The boy & the swing

My favourite moment today was without any cameras or anything to record it, because my boy had dragged me out of the house without warning, down the road, across the road to the park, a route he knows by heart.

For some reason, he wanted to try the swing. I hesitated. He usually prefers the slide; when we put him on the swing he squirms and wants to come down within ten seconds.

“Not this one,” he said, pointing to the bucket swing. He wanted to try the big kids swing. “Mommy help.”

“Hold tight,” I told him, making sure his hands were wrapped around the iron chains.
A little push, and off he went! A smile broke over his face as the sensation of flight hit him. He started singing. I joined in. He laughed. I pushed him higher. He squealed with delight.

We paused the swing as he was leaning too much to one side. “Some more! Some more!” he said as I adjusted his position.

And he was off again, enjoying his first taste of what it must feel like to fly, towards the trees, to come so close to the sun and the sky. Singing and laughing, laughing and then laughing some more.

Afterwards the rain fell, hard and heavy. Watching the downpour from my window, I couldn’t help feeling a tinge of melancholy, thinking about the baby that once feared the swing, and the boy I saw today, soaring ever higher towards the sky.

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PSLE matters

Why PSLE matters

I was watching this Korean drama recently, and it moved me not just because of the story or the acting, but because of its insights on motherhood. There were many memorable lines about motherhood, and one of them was this:

“That’s why mothers are so obsessed about their kids’ grades. It’s like their report card (on how they are doing as a mom).”

We’re used to clear, substantive markers all our life that give us feedback on how we’re doing. Growing up, its grades, or winning medals in sports or prizes in competition. When we start work, it’s our pay grade, promotion, or the size of our business.

But when it comes to motherhood? What’s the feedback mechanism that tells you that you’re a good mom? There isn’t a pay scale, salary or bonus that rewards you for all the time and effort you put in. The rewards of motherhood are intangible. And I don’t fault mommies for feeling lost, because they’re so used to being assessed and marked and graded all their lives. All of a sudden, there’s nothing that tells them whether they’re doing a good job, or if they’re even doing the right thing. Rightly or wrongly, they revert to the safe and trusted: a number, a percentage, or a letter that tells them their kid’s doing fine. Our own burden gets passed on to our kids’ shoulders.

It gets even scarier when you get to the top. You’d think that as a result of all that cross-breeding between elite schools, all these elite parents would sit back and be a bit more assured about their kids’ future, right? Wrong. The more successful a parent, the more kiasu they seem to be about their kid’s school grades, like some sort of deep seated worry that they will lose the privileges that their academic success brought them if their child slips. They find new ways to buy themselves advantages. The competition at the top is frightening.

Not too long ago, I registered my kids at a well known kindergarten with a waiting list. I knew the parents of at least half the kids in the list before me–former classmates or schoolmates. (And the one ahead of me, a former schoolmate who jumped the queue quite deceitfully). It made me wonder: what am I sending my kids into? Am I who I am because of the system I came out from? Because of my parents? Because of my own innate ability?

I try to remind myself all the time of the things that really matter, the things that matter so much more than grades: resilience, respect, compassion. But there isn’t a report card for that.

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Parenting with confidence

Confidence is probably the hardest thing for a new mom. You second guess everything. Maybe I should have breastfed for another month. Then she wouldn’t have caught that cold. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone back to work so early. Then he wouldn’t have so many tantrums. Maybe I shouldn’t have co-slept. Then he wouldn’t need me to put him to sleep all the time.

It’s also called Mommy guilt. Mommy guilt drives us to do stupid things. Like buying an expensive toy that kiddo only plays with once because we hope that will somehow compensate for some personal inadequacy. It also makes us feel even less confident as parents.

While we worry, while we doubt ourselves, while we falter, our children are observing us too. They look to us for assurance all the time. They can sense our hesitation. They prey on that moment we waver.

It isn’t easy to parent with confidence. Especially when you’re trying something new for the first time, all the time. I was miserable the first six months because I’d never felt so lost in my life. My world wasn’t just upside down, it was like I had warged into a world where no one spoke the same language, all my previous skills in life were rendered completely useless, and I knew absolutely nothing. As someone who used to think she knew something about most things (haha), this was earth shattering.

