Thoughts and reflections

You can never be fully prepared for someone’s death

If there is something I have learnt from my early twenties, it is that you can never be fully prepared for any scenario.

You can imagine and re-imagine living life without a particular person in a bid to prepare yourself for their death. And then the inevitable happens, and you still find yourself lost.

Routines are disrupted as people are forced out of their beds at 2 in the morning when the hospital calls and gently recommends that family members come visit. Several hours later, everybody goes into a flurried frenzy applying for leave and making calls for funeral arrangements.

The more experienced ones move like clockwork as they go through various procedures with almost surgical precision. Others, like myself, fumble through each ritual.

Each practice has a symbolic meaning, but I was not brought up to understand its cultural significance. Ultimately, I understand that the main gist of it is to reaffirm the significance of the deceased in the family, offer final respects, and prepare them for a blissful afterlife.

It has only been a day but everyone is already pale with exhaustion – There is so much to do, so much to account for. I wear what I am given, I bow when I am told, I kneel when I am told. I refrain from saying “goodbye” and “death”. My hands are stained from rolling kimzua ingots.

Each bag of kimzua, folded and ready, is almost cathartic. It is easy to be lured in by the assurances that rituals bring. But to me, funerals are for the living, and not the dead.

*

The doctors define life as brain activity, or pulse. But in my opinion, breath is not truly life. With months of travelling to and fro the hospice, weekend after tireless weekend for months on end, we have witnessed the slow but sure deterioration of the physical body. Life is not about being constrained to a bed and being fed liquids periodically, unable to interact with others.

At the wake, Mama said that we did not need to bring his walking stick, among other belongings. “不需要了。现在让他好好走。” (No need for that, he can walk properly now.) In his last gasping breaths, death was more of a release.

Death of a family member really forces you to put your life into perspective. What does it mean to live, what does it mean to lose?

I’ve accepted that death is an eventuality, but the loss creeps in during pockets of time when I am no longer occupied by the demands of the funeral.

As a rational individual, I understand more than anything that life is always in transition. Birth, sickness, old age, decay and death. My father said: “If daddy is like this next time, don’t feel sad. It is part of the stages of life.”

So why the slow weight that settles upon my chest?

When I am alone, I look at photographs on my phone and it does not hit me like a wave of bricks. The memory reel plays – It is a series of flashing images and sound in my head.

I struggle to even post a photo caption. I take to wordpress, but it is no better. I have no clear narrative of what I am trying to say and end up waxing lyrical about vague concepts of death and how the living cope with it.

Have I always been this creature of sentiment? Possibly. But something that I am certain of is impermanence and transience. The yellow dye on my hands will fade, the funeral garb will eventually be stowed away and forgotten, and we will get used to living without him.

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Inspiration and the states of crisis that follow

“When women write about themselves, why does it become a frivolous matter? Why is it that when men talk about their feelings, their experiences are taken to be a universal truth that has gravitas?”

Women’s experiences and feelings should not just exist as narratives of the margin. And so, in the past month, I have been working on an exciting project to bring women’s voices into the public consciousness.

It started with a bunch of emails, nothing more than pixels floating around the great big web of digital everythings. But I cannot emphasize enough the importance of meeting inspiration in the flesh. Most people do not wake up intending to become role models or a source of hope for another warm body in this world. And yet, they sometimes become an accidental hero.

When you meet these people it seems like they could be a neighbour, another stranger in the queue for coffee, a person you sit next to on the bus. But as they spoke, I was incredibly moved by the stories that poured forth.

There were so many quotable lines, such as “I rather go in a blaze of glory than live a long, mediocre life.” It was never intended to be a tagline for a cover photo, but the conviction was so strong that passion was somehow beautifully articulated with an incredibly well-woven sentence.

These women had dreams, and they went out and did something about it. They did not spend their life contemplating or planning down to the finest detail, hoping there will be a right moment when they are ready. That “right moment” will never come, and if you spend your life waiting, you will spend your life being mediocre. No. You have to go out and do what you think, not just think about what you can do. And then finally, you need to have the grit to see it through.

It started off with a seed of inspiration that sprouts a cliched hope. There is a frenzied bubbling of all the possibilities of pathways as they spoke – I can do anything, be whoever I want to be. I just have to rush into the world with arms wide open, and dare to keep dreaming.

