Uplift

Just 3 days ago, I witnessed two other Singaporean contestants, Olivia Cho and Stella Seah make it through the first round of auditions in Sing! China(中国好声音), the first being Joanna Dong. It was such an ecstatic moment that I almost let out a squeal.

However, it was not long till I found a similar thread amongst the background stories of these Singapore born contestants, especially for Joanna and Olivia. Both are aspiring singers who have hustled hard in Singapore’s music scene for a (very) long time, but eventually find it too difficult to make a living out of music in Singapore, let alone carve a name for themselves, and decides to get out in the world and see where that leads them.

A part of me feels incredibly proud of them, but another sees the heart wrenching side of these stories. Because of our population, Singapore’s music industry is small. I get that. But the even more disheartening reality is that there is little desire from Singaporeans to know of, to get acquainted with, to uplift our very own music talents.

Talents like the three mentioned above, and Nathan Hartono have done amazing gigs/ released incredible covers on Youtube long before the Sing! China programme. I’ve had the luxury of watching some of them before they had even starred in the programme. So I wonder why it always have to take a programme like Sing! China before most Singaporeans realise just how talented some of our musicians are.

Some may argue that that’s precisely the purpose of singing competitions and programmes! To put the spotlight on talents who would otherwise slip by, unnoticed by the crowd. In that case, why do several champions of high-publicity singing competitions in Singapore such as Singapore Idol still fall short in their music careers? Even as Nathan clinches second-runner up, still I hear plenty of critical commentaries from Singaporean friends about him. Putting aside individual preferences, is it that difficult for Singaporeans to applaud a fellow Singaporean for overcoming his individual strife to achieve such splendid results on the global stage? Also, for Singaporeans who are awed by Nathan’s performance on the show, will this support be continuous?

Recently, I’ve become more familiar with a few other less high-profile Singaporean bands and singers (though whether they are high profile/ low profile is entirely subjective), such as Inch Chua, Charlie Lim, Lin Ying, Marian Carmel, Jawn Chan, Monster Cat, 龚芝怡, 铃凯 etc. PS: Highly recommend YOU to check them out. Previously, I may have known of some of them, but I have only delved deeper into their stories in recent years. I dare not consider myself a music guru. I just know that when I listen to these Singaporean singer-songwriters, I feel as happy for having found good music as I feel immensely depressed about how it is possible for so many Singaporeans to not know of the existence of such talents in our home ground.

In fact, this extends way beyond the music scene. In the theatre scene, we have Kuo Pao Kun, Eleanor Wong, Tan Tarn How, Chong Tze Chien, Alvin Tan, Alfian Saat, Haresh Sharma, Oon Shu An and so many more theatre practitioners who have created a whole tapestry of the Singapore narrative in one way or another. A week ago, I caught a theatre play, Without Reason, written by a friend of mine. I definitely felt more overwhelmed by the fact that someone of our generation has taken theatre seriously enough and has painstakingly written and performed a play, than the subject-matter addressed in the play itself. Sim Yan Ying is definitely yet another up-and-coming theatre practitioner to look out for in the coming years!

In the literature scene, I have discovered, and sought emotional refuge in several Singaporean poets and authors like Jennifer Anne Champion, Cheryl Julia Wee, Krishna Udayasankar, Alvin Pang, Yeoh Jo-Ann and so many more. Let’s just say that I never knew how liberating it was to have the stories of ordinary Singaporeans shared, and by implication, my story, captured in printed ink. How nice it was, I thought, to have had HDBs and local streets as the background for the stories in the books to occur. If you would like to understand more about what I mean, I think this particular article, “What local poetry does that Shakespeare cannot” explains it pretty accurately.

On a random side note, I think that is where my anger for this year’s National Day song stems from. Having listened to songs written by Singaporean musicians, and having read plays and stories written by Singaporean playwrights and authors, I know for the matter that Singaporeans do have the words and the melodies to express who we are beyond hackneyed vocabularies like “one nation, undivided” or “everyone is family, friend, and neighbour”.

