#2154 | Some things dont change

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Behind the scenes of a shoot last month, multitastking as a coffee runner

I am always surprised by how time passes. I told myself I would learn to make banana cake last year but it’s been a year and I still dont know how to make it and anyway I told myself banana cake is full of sugar so it’s better that I dont know how, walking away in the face of temptation and all that. But it did not seem like it had been a year since I had committed to learning to make banana cake. That was the part that shocked me. I thought to myself, alright now, no one can measure their lives by their baking prowess. But then all I could think about that week was how my access to banana cake was limited to my purchasing ability and not my ability to create that which I desired. The thing I said before which I had had moderate success with, the being a morning person thing, is still ongoing. It facilitates my friendships more than ever, I now see my girlfriend every weekday instead of just meeting her for post-work drinks once a week. I pick her up on the way to the CBD and we go to the gym together then shower, get coffee, and go to work. We comment often on how this seems like a good sign that we are surviving at this adulting thing. At twenty five your conversations are always preceded by but we’re only twenty five or But we’re already twenty five rather equally. I guess what that says is that we are still figuring it out. Last week we joked about how our daily morning routine felt like a married-couple routine. When we separated post-coffee for our respective offices I shouted bye honey and she said bye honey and it felt like we were play acting a script that had been rehearsed many times before. When we were seventeen we used to joke that we were married with the intimate complicity that girl-friendships have. On the saturday that just passed I picked her up again at 6am and we were on our way to do a reef clean up dive, she turned to me at some point and said, I packed you breakfast! I was so touched. I looked at the tupperware and it was homemade banana cake. And it was cold and delicious and tasted like a year of anticipation. The moral of the story seems to be that it matters not how you get there, but that what is meant to be will be in the end. So it goes.

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Jem

#2150 | lilacs out of the dead land

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Seoul, Korea.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am – it’s april already, the cruelest month, etcetera, and time seems to have taken on a fluid and unorderly state. I go into the office in the mornings on Monday and when I come out it is Thursday and I am surprised. There are so many things that have to be done. I received a regular number of rejections in the past month and felt comforted: I thought of how roxane gay says that she has become accustomed to rejection, and anyway, rejection is good for the soul. I tried to have more work life balance this year but the trying is trying. One thing I have done with success is transition into becoming a morning person. Now my waking hours vary in odd numbers: 5:35, 5:55, 6:07, sometimes, a luxury, 8:01. I failed once, I rose in shock at 10:00 and blamed it on jetlag. No one cared but my cat. As a morning person I am now the earliest riser at home and thus the human who feeds her. The day I woke at 10, she looked at me with disgust. I tell myself that she doesnt have to understand. I have become very dependent on the Cloud.

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Jem

#2148 | meditations on an job-shadowing afternoon

Hey guys,

So a thing I have been thinking about lately is the inseparability of one’s job and identity. I suppose I am thinking about it now, as opposed to sooner, because I delayed my graduation from academia by two years thanks to taking on an MA degree. But be that as it may, the two years have come and gone, and now I am forced to wrestle with what, exactly, I am.

For so long my identity has been personally grounded in the fact that I was a student, and it was something I loved being (I’m straight up, a nerd) and something I derived great meaning and joy from. But come August I will have convocated, and officially phased out of academia, and I guess these things induce a certain hum of low level panic because now I don’t know what to classify myself as beyond the snappy “just a millennial” reply. Ha.

All this is to say that the idea of career vs personal ambitions have been weighing on my mind quite a lot. There are so many schools of thought here – the idea that you should do something you love, the opposite idea that a job can be just a bill-paying-functionary, the intermediary idea that you are not defined by your methods of production. The most popular, obviously, is the idea that your job should fulfil you, and that you should feel meaningfully challenged by it every day. But most people don’t get to do a job they love off the bat because that’s not the way life works. Most people take a job and then the job takes them, ala Fitzgerald. So purely based off the statistics of jobs available vs jobs needed, this didnt seem like a particularly smart way to approach the job-searching-conundrum since it’d produce a disproportionate amount of unhappily employed people who feel like they could have been doing something else, like being an astronaut or something.

