#2102 | what do you make of that

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I’m not an insecure person but with Athena, I always wonder. My boyfriend’s brother keeps sending me articles that supposedly prove the evil nature of cats. Apparently they mew to imitate baby noises. Apparently they know it tugs on human heartstrings. Apparently they dont make that sound at any other animal. What do you what do you what do you make of that. Well the honest truth is I don’t like babies, I find them scary, but when Athena mews I come bounding. Her affection feels like currency on a volatile stock market. I’m always trying to hug her and she’s always giving me the side eye. But one day she came and sat on my lap when working and I nearly peed myself in wonder. She loves me! I hissed. Shane took his phone out to capture the moment but she had already walked away. We joke that she hates everyone. That actually she doesn’t, that this is just her face. That actually isn’t she the same breed as grumpy cat. That actually isn’t she the cutest thing you’ve ever seen, so cute that when she looks at you you just want to curl up and die, that when she gives up walking halfway because she is too lazy and flops sideways on the floor it’s the most adorable thing in the world, that when she gets scared by her own reflection in the mirror it’s the funniest thing, so funny you can’t stop laughing, for hours and hours and hours. What do you make of that. Is she a smart cat or a stupid one we can’t even tell. Athena keeps eating plastic and I don’t know what to do about it.

x
Jem

#2099 | a desire for amateurism

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bali, indonesia

Roz and I were on set for a new travel show in Bali last week and I found myself thinking of languages and how lacking I am when it comes to fluency. I want very badly to be good at languages, it was a dream of mine when younger to be multilingual. But no – years and years of Chinese tuition, months of intensive German class, a failed fart of a Korean stint, and a disappointing semester of French lessons have unequivocally showed me that different people have different strengths, and language is not mine*. My brain just isn’t wired that way, and as I age I am starting to realise there are some things you just can’t force, and that your body can continually surprise and disappoint you by turns and these turns are just another contour of a nuanced life.

My own envy becomes particularly apparent to me when I spend time around people who are naturally gifted at languages like Roz is. As I lie on her couch I watch her switch effortlessly between Indonesian and English, then Japanese as we dine with her husband, Mandarin as she orders for us, and then Indonesian again when we are threading our way through the streets of Bali, getting us the local, not the tourist price. She will deny it if asked but she has a talent for it. And as I watch her in not-so-quiet admiration I feel both a sense of pride (misplaced, I’m sure, as I have nothing to do with her abilities) and jealousy, I want to be able to be a verbal tourist to cultures in the way language allows you to, I want to linguistically access the heritage of my people in order to understand the decision to expunge it (like yiyun li) or embrace it. Someone I follow on instagram posted an excerpt from Kato Lomb’s Polygot: How I learn Languages recently and it really resonated with me, in particular this line: if someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find the the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. It is true: I have no aspirations for a career in literary translation. I simply would like to converse.

I told myself I would give myself one last shot. It was a university dream of mine to try and learn Malay but I failed four semesters in a row to get a slot in the introductory class. It is supremely embarrassing that as someone living in a multiracial country I cannot speak our national language (which is Malay, not English, contrary to popular belief), all I can do is count to ten and not very consistently at that. Already I am incomprehensible in my own mother tongue, to the disappointment of my very chinese grandmother. Don’t even get me started on dialects. But I have never been someone embarrassed by failure, having developed an unusually thick skin over the years. I guess what I am saying is that I am on my way to becoming a very amateur Malay speaker. I am amassing a repertoire of broken languages. I have a list of things I have failed and am failing at, and that is okay with me.

x
Jem

*hot tip: hacking university life is all about taking classes that would cost a fortune otherwise, I can’t believe it’s free in Singaporean universities to just take whatever classes you’d like. In this way I have diversified for basically no money, which is just as well, since it has only revealed to me the variety of things that I am bad at.

#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.

!!!

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