Friday, April 24, 2015

Teenage Wasteland

The other half is overseas for a week. I thought I would have at least one lazy evening spent in front of the television with the dog, renting animated kiddie movies with his credit card (the husband's, not the dog). But my parents essentially kidnapped me (and dog) after work on the same day, so here I am ensconced in the bosom of the family home. The dog is very pleased.

I'm not ungrateful. It's nice to have my mom make me breakfast in the morning, and my dad buying home dinner, and my brother around to walk the dog and chat about technology and travel and show me funny videos. We have tea-time at four p.m. (pot of tea, sugar cubes, little teaspoons) aided by my mother's snack pantry - a little side table topped with a blue Japanese tea-cloth, laden with cookies and pineapple cakes and nuts and seaweed. The flat is wonderfully clean and tidy and comfortable: it smells like clean sheets and eucalyptus-scented candles.

It makes me realise that I am somehow still not fully grown up, and most likely will never be, according to my parents' standards. My own home is best described as "semi-controlled chaos", and my own snack pantry consists of one half-eaten, expired pack of Tim Tams. It doesn't help that in the rush to pack (my dad was waiting in the car) I forgot to bring most of the accoutrements of adulthood: contact lenses, perfume, moisturiser, lipstick, grown up clothes, designer sunglasses. Squinting myopically through glasses, I look like I did at 17, minus the soft bloom of youth.

At 17 I slumped around the house on weekends, assiduously avoiding chores, bewailing the fact that I was bored and had no plans for Saturday night. Today I slump around the house offering to help with the chores, but my mother - very out of character for her - keeps telling me to have a little holiday and relax. The downside, of course, is that my social calendar has also been replaced by theirs: "You should come to your baby cousin's birthday party tomorrow night."

"I can't," I told my mother. "I have... uh.... hang on, I'm thinking."

My usual go-to excuses - "laundry" or "cleaning" or just "I already have plans" - are obviously no longer valid now that I'm here, plainly within view. I am not used to this level of scrutiny anymore. One of the greatest joys of adulthood is that you can just say "no, thanks, I'm busy" and nobody ever says "What are you so busy with?"

I must find some way of avoiding these events while I am here - they have a cell group meeting scheduled tonight, very awkward - but now that my friends are adults like myself, it's not like I can call them up (on their home phones!) and ask if they want to hang out in four hours' time. They have their grown-up lives, whereas I've temporarily time-travelled back to the year 2000. My own need to plan meet-ups three weeks in advance has really backfired on me now.

I wish I could bring my dog to the mall. We would go to Nando's and just order chicken livers and iced water. Then we'd watch a movie (he'd want to see Cinderella, but I'm paying, so we'd pick Kingsman) and I'd pick out a nice cravat on-screen to buy for him off Mr Porter. Then we'd walk home and hunt for rats in the long grass. (No wonder my husband says I'm a crazy dog lady.)

Anyway this whole experience has given me a new sympathy for my students, who frequently express frustration and boredom with eeeeeeeeverythiiiiiiiiing (rolls eyes, sighs heavily, slumps down on table in defeat). It's tough to be a teenager, even when you're 31.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Depeche Mode - Home

When life gets a little bit rough, hunker down and keep going with the help of Martin Gore's sweet tenor. Growing up at the tail-end of the 90s', Depeche Mode had already become that weird old band on MTV, one of their last singles (It's No Good) on repeat five times an hour as I slumped half-asleep in front of the TV. I liked their shiny, dark aesthetic but found them a little monotonous, being a shallow 14-year-old.

The next time I noticed them, I was working as a relief teacher in my former secondary school and caught my old Literature teacher - who must have been in her late 20s then - twirling down the carpeted corridor in the deserted teachers' room, lustily belting "I want somebody to share, share the rest of my life..." She was unfazed by her unexpected audience, but I fled in embarrassment (mine, not second-hand). It was a bit like catching your parents making out.

While I've always gravitated to the harder-sounding Depeche Mode singles (sorry, not cool enough for the B-sides), I find Home very soothing late at night, almost hypnotic. It's both depressing and uplifting at the same time, as Martin Gore delicately mourns: "Finally I've found/That I belong here". You have to be a little bit older, a little beaten by life to appreciate that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Places I Want To See That Might Be Wholly Imaginary

Pale marble ruins, afternoon shadows lengthening in the sunlight. The smell of ancient stone cloisters, sad-eyed statues, feathered wings taking flight outside. Black and white squares, walked on for a hundred years and more. Cracked, yellowing plaster and wavy glass: an old man behind the counter hawking Catholic dogma.

Shocking blue aquarium pools and green waxed leaves, cool rainforest and warm sand. Two gardenias for you, sings a dolorous trumpet playing late into the night. Coconut-white petals unfold, ice cubes clink in a sweating cocktail glass, an open-air bar somewhere in South America. A stray dog saunters past, tending to its own business. Insects call to their mates in the dark.

