I went out for drinks with some other PhD students.

It wasn’t really planned, or at least I had no idea of the plan. Friday is one of my heaviest coursework days and in between I met a friend for a very nice lunch. At some point, I nipped into office and another of the newbie students asked me if I knew of the plan. I didn’t, and asked him to keep me posted. I was ambivalent about joining a plan I hadn’t really been included in to start with (probably due to my lack of presence during the planning stage) and left it up to him to text me details, which he did. I was knackered by the time I got done with my last class at 6 pm, but decided to go.

Glad I did because it seems like a very laid back and sweet bunch. I liked that local, Mainland and foreign students were doing dinner and drinks together. There were two students from another university and I realised one of them was a transgender person. I must have stared a bit when the realisation hit me – because it did after a whole 45 minutes of sharing a table – though I hope not too much. Thereafter, I went back to treating her as the only other girl in the group.

The other foreign student, the loopy girl I had written about earlier, came later. I’m increasingly not sure I like her. There’s a slight I’m too intellectual for all of this attitude to her. “So where have you been, I haven’t seen you,” she asked me with a smirk. And I must have sounded defensive because she said, “I rarely come into office either.” Okay then. She also was very condescending to another guy who I can tell they’ve decided is not the sharpest tool. But he’s sweet and I see no reason to diss him, so early at any rate. The girl is falling into the category of people from the Western world who cannot quite believe that the world is not the same the world over. Being in Hong Kong is a good experience of living Otherness, but I find a lot of white people especially are bemused that Hong Kong is not more Western in its functioning and then put it down to being lesser. And that annoys me, because aren’t we all supposed to be critiquing that?

While it was all very laidback and friendly, there was some discussion of conferences and I know this is something we’re supposed to do and I should be raring to go, but I feel totally not up to it at the moment, and also maybe the sheer idea of travel and hanging out in a group while travelling doesn’t galvanize me the way it does them.

Later a whole bunch of them added me on Facebook which was very sweet but I felt myself wondering if my wall is intellectual enough (hint: it’s not). While others are posting activist type things, I have baby pictures. The being-a-mother is one of those things that is a good talking to point to start with but I know it could get me dismissed from the serious business of academia very quickly. The girl for example posted a list of books as part of that tag that is going around with a introduction on how she has been forced to and it’s impossible to choose and then listing 10 very serious academic and intelluctual books, then sighing about how she’s compelled to choose fiction and listing very obscure and intellectual fiction books.

Don’t know whether to laugh, cry or put them all on limited profile (which I can’t figure out how to do anymore) but there’s a part of me that insists on being defiant.

Good day

Today was the kind of day I imagined having when I started the PhD.

I played with Mimi for a bit in the morning and took Benji to school. I connected with a couple of mothers there. Both are wealthy and live in the same area. They spoke of needing a driver. Why not just live somewhere more convenient in this city of convenience, I wondered. I felt a bit smug about my humble abode which is so easy to get to. We decided to meet for coffee which will not happen as soon as I think because unlike them I am not just waiting around for the next school pick-up.

Came home and took Mimi down for a swim. I had been conflicted about whether to do that or just buckle down and study but I’m glad I did. I got some exercise in, though going swimming with a two-year-old requires one to plead for a bit of swimming as opposed to splashing in the baby pool.

Came back, checked email for a bit during which time Mimi queried why I had to do anything of the sort and then ditched me for Tita J and her playdough. Then collected Benji from school. He convinced me to buy something from the bakery which is becoming a habit I need to break.

Had a huge much-needed nap in the afternoon. Then spent an hour with the kids, and packed them off to play just as they were getting restless and attempting to bang on my computer. Got some solid reading in – Simone de Beauvoir, Michele le Doeuf and bell hooks. I am tempted to post some quotations but too lazy.

The difference a nap makes is tremendous. I was able to engage with the kids when they came up instead of constantly feeling like I needed to sleep.

Once they went to bed, back to reading. I know this kind of ideal day is not going to be incessantly possible because I am probably going to have a class on Thursday by the end of the month. But it was nice to have one.

One week down

V had a freakout about the amount of time I’m spending reading. I had heard about the ‘missing spouse’ syndrome from a few people but had not paid serious attention. V of course was clueless as to what having a spouse doing a PhD would entail, and I myself didn’t have a clue. I figured if I put in 9 hours of work, I could switch those to PhD and manage, only now I would have a say which hours those were exactly. But the first week was crazy and I struggled not to panic myself.

