The Neapolitan novels

This post is dedicated to my fellow Neapolitan sister Disha.

There are few books ever written which, put it simply, rocked your world. Such an experience is by necessity to a reader’s sanity few and far between.

And yet when I started reading My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels by Italian author Elena Ferrante, I already knew it was going to change me, my world, and my words forever. I read the four books in the series about a year ago – practically inhaled them once I got the complex web of characters and relationships down. And it’s one of those experiences where I wish I could erase my memory of it just so I could live it again. For a year I’ve known the impact of these books on me and my worldview but I couldn’t articulate quite properly why they were so life-changing and important, and every effort that put words to paper felt inadequate and cumbersome.

But today I’m trying. Because I’ve been thinking recently about how we can never know what’s going to happen in life. I’d like to think I know everything and can see everything lying ahead, but the truth is the universe is just playing with us as tennis balls. I’m inspired to use the Neapolitan novels as a lens to life just because while the author grasps that wild, unpredictable quality of life, she is able to contain and control it in her narrative – something I’ve never quite experienced, and something I envy.

The Neapolitan novels chronicle the lives and friendship of two girls from a poor neighbourhood in Naples: Elena/Lenu the narrator and her friend Lila. From the beginning, Lila is a force of nature that leads Elena everywhere and Elena is always a step behind, in her studies, in love, in understanding the world. Elena would gladly follow Lila where she leads, yet this also means Elena is always trying to catch up to Lila but will always remain in her shadow, despite the fact that Elena eventually escapes her poverty through education, while Lila becomes trapped in a loveless marriage and the conventions of provincial life.

The story is a traditional bildungsroman so we follow the two characters as they grow up and learn about the caprices of the world, while they try to take what they can from it. While traditional in structure, it’s not traditional in tone. There’s no pot of gold waiting for Pip at the end, or a courageous build up to killing Voldermort. The books follow the natural crest and fall of life as it is, and it’s the most realistic thing I know. There’s no satisfying emotional payoff because life just goes on and on and on.

At the start the reader hopes for these two girls – these brilliant, creative, interesting, girls with so much interiority. We hope they could journey on like other famous characters to get out, get better, especially when Lila (and Elena) show the promise of brilliance which in other novels mean they could have an extraordinary story ahead. Lila is years ahead of her class, and Elena is the most hardworking girl – both deserve exceptionalism. After all, why else are we reading about them?

Yet as the reader keeps going, you realise there is a sense of resignation that permeates the novels. Despite hope, despite education, despite upward mobility, despite class struggle, Ferrante punctures her words with a minimum brick layer of despair. I’m not sure what it is – is it because these characters are female and are therefore not meant to hope/strive for what they want, or is it because these characters are born in the violence of poverty, and much like Gatsby, will never escape that stink? Or is it both?

This sense of inevitable disappointment makes the experience of reading the books an emptying affair. I always close a chapter feeling like my guts were completely dug out. But at the same time, the level of psychological detail in the narrative is so rich that I feel like I’m bursting to the seams in my imagination, almost leading these people’s lives – that this is me. I am Lila. I am Lenu. They are every woman. I am every woman.

While Elena goes away to complete her college education and meets people from more educated and affluent backgrounds, one day she is inspired in an almost torrential rush (in fact by a book Lila herself wrote many years ago) to write a novel and there’s something very female about it that demonstrates what it means to be a woman. She pens down a sexual experience she had on a beach with a man she did not love, a man who thinks he could have his way with any woman, a man she turns to in an act that completes her lack of self-worth, following the most painful rejection by the one Elena actually loved. This act is characterised by a kind of dirty quality – the kind that almost all women can understand because so much of interaction with men still has that dirtiness – just in the way men use women, in the way men treat women as objects just for sex, in the way there is violence in some intimacy, and in the way there is almost always an element of shame to women’s sexuality.

That dirty quality is one other women in the book recognise; when Elena returns home, the other women from her childhood echo her, praise her, for her ‘dirty’ book because they know what it’s like – that Elena has articulated the previously incommunicable. However male intellectuals are embarrassed by Elena’s book or they see it as gratuitous, unimportant and sensationalised. But that’s because there is some element of being a woman that men can never understand, with men as conquerer rather than the conquered, the one acting but never the one being acted on.

As I’ve read in a review, Elena Ferrante is Jane Austen on fire. I have never read a series of books that more accurately portrayed what it means to be a woman in the world, which makes this such a quintessentially female experience that perhaps only women can possibly fully understand the text, just like the women with Elena’s book. But at the same time these books are one of the best ways men can ever hope to get into the minds of women subject to the violence, inequalities, hopes and dreams, and poverty of being female. For any dudebro who says ‘I just don’t understand women’ or ‘women are a mystery’, well, attempt to read Elena Ferrante and you’ll understand.

