Treat People as Humans, not Specimens

Today, I decided to head to Shanghai’s People’s Park (人民公园) for a fieldwork for my Marriage and Family module. People’s Park is renowned for its marriage market, where distressed parents put up qualities of their unwed children, in hopes of finding their children suitable partners for marriage. I couldn’t decide on a topic for my final paper, so I thought I’d find some inspiration there.

With my DSLR slung on my neck, and a notebook and a pen in my bag, I was ready to hit the busy crowd of People’s Park. Upon arrival, a swarm of sociologically interesting sights and scenes overwhelmed me – the sheer number of elderly “promoting” their children, their conversations with one another, the umbrellas with the children’s qualifications and the parents’ expectations of their partners attached to them and more. I began snapping away. Ah, an old lady looking for a partner for her child even when she’s wheel chair bound? Take the photo quick. It’d make an interesting photograph (with a story that is).

“小妹!(Miss!), ” someone called out to me. I turned behind, slightly surprised to find an old lady who asked me, “你拍这些照是干什么的?你是记者吗? (Why are you taking these photos? Are you a journalist?)” I thought she looked kind of hostile, probably because she thought I was another journalist, trying to dig some news about unique Chinese traditions, and taking street photos of these elderly without permission. I immediately diffused the tension with an awkward smile, explaining that I’m an exchange student from Singapore who’s just here out of curiosity. To my relief, she let her guards down, and even started chatting with me about her situation, why she was worried that her daughter would not find a partner, the imbalanced gender ratio in China and more. Later, this conversation led to the next, as I spoke to her friend next to her as well.

Not bad, I thought, this fieldwork research was progressing better than I had expected. I had felt rather jittery before coming here, because nothing scares me more than having to approach strangers, and attempting to make conversations that are hopefully sociologically valuable. But there I was, having found someone who resembled the “Doc” in a sociology classic, Street Corner Society. For the benefit of non-sociology readers, this means having found someone who is willing and able to help you infiltrate into a group that you are studying. This is perhaps one of the most crucial steps for a sociologist during fieldwork – to become an insider instead of an outsider.

2 interviewees down. I reviewed the information I received again, and figured that while the old lady and her friend provided me useful details, their circumstances were too similar. I need variety in this sample. So thereafter, I took another stroll around People’s Park. Then, I saw an old man who is advertising for his daughter and son, which was rare since most people in their generation only had one child due to the one child policy. I saw elderly advertising for their children who are studying or working overseas. I also saw a 40 year-old lady advertising for herself, plausibly the only one in the marriage market thus far.

Good. Let me talk to all 3 then. That’ll make the number of interviewees 5. Whole numbers sound good to me anyway. So, having tasted a few successes with my previous “interviewees”, I approached the lady advertising for herself next, with more confidence than I had initially.

“你好勇敢哦。你是我在这里看到的,第一个为自己找伴侣的。(You’re so brave. You are the first person I’ve seen here, who is finding a partner for yourself.)”

She let out an awkward smile.

I started to worry a little. She reacted to my comment, but did not say anything after that. How should I continue this conversation?

“你在这里多久了?(How long have you been here?)”I asked. I considered it quite a basic question to ask, since I had asked the same question to the old lady and her friend before, and this question opened them up to sharing just how worried they are about their children, because they had tried so long but to no avail.

“有一段时间了。(It has been some time.)” This answer left me dissatisfied. ‘Some time’ is too vague. For the research to be more significant, more specific answers are needed.

I knew for a fact that the conversation was going nowhere. She was not open in sharing more information. Was it because she did not trust me, considering that I was just a random stranger? At this point of time, I panicked. It’s a bad habit of mine to slur my words when I feel that I have lost control in a conversation, and especially when I feel that the other party distrusts me or does not feel comfortable around me.

“其实,其实我是个学生。因为好奇,才来这里看看的…… 嗯,我是读社会学的。所以对婚姻与家庭比较感兴趣。(Actually, actually, I’m a student. I’m here only out of curiosity… Erm, I study sociology, so I’m rather interested in issues of marriage and family,)” I explained, as if to justify the slew of questions that might have seemed strange to her.

She simply nodded her head. I immediately knew that I was fighting a losing battle here. Should I let the conversation end? But she’s the only person advertising for herself at People’s Park here. Since it is so rare, I have to put this in my findings. I just have to. How many weeks, days, or months has she been here? Has she tried finding a marriage partner through dating apps instead? Aren’t the chances of finding a marriage partner here much smaller? Why is she still here then? Why is it her but not her parents who are here? I still have so many questions left unanswered. I can’t just stop the conversation here.

I decided to try again, “你想要来这里是你自己的意思吗?还是父母要你来的?你的父母会担心 –?(Did you come here on your own accord? Or were you pressurised by your parents? Are your parents worried – ?)”

She cut me off – not rudely – and said, “你能不能不要问了呀,你问了我心里很难受。(Do you mind if you stopped asking me questions? It is making me feel very upset.)

That was clearly the last straw for her. I halted, expressed my apologies hastily, and walked away.

I couldn’t quite remember where I headed to after that, except that I ended up finding on a rock in the middle of nowhere in the park, and sat there sobbing uncontrollably for god knows how long.

‘WTF were you thinking?’ I asked myself again and again. A pang of guilt hit me real hard, because I suddenly realised how hurtful my questions must have been to her for her to let out such a begging request. What’s worse was that I had not even realised it prior to her stopping me.