All that being said, this article is not meant for me to flaunt my knowledge of the local arts scene, or to patronise other Singaporeans who do not know so much. First, I know as much about the arts scene in Singapore as an entrepreneur would know about the start up scene in Singapore. I count myself very very lucky to have had exposure through school modules, inspiring friends who are carrying out their own artistic endeavours and a very culturally well-informed sister who works in an arts-related company.

Second, it would be naive for me to think that the arts scene in Singapore is as such because Singaporeans just don’t care. Maybe audience engagement is poor, maybe there is a lack in technical expertise, maybe Singaporeans are already accustomed to prioritising bread and butter before the arts. For the local talents that Singapore have in all fields, all I hope for is that whenever we spot one, we support one. Buy their books! Listen to their songs! Go to their plays! And most importantly, share the news, and make their brilliance known to even more people.

It’ll be a day after Singapore’s 52th National Day by the time I post this article. What do people actually mean when they say ‘I love Singapore’? ‘Nation’ is too abstract a term for me. ‘Love’ too. One thing’s for sure though – that a nation’s made up of its people. I’m proud that mine is inhabited by such a brilliant bunch, and for me at least, to love is to uplift.

So here’s a reminder to myself, and an earnest plea to you – uplift, uplift, UPLIFT.

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.

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! 🙂

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.

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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.”

You’ve got a question?

Today is a special day because I asked my first ever question in a lecture of 70 people. The lecture was on Sociology of Power SC3205, a lecture conducted by Professor Kurtulus Gemici. To foreigners in the United States or United Kingdom, this may seem like a queer thing to be proud of. Yet, to me, a Singaporean, who grew up in an environment where everyone is used to “shut up and listen” in lectures, I am pretty darn happy about it.

To clarify, it is not that teachers in my secondary school and junior college do not encourage us asking questions in lectures. But what hindered many of us (at least for me) was the fear of looking and sounding stupid for asking stupid questions. Eventually, it became such that when teachers ask, “So, does anyone have any question?”, it actually translated to “So, I know that nobody is going to ask but I am going to ask anyway… does anyone have any question?… If not, that’s all for today. Yay, time for a break!”

In fact, what’s really upsetting about these scenarios is not when students fail to speak up when they had questions, but when students eventually stop questioning the materials they were presented with. The silence did not come from a lack of courage. Instead, it came from a lack of curiosity and inquiry.

So today’s episode made me pleasantly surprised not only because I asked a question, but also because I had a question that I cared enough and felt strongly enough to ask.

But one important point to raise is that my little “milestone” today was probably less attributed to my personal growth in thought and courage, and attributed more to the environment I was in. First, learning in university, I believe, gives room for so much more independent thought and that is a privilege that I am truly thankful for. Choosing topics that I am interested in (independently of my friends’ interests) and going to lectures alone can be quite an enjoyable experience because you get the actual physical space, and also mental space during lectures to ponder about issues that matter to you, and you alone.

Secondly, and more importantly, the environment of the lecture was extremely comfortable for open discussion. This is attributed mainly to my professor, who emphasised from day one that he encourages all of us to participate. He also made it clear that he is more than happy to hear us ask stupid questions. Because, more often than not, the questions we ask may not be as stupid as we think they are. He also assured us that we can ask questions at any point of time, even if that means that we may have to break his flow of lectures sometimes.

I love his attitude towards teaching because that is exactly what I think education should be. Asking questions is the key to learning because it unlocks a wealth of knowledge that we would otherwise not have known.

At this point of time, I would like to bring in an extract from the article “Standardised testing: the scourge of student life“, written by a senior of mine, Chan Chi Ling, for Standford Daily:

“Looking back on my education, the moments of insight and learning that I hold on to most dearly came about not because a test told me what I “needed to know,” or when I lost a point where I shouldn’t have. They were those that came as a result of inquiry into questions that excited me  questions that certainly do not end with test timers forcing me to put down my pen.”

