Thursday, April 14, 2016

Answering the Call, and then Hanging Up

So. I've just come back from an talk calling people to rise up for the communist socialist revolution in America. It was, simply put, an education, and a masterclass in angry rhetoric of the disenfranchised. I was honestly surprised that people were still legitimately pushing for communist revolution; but then again, I shouldn't have been, because Neo-Nazism is apparently still a thing.

I could sympathize with their disillusioned view of the current system, and I could understand their frustration at the multitude of oppressive and unjust problems plaguing society today. However, what I could not stand for was the most egregious misappropriation of "science" this side of Christian Scientists. They threw about the word "science" a lot and talked at length about their founder's new "science of communism" that was going to revolutionize society, but when I asked them about the role science would play in this new world order, they answered that science is to be used to see the objective reality of society and use those facts to come up with a new solution.

Look, I'm a psychologist. I've seen and even done some experiments in the social sciences. And I can safely say that while you can look at society through the lens of history, politics, or economics, it's VERY VERY HARD to apply the method of scientific inquiry to living human subjects, simply because there is too much variance, too much noise in the signal. It is very very hard to come up with testable hypotheses and controlled conditions to analyse the problems of the world, much less prove (or disprove) the benefits of one socioeconomic system above another. Science can only tell you what IS, not what you OUGHT to do - that has to come somewhere else. The whole process of scientific inquiry has its limitations as well, but I didn't see any consideration of that in the rhetoric of the speakers today.

Aside from this, I don't have much faith in revolutions anyway. ("They always come round again. That's why they're called revolutions.") For all their decrying about the failures of capitalism, I failed to see how their new communist system was going to prevent people from exploiting the new rules - because there will always be assholes, and that is why we can't have nice things.

So all that's left is to leave the obligatory quote by Terry Pratchett and call it a night.

“And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.

As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn't measure up.” -- Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

All Quiet on the Western Front

What I will probably remember is the conspicuous absence of red.

No, that's not what I mea- um, it's not like the colour red has washed out of reality or something; there are still red things in the world, right? I can still see red; I mean, I'm not colourblind or anything - I mean, I am, but it's not that kind of colourblindness, and- look, can I just start over?

This is the first Chinese New Year I have spent in a place which doesn't celebrate Chinese New Year by default. There are no countdown shows, no controlled detonation of firecrackers in strictly demarcated zones, no lion dance troupes on the backs of trucks dopplering as they speed by in the street.

It is much, much quieter on this western front.

I was walking around Chinatown on Saturday, which I have never done before because my parents don't like crowds. I expected revelry spilling out into the street, the din of gongs and the clatter of cymbals, hawkers hawking at the top of their lungs, and the muffled, immutable roar of a thousand people steadily gearing up for the biggest festival of the year.

Instead, it was almost business as usual. Chinese people trudged up and down the busy street, silently picking out nice ornamental flowers or the fattest, freshest prawns from the vendor's icebox. On my left, a lady speaks a string of Mandarin; on my right, a smattering of Cantonese. A very Chinese-looking woman suddenly says something in a sharp American accent and it sounds harsh and alien.

There were two shops bedecked in the traditional bright vermillion, two splashes of colour in the entire neighbourhood. My friend went up to one and asked if they sold firecrackers; the shopkeeper said that they didn't have that kind of atmosphere in America.

I don't think there is anything I miss more than the food. It is a strange feeling to walk into a bakery and not see the boxes of kueh lapis, the bottles of almond cookies and prawn rolls, or the packets of bak kwa or kueh bangkek or kueh bahulu; delicacies that only Southeast Asia can bring to the table. These are once-a-year foods, man! Nobody cares about fruitcake or Easter eggs or bazhang (I tell a lie; I care greatly about bazhang) - give me pineapple tarts or give me death!

It's not all bad, though. The Columbia Singapore Students Association had a dinner with char kway teow, curry chicken, and the obligatory lo hei; although somebody must have posted on the free food Facebook page and more than a hundred people turned up, likely half of which have never heard of Singapore. Sam, Tim and I, thinking that it was going to be a small, intimate gathering, foolishly came bearing gifts - the three wise men, with a bottle of jelly and a small jar of pork floss. I think the Association people appreciated the gesture though, which is nice.

Classes until 8pm today dashed my hopes of venturing out for a Chinese dinner, or any kind of celebratory feast. I swept my floor and did my laundry, although I didn't wash my blanket because it is wool. I go to bed without ang paos under my pillow, and a hole in my stomach where love letters are supposed to be.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Street

I open my eyes.

