A Christmas Letter: Messages from a Life in Translation

To my family in Singapore

Firstly, to my sister who celebrates her birthday on Christmas Day, because the celebrations are often conflated and lessened when they ought to be separate like it is for other people whose birthdays are far from Christmas – I wish you first a very Happy Birthday and then I wish you a very Merry Christmas – this is my feeble attempt at separating the two! But more seriously, may all the double feasting give you some temporary relief from your year of adaptations – and maladaptaions – in home and work lives, in personal reckonings and the search for meaning in everything that you do. 

To my ‘Christmas’ sister, my other sister, and my mother, the ones I share a group chat with, every so often we talk about you visiting us, and all of you have, Mother being the most regular visitor who comes for a few weeks leading up to Christmas. And less often, you ask when I am coming home. Last Christmas, I probably said ‘next year’ without commitment and sincerity. But this Christmas, I want to say ‘next year’ – still without commitment but with a lot more sincerity. This year I truly mean it – I do want to go home – next year – when the border re-opens, when I can travel with managed risks, when I can gather the financial and mental resources to arrange travel for my family of five, when I can finally say with conviction it is worth all of it to go home.

To my father, the memory of you sending us off at the airport with cold burgers and fries as we were delayed at customs, your warm wishes of asking us to ‘enjoy the good life’, and your polite promise of visiting us, taunts me now and again. But this Christmas, I will remember the neat Christmas gifts you have given me and my sisters when we were kids, the toys and quirky things you’ve given my children, and the skill of gift wrapping I learnt from you – Merry Christmas Daddy! 

To my family with me in New Zealand

Our Christmases since we have moved to this country have been low key compared to our feasting with family back home. I’ve tried to start some Christmas traditions – remember the mac n cheese for Christmas in the first couple of years? And then the agar agar with condensed milk – an adaptation of my grandma’s recipe – for another couple of years? And the Christmas tree with homemade decorations outshining the store bought ones? And of course the boxing day shopping – often for Christmas gifts! And your grandma visiting us a few weeks before Christmas was the Christmas family cheer (along with suitcases full of prezzies) that we all looked forward to. And then this Christmas – after this year of ‘Sturm und Drang’, with grandma not visiting, with the hopes of settling in Wellington with our own home dashed over and over again, I’m almost out of breath and simply too tired to get into these new traditions. But I’ll summon all my energy and try something new and get all of us into the Christmas spirit – a time when we need to be grateful – and hopeful – to be sure of why Christmas is called Christmas! We remember Jesus Christ, son of God, born of the virgin Mary, sent as a Gift of Redemption.

To my friends and colleagues in New Zealand

Friends from Hamilton – you became friends through our shared circumstances of being ‘international’ PhD students, or you emerged as part of campus life, or were two degrees of connection with my immediate circle – Merry Christmas to you and thank you for the happy memories of Hamilton life. I don’t know if our paths will cross again but if they do, I hope we will easily pick up where we left off a few years ago.

Friends in Wellington – I found you in church and our friendships are still new and growing – may our bonds through faith be strengthened slowly but surely. To friends from elsewhere, some of you may be from the distant future as parents of my children’s friends but I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work out (as friendships in Hamilton taught me a few lessons). And some of you may come from unexpected places that God has planned – perhaps to be reported in the next Christmas letter.

Colleagues from the various paid and volunteer work I’ve done, you probably know me the best of this category called ‘friends and colleagues’ – or more precisely, you know the ‘best of me’ since it is work where I have to present the ‘best’ version of myself, the professional persona that justifies my being in this country – it is being employed in work that utilities recognised qualifications and skills that allows me to live here. I hate to be called one but it is true, I am a ‘skilled migrant’.

Before coming to New Zealand, I thought these labels were just administrative and that once I was in the country, I would simply be part of the fabric of a wonderfully accepting and inclusive nation. But that must have been some sort of marketing gimmick that played on the naive desires of a ‘wannabe’. I’ve been living with administrative labels for the past 6 years, and often working hard to justify the label. 

