“So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality.”

– Jim Carrey

Been thinking about this stuff a lot, so I’ll leave this quote up here for a while.

Culture is not an excuse

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Watched this video Scared Straight: Out of Advertising, and as much as it was funny and entertaining as a parody, it also disturbed me quite a little. A parody is an exaggerated from of something in order to entertain, but inside there is always some level of truth.

So essentially this video portrays #agencylife as such:

  • Ruins family life (creative director hasn’t seen his son since he was an ultrasound scan 4 years ago)
  • Losing your soul and sacrificing your principles (“You know what I gave up for these (awards)? Everything.”)
  • Insatiable thirst for Awards (although no one seems to see the point)
  • Bitter, cynical, dehumanised bits of what’s left (of your soul)
  • Be prepared to lose your dignity and your self-esteem stripped bare
  • Respect (and self-respect) has no place here


While the video was kind of cruel to idealistic young graduates looking to enter advertising, unfortunately from personal experience, it is all true to a certain degree.

And if you can’t take it, you’re either weak, ‘not cut out for this industry’, or it’s simply failure on your part. 

Seriously?!? Doesn’t this sound a little familiar – like victim blaming?? “You chose this career yourself.”

I’ve been told once too often in response to burning out, “Well this is the nature of our industry.” 

While I respect industry standards, I feel this is used too often as an excuse to conveniently dismiss the need for change. Or to numb oneself to the possibility or duty (if you’re in a superior position) to improve the company or industry culture.

It’s always easy to push the blame to something bigger than individuals or teams, whether it is the government, big corporations or “the industry”.

It’s like Big Brother in 1984 – who’s this guy anyway?? No one actually knows yet everybody obeys the hell out of him. 


Culture is created by people, and the collective is built from the individual. I think this is worth thinking about because it doesn’t just happen in advertising.

My partner is a civil engineer in a company dealing with structural design. As an ordinary member of the public, you would think that this industry prizes safety and quality above all else. Right??

The reality is, a lot of the work involves different parties and stakeholders pushing responsibility to one another. No one wants to take responsibility. And what’s more appalling is, like any other industry, everything depends on cutting costs – it’s a numbers game. The fact that they are constructing public goods that affects the safety and lives of an entire country’s citizens doesn’t insulate this industry from the capitalist economy’s laws of supply and demand.

When questioning the way things work, my partner was told blatantly by fellow engineers, “It’s the nature of our industry.”


On another instance, I read this NPR article, which deals with the contentious topic of sexual harassment in the workplace (remember what I said about victim blaming earlier?). A female chef who complained about sexual harassment by her male colleagues was told by the HR department, “Sorry this happened to you, but that’s the way kitchens can be.”


You see, whether it’s a kitchen, an office, or an industry, this is how things will turn out and continue to be if everyone lives to conform. Even if it is company or industry culture, we should not continue to accept and condone things that are not right and not beneficial – for ourselves, each other and the bigger picture – in the long term.

After all, how many actresses/singers/performers had to put up with, “This is Hollywood for you,” before the Harvey Weinstein case actually got people to pay attention??


Two haunting things today

1) David Foster Wallace’s essay on understanding Franz Kafka:

…to imagine his stories as all about a kind of door.  To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens…and it opens outwardwe’ve been inside what we wanted all along. 


2) Grief is love with nowhere to go. 

Winterson wisdom

My favourite quotes from Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?


On happiness

…But earlier meanings build in the hap, in Middle English, that is ‘happ’, in Old English, ‘gehapp’ – the chance of fortune, good or bad, that falls to you. Hap is your lot in life, the hand you are given to play. How you meet your ‘hap’ will determine whether or not you can be ‘happy.

What the Americans, in their constitution, call ‘the right to the pursuit of happiness’ (please note, not the ‘right to happiness’), is the right to swim upstream, salmon-wise.

Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not at all the same as being happy – which I think is fleeting, depending on circumstances, and a bit bovine…Happy times are great, but happy times pass – they have to – because time passes. The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is lifelong, and it is not goal-centred. What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life.

