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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Each step out of my flat, presents enormous potential to make peace with obstacles.
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.
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.
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.
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. 😊
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.
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.
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.
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.
So here’s wishing all friends the good fortune to arrive at where they started and without having to go too far.
Isaac was 9 and his brother, Ilario was 8, when we visited the Asian Civilisations Museum 14 years ago.
We had gone “On the Nalanda Trail,” exhibition because the spaciousness of museum settings with their gentle lightings have a calming effect on children.
Young as they were, I thought it was good for kids to experience the presence of ancient carvings and texts that have survived the ravages of time and human follies.
When the museum visit came to an end, I asked the boys to strike a pose in front of the mural featuring Budhha with the Dharmachakra hand gesture.
Without missing a beat, the two primary school kids acted out the iconic gesture of their action hero, Ultraman.
It was as if they were trying to align themselves with the Enlightened One by imitating the posture of the most evolved being they knew at that point in their young lives.
Over the years my nephews gain independence. These childhood physical outings have been replaced by adult discussions as they navigate the crossroads in their lives.
Whether they are 9 or 23, our children will always appreciate sensible input from us. And even if we’re not digital savvy, our duty is to remain calm and offer them our presence when they need someone to reflect with on their journeys.
Dharmachakra mudra Dharmachakra in Sanskrit means the ‘Wheel of Dharma’. This mudra symbolizes one of the most important moments in the life of Buddha, the occasion when he preached to his companions the first sermon after his Enlightenment in the Deer Park at Sarnath.
Two days ago on the eve of Hari Raya Haji, I managed to locate the contact number of my chinese calligraphy teacher and expressed my gratitude for his teaching some 17 years ago.
Mr Khoo speaks Hokkien (Minan dialect) in the same way my grandma did. When I first heard him pronounce the name of my ancestral city during a lesson at the Singapore Buddhist Culture Centre at Upper Dickson Road, I felt a keen sense of familiarity with him.
The author of many books and teacher of local & foreign dignitaries treated me with respect despite my lack of Chinese cultural & literary knowledge.
My inability to master brush strokes and lack of commitment to practice did not deter him from checking my homework. He pointed out that I was drawing lines and not writing. But I did not feel slighted because Mr Khoo spoke truthfully & kindly.
His other students were way ahead. They wrote out line upon line of ancient poems from memory as their paper unrolled and sometimes drapped over the edge of their tables. They made room for him respectfully as he weaved among them to inspect their work. His comments were received with reverence. 😊
Even though I couldn’t really follow the intellectual exchanges between him and his more mature & advanced students who had been with him for a long time, Mr Khoo often explained short chinese sayings to me so that I would feel included. His students took after him in his graciousness and were always welcoming towards me.
One unforgettable ancient saying that he taught me was this: the elegance of a room does not depend on size, just as the fragrance of flowers does not depend on numbers. In Chinese it reads “室雅何须大，花香不在多”. How compact! ❤️
When I apologised for my lack of progress in my writing, I remember Mr Khoo saying something like, “这是我们华人的字，你再写不好，也要写下去.” (Transl: This is our Chinese writing. Even if you’re not good at it, you must carry on.)
How refreshing it is to know that there are other more intangible reasons for doing something other than being good at it! Because of Mr Khoo’s approach to learning, I’ve become mindful of using marks as the only measurement of a student’s suitability & aptitude to continue with a subject.
“Guru” in Sanskrit means “Dispeller of Darkness,” and “Bringer of Light.” In Hindu and Tibetan practices, gurus are essential to one’s path to self cultivation & liberation.
Mr Khoo taught me not because I showed any promise in calligraphy nor was I a deserving student. In the ways he generously shares his knowledge and patiently deals with my ignorance, he is in every sense of the word, my guru.
I wish my teacher and his wife peace & health as they lovingly support each other through the years and I hope to be able to pay them a visit one day.