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.


Kung Hei Fat Choi


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.


As some of you pointed out, Mimi is shooting up. We still like to think of her as a baby, a claim she hotly denies, but the fact is, we’re the ones in denial.

Anyway, before they’re lost forever, I want to chronicle some of Mimi’s unique phrasing before the inevitable decline into grammatical perfection begins:

1. “Who/ What that loud?”: Loud here is a noun, meant to encompass “sound/noise”.

2. “Who’s that name?”: What’s his/her name.

3. “This will feel me better?”: Will this make me feel better? Mainly for medicine or a certain kind of food when she’s ill. Can also be a statement of fact: “It feels me better.”

4. “[something] is a bad word”: The something could be brushing her teeth, wearing a new dress when she wants to wear the same pink thing she’s been wearing for two days, dal when she wants to eat mince. Anything can be a “bad word” if it’s not what she wants at the time.

5. “I’m three years old” (holding up two fingers)

6. “Let’s count!”: Mimi loves to count stuff. I hope her Math skills take off, because then she can be my human calculatator muhahahahaha.

7. “WatchuwantNene”: “What do you want Nene?” (Nene is her pet name for Benji…I might have to rechristen him on this blog). Only the darling big brother gets this kind of conciliatory tone.

This list might keep showing up in your reader as I update it. Sorry in advance.

Paring down

So remember I had an endless stomach upset after India? Which caused me to eat the usual tummy-upset food. Bland mush initially, then just bland, and appetite took a hit. As always, the positive of illness (once one is not running to the loo every five minutes) is the weight loss. So while I did not lose the desired weight in India as usual, post the trip, I was happy to be acquainted with my cheekbones and jawline again.

And I thought, I quite like this. So let’s see how long it lasts.

And since then, I’ve been careful with my food. Portion control. No junk snacks. Apple and four Marie biscuits allowed. No milk. No dessert. It sounds dire but coming of the mother of all diarrhea, it wasn’t that hard. And as I said, it’s nice to see my cheekbones again.

I planned to follow it up with exercise, but seeing as I kept falling ill – bronchitis followed the diarrhea – that didn’t happen. Though my daily life involves a fair bit of walking. And I make it a point to take the stairs.

For a while, I had stopped eating spicy food. That changed when we attended a friend’s pre-wedding dinner at a Sichuan restaurant. Next day, the chilli oil went into my food. I’d like to think less than usual though.

I don’t know how long this is going to last. I’m taking it a day at a time. Today, I just ate a doughnut. But I’m on my period, so it’s allowed.

And as my gregariousness with food is mellowing, so also is my spending. Money has been a battle between V and me for a while now. His desire to pinch every penny in preparation for his very early retirement plan. My need to spend and my insecurity about doing it when I’ve taken a salary hit.

Finally, we came up with a compromise. Set a monthly spending budget for each of us and within that, we can do what we will. We’re to monitor our spending pattern for three months and then reconvene, though we have a tentative number in mind (which V is reneging on now because he realised it’s higher than my spending for this month). We also mapped out our spending pattern and our targetted saving. His target is crazy ambitious, but I can live with it, if I have a number of play with.

And suddenly, I’ve hit the money-conscious bug too. I pretty much bypass the shops. Maybe it’s being among students who don’t have endless funds and who are old enough and academic enough to not be obsessed with clothing. But comparatively, I have a lot of clothes. And I realised there are free things to do if one wants to. And V is probably right about not needing to restrict the restaurant budget but I’d still like to splurge on that if possible.

I’ve had a hard time adjusting to the change in lifestyle from a DINK situation to two kids entering international kindergartens. And I did choose to follow my passion which involves less money.

I suspect that V and I will still have our spats about this. I can never achieve his level of sanyaas because I still harbour a taste for the good things. I did cut my teeth on Vogue magazine after all. But if I have a number, I can work with that.


In January, Mimi turned three. Way before the actual event, she had been telling people she was three, and loudly corrected by Benji (“You’re not three! You’re two!” Mimi turns to mum for confirmation that she is indeed three).

Finally, the official day arrived. It was a bittersweet moment.

I had spent the past two weeks in India looking after Mimi almost singlehandedly and we were a team. But the moment our taxi turned into our drive and she spotted our helpers, she leapt into the arms of her beloved Tita and Mummy was completely forgotten.

She rejected me wholly and completely, and in case there was any doubt, she would loudly tell me: “I don’t want you. I want Tita.”

It hurt. It really did. I have never been possessive of my kids, and I accept that my choice to go out to work means that they will become more attached to our helpers, and probably love them more. But I’ve never been shunned in this way, quite the opposite, and after our bonding in India, it was a painful rip.

The final straw was when she said: “I don’t want anyone at my birthday. Only Tita.”

I cried. My heart broke a little and I had to make a concerted effort to take a step back and distance. Because the more she saw me looking at her like a dopey spaniel, the more she’d shriek “nooo” and run away.

