Are we eating our memories alive?

We’re suffering from cultural alzheimer.

As more and more of our memories and lives gets uploaded to the virtual cloud, we’re starting to become more forgetful.

If it doesn’t exist online, it doesn’t exist at all.

It’s as if hundreds and thousands years of human history has been completely wiped out.

What exists is a very tiny silver of the present.

Which is ironic since the Internet is supposed to be a vast repository of human knowledge.

I see this cultural alzheimer in action every day at work (I’m in social media). Our ideas, if I can even call them ideas, are shaped and buffeted by the the nature of our work. What’s new? What’s trending? What’s cool this moment?

Nearly every month, Facebook is rolling out or tweaking a new content format. Every day we share new thing that a particular brand did on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube or Snapchat or other social media platforms that are constantly popping up.

But in the chase for the now and newness, our knowledge becomes increasingly limited. The wellspring only goes as deep as 2 to 3 years ago. At the max, probably 5 years.

The result is a stagnant puddle of sameness, of repetitiveness.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—George Santayana

It’s in our nature to have a short memory span. But technology and social media is exacerbating our forgetfulness.

Take for example one mainstream social media trend, the flatlay. If you don’t know what a flatlay is, it’s basically an Instagram trend where you post a picture from an aerial view:

15801924_1867163130221692_6383834604733726720_n

Image taken from Instagram account @flatlays

The flatlay fits Instagram’s aesthetic. Clean, confined to square boundaries, it’s allows the user to take in the image in one glance before scrolling on to the next image. As a result, flatlays are immensely popular on Instagram. Multiple brands who have a presence on Instagram have done flatlays.

But the flatlay, in one iteration or another, has been around far longer. I used to think that flatlays originated from Instagram. But I forgot that the camera has been around for more than 200 years. More likely that not, some ur-hipster was already doing flatlays before Instagram was around.

In fact a typographer by the name of Dave Wakefield did a series of flatlays for Knorr chicken stock cubes back in the 1980’s:

knorr-just-the-cube-01

You can check out more of his work here

Apart from its non-square dimension, if I posted this on Instagram it’ll definitely within the flatlay aesthetics. Yet this image predated Instagram by more than 20 years.

Going back further, Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel can be considered as flatlays too. The only difference is that you need to crank your head upwards instead of downwards:

650px-CAPPELLA_SISTINA_Ceiling

Look at all these flatlays

The fact that I thought flatlays could only come from Instagram demonstrates a sort of arrogance. As if our past ancestors were incapable of coming up with such thoughts. This technological arrogance, combined with our short memory spans, blind us to the past.

Only the present and future matters.

Yet we don’t realise that our wellspring is drying up, that hundreds and thousands years of human history is turning into dust, literally and figuratively. And every day we’re constantly drawing upon a more and more limited source.

What happens when that source dries up?

Will technology save us?

Advertisements

Muhammad Ali (1942 – 2016)

Muhammad Ali

Photograph: Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

 

I don’t have anything to say about Muhammad Ali.

The only thing I can say is that he was part of the collective consciousness. Even when I am not a boxing fan, even when I was born after he retired from boxing, I knew who he was.

He loomed large in the social and cultural fabric. He became an icon. He became someone to remembered because of what he said.

Because his words were power.

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”.

“Impossible is Nothing”.

So powerful that decades later, his “Rumble in the Jungle” speech still has the power to thrill, to inspire, to fear.

Muhammad Ali – a man of words that sting.

Fiction Friday: “In the Beginning”

heaven

(Taken from Unsplash.com)

I had this little story rattling around my head for a couple of years. I’ve never wrote it down, until now. It’s influenced by Andy Weir’s short story The Egg, including the second person perspective. My story is not as well thought out as Weir though. Honestly the plot is kind of contrived and half-assed. But I needed to get it out of my head.

A side note: I read The Martian when Weir was still posting it on his website until he had to take it down when it was published as a book. So I’m kinda hipster.

Anyway, story.

_________________________________________________________

 

You stood outside an imposing Gate when you saw a man whose size seemed to fill the entire expanse strolling out to meet you.

