I Wore a White Shirt to Art Class

I wore a white oxford button on the first day of school because I wanted to look presentable.  People who wear such attires often look presentable. And so I wanted to be that guy and so I wore a white shirt to my first class.

It was an art class. I should have known.

Charcoal in hand and white sheet in front of me where all the charcoal should go. We go through lines, curves, values. We go through the history of art from then to now to God knows when. And I don’t know when either because art seems to stretch on to the future as well because as long as there are people in that future and there will be art. There will be chances for 23 year-old men to get their shirts dirtied should they wear light coloured shirts to art classes. I think about lines.

I think about how you can’t quite draw an object fully, to represent it fully because no matter how you try, the distance between you and the object is something that already distorts. Lines aren’t as straight or as crooked or sometimes you draw lines when there aren’t even any lines at all. The object exists outside of you and you can’t ever just conceptualise it with 100% accuracy and as long as you can’t you realise the error is already in the blueprint. I pull my hand back to reevaluate my attempt at drawing a cluster of objects and all I manage is a thin line of charcoal across my shirt.

Objects in your mind are conceptualised and bubbling around in that fun space but now comes the terrible part; you have to get it from head to hand and hand to pencil and pencil to paper. You go through these manifold translations, where some are better at representing than others. The pencil to the paper portion can simply be decided by the quality of the pencil and the paper. Some pencils have the sort of rough quality to it that renders things easy to rub and make faded and form more veritable impressions of shadow and darkness. Other pencils are just nicer to hold. But in the end it’s not the materials you have that really define your work. It’s the whole head to hand portion which messes people up.

Sometimes you’re good at it; and for good artists on good days the idea of the object flows sumptuously to the page and on the page the art flourishes. For some other artists it is the emotion that they capture very well and how it interacts with the conceived object and that flows around in their head for a while before it leaks out from their hands and you get a work that is not objective but tainted with some emotional valence and you’re suddenly taken to a different place in time when maybe you saw her standing there beside you at a museum or when you saw rabbits playing in their pens. The soft fur, the languid stares. The potential to feel something is always in the art. But the feelings you feel and the ideas conceptualised sometimes when flowing out of unskilled or unsure hands looks many shades away from the truth you hold in yourself. And it that sense art can serve to really disappoint. You try and you try but your heart, you realise, is a fortress that doesn’t let any of itself out by virtue of a poor slight of hand, of unavailable resource, or inability to garner enough faith in yourself. All this disallows that which you feel to be cast out into the open.

I scratch my ribs and leave another dark, less defined mark on my shirt.

I think again as I sit there looking at scenery with pencil in hand, thinking of how I’ll miss home even before I leave it. And then when I leave home I think of how I’ll hate the place I might go to and I think about it so much that I hate it already, even before I set foot. I think about how sometimes learning a new skill is like that process of leaving and hating. You discover yet you doubt and through that doubt you unearth what is really expected of you. You feel so exposed that it’s almost unfair. You try to hold on to anything that reminds you of what you are. I think of the stories to tell when I try to draw and I think of how much of me, if any of me at all, is in the end product.

I wonder if untrained hands possess any soul at all. Maybe they do, but maybe those souls are…how should I put it… Yes, tainted, in some way or another.

All I know is that when I wore a white shirt to art class, I left my class with that shirt in various shades, with some sort of tiredness registered on the collar along with a irritability on the sleeves. This shirt might not have emotions, but I feel for the shirt. It must miss its former self. To have some ‘character’ isn’t all there was to life, it seems.

I feel bad for my shirt, but I know that in time to come this shirt will go through the wash and it will be as if nothing happened. It will be absolved of all its past filth and find new meaning in whiter shores.

But for now, the shirt remains as it is, hanging in my closet, tainted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is Home, Surely

It was a few minutes after five that she started thinking about how it all went wrong for her.

She sat alone on a stiff couch as the evening light penetrated the makeshift living room. It was a couch meant only for one person, and there she sat, stock still as the images of celebration flashed on the television before her.

The one room flat she lived in was old and in a state of eager decay, the paint flaking off the walls and seemed to writhe like fresh earthworms when viewed from certain angles. Things she used to own were packed in stacks as high as five feet; old rice cookers that have gone beyond repair, newspapers from a time long gone, old shoes and clothes that her only son used to own. She could not let go of these little reminders; it was all she owned from her past life.

