Stories from NMS: Chapter 3

A lot of events led up to that conclusion. I had to see a child psychologist when I was in primary three at the age of nine. My insecurities manifested themselves into a fear of what I thought then to be a fierce Chinese Language teacher. My Mandarin, while not horrendous, was not up to par. I did not speak it at home and could not for the life of me understand why learning it was necessary. I abhorred the language then and due to transference, cared little about the teacher teaching it. She picked on me a lot it seemed. She was always asking me to read aloud by myself the paragraphs the entire class had just read. I hated that she was able to tell when I lip-synced because I had not been able to scribble in sound words in English under the Chinese characters so I could pretend to read flawlessly. But what I hated more were the loud sniggers from my classmates that told me I was not good enough. Those feelings of inadequacy at home and in school snowballed into an episode of school withdrawal.

I cried everyday that period, refusing to go to school because of that awful Chinese teacher. My grandmother had to deal with progressively worse tantrums, particularly at night before bed. My mother had to be called in to calm me down.

I had lived with my grandmother until I was ten and had stayed with my parents only over the weekends or during school holidays. They would make time to visit me on alternate weekdays, staying about an hour each time. That arrangement facilitated working schedules of my parents and alleviated some child-rearing responsibilities. So when Poh Poh called, they had to rush down after a long day’s work, out of their regular scheduling, to see their only child weep her eyes out because of a Chinese teacher. That occurred a few times before my mother decided to make a call to the school to do what Singaporeans do best – complain. It was also during one of these emotional episodes of mine that there was an altercation within the family due to my abject refusal to let my mother leave after one of their visits. I was bawling, desperately hanging on to her skirt and being quite impossible to reason with. That was obviously not my usual meek self but I remember a derogatory comment made to mock my behaviour along with the genes that I inherited that stayed with me to this day. That convinced my mother that she had to take me with her. So I stayed with my parents for awhile but the episode was far from being over.

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NMS Note:

If you are reading this, a big thank you for getting to this point! I am not sure if I should ask for feedback this early but should you like to, I would be happy to hear them.

If you’d like to read the story from the beginning, click here.


Stories from NMS: Chapter 2

I was left on my own quite a lot. Other than frequent trips to the clan house, and school that occupied me, I fleeted between the playground and the TV. And of course family business where I held an important position. I could probably get a job on the set of Desperate Housewives if my life continued the way it started. I am glad it did not.

When I was in my teens, a time where self-discovery was nigh, I became very sensitive about what others thought of me. Comparisons were often made and I felt I lacked in many ways according to the standards set by society: I was not in a brand-name school therefore not too smart, was a little overweight, wore old-fashioned clothes, and was never part of an in-crowd. I also do not belong to the group with the means to buy fancy things. For these reasons, my situation evoked feelings of pity rather than understanding from those around me. On the generosity of others, I was brought along to certain outings and events. I enjoyed them. But because I knew even from a young age that they were because of a perceived inadequacy, that while grateful, I had always had a voice telling me that I wasn’t good enough.

I didn’t know what I was good at nor what I truly liked. I was unsure of myself; I felt like I had to adapt to situations and put up a socially acceptable front or risk being ostracized. I had a weak sense of identity and tended to flounder to the side that I think would be pleasing to others. My confidence was virtually non-existent and for awhile, I pandered to be accepted. I think I felt obliged to be that way because I was both appreciative and embarrassed about receiving goodwill out of what was essentially pity, a fact that was reinforced by people who in demonstrating care reminded me, perhaps unwittingly, of my station in life. But I was mostly afraid and rather miserable about the bleak future painted. At that young age, I was scared that I would never get out of that cycle. It was a difficult feeling to process.

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NMS Note:

Here we go. A nice, free and coloured divider.

If you are reading this, a big thank you for getting to this point! I am not sure if I should ask for feedback this early but should you like to, I would be happy to hear them.

If you’d like to read the story from the beginning, click here.

Stories from NMS: Chapter 1

I grew up with my grandma. As far as grandparents were, she had to be the best one around – doting, easy-going with not much of a temper. She got married at sixteen to a man twice her age and moved to Singapore with just the clothes on her back. Life was hard back then. Though not destitute, money was not falling from the sky for Gong Gong and Poh Poh. From the stories I have heard, she was a virtuous, subservient wife who could cook, sew and clean. Taking hardship in her stride, she fulfilled all the expectations of a 1940s spouse and raised three girls of their own, the youngest of whom is my mother.

Poh Poh received little education. The Second World War broke out when she was about eight and her world came crashing down. She told me stories about the War: scurrying to hide when planes were flying overhead, trembling in terror as bombs exploded around her, surviving on sweet potatoes for months on end. She shuddered every time she spoke of the atrocities she had witnessed and was thankful she had lived despite all that had happened. I was intrigued by the stories she told – new details would emerge the more she told them and I often wonder if those stories were her way to teach me about appreciating life.

Poh Poh loved playing mahjong. I remember accompanying her often to a clan house where she’d meet with friends and spend the afternoon chatting over rounds of mahjong. I made friends there too. Poh Poh’s friends would bring their grandchildren there, usually during the school holidays, and those were the days I looked forward to the most. Other times, I was alone and entertained myself as well as the old fogies there with childish antics. I ran about the place sometimes helping the proprietor clear tea cups, sometimes neatening the mahjong sets but more often than not I left the mahjong room to wander around the clan house because I didn’t much like the suffocating smoke. I would pop back now and then to announce my presence so Poh Poh wouldn’t worry and also to steal big gulps of Chrysanthemum tea. They liked me and I didn’t mind them. I liked their tea. Its fragrance took my mind off the fog in the room.

