A Love Song for a Disappearing Singapore

Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 10.20.46 PM
Artwork by Jonathan Lim (@whereartjon on Instagram).

 

Workers hosed down the facade of my block this morning to make way for a fresh coat of paint. Like most Singaporeans, I didn’t pay any mind to the surface of the building before. It always seemed clean enough, an apathetic 3.5/5 stars on a public satisfaction survey. But today, the water seeped through the cracks in the paint and bore holes through previously unnoticed bubbles. The building shed chunks of decaying paint and the debris laid in a powdery heap on the ground, revealing the chalky primer from the last paint job.

And then I saw it. A spot of red peeking through the primer. This was the colour of the building in my childhood.

I felt immediate heartache, and for a moment I thought I could feel the weight of my schoolbag on my shoulders, the loose elastic of Bata socks drooping around my ankles.

You see, when Singapore changes, it changes so rapidly and efficiently that it doesn’t leave traces in its wake. McDonald’s outlets seem to pop up overnight, fully furnished. New stations are added on the MRT network map, first through imperceptible stickers, and then printed as if it had always been there. When you google Singapore, neon pictures of the Marina Bay skyline load into view. To witness material evidence of the time that has passed, to be struck by the ageing of my home, that’s something that isn’t programmed to be in the Singaporean consciousness. This makes it easy for us to skip over our collective grief.

I am 24 years old this year and my parents, like many other Singaporeans, are approaching their 60s. Their names are a combination of a “Christian name” they chose in their 30s and a haphazard romanisation of characters in a Southern Chinese dialect. My father was the son of a Burmese businessman, but was kicked out of the house at 18. He soon began his career as a construction worker. My mother was the ninth child of a Hong Kong immigrant. She tied tiny paper parachutes to plastic soldiers for extra pocket money in her youth. Today, they are comfortable middle-class Singaporeans and VIP customers, the 老顾客 (lao gu ke), of the tze char stall near my block.

I watch them shoot back-and-forth banter with the Malaysian waitress at the hawker centre, an acrobatic display of mastery in five or so “improper” regional languages. For the generation that the government tried to control with the Speak Mandarin campaign, their natural speech is a seamless amalgam of Cantonese, English, Mandarin, Hokkien and Malay, a never-ending showdown of puns. Tom yum goong is poor thing soup. “Anything” is green vegetables. My parents are like poets in the neighbourhood hawker centre, and it hurt me to watch them stammer when they spoke to my university professors. The big-big angmoh university name swallowed them up.

The ethos of the Singaporean baby boomer generation is best summarised in the national aspiration to the five Cs—Cash, Car, Credit Card, Country Club, and Condominium. If my generation saw the advent of the digital age, my parents’ generation saw the steroid-pumped adrenaline-filled ballooning of the Singaporean economy. Relentless globalisation introduced a never before seen array of consumer imports and our parents’ income rose to accommodate their thirst for products. We were catapulted into opulence, and it shows in the lifestyles of middle-class Singaporeans today. We go for sushi dinners in air-conditioned shopping malls and parade the occasional LV bag at hotel ballroom weddings, but at home we have drawers full of dabao containers that our mothers save, just in case. Old habits die hard.

Now that my house is supplied with more dabao containers than I can ever use in a lifetime, I find myself wondering about the Singapore that will disappear with our parents. I was too busy doing my Ten Year Series maths exercises to notice my childhood slipping away. This is not just my personal mourning for my bygone adolescence. This is also the mourning for a life I saw through my parents’ eyes, the languishing of a certain closeness, the recognition of the growth spurt that we went through together as Singaporeans. We speak a different Singlish from our parents. There will be a day when “jolly well” and “dilly-dally” will fade from our vocabulary. Many of our parents barely finished school, but we went through an intense education with marker’s reports and CCA points. Has there ever been a greater difference between the lives of two generations?

One day I won’t hear anymore Cantonese in my house. How do we say goodbye?

 

The Irresistible Aesthetic of Gun Violence

Media coverage following the Las Vegas mass shooting on 1 Oct 2017 has followed predictable lines of thought. In orderly bipartisan fashion, conversation in the USA has degenerated into self-contained debates about lax gun control, identity politics and the event’s possible connection to international terrorism. Meanwhile, overseas media outlets release bite-sized pieces of news to quickly condemn USA for its lack of common-sense gun laws—civilians should not own guns, flat and simple.

Both the exceptional confidence in one’s own constitution and the constitutional exceptionalism in one’s own confidence are necessary features of American patriotism. Regular mass shootings are indeed symptoms of larger political problems. They are consequences of the way citizens perceive their nation, and changes in the law have to be effected for mass shootings to be prevented. However, media coverage has left a gaping hole in addressing the tragedy—mass shootings are deeply emotional, irrational, and personal.

