Saturday 13 February 2021

Experiencing Life in the Smallest of Actions


I am hardly one who knows her way around the kitchen but last December, I learnt to churn out an edible version of Devil's curry, a dish fondly loved in the Eurasian circle. Known also as Curry Debal in Kristang, the language of the Portuguese Eurasians, the dish is often served one or two days after Christmas using leftovers from the Christmas meal. Other than the thrill of learning to master a dish with such lovely environmentally-friendly roots,  learning the intricacies of each step involved in making this exotic dish was simply fascinating. From learning to remove the seeds of the dried chilli (so that the curry will not be too mind-blowing hotter than it already is), to figuring out when the curry is ready (if it sticks to the back of the cooking spoon), and grasping the epiphany that one adds in vegetable stock cube only at the end (so that I can see how tasty the dish already is and hence how much of the cube to add to let it display its prowess). Amidst the blurriness stemming from my clumsiness in the kitchen, I suddenly felt so empowered -- it was almost as if while trying to master Devil's Curry, I had simultaneously mastered several other dishes.

It was then that I realised I finally got around to figure out what Irish novelist and poet James Joyce already did a century ago when he said his famous quote:

"In the particular is contained the universal"

When asked why he always wrote about Dublin, Ireland where he was born, James Joyce said “...because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal." When you master one thing really really well, you may already have the cosmos under your belt. 

And so it was that in delving deeply into the learning of a specific dish in Devil's curry, I came to grasp the quintessential basic food preparation skills of cutting, dicing and blending. What a hope-inspiring revelation it is for me that I too can one day churn out many other edible dishes for my loved ones. 

Last December too, W and I signed up for a community tour with local tour guide and social activist Cai Yingzhou to understand more about the neighbourhood of Geylang -- and got more than what we bargained for. Three hours into the tour conducted in the wee hours of the morning, it soon became apparent that this is someone driven not just by his desire to have to have more people understand the charms of the neighbourhood where he lived. This was Yingzhou's way of helping his fellow Singaporeans unpack and understand the social issues our country is facing, by dissecting the microcosm of the one neighbourhood he grew up in. He was changing mindsets, one story at a time. 

This Lunar New Year, I finally finished the delicious read "Inner Engineering: A Yogi's Guide to Joy", written by Indian yogi Sadhguru. In the book, he wrote that by paying more attention and being more aware, we can enhance our perception and hence our "ability to receive life". 

May we all get to the heart of experiencing life in its fullest form, from the smallest actions in our everyday lives. Happy Lunar New Year! 

Sunday 16 August 2020

Let's talk about the Weather

Taitung, Taiwan (2018)
                       Taitung, Taiwan (2018)

The weather hasn't been able to make up its mind lately. 

This morning, it was so chilly when I woke up that for a while, I thought I was in wintry Japan. Where the first thing I needed to do when I got out of the safe, thick blanket was to grab the fleece jacket to seek refuge. Where I had to run to switch on the diesel heater in the room switched off the night before to prevent the body from inhaling diesel fumes all night long -- memories of the stay in a century-old Japanese home in Tokushima where the heating system was not as advanced as the modern Japanese home. Where I dreaded bathing times as those were the opportune time for the cold to squeeze its way through the pores of my skin. But no, this is Singapore and all I needed to do was to grab a sweater and all will be fine. 

And just the other day, sleep eluded me as I lay on the bed because the night was sizzling hot. In the naturally-ventilated room where I slept with an overhead fan above me, I wondered what else I could do to keep myself cool and lull the mind to sleep beside meditating, which obviously wasn't working as I ought not to be thinking of anything else other than focusing on my breaths. It felt cognitively similar though to those freezing nights in my room atop a hill in Kyoto a few months back where I tried to figure out how to keep myself warm in order to have a fitful sleep. The only way I could think of then to keep my face warm -- the last remaining part of my body left uncovered after wearing a scarf around the stiff neck and gloves to rein in the frozen fingers -- was to cover the face with the thick blanket. As I figured out how to angle the thick blanket on my face such that I wouldn't suffocate in my sleep and would live to see another day, I wondered how my elderly air bnb hosts survive the Japanese wintry nights all these years. 

