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. 

T
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. 






Sunday, 12 January 2020

Of Space , Time and Freedom



THE feet know it best.


They will be the first to detect signs of restraint and the lack of freedom when cooped up within closed in shoes, e
specially when they comes with bunions like mine. A bunion is a bony bump formed on the part of the foot where the big toe is. In my case, I was born with them. Feet with bunions long to be free. So out goes those elegant tight, narrow shoes and heels. Not even a comfortable pair of closed in shoes made of stretchable materials does the trick. Just a few hours in them and THE feet will make their protests heard. You hear their calls to get out of their confined state into the embrace of freedom.


In a parallel universe, I would want to wear my Vibram Five-fingers running shoes wherever I go. Where my toes on each foot can return to my ancestors' days, with every muscle strongly stretching out and feeling the ground solidly. I would 
pair them even with formal work-wear! 


But before I come to possess that unshackled-by-societal-norms type of bravery, I have to contend with running to my socially-accepted open-toed sandals during the weekend. 


I shuddered to think what would have become of me had I existed in the time of foot-binding in Tang dynasty China where small feet were a hallmark of elegance. Freedom is no less important for THE feet.

So too is that for the 20 month-old-nephew. The day he learnt to walk marked his first taste of mobility; the appetizer freedom which came alongside indeed whets his appetite further. Any efforts to restrain him using the baby carrier only serves to provide fertile training ground for developing a wily mind as he thinks of various ways to get out of his confined state.

"Want to go into the pram?" His grandma asked lovingly, noticing his wriggling uncomfortably inside the baby carrier that held him to her. He nodded, not yet grasping speech but understanding very well the ways of the world -- and the sympathy of adults around him. 


Once he is released from his cloistered state, he wriggles out of grandma's feeble attempts to place him into the pram and out he goes onto the ground. Sprinting away along the shopping mall's corridor stretch like an Olympian sprinter, albeit a less steadier one, he leaves Grandma panting to catch up with him. 


Freedom, once tasted, will forever be cherished. 


Space on a page, or white space, as the world of educational therapy likes to call it, is important too for individuals with learning difficulties such as dyslexia or visual processing difficulties. They often experience something called visual crowding when letters and words crowd on a page, making the act of reading laborious. To help them overcome this problem, ensuring there is sufficient space between letters, between words and between lines and having bigger margins help greatly. 


The page too needs to breathe. 


Space hence, from time immemorial, is the cherished small prize which leads up to the ultimate gigantic grand trophy called freedom which when embraced in one's arms, reaches beyond the height of the average Joe. 


The sense of unshackled space often provides that awe-struck element which silences me as I sit in a train during my travels. 
The sight of vast horizons of grasslands interspersed with shimmering rivers and the generous dosage of blue sky outside the window is often surreal. After all, where I come from, I am more accustomed to seeing sandwiches of storeys generously stacked up over the years. 


I used to think that a generous
dosage of physical space is the necessary corollary for a vast enough headspace to think, and to imagine. Yet it seems that is not necessarily so. 


At my last stop at Tokushima Prefecture in Japan, my Japanese air bnb host, Sachi, lamented about the crammed Japanese education system which leaves children with little time to play and explore the wonders of nature that abound all around them. Located on the eastern side of the island of Shikoku, Tokushima Prefecture has beautiful natural scenery in abundance. It seems blasphemous not to have the time to play in such a grandiose space. Looking at how Sachi consciously carves out space and time for her 3 children to grow to be the creative beings they are capable of, it seems physical space is not enough to guarantee headspace. Freeing up space in one's head takes effort.  


The antidote to a lack of (mental) space could jolly well be a generous amount of time. With the luxury of time, many things seem possible.


You discover thoughtfulness and kindness at all the little corners when time can afford to take a slow walk. The cashier at the convenience store noticed the drizzle outside and asked if I would need the plastic tag attached to the umbrella I just bought removed so that I could use it immediately.


On my first day of arrival at Tokushima Prefecture, I brought my luggage to Sachi for her help to hack away the lock to my luggage, for I have performed an impressively clever feat of locking up the only key I brought for the lock in the luggage. Her attention focused on just the rock and hammer in her hands, and the lock on my luggage -- even when her well-stacked unwashed plates were beckoning to her at the sink and 3 children were waiting for dinner. 


We often discover what we can do when we give ourselves enough time.


Mohammad Abdillah, 25, a former graduate of Northlight School (for students who failed their PSLE) where I currently teach, and now a motion graphics artist at a local advertising agency sums it up well. He once said that what liberates him and allows him to gain hope and confidence in life was when he realizes he was capable of learning -- he just takes more time. He said, "One thing I've realise from life is that it's ok to take your time, as long as you don't give up."


I came too to discover over the years that solo travelling is possible even for someone like me who possesses limited visual spatial skills (I can get lost even within a shopping mall or a HDB estate). As long as I am willing to give myself sufficient time. Time to get lost and forgive myself even when I missed that bend. Time to think and consider the next best course of action when I took the wrong bus. Time to gather myself and find my centre when feeling overwhelmed in a crowded train station where the sight of the city folks rushing and their harried footsteps could have the effect of immediately jolting up one's heartbeat rate. 


In Swedish physicist and author Bodil Jonsson's book "Ten Thoughts about Time: A Philosophical Enquiry", she distinguishes between the concepts of clock-time and lived-time. Clock-time is the objective timekeeping we all live by and lived-time is one's perceived sense of time. She writes of how when we become more conscious of our lived-time, and realizes that the clock-time is not all-important, we will start to discover how to make use of our limited timespan in this world meaningfully. In other words, when you believe you have time, you get more out of life. 