The truth is, there is no perfection in motherhood. Don’t even bother looking for it. If you think you’ve seen it, it’s just a mirage. They’re just doing a very good job of hiding their insecurities. Or they’re using that image of the perfect mom to sell something (I kid you not).

To me, I think parenting with confidence is not about knowing everything. It’s about accepting that you -don’t- know everything. In fact, make that most things. Life is full of unpredictability, at this young age kids change every day, and there’s more things we don’t know than we do know. We just make the best choices based on our circumstances and limited knowledge. And wing it from there. Want me to tell you a secret? Everyone else is doing the same thing.

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In memory of Hiroshima

A Thousand Lights

taking my hand, you say
Basho lived here. we climb until
the pagoda fades
and distant islands twinkle
like dimples in the sea

The Pier

after oysters, we kiss
drawn like hungry squids
to a distant light

The Dome

nothing’s left, only tatters
a shell that suggests
yesterday’s mundane matters

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The solitary pupil

Everything in Singapore is so efficient. We map, track, and project everything. Demographics are changing, so we merge schools, put building plans on hold, perhaps even hire less teachers so we don’t affect the ideal student-teacher ratio.

I had a friend in Japan whose parents were school teachers in the remote but stunningly beautiful island of Shikoku. Every morning, his father would take a ferry from the Takamatsu pier to the school where he taught, a tiny island on the Seto Inland Sea. When he first started teaching there, the island had a population of 2,000 and the primary school had a few hundred students.

Twenty years later, my friend’s father became the school’s principal. But by then, there was only one student. Less than a few hundred people were left on the island.

But he continued commuting every morning, driving to the pier where he parked his car, boarding the ferry to the school on the tiny island where a ten year old boy was waiting for him.

“Why don’t they merge schools? Can’t he attend a school in Takamatsu?”

(I suppose you can put a Singaporean in Shikoku, but you can’t take the Singapore out of a Singaporean!)

He explained to me that the commute was more than an hour, that it would be too difficult for a small boy to travel back and forth, especially in bad weather. What happens after he moves to junior high? I asked him. What’s going to happen to the school?

“I don’t know. ” He shrugged and smiled. “I’ll just continue to teach at the school as there is someone to teach.”

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A Facebook-free Life


Last Friday, I deactivated Facebook. Seventy-two hours on, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for my emotional health. At the risk of sounding younger than I really am, let me share that this is probably the longest time I’ve gone without Facebook in a very long time. I joined Facebook in 2004 at college, using it intermittently to keep in touch with my friends in America, frequently as more friends came on board from 2008, and almost daily for the past two or three years. Even while in China, which I visited often for work, I was always on VPN, using Facebook to keep abreast of news of the outside world and remain “plugged in”.

I didn’t start this as some sort of social experiment. I wasn’t in a good place last week. Some unpleasant things happened, sending me into a spiral of sadness. At first, I went online, scrolled through my newsfeed, responded to the few posts I found interesting. I baked a loaf of bread, took some photos and posted them. But the comments and likes I got on my almond milk loaf gave me no comfort. Instead, they left me feeling more hollow. Meanwhile, no one seemed to have taken a genuine interest in what I said on other threads. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling what I was feeling, but the more time I spent on Facebook, the more unhappy it made me feel. So for the first time in my life, I deactivated my account.

Why do we seek out social networks online? They give us a sense of community, connecting us with like-minded people regardless of physical distance or proximity. Typing from behind a computer screen does things to people. They become more uninhibited, daring to voice out things they would never say out loud. They share things with strangers online that they would never say to those around them. But the affirmation that comes from online interactions is fleeting and skin-deep.

I was hurting inside, and connecting with a few random friends who didn’t truly know me or care about me only made me feel more isolated. What I really needed was real human interaction. Once I went offline, I was able to open my heart and mind to receive the words and comfort from people around me.

What did I do without my virtual community of seven hundred friends? I reached out to two close friends and told them I was feeling troubled. One of them called me back immediately, helping me think through what had happened. She continued to check up on me over the weekend. My husband held me in his arms as I wept that night over an inexplicable sadness, and the next day, brought me to a quiet corner of Pasir Ris beach. We rented kayaks and paddled as far as we could into the middle of the straits between Pulau Ubin and the main island. It wasn’t quite the middle of nowhere, but out in the sea with the waves rocking us gently, with no one in sight, I began to heal.