It was in March this year that several things happened at once: I held a giveaway on instagram calling for responses re: what made each individual feel proud of themselves that day, analysed the trends and produced a map of accomplishments, and separately, spent a morning job-shadowing a gallery host at the National Gallery who was nominated for the Singapore Tourism Awards last year. The map of accomplishments basically isolated the elements and driving mechanisms for producing these positive feelings which then could be consciously replicated to self-motivate each individual, and I had a lot of younger people (late teens to mid twenties) email me to say that the map helped them a lot in clarifying their sense of direction within the institution they were currently situated in (eg. job, school). And at the same time, spending the day with the gallery host, a Ms Caroline Seah, I couldnt help but notice the same things I picked up in the giveaway responses being echoed both in the way Caroline approached the job, and in the way the job approached her.

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Gallery Hosts being briefed in the morning

Caroline does a job I could never do – mediate the consumer experience for one of Singapore’s most iconic tourist attractions. As a gallery host, her official jobscope is to give visitors a great experience that they have never gotten elsewhere before, basically generating the moments of delight that leads to repeat visitors and, I assume, word of mouth referrals. It’s a pretty broad jobscope, with a pretty broad range of people to meet and help day by day – she’s posted at the National Gallery’s Social Table, which is sandwiched in between the gallery halls and the Violet Oon restaurant, so as you can imagine, the flow of people passing through is pretty intense. I say I could never do this because I am helpless in the face of children (which the gallery is full of) and illogic (which I’m sure she encounters in the form of unreasonable customers). Customer service is tough, and customer service for a national icon is, I imagine, way tougher. Caroline is, by her own admission, not an art-fanatic, nor was she particularly a peoples person before starting as a gallery host. But she clearly loved her job, like, loved in italics and all, and I couldnt help but ask: why?

I love my colleagues, she said, which made sense, but then she went on: and the gallery helped me discover my talent for connecting with people. She thought about this for a moment, then she said: I never knew I was good with people until I worked here.

Her use of the word talent was specifically interesting to me – I dont know how old she was, but she was definitely parent-age-ish. That meant the discovery of her talent came relatively late in her career, and was evidently central to her enjoyment of her job. This echoed something I read recently about job satisfaction, so I prodded more and it turned out she especially treasured the anecdotal experiences where she demonstrated her talent for human relations – returning gallery visitors who evidently enjoy her company, registering the delight on the face of a child who she cheered up with art and muffins (it’s a whole story), and mediating tensions between visitors who clash over the social table, which happens more than you’d think. Manufacturing those moments of delight brought her personal satisfaction, which was then channeled into pride in her work, it seemed to be an everlasting loop. The result? A great employee – but more importantly, a satisfied and fulfilled one. A rarity these days, in a time where people seem increasingly dissatisfied or restless at work.

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The Social Table at the National Gallery

But perhaps she was just a good natured person? I know people who seem happy no matter where life places them, more power to them. Later in the afternoon, however, I headed to Bynd Artisan and saw the same sentiment echoed in Ms Grace Chai, a totally sweet atelier manger who you couldn’t help but love – the overwhelming adoration she had for Bynd and her work shimmered whenever she spoke, which was incredibly endearing. I asked her what made her a good employee, and unfazed by the directness of my question, she shrugged and smiled: I like people, people like me. And it was true – later, as I lingered in Bynd perusing their leather goods, I watched her tend to walk-in customers, and she shone in each interaction. Here was someone, I thought, who knew what she was good at, and enjoyed doing it. And this made total sense – that being allowed to constantly demonstrate one’s talent and refine it while being assured that one’s talent brought value to their place of employment would bring them a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction in their jobs.

If happiness/ fulfillment in one’s employment were the end goal, then perhaps, I thought, instead of landing a job you thought you’d love off the bat, there was a way to grow into the jobs you had with excellence. But this had to be as much the legwork of the employer as it was the employee. I spoke to a communications representative from the National Gallery after that to better understand the way their employee trajectories were planned. Their baseline is ensuring an informational and accurate experience – so everytime a new art collection or exhibition is brought in, all employees undergo training for that collection. But beyond that, the gallery doesn’t clamp down on KPIs and allows the employees to explore their own best way of introducing and managing their section. Both the National Gallery and Bynd Artisan shared this approach, as far as I could tell, of identifying their employees’s existing talents and letting them run with it generally, as long as they fulfilled the objectives of their jobscope: giving visitors a great experience.

And this worked perfectly for them – both Caroline and Grace seemed the most interested in self driven and initiated ways of mediating the customer experience, found a method that worked for them, and proceeded to rinse and repeat it until they were excellent at what they did. Their employers gave them the freedom to do that and it produced a job satisfaction that trickled down to satisfied customers. Perhaps this is a lesson in being a good employer as much as it being a stellar employee, but everyone wins here – both Caroline and Grace must have impressed the people they’d crossed paths with so much that they were both nominated by the public and eventually became Customer Service finalists for last year’s Singapore Tourism Awards. Yet another moment of delight, this time validation from the people and the state.