But…what do I really want out of this life?

Promise soon turns to self doubt. Several states of crisis gradually unfold. The mental unraveling commences.

How much am I willing to give up to fight for what is a good life?
Before I answer that, what does it mean for me to live a good life?

So what do I dream of when nobody is watching?
Blank.

Has the structure of the system squashed my capacity for imagination?

Who is the “I”?
Who is the “I”?

Lessons from the cats downstairs

In the past half a year or so, I’ve undertaken the task of befriending the cats at my condo.

I’ve noticed some of them since they were kittens. At that time, they darted into bushes when I walked by them, but they also meowed to get my attention (from afar), clearly too afraid to get close. They were (and some of them still are!) wary creatures that relied on signals from their mother to determine a stranger’s trustworthiness.

Since then, I’ve patiently tried to earn their trust – With food, slow movement (in order not to startle) and lots of backing off when necessary. It was a really long process that demanded my patience, but most importantly, there are several insights that can be drawn from the past few months.

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The first is related to the trustworthiness of humans.

Why should we as humans expect great and kind things from strangers whom intentions we don’t know of? The cats sure never expected it. Perhaps they know better than any of us that it is always safer to be wary, than to trust a stranger and get fucked over.

The untrustworthiness of humans can really be appalling sometimes. It is revealed in petty fights, low-brow insults, lies and hypocritical behaviour. As humans, we are inconsistent, and I too am guilty of this.

However, what matters is the self-awareness to acknowledge our mistakes and inconsistencies, and to do better next time. This doesn’t mean that we never do wrong again, nor does it guarantee that we will never make the same mistake. All it promises is that we have the capability to see where we have done wrong, and make amends.

Cats do not care about your self-awareness or your ethics. To them, you just need to show that you can be trusted via certain actions (e.g. giving them food, not touching their bellies, and giving them space when they show signs of stress). This is sufficient proof.

Humans, unfortunately, are more complex. What constitutes sufficient proof for humans? Humans inherently lack credibility, and I believe that not everyone is worth my trust nor my time…but they are at least worth my kindness. It’s a commitment that I have made to practice not just patience, but also love without expecting anything in return.

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This brings me to my second takeaway from my time with the cats – They have made me realise that I am someone with more love than I originally thought. It’s a simple but also surprising conclusion for someone as cynical and skeptical as I am.

These furry creatures elucidate the joy of giving (one salmon biscuit at a time), and this joy is a powerful and hopeful one. I have never considered myself as an “animal person”. Yet, here I am, always carrying a bag of salmon biscuits in my tote bag so I can feed the cats I meet.

My love for cats extend beyond just friendly felines, but even those who are hostile and slow to warm up to human interaction. Even if they take my biscuits and run, I still derive satisfaction from giving.

This is something which I find more difficult to understand and accept with human beings, but I still have to try.

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Some cats can be delightfully affectionate. However, they also have their moods.

Their mood may affect how they act around you, for instance, they may not want to be touched as much when they are annoyed by something. Alternatively, they may scratch you when they are feeling distressed and you get too close.

This bears striking similarity to humans. When we are irate, we snap at others. When we are distressed and someone has said something that hits too close to home, we may lash out with an attack that hurts them.

Just like us, cats have the capacity to give and receive love. However, as animals, they also have lots of instinctive reactions to the environment around them that cannot be controlled.

Herein lies the difference between us and cats – which is my third takeaway – We have the capacity to control our reactions such that we do not hurt others. We can choose to be loving and kind despite our fleeting feelings of anger or frustration.

Yet, we always forget that this is a choice.

Many would retort that it is not a choice, and I understand that feeling – It’s not so straightforward. Rage, sadness, frustration – they are all afflictions that cling to our skin and bones. But what we lack is not the capacity to be kind in times of turmoil, but the practice.

The cats are good practice for me. Even when they scratch me sometimes, I still want to choose to love them.

 

 

“Memory is an ocean, and he bobs on the surface.”

Recently, I read this line in Life of Pi: “Memory is an ocean, and he bobs on the surface.”

It was written without much context (I suspect more will be revealed in the later chapters), but the poignancy of that line cut through everything else on the page.

