Utterly Unlike the Snow

So, when you say you’re going overseas to study, the first thing your Singaporean friends and relatives will say is, “Aiyoh, won’t it be cold?” Or, if they are of a slightly more optimistic bent, they will say, “So lucky! Will there be snow?” (Unless you’re going to China, in which case, the first thing they’ll say is, “Ee… But what about the toilets?” – Actually, I’ve been to China, and thanks to a possibly Singapore-inspired 5 star rating system, their toilets, at least in major attractions, are now pretty decent.) So when I landed in Boston, I was pretty scared. I didn’t check the weather, because in my imagination everywhere “overseas” was cold. So I got out of the plane wearing the family winter jacket. You know, the communal jacket that gets passed around and is too big for you because it is from your uncles and aunties and cousins who lend it to anyone going “to a cold country”. It hangs off me like an ugly oversized bag of polyester. Which is what it is. Anyway, I get out of the plane in my family winter jacket, and step into the blazing heat of 40-degree Boston summer.

But of course, this is September, the end of summer, and soon enough the leaves turn, and it is fall. Fall is nice enough, but winter here in Boston is hard and cold. It also seems to go on forever. My first winter here, I remember looking out onto Harvard Yard with my new roommates, and seeing the light, polite dusting of first snow softly covering everywhere – the grass, the branches, the paths, the people. It was exquisitely beautiful. But it was also really, really scary. Something in me panics. I’m a tropical person! I’m not adapted to this sort of thing! I have no evolutionary advantages in this environment whatsoever! I have very skinny legs. I have a lot of melanin. If you put me out in the sun every day I will get unflattering sock lines. I remember in secondary school I had my entire school uniform imprinted on my body: neck line, sleeve line, skirt line, sock line. I have big (for an ethnically Chinese person), wide eyes. My JC boyfriend had an epicanthic fold over each of his eyes – like Lenin – “to keep out the snow”, according to Wikipedia. It must have been some vestigial Northern Chinese trait, because as far as he knows he is Teochew. I was very envious. I could spend hours just looking at it; it was a source of endless fascination.

At Harvard, they call our first semester Fall term and the second semester Spring term. This is a blatant exercise in deception. What they really mean is Winter Part I and Winter Part II. Winter extends its lengthy limbs well into November sometimes, and, exasperatingly enough, it refuses to go away for sure until May. What I hate the most about winter is the slush and the snow. First snow is beautiful, but when it’s sat there for days, weeks, months, its whiteness gets lost in the dirt and smog from the car exhaust and pollution, and from the countless people stepping all over it. People slip and fall on it – there are always a few people hobbling around on crutches by mid-January.

By February, a thick crust of snow has covered all the ground. We let it stay there, just shoveling the minimum number of paths, but even those have slabs of ice and treacherous freezing puddles and slushy pools of water that feel like 7-11 Slushies but look far less appetizing. Every time a fresh coat of snow whitens the ground again, my heart lifts a little – new snow is easy to walk on, and crunches pleasingly underfoot like a million little bones. But in my mind I always know it’s only a matter of time before the white turns to grey and sooty black, and the walking gets treacherous again.

Anyway, sure enough, I wasn’t built for winter. After suffering from the harsh cold of three winters, when the loss of light from the short days and the difficulty of even getting from point A to point B became overwhelming, I capitulated. It turns out I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, the appropriately acronym-ed “SAD” (like Mutually Assured Destruction = MAD). Apparently, I need to stare into a little box of full-spectrum light for at least 20 minutes in the morning during the winter months to maintain my sanity. So when, this year, I returned to Harvard, and winter started creeping up on me again, I felt I had something to prove. I couldn’t let all that ice and snow and sleet and hail or the icy Atlantic gales stop me from going outside. I decided to run every morning, regardless of the temperature. Now, I’ve always been one of those extremely wimpy nerds with no ball sense whatsoever who enthusiastically follows the ball from one end of the netball court to the other, always sprinting but secretly dreading that the ball may come flying my way, because I knew that I would drop it, or freeze on the spot and not know what to do with it. Fortunately, all my classmates knew this, too, and never threw the ball at me, so, by this wonderful tacit agreement, my pretense of playing netball during PE was preserved, as was my personal dignity. So my point is, I am not by any measure athletic, nor have I ever been inclined to be. But as I said, this time I had something to prove.

The first day it dropped below -12 degrees Celsius, My skin felt like it was being burned off by the wind. I got myself one of those terrorist balaclava things. The first day the ice was thick on the ground, I slipped, and, Charlie-Chaplin-like, slid right onto my butt three steps in front of my door, after carefully picking my way over the ice for 40 minutes without a hitch. Soon it became a matter of honour. I started to keep score: Judith 1, Boston 0. Judith 2, Boston 0. Then it was Judith 130, Boston 0, and there was no going back. Because damn it, if I stopped now Boston would get ahead!

Most days, I run along the Charles River. It thrills me to bits that one of my favourite novelists, Haruki Murakami, ran along this same river the year he was at Harvard. He wrote in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, that the Harvard girls he saw running along the river were often confident, sporty and blonde. He never saw any “ethnic” runners. Well, I’m not blonde, I think to Murakami. (I often have these completely one-sided imaginary conversations.) Look, I’m pretty ethnic! And rather pudgy, too. (This was the semester after I gorged myself on Mexican hot chocolate for a couple of months.) I’m nothing like those girls!

Anyway, the Charles River doesn’t look like a river in winter. Like the huge crusts of hardened ice and snow that cover the ground, this river looks utterly dead. It looks like land. It gives off this cold, white look. It chases away the geese that used to feed by it. It was very sad, watching those geese go. I had developed feelings of kinship with those geese. It is difficult to imagine that anything is going on under that formidable sheet of ice. I could walk across it, and probably get safely to the other side.

And that’s the thing about winter that really gets to me. Soon, you cannot imagine things looking any different from how they look now. The Charles River is so solid, it looks so firm you cannot imagine how it could look any other way. The sheet upon sheet of snow, frozen as giant ice heaps on the ground, look so heavy, so huge, so difficult to move, you cannot imagine how anything beneath it could survive its crushing weight, or its formidable cold. That’s the funny thing about really huge heaps of ice and snow. There are only three ways to get rid of snow: heat, salt and friction. Harvard has giant machines that try to loosen bits of ice with salt and friction. However, there is only so much you can do with a giant machine. If you tried to do it with only your hands, you can barely break off little bits, and then the bits you chip off burn and freeze you if you hold them for too long.

You start to imagine that this state of affairs is permanent. You start to forget what the trees ever looked like with leaves on them, with birds in them. You start to forget the songs, the warbles, the squawks and quacks of the birds. You imagine that, because you feel so dead and tired inside, everything beneath all that heavy winter must be dead too, and what little surviving stirrings in you are completely and utterly alone. People walk differently in the winter. They bundle themselves up, tuck their chins down, their hands deep in their pockets, their backs hunched against the wind. They don’t look at you when they pass you by. In winter, everyone behaves as though they are under siege. Our bodies are so preoccupied with fighting off the cold that they have no time or energy for anything or anyone else. This is what they mean when they say, People in Boston are Cold. They just want to get to the next building, warm themselves up – then they can start noticing things around them again. Who has time to bother with what’s around when their eyes are tearing from the bitter wind?

