All posts in 2024
  • Life in Anxious HD

    Before I came to this country I led a very different life.

    My luggage was never unpacked. My passport was tethered to my body. My weeks often began with breakfasts in Yangon on Mondays and ended with drinks on Jakarta rooftop bars on Fridays. On weekends, I might retreat into a Balinese forest alone or return home.

    Home was one of Asia’s most expensive cities. At least, it was where I paid rent and where I have the largest number of relations of all kinds. Home didn’t feel like home since I was never home for more than three days at a time, from the moment I graduated from college. I could never buy a gym membership anywhere. I simply didn’t know where I would... be.

    My life here is quite different.

    I have not left my neighborhood much in the past year. The longest trips I have taken have been occasional bicycle trips across the Golden Gate Bridge, where I sometimes like to cycle to my favorite bakery and then put my bike on a bus home (just say no to the hills of Sausalito). So many people are writing stories about how other countries are doing pandemics differently. This is mine, except I stayed on and am in it for the long haul, fully cognizant of all of the ‘benefits’ I am missing out on.

    My friends are having brunch and cocktails back home and I know in my bones that would be me, if I was in Singapore right now, too. Because I am bougie like that and I know it.

    But I am not at brunch. I am huddled at home, like I have, every night this year. My dog is asleep next to me, farting ceaselessly. I have canceled all holiday plans. We are not going anywhere.

    During the work days, I work with a team of thirty something brilliant and kind individuals who, together, are trying to make a difference for the city we love during this difficult time. At nights, I put on an apron and trudge to an empty kitchen near my home to churn, literally, batch after batch of ice cream so that I can bring some joy to people in real time.

    It feels like exactly where I need to be.

    It wasn’t always an easy feeling, though. In conversations with therapists I have learned that the inability to make plans for the future, any future, is causing everyone all kinds of anxiety. For international folks like us with our lives strewn all over the world, it has been a special kind of logistical challenge. When will we ever see our families again? In all these countries?

    Back in March just before shelter-in-place came upon us, we already knew the extent of the damage of this virus from news from Asian cities. We semi-seriously considered waiting out the pandemic in Singapore, where a good healthcare system and mollycoddling levels of government support seemed like a good idea. From rumblings from an assortment of compatriots I gathered that nonstop flights might end from San Francisco; that if we went home now, things will be safe; that you really don’t want to be stuck here in this country with its impossible healthcare system and not have any help figuring out something so unprecedented.

    Occasionally, I dial in to Zoom conversations hosted for Singaporeans on the west coast. They always kick off these meetings by sharing latest stats. We marvel at the numbers. We laugh at the charts that are made showing how we have significantly less confidence in the American government’s handling of this pandemic compared to our own. We run through the numbers of how many of us have decided to weather it in Singapore or hunker down here in the Bay Area.

    Somehow, those of us with not entirely clean cut Singaporean lives are hunkering down. Our partners cannot return with us. Our children cannot. I continue to be frustrated by the inability to plan for the future in any form. So I churn more ice cream.

    If I were in Singapore, I would be at brunch. I would be checking in to all the locations I visit throughout the day with the app that every citizen has access to. I might be walking down a quiet residential street like my parents were when I called them a few days ago, and the biggest concern of my day might be that I paid too much ($5) for a bowl of fishball noodles.

    But before I get to brunch, I would have to find my way to Los Angeles, the closest city where I can still get on a plane home. I would only be able to board the Singapore Airlines plane if I had my bright red passport, which I do, but that my wife does not. On entering the plane, probably in business class (as I would have upgraded with the miles I have studiously collected over the years), I would sink into the leather seat and feel relieved when I am given a copy of the Straits Times by a person who can pronounce my last name the way it is supposed to be pronounced (Tanh, not tan as in what the President does to get his famous orange color). I would sleep for the entirety of the sixteen hours, because I sleep like the dead in both economy and business class (and at the back of a boat or upper bunk of a train). I would land and I would hear the familiar sounds of Singlish, Malay and Hokkien at the precise moment the plane doors open onto the aerobridge.

    Heat and Hokkien always hits me like a wave. I would scan my passport and then be whisked to a five star hotel where I would be strictly quarantined, before I can be released back into the world. Then, depending on the outcome of my tests, I would either be eating fishball noodles with my parents, or declared an ‘imported’ case by state media.

    I will not be at brunch for a long, long time.

    Instead, I have not cut my hair since January. My dog is so unused to being more than one foot from me that she now wanders to the bathroom if I am there for more than a minute. I am sequestered in my 300 square foot apartment that somehow has space for two humans, two animals, and all of our life’s possessions. My wife has bolted a fold down desk onto a wall. When either of us needs to use the bathroom, we flatten between the chair and the wall, sometimes without appropriate amounts of clothing (usually me). At various points of this pandemic, especially during the combination election and pandemic anxiety weeks, I plot and plan and figure out logistics. I carry bags of laundry to a laundromat at quiet hours, and wish I did research on how there are rarely any washers or dryers inside American apartments.