Such a profoundly traumatic event could have only been executed if the perpetrator were seduced by an equally profound emotion. Political ideology alone is not sufficient to produce the horrors of the Las Vegas shooting. The perpetrator had to have a personal attachment to the act of killing. In other cases of murder, it’s easy for us to identify emotional factors in the crime. Maybe a man was violently jealous and took his insecurities out on his wife. In cases of mass murder, the body count floods the news like a cold and empty statistic, and we end up talking only about gun laws and international terror organisations. There is an aesthetic side to gun violence, and that side is as important in understanding the frequency of mass shootings in the USA. What draws someone to pull the trigger? Why are guns so alluring?

Tragedies Make Beautiful Stories

Violent massacres are unfortunately easy to romanticise into mesmerising stories. If the mass shooting didn’t in fact actually happen, it could have been a meditative chapter in a novel about the decay of the American dream. A gun massacre, by its very nature, harbours elements of mystery and melancholy. The deceased become mere props in a play about the inner workings of the killer’s tormented mind. This is most evident in the popularity of the “lone wolf” label in news coverage. A lone wolf is an animal estranged from a pack, the central character in a movie that steals away from the crowd, me against the world. Audiences in homes around the world cannot help but conjure this mesmerising narrative in their heads when their hear the news about mass shootings. We are inadvertently complicit in elevating the killer as a an anti-hero.

story_arcImage from http://study.com

This story of the lone wolf bears within itself a complete and resolved character arc. It suggests stasis or the everyday in the killer’s life, his rise to insanity, a climax of a bullets and the quiet resolution of death. This goes without saying, but for the killer to fashion himself into an anti-hero, he must decide that the lives of others are not as complex or as colourful as his. His resolution and romantic death triumphs all.

Guns as a Symbol of Agency

Living in the modern world can be disorienting. We are told to celebrate our individualism while being simultaneously reminded of our own anonymity. Cities grow more populous and we live our lives as just another face in the crowd with the proclivity to assert our own agency. We don’t like to feel helpless, we don’t like to feel like a mere statistic, we don’t like to feel like everybody else. Guns function like symbols of rebellion when wielded by an individual with a belligerent existential crisis.

Guns are contraptions that were invented for the explicit purposes of causing physical harm. This sets guns apart from a variety of other weapons. It is an object that houses tremendous power in a sleek black casing, and according to the images defined by entertainment media, guns are non-negotiable accessories for the big hero in a film. Note this iconic exchange in the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark:

The gun appears as a humourous signal of superiority. Indiana Jones is the only person with real power and agency in the scene because he carries a gun, and everyone else appears to be a degenerate in comparison. The gun sets Jones apart from other characters and it identifies him as the masculine protagonist of the film. If you’re not carrying a gun like Indiana Jones, you risk downgrading yourself to the level of a helpless non-playing character in a videogame.

Guns Are Sensory

Product and user interface designers learn that good design facilitates user input and product feedback. The input: the user performs and action on the object, and the feedback: the object performs an action to inform the user that the user’s action has an effect. For example, you press the end of a pen down to push the nib out, and the pen clicks. The click informs you that the pen now works and this is beneficial to the user. If I press down on a light switch, the switch clicks and the lamp turns on, informing me that the switch has worked for me.

A well-designed product will feature intuitive inlets for user input and outlets for product feedback. The more sensory the input and feedback is, the more satisfying a product is. User input and product feedback can be so psychologically and physically satisfying that actual product usefulness might become irrelevant in the user’s experience; bubblewrap produces a satisfying pop when you push on the individual air pockets, but the action is essentially useless. Similarly, but in a far more extreme scenario, guns can produce the same satisfying pop.

Guns are products that take in minimal user input and literally produce explosive feedback. You pull the trigger on one end and your action translates into a bewildering spectacle. Once again, you feel powerful with a gun in your hand because your moves can decide if the person on the other end lives or dies. In this sense a gun is a like a bicycle; a pedal with your foot can launch you two metres forward.

Similar aesthetic principles and image associations were delineated by Italian fascist F. T. Marinetti in his Manifesto for Futurism during the World War I. Futurism was an art movement that gave birth to choppy geometric paintings of war planes and colourful homages to skyscrapers. It centred itself on the celebration of speed, aggression, violence, and technological advancements at a time where these values were of utmost consequence.

 futurism_aeropittura_tato_flying_over_the_coliseum.jpgTato (Guglielmo Sansoni), Flying Over the Coliseum in a Spiral (Spiralling), 1930

In his manifesto, Marinetti writes:

We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.

Gun violence provides killers with a spectacular aesthetic, the “vibrant nightly fervor” so prophesied by Marinetti in one of history’s deadliest periods.

It is difficult to end this article without some semblance of a call to action. That would brand my writing as a bleak resignation to the even bleaker reality of mass shootings in the USA. After all people cannot help but gravitate towards beautifully packaged stories of lone wolves and anti-heroes, especially if, at first, they seem like mere stories. We can however, paint our own pictures and write our own stories about agency, and hopefully awareness is enough to bring our suspended disbelief for stories back down to the reality that human lives matter.

In the words of T. S. Eliot in the poem The Hollow Men, perhaps we will remember that gun massacres end, not with a bang, but a whimper.

