Wednesday, July 30, 2008


This is an essay I sent to a competition a while ago. Warning: it's really long, might take you some time to read, it took me whooping HOURS to write. And because of that, for this one you must comment.



Why Decorate?

Worn out by the long journey on a rickety bus with sweaty old women carrying children sucking their thumbs, I walked towards my room – my world, my refuge, the place where I would spend most of my resting hours in the next two years in – in the fifth hut, the second last one. I had come so far, halfway across the globe to experience this. Difference. Jumping into this melting pot of exotic Asian beliefs, food, festivals and people. As the sweat spouted from my head and neck and dripped into most uncomfortable places, I pondered on how the oppressive sun ferments and brings out the warmth and colour out of the people. How different from my Scandinavian country mates, frigid in their bearing and bland in their speech!

My thoughts came to a train-wreck stop when I unlocked the bamboo door and entered the room. It was completely bare except for a sheet-covered mattress on a single wooden bed, a study table and chair and a narrow standing wardrobe.

I had to sit on the bed to stop my head from spinning. This was all I was given? Granted, I could go out and buy furniture, comforting reminders of home – no, necessities- the wardrobe certainly would not hold all the clothes in my suitcase! But it took me 10 hours to get here from the nearest city. What with orientation, in-college weekend activities and getting accustomed to the college, I might not be able to go shopping for weeks.

Now, the four bare brick walls face me blankly. Absently, I notice several spots where the paint has peeled off in narrow strips, and where it has been painted over in a reddish-brown hue darker than the original one. I uttered a silent prayer that this would not be a portent of my life here: dull, functional and utterly devoid of personality.

It’s been two weeks since I arrived in India, and the weather has not improved, only perhaps my tolerance to it. My room has improved a little; there are a few Hibiscuses in a vase which is a plastic water bottle cut in half. I admit, it doesn’t sound that much better but to have a living thing besides myself in the room gives me some comfort. A few of my international classmates and I have been exchanging trinkets, and now I have in my room an Egyptian papyrus sheet with hieroglyphs, a poster of The Bahamas’ gorgeous beaches, a Chinese paper fan and an Indian cushion embroidered in bright colours and beads.

However, my greatest acquisition so far is the set of drawers that I haggled for and bought at a very decent price today at the flea market in Pune, about two hours away by bus. With 3 large drawers and lovely bronze handles, it will definitely make my room look less like a whirlwind had come and gone, sweeping clothes all over the place.

In its own meagre way, my room is beginning to feel like my own, and at least there are hints of beauty here and there. The uneven paint which used to irk my aesthetic senses is now a familiar and comforting sight. Perhaps beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder. Even that which is ugly can be appreciated in time, nostalgia dimming objective judgment.

Could the reverse be said, though? Could that which is lovely fade in beauty over time? Wasn’t it Keats who said “a thing of beauty is a joy for ever”? Could a beautiful room be appreciated forever, then? I suppose it could. The numerous castles and chateaux in Czech Republic preserved till this day are a testament to that.

Perhaps aesthetic beauty was measured by different standards then, but I can’t imagine living in such a lavish setting where even the bookshelves are a work of art and everything has been passed down for generations. However to a scion of one of those old privileged families, the décor of their family mansion may be a source of pride and identity. For me, a child of the post-modern era, I tend to lean towards expressions of personal beliefs and individuality more than traditional styles. Either way, the importance people place on furnishing tells a great deal about them.

As I rush out the door with five minutes to spare till College Meeting starts, I wonder if everything can be interpreted as beautiful, even things like graffiti, if we consider the motivations of the creator. Decoration is a form of art, after all, and “art is what you can get away with”1. In a way, that’s true: art can be more about glamour and prestige than actual artistic quality. Perhaps if I became absurdly famous in 20 years, a picture of my room as it is now would be captioned as “obviously, the refuge of a brilliant mind too busy to bother with aesthetic decoration, spurning common furnishings for a simple lifestyle but incorporating eye-catching elements such as the cushion, poster and drawers.”

Pretension, that’s what it all is.