In the midst of it, getting a lecture from V on neglecting the children pissed me off. After all, I had barely got a handle on things myself. And they were hardly neglected except that the time I did spend with them, he didn’t witness. The main person who was getting neglected was him, and while I regretted that I do recall how absent he was when he started his job in Hong Kong. Only that was nine years ago and he has amnesia. He has since apologised but the whole episode left a bad taste in my mouth.

That was on Sunday. On Monday, I attended the class I’m sitting in.One of my irrational fears is landing up in the wrong classroom while the class is going on elsewhere, and this fear proved to be well-grounded because I was indeed in the wrong classroom and couldn’t get the wifi to work so I could check where the actual class was. Luckily, I had skipped dropping Benji to kindergarten so I was early and could step out and ask a likely looking passerby if they were headed to that class which they were.

The class turned out to be a tad pointless, if I’m honest, but at least it got me to university – and then headed to my office to work on the article I’m writing. People have chosen their desks at random and I’m pleased with mine although it’s a bit small. Another anxiety is that because there is nothing to indicate it’s indeed my desk someone else would grab it, and I determined to bring some stuff to pin up just to mark my territory (as everyone else seems to have done, it’s astonishing how quickly they ‘made it home’ despite being absent in person.)

I then headed to mid-autumn festival lunch with former colleagues, which was a really sweet gathering. New girl who has replaced me seemed a tad distant – maybe she was afraid I’m going to keep popping up which I’m not. Got home and spent some time with the kids before working on my article some more.

The next day was the mid-autumn festival and we went to Ocean Park. It was all fine and dandy until we got home and the kids refused to nap and then proceeded to meltdown from there. Let me just say that at one point I was hugging two screaming naked children. Why they were both naked is a long story I’m not going to tell.

Today was how I would like my life to be. Dropped Benji to school, where he is doing really well I’m happy to report. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the elusive shortcut lift again and Benji went: “But Tita (our helper) always knows where to go.” Hmph. I have a perfectly good route but it’s through a bus interchange and V doesn’t want the helpers cutting through that so E has been using the lift route he discovered except I haven’t been able to find it. We were just on time, and I tried not to feel guilty about being just-on-timem as opposed to early as E always is, again.

Paid a visit to the library and logged into my email where I was relieved to discover that my e-learning account at the other uni has been sorted so I don’t need to scrimmage to find every reading myself for the first couple of weeks as it was looking like I’d have to do. Instead they’ve all been uploaded onto the system I can now access, hurrah! So I just browsed and found more than a few books I’d like to read for my topic.

I’ve swallowed my vanity and switched from my green leather tote to a sporty green backpack because I don’t think one shoulder can bear the weight of a laptop and a pile of books. Ugly as it is, carrying the weight on both shoulders really makes a wealth of difference. Had a sandwich in a cafe while reading one of the books and loving my life. Headed to my office to finished of my artilce and then went for yoga class after a two-week hiatus. I did not die but I did not excel.

The good thing about this schedule is that I don’t have a carry a change of clothes. I can just head home after yoga and take a shower and nap. Except renovation work in house above prevented sleep, gah. Emerged from bedroom in time for kids waking from thier nap and spent a nice hour or so with them, till they went off downstairs to play…and here I am.







First days

Thursday I hoped to write my article, but I spent it writing a post. Then raced off to long overdue session with shrink. On the way back, I bought and consumed an entire Subway footlong. And it was delicious.

I was torn between taking a nap and working on the article that was due the next day. I plumped for the nap but it didn’t work, so I got up and starting transcribing an interview.

Twenty minutes later I raced out of the house to the uni. For one, I needed to collect the key to the research students’ shared room that I scandalously hadn’t yet, because of the crazy. Also, both the courses I wanted to take were in limbo. The first one was at another university under a special government scheme and though the course was supposed to start the next day, I hadn’t heard back from that uni. Consulted a friend who is one year senior and she advised me to contact the professor teaching the course directly – I did, and happily she was supportive of me joining the course even if not formally registered for the time being, but the sense I got was that eventually, I needed to be registered. The other course was listed on the system but with no timetable. When I contacted the department, they told me there was no such course and when I insisted, they checked around and asked me to contact the professor directly. I did and he responded by asking me to meet him.

