2015 Reading Challenge: The Handmaid’s Tale

A book you can finish in a day:

Began my 2015 Reading Challenge with a book I’ve been wanting to read for a long time, written by an author whose prose and poetry both move me profoundly: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Illustrations from Anna and Elena Balbusso

Published in 1985, this novel was later dubbed by critics to be just like ‘Orwell’s 1984, but for women.’ It’s telling that women have their own special kind of dystopian hell, because it simultaneously signifies a kind of oppression that men simply do not face in reality, as well as the ghettoisation of women’s literature that so often discounts the universality of female authorship and experiences.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an America where ecological disasters and modern lifestyles have created a vast decrease in birth rates and widespread sterility. In order to ensure our survival as a population, a new order is born where non-elite women who are found to be fertile will serve as Handmaids, essentially a birthing machine for the upper class families. In this society, men of a certain rank are entitled to a wife, who takes care of the household, a Handmaid, who serves as a vessel for birth in cases where the wives are sterile (cos in this society it’s never the man who’s sterile yeah), and a Martha, who is an older, non-fertile woman who does the cooking and cleaning. It’s the trifecta of oppression for womanhood – of our wifely duties, domestic labour, and reproductive responsibilities. For these men and their Handmaids, sex is never romantic or lustful; it’s simply a means to an end, taken place in a Ceremony where the Handmaid lies as a conduit between the wife and the husband.

After finishing the book, I saw that someone online had called it ‘the dumbest dystopian story ever written,’ and I immediately thought: he must be a dude. Because as a woman, the book is terrifying because of how possible it is. Because institutions such as nations and public spaces staking a claim on female bodies is something that every woman goes through, to some extent. As a Singaporean woman, we are always called upon by the nation to do our duty by creating more babies. Such a duty is simply not placed on the shoulders of Singaporean men, despite their part being equally essential.

Yet, at the end of the day, dystopia is dystopia. Just as it is terrifying that society organises women via their fertility (the Unwomen are ferried off to the Colonies to do cleanup work), it is frightening in equal measure that men are expected to behave without love, lust, morality, affection, greed, freedom, envy… So many dystopian novels are similar because all extreme ways of organising society can never snuff out humanity, in all its shortcomings and all its beauty. Atwood succeeds at this: revealing the true nature of mankind, and how many parallels our current society shares with this dystopian imagining.

My favourite part of the book is Atwood’s decision to explore this new society at its very beginning. The protagonist Offred (literally ‘Of Fred,’ her Commander) is the very first generation of Handmaids, and she still remembers a past life of normalcy, freedom, a husband, and a child. She remembers how it was like before, and she still holds on to fragments of her family. As I read the book, I kept waiting for the next moment she would find her husband or her child, but thinking back on this, I should have known that it was damn near impossible, and even Offred was resigned to leaving them behind in her memories, even in the very same moment she relished them. I love the consistent shifts between the dystopian present and the nostalgic past, and the talking about them in the same breath, precisely because were they really so different?

When the very first moves against women were made in the novel’s universe by freezing their bank accounts, Offred is terrified, but her husband Luke doesn’t get what the big deal is. He can just support them, he says. That crippling feeling of having no power is female-specific in this book, while the men can never truly understand, because they benefit from the system, or appear to. As Offred says,

“I thought, already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, already you’re starting to get paranoid.” (also see: Gaslighting)

One of the most interesting things to me was how Offred was brought up as very much a second-generation feminist. A part of the book shows us Offred’s mother in flashback, who reminded Offred that many women’s lives and women’s bodies had to be sacrificed in marches, protests and rallies in order to even get to a stage where her husband would do some cooking. This is something Offred doesn’t recognise or bother to recognise, even just as she benefits from the gains of feminism, of all the things women of the previous generation have achieved for her. And this reminds me so much of a quote from Amy Poehler:


And of course, it also reminds me of how many women of my generation are so complacent of our place in the world today, saying things like ‘I’m not a feminist; it’s too strong a word’ even as the privilege to speak their minds, to have that very opinion, to be heard, to debate, to insist on their stand, even as this very privilege was something that feminism fought for them.

In Offred’s case, she quickly learns that what feminism gained can quickly be dismantled and transformed into a nightmare that simply won’t go away. For some of us in real life, this nightmare continues to stay. For others, we are lucky enough.