It’s three more days till school ends, and I leave the humid air of India behind to go home, with my International Baccalaureate programme completed. I look around at my room, furnished – if that’s the right word – in the most eclectic way, nothing matching but a riot of colours, styles and precious junk. However, I’m also proud of it in a certain way; proud of the fact that each part of it was selected and placed with care and no part of it comes from a mass-produced Ikea catalogue. My room reflects my uniqueness, my life – and whose life can be entirely orderly and fitting? Our oddities only add to our beauty, not detract from it. The most valuable thing I have in this room is not the expensive turquoise earrings I bought in Mumbai or the large storage chest, treasure-chest style that takes up one corner of the room; but the poster that my friends made for my birthday with lots of pictures, quotes and messages for me.

I remember how much I hated this room when I first came. Now I can’t imagine leaving it. It has become an organic personality; it’s an extension of me. Where else do I head to after a long day of school and activities but my plushy bed covered with soft blankets and cushions in bright clashing colours? What better place could my friends and I stay to chat for hours but on the hand woven carpet that I bought from the market, from the seller who kept grabbing my hand and insisting that the fabric was “of the highest quality, yes ma’am”? I take the time to say goodbye to my room, memorising every detail in my mind before I was to take it apart, strip it of any connection to me till the next owner would come and bring life to it again.

On one wall there are photographs pasted everywhere, black and white, colour, large and small – each one of them marking and immortalising an important moment in my life. My birthday, thousands of miles away from home but surrounded with love from my friends. Sasha, my confidante and every-weather best bud2, is hugging me, smiling and laughing in one photograph. Some of the pictures are of home, with familiar figures that are a source of strength and inspiration for me in my most trying times. Taking them down will take hours, I know - not because of the physical task which is easy enough, just removing the Blu-tack from the walls- but the emotional step of packing all these memories away and storing them for another time, another wall, another place.

My friends’ rooms also show the gradual accumulation of “stuff” – trinkets, souvenirs, things that you have to buy just because it’s a steal – of the past two years. Interestingly, each one reflects the personality and character of the owner. Natalia’s is pristinely clean and tidy, not a speck of dirt to be found anywhere. The décor is tasteful, with framed photographs and watercolour paintings of the Mediterranean Sea and Greek countryside on her wall. It hints at her love affair with nature and her close ties to her homeland, Corfu in Greece. She loves blue and white, so entering her room is like entering an oasis of peace and tranquillity. On the other hand, Jenny, the queen of all things dark, weird and twisted; has a voodoo mask on her wall. Everything that she owns is black, even her chair, table and her notebooks. She would have painted her walls black too if only the school had allowed it. Contrary to what you’d expect, she’s not a mournful soul and laughs just as much as anyone else. All the same, the more time you spend in her room the more claustrophobic you get, like being in a rabbit burrow. Jenny chooses to see it differently, she says that black is the best colour because it doesn’t reflect it but absorb it, and there were so many possibilities within. She quoted from a book she had read, “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong-Kingston3, which talked about the black “curtains swinging open, flying up, one after another, sunlight underneath, mighty operas”.

I didn’t consciously set out to decorate my room in such a way, and it feels vastly different from the candy-frosted, pink-and-white interior-designed room that I go back to when I’m home for the holidays in Norway. I could say that this change represents the process of growing up and making my own decisions. I used to think that decorations were only about prettiness, to make one’s life more pleasing by surrounding oneself with pleasing things. Now, I know that it goes deeper than that – that by decorating to fulfill our need to create something original and individual and to express our personality, we is marking out our own little space in this vast and incomprehensible universe we live in.

I pack my room up. I pack my world up.

1677 words


1 Quote attributed to Andy Warhol.

2 Best bud, a shorter way of saying best buddy or best friend.

3 Kingston, Maxine Hong. “Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts” London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd, 1981

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


The eternal restless chafing. The "Oh god, why me?!" The "Oh god, why NOT me?!" Like a baby birds extending its mouth as wide as they can for that succulent worm, I am never satisfied.

