Paiseh silence

In Singapore, our colloquial language has a word “paiseh” (pronounced pie-say), which means something like embarrassed or shy, usually used in a context of being reluctant to trouble others. It is actually very much a part of our culture, but sometimes this also leads to a worrying indifference towards acts of injustice or discrimination.

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I wrote this article on one of our local lifestyle websites, about how this “paiseh” culture of silence also enables sexual assault. With the silence of bystanders, perpetrators get away scot-free, and the blame usually falls on the victim in our typically conservative culture, for “wearing that dress/skirt/shorts” or “asking for it” because you “chose to hang out in certain places”.

Because a lot of discourse has been made about victim blaming, which exists even in western cultures, my opinion piece is a rallying call to bystanders to look out for one another instead, and not be afraid to speak up. An important issue like sexual assault is a good place to start in changing our MYOB culture of “mind your own business” and “don’t create trouble for yourself or others”.

Anyone in other countries or cultures also able to relate to Singapore’s paiseh culture?

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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??

 

A realistic gaze at the romantic in me

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Found some photographs I took five years ago – I remember it was the first time I stepped into, or ‘explored’ as my bright-eyed and curious self would have called it back then, the neighbourhood estate of Ang Mo Kio.

Having been brought up in a relatively newer neighbourhood in the western part of Singapore, I remember having a fascination and love for older estates in Singapore such as Ang Mo Kio, Toa Payoh and Queenstown – ironically, two of which I would end up staying at in the next few years.

These were the mature estates I considered the ‘true heartlands’ of Singapore. After all, our country is known for its efficient public housing system, and its policies for assigning newly-wed couples to property of their own. The new mass-constructed flats, however, were mostly build with pared-down or more uniform design in order to cut production costs and speed up construction.

Hence I found myself drawn, increasingly over the years, to the tacky, mismatched paint facades and brick surfaces of older HDB flats.

Buildings then were shorter – the 16th floor rooftop level flat I lived in for most of my childhood in the then less-developed west area was already considered very high. Nowadays, a typical HDB flat would likely go above 30 storeys, and for more premium classes of public housing like the famous Pinnacle@Duxton (that note for my foreign readers, is not representative of the living conditions of average Singaporeans among the 80% who reside in public housing) would go as high as a dizzying fifty storeys – its rooftop turned into a local or tourist attraction for skyscraper viewing, even charging an admission fee.

Such is the way public housing has evolved over the years. I remember when I first went to the home of my current boyfriend, who is, ironically and perhaps with an amazing affinity, an Ang Mo Kio resident for the entire 20 odd years of his life. He was extremely amused by the way I admired all the old things that no one pays attention to, and things that are wearing, withering away – in the ordinary person’s eyes, nothing to be proud of.

I admired the old faded cream walls of the pillars at the void deck leading to the lifts, the long corridors with adjacent units (new generation flats nowadays are designed for more privacy and inevitably minimises the need for social interactions or small talk) looking out over a low barred banister, on which some neighbours draped and dried their laundry the old-school way, and the way everyone on the same floor seemed to know each other. While at my new generation house, my family only vaguely knew the Indian family opposite us, and thanked them with red packets when they gave us traditional Indian snacks during Deepavali.

I also admired the interior of his old, almost thirty year-old flat, the peeling paint, the cave-like kitchen with the back light against the laundry poles laden with clothes, with a blue mosaic tiled arc framing the kitchen doorway. I admired the pastel blue colour of the walls, which he told me was not always this colour but has weathered drastically with time. I told him I like how faded it looks, and also the way a Stephen Chow comedy/martial arts movie poster hung above a metal rack of clothes he shared with his elder brother.

Was I romanticising the old? Perhaps, in some ways, I have always tended to look at things through tinted glasses, although less so now as I aged myself. But this romantic streak in me was what led me to capture moments like the above photographs, and edit them the way it ended up – not a literal representation of what I saw, but what I actually felt in that moment, as I observed the scene in front of me.