But this Christmas, after several years of working as a professional alongside other professionals, and experiencing a work culture that recognises the individuals for their unique contribution, and having colleagues who value and appreciate each other as individuals, I can start to peel off these labels. No doubt I will be tagged with various descriptors as it suits those who need to, but I am thankful that my colleagues know me for who I am – and spell and say my name correctly!

After reading this Christmas letter, and after you have decided it has been too short, and too long, not enough context or too much information, I look forward to hearing from you – whether as a Christmas letter or message, or some form of communication – in the translation of your choice.

Life is a 9 layered cake

Image by Lydia Bauman from Pixabay

The cake I have in mind is steamed, not baked; made with tapioca and rice flour; and is a sweet treat that is part of the rich food tapestry of Peranakan culture in Singapore and Malaysia (see also the thorough Wikipedia entry). This is my heritage and a culture I am proudly rooted in – although relatives would deride my low level of cultural authenticity!

So it is never quite enough to say I’m Singaporean, or a Chinese Singaporean, and certainly not just ‘‘Chinese’. I am Peranakan, or as a woman, a nonya. And this 9 layered cake is not just a part of my heritage, but my childhood, and also now a precious memory and taste of home while I live in a country that can hardly appreciate the nuances of the Chinese diaspora, let alone have any idea of this uniquely Southeast Asian sub-culture.

The 9 layered cake is really gao teng kueh in the Chinese dialect called ‘Hokkien’ or  jiu cheng gao (九层糕) in Mandarin. I grew up calling it the ‘rainbow kueh’ – the picture will tell you why.

Taken from mysingaporefood.com

My earliest memory of the rainbow kueh is of my father bringing it home on Saturday morning after his weekly shopping at the wet market, and picking up breakfast from the adjoining hawker centre. Saturday breakfast was a real treat as it took a break from the routine weekday sandwiches and cereal.

The Saturday breakfast options formed a delectable range from springy noodles with thin slices of barbequed pork (kolo mee), peanut pancake (ban jian kueh), rice noodle roll (chee cheong fun), soy bean curd (tau huay) and deep fried dough stick (you cha kueh), or mung bean soup (tau suan) and deep fried dough stick (you cha kueh), and of course, my favourite sweet treat, rainbow kueh. Apart from rainbow kueh, which was a term I coined putting the obvious word that came to mind and the type of food it was (kueh – Hokkien for ‘cake’ or ‘steamed cake’ to be precise), all the other food items I’ve listed here I’ve known them by their Hokkien names (the terms in brackets).

The rainbow kueh comes to mind today in celebration of life – the layers of varying density, the mixed flavours of coconut, pandan and tapioca, and the bright red symbolising happiness – usually the first (and thinnest) layer I peel off to enjoy what I imagine to be sweetest one of them all!.

The rainbow kueh comes to mind as I think of home and what life means to me after being through this year, the year of 9 layers, the layers of: 

Delighting in the now
Chucking out false hopes
Saying yes to opportunities
Loving unwindy sunny days
Pondering over past regrets
Keeping head barely above water
Finding no escape route for shame
Heaving sobs in silent darkness
Riding unfastened in roller coasters

And the sweetest one of them all – delighting in the now – means I am finding the present to be the only thing I have to make or break. At this moment, I am delighting in recollecting my memories, and making sense of who I was and who I am. I used to chant ‘Carpe Diem’ in my teens, after being inspired by Dead Poets Society, so why not again now, after peeling back the 9 layers of life?

Seize the day!
Yesterday is over
Something good is waiting
Wild weather keeps you humble
Disappointment has future lessons
Surviving comes before thriving
The way out of shame is forgiveness
Take time to grief and groan
Cling on tightly to the Immovable Rock

And so life, just like the 9 layered cake – the rainbow kueh – I peel layer by layer, tasting the different textures and flavours of different colours, some more pleasant than others, but savouring each layer and finally completing my quest to consume the rainbow kueh.

Migrants: Money or multiculturalism, cash or culture, productivity or people?