No matter what milestone we've reached, it only takes a glimpse of someone who's doing better than us (especially those who are similar to us but somehow achieve more) to make us unsatisfied. Apparently, tests show that the negative emotional impact of an event is 2.5 times more than the positive emotional impact for a good event. If I lose 10 ringgit, I feel 2.5 times more unhappy than the level of happiness I would get from finding 10 ringgit. Why are we rigged this way?

Maybe that is the most compelling reason we strive to achieve success on our terms - thinking that when we get there, the itch will stop. We will no longer be driven to gain more, be the best, shove anyone in our way. Why do we presume that, though? From the smugly contented faces of mercedes chauffeur-driven businessmen? They just don't scratch in public, that's all.

And therein lies the conundrum - we all want others not to have it too bad. We feel pity for starving people on the television screen, though that doesn't always translate into giving a dollar to the crippled man who begs in the night market. They ought to do well, in a fair and balanced world - as long as they don't do better than us. If they're the same, maybe slightly inferior like servants, it's alright. The best outcome is if we should all be the same! A pleasing notion, the centre of communism (communal property, remember?) but doomed to failure when it ignores man's first instinct to dominate. Even democracy, because it assumes all citizens who vote are equal, have perfect information regarding their choices and act in a rational manner, is laughable in it's lofty goals. In the end, the same people will get to the top through ambition, money, connections, charisma or some other potent POWER cocktail, no matter the political ideology in fashion at that period. And we kid ourselves into thinking that if we had the chance to drink it, we'd be a better leader than them.

If we were really honest, the lure of power is almost impossible to refuse. The itch - the belief that we are the best person for the task - wants to be scratched.

I wish I had my new body now, one free from sores and itchy spots. To be gloriously free of worry, envy, competition and frustration! However, if this body so earth-bound, screaming to be satisfied by desires that grow more demanding the more you succumb to them (the way scratching an itch makes it even more itchy), can by its refusal bring any glory to the One who promises a better one than I could ever imagine...

Then I will plunge my hand into a hornet's nest before I scratch. not. even. one. gentle. sweep of the hand.

Freedom is just a breath away.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Happiness is ephemeral. Like rainbows and summer breezes and sunrises, it steals into your heart and you can only gasp at its beauty and the lifting of your heavy soul. When you've gone a long time without being Happy, you forget what it feels like. How your ordinary life is illuminated; everything seems perfectly fitted together; disasters, earthquakes and uncertainty fade into the back of your mind as though they were part of a faintly remembered dream, ridiculous to recall in the bright sunlight.

If we always lived Happy, nothing would ever get done. We would stay children in a perpetual wonderland, never learning that hardship, brokenness and wandering is essential to molding strong and noble hearts to fight the good fight. That the rainbow is beautiful because we have sat through the storm. That the sunrise brings joy because we waited, despairing-desperate in darkness. That the battle victory is so much more exhilarating because it was so nearly lost.

Still, simple Happiness unearned, encountered unexpectedly reminds us why living is such a precious gift. And hopefully, memories of Happiness will envelop the finer qualities of love, patience and wisdom in our souls when we finally depart this world with a smile on our faces.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mission Shallow Waters Day 1 (and 2)

So it began rather disastrously, but just as one sinks and then learns to swim really quickly, not all bad beginnings are portentous.

My ambitious 7am wake-up-and-jog plan turned into a 12pm wake-up-and-eat-takeout-char-koay-teow plan. But then it started to get better. Sent emails, surfed the net and got to talk to someone that I've been missing for a while. Had a firm plan to take a walk/jog in the evening and actually did do it...but it was more of a leisurely stroll as I got to talk with my best friend whom I haven't caught up with for weeks...which means we talked for an hour and a half and still did not get through all we wanted to say!

Then, I went to church for youth. It was pretty refreshing to have a guest speaker who didn't remind us of all the turmoil that had gone before, and encouraging each person to be truly passionate for God. I realised that He truly is a consuming fire - more than an emblem we carry or a group we identify with, our God will do wonders if we allow Him control over all aspects of our life. Exciting. I can't wait to see what He's going to do next in my life, and in the youth.

