But there was this Chinese magazine that I wanted badly, but couldn’t get hold of or subscribe to because of my weak command of the Chinese Language.
This elusive magazine is known as 金门文艺 or Kinmen Literature. It is a collection of mostly Kinmen inspired literary and art pieces published bi-annually by people who are determined to promote & preserve Kinmen’s intangible heritage.
I like the artistic layout of its cover page, and the feel of its paper quality. I cherish the chance to have a glimpse of the Kinmen spirit through the poems, essays, artworks, photographs and even advertisements of Gaoliang wine that appear in the magazine.
But mostly I’m in love with this magazine because Kinmen is where my grandma was born.
As a Chinese woman who makes a living teaching English Language and Literature, I felt that an annual subscription of Kinmen Literature would let me stay connected to Kinmen while honoring the team behind this labour of love.
Last September in 2019, on the day we were flying out of Kinmen to be in Taiwan for our flight back to Singapore, I saw copies of the 67th edition of Kinmen Literature at the airport reading lounge.
Should I just “take” one copy to Sg as a souvenir? Who knows when will I be able to return to Kinmen again?
And after all there was no cashier counter where I could make payment for the copy even if I had wanted to, the thief in me reasoned.
Furthermore there was no sign saying that the magazine had to be returned, the justification for dishonesty strengthened.
But then again there was no announcement anywhere that said the magazine was free either, a sliver of light broke through my muddled mind.
Pre-boarding, my thoughts continued to oscillate between keeping the magazine which was actually stealing, and letting it go.
Finally at the last moment, I decided to return it to the shelves where I found it.
But not before taking many many shots of the copy next to my walking cane as if the magazine was a person.😊
In mid-November 2019, a couple of months after I triumphed over the temptation of taking what’s not mine in Kinmen, an Facebook friend from Taiwan asked if we could meet up. She was in Singapore for a very short visit.
Miao Ling (陈妙玲)had read my Facebook posts about my grandma’s childhood and my journeys in Kinmen for her. Even though Miao Ling knew I wasn’t proficient in Chinese and might not even get to to meet up with her, she decided to bring a copy of the latest edition of Kinmen Literature for me!
At the Nanyang Cafe in Chinatown Point on 16 Nov 2019, I received my very own copy of the literary magazine from Ms Chen Miao Ling, who was also on the editorial team of the magazine that I coveted.
Miao Ling indulged me as I gushed in a mixture of English, Chinese and Minan Dialect about my encounters with Kinmen Literature, including the attempt to steal one from the Kinmen Airport.
And so there we were, two modern day Kinmen daughters exchanging information of our family histories.
As we spoke, we felt the fears & tears of daughters before us in olden times, many as young as 7 or 9 years old, forced to be sold, abandoned or fostered by near strangers because of changes in their family fortunes brought about by upheavals in politics & wars.
Before we parted, Miao Ling & I took some pictures together. A Filipino lady from across our table helped us to record this meet up that started a century ago, in 1914, the birth year of my grandma.
It’s now 2020. Last week I learnt that my grandma’s love for Kinmen and my visits have found their way to Kinmen Daily (金門日報) and Indonesian- Chinese Daily (印華日報) through Miao Ling’s writing.
In her essay, Miao Ling likened the 108 chimes of the temple bell in her childhood to my grandma’s constant pining for her birthplace.
She communicated poignantly my attempts to sync with Kinmen and my grandma’s 3 phrases of attachment to her birthplace that she recited like a mantra throughout her life.
Miao Ling’s publication in the newspaper has enabled an unknown 7 year old girl, born more than a 100 years ago in Kinmen, to return to the embrace of her birthplace.
Love can really cross oceans and seas, transcend histories and navigate round all kinds of logistical & language difficulties.
Our duty is perhaps not to be disheartened or feel silly, and talk ourselves out of loving.
It had been on my mind since last December to contribute to the veterinary bills of a shelter dog called Dahua.