On life

There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realise that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else’s terms.

In fact, there are more than two chances – many more. I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.

Life is layers, fluid, unfixed, fragments. I never could write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end in the usual way because it felt untrue to me. 

But then I understood something. I understood twice born was not just about being alive, but about choosing life. Choosing to be alive and consciously committing to life, in all its exuberant chaos – and its pain. 

She smiles. She doesn’t judge herself and she doesn’t judge others. Life is as it is.

If I can’t stay where I am, and I can’t, then I will put all that I can into the going.

Gertrude drives on. She says, “Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.”

On literature

A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.

Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.

The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated. I wasn’t floating on my little raft in the present; there were bridges that led over to solid ground. Yes, the past is another country, but one that we can visit, and once there we can bring back the things we need.

On love

…there are so many kids who never get looked after, and so they can’t grow up. They can get older, but they can’t grow up. That takes love. If you are lucky the love will come later. If you are lucky you won’t hit love in the face.

The love-work that I have to do now is to believe that life will be all right for me. I don’t have to be alone. I don’t have to fight for everything. I don’t have to fight everything. I don’t have to run away. I can stay because this is love that is offered, a sane steady stable love.

On capitalism

I did not realise that when money becomes the core value, then education drives towards utility or that the life of the mind will not be counted as a good unless it produces measurable results. That public services will no longer be important. That an alternative life to getting and spending will become very difficult as cheap housing disappears. That when communities are destroyed only misery and intolerance are left.

Time is only truly locked when we live in a mechanised world. Then we turn into clock-watchers and time-servers. Like the rest of life, time becomes uniform and standardised.

On feelings

Nobody can feel too much, though many of us work hard at feeling too little. Feeling is frightening.

When we say ‘I think’ we don’t leave our emotions outside the door. To tell someone not to be emotional is to tell them to be dead.

I panic when my feelings are not clear. It is like staring into a muddy pond, and rather than wait until an ecosystem develops to clear the water, I prefer to drain the pond.

On madness

Probably we are less tolerant of madness now than at any period in history. There is no place for it. Crucially, there is no time for it. Going mad takes time. Getting sane takes time.

Creativity is on the side of health – it isn’t the thing that drives you mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.

Why be happy when you could be normal?


This is a very touching, personal mediation on love and loss, and a raw, unflinching look at life and the mess of human emotions. Written as a sort of sequel to Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, in a more autobiographical style and focusing heavily on her relationship with her adopted mother and her desire for maternal love, this is definitely more rough, honest, vulnerable, messy, and more real than most of the books I have read. Reading something so personal, it feels like I was going through a journey with the author herself, and it feels as cathartic to read as it must have felt to write.

The writing style seems a bit modernist, as though the writer is writing purely from her unrelenting thoughts or sometimes even stream of consciousness – but that’s the beauty of it, because that’s how our inner mind works in real life. Breaking the traditional conventions of linear time, plot and narrative flow is a very effective technique in this case, and one that the author admits is not entirely pre-mediated. She was writing this in real time, and at one point where the language gets more fumbled and sometimes chaotic, it was because she wanted to show how the process of inner turmoil, a mental breakdown and a downward emotional spiral really feels like, and it is powerful.

To be honest, I didn’t really enjoy Oranges, because the language and writing style there somehow didn’t captivate me…but I’m so glad I read Why be happy when you could be normal?, for this was completely unrestrained and as close to being human as it gets. I picked up this book not knowing what it’s really about actually, mostly intrigued by the title. But when you get to the point where the significance of the title is revealed, it really hurts, just like at many points in the novel.

Perhaps as someone who understands the experience of a dysfunctional family, I really related to her need and search for the meaning of love and identity, especially the part where she had difficulty being loved and trusting that she could be loved. I think our families really play a pivotal part in our early life and sometimes their influence sets the tone for our entire life. Jeanette talks about her experience of being an adopted child, but what I got out of it was really a close look at the nature and workings of family and human relationships. It is also a touching testament to the depth of human resilience in the face of immense adversity, helplessness and hopelessness.

