This is where I sink & float

Scenes of a time & place (Penang, 2015)

Just a few shots I took during my two weeks of unemployment. In retrospect, it was an adequate period of rest. Books, devoured. Thoughts, alive and unraveling. Simple pleasures during simpler times with afternoon naps and days spent leisurely in a city that still has an eminent Old World charm to it with its post-colonial colors, hues and forms. People in Penang seemed warmer, kinder, more affable yet more ferocious on the road. The food was divine, but that plays for a standalone story of its own. Nevertheless:

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Untuk lima.

1. It always begins in the marketplace. The air is humid with the stink of fish. There lingers an iron certainty in the scent of blood, chopped meat and skinned chickens that dangle and oscillate from hooks. The fishmonger has his rubber gloves on, yellow and not frightening, and is adroit at doing the math in his head in a language which interweaves between inventory, profit, and losses. This is a language he knows by heart. A middle-aged Malay lady passes him a crumpled orange note for a piece of jenahak (snapper fish) and he passes back five ringgit with coins on her upturned palm. “Terima kasih.” She smiles and shoves the change into her purse, moving on to the next vendor to get some fresh santan as the thought of what to cook for dinner clouds her mind. Her arms are weighed down by the multiple plastic bags she is carrying. The five ringgit was exchanged between the fishmonger and the woman for a piece of fish, a unifying piece of protein to nourish a family of six.

2. The five ringgit was later given to the woman’s thirteen-year old son as part of his weekly allowance. He writes in cursive despite being a byproduct of the twenty-first century. His letters are beautifully-shaped, even, far better than the rest of his peers who write quicker and faster on keyboards than using a ballpoint pen. In appearance, he is nothing special. His skin is evenly burnt by the sun, much like other boys his age, and his hair is closely cropped. He has no beautiful features to set him apart. His voice, body and mind has not yet completely transitioned to that of a full grown man. He is signing off a letter addressed to an uncle in the United States. Not with ‘Yours sincerely’, or ‘Love’, but simply with his name. The five ringgit was exchanged between the boy with the lady working at the post office. It was exchanged in hopes of one day visiting a faraway country whose concept was, to him, still built on dreams. He would later learn to love the country but hate its administration.

3. The lady at the post office passed the five ringgit note to a young woman buying stamps. The nape of this young woman’s white neck sloped in a clean curve, her long black hair amassed into a neat bun. She has a dinner gathering to go to at night which she is already dreading. There lies an artificiality within human relations which she believes will never be an acquired taste. Alas, the secret voting of social acceptance would always be in favor of dinner parties. She dreads the thinness of the conversations, so sparse of meaning. The surrounding women, so pleasant upon contact but waning and judging and scathing as an afterthought. The men who would try to hit on her or get her drunk in hopes of taking her home. Debating over arguments with outcomes of no importance to her (her opinion would always remain stubbornly unchanged anyway). Yet she knows she has to be bigger than all of this so she drives to the supermarket to buy a bottle of wine she will not drink. The five ringgit note was exchanged in favour of the artificiality of false impressions and gaining social approval — the elegant gameplay of adults everywhere.

A note for the masses.

If you, the reader, care or perhaps are curious about me, the writer.

When I began in an earlier part of this year, I wrote down four simple words and pasted it upon the hanging noticeboard in my bedroom – What’s next? What’s next? I would come face-to-face with these words everyday and I’d wonder it too: What is next?

Hungry and impatient to unravel the future, this was preceded by scribbling onto the first page of my paper journal a note which stated that ‘the mind and body will collectively and exhaustively attempt another excursion throughout the tumultuous health and disorder of a calendar year.’ To measure time in the basis of years is perhaps not the best way to track down progress but, inasmuch as I was expectant and hoping for change, 2015 has been rife of it nonetheless. In color, in seeming favor, in chances.

It occurred to me that I am reaching my quarter-of-a-century mark sooner than expected. Gone are the days of dressing up in uniform and welcoming the feel of assembly halls with chalky white shoes come Monday morning, even if those days don’t feel like they took place too long ago. This made way instead to a calmer transition — into adulthood, which proved to be stabler, easier to decipher, still difficult, but less grating on the nerves. Monday mornings turned instead into battling traffic jams, trying to fit in as much work into the last few minutes of every fleeting moment, forgoing meals and toilet breaks and regretting not ironing that shirt for work the night before. Yet still, age had never confronted me before, I always identified myself unfailingly as a youth. Developing, growing, fumbling, prospering, be it in quiet revolt, in anger, or in sheer eagerness for the world and its timely offers. Always, always, a youth at heart. But this year felt different, I stopped identifying myself so much as such and felt an urgency to do something.

