Easter

We had a five day weekend for Easter and the kids had a day off. In Hong Kong, that means that (upper middle-class) people take off somewhere. Travelling out of Hong Kong has become such a thing, that if you don’t people feel very surprised and sorry for you. But since I have no interest in paying a big fat amount to chase my kids around some exotic locale only to return exhausted, we decided to stay put. Our strategy for this year is to do mini-breaks  in HK itself, and probably an India trip at the end of the year, which the kids and their grandparents may enjoy. V and I might do individual holidays at some point.

However, staying in town doesn’t have to be boring, especially since HK has a fabulous transport system. We did sometime special with the kids every day.

Day 1: We took the kids for a tram ride from Admiralty to HK. We thought we’d see Easter decorations in Pacific Place but I think malls in HK are on a bit of a budget since retails sales have dropped. So unfortunately, there were no Easter decorations up, but we went to the food court and got some fruit and Lidnt Easter eggs for the kids. Then we hopped on a tram to North Point. Benji especially loved the ride, as expected. We got off at the street market in North Point and picked up some cheap clothes for the kids, as Benji has been wanting a Spiderman outfit for ages.

That evening V and I went to the recently opened Saravana Bhavan for dinner. Actually, first we stopped off at Brantos for a plate of sev puri because V had heard from friends that Saravana Bhavan was not all that. I’m happy to report that thefamed button idlis are indeed worth the fame, though the dosa did not live up to V’s stringent standards of crispiness. After dinner, we headed to the Indian grocery in Chungking Mansion where among other things, we picked up a box of mangoes.

The odd thing is that I’ve been moaning for years about how Hong Kong lacks idlis and mangoes, when both were always available. Brantos has been around for ages, but deterred by reports of sketchiness and V’s general unenthusiasm, we never tried it until I put my foot down sometime last year (i.e. eight fricking years after we arrived) and everything turned out to be very good. The place has a hole-in-the-wall charm but it is clean and I have been there on my own and the service has been friendly. As for the mangoes, I’d been wary because of conditioning from my mum about how mangoes in boxes always suck. And yeah, these are not as good as those she would handpick herself or that my father-in-law sells on his farm, but they sure beat the South East Asian variety available in the wet market.

Day 2: I had this vision of taking the kids to Stanley, where we would have an idyllic lunch while they frolicked on the waterfront. So despite V’s warnings that it was not worth the many train changes etc. we set out. It started off well with the kids playing in a playground while V and I checked out the street market. An odd thing has been happening to me when I go shopping, probably because I’m watching my wallet. I just cannot make up my mind to buy anything. It’s very frustrating because I later have non-buyers’ remorse.

Unfortunately, when we decided to get lunch, it turned out nothing was open yet. I hmmmed and hawwed over the slim picking of restaurants and chose one, only to regret it when we sat down and I realised there wasn’t much for the kids on the menu. The kids were overtired by now, and when they refused to even taste the quiche I ordered, I gave up and we headed to McDonald’s. So yeah, we travelled over an hour to eat McNuggets at McDonalds. The only icing on the cake were the toys we acquired with the Happy Meal after Mimi had a full meltdown. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.

Day 3: On Easter, we just hung out at home doing non-Easter things like going to the park like it was any other weekend. V cooked up something yummy for lunch, and that was that.

In the evening, a friend whose wife was out of town called and we headed to Butcher’s Club which is reputed to have the best burgers in town. Although the price tag of HK$100 for a burger does deter one, it really was the best I’ve tasted. My only quibble was that it was a little small. After, we landed up in Djibouti, which our friend informed us has been listed somewhere as Hong Kong’s no2 hookup spot. And it certainly was filled with beautiful people. For once, V fit right in sartorially speaking in his shorts and T-shirt.

Day 4: I had a paper and a presentation looming over my head, so I made a deal with V that I would work that day and then hang out with him the next day. V and the kids dropped me to work, and let me just say they were not impressed with my working environment. Also, Mimi started bawling when they had to leave and I felt like a terrible mother.

