The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: America

Second Saturdays

I regularly attend what is known as the “Second Saturdays” reading series — an open reading session that showcases Singaporean and often American writers. People — amateur and experienced writers alike — are invited to share their work and at the end, a featured writer usually reads from his or her published work.

For the last session of Second Saturdays, before it goes on hiatus for the summer, I decided to read something that came from my own work and also that of Josh. I always saw the series as a great way to bring Singaporean and American writers together, and what better way to end the season than a piece that came from both places?

Before Josh died, he was very protective over his writing and never let anyone read anything he wrote — I’ve scarcely seen any of his work. Upon his death, with access to his lifetime of thoughts, notes, and writings, I wondered if his ghost would be angry at me for 1) reading something he never felt comfortable sharing 2) sharing a part of his work with strangers 3) deriving a piece from his and my collection of words.

Combing through his thoughts was difficult: his verses were often dark and macabre; testament to his life’s tribulations. But to represent his true self to others is to preserve his words in their entirety — life, death, foolishness and wisdom unedited.

Combining Josh’s work and mine was an endeavour. He had a penchant for profusion, I gravitated towards brevity. His ideas were surreal and mine were grounded in observational reality. Quite like the differences in our personality, our writing styles clashed. It was a wonder being together had even worked out. I had thought I would need to weave in and out of his poetry to integrate his words with mine for the collaborative pieces — that attempt felt contrite and was a failure. In the end, I found out that the best way to marry his work with mine was simply the way we had worked out — by coexisting side-by-side, without needing to become one.

The three pieces I read at the session are: An excerpt from a 10-part poem he wrote, a poem I wrote on my recent visit back to Singapore, and finally a poem which I had used his poem fragments and a part of one I had shared on this blog.

A Southern Gothic

3.
Pairs of lampposts
thunder towards us
at 60mph — two eyes
that widen, and then are overcome
by the next pair of posts,
more crooked than the last.
Tributaries of concrete,
the bloodlines of an efficient world,
blast their way through forests
and limestone walls.
Mechanical beasts shift their trunks
into the sides of pumping stations
and savor the black blood of the earth.

From time to time I will be at the wheel
and awake with a start:
Am I heading the right way?
And my grandmother whispers in my ear,
Let them pass you,
let them pass,
as they always will,
let them face the wrong way signs.

And now I can face the fireflies — the one spark
in the dogwood on the left,
then a torch of beings on the right
that ignites the forest into an enormous,
seizing strobe. Canals of concrete writhe
with the bodies of fallen bugs,
blinking like turn signals,
like lighters at a funeral,
like a child’s sparkler
on a hot and hazy
Fourth of July —
flowing as a gluttonous river
into the eye of blindness.

Washing Machine

When I was young
my father once punched a hole into the washing machine.
We were suppose to leave on a trip
but my mother had dallied.
I remember the yelling, the gesticulating,
and in a coup de grace,
he slammed his fist into the toploader
and plastic gave way to flesh
but not before leaving a gash
and he held in blood and pride
with a paper towel.
My mother was left speechless —
not solely because the appliance had been left splintered
but what is one to do when your husband
batters a daily household convenience?

I used to peer through the hole of the washing machine
and watch my worries spin cycle away.

Today,
the strength which punched a hole into the washing machine
now stoops and pauses to take more naps
as the anger has left
and all that remains is bitterness
from memories of an era bygone.
The rage which punched a hole into the washing machine
has crystallised into salt
that the elders supposedly consume — more than we do rice —
as we sit around and nod our heads
in obeisance.

NPY

I watched you bargain with the end of your cigarette,
contemplating, ruminating,
obsessing
with the concept of a minute
and how you wished you didn’t understand it.
You exhaled
and life and smoke exited in a curlicue.
“Everything is a spiral motion,” you said.
— Embracing arms, ivy choking a tree,
adulthood, regression, the corkscrew plot of our later years.
I frowned, and you silenced prematurely the dying ember
that hangs from your fingers.
We taste each other with our bodies
and read the future in our bones
and in our newfound knowledge,
we roll over to sleep.