 

The Imaginary West (i.e. Cultural Appropriation Is Not Just a White People Sin)

I just saw a post on Facebook about a little white girl in a kimono who faced heavy criticism for hosting a Japanese-themed tea party. I don’t know for sure if it’s a global trend because I don’t have clairvoyant vision of every monitor on earth, but Buzzfeed’s #woke posts and Xiaxue’s recent tirade against “libtards” seem to be indications that the topic of cultural appropriation is picking up speed among the internet savvy.

This post is going to be about said cultural appropriation. I know, the horse has already been beaten to death, but today I’m going to bring another horse out of the stable to beat. No one else knew there was another horse in there (and incidentally, no one could have expected such a long-winded and poorly constructed analogy right at the beginning of a blog post either.)

Okay enough with the beatings and the misplaced equestrian references. Here is my point.

Cultural appropriation isn’t a sin exclusive to the hegemonic West because other cultural spheres have appropriated and misrepresented Western imagery in their own capacities, contributing to the growing cloud of an imaginary West. I’m not familiar with the political or social landscape of South America or Africa and so I have to, regrettably, leave them out of the equation for now. But I am very familiar with Asia, being an Asian myself, and I know this hypothesis isn’t entirely bonkers.

Let me break it down for you:

Cultural appropriation tends to happen when a powerful cultural entity dwarves a less powerful entity. What is power? Power can be drawn from various extensions of influence. For example, an entity is more powerful if its language is more pervasive, its philosophies are believed by the majority, it has greater stores of financial and natural resources, etc. As of right now, academia and journalism are still pre-occupied with investigating and revealing the ramifications of Western colonialism (rightfully so, because these things do need to be discussed if we want to move on from such horrors in a civil manner). But this also means that nobody is freed up to write about cultural appropriation from a different point on the globe. Ironically, the conceptualisation of Western cultural appropriation took place on the sacred grounds of Western academic writing. It was almost as if individual white people (shout out to Linda Nochlin) were atoning for years of European pillaging and plundering. Sociological terms were developed and set against the West, and so it continued.

largerJean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake-charmer, (1870). Cropped image of it appeared as the cover for the Edward Said’s seminal piece on Orientalism. Now the incriminating poster for Western pillaging in the Near East.

This drew our attention away from the fact that Asia is amassing power in the present. To begin with, thanks to India and China, there are more Asians on earth than any other race. According to this infographic, the Chinese family of languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc) is more widely spoken than any other language. Seven out of ten of the top spots on the Pisa education ranking went to Asian states (Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and three Chinese states). China and Japan clinch the second and third spot on the global GDP ranking. Somehow, against the backdrop of WWII and recent political strife, Asia is prospering. There exists a world that’s entirely written in Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese etc., and in that world, the soil is fertile for cultural appropriation of the West.

I’m not suggesting that things in the East neatly mirror the happenings in the West. This is not an essay about equivalence, nor is it a manifesto to instigate the Asian takeover of the world. Memories of a colonial past/Western superiority still exist in the psyche of Asia. The cultural appropriation of Western imagery in Asia doesn’t ignore or counter those memories. Instead, it processes and transforms conceptions of Western superiority to suit the needs/benefit of Asia, and this process could be damaging to the West.

How does it suit the needs of Asia?

Cultural appropriation goes hand in hand with consumerism, because perceptions of certain cultures spread primarily through consumer products. Consumer products are available even to the lowest common denominators in society. You don’t need an education or a noble upbringing to have access to advertisements and plain ol’ everyday objects. Everyone is a viewer because images are everywhere thanks to consumerism. Asian companies benefit when their branding espouses Western ideals and transforms them to appeal to consumers. This influences Asian perceptions of the West. From here on I’m going to use the specific example of the image of Marie Antoinette and its re-imagination in Japan’s romanticised/glamourised France.

swjKpEFan wallpaper of the 1972–1973 The Rose of Versailles manga series

The Rose of Versailles (or Berusaiyu no Bara) was a popular manga series that started its run in 1972. To the best of my knowledge, the series’ narrative didn’t really rose tint Antoinette’s fate. She ended up guillotined all the same, no head and all. The aesthetic legacy that this manga left behind, however, is arguably more influential towards contemporary perceptions of France.

To the uninitiated, Marie Antoinette was an icon of French excess in the years leading up to the French Revolution. She married into the French monarchy when she was 15, was portrayed in elaborate Rococo paintings in flowing satin and lace, and is most remembered for telling commoners to “eat cake” when the economy was crashing and the commoners were starving. For the record, I don’t think she actually said the cake line, but it is a useful distillation of what she represented to the French public. Wealth, a detachment from the common folk, ignorance, idleness. It’s an ugly facet of French history, and a story that inspires present-day French nationalism.

Today, her portraits are historical documentations of the monarchy’s lavish spending. Rococo paintings are seen as kitschy ghosts of the pre-Revolution past and seem only to be celebrated in cutesy “French-themed” cafes.

vlbmarose3Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette with a Rose, (1783). She won’t be smiling like this any longer. A bit hard to smile without a head.