Day 5: I spent the morning in the park with the kids, and then V and I took off in the evening to hunt for sofas. We saw three possibilities but ended up ordering nothing. Yep indecision strikes again. I felt that we were not getting exactly what we wanted and all the options were expensive. Our sofa started looking not-too-bad (however, now it has literally broken down beyond the point of tolerance so we have to bite the bullet and get one). Instead, we headed to a Korean Fried Chicken restaurant for dinner. KFC (not the chain) is all the rage in Hong Kong, which is a good thing because the actual KFC chicken has deteriorated to the point of tasting like rubber. The only problem with the Korean Fried Chicken place was that despite being a small restaurant it was expensive and you could only order a whole chicken which meant that for two people, there was little room for anything else. We ordered the spicy version, and dang was it spicy. But so so good. The quality of the chicken was excellent. And this is not even the best KorFC place on the list. My mouth is watering as I type this.

So that was our five day weekend. It flew by and we felt refreshed after it.

Mini break

We went on a minibreak to Lantau at the end of March. I was grumpy in the run-up because the weather was still cold, and so what was the point if we couldn’t swim. Plus, I had hit a really busy spot at work so it wasn’t the best time.

And then, of course, on the day we were to leave, I got my period. Because of course. That pushed me over the edge and I was generally pissed.

But it worked out well. The change of scene was soothing and refreshing. I got enough rest. It was too cold to swim, so I didn’t have to choose whether to use a tampon. The kids did splash about the water though, but I just sat in the sunshine. Yes, the sun came out and the weather held throughout.

Here are some memories:

A house with stairs! Suddenly, I am craving more space. Maybe because I’m doing a PhD I want a room of my own. But also, I feel a bigger kitchen would be nice, which always elicits a snort from V because ‘why do you care what size the kitchen is?’ Well, I care because I would like other people to have a nice experience while cooking;)

Lantau wildlife always cause a stir. 

The relative cold didn’t deter the kids. 

Happy feet (mine).   

We did a day trip to Tai O. I’ve always wanted to take the kids but it turned out to be pretty boring for them because the boats out to see the famous pink dolphins didn’t start their runs as early as when we got there. V and I wandered around, while the kids played in a regular ol’ playground.  

Dragon boats in waiting. 

Cat on a barrel of shrimp paste.

The unbearable lightness of being

At the risk of repeating myself, I have lost a tonne of weight. As is normal, running around in India and falling sick started it, then I capitalised on the loss of appetite to starve myself eat less and voila – EIGHT kilos. Whenever I meet former colleagues, they gape. A friend asked me if I’m thinner now than before I was pregnant with Benji.

You’d think I’d be super happy (hint: I am … mostly) but this being me there is no silver lining without a dark cloud. SO:

Things I like about weighing less:

1. The angles of my face. I used to hate how angular my face was, but nothing like a double chin for a few years to make you long for that triangular jawline.

2. My trousers zipping up without a struggle. My wallet was struggling to keep up with my burgeoning hips, as it costs money to keep going up a size unfortunately. See, practical, not just aesthetic reasons. Though also, when you sit down in slightly tight trousers, and you tummy hangs over it, HATE THAT FEELING. Again, people can’t see that because I’m very good at choosing camouflagy clothes but I personally found it uncomfortable.

3. Being able to lie on my side without my hip hurting. This is a thing, yo. When you put on weight, after a point, your hip on the side you’re lying on begins to protest. Weird.

4. Fitting into the MTR seats with space leftover. Honestly, the seats are too small though.

5. The compliments.

Things I don’t like about weighing less (yes, this is a thing)

1. Hunger. So I thought that the logic of portion control is that you eat less, and then your appetite shrinks. And yeah, this happens. Though I think not enough to stop one feeling hungry. So while the hunger is not unbearable, it is there.