I have been, and continue to be, troubled by how (im)migrants are portrayed by the media, and by extension, viewed by readers of media, and one could argue, on the basis of how society has made up its mind on the topic. To put it crudely, migrants are valued more for their economic contributions than the multiple cultures and histories they bring with them. All other nuances are lost in the need for quick conclusions in a busy and distracted world.

The economic migrant is a fairly recent construct, spurred by the bigger constructs of globalisation and international trade (see edited book by Trlin, Spoonley, and Bedford (2005) for articles on immigration policy in the 2000s). No doubt migrants and the receiving country are strongly attracted to each other on the potential and promise of financial reward. For migrants, however, the reward is not simply and purely economic. From my own experiences and insider observations, reward can be construed as short-term gains (better jobs, higher pay), longer-term returns (better opportunities for their children), and are often intermingled with other motivations ranging from lifestyle upgrades to escaping political uncertainty. (See Castelli (2008) for an insightful overview of different types of migrants.)

How does one measure ‘contribution’ of migrants and multiculturalism if not by the sure and firm way of dollars and cents?

For the receiving country, one could also argue that the reward is not simply and purely economic. Migrants contribute to the cultural diversity of the nation and enrich the social lives of locals and all residents in the country. The statement I’ve just made is unfortunately more rhetoric than real (something grandiose and admirable enough to be valid), a description, perhaps, of an ideal world that exists in policy and organisational statements signalling inclusion. How does one measure ‘contribution’ of migrants and multiculturalism if not by the sure and firm way of dollars and cents?

In the wake of post-covid rationalisation of immigration, the economic argument still holds strong, if not stronger than before. In a Newsroom article, Professor Steven Poelhekke re-hashes the classic argument for migrants in New Zealand – they do the jobs locals shun (while locals learn how to be more productive), and bring in innovation and patent worthy ideas. The article highlights two extreme values of immigration: low unskilled labour versus high-calibre talent – and appears to welcome them in equal measure.

Another article from the Financial Times reiterates the economic argument but favours one group over the other. It builds its case around Foriegn Minister Winston Peters’ claims that the pandemic has “exposed the problems of building an economy on consumption driven by immigration.” Peters is of the view that relying on high immigration rates to contribute to GDP is ‘unsustainable’ because of the pressure it places on infrastructure, health and education. Instead, New Zealand should focus on a select group of highly skilled immigrants essential to wealth creation.

Interestingly, the FT article contrasts Peters’ worldview with that of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, supposedly “a great advocate of a multicultural New Zealand” by demonstrating hospitality towards migrants. However, apart from the one mention of ‘multicultural’, nothing else is said about multiculturalism. Thus nothing much is known about so-called advocacy for multicultural New Zealand, if indeed there is a specific rationalisation of immigration on the basis of creating a multicultural nation. (Or if my suspicions are right, it’s just too tricky to define and measure.)

… the predominant rationalisation for migrants is that they serve the receiving country’s economic purposes. And in a post-covid recovery state of mind, that surely must be the most important reason.

So putting the two articles side by side, immigration or migration, whether you stick strictly to the definitions of immigration as permanent, and migration as temporary or more mobile, the predominant rationalisation for migrants is that they serve the receiving country’s economic purposes. And in a post-covid recovery state of mind, that surely must be the most important reason.

The case for multiculturalism, while elusive, is suggested in Professor Paul Spoonly’s article for HR practitioners titled ‘Why ethnicity diversity is essential in a post-Covid world’. Spoonley argues that there is an ongoing need for a migrant workforce by providing both economic and cultural perspectives on immigration, but highlights that the cultural perspective is of greater significance.

The economic case for migrants can be summed up as: migration numbers will go down and there is an understandable shift to up/re-skill local workers, but there will still be a need for migrant workers as we can’t fill the gap quickly and efficiently enough.

The cultural perspective that comes after, however, is not strictly a case for ‘multicultural’ New Zealand through immigration, but rather, alludes to the fact that immigration in the past has contributed to a multicultural New Zealand and therefore “ethnic diversity is a major consideration in terms of the current and future economy and labour force of this country.”