Another element of the female experience is Elena and Lila’s friendship. That sense of despair I mentioned is also felt in their friendship. It’s one of the best, most complex depiction of a female friendship I’ve read before, and it rings so true. There is so much in the life and death of these friendships. Lenu and Lila were inseparable; they mirrored each other; they supported each other. But at the same time there was comparison and rivalry and envy. I felt at certain points in the novel that we were all Elena; we all wished we were Lila but we could only be Elena. And despite all the ugliness that Lila’s life became, there’s still an inequality there that Elena could never fill.

The first novel is called My Brilliant Friend and I’ve always thought this title referred to Lila as she had so much natural potential which Elena so envied and wanted. But in the end because of Lila’s circumstances and fear, Elena is the one who could complete her education while Lila dropped out of school. And as Elena advanced in her studies, Lila one day tells Elena ‘you’re my brilliant friend’ in the novel, when Lila is using her newly gained husband’s money to help Elena buy her books. It’s a deliberate twist of perspective from the author, but for the characters it was just so. And that’s when I realised that perhaps we all thought we were Elena, and Elena is perhaps enough after all, perhaps even better than Lila. That this circle of envy emblematic of many female friendships is just that: a cycle that should be broken.

Throughout the series, both women rely on each other in a manner of deep love, but also holding each other as the benchmarks of their lives: Elena always comparing herself to the Lila in her mind, who she could have been, and Lila seeing in Elena the life she could have lived, the mother who could have given her children more. On some level it’s almost sick that these women would do this to each other. But at the same time, when these women come together, something electric happens – they bring out the best in each other and they create a force that – no matter how parasitic – pushes them both to move forward in life.

As Malaysian writer Sarah Ngu says, “Lenu and Lila are so primordial in their drives—one hungering for approval, the other for control and stability—and so unchanging throughout the series that, over time, they come off less like two characters and begin to sound more like two warring voices within ourselves. Lenu is the voice that we hear when we wonder, “Was that enough? Am I enough?” while Lila is the voice that hisses back, “What do I care? Fuck them all.” ”

And there seems to be nothing more female than this.

The truth is reading the Neapolitan novels makes me rather depressed about the state of class and gender in the world. While much has changed since the time these girls grew up in Naples, so much is still the same that I almost feel like giving in to that sense of despair.

But what I choose to take away from this complex series of works is that there’s something spellbinding in Ferrante’s writing that bounds us all, and it is this common point from which we must build.

 

 

Self-care 2016

If I have a goal for 2016, it would be self-care. It’s not as if I’m not good to myself. Oh, I’m plenty good. I let myself watch a lot of television, eat a lot of good food, drink wine, sleep a decent amount… I’m not too hard on myself and I indulge once in a while. But I think a huge part of self-care is looking long-term – when you do that, loving yourself isn’t about indulging but about abstinence.

Have you ever really wanted to eat that carbonara, that choc lava cake, that packet of chips, KFC chicken, and in that brief moment – that immediate minute you get what you crave for – it’s crazy good. But then soon after, you feel sick and you regret having chosen the thing that’s not only bad for you physically, but you realise you don’t actually want/like that much beyond that moment.

I’ve been having a lot of those moments recently. The trajectory from the whole ‘life is short, heck it’ to ‘man, I really should not have done that thing.’ And so my goal for 2016 is self-care.

To take care of my body. Not to feed it junk and use it well. Exercise more. Drink more water. Eat more fruits. Sleep at regular timings. Be good to my health.

To take care of my mind. Same, not to feed it junk and use it well. Read regularly (see: reading challenge 2015 that I definitely did not finish and am now renaming it reading challenge 2015-2016). Learn new things actively and all the time. And not allow work and its (mostly) unnecessary stress take over.

To be responsible and accountable for my behaviour. Do my chores and do them immediately. Be the best person I can be to the people around me all the time, and not just when I need to be.

As I read somewhere recently, a huge part of self-care is taking responsibility – for who you are, what you need to do for others and yourself, and just life and adulting in general. Are you paying for bills? Are you buying your groceries right? Are you cleaning regularly? Do one good thing just once, and it will follow. It will all follow.

And last but not least, be harder on myself in the important ways, and easier on myself in the less important ways. Didn’t do exactly what your boss wished? It’s fine. Forgot to do this urgent thing for your client? It’s fine. There will be mistakes at work, and holding yourself up to an impossible standard of perfection is just unhealthy and unnecessary. Yes, having high standards and priding yourself on them could be an important part of who you are. But ultimately at the end of the day we gotta learn to let go. Especially of work-related things.

But be harder on myself by not giving myself excuses or simply giving in to what feels good. Didn’t run this week again? Not fine when it’s a pattern of behaviour. Eating that bag of chips while watching television? Not great for you.

I guess at the end of the day it’s about having your priorities right. And self-care ranks one of the highest on our resolutions list.

A list of rather random things I’m thankful for

It’s thanksgiving season again, and while I’m not in americuh this year, I find that I’ve had a rather fruitful year. And as always, very many things to be thankful for. And because I like making lists, here’s mine. 

