My Sophomore Spring Harvard Classes + Some Little Things

Belatedly, wishing all of you: Happy Year of the Pig!!! ❤ ❤ ❤

First things first, things that have served as brilliant reminders when life works weirdly:

1. Turn your FOMO into JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) — I would like to interpret it as loving yourself and realizing that doing nothing or doing less are all relative terms that we use to measure ourselves relative to something external. Though we might often doubt ourselves for not doing enough, not spending time on academics or extracurriculars might mean spending it with your body, your mind, or your soul. (Thank you, Marwah. x) That’s as worthwhile and meaningful. We all have different paths and different destinations along the way. So the balance is to walk my own path while still keeping in sight where I want to go and to make sure I’m keeping pace with my internal calling.

 

2. Maintaining a healthy weight is a marathon not a sprint!!!

3. My classes. Let’s say, Q = “Eating more brings weight gain” — at least, there’s one thing in life that works by the same causal logic as proposition Q: reading and thinking more brings a better version of myself. I’ve slacked off quite a bit this long weekend (on Sunday, I curled up in a corner of Cabot Library and just read romance novels for an entire afternoon). No skimping on readings subsequently, Selina!!!

Now, a bit more about what I’m taking this semester:

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AESTHINT 47 Forbidden Romance in Modern China

I was destined to take this class. Forbidden Romance? Check. China? Check. We’ve studied illicit love letters between Lu Xun and his female student, Yu Dafu’s auto-erotic story of narcissism and patriotism, and the secret love affair between the married darling of modern China and Virginia Woolf’s nephew.

Almost astonishingly, I’ve discovered that women back then had much greater latitude in exploring new forms of intimacy, constructing a new feminine subjectivity in romantic liaisons, and breaking from societal traditions. The many types of love (teacher-student, extramarital, eroticism, older woman-younger man) that flourished then amidst the post-May 4th zeitgeist might be considered taboo right now. Perhaps, the literary history of modern romance is a narrative of regression.

Professor David Wang, who teaches this, is so incredibly earnest and empathetic in his lectures. His lecture on the life of Yu Dafu (a writer who began his life with debauchery and ended up in martyrdom) was the first time I teared up in a lecture.

HIST-LIT 97 Sophomore Tutorial — Cultures of U.S. Imperialism

One of my main reasons for declaring History & Literature is to explore imperialism/postcolonialism and narrative historiography (empire and globalization through fiction) in tandem. We will be reading many authors who I have encountered before (which could be a good or a bad thing): E. M. Forster, Joseph Conrad (!!!), J. M. Coetzee, Wole Soyinka, and Jamaica Kincaid. Thus far, we’ve looked at the British empire as much as the U.S. empire. It’s interesting being the only non-American a class as U.S.-centric as this one, and having grown up with a partially Anglophone education in Singapore that bears the indelible vestiges of British colonialism.

PHIL 33 Ethical Issues in Social, Cultural, and Artistic Representation

Telling other people about my classes this semester has been a mouthful because of Phil 33. Everyone’s response is always a lull, followed by, Say again?

I didn’t actually shop this class, but shopped numerous others. Expectedly, on the Friday of Shopping Week, I once again ended up in utter confusion and disarray about my course cart. After my friend told me in the afternoon about this class, I decided to enroll on a whim. I’m interested in the topics we have been discussing in class (it’s just 8 of us) in the abstract, but not that much in the specific. Right now, we have been analyzing arguments on both sides of the Confederate symbol debate. How do we judge the past? What gives a symbol its racist meaning? How can we correct historical injustice?

Subsequent topics might resonate more:

  • Cultural Property and Cultural Appropriation
  • Stereotypes
  • Ethics and Fictional Representations

PHIL 136 Phenomenology of Lived Experience

Taught by Professor Samantha Matherne!!! (She taught my Kant class last semester and was phenomenal.) Absolutely a blast so far. I wasn’t familiar at all with the word ‘Phenomenology’ before taking this class and still am not quite sure. The central question is: what are the general structures that any experience involves?

We started by looking at treatments of the phenomenology of lived experience in general in texts by Brentano and Husserl (now Heidegger). I’m really excited to later work out the phenomenology of specific modes of lived experience in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Emilio Uranga’s “Essay on an Ontology of the Mexican,” and Sara Ahmed’s “Orientations: Towards a Queer Phenomenology.”

I WILL DO MY READINGS THOROUGHLY!

If any of these ideas interest you, come talk to me about my classes anytime.

4. Happy Lantern Festival! 元宵节快乐~We’ve reached the fifteenth (and the last) day of the Lunar New Year celebrations so fast. There have been some dreary days and afternoons of seemingly incurable malaise, but also some mornings when I sit in class and look at the world in wonder, emerging from a vulnerable conversation into a kinder world.

Even though I haven’t eaten tangyuans (those glutinous balls with black sesame or peanut paste fillings), I had a call with my mom tonight across continents and time zones, which put my life in perspective and filled me with faith. Thank you for always believing in me. You don’t know how much it means to me, 妈咪 ❤ Sending this ball of positive energy to all of you. On cold nights with swirling snow weighing on gaunt treetops, think of this cute picture below.

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Lots of love,

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[Story] The Plato Act

Author’s Note: Hello loves, I’m currently in the midst of my final papers (two down, one more to go!) — here’s the creative, futuristic piece that I submitted as my final paper yesterday for my History & Literature seminar on Speculative Fictions. The central conceit might seem speculative to some of you, might be eerily familiar to others. What do you think? Happy reading! x

Plato Mind

Utopia by Moe Pike Soe

There will be no end to the troubles of states or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world.