The message that I am trying to convey here, if there is a message at all, is that as farfetched as it sounds, this is it: if love is a sense of belonging, then there is nothing I’d rather crawl back towards than to the familiarity of writing. If I am unidentifiable in origin from the design of my name or face or this system, language is the body I’d choose to savor and inquire and savor again.

To cut to the chase — I’ve resigned from my job in pursuit of being a (more serious, more dedicated, more ruthless) writer. Listen to this notion, as romantic as any, so idealistic and full of promise that it terrifies me. I’ve said this several times before but I don’t know if this action was warranted out of bravery or stupidity, but rather a need to stay true to character. My previous job in the PR industry wasn’t always easy, but it was a job which I had gotten well-acquainted with and, I’d like to believe, a job which I wasn’t so bad at either. Nevertheless, it was a steadiness which I saw necessary to break.

And so the applications for grad school were sent in, and the risks paid off better than initially anticipated. I got accepted into all four schools I applied for. The biggest struggle now is perhaps the most intimidating struggle, which is the struggle of securing funding. But this is a risk and risks are wont to come with no guarantee. I am taking it still, out of courage or audacity or what have you. Whether it will be successful or not is unknown. These are my doubts, drawbacks and fears that I’m sharing with you. You don’t need to dim the lights for me to calculate and scrutinize where it might or might not fail, I have never been a blind optimist. Yet I’ve decided I will fall into this foray and the vast possibilities it offers too. The hope I have for things are not tall, grounded, or always healthy but my dreams are not yet colorless ghosts.

If it fails, I will adapt and attempt to land on my feet again.

Either way it goes, I wish you, if you are reading this, all the best in your own individual struggle and journey, whatever it may involve or it may be — Godspeed.

And that is all for now by way of non-fiction.

Drunk and alone in Kuala Lumpur.

The clock ticked on in its languid fashion and his thoughts were feverish, his head pounding. Too dead for the city, too awake for his own conscience. Alone in Kuala Lumpur – drained, hungry, hung over, up for anybody’s taking. Glass marks stained the teak table and the glass of whiskey sweated condensation, seeping into the surface. The monthly energy bill was held down by a tissuebox and flipped away lightly by the corner, on the edge of flying away. The whirring of the ceiling fan played dull and slow as a breathing beat.

Calm down, he had said to her with a hand on her shoulder. This world is as much yours as it is mine and you are as much a main character in your own life as I am in my own.

These words echoed resoundingly in his head, a shred of advice amidst a tangle of easy lies.

The memory of that afternoon replayed in hazy saturation. It was a dank Sunday in Bangsar where the awnings were weighed heavy by the downpour, the smell of tandoori chicken from Devi’s Corner wafting in the air. The uneven pavements were difficult to walk around in, the cigarettes in his back pocket were soggy and wasted.

She wore red stilettos and it was pouring hard, so hard. He wondered how she was not overcome by the overflow, he wondered how a woman was able to maintain her dignity even in the worst of situations. Her bangs clung onto her forehead and she looked stubborn, forlorn, child-like, still beautiful. She was a tantrum with almond eyes and a stern countenance, an unbeliever of the world who refused to be taken over by the liberation of ideas, of the body, of the senses. Her half-smirk was composed of condescension and misgivings.

She was at an interception in her life where it felt like norms and conventions failed her. A sense of decency in him wished he could help. He was the willing adult, after all. He should be able to recite assurances even if he didn’t always believe in them.

It felt suitably out of place that this would be the memory to revisit him at 4:54am now, that he would miss the look which made him feel unsure of who he was, of who they both were. It was the last he had seen of her. They had been going out for a month and a half, hardly enough to leave much of an impression on the other, enough to be able to say goodbye without parting with pain. It wasn’t a prosperous courtship; she barely spoke, more of a listener than anything. She was a good 8 years younger than him, perhaps too young, although her demeanor would suggest otherwise. There was perhaps no real spark to begin with aside from lust but she was a willing temptress that could be disenfranchised by him, a stranger of mirth, and he liked the idea of that.