It seems to stand, then, that the route to happiness – at least in one facet of adulthood – is finding the sweet spot between an understanding and nurturing employer, and figuring out a way of developing your personal talents within your jobscope. This seems generally reflective of life – you put in the practice and work that you can, and the rest is exposed to circumstance. Does this answer my postgraduate mild identity crisis? Not entirely. But it does bring realization that nothing will ever definitively be a solution – I can only do everything I can, and leave the rest to fire, flood, act of God.

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With Caroline from the National Gallery and Grace from Bynd Artisan

Nominations for the Singapore Tourism Awards 2018 are now open – nominate the Graces and Carolines in your lives now on singaporetourismawards.com and share your personal experiences with them to hopefully bring them a moment of delight in the coming year.

This post was brought to you in collaboration with the Singapore Tourism Board

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jem

#2141 | March’s To-Listen: 36 Questions – A musical revival of the podcast?

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Hey guys,

So I’m perpetually obsessed with finding new and more efficient ways to manage my time, and a big part of that is carving out time to consume content that i enjoy or that I feel enriches me creatively (see: Five ways to read more daily). And the most recent way this has manifested in my life? Podcasts.

Most podcasts are informational (I like the Freakonomics one) or funny (Weird Work), and I enjoy listening to them so much even if the subject matters have absolutely nothing to do with my life. It’s become so natural for me to tune in to a new podcast episode while getting ready in the morning or to plug in while on public transport. But very few of them have a narrative thread, and that’s something I greatly miss from radio stations in the UK – whole stations dedicated to people just reading stories to you in a comforting, grandfatherly voice.

So naturally, 36 Questions had me at three part musical podcast. It popped up in my recommended podcasts list, and I was like, are you SURE THIS IS FREE. Because how can such amazing content be free?! But the internet never ceases to amaze me.

We’ve become so conditioned to assume that content associated with high culture (art, music, etcetera) comes at a high cost – havent we all complained about Hamilton tickets being prohibitively expensive? – that i think when something similar is offered for free, it just blows our collective minds. When I was backpacking across europe I loved scouring forums for ways to get cheap tickets for musicals and plays, and it was also then that i really started being able to watch and enjoy theatre. That opportunity to really get into theatre would never have been afforded to me in Singapore because shows that travel here are mad expensive, and it’s just not within the price bracket for most people’s (semi?)regular weekend fare. I dont think there’s one easy solution for this because of the differences in cultural priorities for Singapore vs the States/Europe, but I do think that it’s a pity because it is a whole universe of joy and color and texture and magic and it comes at a cost that many people cannot afford.

That is a big part of the reason why here, especially, in the tiny island of Singapore, I appreciate what 36 questions aims to do.

The three part podcast is kind of like listening to a radio drama that occasionally breaks into song – it stars Jonathan Groff (Frozen, Glee, and Hamilton) and Jessie Shelton (theatre trained, but generally a media newcomer), and was written and directed by indie studio Two-Up. The story thread is relatively straightforward, with an interesting premise – a couple falls in love while doing the 36 questions (a psychologist-developed questionnaire that was popularised by the New York Times) and two years later, tries to fix their broken marriage by doing the 36 questions together again. There’s drama in the middle, a lot of rain, a lot of cheesiness, and also, a duck (throwback to season 4 of FRIENDS, anyone?). They often break into solos or have their dialogue phase into vocal harmony, which fires up a little frisson of delight in me whenever it happens.

There are two filmmakers who sit on the production team of 36 questions, and this works very much to the benefit of the podcast because it requires an intimate understanding of cinematic space, and subsequently how that has to be converted to an audio form without losing the lustre that comes with visual spectacle. As a result, listening to the podcast creates the sense that you’re sitting in on an intimate conversation between two people, privy to the tears, the heartbreak, the sighs, the drama, all up close. It’s a whole world carried around and transmitted to you through your headphones. And it’s extremely charming, which makes up for the dips in narrative, which does happen here and there. At some points the plot / acting becomes so cheesy I want to reach through the headphones and smack one or both of the characters, but this feeling is few and far between, and easily forgivable and glossed over by the charisma of the actors.

Overall a solid recommendation. I initially started on the series thinking it would be a great entry point to the world of musicals, but very quickly realised that it holds its own well as an entirely new musical form. You can download/stream/listen to 36 Questions here.