Nowadays, I tend to edit my photos less, compared to maybe five years ago, when I would play with the colour tones, monochrome, and slightly faded/rosy vintage effect that I had taken to at that time. Compared to five years ago, I also write less poetry – which I produced prolifically, especially when I was falling in love.

I used to lament myself for writing romantic fiction only to realise that it’s not really fiction anymore, and unlike many good writers, my imagination and powers of creation are vastly limited. I could, after all, only write fiction from real life, so how fictitious is it really? But what is the point of fiction anyway? This leaves me with a whole new essay to write.

And there I’ve said it – now most of the time, I write essays. Essays about the world, thoughts about humanity, and reflections about my thoughts. My reading tastes have changed too, and I find myself reading only three fiction books out of ten, the rest being memoirs and essays on various topics, many of them by journalists. So what happened to me, the journalism major who resisted journalism, and turned obstinately to creative writing instead, only to find myself back to where I had started?

Honestly, I was incredibly upset for a time when I found that my poetry and photography inspiration seemed to have faded away together. The last poem I wrote, it seems, was two years ago. That was when my father passed away – but I too am not sure whether there is a correlation, whether grief has taken away my inspiration, and why now, after times have settled into normalcy, it is not being returned to me.

For much of my formative years, poetry and photography were a vital part of how I saw and made sense of the world. It is also worth noting that my late father and I bonded deeply through photography. After his diagnosis, I bought him a camera and he would take these spectacular shots of the sunrise – which he said, after so many years, he found the time to slow down and appreciate every single day. Not surprising coming from someone who is terminally ill, but then again, why do we always understand the truth of all cliches when our time is running out?

I’m not sure how these changes in self-expression reflects the change in my intrinsic nature. Now I find myself writing down more literally the things I think about, and have been told that it makes an impact on the reader. I focus more on thoughts than emotion, and ponder over the meaning of emotions more than describing the feelings themselves with flowery, ambiguous language.

Perhaps that is also the product of going through the rigorous self-questioning process of therapy, the result of teaching General Paper, a critical thinking and argumentative essay writing subject to junior college students. It could also be the process of growing up, of entering the working world, of witnessing the dominance of business over creativity, sales targets over the appeal to emotion, that made me more pragmatic. Or quite simply the task of paying the rent and bills by myself every month could have taken away the tinted lenses through which I viewed the world, recorded as evidence in the photographs above, from five years ago.

But I’m coming to terms with my new self. I appreciate honesty, vulnerability, and imperfections even more so now – and not because I think imperfections are ‘beautiful’.

I started this blog like no other before, not to showcase my perfect polished works of creativity and literature, but to document the incomplete reflections and endless questions of living life every day. There are no answers, no conclusions like a short story, no finale in a play or poem. Because isn’t life a long, arduous journey of writing our own non-fiction essay?

Get comfortable with anxiety

Because it’s not going anywhere.

We live in a world, I’m starting to think, where anxiety is unfortunately a constant in our lives. Observing people around me, I realise that anxiety, whether as a clinical condition, an emotion or a state of mind, manifests itself with greater prevalence than before.

Whether is it the stress of living in an ever-changing, fast-paced city, the increasing pressure of work and the normalising of work-life imbalance, constant distractions from smartphones and social media, or simply the hyperactive mind, unable to slow down and stay quiet even for a moment – there are so many reasons for us to be anxious today.

There are of course different variations of this emotional state, and I’m certainly not generalising it to disregard the severity of anxiety as a mental health condition. In fact, it seems like everyone is suffering from anxiety these days; do people actually understand acutely what an anxiety attack is like? The kind that people actually see therapists for?

I sometimes wish Anxiety, as in the health condition, could have a more grandiose, severe sounding name, instead of sharing its namesake with a generic emotion that everyone can claim to feel. Just like how people use the word “depressed” so frequently it could actually dilute the meaning and understanding of clinical depression in society.

It is, however, an unfortunate fact that anxiety is here to stay. It won’t go away after a relaxing holiday, or automatically disappear just because certain good things may have happened. We will always struggle to find the balance between all the complex, ever-changing and transient yet seemingly pervasive (especially in the moment itself) and sometimes crippling emotions that we experience – as part of being human.