So, the coming of spring is always miraculous. This is how it begins: the sun, even though it seems distant and small and cold, somehow provides the enormous nuclear power which warms the earth again. The earth warms up, the snowfall turns to rain. For several miserable days, you wade around in Wellingtons, shielding yourself from the cold, but the persistent little raindrops soak you through anyway. At the same time, the ice melts. Those formidable sheets of white slush, snow and ice mysteriously seem thinner, then more translucent, then more transparent. They begin to shrink, to pool into puddles with tiny particles floating around in them. As they recede, we are all in for a surprise, the oldest surprise in the world – beneath the snow is earth, covered with grass. It is so green it hurts the eyes. You would think the grass would be dead, or brown, or straggly, but in fact the nutrient-rich ice has been feeding it all along, even while it froze it, and locked it away from view.

The ice on the river Charles begins to crack – large holes begin to form little lakes, then streams free of ice appear beneath its receding borders. And underneath the ice is streaming, living water. Water – that’s what ice is, that’s all it is, and what a thing it is! Water is everything to us – it bubbles forth from the ground, it embraces the earth, it dwells deeply within us. We all thirst for water, the swift currents that make up more than half of us. I imagine what water is to cells, swelling, pushing, pushing against and past their little walls. Without water, the ground will die, the plants will die, the fish will die, the birds will die. That beloved thing, water, which brings us nutrition, which washes away our toxins, which oils the mysterious rivers of our machinery, has only been disguised as ice. It is no longer solid: it is fluid, flexible, adaptable. It moves. In our breath we hold its vapor. It rises, and it falls again as rain.

Imagine a baby born in the heart of winter. She has only known the blinding whiteness of the snow. She grows up in winter, and has never seen a leaf, a bird, a river. All these things, filled with life, are beyond her imagination. But somehow, she has some inkling, some idea of the rumour of spring, because she is herself a wonderful new life, a bursting forth of lips and limbs and fingers. She stretches them, testing them against the deep white silence. Months, years go by. And then suddenly, spring sweeps forth, touching its first flower, and all the life that had been dormant all along rushes up through the earth. To be that girl! Imagine knowing the world for the first time, and then seeing it rapidly, suddenly for a second time, more lively and mysterious, more abundant than the first!

The land we know is utterly unlike the snow. It is deep and rich, it is green and lush, it is uneven and dirty and filled with ants, it is soggy and fertile and laced with roots. Its thousand tongues are the leaves of thick, green cow grass, those rich, fat leaves have just the sticky, slightly itchy edge. All manner of insects wind their private ways between them, crawling up the legs of the unsuspecting human, attacking the sweet stickiness of the fruit in your hand. It used to make me think those British picnicking children in my storybooks were crazy. The land that we know gives us huge, beautiful trees: rain trees, rambutan trees, angsana trees, palm trees, the magnificent and majestic banyan tree. It gives us mangrove swamps, with their subtle flapping mudfish, their slopping stagnant water, their rich smell of gentle humid rot. Orioles and mynahs and yellow birds and crickets and grasshoppers and lizards and ants cry and scuttle and creek and whisper and rustle and sing – I can almost hear them in my mind. I can almost feel the thick blanket of water vapor, that warm, saturating blanket of humidity. In the island of my imagination, everything bursts with the knotted thickness of life. In the midst of winter, I long for the land of eternal summer.

Published in Lianhe Zaobao in Chinese. Click here for translation and link to PDF and online article

Oedipus’ Eyes

When I was about fifteen, I wrote an essay entitled “The gods are unjust” about Oedipus Rex, the ancient play by Sophocles – it is one of the great Greek Tragedies, replete with chorus and tragic hero. It was my first tragedy. Oedipus was condemned by Apollo’s prophecy, related by an oracle, to kill his father and marry his mother, and bring down the Kingdom of Thebes he ruled in so doing. This is, of course, the same Oedipus that Freud referred to when he describes the Oedipal Complex – that is, his observation that small boys want to marry their mother and usurp (kill) their father. It is one of Freud’s most controversial claims (in fact, he had based it on his observation of Hamlet’s behavior, but wanted something less silly sounding than “Hamletal Complex”, I suppose). In Greek Tragedy, the tragic hero brings about his own downfall due to a tragic flaw. A traditional tragic hero is a giant among men, upright, dignified and just, except for one aspect – the tragic flaw.Oedipus’ tragic flaw was the most fundamental one of all: Hubris – that is, pride, the willingness to defy the gods.

image from Wikipedia

He displayed this when he claimed that the prophecy concerning his birth would be unfulfilled. He declared this at the height of his powers: the man had, running from exile from Corinth (where he had been adopted as a little baby and brought up as a prince) in order to not fulfill the prophecy concerning the Corinthian king and queen, met with a strange man who challenged him. He had a duel with him and killed the man. Then he met a Sphinx along the way, and being a wise man he solved the Sphinx’s riddle, freeing the people of Thebes from its tyranny. He was given a beautiful bride, the Queen of Thebes, as a prize, and made King of Thebes. As King of Thebes he ruled wisely, excising the sinners from the land, bringing peace and prosperity to the citizens of Thebes. It was at this point that he said, Apollo’s oracle will fall! And of course, (anyone who has read any myth at all will know) this is when the metaphorical shit hits the metaphorical fan.

At the time I thought this a pagan play, with a skewed morality which I could hold at a critical distance. I would appreciate it aesthetically, I thought, but not morally. After all, I’m a Christian (I thought to myself). My God is not like Apollo at all – He would never hold me accountable for something he predestined me to do anyway, and in any case, He wouldn’t make me go through this kind of horror. My God also knows that I only have the best of intentions – he won’t hold me accountable for sins I commit unknowingly! So I reasoned: I will not be swayed by some silly Greek play. I had already decided ahead of time that the gods were unjust, when I wrote the essay. Now to list the evidence, I thought. You can read my argument, which I still think very reasonable, here.

Yesterday I realized I was wrong. I had been guilty myself of hubris – for putting the gods (yes, even pagan gods) in the dock, as such, along with Oedipus. If gods and men were equal – on a level moral playing field, as such – I would take the part of Oedipus in a heartbeat. After all, who’s the better man: an unknowing father-killer and mother-ravisher who did everything he did out of compassion for strangers, or Mr Zeus himself, who’s pretty much raped every pretty girl and goddess this side of Creation, smote people he didn’t like for no good reason, fathered a pantheon of illegitimate bastards and then been an absent father to them all, and pretty much (pardon my French) dicked around for all his everlasting life? I thought Oedipus the better man! But you see, gods and men are different. This is the lesson of humility.