— Plato, The Republic

Our state takes this quote very seriously. We all do. It undergirds our entire system, the ship of our country runs on its steam. No one likes to think that she is a cog in a juggernaut. But. Nearly two centuries ago, Benedict Anderson called a nation an imagined political community — ours is an imagined community that can still command emotional legitimacy when most others are erratically unraveling and becoming unimagined even as I write. Borders are falling like dominoes imploded by floods of refugees in the Northern hemisphere. History will call it the Fourth Wave, more potent and ceaseless compared to the ones that came before. We are blessed to still have the chance to be cogs in the enduring edifice of our city-state. And maybe, with time, something more.

The very first to come undone was Germany. The Foreign Ministry sent alerts to all our PAs. My mother didn’t even have to cancel our Christmas trip tickets because Boeing Inc. refunded all tickets after terminating all flights to Germany indefinitely. Other than the fact that my mother was disappointed that her highly sought-after event planning skills were not put to the test, no one else in our family was unhappy. It wasn’t too late for my dad to purchase a 1974 FIFA World Cup tournament simulation seat, which was happening at the Next/Now sports stadium five blocks away — Technically speaking, I’ll still be in West Berlin, he said merrily — and I got the newest iBook in the Penguin x Oculus Collection on the morning of December 25th as a substitute reward for my excellent exam performance last season.

The implosion of borders also happened from within. In Germany, Canada, Italy and the others that have disintegrated, a common thread has been native fundamentalist groups, which formed virtual republics with their own passports, parliamentary systems, crypto institutions, and safe spaces for anti-real mobilizations (Birdy 08/02/2178 12:33PM: Hacking of government data, embezzling funds from financial behemoths, assassinations of Triples… Honestly, the list goes on.). What seeded all these disillusionment was how real-world governments in these democracies have acted, or more specifically chosen to not act, seven years ago when the genetic modification needed for longevity was unlocked. This discovery would triple lifespans — a real breakthrough since former research had only allowed for improved health with an average lifespan of 122 years. Three scientists in China filed the patent; biotech corporations around the globe gobbled it up; luxurious specialized clinics had their grand openings in all the strategic cities. The trend unfurled too fast for legal protocols to match. Most governments couldn’t and didn’t do anything in response. I know how I’m phrasing it right now makes it seem as though it spread like wildfire. News of it certainly did. But, the procedure cost upwards of ten digits, which though not out-of-the-world, made it only accessible to the top 1% or so. Which is still quite a lot of people, arithmetically speaking. But, statistics-wise, to the masses, it was infuriating. To call it anger would be a euphemism.

Consider it carefully. The chance to live for an additional two centuries was not just more years, but also an investment — at the accelerating rate of technological progress, who knew what new discoveries future generations would bring to the table? Being able to undergo the modification might mean being able to live till the moment when immortality is made possible. With such ample time, what achievement wouldn’t be possible? The advantages you could accrue, the lengths to which you could cultivate your mind, nothing will be out of reach. What the sharpest commentators quickly realized and duly propagated on all the massive social networks was the radical inequity that our world was on the cusp of. Mankind has come face to face with an impending bifurcation of its species, with irreversible repercussions (Birdy 13/07/2179 5:19PM: Until the day that time travel is invented, I guess). With time on their side, the Triples will have the chance to evolve into a more intelligent species. The rest of humanity, the have-nots, the 122s, will be standing at the opposite shore, staring at the ever-widening chasm and the ever-receding far bank. An abyss with a single bridge across. The bridge of genes that needs wealth’s keys.

***

Questions? our Logic teacher, Mr. Tan, turns to ask the class, holding his stylus up after scribbling the equation with a flourish.

My hand goes up immediately. Mr. Tan’s eyes crinkle.

Ah, as usual, he says, yes Birdy?

If P1 and P3 must both be on the team, and at most one of G2 and G4 can be on the team, how can the team still include G4?

You’re making a fallacy here, Birdy, he says, eyes glinting, now look here…

Mr. Tan’s PA system records our exchange. My live bar graph for class participation grows, sending a notification to my screen. Though rankings are not disclosed to decrease competition between peers, I am certain that I am in the top bracket for all four Quotients in my class. But, if things go well — at this thought, I murmur a prayer to the incense-cloaked Buddhas my mother so devoutly entreats every time I have an assessment —

I glance at the time. It’s three minutes till 12 noon, which is when they said the results of the national Gifted assessment will be released.

Two minutes later, our form teacher Mdm. Rajaratnam, with hawk-like eyes behind the latest version of Google Glass perching on her button nose, sweeps into the room.

She has only one brown envelope in the crook of her arm. It looks heavy. It has been a while since I’ve seen those — the last time was when I received a constituency award for being in top national percentiles in terms of academic performance. The sight of the envelope sends ripples throughout the class of thirty. Everyone puts down their stylus, looks up from their screens, shifts in their seats. Someone stops in mid-yawn and another person nervously clears his throat.

The two rounds of Gifted Education Program (GEP) assessment held across the nation each year identify the top 1% of students from each cohort with outstanding intelligence scores across all dimensions — analytical, creative, practical, and successful intelligence. The four hundred or so students are placed within special schools, with individualized study options, enrichment programs, top teaching staff, and a stimulating learning environment. But, only one envelope? I feel my hands tremble.

Many things are at stake. 77% of our Members of Parliament come from the GEP — as do 55% of our Ministers. So do 43% of C-suite personnel of local companies that have gone public. By all measures, from the number of admissions to top tertiary organizations (Birdy 22/12/2177 7:04PM: Universities, entrepreneurial fellowships, genius labs, etc.) to income brackets later in life, GEP graduates perform remarkably well. Six months after the emergence of Triples, a new law involving the GEP was passed after a simple majority in Parliament (Birdy 31/05/2181 7:45PM: Ha, unsurprising since our ruling party has had at least a 70% of seats since 1965) and much public discussion — vehement accusations of elitism and tentative support of the bill’s almost audacious prescience in the face of major scientific progress.

The Longevity Meritocracy Act. Also dubbed the Plato Act by many commentators.