“Welcome,” He said. Despite His imposing bulk, His voice had the timbre of a grandfather’s kindly tenor.

“I’m in Heaven,” you said.

“More or less.”

“Who are you?”

“I am God the Father.”

“Are you here to judge me?”

“No,” He said, “I am here to guide you.”

“How?”

“Walk with me.”

You followed the Father through the Gate and into Heaven. You stood for a moment and noticed something strange.

“Where’s everyone?”

The Father smiled.

“There is only us,” He said.

You stood near the edge of Heaven, uncertain and wary of the Father and of the endless empty realm that stretched out before you.

“Come,” said the Father.

You looked back and saw that the Gate were closed. It was only forward now. The Father waited as you slowly walked towards Him.

“So what now?” you asked Him.

“Now we talk. I am sure you have questions.”

And as you walked through the Isles of the Blessed, the Father recounted the entire history of the universe: its birth, its habits and whims, and its eventual death.

Thus passed an eternity.

You and the Father were walking on the Celestial Lake when you came across a being that radiate light so intensely that even the Father had to shield His eyes.

“I am God the Son,” said the being, “Walk with me.”

So you left the Father and walked with the Son. And as you walked through the Elysian Fields, the Son revealed to you the entire history of humankind: its innocence, its boundless energies and relentless pursuits, and its eventual destruction.

Thus passed an eternity.

You and the Son were walking across the Lands of Paradise when you met an old man who was filled with such contemplative peace that even the Son was humbled before him.

“I am God the Holy Spirit,” the old man said. “Walk with me.”

So you left the Son and walked with the Holy Spirit. And as you walked through the fiery firmaments of Heaven, the Holy Spirit enlightened you on your entire histories: your conceptions, your numerous life journeys, and your eventual passings.

Thus passed an eternity.

You and the Holy Spirit were walking across the outermost sphere of Heaven when you came across another imposing Gate.

“Now it is time for you to walk alone,” said the Holy Spirit.

“Why?”

The Holy Spirit smiled. “That is for you to find out.”

“Am I going to Hell?”

He shook his head. “Hell, Heaven, Earth, they are merely different shades of you.”

“But who am I?”

“You are what you are.”

And with a gentle nudge, the Holy Spirit ushered you through and into the darkness. You turned around and saw his wizened smile disappear behind the Gate.

So you wandered alone, lost and abandoned. Constantly searching for the Gate back to Heaven.

Thus passed an eternity.

You were drifting through the emptiness when you started to observe your surroundings not as they were, not as they are, but as what they could be. You moved across the void and knew what you had to do.

And you said:

“Let there be light.”

A failure in story structure

Take a look at the video below.

 

Can you tell me what’s wrong with the video? No? Well I’ll tell you. I was not impressed. Maybe it’s because I’m an emotionless robot but the video failed to hit that sentimental mark. The idea was there, but when it came to executing the idea, it fell flat.

“But Zareth,” you say, “This video is about a 13-year-old boy sacrificing his childhood to run the household while still scoring top marks in a nation-wide examination! And it has a piano driven background music! How is this not sentimental? Stop being such a cold-hearted asshole.”

True… it has all the makings of a sentimental video, but still…

Let’s analyse the video, shall we?

 

Beginning

So the video begins with a voiceover from the 13-year-old teen. He proclaims that basketball was his first love. With that, the protagonist of the story (and his ‘first love’) is established.

 

OBSTACLE!!!Shit just got realThe obstacle is also introduced early in the video. So now we’ve got a hero (13-year-old teen), his first love (basketball) and an obstacle (his mom’s stroke) preventing him from being united with his love.

Classic hero storytelling structure. But we’re still missing something. Something that adds a bit of a spice. Something, or more accurately, someone who is a counterpart to the hero. That’s right, we need a motherfucking villain. Enter the dragon.

 

VillainA coach so evil that he is willing to kill 13-year-old boys who miss basketball practices. A coach so evil that our hero has a thousand yard stare from the many painful memories. Well, those memories will be painful when your coach is this guy:

 

Coach

Image credit to FailedCritics.com

“Do you know how to bounce the ball? Do you fucking know how to fucking bounce the ball??? ANSWER ME!”