Because of my other long term financial commitments in animal relief, I wasn’t sure if I have enough to make a small once off contribution to her vet bills that have amounted to slightly more than 5k.
On Boxing Day 2019, this 9-year-old girl dog survived a surgery to remove a growth in her spleen. The next day she had two cardiac arrests and she was gone.
The shelter has been posting appeals for donation to cover Dahua’s vet bills. I wanted to help but was unsure if I should since I only have a part-time income.
So I made a wish as my birthday was near. I wished that whatever cash gifts I get, they will go to animal relief work.
But I would have to give first.
Yet this morning at the ATM, I hesitated. I wanted to transfer $200 to the shelter for Dahua, but ended up giving $130 instead, for fear of not having enough for myself.
After that I did some grocery shopping, making sure I bought just what I would eat. I did however, buy 4 red Chinese radish to welcome Spring. 😄
On my walk home from the supermarket, I stopped by the park bench for a rest & saw a mynah picking up twigs to build her nest. The bird got me thinking of the pregnant mouse found by May Sarton, still holding in her paws bits of straws for her unfinished nest as she lay dead from ingesting poison laid out by farmers. My thoughts went naturally to Dahua again as she had been poisoned when she was a puppy.
What humans casually consider as pest or strays have very real life & death struggles of their own.
As I was sitting there thinking about these animals’ often unseen and hard lives, I received a message from my bank:
“So-and-so would like to send you SGD 200.00. Use the passcode provided by him/her to accept this amount at…”
Is this a hoax?
I texted my friend whose name was on the bank’s message for confirmation.
Indeed the SGD200.00 was from her. She wanted me to use the money in any way I deemed fit for animals.
I was teary. Less than 2 hours ago, I was lingering at the ATM, wondering if somebody like me with reduced earnings, and aging, was still in the position to donate $200 to help an animal.
“God told me to send the money,” my friend texted. She had been very busy at work. But divine intervention had led her to make the money transfer at the period when I was asking if my giving would deplete me.
My friend and I are from different spiritual backgrounds. She’s been questioning God’s existence and the teachings of her religious community. She felt that her role in the giving episode was a gentle reminder that her faith hasn’t been in vain and her relationship with the invisible God is real.
And I learnt now faith is not really about the absence of doubts nor the presence of unquestioned obedience. Or feeling capable and being in-charge.
Faith for me is perhaps the constant practice of testing & forging ahead, guided by the practice of kindness to the most vulnerable, despite the doubts & uncertainties at the back of my mind.
Dahua trusted her caregivers, and in faith they had put her through the surgery.
The dog’s physical life may have ended on 27 December 2019. But less than a month later on 13 Jan 2020, she has become the portal through which two friends felt the giving hands of the Divine.
I’ve been using blue ink to teach penmanship to younger students since 2014. Blue is easier to clean and more forgiving on kids’ clothes. And I’ve used blue so regularly that I’ve forgotten about black.
But ever since this new year when I started writing OM, my interest in black ink has returned.
So the day before yesterday, I went to West Coast Plaza specifically to collect my shoes at the cobbler’s, and to look for black ink at the stationery supplies store there.
I was in a bit of a rush to return home where First Tutee, now in Primary 3, was dropping by for his first lesson of 2020.
When I got home I realised I had forgotten to check out the bottle of HERO black ink at the cashier’s. It was still sitting on the shelf where I had placed it for safe keeping when I left.
As I couldn’t justify taking a cab back to the store just to pick up a bottle of ink, I decided to let the matter rest.
Yesterday, over lunch at Fortune Centre, my friend, Sharonne, whom I’ve known for 37 years gave me a present.
It was a HERO penmanship gift set made up of a fountain pen and a bottle of ink. She had bought it at Sisyphus Book Store in Hangzhou, China, where she spent many happy hours.
And the colour of the ink?