    That is my way of dealing with anxiety. I figure out logistics. Which is an activity that is, in itself, anxiety-inducing. But never mind. I write to the immigration departments of various Caribbean countries. I research golden visas in Taiwan. I look at Estonia. I do all of this first for the animals, and then for us. All the countries that require any amount of animal quarantine are crossed from the world map that is in my mind. So no UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore or Hong Kong. Immigration departments write back and I promise to pay them some time after November 4, 2020. I never do.

    I scan the news for information about 45’s latest immigration-busting moves. I realize, for the first time in a while, that we literally have nowhere else to go. I stay up until 7 in the morning to watch a needle tick in one direction or other in an election I cannot vote in. I dabble in more logistics, this time reading in other languages. Reading in my second and third languages will be less anxious, I tell myself, because I won’t understand all of it. It doesn’t work. I freak out again, just in other languages this time.

    Seventeen days ago I woke up with needles pointing in not so bad places. I ghost Carribbean immigration officers. My love story with ‘Murica continues. Another tragedy strikes. America crosses 12 million cases; yet more than a million people are expected to fly this week for a holiday that celebrates genocidal activities. 95% of my state is on a 10pm curfew. My city, which has high levels of mask compliance and some levels of official responsibility, might join the rest of the state very soon. Life goes on. All I know is life will not need to be in the Carribbean.

    The sun sets at 5pm and I turn on a ten thousand lumen lamp for several hours so I don’t get sad.

    From time to time, my wife and I wonder: what will our life be like in Singapore, right now? We think of our beautiful apartment in the forest there. We think of our many brunches. We think of chicken rice. But mostly, we think of how we will not have a life in Singapore at all.

    She wouldn’t be allowed in. Right now, because of the pandemic. But also always, because she won’t be allowed to be my wife.

  • Letter to my Eighteen Year Old Self

    In my younger years, meaning when I was a tween, I became acutely aware that my life would be different. I dated boys because I was supposed to, but whenever they said they loved me or that they wanted to marry me, I just shuddered. I don't like it when men sweat, I told them.

    In hindsight, that was a big, red sign. I learned, in quick succession: I don't like it when men sweat. I don't like it when men sweat on me. I don't like the way men smell. I don't like men. Period.

    When I was eighteen I felt like I was at a crossroads. "Am I bi? Am I gay? Am I... just a slut?" I could not tell. When you are a teenager, everything is possible. All doors are open. You can live anywhere, be anywhere, sleep with anybody.

    And so on and on it went.

    Eventually, I did find out: I am lesbian. I am a dyke. I will die on the hill of women-smells and women-sweat forever. I think I found that out when a man asked me to go to IKEA to pick out furniture with him. I told him he was really hot but, I would never go to IKEA with him, or with any man, now and always. It felt far more intimate than whatever we had gotten up to. I don't like man-sweat.

    Even with that clarity behind me, I still had no clue what the hell I was supposed to do with that information. I lived in Singapore; I had gone abroad. I had flirted with the idea of going somewhere else. Nothing seemed clear. That sort of clarity, about what I would do and how I would do it, would only come later. (Again, that moment struck me like a thunderbolt, out of nowhere. It just did, and I don't know when it did.)

    Yet I clung on to the idea of being thirty five as the day I should have 'figured it out'.

    Maybe I did?

    I have figured it out, in that I have learned that my sexual orientation, which once defined me as a person, continues to be a political position but it is not the entirety of who I am.

    I have figured it out, in that I am married to a woman and we have a dog and a cat, just like I imagined when I was a wee tween, but I came to that very differently as well.

    Dating in Singapore was strange, but not unlike being queer in any other major city. I was.. comfortable. I went on a few dates a week. At 35, I feel tired even thinking about the amount of energy I put into dating in my 20s. But it felt like the sort of thing to do a couple of times and get over with.

    Love came to me in a way I could have never imagined. I was used to meeting women on the apps, meeting women in queer bars, meeting women everywhere I went, everywhere. But I had not yet done the classic queer woman move: I had not yet dated a woman who had dated the friend of a woman I had dated.

    Who knew that would have solved all my problems?

    From there, we went: Yishun, to Bali, to Bandung, to Kuala Lumpur, to Jakarta and then to San Francisco.

    Our love (and life) here is exciting for the most part. It is also mundane in some ways. Gone are the days when I would stay up till 4 in the morning, excitedly watching soccer or drinking tea or poisoning my body and my brain in some other way. Instead, I run, skip, walk for miles in the beautiful city with my dog, and sleep ten hours a day. It helps.

    It also helps, I think, that I finally have a job where my interests (doing good things that help people) with my skills (product management and mucking around with software generally) intersect. It truly makes a difference.

    Even if I could not have foreseen that we would live in this country at its most vulnerable, in that it has a narcissistic Anti-Christ-like grifter at its helm, our life in its most expensive coastal city is generally... nice.

    I stay up some nights trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Maybe it's nice to note that at 35, the things that will confuse me are external, instead of inside my head. Anything can happen in the next couple of days, weeks, months. There are some challenges relating to being a queer transnational couple and work visas and pets and things like that, but I'm still glad we have what we have.

    Being able to live for the last two years, as we have, as a queer family with legal recognition (and insurance!), has been more than I imagined. At eighteen, or at any other time. The world goes on. I am a year older.

    But this year, I am way better off than any version of 35 I imagined for myself.