2. As a result, I’m more snappish/quick to run out of patience. I was never a font of patience to begin with, and now that my tummy is rumbling … This is probably why Hong Kong women (who are thin as rails) look so grumpy all the time, they’re probably starving.

3. Related to No. 2 in the ‘Things I like’ section, on the one hand, nice not to have to go up a size, but … now a lot of the new clothes I bought having given up hope, hang on me. For example, my jeans because they are loose make me look like I have no ass because my ass is now not Beyonce sized. There’s no winning is there? A friend sagely advised me to “keep the jeans” becuase you never know, though obviously while I know I am not going to maintain this weight, I don’t want to think I’m going to rise to my former heights, depths  girth.

Ironic fact about being arguably thin

You know how people go on about how fat people are unhealthy blah blah. Well, I got this thin because I was unhealthy. So yeah, I’m exercising and eating less and snacking on an apple etc, and maybe I’m healthier than before, but I don’t think so. I still have a lingering cough that made me suspect TB (and part of me doesn’t want to know if it is or isn’t though the doc just gave me more antibiotics which I haven’t taken).

Frankly, the most effective weight loss technique for me is falling sick, and that kind of flies in the face of the gyan no?

Surprising fact about current food regime

Don’t miss chocolate. I’m keeping off dessert and so far when I’ve had it, I’m not wowed, which is a new first for me. Not to be even tempted. Cannot imagine it will last though.

Miss milk in my tea, which I am inexplicably avoiding. It’s helped my tummy issues, but not completely. Heh.

Craving chips. Come my period, I’m going to indulge.

Transitions

Since we got back from India, Mimi has had a lot to deal with.

When she returned from India, she transitioned (with aplomb) from me to our helper J.The next order of business was to get her off the bottle. Yes, my three-year-old was still drinking milk out of a bottle, only before bed. It helped her sleep easily, and we were too lazy to stop it. Also the usual reasons one shouldn’t didn’t apply – she was only using it for like 10 minutes of sucking before bed, and she would drink water after that, so it’s not like her teeth were going to decay.

But yeah, we figured we’d better bite the bullet and stop it. Ironically, we did it when Mimi fell sick with a tummy upset. I didn’t want to give her milk with a bad tummy, and anyway she was kind of zoned out and tired the first day. The next couple of days she cried and screamed. We just kept telling her the doctor said no – the doctor is the new bogeyman – and that she would get sick. We had to rock her to sleep instead, exchanging one undesirable habit for another, and still do, but just for a minute or so.

She had recovered from the tummy bug, when she got the flu. All of us did, but Mmi had it bad. And she clung to me. It was confusing and tiring, physically and mentally, because I was sick myself.

Mimi had just recovered from the flu, which was a scary bout, when she had to start school. She had been wanting to go to school for a while, having really enjoyed the playgroup she attended twice a week (before it shut down due to high rents boo!). And she hated that Benji had somewhere to go in the mornings and she didn’t.

But I knew that Mimi’s transition to school would not be seamless. She’s a fiesty kid, but she doesn’t like being in new situations without a known and trusted companion, preferably an adult. I had to find playgroups that would let someone accompany her till she was comfortable, and she took a few sessions to reach the stage at which she would let my helper or me go. To me, this seems perfectly logical. Why we expect three year olds to walk into a room full of strangers unfazed is a mystery.

So yeah, on her first day, Mimi got fitted up in her uniform and was all excited, until we had to go into the class. The teacher let me go in for the first bit, so Mimi was okay. Then, unfortunately, they had assembly. I didn’t know I could go in, so I tried dropping her in but she started crying. There was a tragic moment when she came out and told me: “But I can’t.” I then tried having her sit with Benji, who was mouthing ‘no no no’ to me because he didn’t want his bawling baby sister cramping his style. In the end, they asked me to sit in with her, which I wish they had done in the first place because it would have spared Mimi some trauma. Apparently, I was allowed to stay with her the entire first day, which I didn’t realise, and that day unfortunately, I had to go to work and teach a class. I had to have my helper come replace me haflway through which did not go down well with Mimi. The only saving grace was that when I told her that if she didn’t stay with J, she’d have to go home because I really couldn’t stay and she said: “But I want to stay!” So clearly, she wanted to be in school, just not alone.