Ok after this review I’m giving it 5 stars instead of 4, because I really wanted to give a 4.5. If you relate to what I wrote in this review, you should probably read the book.


“One of the greatest barriers to empathy is the fear of saying the wrong thing or the need to make everything better. Let me go on record as saying (putting you at ease a little bit, hopefully) that when someone has experienced something very traumatic – a significant loss – there’s nothing you can say to make it better. All you can do is to be with people in that space. So if all you can come up with is, ‘I don’t know what to say. I just know that I want to be with you in this. I don’t know how to make it better. I just know that I’m dying inside to make it better. I want to help.’ What we all need when we’re in struggle is the ability for other people to look us in the eye, to be with us, to embrace us, and to be willing to be with us.”

Brené Brown, Men, Women, & Worthiness 


Happiness is a bowl of bún chả in the rain

As promised from the previous post, I set out to explore more local parts of Hanoi – all thanks to the discovery of a food review app used by locals, Please do use this when you’re in Vietnam! It will bring you to well loved local eats at local prices. Without this app, I don’t think I could have ventured to local hangouts, due to the lack of information in English online.

So, my trip really took a dramatic turn for the better, and it was a truly magical day for me that involved rain, a nostalgic 90’s cafe, witnessing the chaos of school dismissal at a local school, finding delicious bún chả and making a local friend.

I shall start from the beginning, and include videos to show you an actual glimpse / fragment of the chaos, colour and life of Hanoi.

Woke up to a rainy day in Hanoi today. Temperatures dropped heavily by almost ten degrees. It was freezing, and we jumped on a GrabCar (yes, they have it here so use the Grab app for the best transport deal) to a nostalgic 90’s cafe on the other side of town, loved by locals for bringing them back to their childhood days. We were curious to see how the already nostalgic city to us could travel further back in time, and how the childhood of Vietnamese youths our age looked like.

In the comfort of the warm car with Vietnamese tunes playing on the radio, and the rain glazing the roads outside, it felt like I was in a film, watching the people in their assortment of colourful raincoats whizz by on their bikes. There is something about the rain that makes everything more beautiful, and especially so here, when the roads burst with colour.

The cafe was hard to find even by local standards, according to the reviews on the app. This picture shows the little back alley we walked in from, hidden behind a row of shops. We went up a flight of stairs that looked like local housing, and indeed, we discovered that there were residents living there. The cafe itself also looked like the interior of an old house. By Singapore standards, I felt like I was transported back to the 60’s. So this was what childhood was like in the Vietnam of the 90’s.

Unfortunately I was too excited and forgot to take pictures of the interior…we went out to the balcony which looked something like this:

That’s me, and I realise this is the first time I posted a picture of myself. I am trying out a more candid style of blogging on the go via my phone.

The cafe staff were surprised and a bit lost when we didn’t understand what they were saying, because I think no tourists ever came here. Thanks to Google translate and a girl who spoke some English, we managed to make some sense of the Vietnamese menu. A warm, comforting plate of sweet potato fritters was soon served. When I showed my Vietnamese new friend (I’ll come to that later) this picture later, she was really excited because it was really her childhood snack.

We also got some flavoured frozen yoghurt in cute little tubs, complimentary roasted popcorn, and the legendary Vietnamese coffee we can’t get enough of.

This is the local version of the board game Monopoly. The board is the unfolded wooden case containing the Monopoly notes and property cards, all made with flimsy laminated paper.

This was the view from the balcony, a classic scene of motorbikes in Hanoi. If you think this traffic is bad, wait till you see what happens next.

The cafe is situated right opposite a local primary school, so what we saw at around 4:30PM was a crowd of parents on motorbikes waiting for the school gates to open. And around them, the usual traffic continued unabated.