In The Rose of Versailles, Antoinette’s bouffant hair and equally bouffant bows were resurrected to convey glamour. The new manga Antoinette is adorable, pretty, unabashedly elaborate, romantic and pink. She now sports curly blonde hair instead of the historically accurate powdered white wig. This image of a romantic and rose-scented France pervades East Asian advertising, especially for products marketed toward women.

The manga image of Antoinette lives on in the branding of Isehan’s Heroine Make line of cosmetics. Antoinette’s historical significance is left completely out the picture and she appears as a dismembered aesthetic, a figure that only serves superficial decorative purpose. She has the same 1700s court attire on, but decked out in pink, and it looks like she has gotten a white kitty cat with luscious eyelashes. Note that there is no mention of where this image came from. If we take The Rose of Versailles‘ portrayal to be an intermediary, then the Heroine Make advertisement is the finished product.

10294968_510138862465204_2952821205769443809_oAn advertisement for an Isehan Heroine Make gift set of eye makeup. I don’t know what year this is from but I bought mascara from this brand a few days ago and the packaging looks pretty similar.
laduree-makeup-lm-harajuku-store-blushA delectable assortment of makeup products from Les Merveilleuses de Ladurée. Took this pic from Universal Doll.

Such a transmutation of pre-Revolution French imagery isn’t isolated to manga and Heroine Make cosmetics. It persists insidiously in other companies as well. It’s a pretty widespread phenomenon all over East and Southeast Asia. The above image shows a collection of cosmetics from the brand Les Merveilleuses de Ladurée. Ladurée is itself a macaron brand that originates in France, but these Merveilleuses are a sister brand that only markets itself in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It profits from the appeal of the fictional romantic France.

The Antoinette Café in Singapore adopts the same imagery for its branding. According to its website:

Antoinette invites you to share our joie de vivre in our beautiful surroundings reminiscent of an elegant boudoir with an excess of meticulously crafted cakes, pastries and fine food as the Queen descends on Singapore’s shores. Marie-Antoinette, the last Queen of France who was so often revered for her extravagance and fine taste opens her humble abode and presents a tantalizing treat for the senses both savoury and sweet.

This quintessential Parisian pâtisserie and salon de thé will set the benchmark for the pastry and dessert scene not only in Singapore, but also in the region with her takes on time-honoured French classic desserts. While our restaurant promises a savoury celebration of Chef Pang’s culinary prowess with an excellent selection of classical regional French fare.

Incontestably, L’élégance â la Française at it’s best!

Doesn’t this sound like cultural appropriation to you? It sells the Antoinette lifestyle to an Asian audience. Pink, powdered, perfect.

How on earth could this be detrimental to the West? Doesn’t this reinforce Wester superiority?

Well, a fantasy is a fantasy. It does encourage tourism from East and Southeast Asia. I don’t think Paris would be as popular a tourist destination if we didn’t believe in its supposed inherent romance (their public transport is really shitty and there’s dog poo everywhere). But at the same time, it erases actual struggles in France from the East and Southeast Asian consciousness. When we think France is beautiful and scattered with rose petals, we don’t hear about the centuries old racism against Romani people, we don’t hear that France also has a large black and Arab population, we don’t hear that the current unemployment rate rests at 9.5%, and we don’t care about the Syrian refugee crisis hitting Europe. An airbrushed, culturally appropriative image of Antoinette might indirectly benefit the upper echelons of French society (especially if they are young blonde women with a penchant for pink bows), but it directs our attention away from the real problems. What happens when an excitable Chinese tourist goes to Paris and sees a homeless family? Are they stains on her perfect holiday? France is a complex country. A homeless beggar in Paris is as French as the quaint little cafe next door.

So? Now what?

I’m not proposing that we persecute everyone equally and that we impose some sort of tariff on cultural exchange. It’s inevitable that ideas mix and meld together to produce a new melange of values. That’s how cultures evolve in the first place, and that’s how populations communicate across borders.

What I do propose, however, is that we read a little more, ask a few more questions, and try our best to glean a more accurate picture of any culture we are considering. Humanity is complex and nothing is as simple as an image.

Peace in the Face of Anxiety

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Francis Bacon. Study after Velaquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, detail. (1953). Incidentally this is also how I feel when I’m experiencing a panic attack.

 

This post is for people who are currently enduring frequent panic attacks and/or an anxiety disorder. I’m waiting for the tide of my own disorder to pass (and as the public health system would have it, I’m also waiting an eternity for my first therapy session), and I figured that it would be purposeful for me to share some tips for coping. One panicked person to another.

Welcome to the Panic Club. I know you didn’t think this would be happening to you. Mental illness is a poorly inserted plot device in soap operas. You read about it on the can in a feel-good Facebook post, sandwiched between pictures of cat memes. It doesn’t feel like something that would become your reality. But now it is. And it won’t let you forget it because your every waking moment is spent trembling or in anticipation of trembling. Personally, I never realised how slow time could pass until panic attacks entered my life and stretched every second thin. On my worst days I would look at the clock and descend into yet another attack because it was only 12:47PM and I already exhausted my list of “Relaxing and Distracting Activities”.