Memory, an ocean – A vast body of life and death and untapped depths. And yet, one bobs only on the surface. Surely we must realise that the ocean is grander than just that?

Then, I remembered my grandfather.

Perhaps it’s the frequent hospital visits, the tantrums and the flickers of forgetfulness that passes between his gaze. “Ah gong, it’s me. Do you remember who I am?” Sometimes he remembers. Other times, I am merely a stranger that wades into the hospital ward.

But it’s not just my Ah gong, who is old and senile. Others forget too. They might have illnesses, chemical deficiencies, or injuries affecting their ability to access certain memories.

I read the line from the book over and over… “And he bobs on the surface.” The author did not write “but he bobs on the surface.” No, it was not a ‘despite memory being a vast ocean’ statement. There was no implicit judgment made, instead, it seems more like a description of a phenomenon.

This brings me to my main point – It is not only the sick and the senile who bob at the surface, we all do.

Bobbing at the surface is a prevalent phenomenon. Even for us, the ‘healthy’ and the ‘normal’, we skip from one thing to another rather easily. The lust for novelty and controversy sustain the system.

The digital space is absolutely indicative of this. Look at the news, an endlessly flickering feed of disaster and dismay. Scroll scroll. Look at Facebook timelines featuring one ‘viral’ video after another. Scroll scroll. Trending memes on twitter. Scroll scroll.

These peaks move at a punishing pace, and so do our memories. What is there to grasp on to but disillusionment?

But never forget, we are the system. We are the ones who vest these peaks with (short-lived?) meaning, according to what we think is meaningful.

 

In society we always tell each other to tell the truth and always speak your mind. In the knife of never letting go you can hear each others thoughts and always speak your mind because you cant hide it.Perhaps the author did this to show that its not always great to always share whats on your mind.
Photo via Pinterest.

 

Through photographs at the void deck: A lover’s perspective

We once walked past a void deck with a fan-shaped hole in the wall. It had sunny yellow paint as its border. Some void decks from older HDB flats have ‘hole in the wall’ features in different shapes and colours. These shapes were said to jazz up plain-looking housing estates.

Her eyes lit up with fascination. “Look at this shape!” She exclaimed excitedly, pointing at it and rushing toward it. “I remember some photographer taking a whole series of them.”

She was really into architecture and geometrical patterns while I knew nothing about urban landscapes or design. All I knew was that her presence lit up the spaces she inhabited.

Almost instinctively, I pulled out my phone and started snapping photographs of her exploring the shape in the wall. It was a personal habit of mine to take photos of my girlfriend. Through a series of pixels as my medium of choice, I could immortalise her different facets.

Every photograph captured a different mood:

1.

I adored her because she had a mind brimming with curiosity and wonder – She wanted to find out more about everything that piqued her interest.

At that moment, this shape was her object of fancy.

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She climbed into the hole in the wall and stood in it awkwardly. She struck a few poses and pretended she was a model. The absurdity of the whole thing tickled her and she tilted her head back in laughter. I did too – She looked so silly.

She moved nimbly between the spaces, but the fluidity of her motion could never be fully captured using still images. With all the images that illustrated different degrees of breakage and continuity from each other,  I was reminded of the passage of time.

A single photograph is a single time-slice. It captures only one instance within a universe in constant flux. How do we grasp hold of anything when everything moves so quickly?

2.

Perhaps we should not be grasping at all.

I watched as her hair fluttered lightly in the breeze. It tickled her nose.

This picture captured her at her most content – free from the careless restlessness that plagued mankind – the hunger that could never be satiated.

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In the next moment, she brushed the strand of hair aside.

I observed how absentmindedly we attend to something as insignificant like a single hair. The desire to scratch is subconscious, but we raise our hand to our face almost instantaneously in response.

We give in instinctively to this and that all the time, sometimes without even realizing it. Eternal contentment lasts forever only in photographs, when it should reside within us.

3.

I once snapped a photo when her back was toward me.

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“This looks like a pensive photo,” I said.

She said,

“How strange it is that photographs seem to have a pensive mood just because a subject has his or her back faced to the camera. Because there is no way to see their facial expression, there is so much about the subject’s mood that remains concealed. You cannot tell if the person is smiling or crying. You imagine and fill in the mood of the subject based on your own. It is your own pensiveness that bleeds into the image, colouring it with a contemplative quality.”