Well, first of all, the Zeus that the ancient Greeks worshipped and theorized about, and probably the Zeus that the playwright Sophocles had in mind when he wrote this, is quite different from the Zeus of popular legend. People did not think of Zeus as my Mr. Zeus, as described in the above paragraph. Apparently the Greek and Roman myths about the gods being capricious and annoying – all those delightful stories – were as controversial as say, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, or, more to the point, Jesus Christ Superstar or even Madonna’s music or the Da Vinci Code are to Christians today. Perhaps the best analogy to how Sophocles’ play today would be Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ – reverent, controversial, with a moral god in the centre, not some capricious serial adulterer, written probably by a devout but flawed man. So I was wrong on that count – I brought a straw man of a god to the dock, when really I should have been considering Someone far more like my God.

If the God of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph were the One who put Oedipus through this particular play, I realized, just yesterday, I would agree with Him. Here are several things I have learned in the last ten years, sometimes at great personal expense, which compel me say this:

1)   Direction, not intention, determines our final destination.

I have done terrible things out of good intentions, and I can honestly, having searched my heart, say that I did not mean to do them. Nevertheless, I did them, and the consequences of my actions were real. My experience of reality is subtly different from my friends’ and acquaintances’ and enemies’. They each have an interior world, with a personal narrative. Until I am in touch with this narrative, I can never know if the words I say, or the things I do towards them, are helping or hurting them. The road to hell truly is paved with good intentions – I’ve realized this because I have both tossed carelessly my friends into the flames, as well as been abandoned to the Pit by the best of people, all thanks to good intentions.

2)   Sin is not just personal – it is generational and collective.

This is a hard lesson to hear, particularly in America, or anywhere in the West where individualism is the dominant ideology. America tells you that “you can make it on your own”. So Americans make up stories (let’s take Disney films for example) in which the hero is largely orphaned (usually he or she has only one parent, and that single parent is pretty ineffectual), and the orphan makes it in the world anyway, within one generation, accomplishing what he sets out to do. Of course, the true nature of American success is very rarely like this. Michael Sandel, building on the work of John Rawls, has already begun arguing against individualism with communitarianism. In Political Science, Robert Putnam brought to our attention the consequences of the breakdown of community in America. Going back further, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government was written upon seeing early America, and the most salient difference he had seen between the New World and the Old was the American genius for organization – that is, of building community, of grassroots groups and movements. Given these roots, communitarianism may really be as American as individualism.

But back to my point about collective Sin. This is not to say that (as people in Jesus’ day argued) something such as blindness was an indication of parental sin. Nor should it ever give credence to such horrible thoughts such as that the melanin of those of African extraction is a symbol of the sins of their fathers, and therefore we should blithely exploit them as slave labor. No, this is not what I mean by collective Sin. I think that collective Sin is actually more of an accumulation of tiny individual sins. Let’s get back to Oedipus for an illustration. When the King and Queen of Thebes hear of Apollo’s oracle concerning their son Oedipus, (that he would kill his father and rape his mother), they are horrified and decide the only way to save themselves and Thebes is to kill their newborn son. However, love stops them. The baby is instead abandoned on a hillside. A shepherd sees the baby and is moved to compassion, and takes him in and raises him as a shepherd boy. Later he is brought into the King of Corinth’s palace and raised as a prince. A drunkard Oedipus meets one day tells him about the prophecy concerning him. Oedipus is horrified, and flees Corinth to save his adoptive parents. This is when he meets his actual father on the road, and commits parricide.

Truly, the road to hell was paved with good intentions! I do not have the heart to blame the King and Queen of Thebes for not killing their child. Nor do I have it in me to say the shepherd should have left well enough alone (if you ever find yourself ensnared in a myth, taking in a changeling child is always a bad idea). But perhaps we can definitely say that that man should not have been drunk, and gone around blabbing about ancient oracles while drunk. Who knows, if Oedipus had never talked to that drunkard, he could have ended life as a very satisfactory King of Corinth. In any case, all of these people broke the law. The law against a person who would kill the King and rape the Queen was death. Even though Oedipus was a newborn infant, he deserved death if the prophecy was true. The shepherd did not know the law (that the baby was condemned), but he should have known the law of myth (never pick up a changeling baby). However, out of compassion he thwarted the law. Defying the law leads to Death – this is the burden of all knowledge and Wisdom. I think if each of us knew what we were capable of, and the evil that we will in fact unleash in our lives, we would probably all quite impartially sentence ourselves to death. It is God’s grace that allows us to move through time like blind little minnows, not knowing what we do, and who we kill daily on the road. It was the accumulation of these tiny little transgressions – against laws of reason (logos), against laws of myth (mythos) – that added up to tragedy.

3)   Sin has eternal consequences because God does not work inside Time.

Albert Einstein divined that Time is merely one of many dimensions, although we tend to experience the world in three dimensions, traveling down the line of Time. God doesn’t (for obvious reasons) do this. He is able to see all of human history (as well as pre- and post-human history) as happening all at once. This solves the conundrum of free will vs. predestination. We are responsible for every single sin we commit, and if we imagine Christ eternally on the cross, being nailed by each sin as we commit it, perhaps we would be a little more hesitant in our words and actions. We are even more culpable for particular sins if directed by a particular prophecy not to do something. (Fortunately most of us do not find ourselves in this situation – although it does call for a careful, thorough examination of the prophecies of the Bible).

At one and the same time, everything has already happened in the sight of God. This is why God is able to deliver prophecy via his prophets. This is also why prophecy is useful – because the prophetic message has always included “repent!” as its basic, fundamental cry. If people hear the prophecy, and repent, judgment will be held back. Well, at least until the stench of sin reaches a certain noisome pitch, and when the cry of the poor and the widows becomes quite unbearable again, at which point the whole thing starts all over again. This makes every sin a lot more terrible, even the small ones, because each one echoes down the long reaches of history, geography, Eternity itself. Furthermore, it joins the sins of our fathers, the sins of our friends, and the sins of total strangers to form a stream of narrative: these various tributaries converge to form the River of Death: the Styx, that runs through Hell itself. The sins of the fathers are handed down to the next generation (via genes, via inherited patterns of behavior, via kinks or omissions in the moral code). So it really isn’t Apollo’s fault that Oedipus is predestined and free to commit sin. That is simply the human consequence of only living in three and a half dimensions.

So what is the whole point of Grace, anyway? What’s the point of compassion if it merely leads to hell, the same way cruelty leads to hell? What difference does it make whether you do unto others as you would have them do to you?

If I were God, I would never have put Oedipus through all that. I also would never have inflicted that horrible prophecy on him. However, if none of this had happened, we would lack one of the first and greatest heroes of the Western Canon: blind Oedipus, who put out his own eyes and exiled himself from his Kingdom the moment he realized what he had done. Why did Oedipus blind himself? I think I finally see why.

Oedipus wanted his outward self to be a reflection of his inward condition. “I was blind,” he says, as he stabs one eyeball after the other. “Therefore let me be blind.” It is an affront to the gods for him to have sight, because it creates a chasm between heaven and earth – between the spiritual world and the physical world. Blindness is what Oedipus longs for, after all: if he had never known any of the prophecy, if he had continued having fulfilled it, without knowing he had, he may have been a great king, (he already was). Cloaked by blindness, protected by wool pulled over his eyes, he could conceivably have been a good king of Thebes. But he would never have gained the stature of a tragic hero, whose name is uttered by mortals even today.

