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Why I’m Hosting Culture Kitchen

6 minute read

This is a project which has been on my mind for some time now. We’ve been planning it for a while. A part of this is a response to a worrying trend of anti-foreigner sentiment (c.f. the responses to a drive to raise funds for victims of last year’s Downtown Line accident: here and here).

The other part — which I believe to be more important — is the need for us as a nation and as a society to come around to the idea that we are not alone in this. Immigration is a touchy issue everywhere. How we choose to deal with this now will be something which has repercussions in the future. Evidently there are many schools of thought on this.

Personally, I believe the day people stop wanting to come here to live or work will be the day we should worry. That would only happen when we become verifiably a land with no opportunities whatsoever, which cannot afford our people, and our guests and newcomers, a better life.

When I was in university, my closest friends were in the Indian/ Nepali/ Pakistani (i.e. desi) contingent. Homesick, they sought out food which reminded them of home. Usman Restaurant at 238 Serangoon Road, near Mustafa/Desker Road, was one such place. It opened late, and most nights we would walk there from school or from the SMU hostel to tuck into comforting, always hot naan, roti, dal fry, haleem and other delicious Pakistani/North Indian dishes.

Anil, my university buddy from Kathmandu, and I were big fans: pretty soon, we got to that point of patronage where we had our own tab, and the workers and owner of the restaurant were on our speed dial and Facebook. We made friends.

When I went abroad for about five years, every time I returned I had to come back here. I started bringing other people there: my parents, other family members, family friends. One incident which stood out for me was in how I had brought a younger friend from China to Usman. She had barely eaten Indian food in her life, and now she was in Singapore, about to start at another local university. I saw her go from trepidation (from not knowing anything about the food nor what to order), to familiarity. It turned out that while I was away, she would return religiously with other friends from China, and also from Singapore, and she would order the food that I had ordered for her because she loved it. Eventually she began to have friends from India, too, and this was something that she now had in common with them: she really loved the cheese naan and the chicken kadai there.

Something struck me, and has stayed there ever since. When I read about Conflict Kitchen, something clicked. I realized we could synthesize — and borrow — some of the food and art as dialogue aspects, and localize it for our own context.

There were plenty of challenges. What came up often was: how do you know you’re not already preaching to the choir? The bleeding heart liberal wing, the English-speaking, the people like us, already believe in migrant rights and all of those things. What good would it do to tell these people again about diversity and inclusivity, when they already believe in them too?

The second challenge was place. We wanted to do it in a public place, and Little India was top on my list. But this is Singapore, and there are a thousand permits… so that was off the table.

Eventually we came up with a first Culture Kitchen which is, I think, simple in its objectives and easy to understand. The main premise is, quite simply, come have dinner with our migrant workers. We sold out tickets in two and a half days. We went to Little India last Sunday, and distributed free dinner invitations. (Singaporeans/expats/residents pay $5.)

Dinner invitations for migrant workers.

The response was enthusiastic, and we were fully subscribed. I am delighted to announce that we have an pretty balanced mix of Singaporeans/expats/residents and migrant workers.

What’s the objective?

I’m doing this because I’d like to help facilitate more of those moments. Moments like when a Singaporean-Chinese and a Nepali student like myself and Anil, are able to make great, lasting friendships with people from various parts of Pakistan who have chosen to make this place their home, and with each other. Moments like when the mainland Chinese friend is able to glean a closer understanding of a completely foreign culture, only by way of her time here in Singapore. All of us have just this in common: we live here. Some of us, like me, were born and brought up here. Others come for a short while for study or work. Others will do that and choose to make this place home, when the time comes. I don’t think we need to split any hairs over who is a ‘true blue Singaporean’ and who isn’t: I truly believe that.

Bangladeshi workers in Little India signing up to Culture Kitchen.

I may be idealistic in that respect. Some of the undercurrents of Singapore politics disappoints me greatly. I believe that we can be welcoming of foreigners, and I also believe that we should be able to have mature political dialogue over our immigration policies. It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. A few days ago I posted that I disliked the term, “Singapore for Singaporeans”. I think that if you were to replace either term with any other race, nationality, religion — it would be unacceptable. It is, to me, fascist, loaded, designed to exclude. This is not the Singapore I want. Immediately I received a torrent of online feedback, wanting to know if I would be happier with being a second class citizen in my own country. Again, this is not a zero sum game.

