The shame of having a Chinese face

This is one of those overdue blog posts, which you know you want to write but you only keep thinking about it to the point that you actually delude yourself into thinking you’ve actually written it.

But a brilliant article by the incisive Bilahari Kausikan on What China’s Rise Means for Southeast Asia and Overseas Chinese finally jolted me into action.

I travel quite a bit and each time I fly, I wished I was wearing a burka (or a paper bag over my head). No matter how un-Chinese I try to look (being a honey brown instead of a pasty white), I’d still invariably be accosted by lost Chinese tourists at the Hong Kong airport who can’t seem to understand that they need to take a train to their boarding gate.

Or I will get hapless non-Mandarin speaking air stewardesses asking me to help explain to the clueless Chinese passengers how to use the in-flight entertainment system. And the Chinese passengers would in turn scold the air stewardess for not being able to speak Mandarin. Hello, the last I checked, this is Thai Airways, not China Eastern, so why should they have to speak Mandarin?

On a side note, I’d like to commend the professionalism of the air stewardesses on Turkish Airlines. I was seated across the aisle from a Chinese man in business class (work travel rocks!) and he was watching a movie on his iPad very loudly WITHOUT earphones. The stewardess tried to get him to lower the volume but wasn’t getting anywhere because he had zero English. She asked if we were travelling together and when I said no, she never bugged me again. Not even when he couldn’t understand “chicken” or “fish” during meal times. I was half-expecting her to ask me to translate. But she didn’t. Instead she found pictorial cards to get the message across. Props to her.

I feel very conscious about my Chinese face whenever I travel. The sad fact is that many people can’t tell who’s Chinese and who’s not. As long as you’re yellow with slitty eyes, you must be Chinese. Who cares if you’re from Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Korea, Japan or Singapore.

And when I’m in a situation where the Chinese are behaving badly (think queue cutting, being obnoxiously loud, exposing their smelly feet to everyone on the plane), I feel tainted by (facial) association. This is exacerbated if we were in a context where the Chinese are the minority, say a Western country. I’ve seriously considered wearing a sign that says “I am not Chinese” to dissociate myself from them.

Kausikan writes: “China seems to have great difficulty in accepting Singapore as a multiracial meritocracy. It seems that this is, to the Chinese, an alien mode of conceptualising an ethnic Chinese majority country. At any rate, Chinese officials, sometimes at very senior levels, constantly refer to Singapore as “a Chinese country” and ask for our “understanding” — by which I suspect they mean “agreement” — of their policies on that basis. Of course, we politely, but clearly and firmly, point out that we are not a Chinese country and that we have our own national interests that we cannot compromise without grievous and probably irreversible internal and international damage.”

During my time in Hong Kong, this was something that I regularly encountered. The Chinese can’t fathom why I don’t feel kinship with them even though my grandma came from China. Or my former boss would present me as the “China expert” to the clients, which I found rather offensive. It’s like calling an Australian an expert on all things British, or expecting Beyonce to know everything about Mother Africa.

It’s taken a while but I can now embrace the Chinese heritage and culture, since that’s part of my genetic make-up. I continue to painstakingly correct everyone who ask if I’m Chinese. No I’m not Chinese, I’m Singaporean. And proceed to educate them on the differences between the two.

I may look like you, but I’m nothing like you.

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When the guy I almost married marries someone else

I have to state upfront that the “almost wedding” happened some 13 years ago so it’s not like I’m hurting from a recent breakup.

It was one of those ridiculous relationships that you force yourself to stick with because you think God ordained it — until common sense kicked in. By that time I already had my gown (off-shoulder and Dutch Satin) and the wedding dinner was booked. I don’t want to slag off anyone here so it suffices to say that I thought it was better to endure the short-term humiliation of calling off a wedding than to not be able to be myself for the rest of my life.

Fast forward to present day where Facebook is the best grapevine around. When I saw his happy pre-wedding photos, the familiar green monster of envy reared its head and I was flooded with totally uncharitable thoughts.

Dictionary.com defines envy as a longing to possess something awarded to or achieved by another.

For the last few days I’ve been trying to figure out what I’m envious over exactly.

Is it because he’s getting married while I’m not?