Now we have our hero, his first love, his obstacle and the villain. All of which are established within twenty seconds of the video. So far so good. The question now is how will our hero overcome all the adversity to be reunited with his one, true love (i.e. playing basketball so that he doesn’t get killed by Terence Fletcher)?

The next few scenes are montages of our hero grocery shopping, buying lunch for his disabled mother, and managing the household finances. In the voiceover, the hero said that he “had to learn to run the family”. At least we’ve now established that our hero is being dragged away from his one, true love by the time-consuming task of taking care of his family at a young age.

We’ve also established that our hero is a filial son, which is the premise of the entire story. It’s also the title of the video.

Which brings us back to the main question, how will our hero overcome this adversity while still keeping his moral core intact (being a filial son)?

This is where the story starts derailing.

After the household montage, the video cuts to a scene showing a new dawn on the horizon:

 

A new dawn. Or is it?Is this it? Is this where they show how our hero overcome his adversity??? Will we get awesome training montages with Terence Fletcher screaming abuses at him? OMIGOSH!

Nope. Trololololol.

Instead it’s another household montage. But what irrationally pissed me off is when the hero said this in the voiceover:

 

WHAT THINGS???WHAT THINGS??? WHAT THINGS??? AND WHAT OTHERS???

To be fair, ‘some things’ implicitly refer to taking care of his mother and running the household. But that was already established in the first 20 to 30 seconds of the video, so why repeat them? I’m more confused by the ‘others’. You mean our hero has more than one love besides basketball? Man, Terence Fletcher is gonna be more than pissed.

 

Coach

Image credit to FailedCritics.com

BASKETBALL IS NOT YOUR FIRST LOVE! IT’S YOUR ONLY LOVE, YOU FUCKING INGRATE!

So after the second household montage, we get another soft-focus shot of the sunlight:

 

Here comes the sun, again.This must be it. It definitely must be it. We just got another sunlight shot, people. It’s coming. The training montage. I can even hear the Rocky music with Terence Fletcher screaming over it.

 

 

 

 

 

Annnnndddd scene:

 

Terence Fletcher can go sit on a basketballWhat.

A homework scene?

But that’s not the weirdest part. No, what’s weird about this scene is that our hero’s friends are pissed that he’s missing training. After introducing the villainous coach at the beginning, I was expecting the basketball coach to kick down the door and drag our hero away from his home.

 

ME ANGRY! ME COACH! ME COACH ANGRY!

Image credit to TwitchFilm.com

RARRRR! THIS IMAGE IS COMPRESSED AS FUCK!

Instead of watching the door get kicked into splinters by a sociopathic coach, we get a bunch of passive aggressive Whatsapp message from some angsty school kids.

By now it’s nearing the end of the video. And we still have not answer the main question of how our hero will overcome the adversity of his mom’s stroke to play basketball again while still remaining filial.

In fact, the question never gets fully answered. Because these are the next couple of scenes:

 

Actually I don't know how to bounce a ballOur hero looking longingly at a basketball game.

 

What's this round thingy?Our hero getting rewarded with a basketball for scoring top marks in the nation-wide examinations.

 

The video wasn't really worth it.And the end scene.

I was also irrationally pissed off by this scene. The problem with this scene is that there’s a huge gap between “Some things became more important than others” and “But I guess it was worth it”. Both sentences are crucial in showing that our hero willing sacrificed his love for basketball because nothing is more important than his mother (Terence Fletcher might dispute that).

Yet, both sentences are separated by more than a minute of filler montages. So when the last line “But I guess it was worth it” appears, it sounds like a non sequitur.

Ultimately, my biggest gripe is, you’ve guessed it, the non-appearance of the coach.

 

I've enough of this bullshit

Image credit to USAToday

Look at those steely blue eyes.

So at the end, I’m not feeling what the video wanted me to feel (i.e. reaching for the tissues). Instead, I’m left with a case of sentimental blue balls (i.e. not reaching for the tissues).

“Now, Zareth,” you say, “it’s easy to criticize another person’s work. I bet you can’t do this. So just shut up and sit down.”

