“Know Your Role!”

14-1-22

Getting in and out of a vehicle for me require a certain level of coordination & focus.

One day I hailed a cab along the road. When the cab driver slowed down for me, the bus driver behind us sounded the horn while I tried to get onto the cab as swiftly as possible.

In the calm cocoon of his seat, the thin & bespectacled driver with his praying mantis liked arms must have picked up my panic of not being fast enough and getting in the way of the bus.

“Miss, please take your time and get onto my cab safely,” the cab driver alerted me authoritatively even as the horn continued to blare.

As he drove on, he continued, “We all have our jobs to do. Your job is to get on my cab safely. My job is to take you to your destination safely. If the bus driver can’t wait & decides to blast his horn it is his right to do so. And maybe he’s in a bad mood. But you don’t have to let the sound make you frighten & lose your balance, and I musn’t drive recklessly because I’m irritated by the driver.”

Last week the young boys at the tuition centre asked me if I knew who The Rock was. It was their way of checking if someone of their grandmother’s generation knew anything about their interests.

“Know Your Role!” –
The Rock ( Dwayne Johnson)

To their amusement, I not only could tell them The Rock’s real name but also put on one of his signature poses. One boy chortled admiringly when I bellowed The Rock’s famous slogan , “Know Your Role!” 😂

Recalling The Rock’s, “Know Your Role,” brought back memories of the cab driver’s insightful lesson on what doing our job, fulfilling responsibilities & expressing our rights can mean.

So regardless of how long it takes or how hard it is, if it’s a path that we’ve chosen and a role we’ve taken on, we must play it out faithfully, even if someone else’s role is to specialise in derailing us by placing obstacles in our way.

Blessed Scarcity

29 Dec 2021

Today I offered the last spoonful of the incense powder purchased at Boudha in 2017. This concoction of herbal wonder was unceremoniously scooped and dropped into a plastic bag for a few rupees.

The last spoonful of juniper incense bought from Boudha in 2017.

Having limited mobility & lacking confidence in my online shopping capabilities have strengthened my appreciation of resources. I learn to use every thing sparingly regardless of its price or how it comes to me. For me a bottle of soya sauce from the local supermarket has the same status as a bottle of truffle oil from a specialised store. Both are precious.

Boudha Stupa on the full moon day of Dec 2017. I took this picture without making any special effort and it turned out so beautiful. Each time I look at it I feel Buddha smiling at me.

Today’s incense from Nepal is the last of its lot that I personally bought.

Despite its age, it seems to have gained potency as its wafting fragrance triggers many pleasant thoughts & memories.

As I watched Fire transform the juniper into healing aromas through the dancing smoke, I sent wishes of goodwill to all sentient beings. Among which was just as we aspire to abundance, may we also be able to accept scarcity for its hidden blessings.

Incense from a little shop facing the Boudha Stupa. I gave some away and kept a couple of packets for my own use. Yesterday was the last spoonful from this lot bought in 2017.

There are no mistakes

21.12.21

Sometime in September I decided to dedicate prayers of healing to all sentient beings, instead of letting anxieties consume me when reading updates on Covid-19.

The string of blue lapis lazuli beads which tracks my prayers came from a former student who had bought the mala online “by mistake” a few years back.

My practice soon got me interested in books related to the Medicine Buddha.

Since 2011, I’ve called my trips to Nepal , “Medicine Journeys,” in honour of the modest collection of relief supplies we could carry to help people who are helping street animals there.

This November while scanning the book shelves at a friend’s place, my gaze landed on the last row where a book title, “In Search of the Medicine Buddha – A Himalayan Journey,” called out to me.

In chapter 1 of the book, I was greeted by a picture of the Boudha Stupa! And the first sentence went, “The Great Stupa of Boudhanath rises like a wish-fulfilling jewel in the eastern Kathmandu Valley.” 🙏

Following that, names & landmarks leapt off the pages at me as if to give me hugs! Asan Tol, Langtang, Terai, Swayamambu, Buranilkantha (Budanilkantha) Rhododendron, Bakhtapur and many familiar words assured me that I haven’t lost touch with the country.

A raw cut rose quartz given to me recently resembles the outline of Nepal.

Like my former student who gave me his lapis lazuli mala, some kind of “mistake” was at play in the purchase of this book as well.

Seeing my interest, my friend decided to let me have his book in exchange for a donation to be decided by me to an animal shelter of my choice. So on the full moon day that just passed I did just that in his name.

As we mark the Solstice today and give thanks for what has turned out right for us, may we also be able to accept wishes unfulfilled, because sometimes what we consider a mistake could turn out to be a great help to others.

Solstice Sunset 21-12-21

The Poh Piah Parties On!

