#2091 | a stream of consciousness aboard the cx635

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Hey guys,

So I want to tell you guys about that time I got upgraded at the gate for a flight, which was approximately two hours ago. I always find that I feel the immense need to write about my air journeys and possibly it’s because of the bubbly solitude of flights that creates more space in my head to fill with thoughts and random observations which sometimes includes the throwaway musing that actually i am the most talkative person in the world, except usually 90% of it sits in my cranium and doesn’t leak down to my mouth. And that was a thought that also occured to me today as I was sipping on my house red wine in premium economy which was chilled although red wine shouldn’t really be chilled, but which was very sweet anyway because it had been enhanced with the delicious knowledge that it was premium economy wine which i had done absolutely nothing to deserve but was being given anyway.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was walking to the gate in a sort of grumpy mood because our flight had been delayed and the grumpiness was equal parts because it had been delayed and because i was not surprised that it had. Indeed, I have taken more delayed than undelayed flights on Cathay, for a Cathay flight to be delayed has become sort of routine. In fact, the last time I was in hong kong, the flight home was cancelled and it was because they had misplaced their aircraft and it never arrived. So I had to stay in the airport hotel unable to sleep because I was anxious about being bumped to the morning flight which of course led to me oversleeping and almost missing my morning flight. Also, when I was 18, I had taken a Cathay flight which had been delayed five hours because there had been a security threat on board and they had to get the police to come escort him off and this was right after I had seen a documentary on 911 so it was very dramatic and I was sure that would have been the end of me. Which it wasnt, but all this is to say that my impression of Cathay Pacific has been less than stellar.

I thought about whether to include that whole spiel as it seems ungrateful to rag on an airline that had upgraded (spoiler!) me to premium economy but then I thought, it’s all true what I feel about cathay and anyway even people can do both great and annoying things, what more airplane carriers. So they’d not be mutually exclusive. Anyway as I appraoched the gate and scanned my boarding pass, the machine emitted an alarming bleep and the stewardess took my passport and struck out my pass and gave me another one. And I couldnt help noticing that the new boarding pass she gave me had been pre printed already and was lying on the gate counter so this all seemed very premeditated.

why are you giving me a new pass? I asked her, and she was all like, so your seat has been changed. And this made me even grumpier because it seemed to me evidence of an overbooked flight, but then she raised her very perfectly manicured eyebrow and pointed at my new boarding pass which now said premium economy and suddenly all my grumpy feelings evaporated from my being and floated up to who knows where.

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It seems prudent to contextualise my excitement: being randomly upgraded has always been one of my life dreams. People dream of buying cars and houses, but not I. I just want to be the subject of a random airline upgrade and also to watch Sierra Boggess and Ramin Karimloo do the live duet from The Point of No Return at least once in my lifetime. The second will never happen it seems, since Sierra has gone on to greater things, and who knows where Ramin is now, probably fronting Jesus Christ Superstar on some stage in Osaka. And the first has stubbornly refused to happen. Until now.

I have been upgraded once, just once before. This happened on ANA on the way back from Tokyo some years ago, where I’d been sent for work. My sister had come along with me on that trip, and the system hadn’t registered that we were passengers so it had given our seats away. The woman at the counter had looked very stressed about this and apologised so many times, she was the picture of Japanese Anxiety which if you’ve read Amelie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling you’ll know exactly what I mean. Her anxiety was creating anxiety in me so to calm her down I pretended to be ~super calm~ and I said: please dont worry about it at all to which she said I’m SO SORRY and I said dont worry please and we seemed to be caught in this endless loop of mutual reassurance until she went aha! and put us on Premium Economy. And I was so excited I wanted to pee myself. She seemed really pleased to have found a solution too. In fact the only person who didn’t seem pleased was my sister who didnt understand how significant this was for me, to have been upgraded, even if it weren’t a random upgrade but rather, a sort of very luxurious apology for a minor inconveneince. She just went, so it’s like the same, but with bigger seats? which made me wonder seriously how we could have been related at all.

But no, this was my first time being truly randomly upgraded and I felt the very precient click of things falling into place and my life dreams being held gently and allowed to take flight. I got to my seat and there was so much space in it I could actually cross my legs and read my book quite comfortably. And of course, there was this wonderful sunset throwing golden dusty light into the cabin and it all seemed very cinematic and beautiful.

