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Don’t Lugi Be Happy

1 minute read

In peninsular Southeast Asia there is a word of Malay origin, bastardized by Chinese pronunciation that perhaps best describes the prevalent mindset of the middle class in everything from career to politics: lugi.

More than the losing of face and the losing of status, our collective great fear is the fear of losing out. What of? Anything and everything. A recent history of imperialism, colonialism, authoritarianism and other forms of oppression have perhaps conditioned our brains into a state of perpetual loss. And need for perpetual validation.

Our toddlers go for a dozen classes, academic and non-academic, before they even learn to independently put on their pants. Other people’s kids may win, you see.

It is not enough to get a perfect score at the “O” Levels, scoring a total of 6 points (the fewer the better, 6 being the lowest); to qualify for the top three schools one must have enough point deductions from higher second language, sports and activities, and alumni affiliation, so you’re really aiming for 0 points.

To what end, paper pushers and PowerPoint warriors?

The most successful people I know who have emerged from this Matrix ask a different set of questions.

They do not ask, “what can I lose by doing this?”

They ask, “what can I gain?” Then proceed to minimize the risks through calculated steps and methodologies.

They do not ask, “how can this help me be seen to be more successful by my peers?”

They ask, “how does this help me learn, build, make a life I want for myself, help others, and can it also afford the life that I want such that my peers can see economic success attained through healthy, self-deterministic ways?”

They do not understand the politics of lugi and perhaps it is because some of us do not understand fear; every challenge is a learning curve to be conquered.

Of course this is a privilege of a certain socio-economic class, perhaps an indulgence, but for anyone of an aspirational mindset the fear of losing out is the biggest death knell you can sound. It’s not a competition, but even if it was you’d better be competing because you love it, not because you’re trapped in a race whose rules you don’t understand and whose finish line offers an indeterminate prize you’ll figure out later. Life’s too short to be afraid.

Rebuilding

2 minute read

1.

Almost exactly two years ago I was, too, on a flight to India.

Only then I did not know exactly how drastic a turn my life would take on when I returned.

2.

More and more of my friends are getting diagnosed with diseases similar to mine. Autoimmune diseases are the new black.

Across all of these experiences the one we’ve all had has been the extreme upheaval in all of our emotional lives.

3.

Sometimes I wonder if the person who made those decisions at the time was me, or the severely impaired bodily part that’s wreaked havoc in my head and my heart.

Even if the conclusions are the same in the end, I would still like to know that I had some control. But I did not.

4.

There is nothing I hate more than feeling like my self-determinism, even if it doesn’t really exist, has been impinged upon.

Even if the other person making decisions for me was just a temporarily damaged version of myself.

5.

I’ve spent almost two years rebuilding my life.

I’ve subjected it to some pretty extreme versions of what it could have been and can be, and now I’ve chosen the version I like best.

I like this one.

6.

This one:

This one is happy and confident, pushing 30.

This one is writing more, and better.

This one has had a handful of career highlights and is working harder to create the sorts of situations and opportunities that will define the next decade; it’s within grasp.

This one has an incredible support system in Singapore, Malaysia, India and all around the world and feels like the luckiest person in the world to experience such love.

This one has a loving, intact family. A beautiful dog. A lovely house in a magical part of the city that she loves more and more. A slew of projects taking shape.

This one is learning to finish what she’s started.

7.

That girl is an anomaly, someone told me.

She should terrify you — and amaze you.

She does.

8.

I’ve struggled to articulate what I feel whenever I return to the city I once lived in.

It is a living museum of my loves and losses.

It is a diptych where one side is the city that I once knew and the other is the one I no longer do.

Time has stopped for me in that city. But I am learning to love it again after.

9.

I had an argument with someone recently.

She believed all of these feelings come from unresolved pain — but she was wrong about nearly everything in the end.

10.

The city that is a living museum of love and loss merely preserves them so I can learn to love again.

The streets I walked in in them will never be the same.

Just as it should be possible to hold two opposing positions at once so as to form a better informed opinion, so too should it be possible to hold multiple feelings simultaneously so that we can love better.