  1. Because work has taken up the bulk of my life, the first thing I’m thankful for is my great job. Honestly I do love my job. I complain about it a heck load cos I’m a complainer I think, and also clients are challenging, but I do love it. I am thankful that I’ve been able to apply myself in ways that I enjoy and fit my personality. I write a lot, mostly. And I think a lot about what works in the media environment. And I am creating content. I am thankful that I’m at a company that prizes its people and recognises them as individuals and for their effort. And last but not least, I am thankful for the friendships I’ve made at work. From bosses I share chilli wantons with, to people I want to be like in ten years, I think enjoying my work has a lot to do with the people I see every day. I am also thankful that my office is yet another great example of how female bosses and a female-dominated environment are great and not at all bitchy/catty/micro-managing/petty or any other accusations we often hear. Suck it, patriarchy. 
  2. Buses in an age of frequent train breakdowns. Also long bus rides. 
  3. The Humans of [insert country/group here] trend. I absolutely love all the stories we hear where we can either relate to or see a whole other reality we would never know. There’s just so much humanity in sharing stories, picking out the extraordinary in ordinary people, and that spreading of positivity that crosses national and other boundaries. 
  4. Having the means and appetite for travel. This year, I’ve been to Batam, Bali, Rawa Island, Vietnam, Myanmar and will be going to Sydney. Sounds like a long list, and every single trip has been a time of reflection and together-ness. Traveling is so great because you’re placed outside of yourself for a while, and we all need that. I’ve never needed a vacation more than I have this year when work was particularly bad, and relishing that sense of freedom is sweet. 
  5. Speaking of travelling, being able to travel with my best friend/photographer for six weeks. Believe me, that will transform any normal person’s extremely non model like inclinations. Traipsing around the edge of the world with one other person is pretty epic, and nothing could come close to it. 
  6. Pride & Prejudice. I will never tire of it. I forgot just how entertaining and funny the book was, until I was re-reading it recently. So, thanks Jane Austen. 
  7. The Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes. Exactly. The MCU. I’m thankful for the intricate tapestry of stories created by the amazing writers in the Marvel world. Though you know what I’m not thankful for? Joss Whedon’s strange idea that the most interesting Black Widow storyline is about who she makes out with. I am however excessively thankful for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s the Pacific Rim of 2014. 
  8. Pacific Rim, the pinnacle of 2013. 
  9. Whatever forces (capitalism mostly?) that impelled the Burmese military to finally hold free and fair (mostly) elections. 
  10. But not so thankful for capitalism itself. 
  11. The view of Marina Bay Sands when cirque du soleil is in town. I mean, amazing. 
  12. Code Name Verity. I think about this book a lot. 
  13. Healthy and cheap eating options. I wish healthy eating and environmentally responsible behaviour were more affordable, especially for the less privileged. 
  14. Greater diversity in representation. One of my favourite things in the world. 
  15. Michael B. Jordan. I mean, right. 
  16. NGOs and social enterprises. Let’s give a shoutout to these guys. The more I work in a corporate setting, the more I want to work in a non-profit. 
  17. Mobile technology. Say what you will about mobile phone addiction, but mobile technology is one great way for communities across Southeast Asia to uplift their living standards and bridge the digital divide. It’s also how I’m typing this post on a moving train. 
  18. Parents. How great are they. 
  19. Muscle aches and the strange sense of satisfaction and tendency to complain-boast about them. I love a good muscle ache. 
  20. And because I’m a sap, I’m thankful for all the people who care about me enough to scold me for not taking care of myself, nag at me, help me do things I don’t wanna do, be patient with me, forgive me, and listen to me. Though I may not always know it, I do, I do so ardently thank you. 

The universe is wonderful and weird and I would never have an exhaustive list to be thankful for, ever. 

Happy thanksgiving loves. 

Oh, the places you’ll go

It’s been a while. Writing doesn’t always come easy now as I write all day at work and just want to come home and absorb. It’s been nine full months of being a gainfully employed adult and that’s almost nine months of experiencing just three states of existence: working, sleeping and riding public transport. Far and few between are moments where I get to really sit back and examine what I’m doing. Gratification comes from work-related successes: pulling off a media event, getting coverage of my press release, being in a good place with my client, etc. It’s hardly cosmic, and these achievements will never matter beyond my sphere of work, but it’s something.

It’s interesting because one’s career is so important. What we do has become who we are. You’re a teacher. A banker. An engineer. An artist. We know full well it’s never the sum of a person, and yet we go around introducing ourselves as such. It’s the first thing we ask when we meet someone new. On some level, it is important – it’s understanding what a person spends most of their life doing and thinking about. And yet, who you become at the end of a 12-hour day when you’re tired and out of time for bullshit – perhaps that’s the most important version of you yet.

Who do I want to be? Who do you want to be?

I come home spent and ready to go to bed. Of course my working hours are not half as bad as some of my friends’, but work does take up most of my life. It’s been a good nine months, and I’m glad I still want to show up every day, but I also need to systematically build a life of something more. My goal for 2015 was to get to work, be financially independent, and gain experience. This will continue to be the bulk of my life for the rest of the year, but I also believe it’s time to get off my ass.

