Busking = Begging?

Just this Monday (16 April), I submitted a sociology honours thesis on young music buskers in Singapore. A day later, a forum post entitled “Do not allow busking as a day job” was published on The Straits Times and it caught the attention of plenty. I feel emotionally compelled to give my two cents on it, especially having befriended so many buskers through this thesis journey.

My first instinct was the same as most people – to dismiss Susan Tan as an uneducated narrow-minded prick and scorn The Straits Times for publishing such a “skewed and biased” viewpoint. But upon some contemplation, I figure that the point is really not to throw shade at Susan Tan, but to get to the core of the matter.

I base my discussion below on my interviews with 24 young music buskers, academic readings on busking in Singapore and other countries, and newspaper articles on busking that dates back to the ‘90s. I do have to make a disclaimer that as all my interviewees are music buskers, I cannot speak for other buskers like magicians or mime artists. But National Arts Council (NAC) also states that music busking is the most common form of busking in Singapore, so I believe that my findings would still be relevant for this discussion.

First, I would like to clarify some factual and logical lapses Susan made in her forum post. This is only to form a better foundation for my discussion later.

(1) Young vs. Elderly Buskers 

In the post, Susan did not distinguish young abled buskers from elderly/disabled buskers. This distinction is crucial. It is not my intention to imply that elderly/disabled buskers are any less competent, but these two groups of buskers are likely to be busking for entirely different reasons. A discussion that conflates them would not be a productive one. Since NAC statistics show that over half of the estimated 300 buskers are below the age of 35, I use that as a rough guide to define young buskers as those below the age of 35.

If Susan was writing this forum post primarily in response to The Straits Times article entitled “On song and coining it” (April 15), which features several young buskers who busk for university or their music endeavours, then I believe it is reasonable to assume that Susan was referring largely to the young buskers when she used the term “buskers”. She started the post with the observation that the numbers of buskers are increasing in Singapore. It is more accurate to state that the number of (young) buskers have increased starkly in Singapore.

Following that, her statement that buskers busk “at certain places every day and for most of the day, suggesting that this is their permanent day job” becomes questionable. It is unclear if her observations relate to the young buskers or the elderly buskers. From my interviews, none of the young buskers treat busking as their sole source of income. Rather, busking is better described as a form of leisure that they take very seriously. Undeniably, busking is also their part-time job, in the same way that other students give private tuition as a part-time job. What ought to be noted is that the significance that buskers place on their earnings differs based on their own economic conditions. But even if the buskers come from a less well-to-do background, their earnings are spent on endeavours which are meaningful to them such as supporting the family and funding their education, which by no means reduces them to “beggars” who perform for the sole sake of soliciting money from the crowd. This is also because busking requires a sizeable amount of competence and skill sets that I will further elaborate on later.

(2) International Students and Foreigners 

On Susan’s concern about foreign students who are allowed to busk, I would like to make a clarification on the eligibility criteria for busking applications. According to the NAC Busking Scheme, all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents are free to apply to busk. International students need to obtain a letter of recommendation from their school, while foreigners have to obtain a written consent from Ministry of Manpower (MOM) before they can apply. Thus, there is already an additional layer of administrative hurdle that foreigners need to overcome before they can busk. Hence, my findings show that a larger percentage of young buskers are locals. Of course, I am aware that not all buskers are legal and these buskers save themselves the trouble of going through applications and auditions. But these buskers do not form the majority of young buskers.

Additionally, Susan maintains, “Foreign students should have the sufficient funds to finance their studies”. For one, as mentioned above, foreign students who busk are not only busking for earnings, but also as a form of serious leisure. For another, on a more sympathetic note, I contend that just because these students may not have sufficient finances to fund their education doesn’t make them unworthy of pursuing an education or future career in Singapore. What matters more is their merit, be it in terms of educational or musical capabilities.

Lastly, Susan makes the further claim that allowing foreign students to busk would encourage more foreigners to come to Singapore to earn an income through busking. This is a logical leap on her part. My findings show that as a gauge, buskers may earn about 15-50 SGD per hour (subjected to occasions e.g. festive seasons like Christmas). This means that busking pays relatively well compared to other part-time jobs, which is one of the reasons that incentivises young buskers to busk as well. However, the earnings are certainly not substantial or stable enough to attract foreigners to come to Singapore just to busk for a living.

Having clarified the factual and logical lapses in the forum post, I will now delve into an analysis of Susan’s main assertion. Stripped down to its core, the forum post implies that busking = begging. I’m sure she’s not the only one who thinks this way. Some of the buskers’ parents also had the same sentiments. I do feel disappointed by such an opinion, but I don’t blame them for thinking this way because I know that there are historical and social origins to this opinion.