For now I pick: terrifying, amazing.

Life’s too short for compromises. I’m too fond of jumping off boats then learning to swim, anyway.

An Indian Decade

4 minute read

As a wee child in Varanasi before I threw away my backpacker wardrobe.

I’ve been coming and going from India for the last ten years.

In 2004 I started to hatch the first plans to flee the terrifying life laid out for me — that of a student in a Singapore university, doomed for the corporate world or for the civil service — into the wide open arms of India, which changed everything, and who I have grown to love unconditionally. Those early escape plans evolved into a lifestyle I would not trade for anything in the world, one which has given me ample global career and life opportunities simply because I could not sit still when I was 19.

I’m currently finishing my book, a travelogue and guidebook to India for independent female travellers, which seems timely and necessary at this point; I also set up and run The Gyanada Foundation, which aims to help girls in India receive a better education. I look forward to a few more decades with India in my life in a big way.

I’ve written a lot about India in various forms, but here are some posts previously posted here about India:

***

Speak of India and its great cities, and someone is bound to correct you.

Mumbai, they say, offended, as though you didn’t know any better. In other situations, Chennai. Yet I do say and I do like saying _Bombay _and _Madras _because those were the names we had for those cities, growing up a sea away from the subcontinent, and nostalgia counts for something, nationalist political correctness be damned.

It’s a weird question I cannot answer whenever someone asks the inevitable, why do you love India so?

Where do I begin?

Do I begin with the story of how hearing my China-born grandparents conversing in market-Tamil with our Tamil neighbours as a child mesmerised me whole, leading me to watch Tamil movies endlessly wondering why I could not understand the dialogue? I was _convinced _I was Indian, there was just no other way about it: being told at age 5 that I was a disgrace of a Chinese person for not being good enough at a language nobody spoke at home (we spoke dialects and English instead of Mandarin), only made me more determined. The singing and the dancing and the prancing around trees made sense to me; the kungfu television shows felt alienating.

Or perhaps it has something to do with how I was born a stone’s throw away from Little India, how my parents were wed on Diwali, and for the astrologically-minded — of which I am not — that made perfect sense to explain away my identity confusion? My solo walks around Little India as a teenager led me into informal Tamil lessons I can no longer remember, and spice shop tastings that made me feel, for once, that this is a home I understand? _

_

Or that nearly all of my early mentors in childhood and adolescence were Tamil-Teochew poets and Sanskrit scholars who imparted in me a love for rhyme and meter and an irrational fear of booming voices; that later in life, nearly all of my friends, lovers, business mentors and collaborators would also be connected to India in some way or other?

None of that matters.

What does is that in 2004 I walked out of the airport in Calcutta and felt immediately that I had come home, through no other prior connection; and that every year ever since I have returned, twice, thrice, and more each year, sometimes staying for months.

Whenever I read travelogues about India I am often unable to understand why the authors keep writing about the Indian Arrival Syndrome: something about throngs of humanity and masses of people and rotting flesh and cow dung and about needing to flee. The only time I have ever felt that way upon arriving anywhere has been in the great cities of America and Europe, where I have arrived and thought: oh my god, where are all the people? I need to leave. (Eventually, I got over it. But I certainly don’t write travelogues about arriving at places I don’t know and wanting to leave.)

I love that I am at home in Madras, Bangalore, Calcutta and Bombay (I’m only just learning to like Delhi). That I have my secret places, amazing friends, and a world of possibilities. If I want to drop in on a film set, I can; if I want to organise a great conference, I can; if I want to do business, I can too; if I want to set up a foundation and educate a hundred and fifty girls, it’s possible as well. I am aware everyone’s mileage varies, including that of the people who actually live there — but that’s just how it’s been for me: it gives me an imagination. Mostly by showing me the extremities of the world.

After every breakup, illness, death in the family or other assorted tragedy large and small, my first instinct is to go to India — anywhere in India. It works. It’s been called my Prozac, but what it is is really far simpler. India is where I go to make sense of the world when the world no longer makes sense for me. That arrangement has worked so far, this past decade.