Looking for more entertainment recommendations? You can read the rest of my monthly pop culture recommendations here

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Jem

#2133 | The pursuit of mediocrity: a memoir of sorts

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Helsinki, Finland

I was in Helsinki last week and happy to be there – it was my first time experiencing a legitimate, full blown winter, complete with snowflakes and blizzards. Every other time I’d tried to catch a good winter I’d been met with shrugs and sunshine, and it had gotten to the point where I’d settle, I’d settle so hard, for even the slightest hint of a flurry. So when a press trip to Helsinki came on the table I’d jumped at the opportunity. Thrilled. And it felt, for a moment, like everything had come together for one perfect winter week, just for me. The snowfall had started a day before we touched down, and it lasted only the week we were there, turning very quickly to rain and slush the night we left. But more on that another time. Touchdown Helsinki and the ground had been covered with christmas log-cake icing as the plane taxied in. I was trying very hard to keep my cool because I was with so many people I didn’t know but that lasted about five minutes: the next day I was jumping into snow piles and giggling every time snowflakes started to flutter down from the sky, and I thought to myself many romantic things about serendipity and how some things were worth waiting for.

I was very happy, also, to be alone on this trip. I mean I was with people and they were all very nice but it was my first time meeting most of them and didn’t know them well. And so emotionally I was essentially alone. The past couple of years had been so noisy for me that this isolation was very welcome, and I spent a lot of time walking around the city by myself after the day’s activities had ended, or waking early to stand outdoors and wait for first light and snow. I read a lot. I took long baths. I spent time at night writing and watching the tele, and sent photos of the day’s happenings to my boyfriend at home, who replied with the soccer scores of the moment. Time flew by, and days exceeded my expectations, and I adored the city more and more each day.

On my last day I woke up to a blizzard outside my hotel window and thought to myself it would be nice to have hot soup. Hot asian soup, specifically. We’d been staying in Hotel Haven, Helsinki, which was planted right opposite the harbour and traditional food hall, and someone had pointed out a pho store there when we’d done our tour of the place several days before. As the trip progressed, the others on the press trip referenced the pho place more and more frequently, and with increasing levels of wistfulness. I was amongst my kind! Asian soup lovers. Nice. But as a result, I couldnt stop thinking of the pho. I made stupid pho puns in my head and salivated. I loved the snow but I couldnt stop dreaming about how the snow experience might be enhanced by contrasting the crisp chill air against a hot bowl of pho.

Anyway, all this is to say that to nobody’s surprise, I went to get some pho.

What a great end to my trip, I thought to myself, as I braved the blizzard. It was snowing so heavily and wetly that I couldn’t tell if it was snow or snow mixed with rain anymore. My hair was drenched and sticking to my face and I visualised myself sitting at the counter of the pho store eating the pho and knowing that life was made of small perfect moments. I swear, I almost ran to the store. There were already two other people there (asians!) and I wanted to say hello but they didn’t look very friendly and anyway see above re: happy being alone. Instead I asked the counter girl for pho. She chattered back at me about options and flavors and side dishes and all I could think of was OH MY GOODNESS SHE IS VIETNAMESE. I was SO ready for my bowl of pho, which had by now grown in my head to become the best pho I had ever eaten, keeping in mind the authenticity of its origins and the juxtaposition against the snowy weather.

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Everything else in the market hall was closed!

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Shopfront, complete with the two unfriendly asians

I ordered a bowl of pho with a chicken / beef mix. It was 9,90Euros. She nodded, took my money, and gave me some siracha. I do not eat siracha but got very excited about this because siracha is AUTHENTIC ASIAN. I pulled a chair and sat down. I resisted talking to the other asians about how amazing globalization was. I was nearly bouncing in my seat, I swear. The counter girl was making salmon summer rolls while waiting for my pho to be done, and there was a little sign advertising vietnamese coffee for 3,90Euros hanging by my head. Everything signalled to me that this store hidden in the corner of the Finnish market hall was an enclave of Vietnamese culture. I was SO ready.

The pho came, in a clear bowl and with less garnish than I’d expected. I have not been to Vietnam so I thought perhaps this is how pho is meant to be, and we’ve been smothering it with unnecessary flavors our entire lives. Bite one and I felt the soup steam up the insides of my chest, I wanted to cry, I was so moved, etcetera etcetera. Bite two felt the same. Bite three and I realised that what I had tasted thus far were the expectations that I had seasoned the bowl with, and which were quickly melting away to uncover the mindblowingly mediocre bowl of pho that sat before me.