Because I was so excitable I spent a lot of time poking around which greatly annoyed the lady next to me who had obviously paid actual money to be there. I guess my behavior was what you’d associate with someone who’s soul truly belongs in Economy. I made my chair go up and down and messed with the drink holder and asked for blankets and water and looked through all the movie selections even though I dont watch movies on flights. I was a little bit too obvious staring at my row mate’s tv screen because she spent an hour watching the advertisement for the Hong Kong Airport over and over again!!!! Instead of an actual movie! Like, lady, you just came from the airport. It was alright. Wait till you see Changi Airport.

Perhaps the most amazing thing even to myself was what transpired when mealtime rolled around. For reasons like nausea and stuff I dont really eat on airplanes, I find it an awful experience. Firstly, motion sickness. Secondly, the food’s always very whatever. Thirdly, if you say yes to a meal, it stays in front of you for hours and they dont take back the tray for what feels like forever and you cant really do anything else with the space being occupied in front of you, not even get up and go to the toilet or reach for your bags, and all you can do is regret saying yes to the meal. But when the stewardess asked me about my meal choice I actually said, without hesitation, that yes I’d like the lobster sauce pasta please, which amazed even me.

It’s funny that they called it lobster sauce pasta because obviously there was nothing in there that was even pretending to be lobster meat, it was just pasta with prawns covered in lobster flavored sauce. But it was delicious. I was doing a lot of thinking while eating, I was thinking things like i cant believe im eating on a plane! and this stuff is delicious! and is this really delicious or am i just thinking it is because I am happy about being upgraded? And I also asked for a glass of red wine and felt very fancy about the whole thing. I finished the pasta even though I wasnt hungry, it felt only right. And then the stewardess gave me some strawberry ice cream and I was like do you have the adult flavors? and she looked at me and she was like, this is the adult flavor. Anyway it was very good.

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Good.

It was so good that as I was eating my meal one of the thoughts that flashed in my head was I should write all these things down before I forget so once they took my tray away I got my laptop out and started tap tap tapping away. So in the present, the present of writing this post, I am actually still in the air, hovering somewhere above Indonesia or Malaysia. I’ve probably ruined dinner for myself but I feel no regret whatsoever. In fact, I think I may have another glass of red. This entire business of sitting in 32A when I belonged in 42C has greatly improved my outlook on the airline, even though (or perhaps especially because) it happened so randomly, with no expectations, no obligations, and probably occured due to a mistake on someone’s part when doling out seat allocations behind a computer screen. And yet it has revealed so much not just about the airline, but about me, to myself. More and more thoughts are bubbling in the forefront of my mind, about the lady next to me, the seat recline, the ingredients in that overwhelmingly orange lobster sauce. But the loudest one is this: how amenable I am, how easily I sway once shown the tiniest bit of kindness. I am perhaps not as firmly rooted in my opinions as I assumed I was before.

X
Jem

#2084 | To all the girls I’ve loved before

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This essay was written and published in Her World’s 2018 December issue. Many thanks to David and team for housing it – you can get the issue in stores now. x

Three years ago on Christmas Eve, I got down on one knee in a tiny Italian bistro, the name of which I no longer remember, only that it was dark, candle lit, and had tables squeezed too close to each other. I pulled out a long speech typed on my phone’s Notes app, started and stopped a few times, then abandoned the doomed speech entirely, and asked: “G, it’s been seven wonderful years, the next seven I believe will be equally wonderful, or more, anyway, what I am trying to say is – will you be my friend forever?”

There were tears, gasps, complimentary wine, and way too amused servers. One of them said: “Now I’ve seen everything.” I remember the music in the background: French. I remember thinking it was a strange choice for an Italian establishment. There was a ring, an eternity band in rose gold and silver. We were extravagant in our celebration of friendship that night, and lived like church mice for the subsequent few months. Our friends rolled their eyes at our melodramatic tendencies. And we leaned into each other and giggled right back.

The proposal was based off the popular but questionable myth that any friendship that makes it seven years will last a lifetime. Still, accurate or not, it was about that time that the truth of the underlying principle began to make itself apparent to me: good friendships are rare, they take work, and when done right, are a joy to behold. It is a principle that I live by now, a guiding principle that informs my interactions with people around me, that rules my time with intentionality. Friendship, when enacted meaningfully, can be the stuff of epic romances. Toss out what you know from garden-variety Hollywood infatuations; this is the real deal.

