. I try to secure a nook away from the swarm of harried commuters, even as the crowd ebbs and flows around me. Thank goodness my stop is second on the line. The journey flies by if I have a good book in hand. Today though, I turn to my phone, feeling slightly guilty for succumbing to the lure of Facebook. In a few minutes, the sway of the train lulls me to sleep.

“Next station, Botanic Gardens.” Ten more minutes to the start of another work day.

Letter #6 Why I am ‘Such a Feminist’

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I learnt from a young age that girls were no different from boys. Growing up, it rarely occured to me that being ‘female’ was disadvantageous.

I grew up in a household where my grandmother was the matriarch of a large extended family. She had eyes on all manner of the house, knew the comings and goings of all twelve of her children, and inspired invariable awe amongst all her grandchildren. Her words could be as cutting as the cleaver she wielded, but she also had an empathy that drove her to invite roadside workers into our house for a cold drink on a sweltering day. No such thing as stranger danger for my grandma, who I am certain could have fended off any attacks. Somehow, she never fit into the docile good-wife stereotype that characterised  so many of the women from her generation.

Lucky for my sister and I, our parents never bought the maxim that girls needed to be sheltered from the big bad world. We were allowed to run and play in the mud if we wished, and we scraped our knees just as often, if not more than our male cousins (I was a clumsy child. I still am.) We had dolls that we dressed up and played house with, but we also had bikes and scooters that we terrified the neighbours on. More importantly, we were taught to speak up about injustices, even if it meant questioning a figure of a higher authority.

When the time came for me to choose a career, I eventually gravitated towards the female-dominated social sciences. However, this was a decision based purely on personal interest rather than any pressing expectations. In fact, a good number of my female friends are happily situated in the environs of STEM industries.

In the absence of any overt gender discriminations, why do I still feel the need to fight the good fight of a feminist then?

There reasons are two-fold: 1. just because sexism is not in-your-face does not mean it does not exist; and 2. just because I was blessed enough to enjoy these privileges does not mean every woman enjoys them too.

It is true that Singapore has come a long way in terms of the local women’s movement. We have equal voting rights and access to education; female representation is increasing in boardrooms, albeit at a less than ideal pace; and calls to protect victims of harassment and trafficking have been growing since the two acts were first passed in 2014. Across all fields – sports, science, health and more – women in Singapore are proving themselves an unstoppable bunch. Even so, these progress, as much as they are worth celebrating, does not mean that our nation has moved past the notion of gender typecasting.

As many of my friends can attest, being a young woman in Singapore is a perpetual balancing act of conflicting standards. We are expected to strive for the picture-perfectness of Instagram girls, with their impeccable hair, toned bodies and outfits to die for, as much as we are taught the most desirable compliment any girl can get is “You are not like other girls”. We are expected to look good, but not too good or it will scare off the guys. We are expected to dress up, doll up, but also accept that these are frivolous pursuits that we should not subject our men to. In short, individuality is appealing only if it still fits within the bounds of femininity, and femininity is desired only if it is deemed effortless.

Of course, these convoluted subtexts by which women are evaluated are not confined to the throes of youth. More eloquent and well-informed writers than I have spent years documenting the paradox plaguing women in Singapore – that between the homemaker and the productive worker. Given that girls here now have equal access to education, there seems to be little reason why we should not have big ambitions and build successful careers. And we do. Yet at the same time, women who choose to seek fulfilment through their jobs are stymied by cultural expectations of them as caregivers. As Amy Poehler, queen of all things important in my (biased) opinion sums up:

There is an unspoken pact that women are supposed to follow. I am supposed to act like I constantly feel guilty about being away from my kids. (I don’t. I love my job.) Mothers who stay at home are supposed to pretend they are bored and wish they were doing more corporate things. (They don’t. They love their job.)

To be honest, I have no clear solution for these problems. To be even more honest, I myself am far from being a good feminist. I spend too long checking out girls’ butts in the gym (and this is where I am tempted to launch into another essay on self-objectification). I oscillate between wanting a Prince Charming to validate my  desirability, and being Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph who is ready to fight my own damn battles  (“Flattery don’t charge these batteries, civilian!”). Perhaps most heinous of all, I make snap judgements about someone based on how appealing they look. In fact, a quick google search will show you what a disparate bunch feminists are. We can barely agree on what we want!

Nevertheless, what I do know  is that there is a need to dismantle these ingrained expectations of women. Even before changes are made at the structural level, even before better policies can be legislated, we can make a conscious effort to think before we pass judgements. Don’t try to speak for the experience of others. Listen when they explain. Boys, stop having unrealistic expectations about girls. Girls, stop validating your worth at the expense of other women. We work damn hard to become the person that we are.  Be proud of that.