Wednesday, December 24, 2014

In Defense of Magic and the Blog

Christmas in transit - Hong Kong International Airport, ca. 5 am

Merry Christmas to you all! Here's a tiny quote I wanted to share with you when I saw it.
"I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit... What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?"
I hope this season finds you and your family well. I know a lot has happened in recent months, so I am glad if you are getting some downtime to relax, travel, or be with family (or all three!). Wherever you are, I hope that you also get to fully be there in spirit. Bless you.

I don't know if you noticed, but for a brief period a couple months ago, I pulled this blog down. I felt it had had a good run, but it was time to move on. Call it 'executive action' if you want (a joke that seemed adequately current when I first started writing this post).

But the thing is, where would I be without my blog? Without my little corner of the interwebs? Without a small piece of my very own virtual space while I'm still looking for a real-world one. This blog started as a way for me to record the little moments, the grand directions, and the minor revelations... the magic, in other words, that I encountered in my everyday life.

I hope it will continue to do so. Because without a place where I can be thankful and share it with the people I love, I would just be moving through life without really being there in spirit. And that is quite a sad thing. So I'm keeping the blog up.

On that note, here's the tiny Christmas message I'd like to repeat to all of you for these next few days and for the many, many more to come: be where you are when you're there. Be one with what's happening in your life. Share the joy of it all with those around (or those you'd like to surround) you. There's a lot to be said for believing in the magic of the world, so take a moment also to be grateful for all that you have. (In the words of my four-year-old cousin, "get what you get, and don't get upset".)

On my part, I have been through a few highs and lows this year, one of which almost resulted in me pulling this blog down forever. And while I will continue to focus some of my energies on the bigger projects I want to achieve (photo-essays and other published work), I'm keeping the blog right where it is. It's my happy place; a place that reminds me of the magic, the blessings, and all the love in my life. So if it has ever brought even the smallest of smiles to any of you, I feel I have accomplished so much more than I set out to. Cheers to that, and a very happy 2015 to you!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When the universe speaks, listen!

Day one of official job search, and I get this in the mail.

It's a sign! I am meant to be a "unique, mystical underwater creature".

And I have the best lot of friends ever, non?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Control, acceptance and what lies in between


We seek it in the crevices, we seek it in the clouds. A search for the semblance of order in our lives, an unwitting attempt for the pieces to fall into the places we create for them. Routines of order, routines of disorder. Habits.

But life is not that ordered, and we are not dominos. We will not collapse if things are out of place, or if there is no definite end in sight. And we cannot ceaselessly exert influence over things that are outside us. People, places, events, the weather. They aren't radio stations that can be tuned to perfection. The random static of the universe will always remain in the background. Scientists have been listening to it for years. Things will work out without your meddling. You are powerful and responsible for your own actions.

But you are not God. And you are definitely not the earth's axis. The world won't stop spinning if your mind is at rest.

Maybe that's my learning for this first quarter of my life. Maybe that's my learning for the parent I hope to eventually become. My learning for a worry-free life. Learn to let go, give a little, let things rest and they'll turn out all right.
In other words, learn to have faith.

Where does this come from? I'm writing my thesis, which is code for a nicely-formatted novella that maybe two people will read -- if I'm lucky. I've just flown to the end of the earth on a ticket with no return date. I'm firmly in-between things and have been for a while. And between this month and (hopefully) the next I have to successfully look for, apply for, and get accepted for a job, which means I have to at least attempt to categorise my life into neat little boxes for a disgruntled HR employee somewhere.

So many factors to account for, so many things that are out of my control...the twenties are uncertainty at their best. Something about having too many choices and feeling like you are responsible for owning them all.

But I have to remind myself it's temporary. That things will work out. That the fog will lift. It always lifts.

It's like my supervisor a wise and very kind man told me recently. Looking me in the eye, he said in the voice I would imagine God (or Morgan Freeman with a cold) to have, "You'll do all right. In life, I mean."

And then he smiled that smile that always makes me wonder whether he means it or he's just having a good laugh.

But I'm sure I will be all right eventually. And so will you, all of you. Whatever your present set of worries might be. Have faith.

It's what lies in between (refer title).


PS: This post initially started off with reference to this set of pictures below, and was intended to be a sort of reminder to all you parents (or parents-to-be) to let your kids run amok a little. They'll figure their way out.

