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 dust off my scraped knees when I 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.

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.

Letter #10

Dear Uncle on the Bus,

You sat a seat away from me on the bus. Unlike the usual Singaporean way of averting all gaze with strangers, you smiled and acknowledged my presence.

At first glance, you seemed like any Chinese Uncle: ruffled salt and pepper hair, well-worn cotton shirt, black Kangaroo pants that I have come to associate with my own uncles. Even your silver-strapped watch with its yellowing face marked you as a man from that particular generation.

Yet you were not quite the same. Your eyes, they were severely crossed. And your words came out in a slurry tumble.

When you first mumbled to signal for my attention, I thought you were trying to ask for directions. You pointed at your notepad, and then out the frosted window of the bus. I leaned closer for a better look and was surprised by the string of numbers written neatly in green marker. Each number was perfectly rounded, their edges sharp; evidence of the painstaking effort you took to form each digit.

You pointed again in seemingly greater urgency. Notebook, window, notebook. I gave you a thumbs up, and you seemed encouraged by my response. Our interaction repeated back and forth throughout the 20min ride. You gave me the same expectant look each time you finished writing. I nodded and smiled, mostly to be polite, but my mind was wildly guessing where you had pulled the numbers from.

Where is the pattern? Did your crossed sight train you to make keener observations than our normal, complacent eyes? Are these numbers part of a memory? I even considered you might be an undiscovered mathematician, waiting for the right person to recognise your genius!

A man on my other side tells me I am the first person this whole time to acknowledge your attempts at making conversation (yes, I see that this is your way of conversing). He explained that you board the bus at Chinatown, and ride all the way to Hougang nearly every night, always looking for someone to show your work. In that hour long journey, you never stop writing. You, in that notepad, with your green marker. He joked about his not-so-secret hope that you were a seer with the winning numbers to the lottery.

To be honest, I was startled by your misaligned gaze at first. To be even more honest, I hesitated slightly before sitting next to you. I am however now glad I did.

It was evident from your cheerful demeanour that although you craved human interaction, you meant no harm (and that is more than what you can say about other lonely old men). In that swell of tired people on the bus, most of whom had their faces plastered to their phones, you kept me from staying in my isolated bubble.

So thank you, uncle, for that interesting bus ride. I hope you find whatever it is that you are looking for in your impeccable green numbers.

Letter #8

I saw a couple on the train today. There was nothing special about them, to be very honest. He was in black gym shorts and a loose shirt, typical of the boys in humid Singapore. She was in a white dress and a blue cardigan, a modest outfit but nondescript nonetheless. They would have been easy to miss, had my senses been distracted by a book or a podcast as I usually am while travelling.

In that moment though, they had my attention.

Some people are discomfited by public displays of intimacy. I however enjoy them, not in a perverse way, but rather that in the hustle and bustle of my life, they are an unexpected reminder about the wonderful connections between people. A mother cooing to her baby, a friend leaning in for a whispered secret; these strangers were in their own worlds and I am happy enough as a spectator.

He had his arms comfortably around her waist. Even though all I could see was his back, I sensed that his eyes were closed, as hers was. The two of them seemed oblivious to the pressing crowd in the town-bound train.

The girl’s arms were wrapped tightly around the neck of the guy, her head buried deep in his chest. I wondered if she was inhaling his scent, the way I do with Justin as if with each deep breath I can hold on to a little more of him.

As the train slowed to a stop at the Cityhall station, she looked up and smiled. He bent down for a kiss. Nothing inappropriate, just a quick peck.

And just as quickly as it happened, the magical moment was over. She bent down to pick up her bag, at the same time he fished his phone out of his pocket. Not two seconds later, she had also taken her own phone from the bag. Unconscious habits, type type typing away. The two of them stepped out of the train, one in front of the other, almost as if they were strangers that happened to share the same space. Where hands and eyes were locked in embrace moments ago, they were now busy with something else altogether.