A clean glass bubble in the snowy barrens, centrally heated. Fur covers, rustic Scandinavian blankets, a snowdrift of pillows. The green-red-pink aurora shifting, playing in the otherworld above: a message from God if you're feeling religious, or just a cosmic disco. Turn the lights off, huddle in bed and watch the stars glitter in black space, as distant and familiar as the ice frosting the earth beyond.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day Playlist

It's that time of the year again, one that I don't actually celebrate. But I do like Valentine's Day. Outside of the overpriced dinners, slave-labour flowers and capitalist cashing-in (you can tell I'm a real romantic) it's a fun occasion without too much pressure, and it takes my mind off the Chinese New Year festivities.

This February I've been listening to some new(ish) music - fine, mostly old music. First up:

1. Pulp - Do You Remember The First Time

Pulp's superiority lies in its lyrics, which somehow manage to tell wonderfully evocative stories within three and a half minutes while being sly, sexy and even humorous at the same time.

Their charm of course emanates from Jarvis Cocker, who is a true original: a lanky, myopic bug of a man thrusting elegantly on stage, affecting surprise and hauteur behind horn-rimmed spectacles. His interview with Stephen Merchant is incredibly funny - he tells stories about falling off a balcony to impress a girl, and stopping a gig half-way to search for his missing specs; the joke always lands gently on him, somehow.

I was initially taken by this particular track off their His 'n' Hers album (1994) because of the candid follow-up line to the title in the chorus: "Do you remember the first time?/I can't remember a worse time" - so unexpected, but so true! The narrative, true to Cocker-form, is about sleeping with a woman who's already got a boyfriend, one that naturally seems very dull in comparison to Jarvis Cocker's languid seduction: "Now I don't care what you're doing/No I don't care if you screw him, just as long as you save a piece for me".

Towards the end, the frustrated desire swells into a crescendo of contempt and disbelief: "Well at least there's someone there that you can talk to/and you never have to face up to the night on your own/Jesus it must be great, to be straight". (This is a track just begging to be covered by a lesbian with a great big growly voice - sorry, Sophie Monk, but your BBC cover is decidedly a lightweight).

The music video may give you nausea, but I generally don't look at the screen and instead sing along at top volume, scaring the dog awake from his nap.

2. Kylie Minogue - All The Lovers 

I somehow made it through the last 15-20 years of pop music consumption without realising that Kylie Minogue is a really good performer, a tiny firecracker in glittery minis and leopard print heels. Like, good enough that I would seriously consider paying to watch her live.

This is All The Lovers from her 2010 album Aphrodite. It's a great dancey pop track, one that puts you in a good mood automatically. How can you not be, when Kylie is asking you so sweetly to dance, and give her a little bit more?

Another nice thing about Kylie live is that she often re-arranges her old hits, so there are probably at least ten different versions of All The Lovers floating around YouTube, not including remixes. I'm partial to her Motown version of The Loco-Motion (BBC2, Maida Vale gig). She does a purer pop-orchestra version of All The Lovers on her Abbey Road Sessions album, but it seems to lose a little of its edge. The original is good enough for me.

3. Disclosure - January

I was a bit depressed to learn that Disclosure were technically half-in their teens (!) when they produced their critically acclaimed Settle album in 2012. What was I doing when I was 17? (Answer: wearing ripped jeans, still listening to Green Day and Blink 182.) I cheered myself up by introducing my teenage students to Disclosure, pointing out that while some of them were still struggling with past and present tenses, the baby-faced Disclosure brothers were pumping out UK hit singles and being very, very cool.

I know everyone loves Sam Smith and therefore they also love Latch, the massive Disclosure hit featuring his rather sheep-like bleat (don't get me wrong, it's not unpleasant - well, in small doses) but I favour January from the same album, which has the added mystery of vocals by Jamie Woon, a one-time promising UK R&B/trip-hop artiste who flamed out in 2012 from an undisclosed (ha ha) injury and hasn't been heard from since, apart from this track.

I have no idea what the significance of 22nd January is (graduation night? first kiss? O-level results?) but it goes down so smoothly, like quicksilver for the ears, no cheese at all. It's unfair that some people are so sophisticated at such a young age, but I don't mind if it means they have more time ahead of them to keep crafting electronic beauties like this.

4. Roxy Music - Over You

Last and best of all, the inimitable Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music with Over You, from their Flesh and Blood album. Yes, the video I chose is not actually Bryan Ferry, the reason being Roxy Music is ancient enough that YouTube has only fuzzy TV recordings with shitty sound quality. So here's a British cover band, Roxyrama, with a Bryan Ferry soundalike who's almost perfect - a few too many floppy head tilts, but otherwise just as insouciant and debonair as the original.