6 Dec 2021

Holding my homecooked “poh piah” aka spring roll or Chinese burrito after 40 plus years.

“Poh Piah”, is a wrap filled with julienned vegetables. This Chinese burrito is usually served only on special occasions because of the labour intensive prep work behind it.

Every family has its own secret spring roll recipe reflecting its ancestral lineage, dialect and most of all, the matriarch’s personality.

Once a Filipino student described the ingredients in her mom’s “poh piah” which led me to ask if her forefathers were from Kinmen Island. She checked with her people and they confirmed it.

Last year, before social distancing rules got complicated, I had the fortune to be at a “poh piah party” hosted by a friend’s mom. Hers was peranakan style, complete with kueh pei ti. My friend’s dad personally drove to Joo Jiat to pick up handmade poh piah skin/wrap and pei ti cups to hold the precious & time sensitive ingredients.

Poh Piah, a love story.

Looking at the elaborate spread of ingredients and utensils, you realise this is not simply about eating, but it’s also about being part of a love story enfolding right at the table.

Last month at Souperstar, I found the humble spring roll repackaged and marketed as food-on-the-go.

Souperstar gives the traditional spring roll (poh piah) a trendy twist with its colourful wrapper.

I ordered the traditional one out of nostalgia, and made a mental note NOT TO COMPARE it with the ones made by my friend’s mom or my kinmen grandma.

I took a bite and felt vry satisfied as the familiar mix of minced garlic, sambal chilli, & sweet sauce on shredded turnip and assorted condiments danced in my mouth.

When I complimented the service staff for their delicious vegetable wrap, she declared with pride,” 我们的薄饼料是手切的!” (transl: our ingredients are hand cut).

The honour of being part of something made by hand as opposed to machine made was evident in her voice & smile.

With meal gatherings near impossible these days, my heart fills with gratitude each time I look at these pictures.

My friend’s dad drove to Joo Jiat Rd to pick up handmade poh piah wraps/ skins for our party.

And now I’m ever thankful to Souperstar’s business acumen & creativity to ensure that the poh piah parties on, even if it’s just for one person dining. 🙏😄

Threading Through Terrors

11 November 2021

Seeing colourful friendship bands from Nepal transports me to my childhood days of watching my grandmother roll coloured cotton threads into necklaces and anklets for babies in our village near the Singapore River.

Beaded friendship bands from Nepal.

Parents of restless babies, or babies with no appetites would come to our verandah to ask my grandma to make a thread necklace or anklet for their child.

Apparently her hand rolled cotton accessories worked like a charm because babies’ mood and appetite improved once they started wearing them.

I have no idea who taught my grandma to make these things or how they came to be associated with auspiciousness & protection for babies & children.

After all, my grandmother’s personal life was far from auspicious. At 7 years old, a change of family fortune sent her sailing from Kinmen Island to Singapore to be raised as my grandfather’s future bride. She never saw her own parents again and would spend her whole life pining for her childhood home.

An aerial shot of my grandma’s city of Houpu on Kinmen Island where she was born.

At the age of 26, my grandma lost her husband and her two little daughters to a lightning mishap. Her last child who was my dad was only 8 month old then.

Overnight, by “an act of God” as lightning strikes are categorised in insurance claims , my grandmother became a widow and a single mother.

She laboured at a factory shelling prawns to provide for her in-laws and son. Her gnarled fingers bore witness to her contact with the unbearably icy water that would also give her a lifetime of aches and pains.

Later on the bank where she kept her hard earned money would go bankrupt and her first grandchild who was me, would contract childhood poliomyelitis.

So by the above accounts, my grandmother was an incredibly unlucky woman. Logically, she should be shunned and babies shouldn’t be wearing anything her hands had touched.

Yet parents regularly dropped by our home to seek my grandmother’s advice or ask reverently for a piece of her cotton threads to soothe their sickly child.

Perhaps ironically, my grandma’s incredible ability to absorb terrible losses and misfortunes, and still lived to produce beautiful embroideries for wedding couples and cotton anklets for babies, have given her the status of a lucky charm. 😊

And because my grandmother refused to be defeated by the bad luck in her life, her only grand daughter whom she constantly worried about because of her handicap had the opportunity to speak at an event to honour women brilliance where she was seated at the table with women leaders, including Singapore’s first female president.

Because my grandmother did not give in to bad luck, but pressed on to give the best life she knew to my dad, I had the opportunity to speak at an event to promote women brilliance & share a table with women leaders, including Singapore’s first female president.