What would be detrimental is if we were to continue tolerating the racist and xenophobic sentiments and never call them out for fear of being termed a traitor (or an SPG, as I have been called many times in this context). What is already detrimental is agitations of the vocal minority which wants to see no foreigners here at all, or only the ‘right kinds’ of foreigners. What is already detrimental is the unfortunate lack of gumption in the political establishment, which seems too bothered by the vocal minority, in dealing with the push back not by doubling down on better policy, but by apparently taking an iron-fisted approach. Closing the doors every time someone stages a protest is not the way forward.

What is the way forward? I don’t have a specific answer.

I can, however, build communities and movements. This is one of the things I know I can do well, and I want to lend my technological and organisational skills to building a movement which will stand up for a Singapore which includes. The Singapore we want to see. While I will continue to call out the xenophobes every time they emerge from the hills, I will also spend twice as much time on helping to create a counter movement which is positive in nature. I don’t have an ROI, I don’t have an end goal, I just want to bring people together.

The first Culture Kitchen will feature biryani. You will realize from the name itself that the event is titled Biryani/Beriani, for good reason. One dish, many stories, many geographical and cultural interpretations. But still a tasty dish which everybody can get behind. There will be dum biryani from Pakistan, and there will be Malay-style chicken briyani. All of it is halal. There will be peas pulao, for the vegetarians among us. I’m not sure what can happen over biryani, but I think if I don’t try, I’ll never know.

So let’s rock up on Sunday, keep calm and eat a ton of biryani, and make new friends. Thanks for the overwhelming support.

74 Weeks Later

1 minute read

1.

Once or twice in your life, something, or someone, gets under your skin and stays there. Most of the time it’s because you have let them. It does not need to be tragic; it can even be, at times, up-lifting. All of the time it changes your life in some big, unalterable way. Then you learn to deal.

Seventy four weeks ago (I only know this because Instagram tells me so) I made a decision about how I wanted to live the next twenty years of my life, and I’m learning everyday that breaking up costs more, the older you get.

Because at 22, you don’t really know what kind of life you want for yourself. The best you can do is learn from what you run away from.

2.

Running away used to be my only currency for dealing. These days I over-compensate. Twelve months ago I was in Helsinki going on San Francisco, running away from life and lost love.

I met a girl at a bar after a BDSM street party, and she robbed me.

Only in San Francisco.

3.

I was in court today.

Say what you will about the system and its shortcomings, but nowhere else in the world do you get an efficient, fast-moving court system which settles commercial matters… after office hours. So the GDP won’t take a hit, I suppose.

74 weeks ago, in running away I also ran away from the filing of company papers.

So I now owe the Singapore government $$$.

4.

Some older, wiser people have this to say:

– fuck it

– date widely

– have as much fun as you can

– avoid dating vegans

– fuck everything, really.

I’m coming around to the point of view that they are right.

5.

Life is funny and always, always takes me on these amazing, unexpected journeys.

Over and Over

5 minute read

1.

Some days ago, a boy I used to date as a wee teenager (yes, a boy!) reached out to me on Facebook. It’s funny where we are now: he’s now a hotshot international banker, I’m now an international vagrant (I don’t really know how else to describe myself), instead of the awkward, school-uniformed boy and girl we once were. I found this episode especially funny because (1) I used to date boys! Which amuses me (2) exactly 14 years have passed since we used to ‘go out’; we were 14 when we started going out. These days I am more acutely aware of how much older I am getting, and the fact that Class 95 now plays the songs I grew up with when they play “the classics” doesn’t make it any better. In a couple of days we’ll probably meet for steak and wine with some mutual friends. He’s found some photos of us, circa 1999, and thinks it will be funny to laugh at our younger, hotter selves.

It will.

2.

Everyone’s getting married. Well, not everyone, but… lots of people are. In a couple of weeks my best friend D will walk down the aisle with a really lovely boy, and I will try not to burst out of the tiny green dress I am supposed to wear. The one I still haven’t bought. Everything changes, but nothing does — she’s still more mature, more put together, more likely to worry about her friend who has been all over the place since we met as adolescents. I’ve read a lot about what ‘growing up’ is supposed to mean — the only consistent point everyone’s made is, the older you get the less of a flying fuck you give, and you just have your key group of friends who stick by you no matter what.