I need to exercise more. Start cooking again. Eat healthily. Actually be socially engaged. Go out more. Mingle more. Volunteer more. Donate more. Think more. Write more. Learn more. Read more. Reflect more. To become a full human being again ha. Not that I have work to blame for not being one.

It’s strange to be in a space where most of my friends are working. When we come together, that’s all we talk about. When I meet up with my fellow comms graduates, it’s like meeting a Singaporean when you’re overseas; you’re finally able to speak Singlish and someone will understand the nuances. We once spent an entire session listening to a girl unload about her communications job. It’s a pat on the back. It’s a reassuring nod. We get it. And that’s rare – for some groups, I can go on about my job, but they will never truly understand what I do and the mini battles of every day. And that’s the same of me for other fields. Will I ever truly truly understand banking? Or trading? Or forex? Shh, don’t tell my finance clients.

So many spheres of life. So many different paths. I love seeing where everyone is and where they’ll end up. There’s so much potential in youth and it’s just like that Dr. Seuss quote:

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.

But of course, at the end of the day, the places we’ll go is not merely about the employment paths we walk. It’s about choosing the kind of life you want to lead and the kind of person you wish to be. Make no mistake; it’s always a choice and we wake up every day making that choice. Just as we shouldn’t let our schooling get in the way of our education, we should not allow our success to get in the way of our greatness.

With each passing year, we are sure each year that it’s the time of our lives. And I think it always is. There’s always something. But now is truly the time we’re bursting with potential. Each of us a fruit. And I look forward to ripening and being remade.

P.S. Another few reading challenge posts coming up soon.

2015-2016 Reading Challenge

As the year 2014 draws to a close, the night is ripe for reflections and resolutions. While I love reading and see myself as a reader, I’ve actually been rather terrible at it for many years. A new year brings new challenges, with my joining the workforce as a useful member of society, and embarking on a new stage of life. And it is times like these where it is even more important to hold on to things you love. So, when I saw this 2015 Reading Challenge trending on Tumblr, I knew I had to at least try it. Even as some of the challenges I take on fail (ahem Alphabet Challenge ahem) (I actually have not given up on that yet), I do still wish to try. After I read each book, I will update this list and possibly do a review on here. Also, many books actually fit into more than one category, so I will simply go through the list and fit each book into the first one that comes up. So here goes.

Edit: It’s 2016 and this list is still not complete. I shall extend my deadline.

2015-2016 Reading Challenge

A book with more than 500 pages
A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A classic romance: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
A book with antonyms in the title
A book that became a movie: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit
A book published this year
A book that came out the year you were born
A book with a number in the title: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
A book written by someone under 30
A book with bad reviews
A book with nonhuman characters: Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea
A trilogy: The Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor
A funny book
A book from your childhood: Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong
A book by a female author: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
A book with a love triangle
A mystery or thrillerCrocodile Tears (Alex Rider series) by Anthony Horowitz
A book set in the future
A book with a one-word title: Villette by Charlotte Brontë
A book set in high school: Scorpia Rising (Alex Rider series) by Anthony Horowitz
A book of short stories
A book with a colour in the title
A book set in a different country
A book that made you cry
A nonfiction book
A book with magic: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
A popular author’s first book
A graphic novel
A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet
A book by an author you’ve never read before
A book a friend recommended
A book you own but have never read
A Pulitzer Prize-winning book
A book that takes place in your hometown
A book based on a true story
A book that was originally written in a different language: The Boat to Redemption by Su Tong
A book at the bottom of your to-read list
A book set during Christmas: The Silent Stars Go By by Dan Abnett (Doctor Who)
A book your mom loves
A book written by an author with your same initials
A book that scares you
A play
A book more than 100 years old
A book based entirely on its cover
A banned book
A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t
A book based on or turned into a TV show
A memoir
A book you started but never finished

4 Items of Popular Culture With Which I Have Been Recently Obsessed

An update here seems rare, but if anyone is looking at my Twitter feed, you would know that I am almost always consuming a huge load of popular culture, way too much for my health. In fact, it’s become such a big part of me that I even cited it as one of my hobbies during job interviews recently. (Interviewer: So, what do you do for leisure? Me: Uh, I mostly consume a lot of fiction?) I’ll get back to you on how that fared.

One of my pet topics is how much popular culture rocks. There are always going to be snobs everywhere who believe that something is not of artistic merit simply because it is also on billboards (I do sometimes have that tendency too), but these people usually have something against fun (I’m not, though). And not only that – I think there is great value in popular culture simply because it has the power to reach so many people. Excellent pieces of popular culture are not rare at all; in fact, so much good writing and mythology can be found in popular things. So, I thought I would share with you four things that have recently captured my obsession, and just how good they are. Cos I like talking about things I like.

1. Selfie

Selfie is about social media-obsessed Eliza Dooley, who suddenly realises ‘likes’ and friends on the Internet are not the same as having friends in real life. She enlists the help of Henry Higgs, who can pretty much market anything.