From day 2, we couldn’t go with her. It was decided that my helper J would do the honours because it seemed like Mimi would do more drama if she had to separate from me, and honestly, I’m a big softie and would probably just bring her home. This proved to be a good decision, because last week, I decided to go in and drop them, and Mimi did a lot of drama.

However, after two days, she was pretty much fine. The first couple of days she cried 10 minutes and then would only ask to go home during class changes, which is understandably disorienting. Within the week, she was fine in school, though she seems to have mixed feelings about going, and is restless when sleeping. When we ask her if she likes it, she says she does.

Right now, Mimi is doing well at school, healthwise is ok and her bottle is a distant memory. But she is clinging to me. And I’m not dealing with that so well.

It’s ironic because a month ago, I was smarting from her rejecting me. Now the opposite is happening and I’m struggling with that. My problem is that I’m not used to a person being around me all the time. Growing up, I shied away from having a best friend for that reason. The only people I accepted being really clingy were boyfriends, and maybe that worked because we really couldn’t physically spend that much time together. Having someone not let you out of their sight, even to go to the bathroom, can be very trying.

I know – and hope – this a phase. Mimi is slowly getting better, at least she will sometimes do something with other people when I’m around. And who knows, when she detaches, I might miss it.

Saas Bahu stuff

I discovered Madh Mama’s blog and have been gorging on her posts. It’s beautiful blog about being in a cross-cultural marriage. Her post on how to survive a visit from your Indian in-laws struck a chord with me. Spoiler alert: It is not an Indian in-law bashing post. Rather, Madh Mama’s empathy, ability to forgive and thoughtfulness really touched a chord in my cynical and jaded heart.

Did it make me think I could do the same? Unfortunately not. I’m just not that nice. And my early attempts to pretend to be that nice person resulted in me becoming even more resentful and sulky. Which is when I decided to resort to who I am which is someone who is standoffish with people who are mean to me.

My mother-in-law is not as horrible as some of her Indian counterparts. I understand now that when she is insecure, she starts talking Malayalam and gets bitchy. It’s easier if she’s being bitchy about me in Malayalam which I do not understand, though I can sense when a person is being snarky about me even in languages I don’t understand. My mother in law was sometimes kind enough to translate her bitchiness into English for my benefit.

Knowing the possible reasons for her bitchiness did not take the edge of it for me, because hello I was insecure too. I was acutely aware of my shortcomings as an Indian woman who was incompetent around the house, particularly the kitchen.

I went through a brief phase of being overly nice to my mother-in-law, and found that she then upped her expectations of me. The whole thing became really difficult to sustain. My mother-in-law and I have little in common, and even less when one person tries to take the opposite stance just to be bitchy, so forcing a friendship was not going to happen because I am bad at forced friendships with people my own age and who I have much more in common with.

Things got easier with time, and thankfully we had the benefit of distance. My sister-in-law is of the opinion that it’s better to have more interactions because then you are just forced to find some common ground but I think this works only for certain kinds of people – social and outgoing people and those who value pleasing others, possibly both. People like me might just get rubbed the wrong way too many times and then cut off all ties.

My problem was that I had a hard time articulating even to myself what the problem was. I didn’t really speak to V about it because chronicling the numerous jibes felt petty, and I was still smarting from the one or two times he didn’t stand up for me (though he has one other occasions). Also, because other people have worse stories, I felt mine did not justify my attitude.

Then one day I realised it’s enough. I don’t have to excuse someone being bitchy to me just because other people have it worse. In fact, I do excuse it to some extent. Because they are my husband’s parents I continue to meet and be cordial with them. But I didn’t have it in me to do more than that.