A basic trip to the toilet would mean she had to weave between the towering stacks. She would pass by the portrait of her late husband, tucked in a lonely corner between the rusty fridge and the light controls to the kitchen. Her husband was a tall and handsome man when they first met, and in her eyes, still the tall and handsome man on the day that he died. They were by each other through it all, knowing not what was ahead. They had met in 1969, on a sweltering afternoon in June. It was a student rally and they were from brother sister schools. She smiled as she recalled the exact sequence of events. Her memory felt like the only thing she truly owned. The nation was still young at that time, not much older than their love for each other, and much less certain of what was to come, an entire country tried to pull itself together for its one shot at showing the world what it could do.

On the television, the parade had started. Troupe after troupe of dancers and performers streamed onto the grounds, while a sea of red surrounded the entire procession. The Singapore flag was scattered about like insignificant birdfeed, and in the hands of the audience were a thousand more flags being waved frantically by parents, children, white collar workers, troubled youth and the lonely elderly. Within that sea of red, every last negative emotion was readily extinguished and replaced by unquestioning elation. At least, that was how she saw it. Age does turn one cynical.

She shifted in her seat to relieve her stiff back, leaning her left elbow more firmly on the armrest. From the little box that was her television, soldiers started to spill onto the parade ground; they marched with crisp precision and had hardened faces, faces that looked almost identical under stiff headdresses. It reminded her of the day her son enlisted. He had to spend three months on a lonely island off the east coast of Singapore, and in many ways, it was the loneliest three months she had to face. Uncertain of how things would turn out, nothing her husband whispered into her soft ears could replace her fears, could never convince her that her son wasn’t about to be changed for the worst.

After the President had inspected the contingent, the soldiers proceeded to march off. There was a pompous display of military strength, but was there a single reason to believe that the soldiers appreciated this the same way the nation did? She suddenly thought about the early years of her marriage, being relocated out of her simple Kampong, living in a small HDB estate in Toa Payoh. There was nothing to look forward to, yet everything. The future seemed like a wad of PlayDoh; it was entirely up to them to mould it with patience and creativity. Such was the promise of a young nation.

But the initial promises were merely the veneer for the underlying struggles the nation was still attempting to overcome. If the nation looked to be struggling, you could bet the people had it harder. In the span of a few years she worked manual jobs ranging from a worker in soft drink factory to a clerk in a clothes-manufacturing warehouse. Sometimes the shifts stretched on for twelve hours at a time. All this time her husband attempted to start a coffee business, one that failed bitterly by the eighties. She would come home to a man clutching a bottle of Tiger beer in one hand and his face on the other. It hurt her in ways she could never (and perhaps should never) put in words. His failings crippled him with guilt, and it was never resolved until later in his life. Those years which they should have spent in happiness were thus lost in a cloud of forced kisses, turned backs and tense nights.

The sunlight withdrew from the living room, shrouding her in dim twilight. The sky over the parade darkened in equal correspondence, and the melody of home played on screen, the local singer belting out the high notes with utter conviction, the crowd echoing her efforts and the sounds of independence resonating beyond the parade grounds. Everybody in the crowd seemed to have his or her place all of a sudden. The cameras panned to individual faces, mouths wide open, lost in the tune of the song, lost in the idea of a common identity.

Where do I stand in all this? Shoved to this obscure corner of the nation, stuck in the most basic of housing estates I cannot help but feel so, so lonely. Not a single person has visited me since my son left all those months ago. My husband is gone. Not a soul has bothered to ring my doorbell, nobody to ask me how my day went. All these people on the screen cheering in unison, warm families huddling together at home in their little private space, light from the television spilling gently onto their contented faces. What about me? On this day that I should be with the ones I love, I have made the most harrowing realization. There is no one. There is no one to love.

 

The doorbell rang. The deep chime cut through static silence.

She was startled, so startled she almost slipped out of her skin. Someone has bothered to ring my doorbell.

 

Trembling, she hauled herself up, and dragged her heavy feet along, inching closer to the door. She reaches the door after considerable effort.

“Who is outside?” She asked.

“It’s me. I’m home.” It was her husband’s voice. She could recognize it from a mile away, and there was no mistaking it. In the deep recesses of her soul, she felt something shrivel up.

“You have finally come home,” she replied. Her voice was trembling uncontrollably, and she found herself hardly able to stand. Still, she did not open the door. It was her husbands’ voice, but she knew her husband might not be on the other side. Didn’t she just see him die a few months ago? Put to the test, could the human heart really conjure up what it yearned most dear?