He realized now that he couldn’t even recall her last name.

Anna… Anna what? Was Anna short for Liyana?

He laughed bitterly in the space of the quiet room and rushed to the bathroom in a wave of nausea and faint memories of the noise made by people and how she smelled like jasmine. 

January 19: Moody and awake.

Your heart is wild, wasting away on futile longings and the seascape of sweet language gone astray.

You are a shadow, limitless and bending and unbending with limbs that are mad and skulking, tall and proud. You bend and fold within the eminent presence of light. You shrink and you plead, then you are towering again.

Sometimes the stillness of nights would rouse within you the memories of the receding disinterest of words and of the paleness of her limbs, how in dim light she looked strangely lucent and how you swore she was transparent both in context and in figure. You think again of the disinterest of words, like sloshes of black ink attempting to be legible characters, half-hearted and feeble in its attempt at shapeshifting. What is age and time and experience if it slowly sedates the resisting war of the imagination to make way for the practicality of functioning at maximum capacity throughout the daily 9-5? Why must there be an umbrella from the chaos of discomfort and bad thoughts, what if it is this very wickedness that you prefer to go through before arriving at the kinder end? Remember, remember, there must be equal bad and good in the blows inflicted thunderously upon ourselves.

Sometimes you fall around your own feet and dream of the days of being in transit once more; a solitary figure in airports, bus stops, train stations, waiting for the next stop patiently on afternoons with book in bag, severely thumbed over and known through and through (just as I would prefer with you), glasses neatly available this time, no longer embarrassed by the prevalent presence of myopia. You long to be swallowed up by anonymity and space, space again, blank and free in a city that has yet to contain you.

You used to write letters painted in a temperament you no longer understand.

There is no contingency plan in life, drenched in hopes and fears, cold and summoning in nature.

There is no contingency plan for anything but you attempt to love nonetheless.

England, 2014

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Allow me to once again match and marry my patchwork image of England in the span of my nine curious days there with the words I can skim from the top of my mind:

  • While sharing a sofa bed in a tiny but cozy rented apartment located in the middle of Bristol City, it occurred that a functional space can feel like home even under a few days, that it is more meaningful than space in excess, that a kitchen provides as a generous index to its owner’s personality. So a person substitutes stevia for sugar, has no cooking oil, prefers an abundance of herbs over spices, has color-coordinated plates and just enough silverware along with sachets of only peppermint tea – does this mean that he is health-conscious, well-organized, often on-the-go, not big on hearty meals because he eats to live? This sketches an idea and it tells a story of a certain type of occupant, a certain type of man. What does a kitchen that does not look or feel like an abandoned warzone of a malnourished adolescent say and not say? Perhaps he is frisky with time and has more important things to pursue than having 5 different types of cereal to sustain sleepless nights. Or am I being too sentimental on details here?
  • Oh, the glorious tiles of Harrod’s infamous Food Halls laden with fresh oysters, turrines, wondrous cakes and puddings and cookies, caviar, all the tea you would want, all the food you could dream about, an image of incandescent joy amidst the pervasive scent of something great mingling with something spectacular, intoxicating smells and sensations of a Christmas once conjured by an imagination sustained through a steady supply of fairytales and Enid Blyton books. Oh, the endless supply of beauty products to peruse at Superdrug and Boots, from the Sleek palettes to No.7 lipsticks. Oh, the aesthetic pleasure of going through racks of products marketed differently from what is offered back home and what was offered back in America. Being stuck in Primark and being smitten over the affordability of really very decent everything. And the books, the books, I brought back so many books back home. There was something sophisticated and more old-fashioned about England that felt vastly different from the open easiness of America even if one is not necessarily more dexterous than the other.
  • The liberation of having no roaming plan while figuring out tube lines with fists clenched in pockets, reremembering the feeling of being out and about in the cold, experiencing the still-crisp leftover beauty of Autumn, walking around in high-heeled boots feet arched dancing over pins and needles, bonding over books with friends old and new, depending on Lemsip to ward that flu away, having conversations over baklava and hot mint tea in a store that had the best moussaka as jazz played on in the background, wishing for more weight so as to not be flung about in buses and trains, seeing a quartet perform by the Thames river wondering if it was foolish to hope that they were doing it moreso out of pleasure and passion than anything, reveling in the art of people-watching and wishing scenes could be photographed through mere sight for later remembrance, listening to sad songs by musicians still alive and upbeat songs by musicians now dead.
  • Developing an unmistakeable and quick love affair for Bristol City with its scenic, bohemian and lovely self which offered with it cobblestone walkways, independent stores, secondhand books sold by the harbor, scatterings of Banksy graffiti, handsome cathedrals and museums as well as the endless, endless abundance of cafes and art, walking uphill and downhill, sitting on a bench atop Brandon Hill and not fretting to let the time slide by for once because there was no rush or panic even if the sun set by five everyday. There was an active exhilaration in being another face in a city very much new for the senses to still explore and you realize it is feelings in these type of hues that make you really want to continue writing and living.
  • Also, coffee was surprisingly decent everywhere.

