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.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Best Pleases in Popular Music (That I Know Of)

Laid up this weekend with the flu (no chance of taking a day off with my students' exams so close) so I thought I would feel productive by jotting down this listicle that's been stuck on three measly items for far too long. Perhaps it's the cough syrup slowing me down to a treacly crawl, but I can't think of anything else to add to it.

I think the best 'pleases' in music should send a chill down your spine - not necessarily in a howl-from-the-damned way, but in an unexpected-religious-moment way. Why 'please'? What else can you say? What other word lends itself so well to an animalistic yawp, a feverish begging, a left-for-dead resignation? The only criteria I had was that it should stand alone within the song, not hastily tripped over to make room for the rest of the lyrics. A 'please' should be memorable.

(In making the list I was actively looking for female musicians, but then I realised that 'please' doesn't necessarily lend itself well to women's voices. You hear a man saying 'please' with a sob in his voice, you might assume he's pining for a lost love. You hear a woman saying 'please', on the other hand - I don't know about you, but I always worry it'll be followed up with 'don't hit me'.)

1. Chris Isaak - Somebody's Crying

This is pretty obvious - "pleeeeeeeaaase, let me know if it can't be me/I know when, somebody's lying" is burned into the brain of anyone listening to the radio in 1995. According to the song's Wiki page Chris Isaak wrote the lyrics based on kids in a playground teasing each other ("I know somebody and they cry for you") and while reeling from the aftermath of a bad break-up.

I like the song's rockabilly vibe, the faint whiff (quiff?) of Elvis in the background, even the wholesome music video that an astute YouTube commenter called the 'best J.Crew ad ever'. (It can't get more 1995 than that video, for sure.) I like the vowel-heavy ache in 'pleeeeeeease' that reaches out for understanding, like a despairing late-night call made from a pay-phone booth. This song featured heavily in the broken-heart playlists my friends and I made as teenagers, but now it's just a catchy bit of nostalgia for an analog decade. Still good.

2. New Radicals - Flowers 

In contrast to the ABC-rhyming, puppyish sentiment of Somebody's Crying ('I know somebody and they called your name/a million times and still you never came/they go on loving you just the same'), Gregg Alexander spreads a thick layer of irony over this pop ode to a confused 22-year-old 'flower child' who likes drugs and suffers from debilitating trust issues. (A real keeper, huh.)

He's fed up that she doesn't believe him when he says that his love 'is real, as real as the flowers you smoke to get high', but the real genius of the song comes towards the end when he points out that 'I love you, you hate me, I took math class that ain't a fair exchange/I call you, you hang up, don't be a bitch get your number changed - I'm sorry, forgive me, I never meant to call you those names - but I'm lonely, so lonely, please."

That was the bit that made me sit up and take notice, on my first listen of his 1998 album Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too. It's witty, telling and wonderfully self-aware. You begin to understand why the mythical 22-year-old has a fear of commitment, if that's what she's expected to commit to. After the shock of 'bitch' comes a very angry and defeated 'please', punctuated with a Jacksonesque yelp of (sexual?) frustration. This raw honesty is more compelling than the empty yearning in the rest of the lyrics.

(I see that Gregg Alexander's latest track is 'Lost Stars', which he co-wrote for that shot-on-Instagram hipster date night movie Begin Again. Um... I'll blame Adam Levine. Unlistenable.)

3. Stealers Wheel - Stuck In The Middle With You

I stupidly used this as the ringtone for my old Nokia phone during my short, stressful stint in PR. Even today when I hear the jaunty opening bit, my heart jolts in fear, like a deer alerted by a hunting bugle. But the rest of it is super fun to sing along with.

Of course my first exposure to this 1972 track came from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (the ear-slicing torture scene, more specifically). The song was supposedly inspired by a restaurant meeting between the band, its record label and producers: 'Well you started out with nothing and/now that you're a self-made man/your friends they all come crawling, slap you on the back and say/please, please.'

It's a sly dig at these big, insecure men who puff out their chests and feel only as good as their last multi-million dollar deal - a very cool, knowing 'please'. The narrator knows that the desperation of their 'friends' reveals the true nature of these self-made men, who desire the constant adulation and pleading far more than they pretend to. In the end, who's the one who's really begging for something?

In retrospect the ringtone was a bad idea in more ways than one, seeing as in the world of corporate and finance PR, these big men obviously run the whole show. How can you pitch an idea to Bloomberg when you're hearing 'I don't know why I came here tonight/I got the feeling that something ain't right', or try to make nice with business journalists at a media luncheon without thinking 'Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right/here I am, stuck in the middle with you'? I still do some business writing these days, but I've learnt that it's not a universe I can stand being in for more than two or three hours. Any longer, and I might be tempted to slice some ears off.

Friday, August 29, 2014

I Do This More Often Than I Care To Admit

(What do you mean, normal people don't dress their dogs up in designer human clothes, pose them in front of DIY backdrops, adjust the lighting and then take heavily-filtered Instagram photos of them?)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Mall Beach at Gurney Drive, Penang

It's not a great picture, and it's a really shitty beach. I don't think anyone is allowed to even step onto it. But there's something about this lonely little stretch of sand and debris that haunts me - a faded, goodbye-all resignation in the polluted seaweed air, and all that water drowned out by the honks and whines of traffic going by on the road less than two metres away. Car headlights run mindlessly over the sand, over and over and over again. Nothing moves. I imagine all the hermit crabs and sea snails have been fossilised by the blinding light, their eyestalks long ago burnt out from the repetition: light, dark, light, dark, light. Never dark enough.