Is it because they are such a perfect match while we were not?

Or is it because she’s slim, pretty and dressy – everything that I’m not?

My competitive streak dictates that I have to be better than everyone, yes, including current wives/girlfriends of ex-boyfriends. Maybe I’m feeling out of sorts because she trumps in every department, perhaps except the brains but that’s probably me being snarky.

The antidote to envy is usually to celebrate another person’s success or achievement. And it was only when I saw how well-suited they are — he likes being adored while she loves adoring him — that it struck me what was bugging me.

I was envious over the fact that she could so unreservedly adore him, so fully place him in the centre of her universe. She calls him her sun, the one who brings colour into her life, and that she never knew how to smile until he appeared.

I don’t know what that feels like. I’ve yet to meet someone on whom I want to pour out such unmitigated adoration. Heck, I don’t even know of anyone who’s available and that I look up to. God is, of course, a different matter.

So what’s eating at me is not envy nor jealousy but the wistfulness that comes from never experiencing the total abandonment of ourselves to another, the heady joy of revolving around another person.

And the wait continues.

“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.
~ Proverbs 14:30

How to torture an introvert

Coming out is extremely liberating, i.e., coming out as an introvert.

For years, Myers-Briggs insisted that I’m an ENFP but I felt that it surely can’t be correct as I find people extremely draining and making small talk with them even more so. At the same time, I’m not awkward or shy, and I’m comfortable giving talks in front of hundreds of people. After some long conversations with a fellow introvert and some cursory reading (yes phone calls scare me to bits), I’m relieved to know that I’m actually not weird. I’m just an introvert and a Highly Sensitive Person (ok, i don’t sob over movies but loud noise and cigarette smoke do bother me a lot).

Being a newly minted introvert, I can now confidently say that the best way of torturing an introvert is to put him or her into group travel. In my case, it was 10 days with 47 other people in the Middle East. The last time I went on a group tour was when I was 16 with my parents, and I’d swore never to do it ever again. But my travel buddy couldn’t get a visa easily to where we were going, so we had to bite the bullet and go on this bloated group tour. It was possibly the most emotionally draining thing I’ve ever done, and I’m still recovering from it.

1. Extrovert Thais

Thais in general are extroverts who love being social and being with people. They have an inordinate fear of being alone. They love going everywhere in groups and doing things together. Being introverts, my travel buddy and I found it very difficult to be part of this happy-clappity group. They seemed to be governed by a herd mentality that causes them to be uncomfortable with people who are different from them. And worst of all, they couldn’t stop talking. It wouldn’t be so bad if their chatter made sense. I was perpetually stuck sitting in front of this lady who made the most inane and stupid observations throughout the trip. I didn’t have my earphones with me and I thought my eyeballs were going to drop out from the constant rolling.

2. Unspoken expectations

The 48 people in the tour group hailed from three churches. I was one of the 14 from my church, a church that I’ve joined for about a year or two and I don’t know many people there. There were two free days during the trip. And being the obsessive planner that I am, I already knew where I would go on those two days. I even bought tickets online in advance. So during those two days, my buddy and I just went to do our thing. When we met the bigger group after those two days, we were greeted with words like, “oh we’d almost forgot that you came along with us” or “are you sure you’re part of our group”. Thank you for the sarcasm. To me, free means free = I can do whatever I want. And I’m not obliged to bring the whole village with me, especially when you’re probably not interested to spend four hours in a museum.

During the two free days, the rest of the tour group (minus me and my buddy) went to do stuff together. Remember what I said about herd mentality? One of the things they did was to go for additional teaching on God’s plan for Israel. I’d have loved to go. But it wasn’t communicated to us beforehand, just the night before, and I’d already planned out the two free days. But because we missed it, there was the assumption that we understood/knew less about what God is doing in Israel, compared to other people in the group. (Keep this at the back of your mind, as I’ll circle back to it later.)

Thais love to shop. They were constantly buying stuff. And I’m ok with that, even though I’d have much preferred to spend the time doing something more educational, but it’s a group tour and majority rules. But what I’m not ok with is people expecting us to be their mules and to carry their stuff because they shopped so much that they were over the baggage limit. And also expecting us to have to help them because they’re old. My adage is shop as much as you can carry. If you can’t carry your own stuff, you can’t expect others to carry your burden.