Chances are that you have always been a high-performing go-getter. You are used to swallowing and dealing with exorbitant amounts of stress, and this makes your panic attacks all the more unexpected. But this is what happens when you put too much on your plate—it breaks. After this, it’s really difficult to maintain any sort of image of yourself when you cannot even satisfy the minimum for being a functioning human. The first step to recovery is pretty simple. You have to swallow your pride and accept that you need to recover, because you have an illness.

 

Don’t beat yourself up over your attacks.

The panic attacks will already beat you up for you. An anxiety disorder is an illness in all sense of the word. It comes with symptoms, treatment protocols, prevention techniques, and is well-documented in medical journals. You’re not weak, you’re not crazy or abnormal, you’re not failing at living. You’re ill. A particularly bad case of the flu would also set you back in your work. Anxiety disorders are exceedingly common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders affect 18% of the population in USA. That’s about one in five, and you are that one in five. No biggie.

Self-compassion is more important than self-esteem.

How you feel and how you live your life shouldn’t be dependent on how you value yourself. You can be confident about your appearance, your talents, your intelligence etc., but the fact is that these things falter. Sometimes you’re not confident. You have lousy days and there are moments where experienced musicians miss a note. What is important then is that you be kind to yourself and offer yourself the time and space to rest. It’s okay if you make mistakes, it’s okay if you don’t know who you are anymore. All you have to do is breathe and relax. Let yourself recover. Let yourself cry. Make yourself a hot cup of tea. Make some fancy au naturel bread spread to decorate your morning toast. Do soothing things to cheer yourself up. If you’ve always been working hard and you’re at your breaking point, then don’t work for a day. Take a break.

Start by doing things badly.

I got this from this article and it has helped me tremendously in my own recovery. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. If you’re afraid of tasks and new activities, then you don’t have to turn the dial up all the way. Start where you’re comfortable, and sometimes that means doing a shitty job at a worthwhile task. Let yourself transition into unfamiliar territory. Warm yourself up to failing. Fumble around with the basics. You can only go up from there and eventually, you’ll be doing a fine job.

You are not alone.

Put your pride aside and confide in your loved ones. Be as open as you can about your mental illness because it’s not anything to be ashamed of, and you need all the help you can get. If you haven’t spoken to your mum in years, now is the time to ask for help. If you feel a panic attack coming on in a conversation, let your friends know and excuse yourself from the table. You don’t have to go through this alone. You’d be surprised at how kind even strangers can be. People can recognise humanity in other people. They will see that you need help, and they will offer you wet wipes, a bag to puke in, a space to sit down etc.

Surround yourself with reminders of love.

Change the wallpaper on all your devices to pictures of happy times, pictures of your dog, your flowers, your mum, your partner, a toy from your childhood. Put items with personal significance near where you will be most of the time (your bed, probably). Find your class rings, friendship bracelets, birthday cards, posters, teddy bears and mix tapes and put them in visible places around the room. Make a playlist of songs that remind you of your friends. It’s easy to forget how beautiful your life is when you’re down with an anxiety disorder because panic attacks cloud your immediate senses. You can resist that if your immediate environment contradicts what your attacks are telling your mind. Remember: you are loved and you love so many others.

Cry. Be vulnerable.

Don’t hold anything in. If you are nauseated, go puke. If you’re welling up inside, just burst into tears and cry until you run dry. If your stomach feels queasy, go sit on the toilet and leave when you’re no longer upset. If you feel like running out of a room, get up and run (avoid roads though, our goal is to keep you alive too). This illness will take a toll on your body. But don’t fight it if you desperately need some release. This is the result of years of pent up frustration. You need to let it go.

You are a surfer, ride the waves.

If your panic attacks develop into a prolonged anxiety disorder (characterised by anticipatory panic attacks, which is a fancy term for panic attacks that you ironically get because you are so terrified of getting panic attacks), you will be experiencing waves of attacks. You drift in and out of them and you never quite catch a break. The more you fight the attacks, the more anxious you will be about consciously staying strong and getting better faster. It doesn’t help and it’s unnecessary. Basically the only thing you have to do is breathe and not die. A good friend of mine who has been with this affliction longer than I have gave me this piece of advice—imagine you’re a surfer and ride the waves. At this point in your disorder, you’ve already been through many attacks. You’re like an expert on them. You’re a seasoned panicker. You already know the symptoms. Treat the attacks like an old friend. Let them come and they will go.

Life can be scary but give yourself the time to figure things out.

My anxieties were centred around vague and abstract fears of uncertainty. I had just graduated from university and I couldn’t understand what my identity or life was outside the context of school. I didn’t know how to be a good human being because I only knew how to be a good student. I didn’t know how to measure success. I was so confused and thrown out of whack that I couldn’t complete simple tasks like brushing my teeth. It all felt meaningless. Not in a depressed kinda way but almost in a logical kinda way. It really felt like there was nothing left for me to do. Perhaps you feel that way too, and if you do, your job now is to keep yourself alive until you figure out the next step. Think about previous moments in your life when you felt lost. You eventually found something worth dedicating your time to, and there was a period of comfort and belonging prior to the panic attacks. You will find such comfort again at some point in the future. Until then, let’s just eat and sleep and keep ourselves breathing. Do it for your loved ones.