Meritocracy is our nation’s main principle of governance and, in a country with a stable three-century-long regime under the same ruling party, meritocracy has had the time to seep into the wet earth, lace the expanse of steel, glass, and granite, weigh on the humidity of the island, and etch itself in the sinews and bones of its people. Here, on our island, opportunities instead of outcomes are equalized. Resource allocation and advancement in society are determined according to individual ability and achievement.

Now, with the Plato Act, the greatest resource of all is made accessible to those with merit, regardless of color, creed, and class. In the tenth and final year of the program, GEP graduates will be tested for their Emotional, Cultural, and Adversity Quotients. From this pool of exceptionally intelligent students, those with top 5% aggregated Quotient scores will be eligible for the genetic modification procedure for longevity under government sponsorship. In exchange, these students will have to serve in politics or public service for six decades after post-tertiary education.

Who wouldn’t? In exchange for six decades, one gets another thirty decades to live. This would ensure that the most deserving individuals by most holistic measures live longer while being contractually obligated to contribute their talents back to society. The best and brightest at the helm. That’s how our country has been run and, now with the new law, will be run for the foreseeable future. This is why our tiny island with few natural resources and limited land space has been able to top the rankings for GDP per capita for centuries. From young, we are told that our nation’s greatest resource is us — the humans populating its waterports, skyscrapers, and resicaves.

I’m staring intently at the brown envelope in Mdm. Rajaratnam’s grip. Our family is comfortably middle-class, but definitely not wealthy enough to afford the longevity genetic modification. Being granted admission to the GEP increases my odds of becoming a Triple exponentially. Along the way, our nation would concentrate the best resources on stimulating my growth and helping me to realize my full intellectual potential.

Only one person in class has received admission into the GEP, Mdm. Rajaratnam says, sounding almost wistful, so I only have one envelope, as you can see.

In a moment that felt like a fizzed-out scene from a faulty Google Glass, I see her lips move but struggle to make out the words. She walks towards me as though through water. Someone pokes me with a stylus. There’s a prick of pain.

She says my name. Three times.

***

Modern-day philosopher king, Eric says.

Who? I ask, knowing the answer, but wanting to hear it from his lips.

Birdy, Birdy, Birdy, he says, in what could almost be a sing-song voice.

I’m trying not to laugh.

He takes a bite of the apple cinnamon scone, chewing thoughtfully.

I’m serious though, he says while pushing the platter full of dainty pastries before me, a look of magnanimity on his face, if Plato could crawl out of his grave and see the world now, he would love your country. The Republic of our times. So would Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson?

The natural aristocracy, he speaks, plucking a lemon macaron from the platter, filled with virtuous talents like you. Jefferson would praise the heavens.

You don’t think it’s unfair?

No, he says, I have no philosophical qualms about the entire system. You are the epitome of the kind of individual that should lead society. Looking at you, I think they got it right.

His voice is solemn but I hear the sincerity. It almost burns me. A gorge rises in my throat.

I hold his gaze for a moment, and then, suddenly afraid that he can read my eyes, look down. I’ve not told anyone else about my burgeoning doubts. Three years ago, I was one of twenty graduates of my GEP cohort eligible to become a Triple. Two years ago, I came to the United States for university education. Now, I’m sitting across the table from a boy called Eric in a café capsule.

According to plan, I am to return to my country after university. Then, before I begin my sixty-year bond, I will undergo the longevity procedure — all expenses paid. What then awaits me is six decades of public service and a possible entry into politics if the party identifies me as a promising candidate. Thereafter, I have another three centuries when I’m free to pursue my passions.

Two problems arise:

  1. In my first semester at university, I enroll in a creative writing class. It feels like stepping into a second skin, like holding the molten heart of the universe in my hands, dripping rivulets of tears onto the screen, like the only thing that can set me afire apart from the years-old instinct to excel.
  2. This American boy who I’m falling in love with, or maybe already am, is a 122.

When I look up again, his face is silhouetted against the timber light.

The capsule hushes as he speaks, the words like an offering — like the one my mother made between me and the Buddhas, like the one he now makes between me and time.

Birdy, he says slowly but emphatically, you have to show the world how human intelligence at its peak can lead a country to sustained prosperity. No artificial intelligence can ever be a philosopher king. Only someone like you. One picked to be groomed from millions. On an island that can enact a system as philosophically brilliant as this. In America, only the rich have the option. The one you have.

His face blurs. I take a shaky breath.

His voice sounds almost desolate in the quiet, ricocheting off the wall of the capsule. I will be a philosopher, he tells me, and you will be a philosopher king. Plato would be proud.

***

Today, I sit in the room I grew up in, on the fortieth floor, the sunlight glazing the curtains. Heat on the glass, chilly air within.

I’m writing this on the first day after the procedure. Three and a half centuries is a long time. I don’t know if I will still be the same ‘I’ then. Of course, the whole thing is, once you step onto this path, you are never quite the same human, you are some new individual that this world has never encountered before. An immigrant in time. So, too, with the rest of humanity. Once they understand, truly understand that the category boundaries of human have weakened, they will never see the world in the same way again. The units of living, the denominations of experiences, and the meaning of death are changed forever.

But, right now, the year is 2177. It’s too early to tell. I will have enough time to figure it out eventually. I think.

Time

After the Darkness, A Meadow of Books

The number of papers I’ve written this semester: 

7.

Words that appeared in my first 10-page screenplay*

Wong Kar-wai. Temple. Claypot. Kant. Fortune-teller. White peach tart. Mahjong. Wikipedia. Red Mansion Dream. The Gods are real.

*If you are intrigued and would like to read it in exchange for giving me your genuine critique and constructive feedback, please reach out to me. (´・ω・`)

The number of times I went to the gym: 

8.

Where I’m going for Thanksgiving Break:

Cambridge (UK) & London (hello my loves)!!!