So I raced to his office, but it turned out in the intervening period he had sent me an email asking me to come in an hour, so I went to the department got my key, magnanimously helped out other clueless student (she is loopy with an underlying competitive nature, I think) find a bank and then back to the professor to discuss the mysterious course. In the midst of the discussion, I committed to sitting in on another of his courses (which sounds exactly what I need though not at my level) but wiggled out of tutoring that course as he seemed to be hinting at, and finally, after much deviations, he said I could attend the course I wanted to – which turns out to be a group of five people reading closely one work by Emmanuel Kant.

Fine by me, becuase though not exactly related to my topic – and as pointed out by my supervisor later, Kant was a horrible misogynist – it is the missing piece in my education. I came to phislosophy backward, through the post-structuralist critique of humanism, but it would be useful to see for myself the very material they were critiquing even as I buy that critique.

I now realise that academics, while intimidating are also incredibly chatty people who will just go off on tangents (kind of like yours truly) which is lovely, except when you have a meeting scheduled right when they’re yammering on about some obscure point. So after getting that professor’s okay to me joining his course-of-sorts, I had to literally run across campus, in the process of which my sandal came apart, to meet supervisor. I was 20 minutes late for the meeting.

I reserve judgement on supervisor, but so far she is friendly and supportive. When I told her about not hearing back about the course in the other university, she picked up the phone to call them and harangue them herself (but alas got a voice recording). She then ordered people in Grad School to give me copies of email to other university so I could then throw that in face of other uni. Having got her approval to my course plan, and her strict exhortation that I could not exceed the three-year funding period for the PhD (which is really an insanely short period of time), I went on my way.

Stopped off to my old office where I was welcomed with bread pudding and much-needed tape for my shoe. Then with a bag of stuff I had left there, I headed home. Managed to actually complete article because V – despite cold – entertained the kids up to bedtime.

Friday morning, I ambitiously decided to drop Benji to kindergarten. I think Benji would really prefer the helper to take him because I was late and hurried him along. But I’m glad I went because the principal stopped me and mentioned what an angel he is and so helpful (which V cynically puts down to her being a saleswoman. I don’t deny this, but I also don’t discount that what she’s saying might be true.)

Unfortunately, this mean I was 15 minutes late for the Love and Philosophy class I’m sitting in on. Again, a race to the uni becuase I was late and the queue for the bus was too late. Was a good thing I finished the article because class turned out to be two hours long, and after submitting a couple of forms to the department, I raced off the other uni to negotiate with them about my class there.

I underestimated how huge that uni is and decided to navigate the way to the grad school on foot. Not sure any other way was possible, but it was insanely hot and literally like hiking except in unsuitable clothes, shoes and bag. Was worth it thought because I was sweetly informed that I had been enrolled and they were going to send me an email that afternoon – right, after the first three-hour class was over, I guess. Heh.

I’ve realised that just taking a course involves much more effort than just signing up. One has to wrangle and negotiate and rush from pillar to post, even pitch oneself as a worthy candidate. Just for the privilege of earning three credits, and of course, learning.

Anyhoo, at least my struggle had a happy ending. I had arranged to meet with former boss for lunch and then realised I had no idea how to get to that building because of vastness of uni. Luckily met very sweet foreign student who literally walked me to building I needed to be at in the blistering heat. Lunch was pleasant and I’ve never enjoyed a Coke that much. I now know why students are so skinny – just all the running to and from classes.

The class was just what I needed. If the morning course was philosophy lite, this one was heavy duty and after this first lecture, we’re expected to make presentations ourselves of the remaining readings, which seems to be pretty much like a teacher copping out of teaching under the guise of us ‘learning from each other’ but whatever. I am being forced to read the very texts I need to read, and okay, some of the texts will be mediated by someone else, no matter how inexpertly. All the students seem really smart, and unfortunately the one doing the photocopying is a bit standoffish.

Spent the morning trying to decipher Lacan et al while watching the kids the playground. This is what they mean by ‘how can you manage a PhD and kids’? By using every spare minute, I guess, even if it is reading Lacan to the soundtrack of Mickey Mouse.


At last

I can breathe.

The transition from work to studentship was crazier than I expected. I had tried to distance myself from projects I handed over, but had kept one big project to work on over the summer, which ended up being more last minute than I expected. I realised there was a bit that everyone had forgotten about and I felt the need to do it last minute.

It didn’t help that I had taken on a couple of freelance articles to write and though I intended to put them on a backburner, they just kept nagging me and driving me crazy.