And don’t even get me started on Thais and cameras. Thais love taking photos of themselves. I love being behind the camera not in front. And I can’t help but grimace each time they drag me into a group photo, which is every time they get off the bus. So there you have the tour guide doing his best to explain stuff to us, and you have everyone taking photos of everyone at the same time. Again, I have no problem if you want to take photos of yourself in 101 cutesy poses using your mobile phone, but please don’t expect me to be your personal photographer and taking 10 to 20 portraits of you when there are other infinitely more interesting things to capture.

3. Worldly Christians

I’ve been a Christian long enough to know that being Christian is no guarantee of good manners or behaviour. Afterall, Jesus came to save the sinners, right? The only problem is that when it is a “Christian” tour group, one have to show “Christian” love even when other people are behaving badly.

Tour buses have a certain number of “good” seats and to me, the fairest way is to rotate everyday so that everyone has a chance to get a good view during the trip. But it seems that Thais prefer to sit in the same place from Day One. But what happens when someone takes your “good” seat on Day Two? I thought it was ok to change seats and plonked myself into another “good” seat but ended up causing a lot of unhappiness because I’d displaced the “owner” of the seat. By Day Three, I went back to the “bad” seat vacated by the person who “stole” my seat. So on Day Eight, when we went to Jordan, we changed buses and I as usual got the “good” seat. On Day Nine, the same person took my seat. I very politely asked her if she had moved. She said, yes, someone put her stuff there on my seat. Yeah right, scarves have feet. I’d have felt better if she’d asked if we could exchange seats. But because she’s from my church, and I can’t possibly be sarcastic at someone that I might have to see again, I just have to smile and take the “bad” seat.

Or here’s another example. We had half an hour for lunch and it was at a canteen where each of us were given a coupon. We were served the mains and we helped ourselves to the salad buffet, which had a wide selection of dressing, after which we were supposed to hand over the coupon as we left the line. So there were three people in front of me dithering over the dressing as they couldn’t figure out which was which. I don’t put dressing on my salad, so I just bypassed them and handed my coupon over. And one guy said quite loudly “queue-cutter”. But because I have to be Christian and “turn the other cheek”, I just walked away without engaging him even though I was boiling mad inside. Fatso, do you seriously expect me to wait behind you and your two ignorant pals as you figure out your left hand from your right? Plus there’s absolutely no loss to you if I go ahead of you. You’re not going to end up with less food, and neither do you have to wait extra.

4. Standing with Israel

One of the recurrent themes on the trip was how we Gentile Christians should “stand with Israel”. This could be through a variety of ways including prayer and giving. And the trip had also given me a better understanding of what it meant to “stand with Israel”.

To me, what better way to show that we “stand with Israel” by eating the food that they eat? But you see, Thais have a very set palate that finds very little joy in anything else other than Thai food. So they went on the trip well-prepared: fish sauce, shrimp paste, maggi sauce, chilli sauce, chilli flakes, canned tuna, instant noodles, dried fish. And they brought pork too. Lots of pork. Enough to last the whole group for 10 days. Dried pork (like bak gwa) in two-litre tupperware boxes. Plus packs and packs of pork floss. Every meal, they would lay out all these on the table and liberally sprinkle the pork on their rice. With no sense of inappropriateness. Despite us staying in the Muslim quarter in an Arab hotel. Despite us being in the kibbutz serving kosher food. They did this even in posh Arab restaurants outside. I grew up in a multicultural society and was always sensitive to the utensils used by my Muslim friends. And I was so embarrassed by what they did. How is this a good Christian witness? Oh we love you, Israel, but we just can’t eat your food. And the perpetrators? The pastors who’ve been to the country at least three to four times to “stand with Israel”. Eat cup noodles if you find that you don’t like the local food. But pork? Seriously?