The number of sit-down exams I will have during Finals: 

0.

WHAT? It is, fortunately, happily, emphatically, true.

Correlatively, the total number of pages I will have to write in my final papers:

41 to 48 pages.

(A 20-page screenplay, a 6-8 page Global Fictions paper, a 7-10 page literary analysis or creative project, and an 8-10 page paper on Kant.)

The number of days till I come back home (i.e. fly back to Singapore): 

40.

(In fact, I won’t even be on campus during Finals Week (or Reading Period) because I’m flying off on the last day of class, which is December 5th. I shall lovingly labor over my papers in Singapore.)

A jumble of things on my mind: 

Unpaid. internships. Concentration dilemmas. (ಥ﹏ಥ) Career choices. “Don’t idealize or romanticize suffering.” Screenwriting. Grad school? Techno-orientalism, postcolonialism, literature & culture & race. Sit in an alcove and read and read and read until I grow cracks and crumble like moth wings. Do novels get written under deadlines? Do I want a creative senior thesis? I want to read big, fat, difficult, swollen, convoluted books that I will never read again. But, I don’t want to take a class only on Shakespeare, or Poetry, or early British literature. I should do Hist & Lit. The fantasy of intimacy with the language is increasingly falling apart. I want a critical lens, to explore, to challenge, to immerse myself in the contemporary, not the old, white, Western canon that has nothing to do with a 21st-century Singaporean-Chinese girl grappling with globalization, who wants to enter a conversation with writers who deal in that vein of global imagination. 

Here’s an Easter egg—a random snippet I typed on my phone in class because I was hungry and homesick and harboring within me a dim sum-shaped hole: 

The first thing I hear when the Play begins is the flurry of Cantonese chatter. Flying across the room like darts and then bouncing on the cloud of soft affection, blood ties, subtle enmity and piping hot early morning news Fresh off the Tongue making rounds.

Xuan, beautiful, a head taller and cantonese-speaking, whispers into my ear, with a glint in her eye. That short fat man, Xuan says, with a hiccup, as she downs another gulp of sweet white coconut milk, does pharmaceuticals and always loses in mahjong, probably intentionally when he plays with my Ma. Listening, my mouth forms the shape of an ‘o’.

No one else notices us collapsing into giggles, or my wobbly chopsticks dropping the prawn puff beneath the table, or us imitating the adults while chewing, or me eating three times The Amount of Golden Buns that Mami said I was allowed to.

The table is strewn with dumplings with different skin, different colors, different meat textures, with brown baskets of steaming hot pastries half the size of my tiny palm, with sweet chicken claws and spicy carrot cake, hard noodles in cups and soft eggs in half cut shells, and the iced mango sago melting over my tongue like cold cold honey.

***
After a brief patch of darkness, of indecision, of agonizing back-and-forths between two concentrations that may seem indistinguishable to the observer (English with its early British literature and poetry requirements and the glowing possibility of writing a novel in a Creative thesis, and History & Literature with its incredible freedom of charting my own course and piecing together a singular academic focus from an array of departments), of self-interrogation, of asking myself again and again ‘What do I want out of college?’, of grasping the shovel to dislodge already fixed aspirations, of negotiating the dilemma of studying the canon versus what I’m actually intellectually passionate about, of self-doubt, of my aversion to certain facets of the English language, of my fraught relationship with writing…

I see that there is always a meadow of books—my green light, an intellectual lodestar. It eludes me sometimes, but it’s an ancient instinct from which I may stray but always never wander far.

My favorite books that I read in class this semester: 

 

 

Lots of love,

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[Story] The Writer

Author’s Note: This short story was submitted as the final paper for a class last semester.

The protagonist of this story is the act of writing itself. I am fascinated by the idea of the separation of the writer and the person into two selves, of the tension existing within the diasporic writer. Set in the present day, this short story is about an assimilated, Westernized writer returning to a distinctly Asian world that she had rejected as part of her writing identity. The narrator’s inability to write without artifice in a literary tradition she couldn’t reconcile with her own experience as an immigrant is a rethinking of the myth of belonging in a postcolonial world. 

While this short story is a synthesis of the ideas that jumped out at me throughout my course (ENG 90CNC) with Professor Homi Bhabha, it responds to the concerns of a few texts in particular: the themes of writing in V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival and memory in J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus.

I’ve been thinking about these themes as I struggle to create and simultaneously grapple with (rephrasing from The Idiot‘s dust jacket) “the growing consciousness that I am doomed to become a writer” (maybe not doomed haha, not exactly).

Exit the gleaming train station through its marbled walkway, turn left around the towering office building with the glassy exterior, yes, spot the beige-colored mall seven stories high, cut through the swaths of people and brands to the back entrance and emerge on the other side, do you see it? A row of two-story shophouses, Chinese-Baroque style, with the ground floor sitting back from the narrow tarmac road you’re on, and overhanging verandas supported by a brace of columns. The footway with its glazed ceramic tiles is five feet wide. Once you pass the hardware shop, the porridge joint, the old men with hooded eyes lazily smoking and grumpy aunties gossiping in threes, stop before an iron-grilled door.

In the years after, I traced that route. In my mind, the iron grilles weren’t locked and the doors would be flung wide open. There would be a stooped figure sipping tea behind the counter, with stacks of drawers rising up behind her like library shelves, like dusty archives. She would hear the sound of my soles on the creaky wooden floor and look up through a veil of steam. She would say, eyes crinkling, Ah-girl, you’re back.

When I actually made that trip, after an even longer one before that from New York to Frankfurt to this tiny island, the door was unforgivingly closed. I stood there.

There was a spurt of pain from something digging into the soft moistness of my palms.

Someone piped up from the porridge joint in a raspy voice, Miss, that shop has been closed for months. Swee Mui’s in the hospital.