When I first heard of this, I thought it sounded like the most ridiculous show and yet another thing that feeds the insanity of the Internet. Eliza Dooley sounded like someone I would hate. BUT of course I was wrong because how could I hate a character that Karen Gillan plays.

Selfie is AWESOME. Not only are the characters absolutely charming and funny, the show is also about how to balance cherishing a genuine connection with the logics of social media that have seeped into real life. It explores a real friendship between two people who just make each other better, and I think that crux is what makes me love the show so much. That, and the fact that John Cho and Karen Gillan have so much chemistry. I would argue that without Karen Gillan playing the character, Eliza Dooley can easily be someone very dislikeable, but she is charming and vulnerable. Also, John Cho!!!

The show is also pretty awesome with diversity in their media representation, from having an Asian American romantic male lead, to exploring the relationships of African American secondary characters.

The only downside is that ABC has ostensibly canceled this little gem of a show, and there will only be 13 episodes, and they are not even airing the last few!! The final few episodes will appear on Hulu and ABC.com though, so web ninjas outside of the US can access those. But who knows, an online campaign to get the show back on track might gain traction. If any show can attest to the power of the Internet, it is Selfie.

2. Black Widow and Winter Soldier comics

There have been many One True Pairings that I have loved with the burning passion of a thousand suns, but this one. This one. Has been scorched into my heart very recently and have left me with all. the. emotions. All. Of. Them.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Black Widow and Hawkeye pairing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, during our viewing of Captain America 2 in the cinemas, my boyfriend and I spotted Natasha’s arrow necklace at the same time and pulled at each other excitedly and violently.

‘You know what it’s like to be unmade?’
‘You know I do.’

My recent foray into the Black Widow comics have made me realise that these lines from MCU apply even more to the Winter Soldier and Black Widow’s relationship in the comics. As a young girl training in the Red Room, Natasha was trained by Bucky, who was then the Winter Soldier, fished out of the water memoryless and revived by the Russians to act as their assassin. They quickly begin a relationship that is forbidden, as Natasha was promised to the Red Guardian and the Winter Soldier’s programming started to crack with the help of a real connection. After the people in power found out, they punished the both of them for it, and placed Bucky in temporary frozen stasis (the one you see in Cap 2) between missions.

Their relationship is so compelling to me simply because of the parallels in their histories. Both Nat and Bucky were heavily brainwashed again and again by the Soviet Union, causing them to lose memories and identities. Both have red in their ledger, and have a lot of make up for. Both are masterspies but believe themselves to be unworthy of superhero status, but they are such superheroes to me. Steve Rogers is all moral uprightness, but Nat and Bucky are both so honourable, despite all the ugliness of their past.

Black Widow and Winter Soldier are also among the best-written romances in comic books, in my opinion. Their romance is one of equal partnership, where both are amazing at their jobs, and both are major badasses. No one is used as bait, victim or source of (wo)manpain for the other, and both are allowed to shine and be more awesome together. There are also a few glimpses into their domesticity that can be scream-worthy for a fangirl.

“I remember everything, Natalia. And you were the one good thing in all of it.”

3. Code Name Verity

Recently, I consumed this book on the journey to and from Hong Kong as if I was eating fire. A stunning piece of historical fiction set in WWII, the novel tells the tale of two best friends: a female spy who got caught in Nazi-occupied France on her first day and the female pilot who dropped her in the country.

Firstly, it is incredibly rare to find a good novel that focuses primarily on a female friendship with two fully developed and interesting characters. I was so moved reading about their friendship, thinking about all the female friendships I’ve had in my life, and how extremely important all of them are to me.

Secondly, it’s a book that focuses on the role of women during the wartime effort, which is also rather rare. These women are depicted as extraordinary for confronting the strict gender norms and roles of their time, but were also simply great at their jobs and therefore perfect for the roles they play in the war.

This book is truly awesome. It’s a real page-turner, and the ending is devastatingly good, as books set during the war tend to be. Its narration is also really inventive, and it catches you off guard by using two limited perspectives. I feel like I cannot really give more detail for fear of spoilers, but Code Name Verity is certainly highly highly recommended.

4. Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin is a telenovela-styled drama that features 23-year-old Jane, who has decided to stay a virgin until marriage, but was impregnated via artificial insemination by accident. It is the funniest show I’ve watched in a while, and each episode’s dramatic twists and turns are simply great television. The telenovela tone of the show is pretty much the best thing, complete with a self-aware and hilarious narrator and fantasy sequences.

The greatest thing about this show, however, is that despite its sense of drama, there is something very real about it. Caught in different situations, the characters are so so understandable, even as their make mistakes and bad decisions. I completely understand the trajectory of each character, even if I do not necessarily like them. And I think that’s one of the marks of good television writing.

Main character Jane is also very likeable. It’s interesting because so much drama can happen in the show despite Jane being super honest with everyone around her. The fact that the show does not fall back on overused tropes or in contrast uses them extremely well is testament to great creative decisions.