As you can see, what comes from the heart often finds its way sooner into words than you think. But let's pretend for a second that this below is what this post is really about. I'll save you the excess of words for this part, though. Only the excess, though. So, a word about what I think parenting is -- from a non-parent.

Parenting is about...

standing behind your children

maybe even boosting them up,

but mostly just letting them splash around (in spiderman wellies)

letting them weave their paths

and climb

on their own, to the top.

(If you let them, your little chickies will climb out from beneath your shadow and into the sun.
They'll gather their courage, wits and will,

they'll build their wings
for flight.*)

* This holds true for parents from children too! Life lessons from Nanya, for Nanya. Hah.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Emus, Cockatoos, Kangaroos

I'm in a land of weird and wonderful things. There are trees I have never seen before, birds I've never heard before, and turns of phrase I don't think I'll ever quite understand. But I'm home again and at least here, (some) things are just the same.

The landscape is different though. A few miles away from home lies this vast expanse of ocean.

It's winter here, mind you, but as my sister reminds me everyday, "the sun is strong!".

So strong.

It hasn't changed that much over the years...

...and it isn't so far from paradise. Hello, Australia!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

On learning to drink coffee and other things

"Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind", I read this morning here and here.

It makes sense. If change itself is inevitable, then the change within must be as well, if only as a progression or reactionary process. For one, I have recently begun drinking coffee, a drink I have firmly stood against for most of my life (for reasons of unbased loyalty towards a good old cup of Darjeeling tea).

This seems minor to you, but it comes from deep stirrings within a sea of change.

Don't get me wrong, I have always loved the smell of coffee, for obvious reasons. Nothing can be more comforting on a rainy day. But I have never taken to drinking it. Like, actually, really enjoying it. Something about a childhood distaste for milk and a general absence of anything but instant coffee in the environs. But almost as hard as I've tried to keep myself away from what I perceived to be a yuppie obsession with tall, extravagant, caffeinated drinks, I just as easily re-discovered the warm, gentle feeling of satisfaction I got from a good cup of coffee somewhere along the course of this year. Milk steamed just right, espresso poured over, and a single cookie to nibble on while you wait for it to cool. Not difficult at all to grow into this feeling of luxury, one cup at a time. To grow into, in other words, the idea that I do deserve good things. That I do deserve to treat myself. That my world won't implode if I give to myself as much as I sometimes find myself giving to others.

Seems simple, right?

Making the simple things special: an espresso macchiato, for me with love.
A lot has changed for me in the past few months, and I'm sure a lot will change in the coming ones. In as positive ways, hopefully. In ways that will take me closer to that eternal, infernal, unfindable goal of living a self-actualised life. And yet not quite get me there, because where would we be if we stopped searching, changing, moulding ourselves and our preferences?

Not so far from where we started, that's what.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Not Azure

Just liking being sure.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

How I Became the Salad

Rice noodle, apple-cucumber morning glory salad
(aka RAM Salad - for reasons that will be explained later)

This salad is my present. Just a simple, seven-minute assemblage of the things from my kitchen shelves. But that could be a direct metaphor for my life; where everything comes together at once, and every experience carries at least a little bit of all the moments that have come before it. So let me take you through it, because I know you're dying (or at least mildly feigning interest) to know why I would compare my life to a salad.

First, the general motivations:
  • I had three baby apples and one very excellent cucumber lying in front of me, pleading to be pulped squeezed used. How could I not?
  • It was time for Sunday morning brunch -- easily the best meal of the week -- and I was need of something that didn't involve just muesli, fruit and yoghurt (my breakfast of choice for the past seven years).
  • I'd been dreaming about Taiwanese cold noodle salad since Friday. It is now Sunday. 36 hours is too long to be dreaming about food that takes ten minutes to make.
  • Plus, I hadn't sent my family a picture of my food for a whole 12 hours to assure them I wasn't starving.
Next, how it came to be.

For said salad, you need noodles, cucumber, carrots, garlic, sesame oil & seeds, sugar and a whole bunch other stuff (a version of the recipe can be found here). Just the thought of all those flavours always takes me back to a very happy place in the kitchen of a French village where my ex-boyfriend's mother first made this for us. Buuut, I refuse to follow recipes to the tee, plus I had these lovely fresh vegetables just waiting to jump into whatever I made next, so whatever comes next is inspired by what I ate that day, but not an exact reproduction.