I woke up and found that I have wet my bed
with tears that I cried into cupped hands
that slowly seeped through my fingers
because I forgot what you looked like.

A pile of clean laundry lies on one side of the bed
because I can pretend that you are there
as you used to enjoy jumping on top of it
when it is fresh out of the dryer.

Who will help me put the covers on the comforter?

I still sleep on my side of the bed
with my head faced away from the middle
I still try not to snore when I sleep
so as not to disturb your ghost.

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On Art and Cultural Appropriation

Someone shared with me this delightful bit from McSweeney’s titled “A Short Description of Cultural Appropriation for Non-Believers” by Rajeev Balasubramanyam.

1. Your new friends Bob and Rita come to lunch and you serve them idlis, like your grandmother used to make.

2. They love your south Indian cooking and ask for the recipe.

3. You never hear from Rita and Bob again.

4. You read in the Style section of the Guardian about Rita and Bob’s new Idli bar in Covent Garden… called ‘Idli.’

5. You visit Idli. The food tastes nothing like your grandmother’s.

6. Your grandmother dies.

7. Rita and Bob’s children inherit the Idli chain, and open several franchises in America.

8. Your children find work as short order chefs… at Idli.

9. Your children visit you in a nursing home and cook you idlis, which taste nothing like the ones you remember from your youth.

10. You compliment their cooking and ask for the recipe.

11. You die.

It’s simple and effective in getting the point across. The line between appreciation and appropriation is thin and blurry, but the concept of profiting seems to suggest when it falls into the latter category, especially when the originator is uncredited. Worse still, is if the appropriation is hailed as the innovator and the originator languishes, and is subjugated in some sense.

I often worry whether I cross into appropriation territory. At one point, I was reading up on bharatanatyam and was very inspired by its history and spirituality. It also reminded me of back when I was in primary school, where to celebrate Indian dance and culture, my school’s Indian dance club would perform it and I was mesmerised by it aesthetically but also how different it was from my own culture. I never really sought to learn more about it growing up, until when I came to be reacquainted with bharatanatyam.

I wondered if I could incorporate elements of it into my own circus performing. I read up on texts and watch videos of the classical dance. I learned about the karanas and what each was suppose to portray, and pondered if I could portray the message of performance the way karanas do. At the end of my study, I tried to record a video of my efforts in integrating circus performing with the concepts of bharatanatyam. When I was done, there came a surge of worry: Oh no, have I simply adopted a different culture to elevate myself and made a mockery of the dance with the video? Despite coming from what I felt to be a genuine case of admiration of Tamil Indian music, dance, spirituality and culture, I still felt a twinge of guilt from appropriation.

Given the intensity of racial discussions here in America back home in recent weeks/months/years, such concerns are necessary: how does one respectfully engage with elements from another culture, especially if that culture is systemically in a minority dynamic and subjugated? We seem to have entered a time where having the ethnic majority merely reproducing the minority’s culture as appreciation is insufficient — more needs to be done. But what?

I don’t think I can be the one to answer that question — I think that has to be a process involving a conversation between the appropriator and the appropriated. That’s an interesting situation for me since I exist as a racial/cultural minority in America, but am a majority in Singapore. This is certainly a unique situation where I get to participate in discussing with people what I feel are appropriations of my culture in one place, but have to listen to the same conversation from the other side.

In the meanwhile, I can only hope that as I go about my life and art, I don’t accidentally take other cultures’ idlis and pass them off for my own.


Interesting related reading: Rich Chigga and the Difficulties of Keeping It Real [New Yorker]

Anyhow Noodles

“What are you making?” you asked, as you walked into the kitchen. “Ugh, you’re using that giant ass wok. It’s such a hassle to wash,” you said.

“Hey, this wok is feeding your ass so don’t complain,” I replied.

“So what are you making? It looks like you’re just randomly throwing things into the wok and frying shit up.”