In an essay published earlier this year, Elena Ferrante, best known for her novels on female friendship, breaks down the etymology of the term. “The Italian word for “friendship”, amicizia,” she writes, “has the same root as the verb “to love”, amare, and a relationship between friends has the richness, the complexity, the contradictions, the inconsistencies of love.” Let us note specifically the equivalency she draws between the value of friendship and romances, and the power she attributes to both in a world that focuses frequently on only one. This ability to induce joy and confidence should not be taken lightly – in today’s climate, we need it desperately. The truth is, we all know that very good female friendships are rare and powerful, and it is in our best interests to constantly seek them out, for they will then govern our values, our behavior, our ethics. Our individual bodies and communities become the bearers of these friendships, and we grow and become stronger by them. It makes for not just a better world, but better lives.

This is especially important today in an era of girl squads and cliques that flip to feuds in a matter of seconds. These glamorized friendships do little justice to kinships forged over deep conversations, practiced empathy, and shared experiences: bonds that see you through a life of good times and bad. Clearly we can do much better – especially now when female solidarity is having a moment. In pop culture, literature, and film, there has been increasing demand for more stories of complex, nuanced friendships. I don’t doubt the correlation between this and the happenings in the world – art has always responded to the zeitgeist of the era. 2018 has been internationally recognized as a demanding but defining year for women. It is almost impossible to keep one eye on women in global politics and keep the other eye dry. And in navigating the cesspool of rage the modern world inevitably creates, we have seen women band together the world over, in fury, in tears, and in celebration. It is almost primal, what we are witnessing today, if only we pay attention.

In the light of current happenings, one would think that the value of strong female friendships would be immediately obvious to all. But this is not the case. Too often, significant female experiences are misread as exclusionary or taken as an affront to other forms of relationships. A claim to female solidarity is not a threat to a healthy romantic relationship, for example, though it is frequently read as such. Another thing I have heard said: “Platonic heterosexual friendships are amazing,” as if more than one thing cannot be amazing. Many things are and can be incredible: healthy romantic relationships, solid familial bonds, trusting platonic friendships between men and women, life-long bromances enacted between men and other men. They can be incredible simultaneously; we do ourselves a disservice to assume a limited capacity on this front. It is time for us to also unapologetically include thriving female friendships when taking stock of how far we have come. What female friendships uniquely offer us, individually and together, are a source of strength, derived from shared experience, a way to approach and navigate the world. Something this worthy and powerful has to be earned, and sustaining it takes work. It is not simply an empowering slogan printed on a T-shirt. And there are steps we can take to get there.

Here is how we begin. Recognize the women who have helped you. Help other women. Create communities that encourage and enable mentorship. Consciously, and with intentionality, be a good friend to other women. Articulate this in your language and behavior. Call out toxic behavior constructively. Do not fall into the trap of popularized language and tropes – the generality of the bitch, the slut, the crazy ex girlfriend. Allow other women to be people, and not simply characters. Don’t take your friends for granted. Work at your friendships, and work hard. Celebrate them. (You can even have a few proposals!) I have said this so many times already but I cannot say it enough. Friendship, when done right – it is amazing. Amazing.

x
Jem

#2083 | Clap your hands for tinkerbell

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My time in london has had the unintended effect of endearing candles to me — previously unable to understand why anyone would drop fifty dollars on a scented lump of wax, now I gaze longingly at the likes of the Jo Malone and Diptyque shop windows, painfully aware that I am shedding layers of my skin only for the most basic of chinese girls to emerge. Was this the metamorphosis marketed to me regarding adulthood? One would have hoped for more political astuteness, or clarity of mind, but I suppose there are worse things than a keen appreciation of a citrus scented home environment. You know, the word I think I’m searching for, is hmm.

x
Jem

#2075 | We can handle the Crazy Rich Asian wars. Bring it.

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Hey guys,

So I thought for a long time before writing this post, but here I am regardless.

I don’t know Henry (who plays the main character of Nick Young) personally but he’s appeared on Click before, and I know his wife, Liv, from yoga and etcetera. I absolutely adore Kheng Hua (she plays Rachel’s mother), who I’ve watched onscreen and also met on set for a shoot last year. I also work with Singapore Tourism Board regularly and I assume they are obviously thrilled at the front and center visual representation of Singapore (and to be sure, we do have pretty crazy ass things here). When I produced the Laneige film last year, my art director was from the art department of the Crazy Rich Asians set. Anyway all this is to say that I have very personal and compelling reasons to support the movie and it is all the more frustrating that I am hesitating to do so. And everyone is so, so excited about the CRA movie that I almost feel as though to say something against the movie would be a betrayal of my own community, many of whom are understandably excited to see things about their home that they recognise in a glitzy Hollywood movie.