I never wanted to come back. If I did, I never wanted to return in this way. Many things had led me to this moment, this standstill between a woman and a door, a past she rejected but now faced her. The international long-distance phone call, the ceremony, the urn, the papers, the key. The key was now clenched tightly in my fist.

It slid easily into the keyhole, I turned it, and the grille swung open.

There were some mutterings behind me as I stepped into the shop parlor and closed the door. Who is she? Swee Mui’s syunneui? Then the room drifted for a moment on the receding tide of sound before sinking into silence.

***

I had been writing in New York for ten years. Before that, I studied Creative Writing in a small liberal arts college in Clinton for another four. In those fourteen years, I had stayed resolutely in the Americas. There were occasional getaways with one or two college friends to Puerto Rico or Cancun or Guatemala, but that dwindled into nothing as they built their lives—a banking job, a partner, a family—while I stayed in my apartment, writing, still trying to become a writer.

The journey that seeded all the others was the very first one I made to America. It was to be my first pilgrimage to New York City, the first trip that would take me out of Asia, and the beginning of a true writer’s career. I had just turned eighteen and had received a full scholarship to study writing at an American college. My parents had protested, but Popo was the one I grew up with and the matriarch of our family. She gave her stamp of approval and that was it.

In the cool, shaded corners of the shophouse, I had grown up reading James and Salinger and then Wharton and Fitzgerald. My idea of a writer was stuck resolutely in a faraway universe—an obsolete picture, I knew—but endlessly alluring: a woman wrapped in a blanket, typing away on a rusty typewriter or scribbling on a thick notepad, a glass of wine beside her, or even better, a fireplace while the world snowed outside. It didn’t matter who she was. With just a pen or a typewriter, the woman could evoke the sheer extravagance of the glittering parties and the vain hollowness of the lives of the privileged to a wide-eyed, scrawny girl in Asia. The woman could step into the skin of characters with last names like Abbot and Chadwick, know them inside-out, and live a thousand exciting lives. Under a whirling rickety fan, surrounded by the smell of herbs, I devoured those books. The ambition was born and it also offered me a personality I wished to assume. I wanted to become a writer—the cosmopolitan, worldly writer.

My conception of writing was an immensely private idea, apart from all the school compositions and creative contests for high school students with prompts such as ‘Imagine the world in 2050’. The first story I wrote at fifteen was about a girl who realized she had a long-lost twin. Their names were Emma and Rosalind Montgomery. It was set in Manhattan, a place I had never been to. They looked and sounded nothing like me and my friends. It was the beginning of the gap, one between the person and the writer.

I knew I had to go to New York, the nexus of my literary universe. I could not truly become a writer when my senses were engulfed by the heat, the utilitarian checkboxes of my education, and the dull routine of island-life. In New York, I imagined, I would finally have first-hand material that would befit a writer’s experience. More than that, simply being there would offer the assurance of continuity, of inheriting a tradition and succeeding a long line of writers, who in turn had trodden in the footsteps of the continental greats.

Until that phone call came, I had been unwilling to extract myself from the idea of becoming a writer, fourteen years in the making. By most measures, I had become the kind of person I wanted to become. During college, I started working at a middling literary magazine as an unpaid copy editor. After graduation, I assumed the role of the sub-editor before rising to fiction editor after the position became vacant. The job involved getting pitches, going through the slush pile, and hours of networking at book launches, reading parties, and personal gatherings. Little by little, I had embodied the kind of worldly persona I aspired to. I now spoke like the characters I wrote—gone without trace were the sharp bark and yo-yoing intonation of my accented English. I occasionally scored an invite to a lunch at a place in the Tribeca or some art gallery opening thronging with women and men drinking wine and munching on hors d’oeuvres—if I closed my eyes, they could almost pass for the fictional parties that so enthralled me in my youth. I could effortlessly toss around names of editors, publishers, and rising literary stars as though I knew them personally. Yet, in the weekends or before dawn, I would sit at my desk in my one-room apartment with its stained walls and pretend to write, only to draw up nothing. The blank document with the blinking cursor was terrifying. What prose I could get onto the page was forced and unnatural. All my adult life had happened in a foreign country where I was a stranger. To be true to that social experience was to write about things that I had refused to embrace—not the wider world, but the smaller, more confined world that I came from which did not exist on the pages of literature. But, I was adamant or almost obsessed with writing about the world I now lived in. To write about the claustrophobia and humanity of the island I grew up in was to acknowledge my inability to become part of the New York cultural milieu. I witnessed the artifice of my own charade, but could not and did not write about it. The gap between the woman and the writer grew.

The dread of failure plagued me. I purged all remnants of unsophisticated Asia from my life. My mother would call me once in a while to tell me about Popo, Still running her pharmacy, rain or shine… Bought three new tins of tea… Celebrated her eightieth… She misses you.

I didn’t have words for that feeling that ate at me. I couldn’t face any of them. The girl who wanted to become a writer could not write even when her life depended on it. The closer I got to the altar of the literary circle I worshipped, the more self-conscious I became. I couldn’t listen to the gentle words of those who loved me when what I felt about them was something akin to shame. There was no place for them in my life, just like there was no place for the island and its people in the pages of my writing.

In The Enigma of Arrival, V. S. Naipaul described eating a roasted chicken over the wastepaper basket after arriving in New York, acutely aware of the smell and the oil. The writer of the diary was ending his day like a peasant, like a man reverting to his origins, eating secretively in a dark room, he wrote. I would rather have starved till the hunger devoured me than to have succumbed to the pull of a previous life.

The anxiety I felt towards my writing might have indicated an awakening awareness of the gap between the person and the writer. The incongruence between the two selves had existed throughout my fourteen years. I refused to eat the roasted chicken because I, like Naipaul, saw embedded in that act the bead of shame.