I’m excited about what the next five or so Indian decades will bring.

I Follow Cities

10 minute read

Little India Singapore

When I think of the 1980s, I think of the news. In English and Mandarin, both brought to you by Raymond Weil.

When I think of the 1990s, I think of Michael Stipe’s sonic-drenched wailing about his religion, or his lack thereof. And about the one sorry period of global history when everyone wondered too much about yellow lemon trees. Dookie.

If anything happened at all between those decades and now, they were these: the news was broadcast again two minutes afterwards, in a different language (the stories were the same). We flung playing cards at each other in school. We were told in many languages that New Zealand has nearly no people at all, and millions of cows, a fun fact all of us would remember for the rest of our lives. Between 10 and 11 many mornings, children stood by a very large (at the time) drain, brushing our teeth in unison. We rubbed our eyes to relaxing music to prevent the onset of myopia (too late for most of us). I carried a backpack from ages 7 to 13, which I know today to be nearly as large as the travel bag I would carry for the rest of my life, perhaps even as heavy. A battery of life-defining examinations — with as much relevance to my life as other acronyms like WITS and ACES — were survived, even surpassed, before I was deemed fit to be released into the world at large. In quick succession there were also the people I loved, the ones who left, the ones who migrated, or quite simply died. Raymond Weil faded into our collective memories like the playgrounds I never went to until they covered all the sand with foam so our children would no longer bleed when they fell. Perhaps they needed the sand to fill the new lands beyond our shorelines.

Sometimes, I moved one chess piece while my China-born grandfather brewed a pot of tea and filled out his little notebook with calligraphic scrawls I could not read.

We pretended, all the time, that I was winning.

I’d been acutely aware there were two worlds, even within this tiny country — I was born into one, and pulled into the second, kicking and screaming. Growing up I spoke no Mandarin, some English, but I spoke the sort of Teochew which made hawkers giggle as they scooped extra fishballs and minced pork into my noodles. “Girl ah,” they loved to say, beaming at me. “You speak this language like an old woman from Swatow.” My other grandmother brought me to the wet market and showed off my encyclopaedic knowledge of Hokkien classics, the kinds which sound like war cries and power ballads at the same time. “Sing”, she said. “Sing the song about what you’d do if you had a million dollars.”

I would sing. There would be more fishballs, more minced pork, more noodles for the little girl who could speak and sing the languages of her forefathers, but not say a word in Mandarin. I now speak Mandarin but I have forgotten the songs of my childhood.

The world I was pulled into was the one I entered against my free will when I turned 12. I had done well enough, they said, so I should go to the type of school which would improve my station in the world. My new classmates lived in large houses and apartments five minutes from campus, not 45 minutes away in a HDB flat as I did. They were chauffeured to school in Bentleys, Audis, and Jaguars; I took two buses to get there. Their mothers and grandmothers and even their father’s grandmothers had come to this school, which was proud of its secular, elite heritage spanning more than a hundred years. It took pleasure in taking in young, scruffy girls like me, and slowly it turned us all into the same people: young women with poise, education, and class. “I’ve never been to a hawker centre in my life,” my new classmate confessed. “I don’t think I ever will.”

In one English literature class, and we were the school known for producing writers and lawyers, there had been a discussion on the theme of protagonists who’d lost it all. “I imagine if my family lost everything we had, we might have to live in a HDB flat,” a classmate said in horror. “In Clementi. Or Toa Payoh. Or one of those places.” I lived in Clementi; I was pretty certain she had never been to any of those places.

For the most part, the school succeeded in turning me into the archetype. My Mandarin shaky, my English accented, my grades stellar, my sights turned not to Raffles Place and the local universities, but to Wall Street and Ivy League. I would be one of them. It was written.

