Fixing My Mouth to Fix My Life

12 May 2019

I love my dentist.

He’s about my age or maybe younger or older. We don’t interact long enough to know personal details.

He’ll explain what’s going on with my fillings, my wisdom teeth and gum health for someone of my vintage. He has no fancy products to recommend me but just good old cleaning and scaling, to be followed by diligent brushing and flossing at home.

He likes to tell every thing as it is. And before any panic sets in, he’ll say, “This is age. There’s nothing much you can do about it.”

“It’s happening to me too,” he’ll add with a beam, as if he’s just shared the secret to longevity with me.

However, if a patient insists on further treatment he’ll comply, but not before reminding her that all corrective improvements done at this point of our lives should have a larger purpose beyond the aesthetic.

Besides, there’s also our genetic predispositions to contend with. What works for others may not necessarily work for us.

The constant public exhortations on active aging with accompanying graphics of elderly folks attempting dramatic feats while inspiring, may also convey the idea that we have complete control over how we age. On top of that, the reality of degenerative issues brought on by aging are quickly glossed over with yet more promises of cures with anti-aging supplements, foods and lifestyle choices.

Everyone has a different path. Advice needs to be dispensed and taken responsibly.

I used to be easily intimidated by pharmacy ladies charging at me with offers of cream to remove my pigmentation spots. Against their uniformed complexion I became self conscious of my rather uneven facial colouring. I felt like a peasant woman surrounded by noble ladies even though I knew at the end of the work day most of us would be returning home to our HDB flats.

But when I realised that those spots on my face are indicators of my advancing years, exposure to the elements and health history, I started to see myself more clearly and more kindly. I became more interested in how hard my liver must be working instead of how flawless my skin should look.

So these days I wear my aging face like a badge of courage and smile appreciatively at the pharmacy staff ambushing in the aisles with their pots of promises.

In tracking my dental health, my dentist has shown me that being pain free and enjoying food is as important as looking good. And aging with all its ensuing uncertainties is actually very natural. What becomes unnatural is when we believe that we can remain youthful if we eat or apply the right things, hang out with the right folks and keep up with technology and other trends.

While we’re quick to praise the elderly for knowing how to scan & pay, we don’t give old folks enough credit for the wisdom & resourcefulness they may have accumulated from years of having survived sweeping changes to support our present success.

So next time when I meet an older person, I would try to ask what he or she knows & thinks, instead of what he or she can do.

“The Word became flesh …” John 1:14

25 April 2019

Handwriting reveals a lot about a person. In the same way they can hide pain, words can also become real and bring relief.

Back in the 90s, there was a boy in my class who repeatedly handed in work that showed very messy handwriting. My initial reaction was to get angry. I was angry with him for being untidy. I was angry with him for being inconsiderate. But mostly I was angry with him for not respecting me enough to show me some nice handwriting.

One day I received another dreaded handwritten composition full of ugly words from the same boy. But before I could fly into a rage, his image popped into my head.

He had his fringe to hide his pimply forehead while his oversized spectacles resembling laboratory goggles perched precariously on his nose. Even though he wasn’t particularly witty, he was always attentive and looked like he enjoyed my lessons.

He was keen when I introduced the use of fountain pen to his class, and even showed me the one which his grandfather lent him to bring to school.

So I couldn’t understand where this insane handwriting and incoherent babbling came from.

By this time, instead of getting upset, and hating him, I decided to put away that red pen for the time being and just run my fingers over his mangled words.

This must be one of those “the Heart knows reasons that Reason does not know” moments. Till this day I couldn’t explain fully what made me do that.

And something interesting did happen when I touched his tortured letters. I felt the boy’s frustrations, as if he was carving or maybe even stabbing the words onto paper. At the back of the page, I felt the eerie graininess of the indentations as if some creatures were trapped underneath & struggling to break free.

My annoyance abated further when I saw him in my mind, hunching over his work, all alone in class, because he was always the one to finish last.

In our following lesson, I got him to stay back after class had ended.

I placed the train wreck of his composition between us. He registered all the comments in red with his eyes but held back his emotions.

Then I asked if there was something wrong with my instructions that had confused him and caused him to write like this. Was I unclear? Did I speak too fast? Was the deadline too tight?

He answered all my questions bravely and adjusted his specs that were sliding down his nose. Then he looked down, as if about to cry.

“You said you like English. Then why do you keep on writing like this?” I prompted, fighting the irritation that was threatening to crawl right back into my heart. (Bad handwriting kills me)

“Yes, I enjoy the lessons. It’s just that I’m under A LOT of pressure,” he explained and avoided my eyes.

He then disclosed that his parents had high expectations of him and his older brother. They were not pleased that their older son did not make it to junior college. My student thus lived in constant anxiety of disappointing his parents.

“My parents are always telling me that they’ll be happy with anything I do as long as I can do better than them,” he said sadly.

“But isn’t it natural for parents to wish for their children to do better than them?” I asked, trying to sound as objective as I could.

“But Miss Ong, my dad is a neurosurgeon and my mom runs her own pharmaceutical company. How can I possibly do better than them?” he asked, barely able to conceal his sense of defeat even as he tried to force a smile.

“And even if I were given 3 life times to try, I won’t be able to do better than them,” he emphasised.

His choice of illustration stunned and saddened me deeply.