Lonely town, lonely street.

It was an idle piece of time, the sort of afternoon where you could afford to get around to what you’ve been truly wanting to do all week. Time cooperated in its elasticity, perhaps because there was no true magic in the moment even if there was potential for it. He had no plans but he had gas in his car and enough numbers to ring for these type of occasions. His role in society was as one of those genuinely rare breed of excellent conversationalists born with the talent to charm anybody out of their pants. Although not very tidy with responsibilities, he was brash and courageous enough to author his own number of triumphs at a young age. Melancholic longings played no part amongst these type of men. He would just charge out to get something. Go out and go. And if that didn’t work, he would simply move on, almost as if to say,

“Life really is as simple as that. What the fuck is so complicated anyway?”

Proust Questionnaire.

It hit me perhaps a few years too late that by way of introductions, a proper one has never been made here in spite of all that has been shared. I have never been too good with formalities but thought for a change it would be nice to provide a brief glimpse by sharing my responses to the infamous Proust questionnaire.

I did not attempt to answer all the questions partly because I found a few varying versions of the questionnaire and wasn’t sure which was the accurate copy, partly also because answering 35 questions felt a bit excessive.

Nevertheless, here you go:

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Maintaining a sense of lightness in the face of perpetual learning and unlearning.

What is your favorite journey?
The process of getting to know people, places, and experiences slowly, tenderly, patiently, curiously. Savoring all the details with unfeigned keenness is a journey of its own and I value the process even if it isn’t always pleasant or apparent in its consequence. I am sentimental about these things which I catalogue in my consciousness, often using them as reference in my own writing.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Still relatively buoyant at twenty four.

What is your greatest fear?
Losing control.

What is your most marked characteristic?
My most marked characteristic from childhood to adolescence to adulthood is in being slightly detached from the real world sometimes, a moody Asian girl who likes to live under the guise of being infallible.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Desiring many things but not wanting enough to act upon them.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
I hate people when they’re not polite. Decency should be a foundation for all human interactions, don’t you think?

What is your greatest extravagance?
Indulging in this burning need to travel and occasionally watch live shows and occasionally eat good food and occasionally dress well.

What is your current state of mind?
Floozy and caffeinated with a hint of cranky.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Niceness. I often feel like a lot of people have a very convoluted concept of niceness and mistake it by being too accommodating to the point of bordering on impracticality or by being bland because they feel like being nice is enough to scrape by.

On what occasion do you lie?
If and only when absolutely necessary. If it gets me a free cookie.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
That sense of ease and the solidarity of control and assurance present in a select few which, when well-utilized, is very handsome.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
That inimitable daintiness and automatic fluency in knowing how to react under situations of duress. More importantly is self-sufficiency and good taste.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“That’s not very considerate” and the unglamorous but very real “Aiyo“.

When and where were you happiest?
Overlooking the top of the Tokyo Sky Tower in August last year. After an hour of walking in the scorching summer, I reached the top of the building just as the sun was beginning to set with pen and blank paper in hand. Youth had never felt as prevalent in its towering glory till then.

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Who are your favorite writers?
Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Nabokov, Dostoevsky, the ever prevalent Murakami. That said, favorite writers and favorite books do not always correlate.

Who is your hero of fiction?
Edmond Dantès, the Count of Monte Cristo.

Which living person do you most admire?
Zadie Smith comes to mind due to her talent, graceful wit and overall intelligence.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Losing human dignity due to uncontrollable circumstances. Also suffering from food poisoning while stuck in uncontrollable circumstances.