In 1991, the Home Affairs Ministry stated that busking is illegal. At the time, the common discourse is that busking is a form of street performance that aimed to induce the giving of cash (i.e. begging). As official statements about the ministry’s rationale for framing busking as begging are limited, I turned to literature about busking in other countries. They illustrate that the state regulates the busking scene closely because an increase in the number of buskers who take it upon themselves to busk for money seems to reflect economic hardship in the country and the inadequacy of welfare programmes. This is applicable to the context in Singapore then, when economic growth is a real priority. Moreover, in the spirit of pragmatism, the public typecast busking as an activity left for those who are too incompetent or lazy to find a “proper” job.

This mentality permeates through the subsequent revisions in the NAC Busking Scheme. In 1992, busking was allowed but money had to be donated to charity. The rationale was to encourage buskers to busk for altruism and passion, rather than for earnings. In 1994, busking was banned yet again when buskers allegedly busked at undesignated spots and solicited money through their performances (which makes busking appear as a “disguised form of begging”). The Busking Scheme was reintroduced in 1997. This is possibly the result of an initiative to develop Singapore into a ‘global city of the arts’ proposed by then Ministry of Information and the Arts’ (MITA) and Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) in 1995. However, the fear that busking would “degenerate” into begging persisted. Earnings still had to be donated to charity after buskers offset their expenses. It was not until 2001 when buskers were exempted from licensing and only needed a letter of endorsement from NAC to busk, and until NAC allowed buskers to keep their earnings in 2003 that the number of buskers shot up. Seeing that the increase in young buskers is a relatively new phenomenon, it is of no surprise that there are Singaporeans, possibly those of the older generation, who still have the idea of busking = begging ingrained in them. As my findings show, the younger generation of Singaporeans may also have had the privilege of being exposed to vibrant busking scenes in other countries and have developed a different conception of busking as a result.

I do not wish to make presumptions about Susan’s age though. Regardless of her age, I would now like to make a case to defend the young buskers in Singapore. I wish to convince people who hold similar viewpoints as her that buskers are not “beggars” because of the skills and competencies that are demanded of buskers on the streets. As mentioned before, many young buskers treat busking fairly seriously and every act in busking requires much deliberation and learning. For the record, audiences on the street are said to be the harshest critics. One of my interviewees candidly said, “The crowd doesn’t lie. If they think you suck, they’re just not going to give you money.” A lot of skills are required to captivate a passer-by in the instant that he or she walks by.

In terms of musical competencies, buskers need to build stamina to sing for hours straight with little breaks in between. They often need to learn a huge range of repertoire so they can tailor their songs to passers-by that walk past at each moment. In terms of locations, buskers learn how to find a location that suit them best in terms of the crowd it draws (e.g. Orchard Road draws more youths who appeal to English music, while heartlands draw more elderly who appeal to Chinese music). They also need to work with other buskers to make sure that their busking locations and schedules do not clash, so that they can maintain amicable relationships with them. Lastly, equipment is a huge investment in itself but many buskers still pay a hefty amount of money to get the best equipment they can possibly afford because they understand how poor equipment can greatly impede the quality of their performances.

The skills that I have briefly described are only the tip of the iceberg. There are so much more competencies required that remain out of sight from the public, but they are what many buskers consistently seek to develop to become better performers. Through their efforts, I am certain that many Singaporeans no longer perceive busking as begging anymore, as seen in the comments section of the forum post. For that I am very glad, and I hope that more people would acknowledge the efforts of buskers, especially those that persistently seek to produce high quality acts.

Susan was right about one thing though. It may not have been fully explicated, but her forum suggests that buskers are busking because of a lack, be it in money or in performance opportunities. In recent years, newspaper articles about the busking scene have mostly depicted busking in a benign and almost angelic manner – busking enlivens the streets and provides a platform for young musicians to showcase their talents!!! But this forum post exposes the undercurrents that run deep in a discussion about busking. I aim to further demystify these issues here.

Evidently, busking is not all glitz and glamour. If it requires so much skill, effort and hard work to busk, then why do buskers still busk? As the article “On song & coining it” shows, many buskers do love performing, but they also use busking in an instrumental way. And there is something about doing art for an instrumental reason that sits uncomfortably with people in general. It’s the kind of irksomeness we feel when we witness an artist (a.k.a. sell-out) sacrificing his or her artistic integrity for commercial success. Where does that nagging feeling of annoyance stem from? It stems from the prized notion of doing “arts for arts sake”. It appears that if an artist is making art for a reason other than art, then they must not be “true” or “pure” artists.