I am standing on a street. It stretches into the distance, straight as an answer and as narrow as prejudiced thinking. The tarmac is the black of prehistoric death-traps, and in the sun directly overhead, creates a heat shimmer in the air. There are buildings on either side, huddled close together in the linear perspective, looming overhead like skyscrapers. The heat shimmer distorts the view of some, but others I can see clearly.

There is a house. It lies in the far distance, at the beginning of the street, which is somehow also the end of the street. The architecture is mixed; a cobbled hybrid of governmental apartment housing and a modern condominium. As a result, the structure appears to be trying to look tall and short at the same time. I can just make out two figures, silhouetted in the doorway: an old woman and an older man. Their hands are moving; beckoning, calling for me to return. The gestures have layered meanings: they offer protection, they promise sustenance, but they also threaten constriction; a stifling of life; of existing, not living. By all accounts there is supposed to be love here, but it is lost in translation, rarefied by the gap of generations, kept in place by slivers of duty and whatever shred of filial piety that remains.

There is a school. Its exterior is sleek and shiny, all modern metal and glass, polished to an exuberant sheen. It proclaims innovation, it sells excellence, it advertises perfection; and it would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for the pair of chimneys rising in the background, belching acrid clouds into the upper atmosphere. The smoke is either a result of the burnt midnight oil, or a byproduct of the bullshit being thrown into the essays manufactured inside. Conveyor belts lead out of the open windows, churning out marketable diplomas, framed and laminated, like clockwork. They fall into large cargo trucks, which turn off a side street, in the direction of the airport, where scholarship-funded aeroplanes will take them to London, New York, New Jersey, Boston. Upon closer inspection of the diplomas, one would find the ink sometimes smudged, the wood often hollow, the stand occasionally bent like cheap cardboard. But that is not to say that the workers inside are not doing their job; no, perhaps they can only do their best with the raw materials they have on hand.

There is a pyramid. It is made out of stone, a dreary gunmetal grey. It is not a mere pile of rock, like leftovers from an avalanche, but carefully constructed. Yet neither creativity nor innovation was a part of its design; only pure, unadulterated practicality. It is squat, for a pyramid; each block is carried by the blocks below it, such that all have to carry the capstone, which carries nothing but the lofty ideas that brought it there. Ivy creeps up its sides, making it look like a moss-covered, unrolling brick. The pyramid's foundations run about fifty years deep, but truth be told, if you keep digging, you will find that it's stone all the way down. The building is a permanent fixture of the landscape. It stands perpendicular to the street, blocking what was before from what comes after, and there is no way past it but to go through it. Its entrance boasts a sleek, sliding door, but one can see that the electrical wires strung from the poles do not descend into that structure. The hiss and gurgle of steam engines can be heard, technology from a yester-age, slowly grinding onward.

There is a church. It is not a preening megachurch, proclaiming its faith unto the heavens; it is a small affair, quiet and thoughtful - it knows where it is and that is enough. Here and there are places were bricks have been smashed, somewhat purposefully, but the holes have been filled with Bibles, slotting neatly into the hollows, and its recent facade remains calm and undamaged. The stained glass windows tell a second-hand story that I fell in love with, but although the double doors out front are unlocked, they are closed, and there is a small ticket gantry. To purchase a ticket one must pay the price of belief, of which I am bankrupt. Though I could not enter the grounds, I sat in the shade and serenity of the steeple until I was was asked, politely but firmly, to leave the premises, for I had no ticket.

There is a theatre. It is tall, and while it looks clumsily knocked together, it still exudes a sense of grace and charm. Dazzling lights twinkle around the billboard, advertising for many different experiences, posters of exotic lands and exciting adventures. The interior is furnished soft and plush, and the double doors are swung open in a warm, inviting gesture. Dialogue is heard; the show is a comedy of errors, a playful romp dancing through life without taking it too seriously. Music pours out into the street, a lighthearted tune that skips and bounces across my soul, tugging at my heartstrings. But with my feet firmly on the ground, I know that the best seat in the house has already been taken, and I would be resigned to hovering around the fringes, which the cast know exist but the company doesn't play to.

This is the street, stretching into the distance, the five buildings islands of clarity in a sea of hazy memory.

This is where I came from.

