[English 120] The Lady Within

December 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

English 120
September 2012

I decided to make the subject of my second English 120 Essay my mother. After all, so I thought initially, there is no easier person to write a portrait about than one you have grown up with.

But I ended up with a mere compilation of memories; it was overly sentimental and one-dimensional. After a discussion with a writing tutor, I came to realize that I had underestimated the complexity of our lives – of untold secrets, of fluid identities, and of differing perspectives. It was a joy to re-write this essay.

Ma exclaimed in delight and waved both her hands as she caught sight of her friends in the distance. My little hands – until just a moment ago, tightly clasped in hers – found nothing to hold on to. I made a feeble tug of her dress in the direction of my elementary school and let out a sigh: nothing could stop her now. Gesticulating wildly, she injected her daily scoop into the housewives’ gossip network; all members shared an exquisite love for trading recipes, stories of their sons’ performance in school, and the latest town rumor. A sparkle shone in her eyes when they told her where to get the cheapest groceries; it didn’t matter that she had to walk a few blocks further in the blazing sun to claim her small dollar rebate. A smile appeared on her face when she discovered a penny on the floor; it didn’t matter that her friends insisted that picking up coins that lay heads-down would bring bad luck.

 To her, every little bit mattered. Little triumphs like these put Ma in the best of moods: whistling cheerfully, she would gingerly rub the scales off the discounted fish and wash the discounted vegetables. “This table,” she proclaimed with a proud flourish as she set down the food, “is as old as you but is still good! Shi hao zuo zi!” Every coin that she has ever retrieved on the streets went right into a piggy bank on her dresser. When the pig was filled to the brim, she let out a yelp of joy and brought its contents straight to the bank. “For a rainy day, liu yu tian,” she would look straight into my eyes and say in her gravest voice.

Ma was the caretaker, nurturer, disciplinarian. But in my teenage years, I didn’t always agree with her. The clash between Ma and I was never so stubborn as when she confronted the adult in me – and even so, she remained resolute in her duties. She often fell asleep as she waited for me to come back home after a long day of school. It became a routine: rousing Ma from her sleep as I opened the door at one in the morning, I would see her curled up on a thin mattress on the floor of the living room, waiting to ensure that I reached home safely that day. One night, behind those sleepless eyes, she whispered: “Son, why do you treat your house as a hotel? Wei shen me ba jia dang jiu dian?” I pretended not to hear, locked myself in my room, finished my homework and went to bed. The next day, I awoke to see my breakfast steaming on the table.

In my more grateful moments, I admired Ma as a role model for her discipline. She jumped out of bed at six in the morning, and dragged Pa out of bed with her. Even in my half-asleep stupor, I never did hear Pa’s sleepy and reluctant grunts triumph over her enthusiasm for early-morning jogs. After being diagnosed with high blood pressure, Ma motivated herself to lead a healthier life. She simply refused to let the daily medications pull her down. The change was most evident in her meals – an apple was all she had for breakfast; a small bowl of brown rice with the occasional fish and bak choi were all she had for lunch and dinner.

But one day, Ma broke her routine. I was in my room, scoffing down French fry after French fry, stressed from endless hours of studying. Silently, she sauntered in and peered over my shoulder to check on my work. Then with a deft sleight of hand, she slipped a handful of fries into her mouth. I didn’t know what to make of the grin on her face as she made her quick escape – it carried both the innocence of childish glee and the rush of teenage rebellion. At fifty-five, Ma would bend over the newspapers, squinting through reading glasses at the tip of her sun-burnt nose; Ma would tune the radio to the obscure channels, swaying to tunes laced with the characteristic static of vinyl records; Ma would walk with a slight waddle, her knees knocked about by the decades of chores. Not once did it occur to me that there was a mischievous spirit hiding under her simple steadfastness. My curiosity was piqued.

