Thoughts and reflections

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.

 

 

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“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

The art of looking at Instagram

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Recently, I attended a film screening at STPI on John Berger’s The Art Of Looking. It is part of their current installation featuring Kim Beom and how artists interrogate perspectives. Watching the screening rekindled my interest in Berger’s works and I spent the weekend watching all four episodes of Ways of Seeing (stills from this post are taken from the videos). Berger was a curious observer with a keen sense for insightful perspectives. His inquiry into how visuality functions as a language reveals certain surprising conclusions.

In Episode 1, Berger brings in the significance of photography and the camera with respect to traditional art. It allows for reproduction of art, making it available in different places and for different purposes. A single artwork can be framed differently by different agents, with emphases placed on different aspects. A picture of Mona Lisa on a postcard would have a different meaning from when it is placed in an art history textbook, accompanied by descriptions and commentary. When incorporated into a video, different movements and music can be used to invoke different feelings and hence, skew interpretation and meaning of the artwork. This allows for fragmented meanings different from the original.

Unlike the original nature of oil painting which can only be viewed when an eye’s visual field comes into contact with it, photography expands the possibilities for ‘seeing’. I pondered further on this, and thought about social media feeds. What might Berger have to say about Instagram? It seems to me that his points can also be applied to the use of Instagram. Instagram pictures are a subjective expression of the individual. Two people at the same scene might take very different pictures –they might frame it in certain ways (by cropping certain things out or focusing on different aspects), apply different filters to evoke different feelings, and post different captions that would alter the meaning of each image.

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Berger also argues that the tradition of European oil painting was a medium which celebrated private possessions. It depicted the tangibility of objects representing affluence and power (e.g. land, gold, feasts, portraits etc.). He then looks at the modern context of publicity and advertisement. According to Berger, the oil painting symbolises the wealth of the owner. The person commissions an artist to immortalise his/her possessions within that frame. The publicity image on the other hand, shows not what we have, but what we might buy. In Berger words, the city of advertisements is “papered with dreams which invite us to enter them.” It represents not who we already are and what we already have, but who we can be with ownership of said objects. His conclusion is that the tradition of European oil painting and modern publicity images are both about ownership and status, but function in slightly different ways.

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Like oil paintings, many Instagram images document what we have done and the objects we are proud of – e.g. Flatlays of shopping hauls, shots of fancy cars and houses etc. Instagram images can also function as a publicity image when people use Instagram to advertise certain products. Suppose we thought of publicity images and traditional oil painting to be two different ends of the ownership and power imagery spectrum (image representing and surrounding what you [the owner] have –> representing what the people surrounding the image don’t have, but could).  Instagram embodies both poles of the spectrum, but cannot be reduced to either.

Hidden beneath the curated collection of images on an Instagram feed is a subtle art of visual communication. This is not just in terms of material possessions but also experiences (e.g. parties, exotic holidays, exclusive events) and social networks. Like the ubiquity of advertisements (and unlike the nature of traditional oil paintings before photography), the nature of Instagram is such that images are widely and heavily diffused. It is a marketplace not only in commercial dealings as an advertisement platform, but also a marketplace for social dealings. Likes are traded, followers represent network reach, and images communicate social status.

Like the publicity image, Instagram images portray objects of envy that exclude the viewer. Ownership and status of the owner as communicated through an Instagram image is always in relation to other Instagram users –the multiplicity of eyes that take in this image. It involves a discourse on human desire – It suggests what you are not, but can and want to be.

Every image on the feed is disembodied. It has no relation to the previous or the next. In the endless visual stream, it is a single fragment, juxtaposed against all other fragments. It also has a voice that competes to not get drowned out by other sounds. Yet, each image does not hold equal power. Some have louder voices that yell: “Look at me, I am what you are not.” They tempt and seduce us into buying things we do not need, pursuing experience after experience in the chase for a distant dream that is never truly within our grasp.

I acknowledge that with everything, it is nearly impossible to have an absolute position. Certainly not all Instagram images work at the same level of seduction.There will always be exceptions, anomalies and empirical cases that do not quite fit.  I am not suggesting that all Instagram does is to trap us in our desires and deceitfully play on our inadequacies. I am also not arguing that there is anything inherently insidious about how Instagram might be used. What this post does is to point out the dangers of the constant stream of images, and the subconscious work it does to manipulate our desires and actions. It (hopefully!) provokes one to think about how we use Instagram and how it influences us.