Unfortunately, the way ethnic diversity is framed is nebulous – as a ‘consideration’ to promote the ‘viability’ of businesses. What conclusion is one to draw from these words? Reading Spoonley’s argument more closely and inferring the ‘unspoken’, I conclude that companies should hire on the basis of ethnic diversity as opposed to hiring based on the predominant Euro/Anglo culture, and going beyond the existing ethnic diversity policies regarding Māori and Pacific employees. ‘Asian’ is mentioned once as a characteristic of diversity and so if one were to pick that up, that’s one specific group of people you should consider hiring. And the reason for choosing ‘ethnic diversity’? It makes better business sense!

So once again we come back to the tiresome argument, however true and trite, of ‘money makes the world go round’.

So once again we come back to the tiresome argument, however true and trite, of ‘money makes the world go round’. Migrants are good for the economy, whether high or low value migrants, and if migrants have made us more diverse, then we want to make sure we serve our migrant populations and earn their money.

I hope this provokes us into thinking more about (im)migration and (im)igrants; what the big nebulous words of ‘globalisation’, ‘ethnic diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ (to name a few) actually mean to us in our daily lives; and be challenged to think ‘multiculturally’ when it’s easier not to.

A long pause

Hyacinth at the English Wikipedia

Only just last week, life in Aotearoa New Zealand was about being ultra conscious about staying home if sick, washing hands, and being alert to symptoms of COVID-19. From today and moving forward into an indefinite period, it looks like we will have to live in a constant state of heightened awareness and adopt new practices of reduced contact and socialising.

Ordinarily I would be disgruntled at disruptions, upset at being inconvenienced through no fault of mine. But this situation is far from ordinary, in fact, simply extraordinary and unprecedented. It first caused me the typical anxiety about keeping well and protecting myself and my family. But now as the world enters into extreme measures of border control and social directives, my anxiety has turned into more of an uneasy calm. Uneasy because I know the worst thing to do is to be anxious and indulge in panic buying and behaviours; but not ever sure that I am doing enough to do the ‘best’ thing like washing hands and avoiding crowds.

How does one do ‘social distancing’ and keep sane about not being in the company of others? Perhaps my introverted friends welcome the prospect of avoiding the world and all its filth. But for me, I’m trying out alternatives to handshakes and hugs – smiles, awkward gestures and the like. Working from home will be encouraged and while I welcome not having to journey to and fro on the train, I know I will miss the hum of busy minds and bodies about me.

To use a musical term, it feels we have reached a long pause (or a fermata) on a note that was meant to lead on to the next, but holding back for longer than usual. According to the Wikipedia definition, “[e]xactly how much longer it is held is up to the discretion of the performer or conductor, but twice as long is common.” If we are the performers, we take the cue from our country’s leaders, the conductor. Twice as long is probably not long enough, but if we want the music to continue playing, we’ll have to keep on holding the note.

While on this pause, I’ve begun to think about who I want to hang out with, who I could do without, and my obligations to my family if any of us should have to self-isolate. I have learnt to welcome disruption as a way to shine a light on my taken-for-granted values, re-consider knee-jerk reactions, and actually learn how to chill.

For the most part, I would like to be able to meet with people and have conversations. But perhaps they would all soon like to avoid meeting others and making unnecessary contact. And I would probably be persuaded to do so as well. Maybe we do it in the name of self-preservation and keeping the community safe. Maybe we seek solace in avoidance. But we will do what we will be conditioned to do, by political will, by common sense, by social pressure.

May we find the long pause a gift – a gift of restraint to help us become better versions of ourselves when the music resumes.

Adventures of a Note-taking Warrior

Adventures of a Note-taking Warrior

I recently attended the 2013 Joint SELF Biennial International Conference and Educational Research Association of Singapore (ERAS) Conference. I wanted to go more digital in my note-taking so I tool along a Samsung Note 10.1 which includes a stylus. I also had my usual pen and notebook as I wasn’t sure if I would end up going all digital in my notes.

The argument for digital notes is an easy one – more legible, searchable and easily transferred from one digital source to another. But what about writing down notes? Apart from being faster, words stuck on page are just stuck on page.