“Yes I have,” replied the voice. “How have you been doing?”

“Lonely. Everyday has been a struggle. I am old, and with each passing day I cannot help but feel like I need you here more and more. Is your stepping through this door too much to ask?”

There was a brief pause, before the voice spoke again. “I really want to see you. Just open the door, mom.”

Before she could understand the implications of that statement, she had already unlocked the brass handle and opened the wooden door.

A man in his forties stood outside. He was wearing a polo shirt and bermudas, his hair styled in ridiculous pomp. In his hand he held a small cake, and there were seven lighted candles sticking out of it.

It was her son.

She felt a harried mixture of embarrassment and intense warmth spill down her chest. It had been her son’s voice all along. She stepped forward into his embrace, the son managing expectations by balancing the cake carefully.

“I thought you were in America? What about your job?” She inquired after stepping back. They had not met since the funeral.

“Happy birthday mom,” was all he said in reply. There was a soft glow in his eyes and the warmth of the candlelight. She gripped the doorknob so hard her knuckles turned white.

He continued, “don’t ask me why, but I had to be back for this, the thought of you spending your birthday alone was just… I just couldn’t let that happen at any rate. Sorry I am late; it was quite a rush from the airport. It must have felt terrible just sitting in there alone. But hey, I’m here.”

The son stepped into the house, and supported his mother by the shoulders. She put her hand around his waist, and both were stuck in a ridiculous waltz as they pranced towards the couch. She felt the tension in her chest ease off with every step he took, holding her tightly, the image of her husband still faint on the walls of her mind.

Mother and son sat around the cake, both faces glowing in the candlelight. The entire room was dark. It was just the two of them with the dim glow, and by all accounts, that was enough.

Her son realised that if the door opened any earlier, the depth of his mother’s longing may have never been revealed to him. It made him feel at peace with his choice of coming back.

He sang a birthday song for her as the fireworks illuminated the Singapore skyline. The feeling of warmth permeated. “Thank you for this, thank you for coming back here on my birthday” was all she could say at the end of it. The fireworks continued to illuminate the city, glows of red, orange and green punched through the sky.

“This is home, mom. Don’t you ever think I would forget that.”

20150809_201619 (1)

Tackling the Notion that “华人应该讲华语” (Chinese should Speak Chinese)

I was at a table surrounded by a lot of my Mother’s friends. She seems to make a lot of friends and they can congregate even when we’re overseas. These friends come from various backgrounds due to her field of work, and many were multilingual and knew a bit of English even if it wasn’t their first language. So I went about as the awkward tag along son and tried talking a bit in slow, carefully pronounced sentences and articulating myself as concisely as possible.

One of her friends asked if I spoke any second language and I replied that I did speak a bit of Chinese, or Mandarin, should you want to get technical. She asked me what I meant by ‘a bit’, and I told her that it simply meant I could speak low level conversational Chinese, but did not possess the ability to write or read Chinese fluently.

The said friend was taken aback, and with a furrowed brow, remarked that it was strange, for shouldn’t I, who descended from a Chinese lineage, be able to navigate the language as if walking through my own home? And yet I couldn’t even form a proper sentence without sounding like I had just shoved my mouth full of potatoes? (Of course, she expressed herself differently but the point brought across was the same).

Here’s the truth, when it comes to navigating this “mother tongue”, I often feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway. I’m on this sad raft in the middle of the vast ocean and my only companion, the lone volleyball has already left me and I’m really really lonely. Everytime I’m forced to speak conversational chinese I’m blatantly awkward and misuse a lot of the words that fall out of my mouth. I feel like a rusty car whose gears are about to pop out and give way under some sort of lingual inferiority. I failed most of my mother tongue exams and the only reason why I didn’t drop to CL(B) was because my parents insisted that I carried on with it under the above argument.

I accept that I’m a horrible user of the language, and if someone came up to me and provocatively intoned that I was lousy, virtually ununderstandable, that my pronunciation was really off, more off than William Hung’s American Idol audition and proceeded to communicate through hand signals, I wouldn’t take too much offence. Truth is truth, I’m just not good at this mother tongue business.

What I do have a problem with, is when the idea that “Chinese should speak fluent Chinese” starts to rear it’s ugly head. One of my close friends had prompted me with the exact statement a few weeks back, and it made me realise how rife this mindset is. When you can’t speak your mother tongue to a desirable standard there will always be this sort of judgement passed, and in the unfortunate event that you try, people silently snicker at you in sheer ridicule. Gosh, I’m left thinking, What have I done? Why did I even try?