Rabbit Lantern for Mid-Autumn

20 Sep 2021

The rabbit lantern of my childhood is alive & well. Pic source: shanghai.com

Of all the lanterns that were bought for me in my childhood, I remember the rabbit lantern best for the following reasons:

Firstly, my dad bought it. Secondly I was born in the year of the hare. Thirdly, its frame was wrapped in shredded white crepe paper to simulate fur. Fourthly, and most importantly, the whole lantern was set ablaze as soon as the candle that was meant to light it from within tilted, causing fire to meet paper.

Did the wire holding the candle in place not do its job? Or was my dad too clumsy in the lighting ceremony?

You can imagine the shock & pain of a 5 year old seeing her beloved rabbit lantern which she had been hugging all afternoon going up in flames and turning into ashes in seconds.

Me at the age where a paper lantern rabbit was my whole world. (1960s)

I was inconsolable. My young dad was traumatised.

In the mid-autumn festivals that followed, he would buy only battery operated lanterns for my brother and I. And no more crepe paper rabbits!

This evening I was pleasantly surprised to find that the lantern design that I loved half a century ago still exists!

The current model now has wheels, presumably for greater stability to minimise accidents like mine.

Come tomorrow night, I’m sure somewhere in some homes celebrating mid-autumn, paper lanterns will still catch fire and go up in flames.

There will be tears over the destruction & loss of a much loved and perhaps even irreplaceable design, but that shall not keep us from seeking solutions to continue the celebration.

Mid-autumn full moon in Taipei (2019)

Dressing Up for World Peace

14 Sep 2021

This pink cotton *qipao that took me to the Great Wall of China was bought at a market in Beijing in the summer of 2002. The young chinese woman behind me kept telling me how “可爱” (ke ai) meaning endearing I looked in it. We made each other’s day.
The green watch on my wrist was bought by my second younger brother on his first trip to Moderna, Italy.

*qipao – dress with mandarin collar and slits at the side modified from clothes of manchurian people.

Some years back when I was feeding homeless cats, I noticed that neighbourhood bullies who harassed cat feeders were cautious with me.

And it wasn’t my handicap that made them decide to be kind to me. In fact my limp had on some occasions prompted people to have a go at me.

What made the bullies think twice about harassing me in my cat feeding rounds was the way I dressed.

In my teaching days I wore dresses and *qipao. And I was often still in my teaching clothes when I stopped to feed cats.

A talented friend draw this portrait of me in green qipao surrounded by my dog, Shoya, and my 10 cats in 2007.

A couple of times, a person on the verge of passing some nasty remarks about animals would appraise my clothes and asked if I worked for the government. Of course I said yes with great authority since all teachers come under the jurisdiction of the MOE.

I think that was where my understanding of power dressing without brands started.

Gradually, dressing carefully so that people would back off and let a lone woman feed cats in peace evolved from a necessity to a habit.

A couple of years ago, I taught English at a centre for troubled teens.

They were an energetic bunch plagued by anger management & learning issues.

Once in the midst of an expletive storm, one of them shouted, “M’am! You look nice!” when I was spotted sitting in the garden next to their gym.

Subsequently, “M’am, you look nice,” became a regular greeting whenever they saw me.

I think each time these young men stopped to pay me a compliment, or hear their friend make one, they experienced a momentary release from the rage & vitrol that had dominated their speech.

The old belief that it’s not what you eat, but what comes out of your mouth that kills you was evident in the way one of the boys beamed when I thanked him for his gracious words.

Perhaps getting dressed could be a way of promoting peace. And perhaps dressing up to save the world may not be as far fetched an idea as it seems. 😄

*qipao – dress with mandarin collar and slits at the side modified from clothes of manchurian people.

Blessed Ganesh Chaturthi

10 Sep 2021

I just learnt that today is the start of *Ganesh Chaturthi.

My first eye to eye contact with the elephant headed deity was in Nepal in 2011.

Ganesh Shrine at Park Village Resort within the Shivapuri National Park, Budanilkantha, Nepal.

Now, 10 years later, the symbol of resourcefulness and wisdom continues to inspire me to take things as they come without fear or resentment so that I may see clearly and dance lightly through all obstacles.

And while wondering how I could mark the occasion without leaving home, a dancing Ganesh pendant from my brother given a year ago and a recent hand drawn sunflower from a student combined to fulfil my intention.

Dancing Ganesh pandent given by my brother last year sits on a sunflower mandala drawn by a young student this September.

Here’s wishing all friends, family & strangers the blessings of Wisdom & Resourcefulness to meet challenges with ease like my favourite Hindu deity.

Om Gam Ganapateya Namaha! 🙏

*Ganesh Chaturthi marks the anniversary of his arrival from Mount Kailash.

Finding Our Way

10 Sep 2021

My brother guiding his son on the singing bowl.

Markers pointing to roads, exits & entrances, ramp, lift lobby and carpark pick ups are very important for someone with limited energy like me because getting lost has very serious consequences

For most people, mixing up Lobby A with Lobby B in the mall or hospital is a small matter. For me it can mean how many turns and rest stops I need to take before I find my destination.