It had to be black of course. 😊
It feels humbling & assuring that the black ink has made its way to me despite my inability to purchase it on my own.
So I wish for my friends and all sentient beings the same assurance and the same ease that have been experienced by me, as they go about heroically creating better lives for themselves & for others.
School & work started on the 2nd day of 2020 for most in Singapore.
Since primary school days the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new one carry great significance for me.
As I age, I find myself more selective and making more efforts in the simplest of activities that I partake in around this season. (This would be the main reason why I need to operate alone. 😄)
So on the 2nd day of 2020, I decided that leaving my house to make a trip to the post office to mail a calendar to a friend was top priority.
Now the taxi fare to & fro would easily cost me at least $14, and if I were pragmatic, I should have waited a few more days to gather up more errands and mail her the calendar while I was running them. But this friend definitely deserves more, and shall not be part of my errands.
My sore throat was also healing. Although I didn’t think it auspicious to begin the new year with one, it had the benefit of making me stay home to write OM and drink honey water.
After the Westgate Post Office, I stopped by a costume jewelry counter on my way to the supermarket.
The counter was just on the walkway of the mall so it wasn’t even in a proper shop.
But the salesgirl on duty that day was dressed as if she was working for Cartier.
She showed the low priced trinkets respectfully to customers who were mostly in carefree and casual clothes.
I was immediately impressed by her regal air even though her retail space was tiny & cluttered, and even though she only had a plastic stool to sit on, despite looking like a million dollars.
When she saw me, she was very interested in the rudraksha beads on my wrist and tried to recall their Mandarin name.
“Boudhi Seeds (菩提子),” I offered.
The young Queen smiled.
After she realised I understood Mandarin, she started telling me how she liked the way my choker looked against black.
I returned the Queen’s kindness by complimenting her on her youth and dress sense, and she replied, “我只是年轻罢了。而你的时尚是打从骨子里来的.” (Rough Transl: I’m just young, but your style is bone deep).
As I watched Her Grace greeting customers who didn’t even bother to look at her, I felt I needed to give her something to remind her of her sweetness.
So before I left the mall, I bought an extra bottle of honey from GNC and went back to the costume jewellery counter to give it to her.
At first she looked a little puzzled. Then she held up the bottle of honey and revealed excitedly that this was her first gift from Singapore! She had only been working here for a month plus. And for her to receive honey at the start of the new year was auspicious, she gushed.
And standing tall on her fine stockinged legs, the Queen bent low to ask if I could give her a hug!
As I did, I wished her a happy and youthful 2020 and may the honey gift remind her of her own sweetness, and to remain sweet no matter what kind of customers she meets.
I spent the 1st day of 2020 in relative silence while practising to write OM in the Tibetan Uchen style for the first time.
“Start writing OM,” has been on my mind the past few years but I never got round to it because I was waiting for the “perfect” timing, “perfect” video and “perfect” calligraphy book to get started.
In Nepal, the book sellers in Thamel & Boudha that I checked with didn’t seem to sell the practise book that will show me the sequence of the strokes that I needed to see before I could write the character. Did such a practise book even exist? I only started to do online searches for it after my failed attempts in Nepal.
And during the search I indulged in almonds. So over the last few days leading to this new year I developed a sore throat.
That was how Silence descended. Seclusion followed quickly as the need to rest my voice caused me to abstain from all social gatherings. Together, they created the space I needed to pursue the long awaited OM.
“Please let me just know how to write OM, everything else will be a bonus,” I thought to myself as I viewed the video of Tashi Mannox writing the mantra of Great Compassion (OM MANI PADME HUM).
I’m a slow learner. I need to see the strokes in slow-mo if possible, run them through my head & be allowed to copy stroke for stroke before I can do it on my own. Many videos were too fast for me.
But Tashi Mannox’s video did it with his calm voice and deliberately unhurried movements.
So that was how I learnt to write my first word on the first day of 2020.