I urge people to get it out of their heads that poor mother tongue comes from a conscious rejection of our ancestry, which by and large is magnified into a rejection of our very selves. When people tell us that “you’re a Chinese, so why can’t you speak proper sentences,” they say so with the assumption that we have wistfully rejected the opportunity to speak great Chinese and immerse in our own heritage. It is as if we had a conscious choice, when in fact no such choice was ever presented to us.

What do I mean by that?  Like a retired boxer down with Parkinson’s, I remember how I was second in class for Chinese back in Primary one. You would not imagine this to be a possibility today given my weakened state, my Chinese prowess groaning and twitching violently, dreaming of the knockout blows of the past. But somewhere out there, certain influences played out in my life. Less and less Chinese was spoken everyday due to the friends I chose, the shows I watched and subsequently the failures I faced. To consistently do badly for Chinese as a subject took a particular toll, because the scolding culture which started from my teachers gradually spread to my parents. Day by day, I started to malign the subject and hence the language, like how an army sergeant singles out a sloppy recruit. It was this subtle degredation that led to a vicious cycle. The more you suck at something, the more you blame it for pulling you down, the less interest you have in it, and the more you’ll suck at it. This played out daily, unbeknownst to a younger me, and wore me down like waves pounding against a rock. There was no one day when a genie came out of a bottle and asked me if I wanted to be serious about the language. There was never a single choice, only a series of seemingly unrelated events that led me here.

At this juncture I need to draw attention to how environment rather than conscious choice dictates much of our linguistic abilities. This isn’t just true for Chinese, but for every other language that takes years to master. It is also wise to take note of the term vicious cycle in your rendering of this issue, where less begets less and one is unknowingly tumbled into an abyss of mother-tongue illiteracy. Likewise, if you had the right environment, unwittingly made the right friends, watched the right shows, read the right books, you may constantly excel at Chinese, gain the confidence to speak and write more Chinese and hence become proficient and be the “ideal type of Chinese” the world wants so badly for you to be.

So as a sound reply to the notion that “Chinese should speak fluent Chinese”, I’d want to disband that theory. All the above phrase gives us is a new, nascent identity; that of a castaway, an abberation from the norm. Through silent laughter and subtle ridicule, it makes it that much harder to even try and by oversimplifying the learning process through such generalities, it disrespects our efforts, or assumes that we put in none. But look, all is fair if we can deal with it, and though it may seem sad that we may have lost part of our “heritage”, it is not for anyone to point fingers as to whose fault it is, and certainly not up to anyone to dictate how sad we should feel about it, or assume that we are sad at all. You have to understand, that the fault lines run way deeper than meets the eye and see this problem as a collective whole, and not one of the mere individual.

The label that those that speak poor Chinese are “less Chinese” than their fluent counterparts is hence a flawed ideal. I believe that all of us are on the same journey of learning and discovery. We have to recognise that not everyone had the same opportunities, and people should not be judged for that. We may be on different levels of aptitude but in little ways, all of us are trying to be a better version of our previous selves.

Doing a lot of travelling recently has pushed me out of my comfort zone and I’ve been speaking a lot more conversational Chinese. Blogging about my travels, I had to add Chinese Pinyin (simplified) into my keypad and slowly but surely, I’m learning how to integrate this language, bit by bit, into my life.

So what did I reply my mother’s friend? I simply told her that my environment has brought me to this point, but at this juncture, I will still try to learn, listen to Chinese Songs, reply more in Chinese and try not to look so much at english subtitles. It’s these little influences, rather than the notion of a “Chinese speaking Chinese” that will define what language comes out of my mouth 🙂

The Lee Kuan Yew I Know

During history lessons, you will always find me tucked into a comfortable position and dozing off contentedly. I was never a history buff. The first of Stalin’s five-year-plans were… David Marshall did a certain something when he was in a certain political party and then after that… Franz Ferdinand, if let’s say he wasn’t shot, and he didn’t die… You would lose me right about here.

 So you get it, I didn’t really participate much in history classes. Neither was I conscious for very long. I drew mind maps at the end of term to try to memorize some of that dreaded content and then hopefully pass my exams. I wasn’t exactly your model student.