The frustrations & exhaustion of losing one’s way is real for an ageing person even without dementia or mobility issues.

I seldom accept rides or lifts from well intentioned people because dictating where they should me pick me up, drop me off or where they should park would make me sound like an ungrateful and demanding old woman. 😄

Pre-covid days at the airport check-in counter, any departure gate from letter E onwards on my boarding pass would fill me with unease even before the flight took off. On occasions when I needed wheelchair service, I made sure to tip my airport escort handsomely.

As such I have little desire to go on pilgrimages to make peace and to learn acceptance.

Finding My Way

Each step out of my flat, presents enormous potential to make peace with obstacles.

Ganesha in dancing pose is thus my favourite posture of the deity for obvious reasons. 😄

When I walk, there are detours needed to avoid a wet corridor or curb too high for me. When I take public transport, there’s the anxiety of whether I can find a seat before the bus or train moves and the worry of whether there’s a hand grab for support at my exit stop. Little steps which the able-bodied make almost mindlessly require the focus of a zen master for me.

Over the years, I’ve turned down invitations to meet not because the company is less worthy, but because of what it takes for me to show up.

Singapore may have good medical amenities but its population density, building configurations and fast paced living make it a challenging place for those in advancing years.

Active Aging is a good aspiration provided you have the right set ups, physical conditions and national mindset.

Even in supposedly easy to navigate places with escalators and non-slip flooring I’m either constantly dogding people who are in a hurry, or keeping a distance from those whose eyes are glued to their phone screens. The latter have the tendency to brake suddenly or back into people behind them.

That said, it is also not reasonable to expect human traffic in public places to slow down for the old.

Thus I understand why elderly folks cling to familiar places and are reluctant to move to new neighbourhoods. They would have to learn the terrain of their physical environment all over again. A ramp in their new housing estate may not have the same gradient like the one their legs have been used to in the past 40 years.

“With a click of a button,” as the catchphrase goes, we’re told that digitization has made the world more accessible to many. But precisely when everyone seems so well connected and mobile, the isolation for some feels even starker & more incomprehensible.

And thus I cherish every trip I can make to the grocery store, every step to my tuition class and on special days, a visit to the animal shelter, or a live performance venue while my body and senses do not have too many adjustments to make.

Finally for those of us who harbour thoughts that people who can’t keep up with changes are just being too stubborn, we can try giving up some of the things we’re used to, and see how that affects our sense of calm before we earn the right to call someone too rigid to keep up with time.

Words of My Father

4 Aug 2021

Celebrating my dad’s birthday in Westlake Restaurant 23 years ago.

I was 9 years old when I wrote my first letter. In Chinese. It was addressed to my dad who was then working in Bali. The letter was full of mundane details of school & home.

And my dad would write back in his beautiful handwriting in bright blue ink.

I didn’t understand everything he wrote, but I could touch his words and feel them by running my fingers over the paper. For my dad wrote with a heavy hand, causing the chinese characters to sit solidly on the faint blue lines of the airmail letter paper.

Was he writing with a BIC ball point pen? Did he pen his thoughts to his daughter during his day off in the workers’ quarters?

And the content of his letter? Equally boring instructions that a primary 3 kid can understand – study hard, listen to your mom & grandma, don’t quarrel with your brother etc.

But my dad also wrote simply about the beauty of paddy fields, the volcanoes, buffalo horn carvings and promises of gifts upon his return.

The buffalo horn carvings of ornamental birds from my dad in my childhood would start a lifelong appreciation for bovine accessories such as these in my adult life.

I believe those words of my father had forever ignited in me a sense of wonderment for peoples & cultures beyond my ethnic group and landscapes outside Singapore.

My appreciation & appetite for pratas, naans, chappatis, aloo, curries & briyanis started with our dad buying these meals for us when we were kids. (Mustaffa Centre, Syed Alwi Rd, 2018)

Even though my dad’s letters were lost years ago to overly zealous spring cleaning, his words of lapis lazuli blue continue to dance in my head till this day.

A few weeks back, my brother showed me a picture of the moth that he had picked up from the floor. He thought the moth’s colours were really unique. I thought they reminded me of our dad’s batik. 😊

Batik of auspicious clouds. My dad was very fond of wearing batik shirts. He would buy and send batik fabrics and beaded slippers from Bali to Singapore for our family & relatives.
My dad wears one of the many batik shirts bought for him in an outing.

Today my dad would have been 83 years old.

Sometimes we remember our elders not for the inheritance or titles they can bestow, but for simpler gifts such as letters or even fabrics that evoke childhood memories of care & innocence.