What she forgets is that this is also the image we see when somebody walks away from us.

Backs turned, facial expression concealed.

What could be more pensive and melancholic, than the image of someone leaving?

 

***

 

 

 

Things I wish somebody told me about university

With the release of the examination results (the eighth and final SMS that I will receive!), I was prompted to reflect deeply on the past four years. I realised that there are so many things that I wished someone would tell me when I was a year one student. These are the things I wish somebody told me about university:

Be patient: You will find your passion and it’s OK if your interests are not like the others.

It took me three years to truly discover what I enjoyed about politics. Unlike many of my peers, what fascinated me was not political parties, elections and international relations.  I was interested in philosophy and political thought, but I was never content to merely wade in realms of abstraction.

I loved images so I became a visual culture nerd. I tried to rethink what ‘politics’ entails and explore the political dimension of visuality. I delved into images of all sorts and tried to make sense of its meanings.

I wish someone told me earlier on that it was OK to not be interested in the conventional PS things. People would often ask me “How is that political science?” or “Isn’t that cultural geography or sociology?” And that was when I realised that the function of my major was not to constrict or limit my learning to a particular field, but set the parameters of which I framed my research. Fields are never neat, discrete blocs of knowledge. They overlap, overlay and interact.

Your growth and capacity for growth will be your biggest takeaway.

I clung most tightly to my grades in the first semester, and (ironically?) it was also the semester that I did the most poorly. Subsequently, I became less worried about how well I would do, and grew more concerned with how I was do-ing. I was still really nervous when I received my results, but less-than-ideal grades no longer affected me as much.

I wish someone would have told me that it is more important to really be present in classes, because with the ebb and flow of every semester, everything slips past us all too quickly – at the end you find yourself wishing that you savoured it all more. It is more important to take ownership of your work by choosing something you feel for, directing your own topic and engaging others/other materials to improve on your thoughts. If you don’t care about anything now, why would you care about something later? If you never cared about someone else’s perspectives on a matter now, why would you later on? These skills would translate to life skills where it is imperative to engage others and also, myself, in a process where we learn and develop and be open to healthy discursive spaces.

After all, this is what university should hone. Not just academic knowledge and technical skills, but also the capacity for mindful conversation that is so important for being a citizen. The capacity for empathy, openness, and willingness to grow.

[I often wondered, what does university reward in terms of grades? You can read the full post here.]

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Source: Somehoodlum

Men are not smarter or better by default.

I spent a great deal of my life under the impression that men were more well-read, more intelligent, and more competent. I cannot explain why or how I was conditioned into thinking so, but I know of several others that shared this same perception.

I realised that just because the men (sometimes) had louder voices in classes, it surely does not mean that they were more intelligent (if we can even have a metric for evaluating intelligence). Just because they (sometimes) interrupted me with articulate sentences, fancy jargon and name-drops, it does not make their point more valid than mine.

I remember there was once I had to present and defend my argument to the class and receive constructive criticism. Two other men had very similar research questions. One kept insisting that my position was indefensible without properly attacking my premises or qualifications. After the class, he came up to me with the other man and they both advised me to alter my position…to be the same as theirs. One said, “Trust him (referring to the other man). If he’s so smart and he can’t find a way to reconcile this, I think it’s very difficult. You should change your claim.” (BTW I didn’t. I worked on my argument, stuck to it, and did well for the paper.)

I realised it is important for us to recognise and be confident of our own strengths and merits – If we change, it should be because we genuinely believe it to be an improvement, not because we want to suit what others think.

Two disclaimers:1. I’m not saying that men are less intelligent. Sometimes I feel smaller just because someone presents themselves in a particular way. 2. My experience just happens to involve men, although I’m sure the same can be said for women!

We are all lost.

It took me four years to gradually figure out what kinds of jobs I wanted to do. Even though I’ve already started work, I am still finding my way.