At the end of the tour, it’s customary to tip the tour guide and the driver. In our case, our guide is a Messianic Jew (meaning a Jew who believes in Jesus). For Christians who “stand with Israel”, the Messianic Jew is like the best person you can show that love to by giving. And the tour leader (Thai) also emphasized that, plus the tour guide’s wife was giving birth on the same day. So she said that the minimum is USD 10 per person, but feel free to give more than that. The tour leader’s assistant went around with an envelope to collect the tips and she came to this woman, the same one who was always sitting behind me with the inane prattle. She’s not poor by any chance, judging from the undiscriminating way and amount she shopped. The same woman, who a few moments ago was telling everyone how much God blessed her with money and how she ended up with three new cars, handed over a ten-dollar note, and asked for five dollars in change. So be it, amen. Oh and by the way, she did go for that additional teaching on God’s plan for Israel, which I-the-one-with-little-understanding missed.

This entire post has been a very long rant, although I’ve tried very hard to keep my blog from degenerating into a complaint bureau. But it was 10 days of being cheek to jowl with people that I could hardly tolerate except for a handful. And I feel that I can’t start processing what I’ve learnt from the trip until I air all these bad feelings that have been bottled up.

Now that it’s all out, I do feel strangely liberated. Just like when I came out.

Remembering Sars

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“Where’s your meeting?” my boss asked.

“The birthplace of Sars.”

The irony was not lost on me as I made my maiden visit to Guangzhou for a business meeting while the world commemorates the 10th anniversary of Sars. As the taxi weaved through the peak-hour traffic, all I could think of was how inter-connected we all were, and perhaps even more now. A virus that supposedly started in bats, made its way through someone’s tummy, and ended up infecting more than 8,000 people worldwide, with a 10% fatality rate. In Singapore, it killed 33.

Ten years ago, I was still a journalist and was hunting for Sars before it even had a name. It was one of those days when I was on 3pm duty, which means you get to start work at 3pm and work til midnight, and you cover anything that happens last minute. I never liked 3pm duties, I always pray that no one important dies, no fatal car crashes and nothing big explodes while I’m on 3pm. And the 3pm reporter is also the person the editor sends out to check out hunches or verify grapevine rumours — which was exactly what happened to me. The editors heard that  a few people have taken ill from a mysterious flu that is not responding to any antibiotics.

“Can you go to Tan Tock Seng Hospital and find out more about this flu?” my editor ordered.

“Ok, do you know which ward?”

“All we know is that they’re at TTSH.”

Sighing inside, I left the office and resigned myself to a day of combing the hospital for some people with a bad bout of flu. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for when I arrived at the hospital. Perhaps people huddled around looking worried, maybe a big sign saying “mysterious flu here”. And I had to be very careful to look for the information without letting on that I’m a reporter. So I combed every floor, and every ward that I could get into. I even pretended to be a concerned friend of the mysteriously ill patient (I know it’s not exactly ethical, but trust me, you don’t want to go back to the editor empty-handed), but none of the nurses seem to know where the patients with the flu are.

A few days later, I was on the dratted 3pm duty again, and on a Sunday too. A Singapore Airlines flight from New York was quarantined at Frankfurt because a Singaporean doctor on board was sick. The entire media circus was waiting at the Changi Airport when the plane finally arrived in Singapore. As expected, the passengers weren’t none too keen to talk given their enforced quarantine, they all just wanted to get to a clean shower and bed.

I was still quite blase about everything until more people started getting sick and more people were getting quarantined. I offhandedly told another editor that I was roaming about TTSH in the early days of the disease when she freaked out and sent me to the doctor’s for a blood test. I thought she was over-reacting, until people started dying.

The Ministry of Health gave daily Sars updates which highlighted new deaths and new cases. Sometimes names of the deceased were given, sometimes not. If there was a name, we were expected to try to locate the victim’s family and do a story. These daily updates made depressing news. For a few weeks, people died almost every week and the number of new infections just kept on going up. There was no logic as to whom Sars would claim. The old died, the young died, men died, women died, even the healthy died. Yet we found comfort in the small victories, rejoicing when no new deaths were recorded or when the rate of infection slowed.

For two months, the little country was at war with an invisible enemy and the soldiers on the frontline fought hard. I salute the staff at TTSH and Singapore General Hospital who continued to care for the Sars patients at great personal cost. Not only did they put their lives at risk but they were also shunned by neighbours and even relatives who were afraid of being infected. They did the work, I just wrote the stories.