What was also written: the writing on the wall. The boy in the boy’s school next door who’d gotten a public caning for writing my name on his school walls. I was to be the heterosexual young lady with poise and education and a District 10 lifestyle ahead of her, but that was never my world. I shuffled in my feet when the boy I dated brought me home, and home to him was a grand dining room with a painter mother, several Lamborghinis, and uniformed servants — all ten of them. I balked when I realized I did not have, nor want, a walk-in wardrobe filled with the spoils of shopping trips to Paris and New York. Or at least Hong Kong. Straddling two worlds: one foot in the Clementi hawker centre, delighted by my $0.60 chwee kueh, the other learning to like $6 lattes and $60 set lunches. I must be a communist, they said, because they’d found a copy of the Communist Manifesto in my bag. My father was summoned. He said he was glad I was considering the vast spectrum of political opinions. I am not a communist.

The social mobility that afforded me, with all its trappings of ‘station’ and ‘opportunity’, propelled me to anywhere I wanted to be. London. New York. San Francisco. Sydney. Dubai. Delhi. Bangalore. Beirut. Helsinki. It was all there for the taking. I flirted with other cities, angered by my city-country’s small-ness. Beware small states, the title of a book reads. I was afraid my city’s smallness would close in on me like a beast of the sea, its tentacles firm around my neck. I was afraid I would never learn to breathe, much less fly.

I sought flight: I flew, and still fly, 250 000 kilometres a year. I sought breakup sex with Bombay and Bangalore: my lover, my city, would never be as free and uninhibited as you are, I told my Indian dalliance. I sought space: the vast expanse of the Empty Quarter, the ancient civilizations, the churches which stand on precisely where Cain slew Abel. Then when I was done I sought adventure. I raced tuk-tuks, I washed my hair in the river Skrang upstream from where the entrails of dead boars lay before they were to be cooked. I boarded the modern-day successor to Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, after drinking bad Syrian beer at the Baron Hotel where she and Lawrence of Arabia had once lived. I donned burqahs and boarded the public bus to Aden, drinking tea with pirates real and imaginary, seeking refuge in hotels I associated with the James Bond movies I had come to love as a little girl in Clementi. I went to London and Kuala Lumpur in the pursuit of love. I flew too much in those years.

Then I came home.

I came home, road-weary, wanting to sleep in the bed I’d slept in as a child. The Sundays with ‘mee lay’, soggy yellow noodles simmered in pork and anchovy soup, boiled together for hours, helped. I came home, exhausted, wanting nothing more than to hold my grandmother’s hand for as long as I can, which is, not very much longer. I lost my grandfather to sudden disease when I was gone on one of my adventures, and I don’t know what I would do if that happened again. I came home to walk the streets of Jalan Sultan to talk to garbage-scavenging, tissue-selling old women who will never recall my name, but whose names and faces have been etched into my mind: Madam Chua. There are many Madam Chuas in this city. Madam Chua who walks with a limp, Madam Chua whose disabled children cannot work, Madam Chua whose family lives in two-room government rental flat, who makes a few dollars a day selling tissue to yuppies like me who most of the time turn our faces away and say, sorry auntie I already got tissue no need already thankyew. I can only speak to Madam Chua because my grandmothers made me sing Hokkien songs on demand. I can only speak to Madam Tan who swoops in on our beer cans because my grandmothers taught me to talk like the girl fresh off the boat from Swatow. That world is at once my world, and it is not. I came home to learn more about the Singapore I forgot.

At the Queen Street bus station at 6am one morning, I stood on the grass patch waiting for a bus to Johor. I imagined my grandparents making that same journey: the Johore Express, or whatever they called it back then. The decades-old ticketing office certainly still used tickets which looked just like they would have, when ah gong and ah ma boarded the bus in the opposite direction, to make a new life in Singapore after they got married. After they were match-made on a hill whose name they cannot remember. By way of Swatow, by way of Johor, here I am now, boarding the $2 bus to my grandmother’s city, the one she doesn’t even know anymore because she has dementia.

We build so quickly in this city, such that if I didn’t have personal geography here I would have never known what stood here before: on this very spot between Queen Street and Victoria Street, the tiny man that was my ah gong carried gunny sacks many times his body weight, every single day, gambling it all away, making the little boy who would become my father the most determined person I’d ever met, hell-bent on giving his children a life better than this.