In my final weeks in New York, I started trying something different. I attempted to include traces of my identity—the island I came from, its colonial history, its newfound prosperity I saw online in news and heard from my mother—in a story I was conceiving, but the act was distinctly uncomfortable. My first major character that bore some semblance to myself was a woman called Kristen Song—the most generic, palatable name I could think off that could pass off as Western. Almost unknowingly, I was exoticizing her character. She was elegant, with a Western pedigree and way of speech as well as the exquisite Oriental features and tics so often fetishized. In doing so, I was justifying her reason for existing on the page.

The week before the phone call came I was sacked from my job. The magazine I worked at had at last found a major patron, whose office reviewed the journal operations and set forth some recommendations. Among which was the recommendation that the magazine find someone with more writing experience as their fiction editor, and the patron’s office had just the right person in mind for the position. I found myself up in the air. Now what? I toyed with the idea of returning to the island. Had I exhausted all my options of becoming a writer? They had taken me in and spitted me out. I had failed to make myself anew.

When the phone call came, I was ironing my clothes.

From the other end of the phone my mother’s voice sounded low and cracked. She left you the shophouse, she said, so come back.

When the call ended, the screen showed that it was only 3 minutes 53 seconds long. Popo had passed away.

***

I tasted sea salt and vaporous sawdust in the glutinous air when I came out of the airport terminal. There was a construction site across the road. I couldn’t remember what used to be there, what expanse of steel, glass or granite.

What was familiar was how hot it was. A wave of heat assailed me with each step I took further away from the air-conditioning behind the sliding glass doors. It almost mockingly mimicked the journey that I made fourteen years ago, a sequence in reverse, of emerging from the stifling hotness into the crisp coolness of the departure lounge—seeing it as portal of transition, a shedding of old, sweaty skin, the bridge to the far bank where the calling of the writer had some meaning.

Returning was a much more sobering affair. I had surrendered. There was no romance left in New York for me. I did not know how to reconcile the person and the writer. I didn’t want to acknowledge it yet, but I was ready to give up the writer. I had lived without grief for as long as I could remember, but, all of a sudden, too much grief appeared at this one point in my life.

My father was here to pick me up. He had flown back from Thailand, where he had spent decades working in an agribusiness conglomerate when I was a kid and now spent his retirement days. My mother, he told me, had to take care of the guests for this afternoon’s funeral. I stared at the lines on his face.

We’re glad you are back, he said.

There was an awkward pause before we moved to hug each other. It was both unfamiliar yet assuring at once. The bristly ends of his hair rubbed against my cheek. When I pulled away, the concentration of white hair by his wrinkled ear startled me. My father was someone who diligently dyed his hair.

He didn’t mention a word about my writing in the car.

Why don’t you take a long break and see what you can do with Popo’s shop? he said. Stay for a bit longer before going back to America. How long of a vacation did you ask for?

I looked in the rearview mirror at his hopeful eyes. I had not told anyone about my recent state of unemployment.

When our eyes met, he blinked a few times and hastily looked back at the road.

I will stay, I said. For however long it takes.

***

For as long as I could remember, the drawers had always been in the ground floor parlor. There were ten cabinets of varying sizes made from empress tree wood, some built into the walls, some still portable. Each cabinet had fifty to several hundred drawers. In their previous life, they used to carry herbs, minerals, and animal specimens. Leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds, painstakingly ground into powder, extracted into liquid, rolled into granules, made into capsules, shelved and slotted into these drawers. Popo’s snowy hands pinching, twisting, tossing, weighing, feeling between the thumb and index fingers the coarseness of leaves and the texture of each particle of powder. A reel of seasons and then, those hands turned gnarled, like the shriveled, shrunken leaves they had healed life with.

Growing up, I never thought that I might someday touch these drawers, decipher them and own them. Most of the drawers were empty since Popo had closed her pharmacy when her health started failing. Across the Pacific Ocean, I was so thoroughly consumed by the idea of writing that the rest of the world fell away. I saw now that I was pretending to be something I perhaps could not be. In a fervent eagerness to become someone other than what a person of my background could be, in placing the writing personality above all else, I had turned my back on Popo and the shophouse. I had just assumed that she was always going to be there.

But.

I began a clean-out of the contents of the occupied drawers. A few cinnamon bark that felt sticky to the touch, one ginseng that had mold on its tendrils, clumps of wolfberries that had turned from red to brown, a box of peeled peony roots which filled my mouth with a bitter, salty and cold flavor when, on impulse, I gave it a tentative bite. I threw everything away except for two things. One was a sealed container of canker roots, which despite their highly flattering name of goldthread resembled a mass of dried worms. By her scrawl on the label, they were supposed to help with inflammation, a feeling of stuffiness in the chest and insomnia.

There was something unexpectedly calming about sorting out dead plant parts. Each time I cleaned a cabinet, I brought my hands to my nose, sniffed them, and felt a jolt. It was a smell of age, of things dying and then—

Something sprouting beneath. The scent, against all odds, of a wisp of life budding from withered veins and dried flesh.

The other thing I kept was the consortium of tea. It was everywhere, in tin cans, silk pouches, jars, and wrapped in brown paper. I disposed in sequence the expired ones, but there were many more, brand new and unopened. I picked up the habit of drinking tea again, after years of drinking coffee and alcohol. It wasn’t an easy habit to cultivate. The first few cups I made confused me. The taste was not especially unpleasant but I couldn’t understand what the point of it was. It was so numbingly hot that my tongue swelled in my mouth and I couldn’t taste anything.

Two weeks into my cleanup, I found a tea set, complete with a tray, teapot, four narrow cups, four wide cups with lids and a motley tool kit of brushes, tongs, sieves, and a funnel. Using the set, I started making tea step-by-step, tool-by-tool. I watched my hands grow pink with sweat, steam, and spillage, clumsily grappling with the rims of the porcelain and clay which were almost scalding. Gradually, as the hotness abated into a comfortable warmth, the taste of the tea mattered less. The ambiance and the lull became everything.