Perhaps it is the travel-deprived mind on overdrive. 

The changing weathers have their way of bringing back in truckloads memories of one's life. It's probably true that the non-existence of the four seasons in our sunny island means we don't get to feel as strongly a range of emotions associated with the arrival and departure of seasons. But who's to say we are deprived of the richness of experiences here as we enjoy the cool respite of the day as the birds chirp alongside us, outside the window?

I know for sure I will enjoy it while it lasts. 


Saturday 25 July 2020

"Liberation Through Constraint"

In America, wearing face masks has become a political issue. President Donald Trump has refused to mandate the wearing of masks for he wants Americans to have "a certain freedom".

Indeed the face mask constraints. On my cheat days, I reach for the more comfortable but wasteful surgical mask, leaving the restrictive but environmentally-friendly reusable cloth mask in my drawer, with some guilt. 

Yet the face mask also liberates.

In my commutes on the public transport these days, I find myself absolutely enjoying every minute having a face mask on. I can now smile whole-heartedly to myself without worrying if I look like a Pollyanna as I listened to that heartwarming podcast. I can also tear unabashedly with no cares in the world when I am moved by those heartstrings-tugging lines in my book. No one knows and there's absolutely no need to restrain myself -- what a joy that is (try it if you haven't already done so)!

And that, I thought, sums up for me what it means for liberation to happen when there is constraint.

This concept of "liberation through constraint" first crept up on me during the circuit breaker when like many who suddenly find themselves having that bit more time on their hands, I took a dive and plunge into the world of learning a new skill -- writing flash fiction.

Flash fiction is the name for the shortest of the short story where a whole new world can be created using 1500 or just 10 words, however one likes it to be. My masterclass teacher joyfully proffered this quote over Zoom, as she raved about this art form which she adored. Though short, she said, the length constraint is actually a liberation, for it gives one the permission to let go of what the story doesn’t need, while at the same time not sacrificing richness of  descriptions and details. British writer Davkd Gaffney once said when there are fewer unnecessary words to wade through, there is "more room to think, more room for the original idea to resonate". It shouldn't be too alien a concept for me since the short-and-sweet principle applies too when writing picture book stories. Yet the quote still sounds very oxymoron -- for how does the act of restraining oneself leads to liberation?

During these past few months where everyone tries their utmost best to adjust to the new norms, that quote becomes more illuminating. 

The constraints imposed on us during the near two-months long circuit breaker and during this Phase 2 have forced us to reinvent ourselves in ways we haven't previously thought we could. It tears apart what we know so well and forces us to break through the frames we are so used to functioning within. In the process, that liberates our being and our soul.

This was expressed so well by a qipao tailor, Ms Josephine Teo, who offers bespoke tailoring services and recently featured in The Straits Times. Because she needed to stop all in-person consultations (which bespoke services thrives on) during the circuit breaker, she attempted to do 'virtual fittings', guiding her clients over video calls to take measurements of themselves and discussed preferences of intricate details that will go into the making of their cheongsams virtually. She described it a "breakthrough" in her trade when she realised her deftness and expertise in her trade has made it possible to get a cheongsam done even without meeting customers. A local art gallery Ode to Art came up with the idea of offering a digital concierge service that provides personal consultations to collectors using online tools such as Zoom to ensure some online sales. 

During my last trip to Japan, I ventured into a bonsai shop tucked in the midst of the Arashiyama bamboo forest and chanced upon the quote in the picture above. May we, like the bonsai, continue to express our dynamism as we find our place in these new norms. 

Saturday 2 May 2020

What the pandemic bequeaths us

Source: Open source Internet

My sister and I share a love for Mandopop songs since young, such as those from Taiwanese rock band May Day, singers Cheer Chen and Rene Liu. From time to time, she would enthusiastically invite me to 'chase idols' (loosely translated from Mandarin) and attend their concerts together. But each time, I declined the sisterly offers. For I am one to shy away from suffocating crowds and have vowed to her that I will never pay to jostle with people of passion on a weekend just to sing along with my idols, however loved they are in my hearts. "Let me know," I once declared brazenly, "the day when they will hold a private concert just for me. I will watch that concert with you then".