And it was to remember how the nation pulled together that a team of us were commissioned to put together a special supplement on Sars. As I was one of the few in the newsroom who could just about string a sentence in Chinese together , I was assigned to talk to a Mandarin-speaking Sars survivor. She made it but her husband and son didn’t. To me, the most distasteful part about being a journalist is having to talk to grieving families and intruding into their privacy. But a job is a job and sometimes it can be cathartic for the grieving to talk about their loved ones, I consoled myself, like the time when a man was telling me about this brother’s favourite football club just hours after the brother jumped to his death.

So I steeled myself and went to talk to Mrs Tay, who was 54 then. Thankfully, the counsellors have already spoken to her and she was open to talking to us. The first thing I noticed when I stepped into her flat was how spartan it looked. She’d thrown away everything that reminded her of her husband and son — bed, mattress, CDs, posters. She kept some family photos and her husband’s brand-new passport. Both Mrs Tay and her husband sold vegetables at a wholesale centre and had planned a trip to China later that year. It would have been their first trip overseas.

Now, if interviewing a grieving widow and mum was difficult, the worst was yet to come. I needed a photo. Colleagues with similar assignments were all having problems with getting visuals. Seeing that Mrs Tay has yet to chase me out of her flat with a broom, I plunged right in and asked if we could take a photo. She was reluctant at first, but in the end she said yes, to my extreme relief.

Looking at the article and photo 10 years later, the same lump rises in my throat. What do you say to a woman who’s lost her husband and son to a deadly disease? You just ache along with her. Even now.

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Silly Furby Fad

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The only thing that’s been cropping up on my FB newsfeed from Thai people for the last two months is Furbies – where to get them, how to get them, oh-i-got-one, oh-it’s-so-cute.  And once they’ve got one, they post photos and videos of it constantly on FB, just like mums with their newborn babies. Furby talking, Furby sleeping, Furby dancing…

Furbies look like Mogwai from Gremlins. They speak Furbish and you can teach them how to go from baby babble to English, as they can mimic you. Furbies were really popular in 1998, I remember playing with them as a kid. So basically the Thais are just like 15 years late to the game. Watching the Furby craze take over the country is like seeing the resurgence of Tamagotchi (your electronic pet chicken in your pocket) from the nineties or the big hairdos from the eighties.

Now, I’m extremely tolerant of kids haranguing for a Furby. After all they are kids and should be forgiven as they know not what they are are doing. But grown women behaving like kids going on and on about Furbies are beyond my limited comprehension. In Thailand, a Furby is going for THB 3700 (USD 123) to THB 4200 (USD 140). Now since I measure everything against a bowl of noodles on the street which is THB 35, the cheapest Furby costs more than 100 bowls of noodles. In short, Furby costs more than three months of lunch.

The unfathomable demand for Furbies has led to a $250,000 scam and the Science Ministry warning parents of the negative impacts of the toy.

Looking at the grown women obsessing over the big-eyed Furby, I can conclude only one thing – their womb is talking. Perhaps their maternal clock is ticking and they don’t have a kid of their own, that’s why they’re so gaga over a toy that behaves like a baby. Except that the Furby can turn itself off after one minute of inactivity, which I’m sure real mothers would be quite thankful for!

“Dust you are and to dust you shall return”

Today is Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent – a little-known fact here, even among Christians.

I’m not surprised. I grew up in an Anglican church, and I was never interested in church calendars or church festivals. Liturgy is boring and fetters the spontaneous move of God, I used to think. Liturgy is the reason people stop going to church because no one understands why we have to stand, sit, and kneel so many times in two hours, I used to argue. I disdained liturgy and all the trappings that went with it — men in long white house-dresses is so medieval age (or so gay, as my more cynical friends would say).

It was a wise teacher whom I got to know during a stint in the UK nine years ago who pointed out that every Christian denomination has a “liturgy” even if they don’t call it that. From the strictest Presbyterian to the most free-flowing Charismatic, every church has an order of service which is followed faithfully every week. The Anglicans have the Book of Common Prayer which is a collection of prayers to be used for different days or occasions. I used to be able to mind-numbingly rattle off the most often-used prayers while I thought of what I should have for lunch after service.