It wasn’t easy going cold turkey. In the first few hours after deactivating my account, my fingers kept flicking to my phone and pressing the Facebook icon (having to enter my password deterred me). I deleted the application, but kept battling an unconscious urge to press the spot on my phone where the icon had been. Until that moment, I hadn’t realised that I was such a compulsive Facebook checker! But gradually, the time in between those urges increased and expanded. Before I knew it, I had gone the entire weekend without Facebook, with my energies wholly focused on the people around me. I felt less empty, more fulfilled, and happier.

But Facebook missed me. Sunday evening, they sent me an e-mail telling me how many notifications I had (eighteen) and that a lot was going on in the world that I had missed. I laughed. And I didn’t press the log-in button.

I don’t know when I’ll be activating my account again. I can’t stay offline forever, mostly because I run or actively participate in several groups, including a support group I founded that has over a hundred members and—I would like to think—needs me around. But my time away has made me realise how much richer life can and should be, if you focus on giving and receiving love to the ones truly beside you.

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What We Don’t See

disability scooter

He motored into Starbucks on a blue plastic contraption that looked like an adult’s Go-Kart, parking next to our table. His hair was not yet grey, his skin a weathered brown, with a moustache that showed he still bothered to shave. Perhaps he had been handsome in his youth, tall with a large build, but age and disability had worn down his muscles. He shifted his weight, trying to swing his bandaged right leg to the other side. After much difficulty, he clambered off his motorised device.

Two plastic Singapore flags poked out from his basket which was otherwise empty. No, he didn’t want me to buy tissue from him. He just wanted to sit at our table. I removed my bags from the chair next to me and gestured for him to take the seat.

He didn’t sit down immediately. He reached for his walking stick, hung over the back of his scooter. Making a clumsy U-turn, he turned around, then hobbled to the counter behind me. Several minutes later, he returned with a steaming mug of green tea. I glanced at him, wondering if he needed any help. No, I thought to myself. The disabled don’t need your sympathy. He set the mug on the table and sunk into the chair, his bandaged right leg sticking out into the aisle. I noticed his right hand was bandaged as well.

I returned to the project on my screen, turning up the volume on my headphones. I was in the middle of an important scene and wanted to get the words out before the inspiration went away. After a few minutes of harried typing, I noticed the man glancing at my computer screen. Was he trying to read my story? That sort of thing annoyed me to no end. But he looked away, this time glancing at my friend sitting across the table. Our eyes met in a knowing look, and we each returned to our work in front of us.

Ten minutes later, I glanced to my side. The man was still in his seat, the mug of tea untouched. He held a red phone in his left hand now, a cheap plastic handset that could only make calls. There was a crack on his screen. He alternated between glancing at me, my friend and his phone. I was beginning to feel unnerved. Worse still, he smelled like he hadn’t taken a shower in a week, an awful salty sour stench that made my stomach churn. Why on earth would someone like him come to Starbucks for a cup of tea?

I got up from my seat and went for a toilet break, taking my time to return. But he was still there, the mug of tea untouched.

By now, my friend and I were truly confounded. She suggested we leave as it was near dinner-time and getting very crowded. I asked her to wait while I texted my husband. Ten minutes later, we began packing our belongings. I reached under the table and disconnected our power cables, returning my friend hers and bundling mine into my bag.

The man removed a dirty green pouch from his scooter. First he took out a large black rectangular object that looked like some sort of converter, next a power extension cord, then more cables. Was he going to take out a laptop next?

We watched, first with surprise as he began connecting the pieces together, then with a deepening sense of shame as he plugged one end of his bundle of cables into the socket under the table, the other to his scooter.

“Uncle,” I spoke to him, making sure to smile. “Aiyah, you should just have told us you needed to charge your scooter.”

He opened his mouth to reply. And then I realised why he hadn’t said anything the whole time. He had no teeth. I  couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

Would we have behaved differently if he wasn’t handicapped? If he wasn’t in bandages? If he didn’t smell wrong? Why didn’t we realise what he wanted earlier? Had I known, I would have bought him a cup of tea. Had we known. But we were sitting there the whole time, and we averted our eyes.

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