It is however, like most human experience, authentic.

It also uses one of my favourite green things in the world; kangkung, aka morning glory. This looks a bit like bamboo leaves and tastes like all the goodness in Sri Lanka when stir-fried with garlic, chillies and dried Maldive fish. Or even just with garlic, as my friend Julia and the lady at the Asian store jointly emphasised. A little bit of morning glory for my morning.

So here's what I did.
  1. First, I grated a quarter of the cucumber and an apple and set it aside.
  2. In a wok, I flash-stir-fried some kangkung and a few broken up heads of broccoli with the thick stem grated in so it would cook quickly and evenly. Then, I threw in a generous fistful of brown rice vermicelli and a mug of water. You could use regular spaghetti-type noodles for a more robust dish.When most of the water had steamed off on high heat (about three minutes), I grated some garlic on top. You can use carrots, mushrooms, pretty much any stir-friable vegetable you like here. Likewise for soy-sauce marinated chicken/pork if it takes your fancy.
  3. I then mixed in some oyster sauce (feel free to use soy, sesame oil, peanut butter, lemon, sweet vinegar or all of these), lifted some out into a plate, and topped it with the grated cucumber and apple and their residual water. The cucumber water made it just a little more pliable and the apple made it both sweet and tart without having to add lemon and sugar. Win!
  4. I dusted some sesame and onion seeds on top for crunch. You could also add peanuts, sunflower seeds or whatever you want. Whether you choose to eat this cold or warm, add the crunchy stuff at the last moment!
As you can see, it's a pretty adjustable, substitutable recipe that can be as ingredient-heavy or light as you like. Like life, it's what you make of it. Every ingredient in this recipe takes me back to some place in my life when I was legitimately the teenager I have felt I was every day of this past week. I'm 100% sure yours, if you make it, will look different.

Maybe I should call this Random Access Memory Salad instead.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sparks Will Fly: The dark and magical world of steel manufacturing

Refeatured from The Scribbler

(Any mistakes are mine!)

India's railway system was built on iron ore brought in from Middlesborough, England in the mid-19th century. Today, most of the iron and coal used in the railways comes from within India, processed in small factories like my grand uncle's. Here's a look at what goes on inside one of them.

Many of these factories are not mammoth structures far away in the suburbs, but small enterprises set up in forgotten nooks in the city. They have stood there, unchanged for years. And except for the thick, dark smoke billowing from them, you'd never know they were there.

We take a ride to one of them owned by my grand-uncle in Jalandhar.

When we reach, iron ore extraction is in full steam. It's been cool outside because of the rains, but as soon as we enter the factory, we are hit by an unending sauna of smoke-steam and the collective vaporising sweat of the twenty-odd men who work there. They do this all day, every day.

My grand-uncle explains to us the runnings of the plant - a pipe-manufacturing unit he has run for over thirty years. The process is far from the sanitised, white coat assembly line process we're used to seeing on the Discovery Channel. And I have to remind myself that the process of taking something from the earth is not quite pristine.

First, the iron ore is extracted from the ground. The molten ore is purified by smelting it with coal in a blast furnace, and the impurities are filtered off as slag.

To aid the process of smelting, large lumps of coal are sieved briskly through a mesh. The coal dust that gathers is melted with the iron in a blast furnace to purify it.

The purified ore, which is dense but not quite strong, is then cooled to carry to an oxygenating furnace, where the addition of oxygen will turn it into steel.

Most of the workers here are weekly wage earners. Their contracts mean that they earn relatively low wages for long, hard physical labour. It is too warm for body-covering uniform, but labour laws don't require them to wear protective covering, and when asked, they refuse it anyway. The absence of stringent laws and such industry-wide practices mean that as in most of South Asia, labour here is cheap, at a grim cost to their own health.

The oxygenating furnace is manned by a boy who carefully monitors the temperature inside the furnace and feeds cool iron ore in to temper the mixture. It is part science, part art.

He uses his hands to tell the temperature of the furnace, knowing just when to stop, start, and add more ore.

As the oxygen is introduced, sparks fly. But he doesn't flinch. It's business as usual around here.

He pours the now molten steel into a vat.

The purified molten steel is then poured into moulds to cool into pipes.