  • The Day the Sky Turned Orange

    Today's headlines:

    Today's soundtrack:

    I don't have any commentary other than 'oh shit'. So I grabbed my camera and walked around a bit. Everything is weird and I am going to drink tea and stay calm.

    I think I'll truly freak out when work stops along Van Ness. Until then, as long as Van Ness goes on, so will I.

    A work site along Van Ness

    Tommy's Joynt

    The mail still goes on

    Only food places provide the bright comforting unorange light

    Franklin and Sutter

    Stay strong

    Behind wires

  • Memories of Home

    Every overseas Singaporean has the same fear: that when we return, we will not know our way home.

    Our city builds and tears down much quicker than most other places. Nothing is safe. The price of progress: everyone's memories. No time for nostalgia, or poetry, when we can have... growth.

    When I move between worlds, my words and ideas shift.

    Apartments. Flats.

    Elevators. Lifts.

    Use public transit. Take bus and MRT lor.

    Nothing ever stays the same.

    Jalan Besar in Singapore, public housing and construction

    Jalan Besar, Singapore. 2019. Public housing and transit.

    When we return, there are more towers of glass and steel. Like our displaced accents when abroad, moving between Singlish and that of wherever-the-hell-we-live, our country's buildings now look like they want to be a little bit of everything.

    I hate those buildings. I hate that waterfall in the airport, I hate the infinity pool on the top of the world, I hate the overwrought fake plastic trees and every single thing in a tourism board glamor shot. Glamour shot.

    Instead, I take long walks along the old civic district. There, old buildings, colonial and brutalist, form my happy path. In a way, I love this part of town because it changes, but it stays the same. Hours of riding on the top level of the meandering bus to the ends of the island and back, sometimes ending in a boat ride to an island or more frequently, noodles.

    3 A.M. staggers between hostel and Mustafa, my tummy filled with warm naan, kadai chicken and Punjabi uncles giving me lesbian dating advice (Their advice was usually some variation of "always pick the Indian girl").

    Wandering every story (floor) of Sim Lim Tower, looking at batteries, wires, cables. My grandfather worked at a dry goods market that is now a nearby field, probably slated for a new apartment (condo) or hotel.

    Memories are a leaky, unprofitable thing.

    Sim Lim Tower, a building in Singapore

    Jalan Besar, Singapore. 2019. Wholesale electronics and late night food.

    But I live here now. Somewhere with giant babies holding weapons.

    How did I go from a small city to an even smaller one? I'm living car-less in a pandemic (I don't drive, because, I've always had transit), in a seven by seven mile city. So many things are happening in the world, but this country feels... like a lot.

    It is a lot. It's a whole lot.

    For now, we're strapped in and waiting with bated breath to see what's in store for the next couple of months. As I write this, there's a man furiously banging on cars and cars driving badly and there's another man yelling stupid bitch at the top of his voice at an imaginary person, but they don't scare me as much as the politicians.

    We take long walks in every direction.

    To to west, we walk by recently gentrified Hayes Valley, with murals and giant babies.

    To the east, we sometimes stock up on Asian snacks and all the Indomie we need from Pang Kee in Chinatown. To the north, a range of outdoorsy options. Chrissy Fields, where you'll eventually see the Golden Gate Bridge; the municipal pier, where I've been known to sprint up and down when I feel like I need to run very fast for no reason at all.


    Hayes Valley, San Francisco. 2020. Giant baby mural.

    Dog and wife waiting for me to be done taking photos

    Hayes Valley, San Francisco. 2020. Dog and wife waiting for me to be done taking photos with a manual camera.

    Unlike where I'm from, this home of mine barely changes. We recently watched footage of Charles Manson's San Francisco days and... so much of the city is the same. The gurus have left Golden Gate Park, and they've moved online to become productivity deities who preach the gospel of four hour work weeks and cryptocurrency.

    It's going to be okay.

    Wife in yellow dress in Hayes Valley

    Hayes Valley, San Francisco. 2020. Wife in yellow dress waiting for me to be done tweaking my camera settings.

    May the next roll of the film not leak light. And this country not go completely to the dogs.

  • A World of Adventure

    On Twitter, where I live, I posted snippets of the things I have done, the places I have been, the places I have gone. Where they might have felt jumbled up and messy on a blog or Facebook post, the Twitter thread / tweetstorm format seemed to be a natural home for my adventures. I am grateful for the mess that my early adulthood sometimes felt like.


    Growing up in Singapore, my future felt as small as the country of my birth.

    A mere 31 by 17 miles, it was the island that was also a city that was also a state that was also, somehow, a country.

    When you bought anything online you'd get tired of typing or picking: city, Singapore. State, Singapore. Country, Singapore. Credit card issuance country, Singapore.

    Singapore, Singapore, Singapore. Singapore.

    Yet when I was in school, it was not the lay of the land that felt suffocating. It was the geography of the mind, the mountains we did not have, never even got the chance to climb, that I could not stand.


    The moment I could, I ran away.

    At first, it was for a few hours at a time. Age 13, I would grab my passport from my mother's chest of drawers where she kept all of our passports, passport photos, and other important things like that, guessing (correctly) that she would not notice.