Just like my professor, I truly believe in the notion that there are no stupid questions. As a tuition teacher myself, I experience at first hand, questions that are deceivingly so simple which are so difficult to answer.

To quote an example, to the question of “Why is blood red?”, it is very tempting to answer, “Because it just is! Can’t you see it for yourself?” But in actual fact, there is another question embedded in this particular question, which is “What are the components of blood which makes it red?”, to which I would have to answer that blood carries red blood cells which are red, and that red blood cells contain haemoglobin which gives it its red colour. (Then, my student was smart enough to ask further, “What makes haemoglobin red?” and I would have to admit my inadequacy in knowledge and tell her that I will get back to her next lesson.)

This is why, when a friend of mine responded to the feelings of pride I felt today with “So, did you get participation points?”, I felt an inexplicable sense of uneasiness. After writing this article, I think I understand why now. This is because, no matter how much we have been taught as students that participation points are important in terms of our grades (even my professor emphasised so in our first lecture), I still believe that it should never, ever, override a deep sense of quest for learning.

As much as participation points can motivate students to speak up to some extent, real and meaningful discussions only come about when students are engaged, when they are asking questions that they “wanted to ask” and not what they are “made to ask”. The best students are learners who seeks knowledge for the sake of it.

Idealistic as I always am, I hope that this is the kind of learner that I am, and will always strive to be.

To Educate and to be Educated

You can’t be a student and not think about Education. So here, I recounted 3 incidents I have encountered, which triggered a few questions about Education.

// ONE.

A few months back, my mum, sister and I ate lunch at Pontian Wanton Noodles stall in Bukit Panjang Plaza. Sitting beside us was a family of four, who brought along a scooter with them. Suddenly, the scooter fell on our table, toppled my mum’s bowl of soup and the soup spilled all over her shirt. My mum immediately stood up in shock. But what was even more shocking was what the little girl from that family retorted, when her mother commanded her and her brother to apologise.

“Mummy, it’s not me! It’s the wind! “

Despite relentless attempts on getting her to apologise, and her brother apologising to us, that little girl never did. I sincerely feared for her and millions of children who are just like her.

To the mother who apologized on the behalf of her children in the end, how much does the child has to lose when her mother loses a million of these golden opportunities to educate? How do we recognise them and how do we educate?-

// TWO.

Last week, a friend of mine recounted a hateful incident when he applied for a scholarship and his teacher never provided him help full-heartedly, until his A level results were released. Stellar results were the defining measure that he was finally worth his teacher’s effort.

To the teacher who failed to believe in him when he yearned belief, what defines talent and who should be given the power to define it?

// THREE.

During Sing50, a concert where Singapore musicians who had contributed largely to the Singapore music industry came together to perform, the sound system was laden with problems. While the sound was of discomfort to the ears, what was disturbing to the heart were the swarms and swarms of audience who got up from their seats and strolled across the center field to leave the stadium in the middle of the concert. It was presumably out of disappointment at the sound system, and out of kiasuism (a Singaporean term for the fear of losing) to beat the crowd. At the finale, the audience was left with an appalling 2/3 of the audience.

To the thousands of people who left before the show ended, does earning a degree truly guarantee an education?

To you and me, I have my answers to some of these questions, while others remain unanswered. As a senior of mine Chi Ling wrote, “(My moments of learning) were those that came as a result of inquiry into questions that excited me — questions that certainly do not end with test timers forcing me to put down my pen.” Here’s to learning more about Education, a topic so close to the hearts of many, as I embark on lessons on Sociology of Education in school tomorrow.

Viewing The World Through A Different Lens

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From 22 – 26 June 2015, I had the opportunity to take photos for a 5-Day Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) BizCamp Lite for students from NorthLight School. Throughout the camp, many students experienced extraordinary transformations. But out of all the stories I have heard or experienced, there was one that was closest to my heart.