This piece was actually inspired by a Medium article Why Anxiety is the Handmaiden of Creativity. While I definitely don’t support glorifying anxiety or mental health conditions, especially on the subject of how great artists like Van Gogh or Sylvia Plath have produced their greatest work in their darkest moments – one line in the article actually stood out to me: “Get comfortable with anxiety“.

Perhaps it is the wise thing to do. It is what every therapist tells his/her patient, like it’s easier said than done. Accept it, embrace your feelings, get comfortable with the discomfort. Sit through the difficult moments, and tell yourself that it will pass, time heals, and you might as well try to learn something from it, and gather some meaning or insight.

It’s easier said than done isn’t it? I always wonder how many therapists have successful and well-functioning lives, marriages and families, equipped with the tools every human being needs for every human condition.

In all seriousness, I truly respect the noble field of psychology and therapy. It is truly a meaningful calling that creates immediate value and impact on the lives of others, at least I can say for good therapists.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in modern life is actually to get, and be, comfortable with anxiety. All while creating something productive from a modern ill we cannot escape, transforming the very nature of the modern ill itself.

It is still an ongoing endeavour for me.

Doing good work

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Saw this animated video on Facebook by illustrator and animator Daniella Shuhman.

What sounds/is dismissed as idealistic, is sometimes the advice that we, and even the world, need the most of all.

Be concerned with doing good work. And make the right choices to protect your work.

Most of us start out wanting to do good, and be good at what we do (not limited to artistic endeavours). Yet it is something we forget or let go of along the way, weathered by external forces.

That’s why I think we shouldn’t trivialise or dismiss these “idealistic” “advice”, because despite all our survival instincts and our desire to be financially comfortable, these are the reminders we need to go back and stay rooted to where we started in the first place.

Black, white & everything in between

“We are shaped by our past, but not defined by it.”

My close friends have told me that what they appreciate most about me is my empathy, combined with my uncanny ability to articulate very precisely what they are feeling or going through in different situations or moments in time. As such, they also mention how they are amazed at the way I somehow naturally get people to open up to me very easily and early on in a friendship, themselves included.

In the past few months, I’ve gotten close to a colleague at my workplace, and gained a precious friendship – precious because it is not always easy to make friends in a work setting.

It has been my personal wish to make one good friend that goes beyond working relations at every place I work, which I have succeeded at it twice, both of them designers. It’s strange how copywriters and designers always seem to attract each other, and with these two designers, I share a very satisfying and productive creative chemistry.

This new friend I have made at my workplace was initially someone I perceived as completely different in personality and nature. And I guess in a way, she still is. Where I am empathetic and forgiving, she imposes high expectations on herself, and as a result, others around her. Where she is methodical, efficient and super organised, I am laid back and less meticulous.

People around us were quite intimidated by her, for she was often very direct and straightforward, and was perceived as no-nonsense and quite unapproachable. But I went ahead and talked to her anyway – and I don’t always do this, because I am an introvert. It takes a lot to approach someone I don’t know.

I never imagined I would be able to connect with someone so different from myself, but somehow, she shared some personal stuff with me within weeks of knowing me, and both of us were equally surprised – for she told me I was the only person she shared those things with.

And then I realised both of us actually shared similar experiences in our families, and went through rough childhoods and family problems, although our upbringing was totally different – she spent her childhood and adolescent years in the States, and I grew up in a traditional Chinese family in Singapore.

As I knew her better over time, I realised that the family situations she went through from young, the racism and discrimination she faced as a young Asian in American high school, as well as the toxic environment of aristocratic, pretentious and manipulative “friends” she encountered during her days at a local art college – all led her to put up a self-preservation mechanism of distrust.

Because others judged her easily, she was quick to judge and less able to empathise. Because she was often criticised, she was also critical of others.