    School ended at 1.40 P.M. Everyday felt as warm as the next. If you grew up in the tropics you don't describe the weather as 'sweltering' or 'oppressive'. It simply is. In my school uniform, with sweat patches under my armpits, I would board SBS Bus 170 bound for Larkin Terminal, Johor.

    It was a trip I had made many times. My grandmother was born there, Johor Bahru was the Teochew homeland outside of Swatow. Johor. It wasn't Bangkok or Phnom Penh, the capital cities with large numbers of Chinese people from the same patch of southern China like I supposedly was from. Johor was more like Pontianak. Sleepy on the surface, but a different world on its own if you knew its secret language.

    I did, and I liked that.

    In those days, it was not surprising to see children dressed in the school uniforms of another country wandering the streets of Johor Bahru. The city was joined at the hip with mine, except it was tethered to another. Pass all of the rubber plantations, seeing the landscape become more oppressively green and witnessing the heat become even more so, and you'd end up in Kuala Lumpur, three and a half hours later (two if you drive really quickly, like my ex used to).


    14 years later.

    I made the journey in the reverse. It was the morning I was to pack everything I owned, and a dog, which I now owned, alone, into the Proton Kelisa.

    Five years before, that car would speed southwards to say hello, a few times a month.

    That day, it sped faster than it ever had, eager to dislodge its contents after a few difficult months. There's never an easy end to a story, even when you try hard to make it so. I moved north with two bags, a vacuum cleaner and an ice cream maker. I moved home with two bags and one dog.

    In less than three hours between Bangsar and Tuas, I was ready to present Cookie to animal control. We had to join a line full of chickens, which is maybe my only memory of that hazy, no good day.

    What would her life be like in the country of my birth, I wondered. I hoped she would like it. In 2012, I thought I was going home for good.


    I have had a life of adventure. I have lived in more cities than most people have visited; I have gone to many, many more.

    How did I do it, people often want to know, expecting some kind of secret like "I was an influencer and people paid for my trips".

    There isn't one. It didn't feel glamorous, not when I lived in $5 rooms and avoided rats on 30 hour train journeys.

    I used to think the secret was that I jumped headlong into anything fun or exciting that I saw, with barely a consideration for the cost or trade-offs.

    I now know that I was handed a huge amount of privilege, and that's the secret. I worked two to three jobs all through college, at the same time, so that I could make the hard cash to go on these adventures. That wouldn't work if I wasn't also making Singapore dollars.

    I had the luxury of taking off for months at a time, not having to be the caregiver for anyone at home, because everyone was healthy and financially okay, and I could live off the SGD to THB or MYR or INR exchange rate for quite a while.

    Eventually I rearranged my life to lead this sort of life. Even before graduating from college, I made GBP and USD and EUR as a freelance writer and photographer, on top of the other two jobs I had in Singapore when I wasn't traveling. And when I was done with the freelance industry, because print media was dying, there was no shortage of even-better-than-SGD-paying tech jobs for me with the skills that I had.

    My life has been a series of opportunity after opportunity, of good luck following another, upon layers and layers of privilege.


    I turn thirty five this year. When you get to your thirties, you no longer say "in three months", or things like that. You're officially thirty-something.

    My wife thinks that I am the luckiest person she's ever met, even after accounting for privilege. Maybe.

    I am lucky. If there is a random game of chance, whether it's to win prize money or an inanimate object or a piece of bread (actual thing I won, a few weeks ago), I usually win it.

    I was almost in a suicide bomb attack, but I wasn't. I boarded the wrong bus instead.

    Coming back to the capital, I was almost in another suicide bomb attack, but it wasn't. It hit the car ten cars down instead.

    I was almost in the worst flood to ever hit Nepal, but I couldn't find my train that was going to take me into it.

    I was almost in so much shit, all the time, but I wasn't.

    I have had a ridiculous combination of luck plus privilege plus little to no trauma, which, now that I am thirty-something, makes me feel like an alien at times. I have, at most, been a spectactor in bad things happening to people, and when I have been in the thick of it, it has been brief.

    Good things happen to me, all the time.


    A combination of pandemic and visa woes means that right this moment is the first moment in time I haven't been constantly on the move.

    I thought it would feel more suffocating, but it hasn't.

    I've since learned that the contents of the life that I wanted to shape for myself were just as important as the shape it took on. Earlier, the frequency of the travel, the blur of airports and bus stations, were the external symptoms of the why behind why I sought out a life like that.

    Now, I know why, I think.

    I've always been interested in people, and their stories. Travel gave me the easy stories. Go everywhere, and it was bound to be different. Some places, more than others, feel like stories waiting to happen. Some lives are lived in the open.

    I want to know what drives people. On my travels in my early twenties, I would frequently devour every historical book about the country. I wanted to know why a country existed, how it came to be, what their scars and bruises were. When I got there, I would read, or attempt to read (if it was in a foreign language), the lifestyle pages of their local media. I thought I was looking for 'people who do interesting things' and 'things I have never heard of', like poets from Sudan who do spoken word poetry about displacement, like 'sheikhs who race camels using robot camel jockeys'.

    The writing, the photography and the videos were just ways of telling other people's stories.

    Now I know, however, that what I'm really interested in is in learning new things from people and situations I know very little about.