I think too much pressure is placed on university students to know their path (“What do you want to do? Huh you still don’t know? You must think about it you know!”). I also feel that there is also a lot of unnecessary (unspoken, super paggro) peer pressure – to attend different seminars, a myriad of job fairs and interviews, a flurry of camps and overseas trips, exchange etc. (“Eh how many resumes did you drop off at the career fair?” “…I didn’t go for the career fair” / “Why didn’t you go for exchange? It’s really once-in-a-lifetime experience you know!”).

It is good to have a plan, to think about the direction we wish to head in and to go out and experience things. However, if you don’t want to do all these things your peers are doing, that doesn’t make your future less bright. Doing all these just because you don’t want to lose out is disorienting at best, disillusioning at worst.

We will always remain explorers and navigators of life, regardless of our stage of life. Just because we ‘grow up’ and ‘embark on a career’, it doesn’t mean we are any more ‘found’. Learning never really stops and we are always in a process of discovery.

We are all lost, just different degrees of adrift.

What does university reward in terms of grades?

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Image credit: Hayley Powers via The Artidote

At the end of my first semester in university, I had a less than satisfactory cumulative average point (CAP). I was really disappointed because I was expecting to do better (first world problem I know– I’d completely missed out on the fact that I was currently receiving a university education in one of the top institutions in Asia).

At some point, I stopped clinging so tightly to the end-result and tried to focus on learning as much as I could, for every class. It was also perhaps most ironically, that I started to do really well once I stopped expecting much. That was when I questioned: What is it that university rewards in terms of grades?

Was it the amount of content you could spew within a span of two hours during the exam? Was it the number of empirical examples provided to substantiate your point? Could it perhaps be the originality of your argument?

For secondary school and JC, it was mostly rote learning and regurgitation of certain essay ‘templates’ that would guarantee good scores. I think in some senses, university does privilege candidates with such a background. I say this because I believe content and empirical examples to be a necessary but insufficient condition for doing well.

Why insufficient?

Because university grades also (attempt to) measure curiosity, independent thought-development, and synthesis. At least in my opinion.

One thing I disagree with for the university grading system (especially for FASS), is timed exams. I believe that timed, closed-book exams aren’t really useful in determining curiosity of the student, nor the ability of the student to formulate good questions and develop sound solutions with the help of research. Timed exams are less about independent research and arguments, but more about how much content you can reproduce.

Sure, the ability to respond under pressure and time constraints is a practical skill. However,in most practical situations, we are required to first, identify a problem, research on a matter, and sometimes even consult with others before formulating a solution. To that end, I believe that research papers and projects are a better way to evaluate a student in a more holistic fashion. I also believe that research papers were where I was more likely to do well.

Through a research project or paper, I could synthesize what was taught with what I independently researched and thought about. I realised that the more I was passionate about the topics I was studying, the more I was willing to read and research about them. I wanted to develop my ideas, speak to people about it and get feedback. I also tried to explore unconventional angles to frame creative research questions or to approach the same topic with a different lens. All these contributed to me not only having a decent (and clear!) grasp of the content and having necessary examples/cases to support my argument, but also enabled me to construct original arguments. I was rewarded for displaying all these in my papers.

I have suggested what I think is the reason for me doing well in school, but I don’t claim that this is the golden formula. It has worked for me, but there are so many other factors at play in determining one’s grades.

For instance, I am aware that I have been extremely fortunate and privileged to 1. Have been given the opportunity to be in school and 2. Have a very supportive family that ensured I could concentrate on getting my degree without having to worry about family finances during this time. I did not have to juggle work and school just so I could help support my family. In other words, I had the luxury of time to concentrate on school. Many people do not have this opportunity.

Secondly, I know of many deeply curious and intellectual individuals who seemingly ‘do not do well’ in school. It just so happens that my intellectual development and how I presented these developments also coincided with the testing system. People learn and grow in different ways, and this doesn’t necessarily manifest in the current modes of testing.

In conclusion, while I have somehow figured out the ‘sweet-spot’ for doing well in university, these operate on certain crucial premises that do not apply equally to everyone. It doesn’t mean that they have not learned or developed as much as individuals who received good grades. Yet, society still privileges (to different extents) paper qualifications and first class honours – the holy grail of CAPs.

Perhaps we should also be asking: If grades are an imperfect indicator that operate on certain assumptions, what else can we use as indicators of an individual’s skills and thought-processes?


Image credit: From The Marquette Educator