These are then unmoulded, collected, and sent off for finishing. Workers are paid according to the weight of the pieces they process, so time spent sitting and waiting is usually a luxury. Here, however, he has to wait till the next batch comes in before he can move the pieces over.

In the finishing room, the pieces are first trimmed broadly, then passed on to the final finisher.

The final finisher then runs each piece through a blade and polishing system to take off any rough edges, then throws them in a box with the others. The room is lit by a single lightbulb, but he has passed enough pieces to not really need to see what he is doing.

The piece is finally complete.

A final word: there are many factories like one this all over India. My grand-uncle has run his for thirty years and though business is running well, he tells us that the process itself hasn't changed quickly. Nor have the legal industrial safety and well-being requirements. Factory workers earn decently compared to other industries, but aren't unionised enough to be aware of, or call for change in these regulations.

Soon, his son will take over the factory fully, and India's newly elected government will be more interested in employment laws. 
Hopefully, more change is swiftly on its way.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The truth is...

Paraphrased and sewn up from here:

In this game called life, you don’t stand a chance if you choose not to try. If you are afraid to embrace your true self for fear of how the world will see you. If you are unwilling to ask if it’s all a lie, and accept the possibility that maybe, the methods of mass media are under direct orders to keep you distracted. If you do not ask enough questions, do not question authority and do not question yourself. If you cannot bring yourself escape the comfort of your mediocrity.

Because smart is not what you learn, it’s how you live. And if you could learn to handle the truth, you would become an instant addict. Then you would see; then you would know that the only thing holding you back from doing something truly amazing, is you.

Have a great week, everyone!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Finding Neverland

Pictures from Mont Pèlerin, Vevey and Gruyères

Is this real? - At the Mirador Kempinski, Mont Pèlerin

A view to wake up to - from Mont Pèlerin

From the Chateau de Gruyères

"Far over the misty mountains cold"

The fork in the lake!

I wish I never grow up.

Not because of I'm afraid of commitments and responsibilities, but because I never want to stop seeing things the way I have seen them as a child. Fresh and full of colour.

As I've gotten older, I have spent a sufficient amount of time fearing that the more I see the world, the less affected I am becoming by it. I feel that growing up is like alcohol. It slows down your reflexes, makes your head fuzzy and makes you numb to what's around you. As you see yet another new city, climb up a new mountain or even just walk down the same road you've walked down for the past four months, things can quickly lose their shiny newness and become same ol', same ol'.

And that sucks.

So while this post carries glimpses of the grand views I saw in Montreux, Vevey and Gruyères, it's also a gentle reminder to myself -- and to you, my dear reader -- to never stop noticing all the wonder around you and to keep interacting with the world. Sometimes, it's just about picking up a shell to take back with you from the beach, talking to someone new in your broken rendition of their language in a foreign country, or even just taking a photograph of wherever you are to remind you of the feeling of being there then. There's something very revealing to yourself about what you choose to carry forth with you. And what you choose to leave behind.

And that is part of growing up too.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Pssst! The secret isn't yet out

I'm writing this on a Sunday afternoon, but by the time this is posted, my dad will safely be on a flight to Geneva, unaware that he will see my kooky face staring up at him out of a car seat at the airport when he lands.

If we can keep the surprise till then, that is. I have a feeling the echo of an airline ticket receipt might have shown up in his inbox sometime last week. Plus, we're not very good at keeping secrets in our circle of family and friends. Everyone but him is in the know, and they've all been instructed to keep it 'top secret'.

For now though, we're safe. So let's move on, shall we?

Since Friday night, I've been in Geneva. Having moved around a lot ("you're just a plant in a pot", my Russian physics teacher would remark), a struggling motif through my glowing up years has been the idea of home. For me, as for most people with my background, the idea of home is not the immutable object that comes easily to some people. Home is not where I'm from, because I've never lived there. Home is not any one of the cities I've lived in, it's all of them. In the absence of adults and household cues to provide familiarity and milestones for growing up, I feel more and more that the cities I've lived in have taken on that role. And my personal landmarks within them are like a giant circle of wise trees dangling their branches over me protectively in the middle of a forest. And among those many city-tree-circles (have I lost you yet?), the City of Calvin has mentored me at perhaps one of the most important times in my life. It's the city in which I first learnt how it feels to be in love. So every street crossing, every park, and especially every entree interdite sign has long guarded unwhispered anecdotes for me. But I don't think I realised just how much every piece of Geneva is a part of me till I came back.