Now don’t get your underwear in a bunch. I’m not mindlessly criticizing this video. The story has a lot of potential. Done well, it could actually be a very heart-wrenching video despite its very common concept.

The problem with the video is that it makes the rookie mistake of trying to squeeze in too much within a short timeframe. There’s something called ‘Chekhov’s gun’. Everything in a short narrative must be essential. So if you introduce a hardass coach, you better be sure that coach makes an appearance. As a result of not keeping the story ‘tight’, the video feels aimless and does not really tug at the heartstrings.

“So, Zareth,” you say, “what could you have done better?”

Well, I would have remove all mention of basketball. (And the two useless shots of the sun).

 

I've enough of this bullshit

Image credit to USAToday

Oh no you fucking didn’t.

“But, but, but”, you stammer, “isn’t basketball central to the story? And Fletcher is making me shit my pants.”

Nope, it’s not. The problem with the video is that there were two competing narratives: basketball and achieving top marks in the nation-wide exams. So either the video concentrates on basketball or on being studious. In this case, the narrative of being studious won. So basketball is out.

 

upset

Image credit to CinemaBlend

Fuck you.

So why did the narrative of being studious won? Well, it’s because there was nothing at stake in the basketball narrative. What do I mean by that? If basketball was central to the story, then there should be more at stake. It means that our hero would have to quit the top national basketball team and lose his basketball scholarship just to take care of his mother. But there was no mention about any of that. So if our hero stops playing basketball, the most he suffers is an abusive physical, emotional, and psychological beating from Fletcher.

 

Abusing people is my passion

Image credit to Ricky’s Film Review

On the other hand, there is everything at stake in the studious narrative. If our hero get top marks in the nation-wide exam, he can get into a good secondary school. And if he gets into a good secondary school, he can receive a stellar academic education. And if he receive a stellar academic education, he can get into a top university, graduate with honours and get a good job. And with that job, he can look after his mother.

If he fails at the nation-wide exam, well, given Singapore’s education system, he’s kinda fucked.

See, not only is there more at stake, it’s also playing to the Singaporean audience’s psyche. And if you read the comments on POSB’s Facebook page about the video, quite a number mention about our hero’s filial piety (and to a certain extent, his academic achievements). Basketball, and sports in general, just does not have a big presence in the Singaporean’s mind.

It seems that basketball was shoehorned into the story. It is as if the writer or filmmaker is embarrassed of showing our hero as some nerd and introduced the basketball motif to make our hero seem less nerdy.

“Maybe it’s not that,” you say, “maybe basketball represent our hero’s childhood and the loss of it.”

Okay, then why even talk about basketball as our hero’s first love or even mention the coach? There’s better ways to do that. Maybe show a shot of our hero watching kids having fun through his bedroom window. It’s a lot more effective than establishing an entire useless backstory about basketball.

In short, the story structure failed. There’s a beginning but no middle (conflict) and no climax (conclusion). Everything just kinda died down.

The video should have just stuck closely to the source story. It was a lot more focused.

Look, I’m not shitting –

 

Shut it

Image credit to Pictureland

Shut your shit spewing mouth.

Thanks Fletcher.

As I was saying, I’m not shitting on the video. With some rewrites, revisions, and attention to the story structure, the video will definitely be a tearjerker. And a good example is this tearjerker ad by NTUC Income:

 

BUT SHE JUST WANTED TO GO TO POLY. Sniffs.

 

upset

Image credit to CinemaBlend

I know, kiddo, I know.

 

Mother Tounge

Summer is slowly seeping into Sydney, chasing away the last vestiges of Spring with its humid rainstorms. The heat and humidity is a slight reminder of Singapore’s weather, and with it a slight feeling of home. Over the last couple of days the humidity has been building up, threatening a drenching shower but always retreating at the last moment. The storm clouds – Nature’s humidifier – sits above the Sydney skyline and bide its time.

Finally, the clouds release its contents and the temperature cools ever so slightly.

It had been like this for the past two weeks or so. A couple of sunny, humid days alternating with a day or two of rain, a little summer dance playing out across the city.

Yet the humidity has decided that it like it here and that is how I ended up half naked on Skype talking to my parents. Top naked.