In the present pandemic times when the world has upended and many things once unthinkable now become possible, that has happened. During the past few weeks, musicians and singers from all over the world who knew that music has the power to heal, generously held live-streamed concerts on FaceBook. I can now watch a concert from the comforts of my home, and for free. Two weeks ago, my sister and I enjoyed our private concert with Rene Liu for 2 hours on Facebook Live together, my sister in her home and me in mine, our hearts brimming with gratitude for a dream that came true.

We are living in a world with a veneer that looks vastly different from the pre-covid times.

It's almost surreal that so much can happen within a span of three to four months. Amidst the tremendous suffering, deaths and anguish that the pandemic has caused alongside the ugly (xenophobia, racism, and mud-slinging of the political types), there are the silver linings too.

For one, with lockdowns happening in so many countries and industries grinding to a halt, the natural ecosystem can finally heal itself. Pollution all over the world has plunged big time. The Yamuna River that flows across several states in India has never seen bluer skies and clearer waters ever before.

Yamuna River in Delhi (pre-covid and post-covid times)

In Thailand with tourist numbers to their famed beaches collapsing, wildlife is claiming back what was once their space. A beach in Phanga Nga district saw newly-hatched babies of the rare leatherback sea turtles for the first time after two decades.

Nests of the rare leatherback turtles discovered in a beach in Thailand

On the last day before school closed in early April for the one-month long circuit breaker, the mood in class was low as many were not looking forward to school closure. It prompted me to start a topic of discussion with my thirteen-year-olds.

"Is there anything that we can thank Covid-19 for?"

As the question went onto the whiteboard, many gave quizzical looks. "Why should we thank Covid-19?" they asked.

For sure, it doesn't mean the pandemic is a good thing. We would never have wanted so much sufferings and deaths in this world and it would have been better if it hasn't happened.

Yet it is with covid-19 that the world was compelled to collectively hit the pause button. This breather forced upon us allowed us to reflect and rethink the typical ways of doing things, especially those that have been harming the health of the planet and that of the individual. 

It is in such times of crisis that we learn to "suffer well", Emily Esfahani Smith puts it, in her New York Times article. By choosing to focus on the good that comes out of these troubling times, Smith describes, we cultivate resilience as we learn to recognise meaning and hope.

In a perverse way, there is something to thank covid-19 for. For the simple fact that it gives the world the chance to stand united against a common enemy. We can only hope that this remembrance of the power of synergy stays even when the virus is long gone.

World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesusm said in a speech captured in a video shared across numerous social media platforms: "Covid-19 is taking away so much from us. But it's also giving us something special -- the opportunity to come together as one humanity to work together, to learn together, to grow together."

Like the ubiquitous bright pink bougainvilleas that dotted many parts of Singapore, wells of kindness sprout out and manifest itself in different forms all over the island during this pandemic. I learnt there are two young hawkers going by the moniker "Beng Who Cooks" who started cooking for free at their stall at Hong Lim Market and Food Centre. No explanations are needed when you need their food. There are my colleagues who are similarly grappling with how to engage their students in the virtual space in the next 1 month but who spent valuable time teaching me, the techno-dinosaur, how to get a handle on Zoom the video-conferencing tool, the Student Learning Space and a whole host of other technology tools which I have never heard of before the pandemic happened. Like the bougainvilleas which bloom even more aggressively the hotter the weather is, goodwill swells when the going gets tough.

These days with everyone on the street wearing the same look (that of a half-bandaged face), I see less, having little non-verbal cues such as facial expressions to rely on. It takes a tad longer time now to understand another and forces me to slow down in my interactions with people. Yet it is also in slowing down that I am compelled to look at the other in the eye, and notice that pair of kind, smiling eyes framed by creased folds of skins peeking from above the face-mask. I hope I did an equally fine job smiling back with my eyes.