There's a great Roxy Music performance floating around that has Bryan Ferry smoking a cigarette while singing Over You - the long instrumental break allows him to enjoy a slow drag on it. The year is 1980 and his voice hasn't broken down yet. I recognise that this is a sick personal preference (one that's been proven hazardous to health), but I adore the way he holds his cigarette oh-so-nonchalantly and raises it to his mouth while dancing - OK, humping the microphone stand. I can see how he ended up scoring with his son's ex-girlfriend.

The lyrics are ridiculously simple, as befits a song written in five minutes. But what else do you need to describe the no man's land of unrequited affection? "Oh baby/this is nowhere/wish I was somewhere/over you." It moves briskly on to a common-sense coda: "Some day/yes it might come babe/When I'll be babe/over you". Not poetry, but the last thing you need in a situation like that is deathless verse. You need a quick pop fix, an optimistic guitar solo and a jaunty wave goodbye. Save all that romance nonsense for the next single.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Party Game for Horrible People

Image from

Cards Against Humanity promises to be "as despicable and awkward as you and your friends". I'm like, how did they know about me and my friends?

Actually I think everyone wants to imagine that their friends are the coolest, craziest, most interesting people around - and by extension, so are they. People go around saying "my friends are so weird!" or "yeah, they're insane" in tones of pride and wonderment. Don't get me wrong, I like my friends too, but I'm under no illusions that any of us are true originals. Surely somewhere in the world a Mormon, a Muslim and a gay man are walking into a bar together, accompanied by a semi-employed bum, a severe commitment-phobe and a neurotic depressive. Then they sit around feeling like they're so special, chuckling at obscure in-jokes and endlessly repeated anecdotes from their teenage years.

Proving my point, Cards Against Humanity is immensely popular, so popular that it's spawned Canadian, British and Australian editions, five expansion packs and a flurry of holiday packs and other merchandise, including the infamous box of bovine excrement they sold in honour of Black Friday. So there are a lot of self-proclaimed despicable and awkward people out there.

It's played with a minimum of four people, and presumably a maximum of alcohol. Everyone draws up to 10 white answer cards, and the players take it in turns to draw a black question card - "What ruined the orgy?" You each submit a chosen answer card - "a robust mongoloid" or "the Pope" - and the question-drawer reads them all out, and chooses the funniest one.

There isn't much of a point to the game. You basically play until you get bored or hungry or it's time to go home, because you have work in the morning. But it doesn't matter because you laugh so hard your stomach hurts, and it dissipates the awkwardness in the air that comes from not having seen each other in the flesh for close to four years. It's a shitload of fun, the kind of game everyone wants to keep playing late into the night. (As opposed to the other game we used to play, which was fun but confusing for the non-nerds who just couldn't understand the difference between race and class - "Goddammit, a dwarf is a race, a cleric is a class! It's so simple!")

The downside is that you can really only play Cards Against Humanity with people who you know for sure spend a lot of time on the Internet looking at porn, digesting pop culture and pirating Judd Apatow movies. It's not a game for the faint-hearted, the easily offended, or those who fear the surreal and dark. If you don't find chainsaws and vaginal folds funny, don't waste your money or time on this.

I know there are people who play it with mere acquaintances, or even online, but to me half the fun comes from choosing exactly the right answer that will crack the question-drawer up. This requires years of exposure to their sense of humour, their understanding of the world around them, knowledge of their boundaries (or lack of). To really enjoy it, you have to be old friends, or at least friends who are super open. People will know that you know what golden showers or queefing are.

Because we've all known each other since 1997 - our first year at a shitty neighbourhood secondary school - it's not that hard to guess what my friends will find funny: usually jokes about genitals or gruesome death. I like to think that my sense of humour is more complex and dry, but I find myself laughing just as hard as the others at combos like "My plans for world domination begin with... a bleached asshole". It's a humbling experience.

The set the American so kindly left with me comes with blank cards, so I'm spending this evening in anticipation of our last game tomorrow writing custom Singaporean answers (let's just say there are a few choice Hokkien phrases involved). After he goes home, we won't be getting together so often, not until the next overseas member of our group arrives. Maybe I should bring the set to my grandfather's house for Chinese New Year? I'll probably be the only one laughing.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Fear & Loathing On Public Transport

Bad shit happens to everyone, and if you're a woman, certain kinds of bad shit are almost a given.

I always wondered if that day would ever come for me, if I'd be one of the lucky few, or just another depressing statistic. I made it to 30 years of existence without having once been molested. When I was younger and less assertive, in my school uniform or cheap high heels, I carried that dark vigilance around with me, like a fist closed tightly over a key when walking home at night. Call it a minor state of terror, a low-burning awareness that some men often try to lean in too close, place an unwanted hand on your back, insist on talking to you and asking for your name and more. Always be wary. Be smart. I've exited taxis, bookstores, libraries, malls - annoyed and flustered, a little frightened.