Also, Jane’s long-lost father is telenovela star Rogelio de la Vega, and he is basically the best character I’ve been watching on television these few weeks. He is, quite simply, the best.

On materialism and Snowpiercer

Today, I met a close friend who reminded me that I’ve been neglecting this blog, and I really have! Sorry to the readers who are out there (?). (I put a question mark, but I know a few people regularly visit my blog cos WordPress has a Site Stats portion and yes I check my Site Stats!) But yes, a post is due, but also, a topic has been recurring recently in my discussions with friends, and I guess in general in my stage of life as I transit into being a gainfully employed adult, and it’s something that I really wanna talk about.

Just a few days ago, a few of my friends and I were talking about realising how materialism is such a huge part of our lives, and how easy it is to fall into this endless cycle, especially in today’s world. When people around you are consistently talking about the latest bag, how gorgeous that luxury watch is, or which brand their dream car is, it really can become such an invisible yet ubiquitous part of our consciousness. Instead of discussing ideas or people or life events, the topic of discussion can so easily revolve around products. We define ourselves by which brand is the most ‘us’.

And who can blame us, really? Every corner we turn, we are told we should want this thing, and that we are incomplete without that other thing. Even ideals like liberation or equality come with a price. Even education!! What kind of world is it where schools (especially universities) see themselves as a business first, and an educational institution second?

It’s really terrifying, and Singapore is particularly susceptible to this way of life. I have definitely fallen into it myself, and I think it takes a constant and consistent guard that you need to put up to fight the way materialism has seeped into our daily lives. The most important thing is to critically examine parts of your life and really think about why and how certain things have come to just be.

For example, a friend was telling me about how she had encountered a person who wasn’t too impressed with her engagement ring because it didn’t cost 3 months of the guy’s salary. This whole the diamond is supposed to cost 3 months of your pay thing is truly weird! It has become a norm that goes unquestioned in Singaporean society, but, really, why and how did this figure come about? 3 months? Why not 2 or 4 months? Why not 1 year? Who came up with this? Why?

If you really examine it, doesn’t it seem a tad bit arbitrary? In fact, who even decided the purchase of diamonds had to be involved in an engagement – a commitment to another person to spend the rest of your lives together? Let me tell you who: the diamond industry. Once upon a time, a marketing person at De Beers thought to associate diamonds with the concept of eternity – of being a mark of forever. Something that is so common in popular culture, and so ingrained in our daily lives – we often ask our girlfriends to show us the ring after she is proposed to – began as a marketing campaign, as most things are nowadays.

Of course, if you want a diamond ring, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a gorgeous piece of jewellery, and even I can appreciate its beauty and its significance. Symbols that are popular in a society can still personally mean something to you, and it’s not my place or anyone else’s to tell you what should or should not mean something to you. But I guess what I’m getting at is: we should all think for ourselves when we make a (purchase) decision, whether or not this thing really means something to us, and if we are merely subscribing to a norm for no reason at all other than ‘that’s the way things are done.’ Because we all need to think about who’s telling us how to do things, and why. And who ultimately benefits.

Perhaps when we really get right down to it, we have no reason for believing in the idea that a diamond ring needs to be equated to 3 months of your boyfriend’s salary. In fact, doesn’t that put a monetary worth on the person? Are we transferring the price of the diamond to our partner? Are we commodifying the relationship? Are we?

I don’t think it’s wrong to want things. The people who say that money doesn’t buy happiness are usually the people who already have the money. In fact, buying the entire 10-season DVD series of Friends would make me extremely happy. Stocking up my wardrobe over the last week also pleased me. I think what is important however is that we need to question why we want certain things, and learn to prioritise the most important elements of our lives.

When I was doing my Media and Representation class a few semesters ago, I remember I had one of those *mindblown* moments when my lecturer (I miss you Dr. Ingrid!) was talking about the role of women in society. We talked about how the notion of a woman being a housewife and taking care of domestic matters being a socially constructed one – which is a central tenet of the critique on patriarchy. This, we all know, or at least I did. But then she questioned – what about the notion of a career woman? I had always assumed that being a career woman was just a natural consequence of women moving out of their homes and forging new paths for themselves. But Ingrid reminded us that the imperative to be productive – to go out into the world to work – is actually something that capitalism has instilled in us. And women were called upon to go into the factories and eventually into offices to work, to be productive, because this would help capitalism. In Singapore, especially, both men and women are urged to work, because of our small labour force. Because we don’t have Malaysia as our hinterland.

But capitalism is merely one way of life. We are so used to it that sometimes we cannot imagine another framework of living. There are many models of reality, and we need to constantly remind ourselves of that, even as we are stuck in a society run on money.