And it wasn’t like the husband was bending over backward for my parents. He does the minimum pleasantry stuff and everyone think he’s wonderful.

I definitely think that when I had children – not to mentioned the prized boy child – my in laws reactions to me changed. Finally, I proved my worth. And tangibly, when I visited them with their kids, I was suitably busy looking after the kids. This approval made me feel comfortable enough to actually volunteer to do some work in their house. Of course, then there is the typical expectations being raised, so I have to handle this carefully.

If I’ve given you the impression that it’s all acrimonious between my mother-in-law and me, it’s not. She doesn’t really snark at me much and I don’t bristle around her much. Taking a step back actually helped me navigate the relationship more than taking a step forward. There are times when I will go the extra few inches (if not miles) for my MIL because I’m not a horrible person, but mostly, I play the backstage role and tend to urge the husband to do something special for his parents. He tells me I should do it myself, but hey, he’s their son.

One thing I realised when reading Madh Mama’s post is that it’s easier to articulate one’s experience of one’s in-laws visiting as a cross-cultural encounter when the marriage is between and Indian and a non-Indian. But the fact is that within India there are cross-cultural marriages, like mine, too. I had been warned that my in-laws were going to be much more conservative than I was used to and I didn’t quite believe it because my husband and his sisters are so liberal, but it turned out that while my parents-in-law are less conservative than their peers in Kerala they are way more traditional than anything I was used to.

However, because we are both Indian and Christian, I could not articulate it to myself as a cross-cultural problem, apart from a straight-up patriarchal one, which it was.

On the other hand, I think being in a cross-cultural marriage has some advantages for a daughter-in-law, if you have a supportive husband and don’t depend on your in-laws materially. In-laws would love to ‘convert’ you to their culture so they can look good to their friend’s circle that was giving them grief over the fact that their child married outside the community. My observation, though, is once they get over the disappointment that you are not going to be that malleable, if you’re up to the mark they can excuse your poor performance as a DIL to themselves and their friend’s circle on the grounds that you don’t know any better because you’re not from the culture. I’m happy to be seen as the incompetent one, as long as noone hassles me about it. Being a top-class Malayalee DIL was never on my agenda anyway.

PhD life

This semester, now that things have slowed down thanks to having just one course to take instead of two and a half, I’ve been getting into the groove as a PhD student. Two months into the semester, here are my thoughts on being a fulltime student:

1. I’m a student, but it’s more like I’m a freelancer in terms of working style. I have tonnes of stuff to do, but have to set my own pace. And I’m liking that. Especially once I bit the bullet and started coming in to office every day, even if I don’t have a class. I may do some faffing (like right now), and spend time and money on travel, but net net more gets done.

2. For a person who falls sick like me, having the flexibility to take time off and rest or work from home and take a nap and eat healthy is amazing. I could really get used to this. The more I do it, the more I think how tyrannical regular office hours are.

3. One of the things that scared me about embarking on a PhD is the loneliness of it all. You may have coursework but not much. And you may or may not meet your fellow students because their timings may not match yours. Doing my PhD in my home city where I have family and friends works out very well for me. I actually have a friendly cohort of fellow PhD students in the department and we do hang out, but it’s usually once a month or lunch once a week. I would probably be lonely and anxious about friendships, feelings which my MA experience taught me I don’t deal well with. I can see some of these same feelings in one girl who has come here from another country and doesn’t have an established friends circle. I would like to hang out more with her, but being a mum I have too many other commitments.

4. I get half the money I used to and cutting back on my expenditure has been a cause of some stress between V and me. Well, that aspect has always been. The fact is that I have more money than my fellow PhD peeps, thanks to my earlier job and savings and the buffer of husband. But it helps to hang out with people with thinner wallets when you’re trying to save.