But truth is – doing “arts for art’s sake” is a luxury some can never afford. In my own thesis, I further narrowed in on buskers who intend to use busking as a platform to enter the music industry. The buskers I have interviewed reveal their lack in one or more of these forms: money, connections and opportunities to perform or record their works. For some of them, busking is not just a good way, but the only way for them to showcase their works. Other trajectories include signing with a record label (which may be out of reach for them) and posting their works online (which is already way too saturated as a platform).

And how effective is busking as a platform to help them gain recognition as musicians in the music industry? I hate to say this but my findings show me … not quite effective. This finding would not be new to experienced buskers. In terms of money, buskers may earn quite a bit, but it is still not substantial enough for the production of singles/ EPs (extended play records) and the marketing efforts that follow. In terms of connections, the most common networks that buskers forge are connections with event companies that provide freelance gigs. But it is still difficult to break into the inner circle of the music industry. Buskers find it difficult to get connections with industry experts that can provide them with higher profile performance opportunities. Lastly, in terms of performance opportunities, buskers do have the potential to become excellent performers because of the sheer amount of training they gain from busking. But even as buskers shed off the label of “beggars”, there is still a stigma that they are not “proper musicians” or that they are “just another cover musician”. I asked one of the buskers if he considers himself a busker, and he replied, “I’m a performer. I entertain. But I am not an artist. Because artists have their own work.” The irony lies in the fact several buskers do have their own work. But busking as a platform encourages buskers to perform more covers that resonate more with the crowd.

That is not to say that busking does not help aspiring musicians enter the music industry at all. Another busker shared that busking is not easy, but one can “still get somewhere with busking”. Some buskers proclaimed that they started out with little cash, connections and experience. But I’ve witnessed for myself how they became polished musicians and even move on to produce their own singles and EPs. Some people say that the essence of busking lies in its spontaneity. But if you asked me, I’d say that the spirit of busking is not that, but sheer grit. I will never cease to be inspired by these buskers who try, try, and try, the best way they know how to.

What I do want to say is that these buskers are likely to face a considerable amount of challenges if they were to solely depend on busking to enter the music industry. This is why there is still a need for more opportunities that enable aspiring musicians in Singapore to showcase their music. But I definitely don’t agree with Susan that it should come in the form of “monthly events at major parks where local and foreign talents can freely perform” “for exposure”. Remuneration is a must for aspiring musicians to view music not just as a form of serious leisure, but also viable career. More importantly, as with every performance, busking is a two-way street. Members of the public deserves the chance to judge for themselves the worth of an act.

I quote my favourite excerpt from one of my interviewees:

There was this article in 2007 about Joshua Bell, a crazily cool violinist. The night before he played in Carnegie Hall, did his thing and people paid hundreds of dollars per ticket. The next day he played the exact same recital at the subway and got like (thirty) dollars. So then you know that that society doesn’t understand art. That society doesn’t understand quality. That society understands marketing. That society understands being seen where everybody wants to be seen. And that’s not good enough as a society.    

In my opinion, busking leads to the point when more Singaporeans walk past something, they are willing to stop, and having stopped, they have a deeper appreciation that the performance required skill and time to prepare and they are therefore willing to take out a note from their wallet and put it into the bag. (…) So how do you get a level when there is enough audience appreciation of not just what happens in the concert hall, but what happens on the streets? That people will understand quality wherever they see it? That’s the ultimate goal.

This is what I hope for as well. Busking is not just about buskers. Art is not just about artists. It is about Singapore as a society. Susan’s forum post suggests that there are still Singaporeans who view buskers as beggars. But the comments section heartens me as I find more people who believe that buskers can be excellent performers as well. Even then, that is not enough for me. My greatest wish is that in the future, all aspiring artists can find their place and be recognised for their talents, regardless of their backgrounds and limitations, wherever they may be.

(Note: Many details from my paper are intentionally left out in this post. I have also removed all academic jargons/ citations in hopes of putting across my points to the layman. If you would like to see my paper in its full form, feel free to drop me a comment or email me!)

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The Winding Road

Here’s a new song about adventures and misadventures. Students from NUS would be familiar with the long winding path that stretches out from Utown to the bus stop – cues photo below! 🙂

JAN_ THE WINDING ROAD

Sometime in sophomore year, in the middle of the night after one dreary day of school, this little tune seeped into my mind. What’s it about? It speaks of being in the middle of a road to nowhere. Imagine starting out being so dead sure about your passions, your decisions. But along the way, you start realising that hmm perhaps that’s not quite what you wanted. It’s one of those dreaded moments when you go – oh shit, I think it’s the wrong way. And there’s nothing worse than feeling that there’re no hopes of turning back to where you started.