Balinese Hindus celebrate their New Year called Nyepi by going into self imposed silence and seclusion, so that they can retreat, reflect and be renewed.
As I lack the cultural practice nor the lineage to create such a ritual on my own, the Universe has kindly turned a sore throat into an opportunity to start the year with an ancient and sacred word, “OM”.
So I wish for all my friends and all sentient beings the same benevolence that has been bestowed on me to create a positive outcome from a negative situation.
May you be kind. May you be auspicious. May you be full of grace.
I was all set to leave my flat for a post-christmas gathering at a friend’s place when a clear voice rose in my head and went, “Bring something from Nepal.”
I tried to ignore the voice because I had already wrapped up a present for gift exchange and saw no reason to bring another.
But reluctantly I went back to my room and selected a notebook made of Lokta paper from among the gifts from Nepal to take with me.
I’m fond of buying handmade gifts, compelled by a vague logic to honour the makers and the belief that they will bring blessings to the recipients.
As I didn’t know who I would be meeting at the gathering except “a few close friends and family members,” I wasn’t sure if the Lokta notebook would be appreciated.
When I arrived at her home, my friend had the Nepali greeting, “Namaste,” on her door.
So my first word upon my arrival was a “Namaste!” to the guests who were already inside the flat.
A tall and lanky netball player with gorgeous curly hair came to hug me. She knew me from sports school days.
A quick sweep across the living room confirmed that I was The Oldest person in a meet up of supple youth from the sports and art fraternity.
After the gift exchange and a couple of group shots, a young man came to sit with me and asked if I was a teacher in SJI before. He had been a student there and recognised me the moment he saw me at the door even though I didn’t teach him.
Our conversation drifted to school days and the convergence of circumstances that set him on a path in film & animation.
Young Man laughed at my attempts during teaching days to interest his SJI mates in “Dreams” by Akira Kurosawa when all they mostly cared about was having a lesson in the air-conditioned comfort of the AVA studio!
But years later, one of those boys would become a partner in a law firm and write to say that whenever the sun shines on a rainy day, he would remember the foxes’ wedding in “Dreams,” and think of me.
I mused that perhaps Kurosawa’s films were too stark and too abstract for teenage boys. They might have responded better to “Totoro,” or “Spirited Away,” although Hayao Miyazaki’s animations are as profound, if not more, than Kurosawa’s films.
Young Man’s eyes lit up at the mere mention of Hayao Miyazaki, the 70plus year old Japanese animation guru. This creator of fantasies is renown for his meticulous hand drawn details and his ability to convey difficult themes such as death, abandonment and loss through his tales.
Young Man then shared that even though these days lots of animation work has gone digital, he is still very “old school” at heart. He really enjoys drawing every detail by hand and still does so with his projects.
I knew by then for whom I had been told to “bring something from Nepal.”
I showed him the last minute gift that I had brought from home.
He was stunned and told me he didn’t know what to say.
And thus it was in the living room of a flat by the Kallang River in Singapore, that a young animation artist came into contact with handmade paper made from trees growing at 3000m in the Himalayas.
I invited him to use the notebook to incubate his ideas for films and animation so that the many blessings from Nepal on survival, gratitude and beauty will bring him assignments that not only pay the bills but also be of great benefit & service to others too.
Young Man accepted the Himalayan blessings reverently. I was very grateful to have obeyed the prompting to bring a gift even when I thought it wasn’t necessary.
Among ethnic Chinese, the Winter Solstice or ” 冬至” (tong zhi) is a time for reflection, thanksgiving and fulfilling one’s spiritual duties.
A simple but significant food to mark this season is the glutinous rice flour balls or dumplings. It is called “汤圆”（tang yuan), deriving its name from the spherical shapes that connote concepts of auspiciousness such as roundness, smoothness and completion.