It had to take this much for me to start empathising with her. Now, imagine for a moment that you’re unmarried at the age of 40. That’s notwithstanding the fact that you are a female in a culture where women are expected to wed before the age of 30. Here you are at People’s Park, having mustered all your courage to find a partner for yourself. Most people here are desperate parents, and you stick out like a sore thumb. Streams of people walk by, evaluating you from your job, your educational qualifications, your hukou status to your height, your weight, your face… basically everything. You don’t quite like that, but you do it anyway not just because you “have time to spare” but because you buy in the idea that time is running out for you as a woman. Single children are often unhappy when their parents advertise for them. You are different though. You don’t mind it that much. In fact, you choose to find a partner by yourself. Because the one thing that you want more than anything else is to be – happy. The thing is, you have been doing this every week for weeks and months now and still, nothing much has changed.

One day, out of the blue, a wide-eyed student approaches you, and commends you for being brave. Should you take that as compliment or mockery? She asks you, “How long have you been here?” Should you tell her you have been here for months and still nobody wants you? She tells you that she’s a sociology major. So she’s speaking to you now because…? Because you’re not ‘normal’ like everyone else in society? How should you feel about that? She asks you why you are here. Is that even a question? If you were happily married like most women of your age, is there a need to be here at all? And the worst of them all – she asks persistently, with an irksome oblivion of the luxury of time she has as a lady right in the dawn of her youth. How small must you have seemed to her?

I imagined how hurt I would have felt had I been in her shoes, and these thoughts crushed me. It might sound a tad too dramatic, but it is close to, or I can say, downright unethical to exploit someone’s pain just for the sake of “research”, not to mention in such an insensitive and crude way. The whole time, I was so caught up with fulfilling my interviewee count and quenching my thirst for answers to “important” questions, that I overlooked the most important but taken for granted fact that here in front of me is a living breathing being with a personal history unbeknownst to anyone but herself.

When I eventually calmed myself down, I tried making up to her the only way I knew how to, which was to write. I took out a piece of paper, wrote her a letter expressing my sincerest apologies, and had just enough courage to hand it to her. I had always known spoken language to be my nemesis, but I had wished then that my written language could heal in someway or another.

Never embarrass your respondent; your respondent is your priority; talk through sensitive topics empathetically so that your respondent will be open to sharing more, my teachers say. Yet, no amount of lessons can prepare anyone for the real deal. I won’t deny that today made me seriously doubt if I can ever do qualitative research work or journalism or just about anything that requires me to speak to people a lot in the future. That to me is quite very tragic because as much as I desire to connect with people and understand the intricacies that come with them, I unfortunately lack the means to do so. I’m not new to this realisation that has gnawed at me for years and years now, but that’s a topic for another day. Conversing with grace, and above all, tenderness, is an art that I might very well never master, but I’d gladly take today’s encounter as a lesson anyway.

Sama Sama

Habari! 🙂 Here on student exchange in Shanghai, I befriended my first Kenyan friend! In a rather unexpected way though – physical examination (what even). A while back, I caught up with him again over a meal, along with a few Singaporean friends. I can’t quite put my amazement (and gratefulness) for this whole encounter in prose, so I wrote it in a song.

Lyrics: 

I travelled miles and miles and was lucky to have found
Somebody just like you
You brought me into the world of another
Beyond the touristy brochures views

You shared a story of when you were young
You heard a man speaking Italian so you turned to your papa and said
“I wanna travel the world and learn all the languages.”
Your papa shook his head and said you would not
But then you grew into a fine young man
Speaking Chinese in a foreign land where we met
People laugh behind your back
“What’s a Black doing in our homeland?”
“我们都是人啊。” (We’re all human) was what you said

La la la la la la
We’re all one and the same
We’re all one and the same
La la la la la la
We’re all one and the same
One and the same

You told us all about your beautiful homeland
From the lions on the streets to the sweetness of the water
The air is so fresh we’d breathe in twice if we can
We’ve never heard that from the press
We only heard of people living from hand-to-mouth
You told us that is somewhat true, but we really ought to know
We’re all a basket filled with both good and bad
Don’t you ever tar them all with the same brush

(Chorus)

I’m glad you proved your papa wrong
That’s what a heart could do if it wanted more
Mankind has colours aplenty but just the heart of one
If love could be a language
I think you’ve mastered it all

(Chorus x2)

P.S. Written on a particular sleepless night after all of us drank 3 cups of Kenyan tea each.

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Why Everyone Needs a La La Land

I caught La La Land in one of the movie theatres in Shanghai a few weeks ago. And boy was I glad I did. It was enchantingly beautiful – heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time.

The film follows the story of two aspiring dreamers – Mia and Sebastian, on their road to achieving stardom and establishing a jazz club respectively. In this process, they fall in love, and consistently support each other’s dreams. But it is not all glitz and glamour for this couple. Sebastian struggles to make ends meet and compromises on his own passion for Mia. Mia fights her own insecurities, having experienced countless unsuccessful auditions, and a self-funded play that only attracted a handful. In the end, (spoiler alert), both characters do fulfil their dreams, but not without unintentionally growing apart and eventually falling apart.

It’s a simple, and at times predictable storyline indeed. But it’s precisely this inevitability in the storyline that makes the film so captivating. It poses a question that so often resurfaces at the back of our minds – What exactly makes the pursuit of dreams so alluring, in spite of everything that comes at the cost of it?

For some, dreams possess such a charm because it appears that with sufficient talent, hard work and passion, anyone has a chance to make it big, regardless of who we were or who we are. But it doesn’t take much for anyone to realize that opportunities are not at all equally distributed amongst different groups of people in society.