I picked this original to publish for the first month of 2018 because I foresee finding myself and all other soon-to-be graduates in such situations a lot this year. In the here and now, I’m thankful that my interests have stayed rather consistent thus far – be it for songwriting or for Sociology. But who knows where post-graduation would take all of us?

I simply hope that all my friends and I would find ourselves on roads that fulfil our hearts’ desires. And “If (we) find that (we’re) not, I hope (we) have the courage to start all over again.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Lyrics:

I’ll be on my way to the yellow brick road
I’ve heard a calling in my wildest dream I swear
I’ve packed my bags I’m all ready to go
I’ll be gone by the time night turns into dawn

I’ve been warned of all the monsters in my way
Still I thought with this shiny armour I’d be okay
But I was wrong, boy I was wrong

The winding road seems a little too long to see the end
Seems a little too dark to walk alone
But it’s a little too late to turn back
And a little too far away from home (X2)

OOooooooOoooh

I’ll be on my way to the yellow brick road
I’ve heard that treasures pile up in mountains there I swear
I’ll keep my eyes peeled on those fields of gold
I’ll be richer than the richest and as happy as a newborn

I’ve been warned that jewels can drown you with their weight
Still I thought opportunity never waits
But I was wrong, boy I was wrong

The winding road seems a little too long to see the end
Seems a little too dark to walk alone
But it’s a little too late to turn back
And a little too far away from home (X2)

OooooOoooohhh

I’ve hesitated posting this up for a while now because I find it regretful that I have just been posting up my originals consecutively. It’s not that any reader would find it irksome. It’s just that I have not been keeping up with purely writing, an act which I do miss and still do enjoy tremendously.

So the excerpt from above, which explains the genesis of the song, is a little different from what I’ve posted on other social media platforms thus far.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, I hope you’re well 🙂 And I hope that the next time you drop by here again, I’d be welcoming you with new pieces of writings.

xoxo

Somewhere Nice

Here’s a new original that I co-wrote with Lingyun for our favourite Christmas season 🙂 The genesis of this song came from days of looping Joanna Dong’s joyful jazz rendition of 老实情歌 on Sing! China, and a couple of carolling practices with Hwa Chong Voices that got me in the Christmas mood!

Am beyond grateful to Lingyun for ploughing through the lyrics and the harmonies with me, allowing the song to take a new life of its own! Also check out her covers on insta @infrondem! Her smooth jazzy vocals are #goals! Special mention to Zhong Yi for helping us figure out the chords, and Callie for helping with the ukulele tabs so that I can play the accompaniment with greater ease. I wish I had half the talent of all of you oh gosh. Without your help, this song might very well only be completed next Christmas.

With that, there’s no better way for Lingyun and I to wish you a Merry Christmas than to present you with our song! It’s not perfect, but we sure hope it’s enough to bring you to a happy place this Christmas. Enjoy! 🙂
hello 
If you have a uke and want to play it too, here is the link for the chords: https://tinyurl.com/SomewhereNiceTabs
hello 
Lyrics:
hello 
Somewhere nice is where we’re going tonight
Somewhere nice the bells will shimmer into twilight
Somewhere nice is where the choirs will sing tonight
Somewhere nice is where I know we’ll be alright
hello 
And we’ll jingle along to our favourite songs
Under all the Christmas lights
Nothing sweeter than the smiles on the streets
And we’ll dance in our pretty new shoes
To the happiest of tunes
We’ll be part of something nice
hello 
Somewhere nice a feast of turkey with candlelight
Somewhere nice waistlines will surely fade out of sight
Somewhere nice is where the trees will light up in sparkling delight
Somewhere nice our cuddles will be extra warm and tight
hello
(Chorus)
hello
What a lovely sight to see
Waited all year long for this
There’s no better way to say
Merry Christmas to you!!!

Human

“Human” is a song borne out of a very trivial mistake. During an event, I absentmindedly misplaced an item borrowed from a venue personnel and frantically went back to him. As it turned out, he found the item lying around unattended and kept it on my behalf. He proceeded in chiding me nonetheless. Having made that mistake (God knows how careless I am), and compounded with other issues then, I went home feeling really terrible about myself.

A few days later, I sat down with my guitar and three words popped up, “I’m only human.” As I started writing, I figured that there really is no need to pick myself apart for the mistakes I’ve made. It’s not as though they were heinous crimes.