So yeah, I was scrambling like a crazy person right till my last day, which I then spent wiping down my desk in preparation of the new girl. Who seems really awesome, though she was overwhelmed with what the work entailed. Which came as a surprise to me, because I thought it was a breeze. Then again my boss and colleague when I joined were very clued in.

My colleagues threw me a farewell lunch that week, the date of which I had cluelessly messed up so I was totally disoriented, not helped by having to wake up multiple times at night for a coughing child.

The fact that I was leaving hit me the day before my last, when I was clearing out my desk. I was overwhelmed by sentimentality as I went through my old notebooks. It really had been the best job I ever worked – in terms of providing a good balance of stimulation, non-stress and really really nice and supportive colleagues. Yes, a lot of things got on my nerves towards the end, but I know a lot of that was impatience at knowing freedom was at hand.

Everyone was very sweet at the last moment, and though I had been angling to avoid the inevitable photo-taking, in the end, I just did it because I realise this is a way my colleagues show affection.

I had a very brief but much needed hiatus when the whole family took off to Lantau for a staycation. It was really bliss, just as it had been the last time. We all relaxed, we frequented beaches, we ate good food. I invited a couple of friends to join us for the day and we spent a good our bopping in the sea drinking beer, while the kids and helpers played in the sand. The kids really took to the friends which helped also. The friend’s fiance and V wanted to stay forever, the friend and I were like – no no, it’s city life for us. On an even more deserted beach the next day, I just lay in the sand soaking up the sun – something I’ve never done before – with Mimi slopping sand all over me.

The very next day the crazy began again. I dropped Benji to kindergarten, went across town for an interview in an art gallery, met a couple of friends for lunch, raced across town to the uni for registration, then headed home.

Tuesday was supposed to be peaceful, but I can’t remember where it went.

Yesterday was the most schizophrenic. Dropped Benji to kindergarten, headed to uni to attend two MPhil candidature presentations, had a welcome lunch at the new department, headed to the grad school for some admin work, raced back home and did an interview over the telephone, had a cup of tea and then raced across town for another interview. Got back at 9 pm. Basically had been on the go from 9 am to 9 pm, and switching between three different roles at least.

This is a far cry from when I would go into the office at 9 am and get work done at leisure till 6 pm when I shut down and came home.

The two student seminars were a stark reminder of how I had been coasting intellectually for five years. I had wondered a bit about academia in Hong Kong, but within 10 minutes of the presentation starting, I realised I was in a room with very smart people. I had to be switched on for the entire two hours, and even during the lunch after because the conversation is at an intellectual level and one doesn’t want to come across as the class doofus. Luckily, there’s another girl who seems to be claiming that spot, which i fine with me. It’s kind of odd being the clued in one when all along I’ve been feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing administratively.

Also, it’s so helps to not be starting out in a new city. People think that it’s a big deal that I’m a mum and doing a PhD but at the end of the day, I have a very organised house set up to go back to. Yes, it’s a bit disorienting working from home with the kids jumping around, but I can seclude myself if I want to.

On the other hand, I know not just the city but the university nad how it works and where things are. I can see that it’s hard for an absolute newbie because the system is unfamiliar and the grad school hasn’t really explained anything and you don’t want to be asking your supervisor idiotic questions. I am still a bit clueless and it’s like the blind leading the blind but at least I’m not the most clueless one and I don’t know why I find that reassuring.

You may have noticed Benji started school. It is so much better this time around that last time. It could be that he’s older, that he’s already been socialised into school. But the school itself helps – they let us right in there into the play area before school starts, everyone is friendly, the whole vibe is welcoming. And it’s expensive but with kids like mine, it helps. Benji still isn’t as chatty about school as I’d like him to be but he doesn’t fuss like he used to and he ocassionally mentions his teacher. So that decision seems to have worked out, fingers crossed.

The school is new and can be a little loopy. I called to ask about first day procedures and they told me that the kids just have to go in on their own from day one which I thought was strange but I asked around and some schools do it because Hong Kong kids start some sort of structured class at 2. Then they suddenly sent an email about an open day, so I decided to skip the first day and attend the open day since anyway I wouldn’t be able to go in with Benji on the first day. I had just one half day of leave left so I juggled it. Turns out at the open day, they say we can go in with the kids on the first day after all. Arrrgh! I had floated the idea of our helper going in with Benji but the school didn’t seem too keen. I asked V to go but he had a project implementation on that day. In the end, V arranged to work from home despite his project implementation and escorted Benji. It reminded me of this article.