We hadn’t really planned anything for her birthday (not that that’s a big surprise to regular blog readers). Before the India trip, we had thought we could celebrate there, but in the whirlwind it never happened. And when we got back, we were exhausted and I was sick.

We ended up going back to the indoor playroom which we had had Benji’s little birthday treat back, and frankly Mimi’s two-year-old birthday. I was too tired to even invite a couple of their friends from the building. But Mimi had fun, we went for lunch to Pizza Hut which went down a treat and then in the evening, we cut a cake, a hastily bought and not super finessed one, but with kids, garish is good. Mimi didn’t love the taste of the cake – that girl lacks a sweet tooth which will hold her in good stead in adolescence – but she loved the plastic princess figurines on it as we had known she would.

Over the past year, Mimi has turned more girly. She likes pink alas, and girly stuff and frequently would say “girls and girls” when she wants to do something with me. She is still a determined little miss, who will not back down if she really wants something or is tired or hungry, but she has mellowed a tad and is conciliatory on occasion, especially with Benji. She loves animals as much as ever. She also loves doing craft. Her curls show no sign of abating.

I have been reading a lot about mothers and daughters over the past months for my research, and I can see that special bond with my little girl. After a few days of Tita, she is back to normal, following me around and wanting to copy me.





Third time lucky

I am beginning to think my phone is jinxed.

Remember when the screen cracked and I had pay half the price of the phone to get a replacement since it wasn’t under warranty. Since then I’ve been super careful with it. So imagine my shock when last week, I noticed it on my desk with the body of the phone popping out of the case again. This time, I didn’t want to wedge it back in like I had done the last time because that resulted in my screen going blank a few weeks later.

A quick google showed that this is a problem with the 5C model; some people recommended biting it to make the two pieces click together again. Panicking, I set up an appointment with the Apple Store. Luckily, they were able to fix it right there. I wonder if the guy bit it behind the scenes.

I was so happy that my phone got a second chance and was returned to me on the spot.

Cut to yesterday.

Worked like a fiend and got home. Benji was puking in the toilet, he has been sick for the past few days. I flung my bag on the bed and attended to him. Asked my helper to go down and get a doctor’s appointment. Looked for my phone so that she could call and tell me what time.

It wasn’t there. I couldn’t believe it. We looked and looked and couldn’t find it. I knew that I had had it at the station before I got in the train as I had unplugged my earphones. And I had got out of the train and come straight home, which is right above the MTR station.

I couldn’t believe it was lost, and yet, I had not wandered around the house much so where could it be. Finally, I called the MTR Lost and Found. To my surprise, the lady said a phone matching my description was on their system. I couldn’t believe my ears. She asked me to call the station 15 minutes later.

And they had my phone!

I’ll admit that I prayed a lot in that hour. I had just paid for a new phone and couldn’t afford to buy another. V would have been maha pissed with me if I lost the phone. In fact, the last repair job resulted in a cold war that we had just recovered from. So yeah.

What was amazing was how the lady on the phone and the guys in the station control room seemed to so happy to give me back my phone. It turns out an MTR staff member found it and turned it in. The efficiency of their process of registering the phone on the system meant I had it back a little a couple of hours after I lost it.

I’m a little afraid of this phone now. I know I’m careless but this seems like a bit too much even for me.


I’m very into Christmas, but not into religion so much. My kids haven’t really been raised in the religion, initially due to us being lukewarm on the whole thing and then as a conscious choice. I intended to take them to church on Christmas Day since we were living with my parents, but then I was feeling too lazy, and then I got a look from my mum so I conceded, but then I fell sick so there was no way I could go, so I had to convince V to do the needful.

Getting Mimi into appropriate clothes was a nightmare. I had picked out a dress for her which she roundly rejected. Trying to convince her to wear the dress, I said, “It’s baby Jesus’s birthday. He’ll want you to wear a nice dress.”

Mimi: He won’t. He’s a naughty guy.
Grandma (who was getting dressed nearby): He’s not.Mimi: He is.
Grandma (tersely): He’s not!

Finally, Mimi was coaxed into a wrap dress. V walked her to church after the others had left. Mimi walks into church, looks into her dress and says loudly: “Look, my boobies!”

The sister to Sibear: Look, there’s Jesus.
Sibear: Where, where?Sister points to stature: There
Sibear: That’s not Jesus.
Sister: It is.
Sibear: It’s not. Jesus is a baby.
Sister: That’s him when he grew up.
Sibear: Oh.

A pause

Sibear: But why does he have long hair?
Sister: Some boys have long hair too.
Sibear: Oh.

A pause

Sibear (in a whisper): Why is his heart outside his body?
Sister is gobsmacked. Also, why did we never ask these questions when we were kids.

On the way out of church, V blessed Mimi with holy water from one of the fonts. Immediately she started shouting: “I want to drink it, I want to drink it!” V dragged her out. Mimi dragged him back in. Finally, she contented herself with dipping her hand in and smearing herself in the stuff.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 121 other followers