I wrote a little poem about blind Oedipus wandering in exile. If Oedipus had been Christian, I would have said to him, one day your Savior will come and redeem those eyes. You have repented more than an ordinary man can bear – you have repented in dust and ashes, and your crying eyes show me your nobility, your sincerity. One day when you are caught up in heaven you will lift up your sad face, and see. And He will restore your sight.

passing by Oedipus

I was walking by

the walls of a kingdom

flushed in the fading sun

and passed hardly a glance

at the cloak in the gutter –

the one with the noble heart

(the eyes were closed,

I could not see

if they were truly blind)

First published at the Harvard Ichthus

Remembering PseudoReality

Before four years of college (well actually five) at Harvard totally blunted my edge, I was a storyteller at the forefront of technology.

Sadly, four years of chatting in rooms with chesterfield sofas, swirling port and pretending to be living in the 1600s meant that by the time I graduated, my ambitions to build whole worlds had shrunk to ambitions to publish a slim chapbook by a select little letter press, which didn’t even happen.

But when I was 13, I started building this geocities website called PseudoReality.  It was supposed to be an immersive aesthetic experience of words, image with a secret architecture. I coded it myself, and I produced the graphics and the text. It was a portal into another world, the world inside my head. It was supposed to be hard to navigate. I hate the fact that the first principle of website design today is to have navigable menus, and for everything to scroll downwards. I made my websites scroll SIDEWAYS. (a very poor wayback machine capture: https://web.archive.org/web/20010428020612/http://www.geocities.com:80/pseudo_reality86/kopix.html) It was about challenging the boundaries of what it meant to be a website. It was supposed to open your mind, not let you know exactly where you were all the time.

I wanted people to get lost in my world. I wanted people to not know where they were, and enjoy the sensation of being stuck in my web. In fact one of the images in my “home” page (insofar as a complex web can be said to have a home page) was of gossamer. I was a spider waiting in the middle of the web for unsuspecting visitors to land on my page, and then they would get lost, and then maybe they would find me on ICQ and chat with me (which happened a lot).

I need to get back on track. So to my surprise I turned into a science fiction novelist. This is still rather dis-satisfactory. The novel is an old form, and I had to learn the ropes of how to create one, and that was rather fun, although also pretty anxiety-inducing. In my first novel, I have a Utopia Machine – the thing I was trying to create in the first place. The Utopia Machine is a machine that can unleash an entire universe. I want to actually do this. I want to create a universe.

I want it to have a deep history, a deep mythology. I want to draw on world epic and create a new epic, one that will inform the philosophy, religion, morality and nature of this new universe. I want to create a Pseudoreality again, and this time it will be high definition, immersive, and profound. I don’t know if the technology really exists yet, but this has something to do with the field of video games, which I don’t play because I don’t enjoy shooting people.

So what I need to do is get some kind of PhD in world epic, and digital humanities or something, and gather all these astrobiologists, composers, musicians, mythologists, educators and programmers. Pseudoreality 2.0.

Judith’s Time Turner

Judith opens the door

At the bottom of the stairs.

She screams.

Let us turn back time

To when Judith is marrying him.

Judith is the thirteenth wife

And she doesn’t know this.

Judith falls in love.

Judith sees him for the first time.

 

There are three doors in the basement.

What lies behind the doors?

Portia isn’t sure.

She’s heard about the tiger

She’s heard about the woman

She’s heard about the man.

Turn back time again.

Portia is the prize.

Everybody lies

About their intentions.

Can her father discern the truth?

He’s dead, by the way.

 

Jessica ran away

With her father’s jewels

On such a night as this

We are playing soft games

With all our lives.

Don’t forget that Portia’s ring

Will bind him to your friend forever.

Once again let’s turn back time.

 

Judith is standing

In front of the tent

She has put away her mourning

For her dead husband.

She is a beauty once again

The Assyrians are at the gate.

She has milk in her tent

Judith isn’t taking no for an answer

She will have your head.

Rewind again.

Who is Judith’s husband?

 

Who is the man the emperor took away?

Lady Jiang demands they tear down this wall

To unearth her husband’s bones.

The emperor must mourn him too

As must the empire

Before the emperor can touch her.

Rewind the time

Lady Jiang sees him by the river.

Who is he now?

 

The cowherd with the water buffalo

Is stealing her clothes by the river

The wide star river

Where the cranes are building

New skyscrapers

Bianca is running away with Leantio

And she doesn’t know he will sell her

To the Duke, like a pawn

Or a ring, a saleable thing,

Because he, too, wants

To be a courtier.

 

When did they first meet?

On the balcony beneath the moon

He said that Juliet was the sun

And meant it too, while Mercutio

Faint with fun

Praised the praise of Rosaline the nun

Hamlet paces through purgatory

Where he’s banished Ophelia

And where she drowns.

Everybody dies in this one.

But if you turn back time

They all arise,

 

Walking backwards, fretting, strutting

Cross a stage of the mind

of who knows what?

Not the bunny in the moon

Chattering its song

With Neil Armstrong.

Laika is burning up upon reentry

And so is Alexander Sergeyevich.

Shostakovich sits by the phone

Waiting for the knock on the door.

Stalin sends his wife lemons.

Intertextuality.

 

Prufrock asks us if we dare

Disturb the universe.

Does he dare confess?

Reverse the time.

He is ascending up the stairs.

He is spitting out a peach.

Rewind rewind rewind.

 

On an island on a beach

They first meet

The other side

Of each other.

Everyone from small islands

Is afraid of exile on an even

Smaller island

But not them.

 

They will stay here,

Not pursue any further degrees,

And live the simple life

In Eden before

All that Apple nonsense.

And as for all that stuff that went before

 

She opened the door

And saw all the corpses

Let’s call it the graveyard

Of Evolution

All the death that every lifeform

Had to paw

Before emerging,

Red in tooth and claw.

Character

 

What does this word mean, character?

A character is a person. The person is a character.

A character is a word, but a word can have more than one character.

In Chinese, my name has three characters – one for my family, one for my generation, one for myself.

This means that my character is an amalgamation of my ancestors, my people and me.

This also makes sense genetically, but also environmentally.

“Man hands on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf”

The sins of the father are visited upon the son unto the third generation.

What do these things mean?

On the other hand, the traits are also what make for a good character.

The stubborn streak that skips a generation but then comes full blown in the child. The ambition, the resilience, the tiger spoiling for a fight.

The world goes around in its revolutions, and we are these tiny humans on the surface of it, spinning round and round and round.

The formation of character is perhaps the most important thing, for when we leave the earth that’s all we can bring along. The shape of our souls.

Like particles colliding, we don’t know the full extent to which we affect the other people around us, we cannot predict their perception or response.

We are double blind because they, too, cannot see us.

Every thing we do, every word we say has repercussions, the calculations of which no regression can truly trace.

And for that reason sometimes it is better to be silent.

Character is also conveyed through detail. The telling detail, that insistence on folding up a little piece of card to stick under the wobbly table.

The fastidiousness, the fussiness, whatever you want to call it.