For example, an article that has been pretty popular recently “Entrepreneurs don’t have a special gene for risk – they come from families with money.” presents the critical view that while characteristics such as risk-taking are commonly perceived as the source of success for many entrepreneurs, the actual potion for success lies in the financial resources some can receive because of their positions of privilege.

So there we have, the enlightened and the disenchanted, who argues that dreams are exclusively for the rich, the young, and the privileged. Dreams are a luxury some cannot afford, especially when they have to worry about their next meal or whether they have a roof over their head today.

This brings us back to the age-old Idealism vs Pragmatism dichotomy. I suspect that most people identify and understand the intentions from both sides, and fall somewhere in between. After all, there are hardly ever pure idealists and pragmatists in the world. And this, I believe, is where the pain comes from for most.

I remember a scene in La La Land when Sebastian overhears a conversation over the phone between Mia and her parents. As with all parents, Mia’s parents ask her if Sebastian is nice, and of course – if he has a proper job with a stable income. Mia replies lovingly with all the nice things she can say about Sebastian, not forgetting to mention his ambition of opening a jazz club in the future, which is of course – only going to happen in a hypothetical future.

Sebastian understands that. As he listens attentively to the conversation, it was as if the audience could hear him weigh between his love for Jazz and his love for Mia. Eventually, he agrees to join a band he does not wish to, for the sake of a steadier income.

But nothing is as heart wrenching as the look on Mia’s face when she attends one of Sebastian concerts and soon recognises that he isn’t happy doing what he’s doing on stage. This is despite the roaring audience, and the apparent smile on his face. Mia understands that a crucial part of Sebastian has been changed, and compromised. Sebastian’s choice is a true testament of love. Yet, at the same time, by doing so, Sebastian has lost the very part of himself that made Mia fall in love with him in the first place.

Sebastian is never a pragmatist, at least not when he defies rules during his restaurant gig to play songs he wanted to, instead of songs he was instructed to, although that can cost him his job; not when he talks passionately about Jazz, although not many can comprehend them. But he too, is human, and he is not spared from the pressures of life.

Making that choice must have brought so much inner turmoil to him, precisely because he understands the importance of both Mia and Jazz to himself. Upon reflection, it becomes apparent that the struggle that Sebastian faces in La La Land is one that millions of people struggle with on a daily basis: a student chooses between pursuing a literature degree, or a law degree to help with her family’s finances in the future; a high-flyer chooses between furthering his career overseas, or staying back to take care of his ill parents; a 60 year-old grandmother chooses between fulfilling her dream of travelling the world, or staying at home to take care of her grandchildren.

With all these eminent pressures of life weighing down on us, should we still dream? Can we still dream?

Unlike many skeptics, I would argue, hell, YES. Dreams, as I refer to here, refer generally to the accomplishment of a task that one desires to achieve simply for the sake of it. They are what one wants to do if he or she is freed from the things he or she needs to do. This can range as simply from wanting to spend more time with one’s family to wanting to pick a new skill or pursue an interest.

What I believe in is dreaming within limits. A possible reason why many people would feel jaded is because they adopt an all or nothing attitude. Using the example of entrepreneurship, some may think, “If reports show that there is much less chance that people of a lower economic status can succeed in their startups, then I might as well not try.”

The problem here lies in dreaming beyond one’s means. If someone of a lower economic status would like to try a hand at starting up a business, he or she doesn’t even have to think of becoming a successful businessman at the beginning. Why not dream of attending workshops on entrepreneurship first? Then work on getting an internship at a startup? Then a full-time job? Then eventually gain enough experience (and funding) to start up?

Thus, if there was something wrong with how the media paints the success of entrepreneurs, it is not so much that they overestimated the importance of characteristics such as risk taking and underestimate the influence of privilege, but that they missed out too much of the “invisible” steps that individuals took to reach where they are now, regardless of the gifts that they are accrued with at the starting line. One can start with less, and that’s okay. And we should be okay with that. Because no matter how much we have, there’s always going to be someone with more resources, and more talent than us. What’s more important is the knowledge that we can still get to the end, and recognising how we can do so.

I had once attended a talk in which the speaker reckoned that everyone belongs to a box. As much as we don’t like it, humans do have the tendency to classify ourselves along lines of social categories such as class, education backgrounds, and age etc. But nothing is stopping us from working (very hard) within our boxes, until our boxes expand, then repeat.

At this point, I’d like to share my motivation for writing this blogpost. I’ve been putting off writing about this topic for a long time. For one, the word “dreams” has somewhat of a bad name. It seems like a special word reserved for a naïve and socially oblivious group of people, who just “need to grow up”. For another, I hate to risk making this blogpost sound too much like a cliché self-help piece. However, there have been plenty of instances that have proved to me the absolute importance (and attainability) of pursuing one’s dreams.

For instance, a few months ago, I interned at a productions company. We were tasked to document the stories of elderly who lead extraordinary lives, or have interesting hobbies for a video series. In one of the episodes, we interviewed a “Kpop Ahma” (grandmother) who left an unwavering impression in me. (Watch the episode here if you’d wish!)

She goes by the name of Bee Lay, or her Chinese name, 美丽 (which translates to ‘Beautiful’ literally). Bee Lay, 59 this year, was preparing for a Kpop dance competition earlier this year when my friend and I had met her. Her friend and her formed the only elderly group participating in the competition. The song they had chosen to dance to was “Shake It, Shake It” by a Kpop girl dance group, SISTAR.