And then there were some lessons on the founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. Like many people my age, we were born into an era where the man had already performed his magic and built up the nation. All that was left, it seemed, was to carry on the legacy. I do wish I had listened a bit harder in history class, because right now, I only know three things about him with absolute certainty:

  1. He watched as Japanese soldiers beat a man up during the occupation years.
  2. He teared when Singapore was on the brink of independence.
  3. His wife passed away recently, back in 2010

That is basically all I can say with absolute certainty. Sure, he also founded the PAP, that one we all know, right?

I’m saying all this very casually, not because I have no respect, and certainly not because I have nothing better to say. I’m being casual with it because part of me believed that this great man would never see his deathbed. This is a man who vowed to rise from his grave if anything bad happened to us. He was the exuberant speaker in his heyday. We would see his face on the TV screen, his movements in real life, his words in books, and his voice on the radio. Of late, we even see him appear on viral memes on facebook and twitter, portraying him as the “badass” we all know him to be. He was everywhere, and though of late his appearances have become less commonplace, he would still pop into vision now and then like the sun peeping out on a cloudy day.

I am twenty-one this year. It is a pretty idealistic age where we tell ourselves to let go of our childish ways and look forward to the future. I believe that like most people my age, we will feel some sort of sadness at his passing. Sure, there will be some youths out there who will be totally indifferent, and I understand that. He may have built us up in the past, but his efforts may not seem as relevant today. Some people call this unappreciative and heartless, but it’s just the side effect of a generation raised in relative comfort.

It was a Wednesday, and it was rumoured that our founder had passed away. This was not inconceivable; he had been in intensive care for more than a month by then and his condition had deteriorated. There were WhatsApp messages spreading around and some news agencies even confirmed his death. I felt an immediate pang of sadness, though it wasn’t just sadness. It was also emptiness, one that couldn’t be explained in a few words. This was a man I only knew three things about, a man who I didn’t think much about, a man that I took for granted all this time. And yet, my heart sank there and then.

Thankfully, those rumours proved to be untrue. Anger at the authors of such a hoax gave way to some measure of relief. The man wasn’t gone after all, not yet, at least. Not yet. But then you can’t help but feel, that the clock was ticking, that at one point such news would prove to be true. And then what?

And then we brace ourselves for what is to come. As a nation, we have always had things go our way. Virtually nobody wore masks during the SARS outbreak. The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami didn’t touch our shores. The Bird Flu, Mad Cow Disease or Ebola was either well controlled or unheard of here. We have had no major terrorist attacks, and our airport has been voted the best in Asia for as long as anyone can remember. There is a lot that has gone our way, so much so that we forget that there was a time when things didn’t go our way.

“Lee Kuan Yew had raised Singapore out of the slums into the first world wonder that we are.” This sort of statement brings with it some baggage. He is a man that had been questioned for his actions, a man who stood by everything he did and denied his critics their time in the sun. We always take this kind of success story with a pinch of salt, and don’t appreciate this the same way our elders do. Perhaps in the annals of history, he will always be that force of change and progress; one man who fought against a thousand ideals to forge what he felt was best. Perhaps this is true, but to my generation, I believe that he will always be the guiding hand that rode above all criticism, the assuring figure overlooking it all.

I don’t know whether to feel proud of his legacy, or sadness at his waning health. I am at a loss as to how to feel about these things simply because I always believed him to be with us through it all. When I was younger, my family would huddle together in front of our television on the ninth of August. And he would be there; smiling and waving at the crowd during the National Day Parade. Every single year, he would be there. His hair would grow whiter and maybe thin out a little, but he would be there. I always believed that this one man would weather all storms as he had in the past, and prove everyone wrong time and again.

After the storm has past, perhaps he will prove us wrong. One day, he may be gone but within this generation, his ideals will be stronger than ever. Because Mr Lee, the single biggest gift you have granted upon us is hope for the future. You have fought for us tirelessly and given more than just your life. You’ve had to make many tough and unpopular decisions just to give us what we have today. Sure, we may not yet be perfect, but you have given our people the platform to work towards it. Whether someone else could have done a better job or not is irrelevant. Because beyond just politics, you have shown us what it means to be Singaporean, and by and large, we owe this identity to you.

This is a man that goes beyond the history textbooks. He has reached into our lives from beyond history itself, and given us more than we could ever hope for. Thank you, Mr Lee, for everything.

984158_785166031533749_7956530433981508571_n

courtesy of fivestarsandamoon.com