 

Write things down.

Words bring clarity to the fuzziest of thoughts. When you feel well enough to sit up and do simple activities, consider keeping a journal of your experiences with anxiety. Note when your attacks occur and jot your feelings down so you can track your triggers. Attacks often happen without obvious or rational triggers (e.g. I got an attack because my curtains weren’t closed all the way and I couldn’t make a decision about leaving them that way). It helps to have a record to narrow the possible causes. This makes managing your attacks easier and it also provides an outlet for some release. Do certain foods make you more susceptible to attacks? What time do they occur? Do the nights comfort or agitate you? You will have a few clues if you track your recovery.

 

morning-sun.jpg

Edward Hopper. Morning Sun. (1952).

The Scheduling Club and Some Thoughts on Graduating

***Disclaimer: Look away if you’re not from Yale-NUS. If you aren’t from here this post will just be a sappy mess of boring nothing. ***

So I just came back from the Scheduling Club’s last performance. I’m trying to get used to doing all the last things around campus. I finally got my ass to go to the gym (thanks Josh for making me promise you, and thanks Annette for teaching me the wrong way to use the rowing machine thing). Someone recently asked me if I could sing for the upcoming formal dinner and I said okay because it’s probably going to be the last time for me to get over my crippling stage fright issues. Very soon I’m going to be having my last meal in the dining hall, and I’m going to put my last cardboard box on a taxi with too much citrus Air Wick spray.

I don’t feel ready for all this.

And I can’t believe I just heard the Scheduling Club sing for the last time. I won’t hear that combination of voices again. That’s it. Things begin and things end and the present won’t stop becoming the past. It’s so baffling how you can be totally immersed in something when it’s happening, and then in the next instant, that something is completely inaccessible.

I can remember very clearly their first performance in the RC4 multi-purpose hall. It was raining and the water somehow leaked into a circuit and triggered the fire alarm. They were in the middle of singing Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” and I remember thinking “hey isn’t that the chorus from that Jason Derulo song”. (Incidentally that’s quite reflective of the type of basic ass person I was back then.) Thank goodness we are no longer in a building that triggers the fire alarm when it rains. But then again I kinda wish we were.

 

 

Surrendering Your Cards in the Patriarchy Game

The Women’s March on January 21 followed defiantly after Trump’s inauguration. What began as a nationwide grassroots movement for women’s rights grew into an international protest for a hodgepodge of liberal/leftist values; people paraded signs to call an end to police brutality, to champion equal rights for racial minorities, and to recognise the urgency of using sustainable energy sources. It was called the Women’s March and the name suggests a pretty straightforward fight for gender equality, but as usual, things got kinda messy because they involved diverse collectives of people. A woman wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat was reportedly kicked out of the protest. The Women’s March clearly happened on Democrat terrain, and was hostile towards the participation of Conservative-leaning women. (I think the bipartisan system in America has the tendency to polarise people and create pools for extremism on either end, but that’s a story for another day.)

According to the exit polls from the presidential election, 53% of all white women who voted placed their vote for Donald Trump. This lays in stark contrast with the 94% of black women who voted for Hillary Clinton. That’s nearly all of them.

Here’s a photograph from the Women’s March that illustrates that perfectly.

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In the picture, Angela Peoples is holding the sign “Don’t forget: White Women Voted for Trump” and nonchalantly sucking on a lollipop. Behind her, almost as if composed and spray-painted by Banksy, stand three oblivious white women. Conveniently enough one of them looks like she’s taking a selfie, and we all know that’s the gestural cue for solipsism, don’t we. Also, it really doesn’t help that, taken out of context, the pink pussy hats make them look like ridiculous caricatures. Feminism is messy. Women disagree amongst themselves about what feminism should do, and some outrightly reject feminism.

Feminism is defined as the movement for the social, economic and political equality of the sexes, and the women at the Women’s march were protesting for different types of feminisms. After all, equality is not something you can qualify on certain terms. Does equality mean we are treated identically? Does it mean we earn the same amount of money? What about equal happiness, and how do we measure that?

And what is this blog post about exactly?

It’s about why feminism is contentious even amongst the supposed beneficiaries of the movement (women). If we’re all individuals with unique vantage points within a complex hierarchy and we’re all acting in self-interest to a significant extent, then life is like a card game where the stakes are high. We don’t want to play the most obvious hand, we don’t want to show anyone what we’ve been dealt, and some of us play beneath the table.

Let’s take another look at the definition for feminism:

Feminism is defined as the movement for the social, economic and political equality of the sexes.

Because feminism is a movement, it is inherently political. Maybe it shouldn’t be politicised because that rubs people the wrong way, but it already has been, because it’s an outward declaration of resistance, an active step in a defiant direction. When you support and subscribe to the values of feminism, it necessitates that you lay down your cards and surrender your weapons in the power play of social hierarchy. You have to bring everyone’s attention to the rules of the game, you have to admit that you’re losing and could be easily finished, or sometimes, you’re winning and you have to admit that you cheated.