Whew. But at least you’re all caught up.










Reflections on a party

I get out in society so little that every party I attend that includes a host of new people takes on a defamiliarised character in which each interaction stands out in stark relief. So on Saturday attended a friend’s birthday party where I was quite the mingler. Also I drank a lot of wine which accounts for some of the weird conversation, or that’s what I’m telling myself.

The party was at an unusual location in an industrial building and being us, we took public transport. We must have been the only people at the party who when asked, how did you get here, said: “MTR, then minibus, then taxi.” Or rather, I must have been the only person, because V would have sensibly dissembled. In our defense, we intended to take just two forms of transport but the minibus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere so we had to take a cab. As the minibus raced towards what we thought of as our destination, I even said to V: “I love the public transport system in Hong Kong.”

I had worn a very nice dress and brought heels which I refused to wear until the moment I was at the party which involved me changing out of my sandals in the lobby and almost falling over.

There was a sprinkling of people when we entered. We said hello to couple of our friends and then I made my way over the birthday girl to wish her and also offload present that I was quite sure would fall out of my bag otherwise. I was quite pleased with myself for actually getting a present and it was a very personalized one, though I have a niggling suspicion that it’s going to be lost in the sea of things at that party. And I will be miffed. But let me hope for the best.

In the background was a lady I’ve met on a couple of occasions and I intended to say hi to her but didn’t, because honestly she’s one of those conversational black hole people and the only thing I can think of to say to her is ask about her teenaged daughter and then she’ll say, she’s fine. But for some reason, I feel bad about not acknowledging her now.

Then, I joined another friend who was talking to very marmish looking lady who turned out to be quite intelligent. I now judge people’s intelligence based on how they react to my PhD topic. I try to keep it simple and say Gender Studies but most people have no clue what that is. And thus, the divide yawns.

It appears the two things I can talk about are PhD and my kids. Weird combination I know but normally one gets segued into one or the other. So to some people I appear to be this mum who does nothing but obsess about her children, and to others I appear briefly as this creature of awesome intelligence and then when I elaborate further, they don’t know what to say because they can’t comprehend someone studying what I want to study. Or they have no idea what Gender Studies is or even what a PhD entails. You can tell the ones who know at least the latter because they ask “in what?”

Two (British) men I met earned kudos in my eyes for suggesting some queer studies angle. It’s not exactly what I’m doing but at least there’s a connection. I also got embroiled in conversation with gweilo man about Occupy Central, which is the topic du jour in Hong Kong, except in expat circles where nothing the locals do concerns them. Frankly, I’m surprised it is not more discussed among expats at parties, or maybe people are following the dictum of keeping politics separate, which might be wise because I suspect the guy was at the polar end of the spectrum from me, but I can never keep my mouth shut about these things.

I spotted this famous artist and edged closer to him and confessed my admiration like a groupie. Alas, he was colonized by this Brit woman who had inane-ish things to say. I should appreciate her talking about the nature of art, but it’s like she never took the ‘what is art’ 101 course. I did a little spiel on Eliot and the pastness of the past and ‘make it new’ and Jane Austen and the universality of the commonplace. Yes, at a party with the latest music that obviously I can’t name blaring so loud I couldn’t hear a bit of what the Chinese artist was saying though I was hanging on his every word.

I gave up and started talking to this Venezuelan model – you can tell what an eclectic group, right? – about her long-distance relationship, which we had touched upon once when we met before. And I had an uncomfortably frank discussion with new fiancé about friend. It’s kind of weird to be encountering people in the first flush when one is at the jaded stage. They’re like: “We’re getting married!” and you struggle to say: “That’s wonderful” and mean it, not because there’s anything wrong with them as a couple but because you know marriage.

My most cringe-worthy conversation of the evening was with close Chinese friend of birthday girl. I’ve heard about her so much but never met her so felt the need to be introduced. She has kids, I have kids. “Is he naughty?” she asked of my son, and I felt the need to elaborate on how he sometimes hits out and how my daughter is even naughtier and bites. She and her husband looked shocked and I don’t think we’re ever going to have a playdate. Why do Indian parents have a hint or more of pride in a naughty child? The irony is that my kids are very well behaved in public and not even that wild in private. Mimi is well over the biting and becoming more and more a girl now, and Benji is a lamb except when he’s reaching the frustration level of boredom. I have no idea why I highlighted their worst moments, maybe I wrongly judged that they would amusing and that fellow parents would not judge (as if). “Do they go to international school?” the husband asked. “Because in Chinese school they teach them to be good.” Erm, and therein lies the problem, I wanted to say. My kid has experienced the Chinese discipline system at his old school. “Oh a boy who doesn’t know how to fight won’t survive in India,” I said breezily instead. “That’s like Mainland China,” they said grimly, and I should have known the conversation was lost after that. Why or why?