There was this conversation we had during lunch which left her in tears. I told her about the financial hardships I went through, and how it made me more sensitive to poverty, social homelessness, and inequality in societies. I told her about the hurt I received from the ones I considered closest to me, and my resolve to be completely different from them. I told her about the time I realised the people we loved or held in high regard were also very fallible, and their actions had the power to leave us jaded and disappointed.

I told her about how all this made me realise that there was no black and white division between good and evil, and a good person may sometimes also commit bad actions and hurt people. 

She admitted that she was very black and white in her judgements of morality. But I told her, this was because of what she went through. We are all shaped by our experiences, which can sometimes be pretty bad. Our experiences have the ability to make us into people we are not proud of, and it is often very difficult to fight against that, the instinct to protect ourselves from being hurt again.

But we have to try. Our experiences explain why we act, think or behave in a certain way today, or respond to certain situations. But it doesn’t define us as a person. Similarly, the people around us may have hurt us with their actions, but it also does not define them as a whole, and does not take away their ability to change in the future. Accepting that is crucial, although it doesn’t justify their wrongs. The process of acceptance within ourselves is the first step to healing ourselves.

Same for ourselves too – we are currently who we are, but we can change. We can decide to be better. We can decide to not be like the people who hurt us, and choose to believe in good, and be part of that good.

We cannot complete deny or disregard the impact of the past on a person’s present self, but what matters most is how we use our present to become who we want to be in the future.

So as she was listening to this sudden flow of thoughts from me through her tears, she said she felt as though she was listening to a TED talk. That is actually a pretty big compliment to me lol (and very funny too).

Despite, or because of the extraordinary turmoils I have gone through, I believe that the purpose of my life is to accept with grace everything that happens or has happened, and use the wisdom I have gained from it to uplift people, create good, and make meaningful and precious connections with people, throughout humanity.

 

What the payphone taught me

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A public telephone in Kuching, Sarawak

Today, not for the first time, my phone died on me – not surprising, considering that I’m using an iPhone 4…I know. Probably an antique by today’s standards – where were we, iPhone 8S or something?

Technology and I are not the best of friends, and I definitely consider myself more of an old school person who would rather live in the 80s or relive the 90s of my childhood. Definitely not the typical millennial you can think of.

Tonight, I was supposed to meet my boyfriend after work and after his night class, and we hadn’t arranged a meeting point or time. So when my phone died on me, I resorted to…the good old payphone. And guess what I hadn’t even realised (and probably very few people know) that every MRT station in Singapore has a payphone (I think)!

So I was at the MRT station near my workplace, clumsily trying to put a 20 cent coin through the coin slot, all while attracting curious (mortifying) stares from the security guard and the staff at the control station. My boyfriend, who was still in class, did not pick up the call.

You see, unlike the mobile phone, the person who received a missed call from you can’t just call you back. There’s also no caller ID. You can’t text the person to tell them you called either.

So I took the train in the direction of home, hoping that he won’t end up blindly waiting for me somewhere, only to receive a text from me when I got home and managed to revive my phone with the charger.

When I arrived at my stop around 40 minutes later, I located another payphone and called again. This time, my call got through. I was so happy and relieved. Suddenly, it seemed like he was so far away. Someone whom I’d held close every day, reached easily and effortlessly with a text or a sticker on Telegram, was suddenly so unreachable.

Tonight I learned for the first time (or maybe remembered what I’d forgotten from my childhood), that every 10 cents gave you 2 minutes of call time. Because I had 20 cents, I could speak with him for 4 minutes.

Suddenly, those four minutes, usually so easily passed and idled away with a few mindless scrolls on Facebook, watching Insta-stories, and refreshing my Inbox, became so precious and so genuinely felt. I literally saw the passing of time on the payphone timer, and hours and minutes, taken for granted as part of each day, became reduced to the split second. Suddenly, I recognised time again, like an old friend I’d long forgotten.

In this digital age where technology and smartphones reduce everything to mindless routines and effortless endeavours, we take time for granted. Everything is sped up, passing by, convenient and half-hearted at the same time – you could be talking to someone while dealing with a few other screens, or checking your social media feed.

We’ve managed to speed life up, do more things with less time. But are we really making the most out of the time we have now?