5. I have always held back from hanging out too much with the intellectual set because they seemed so intense, and part of me felt I couldn’t measure up or sustain that intensity. Obviously doing a PhD means I’ve picked a side, though I’m still deeply into pop culture and silliness with my girls. I do find that running with the geeks is fun though. And I’m pretty smart.

6. Attended my first mini conference. It was grad students seminar with visiting students from Korea. The students were Masters students so a bit of a mismatch there. But I realised I can hold my own with the professors in attendance. I asked some good questions, if I may say so myself. If I had one problem it was talking too much. The other thing that surprised me (apart from feeling so high on bouncing around abstract ideas) was how flustered I felt while giving my five minutes (yes, absurdly short but that was the conference format) presentation. My friends told me I did well, but I wish I could not have felt that nervous in the moment.

7. People warned me about being the absent spouse once I started a PhD. V soon began complaining about how much I was reading. It has taken him a while to really wrap his head somewhat around the fact that it has to be done. For my part, I think  I read less than I should be as a result of having a family. Weekends and public holidays, for example are a complete washout. It’s an odd feeling to want to work on a weekend.

Sick is all around

From the Western New Year to the Chinese New Year, we have been sick. It’s hard not to blame it on India. Our trip to, that is, not the great nation in general.

The latest is the cold and cough the kids caught over Chinese New Year. We took Benji in to the doctor because he had fever. Mimi had a slight cough so we tagged her along to be checked as well. It was deemed that she was worse off and needed antibiotics.

Benji recovered, but Mimi’s cough turned into a hackfest every night. She could not lie down without coughing. We spent hours trying to soothe her, but nothing worked. I was pretty sure the antibiotics she was taking were useless.

Weirdly, I recalled croup and how to treat it from a chick lit novel, The Nanny Diaries. Googling Mimi’s symptoms came up with a similar diagnosis and suggested ways to alleviate it. I rushed around trying to steam up her room, or running a hot bath, in the middle of the night. The husband pointed out that I was losing it.

I was. But that is my want when the kids are really ill. I have to do things to at least try and make them feel better. I cannot just lie there and wait it out.

After two days of nights of coughing, I decided it was time to see another doctor. We’ve been going to the guy in our estate because he’s convenient and has a long line in his clinic (which suggests he’s good?). But he is so quick to prescribe antibiotics and I always wonder. Once when Mimi was a few weeks old, he had prescribed a tonne of medication. I finally took her to a doctor in central, who said stop everything. This time I reached out to local mum’s groups online and got a few suggestions. One of them was in the building next to ours, so I decided to take Mimi to that doctor and he was lovely. The only hitch is that he’s not as covered as insurance as the other guy is, but I guess we have to suck it up. Hope we can have a long and beautiful relationship with him, because honestly, I’m sick of the doctor angst in addition to the sickness angst.

In the meantime, the next day Mimi seemed better and I decided to go in to office and get some work done. Caught my sister online and she told me my cousin’s newborn has been diagnosed with acid reflux which is what Benji had. Pinged cousin and we compared notes. It took me back to those horror days that I’m glad are over. One of the things the cuz and I commiserated over was how we just cannot do nothing when it comes to our children, like everyone else seems capable of.

Came home to find Mimi had a high fever. She had a high fever through the night and I spent my night rocking and hushing her. And yes, panicking again. I found myself tearing up, wondering when it would ever end. There’s a bad flu bug going around in Hong Kong – 252 people have died of flu this year (meaning over the past two months) compared with 149 all of last year. And Mimi’s fever seemingly not breaking was giving me the heejiebeejies.

I cannot imagine how my mum did. I used to regularly get high fevers as a child, once resulting in convulsions when I was a baby. My dad was rarely around. How did my mum hold it together all on her own?

To add to things, Mimi has been rejecting J, our helper who cares for her. And J has been happy to step aside and pass her to me. Both of which are worrying. We tried to talk to Mimi about why she doesn’t want Tita J, but beyond resolutely saying “she’s bad” and “says bad things” (which from previous post you know could be anything) Mimi won’t specify. It’s hard to know how to read this because Mimi has done this kind of rejection of me too. On the other hand, when a kid goes off a person you always wonder.