“That’s right, I’m making ‘Anyhow Noodles.'”

“Anyhow Noodles? What the heck is that?”

“It’s where you randomly throw things into the wok and fry shit up. When you understand cooking enough at my level, you can throw anything into a wok and it’ll turn out fine.”

“So what goes into Anyhow Noodles?”

“You have to have noodles, that’s why it’s ‘Anyhow Noodles’ and not ‘Anyhow Rice,’ right?”

“I can see that…”

“And then, you add in vegetables, meat, brown sauce and you’re done!”

“Wait hold on. Brown sauce?”

“Yes. Brown sauce. It’s sauce that’s brown.”

“And what goes in brown sauce?”

“Brown flavour.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“It does back home. Everyone knows what ‘brown sauce’ is. It’s an established flavour.”

“You’re making shit up. You’re fucking with me.”

“If you don’t believe me, go ask your friend Cassie. She’ll know what ‘brown flavour’ is. All Asians know it.”

……

“Ok I don’t believe it. She told me ‘brown’ is totally a flavour. Her mum makes food with it too, what the fuck. That’s so weird.”

“Well I’m sorry the food you’re eating is weird.”

“Ok then what’s the meat that goes into Anyhow Noodles? ‘Has-legs’? ‘Living-creature?’ ‘Matter???'”

“Don’t be silly. It’s just beef.”

Faith ignites a message that falls on stone ears

Faith

A red glow spreads as
electric lotus lamps burn
from a rosewood altar.

Ignites

Three sticks of incense
stuck into the ashes of previous attempts
to reach you.
I flick the dial of a lighter
and it goes “schick, schick.”
A few sparks and the flame is lit,
a covenant made on one end.

Three sticks of incense
rouse and extend fragrant tendrils skywards.
An extension to the heavens —
patch me through, operator.
The sandalwood dance this way and that,
seemingly reluctant to secure the connection,
but like all prayer,
one speaks regardless
of whether the other side is listening.

A Message

“Tua Pek Gong ah, Tua Pek Gong,
my grandma looked to you
for conferrings of harmony
the pious could achieve.
For those who hold their faith each day
in sticks of burning wood.
Structured sutras calm the heart;
metrical relief.

I washed upon these concrete shores,
a boat with much to give.
And countless leagues I’ve had to cross
to berth my anchors in
a port of gold, or so I’m told,
where dreams are to be had.
But all I have to moor the tide
are merely ropes of tin.

Tua Pek Gong ah, Tua Pek Gong
I do not know the form in which to speak
the words that my ancestors would beseech
protections that would sooth the stormy seas.
But would your red auspices run its course
In lands where red is mixed with white and blue?
Where ships are not the vessels they were built
but kindling from the boards that have been stripped.
I rely on mantras that I borrowed
in hopes of days where boats could be ships

That Falls On

Rectitude is all I have when
circumstances bend my back

My communion withers
as three sticks of incense stand
on their last legs.

Stone Ears

A ceramic smile
glazed upon a statuette
could never waver.

Sanctuaries

stonewall

Yesterday, I was feeling very affected by the attack on LGBT nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I did not directly know any of the victims, was not there, nor was I Latino — the majority of the victims — and my only connection to the incident was that I was a QPOC. But it wasn’t that connection that stirred something inside me. It was the idea that our sanctuary has been so easily trashed that struck me.

In 2009, I was bound for New York for college, and it would have been my first foray into the United States. In preparation for the journey, I researched as much as I could about the city, and learned that it was a haven for the LGBT community and the Stonewall Inn was where the LGBT rights movement first started. At the time, I had never experienced or dabbled in anything of that nature — I was too concerned with school and extracurriculars to be even bothered. Never been inside a gay club, never kissed, never held a hand.

But I learned about the concept that there are spaces where one could go and be amongst like people. Places where for while, one could let one’s hair down and not worry — nay not think — about disapproving stares, much less the fear of rebuke and reproach. Sanctuaries.