Friday, July 11, 2014

We Now Pause to Bring You a Very Important Message

The Pink Dog, showing his (OK, our) support for Pink Dot 2014.

The recent rise of bigoted, anti-homosexuality sentiment in Singapore is extremely depressing. Over in the States, Barack Obama is president, the Moral Majority have faded away, and 50 per cent of Americans now believe in the constitutional right to gay marriage (Washington Post). Over here we are still debating whether gay people are entitled to a legal existence, and Singaporean evangelicals are enthusiastically employing tactics taught to them by American rightwingers to dominate the public discourse, and cry 'reverse discrimination!' and 'beware the hidden gay agenda!' whenever their vitriol is met with disagreement. Just today they have succeeded in upholding a ban on three children's books that featured gay penguins and lesbian households. As expected, they are proud of themselves.

I grew up in a Christian household, and every single member of my maternal extended family is Christian - some are even part of the anti-gay Wear White movement. I was enrolled in Christian schools for the first 16 years of my life, joined a Christian co-curricular activity of my own accord, attended Easter and Christmas services, and for a few short weeks was sent to Sunday School until my constant sobbing grew too much for the teacher and I was returned to my embarrassed parents. My first books were a picture Bible and an illustrated collection of Bible stories. I wore a cross until I was in my early 20s.

Yet I never took to the religion, or any religion for that matter. (My parents remain baffled, disappointed, hurt.) When I was a child and sang 'Jesus loves me, this I know', my performance was entirely innocent of any understanding. When I was slightly older I would answer "Christian" to any questions about my religion, but it was like saying "Chinese" to the race question, or "O+" to the school nurse inquiring about my blood type - an automatic reply, free from analysis or even much thought. Being Christian was not a matter of deep importance. Similarly, my parents didn't go to church regularly - I guess the occasional service was enough, a biannual vaccination against Satan.

In secondary school I was exposed to the pumped up, hands in the air, fire-and-brimstone preaching of the evangelical movement, with its emphasis on active engagement with one's religion. Very different from the mild, sleepy sermons preached at my parents' old church. These young pastors bounced off the pulpit and into the congregation, yelling out, "Do you have a personal relationship with God?" We were encouraged to leave the pews, gather round the altar and weep and swoon as Christian rock music swelled and the pastor's wet yearning tones wrapped around everyone, praying for salvation and a new beginning.

If you were never a Christian in a church like that, then you cannot know how thick the atmosphere is, how manipulative the entire setting can be. You cannot know the shame and fear of being the only one not to be moved by the spirit of Christ, not to stand up. You feel as if the pastor is staring right at you when he pleads, "Anyone else? Does anyone else want to be saved?"

It is not a choice they offer you at all. It is a promise that if you are not saved, you will go to hell, and it will be your fault for rejecting your only chance at salvation. It is a threat.

It's heavy stuff to lay on a 13-year-old. And yet I never went up to the altar. The following year when I was sent to a particularly tough Girls' Brigade camp - endless punishments and drill, cold, disapproving ostracism, screaming leaders to be obeyed, constant sleep deprivation - I still didn't go up during the inevitable in-camp altar call. I thought about trying to escape, and I thought about killing myself, but I never once considered accepting Jesus into my heart. I thought that if He existed, Jesus would never force a terrified teenager to shovel rice into her mouth until she came close to vomiting, and then make her scrub the toilets past midnight for the crime of wasting food. (I couldn't quite manage that last mouthful.)

The sweaty animal fear of ever being controlled like that again has never quite left me. I was only in the Girls' Brigade for four years of my life - only a few years spent hiding in plain sight, an atheist among the flock, not knowing what to say or how to behave, but constantly aware that to reveal myself would be to risk punishment, condemnation and isolation. And that was just for being a non-believer! Can you imagine what it would have been like to be gay, and living in that world?

This is where the heart of my empathy lies. I only experienced a small amount of shame at being different. It makes me nauseous to consider a lifetime spent this way, being told over and over and over that you are unnatural, your desires are not of God, you will never be happy or loved, that you are just plain wrong. Sure, the religious activists will mouth the same old meaningless words - 'love the sinner, hate the sin' - but their concept of sin has been scientifically proven to be an inherent part of a person's physical and mental identity, a basic biological drive. People can stop drinking, gambling, beating their wives. Can they stop loving?

For Christian conservatives, gay rights are only one target among an endless list - abortion, birth control, feminism, free speech and thought, science, art and sexuality, education and state protection from discrimination. It's no secret that many Singaporean evangelicals, like their American counterparts, would like to reshape some of these according to their own standards, limit several others and outright ban the rest. All because of an archaic system of beliefs started over 3,000 years ago in a Middle Eastern desert. No one's really sure what the Bible means, which is great because they get to make it all up to suit their own desires and fears.

Make no mistake, fear is a major part of Christianity. My parents are genuinely afraid that when they pass on, they won't ever see me again, because as a non-believer I will not go to heaven. I understand their anxiety, and I will always regret the heartbreak I am causing them. It used to be my biggest fear as a clingy kid, losing my parents forever. I had regular nightmares about it.

But if there is a God, and if there is a heaven, and if He really is a loving God, surely we will be reunited after death, though I refuse to accept man's broken interpretation of His Word. I believe that my conceptions of the world are right, that we were not made to hate or discriminate, and I am willing to place my own salvation on the line. You might say that in this, I have faith.