I even had conversation with helper of friend who is leaving. She has been in HK 26 years. 26 years! And now that she is old she has to unceremoniously return home to a place that is not exactly home.

People were dancing, I joined them. V was flagging and making eyes at me to leave as usual. A close friend rubbed the side of my ass. I moved away. Later V, who had witnessed it and was surprisingly very annoyed, told me I should tell him off. My own response surprised me. There was a time when this friend’s random penchant to stroke or massage put me off. Now that I’m sufficiently close to him, I’ve made my peace with his proclivities. They are inappropriate and would make other people uncomfortable, but I barely register them. I know he’s harmless and he’s a good person and a good friend. So I can ignore his drunken advances more so because I have an inkling where they’re coming from. Someone will one day tell him to stop, but it won’t be me just yet at least.

I called a cab and the cabbie spoke perfect English, though he was confused about where we were. I was supremely hung over the next day, and reflecting on my sins. Now that I’ve written this, they weren’t that bad. Right?

And on being polite, a skill I champion but am yet fully to master, this.






Diana Vreelanding

I must confess, I was more familiar with Diana Vreeland’s name and her association with Vogue than anything more substantial about her. Nevertheless, her memoir DV sounded right up my alley.


Unfortunately, I was not. First of all, it’s more anecdotes and free-flowing thoughts as narrated to an interlocutor than an organised reflection. And then some of the thoughts were too bratty and posh for even my high tolerance level for that sort of thing. By the end of it though, I warmed to her style (while setting aside my misgivings over the politics, such as her assertion on the place of women etc) but still felt I had not really got a complete picture of her life or contribution to fashion.

Diana Vreeland Empress of Fashion

Diana Vreeland – Empress of Fashion cured all that. It is a fabulous book, not just painting the portrait of an extraordinary person whose genius is evident only in a fragmented way in DV. Amanda Mackenzie Stuart puts Diana into the context of her time, a time when some women were highly educated but most were essentially powerless and when fashion offered and still offers a real-world domain in which women can wield power. For Vreeland, it was more about creativity than power. Her social connections got her a job, and thereafter she ran with it and became an influencer.

Throughout the biography, this strain of self-creation runs through. Vreeland invented herself from material that she had been told since childhood was substandard. Her mother flat out considered her the unworthy ugly child, and she coped by deciding that she’d fulfil her own fantasy of swanhood. And she did, partly by extending that fantasy outward to the whole world. She remained a relevant force in the fashion world well into latter years too. Sacked from Vogue, she was granted a position at the Costume Institute of the Met and she ran with that and reinvented it too.

While reading the book, I realised I was not really familiar with American fashion of the 30s-late 50s period, and I started Googling the names mentioned in the book and the images are so inspiring.


Dress by designer Claire McCardell


Dress by Mainbocher

richard avendon

Photo by Richard Avedon

Retro_Photography_by_Louise_Dahl-Wolfe_1 swim

Photos by Louise Dahl-Wolfe

The cool kids

Curly and I were talking yesterday about some of the people we went to college with who are doing extremely well in creative careers. This was a group of arty/boho/hipster types who are still that way, and hang out in a group entirely comprised of such types.

“I guess it pays to be a cool person,” I observed.

Curly agreed. “It pays off to portray yourself as a cool person. I feel like we were just having fun and not posturing enough.”

I’m not so sure. For one, I didn’t just have fun in college. I was pretty serious academically, especially since I was finally studying things that came naturally to me and that I was deeply interested in. Then, I started writing for a newspaper, which is another thing that I’m surprised to realise. I always thought I never worked when I was in college like kids in the West do, but actually I did. When I graduated I had a whole file of press clippings and I had got paid. And in my second and third year of BA, I was involved in the college festival and the literature journal and helping out as department assistant (a shit job I should never have put my hand up for) to the extent that I had a mini breakdown just after because I had taken on another freelance writing job as well (and also a close friend died which added to it). So yeah, I was not just having fun.