    I don't go anywhere these days, but there will never be a shortage of things I don't know.

  • Akhuni

    I could not believe my eyes when my wife Sabrena put on an Indian movie on Netflix and we saw at least two Northeast Indians at once. On screen. Having lines. Being whole people. Doing something. Something that seemed important.

    "Axone" (pronounced Akhuni) - is a Naga speciality dish made with fermented soya beans. It is said that Nagas, especially those from the Sema tribe, know when axone is 'done' simply from smelling it: its smell carries memories of home, which tastes of the umami and salty goodness that any soybean-eating peoples can identify immediately, from smell.

    Unfortunately, not everyone in Delhi's Humayunpur neighborhood is a fan. Despite being frequently described as Delhi's "Northeast district", given the abundance of Northeastern and Tibetan people, shops and restaurants, there is a fine line between tolerance and acceptance. Like any other 'ethnic neighborhood' in Delhi, you can have lots of people from one area yet still be divided by thousands of invisible segregating lines.

    Axone, by Shillong-raised Nicholas Kharkongor, carries the weight of all of the eight Northeast Indian states on its shoulders.

    You are from here - when it makes sense for you to be; but not from here - when it becomes convenient.

    The central conceit of the movie, and its title, lies in the idea of a group of mixed Northeast Indian friends who have found community and love among each other, living in the same area. For all intents and purposes they seem to be regular folks with regular lives. Chanbi, performed by Manipuri actress Lin Linshraim, is gregarious and opinionated. When a Delhi boy in the neighborhood mutters the sexual vulgarities they typically reserve for 'Northeast / Nepali sluts', she, like any other Northeast woman who has spent too much time in Delhi, confronts him. Her boyfriend, Bendang, recoils and says he did not hear that comment. Maybe it's a statement about how even a stone's throw from Delhi's most affluent southern neighborhoods, the pecking order is clear: Delhi boys will always be backed up by Delhi fruit-sellers (even those from UP), who will always be backed up by random neighborhood uncles on the street who will demand proof from bystanders before he lends his commentary and judgmental weight towards resolving an untoward situation; then the others, like the 'Chinkys', and even then the smaller in every way Northeastern man cowering behind his authoritative girlfriend will get more of a say than she does.

    He does not pull his weight. It's clear from the moment he does this that there is some kind of trauma around being a not-very-large Northeastern man in Delhi and street violence. Everything in his eyes says so. Immediately, I thought this might have something to do with Nido Taniam: the Northeastern man from Arunchal Pradesh who was beaten to death by shopkeepers in Delhi's Lajpat Nagar. His crime: being a chini - who dared break a glass counter in a fit of rage, after they made fun of his blonde, spiky hair. There are many reasons one might want to stand down from a fight that's percolating on the streets of Delhi. Especially so when you are from the Northeast.

    Before we find out anything further about this trauma, or even about Bendang as a person, there's a lot of ensuing chaos around the cooking of this dish. We're told it's special, it's for a wedding. We can tell that people don't like it, and the Northeastern crew know that. They go door to door telling those who will maybe grudgingly accept this, like the African neighbor who says that dish smells like shit (but we never find out more about her other than that the 'Nepali' person can't pronounce her name either); but plot to complete this cooking between the time someone's grandma's nap and the Bengali auntie's return. Maybe it makes a point that this part of Delhi is indeed a very large pot of various things, but that melting pot it is not. It's clear who calls the shots: Dolly.

    In nearly every multicultural society, a minority group cooking something that looks, tastes, smells, or simply just is - different is an affront. Sukehtu Mehta, who made the journey several times between being 'from here then not then here again but not really', talks about having his native food being made fun of in New York City, then supposedly insulting militant vegetarians in his upmarket South Mumbai home, with his meat-eating. In Singapore, where I am originally from, you can be simultaneously refused an apartment for being of an ethnic background that is most likely to 'stink up the house with the smell of curry' (link) and defended for cooking curry (only if the people who complain are other foreigners, like... newcomers from China).

    There is a lot of yelling in this movie. As an autistic woman who hates yelling, it was hard to watch at times. But it also helped me understand why Delhi was such a difficult place for me to be in. All that yelling. There is also a lot of scurrying.

    For a slice-of-life dramedy, Axone hits the mark. Things go wrong, things keep going wrong; protagonists try to fix it, they don't; they keep trying, they give up. In between, there is a lot of intra-community anxiety to unpack. She doesn't like you, you're Nepali, not a real Northeastern person. What happened to this once jovial man, now a shadow of his former self? At every turn it feels like an explanation. This is what a Naga person would face in Delhi. This is how a Tibetan person would experience the nation's largest, some would say most unkind, city. - The big reveal about Bendang's past was so thoroughly unsurprisingly, yet so insufficiently explained. I wish the film took more time to explore Bendang's horrific past, than it did to explain how hurt someone felt later when he was called a 'f—king Indian'.