When he was done explaining, we looked at each other and started to laugh. Perhaps we laughed out of relief and at the absurdity of the challenge before him.

There was something very sad but strangely uplifting in our shared humour that day, even though we were still clueless on how to deal with his work quality.

However after we spoke, his handwriting and expressions started to improve. He became less moody and less awkward. It was as if a secret spell that had kept him frozen had been broken.

At the parent-teacher meeting I mustered enough courage to let his parents know that their well meaning intentions were chipping away at their son’s confidence and hindering his attempts to learn.

I pushed my luck a bit by saying I understand that it wouldn’t be easy for high achievers like them to accept that their son might have a different path from theirs.

The father was a cultivated man with a gentle presence although he looked at me sternly when I spoke. The well groomed mother listened on quietly. (Perhaps they were going to complain to the school that I was encouraging their son to be a loser)

Back then I knew I was only a teacher drawing a fixed salary, single and without kids of my own. How was I qualified to advise married people who were way more financially capable and more academically successful than me on educating their son?

But back then I also knew that my student was too young, too inarticulate and loved his parents way too much to tell them that their dreams were killing him. And if I didn’t at least speak up for him then, how was I qualified to be his teacher?

A few years later while in town, I passed by the dad on his way to lunch.

He called out to me and seemed really delighted to see me. He shook my hand warmly and smiled as he gave me updates of my student, his son.

His older boy had graduated from polytechnic. My student was also enjoying his poly studies and moving on to new things.

As we parted ways, I could sense that the surgeon was genuinely happy because his boys were happy. No further conditions were needed.

And that was it. Words do become flesh.

New Moon Seeing

5 April 2019

Wind Lion Guardians from Kinmen Island where the original story known as “两碗粥” by Sophie Hung was featured in kinmen-literature.com

A woman on a visit to her birthplace after many years took her daughter to the shop where she used to eat porridge in her youth.

Delighted, she found themselves a table while her daughter was still browsing in the shops nearby.

The porridge business owner took her order & said calmly that there would be a 20min wait for her childhood porridge. And no, her request to split a bowl of porridge into 2 portions for sharing would not be possible because it was not their business practice. (The man couldn’t have known that his customer had taken her breakfast earlier on in the hotel.)

Mid way, she was also told that if she was in a hurry, she could go elsewhere for her porridge because there were other shops serving similar fare.

As she waited, the woman came to realise that her porridge memory had no meaning to the porridge seller or even to her own daughter. It was hers and hers alone.

So when the porridge finally arrived, she asked for it to be packed for takeaway.

Our tribal disposition & survival needs tend to cultivate the illusion that the strength & validity of what we feel, think and experience depend on the amount of support we receive when we share them. But the reality is, even with the closest of friends or kins, every thing we experience is still private.

And perhaps if we learn to accept this, we’ll feel less afraid if no one understands what we’re going through, and less lonely if no one celebrates our happy moments with us.

In seeing that all memories, pains and joys are deeply personal, no matter how much or little they can resonate with others, we might then see things as they really are, before we move on to see things as we wish them to be.

This Mandala was dedicated to the safety of Karuna, a dog who took a very long flight from Kathmandu to Frankfurt for the chance of a better life. Lots of things could have gone wrong for her all alone in the animal cargo cabin of the plane. But she made it.

A Tradition of Kindness

20 February 2019

Yesterday was full moon. It was also the grand finale of a 15 day Lunar New Year celebration, also known as the Spring Festival.

Depending on one’s dialect group, there are many traditional practices and taboos observed by the Chinese to ensure an auspicious year ahead.

The use of red, vermillion and gold on furnishings and clothes to symbolise the aspiration for abundance is well known. The importance of guarding one’s speech against any unwholesome or inauspicious talk is observed by many at least for the first few days of the celebration.

A telephone booth on Kinmen Island, my grandmother’s birth place.

Every year I take note of a practice that was handed down by my grandmother. And that is, all needlework of any kind involving sewing or stitching together of anything is not permitted during the new year season.

My grandmother was a very skilled needleworker who could embroider perfectly symmetrical patterns from memory. I had never seen her make any outlines on the fabric to guide her.

And among the many chinese new year traditions that she observed, the no-sewing on new year seemed to reign supreme.

In those days grandmother’s prohibition posed some level of inconvenience to the womenfolk in our home. Not only did they make their own clothes but also some last minute alterations on store bought garments for their children was inevitable.

But the no-sewing rule on new year’s day stayed.

And her reason for observing such a bizarre ban?

风师爷 or stone lion protector at my grandmother’s village in Kinmen Island (金门后浦)

She told me we should refrain from sewing during the spring celebration no matter how badly we wanted to mend that tear, because around this period, lots of baby animals that had been born blind were also due to open their eyes.

And our act of sewing during this period, although seemingly unrelated, could very well cause these infants’ eyes to be sewn shut forever.

And just because we didn’t raise animals didn’t mean we could do as we liked.

My grandmother could have inherited this belief from her birthplace of Kinmen Island, where ancient folk beliefs abound.

Though she never showed any special interest in animals, her determination not to perform a domestic chore that could potentially harm them showed that my grandmother was keeping a tradition that she understood & felt deeply.

I’m now my grandmother’s age and holding a friend’s cat called Frankie.