But the difference was that I didn’t know who I was. I hadn’t cottoned on to an identity and run with it. Curly’s and my point is that what differentiated this group from the many creative people around was that they not only were creative and intelligent but they dressed the part, flaunted their cool interest (like obsession with Tolkein) and talked intensely about their stuff they thought was cool. They were also visibly bored in class when they didn’t think the teacher was sufficiently interesting, and this I find plain rude.

Even if I had decided I wanted to be a creative type, which I probably knew all along, I couldn’t have played the part as unironically as the arty kids did. I just find that kind of intensity a bit weird. I always feel the need to be counter-counter-culture. I just cannot take myself that seriously.

“But why are we like that?” Curly questioned. I don’t know. I have a devil’s advocate in me, I guess, and so do many of my friends. A lot of us play The Flake to different degrees. I’ve been playing The Flake less and less and embracing my inner Miss Serious and Intense (which according to Curly is not that inner) but I don’t want to lose The Flake entirely. I think having Bridget Jones’s diary side by side on my bookshelf with Mrs Dalloway is a good thing. It’s my thing anyway.

I also believe in apprenticeship. I want to learn the trade before wearing the uniform. I had been writing professionally as a journalist since I was 17 but I refused to call myself a writer until much later, when my work had been evaluated from someone other than myself and been deemed worthy and when I felt I had enough experience and skills to take on the mantle. I have turned down boots that seemed too big for me to fill. I know a guy from the same group who was offered a column a year into his first job. I don’t know if I’d have the strength to turn down a column – it’s part of the idiocy of journalism in India that these things happen. But I wondered at how cocky he was, like it was totally his due to be doing that so early in life. I’ve also known another guy who was much more deserving who was promoted quickly, and remained humble throughout. But overall, I think the first guy is doing better career-wise. Maybe there’s a moral in there for us about being less humble if we want to succeed.

That’s the other thing though – I’m not that interested in success. If it means I have to posture excessively – I’ve learnt to do a bit of it – I can’t be bothered. I would love to be acknowledged as a creative genius, but I don’t want to compromise on the slow plod onwards.

These people defined their dream early and did what it took to get there, including cultivating their personality appropriately. Which is great for them, but I’m not envious, though just a little dubious. I still have a bit of skepticism about people who project the brooding intellectual vibe but nothing stunningly original ever comes out of their mouth. Or maybe they save those pearls for their friends.

Which is another curious thing – how that group is entirely peopled by creative types. If you’re not sufficiently creative do they reject you? Or you can join and then you become creative by osmosis?

Even in friendship, I was unable to commit to a single cause. My own friends are quite diverse. Only now with one leg into a PhD can I say that I have a fair distribution of academic and non-academic friends. And even though I’ve decided to embrace Ms Serious, I know I will not wholly fit into academia – for one, I have a whole other identity that’s tied into my kids and a latent ambition to be picked to read a story to my son’s kindergarten class during circle time. I also have an interest in fashion and a propensity to wear little dresses in bright colours paired with diamonds. I don’t know if I can entirely be a kurta-jhola type or the Hong Kong version of it. So yeah. I have these alter egos and for now at least I’m keeping them.

Book passovers

Nishita had this list up on books she’s not sure she wants to read that made me think on similar lines. Here’s my list:

Books I’m going to pass on

  1. The Luminaries: Borrowed this with great enthusiasm, found it too heavy – both in actual weight and content – gave up on it. It’s supposed to be awesome, but I think because it didn’t grip me from the start, I couldn’t be bothered to lug around the book and I wonder if I ever will be.
  2. The Lord of the Rings series: Tried, failed, tried again by getting hands on the each part of the trilogy in separate books, failed again. Tried to watch the movie. Watched a bit. Interest died.
  3. Russian authors of the 19th century: Just can’t seem to get into them. Sad but true. I’m holding out for Anna Karenina but not very hopefully.
  4. Anything by Charles Dickens: I’ve read the abridged versions so much so that I convinced myself I had read Great Expectations. Can’t find it in me to plod through the originals now. Like Thomas Hardy, Dickens is someone I would have read – and probably enjoyed unlike Hardy – had I been forced too in lit class. Now it’s too late.
  5. The Hunger Games: I’m not into reading fantasy anyway, and I discovered the movies first, loved them, developed huge crush on JLaw and can’t be bothered to read the books.
  6. Wuthering Heights: I feel I should read this as a counterpoint to Pride and Prejudice, but it all seems so grim.