Mimi’s fever did break, though her cough has mutated into a runny nose. Somehow I prefer the wet nose to the dry cough. Of course, would prefer neither.

The husband seems to be getting the bug now. Arrrgh.

I

Kung Hei Fat Choi

IMG_0622

Things I did this Chinese New Year:

1. Gave out lai see packets fairly liberally. I used to get stressed at the number of people in one’s range of sight at that time, and it’s still hit or miss because I do have a limited number of envelopes, but I’ve decided to more or less go on sight, apart from the dedicated security guards in our tower for whom I have special envelopes with a higher amount. It feels good to see people’s faces light up when you give them a lai see, especially since we are not Chinese and so it’s a bit unexpected.

2. Watched the Chinese New Year parade on TV. We’ve never actually braved the crowds to watch it in person, though I guess we could once the kids are older. They would probably love it. It’s total kitsch and surprisingly fun to watch, in the manner of Miss Universe contest, minus the objectification.

3. Read our horoscopes. Two different websites had the opposite predictions so this was abandoned.

4. Watched the lion dance in our estate, which is my favourite thing about Chinese New Year.

Things I did not do:

1. Watch the fireworks. We’ve watched the show live, but not with the kids. This year, I had a plan about where we might go nearby to try and catch it, but it didn’t happen due to reasons mentioned below.

Things I should not have done

1. Caved and taken the kids out in windy weather. Their slight coughs worsened and we had to see a doctor the next morning. Mimi has the most terrible croup at night.

Weird and wonderful things on the MTR

1. I saw a lady with a guide dog in the MTR for the first time ever. I only noticed because someone sort of grabbed her before she went on the wrong escalator. The visually impaired lady then said, “this way, this way” to her dog. The dog had this “okay then” expression on its face. It was kind of ironic because isn’t the guide dog supposed to guide the lady and not vice versa. Obviously, my first instinct was to go pet the dog but I restrained myself because that would probably throw everyone off course.

2. What I thought were two children in the seats reserved for people who might need them were actually two little people. Notable only because I’ve never seen two little people together in Hong Kong.

3. The lady with headphones on two seats away from me started singing loudly. The woman next to her looked startled. The lady stopped and then started again. Not sure if she realised she was singing aloud or not. She seemed very happy with herself in general.

On philosophy

Last semester I took a course on a male philosopher that was pretty much a glorified reading group. You know how much I loved that. I didn’t have a problem with the reading group part. Something else bothered me throughout the sessions that I couldn’t quite articulate. While everyone else seemed to be nodding along wisely, I kept hearing “this is bullshit” in my head. Partly, I think people (including myself) did not quite understand the text. But also, I think people did understand and found it all A-okay and for me that was the most disquieting part.

Also, once, while waiting for someone to arrive, a discussion started about Bill Cosby, after which the three men in the room decided to play and listen to rapt nostalgia some Cosby segment about pudding, ostensibly so they could discuss whether it presaged the fact that he was/is a monster. As the only woman in a small room with three men and only the voice of a rapist to punctuate the silence while my companions hummed with pleasure at his humour, I was deeply uncomfortable. And yet, I did nothing except smile tightly. As we women are want to do.

Anyhoo. This is not about my discomfort about being a situation that is par for the course for a woman. It is about philosophy.

I subscribe to a non-essentialist position on gender. Pretty much, I believe both sex and gender to be the same thing, and a discursive construct. This stance poses problems for a feminist, because if ‘woman’ is a construct then how can we (?) organize any activism around the category. Quite simply, how to fight for women when ‘woman’ does not exist? (Or anything really – this is the postmodern dilemma.)

Actually, no one said ‘woman’ does not exist. Just that it does not exist as a natural category. We are born women only as much as this category is applied at birth or thereabouts.