I am hesitating for the same reasons everyone who is hesitating is. The movie is fun but not perfect. The gap of its imperfections are unavoidable (for nothing is perfect) but still important to acknowledge. When I was thinking about writing this post I asked myself: what can I honestly bring to the table, is it necessary for me to add my voice to an already noisy conversation, is there anything new I can say that would not be completely superfluous?

And the truth is, I actually think the movie was really well done in terms of entertainment. Narratively I wish there were some beats it hit properly, but still it’s fun, dramatic, and over the top in the super extra way chinese families can get. Constance Wu is one of my favorite actresses (fresh off the boat is basically the only show I ever watch on flights) and you cant even tell that it’s Golding’s first acting role. I have zero problems with Golding’s British-Malaysian mixed heritage, which has gained some flak online, because the truth is there are many mixed blood people in Singapore and so what if he’s half white? Being Singaporean is a nationality not a race, and you can be from wherever and still be authentically Singaporean if you were born and raised here. (He’s half-Malaysian but the point stands.) The movie doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not – it doesnt pretend to be a socio-economic documentary on Singaporean culture, and yes, it’s satirical, it’s supposed to be a fluffy rom com anyway.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the phenomenon of Crazy Rich Asians has created a giant international conversation that has reached far beyond its intended genre, and so hiding behind the “it’s all for fun anyway” dismissal doesn’t hold water. The discussion has to be had.

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The movie’s production was energised by an overwhelming desire for Asian-Americans to see themselves onscreen after a long history of being underrepresented and stereotyped, and a friend pointed out that the casting of an Asian-American director in itself should have set our expectations: the movie is for Asian Americans, not for us. And in that aspect, it is a huge win for that community. But you cannot include a side character (in this case, the whole country of Singapore) and then expect that side character to hold her tongue about how she has been portrayed. I found myself laughing and genuinely enjoying moments in the film but also feeling great discomfort at other points. The particularly problematic scene that aimed for humour by leveraging the bodies of two Sikh guards, for example, becomes especially ironic when you consider the fact that this is a film trying to fight for the representation of a marginalised culture, and it has come to a country that similarly struggles with ethnic tensions only to visually reinforce the class privilege of the Singaporean equivalent of white people. I also didn’t like how the movie’s story was basically an Asian American protagonist coming to Asia to tell us how our Asian cultures and values were wrong. Things like clanship and the idea of family before self are big things in Trad-asian culture, but they were exaggerated and villainized in the movie as a foil to the protagonist’s love story. Not saying that they are perfect practices and ideas, but for an AsAm director to use it as the main villain in his story is kind of like going to your friends house and saying their mother’s cooking is not nice, you know?

So yes, I like things about the film, but I also have issues with it. That is fine because we can hold more than one opinion at a time, we live in a nuanced world. But one cannot just criticize, one must provide solutions or direction, or the whole conversation goes nowhere. I ask myself: with all the totally valid wins and criticisms the movie is facing right now, what could the director feasibly have done differently?

Perhaps the sassy best friend character could have been played by a non-Chinese actor (Singapore has plenty of excellent ones, and in Southeast asia? More.), and given proper character development. Perhaps there could have been a bit more self awareness when it came to portraying the class politics onscreen. Perhaps, like, just don’t use dark Asians as a prop or joke.

With that said, I recognise the limitations of the movie – there is only so much it can do when based off an even trashier book that parades an ensemble cast of walking stereotypes and caricatures. And I also recognize that a film’s priority is in the storytelling / entertainment value, not in social commentary, especially since it’s a rom-com. If there is no way they could have responsibly navigated the politics of SEA representation, part of me does think it’s better that they don’t attempt it than that they do it in a damaging manner. Personally I think the best thing the movie’s team could have done would have been to apportion a significant part of their marketing budget to work with major news outlets to use the movie as an opening for a larger conversation on representation in all its nuances, not just AsAm w.r.t. Hollywood, instead of marketing the movie as a straight up representation win. These things can and have been done, and if the movie’s campaigning (separate from the actual film content) was to be so focused on the concept of representation then it absolutely should have been on the list to do this. The supporting media to any pop culture article is very important because it creates a subconscious guideline that the general public takes cues from in forming their own impressions of the movie, so there needs to be some handling of this responsibility in a, well, responsible manner.