Pieces of the Geneva I knew, that is. I've only had the chance to walk around for a couple hours in the city since I came, but things feel just the same, in a wholly uplifting way. When I was seventeen, the world was a lot brighter and somewhat more cheerfully vitriolic. I was braver, I think. Spunkier. I climbed over fences a whole lot. The best summers of my life were spent in Geneva, (far from all the gloom of my socially awkward yesteryears) with my two best friends, lots of sunshine, and the occasional bottle of sake. When you're that age and with the right people, the world is limitless.

So it feels very safe to be back. It's home. Things are the same always, even if they're different. And the relationship between you and your city is mutual and unconditional. You love it even with its quirks. And it loves you right back.


Anyway, enough sappy stuff. Now for what I've been up to since I got here. A little bit of context?

First and foremost, before I even got here, two families were fighting over me. "You're spending Friday night with us, half of Saturday and Sunday with them, and then Monday with us again", I was informed. "We've spoken to your mother." So that was decided, then. Thanks for asking me, folks. Of course, there's the wonderful fact that both these families have known me since I was knee-high. Lots of history, too many embarrassing stories, and the instant comfort of being around people who've probably seen you at the squishiest, most loveable you'll ever be. And then there's the fooood and the fact that I can swim everyday (at a pool that plays the best of the nineties) and get ravenous enough to demolish it all. Between all this attention, I haven't had a moment to breathe, and I love it!

So far, I've...

1) Eaten a matcha dorayaki to celebrate my love of green things AND discovered yet new streets in areas I've walked through for four years. It's a city of so many surprises.

This counts as green things, right?

I swear, I haven't seen as many tailors and laundrettes in my entire stay here as I saw on Saturday.
2) Eaten a DELICIOUS South Indian lunch with a hundred and seventeen dishes and apricot halva for dessert. I can't post pictures because of security reasons because they'll make me droool.

3) Witnessed a tooth breaking and a very happy 8.5 year old.

"The tooth-fairy is bringing me a Nintendo D5 for this!" (Very closely mentioned in the vicinity of Mummy. Mummy didn't flinch this time, good on her.)

4) Been impressed with the scope of said 8.5 year old's music taste. Everything from Pharell (Happiness) to Skrillex (Bangarang). Kids these days? Making twenty-somethings feel like teenagers all over the world.

Just gettin' my jams on.

5) Played indoor football with said 8.5 year old ("Mom says it's okay as long as we don't break the glass") AND scored roughly four times more goals. In a dress. Though to be fair, he did say he was going to take it easy on me.

6) Collapsed on the floor immediately afterwards, gazed up at the ceiling, played some video games and chatted about life, the universe and everything. Ask him the answer to that and he will now proudly inform you it's 42. (Well played, me.)

"This is such a cool game, Naniaaa. Why have you never played it?"
"Because I don't play video games"
"Then why do you have it on your phone?"
"Because I thought I might play it someday"
"Then why don't you play it?"
"I don't play video games"
"Then why do you have it on your phone?"
"Because...oh, I dunno, my eight-year-old friends borrow my phone sometimes and they like to play with it."

From this angle, the world is a happy place.

7) Went to dinner with one of my favourite almost-aunts, and the only person I thought I wouldn't be able to meet on this trip.

8) Ate the best homefood possible that night and missed my mother to bits. 

Gaajar matar, aloo gobhi, rajma, coconut fish curry, and the most tender, flavourful tandoori chicken I've had in a while. This is food cooked with love.

9) Put my buddy to bed, something I haven't done in four years and woke up to find him nestled in the nook of my arm, just as he used to four years ago.


 10) Went the usual amount of mad, got to know these a little better, and therefore (obviously) regained my clarity of vision.

11) Watched popcorn pop in a test tube. For those of you who've never done this with a young'un, you have no idea what you're missing. Instant babysitter, given that you're all right with them handling matches, hot test tubes and knives, as is evident.

...and a little adult supervision, of course.

12) Concocted my very own salad with the loveliest of Aunty A's organic pickings. Just LOOK at it.

13) Felt utterly and completely at home.

Now, just for dad to turn up so I can see the look on his face.