Although she has been dancing for over 10 years now, and has even become a dance instructor at Community Centres in Singapore, Kpop dance is a genre completely new to her. And scary, because it requires the kind of fitness and strength that youths exhibit with ease.

We asked her repetitively, “Aren’t you afraid of being laughed at?” or “Do you think you can do as well or even better than other youths in the competition?” Her replies were always this, “我们活到这把年纪了,应该要尝试一下。被别人取笑是一定会的。不过你没有被别人取笑,怎么会跳的好?”(We’ve already lived to this age, so we should give it a try. If we don’t let ourselves get laughed at, how can we dance better?)

We met her again at the competition venue. Her partner and her arrived in black T-shirts with apple designs on them, and sequin skirts (designed and sewn by Bee Lay by the way). She wore a blond fake hair unapologetically, and had put on extremely strong make-up, with fake eyelashes so thick they felt heavy on the eyelids, and blusher so pink I could see her from a mile away.

Her partner and her stood out like a sore thumb amidst groups of youngsters in their hipster black and sexy outfits, not to mention their minimalistic and chic Korean makeup. Bee Lay and her partner stepped into the audition room in a slightly tentative manner. When the music came on, they started performing as best as they could.

Standing in front, I sensed that they were nervous, and indeed they were. A few slips were made, and some movements were done even better during their practice sessions. They did their final pose, the judges gave some comments to help them improve, and then they left the audition room.

I sat in the audition room for a while longer, and watched a few other young groups perform. They were beyond amazing. Steps aligned, energy unparalleled. But as I sat there, the images of Bee Lay practising and eventually performing in that room just kept flashing in my mind. Her moves were imperfect, but her very presence in that room, her name on that registration list, was such a huge statement in itself.

I recalled how immensely impressed I was with the amount of energy she has when we followed her around her dance practices and dance classes. She travelled from place to place – her house, where we interviewed her; her void deck, where she practised for the competition with her partner; a community centre, where she taught dance classes; and back to her house, where she sewed her costumes, all without a single complaint of fatigue. There’s no question that she lives her life purposefully.

It became clear to me then that whether or not her group wins the competition has become irrelevant. It is the sheer act of dreaming, synonymous to me as a pure expression for having passion in life itself, which truly inspires.

I compare her with my grandparents and wondered how amazing it would be if my grandparents had something they loved and lived for that. They are close to 70 years old, recently retired, and are living through each day with dread. That’s mainly because of illness, but partly because they have lost purpose and interest in life. “What do I live for if I can’t be of use and earn money for the family?” they ask me more often than I wished they had.

I thought to myself, is Bee Lay more privileged than my grandparents? Neither is she especially rich (she lives in typical 4 room flat), nor does she have the privilege of youth, or the privilege of time (she has to take care of her grandchildren every day). What she did was to prioritise her interests and lean in on them to make them into reality.

Now, I compare her with myself. What do I like doing simply for the sake of it? Writing, and composing a few tunes, I’d say. But if someone ever asked me if I had a dream, I wouldn’t dare say I aspire to be a writer or a music composer. I evaluate my own capabilities realistically and know that that’s way out of my limits. Instead, I create and publish a few works sometimes, with whatever skills and knowledge I have at the moment. There’s no harm enrolling in that module on songwriting or writing another blogpost to hone my muscle for writing, despite knowing that most people probably wouldn’t bother reading it.

Still, I’d admit that there is always a lingering fear that people would laugh at these works for their amateurishness. But in those moments, I recall Bee Lay’s dance journey and have learnt to ask, “So what?” It’s no surprise that people who inspire me most these days aren’t necessarily the ones who perform exceptionally well, but the ones who persist relentlessly in their pursuits.

Becoming skilful in these interests is a byproduct, a cherry on the cake. But nothing brings greater joy and liberation than continuing to do something you love for the very sake of it. It’s about conceiving of the word “dream” not as a noun (as in something you need to achieve), but a verb, something you do on a daily basis. In other words, a way of life.

There are many definitions of THE good life. Some say that it’s about having good relationships with your close friends and family, some say that it’s about earning enough material resources to live the rest of your life comfortably. I don’t know what it is, but looking at Bee Lay, I know that she’s leading a good life, and that’s the kind of life I want to lead.

I’m grateful that watching La La Land sparked my desire to put all these thoughts into words. So… what’s La La Land? A space, both mental and physical, where everyone can wander off in the pursuit of his or her desires and interests. And, I believe more than anything that everyone needs one.

Cheers to the “fools” who dream! 🙂

On the Night of Christmas Eve

A mildly depressing original written this Christmas Eve. May all of your days (and nights) be merry and warm 🙂

Lyrics:

It’s the 24th of December
A night meant to be happy for all

But here I am thinkin’ bout all the
people I’ve lost to time

I’m not one to find friends aplenty
So they must have been a treasure of sorts

Under all the lights in the city
I wished that their nights were merry and warm

Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh x2

 

 

Makeup empowers women? I don’t buy that.

My sister, 23, wears makeup to work or dates sometimes. She first started learning how to do makeup through youtube videos, and started investing more on makeup products when she turned 20. Out of curiosity, I asked her one day, “Why do you want to wear makeup? Isn’t it troublesome?”

“No, I can do it quite fast these days! And if it makes you feel good, and feel more confident, why not?”

That’s definitely not the first time I’m hearing a statement like that. I’ve heard it from female friends who start using makeup for the very first time, and somehow found a need to justify their switch. I’ve heard it from Youtubers who are directly implicated in the process of transmitting knowledge about makeup as a part of their career. Instead of “Why do you put on makeup?”, the question has evolved into, “How do you put on makeup more skilfully, more quickly?”, as though women’s desire and need to put on make up should be taken for granted.