Character is destiny. But we are also the determinants of our character.

When we read a sacred text we are encountering a person.

Who that person is dances before our eyes, enters the synapses of our mind.

Like Claude Frollo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, who conjures Esmeralda before the page to dance for him. But it is not her – how could it be? It is a simulcrum of her generated by his brain.

In the same way we are all flames in the mind of God.

It is love that animates that flame.

My characters are flames in my mind, leaping, dancing, sputtering, dying.

I love them, though they cannot love me.

You, too, are a character to me, a person I cannot see.

I will craft him in your image. Perhaps one day your children will read the book and they will understand.

Passion doesn’t die, it is a blue flame, quietly burning without the louder colours of the fire.

In the embers of the fire’s eye, there is nothingness – the centre of the flame.

If you take your fingers and pinch it, you can catch the uselessness of the centre, you can still put it out.

Screwtape on @Harvard

My dear Wigglesworm,

It has come to my attention that your charge has been admitted to Harvard, and that you are inordinately proud of this development. I write to issue you a warning. You have a difficult task ahead of you, which may end in unmitigated disaster for the Lower Kingdom, particularly if you persist in your present attitude. Have you – a diabolical creature with the best education the Lower Realms could provide – actually been taken in by the human blather that surrounds and constitutes the aura hovering around this University? Have you been encouraged by the various titters your charge’s fellow church-goers have made about “Godless Harvard”? Do you anticipate a hearty meal on the patient’s despair before even putting in an ounce of work? I have said this time and time again, and I will restate it now: every and all temporal circumstances can be used by either the Enemy or Our Father Below; all perceptions of the “inherent” good or evil about places, events, even emotional states, are false illusions we wish to cultivate in humans and guard against in ourselves.

Firstly, there is nothing “Godless” about any place –

this is a source of immense frustration to Our Father. Remember that the Enemy has so interpenetrated the very fabric of the Universe as to leave us not even a last preserve that is free of Him. It is a matter of opprobrium that even Hell itself has been cruelly and ruthlessly invaded in that most regrettable incident that concluded the Incarnation. This is not, of course, to say that Harvard has not been progressively and cleverly emptied of God by our efforts since its regrettable inception as a college for the education of the laity by that noisome little band of humans called the Pilgrim Fathers; However, human actions done in the name of the Enemy tend to cast notoriously long shadows, often preserved through the cunning use of sacraments and symbols, such as the University’s shield and constitution. As such, our job is to distract students such as your patient from the deeper layers of meaning that lay in the University’s past, instead directing her euphoria to the frivolous things she may accomplish through the name of “Harvard” in her imagined future.

Now the present situation affords you three delectable directions in which to work on the patient. The first is, of course, overweening arrogance. Human beings, you must remember, are often blind, to all intents and purposes, to the ultimate nature of causality. Conceit is easily manufactured by allowing a human who has just accomplished something to trace its causality back to their own hard work, or sacrifice, or talents, without taking the next logical step in asking from whence these talents and time and privileges come in the first place. Pride is the ultimate mark of Our Father, and one should fan it into flame at every opportunity. In particular, the patient’s admittance to Harvard will no doubt generate a certain amount of social awkwardness due to the overwhelming reaction of friends and family – often a mixture of admiration and envy. The patient will be forced to enact a little dance of false modesty, for which she will later congratulate herself, and furthermore seed in her an “insider/outsider” mentality, in which she can only confide her genuine happiness and gratitude to people of similar privilege or “caliber”. This is the beginning of snobbery, which I also encourage you to cultivate. Under no circumstances should you allow her to say things like “by the grace of God”, or “I am so grateful” about her admission – ideally, she should falsely wave away all congratulations with something as patently untrue and unmeant as “Oh, it was nothing”, or “I think they may have made a mistake”.

Now, some of your elation at the potential to turn your charge into an atheist or materialist is justified – not by the Harvard name itself, which you so naively rely on, but by the sheer fact that the patient will be entering the realm of Academia, which humans have elevated to a minor Personification. Our brightest scholars have done an admirable job in turning the realm of Academia from one of the hotbeds of worship and truth-seeking into the wide ocean of despair, hollowness and cowardice it is today. Much of this can be credited to the great Thurbucular, who almost singlehandedly lent intellectual credibility to atheism with his admirable work on Nietzsche. Ever since, we have systematically excised the most vital questions to human life from Academia altogether, leading academics to dismiss them as “unscientific”, “unreasonable”, and best of all, “unanswerable”. Thus we have Political Science which does not talk about Love, Economics that presupposes a dumb selfish machine to be the standard human, Literature more concerned with its own form than its substance, and best of all, Religion that is so obsessed with reaching consensus it practically ignores the Enemy altogether. Unseat the desire for truth in your patient and replace it with a desire for academic respect, and your job is half done.

Lastly, and most importantly, the patient’s new-found sense of self-importance should be used to eliminate all pleasure from her life. This can be simply done by applying the illusion of ownership to her time and effort. As soon as she gets the notion that the privilege she has received was a result of her own efforts, she will be haunted by the possibilities that every second of her time and every iota of her effort must be leveraged towards some goal or other – it does not matter what the goal is, so long as it is not the Enemy’s Purpose – because the potential yield is so high. This will prevent her from making any real friends, to enjoy reading for its own sake, or spend time talking to people who love her, turning even pleasurable conversations into a means to an end. In a matter of months, she will be using other humans as means – the most delightful of the Diabolical Principles, always convinced that her ends are pure and noble! If you can keep this up for four years, you may well be on your way to producing a little tyrant of a politician, a nihilist of a writer, a burn-out of a social worker, or, even better, a hungry, disillusioned human incapable of enjoying ordinary life, doomed to dissatisfaction without action, and a particularly delightful blend of selfishness and despair.

Do not, under any circumstances, allow your charge anywhere near the Christians on campus. They tend to be of a particularly resilient strain, unusually humble and curious, and would inevitably corrupt your charge with their example. Let your charge anchor her image of the “Christian” to the disapproving titters of her church friends, driving a wedge between the “intellectual” and “spiritual” sides of her in her imagination. There is nothing more dangerous than an intelligent Christian who “loves” the Enemy with his mind! Cf. the very unfortunate telepathic leak that occurred of my correspondence with the late Wormwood by one such mind. I still rankle at the memory.

I wish you all the best, and hope to hear of your progress!

Your concerned supervisor

Screwtape

The graduation speech I never got to give

 

Wow. I’m having a sense of déjà vu.

Actually it isn’t a sense of déjà vu, because I’m actually doing this a second time.

Some of you may not know me, but that’s because somehow, in my tumultuous time at Harvard, I took 5 years to graduate and 2 graduation ceremonies before I finally stand before you today, graduating.

You have no idea how relieved my parents feel.

And after 5 years of Harvard, with my GPA deflating like an old balloon, I’ve started to get a nagging suspicion that maybe, just maybe my secret mission in life is to fail. Do you ever get this feeling?

A friend of mine said, Harvard is like Mr. Darcy.

He’s tall, dark and handsome, and filthy rich.