So yeah, people – including feminists, because there is a strain of psychoanalystic (sometimes known as French) feminism that argues forcefully for difference – going variations of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus make me roll my eyes so much I get an instant headache. Now that I have kids I hear this on a daily basis. Sometimes, like talking about the weather, such nonsense slips out of my own mouth. It’s hard to resist as a conversation starter because people seem to love this line of discussion – how little boys and little girls are sooo different, and you can’t change it. Hint: it’s the latter part of the sentence I have the most problems with.

This semester I’m taking a gender class and the professor is slightly on the lines of the psychoanalytic feminists, in providing examples of difference that if not clearly paraphrased as constructed might be seen to be inherent. And I can see those of us who are on the Judith Butler side of things biting our tongues.

But today, something happened in class that triggered an epiphany of sorts. The men in the class have been grimly silent. They are not there out of choice – except for gay guy as is the norm – but because the course is semi-mandatory. Today, the presentation was by a guy with a philosophy background and focused on epistemological questions and suddenly the boys came alive.

One of them paraphrased his comment by suggesting that our discussions so far have been superficial and missing the point. I hope that something was lost in translation, but sadly I don’t think so.

Then, another guy commented that the presentation case was not about epistemology but about ethics. I asked him whether they could be separated – because all the readings thus far are making the opposite argument – and he said, yes, of course. Epistemology deals with knowledge that is ‘out there’. Truth is debatable but facts are facts. Ahem.

The point is not whether you, dear reader, know what epistemology is. The point is that the only thing that animated these guys was discussing whether a particular question was epistemological or ethical, i.e. discussing which category said question fit into, because of course that is the most important thing.

In retrospect, I want to laugh because the three of them were a living breathing demonstration of exactly what our readings have been arguing – that there is a philosophical tradition of knowledge that is (male) gendered and that this gendered tradition has been universalized and other ways of knowing silenced. And, I might add, that this is a violence. But it can only be experienced as such if you are undergoing the silencing. The speaking subject will be waffling on about epistemology versus ethics.

In the moment though I just felt deeply unsettled. Which anyone who is marginalized feels, enhanced by the irony of this happening in a gender class (which might be the only place it is okay to feel such because usually it is the other gender that feels marginalized).

This brings me to sex/gender. We have been talking about paradigms ( based on Thomas Kuhn’s ideas, which I am yet to read in the original) and how science is only one paradigm of knowing. I didn’t find this very exciting because most of us know this.

Then watching these guys, being so “male”, it struck me. If there is a masculine gender it is really this – the desperate need for the detached clinical stance, categorization and objectification. The body is irrelevant, anyone who functions within this paradigm, could be said to be “masculine”. Usually, people who function within this paradigm are what we understand as biologically male, and there are some interesting psychoanalytic theories about why this is so, based not so much on biology but infant psychosocial development. (The ‘social’ part hints that this is so for our time, but need not be so forever if society changes sufficiently, but that is easier said than done because the whole thing is like a vicious cycle.) In this sense, yes, there is an essential masculine and feminine and thus far, most people conform to this so exactly because the imprint is so deep.

This is not a value judgement on the masculine paradigm. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. It could be very helpful. The problem is the universalizing of what is just a paradigm and the erasure of all other possible paradigms.

If you function in another paradigm – one of which could be emotional (or “affective” as we say in fancy academic circles) or relational or experiential, all of which have been associated with the feminine/female – then you may feel the violence of that silencing. “May” because most of us have bought into the idea of one-and-only-one good way (the desire for one and only one is also typical of the masculine paradigm. First principles. Simple and elegant. All that.)

To discuss this violence is not “superficial”. It can only be superficial to those who do not experience it or empathize with it. The same people who dismiss women as the eternal victims and mourners would never dare tell a black persons that it’s trivial to spend time on seeing how conceptual categories erase their very existence. Or maybe they would. After all, the highest level of thought is abstraction.

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