It was in UK that I realised that perhaps the problem didn’t lie with the prayer but with the person praying (and/or leading) it. If we recite it as we do a boring history text, then the words are devoid of meaning to us. But if we read it and mean what we say, then it comes alive.

Here’s an example. Every church takes an offering every Sunday. And after every offering, someone says a prayer which usually goes along the line of thanking God for His provision and that the offering be used for His kingdom. Having heard so many of these prayers over the years, and I may be biased, but I still find the Anglican offertory prayer the most beautiful. “Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour, and the majesty, for everything in heaven and on earth is Yours. All things come from You, and of Your own do we give You.” Pre-prepared words, yes, but how does one improve upon them?

That was my awakening to church liturgy in a nutshell and a digression from the main topic.

So, Ash Wednesday got its name from the practice of believers getting ashes put on their forehead as a reminder of their mortality and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ash is from the burning of Palm Sunday crosses from the year before. Some churches still do it, others don’t. I didn’t get an ashy forehead at the church this evening.

"For all false judgements, for uncharitable thoughts towards our neighbours and for our prejudice and contempt towards those who differ from us." -- oops....

“For all false judgements, for uncharitable thoughts towards our neighbours and for our prejudice and contempt towards those who differ from us.” — oops….

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, which is a 40-day period during which believers prepare themselves to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s also a time of spiritual stock-taking, perhaps we’ve squeezed God out of our busy lives without realising it.

Some people fast or give up something during Lent to remember the hardships Jesus went through on the Cross. Traditionally, people would give up meat or rich delicacies. But in moving with the times, some of my friends are giving up Facebook for Lent, which I think might be more difficult than not eating meat!

A cup a day keeps me happy all the way

A cup a day keeps me happy all day!

I’m giving up chocolate for Lent. Chocolate to me is what coffee is to caffeine addicts. I eat chocolate when I’m happy, I eat chocolate when I’m sad. I eat chocolate everyday, more regularly than my vitamins.

Some people ask me why Christians need to torture themselves by giving up something for Lent? Is it to make God love us more? Do we get extra brownie points in heaven for doing so? Perhaps it’s not about giving up something but more about doing something for Lent.

So each time I say “No” to chocolate, it’s a reminder of what I should do this Lent — to be more loving, more gracious and less ballistic over idiot drivers. It reminds me in that split second to think of someone else other than myself. But just to make sure I keep my hands off chocolate, I’m going to keep my stash under lock, stock and barrel until Easter.

Holy God, our lives are laid open before you:
rescue us from the chaos of sin
and through the death of your Son
bring us healing and make us whole
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

The mortality of my K2 skates

There are a few things I’d always do whenever I come back to Singapore on holiday. Stuff my face, meet friends, and skate. I’d taken my K2 soft boots with me to Bangkok in my early years there but the badly maintained tracks at the park and its unreasonable restrictions on wheels of all forms (allowed only between 10am to 3pm and after 9pm) put paid to any rosy notions of skating there. So I’d eventually brought my skates back to Singapore and resigned myself to using them three times a year.

A few days ago, I was dismayed to find that the strap of the buckle had snapped without me knowing. Which meant I couldn’t skate until I got it fixed. Or if it were too expensive, I might have to say goodbye to them.

I bought these skates when I was 20, an age when life was full of possibilities and we felt as immortal as can be. Fifteen years later, the skates are looking shabby and I am getting hoary. Don’t believe it when people tell you that things go downhill after 30. The truth is, you turn 35, and it’s a nosedive from there.

Your mortality confronts you at every turn. Say goodbye to your Size 2 skirts. You’ll never be able to fit into them ever. Not even after a bout of gastric flu. Your system gets invaded by aliens whose names such as acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, haemorrhoids become uncomfortably familiar Your body starts falling apart. Injuries take longer to heal, scabs take longer to form. I, who came in a “proud” second in a primary school teeth competition, am now having problems with my pearlies, dreading the approaching day that I will need crowns.

While I may not be able to halt the decline of my uncooperative body, I could repair my skates. For $30, my aged skates now have brand new buckles and a second lease of life. For $30, I got to skate again and, in that hour today, savoured the immortality of youth once again.

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