Ok next day screwed up my biological clock again by sleeping at 6am. Fortunately I had a badminton date so I didn't completely slush the day away. Badminton is fun and not hard to pick up, if you don't expect to be awesome immediately. Was nice talking to my old buddies. I realise how much I've missed them. Your friends remind you who you are.

And then it comes to tonight! Going to watch a movie with parents in our home cinema (ie tv and stereo) and then probably bed. What a lovely simple day.

I'd also like to clarify what I meant by shallowness as some readers have said to me directly that they don't get it. Perhaps it's better to use the word simpleness (or simplicity) which has a certain clean, purposeful appeal to it. But I've already started with shallow, so I'll keep it for as long as this spell carries on.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A new beginning

Starting today (this very morning!) I am going to be shallow.

The rules are: No angst. (some people will be glad to hear this). No deep thought. No philosophising. Earnest discussions only allowed if started by good friends.

And most importantly: No telling myself that what's on the inside counts. THIS WHOLE WEEK, ONLY WHAT'S ON THE OUTSIDE COUNTS.

I have been using that excuse to hide the flab for too long. Yes, I know that I am unique, but then so is every cold you get in your lifetime. That is not a valid excuse not to improve myself, especially when I CAN.

I saw myself in the mirror today. And I didn't like what I saw. I looked sallow and unhappy. Like a kid fed too much candy. (Pretty accurate actually.) I didn't like the clothes I tried on; they didn't make me look better. You can only be content with yourself when you know you are the best you can be, now. I am not that.

I will do my homework as efficiently as is humanly possible. I will exercise every day. I will indulge in fluff like Gossip Girls entire Season One on pirated DVD to reinforce the mantra "You will never be as beautiful, as pretty or as thin as you are now." If that's true, I'm upping my standards while I can. When I do age and go over the hill, it's not going to be over some Bukit Kledang, old-people-hike-up-every-morning, cosy little antmound. It's going to be an Everest, because that's how high I want to reach. While I'm young and healthy enough to do it.

Do comment, but positive ones only. I am hyping myself up for this, so if you've ever enjoyed an inspirational movie this is the part where you say, "You go, girl!" to the cheerfully determined protagonist. Be utterly shallow, and may you enjoy this next (hopefully short and successful) loop in my loopy life. Look out for further updates.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Just a few things

"All night
Hearing voices telling me
that I should get some sleep
Because tomorrow might be good for something"
-Unwell, Coldplay

That's whats been plaguing me for the last few days. I think Singapore just doesn't resonate with me. I don't sleep as well and wake up disorientated there. I feel lethargic and fat and very provincial. I have nasty thoughts. For a looong while (over an hour, which is long for me) I thought hard why I just can't like Singapore. And I still can't figure out why. I have no problem with individual people, with the system even, restrictive and rule-based it may be, but I just can't take it as a package. The thought of ever living there scares me. Of slowly becoming accustomed to the place, making friends, having favorite hangouts, growing roots...glargh. I should never take the risk.

It might be a case of very deep bigotry due to a warped sense of patriotism and "somebody done somebody wrong". Or it might just be a dislike the way I like yellow and dislike say...magenta.


Romans 7:22-23 (New International Version)
22For in my inner being I delight in God's law; 23but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

This is deeper than I can comprehend intellectually, the same way a child draws stickmen and stickwomen to show his Happy Family. It is a pale and inadequate representation. But how I know of what he speaks about! If we are continually saved by grace, and right thinking leads to right living as preachers of grace teach, then why do I still struggle?

If the law is null, then what is right? If God does not speak audibly to us, then who sets the standards? Pastors and elders? But they differ in their opinions too, sometimes directly contradicting each other. Authors? Our Christian friends? What guarantee do we have that they are right? And in the case of my youth split, I'd be seriously confused if that was all we had to stand on...

So what does that leave us with? Our own judgment; subject to all its foolishness and self-deception, the wiles of sin, self-righteousness, pride, false humility; the roaring din that throws our minds into confusion?

Lead me Lord I pray.

And finally, item...