So I can’t help but notice the irony when these females, who are strong and successful in their careers, the people who advocate that ‘Women can be whoever they want to be’, are the same people who conform to societal’s norms of beauty through makeup, and more strikingly, teach other women how to do so through makeup tutorials or advice.

Again, and again, the implicit message tells us that makeup empowers women. It makes women beautiful, even if they are think they are not. It lends support to the age old saying that ‘There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.’

Apart from the fact that putting on makeup essentially conforms to society’s ideals of beauty, there are two other reasons why I don’t buy the idea that makeup empowers women. The first one is deceivingly practical. I think putting on makeup is a waste of time, because the time could have been dedicated to my personal growth instead. When my mother or sister asks me why I don’t put on makeup to university or events, I always brush it aside with “Ah, takes up too much time!”. It’s a lovely way to evade the question, really.

But, what they didn’t realise was that I didn’t say that lightly. A sociologist, Susie Orbach, argues that said that an overemphasis on a women’s body size and shape distracts women from achieving higher positions in society. I find that statement resoundingly true, and often understated. From the time females choose to put on makeup, and buy into the idea that their appearances are not good enough as they are, what they invest in is not just the time taken to put on makeup, but also the time spent on using makeup as erroneous solutions to issues arising primarily from low self-esteem.

For instance, a female who had a bad day at work may spend the time wondering if she messed up because she is not beautiful enough. She might try resolving issues by putting on more makeup. Or perhaps, she didn’t think makeup will solve her issues. She simply thought that makeup would make her feel better about herself. All these thoughts emerge because women have been constantly exposed to the idea that when we feel dissatisfied with ourselves, all we need to do is to make changes to our bodies or our faces.

At this point, I want to highlight that this does not necessarily mean that females who do not put on make up have a higher self-esteem than females who do. What I do not agree with is the idea that make up can lead to higher self-esteem amongst women. Makeup can at best be a make-shift measure, but can never truly make a woman feel more confident about herself.

Secondly, I don’t think makeup can empower women because makeup not only reminds women of societal’s ideals of beauty, but routinises it. We’ve all heard of the word ‘makeup routine’. Makeup, something you put on your face, has a direct impact on a female’s body and by extension her identity. When makeup becomes a daily ritual that is performed everyday, it’s not surprising that women purport feeling ‘naked’ when they don’t put on makeup. When makeup has already become a part and parcel of a woman’s life, norms of beauty are naturalised, so much so that they don’t even realise that they are reinforcing gender norms. Well-meaning Youtubers and friends provide advice on makeup, but fail to recognise that in the process of fulfilling their individual preferences, gender inequality is unintentionally reproduced. In Charles Tilly’s words, “The continuity of inequality is a practical accomplishment of everyday life.”

Thus, I reject the idea that makeup empowers women. On the contrary, I would argue that it is not wearing makeup that is a political act. Just recently, Alicia Keys stopped wearing makeup and for a celebrity, that is a powerful statement to make. Regardless of some online comments about how she can afford to do so because her skin is naturally flawless or whatnot, I resonate with her message and am happy because whenever someone asks me to put on makeup, I can now retort with, “But even Alicia Keys doesn’t wear makeup!”

But having mentioned my stance about makeup, I won’t deny that when it comes down to my personal life, I’m not always sure if I can live up to and act according to my beliefs. This is because, I have a hunch that in theory, everyone loves a misfit, but in reality, nobody wants to be with one.

In my previous relationship, my partner asked me on several occasions why I wouldn’t put on perfume, or carry more mature feminine handbags. I have heard a friend telling me that she ‘wants to buy denim skirts because her partner likes to see her wear it’. I have another friend who ‘puts down her fringe because her partner doesn’t like her putting up her fringe’. I have yet another friend who ‘wants to buy a shirt in green, because her partner likes seeing her wear green’.

All these are not directly related to makeup per se, but there is a common thread here. As a partner, I cannot help sticking to my principles, without feeling a certain sense of guilt. This is especially so when a partner’s demands appear so achievable. As my friend said, “If it only takes me a little change to make him happy, I don’t mind doing that.” But to what extent can we compromise without having these seemingly little changes accumulate and ultimately changing who we are as a person? That is a fine balance I find hard to strike.

Now that I’m single again, I also weirdly think about my appearances more than I had when I was in a relationship. I catch myself asking myself questions such as “Should I throw on some makeup? Should I do up my eyebrows? Should I put on braces and straighten my teeth?” more times than I’m proud of. There is a faint but unmistakeable sense of anxiety that I can never be attractive enough to be desired again if I do not make an effort to change my appearances.

The reason for that anxiety has something to do with age as well. Putting on makeup seems to be an unspoken rite of passage for women, a marker that a girl has finally learnt ‘what it means to be a woman’. I feel it most strongly when my mother exclaims in frustration, “你会不会做女人的!” (Do you know how to be a woman?!), often in the context of me forgetting to put on the skincare products she bought (again). I scroll through photos of seniors on facebook and instagram, people I look up to, people whose lives are those I aspire to lead, see them with their perfect makeup and think to myself, “Maybe it’s time for me to grow up – put on some makeup, buy some new clothes?”