It became apparent at this point that the unfriendly asians were bitching about the pho next to me. They were, in fact, on the verge of an argument: a girl had yelp on her phone out, and she said, there’s another pho shop nearby, told you we should have gone there. The guy looked at her phone and said: that’s this shop, stupid. She said, dont talk to me like that. They left without saying bye to the counter girl, who was still rolling her summer rolls and humming to herself.

So that was that. Now it was just me and the bowl of pho. At this time it was 9:45am and my lobby call for the day’s itinerary was 10. I took another bite. It wasn’t bad. Bad food I could abandon without guilt. It was just mediocre. The rice noodles flopped around in my bowl, I pushed them around with my chopsticks and watched the strands stick and unstick against each other. Because it wasn’t point blank terrible I could not justify not finishing it. My asian values, which had motivated my morning pho run, were now turning against me. I heard my mother’s voice: finish your food, dont you care about the starving children elsewhere, how did i raise you, etcetera etcetera. I took another bite.

The bite brought me no joy. I thought of Marie Kondo and how she said in her famous Decluttering Your Room video that all things in your life must bring you joy. The idea of hot pho brought me joy, to be sure, but then again I also was reminded of people I knew who were in love with the idea of being in love. Stop eating the pho, I told myself. But as I raised my head from the bowl, my eyes met those of the counter girl, who smiled mindlessly at me, and I felt arrested by guilt, and took another bite.

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🙁

At some point I found my mind wandering towards to Euro, and it occured to me that I had just paid sixteen singapore dollars for this bowl of pho. A set meal at Nam Nam, a vietnamese chain in Singapore, was 8.90SGD and came with a free coffee and two summer rolls. Plus the pho there was yummier thanks to MSG, which meant you’d be happier eating it, but all your hair would fall out sooner. Comme si comme ca. I felt offended and ashamed at my financial missteps and thought perhaps it was a good thing after all that I did not buy into the bitcoin, because obviously I would lose everything I owned, as I could not even invest sixteen singapore dollars properly. The hotel breakfast had been free, but I had ignored it in favor of the promise of good pho. I had better eat it then, I thought angrily, now that I’ve gone and paid sixteen dollars for the bowl. It didn’t even come with free water, I thought, and rage-ate another bite.

We were now more than halfway into the bowl of pho that I did not like. My best friend studied economics at some point, or something like that, because he worked in a financial consultancy firm in London for some time and therefore was always couching his advice to me in financial terms. One of his favorite things to say, which he also applied to guys chasing girls who they knew weren’t that keen on them, was the idea of a sunk cost fallacy, and if he were there in the pho shop with me he would have shouted: GIVE UP, IT’S A SUNK COST. WALK AWAY. But my best friend and I are not the same people despite all our similarities. I took another bite in spite of myself.

The counter girl’s back was turned, and I could make my escape, leaving a half eaten bowl behind. But I did not. I wonder about that sometimes, about not having taken my chance. Part of me was terrified that she might turn back and see my unfinished bowl, and ask me about it out of courtesy, or worse, just, yknw, not. And part of me still felt taken hostage by the money I had paid, the special effort I had made to wake up early, the blizzard I had happily braved. I told myself that this was not that bad, and that there were many worse situations than having undeniably hot soup on a cold winter’s day. I was in a gorgeous country with weather that had thus far only featured in my dreams! It was a great situation to be in. Complaining about anything just felt stupid and childish and petulant. But I couldnt help thinking: I might have experienced the same level of contentment had I just boiled some hot water in my room. And it would have been free.

I didn’t finish the bowl: I left precisely one mouthful uneaten. I dont quite know why. Perhaps it’s so I can tell myself that I didnt finish the bowl of pho. But that’s stupid. My reasons for doing that remain obscure even to me. I nodded a thanks to the counter girl, who asked if I wanted to also purchase a salmon summer roll. For a moment I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to say no. But I looked at the glass bowl, then shook my head and walked out of the food hall and back into the cold.

Back in the hotel lobby and with the other people from the press trip, it came to light that three or four of us had visited the pho shop at various timings that morning. One of them was a celebrity chef of sorts. I asked him what he thought of the pho and he told me that beggars couldnt be choosers. I nodded along, but inside I was thinking: what a stupid girl I am, to make such a big fuss over a bowl of pho, when actual adults who’ve lived a life know how to gauge their happiness against the desperation of circumstance. What a way I have to go.

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Jem