He dances well, but he’s obviously a stuck up snob, and though you try to ignore him, you find him strangely attractive.

He mysteriously proposes marriage when you’re a senior in high school. And you’re like, What?

Anyway, I was a very obnoxious freshman.

Like every freshman, I entered the hallowed gates of Harvard thinking I was a success. I mean, I was so far gone, I wanted to be in Adams House.

I was going to be a bestselling poet (boy was I delusional!) and save the world while I was at it.

I was going to graduate summa cum laude, with Phi Beta Kappa, surrounded by a crowd of admiring friends and cheering topless men, my parents beaming in the audience while I receive my diploma (well, that part is true, at least! Hi Ma!).

I would triumphantly lead a procession of poetic revolution.

Well, guess what, I’m not.

See, the trouble with Mr Darcy is that, when you finally realize you’re secretly in love with him around about junior year, he’s cold and distant and has ignored you for 2 years since your last hookup, and may or may not remember your name.

And you’re like, is he ever going to actually marry me?

So anyway, at some point during my Harvard career, like Elizabeth Bennet, I had to take a break from Mr Darcy.

I took two semesters off, completely exhausted with the bizarre “it’s complicated” relationship drama, feeling like a failure.

I think this is actually the most important part of my Harvard career, getting away from Harvard.

Because Harvard spurned me. Let me count the ways.

I thought I had brilliant insights, but I was actually just “that guy” in section.

I thought I was attractive. But every boy I propositioned with culturally inappropriate pickup lines such as “when do you knock off? Can I take you to dinner?” mysteriously rejected me.

I thought I was famous, but most people had never even heard of my country.

I thought I was strong, but I got Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I thought I was morally upright, but I spent two exhausting years trying to be smart and dress well and suck up to important people so I would find friends who would tell me they liked me, and that I made good art.

But worst of all, I hurt someone – I hurt someone so badly, in my rush to get to the top, in the rush to climb all those ladders that I saw put in front of me, that I barely recognized it. I broke someone’s spirit. I broke someone’s heart.

This was the failure, the ultimate failure –

And for it, all I can say, is mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. And I realize I have hurt many people to get where I am today. Sometimes just by turning away from them. Sometimes by seeming too smart for them, and then just not reaching out to them. To those people, wherever they are, I want to say, I am so, so sorry.

I took my second semester off not because I was going to save a species, or start the next facebook, but because I needed to hide under a rock in my parents’ house in Australia, to somehow enact my worst fears of being jobless, dry, whiny, 24 and living with my parents in suburbia, with no friends, no writing, no work, wasting my potential and squandering my Harvard education.

Failure. I was a picture of failure. In Australia. Failure. Australia. It even kind of rhymes.

But you know what, I was given a second chance. And a third chance. And a fourth chance. And a fifth. I don’t even fully understand why. It’s all still whirring away in the dryer of my unconscious being “processed” as I speak.

But you know what? I’m here, now, after five years of Harvard, and I’m finishing strong.

Because in a strange way, after I had accepted I was a failure, I finally began to enjoy Harvard.

I found friends when I stopped worrying about acceptance.

I found inspiration when I stopped trying to perform.

I found Currier, when I stopped fantasizing about transferring.

I found courage when I stopped trying to be a martyr –

Courage to say, look –

I don’t have, at time of writing, a job, an apartment, and scariest of all, a visa –

I have no idea, no clear direction, no money, no plans.

But I have joy in my heart, and a sneaking conviction that maybe, just maybe, my mission in life is to fail beautifully, for the instruction of others.

I REALLY don’t know what to do with this diploma. But I do know that this diploma should open up options, not close them. Like, if I want to be a barmaid, I shouldn’t not be a barmaid because I went to Harvard.

And you know what gives me joy and courage? I came to Harvard hoping to study under a Nobel Laureate. This is before I knew what “Emeritus” meant.

But the best teacher, mentor and counselor I have had here is none other than our very own Yohannes. Hi Yohannes! Please stand up?

You know why? Because he has patience, infinite office hours, and a heart of gold.

And he is so wise. He let me cry when my crushes rejected me.

He listened patiently when I told him I wanted to save the world.

He comforted me when I was drowning in my work, when I felt ugly and fat, when I felt abandoned, and alone, and without a single friend.

I went to his daughter Bethlehem’s baptism.

It was a long service – six hours! Much longer than this speech.

But so beautiful. Yohannes is a deacon of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and that means he was wearing golden robes and a crown on his head that day.

You know what? When I saw him I had tears in my eyes. Because I thought, that’s how he’s really dressed, every single time I pass him by in Manny’s office. Yohannes is a prince. An elder in the council of elders. If there were any justice at all in the world, he would be dressed in a robe and crown every day.

I think this is what my personal rock star, Jesus, meant when he said the meek will inherit the earth.

Because, really, if there’s anything Harvard has shown me, it’s that the race is not to the swift. Sometimes the swift aren’t even in the race.

I am standing here today because of the enormous privileges I’ve been given which just two generations ago would have been impossible for a Singaporean girl to have.

My mother tells me her mother was a brilliant woman – an investor, an artist, a fashion designer, a woman who taught herself to read and write and taught herself medicine and eventually let a church take over her house.

She didn’t go to Harvard. There was no way she could have gone to Harvard. She barely even went to school. She had her first child when she was sixteen. She was a child slave, sold into slavery by her clan association. I mean, talk about a good admissions essay! She should be standing here, not me.

And all over the world, today, there are people like her, without the opportunities that we have. We are standing here not because we are better than these people, but simply because we have been mysteriously chosen by Mr Darcy.

There is so much human potential pouring down the drain, so much genius that goes untapped, which lives in a slum, in a cardboard box, and will never see the light of day.

How can we not understand that THIS too is failure?

How can it NOT break my heart? How can it not force me to screw up my conviction, to shore up my insecurities, to roll up my sleeves and just do something, anything?

I’m not standing here because I’m more talented or more idealistic or more accomplished than you are.

I’m standing here because I cut off people and hid under a rock.

I’m not standing here because I’m more moral than you.

I’m standing here because the world is broken, and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, I can do about it.

Except admit that I have failed.

I am so relieved to tell you I have failed. Because “success” is just a burden I don’t want to carry around anymore.

After all, Mr Darcy won’t marry us. Hell, he won’t even feed us after today.

And we’re supposed to donate to his estate, not inherit it. Although, I must admit, today he looks pretty cute. I’m going to miss him.

I’m standing up here because I’m sad.

I’m standing up here because I’m happy.

I’m standing up here because I’m humbled.

I’m standing up here because I’m proud.

But most essentially of all, I’m standing up here because I’m DONE!

And the world is so beautiful, and there is still so much work to be done.

In conclusion, I want to summarize my entire speech in 10 seconds. Here goes:

If at first all you’ve done is succeed,

Fail, and fail, and fail again.

But for today, let us rest and enjoy the food, the friends, our proud parents and our proud teachers, and the gorgeous, golden sun.

Thank you!

*Tewolde Yohannes was the security guard at Currier House. He was the most important person at Harvard to me.

The Black Box

I had a conversation with some friends at a dinner party recently about functions – as in the mathematical concept.