At the time of writing, D’s just texted to slightly threaten emphasize the urgent need for me to do something about my hair so that it isn’t in my face in all of her wedding photos, which I actually think was a scenario we must have discussed ten years ago. “YOUR HAIR AH.” My hair.

My hair does get in the way.

3.

I just downloaded one of those time machine apps which scour your social media networks to show you what you were up to a year, two years, three years ago. It tells me I was staring at a giant fake swan in Hungary, with these Hungarian and Czech developers. We were building something in a house by a lake. We may have gotten a slight case of cabin fever. We went swimming, paddling, and we found a giant swan which was also a boat. We christened her Gloria.

Gloria, SwanThe exact circumstances which got me to this very moment are meandering, long-winded ones. It began in south India, in an autorickshaw, and then to Kuala Lumpur, Bombay, and then to hospitals in Singapore, then to northern Europe, then to KL, Singapore, and then finally to Zamárdi and to this swan we called Gloria.

They were fun times. They taught me that never again should I allow myself to be photographed in a half-wet t-shirt, anywhere in the world.

4.

I am acutely aware of just how much change there’s been in my life in the past 70+ weeks. I’ve switched entire cities and countries. I haven’t been able to keep myself grounded, in the physical and mental and personal and professional sense. Beyond the appearances of someone who’s ‘got it figured out’, I’m really grappling with the basic questions I never did have to answer before. Where do I want to live? What do I want to achieve? How should I get there?

For the most part, I am ‘home’ now. The home that I left was the city I was born and brought up in; the home that I came home to late last year, is the one I prefer. It is also the city I now pay rent in. Last week I went up onstage at FORK4 and gave a little talk about my side projects. I met all these incredible people doing great projects, like Dream Syntax, State of Buildings, Another Beautiful Story, and more. A few days later, I went to Pizza X II, the second instalment of a back alley artisan party, with great food and drinks (Spit roast! Karelian pastries! Artisan rum and new growth wines!) and some of the best people in this island.

Then there’s stuff like this, and this. It matters a great deal to me to be amongst a people that want to do things. Make something better. It keeps me going.

At times I wonder if I made a mistake when I made the call to stay, but most of the time I am surer than ever that I made the right decision to come home. Because I just haven’t been home for a while and I needed to be.

5.

I’m writing. I’m dating. One of those is coming along better than the other. At least writing is free. When it comes to dating, and the occasionally terrible, mostly funny in hindsight moments I’ve had in that field, I am reminded of how one of the smartest people who ever lived once defined insanity to be doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Without going into too much detail: I am done with that.

I am writing a whole lot more, trying to follow some kind of writerly routine. It is working.

When I opened Reminders.app, an app I never use, I found the one Reminder I had on it: remember to tell doc about my memory loss problem. I never remembered to. Something about it captured how weird and heartbreaking that entire period of my life was. The fear of not knowing what was happening to my body or to my mind. The inability to control anything about where my life was going. The heartbreak of losing everything I had. Everything at once. The seeming insanity of having chosen to lose those things of my own accord, but nothing really was.

Life got better, but it will never be the same again. I don’t want it to, but I don’t want to lose it all again, again. I don’t think I will. That would be insane.

The One About Having It All

7 minute read

Also available on Medium.

If you were to meet me on the streets of Singapore, you probably would not peg me for ‘gay’. Apparently, ‘gay woman’ or ‘lesbian’ has to be one or several of the following: short-haired, oddball, butch-like; a flaming dyke. You would expect me to show up in a flannel shirt and in Birkenstock sandals to business meetings. If I am aggressive in them, that’s because I’m an ‘angry lesbian’ who probably doesn’t get enough, and if I’m not, then it’s just such a terrible ‘waste’.

I am not angry. Not nearly enough. My hair reaches my shoulders, and a little more. I am as much of a dyke as you’ll ever meet, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. I may not be a princess — I don’t even know how to paint my nails — but I ‘pass’ for straight. Not because I try or want to, not because I have anything to hide, but because I don’t know how else to style my hair, and this is the only way I’ve ever known to look.

You see, I am a 27 year old lesbian who has always been amused by how much that means to other people, instead of to myself. Classmates and teachers wanted to know, and said so in hushed whispers: “they must be dating.” (I would never assume two large people were dating just because they were both large and walking next to each other, so I do not understand this popular train of thought.)