The preparation of this dish enables family members to gather at a table as they bond over flour kneading and the shaping of dough sticks into balls. The carefully shaped balls are then boiled in sweetened water and offered to deities, ancestors and the living.
In my childhood, tension among adult family members caused me to dread the yearly affair of rice ball making.
Stuck in the kitchen I picked up my mom’s mood swings & mean remarks as I quietly rolled the flour into little balls.
When we switched to buying ready made rice balls from the supermarket instead of making them, I was glad but sad at the same time.
So this year, on Solstice morning, well into my 50s, I decided to go back in time and undo the misery of the little girl trapped in the kitchen of my childhood.
I gave thanks for the glutinous rice flour that I bought. As I gently rubbed the dough between my palms and marvelled at the comfort of its powdery smoothness, my heart was lifted.
And there and then, happiness returned!
I boiled the rice balls in ginger and brown sugar syrup which my mother bought from Taiwan.
And after offering 5 rice balls to the sky, earth, water, ancestors and all sentient beings, and 9 to Wisdom and Compassion, there were still 7 left for me to enjoy.
And the 7 rice balls tasted just like the ones in my childhood, only this time they are so much smoother! 😊
Rice ball offering to bless sky, earth, water, ancestors and all sentient beings.
On our second day in Nepal (6 Dec) , a little vase on our table at the Third Eye Restaurant in Thamel caught our eye with its simplicity. It stood humbly among all the grander looking cuisine serving utensils.
Holding a single stalk of marigold, the brass vase reminded me of the Velveteen Rabbit which held a sprig of holly between its paws on christmas morning.
As it looked very ordinary we thought we should be able to find it at any of the shops in Thamel or Boudha.
We were wrong.
We also forgot to take a picture of it.
And in the midst of all our activities, we soon stopped looking or asking.
On our final day day in Nepal, it drizzled. After checking out of the hotel, we went back to the Third Eye Restaurant for lunch.
This time we asked a member of the staff where we could get the vase. The young lady was very happy with our interest and quickly gave us the details to the location where we could buy it.
So two hours before we were taken to Tribhuvan Airport for our flight back to Singapore, Ron & El rushed to Ason Market where the locals get their homewares. There they bought 2 pairs of the exact vases like the ones from the restaurant.
It was still drizzling when they returned from the market. I received my pair as if they were archaeological discoveries.
I know there are hundreds of such vases around. But ours will always be special because it took some effort to get them. Furthermore our enquiries had made a Nepali girl happy, seeing that her country’s traditional wares could still be so charming.
With its chaotic traffic, massive swirls of wires hanging above ground, crumbling buildings and air pollution, Kathmandu is not a place that readily comes to mind when one is thinking of retreat and rest.
Yet, in the midst of the valley’s madness, intricately carved and perfectly symmetrical woodworks & stoneworks adorned doorways and windows, creating an air of unmatched serenity and inspiring me to seek alignment from within.
From this valley of unpredictability, where power cuts happen regularly unannounced, craftsmen go about calmly setting semi precious stones against impossibly detailed & highly decorative silver works of filigree.
Perhaps this constant practice of melting, cutting, shaping and welding metals to minerals to create objects of beauty has alchemised in these workers a high tolerance for the ugliness of difficult customers, exploitative employers and other hardships.
Then there are the buddhist arts (tangka) drawn free hand in such breathtaking precision and with such a pleasing balance of colours that the seller has to keep reminding us with great pride, “this not machine made…this MADE BY MAN,” as we stared in mute wonder, at the scroll he unveiled before us while cars honked impatiently behind us.
Like the mangy fur of a dog that holds a clean heart, Kathmandu has shown me that using observable evidence to appraise someone’s inner world or history may be convenient and even natural, but it’s still not the truth.
Kathmandu forces me to cover my nose, slap on sunblock, drink only boiled water and take other safety precautions, while liberating me from prejudices and insularity at the same time.
I’m deeply honoured to have been allowed to visit Nepal year after year since 2011.