One quarter into Honours year, I think this message is more important than ever. More chase, more haste, more mistakes – I’ve honestly never seen friends around me this stressed out before. But this song’s a reminder to them and to myself: Don’t forget that you are only human, and sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to be a little kinder to yourself. 

Have a good day y’all!

Lyrics:

It’s a funny world out there
People striving for their best
But who can keep up with the chase?
At least not without falling from grace

And I’m just one of them
Caught up in this mad race
Beating myself up over smallest of mistakes
But God knows who is keeping score

Sometimes we forget we’re only human
Perfection was never once an option
Sometimes we fall short of expectations
But were there ever rules to this game?

We’re only human x3

Sometimes we forget we’re only human
Making the best of what we have
We wear our calluses as medals
When all we want is a warm embrace

Alien Tongues, Brilliant Minds

One year ago, during one of my tutorial classes, I met a classmate from China, J, who was on exchange in Singapore then. The professor split all of us up into small groups to discuss answers for the tutorial questions. J ended up in the same discussion group as me.

As soon as we settled into our groups, J began flipping through his stack of assigned readings which were filled with boundless highlights, underlines and scribbles. He also brought along two pieces of foolscap paper, in which the answers to the tutorial questions had already been written down neatly.

Peculiarly, even though he had evidently prepared for the questions, he did not speak much during our discussion at all. When he did, he always stumbled over his words, and we always end up finishing all his sentences, or worse, making up new sentences for him.

To be very honest, in a curious way, I had felt a inexplicable sense of superiority over him there and then. That was despite the fact that I knew I had come to class half as prepared as he was. I was leading the discussion; I was expressing (his) ideas to the group confidently; I was speaking fluently in English.

After the tutorial, we chatted a little, and I found out surprisingly that he came from Fudan University, the university that I was about to go for student exchange the following semester! We exchanged contacts excitedly, and headed off to our next classes.

Fast forward one semester later, I realised that not only was I in the same university as him, we were taking the same course too. That course required us to do a group project, and J was kind enough to approach me to join his project group, considering that I did not know anyone there, and that local students tend not to group with students on exchange for fear that they will slack off.

On my way to our first meeting, I remember being rather nervous. I had done some research prior to the meeting, and I wished I would come off as helpful during the meeting – just not some slacker on exchange basically.

Upon the arrival of other group mates, J enthusiastically introduced me to them as “the new singaporean exchanger in school”. As we started our meeting, there were two things that struck me immediately. First, J was clearly the unofficial leader of the group. He shared with us the outline of the project that he had in mind, and asked for our opinions. He was SO confident, so in control, so different from the person I had known in the classroom just one semester ago.

Second, amidst streams of Chinese sociology terminologies, I was clearly … lost. Sure, J made the effort to pause time to time to explain what the terms meant to me, but I felt a little more embarrassed than comforted because I felt that I was wasting my group mates’ time. I later tried to express my project ideas to them in choppy Singaporean Chinese, and was not the least surprised that none of my ideas were adopted eventually.

I left the meeting feeling extremely shi*ty about myself.

That module was my hardest module that semester in Fudan University. I spent a lot of time in class getting awed at just how brilliant my classmates were, and getting upset at just how inferior I was to them. I spent a week ploughing through Chinese articles for our project, and only managed to churn out a page or two out of our twelve page report.

In spite of all of that, I must say that this experience was such a humbling one. The stark contrast between the sense of superiority I had felt back home and the sense of inferiority I had felt in a foreign land taught me this – to never judge the mind of a person by his or her language (or the lack thereof).

In my Cultural Anthropology class, we learnt that language is an integral part of one’s cultural capital. It signifies your class and group membership. As a result, we often mistake one’s inadequacy in language for one’s stupidity (sorry for the lack of a better word), and one’s proficiency in language for one’s brilliance.

For example, in the case of foreign workers in Singapore, many would perceive them as less educated, or worse – less than human – simply because they engage in low-paying jobs and speak a language foreign to us. But upon befriending these workers, I realised that their views are much deeper and more profound than I can ever imagine. Some would speak of politics back home in Bangladesh and others would share about their pursuit of further studies in Singapore.

So, I don’t know if intelligence can be objectively measured, but I sure do know that the perception of one’s intelligence is relative, subjective, and perhaps even constructed. You can totally be a genius in one culture, and be an absolute idiot in another.

There is a time, a place, and most importantly, a culture for everyone to shine. And none of us have the right to judge anyone (or ourselves) just when and where that may be.

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 doubt if I can do qualitative research work 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 still 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 take a lifetime to 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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