The Handmaid’s Tale is gorgeous in its prose – rich in detail and bursting to the seams in emotion. While Atwood’s intricate writing is hardly naturalistic, and can be overwhelming at times, I promise you following it to the very end will be worth it.

Follow this list for my progress on the 2015 Reading Challenge:

  1. A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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.


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.


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.

A PSA for the people in my life re: feminism

If you know me in real life, it’s safe to say that you know I have a lot of feelings about the big ugly F word that somehow still stirs up some controversy: Feminism. And as Ellen Page says, “You know you’re working in a patriarchal society when the word feminist has a weird connotation.” I have some things to say and sometimes I feel quite strange, uncomfortable, or a bit of a downer to interrupt a social gathering to really voice my opinion because I see sexism everywhere, so I guess, I’ll do it here. (This post is more trying to combat misconceptions I experience in my daily life in Singapore than really give a full account of feminism).

First up, I am only 23, and still have a lot to learn, so please feel free to contradict me if you have an informed opinion/perspective on this issue, and I would love to discuss it further. But if you are going to hate without cause, haha sure? Just know that it probably won’t warrant a response.

Second prelude: let’s define some terms. Now feminism has a very particular history in the civil rights movement, and I think it’s more accurate to characterise it as feminisms, because a category of people is not necessarily monolithic, and different groups of people face oppression on several levels, so obviously feminism is not a perfect movement in terms of how it has manifested over history. But I would like to clarify that feminism basically is the campaign for a state of equal social, political, economic, cultural and social rights for women. And essentially is about the dismantling of patriarchy, which is a social system where males are the primary authority figures, implying male rule and privilege, and therefore female subordination. (These are from Wiki). Ok, so, let’s begin.

1) Feminism isn’t man-hating or about getting rid of men or about destroying men. It is also not championing the superiority of women. Hahaha I mean sometimes there are funny jokes on the Internet about that, and also because this is such an issue close to so many people’s hearts and oppressive for so long that it can generate a lot of anger, but honestly, when it comes down to it, feminism isn’t about one gender over the other. It’s about getting rid of oppression. So, chill out, my male and female friends.

2) Feminism helps men too. Patriarchy is a system that assumes male dominance, which means it inscribes gender roles where women are supposed to be docile, subordinate, emotional, nurturing, and all other stereotypes you can think of. Similarly, men are supposed to be rational, in control, aggressive, etc. The idea that men shouldn’t cry because it’s not manly? Feminism fights that. The idea that men should earn more and put in more hours at work and pay for dinners for women? Feminism fights that. The idea of men taking care of their physical appearance being somehow gay or metro? Feminism fights that. I’m sure that men and women alike face a lot of societal pressure to be somebody they are not. I like feminism a lot for the fact that it tells us: you can be whoever you want to be.

3) There’s a lot of anger from men about how women benefit from the system in terms of how women want to have equal pay and equal rights and all that, but still expect men to pay for meals and dates and be extra caring during Valentine’s Day, etc. I admit it can be quite confusing, because it does happen – that old-fashioned notions of chivalry are still championed. However, I believe that these notions where men are supposed to pay for everything is a result of patriarchy: that men are the sole breadwinners and seen as instrumentalist in earning income for his family, which implies that women are not capable enough to be earning enough money to pay for meals equally and that women’s main role is decorative: to look nice during a date for her man. The expectation that men pay for things is a symptom of patriarchy, that women should be taken care of. What I say to this is: give women equal salaries, and maybe as a whole, we’ll start paying for more meals, cos we’ll have more money? Also: women already spend money on dates because of the societal expectation to look good. As I said, men are supposed to be instrumentalist, and women decorative in a patriarchal era. Do you know how much make-up costs????? So, it is not women you should hate for this double expectations, it’s patriarchy.

4) Speaking of double standards, in a Singaporean setting, a lot of people are very angry about women not having to do National Service. This has led to some controversy recently about the rape song sung in army, etc. Firstly, I cannot say to fully understand the NS issue because I have not been through it, and I have not had 2 good years of my life stripped from me. However, just because some groups of people benefit from a system (in this case women because they do not need to serve), does not mean you should hate on them. We should try to change the system, and the cultural values behind that system. Do not hate on the people who privilege from an unfair system. After all, that is exactly what feminism is: trying to change the system, and not hating on the people (men) who privilege from it. Also, the idea that only men are physically, mentally and emotionally strong enough to defend the country is once again, tada, something patriarchy says. I believe that women should serve NS too, and it’s something that needs to be worked out in a Singapore where gender roles are still so fixed. After all, Singapore believes that women also have a duty to the nation, just in terms of childbirth. So, don’t hate on women, or feminism, hate gender roles imposed by patriarchy.