Book I am determined to read

  • Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red: The idea of this book seems awesome – a murder mystery based in the world of miniature painting. Everyone says it’s awesome. Why can’t I feel the same way? I don’t know. I’ve started and stopped numerous times, found myself fascinated by miniature painting from the parts I read, tried to convince myself it’s a book that should be read in stints when a cousin visited and finished it in two days flat. Now it’s been so long since I last dipped into it, I know that I’m going to have to start from the beginning all over again and that is not an appetizing thought.

However, I take solace in the fact that the same thing happened with Love in the Time of Cholera and suddenly, I happened to pick it up at the right time (for me) and now it’s one of my favourites ever. Heh.

  • The Fault in Our Stars: Because MinCat.

Actually, there are loads of books, even edifying books, great literature and all that, that I’ve passed on. Life’s too short and there are too many books to read. Why waste time on those that don’t really hold you? Same with people, I guess.

What are your passovers?

Reading, blogging

I recently watched a TV programme which quoted a study that said the average Hongkonger reads 4 books a year. I gasped. Four a year is worse than I imagined when I heard people moaning about the decline in reading. Also, one of my most distinctive memories from my early days in Hong Kong is chancing upon the long lines for entry to the Book Fair (and promptly joining the queue) which seemed to indicate that reading is not a dead hobby horse yet (excuse the mixed metaphors, I couldn’t resist.)

On the other hand, I’m always bored when people wring their hands over how little they’re reading or how they should start reading again and pause expectantly presumably for me to offer some encouragement. Similarly trying are people who go: “You read so much. Suggest something for me to read!”

To the latter, I want to say: There is a universe of books. You at least have to pick a genre. Also: What I like, you may not like. But now I will say:

To the former, I am nonplussed. If you don’t read, don’t. I am married to a man who does not read and it does not perturb him or me, except when he gets angsty about me reading and snatches my book away. There are people who don’t read and since I married one, I cannot be snotty about those people though my mom, dad, sister and close friends are all readers. Only barefaced lust could have conquered that prejudice, and just barely.

The troubling assumption of these people is that reading is a good habit that needs to be cultivated. I don’t really understand that at all. For me, reading is like breathing. Breathing is not a habit. I can’t teach a full grown adult how to breadthe, can I? I read because I am.

Frankly, I probably read too much. When I realised that the husband’s argument to that effect might be making some sense, I quickly applied for a PhD in order to legitamise the amount I read. Now I shall read unquestioned. Hell, I shall read on the government’s tab. Something useful shall come out of it, I hope, but what I shall enjoy most is the reading.

Once I was lunching with a PhD student who was finishing her programme and looking for a job. “You could teach, no?” I offered. “Oh, I don’t want to teach,” she said quickly. “I just want a job that lets me sit quietly and read.” Ah, holy aspiration.

I also remember a similar conversation with Curly about our jobs and their drawbacks, which ended in her saying: “Okay, I don’t think anyone is going to pay us to sit in a spa and read books.” Well, I’ve been paid to do that, but not fulltime unfortunately.

Anyway, I digress. The point is, don’t ask a reader for help in getting you to be one. The gap is too wide.


Similarly blogging. People are always ruing how little they blog and how they should blog more. At least with reading everyone from philosophers to the self-help quacks agree that it’s a noble pursuit – so fine, maybe everyone should make the effort to lay eyes on the written word for the sustained period that it takes to finish a book.

But blogging? There’s no reason for it to be mandatory.

I blog because I enjoy it. I’ve kept a diary since read Anne Frank’s when I was 10. When I discovered blogging, my blog became my diary. There’s a difference between a blog and a diary, but in my case, there’s a lot of overlap. Recently, because I felt the need to explore my dark angst more deeply than I’d care to share with you, I started a private blog where I record these musings just as I used to in a physical book. The digital version is password protected and accessible anywhere (to me only) and I don’t have to rely on my family’s discretion and restraint to be sure that my dirty secrets are safe with me. AND I have Evernote to jot down random thoughts in, some of which end up being full-fledged posts on either blog. So yeah, actually, I blog twice as much as you think.

The most tedious blog posts are the ones in which people apologise for not blogging and promise to do better. Why? If you have nothing to say, don’t say it. The second most tedious ones are when bloggers force themselves to blog, often in a marathon.

The moral of the rant story: Read if you want, blog if you want. Or not. Don’t keep talking about it.




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