Where would you like to live?
Japan. However, due to language barrier problems and the potential inability to fully assimilate, Chicago would be my next choice.

What is your favorite occupation?
I admire the occupation of being an academician and an artist; the former for its nobility, the latter for its importance in nurturing the human soul, but both in their functions of inspiring and educating others in their respective ways. That said, I especially like the idea of being a novelist which sounds almost as sexy as being a surgeon.

What are your favorite names?
I am drawn to one-syllable names inspired by luminaries – Franz, Kurt, Sid. For female names, I have always liked the name Berlin.

What is your motto?
Bailamos, bitches.

The Wallflower Social Club, Pt. 2.

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The city as an entity was a living landscape which heaved and breathed a rich variety of hues and textures that bore the lusty appeal of exhaust pipes and the insatiable greed of crony capitalism.

It was in this city that life took on a mundane type of reality. Initially, this was not a bother. In fact, I flaunted making do with a mind-numbingly dull existence. A voice told me that there was something to be learnt from the basics of making do with monotony.

Call it optimism, call it basic common sense, call it stupidity, but I wanted to be committed to something, even if it was something I was unsure about.

Every day was simple. It would begin with waking up at 7am, followed by a 30-minute jog around the neighborhood and a lukewarm shower after. My color scheme did not stray from greys, blacks and neutrals. I had two pairs of black pants and a skirt. On particularly good days, a slip of color would make an entrance, mostly in the form of the color red. Breakfast was the choice of either raisin bran cereal or a peanut butter sandwich, washed down by a scalding hot mug of tea.

Then, it would be off to work in my beaten up car. Most of the time, Neutral Milk Hotel would be playing during the journey to the office. I particularly loved the ‘King of Carrot Flowers’. Work was a simple, impersonal affair consisting of the type of processes that did not require a lot of thinking, mostly just concentration. Anybody to possess the sufficient intellect required to complete a basic sudoku puzzle would have been 99% capable in completing my job.

The cubicle, the walls, the carpeted floor, and even the desk in the office were all the same shade of murky grey. Even my colleagues had a sensation of such greyness to them. It was as if whoever designed the place could only see the world in that one solitary shade of grey with nothing more or nothing less. The company was not in the running to win any awards anytime soon for its innovative design but it paid me enough, and always on time, which left me with few complaints.

The time to leave work would often be a little after the sun had set. I found out about the Wallflower Social Club from a poster pasted on the noticeboard of my office building, right next to the elevator. It was a cold night and I was mentally fatigued from the day, mostly just in need of something that was not grey. The poster did not have a particularly interesting design and the Times New Roman font simply summed up in two paragraphs that it was a special community meant for introverts ‘to get together, network, and recalibrate’.

Funny, I thought.

Who would go for these type of things? 

I would go for those sort of things.

And in a way, it did change the year. It switched things up plenty.

Now I can’t admit that the year changed for the better to turn into the year for buns and abs of steel, depositing 30% of my monthly income into a savings account to make way for a brighter future, giving people more of a chance in spite of how unlikeable they may be, no longer succumbing to road rage and allowing more cars to merge into traffic, paying compliments instead of cynical statements, no longer indulging in bad fiction, or allowing myself to be bullied into attending social obligations in favor of improved ratings in terms of public opinion.

But I found that there is a man whose virtue lies in finding out truths even if truths are slippery, elusive, cruel and sometimes non-existent.

So the year did change,
in meaning, muscle, movement and music, it changed.

*For Part One of the story with no beginning, middle, or end. 

“I’d like to live in a world made up of real stuff, not fiction and appearances.”

Watched Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Gadajace Glowy (Talking Heads) today and found it to be startlingly beautiful and profound in its simplicity. It shows, in under seventeen minutes, the tender frailties of human beings and how we are all plagued by the same queries (even if coded differently) in spite of our ages and forms. It is a little sad and a little beautiful, but it races the mind in a good way.

The documentary consists of asking a variety of different individuals three simple questions:

a) Who are you?

b) When were you born?

c) What is important for you?

If you haven’t already seen it, I urge you to watch it and to revel in these questions yourself, and to perhaps even share your ideas on it which I would very much love to hear.

The ending of the documentary is a type of haunting perfection on its own to accompany a summary of observations that all feel vaguely similar and ageless in nature.

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