Conversations with the mother

Mum lights her aromatherapy burner, which fills the room with an overpowering smell of mozzie-repelling citronella.

Except it doesn't smell like citronella, but like rotten pineapple.

After the lights are off, she says, “Tell me a story.”

“Once upon a time there was a sick pineapple which vomited inside a room,” I began. “There was a poor little family of mosquitoes living in a pile of laundry in the room but the smell was intolerable. The father mosquito said to his wife, Darling, we have to move house immediately or our kids will all grow up retarded.”

Mum felt my hair and made a lot of noise about it still being wet.
Me: My brain is working in overdrive so I need to cool it down.
Mum: Sssssss sssssssss sssssssss
Me: What are you doing?
Mum: I'm using qigong to dry your hair.


Mum pets my head and holds it tight.
“This is how you choose fruit like durian.”
She pulls me close and inhales deeply in my hair.
“Watermelon also”.
She continues petting my head.

on the plane to london

The hours I spent at work before departure were really fraught with the greatest stress - I was in an absolute frenzy, trying to get out the ACP+ paper, the DPM speech outline, the ACP+ updates to the slides. I cleared my desk at 7pm, locked my laptop into the dock, and sent off the update to W that very nicely highlighted a whole table of pending tasks, next actions and deadlines. I thought I was being a very guai and accountable staff, but on hindsight, it might have seemed a bit like the teacher setting a list of homework before the holidays (oops?) The "follow-ups" column was a list of to-dos for W. And I may have idiot-proofed things a little too much for him. I thought to leave my filing cabinet key, so I left him a note on patterned paper, saying "here is the key to the filing cabinet for palliative files", I labelled the key with the same patterned paper, saying "palliative files", and lastly, the cabinet itself got the same treatment - a little label saying "cabinet for palliative files".

I left my handphone at work last night. I was rushing off to calligraphy class. Happily, my morning alarms are recurrent and don't require any action on my part to set them - which means that this morning, when half my office was already at work, the first of my morning wake-up alarms would have gone off... and then the automatic snooze would trigger, so that it would repeat 5 minutes later... and the same would happen over and over again for the seven alarms I set in a row.

I tell you, I really kena expose in front of my colleagues already.


Yesterday afternoon, when I went to donate blood during my lunch break, Uncle A dropped me a text to say that he had something "wallet-sized" to pass to me. I asked, but he ignored my question on what it was. Yee and Uncle A drove over to HSA to pick me up, and uncle A, in the front passenger seat, turned around and flattened this invoice slip on the side of the drivers' chair. He said. "These are the passport numbers for Yee Yee and myself, so that you can help us check in."

Did I tell you, Uncle A can be paranoid? Well, things are about to get certifiable here...

"Hahahaha oh my god, you didn't want to get your passport numbers saved in our phones is it??? Must I burn the paper afterwards later also?" I snigger at my own wit.

"Hahaha or even better still, next time we should encode it in cipher! Then only we have the key! Hahaha!!!"

Uncle A starts to go off the rails.

"This girl! We should ADOPT HER!!!! See, she knows exactly what we're talking about! I didn't know you know what a cipher is. Okay, let me show you. For every number on this paper, you have to-"

He pauses, catches my eye, then slowly traces his finger on the back of the driver's seat cushion to form the characters "-1". He looks back at me again, points at one of the numbers (the number 1) on the invoice slip and asks, "So what should this number be?" "Er... zero...." I say. "Er... Yee... he's not serious right? He's not, right?"

My aunt silently affirms that he is, indeed, being serious.

I retell this hilarious story to mother and brother when I get home. We laugh and laugh and laugh.

(no subject)

When it comes down to it, I really am quite conflicted about the idea of leaving my current job. Because in many ways I feel like I am doing work of genuine worth... When I argue for the need to hunt down an alternative funding source to support a niche programme that will help just a hundred children with terminal illnesses, or even something as simple as trying to help a hospice justify their need for a larger viewing room, in which families can spend some time with the bodies of their loved ones before they are taken away - I know that I have done something that another in my position may not have put in the effort to understand, and help with, let alone take through the inevitable months needed for a conclusion. Very easily, these things could simply have been ignored or shut down, since the easiest route is always to take the mainstream position, that NEVER accounts for things that can't simply be expressed in numbers, or settled with a reference to a clear position already taken on a similar issue, and neatly archived somewhere with a file number.

It helps that the people I work with, despite their positions as number-ones and number-twos in their organisations, are some of the best people I have ever encountered, and they don't hold back on their gratitude, or in acknowledging the efforts of even House Elf-like creatures as me. Once, when I shared a bit of happy news with a medical director, she actually screamed and grabbed me in an almost-violent two-armed hug (just imagine the reaction from awkward penguin me!!) leaving me quite sheepish but determined to always think of the people whose lives are affected by the paper arguments I craft and the stacks of numbers I burn on my Excel spreadsheets.

When I first joined, I was brought out as a benchwarmer on a stream of meetings related to the portfolio I was taking up, where I demonstrated my general uselessness to great effect. One and half years later, a grey-haired doctor who was present at one of the first meetings (and noted my uncredited appearance as the Great Wild-Eyed Shivering Lump), said something that was probably meant to commend my progress to my boss, but just made me quiver in humiliated remembrance of my early days. But I really appreciated the sincerity and the very paternal sentiment that brought it about.

But to stay in the service, for me, is to always be a piece of plankton adrift in a massive ecosystem, buffeted by waves set off by passing sperm whales and other sea creatures, always trying to ride on existing currents to take a course I think is right, but acknowledging that I can never presume to set my own course. What do I know of the practice of this medical sub-specialty I am somehow in charge of? I can only consult the leaders of the field, facilitate and record their discussions, work through their recommendations - and then pass them through my own management, who may not have the clinical expertise, but are still my superiors in administrative experience.

In what I do, there is always the need to balance trade-offs, to hold to certain principles, to be able to justify and defend every action... I can always see the logic in the decisions that are eventually made, and I can trace my finger down every step of the thinking process and agree with them, point by point, but somehow, things can sometimes arrive at a conclusion that feels so wrong to me. Often I just scream at my inability to express what I'm so viscerally sure is the right thing to do, but then I realise that my only argument is "human decency" - and what kind of crap, irresponsible argument is that?

What I can try to do is first define the "decent" end-point I intuitively leap on, and work backward to find a rational argument based on numbers, evidence-based practice etc. that gets me there... I manage to do it some of the time, and conceding on all those other occasions always makes me feel completely incompetent, and that I've disappointed the VWOs, the patients, families, the clinicians who come lobbying for help. Somehow - even though I've supposedly already shown through reasoned analysis why a certain course of action should be taken, and can't get it to behave any other way, I still feel ashamed at the "answer" that appears at the end. This part of work is certainly painful.

(no subject)

Li Ting and Alan's new baby is the CUTEST thing that I have EVER had the pleasure to make the acquaintance of. He's a little baby just heavy enough to have a pleasing baby-ish weight when you lift him under his arms and bounce him around on your knee and he just SMILES and SMILES with this gummy, guileless grin regardless of whether you know what the heck you're doing or not.

After dinner and when we were just hanging out at the sofas outside the Tung Lok restaurant, Shu Shu passed him over to me and asked me to entertain him (ALONE!!!!) while he made a run for the toilet.

I was stunned!! and bewildered!! but terribly terribly pleased at the task and so I picked him up around his fat round chest and under his plump little arms and he GRINNED AT ME and I was an absolute GONER.

I mean I had NO IDEA what I was doing but his little trusting soul was perfectly at ease in the hands of this clumsy not-so-pretty aunty with the big red asymmetrical face (for my left cheek was still obviously swollen from a horrible dual wisdom tooth extraction) and the stupid smile which was basically body language for I-don't-know-what-the-hell-I'm-doing.

So I lift him up gingerly and place his legs horizontally across my lap, with my hands still firmly fastened under his arms and getting warmer and moister by the second (sweaty palms!! the nerves!!) and he turns his head to beam at daddy on my right and a 180 degrees back to peer at my brother on my left.

I say to his daddy, "I have no idea what to do with him," and daddy replies congenially and in a relaxed tone that is infinitely comforting to me, "Oh, do whatever you want, and if he cries, just pass him back." (of course, definitely not his exact words, and very far from the actual content, I'm sure, but that's what I made of it)

My brother laughs and says we have the best job of it, we get to see baby at his best.

Yes! I completely was! I picked up baby and turned him around again, letting him straddle my thigh, and wobble him gently from side to side, just for lack of anything entertaining to do, and make small talk of inferior quality, e.g. "Hello, please don't cry at me, I really won't know what to do, just smile, ok, smile like that, yay cute baby, look left look right I don't know what you're doing ohhhh there's grandpa go back to grandpa ok"

But I managed to spend quite some time with him and I am SO happy for that.

He had small, bright, black eyes and a curious wide, pillowy head that's completely flat at the back, to the despair of Shen Shen, who regaled all with stories of his perfectly-shaped head at the time of his birth, then what did he do but SLEEP and SLEEP all day and see what he did!!! Made his head FLAT because of his love of sleep! Aiyoh!! A shake of the head and a heavy, heavy sigh.

Charlotte too was adorable - and especially so because of the stories her adoring mother told of how loving and protective she was of her little brother. Never, her mother said, ever let her catch you joking that you want to take little brother home with you - for you will immediately become her enemy! She will watch you like a hawk the rest of the evening, and make sure Mummy remembers to take him back from you at the end of the night! What a sweetie.

She was showing Jiu Jiu, perched with both chubby, entighted legs sticking out from the side of his chair, how she played her beloved penguin game on Mummy's iPhone, and would chuckle loudly whenever the penguin skidded off its icy path, to tumble into the waters, or collided with a huge wooden pillar. After noticing that I was watching them from the side for a very long while (somehow, the monotonous adventures of a speeding penguin became quite interesting when the captain steering the phone was a little toddler), she generously passed the phone over to me and watched me as I steered the penguin into his quickest demise yet. After a few excessively quick deaths (for the game was honestly a tiresome and not-very-interesting one), I told Charlotte (not Shallot, as a misguided Ah Pek and papa like to call her on their first attempts) that she was so much better at the game, and she had better take it back.

Oh yes, Li Ting was also telling us that despite her best efforts at telling Charlotte how she ought to be interested in pretty things, Charlotte persists in claiming that she is a dinosaur (and rejecting suggestions of "princess"), and in saying that girls should like blue, while boys like pink. At the end of the night she was running in circles on the carpeted floor outside the restaurant, and hopping/galloping (my brother asked if she was doing it Gangnam style, but apparently she was imitating a kangaroo).

And that's the end of the baby tales.

Oh I ought to log my first meeting with Hui's baby too - an encounter of an other-worldly nature, which brought to mind hands placed on an ouija board hoping to commune with invisible spirits. But least to say, foetus-baby kicked A LOT for me!! Very enthusiastically and regularly too!!

Hui was in a thin black summer dress that made her look slim and decidedly un-pregnant, and we went upstairs to talk and she reclined back on a beanbag chair and allowed me to place a hand on her belly, where she told me to talk naturally and con baby into thinking it was nighttime and mummy was in bed, which was the time when he/she was usually the most active.

And the con worked like a charm!! There was a pattern of little thumps that seemed like inverse drum beats, muffled but VERY decidedly there, coming from the other side of belly-drum, and it was SO SO exciting. I could really feel a little being in there trying to communicate with me. I really, really can't wait to see the little baby and pick it up and feel his heavy weight and look him or her in his little face and watch him look right into my eyes!!!!!!! Aaaah baby-fever!!!!!! I wish I could fly right over to England when the baby pops out and be one of the first to look at him and love him.

I can't even describe how excited I was to see Hui's huuge belly, it was SO WEIRD to see someone you've known for so long going through something so incredibly life-changing, and to be in a teeny tiny way A PART OF IT, wow that was just so so so incredibly cool. Really like communing with extra-terrestrial life-forms liddat, because I know I won't be seeing her again till baby's a separate entity, and right now I'm getting to know Pre-Baby!!!! When he's out in the world I can pick up his little hand (or leg, as it may be), and know that this was the very same little body that I'd interacted with even before he was out of mummy. HAHAHAHAHA. I CAN'T WAIT seriously. Can't wait till Hui comes back to Singapore with baby!!!!! Shall go look up names of Taiwanese stars now for Chinese name inspiration.

[EDIT 6.45am: Whatsapp from Hui: It's a BOY!!!! am thinking of making them a customised babygro - "copyright Hui and Mark 2012" or something like that)

(no subject)

I was teaching Rachel and Nichole prepositions today. One of the [edit]apparently it was a conjunction[/edit] was “than”, as in, when you compare something with another. I asked them to make a sentence using “than”.

Nichole: My cousin is taller than me.
Rachel: I am prettier than my cousin.
Me: Rachel!!!! So shameless!!!!
Rachel: Ok I change.
Rachel: I am prettier than my friend.

HAHAHAHAHHAA. But! There is a story.

Rachel: You know I went to my friend’s birthday party then we all took a picture. Then my friend’s brother looked at the photo and he said, “That girl is so pretty.”

Pause for effect.

Rachel: And you know who that girl is? ME.

She looked very satisfied with herself.

Rachel: And then my friend said, He loooooooves you! But I said, No lah.

Still looking verrrry satisfied.

Well, doesn’t that girl know how to tell it! Good girl.

(no subject)

yesterday, I started tuition with Rachel again! her mother contacted me while I was still in Korea, and asked if I could make a 3-4 year commitment. that would be until Rachel reaches Sec 1 - I really, really can't imagine her a teenager...!! I still think of her as that gap-toothed, hyperactive little girl and it was quite a shock to see her all long and beansprouty and sporting a cute fringe and a full set of teeth.


we're doing a group tuition this time. Rachel's mother has a friend with a daughter the same age, but she feels the fees are high, so I'll be teaching both girls together. Rachel answered the door, called for her mummy, who then called out Nichole's mummy... who did not at all look like the mother of a nine-year-old. she's quite pretty in that exotic asian way, with good skin, short hair, single-lidded eyes, and thick black eyeliner. she looks like a poly student. she looks like she freaking gave birth when she was twelve!!!!!!


anyway. we sat on the floor, at a low table, and I got to know Nichole better. you know the way parents love to assume that any small children of the same age, regardless of any proof to the contrary, are good friends? yup. Rachel doesn't seem to like Nichole that much. but I think that's more due to the fact that they haven't had much time around each other so far, and the adults have happily arranged for them to be in prolonged close proximity. (I know the feeling.) and I got my burrrrrning curiosity about Nichole's mother's age satisfied part-way: Nichole's mummy was actually Rachel's mummy's student!! Rachel's mummy is a science teacher, by the way, but there's no way for me to ask further about what grade she teaches and all that without being completely nosey. (dammit.)


I'm so grateful for Rachel's mummy, she really is the ideal student's parent. she pays me good money. she prepares ALL the materials for lessons - she's drawn up detailed lesson plans for the first half of the year, and photocopied all the resources I need. she consults me on what I think is best for Rachel, and actually follows my advice. she tells me that she doesn't care about grades, that she just wants to build the children's foundation in English.


she sent me, early this morning, an SMS of such epic length that my LG phone hangs for a bit before it appears on the display. it was like my very first Teachers' Day card...


(...) Looking back, at rachel, she picks up answering compre fr u. I seriously do not know how she learnt fr u cos eng is so diff fr science, but she likes eng lesson, enjoys reading, once she starts writing she goes on n on, bec of u! Remember that she couldn't read well, lazy to read, no interest in reading, poor writing with few basic words. I m thankful for u! U make it fun, u help us to get started on reading by suggesting ways to get her to read n read with her, u make writing easy n encouraging for her by giving her freeplay and interesting stuff. U bought her stickers but she likes ur drawings n letters even more which she kept the, but bec so disorganised that they become so dirty that I think I may have threw away (...)


it truly and completely made my day.

(no subject)

I feel like an important phase of my life is over. it's been more than a month since I returned from Korea, and about half a year since I turned twenty-one.

the separate blog I kept for my Korea entries, of which there are about... three... is at - quinoxaline. it's pretty hard to maintain a blog consistently when you're already narrating your experiences via Skype, and MSN, and captions on Facebook albums. after the first re-telling even the most exciting story gets a bit old in your head.

it seems like all the people I met in Korea, Singaporean or not, remain far away in Korea in this large memory-bubble I've anchored to the country to prevent it from leaking into Normal Life in Singapore. I saw those people practically everyday and we got on so well, but I took a plane back, school started, I've got a full schedule and my old set of friends and suddenly they're not in my life by default anymore.

once people are no longer around "by default", it can be quite hard to hold onto those relationships. you have to make an effort to keep each other relevant... when you're transplanted from the environment in which you first knew each other, you've to reorientate yourselves and figure out what kind of role you're going to have in each other's lives from then on. when we change schools, when friends go overseas, when you stop working someplace, or simply when the semester ends... it's so easy to just let go of the people, who once made your day.

(no subject)

i was thinking of setting up a seperate blog for my SEP in korea.

qing's exchange in korea?


maybe not

(what it looks like outside at 5am)

i walked from orchard rd to clarke quay this evening in pursuit of the legendary liang court taiyaki.

braved the heavy rain that started when i passed the MICA building. but found out that the taiyaki stall is no longer there. at least the walk there was beautiful...

(no subject)

had my last lesson with rachel on thursday; her mother's signed her up with a reading class that her younger sister's also attending. I'm going to miss the little girl. :( she behaved really well on thursday, though I don't think her mother told her it's the last time she's seeing me.

teaching a kid is so different from teaching an older student. when I was teaching rachel what "scrambled" means a few weeks ago, she flopped onto the floor and started wriggling and shrieking... "I'm an egg!!! and my mother's frying me!!!"

then she rolled onto her other side, stuck her butt into the air, and went, "and now she's frying the other side!!!!"

there is a little sister, who's three. for some reason she wandered into the room (on thursday) and rachel went over to pick her up. her thin arms strained with the weight before she clasped the baby to herself. "did you see? she closed the door by herself!" then she pressed a big kiss to her sister's forehead.

an entry about two little girls I saw for the last time last week

I met another little girl over the last weekend. I was told that she didn't speak, not until she trusted you, and she certainly didn't even want to look at me when I first met her. she kept her hands on her bag and quickly looked away whenever I spoke to her, making inane comments about the henna design on her hand, just rambling away out of nervousness at the response I was not getting.

so I turned instead to the other girl sitting beside her, who replied my questions with a great sunny smile. over the next couple of days, I just couldn't help realising that there was something so infinitely precious and special about the friendship between those two---the happy little girl would keep coming over to us, and it was only when she, and only she, was around that my little girl would smile (would even laugh!) and utter maybe a word or two. at other times, she refused to speak, refused to make eye contact, with her face utterly impassive.

we just sat next to each other, while everyone else chatted away with their new friends, and I just looked at the way the planes of her cheeks melted into her neck, how her pink glasses perched on a small, blunt nose, wondering what to say, whether it was even possible to make conversation with someone like her. later on, I realised it wasn't. but she managed to talk, in other ways.

I trailed her for the rest of the day, talking at her, being an altogether one-sided sort of friendly. occasionally the happy girl would come over and make a rather interesting conversation with my girl---one that didn't seem to require much actual conversing, but made both very happy nonetheless. the happy girl would prod my girl's nose, and my girl would whuff as she nudged the hand away. the happy girl happily told everyone, "so cute!" and did it again. and again. and again. when they weren't in sight of one another, one would call "mama" and the other, respond with "quack"---like their own version of the "marco polo" game. my girl didn't speak, but she said "thank you" whenever the happy girl told her to.

I can't really say what happened later, but the nth time I said her name in a funny voice, or sang a nonsense song, she finally did smile.

the second day of camp, I know she had fun. everyone was wonderful, looking out for us. when we played captain's ball, some of the volunteers tried to catch the ball for their buddies if they weren't able. towards the end of the game, I passed my girl the ball again, and everyone called for her to throw it to the captain. she didn't understand, and like before, just tossed it away. the ball came back. "throw it to the captain!!" a few yelled. she did, and missed. and the ball came back again. everyone was crowded around her at that point, and when she threw it for the last time, everyone just watched as the captain stretched out and caught it. we all cheered. after the game, I asked her if she had fun, and she gave a very definite nod.

the last day of camp, I slept in a little bit. everyone in the classroom were already rolling up their sleeping bags. I turned on my side, and saw my little girl watching me. she smiled, reached out her hand, and stroked my arm.

after breakfast, the happy girl pointed to something, and my girl suddenly looked excited. "my mother", she said. I looked, and saw her parents standing a way off, beaming at her. I shouldn't have been, but I was a little surprised by how normal they looked. I really shouldn't have been surprised. I suppose it's natural to expect a child to look somehow similar to the parents, but of course her face wouldn't reflect anything of her parents'. I found that a little sad.

her parents came over to shake my hand, and I hugged my little girl again. I felt like I was kind of cheating her of something. she'd opened up to me, given me her trust, and I feel like during those three days I'd been given something like happy-girl status in her eyes. she'd smiled for me, said thank-you for me, and reached out to me of her own initiative. and now she wouldn't see me again.

I suppose that's something she's learning from the camp. to open up to strangers, even if she's met them for a very short time... not all relationships in her life have to endure for them to be meaningful. I wonder how her parents try to teach her things like that.

you can learn so much from camps like these. of course the other volunteers are all good people. the term's so cold, but some of the young people there are so "high-functioning" that you wonder what they're doing in a special school. and you'll get a little bit of insight into the lives of children like my little girl, who might be considered young adults instead, if genetics had been kinder to them.