Over the weekend, I watched Snowpiercer starring my beloved Chris Evans, which was a pretty obvious dystopian take on the class system and how we let it destroy us, even as we are the last of humanity. Really great casting choices and racial representation aside, the show was amazing in how it critiqued the capitalist system. The story is basically this: to combat global warming, scientists released a synthetic molecule supposed to cool the world down, but it freezes the world over. The earth becomes too cold for life, and the last of humanity is cramped together on a train that runs on an eternal engine. The train is divided into distinct classes, from the hedonistic upper classes eating steaks and partying all day to the tail end of the train where hundreds of people share one car eating protein blocks. Chris Evans is Curtis who leads a revolution as the people from the tail end strive to get to the engine room and end this insane hierarchy.

(Spoiler alert from here on!!) But as he eventually reaches the engine room, it is revealed that the revolution and Curtis’ goals are all an essential part of the system. It’s population control. Even as Curtis reaches the top of the class system, he cannot defeat it. Any attempts at moving forward are feeding the system, reaffirming an oppressive structure. Therefore, to end this reality once and for all, we cannot think in linear terms – moving forward or looking backward. The only way out is to think laterally – to consider the world outside the train, and to therefore break the hold of this system and way of thinking.

Everyone should watch this film!!!!! And after you’re done with that, you should watch this review below as it captures what I’ve been saying and examines how the director Bong Joon-ho illustrates these ideas in his artistic direction.

At the end of the day, I think we should all remind ourselves from time to time that life isn’t an eternal train ride, and it’s not about who gets to be in front. Perhaps it is about how we enjoy the view outside, or perhaps it’s about how we choose to spend our days with the people in the same car. Many films repeat the same message, and many other blog entries or The Guardian articles convey similar ideas, but the need to dismantle materialism is perhaps a notion that bears repeating.

Culinary Shenanigans (and an afterthought on love)

Hi, so, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve taken up cooking as a finally-dude-you-need-to-learn-adult-things and my-family-needs-me and hey-this-is-kinda-fun thing. It’s mostly really simple stuff involving simple steps. While I follow some recipes online for things I absolutely do not know how to prepare, I mostly wing it and end up being too lazy to follow a recipe through. Cooking has turned out to be rather fun, and I am not half-bad at it! Though I am not gonna be sharing recipes or YouTube tutorials any time soon, I have decided to take this as a small victory for myself. After years and years of writing ‘Learn to cook’ on my resolutions, I’ve finally taken the proverbial bull by its horns and turned it into beef, though not literally cos I still have not forayed into much meat cooking. And because we live in the age of the Internet, what else should I do other than share my win with you? So, in what is finally a post of too many pictures instead of words, here are some of my masterpieces muahaha.

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I started with pasta cos it was one of the only things I’ve ever cooked before. I used honeyed ham and asparagus, mixing cream and tomato sauces. It was all very instant and doesn’t take a rocket scientist, but t’was cooked with love for my loved ones.

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Then, with the help of my love, I cooked my first Asian dishes – kai lan and steamed prawns. They were too salty but what is life without salt?

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Under my mom’s guidance, I made one of my favourite vege dishes – long beans with egg. Looking at this picture makes me miss this dish already. Maybe tomorrow.

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Prepared this sweet potato ginger soup for my co-pilot’s birthday.

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I had to learn how to cook fried beehoon because it was one of those family things. All members of my family loved it, and I thought this was a good way to greet them as they returned home from work. It turned out pretty well, if I may say so myself! As usual, cooked it with help from my love.

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Finally, this is a shot of today’s lunch. Microwaved potatoes are about the simplest meal ever, and I will be having more of it from now on. I also burnt my eggs.

So, I’m no culinary genius. But I’m really glad I decided to get my ass together and learn to cook, cos I’ve had a lot of fun. Time to tackle the next thing on my yearly resolution list?

An afterthought: 

There was once when I was cooking that I became overwhelmed with the domesticity of it all, and couldn’t help but wish that my dad could have tried my work in the kitchen. Part of me will always regret that he never got to try it, and that he will never be there for a bunch of other things that are important in my life (graduation, wedding, kids) as well as the little things of the everyday. Sometimes I get so drowned in grief for him that it’s like my whole body is wracked with all-consuming despair. But, other times, I know that at some point grief becomes a decision to be damaged. You can make the decision to… live. Live for the people who are still around, and love them because you deserve it.

And I think that’s the thing about love. Love makes you wanna do things for people, but we always get caught up in the endless cycle of life and sometimes are too entangled in ourselves or too exhausted to love through action. Next thing you know, the person you love is no longer there cos life is fleeting and a real bitch. Loving a person opens you up to possibilities, it gives you an instinct – to be better than yourself, to make effort, to build something together. But as Audrey Hepburn said, love is a muscle. It needs constant work. An instinct is just that; love is insufficient. It needs to be practised, nurtured, cultivated.

I might not be able to cook for my dad, but I can cook for my family every week now, and I hope to continue doing that for a long time. Dear reader, what might be one little thing you can do for others out of love, and why aren’t you doing it?