When life is pared down to the minimal, we notice more. Like that lively eye-catching green in the bushes stretching this side of the road compared to the next road during a walk outside my house -- why haven't I noticed that before?

My students may look back 10 years down the road and remember those extraordinary times when they cannot go to school. I hope they will also remember then that the confines of home bear no limit on the human touch as their teachers fumble to find the ideal methods to reach out and touch base with them, in the way that we know how. 

Keep well everyone, and let us continue to learn to smile with our eyes. 

Saturday 21 March 2020

A Journey Round the Room

Home-dried mulberry leaves (photo credit: Choong Mi Mi) 

These days, I find myself thinking a lot about the wind.

The rustling of leaves on the trees makes for a great chill-out moment. Like angels dancing, leaves and flowers fluttering on branches present a cheerful sight, for that often means a rousing breeze has come its way. A walk down the street then becomes a cherished one especially when the sun decides to cooperate as it withholds its might -- one wishes the walk will never end as we dwell in the calmness of the soft caress. As fallen leaves dance with the wind on the tarmac roads, the human spirit does a pirouette with them.

In these frantic and anxiety-inducing times when everything is about Covid-19 on the news and I woke up to read on my Facebook feed proclaiming the virus situation to be the World War of this generation, I seek refuge in the wind. From the comforts of my room. 

It's time to go back to the simple. While we take all the necessary precautions we need to keep the virus at bay, it helps to remember that we already have in our arsenal, tools gifted by nature in our fight against the virus -- the wind (and the sun). 

The wind would have cherished its starring role in these Covid-19 times. For it is now that it can raise itself from its underrated rank to the attention it deserves. We see reminders all the time, on newspapers, TV and on the LED informational screens at lift lobbies and in lifts, that we need to keep the windows of enclosed spaces open for ventilation. We need to allow the wind in to do its work. 

hat means we can now legitimately ask Grab drivers to wind down the car windows and they will say yes readily with no disgruntled looks cast. As we traverse down the expressway with no glass pane in the way, suddenly, the world gets closer. You feel the wind massaging your face,  sometimes gently, other times packing a punch, but always reassuring and welcoming. You hear the vehicles' engines clearly with all its fits and starts. The world is functioning, not perfectly but it is doing its best. And we do our part to send out positive thoughts and energy to keep the world marching in its beat.

The universe has its way of reminding us to simplify our lives. During this period when our schedules are pared down to the minimum, when we say yes to social commitments only after mentally-calculating the probability of catching the virus, we find that we can afford to go slower. And in doing so, therein lies the opportunity to take a journey within ourselves and alongside everything else which we failed to notice during the humdrum of busy everyday lives. In our rooms, in our neighbourhoods. 

There is great joy in relishing simple pleasures of life and discovering epiphany moments when we adopt a travel mindset wherever we are. That was exactly what a young Frenchman Xavier de Maistre did in the spring of 1790 when he locked himself at home and decided to study the wonders of what lay closest to him and wrote about it in his book titled "A Journey Round my Room". 

A few afternoons ago, I journeyed round a friend 's room. I learnt that refreshing mulberry tea can be had with just home-dried mulberry leaves immersed in hot boiling water. I explored the different ways of cutting wide open a mango, taking into consideration aesthetics and minimizing of wastage. Why haven't I discovered earlier the joy of drying mulberry leaves and mango-carving?

With a travel mindset, we notice the greatness too right in our neighbourhood. In a bus ride around where I live, I witnessed a scene which will not look out of place in Japan. I had boarded a bus where the driver decided it was his responsibility to ensure everyone onboard enjoyed a pleasant journey. At every juncture when the vehicle pulled into the bus bay, he made it a point to announce where it was that the bus had stopped. And after dropping off the alighting passengers and closing the bus doors, he blurted out "Moving off!". All these, he did shyly, with a tone not too loud but enough to be heard as one sat in the bus. You know he doesn't really do this often; perhaps he is making an effort to, in these high-strung times. Such human decency lifts spirits, and I am sure I am not the only one being lifted, for there are passengers smiling, whether it is out of bemusement or heartened gratitude. 