Western media outlets would also have benefited greatly from a perfunctory dissection of what the Asian experience is internally to inform their movie coverage – one gets the sense when reading articles produced from the USA that there is a major problem trying to differentiate Asians in Asia from Asians in America. Look, someone who grew up in Southeast asia does not share the same experience as someone who grew up in East Asia. Someone who grew up as a child of immigrants in America does not share the same experience as someone who was born in Asia then moved to America for work or school. I have so many friends who are Asian Americans who struggle with issues that are real and complex. Those issues are significantly different from my Asian (by heritage) friends who were born and raised in parts of Europe. Both of these experiences are also different from the experience of an ethnically Chinese person vs an ethnically Malay person vs an ethnically Indian person vs our famously labelled ‘Other’ person who grew up in Singapore. Yes, there are commonalities in all these experiences – the tiger Mom stereotype, the expression of love through food, the idea of familial currency that consists pressure and expectation. But they also differ in many other ways. Lets have some responsible reporting is what I am saying. And it wouldnt have been a far stretch to expect Crazy Rich Asians to use some of their marketing budget to enable this.

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Hi tiger mom

Also, Western Media, stop calling CRA the asian black panther! The comparison to Black Panther is problematic. Black Panther was based in the fictional state of Wakanda, and the implications of representation become more meaningful and impactful when you map the Wakandian experience onto black culture, much like re-writing a narrative symbolically. Whereas Crazy Rich Asians is based on the culture of an actual, real place, which has been flattened into a singular idea of the rich, chinese, asian. And then this idea, which represents only a fraction of Singapore (a multiracial/cultural country that, while having equality built into its national ethos and pledge, still struggles with limited inclusivity), is taken and flattened further into a backdrop for an Asian American girl’s Cinderella story.. I wont go so far as to say that it is a win for Asian Americans at the expense of actual Singaporeans. But likening it to Black Panther is a bit much.

Where does this leave us? I dont expect Crazy Rich Asians to answer all the questions for us. I dont think the burden should be on the movie to represent one million different types of Asians, and it is not the job of the director or the author (who I understand is from a crazy rich family himself and therefore writes from his own experience, okay, fine) to represent everything about singapore. It is a romcom, not a politically charged film. Yes, it is a huge accomplishment. But it is also a conditional accomplishment, for some people by ignoring other people. This has led to a lot of fired up arguments and online wars between people who think we should just let AsAms have their moment and stop being butthurt about a watershed moment in Hollywood history, and people who think CRA is the worst thing to have happened to Singapore. Let the wars happen, I say. The fact that the conversation is happening is important and good. We are ready for the war. We can take it. Bring it.

Representation is starting to feel like an end-all term rather than an element that can vary in comprehensiveness. There is space to celebrate the win for asian american onscreen representation, hollywood’s slow movement towards diversity, and still acknowledge that there are ways to go in creating nuanced representations of cultures residing outside the Americas, especially if you are leveraging that specific culture to give your piece a unique spin. There needs to be more acknowledgement that diversity is not the same thing as representation. There are ways to do this that can be uplifting as well, ways to commend the movie for what it has done while using the opportunity to shed light on the cultural nuance of the country that didn’t make it into the film. There needs to be more stories – Crazy Rich Asians cannot be the only story about Singapore, about Asians, about Asian Americans – and we need to enable storytellers, be they filmmakers or writers, to come forward and tell these stories so that one day we will have a tapestry of multicolored and textured stories from Singapore, et al, and not just this one story that is expected to do everything. We need to encourage, fund, and make possible the production of these stories, while not dismissing the progress each step has made. Because, yes: Crazy Rich Asians is the first step. But we have a hell of a way to go.

x
Jem

#2073 | Betrayal!

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My life the past month has been characterised by the identity of the wait-ee, I have, essentially, been living in a bubble of anticipatory exhaustion, waiting for life to sort itself out. Things beyond my control have crash-landed into my life this month, certainly life has been fluctuating on the emotional scale lately via said events beyond the horizon of my control, there have been a lot of such extreme emotions, joy, grief, mourning, elation, excitement, exhaustion.. and then this morning I woke up unable to breathe. Nothing romantic about it, it’s not like i woke up breathless from a scary dream or struck by epiphany. I literally woke up with a blocked nose. Finally my body has betrayed me. The final frontier: the physical. I am sick. Time to pop a panadol and go back to bed, with a bit of sour relief and also, disbelief, because the solidity of a body suggests reliability, and the one thing i can grasp and hold on to has turned around and given up on me as well..

As you can tell, the drama queen in me comes out in full force when sick: feather, furs, heels, and all.

x
Jem