Because I’m an erudite individual and I go to a fancy schmancy liberal arts college, this is the opportune moment for me to quote from a revered film classic. You know that film Django Unchained? Leonardo DiCaprio played the racist slave-owner who made his captives fight each other to their violent deaths. In reference to the slaves he controlled, DiCaprio was like “Why don’t they kill us?” He’s been owning slaves for decades and the slaves never acted against their cruel masters. If they really wanted to kill him one of them could just slit DiCaprio’s throat with a razor while shaving him. DiCaprio explained this all away with white supremacist ideas about the anatomy of the human brain, but the real answer is that sometimes, a movement that may benefit a collective of people may severely disadvantage an individual. If one brave slave slits the throat of his owner, it’s not enough to overturn the whole system of slavery. This one slave would probably be beaten to death as punishment, his story will be remembered as one of insolence from a lesser breed of human, and the American landscape remains largely unchanged.

Ok back to feminism. How exactly would outwardly supporting feminism disadvantage a woman? What does it look like when you surrender your cards?

Here are a few specific examples:

  1. You have to admit that you don’t look attractive naturally and you need a whole arsenal of beauty products to look beautiful. Nope, women aren’t beautiful creatures, we’re not mysterious seductresses. There’s no “something” about women. It’s all been a masquerade (read: “Film and the Masquerade” by Mary Ann Doane), and one to the tune of a 95-billion-dollar cosmetics industry. We’re not pristine princesses; sometimes we get explosive diarrhoea from cheap barbecues, sometimes we pick out our wedgies when no one’s looking, we get in-grown hairs on our armpits and we get yeast infections. When we shed our chicken cutlets, our spanx, our eyelash extensions and our Benefit Porefessional Primer, what’s left? If you’ve been depending on your looks to get you what you want, then what will happen to you once the secret’s out?
  2. You have to admit that you’ve been smart all along, but you’ve elected not to use your brain. You’ve been silently observing everyone and taking in information, and you’re a legitimate threat to the people around you. If you’ve settled with a wealthy husband, people will grow suspicious of you. You’ll look like a gold-digger, and in comparison to the other women who toughed it out in their careers, you’ll look lazy and unimportant. You’ve been intelligent all along, but you chose to do nothing with your smarts. This is a long-standing argument against the sort of values that emerged during Second Wave feminism. To many, it really doesn’t seem like feminism liberates women because women no longer feel like they can choose domestic work without judgment.
  3. If you’re middle-aged and married, it would be terrifying to look back on your life and realise that it’s been a series of unreciprocated sacrifices. Your brothers went to school but you didn’t, you settled down with the first man who could conjure a diamond ring, and you spent the rest of your life being someone’s wife and someone’s mother, never your own person. You put food out on the table and someone says it’s too salty, and after dinner, you clear the table alone. You’re already 50, what are you going to do now? Is it too late?
  4. Ladies get let into clubs for free because we’re not the customers, we’re the product. Men go to clubs for the holy trinity: booze, good music and sexy women. How are you going to rationalise your decisions to yourself now that you’ve found out? How many drinks will you let guys buy you, how many kisses are they going to steal, before you feel like you’ve betrayed yourself?
  5. And finally, my personal favourite: when you show your feminist streak, you’ll be a public loser. You’re admitting that you don’t like the way you’ve been treated, you’re a victim, and you’re broadcasting your insecurities. You don’t like your body, you are deathly afraid of ageing, you didn’t do anything when a man groped you on the bus. These things are deeply personal, and we don’t even want to speak about these things in regular conversations, let alone on blazing banners.

When you’re a feminist, you’re unattractive. You’re whiny and loud and your appearance is mere artifice. The patriarchal rules that bind women in an unspoken oath to their attractiveness, are the same rules that are broken when one identifies as a feminist.

Sexism is not absolute. It’s not a simple polarity, it’s not a lopsided black-and-white ying-yang. It’s a tangly mess of social conventions and restrictions that we learn to navigate from a  young age. Women have learnt to keep their mouths shut and to sit pretty. We check our partners’ phones when they’re not looking, we let the men get drunk first, we go to the toilet to adjust our bras and clean up our eyeliner. Some women are getting ahead in the game, and I understand why they don’t want to quit.

If you’re waiting for the paragraph where I steer the debate in a different direction and convince you all to be feminists anyway, it’s not going to happen. Don’t be mistaken, I still think that feminism is important and I’m going to fight very hard for it, but I also understand why so many women are intimidated. This a blog post for them, and a post for everyone else to understand why this issue is so complex. When it comes down to it, it really is a man’s world out there, and the sane and smart thing for women to do is to stay out of the fight but reap its benefits afterwards.

What do we do now? 

I don’t know, I don’t have all the answers. And to be very honest, it’s been very tempting to give up. Speaking so openly about social issues has earned me a reputation for being “so angry” or “agitated” all the time. It’s a paradox isn’t it? It’s smart to keep silent, but we can’t all be silent either, then no change will every happen. I guess I’ll just keep writing.