The truth is, we have not been locked away during these cautious times. Instead we have been "granted the privilege of being able to travel round a range of unfamiliar, sometimes daunting but essentially wondrous inner continents" (Book of Life newsletter).

Now, how's another simmering cup of mulberry leaves tea?

Sunday 23 February 2020

Pause, breathe

"Why is your paddle up!?" THE thoroughly sun-burnt kayaking coach shouted. "And why are you NOT holding on to your teammate's paddle!?"

Sitting in the cockpit of my kayak under the merciless hot sun, I cursed myself silently. I must have asked myself countless times why I signed myself up for this 1 Star Kayaking award course alongside my students. For that meant I signed up for the slinging and scolding usually reserved for students and not an accompanying teacher. I should have just opt to stay put on the safe shores where I watched my students being shouted at by THE coach instead. Out in the open seas, THE coach was not going to listen to my explanation why I did certain things the way I did. All he wanted was for me to execute the steps to the best of my ability. Yet overwhelmed by the many steps to follow in order to execute the rafted "X" rescue operations when someone's kayak capsize, I began to wonder if it is easier to let the kayak capsize than to perform the final, yet seemingly impossible task of flipping the heavy, water-logged capsized kayak over.

These memories of my kayaking experience came back recently as the certificate for the course that I took late last year arrived, laid quietly on my table in the staffroom.  

In many ways, being out in the open sea is akin to navigating the mud pool of the present frenzy of the coronavirus times.

No one likes to capsize, for no one wants to be immersed in a dark, deep sea. No one wants to catch an unknown virus which scientists are still scrambling to learn what it truly is like. In the murky sea where one plunges into to perform the capsize action, one struggles to stay afloat by kicking upwards frantically despite being reminded to stay calm and count to three before emerging from under the capsized kayak to above the sea. In the uncertain Novel Covid-2019 times, it seems easier to hog face masks and hand sanitisers than to collect yourself and listen to the rational voice within you that all will be well. 

In another world where THE coach cares to listen, I may have been able to explain my learning difficulty better -- that I have visual-spatial difficulties and was totally lost when expected to perform the series of actions demonstrated earlier in an orientation different from what was shown. I might have been able to express my need for instructions to be repeated and in a slower fashion. 

Yet in frantic times just like being out in the sea, everyone's cooperation is highly valued and a contrarian voice or action is not welcome. For during times of heightened alertness, there is little time and resources left to address anything else that will slow down an entire group's moving forward. There is little bandwidth left to soothe a slowgoing individual's soul, nor time to explain the whys behind an action. In Nike's words, you just do it. 

In school, the hectic day now starts with taking one's temperature, recording it and making sure all other students take their temperature. Normal school routines have changed and both teachers and students do their best to cope with them. Scrambles involve learning to cope with cancelled school programmes and pre-arranged learning journeys and deciding how to make up for it with new learning points that don't compromise the learning for students. Scrambles also involve trying to make sense of how conventional school-wide programmes typically celebrated in the hall are now held in the confines of each classroom.  

And sometimes in these hectic times, we forgot that we need to breathe and slow down even more consciously, more important than ever before. We sometimes forgot to stay quiet and listen. We forgot that when we do not react too quickly, we earn the chance to reflect and make more rational decisions.

Yet pause we must. For it is through that momentary breath when we halt that we find the time to rotate the kaleidoscope. And when the kaleidoscopic mind is shifted momentarily out of its usual position, we notice the changing patterns of light made by the reflections of the pieces of coloured glass and mirrors. And we recognize the differing views and contrary thoughts.

That said, would I dare to ask THE coach to pause and repeat if ever there is a next time? 

Maybe not. 

Tuesday 28 January 2020

Own Your Story


When I was a journalist eons ago, a wave of excitement came whenever I was assigned to cover a human-interest story. A human-interest story is a feature story where the primary focus is on the person and has the objective to move, with his/her story. The draw of the human-interest story hence, lies in its ability to capture the human experience. 