All these prove to me again and again that gender is “done”, and choosing how to “do it” day by day is not a simple task, especially when the options don’t seem to be that aplenty in the first place. But nevertheless, when I catch myself wanting to change my appearances for any reason at all, I remind myself with one of the most famous quotes by Roald Dahl.

a-person-who-has-good-thoughts

So when my mother complains about the condition of my sister’s face, and my sister turns to ask me, “Is my face really that bad??”, I always say, “Your face is fine. You are already very very pretty.”

The American Election – An Emotional Rollercoaster for All

The past few days have been nothing short of an emotional rollercoaster as I ploughed through countless articles, videos and commentaries on the Internet, as the American election unfolds. This post is an attempt to make sense of the situation thus far and pen down all the thoughts that crystallised in a mind of a Singaporean Sociology student.

Gender 

“America is in labour now…In 24 hours we shall know if it’s a *BOY* or *GIRL*.!!” says one trending post on subreddit before the election. Gender is obviously one of the most salient themes that sets the background for this election. I was never the kind of person that into politics, but the reports of sexual assaults and the insults that Donald Trump hurled at women first stirred something in me and made me interested in the election. As a woman, these comments cut very deeply and personally. An article by telegraph, “Donald Trump sexism tracker: Every offensive comment in one place” left me feeling humiliated, angry and I found it incomprehensible how a person of such moral standards can run for presidency.

Then, another thread of articles focused on the elephant in the room – how Hillary Clinton’s gender itself makes her unlikeable for many reasons. These articles epitomise the kinds of dilemma that a woman of power faces. On one hand, articles such as “Hillary: Why the Clinton America Sees isn’t the Clinton colleagues know” highlights Clinton’s feminine characteristics such as great listening skills that do not appeal to the electorate that is used to charismatic leadership. Some articles even explain that men’s dislike for Clinton is visceral, and part of it is because she “reminds them of their nagging wives”. On another hand, articles such as “Hillary Clinton: I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions” paradoxically shows how Clinton’s efforts in suppressing “negative” feminine characteristics such as being too emotional did not gain the support of the electorate either. Instead, she is accused of being too cold and unauthentic.

By far, the most heartbreaking articles picked up on the effects of Bill Clinton’s infidelity on Clinton’s run for presidency. Some argued that while it would be expected that women would support Clinton after Trump’s sexual assault saga, many women did not in fact support Clinton. Articles such as “Enabler or family defender? How Hillary Clinton responded to husband’s accusers” show that one of the reasons is because Clinton was seen to have “enabled” her husband’s actions by managing the female accusers, thus tacitly implying that such behaviours were acceptable. These articles can’t help but make me think how confusing it is that conflicting demands are always casted on women. In such a situation, I thought, what could she have done? File for a divorce, and she might be seen as sacrificing the political career of her husband, and worse, the future of America, in the process of fulfilling her personal wishes? Choose to stay in the marriage, and she risks being called passive and conforming to the stereotype of women as docile and forgiving? It is also pretty disturbing that blame for Bill Clinton’s infidelity is casted on Hillary Clinton and not on himself, while Bill Clinton still manages to retain his popularity for being the well-loved “first black American president” that he is. Why are men (both Bill Clinton and Trump) more easily forgiven, and women more harshly judged when it comes to issues that involve gender and sexuality?

My theatre professor once made a sobering statement after Obama was elected as President in 2008 that, “This shows that America would rather vote a Black man in, than to vote for a White woman.” This is an extremely disheartening thought. But beyond anger, one article finely conveyed my feelings towards Clinton now. This article, “A Lament for Hillary Clinton, The Woman” writes, “The shattering of one woman’s career aspirations are no tragedy compared with the globally catastrophic effects of a Trump presidency or even just the awful knowledge that half of the American people are on his side. But I can’t help thinking right now about Hillary Clinton as a person, rather than a symbol. She’s a woman who stayed so strong for so many years, but who is, after all, only human. And she’s a woman who many of us have grown to love.”

It’s a feeling of quiet heartache, but also of quiet admiration. While the results may have shattered not just the dreams of one woman, but the dreams of a woman too many, it reveals a lot about the salience of the status quo, and reminds women that our fight for equality has far from ended, and it is of utmost importance to lean in on opportunities with even more grit and perseverance.

To quote Clinton herself, “To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.

Race

Another theme that was just as important was race. A moving excerpt from CNN showed Van Jones, a political commentator, commenting that this election was a “white-lash against a changing country, against a black president”. This point of view corroborates with other articles such as “Taking Trump voters’ concerns seriously means listening to what they’re actually saying” which rightly point out that it would be a blatant mistake to disregard the decisive role that race played, and muddle it with economic issues. These perspectives are backed by evidences from exit polls, which clearly showed that Donald Trump won because of the overwhelming support he gained from working class white men.

While I do not wish to under-estimate the effects of race on this election, I do not wish to over-estimate its influence either. After all, other post-election analysis such as “How Trump Won the Election According to Exit Polls” showed that while a majority of minorities continue to vote for Democrats, their votes actually fell compared to previous elections. This appears surprising in light of all the racist comments that Trump made.

At this point, I would like to bring in a concept that my sociology professor quoted from works of other sociologists on race, “Race is a smoke screen for what is essentially a class difference.” The salience of race comes from the fact that people of different races obtained differential material resources. If more minorities are supporting Donald Trump than before, then it becomes clear that the issue transcends race. Yet, the discourse surrounding race in this election has often been about the symbolic differences of race. For example, emotions run high on how Donald Trump’s racist comments are morally distasteful, simply because it’s racist. While nobody would disregard these comments as untrue, they seem to be missing the core of the issue – that what the minorities needed were not lofty concepts of respect, love, freedom and more, but concrete jobs and income.