Men with inquiring minds want to know, always: have I tried a man? If not, perhaps they could help me make an informed decision? Even the Social Development Unit has stopped sending me letters and brochures urging the benefits of marriage and procreation. I am, as you may say, not in a ‘phase’. (I did have a ‘straight phase’ though, but that fad did not last.) In eight years, I may be able to purchase a HDB flat of my own.

In about ten years of gay-ness, I’ve had a two serious relationships, the last which came as close to ‘settling down’ and ‘divorce’ as I may ever get. I have no trouble finding interesting lesbian and bisexual women to go out with in this city, or anywhere else I may be; in Singapore, I have rarely — perhaps never — experienced forthright discrimination in the physical way. But more on that later.

I am out to everybody, and I’d be surprised if anybody really cared (except for the religious). It has never stood in the way of career, money, social standing, power; it is irrelevant to most other parts of my life, but it informs my decisions. I no longer have any religious or conservative friends, for example; I don’t need them in my life. We would fundamentally disagree on everything anyway, from politics to Palestine to Republicans and Democrats and reproductive rights, and my gayness would have nothing to do with their bigotry. My sexual identity is as irrelevant to me as my race (Chinese) and nationality (Singaporean), or the fact that I have a head of rapidly graying hair (hereditary). All of those things are the parts which make up the sum of who I am, but on their own are insignificant — to me.

But I also know my Singaporean lesbian existence is not representative: I am a 27 year old lesbian with opportunities which have exceeded many of my peers’, straight or gay or otherwise. I have the luxury of travelling most of the time on business and leisure. I have the privilege of living on my own in this city — it’s difficult to lead an active dating life while living at home with your parents, like unmarried Singaporeans like us are supposed to do. I have a great day job, an active social life, no kids, no debt; I don’t even have to answer the regular Chinese New Year questions anymore. I have never worked in a place, or with people who cared about the fact that I am an out gay woman. In short, I can do pretty much whatever the hell I want.

Whether or not I can have it all is quite a different thing.

Some people have the rather odd idea that all gay people — men and women — are promiscuous, that we shag like rabbits, that we want nothing more than to get into each other’s pants, and anyone will do.

The lesbian cliché which comes a lot closer to the truth goes something like this: we meet in bookstores / poetry readings / book clubs. On our second date, we move in; we proceed to have a monogamous relationship for the rest of our lives, sometimes resulting in offspring, all the time resulting in cats (and dogs).

The reason why there isn’t, and will never be a lesbian Grindr is you’d have to change all the fields to ‘Looking for: long walks on the beach, someone to adopt a cat with. Available tonight in Pasir Ris — I have a toothbrush, let’s talk about our feelings.’

Singapore is a great city for young lesbians like me. There is a large dating scene, at least three lesbian parties a week, there is even the space to live a ‘normal’ life together, perhaps for a while; perhaps after a dramatic reduction of expectations. Because this is where it stops. Once you’re done with the partying, where do you go here? The only life that is known to me to be possible is a life of co-habitation with two dogs and a cat and perhaps a non-legally binding commitment ceremony with your best friends. If you’re really lucky, your parents might come too.

For some, that’s more than enough. The journey of finding someone special is difficult enough, not just for gay people, but for everybody with a pulse.

For others — that never will be enough. We have lost so many of our own, among them our brightest and best, to other cities and countries, and we’ll probably never get them back. When the time came for them to settle down, the idea that the place we call home wants us for nothing more than our pink dollars, perhaps even for our contribution to the fertility rate (with limits), but will not recognize our love, is more than they can bear.

So what I can have, and continue to have, is my young professional’s yuppie lifestyle with dates in amazing restaurants and bars; I can go to these parties, sometimes meet interesting women; I can continue to function as an economically active member of this society, pay my taxes on time and give money to my parents; I can go to Chinese New Year dinners without having to answer to anyone about my marriage plans (they don’t want to know).

I can certainly walk from Raffles Place MRT to Tanjong Pagar without anybody stopping to make a value judgment that I must be lesbian, and therefore something else as well.

What I cannot do, is I cannot walk the same distance with a beautiful woman on my arm, without someone else wanting to know about this terrible waste of a woman, for a woman to be with a woman, and I cannot know for certain that if I were to meet with an accident on this same walk, the beautiful woman who may be my life partner will have any more of a say in my medical and legal future, than any stranger who helps me at the scene or at a hospital.

