“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.

Turning 21

22 Oct 2021

My younger nephew turns 21 today.

Every birthday, regardless of age, is to be cherished. Celebrated in big ways or small, observing the occasion is an act of gratitude, not a gauge of one’s popularity.

Ilario learning to hold Oliver.

It’s amazing that between showing him how to hold a cat properly when he was 7 to looking at his compositions when he was 16 and discussing internship options for his studies just recently, 21 years have gone by just like that!

Studying GCE O level with Oliver.

So this morning I sent a text to the boy who has brought nothing but smiles to his mom & dad good health, kind heart and wise mind as he steps into adulthood to exercise his rights and responsibilities.

Edusave Award with dad
Showing gratitude to mom at Edusave Award.

Harbour Girl

19 Oct 2021 (Full Moon Eve)

Bare faced and spotting a short bob, the harbour staff assigned to assist me on wheelchair to the ferry boarding gate looked like a student.

It was June 2019, and I was crossing from Kinmen to Xiamen for my flight back to Singapore.

Harbour Girl addressed me as “Ah Yi,” meaning aunt in mandarin and asked kindly if I would like to use the washroom or buy souvenirs before she took me to the boarding gate.

When we passed the windlion display, I asked if she could take pictures of me with Kinmen’s Mythical Guardian.

Her unease at my request looked as if I had asked her to perform a brain surgery on me. I learnt that she had been told that she couldn’t take nice pictures.

“Don’t worry. I’m very beautiful. You simply cannot take a bad picture of me!” I assured her in my desperation to have my last shots with Kinmen’s ancient mascot.

Kinmen’s mythical windlion chortling merrily behind me. (June 2019)

Upon my very ridiculous claim, Harbour Girl burst out laughing. Her hesitation evaporated.

So she took my phone and started snapping non-stop. As she trained my phone camera on me, while moving around freely, I felt her gaiety.

By then it didn’t really matter how the pictures turned out.

Till now, I still keep the 22 shots she took. I have no intention of deleting them. They were the last pictures of me before I left Kinmen. But mostly because they remind me of a very lovely & happy Kinmen daughter.

Her parting words when she walked me up the ferry were,”Ah Yi, I’m very happy to be of service. When you visit again, I will look out for you. I will remember you.”

As a noun, the harbour is associated with safety and shelter. As a verb, it has a negative connotation of keeping a dark thought or feeling over a long period of time.

Harbour Girl guided me safely to my boat. May her enthusiasm to indulge an old lady’s wish to take pictures with the windlion free her from all doubts that she might be harbouring about her capabilities. 😊🙏

Intentional Giving

27 Sep 2021

Handstamped envelopes & cards for my tutees taking their first national exam (PSLE).

In 3 days’ time 12-year-old primary school children across Singapore will be sitting for their Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE).

Yesterday was my final English practice with the exam candidates. A few of them had worked with me since last year.

Towards the end of the session, I told them I had prepared a well wishing gift for each of them.

Friendship bands from Nepal

“I still have the friendship band you gave me last year,” the boy who tied the handwoven fabric to his key chain said proudly on ZOOM. Another told me that the gift from Nepal that had travelled 3000 KM is always in his pencil case.

I had given them the friendship band from Nepal at the beginning of last year when they were in Primary 5. I had wished for these children to be hardy and resourceful like the people and land where their gifts came from.

This time I selected decorative paper clips as part of the farewell gift for my tutees. Enclosed with a card in a handstamped envelope I wish the children peace & joy, and the ability to hold their knowledge with ease for their own benefit, and to benefit others.

Doraemon, the cat from the future to accompany the kids taking their exam.

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.

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.

Sunflowers & Children’s Heart

6 Sep 2021

Flowers have short life span, yet they have a permanent presence in my heart.

Flowers from a young girl on Teachers’ Day.

Homemade cards are generally inexpensive to make, but you can’t put a price on the time, thought and details given to turn a piece of blank paper into a gift.

Handmade cards from a primary 6 and primary 4 tutee.

I’ve kept a card which was handmade and carefully wrapped in sandwich bag plastic by its secondary one maker for 19 years. 😊🙏

This card has been with me for 19 years.

This year I’m thankful to add a couple more to my collection of children’s handmade cards since the 90s.

With or without flowers, it’s a joy to be part of these children finding their voice through language learning & mastery. ( Teachers’ Day 2021)

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.

To Arrive Where We Started

28 July 2021

In my checkered pinafore and stockinged feet 36 years ago. (The Central Lending Libary of National University of Singapore, 1985)

In my youth, stairs & steps gave me anxiety attacks not just because they were hard to ascend, but also because I was ashamed of how ungraceful I looked when I climbed. It did not help that my campus was built on Kent Ridge which follows the undulating terrain of the landscape.

I used to joke that NUS stood for University of Steps.

Yet, despite my dread for steps and slopes, Providence gave me a job as student assistant in the Central Lending Library I was waiting for my letter of acceptance/rejection from the university.

Each day I would report to the Senior Librarian, Ms Susan at 9am. My job was to manuelly cut and paste selected news articles on A4 papers to be turned into microfilms for archival purposes.


This went on for a few months. By the time I matriculated, I knew every floor and every corner of the library. I even knew which desk by the window received the best natural lighting at different parts of the day.

By the time I became an undergraduate, the senior librarians and deputy directors were familiar faces that evoked feelings of discipline and kindness. They were nothing like the grouchy librarians depicted in movies.

I found this picture of Mrs Lee-Wang (first lady on the left) and her colleagues on the Hon Sui San Library write-up.

Years after I became a teacher, I paid the staff, Ms Hema and Mrs Lee-Wang a visit to thank them for their powerful and nurturing influence over me. Ms Namazie had retired by then, but it was from her I learnt that a hard boiled egg and some salad made a good lunch.

The Central Lending Library as it was called in my time not only supported me financially, but also emotionally & academically.

The Central Lending Library today. (July 2021)

In between lectures when I had no one to hang out with, the library was my friend. When lectures ended early and I did not want to go home to face family dramas, the library had me.

And if I liked a particular author that was in my required reading list, I would seek out all his or her other titles and read them obsessively sometimes literally from dawn to dusk.

Each day after the library closed, I would make my way slowly from the administration block to the Pasir Panjang bus stop. The long walk down the tree lined slope gave me time to mull over what I read and rest my eyes.

Some nights when I looked up, I could see the full moon weaving in and out among the tree branches like a shy protector who didn’t want me to know she was there for me.

With or without the pandemic restrictions, my compromised mobility makes me very conscious of where I go and allows me to develop very strong attachments to locations and buildings.

Last week I had a picture taken of me outside the library just like I did as a young girl decades ago.

The time lapse of 39 years being in the same space that has meant so much to me felt as if I was on an overseas trip.


In “Mango Dreams,” the onset of dementia prompted a man to travel over 400km to his childhood home before the disease robs him of his most cherished memories.

Perhaps while waiting for travel restrictions to ease, we could consider visiting local places that have made us who we are and given us the means to travel far.

That day at the library as a woman of advanced age in my leopard print capri and holding my walking stick, I truly felt T.S. Eliot’s, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

My affinity with this library started when I was 18 years old, 39 years ago. (NUS Central Library, Hari Raya Haji Holiday 2021)

So here’s wishing all friends the good fortune to arrive at where they started and without having to go too far.