I recalled when I was learning about functions in secondary school, and it was the introductory lesson on functions.

f(x)

wrote the teacher on the board.

The teacher was a young A level graduate doing her first job as a relief teacher since my regular math teacher was away. I put up my hand.

“But what IS f(x)?”

“F(x) is the function.”

“But what IS the function?”

“The function is a box. You put something in the box. Then something else comes out depending on the box.”

“But what IS the box?”

This went on for about half an hour. I did not get it. I was good at math, well, reasonably good considering Literature was my best subject. But I didn’t understand what the box was, and this was maddening. By the end of half an hour, probably everybody in my class hated me and the teacher was in tears.

In Singapore, students are taught to identify math problems by type, referring to ten year series books of past year exam questions. People compile the exam papers from the past ten years, and students “spot” questions by type and learn the formula for how to solve them. This is how people get good grades. I refused to do any of this. I knew about the patterns, and I liked patterns. But I always wanted to know the first principles of anything I learned. Even better, I liked to know the stories of how those first principles were generated in the first place.

“WHAT IS THE BOX?”

Years later, I was binge watching LOST, the crazy philosophical show that became a phenomenon. The showrunners explained how they generated the interest in the show with mystery after mystery.

“Here is a box. You don’t know what is in the box. I will never open the box. You will never get to see what is in the box.”

This drives people wild.

When I was in junior college I did a research paper on economic forecasting. Economic forecasting (at least the more quantitative sort) is about constructing the rules of the box. The variables go in, the predictions come out. I learned about VAR (regressions). I quizzed twelve economists from different private banks in Singapore as well as the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s economists. Nobody gave me a satisfactory answer about the box. In fact, the MORE equations an economic model had, the LESS accurate the predictions were. The fatal flaw was revealed when I learned that every economist adjusted their figures whenever MAS released their own predictions. In a state-led economy, this made sense: the government’s predictions are actionable.

But the thing that made me decide that I can’t be bothered with Economics anymore is that the report that had the MOST accurate results was generated because the economists forgot to change the figures from the previous month. It was a human error that had produced the most accurate predictions.

I was like, fuck this, I’m going to study literature.

Today I return to the box. I understand it better now.

I am running scenarios 200 years into the future with variables – only the variables are characters.

I am still obsessed with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I know many dismiss it as pseudoscience but I have found its predictions to be far more accurate than any economic model I have ever played with. How do people react to stress? How do they grow across their lives? How do they interact with, fall in love with, break up with, divorce the people in their lives? This too is a box. These too are variables.

I think my mission in life is to take the abstract, make it concrete and understandable, then implement it. This will take a long time but I am very confident it can be done.

 

PS. I know there is such a thing as behavioral economics but I haven’t done much in that field. If you know about this please feel free to contact me.

The Great Pleasure

“Learning is perhaps the only pleasure that might replace increasing consumption as our chosen mode of enriching experience. Someday, the joy of recognizing a pattern in a leaf or the geological strata in a cliff face might replace the satisfactions of new carpeting or more horsepower in an engine, and the chance to learn in the workplace might seem more valuable than increased purchasing power or a move up the organizational chart. Increasing knowledge of the ethology of wolves might someday replace the power savored in destroying them.”

– Mary Catherine Bateson, quoted in Courage and Calling by Gordon T. Smith.

image from Wikipedia

I love learning, was filled with an insatiable curiosity from the moment (according to my mum) I opened my eyes. In my home country, people would never ask me a question like, “Why did you choose to go to Harvard?” – our attitude in Singapore is that you don’t choose Harvard – Harvard chooses you. If you get into Harvard, you’d better jolly well go. Not that I didn’t fret over it though – I was a little insecure and intimidated, wasn’t sure whether I’d thrive in a cutthroat environment, etc, etc, but really those were fears that were quickly overruled, and very soon the little envelope was mailed back and I started to prepare myself for the adventure that would be attending the Big H. Sure, I do still kind of suffer from the occasional useless counterfactual, but five years later, I have a fistful of regrets but a large sloshing bucket of gratitude.

I guess I’m revisiting my decision because the question resurfaced again this past month, when I was traveling in the Midwest, while staying with some family friends in Indiana.

When I first got to Harvard, I realized immediately it wasn’t the place I had thought it would be – in both good and bad ways. But because it was freshman year, I guess, and because I was suffering from a good dose of culture shock, at first it seemed primarily bad. To me the name of Harvard always called to mind the Ideal University – that is, the best university in this world and age, and therefore desirable in and of itself. It didn’t matter what its underlying principles were; or even who its faculty were. The very fact that it was the best meant it was some kind of platonic University, where all truth and knowledge of the ancients and the accumulated wisdom of the world today resided.

So, I used to be the girl with the 10 year plan. I was insatiably ambitious. When I was 7 or 8, I asked my elders and teachers what the best university in the world was (at the time, they answered “Oxford or Cambridge”), and decided then and there that I would work my ass off to get there. I don’t think I was primarily motivated by arrogance; when I was 7 I had barely any notion of ranking. In fact I was bizarrely innocent of the fact that my good grades meant that I was ranked highly against my peers – I had not made the connection between doing well and “winning” in some sort of race against everyone else. I guess my parents had taught me well not to compare myself with others. Of course, the moment the school rankings were published at the bottom of our report cards my innocence was completely and ruthlessly shredded to bits.  But my point is, I didn’t aspire to go to the best university because I thought I was the best – I aspired to go to the best university because it was the best.

Of course, I was disappointed. You see, I had always imagined universities to be beautiful floating islands with ivory towers and turrets in the clouds, where knowledge was pure abstraction, freed from the dross of the quotidian. I thought of professors as rootless sages, repositories of knowledge, without interfering backgrounds or personal tics that may bias them towards one field or opinion rather than the other. I don’t know where I got that idea – perhaps I thought my small country was provincial, and that in the big countries history was taught differently, or that with a full breadth of literature (or at least the Western canon) at my feet, I would have a better grasp of human nature than from 6 literature texts for the ‘A’ levels. I was actually stunned when I realized that in the department I was interested in, the best professors were Americanists, that they all approached their fields from personal interests (I was bewildered why black professors were teaching African American studies rather than being part of the history or literature departments) rather than from some Archimedean fulcrum from which they could leverage the world. I didn’t understand why Asian American writing had to be taught by Asians, why the Shakespeare professors were white, or why I had an American Literature requirement to fulfill. I was pretty devastated, actually.

Until I realized that there was no such university as the one I had been pursuing – that there is no objective standpoint to all knowledge, at least not one which any one human being can teach. And that there IS no objective standpoint that one can arrive at, either, no matter how good a student. And that the question, “Why did you choose Harvard?” is a totally valid one. I chose Harvard because I wanted to learn, and to learn from the best. I chose English because it was my comparative advantage, and also my passion. I chose to stick it out because too many people had invested in me, from the scholarship boards to my parents to my schools to my peers to my country, for me to just quit when the going got tough. I wasn’t just representing myself here – there was all this honor at stake.