5) Some people say they love women because they admire women a lot for being able to do it all: both work and contribute to the economy productively, and at the same time taking care of a family. Women are cool, but we are also socialised by Singaporean society to take on the double burden of modernity. Women get many weeks of maternity leave while men only get one. ONE. So while women are now getting employed, they are still expected to take care of the domestic household (daughters are also more likely to take care of their elderly parents in Singapore than sons). This also means we have fewer opportunities of promotion and pay raise because employers are afraid we go off to have babies. I have a lot of faith in men, and believe that they can do it all too! Contrary to popular opinion, I do not believe that men are useless. The system should therefore change and improve paternity leave and other such policies, so that men who want to contribute to childrearing and family building would be able to do so. Therefore, if men and women are both implicated in the process of NS, they should both be implicated in the process of childbirth. After all, you do need both in the privacy of your coupling, and the public sphere of nationhood.

6) Feminism is about equal rights, but that does not mean that women should be celebrated uniformly for wanting to go out to work, for eg, and does not mean that women who wish to perform more traditional roles and characteristics of their gender should be demonised or treated as the enemy. True feminism does not hate on femininity: we say yes to floral prints, make-up, chick flicks and high heels. Any person who tries to tell you that your femininity is inferior is anti-feminist. Similarly, we also say yes to the countless of awesome women who want to stay at home to take care of their kids! Childrearing is a super difficult thing, and women who wish to be there for their children are super great. The issue here is CHOICE. Women should be given the choice to decide what they want for themselves, and what they want to do with their bodies. The same goes for men. Men should be given a choice too, and not be held to patriarchal expectations.

7) Therefore, if you find yourself in a relationship where the man provides for more, pays for more, and seeks a love language that takes care of the woman in terms of driving her around, etc., and the woman is perfectly ok with that, and loves that, then yes GO FOR IT. Nobody is questioning the legitimacy of your relationship. In fact, you shouldn’t hate feminism for propagating a picture of gender relations that might not be similar to your relationship. Feminism allows for you to choose for yourself the type of relationship and the type of man/woman you want to be. If you want to pay for everything in your marriage, and your wife wants you to do that, and it’s mutual, then feminism tells you yes you can do that. Just do not impose your version of relations on anyone else. In the privacy of your relationship, feminism is what exists to let you negotiate these things. It’s patriarchy that imposes expectations. The point is, I am fighting for the right to choose. That’s what feminism is.

8) We have not reached a stage of gender equality, and feminism is therefore needed.
Rape: (https://rainn.org/statistics?gclid=CjkKEQjw_ZmdBRD1qNKXhomX_sEBEiQAc9XNUHu9koakHfOqZgR2P4BkkLpxL6NufnygdBA48ofwmxrw_wcB)
Domestic violence in the US: (http://www.ncadv.org/files/DomesticViolenceFactSheet(National).pdf)
Gender inequality in film: (http://www.nyfa.edu/film-school-blog/gender-inequality-in-film/)

9) Rape is a problem in Singapore. Please do not think otherwise. Marital rape is still legal. That means that if a wife does not wish to have sex, and the husband does not listen and forces himself on her, there are no grounds for persecuting the husband for rape. (http://www.aware.org.sg/rape/). The rate of rape in Singapore is actually double that of India. (http://kentridgecommon.com/?p=17815). Rape is also a problem because legally in Singapore, men cannot be raped. Feminism fights that. Women who force themselves on men should also be persecuted for rape.

10) It is never the victim’s fault during rape. “Men should be offended when someone claims that women should prevent rape by not wearing certain things or not going certain places or not acting in a certain way. That line of thinking presumes that you are incapable of control. That you are so base and uncivilized that it takes extraordinary effort for you to walk down the street without raping someone. That you require certain dress code be maintained, that certain behaviors be employed so that maybe today, just maybe, you won’t rape someone. It presumes that your natural state is rapist.” (I can’t find the original source for this quote, apologies.) Once again, feminism has faith in men! That they are not so bestial that they cannot control themselves.