What I can’t have, therefore, is immaterial. It’s not about the HDB flats I can or cannot buy. It’s that as a lesbian woman in this society, I have to automatically assume that all of the following are bonuses, not expectations: having my love recognized for the purposes of property, tax and inheritance; attending a partner’s family functions without unnecessary outcry and suspicion; knowing that if I were to be in a medical emergency, my life partner would be legally allowed to make decisions on my behalf. In other words, to even hope for my future life partner to be perceived as anything other than a complete stranger, is going to have to be taken on other people’s good faith. As outsiders, that’s all we have to go on: the goodwill of other people. The readiness of other people to stop thinking of us as criminals, sexual deviants and perverts. If I hold hands with a woman I love, I am rubbing it in conservative Singapore’s face and being too declarative about my sexual orientation; if I walk side by side with one, the man who catcalls and makes lewd comments at us bordering on sexual harassment, is just, after all, being a man and entitled to his opinions about my body and hers.

For someone who generally feels like there is nothing in the world I cannot do, all I can do is to keep on doing what I do best — live my life as best as I know how, be kind to old people and animals, donate to charity sometimes, avoid premature death — and dream about the day I hope to see in my lifetime: when our lovers will be as our equals, and our love as deserving.

Love, Singapore

3 minute read

I wrote a small piece for Elle Singapore (Sept 2013) about what it’s like to be lesbian in Singapore. Available on the newsstands now, page 147.

Mention to someone in passing that you’re lesbian and one or all of the following are bound to happen: intrigue (“tell me more”), surprise (“You don’t look it!”), curiosity (“how exactly does it work?”); very often too, the burning question — how do I meet women who are, and they always fumble here, “similarly inclined”?

I always want to say — the same way you meet your boy- and girlfriends, husbands and wives. “We” meet in school, at work, at business events, we sometimes also experiment with online dating (like everyone else), or meet through friends and relations. We meet when we play sports. We meet at religious institutions, support groups, at school camps, we meet at dinner parties or we are introduced by well-meaning friends. Other times, coincidence intervenes: you see each other for the first time, somewhere, and you just know.

All of the above answers are true, and this causes great frustration to those who were hoping to hear about lesbian dating rituals from an alternate universe, far removed from their own. They also can’t seem to fathom that you can, quite simply, “just know” (or make a very educated guess). The only secret here is there are many of us.

For gay women, the stereotype of promiscuity and endless partying is as far from lesbian dating realities as it gets.

Sure, I go to the lesbian parties once in a while (there are at least two per week), mostly just for a night out without needing to come up against potential male harassment. When I tell people about lesbian parties they also seem to expect hot women having orgies in the door way. Like everyone else’s parties, some parties are fun, others are not. Some people are hot, others are not. There are no orgies. There are just people dancing with each other, chatting up each other, people spectacularly failing at all of the above.

Women seeking out the great loves of their lives across the dance-floor. Never quite finding it. Not too different from any party, really.

What really happens is this: lesbians are the first to want to nest, and be with each other forever and ever. That’s why you almost never meet eligible lesbians at a lesbian party — before you can even put on your party clothes, they’ve already found partners and are at home with their girlfriends, throwing dinner parties, decorating their dog’s socks, watching Grey’s Anatomy together for the third time and still weeping hopelessly.

Being a single twenty-something of any orientation is hard enough —everyone’s getting married, the good ones have been taken, what the hell are you going to do?

Being a single lesbian in your mid-20s in Singapore adds another layer of complexity. Do you move out? Tell your family before or after you’ve “found someone”? Where will you live, if not in Holland Village or Tiong Bahru, now that rent is so crazy? When will I meet someone who loves Battlestar Galactica? Or get to date someone in this country who hasn’t already dated someone else I know (proximity, not promiscuity)?

So many questions, too little time. I am a busy world-travelling young professional who spends most of my time up in the air, and finding someone has been quite low on my list of things to do (other things on it: attain world domination or cult leader status. Buy dog food). So you can imagine how well my dating life is going.

Just the other day I met the first woman to pique my interest in a long time, the traditional way — through a friend. It wasn’t expected, it just happened, and like every other kind of date that exists in the universe, straight, gay or otherwise — I don’t know yet, I don’t want to rush it, I have all these burning questions, I don’t know if she likes me, I don’t know anything at all.

But if I am really a lesbian cliché after all, by the time you read this she would have moved in, adopted my dog, and I would have faded away from public memory, never to be seen again on Thursdays or Saturdays, for something resembling a century and a half.