    Things that were great

    • The cast: mostly strong actors all around, representing various parts of the NE, Nepal and Tibet
    • The anxiety around the cooking of this dish: on top of it being the biggest day of one's life, there is also extreme racism and terror
    • The true-to-life explanation of the panic-inducing daily life folks in the NE community face in Delhi; how many micro-aggressions they face
    • All of the cultural moments: anything that zoomed in on the cooking, speaking and rituals of NE traditions. My favorite moments were when all the friends spoke in a different tribal language at once to try to sort out some jugaad
    • Overtures to the musical and Christian traditions of parts of the Northeast: I suppose it's hard to strike a balance between 'celebrating the musicality of Northeast Indians' and 'extending the stereotype that every Northeastern man simply likes to strum a guitar and sing idly'
    • Struggles with Hindi: you can never do well enough at it. You either struggle to sing a standard Hindi song, or you yell at people in a market but still get 'translated over' because people think you don't speak Hindi because you are a Chini
    • The exasperating role of Shiv, despite being grating, was a perfect example of a wannabe liberal Delhi dude who wants to be an ally but ends up missing the plot anyway
    • The actual wedding itself: unexpectedly fun

    Things that were not

    • Screen time: most of the screen time was devoted to a very good (but also Bengali) actress; and to another Tibetan Indian actor. As others have pointed out, it was odd that the most famous actor of the cast, an actual actor from Assam (Adil Hussain) was relegated to such a minor and somewaht problematic role
    • Extra attention on Lin Linshraim and Lanuakum Ao's characters (Chanbi and Bendang) would have greatly improved the movie
    • Too much of the movie was a 'soft' commentary on the racism faced by the NE community. 'You failed to have any Indian friends', someone scolds a partner, who is clearly still recovering from having his life nearly taken from him over the color of his hair

    Like any movie that is 'first' with representation, there were big shoes to fill that ultimately led to disappointment. Must every minority movie be a masterpiece? Should every minority movie hit every note without going out of tune? Watching this movie as a Chinese-Singaporean person in America who has been disappointed by most Asian-American outings to Hollywood, I felt similarly about Axone. So much potential, so much talent. So little punching above its weight.

    Like many Asian-American movies, this one is not quite clear who its audience is. It's most on shaky ground when it's trying to be both - a statement of NE pride and culture, and - a film that is palatable to a movie-goer in Mumbai or Delhi. It's strongest when it is unabashedly Northeasthern: here is the food, it makes a Sema Naga person happy on the happiest day of her life, and here is the awkward group of other Northeastern friends who will go to these lengths to make her happy. Even if Dolly thinks it's a bloody costume parade, or that all of it smells like shit.

    More of this, please. But also with an extra helping of all of the smelliest things that others may not like.

    (Axone is streaming on Netflix.)

  • We Got Married

    If you are a queer person in Asia, like I was, moving away and starting a family might be top of mind as something you should do. To be fair, I did not feel extremely oppressed, I did not often face homophobia, and I generally felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do as a queer person in Asia. For a long time, that was fine.

    I soon learned that was fine because of the following:

    • I am Chinese
    • I am upper middle-class
    • I am English-speaking
    • I have one of the best passports in the world
    • I can afford all of the 'hoops' that we are supposed to jump through in order to live a decent queer life back home, literally

    At some point, it did not feel viable for much longer.

    A big part of that is that I fell in love with a person who, despite being half-Singaporean, despite having been in Singapore for a decade, was never going to be able to get a long term visa there. We could marry, of course, abroad, but... what would that matter, to our life in Singapore? Singapore would not recognize that marriage. They might ignore it, and not actively diss it, but that's not good enough. Especially for people with our privilege.

    So, like queer folks with any amount of privilege, we left.

    To do that, we had to fly to New Zealand.

    Our marriage was solemnized by a Maori woman who ordained our marriage, as our wedding celebrant.

    And with that, we were off. Less than six weeks later, we were in our cute little studio in downtown San Francisco, dog in tow.

    We Got Married

    One of the last photos we took before leaving Singapore, in our favorite place: Golden Mile. Photo by our good friend, Javad Tizmaghz, photographer and woodworker extraordinaire.

    I wish we didn't have to leave at all.

    Very often, when you move to America, the prevailing thoughts are:

    • You must really want to come here
    • For a better life
    • You must want a green card
    • You can't wait for a US passport
    • Things are so much better over here

    But in the age of fascism, are those things still... true?

    Things that are not better

    • Food
    • Having to walk 2 blocks to do laundry
    • Having to pay $$$ for the right to stay
    • White supremacy
    • Not being able to leave for a while, until we sort out our plans here
    • Public transit
    • NIMBYs
    • Lack of skyscrapers
    • Far from loved ones

    Things that are better

    • The state recognizes our marriage
    • Our pets thrive in a lack of humidity
    • The so-called local govt incompetence, to some right-wingers, is actually an engaging exercise in consensus-building, for these not-right-wingers
    • Adopted family

    How to get queer married

    First, decide which country you want to get married in. If you have a good passport, then just select the best ones that will marry you, and whose scenery you enjoy the most. If you don't, then select the country that will admit you without a visa, or with an easy visa, that will also marry foreigners.

    Second, ask your beloved if they will marry you. In my case, I asked my wife-to-be to marry me at 5 in the morning at an airport. She said yes, thankfully, despite being sleep-deprived.

    Third, make the necessary online reservations. Most cities or counties that will marry you require you to book an appointment online. In our case, we made a booking on NZ Marriages. It was very easy, and affordable, and I highly recommend it. Also, are the Kiwis the last competent people in the English-speaking world? (I think so.)