It was the story of a boy named R. R was distinctly recognizable because of the cap he wore and the earphones he plugged into his ears throughout the course of the camp. He was often seen sitting alone on the sidelines, and he only participated in activities selectively.

On the 4th day of the camp, as all the students were preparing for their business presentation for the last day of the camp, I was taking photos of them as usual. When I walked past R and saw him interacting with his facilitator, I instinctively took a photo of him. To my surprise, he cringed and said, “Ehh don’t take photos of me! I look so ugly!” I laughed his comments off since I understood that not everyone would be comfortable with having his or her photos taken.

However, his facilitator, Dorothea, took it seriously instead. “What do you mean ‘you look ugly’?”, she asked earnestly. R looked down and paused for a moment. Perhaps it was the comforting tone of her voice, or perhaps it was the moment R had always been waiting for- the moment someone cared enough to ask, because not long after, he started sharing his story.

Having been bullied in school since K1, R has always felt insecure about himself. He even recounted a time when a classmate told him to “go and die”. These words stuck with him like a thorn in his flesh till today. In order to keep himself safe, he decided to build walls around himself instead.

As I was listening to his story by the side, a photo of him popped up in my mind. It was a photo I took of him on the 2nd day of the camp. He was playing a game called, “Splat!” and he was on the verge of winning the game. In that moment, his smile was extremely radiant and the confidence he showed was unmistakable.

After Dorothea finished talking to him, I decided to show him that particular photo on my computer. The moment he saw it, his eyes lit up, and he beamed uncontrollably. That expression is one that I can never forget. “Wow. When did you take this? Is that me?”, he asked out of disbelief.

It was in that moment that I realized the power of a photograph. An innocent photo I took in a moment suddenly became meaningful when it was attached to a context. Dorothea and I could go on and on about how good he can strive to be, but that photo acted like a piece of evidence. It convinced R that at least in that one particular moment, he was subconsciously free of his insecurities. Being confident was no longer just a goal he had to achieve, because the photo showed that it was in him. It showed him a side of him that he had never seen for himself.

When I went home that day, another thought occurred to me. Well, the thing is, after some experimentation with taking photos for a few days, I learnt that the best way to capture the noteworthy moments was to pre-empt them. If that was the case, it meant that for a few seconds, or even a few milliseconds before I snapped that photo of R, I had a belief that he would turn out looking unafraid and self-assured. To have someone thought that of you even when you didn’t expect it from yourself… what a beautiful thought, isn’t it?

So where did that belief come from? I think it stemmed from the fact that he was a complete stranger to me. If it were R’s teachers, friends or parents who have been used to R being quiet, uncooperative and even “weird” from their perspective, would they have prepared to capture this moment for R? Or would they miss it because of their preconception of him?

Thus, instead of simply showing me the power of photography, that particular photo taught me the power of perspectives. For R, even though that belief I held in that moment was only for a split of a second, the product that came in the form of a photo had a ripple effect. Before I walked away from him that day, I told him, “I hope to take more photos of you like this.” And I did. At the end of the camp, R won the “Most Improved Award” and his facilitators and I had never been prouder of him.

This is but one incident. So you can imagine the countless moments of pride we can capture if we just take a step back and isolate our evaluations of others from our prejudices. I guess that is an important lesson I took away, less so as a photographer, but more so as an educator and as a person.

A quote by Randy Pausch from his lecture, “The Last Lecture”, sums it up best. ““Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you. When you’re pissed off at someone and you’re angry with them, you just haven’t given them enough time. Just give them a little more time and they almost always will impress you.’”

When a person continues to fall short, it is of human nature to form judgments. But if we learn to see him or her with a fresh perspective each day, and commit to the belief that if you wait long enough, you will definitely capture a moment when his or her good side will show, it will.

How do I know? Because for R, he did.

I am honoured to have written this article for Halogen Foundation Singapore’s youth centric blog, Postscript. Visit http://www.postscriptstories.com if you have a personal story to share (: