mandarin zest

recently it has struck me how inadequate I am in Chinese/Mandarin – and importantly, how much it affects me. this revelation unfurled piecemeal, after the umpteenth time of representing that I was a ‘native speaker of Mandarin Chinese’ on job application forms (neither fairly nor unfairly, I feel), and maybe after singing maudlin taiwanese songs in pek’s karaoke cavern.

I don’t wish to overstate the case, of course; I’m honestly too comfortable with English to be particularly bothered or crippled. but that it bothers, or should bother, me at all isn’t as self-evident as it may seem to an outsider. weakness in Mandarin is generally lauded – not merely tolerated – amongst Singaporeans in my generation, exceptional for an inadequacy of any sort, especially in this peculiarly acquisitive day and age (or more starkly, amongst my peculiarly acquisitive social circle). a not uncommon phatic line of conversation features mutual commiseration over poor Chinese language skills, certified by a B/C/D grade at ‘O’ level and reaffirmed by amusing recollections of awkward encounters with Chinese teachers, elderly folk or tourists.

viewed as a mere instantiation of a broader petulance with school and homework this whole thing with Chinese seems unremarkable. I remember being a rather moany secondary school kid for whom learning about organic chem and igneous rocks was (almost) as unpalatable as Chinese cloze passages. but I find it difficult to shake off the suspicion that my aversion to Chinese is uniquely hypocritical. I have always felt myself to be an acquisitive learner of languages, with English and then with Japanese – whose distinct blend of the pictorial and alphabetic renders it pedagogically (as well as etymologically) similar to English and Chinese. I like getting stuck into nice words or turns of phrase, and – more idiosyncratically – like learning about grammar; I like few things more than snapping words and particles together to form a ‘proper’ sentence in a foreign language, probably the less modern version of writing an elegant, pithy, piece of code. it thus strikes me as distinctly odd why I have little but faint bemusement and antipathy for Chinese. (it can’t just be the fact that I am Chinese and thus find learning ‘my’ language unromantic; my inordinate interest in the Singapore general election, when juxtaposed against a general distaste for politics, tells me that I am fully able and willing to lean into the banal and the familiar)

odd, not inexplicable, of course – the non-volitional, non-familial nature of my experience with the Chinese language makes my inadequacy therein not wholly surprising. but for me, and surely for anyone with a similarly ‘ecumenical’ outlook toward learning new things, this it inimitably falls through the cracks between the natural and the novel – it’s not familiar enough for its pursuit to be self-evident; not strange enough for the returns to be hurtling and exponential.


My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.

Psalm 51:17


hmm- finding out that the self isn’t easily defined negatively or in opposition to a host of things. to say that doing so is merely akin to discovering a sculpture by chipping away at extraneous marble is horribly misconceived; the sculptor arrogates the right to decide what is not needed simply because he already has a firm idea of what is. the temptation with defining yourself negatively occurs because it is the path of least resistance. the act of distancing is intrinsically safe, because you can’t and won’t be judged for what you don’t purport to place any value in. i am not an athlete, hence it doesn’t matter (except maybe in a cursory impressionistic sense) that i have dull reflexes and abysmal motor coordination, etc.

but as you continue on in this way, you must eventually find that the selfsame anonymity that swaddled you will swallow you whole. the ease with which dissociation can indemnify you from judgment clearly extends not just to the things you genuinely don’t care about, but even to those you merely don’t think you deserve to care about. those who like me have pretty much always belonged to ostensibly monolithically “elite” bands of people constantly run the risk of conflating identity with quintessence, of assuming that excellence is the necessary standard because it is the only standard, of thinking that performing at any lower standard inevitably strips the activity of all meaning or, what is possibly worse, relegates it to a “hobby”. once you begin to accept for yourself that this is the case, it ceases to matter that you don’t belong to any discrete group of “elites” any more, or that nobody is specifically or overtly influencing you in this manner – it sticks, like an axiom, and makes you tuck away the parts of you that you might justifiably have been proud of at one time, and before you know it you’re left with nothing to go on with, visibly less than the sum of your parts.

probably the only way to escape this paradox of apersonality is pretension: a painfully cognizant repudiation of the self. inevitably there’s a very thin line between bad-pretending and good-pretending, but the least that should be said i think is that pretension is value-neutral – any value judgment must be laid, if at all, upon the objective of the act of pretending and not the act itself. i don’t think i can express this much better than Lewis, who in any case planted the thought in my head:

What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing. When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.

(cs lewis, Mere Christianity)

i don’t suppose that the act of pretension necessarily cures the fear of mediocrity, but i think it could only be healthy to bear in mind that mediocrity is often a necessary precondition to success of any sort.

i need to write more

this holiday has thus far been exactly as sedate as i’d envisioned and wanted it to be. it’s been a month since i’ve returned; subjected myself to the refreshing if bafflingly cyclical rigmarole of inhaling singapore again in sharp intakes: eaten bah chor mee at least three times, met pretty much every valued person/ social group. it’s good to be back!- but not, I think, in the same way or to the same extent as it is usually portrayed on social media or other bits of the internet, brimfully replete with fanfare and patriotic fervour. no, it really only hits home when you’ve settled into sleepy routines and made your room your room again (ie bags, scraps of receipts and clothing everywhere), when you can stare pointedly at your phone while walking for ten minutes and still make it to the mrt station without incident because the route’s long been scored into your feet. if you continue being careless in this way it really feels as if you’d never left – but that can’t be. you’re a lot more susceptible to the heat now and you inexplicably have tons of law in your head.

bereft of girlfriend and (for two more days) gainful employment, i’ve been gamely keeping up with law, reading cases, trying to get into what it means to “think like a lawyer”. the more i read the more tentative i become, like with one of those trick gifts i secretly already know comprises nothing but wrapping paper to the very core. what does it mean to reason like a lawyer and what are the implications, if any, for the pursuit of truth? the law seems unabashedly (collusively?) incoherent and rife with backward reasoning – the more eminent the judge the more impunity as to specious argumentation – and while i genuinely find pleasure in understanding the parts of the law i’ve been exposed to (or at least successfully delude myself that i do) i could never pretend, not even to others, that this pleasure does not arise despite the state of the law rather than because of it, a sort of grim Pyrrhic thrill in having sifted through the wreckage and pried out the relevant corpses for interment.

don’t get me wrong though! i don’t think the fact of my enjoyment being merely derivative (of the incoherence etc) detracts in any material way from its quality. i think two years of army (and to a lesser extent Life-At-Large) has equipped me fairly well for perverse hypnopaedic equations of this sort: it is painful so you must be growing into a better person. besides, academia is in the business of equivocation, and there would be nothing to pussyfoot about if not for the non-sequiturs and the contradictions. i guess what grates just a little is how feebly indiscriminate my defence of the subject is; how i could have picked practically anything in the world to study and have reached at least as positive a conclusion. axiomatically, either an endeavour is intrinsically attractive or it is character-building to the extent of its unattractiveness, and to accept character-building-ness as an equally valid competing pleasure is a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it? surely it takes far more courage to be miserable than to be stoic.

a leaf falls

someone-else’s-college-library at 12:28am on Monday morning – I honestly feel like I could go on forever, limited only by fear of waking up tomorrow paralysed with lethargy (and on essay crisis day, too) and by the dryness of my eyes (and by hunger also, but nothing a trip to Hassan’s later can’t fix). anyway,

Rising Five

“I’m rising five” he said
“Not four” and the little coils of hair
Un-clicked themselves upon his head.
His spectacles, brimful of eyes to stare
At me and the meadow, reflected cones of light
Above his toffee-buckled cheeks. He’d been alive
Fifty-six months or perhaps a week more;
Not four
But rising five.

Around him in the field, the cells of spring
Bubbled and doubled; buds unbuttoned; shoot
And stem shook out the creases from their frills,
And every tree was swilled with green.
It was the season after blossoming,
Before the forming of the fruit:
Not May
But rising June.

And in the sky
The dust dissected the tangential light:
Not day
But rising night;
Not now
But rising soon.

The new buds push the old leaves from the bough.
We drop our youth behind us like a boy
Throwing away his toffee-wrappers. We never see the flower,
But only the fruit in the flower; never the fruit,
But only the rot in the fruit. We look for the marriage bed
In the baby’s cradle; we look for the grave in the bed;
Not living
But rising dead.

Norman Nicholson

(thanks denise)

of bamboo mats

I’m barely studying these days. It’s a necessary product of my singlemindedness desire to do one thing really well or not at all. It’s not working out that much though; essays still have to be submitted, tutorials still have to be survived, so I’ve really just been fading feebly from one week to another, a little worse for wear after every painstaking tutorial, serious gaps in my knowledge which I have neither the will nor the desire to fill in in the present moment. The gist of the Oxford education is one of trade-off: I think it is wholly possible to be exceedingly good at your craft after three years of concentrated study of anything, but it really comes at the expense of everything else – of social engagements, marginal friendships, many discrete extra-curricular commitments. And I think I differ from most other people in that I don’t necessarily think that the trade-off is never worth making. I think it requires more courage to expend yourself in a single thing with the eternally lurking possibility that you might never even reach the top of your class/trade/industry for all your effort, mitigated only by the fact that if you’re going to apply yourself in a single direction your entire life you are only ever going to be exceedingly good at it – far more courage than the person who dips his toes in everything, who emerges a far better conversationalist for his passing engagement in everything, a universally palatable, if indiscriminately mediocre, person.

but yeah, too many things happening this term and I am – despite not really knowing what’s been going on in the way of acads, despite the occasional loneliness that comes and passes with over-genial chat with people I barely know and will barely ever understand, despite a general ache of estrangement from the world at large – inexplicably happy and grateful for the smallest things in the world. cs lewis was right when he said that true joy came from desire for something that couldn’t be unilaterally attained, an inexorable yearning and reaching. I hesitate to detract from his spiritual argument but I think I am feeling the same thing in quite a smaller way, a barely-containable frothing, an antsy eagerness for something as yet unattainable but seemingly inevitable