Last Sunday, the weather was mild and perfect. The sun was out in full strength and although the humidity continued to hover around the city, there was a light breeze to ease the discomfort. Apart from my daily grocery trips and a coffee chat with a close friend on Thursday (something concerning my future), I had spent almost the entire week cooped up in a stuffy house. So I decided to head out to Glebe Point Road for brunch at Well Connected Cafe.

After a quick brunch of bacon and egg wraps, with ice mocha to wash it down (never a serious proponent of the java, a blasphemy considering that I come from a country of heavy coffee drinkers), I headed over to Sydney Uni to continue reading Geert Mak’s fascinating travelogue/historical/journalistic account of Europe, aptly titled In Europe: travels through the twentieth century.

I went to one of my favourite spots in university: a square patch of garden, with the BBQ pits, picnic tables and bicycle racks forming a neat line under the large foliage that formed a protective wall along the back perimeter. In the middle of the garden was a lone tree, dedicated to a person that I can never remember. In the distance, I could see Fisher Library and its towering Stack, quiet and imposing. The tiny stretch of Eastern Avenue visible to me was empty, not a single soul on its granite path.

The campus is still.

A person with normal hearing may be able to hear the quiet chirping and tweeting of the birds, the noisy buzz of the insects, or perhaps even the cacophony of the empire of dirt underneath their feet. But I am not a person of normal hearing, even with my hearing aids. The only sounds I heard is the low roar of traffic that sped along Paramatta Road. Yet that sound comforted me and soon it became a white noise buzzing in the background.

I continued reading Mak’s account of the Eastern Front during World War II where it saw the highest amount of casualties and devastation during the entire war. I read about how waves after waves of Soviet citizens pounded against the Wehrmacht, which was slowly decimated by fierce fighting and the harsh Russian winter. One word caught my attention: “Groupthink”.

Groupthink: “decisions made by small group of policymakers who see themselves as all-powerful, and who dismiss all problems by refusing to admit any undesirable information from outside” (Mak 437).

Groupthink, it had a rather Orwellian tinge to it. But it vividly described the policy decisions of Hitler and his inner cabal.

As I continued my reading, this time about Stalin’s rise to power, I heard garbled voices drifting into the garden. Looking up, I saw a group of tourists crowding on the road in front of the garden. Their necks craned, they stared at the sandstone buildings surrounding the garden, stoic and stately. The group consisted of men and women of East Asian origin, with ages ranging from late middle-age to the golden years. Despite the relatively warm weather, the majority of them were wearing windbreakers. Some of them were wearing caps and a few of them had cameras slung around their necks. As I was about to return to my reading, two men spotted me and broke away from their group.

They turned up at my table and smiled. So I smiled back. One of the men peered through his silver-rimmed glasses. With his black hair neatly parted to one side over his pale face, he had the benign air of a schoolteacher, or perhaps, an accountant. He reminded me of some of my teachers back in Singapore.

The other was a stark contrast. He was much older. His worn out cap sat on his thinning, silvered hair that framed his deeply tanned face, filled with deep valleys and crags, as if molded and sculpt into shape by years of harsh weather and hard work. When he smiled, there was a flash of silver fillings. He looked like the old men that I frequently see in Singapore coffee shops, often alone and brooding over a steaming cup of kopi-o, sometimes with boisterous friends over numerous bottles of Tiger Beer.

We continued smiling until the older man broke the silence.

But what he broke it with, I do not know. It sounded like Mandarin, or what my rudimentary knowledge of the language thought it sounded. It was his accent that gave a hint, voluminous, with an almost musical quality. The older man continued with his questions that I did not understand and could not answer.

I thought about playing the Japanese card, but then I remembered about the tense relations between China and Japan over a small, rocky island, so I quashed that option. The younger man joined in the questionings. Although his accent was lighter, I had no idea what he was trying to say.

I was in a quagmire, I knew enough Mandarin to get by, but not to converse. If I said “I cannot speak Mandarin”, in Mandarin, the men will know that I can speak Mandarin and will then attempt to carry out a conversation with me. I was caught in a paradoxical situation. How could I convey the message to the men that I could not understand their questions without betraying my infantile command of Mandarin?