So, yes, I hope I was able to better clarify what feminism is and why I am so passionate about it. Ultimately, I think feminism is a great movement that benefits both men and women, and therefore should be celebrated. But, why am I so angry sometimes, or why do I seem like I fight for women more than I fight for men? Because misandry irritates, but misogyny kills. In this paraphrased version of a quote from Margaret Atwood, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” At the end of the day, this is why I need feminism.

D is for (Travel Edition)

I am currently in the midst of my epic 6-week long European trip to pseudo celebrate my graduation from university, though I haven’t technically graduated and the grad trip ritual is one I do not personally or culturally connect with. So, I guess it’s more appropriate to characterise this trip as a celebration of life and our marvelous corner of the universe, as trips tend to go. As I’ve explored England (London, Stratford-upon-Avon, York, Bronte country, Lake District), Scotland (Glencoe, Glenfinnan, Isle of Skye, Edinburgh), and Ireland (Dublin, the Northern Irish coast, Rathlin island, Derry and Donegal) so far, it is most apropos to say that my trip has been part-literary pilgrimage and part-exploration of nature. It has truly been inspiring – both calming and invigorating. So, it is only fitting of my next alphabet challenge entry to be about travel and my experience in particular. Be warned that despite this post’s travel contents, it will not contain photos ala current lifestyle glamour-complexes. I realise how difficult that might be in today’s day and age, but people in the past have coped, and so will we.

D is for distance, not because distance makes the heart grow fonder. Instead, distance makes the heart grow wiser. Distance is a catalyst. It is reading glasses. Just like how crisis clarifies a person’s mind and gets rid of the clutter, distance gives you perspective, quite literally. Sometimes, one has to step outside of their homes to truly understand their full picture.

It is interesting because we never truly leave home behind, even when we travel. Especially when we travel. We compare everything to the Singaporean way (people are nicer here, angmohs don’t know how to cook veg, etc.) So, I guess it is harder than we think to shake a person’s origins off. Roots, if you will. Though, to be honest, I haven’t been doing much contemplating. I just have been enjoying the moments and wondering about another life. Maybe distance does this too. Help us see ourselves in another world, exploring possible selves, possible lives. Maybe our way is not the only way, and maybe that’s the only lesson we need.

D is also for distance because distance is not just a destination; it’s about the ride. Driving to one place to another is such a gorgeous experience. I’ve always loved driving, even in traffic-ridden Singapore. I love cruising, I love the way the road disappears under you like magic, I love that little trick your stomach does when following a bend. But driving overseas in non-urban areas is something else. Driving alongside mountains and giant lakes (or lochs) is the ultimate joy in Scotland, and as my traveling companion says, the wonderful thing about Scotland is how wild and untamed it is. One gets the sense that one can never truly consume it; we can only pass through and look on. And what a fantastic view it is.

And then there’s the non-driving. When trying to rent a car in Ireland, I faced the unfortunate trouble of not being of age. It sucks when things do not go as planned, especially a driving trip, because suddenly you need to cover some distance and you have no way of doing so. Distance is an obstacle. In such a large country (everywhere is large compared to Singapore), distance is limiting. But trying to cover distance without a car is a special kind of trouble that can be turned into wonderful experiences. So far, without a car, we have experienced a lovely scenic train ride, biking around an island with only 100 people, and hitchhiking (!!!!). People are sooo nice in Donegal that we successfully hitchhiked 3 times, when each time someone stopped within five minutes, and for the last time, the first car stopped. And everyone was so friendly and welcoming and just sincerely hoping we have a good and safe time in Ireland. (Highly recommend!!) I mean, like other places, Ireland is so interesting for other reasons – culturally, politically, but the people are always a good reason to visit.

I’ve met so many wonderful and fascinating people on my trip and that, I think, is the most interesting thing about distance. Cos distance creates differences, and suddenly the world is full of colour.