There were people in my church who warned me against going to university to study literature because I would “lose my faith”. I was so annoyed I didn’t even answer them, I just smiled and nodded. But in my heart the remark stung, and I vowed to myself, if literature makes me lose my faith, then it wasn’t a faith worth having. Because, ironically, literature has, on more than one occasion, saved my faith. And because being put through the gigantic ego-wringer that is Harvard has been more purging, more cleansing of my soul than any other institution could possibly have been. The most important thing I learned in Harvard, in fact, was that I could hold a deep-seated, decades-old belief with all the intense fury I could muster, and still be wrong. I still remember, when I was faced with fulfilling my Science B (biology/chemistry) requirement, tiptoeing rather shamefacedly into the “Human Evolution” class for the introductory lecture, wondering if my church auntie was right. She wasn’t. I didn’t end up taking that class because I was too chicken, but I ended up taking Steven Pinker’s Human Mind class, which had a lecture on evolution. It was one of the most enlightening moments of my young life. I felt like the scales were falling off my eyes.

All my life when I picked up the children’s encyclopedias that lie around the house, and stared at the ethereal pictures of the planets in them, I was struck by their beauty and wonder. And then I would look at the dates scientists had labeled on them – however many billions of years, and I would be repulsed by what I thought was a lie, constructed by (what must have been) the infernal conspiracy of world scientists which I had learned about in church, to deny God’s creation. (Yes, I was surrounded by young earth creationist propaganda in my childhood). It bewildered me how the noble white-coated scientists of my imagination, whose science and technology had put a man on the moon, could simultaneously concoct such lies to fool small children, when they daily gazed through telescopes to see such heavenly beauty. It did not make sense to me, and now I see why.

I used to camp with my friends on the offshore island of Pulau Ubin, and, away from the light pollution of the mainland, we would gaze at the stars. What we saw was probably a pale imitation of the skyscape that our earliest ancestors gazed at – the skyscape that inspired myth, mathematics, astronomy, exploration, philosophy –  but still, no matter how diminished, there is still something awe-inspiring about seeing light that has traveled so far, light that is so old. Those massive balls of fire are lightyears away – I’d think to myself – billions of billions of lightyears away….They are signals sent from the dark of the deep past, beyond history, beyond mythology, into the retina of the now, from stars that may have long burned out, but which retain, for this split second, in my perception, their luminescent fury. And it just would not latch into place with my idea of a God who is just and constant and beautiful and, above all, True, to mislead his people each and every night with paper-thin lies, lies that those stars were not in fact more ancient than the earth, more ancient than human memory. It was hypocrisy to call God true and then accuse him of purposely setting the earth up to look old when it was in fact new. It seemed like a nonsensical concept to me, and for the longest time it gnawed in the corner of my brain, a thing I refused to think about, as I repeatedly pushed it out of my mind.

But now that I’ve looked it full in the face, I see that it is not so terrible – that in fact a God who used evolution to make us is an even more logical, beautiful, consistent and terrifying God than the one the pages of creationist magazines contained. I guess the moment of truth came to me when I had finished Jerry A Coyne’s amazingly respectful, mild-mannered “Why Evolution is True”, and I walked into the Northwest Labs building for the first time and saw, hanging above me, a gigantic, mysterious skeleton. It could have been a dinosaur, or some sea-monster of Nessie proportions. But then I saw below its ribcage two tiny, unconnected bones, precariously held in place by wire, that (I imagined) must have floated in the midst of fatty flesh and blubber when this creature still roamed the seas and I thought to myself, it must be a whale. Because Coyne had explained in his book the mysterious case of the whale – descendants of land mammals who returned to the water, thus leaving vestigial, unconnected pelvis and hindlimb bones beneath its spine. “Those bones serve no function at all, ” I thought. “It must be the skeleton of a whale.”

Two weeks later, the curators of that space finally put up a plague for the skeleton, and sure enough, it was.

And in that moment, my heart leaped and something latched into place.

For the Splendor of Creation – Gustav Holst’s The Planets

adapted for Harvard Commencement

For the splendor of creation that draws us to inquire,

For the mysteries of knowledge to which our hearts aspire,

For the deep and subtle beauties which delight the eye and ear,

For the discipline of logic, the struggle to be clear,

For the unexplained remainder, the puzzling and the odd:

For the joy and pain of learning, we give you thanks, O God.

For the scholars past and present whose bounty we digest,

For the teachers who inspire us to summon forth our best,

For our rivals and companions, sometimes foolish, sometimes wise,

For the human web upholding this noble enterprise,

For the common life that binds us through days that soar or plod:

For this place and for these people, we give you thanks, O God.

The Church of England’s posthumous apology to Darwin:

Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well

my job and censorship

It’s a sort of game for me when I meet someone new, particularly a fellow expat, and, after explaining what my job is, waiting to see how long it is that the topic of censorship comes up. It really depends on how polite the person is. Sometimes it doesn’t come up at all, but sometimes it is the first question that occurs to them after they hear the name of my workplace.

So the interesting thing is that, on a daily basis, my job actually consists of censoring articles, or modifying their stance, not in favor of the Chinese government, but rather, to fit into a Western Liberal Media pose. The aim is not actually to “suppress the truth of conditions inside China”, as Western liberal pundits might suspect, but rather to produce articles that would not be out of place in the Washington Post or the Huffington Post, though of course minus the anti-China bias. My job is actually to present China as a progressive, civilized, even liberal place to live in, where people get on with their lives and pursuits, which are varied and interesting.

So, for example, there’s an article about the dog meat festival going on in Yulin. Because the paper knows that Westerners frown upon the eating of dog meat, although this is a totally culturally determined arbitrary line regarding animal cruelty, since Western countries eat other animals and treat them badly in the process too, the article focuses on animal rights activists that are rescuing dogs by buying them from dealers, rather than doing a straight up coverage of the festival in an approving tone. Who’s being censored here? Probably the people who think it’s their right to eat dogs as part of the Chinese culinary tradition.

I guess to put my finger on it, the mission is to present a kind of approachable, we’re-not-so-different-from-you kind of image of China, a packaging of culture into something a Westerner would readily accept. It -is- manipulating the information into a particular viewpoint, but it’s in the West’s own image, and speaks of a certain eagerness to please, coming from a place of cultural inferiority rather than confidence. A confident China would simply present its own culture, warts and all, and go, “take it or leave it, this is how we do things”. But that’s not what’s going on. What is being presented it a kind of facade of similarity, in which differences are endearing quirks, minor and fascinating but nothing insurmountable.

Another interesting question would be whether or not this image crafting works. Seeing as most people in the West get their diet of news about China from Western sources, with an inherent prejudice against Chinese news sources, I don’t think it’s working that well. I think the Chinese media has a huge credibility issue due to its government links. That is simply not going to go away because it is true that the media is tightly controlled and cannot cover certain controversial topics which are of interest to the Western audience. I believe there is a huge gulf between the Chinese media’s portrayal of China and the Western media’s portrayal of China, and neither shows a true picture. There is space, perhaps, for an entirely different form of coverage of this huge and fascinating country, only it has to come from neither source.

18/5/2015, Beijing.