The solution was right in front of me. Slowly, I dropped my gaze to my opened book. I paused for a few seconds before raising it to the men faces. The men stared at me, wondering why this young Chinese male was so impertinent to his elders. I repeated the procedure again, and this time they followed my gaze towards the book on the picnic table.

The younger man got the hint and very slowly, he asked, “Do you speak Mandarin?” Well, he got part of the hint.

It is a rather odd phenomenon that tourists who travel to other countries expect the native population to speak their language. To be fair, I am not an Australian, and I do the same thing in foreign countries sometimes: “Do. You. Understand. ENGLISH?”, and always in English. And here, on the ground of Sydney University, I was experiencing this odd phenomenon – this time on the receiving end – a man asking if I speak Mandarin, in Mandarin.

In the end, I admitted that yes, I speak Mandarin.

The two men were delighted. A floodgate opened and a torrent of questions rolled and rumbled towards me, mostly from the older man. I could only answer the older man with blank stares. The younger man somehow understood that although I speak Mandarin, I was not fluent in it.

By then, the rest of the group had gathered around the table, seeking sanctuary from the blazing sun, but mostly curious about the non-conversation taking place between the two men and I.

Standing opposite me, a woman with a hint of makeup on her lined face topped with buoyant curly hair, waved her right hand in a downward motion at the older man to stop his incessant questioning.

She tsked, “He doesn’t understand you”. Turning to me, she spoke slowly in a relatively flat accent, “Are you Malaysian?”

“No, I’m Singaporean.”

“Ah, Singaporean!” She turned to the rest of the group, “He’s Singaporean!”

“Singaporean?”

“Singaporean!”

The group was intrigued with me, a Singaporean male so far away from home, alone reading an English book on university grounds. The woman, now the de facto spokesperson of the group, asked if I am of Chinese heritage*. I replied in the affirmative. She walked around the table and stood beside me. Glancing at my book, she asked me another question.

“Huh?” I had no idea what she said.

She repeated her question slowly, “Are you a student?”

“Oh, er, yes. Yes.”

“So,” she gestured around her, “you study here?”

I no longer study at Sydney University, I am a graduand. But I do not know that Mandarin word for graduand. So I gave a simple answer, “Yes, I do.” The woman conveyed my answer to the group and they all nodded approvingly.

“Which year are you in? First year, second year, third year?” She raised her right fingers that corresponded to the number she said.

I pointed at her three upright fingers, “Third year.”

“What do you study?”

I did not know how to say the word literature, much less the word for politics. So I simply replied, “English. I study English.”

The woman nodded and mentioned something about university and English. I assumed that she was asking if I studied English at university level, so I just replied in the affirmative again. We had a pleasant conversation. I told her, in very halting Mandarin, about my brother studying in the U.S., and my sister studying the U.K. (something the whole group found amusing. One said, “You are all over the world!”). And I told her that yes, my parents can speak Mandarin. My problem with Mandarin was not so much the understanding, rather it was the difficulty in speaking it. The woman chuckled and said that I was not the only one, the American-born Chinese that she encountered during her holidays in the States had the same problem. Even then, she said, my command of Mandarin was fairly good.

I guessed six years of Singapore education system and eight years of tuition classes helped.

“So how are you university?”

“What?” It was back to the subject of university again.

“How are your grades? Are they good? Improving?” The woman raised her hands to demonstrate a plane, or a bird, taking off.

“Oh, er, yes, they’re good.”

She nodded in satisfaction. “You’re a hardworking student. You come out here and study, not like those people over there.” She gestured towards a group of young Australians barely a few steps away from us.

During the course of our halting conversation, a group of young Caucasian males, all dressed in shorts and pastel coloured t-shirts, had set up a small playing court and began playing a rather leisurely game of croquet. I glanced over at the Australians, wondering if any of them overheard what the woman said, and if any of them understood her.

She turned back to me and gave me a thumbs-up, “Good student.”

I smiled, “Yes.”