One of the very first few things when I had landed in New York and had generally unpacked was to pump up my unicycle (my preferred mode of transportation) and go for a ride in the city. I was curious about this Greenwich Village and Chelsea, spoken of in Wikipedia (Hell’s Kitchen had yet to be linked into the Gay Village Wikipedia article at the time, or I wasn’t looking very closely) and unicycled down the legendary Christopher Street I had heard so much of.

I wasn’t too disappointed. Back then in 2009, the West Village was on its way to being gentrified but still clung on to the vestiges of its gay subculture. I still saw, in broad daylight, men in leather suits and heels and caps, LGBT people openly holding hands and kissing, bears, daddies, twinks, dykes and all shades of the rainbow and I smiled.

“This isn’t too bad. I think this place could work,” I thought.

I hit the end of Christopher St, past the leather and daddy bars, past McNulty’s (love that tea/coffee merchant) but did not go to the piers, as I didn’t know about it then. I then made a U-turn and then back up 8th Avenue, all the way into Chelsea.

There, I saw a different gay people of a different ilk. Men with buzzcuts in their 30s and 40s bulked up with muscles exploding out of their inexplicably tight tank tops (I dubbed them the Chelsea gym bunnies), skinny gay men yakking all the time and the smattering of sex shops selling underwear, poppers and porn. I didn’t dare go into any of them then, but yet I still felt safe standing in the streets even as I was among some of the people physically quite unlike me — in skin colour, size, and much more. Yet I felt like I belonged.

I was merely standing in the streets of these gay-bourhoods and already I felt for the first time I was surrounded by a community of people like me, a refreshing change from the dour looks back home. I wasn’t even in a gay club (that’s another story) but even though I was in a strange land, I felt safe, despite having been traipsing New York City roads and traffic on one wheel on one of my first few days here.

“Welcome to sanctuary” the city seemed to be saying to me.

And over the years, I have made many friends, created many communities, have been accepted by many communities, and created my own family here in New York.

The Pulse club was one such sanctuary for many gay men and women to enjoy a night out without the fear of “faggot” being yelled their way. A place where LGBT people who were not yet ready or able to openly hold hands in public without being attacked to hold each other. A space where the only judging going on were eyes sizing you up whether to say “hi” and bring you home for the night, and not whether you were abominable sin.

But that night, all around the country, LGBT people were reminded that they were still from being safe to walk upright. That despite being surrounded by “allies” and the recent developments in gay rights, all it takes is one mentally ill person, one hateful person, any straight person welcomed into a gay space but ultimately striking fear into the gay people around him because he was told to quiet down, to make us question how safe are we, even in our sanctuaries.

And that was why I was perturbed.

Post-Orlando

It has been a couple days since the shooting happened at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The conversation has been continuing in the days since the shooting, and we are still feeling the emotional outflow of anger, pain, and shock that something like this has happened again. We’ve seen coverage of self-serving political candidates capitalising on this as a self-promotion opportunity, speculation about the sexuality of the shooter, the nation’s inability to act to prevent further shootings because it is crippled by lobbyists, intense coverage of the final moments as victims died, outrage at Muslims, people defending Muslims, Muslims being outraged, so on and so on and so on.

But amid the whirlwind of content outpouring, I find myself thinking about hate. I find myself thinking about what it must feel like to be living with so much hatred. What it must feel like to hate someone’s very existence without even having known them, hating them because they are labelled as something that goes against one’s “values”.

I tried to imagine hating the shooter Omar Mateen that took the lives of 49 sons and daughters that night in the club and I couldn’t do it. I could feel anger as I imagined what might have happened that night, but I feared that if I found myself capable of hating Mateen, I would be no better than anyone else hating someone else without knowing what they’re about. I thought about how I would have done had I been in that club, how I would have felt had any of the victims had been direct friends of mine. I was very cognizant of how removed I was from this incident, yet how connected I was to this issue at large. I was once again reminded that there were people who hated my for no particular reason, and wondered if I had been guilty of similar hatred.