Ways of Seeing Episode 1
Ways of Seeing Episode 2
Ways of Seeing Episode 3
Ways of Seeing Episode 4

Reflections on Siem Reap

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Over the weekend, I went on a trip to Siem Reap. This post documents some of my thoughts, observations and reflections from the trip.

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Anxiety and introspection

This trip marked my first time flying, transporting myself to and fro airports, and spending a day/night alone in a foreign country by myself. For most of my peers, they would say that it’s no big deal – especially for people who have gone on exchange. I’ve also been told that it is liberating to be able to wander as you please, but for someone like me who has been plagued by anxiety problems over the years, unfamiliar environments are generally far from liberating.

I am someone who mentally rehearses a food order while waiting in line and I get nervous when I have to talk to strangers for an extended period of time, so you can imagine that this trip was a real step for me.

The anxious individual is always a crucible for worry, with thoughts situated in events of the past and scenarios of the future. Unfamiliarity of the territory makes every dark alley more sinister and every stranger more scheming. It amplifies the need for well-thought exit plans and contingencies. The dangers need not be an objective reality, but a subjective one clouded by our fears and clinging to attachments e.g. wealth and health etc. Despite taking precautions, there is that big ‘what if’ lurking in the background.

Even when I was wandering alone, I still texted some friends and kept in touch with my family along the way. I think this connectivity was really helpful in alleviating my anxiety. Yet, why do we turn to the external in the face of anxiety? So that we feel less alone? What’s wrong with being alone?

When you fully immerse yourself in the present moment and the impermanence of what we perceive as our reality, it brings comfort. Yet, it is so much more difficult to practice this than to simply revert to the tried and tested habit of finding comfort in other things and other people. Instinctively, we turn to the flicker of our devices by scrolling our Instagram feed or typing a text to a family member.

Why do we struggle to find comfort and contentment introspectively?

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Restlessness

This trip has also revealed the true restlessness of human nature. We crave travel, we thirst for adventure. But even when we are on an adventure, we still derive instant gratification that comes with the flickering screen of our devices, a symbol for connectivity. We are restless souls that cannot be in the present. We consume endlessly and forget how to be alone with ourselves in the present moment.

When HC left for Phnom Penh, I wandered the streets alone – ate my meals alone and did not attempt to make conversation with lone travellers. I was made aware of what it truly means to be comfortable with being alone. It is not just surviving (physically) by yourself, but also being at peace when you let go of all the tethers to your social networks.

When you are on holiday, everything you do is outside of your regular routine. Flux and changes in stimuli from moment to moment become dizzying. Michael Brendan Doughtery asks us to recall the last time “there was no itch in your hand to reach for a mobile device, and you felt like the wind and sky around you had nothing to disclose to you other than the vast and mysterious sympathy of existence itself.” Can you enjoy a sight without immediately whipping out your phone to post it on Instagram? Can you savour a meal without having to document it on Snapchat? Can you people-watch without texting a friend? Basically, can you focus on one damn thing at a time?

No, you cannot.

I too, cannot, but I will try harder.

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Transience and beauty

During this time, I also observed the transient nature of tourists.

I was at the Night Market/Pub Street area and it was filled with tourists. They are a collective of individual lives and stories but together, they form the body of people that is indifferent to the specificities of each human life. In the crowd of both locals and tourists, I blend in, and yet I do not belong. Who truly belongs in that space? Who gets to decide the criteria for belonging? There is something humbling about being by yourself in a place that is not truly your own; where your presence/disappearance is insignificant.

These tourists stream in after dark. Like what Kazuo Ishiguro writes in Artist of the floating world and its pleasure quarters, “the best things… are put together of a night and vanish with the morning.” The transitory nature of the night has bittersweet nodes – beauty can be captured in particular time-slices, but it is also ever-drifting. It is the same with sightseeing spots. People desperately try to immortalise their memories using cameras and paintings, but perhaps that misses the point of its beauty. Can beauty ever be eternal? In these spaces, we are all pretenders – pretending that the beauty is indeed eternal when it is in fact fleeting and fragile.

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It was a really short trip, but it gave me much loads of food for thought and inspiration. I think I have raised more questions than arrived at conclusions, but if anything, it has shown me that there is still much self-improvement to work on.