During the conference, I used Evernote to store my notes. With a premium account, I could work on my notes offline which is important when you may not always have internet access. For me, Evernote has been the best note-taking app/software for desktop, phone and tablet without a doubt. What is not so clear, however, is the best way to make those notes.

Evernote (Photo credit: /Sizemore/)

Here are the results of my experiment with different note-taking ways:

1) Using tablet with on-screen keyboard

Two words: hand cramp.

A non-tactile, flat and smooth surface is really not the best input source. As much as predictive text was helpful, I was still typing more slowly than if I had a regular keyboard. Then there were times when I hit other keys instead of space bar, or when serious mistyping led to incorrect suggestions. In addition, not being able to type fast enough also meant missing some info on the slides when the presenter moved on.

Apart from taking notes from the presentation, I also searched for the presenters, found pages related to them and the main theories and ideas they were presenting on, and copied and pasted the links into my notes. If I didn’t have time to do that, I would just bookmark the sites or save the link directly to Evernote.

All in all, while I captured the notes digitally, I’m not convinced the on-screen keyboard is worth the discomfort.

2) Using tablet with stylus

The stylus was a smooth operator, but a bit too smooth.

The S pen was good for some quick scribbling, a few sentences, but certainly not for anything longer or more complex than that. After taking down a few sentences, I switched back to the keyboard.

The stylus, however, was good for making annotations on pdfs or images. I used two apps to try out the stylus for that purpose: iAnnotate and Skitch. I didn’t do a whole lot of annotations during the conference but will be experimenting more with PDF annotation with iAnnotate in the near future.

So the stylus is good for adding details or comments but not for a long stretch of writing.

3) Taking snapshots of slides

If you can’t beat them, join them.

This was actually the most common way of note-taking at the conference, judging by the number of phones and tablets bobbing up and down throughout the presentations. I resisted at first as I was not keen on having a bunch of photos stuck in my phone. Then I discovered Page Camera in Evernote. I could include my photos of slides in my Evernote notes, whether by importing from my phone gallery or taking the photos directly from Evernote. The tablet was not great for taking pictures of slides, so I used my phone for this.

With the slides in my notes, I could also add comments in the notes, or annotate on the picture of the slide using Skitch. The challenge, however, is to multitask between capturing images and taking down notes. Sometimes I found myself taking down notes but missed the chance to capture the slides.

Page Camera is a great addition to Evernote and I’m looking forward to more enhancements.

4) Taking snapshots of handwritten notes

Have pen, will write!

I ended up using my trusty pen and notebook most of the time for quicker note-taking. But not content with the non-digital nature of physical notes, I took photos of my the pages in my notebook and added them to Evernote.

With the premium version of Evernote, the search function includes picking out text from your images. As long as you write legibly, Evernote can highlight words in those pictures. I haven’t tested this fully, but then again, my handwriting is not the most legible to the human or Evernote eye.

Evernote Smart Notebook
Evernote Smart Notebook (Photo credit: AhBook)

In the end, the winner is …

With the limitations of an on-screen keyboard on the tablet, I think the Mac Air would solve that problem. Personally, I would go for the 13 inch version so I can read documents and long stretches of text more comfortably. I did consider a bluetooth keyboard for the tablet but the weight probably adds up to that of the Mac Air. Furthermore, I’m a heavy user of Mendely to organise articles (PDF documents), and so far, both iOS and Android apps do not have full functionality of the desktop version. So for serious note-taking, I’ll be going the way of the Air.

I’ll also be complementing digital note-taking with snapshots of slides and regular handwritten notes. In fact, I don’t ever think I will give up physical notes. Sometimes, you just want to write and doodle or just not have any clunky devices around. I’m going to get the Evernote Smart Notebook by Moleskin which comes with three months subscription to Evernote Premium (brilliant marketing move!). Evernote Premium is valued at US$7 per month (US$21 for three months), almost offsetting the cost of a 3.5 by 5.5 notebook (US$24.95).

Previously, I didn’t think a physical Moleskin notebook would gel with the digital Evernote but it now makes sense to me, wonderful digital sense.