There is a university. It is directly to my left; a sprawling campus of thousands of people. The architecture is Greco-Roman, the pedagogy similarly inspired. Snow lines the rooftops and clumps in white hedges along the sidewalks. While it seems close by, by some optical illusion it also appears distant, and detached from where I am standing.

There is another university. It is immediately on my right, not as sprawling but towering above me on walls of ivory. It is built of Lego pieces, sometimes from different boxes, but the blocks click together, linking each piece to every other piece. It looks new, freshly purchased and built, such that there are gaps where a whole new module can be slotted into place; but the building also has the plastic stubbornness that promises stand the test of time. It stands in the far distance, but by some trick of the light, it also appears closer to me than I could have ever imagined.

I look down. I am wearing a pair of battered orange sneakers and faded blue jeans. I empty my pockets. There is a small crucifix on a chain, with a crack running through the centre but still relatively intact. There is a crumpled ticket stub, a hole punched through the middle to signify that it cannot be used again. There is a thin book, whose cover is faded and pages are blank except for one word on the first page which says in large capital letters, "THINK". There is a small homemade pouch, which jangles with small change and a handwritten note which instructs me to always look both ways before crossing the street. There is a playing card; it is the joker.

This is where I am.

I turn around.

The street I am standing on continues into the distance, straight as an answer and narrow as prejudiced thinking. But there are thousands, millions, a myriad of other roads, branching off from this one, crossing it, intersecting it left, right, across, perpendicular, downwards into dark tunnels and upwards onto arched highways. Buildings line the roads, clustering together almost on top of one another in strict defiance of any kind of urban planning or laws of physics. At some point, the surface of the ground seems to curve up towards me, such that if I looked up, I would see buildings hanging from the roof of the sky, criss-crossed by a kaleidoscopic labyrinth of asphalt. It is an Escherian nightmare. Frost's directions are no use here, for the path less travelled is the path never walked on.

This is where I am going.

I take a step.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Insert Ice, Ice Baby Reference Here

Let me tell you something about the cold.

You know nothing about the cold. Nothing. You might think that the cold is your ally. You might think that you were born in it, that you were moulded by it. But you merely adopted the cold; by then it was already freezing.

I come from a tropical island, where latitudes are merely platitudes and the concept of axial tilt holds no sway. My country's relationship with the equator is like that of a fat man's bellybutton with his belt, and in a place like this "winter" is nothing more than a word: shipped in from Western shores to infuriate postcolonial poets; something to fill up the section of the dictionary between V and X where nobody looks anyway; uttered in the same way one might the word "unicorn"1. Numbers like these have never graced our air-conditioning remotes, let alone our thermometers.

So you can imagine how immensely frigid it is on this side of the world, where "seasons" means more than just a brand of bottled tea. Colder than a whiskey on the rocks; colder than a liquid nitrogen ice cream with chocolate sprinkles; colder than jolting awake from a nightmare. Colder than an ex-girlfriend's heart; colder than the realization that you live in a meaningless and uncaring world; colder than the heat death of the universe.

Sure, you can try in vain to ward yourself against it. "Layers", they say, as if it's some magical incantation that will keep the frost at bay. Cakes have layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers; but layers are no help at all when the wind tears at your fingertips or knifes through your jeans or gnaws at your bones or creeps in through the gap between your long-johns and your ankle-socks because of a serious error in judgement. A word on ankle-socks, by the way: fashion is naiveté. Better to be ugly and warm than a beautiful corpse.

And what do you think of when you hear the word "snow"? Soft, fluffy pillows, probably; cake frosting, feminist Disney movies with whimsical talking snowmen, and marshmallows. Nobody thinks of avalanches, or the sinking of the Titanic, or the reason for the thickness of killer whales, or why Germany failed to invade Russia during World War II.

As of this writing, it is almost dinnertime. I must now venture forth into the wilderness, like an Antarctic explorer in the 1800s, bundled up more than a premium insurance package, to seek warm food for sustenance.

I am just going outside. I may be some time.

1. i.e. In a voice filled with magic, wonder, and rainbows, demonstrating that the speaker is over-romanticising what ultimately is half a tonne of untamed muscle and sinew with a razor-sharp spear stuck to its head.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Friday, December 04, 2015

On Exercise

I wonder how many calories I lose running away from my feelings

Monday, November 23, 2015

Dear God

Thanks for cursing me with both atheism and an attraction to Christian girls.

Not helping your case much.