As I said, my trip so far has been around the UK and Ireland. Some of the most interesting cultural sights have to do with kings and high lords and crowns and battles and castles. And I love it. I’ve learnt so much about the different ages and the ruling powers at each respective time, from the Vikings, the Normans, Anglo-Saxans, to the Medieval era, the Tudors, the Stuarts, etc. I just want to spend one whole day on Wikipedia clicking links to find out more. But of course, I’ve had the privilege to learn more at the actual sites of power and/or siege. There’s something very powerful about standing in a place where so much has happened.

Stories about diadems and royalty have fascinated us for centuries and we still place emphasis on these historical touchpoints. It’s interesting because it’s far away from ordinary life for peasants back then (signaling basically changes in management), yet also very close to the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens throughout history because of culture and identity. And so much of royal scuffles have a living heritage today, or consequences that still resonate.

There’s the story told to me atop the Derry (Northern Ireland) city walls about how the city was besieged by the Catholic King James I for 105 days, the longest siege in British history. And today Derry~Londonderry still holds together in tension the two threads that gave the city its double name – Catholic and Protestant. There’s the castle sitting at Eilean Dornan, in the western Scottish highlands. Its haunting feel might mislead one to think it abandoned, but its MacRae clan still comes by every year when the portcullis is raised and they shout in unison their war cry: Ridge of Tears! (How cool is that, honestly.) And of course what better example to use than the continued influence of the diadem as seen in Britain and the 1000 gifs of baby George already online.

It’s interesting because the existence of royal bloodlines and warring states is only an extension of the human wish to conquer, to domesticate. It’s so often that we are trying to contain nature and control it, the same way kings do with their people.

Darvill, Arthur
When I was in London, I had the pleasure of catching Arthur Darvill’s last show on Once. It was one of the best musical productions I’ve ever seen. Arthur Darvill, of Doctor Who fame, was always my favourite character as Rory. But man was he on fire that night. He sang amazingly and was strangely charismatic. It happened to be the last night of performance for the female lead as well, and it showed in the emotional rawness and power of the music. Once is a special musical production because there is no orchestra and the music is intimate and moving. Set in Dublin, it is a testament to how important culture is to the Irish, and was an extremely interesting precursor to my trip in Ireland.

The story itself is nothing revolutionary – boy hates self and music because ex-girl left him for New York, and meets girl, who helps him find his way again. Almost manic pixie dream girl, but thankfully the female lead played her role with so much vitality and humour that I loved and saw her for herself, and not just for how she served the male lead’s woes. I actually really liked this story arc if not for the fact that the two leads fell in love. I quite like the idea of a human being helping another human being be themselves again, with no agenda or hope. Just that. Humans being humans. Romance is secondary, and most times, unnecessary.

The female lead on the show was supposed to be Czech, played by a Croatian, helping an Irish man, played by an English, with and through his music. While in the audience two Singaporean girls sit, impacted by the performance by ways the performers might not even realise. How cool is that. I love how we are all brought together by art, even when we’re from different places. When I went on a walking tour in Derry, I met the traveling Avenue Q cast (so cooool) and they have one of the most multi-racial casts I’ve seen. Interestingly, the musical accuses everyone of being a racist in one of their songs, and is always a funny one because it is identifiable.

So, you know, sentimental ideas of connecting with others through art aside, politics is always at play. Especially racial politics. Most people I’ve met along the way have been tremendously friendly and great, but there are always certain hints of assumptions and stereotypes that people carry when they interact with who they view as an Other. One of the most common things I’ve noticed is the widespread assumption that we do not speak English. English is our first language, we have had to say about 5 times on this whole trip. And it is fine when people think something of you but quickly re-evaluate you based on how they come to know you. But what is most insidiously dangerous is when people interact with you and you obviously disprove their mistaken assumptions, but they continue to believe in their long-held ideas about you. Like this one dude who consistently spoke to us slowly and full of gestures as if we didn’t understand English though we replied normally like normal English speakers. This insistence on ignorance is how it starts, and more often than not in today’s world, this is the face of racism.

Dead Broke
Hahahahahahaha. I am. I really am dead broke. Traveling for so long to so many epic places has nuclear-bombed a hole in my pocket. While I believe it is worth it, I’m still left feeling a little bit… Vulnerable, for lack of a better word.

While I’m very proud to have funded my trip myself, I’ve also had helping hands extended to me by my loved ones (thanks sis, mom and Darryl).

I guess the lesson to take from this is that traveling is suchhhhhh a privilege and I will try my best to remember it, always.