Indeed w
hen you give yourself the luxury of time, you find that even though you can't really read a map perfectly,  you can still figure out the general direction to a destination by using common sense and chatting up strangers along the way.


When you choose to believe you have time, you stop to make conversations -- one using google translate, the other using an electronic translation dictionary. You find time to be immersed in a sing-song journey with one another as hand gestures are indulged in and efforts are made to correct words lost in translation. 


And then, you discover stories of passions and bravery. Of how a middle-aged chap switched from being an engineer of trains to an engineer of wagasa, or Japanese oil-paper umbrellas because he wants to play a part in keeping this age-old Japanese tradition alive. You listen to the honest sharings of a young married couple in their early 20s, whose desire to set up a café at a well-chosen zone with high tourist traffic stems not so much from entrepreneurial passion but from the need to eke out a living.  

These days, I smelt the faint scent of jasmine flowers in my neighbourhood which I never do before, this time of the year. I'd like to see that as a small victory, that I managed to slow down my lived-time and create a headspace that is uncloistered and freer at the start of a new decade. 


Let's hope it sustains. 


Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Home



The keys rests, in a simple pen-drawn square, marking its home.
That was the first arresting image that Japan gifted me on my first day of arrival at the small room in my first air bnb accommodation.
In the second air bnb I stayed in, I took away the aesthetic lesson of gifting a vase a coaster to lean on. A few minutes after I stepped away from the dining table where I tossed on it my breakfast consisting of an egg sandwich and a plum onigiri grabbed the night before from 7-11, I returned to find that my air bnb host had artfully arranged them neatly on an elegant plate placed on a tray.
These were easy enough gestures. Yet once you took home (pun intended) the concept of gifting every object its home, the image of a vase lying barren on a wooden table without a coaster simply looks forlorn.
That is what Japan does to you.
The Japanese appears to be made up of an island of individuals who has a strong concept of home. Every object has its rightful place; thou shall never see the act of gifting an object a home an act of indulgence. Japanese lifestyle celebrity Marie Kondo, who found fame by helping people straighten up their homes (and lives as she believes), advocates it is important to have a place for everything.
Such a belief in the concept of home demands orderliness for sure, which the Japanese are well-known for. But more than that, it shows a deep respect of all things, both animate and inanimate. The Japanese has a steep tradition in viewing the everyday things of life from the perspective of relationships among people. Conferring a respect for the objects in our lives shows a respect for the users of the objects. 
I didn’t realise, but such respect for even the most mundane things has rubbed off on me.
The first sign of transformation made its grand entrance at potluck meals during the Christmas festive period. I fervently made sure every dish that arrived at the table made their way from makeshift shelters of oil-stained paper bags and plastic containers to proper ceramic plates. The usual practical me would have left them as they are, believing that that is the rightful way of doing things. 1 fewer plate to wash = water and time saved.
Sayonara, my practical Singaporean habit.
I took things a tad too far when at my nephew’s birthday party, I emptied out the contents of each McDonald meal packed in paper bags and passed them out on plates and bowls to the tweens. If they do find me weird, they were respectful enough not to roll their eyes at one other.
Enough said, I needed to know what drives this strong sense of home in the Japanese. The universe somehow always has a knack for knowing what I need and blesses me with the necessary.
Two weeks after I returned from my Japan trip, I chanced upon a book aptly titled “I Want to Go Home”. Written by Wesley Leon Aroozoo, a lecturer from LASALLE College of the Arts and a filmmaker. The book adds to the jigsaw pieces, helping me better understand the Japanese’s need to ensure everything is in its place.

“I Want to Go Home” documented the author's journey meeting Mr Takamatsu who lost his wife to the tsunami during the Great East Japan earthquake on the 11th of March, 2011. “I want to go home” was the last text message that Mr Takamatsu's wife, Yuko sent him on her cell phone that fateful day. Mr Takamatsu knows Yuko is no longer alive, yet the desire to find her body and brings her back home never dimmed throughout the years. And so he learnt to dive. Since then, he has been diving every week in the sea to look for Yuko. “I felt like I could meet her one day as long as I kept diving,” he said. “I just want to bring her home.” In the course of his dives, he returned lost objects found on the sea floors to their rightful homes and owners (if they bear names). Driven initially by the desire to bring his beloved wife home from the vast ocean, Mr Takamatsu has found another purpose in life.
I chanced upon the Internet the concept of uchi-soto which apparently permeates all aspects of Japanese life, and which possibly further explains the need to find a home for all things loved. Uchi means the inside or home, and is associated with things being clean, safe and pure that they need to appreciate. On the other hand, soto refers to the outside and that is associated with things that are unfamiliar and even impure but which they need to honour.
A new friend I made recently wrote this on her IG status profile: “I want to learn to struggle in this world; yet still know my way home.”
On this New Year’s Day, may everyone finds your way home, where you belong.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019



Heat

Heat does wonders.

Thrust a metal into the burning stove
out comes a malleable piece of diamond,
shaped into a piece of your fancy.

Pour in cereal into a boiling mix and then into a moulding bowl
out comes a healthy sponge cake worthy of meeting guests.

Thrust someone into a situation of stress and
will it cultivate a person of strength and endurance?

I like to think so.



Space

In the small island that I know better,
we learn to take small steps
we learn not to wave our hands wildly when we walk
we learn to move slowly, 
for fear of treading on the toes of others,
for fear of thrusting into fellow islanders' space 
in this densely-populated isles.

In this vast expanse which I come to know,
we can ride bikes with one hand
for there is no fear of knocking down a pedestrian.
What can be worse -- you just fall down!

In this wide realm that now I know, 
we can walk as fast as we want
we can stop when we fancy
with no fear of someone tailgating behind.

The space is vast
the mind is free.
跟着感觉走