Class

Unfortunately, I find that the issue of class was only brought to the forefront after the election, as many try to justify the triumph of Trump. One such article that has only gained further attention after the election is “Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why“. I think this article is important at so many levels because of the 3 important issues that it covers – Trade, Globalisation and the Media.

First, globalisation and free trade has had a toll on the lower-income or unemployed Americans who suffered when American companies moved to other countries with lower production costs. Additionally, migration has also led to loss of jobs for locals. The article writes that “A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.

From an outsider point of view, and from the point of view of the educated class, it is often taken for granted that free trade is obviously beneficial, and taking in migrants is obviously the most noble thing a country that hinges upon the concept of diversity can do.

But who are we? Along the way, we’ve stopped questioning that. If we take a moment to reflect, it is true in some sense that we could have been speaking from an ivory tower. We are the educated class, the ones who are privileged enough to go to universities, the ones who are often socialised to take offence with authoritarianism, racism and sexism. But if we accuse Trump of extremism, I can see how from his supporters and his point of view, it must be equally extreme, or even naive, for the other side to pretend that free trade does not lead to the loss of jobs among locals, or that large-scale immigration does not threaten the social stability of a country. It is not to say that Clinton entirely ignores the negative effects of trade, globalisation or immigration, but the concerns of the affected group are not sufficiently addressed.

And what are we influenced by? Other than our schools, we are also influenced by the media. One thing that constantly baffles me is this – if social media is all that powerful, how did Trump manage to win despite the number of popular celebrities who had come forward to pledge their support for Clinton, and the countless reports from media outlets that have exposed the ugly truths about Trump? The article “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally” hits the nail on the head. Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel provides examples for this, “When (Trump’s supporters) hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.’ ‘We’re going to try to figure out how do we strike the right balance between costs and benefits.’ ”

This situation shows that the media has failed to represent the voices of the working class. Thus, on polls and social media, it might seem that the conditions are favourable for Clinton, when the reality paints a starkly different picture. People who find the results difficult to understand might have been the exact group of people conditioned by the media to similarly undermine Trump just as a racist, misogynic and bigot person, without coming to terms with the fact that his concerns might reflect very real concerns of a significant group of people in America. Trump’s supporters could have very well voted based on daily struggles that most of us are blinded to.

The most saddening outcome of this is that by extension, people perceive Trump supporters just as racist, misogynic and bigot people as well. Instead of being a voice for all Americans, the media has polarised the views of the population, making it difficult for either side to reconcile with the views of the other. Since the results were released, many netizens have been lashing out on Trump supporters, without recognising that they too are aggravating divisions based on political and class lines, in the process of claiming to promote unity on race and gender.

This is why I refuse to make sweeping allegations like these. And I believe that no one should do so, no matter how upset they are. In a wonderful TED talk “Can a divided America heal?“, social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt talks about the distinction between anger and disgust. There can still be love in anger and disagreements. However, disgust operates at a much deeper and hurtful level. He says, “Disgust paints the person as subhuman, monstrous, morally deformed… As we demonise each other more, as the manichaean worldview that the world is a battle between the good and the evil ramps up, we’re more likely not just to say they’re wrong, I don’t like them, but we say they’re evil, they’re satanic… and then we want nothing to do with them. Thus, it is of utmost importance to view the concerns of Trump supporters as real and legitimate, and not simply sweep it aside as ludicrous or even inhumane.

Singapore

Back at home, I can’t help but reflect on my nation’s obsession with pragmatism. In the previous years of elections in Singapore, I always recall a kind of disdain for bread and barter issues whenever we discuss about the elections in school. We conveniently choose to believe that Singapore has reached a high level of economic prosperity. Thus, it’s time to dwell into deeper issues of sexuality and freedom of speech and more. But we have always been cautioned to never treat our economic prosperity for granted, I think I now understand why. While issues of sexuality and freedom of speech are undeniably important (not just for the rich, but for everyone), I’m also reminded of all the invisible poor who must have felt so left behind when we assume that poverty is an issue of the past.

Another thing that struck me is Singapore’s stubborn stance on authoritarianism. I call it stubborn because the government has consistently reminded us of the possible failings of democracy regardless of how foreigners continue to judge us for being un-democratic in this modern era of democracy. Yet, it is not until now that I have learnt to truly understand the imperfections of democracy. I call it an imperfection, not a failure, because no one would really be able to judge the actual repercussions of this election until much later. After all, who is to say that Americans made a wrong decision? Nevertheless, the election brings up an important question – can the people really be trusted to make a wise decision for the nation? For America, whose “constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power,” as Clinton puts it, the answer has to be yes. Every decision, good or bad, would most definitely be a learning point for America, and for the rest of the world.

One last thing that I have always taken for granted is racial harmony in Singapore. Honestly, I think that race is something that Singaporeans of the younger generation don’t consider very much about. When the government constantly harps on the importance of racial harmony, we dismiss it like a reminder from a naggy parent. But racial tensions can be very real, and it is high time we realise that we do have a lot to reconsider and protect.

Conclusion

I call this election an emotional rollercoaster because of the whole range of emotions I’ve experienced since the very beginning. After the election, I experienced shock, sadness and heartache. But as the day went by, and more introspection kicked in, there was much more sympathy, empathy and peace in my mind.

While others may think that a lot has changed overnight, I beg to differ. For anyone who has a cause to fight for, nothing has changed and nothing should have changed. The societal background may appear different, but efforts ought to continue. For all the young people in the world, Clinton is right to say that we should “never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it”regardless of the process and the outcome.