Soon the school gates open, and the crowd of motorbikes flood into the school compound. Children are seated behind their dad or mum, or else inserted between both parents on their bike, or sometimes up to 4 family members huddled on one bike. Some kids hold on to their parent’s hands while they calmly navigate the heart stopping (to us) tirade of honking bikes, taxis and cars.

This is their everyday life, while it seems like an exciting dramatic scene unfolding before our eyes. Watching these kids brave the monstrous traffic at such a young age, I learn that the Vietnamese are a resilient people – and this word means so many things on different levels I cannot even begin to claim to understand.

More stills from the unstoppable gushing river of vehicles.

Witnessing this moving scene of people braving the traffic, I felt humbled, and for the first time, felt at ease with the movement and noise. Soon the cacophony blended into the rhythms of my environment, and I took out my Kindle, opened a half-read book, and read Montaigne’s philosophy for an hour.

Philosophy – of all things, in the midst of the roar of Vietnamese traffic! This was definitely a transformative moment for me, learning how to find inner peace surrounded by chaos.

As the night fell and the peak hour traffic subsided after more than two hours, we departed the cafe for a bún chả stall I found on the food app, rated highly by Hanoi locals. We were dropped by our Grab driver along a busy main road, but somehow manage to wind our way into a narrow back alley.

There we discovered a row of food stalls like the one above, which we managed to identify after some time. It was around 8PM, and finally, we had found the unassuming place where locals ate their daily dinners, and not the tourist-priced street stall I mentioned in my previous post where we were “shoved around like animals waiting to be fed”.

Our dinner situation.

We ordered what we thought was bún chả as we had eaten before in Singapore’s Vietnamese eateries. Little did we know! This was bún trộn, made of the same ingredients except that they were mixed. It was the Southern Vietnam interpretation of the dish more commonly found in Ho Chi Minh down south, and indeed, like the pho we had in Singapore, was much sweeter. This confirms our realisation on this trip that the Vietnamese food found in Singapore hails mostly from Ho Chi Minh.

And bún chả was a Northern dish that actually originated from Hanoi itself! We learned all this when a friendly Vietnamese girl sat down beside me. The first thing she said was, “this version of bún chả tastes better”, as she pointed to the noodles, pork slices and vegetables separated into bowls in front of her which she had ordered. It looked something like this:


Photo taken at the same stall, from app

That began a conversation over dinner with a university student from the nearby economics university. She told us that this was her favourite bún chả stall, and she always came here after school. How lucky we felt! Although we ordered the mixed version, it was more delicious than any we’d ever tasted. Such tastes and experiences simply cannot be transported across geographical spaces.

Alice (the English name she chose for her love of Alice in Wonderland), was surprised and (seemed) impressed that I came here through the Foody app, and on a Grab car. She said I know a lot about Vietnam life, and I told her I am trying very hard. It was not easy indeed! Everything was so unfamiliar and intimidating on the first few days, but things are becoming clearer.

She later brought us to a nearby dessert shop she frequented. She taught me a few Vietnamese phrases, which was so much more effective than struggling to repeat what I heard on Google translate.

And I never knew Vietnam had such nice desserts! The leftmost one is a very sweet mixture of caramel pudding, black glutinous rice, jackfruit slices and sago. At the top is some cheese based jelly with sago. On the right, which was my favourite, was mango sago with coconut jelly and milk.

Only upon coming to Hanoi did we realise the Vietnamese people liked eating desserts. Our friend ordered the three which we all shared, and I was touched by her gesture of being willing to spend time with two foreigners she met at a bún chả stall.

I came to Hanoi only knowing of the Old Quarters and French Quarters, due to limited time to plan for this trip and rather limited information found online. It seems like not many people have explored the city of Hanoi extensively.

Initially disarmed by the hostility we faced in the Old Quarters, I am now thankful for it was my perturbed feelings that led me to discover, and become determined to visit the places where locals lived and ate. Breaking through the appearance of a mysterious foreign culture that seemed inhospitable at first encounter, I found human warmth and hospitality with a bowl of 20k dong bún chả.

Today, I found magic in Hanoi, and I found a new friend.