***

It took me two months before I realized that I could finally put New York behind me. Despite the disappointment and panic associated with that city, there had always been a thought at the back of my head. Not “When should I go back?”, but “Can I write again?”. I had stopped writing since I returned. I didn’t know how to start.

Three months in, I decided to open the ground floor parlor again as a shop. A teahouse.

Unexpectedly, the heaviness that weighed on my writing lifted when the desire to fill the drawers struck. There were close to a thousand drawers of all sizes. I had tried counting them several times but inevitably lost count halfway through. Opening each drawer was like pulling out a window, an archive, or a cell. They were overwhelming in their emptiness, like a metaphor for something. While I didn’t have physical items, words were an economical way of taking up space. A single word could permeate the whole parlor, the entire two-story house, this island, this world.

I began writing letters to people who could no longer receive them.

Dear Popo, I wrote, I am here.

I wrote and wrote, all the words I repressed over the decades, the hazy and carelessly forgotten details that needed to be fleshed out, the unspoken sentences buried in the scrawny girl who always gazed outwards instead of at the multiple worlds contained within her. I wrote about the shophouse in the late sunlight and quiet moments, about the uncles and aunties sitting outside with cigars and kopi-o, and about Popo’s hands. I wrote about things that I was surprised I could remember—the swallowing of words in a seminar because I didn’t know how to pronounce them the right way, the mix of embarrassment and affection toward my three-syllable Chinese name, and the circuitous path my writer self took to find her way back to the person I was. It was not much, but, quite suddenly, the heart of life had opened itself to me. It was as though I had only been preparing to become a writer in all these prior years—I had refused to eat the roasted chicken not knowing that a starved soul could not create. In this moment, when person and writer started becoming one, I could finally write.

***

A few days after I opened the teahouse, people started wandering in. Some of them bought tea while some came to talk the afternoon away. The conversation with these customers inadvertently converged on the furniture in the parlor.

So many drawers, just like Swee Mui’s pharmacy, commented an old man with incredible sideburns when he peeked around the doorframe. His head was in the shop while the rest of his body was still firmly out in the five-footway.

He waddled into the shop to the upholstered bamboo pod at the corner and very naturally sank into the curved cushion.

Girl, he said, Swee Mui said you were a writer in mei guok.

Oh, I said. Oh.

What do you write about? Do you write about our island? he asked.

In my fourteen years away, my narrow conception of writing, my anxieties and my ambition had suppressed most of my memories of growing up here, even expunging them from my personal history. After the original impulse of writing letters had run its course, I found writing difficult again. The day before opening the teahouse, I had wanted to visit my neighborhood library opposite the beige-colored mall, two streets away from the shophouse, but in its very spot was a brightly lit supermarket. While I was gone, the island had continued evolving—demolishing and erecting. Much was unrecognizable. The writer may have come together with the person, but the person was adrift.

I have been away from this island for fourteen years, I said to the old man. I don’t know it as well as I want to. I sometimes feel like a stranger outside the walls of this shophouse.

Instead of answering, he eyed me through slits.

You sell tea? What kind of tea do you have?

You can choose, I said, gesturing to the tiny glass jars on the shelves and behind the counter. They are all here. I have the classic Puer, Oolong, Longjing, Tieguanyin and green tea.

How about a cup of tea for a story? he offered calmly.

We gazed into each other’s eyes. Since I first came into contact with English literature, I had doggedly tried to follow the sensibilities and aesthetic forms born in a different hemisphere at the turn of the twentieth century. But, as these words roll out from between the old man’s two rows of gleaming gold and yellowed enamel, I suddenly saw the far bank that I was looking for. Unfolding before me was a plain. Empty, curiously still, deceptively barren, its peaks and dips still unknown, no pattern or path carved out in its earthy brown and brilliant green, no road sign erected, no owner that laid claim to the land. But there was beauty in the wild, unruly, budding growth. There was something deliciously new in the blend of the spontaneous and the scripted.

Yes, I said, a story for a cup of tea, of course. Do you mind if I write it down?

My Sophomore Fall Harvard Classes! (ft. Life)

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I realized I’m almost through with September and have not talked about the biggest chunk in my sophomore life thus far—my classes! There’s a reason why I’ve literally had no time to write about this. Life has been an absolute whirlwind. Here’s a snapshot of the residential problems plaguing our suite of four: I discovered black mold in my built-in closet last Friday and after lots of back-and-forth with the building manager and maintenance staff, we got it fixed (repairing the air-conditioning ventilation, painting the wall, sending my clothes to the dry cleaner, setting up a new portable wardrobe in the common room, etc.); last night, we noticed a small patch of black mold growing on our bedroom ceiling; today, an entourage came and arrived at a diagnosis that they needed to tear down part of our ceiling and our walls and eradicate the black mold infestation once and for all. In short, our room is no longer habitable as it is. UPDATE: my roommate, Ani, and I are moving to Adams temporarily until the Housing side fixes everything. It’s both strange and overwhelming, packing again, uprooting and anchoring the physical center of my life to another location after just getting used to DeWolfe.

What a day. But, I’ll be honest: this is a very skewed representation of what sophomore year has been like so far. Sophomore year, living in (or, more accurately speaking, on the periphery of—since we are in DeWolfe’s overflow housing instead of our affiliated Leverett House) an upperclassman house, the initial excitement of Shopping Week, seeing everyone again, reconfiguring the axis of my movements from the radius of the Yard to the Charles River to the restaurants of Harvard Square (an alarming statistic for my waistline: I have eaten at the dining hall for a grand total of fewer than seven times)… All these felt strangely natural, like slipping into another skin that is constituted by the atoms of past memories, unconscious habits, and the visible veins of known bonds.