    Fourth, once you have received confirmation, book your trip! In our case, we had plenty of points from Singapore Airlines and we were able to splurge on a business class trip down south.

    Fifth, locate marriage witnesses. Thankfully, we had a few of those. One of them was a Finnish journalist I had never met, but had followed on Twitter for years; the other was... I completely forgot this, my ex-girlfriend's girlfriend's... ex. My wife-to-be asked on the morning of our wedding how we knew each other, and we burst out laughing.

    Sixth, be happy. Not everyone has the ability to move somewhere where their marriage is going to be recognized. I certainly did not think it was a big deal, until I had that privilege. We have so many friends who live in various parts of Asia, who have fought different battles. Maybe you are Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju, and together as a couple you strike down a Victorian-era homophobic law that has been used as a cudgel against gay men in India. Maybe you will be inspired by my Malaysian lesbian friends, @zhukl, who fights homophobia, misogyny and other bigotry on a daily basis.

    We got lucky. I had the opportunity to take my skills somewhere that wanted it; luckily, they wanted my wife too. On so many levels, it's worked out to be a step in the right direction for us. I have a job that I love, that is fulfilling; my wife gets to restart college after a series of mishaps.

    It has been a whirlwind. As an international queer couple from so many places, here are some of the things we must consider:

    • If I die, what visa will my wife have?
    • Where will she go, if not here?
    • If we have children, what citizenship will they possess?
    • If we have children, and I die in Singapore, what inheritance will they receive (when the country does not recognize our... family?)
    • If 'Murica gets worse than it is (and this is just news from this week), where will we go? Who will want us?
    • If there is a civil war, what will it be like for us as non-citizens?
    • How will we move our pets quickly?
    • If I have to move home to Singapore, how will she stay?
    • If we have to go to France, where she grew up, how will I ever be able to function at 100% as a person with zero interest in western Europe, its society and its languages?

    We're thankful that we are now somewhere that makes some sense to us.

    How much longer will it continue to make sense, though? Who knows. Maybe the next seven months will tell.

  • Blogging in 2020

    Why don't we blog anymore? I don't know.

    In 2003, I certainly was, and I had been for a while. I started my blog on Greymatter CMS, then Movable Type. At some point, B2, then Wordpress. Blogger got sold to the Borg (Google); LiveJournal.. what happened to them? They were so cool. Tumblr felt inane to me, an Internet grump by that time. And then we just gave up. I did, anyway.

    For a long time, it felt like the ability to post anything online was going to change the world. In so many ways it has. The jury is still out on whether that's a net positive. It certainly isn't the runaway democratic success we all imagined. Big media chased the sexiest things on the web, which instantly made it no longer so. Tech companies we adored grew into gargantuan beasts that disappointed us, more and more. Software ate the world, and then spat it all out, without masticating.

    I was certainly not immune.

    Sat rapt by the beauty of technology intersecting with a rapidly changing world, brought closer together by low cost airlines and closed quickly by new age fascist dictators, I don't know if I've really had a moment to breathe, or think, in the last decade. Most of the blame falls squarely on my profession of choice: for a while, those of us somewhat proficient in the use of computers believed that we could change the world with... computers. Our children may laugh at that naïveté.

    At 35, I care about many different things now. As an immigrant, my ability to say F-everything has reduced by magnitudes. I feel like everything has changed, but I am still the same person. Maybe a little bit emo, maybe a little bit brash.

    Most of all, I feel like writing again. So here goes, again.

  • Love in a Time of Quarantine

    The last few months have been all about the virus. Having lived through SARS and several other viruses growing up in Singapore, I wasn't particularly worried at first.

    Now, it's clear the best way to deal with all of this is too impose extreme social distancing measures. Where I live, in San Francisco, we haven't gone full lockdown the way the European countries and Chinese cities have; we've implemented, instead, a 'shelter in place' policy. Stay home unless you have to do something essential; activities like walking and biking, doing laundry, going to the bank, are still allowed.

    There was of course a run on the supermarkets and grocers. Despite many of my cynical compatriots in Singapore originally attributing this behavior to Singaporeanness (after all, 'kiasu-ism' is a known trait of ours, and a way of life), this turned out to be global behavior. Everyone wanted toilet paper, lots and lots of it. Everyone wanted hand sanitizer, masks and disinfectant as well.

    We didn't really do any of this prep until a few days ago. After all, my greatest fear is that I might run out of flavor and of Asian cooking ingredients. So I didn't really care, until... I saw that tofu was briefly unavailable. That's when I really started to worry.

    As part of my work, I get to be involved in some of the tasks around helping San Franciscans find out more about what's going on (I lead a few teams, and one of them is in charge of, the main city website). It has been impactful to know that the work that we do, that we have done everyday, has contributed towards helping people get timely and accurate information in an easily understood manner. I'm so proud of what we've done. In such times (of high stress and anxiety), words really matter: I am a highly anxious person, so I am aware of how sometimes words make all the difference between feeling better and feeling like you're going to meltdown. We've worked to break down complex information, and to ensure that everyone (including those who speak other languages) is able to read this and come away with the sense they know what to expect.