When I experience other cities even as an insider, even as someone who has lived somewhere else for a long time, there is curiosity, and there is joy, in exploring their streets, in learning their names anew. When I walk these streets I know them by their old names. The ones on which there had been the stunted walk of my gunny sack carrying grandfather, once attacked on the head by a cleaver on these streets, lined with the washer-boards his wife had used to wash the laundry of the rich women who did not have to wash their own. The old names and the new overlap: I was born in the ‘bull pen’, not in the gleaming women’s hospital down the road. The policemen of my memories still wore shorts, and had their fearsome batons for the troublesome Chinese gangsters. The nurses were known as the white shirts, and the Hotel New World wasn’t just something I saw on TV, but experienced through my mother, a white shirt who happened to be there looking for something to eat after a shift, but spent hours attending to people who had been picked out of the rubble just like in the movies.

Then there are the landmarks, some of which no longer exist: on that grass patch and its adjoining streets, near the wholesale market which no longer exists, my grandfather carried spices and dried goods for decades. Five decades later, memories of bittersweet happiness would be formed just around the corner: of being shy and 17, stumbling out of a movie theatre, holding tightly the hands of the first woman I’d ever come to love. They were the neighbourhoods we came to know, and the places we’d called home.

The other cities will always be there. The bright lights of our imagined better places will always be on. I can build a life anywhere I want, whenever I want. For now, perhaps it is nostalgia, perhaps it is misplaced political optimism, but I choose to build my life in my late twenties, right here where it all began. Even if I can never call my wife my wife, even if I have to adopt my own children before the state will let me call myself her mother, it is the home which was set into motion for me: sixty five years and a bit ago.

Even though people like us live a life on the move, we still need a place to call our own. I choose to walk these streets, to call them by their old names, and to remember the reason I love this home is because I have one foot in this Singapore, and the other in the one that will only get better.

Strange Damascus Memories

2 minute read

2009.

1.

“If you are really a lesbian, proveeeeittt! Kiss me NOW!” A giggly girl shrieked, rather loudly, flapping her long, luscious hair about as well. She also had the Arabic equivalent of a Valley Girl accent.

In most situations, this might have been a proposition to consider.

Except we were in Syria. And I don’t like giggly girls who shriek, anywhere in the world.

I fumbled uncomfortably, and looked at the television with all the men, pretending to have taken a sudden interest in Syrian football.

I really do have the strangest experiences on my travels.

2.

“Wanna see something cool?” Before I could reply or enquire further, S stepped on the accelerator and brought his little Fiat car across five lanes on the road at a deathly angle, chuckling the way only a Russian-Arab person can in the face of extremities. “Damascus,” he proclaimed, “is kind of like a real life Grand Theft Auto.” I agreed, once I collected my breath.

Everything he took me to confounded me.

“I have a drive-thru liquor store!” — okay.

We stocked up.

“Let’s go drinking and dancing! On the mountain!” — okay.

We went.

We go-karted — drunk. I may have crashed.

His friends pulled out an old Nokia phone packed with classic Syrian tunes. All of them were Russian-Arab, the offspring of the Syrian men and the Russian women they married when they studied in the former Soviet Union. For that moment we all linked arms and fell about our sides laughing as we attempted our best impersonations of Arab Village Dancing.

The next spring some of them would be dead.

3.

Stranger experiences followed me everywhere I went in that country.

I found myself in a farmhouse in the outskirts of Damascus, sitting by a large wooden oven in a garden. It had been purpose-built to cater to the roasting (or proasting) tendencies of the proprietor and his Russian-Arab friends.

My mother made this vodka, someone started, from the potatoes in her backyard. It was delicious.

I cured all of this Baltic herring and other fish myself, another Russian in Damascus announced. It was delicious.

Somewhere between eating cured herring and drinking homemade vodka I found myself in the middle of a large field. When I awoke a middle-aged Russian lady of the cougar variety was hovering over me, massaging my back.

But damn if I knew what she was saying for I had herring on my mind.