The privilege to hear personal stories from such up close and personal angles never fails to produce that sense of thrill which brings great relish each time. No matter who the newsmaker is, be it a prominent personality used to making media rounds or the man-in-the-street, it is a privilege bestowed upon me -- one which I learnt never to take for granted. For it is a licence you have been given, in that brief encounter of fifteen minutes or a few hours, to weave in and out of someone else's life and recount experiences lived. 

That sense of thrill would continue post-interview, brewing as I settled into the backseat of the taxi which I would slip into, long after the newsmaker left, as I made my way back to the newsroom to log in the story. As I peered out the window, the outside views passed nonchalantly as I took time to let the final brew simmer. The aroma would get intoxicating when the mind successfully came up with the opening paragraph to capture the essence of the interview -- an opening which I hoped frame the story well enough to do justice to the newsmaker's story and draw readers into the rest of my writing. This opening paragraph can take the form of a quote or an anecdote shared by the news maker or an observation  made during the interview.

Fast forward to the present and the journalist in me takes over from time to time. This happens usually after being up close and personal alongside a riveting experience or after a chat with someone whose being touches my core. I find myself immersed in the story and brewing the thickly-layered drink once more. 

It takes time to get to a story. But the ingredients to it are always simple and straightforward -- one just needs to ask questions and show a genuine willingness to listen. 

Where I presently work, stories abound as students lead lives one least imagines in sophisticated Singapore. Stories which are melodramatic enough to be made into long-running drama serials, and which sometimes leaves you gasping for breath to catch up. Yet these stories often go untold. 

A fellow colleague who teaches drama hopes to help students distill their life experiences of suffering and trauma into stories that inspire. In the mirror-clad room where one learns what vulnerability means, she gently encourages her students, who are used to their life stories not being of interest, to write scripts about their personal struggles.

A student asks, "What if I cry while writing?"

The teacher assures, "Then cry. And continue writing because that's where the most powerful stories come from, and it may change someone's life." The student smiles. 

Sometimes a story comes when you least expect it. During my trip last December to Nara Park, Japan, I visited the century-old park --  home to more than a thousand freely-roaming deer, temples and other beautiful historical sites -- and met a volunteer guide, Kuzuwa-san. Kuzuwa-san volunteers with the YMCA and makes it a point to spend each weekend bringing tourists around the park, providing free English translation service. I found him at a table he was manning at the corner of the Nara tourism centre.

Throughout the walk, Kuzuwa-san regaled with stories of old and modern Japan, interspersed with economic, historical, geographical and cultural explanations which came about as a result of him poring over tons of research he does during weekends when he isn't bringing tourists around and translating.

My interest shifted away from the deer. What drives Kuzuwa-san, week after week, to devote precious weekend time to bringing tourists around the park and providing free translation services? Even when there are tourists who abuse the service and have him bring them around as a photographer rather than a translator? 

His reasons for doing it seems simple and almost stereotypical at the outset. Yes, he is proud of his hometown and wants to share his country's beauty with the rest of the world? And yes, it is a good chance for him to practise his English-speaking skills too. 

And the story came. 

Kuzuwa-san's full-time job had previously taken him to different parts of the world and many times, he has received kindness. He sees his current outreach to people across different nationalities his way of paying it forward, a way to thank the many nameless but no doubt significant people who lent a hand to him in those foreign lands.

And what a beautiful story that was. 

This Chinese New Year, I indulged in a weekend of immersive storytelling, entering theatres to tick off the list of movies I have been wanting to watch but never got down to. One particular movie stood out. The film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic, Little Women,  features the four March sisters set in a time of Civil War where they had to grow up fast even though they were young. Director Greta Gerwig's tagline for the movie is "Own your story". How apt that was for if Louisa May Alcott didn't base her writing loosely on her life, there would not be this evergreen classic  which touches on themes relevant even to our modern day lives. 

Never underestimate the power of our own stories.