    On the home front, being home most of the day with Sabrena and the pets has been fun, although I now wonder if I need a second TV. In times of high anxiety, I binge-play video games to feel better; that's not logistically friendly in a studio with another person.

    Not commuting daily, even if my commute is a 20 minute walk, helps me prep and cook fancier meals. In moments of crisis, I need to know that I have nice food. Spending an hour making something quite elaborate helps me calm down. So far, I have been steaming fish with Nyonya spices, making tempeh and pecel vegetables, many types of soups and congees. I expect to have a huge photo album of 'quarantine food' at the end of all this. It is unlikely that album will look anything like quarantine food, as long as I still have access to my butcher, fishmonger and farmer's market.

    Meanwhile, I am depleting my supply of good tea, so I must do something about that.

  • Envelop SF

    When we first moved to San Francisco, I was excited to have a new environment but I was not sure I would enjoy the city as much. My previous visits to the city had been mostly work/tech related. While I love many of my co-workers and friends in big tech and in startups, parts of San Francisco felt.. like a tech mono-culture.

    Consciously going out to things and meeting new people, making friends with people who have interests outside of tech, through sports, volunteering or music activities, has changed my relationship to this city.

    In this series of posts, I will write about the events, venues and activities I have enjoyed in San Francisco.

    Music used to be a huge part of my life. From the time I was six or seven, I was in band practice or piano lessons a few times a week. Without music, my life might have turned out different. Not having much music in the last decade or so was a terrible idea, so I'm now furiously trying to get it all back. Piano lessons, jazz clarinet lessons, going to shows, meeting new friends who also like music... I have enjoyed the access to top musicians and teachers, and to excellent shows of all genres nearly every single day.

    Envelop SF popped up on my radar when I was looking for music events: they were hosting a Flaming Lips listening party for Zaireeka, the band's 1997 experimental album that I'd never heard (mainly because in 1997 you needed to put 4 CDs in 4 players and press play all at once).

    Envelop SF (image from Envelop)

    At first, I had no idea what these shows were. Were the Flaming Lips in town? Was it a live show? It was actually cooler than that. Envelop is a non-profit that runs an immersive audio venue in the lower Dogpatch (and another one in Salt Lake City, with popups and satellites elsewhere).

    I don't know much about audio engineering or sound design, or what 'spatial music performances' are, but as I attended their session for the Flaming Lips' Zaireeka I quickly became a fan.

    The venue in San Francisco is in a tiny space in an industrial area near the Dogpatch, with dim lighting, and ambience that reminded me of a yoga studio mashed up with a private DJ set. 32 speakers at the venue are positioned in a sphere, with the audience seated on foldable chairs on the floor, surrouned by said speakers. "The entire room is an instrument" was the experience they promised, and it really did feel that way. This immersive experience is powered by their open source audio software that works with Ableton Live 10.

    A trust-based minibar rounded up the experience by providing for the wine, beer, tea and water you might want to sip while listening to music.

    While I was initially confused by why I might want to experience 'spatial music', I came away from it a fan. I think it would be a good way for a music lover to experience music they know and love in a totally new way, with audiophile technology that would be difficult to create at home. I plan to listen to Miles Davis, Pink Floyd and Coltrane there as I think their music can be experienced differently in this environment.

    Next week, jazz shows with new jazz friends. Jazz hands!

  • So This Is the New Year

    Dream of the Noughties

    It feels like we all just woke up from a collective dream. The dream of the '10s, where we gave our content, perhaps even our personalities, away for free to Facebook.

    No longer.

    Not only have I cut that toxic company out of my life, I have also started thinking about how web 1.0 got it right: writing on the web, for yourself, with no ads, for free, with a tech stack you control... really was all that.

    New Year, New Me?

    I don't have resolutions. I don't have aspirations towards goals I won't reach. I don't have diet-related, or gym-related thoughts; exercise has slowly become part of my life again,and I'm thankful for that.

    This year, I am taking the opposite route. Instead of doing new things, and becoming a new person, I am going to get really good at doing things I already know and love. Having dabbled in so many hobbies in the past, there are plenty of options to pick. I've quite enjoyed the heads-down learning over the last couple of months, and am looking forward to more.

    The one thing that is new is the city I live in. From 2018 I have been living in a new city, San Francisco. I used to visit often, so it's not new-new, but it's new in that I live here with my wife, Sabrena, and get to experience it somewhat differently as a result. We're exactly where we need to be for now as a newly married queer couple, even though we hadn't planned on coming here. It's too bad we're both from countries that don't recognize our marriage.

    My Life Now

    I have been preoccupied with trying not to lead a conventional tech worker's life in San Francisco. It's so easy to fall into that trap of always-on, tech-enabled convenience. I find that if you do that, the city becomes much less diverse. I want to meet people, build relationships, be part of communities and be part of scenes outside of tech.

    As you know, it's so much harder to make friends as an adult. So old hobbies have come in handy. I have been playing music again, casually, but perhaps later performatively. I have been exploring Tibetan Buddhism. I am pushing myself to do things, like bike camping and hiking, that would force me to meet new people and explore new places.

    In many others, this new year is just like many others. But I know now that health, family and happiness comes first.

    That should count for something.

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