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

 

 

Beginnings

This blog is an attempt to challenge myself to think broader and deeper about the world around me. It includes my thoughts about issues both personal and general. It is my wish to learn something new everyday and to track my changes in thoughts as I embark on this journey. 🙂