The more I observed Ma, the more disturbed I became: for all this time, I had merely seen her as a mother. But she was also a daughter, a friend, and even a teenager. Perhaps the latter character explains Ma’s penchant for culinary experiments and medicinal concoctions: bored by the repetitive chores that she executes day in and out, her creative energies and playful side find an outlet in the kitchen. As her guinea pig, I was to be caught unaware: be it watching Pokémon on TV, reading an engrossing book or just tired from a long day at school. After the first gastronomical nightmare that I unknowingly ingested many years ago (till this day I don’t know what it contained), I developed a heightened sensitivity to the sound of her swift chops and the musical clink-clank of her pots and pans. Fully aware of this, Ma leapt to feverish work whenever she thought that she stood a chance. When she cooked, her hands were a blur of motion. Recipes were mere guidelines, to be boiled together and left to stew. “It’s good for you! Chi jian kang!” she would quip, ignoring the black and vile liquids that she often placed before me.

I had come to believe from Ma’s silent dedication that her constant concern for others was a natural instinct. It made it hard to remember that Ma had her Ma, too. The call came when she was washing the dishes: Popo had been hospitalized. Grandma had fallen from a flight of stairs, her balance affected by the devastating onset of Alzheimer’s. But as Ma clutched the phone tightly to her ear, I saw the glint of silver in her hair, the wrinkles traced over by a bout of worry, her two hands still with uncertainty. Living her life for others had taken a toll on her. Strangely enough, the signs of vulnerability vanished as quickly as they had come, and before I knew it she was up and running, juggling laundry at home and brewing soups to bring over to the hospital. When grandma finally recovered, I caught a glimpse of Ma sitting in front of her dressing mirror, snipping away delicately. A small pile of greying hair graced the tabletop.

Everything I see in Ma has a direct contradiction. The small things easily make her happy, yet she seldom has time to be sad over the bigger things. She lives life with zest and a childlike curiosity, yet is content to spend her life waiting on the needs of the family. Being so close to her only makes it even more impossible to piece together a coherent portrait of Ma’s character.

However, the proximity also provides many clues, especially in her stories as a farmer’s daughter in post-colonial Singapore. These were tales from another era, told in between bouts of household chores. Ma climbed the majestic angsana trees and played with the pigs and ducks in the fields; she savored her precious, yearly taste of meat over Chinese New Year; she got a dollar as a gift on her birthdays, often unremarkable events in themselves. In this patriarchal society, her education was the least of concerns, such luxury saved for her two older brothers. They shuttled between school and the farm, plowing through books in the day and plowing the land in the night. Then one day a bureaucratic arm swooped down and snatched their land – and their livelihood – at 2 cents per acre. Ma was too young to understand the crisis; she only remembers the sweltering days of harvesting kai lan being abruptly displaced by the painstaking days of threading pieces of cloth together in a factory.

But the details change with each telling; she pauses in mid-sentence and takes a moment to reconsider. Sometimes she isn’t sure whether she is remembering them correctly anymore, and she masks her forgetfulness beneath a flurry of dusting and mopping.

It fascinates me how loving Ma is despite a very unpleasant risk: the hand that gives is in eternal danger of being bitten. For a long time, her steadfast hands had disguised the fact that there was a woman within, too. On Mother’s Day, I go out of the way to buy an expensive present for her. Sometimes, for the fun of it, I leave the price tag on. And on her part, she pretends not to see it, and shoots me a coy, knowing smile.

[English 120] A Little Insubordination

December 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

English 120
September 2012

In spite of the bouts of writer’s block and the incessant need for revisions, English 120 is a creative writing course that I enjoyed in the past semester. It is apt that the first piece deals with a personal experience, one that illustrates a larger public point.

I wrote about the struggle during my transition from a cadet to a fresh-faced lieutenant. Deployed into a small unit with men older and more experienced than I was, it was a journey of personal growth and self-discovery. These ideas were inspired from literature on leadership – introduced to me by Jia Chuan – such as William Deresiewicz’s “Solitude and Leadership” and another piece simply entitled “Values”, by a CEO whose name unfortunately eludes me.

As my first essay, there are many parts where my transitions are jerky and ideas are garbled – especially near the end. Nonetheless, imperfect pieces like this help me to improve, and I am glad to see that my writing had indeed improved. Special thanks go to Abeer, Alessandra and Rayner for your advice in improving my essays.

There was always order. There always had been.

I saw the class monitor who was chosen for his keen hearing; somehow he could always catch the echoes of the teacher’s footsteps down the hallway over the din. With a shrill voice, he would initiate the defining ritual of the Confucian tradition: “Class, stand! Class, bow!” – to which the class would stand and bow in obedience.

I saw the office intern who prided herself on her punctuality; she had the ability to always submit her assignment to her reporting officer exactly an hour before the deadline. With a click of her mouse, she would send the attachment flying through cyberspace – slowly, but surely, the file would percolate painfully through the multiple layers of office drones towards Mr. and Mrs. Superior.

Used to operating in such a hierarchy, I didn’t have much of a problem adjusting to life as an officer trainee. In the great chain of being, I would probably have shared a space with the rocks and pebbles. But then again, they probably didn’t have to ask for permission to have a sip of water, suffer the constant torment of being roused in the middle of the night ready for battle, or have insults hurled in their faces. In our waking moments, we poured sweat and blood into mastering the art of killing and the science of staying alive. In our dreams, we all longed for the day training would end and we would receive our commission.

On the day it finally happened, I sat up in my bed with an alertness I never knew I had. A day ago, I moved into my new single room, finally freed from the indignity of having to share my living space with fifteen other tired, starving souls. As I slipped my uniform on, the epaulette on my chest screamed triumphantly: I have arrived. I was dizzy with the prospect of the things I could finally do – I now was in a position of command, I now would plan and execute important missions, and most importantly, I now could use the bathroom with full privacy.

The boots on my feet were the same, but my stride was different. Each step carried an air of confidence as I approached my new office. I rehearsed the return-salute whenever I thought nobody was watching, and tensed my arm at the ready whenever there was somebody.

“Ready to meet your platoon?” my superior asked with a pat on the back. Her friendliness unnerved me. By the protocol ingrained in every fiber of my being, I was supposed to salute her. She didn’t let me; that just unnerved me even more.

I knew that first impressions were lasting impressions. I couldn’t afford to let my men think that I was going to be soft on them. The speech went through my head countless times before I slept the previous night.

It came fluently, but the further I got into laying out my expectations and demarcating the rules and responsibilities of each person in the platoon, the more I sensed that they were terribly uncomfortable with my manner of speech. Even though they were standing at attention, their eyes did not look into mine. One would glance in my direction but would rapidly look away when I made eye contact, another stared deadly into the distance ahead, and yet another found something interesting to look at on the back of his platoon-mate’s head. If there was anything that annoyed me, it was not getting the full attention and respect that I deserved. Not quite sure why and unwilling to pursue the matter on my first day there, I cut my speech short and dismissed the parade.

Nonetheless, their reticence did not stop me from doing my work well. Having worked out the minor administrative details the previous day, I grabbed the keys to the operations room; I had to get my knowledge of the equipment up to snuff with that of my platoon. I was well aware that they had been in the unit for the past six months while I was coming in as an outsider; this, I felt, was the surest way for me to win their respect.

A friendly face appeared at the doorway and greeted me with a cheerful ‘Good morning, Sir’ (ha!). It was my Platoon Sergeant, Aaron. He was pleased at my considerable interest in the signal equipment, as I was fiddling with the switches and had parts strewn around me. He gingerly told me about his experience in the past four years as a regular soldier in the unit, and asked if he could share some of his expertise with me.

Anyone else would have regarded the question as harmless, even helpful. But my epaulette had blessed me with power and cursed me with blindness. As a newly minted lieutenant, and having put so much thought into how I would lead and influence all my men, I felt that this was indubitably an attempt to subvert my authority. First, my speech bored the platoon out of their minds, then my orders were carried out with little enthusiasm, and now my Platoon Sergeant implied that I am incapable of picking up the systems on my own!

For a long time now, my ego lurked like an animal under my bed of self-assuredness, waiting to spring up at any crack in my defenses. It ballooned into a monstrosity from the year that I was elected to the position of Vice-President of the Students’ Council. It fed off the power of the countless times I have represented whole countries at Model United Nations debates. But during my year as a trainee, it never had a reason to appear, and I was confident that I had tamed the creature.

But upon hearing Aaron’s offer, it reawakened from its slumber.

A vile sense of bitterness rose up my throat. I was affronted. At my curt “no, I think I can handle it on my own,” Aaron left me in front of a panel of incomprehensible blinking lights, undecipherable symbols, and a tangled mass of wires.

“It can’t be that hard…” I muttered under my breath, punched a button, and promptly set off a siren with flashing red lights. It blared like the rattle of machine gun fire, throwing its steady rat-tat-tat out of the windows – and with it, my hopes of earning respect from anyone.

Had Aaron not reappeared within seconds, I would probably have punched in more buttons and put the system beyond repair. Swiftly, he punched in a complicated series of keystrokes, and put an end to that dreadful noise. Then he asked if I needed any help.

I nodded with relief.


Herein lies a paradox of growth: none of us would willingly choose to have our sense of self bent out of shape, but it is only through such tempering that we become more self-aware, more resilient. Humility wagged a firm finger at me. It held up a mirror and made me see the writhing bundles of insecurities I was made up of. I had a point to proof, and I did it by dehumanizing others, simply equating rank with ability. Indeed, it is the most miserable thing to project our own weaknesses and meanness on the people who truly care for us.

Humbled, I withdrew into myself. I diverted my energies from putting up a strong front and instead put them into mastering the system. A week of intensive lessons later, I was finally up to par. More valuably, I saw that Aaron was not only a skillful technician and patient teacher, but also a kind-hearted friend. In carrying out his duties, he moved gently from soldier to soldier: a friend in some eyes, a brother in many others.

I remember marveling to myself: what a whale of difference a bar makes! The first time I ate as an officer (very good food, at that), I started to take my dishes to the kitchen when I had finished my meal, and then remembered that I didn’t have to anymore. I could sleep in as late as I wanted to. I could even dispense disciplinary action! I saw these privileges as the fruits of my labor, my entitlement as an officer.

Aaron’s decency haunted me. It cut straight through the indoctrination as a cadet – that I was superior to, stronger, and tougher than all my enlisted men. I had to shout at them ‘like dogs’ (my commander screamed into my ear). I had to be friendly but not familiar (in a more cordial lecture). Did I really?

I never thought I would go back to eating those overcooked vegetables, sinewy meat and bland soups again. The first time I got into line at the enlistee’s section, I could feel the confused, yet intense gaze of the enlistees around me. Conversation started out muted and awkward over a meal with different ranks on the same table. But over time, the food didn’t taste all that bad with the right company. I felt nauseated that I ever had the thought of segregating myself from the people I am supposed to lead. I would challenge my platoon’s star athlete, Rodney, to a race on the daily 5km runs (he won). We had the occasional evening basketball match, the regular noodle party in their 20-man bunk, and trained hard through the exhausting, sleepless duty nights.

Where I first saw identity numbers, ranks and names, I now saw living souls with fears, passions and dreams. Ying Hui shared his dream to be a chef. He shared his gift by baking the occasional cake for the birthday boys. Jonas and Wei Lun were passionate about drawing; the office was soon plastered with Marvel characters and portraits of the platoon.

I liked to think that not a single part of my training – of how to fight a war, of how to assemble a rifle, of how to deal with enlistees – prepared me for the challenges that I faced. I liked to think that it stripped the humanity out of me. But at the same time, I cannot tend to every soldier’s needs and whims. In a fight, my men will die unnecessarily because they look to me as an equal, and disregard respect for my position.

Perhaps authority is much like a butterfly: hold on too tightly to it and it will be crushed, release too much pressure and it will flutter away. It thrives best in a natural grip: without too much deliberation, and with plenty of human decency.

On Influence

May 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

I wrote this a while back for my university applications, but reading this really brings me back to the moment, of influence and legacy:

Growing up,  smoking was frowned  upon, tattoos were shameful,  and poor English a crime. Lieutenant Martin is a person I should avoid at all costs; he would influence me into partaking in unruly habits!

But, he is my role model.

Dickens reminds: No man who was not a true gentleman at heart, a true gentleman in manner. Despite his gruff appearance, he moved gently from person to person, a friend in some eyes, a brother in mine. The sight of my Course Commander willingly strapped in Full Battle Order with us – be it swimming across rivers, charging up knolls – stokes up a sense of respect no one has ever matched. Because he believed in setting an example, in molding us into better persons.

I used to know exactly what to say when introducing myself: I debated in Model United Nations; I commandeered a student body in Council; I trained long and hard for Track and Field. But I grew unsure. Each  step forward  took me back  to the truth of my empty position: the disappointments, dangers and disgraces of chasing the dazzle of prestige. I was an excellent conman, for  I swindled myself that the loneliest days of my life were my best.  My closest, brutally honest friends have long drifted away. Whose lives have I influenced, who else have I lived for?

He never quite understood, but he empathized: We all make mistakes lah, then we learn. Indeed. He wasn’t a bad person (far from it!), and the pursuit of medals and awards never made me happy. Subtly, yet surely, he led me to the answer, seeing my desire to learn and directing my enthusiasm. I started by listening: to the people around, to the sound of life. I slowed down my pace: laughed with my buddy while digging a trench in the rain and hunger; shed a tear when my section finished, blistered and emancipated, the 72km march; smiled in late night conversations in the showers  after a day of trawling through jungles. I never thought he could teach me anything, but he taught me how to listen, how to live.

It wasn’t long before it was my turn to command men. There were tempting choices: I could sit in the Land Rover, or I could march and sweat with them. I could hide in my bunk and mess, or I could hit the gym with them. I knew immediately what was right, and did it.

Once, my Specialist showed me his art portfolio he was submitting as a job application to Marvel. I wondered aloud: why ask for my opinion when you know I cannot draw? The reply came, quick and simple: because I trust you.

The sword on my wall speaks in Martin’s voice: the honor and applause fades, but the people stay forever.


April 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

On the way home after a driving lesson, I found a little baby sparrow in a patch of grass near my house. He was chirping frantically, as though calling out for someone to bring him back to the safety of its nest. I picked him up – he could only muster a weak flutter before he stood weakly in my hand, shivering from the cold. His feathers were wet, his new pink skin was showing through those useless wings, and his eyes clouded over with what looked like fear.

I patted him dry, and left him with some rice. I watched as he slowly gained enough energy to stand on his fragile talons, then enough energy to hop around, and finally enough energy to eat. And then he took off, back into the tree he somehow knew he fell from.

Take care, little one.


April 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

How is it possible that I have gone for so long without noticing the colours, without looking at the shapes, without seeing the beauty – of everyday things? It’s very much of point of no return, I now see a photo opportunity in every corner I turn, in every landscape, in every expression and emotion.

It’s strangely comforting to think of the purchase in terms of a month’s salary – that every dollar spent is a dollar well earned.

Thanks Eugene and Nicholas for showing me the world of photography 🙂

bulldog days

April 11, 2012 § 4 Comments

Soul-searching is such an exhausting business. Through it all I’m always glad my friends are around to spend hours on end talking to me about the purpose of life, strip down the problem to its core issues, analyse what I really want out the next four years to come.

You are a maximizer, Terence tells me. And indeed I am, preferring to suss out all the possible options, make obsessive lists of the pros and cons of this or that, refusing to listen to my gut. I wonder what things would be like had the arrows of fate been flung in a different direction. What if I never went on the in-roads or shortcuts, never cut the soles of my feet, or bruised something deeper?

Do you have any questions? Yes; I ask every one of them: Do you have any regrets? None; often came the reply: the only thing I regretted is not staying as long as I should have.

Jacq, if you’re reading this, thank you for being such an inspiration. I know that in the grand scheme of things, and with the benefit of hindsight, this day wouldn’t come down to be a terribly important detail. Neither will the exact dimensions of being torn apart on a decision be recorded down very deeply. But this is a time to surprise myself, a time to drown out the calls for an extra degree (enticing M.A. indeed), a time to make that leap of faith, to just put trust my gut and be free of someone else’s image of myself.

New Haven – what a beautiful, promising name to that little town.

Yale, here I come!

decision point

March 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

Not too long ago one door I’ve struggled to get through closed, but today, many more have opened. I am glad.

There have been one too many what-ifs and could-have-beens, and this one could possibly make for the biggest of them yet. Is this a time for complete independence from all that is familiar, will I want to fit in nicely with the atmosphere, what does prestige really mean?

Soon I will look upon this day as either a fond memory or as cards badly played.

So many questions, so little time.