 

10 Things I Cannot for the Life of Me Understand

  1. How is it that the snooty café downstairs can sell a can of Coca-Cola at $3.40 when the vending machine in the same literal building sells it for $0.90? Whose decision is this? Which idiot is buying the $3.40 cans and sustaining their business?
  2. I’ve never had the urge to spit on the ground in my life. Why are so many men spitting on the ground? Just swallow it?
  3. Why are so many university websites so ugly? You’re a leading educational institution but you can’t hire a web designer?

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  4. In Interstellar, why did they let a random dude who drove a truck through their facility go to outer space in their expensive rocket? Don’t you need a PhD and like astronaut gravity training for that?

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    Yeah say goodbye to your daughter for 70+ years you prick.

  5. Why must tissue boxes all have ugly designs on them? Just make plain ones? Your business isn’t at stake, everyone buys tissues anyway and there are only 3 companies.

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  6. I don’t even know who’s fighting for what anymore in Syria and I do follow the news. I suspect nobody does and it’s worrying me that there’s so much devastation for something no one fully understands. If the Western media has a stake in it and it benefits them to portray Assad’s government as the primary antagonist, then I can’t believe so much that I’ve read. I know virtually ZERO and I’m useless anyway, I’m just some girl in a country far away with internet access.
  7. If you gave me the numbers and my A-Zone notecards from junior college I’ll be able to do some sick work with statistics but I will have no idea what any of the results mean. What is a z-test? I know how to do it but what is it?
  8. Why did Channel 5 market their red threads drama as a blockbuster BEFORE it even started airing? What block did it bust?

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  9. When I was 14 or 15 I went to the Singapore river on a field trip and there was this guy in a black and white striped polo shirt who came up to me on the bridge and made growling dog noises. Why did you do that, you scared the crap out of me.
  10. If prostitution is bad, girls should retain their virginity until marriage, homosexuality is a sin and young men are encouraged to go out and have sex, then who are they having sex with?

A Thought

What really scares me about the world is that, for some people, it’s not a matter of convincing them that something is true. They already know the facts and figures, they know that people are suffering and that the world is a terrible place. But they also like it that way. Some people want it to stay that way, and no amount of rational speech is going to sway them. They don’t give a shit about other people because it doesn’t mean anything to them, and that’s just the way things are supposed to roll. What do we do?

Awareness of Other People’s Humanity

Hello everyone. Since the last time we’ve spoken (yes, I think of this as a conversation and no it’s not weird at all, stop saying that), Donald Trump has become the USA president-elect, the South Korean president was revealed to be a witch doctor fanatic and Lady Gaga released an album where she’s not transfiguring into an Artistic Symbol on the cover. It’s been a strange few months but otherwise business as usual. The South Korean thing is particularly weird because I imagine that would be how an auntie with a hairy mole would run a government. Just ask the downstairs fortune teller how the housing market is going, and then type everything with one finger onto a food-stained Samsung Galaxy tablet with a denim flip case. Didn’t think chronic auntieness was a phenomenon up North, or that the presidency would be accessible to one with such an affliction.

Those things are just the recent happenings in the public sphere. I know my light-hearted tone doesn’t quite set the mood for this, but in terms of my personal life, it’s taken quite a toll this semester, and even that is an understatement. I’m not going into the details of everything primarily because I don’t want to concern you, my dear reader, with my issues. What’s important though is that things have really gotten me thinking about how our immediate environment has the power to blind us to everything else.

I live in a high-rise college dormitory now and I  have a pretty great view over a main road and the West of Singapore, all the way up to the coast. I look out sometimes and can’t believe that there’s so many people in Singapore, and that there’s so much more outside of this country. I can’t really see into apartments but I can see the lights go on and off and I know that there’s someone there flicking the switch who has a life which completely has nothing to do with me. She probably has friends and a Facebook profile, maybe a son, maybe she likes the Angry Birds movie. Who knows. Some apartments have a red light. I wonder if they have a Buddhist shrine. On the road I see motorbikes and taxis and I hope the taxi uncle gets home safe. When I’m in my room writing for hours all I experience in those hours are my thoughts about Laura Mulvey or whatever, but then I look up and I realise how small and insignificant I am. In light of all this, any social obligation seems arbitrary.

We’re getting into philosophical territory now and I hope you bear with me. I think we live in our heads too much, and all these learned social conventions and abstract principles are preventing us to see the basic functions that are happening right in front of us. What my life is. Too often I find myself thinking about an upcoming exam or about Game of Thrones 3-headed dragon theories and I lose what should be common sense awareness about my surroundings. What do I mean exactly?

Fellow young people walking around campus become social NOs to avoid so I don’t give them eye contact. People who are holding brooms and pushing trolleys become Cleaners who are somehow so fundamentally different from me that I cannot speak to them. The woman who wakes up and puts on her orange Foodclique uniform is just the woman who makes me ice milo. Humans stop seeming human to me, and start appearing like robots who have been programmed into my mundane day-to-day. I guess what I really want to say is that I don’t want to forget that the prata man is going through some shit too, and the world won’t explode if I can’t conjure a perfect thesis statement.