The Density of Meaning

When I was in Dublin, my walking tour guide said, “I like things to mean something.” He was complaining about the city’s modernisation and the strange architecture that come with bureaucracy and a lack of deference to history. It’s true of course of many modern cities today, especially Singapore. Sometimes we tear down old things to make way for the new, and this removes sites that have come to mean something to its people, like the old National Library scattered with red saga seeds. Now it’s just a road tunnel. And when something meaningful to us is attacked, we will fight back. That’s something very gorgeous about the human race, but also so frightening.

Meaning. Such a tricky word that contains so much to both hold people together and set them apart. After I listened to my Irish tour guide, I realised that I liked things to mean something too. That meaning is very important to me. And that is such a weird thing to realise, because I’m sure meaning is very important to a lot of people, and I’m not unique in this pursuit.

But I guess what I’m trying to say is not just that I like things to be meaningful, but that I like it when things are dense with meaning. This is perhaps why the arts are so great – that it doesn’t just mean one super awesome thing, but possibly many different awesome things all at the same time, picked out differently by different people at different stages of their lives. I like that you can find different levels of meaning, and I love it more when I have a personal stake in that meaning. I love to examine art conceptually – to understand the meaning of a painting and how that particular message/emotion/sentiment/idea is brought out by the artist. But I enjoy it way more when I see a piece of art and it reminds me of someone in my life. Like when I see Van Gogh and I think of my best friend. The fact that certain works of art or culture remind me of people almost always makes those works more beautiful, more meaningful.

What makes this whole layering of meaning all the more dazzling is when you find someone to do it with you, when something contains a shared meaning in your collective imaginations. Then suddenly an art piece is not just about the technique, about the movement, the period of time, the author’s intended meaning; it’s also yours – yours to contemplate and yours to hold with somebody. I think this is why I love intertextual references so much. Because these references help you to build bridges together with the author of the work. A scene in a television show is no longer just a scene; it’s a ‘hey check out this cool thing that we share’ moment.

And why it means so much to me that I’ve found someone who likes (the same kind of) things to mean something too. It’s a very strange quality to try to pin down, and it took me a long time to realise my previous relationship did not contain so much of it. Sure, we had our inside jokes, and things/symbols that were just ours. But there were many times where I appreciated a song, scene in a film, even a phrase as important to our relationship, and then for me to come to the realisation that it was only so for myself. My overtures for trying to make the other party understand usually resulted in well-intentioned but cursory glances, sometimes not even responses. I think this is one of the key reasons why after a while I kept saying the same things over and over, going through the same issues, repeating the same recommendations, and waiting for all these things that were special to me to stick – for them to become special to us. And why after a while, we both stopped listening to each other. Perhaps this is why I am now so appreciative of sharing a connection with someone.

How precious is it to share a type of connection where you are both moved and energised by the same things.

P.S. I fear I do not possess a vocabulary wide enough to discuss this issue of meaning to its full extent. I hope you understand what I’m trying to say.

Transformations

Got home from my travels a little more than a month ago, and perhaps I’m still feeling somewhat drunk from the European air because I’ve barely even traveled out of my house in this past month. Reunions with friends and acquaintances bring up the inevitable question of “So, what have you been doing?” And for the first time in my life I can and do say “Nothing” with a gleeful smile. While my ease is not a facade, it is sometimes interrupted by moments of uncertainty, self-doubt, and the worst bedfellow of transitions: envy.

The past month has been the month of commencement, convocation, graduation, and happy people donned in their blue/black robes climbed all over my Facebook news feed. While scholars warn us against investing too much meaning into Facebook posts, and I am fully happy with my ungraduated status (with one more semester), I can’t help but feel a little left out of the excitement, like a train has just pulled out of the station and all I did was glimpse it.

Graduation is an interesting milestone, and it might not mean much to people apart from really great photos, but I think it is important. Learning is important. Mastering a discipline is important. Staying in one place and working hard enough are important. And I think the most important thing is transformation. I wonder how many people can truly say they have been transformed by their education?

I guess the truth is I’m not done in my process of seeking transformation. I still look for that moment of inspiration where we have a particularly good debate in class about the relationship between photography and the enlightenment, and I think to myself: yes, this is why I attend school. Or when we are pushed to think about the politics behind ordinary life, or how things come to mean what they mean, and who benefits from that, who suffers. I still hope to learn something, even the slightest of things, before learning suddenly stops becoming the ultimate goal.

At the same time, I am terribly excited to go on the job hunt. Friends have reminded me of course that it is exhausting and my excitement can run out very soon. I know that I haven’t really had much real-world experience, but I hope that I can prove to myself and to the world that I will be able to love my career and have it be a part of my life that goes beyond a paycheck.

PS. In the meantime, I have been learning how to cook via online recipes, my fuzzy memories and winging it. Some of my friends have marveled at this, and most probably think it’s a fad or something, but in actuality, I always kinda thought it was rather pathetic that I didn’t know how to cook at 22 years old beyond instant mee. It was always included in my new year’s resolutions, so I figure, it is time for me to catch up with my friends and learn this life skill. And while I am still in the very beginning stages, I must say I was pretty proud of my sweet potato ginger dessert soup.