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! 🙂

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The American Election – An Emotional Rollercoaster for All

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

Gender 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race

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

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

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

Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singapore

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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