Maybe I got stupid and complacent over time. Nothing truly bad ever happened to me. There's a decade's worth of younger women in short shorts roaming around in public, so who'd want to touch me? I wear glasses, sensible flats and modest necklines to work. On that day I wore a knee-length dress that buttoned right up to the collar, with sleeves.

Of course it didn't matter. It was a crowded train, and I was forced towards the back by people surging in as the doors closed. Some lady's handbag was jabbing into my side, and someone's sweaty backpack was almost under my nose. Only two stations to go.

I had my earphones in, and I managed to take my phone out and twist slightly to the side so I could read an article on it. It was a very interesting long-form piece, but for the life of me now I can't remember what it was about. That's probably a good thing. I delved deep into it, forgot where I was and where I was going.

I don't like this next part, but I've been having such bad dreams. If I leave it here I might finally get a good night's sleep.

I felt something shift against the small of my back, but I assumed it was yet another bag or possibly unwieldy sports equipment (there were loads of schoolkids on the train, carrying musical instruments and other torture devices). It moved again, and again, with an unusual and determined intensity, and then I awoke - as if from a dream - startled out of my reading and music by some instinctive internal alarm: I knew what it was.

I turned around - and here's the funny part, I couldn't see his face, because I am only 1.58m tall and he was a lot taller. I stared in confusion at a skinny t-shirted chest - and it's true, in the shock of the moment you do completely blank out on the colour of it - and then the train stopped, the doors opened, and people began to push past me to exit. Among them was the man who had assaulted me. He shoved his way out (tall, thin, pale coloured pants?) faster than anyone else and disappeared into the crowd.

I should have run after him, maybe caught him by the elbow and punched him in the face (assuming I could reach it). I probably should have screamed. But like I said, your mind really does go blank at times like these. Human programming can be so very disappointing.

There was nothing else I could do, so I went to work. I taught my students, handed out their worksheets, took the train home. I vented about the incident, and my husband made all the right statements of support and outrage and comfort, and I went to sleep and woke up again in the morning.

I never cried about it. I did feel an unbelievable anger at myself, and at the man on the train. Who the fuck does something like that? What broken shell of a human being rubs his dick on unsuspecting women on public transport?

They say that such men get off on the violation, the five seconds of power over another human being. I hope this means that they are utterly powerless in everyday life, broken by somebody else on an hourly basis. I hope that man goes to work and gets yelled at and treated like shit, and goes home alone and can't make enough money to ever get out of his lousy situation. If he fucks hookers, I hope they fake affection for him, drain him of every last cent and give him herpes in return. I want him to die in a welfare nursing home with a bacteria-ridden catheter shoved up his dick by an untrained monkey who doesn't even know his name.

I hope he feels violated and worthless every single moment of his waking life, because I don't think I'm the first person he's ever done that to.

 Anyway. I felt bad for a day or two, and then I moved on - or so I thought. I kept busy - Christmas is coming, don't you know - and a few days later I got back onto the same line, on my way to work.

The train wasn't that crowded. I moved to the centre of the carriage. Without thinking, I checked to make sure nobody was standing behind me. It's become second nature.

As the train doors closed, I felt a strange sensation settle on me. I was so uncomfortable, twitchy almost. It was a constant, chilly unease, like I'd forgotten something important at home. It took a few long minutes to identify it: fear. After so many years - fear, my old friend. You won't ever leave me again.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Yesterday, Melbourne

Eight years after I graduated and left, I returned to Melbourne, Australia. On vacation, I was a tourist this time instead of a shy and painfully young student. Not spending daddy's money anymore.

It's still a good-looking city, with delicate Victorian-era row houses lining wide sidewalks. Tree branches dip with the breeze, which bears no resemblance to its icy parent, the Antarctic chill that whips your hair into your face on the Great Ocean Road. Yes, the bland international shopping malls filled with thumping music and Zara and Topshop and H&M have arrived in the city centre, but they haven't killed off the more charming suburbs.

People get possessive over places they've been, especially if they like them. It's true that Melbourne is not my city, and I don't love it the way others do. But I was surprised by how resentful I felt of the avalanche of advice and suggestions from outsiders (ranging from people who'd been there once, to people who've lived there for years). I wanted to go back and do things my way, walk round the city late at night and relive the pleasure I once took in mundane activities (grocery shopping, commuting, school). It was not Melbourne I wanted to visit, but my own past. They didn't understand.

It's probable that all the advice served me well in the end. It helped me to get Melbourne out of my system, and I don't think I'll go back again. It was good to exorcise my university days and make peace with all the potential I once had, and all the money my poor parents spent. Time to move on, and let other people have it.