Humanity can be divided along a thousand and one lines, but I would like to end this post with a beautiful quote by a poet, Rumi.

“Out beyond ideas of
wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there. 

The Poor and the Poorer

In one of my sociology of deviance lectures, I learnt about the distinction between two concepts of poverty – absolute deprivation and relative deprivation. 

Instead of telling us what it is directly, Prof Gana shared with us two true stories of three children.


#1

Here’s the story of Bill and Jack. 

One day, Bill and Jack were caught for stealing flowerpots from HDB flats and selling them to the nursery for about $4-5 per pot. The conversation between Prof Gana and the children went as such: 

Bill: Sir, how much you earn?
Prof: (pause) Enough to get by.
Jack: No la, he study very hard one. I’m sure his pay ah, about $800!
Bill: Maybe $1000? Wah.. you earn so much. 

As a matter of fact, they had an elder brother. But he passed away. Cause of death? Falling from a HDB block while trying to steal a bird cage that was hung on the ceiling.

#2

Here’s the story of Anna.

One day, Anna went back home crying.

Father: Dear, why are you crying?
Anna: Papa… why are we so poor??
Father: Poor? What do you mean?
Anna: All my friends’ houses have backyards in their homes, but we don’t have!!

As a matter of fact, they lived in a high-end condominium in Bukit Timah district.


These stories haunt me till today. In my prof’s words, “For Bill and Jack, they were so poor that the limits of their material mind was only at $800-1000. $800 was such a big money, which was why they were willing to go behind bars for selling a potted plant for $4. In contrast, Anna’s story just shows us that the pursuit of material wealth is basically a bottomless pit.”

I wish I could dismiss Anna’s point of view and condemn her as greedy and insatiable as others would. But I have to admit that the feeling of greed, of jealousy, of desire, is very real. I know, because like many others, I’ve experienced it on my own as well.

I recall one night when I went home looking all gloomy and upset. I had caught up with an old friend over lunch that day. During lunch, we talked about where all our classmates are up to these days. Almost all of them are studying overseas, and doing degrees such as medicine and law.

Sure, I’m extremely happy for them. But there was just something gnawing at my guts.

When I went home, my terrible mood was written all over my face. Again, I can’t seem to hide anything from my Mum, so she asked, “What’s wrong?” It wasn’t long before tears starting welling up my eyes and I started breaking down, and sobbing uncontrollably.

I told her about all the great universities my friends are studying at, all the great things they are doing in school, the great life that they are leading. My Mum looked at me in the eye, and said all the things that all mothers would say.

“You can’t compare yourself with others. Everyone can succeed in different fields.

“Studying medicine or law doesn’t make them more successful. It’s what they make of the degree in the future that determines how successful they are.”

Then, she continued quoting stories of her relatives – how they are rich and successful, but lead lonely lives, or are not people worthy of respect, so on and so forth.

She never realised that the whole time, her words were drowned out by my inner dialogue. Till today, I’m not sure whether or not she knew why I cried. She didn’t ask, and I didn’t mention, for fear that she would feel hurt.

I knew that my friends were clever, smart and wonderful people. But the thing is, I never saw myself as a person of any less virtue or stature as them. I knew for a clear fact that, what most of them had that I don’t was a family that could afford to send me abroad for an overseas education, without scholarship that is.

Just as my friend once said, “There comes a point of time when meritocracy ends.” And I think there is some ugly truth to this statement. So, at that moment, there and then, I caught myself asking the same question as Anna did.

“Why am I so poor?”

I asked myself that question, knowing fully well that I am not poor. My family is not struggling to make ends meet. I live comfortably with a shelter over my head. My family owns a car. My family travels to other countries whenever we can.

So maybe, then, the question I should have asked myself is this.

“Why am I poorer than others?”

But at this point I’m sensible enough to be aware that posing a question like this has no end. Other than the richest person on earth, 99.99999999999999999% of the world is poorer than at least one other person. Yet, we continue to strive to climb further and further up.

We have long been taught the “how” to be rich and successful – study your assess off, get a great job (best as a doctor, or lawyer), buy a house, buy a car, marry someone nice, bear two kids, and live happily ever after. Our teachers – parents, friends, and the almighty social media has done a very good job at that.

To put things into more specific context, for students, the “how” looks more like this – enrol in a top primary school, go for endless tuition and enrichments classes, excel in PSLE, enter the top secondary school (preferably a school that offers Integrated Programme – so you can skip O levels altogether), enter a top JC … the ultimate dream is of course to enrol in an Ivy League school in the US, or Oxbridge in the UK. And of course, spam your friends’ social media feed with amazing photos of your summer getaways to Niagara Falls or the Antelope Canyon.

But. Why though?

Nobody really teaches us, or tells us the “why”. It’s one thing to desire and pursue all of these, but do we really want to pursue all of these just for the sake of it? Just to check things off our bucket list?

I guess that “why” is something we’ll constantly have to navigate for, and navigate towards for the rest of our lives. We’ll have to roll our sleeves up and get in the dirt. We’ll have to quietly accept the kind of lives and lifestyles we are not endowed with, and make the hard decisions as to how much of ourselves we want to put in to pursue THE life, and if it’s worth pursuing at all.

Most importantly, we need to recognise that we are the poorer, and not the poor. On bad days, I forget that. But on good days, I am reminded that I am luckier than most. I am reminded that while it’s one thing to strive for the best, it’s another to forget about the 10 percent of the world’s population who still live in absolute deprivation today.

Today’s one of those good days.