The trips to the clan house were always something Poh Poh and I did together. It was our thing. But way before it was ours, that place was the location of my grandparents’ date nights. Gong Gong had passed away when I was three and I had been her partner there for awhile. The old fogies there would always ask me where my grandpa had gone and I’d tell them he had been sent to the seventeenth dungeon in Hell. I didn’t know why my response was always met with raucous laughter then, but since I received such approval, I kept at it. When I grew old enough to understand, I realized, in horror, that I had unintentionally banished my grandpa to one of the infernos of Chinese Hell. I often wondered what else old people did for entertainment – I found out then. I also came to the conclusion that they probably didn’t like my grandfather much.

It seemed Poh Poh was rather good at mahjong since she won a lot. She may seem meek but behind that goody-two-shoes exterior is a sharp lady. She is innovative too and is a particularly good seamstress. She used to make party dresses for her daughters and altered clothes to fit occasions. She did not know physics from chemistry but she certainly is well-versed other ways.

In many ways, Poh Poh was one of the key influences in my life. I may have inherited character traits from my parents and evolved into a tenacious one with pretty strong views but the tenderness in me is most definitely from her. That, I mostly keep hidden.

That and many other things. I keep a lot to myself for fear that I would get into trouble with others or others in trouble. For that reason, I was known to be precocious and trustworthy so I had a lot of family secrets and the occasional gossip unloaded unto me. I became the listening ear, an aunt agony of sorts for my family. I was sworn to secrecy, a responsibility I earnestly undertook where while I bubbled within with so much to say yet I couldn’t tell a soul.

I do not know where I found the capacity to lug the hefty load around with me but I somehow did. It was not fair to put that kind of burden on a kid. And I doubt anyone could point fingers at me for letting the many cats out of the bag because there really is a limit to how much a barely mature mind could take. I proved that it was a mistake on their part because I broke and told Poh Poh one day. Everything. It turned out that she had been subjected to the same rules of engagement as I was. We were both relieved to find a confidante in each other. It was nice to meet Poh Poh’s knowing eye across a crowded room of relatives whose conversations we both understood much better with the type of background information we had. I suppose this was my initiation to the complexities of adulthood.

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NMS Note:

I can’t stand using the asterisks as a border. Will hunt down a decent one soon. [Done!]

If you are reading this, a big thank you for getting to this point! I am not sure if I should ask for feedback this early but should you like to, I would be happy to hear them.

If you’d like to read the story from the beginning, click here.

Stories from NMS: Prologue

I felt myself tense up as I waited for their reaction. Outwardly, my face betrayed nothing; I was the same nonchalant self, indifferent to opinions and unresponsive to comments. But it was not the same this time.

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NMS Note:

I’m trying my hand at short stories – a paragraph or two or maybe three at a time that will form chapters. Until I come up with one, the working title shall be ‘Stories from NoMadSojourn (NMS)’ because I have only vague ideas on what to name it.

The effort would likely take me up to September when my sabbatical ends if all goes as planned. Hopefully, I’d have a book of some sort by the end of 2019.

Feb 2019


Writing to Vent

I found this while cleaning up the crap known to accumulate in my phone.

I wrote this last year at the peak of my school year stress curve – my first time preparing a class for the National Exams.

The class did very well but, boy, the expectations, pressure and worry prior were quite incredible.

Monday. Dreading

Wednesday. Grinding

Friday. Barely breathing.

Are we coping?

Exams. Coming.

Homework. Overloading.

Marking. Terrifying.

When is it ending?

Pain. Throbbing

Heat. Scorching

Fatigue. Unrelenting

Is it not improving?

Head. Splitting

Skin. Burning

Body. Weakening

Final reckoning.

Panama’s Chagres River

The Chagres River is to Panama what the Nile River is to Egypt. While the latter is the source of agricultural life and therefore existence, the former is vital to its existence as a port of call for ships plying the Atlantic-Pacific routes and therefore life.

The system of locks built for the Panama Canal was an engineering feat in its time; it involved the French and the English using newest knowledge and the best machines then to dig basins, install humongous pipes and figure out how to fill locks with the water from the Chagres. The work was tough – they had to cut through rather hard rock which at the time was next to impossible because the technology to do so wasn’t available. So they blew up a lot of the area and in doing so affected the biodiversity a bit. In digging around, they also found fossils like the skull of the extinct giant sloth.

It seemed to me that conservation efforts there are trying hard to mitigate the inevitable negative impact the busy Canal has on its environment. But the port is key to their economy and its biodiversity is equally important given that they are at the crossroads of the two oceans as well as North and South America, they need to keep a delicate balance. Balance is also subjective since a change in something could have far-reaching effects that tip the scales.

Their indigenous people, mainly the Embera, who live along the Chagres face restrictions on the way they live exactly because of conservation and protection of the Chagres. No longer can they hunt and gather so they are kind of forced to go to the supermarkets in the city. They can still fish though. Their way of life is threatened and living gets difficult- the way out for them is actually tourism. They invite curious tourists into their homes, cook for them and sell handicrafts in exchange for the right to continue living in their lands, have at least primary-level education delivered to their homes and have solar panels to charge handphones. I kid you not. We have progressive indigenous people and I am not sure if they sometimes get confused about the era they live in. Some do choose to leave and make a life in the city. And they would not be considered an outcast for ‘abandoning’ their people.

The 96-strong village we visited with warm but shy inhabitants had their first college grad return to continue the Embera way of life. It is expensive and hard work for them to send a child off to college without expectation that the child would return but Claudio did it anyway. He said his heart is where his family is. That, to me, is someone who has had pretty good education.

Maybe the Chagres River had something to do with it.