People claim that this incident shouldn’t be about any individual — the problem is a systemic failure of the society at large. But larger problems are expressed at local levels, and if we don’t deal with problems from the ground up, how much less so can we attempt to solve problems at a larger level? I want to learn more about myself as I ingest this incident and I want to grow from it. From there, I hope to become a stronger person equipped to handle such complex issues and will be better equipped to talk to other people around it, and ultimately effect change that matters.

“That’s something we write for white people”

chowmein

I know, I am super late to the game. Everyone worth his or her salt and MSG has already written about Calvin Trillin’s piece about Chinese food “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” in the New Yorker.

I was quite nonplussed at his poem; it was a fairly tasteless poem, at best skirting around blandly with race while trying to give the impression that it was edgy and exciting. However, I was rather intrigued by the second stanza.

Now, as each brand-new province appears,
It brings tension, increasing our fears:
Could a place we extolled as a find
Be revealed as one province behind?
So we sometimes do miss, I confess,
Simple days of chow mein but no stress,
When we never were faced with the threat
Of more provinces we hadn’t met.
Is there one tucked away near Tibet?
Have they run out of provinces yet?

I’ll explain why that stanza piqued my interest after this fun story:

Near where I live, there’re a couple of Chinese takeout places. One claimed to be Hunan, but was probably about as Hunan as Trillin’s piece was insightful. Maybe the owners were indeed from Hunan, and that Hunan takeout restaurant merely meant “Hunan people making Chinese American food for people”. In fact, my neighbourhood being primarily Caribbean, Haitian and African American, their best seller, aside from General Tso Chicken Special, was actually fried chicken wings with french fries. Every time I go in there and wait for my order, most of the clientele would order “Fried Chicken Wing w FF”. I was probably the only one who bothers to look at the menu.

One night, after work, I was feeling kinda lazy and I just wanted Chinese takeout. As anyone in the U.S. knows, on Chinese takeout menus, under the noodles section there are usually “chow mein” dishes. I had no idea what chow mein was exactly, but since I speak Mandarin, I assumed it was simply fried noodles, because it sounds like “chao mian” (炒面). In my experience of ordering fried noodles, they’re usually fried wheat or egg noodles. So I went up to the acrylic-shielded counter and ordered in Mandarin, “I’ll have an order of barbecue pork fried noodles (叉烧炒面), number 18.”

She responded back in Mandarin, “Number 18? Oh you want fried rice vermicelli (炒米粉, chao mi fen)?”

I was confused. I asked, “Hang on, doesn’t number 18 say ‘chow mein’? That’s fried (wheat/egg) noodles, right?”

“Ohh. no,” she said. “That ‘chow mein’ is simply something we write for white people. While ‘chow mein’ does sound like fried noodles, it actually refers to rice vermicelli here. White people order ‘chow mein’ and get rice vermicelli and they don’t know the difference anyway.”

“Ah, I see. Uh, ok, so can I get the barbecue pork fried vermicelli then?”

“Sure thing.”

“So who orders the chow mein if most of the people here order fried chicken wings and french fries?”

“White people.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Simple days of chow mein but no stress,/When we never were faced with the threat/Of more provinces we hadn’t met.”? Trillin, I was pretty stressed out ordering that chow mein. I went into that Hunan takeout place expecting to go home with an order of fried egg noodles and left with an order of fried rice vermicelli instead. I’m not sure if universally in New York chow mein is always rice vermicelli, because some of my friends attest to them actually getting egg noodles, but they always order in English. In another Chinese eatery (cha chan teng) in Chinatown, I saw a sign for chow mein, but it was thankfully accompanied by the Chinese characters for rice vermicelli. I confidently ordered the chow mein this time expecting rice vermicelli.

It’s hard enough to be an expert on Chinese food, even as a Chinese person. But Trillin, when you claim that life might have been better in the simple chow mein days, I’m afraid you’ve simply been eating rice vermicelli all along, and it’s hard for me to take you seriously.