My classes have also been unexpectedly rewarding and captivating. I love what I’m reading—some days I have to finish more than 300 pages in an afternoon—but I’m actually poring over each and pouring my mind wholeheartedly into every novel, secondary text, and philosophical treatise. I almost wonder why I didn’t do that in my last two semesters. I hope this sense of affection (quite lovingly) and fascination I currently harbor for what I’m learning in my classes won’t diminish as we approach the slew of midterm papers.

PHIL 129 Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

One of my goals this semester was to take my first Philosophy class in college—I had loved studying epistemology (KI!) in JC and writing a research essay about the construction of historiography in fiction; I found that in retrospect I had unconsciously gravitated towards writing my HUM10 papers on Descartes and Nietzsche instead of, for instance, Austen and Joyce; I always entertained the thought of doing a secondary (read: minor) in Philosophy despite a distinct lack of concrete action on my part.

A friend recommended this class to me in the middle of shopping week but I was extremely hesitant, to say the least. But, in comparison, the other three Philosophy classes I had shopped were either too alienating, uninteresting, or foundational. When I finally shopped this class, forty minutes late and after missing the first session, it just felt right. Kant is, undoubtedly, incredibly dense and erudite = hard to digest. (How does he pack so much meaning into each sentence?!) His writings have also transformed the trajectory of Western thought, from epistemology to metaphysics, ethics to aesthetics, religion to politics. I see him as one of those thinkers that I need to read in order to even make sense of the world. Yet, I’ve not done so on my own initiative. But, I guess that’s what college is for—to really chew over and interrogate those books that we can’t conquer on our own or just wouldn’t have the devoted time and space to do so after we graduate.

We focus on one and only one of his major works of his for the whole semester, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87). The text presents an account of metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind, with Kant setting forth his criticisms of rationalist metaphysics and empiricist skepticism, and defending his views on the nature of the mind and of experience, the metaphysics of transcendental idealism, and the foundations of mathematics and natural science. I’m daunted but so, so excited.

HIST-LIT 90DI Speculative Fictions in Multiethnic America

This is my first History & Literature seminar! I’m not a huge sci-fi reader but the keywords in this class really caught my eye, in particular, techno-orientalism, post-race, and Afrofuturism. ‘Orientalism’ is one of those words that I will geek out about. I’ve researched about it in the foreign policy context, in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, and in relation to the epistemology of postcolonial fiction. But, I know close to nothing about techno-orientalism—for a genre like speculative fiction, how are new critical theories emerging and old ones recontextualized?

Growing up in a country as multicultural as Singapore, I’ve long had a fascination towards local narratives of multiethnic communities—consuming a diet of literature created by those on the periphery of the Western canon allowed me to imagine alternatives to how we live now. Yet, with age, I’ve recognized the pressing need to interrogate the ethics of representation in our global cultural matrix. In the genre of speculative fiction, reading works by writers other than the classic Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov entails an opening of our minds to the many possibilities of different, more hopeful ways of living as conceived from diverse experiences—such stories are a powerful resistance to the hegemonic (now splintering) visions of capitalism, of white domination, of nationalism, of technological ascendancy, etc.

ENGLISH 188GF Global Fictions

The reading list is to die for. How could I resist???

This course serves as an introduction to the global novel in English, as well as a survey of approaches to transnational literature. It considers issues of migration, colonialism, cosmopolitanism and globalization, religion and fundamentalism, environmental concerns, the global and divided city, racial and sexual politics, and international kinship. Authors include Teju Cole, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Liu Cixin, Mohsin Hamid, Jamaica Kincaid, Monique Truong, Michael Ondaatje, Ruth Ozeki, Arundhati Roy, and Ken Saro-Wiwa.

I realized last semester while taking Professor Homi Bhabha’s seminar on the genealogies of global imagination alongside HUM10’s survey of the literary canon that I relished the opportunity to read books that are truly global in nature. Reading about modern cities, diasporas, migrations, identities in flux, histories in contention, the legacies of colonialism, and multiple subjectivities, I hope I can better grapple with the tensions between power structures in existing literary traditions and these textual acts of resistance and imagination, which are reinscribed in contemporary negotiations of identity in a globalized world.

ENGLISH CLR Introduction to Screenwriting: Workshop

I continue my addiction to the English department’s creative writing workshops. This is the third semester in a row that I’m doing one—I really couldn’t help but apply. There’s something special about the small community, the devotion to the craft, and the intimacy of knowing your classmates through their writings and their critiques of yours. After doing two fiction writing workshops under Professors Claire Messud and Neel Mukherjee, I wanted to try something different this semester.

Screenwriting is something I’ve always wanted to do but never did. In last semester especially, I noticed how I like to write with a lens in my head in my short stories—panoptic sweeps, overlaying vignettes, cinematic memory, and realistic dialogue. In fact, filmmakers have inspired my imagination as much as writers have. I admire Hayao Miyazaki for the touch of innocence in the ethical complexity of his narratives, Chen Kaige’s visual flair that almost defies language, Wong Kar-wai’s silent yet emotionally intense approach, the infusion of romance and psychological intimacy in Wes Anderson’s nested framing stories, and Roberto Benigni’s use of comedy amid a collapsing world. Not sure if I’m going to stick with this current vision, but two main directions I hope to explore in my writing for film include: firstly, a magical realism that harkens to the worlds of Studio Ghibli, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the martial arts epics of Louis Cha; secondly, local stories from across the global Asian diaspora that are driven by authentic voices.

***

In some ways, this semester has been both completely like and unlike anything I expected. I am grateful for all these experiences and people, with moments of startling clarity, absorbing books that push the boundaries of my mind, and seemingly unending, candid conversations, full of childlike digressions and guileless interest that trickle on and on.

If you’re interested in hearing more about any of these classes, or what I’m reading, let me know and I’ll write another post!! Also, hopefully, the black mold goes away. Forever.

Lots of love,

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