With our limited conversational subjects drying up, the woman went to talk to the other members of the group. The older man continue to engage me in conversation. As much as I tried to understand him, it was futile. Trying to understand him was the equivalent of trying to understand an elderly Scottish Highlander speaking English. If he had flattened his accent like what the woman did, perhaps I could understand him. Finally, the older man smiled his wrinkled, silvered smile and went to speak with the other group members.

My concentration was interrupted and instead of returning to my book, I watched the group of Australians at their leisured playing of croquet. There seemed to be no competition, just a gathering of friends hitting a plastic ball through hoops with a mallet. Around me, the Chinese tourists continued their chatter and soon their sounds drifted into the background like the traffic on Parmatta Road. It was one of those serene days, calm, quiet, with just a hint of seclusion that protected one from the hustle of city life. A while later, the Chinese tourists, energetic and refreshed, ambled off the garden and towards Eastern Avenue. The Australians continued their aimless putting. I am left alone, pondering.

My brief interaction with the Chinese tourists raised an old question: Am I Chinese? I know I am of Chinese heritage because my ancestors were from China. But does this makes me as Chinese as the Mainland Chinese because of my facial structure? If so, then does that means it makes that group of Caucasian Australians as English, or as Irish, or as Scottish as the people from the United Kingdom? What about the Americans who have direct ancestry from Ireland, Germany, or the Scandinavian countries? Over the years I have been told by strangers from China, and even by Chinese friends, that I am Chinese, I am part of them. They see me as part of the large Chinese diaspora around the world that ultimately belongs with the Mainland Chinese.

This ‘Chineseness’ also extends to language. During our conversation, the woman mentioned to me that because I am Chinese, I must speak Mandarin, and since I speak Mandarin, I must be Chinese. A circular argument that I constantly hear when speaking to Chinese people. I am Chinese, therefore I must speak the language. I have been chided for not being Chinese enough due to my unremarkable command of Mandarin.

The link to ethnicity and language is pervasive, especially in Singapore. When I was in Singapore, we learned two languages: English for everyone and our respective mother tongue. The term mother tongue is a bit of misnomer for me. Strictly defined, mother tongue means native language. In that case, English would be my mother tongue. But in Singapore, mother tongue refers to the language of an ethnic group. So during my time in the Singapore education system, I learned two language: English and Mandarin.

You are Chinese, so you must speak Mandarin.

Even so, within the Chinese language there are so many internal divisions or ‘dialects’ to the point that most of mutually unintelligible to one another and can be considered languages in their own right. I can speak what is known as Standardized Chinese, but I cannot speak my parents’ dialects at all. So does that makes me less Chinese?

On the flip side, I am, what most of my friends say, ‘Westernized’. Some of the observations stem from the fact that I am more attuned to cultural imports from countries such as the U.K.and the U.S. But in today’s age of globalization, who isn’t? However the majority is due to the fact of my strong command of the English language. I think, speak and dream in English. My entire worldview is processed through the English language. And as such, I am ‘Westernized’.

I do not deny my ethnicity. Yet I do not consider myself fully Chinese no matter what how the Mainland Chinese try to convince me. As a matter of fact, I have an Indonesian friend who is more ‘Chinese’ than I am. He has a much better command of Mandarin and .he frequently follows Chinese pop culture and is a fan of the pop group S.H.E. He is not of Chinese ethnicity but he is in a sense much more ‘Chinese’ than I am.

A cheer broke out among the group of Australians. Apparently someone scored or whatever it was in croquet. The majority of them were sitting on the grass, more content to watch than to play. During my reverie, the sky had became overcast. The sun disappeared behind a flotilla of rainclouds that threatened to unleashed its torrent on the city at any moment. I packed up and headed towards the Victoria Park, leaving behind the Australians chatting among themselves in the quiet garden. It was time to go home.

One can wonder, after all, whether there is any sense at all to the discussion concerning ‘European identity’, whether it is not in fact diametrically opposed to the entire history of the ‘European concept’. For if anything serves as the true hallmark of European civilisation it is diversity, and not a single identity. (Mak 486)

Perhaps the same can be said of a ‘Chinese identity’.

* The term ‘Chinese’ here refers to the Han ethnicity.