1 Corinthians 1:10

10I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.

That is my prayer for the church.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Treshing it out

The biggest time-waster for young people and adults is definitely the internet.

I sit here planning to take 10 minutes to check my email, listen to a few songs and that's it. Instead, I find myself flipping from blog to blog, shuffling iTunes, checking MSN every few minutes to see if someone's there...and before I know it, my night is gone.

Oh yeah, and sometimes I try to blog but invariably there's nothing in my mind that's worth sharing.

My attention span becomes that of a technologically literate 5 year old. And sometimes it can be relaxing to put your brain cells in "sleep" mode, but it doesn't get much done. Depth is exchanged for enjoyment.

The only time I can really do work on the computer is without music and without internet. And to truly eliminate any distractions, without the games menu either.

But this was not really what I started out to say. What I wanted to talk about what this:

Can we still serve together under Christ if we don't agree with each other?

Those who know me might know what I'm referring to. It truly saddens me when friendships are severed and people become confused and disillusion because of theological disagreements. I know there are certain things that the church stands on and must never compromise on. The question is, which?

I've heard so much already, from people on both sides of the divide and also the fence-sitters. The one thing I'd want to do is to break that fence and bring all the sheep together, for aren't we all under the same shepherd? But that's not right for me to do when I'm new to the argument, so much has happened in the 6 months that I've been away. When everything was developing I was still in Hong Kong living a separate life and thinking that things were all okay, growing in the same direction as when I left. I suppose I should take a lesson from this: we all have our own struggles and everything looks better from a distance (including photos...the fewer the pixels, the better you appear.) Look closer up and you'll see the strain in the smile, the worry lines around the eyes, the dark eye-bags, the tightly-gripped hands.

We sing praises to God proclaiming that He is all we ever need. That we love Him. We give him our lives. We humble ourselves at His feet. But when the music draws to a close and the lights go up and people turn and see each other for the first time, what happens? Does a mask come on then, and we try to act cool and top one another, trading jokes and insults? Look around to see if the "happening people" are around and try to mix with them? Make as much noise as possible and push each other around, huddle in a tight circle sharing celebrity news until the youth leaders holler for quiet...

This is a usual scene at youth meetings. Maybe not all, but many of them. I don't blame the youth. I'm guilty of it too. We are not taught how to behave in church. But is it any better if we act all proper and chaste in the church sanctuary, then leave the church and act like we've never been in it? That's probably worse, and seeing younger youth acting like that should be a challenge to the leaders. Unconsciously, their behaviour mimics yours. By your actions you are showing them what's acceptable and what's not. The new talk is about "mentoring" and I'm all for that. I was never formally mentored by anyone but all the basics of spirituality and Christianity I learned from dedicated kid's pastors in the church and through kids camps, and later on as a teen with another church that adopted me as one of their own.

What matters to teenagers, though, is honesty. Can leaders truly be effective if they are not honest with themselves, with God and with others? This situation in church where the newly-elected leaders want to move forward and expand the youth with different programmes and commitments while not dealing with hurts left behind from disagreements and unresolved differences confuses me. Especially as we're all still in the same boat. Keep praying for unity, but until God touches our hearts to humble ourselves before each other and ask for forgiveness that we've hurt each other by each taking a moral high ground, I don't think that will happen. At some level it doesn't matter that we don't agree on everything. Unless you want to split up, you've got to make up somehow. And when congregations split, differences between leaders confuse and weaken the followers. Or make them more narrow-minded, sometimes.

I love these people, and individually I see that each of them burn with a passion to serve God especially with the youth. It is a conundrum to me why we can't all pull together. Perhaps I oversimplify things because I want to believe it is still mendable, and in doing so I do all parties an injustice. It isn't that simple.

All I know is that when I praise God, it is simple. When I read His word, my heart agrees and is at peace (okay most of the time, unless I go to the Old Testament, but that's another story), and it is simple. When I think of all He's done for me, it is simple.

It is only when I look at the people around me, at the complex messes we tangle ourselves into, at my own doubts and confusions...that I think that it isn't simple. At all.