My Hairstory

I had a haircut recently.

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I hadn’t planned for something quite so radical.

I had made an appointment at the hairdresser’s and was going for a trim.

That afternoon, I asked some of my colleagues what they thought I should do with my hair and how short I should go.

Unanimously, they told me that I was to cut no more than 2 inches off my very long hair. Long hair suits me, they said.

It was not until the moment I was seated in the hairdressing salon that I was going to take it all off.

It was pretty dramatic, especially considering the fact that I have had long hair for years.

That night, I posted a photo of my new haircut (see above pic) on Facebook and a flood of positive comments appeared on my page, some remarking upon how drastic the change was. And that got me thinking…about how much a haircut could mean to us.

Let me take you back to the 1970s.

I am the first born and only child to my Singaporean Chinese parents, and when I was born, I had already disappointed my parents and my grandparents in two major ways.

First of all, I was covered in hair from head to toe. My grandparents thought that my mother had given birth to a monster. Thankfully, I shed most of that hair within days, leaving a thick head of hair. Still, this was rather odd for a baby of Chinese heritage.

The second was not something that could be reversible like the first. The second was a gut-wrenching disappointment for I was not born a boy, and this was made quite clear to me throughout my childhood.

To start off, my grandmother insisted on taking me to the barber and ensured that I had a boy’s haircut, maintaining the illusion for as long as she could.

Why is anyone surprised that I grew up to become a bit of a tom boy?

(insert)

The barber totally freaked me out…
When I became used to being treated like a boy…

For the most of my childhood, my mother decided that I should have my hair kept short, and when I voiced my envy of my classmates who had beautiful plaited hair, she would lecture me on the conveniences of short hair, adding that it was the girls with long hair who got lice. The scare tactic worked because I never complained after that.

Celebrating my 4th birthday with a bob
Looking unhappy – ‘Why can all my classmates have long hair?’
Can you spot me in this picture?

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When I went to college, long hair became my preferred style. I wanted everything I couldn’t have when I was growing up.

Even the pigeons found my long hair more attractive…

And I realized the power of the long hair.

I could put it in a bun and look elegant;

I could tie it into two plaits and look naïve;

I could curl it, let it all down and look seductive.

I could flick it, toss it, and shake it.

I could headbang with it.

I could attract attention with it.

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But I was miserable.

I wasn’t happy with myself and constantly felt insecure.

I was depressed.

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I embarked on a journey of self-exploration.

I took up meditation, I reflected, I faced up to my demons.

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One of the many things I realized was this:

I had based all of my self-confidence on what others thought of me.

I had based my self-worth upon the attention I received.

Yet, I wasn’t willing to love myself or my own company.

And until I could enjoy my own company could I expect others to enjoy mine.

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So, I got a pair of scissors and cut my very long hair off.

I then shaved my hair off.

All of it.

Till I was bald.

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Now, I really looked awful.

I looked like a freak.

I felt less feminine than I had ever felt.

I had sought to be as ugly as I could be.

And if I could find confidence within myself, if I could love myself despite how others looked at me, I knew this time it would be true confidence.

Without any hair, I felt exposed…

The friends I met and got to know would treat me completely differently from the ones I met when I had hair.

The boys who came to chat me up in clubs were certainly of a different type, and expected different things of me, seeing that a bald head on a girl must mean she is daring and wild in some way.

The people I encountered in the shops and in the street regarded me with suspicion, some unsure whether I was a boy or a girl, and some openly expressing disapproval of my unconventional appearance.

After all, if people can’t place you in a box, they try to do so anyway.

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My self-esteem shrank to nothing.

I felt lonely, like no one understood me.

I was really depressed.

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I realized how much I had depended on something as seemingly insignificant as hair to boost my confidence, to create the illusion of being understood, to feel belonged in society.

I realized that I hadn’t been confident all my life after all.

For if it were true confidence, it wouldn’t have been deflated so easily.

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I kept my head shaved for 6 months.

I learnt to explore everything that I was and to find things about myself I loved.

I learnt to feel attractive and feminine in other ways.

I learnt to find true confidence.

Like the story of my hair, the story of my journey in teaching hasn’t been too different.

Placing your confidence upon tools, materials, and even your personality, can only take you this far.

Find your confidence from within, and it will stay with you forever.

Could you see why?

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Cringing at Cheese this Christmas?

Christmas is naturally a mushy time…considering the fact that it combines all the ideals of love, giving, family reunions, and bonding.

Like weddings, it is one of those occasions where you really can’t stave off the sentimental moments. Or can we?

Some of us sneer at melancholic Christmas tunes, the twinkling fairy lights or the smell of the Christmas dinner cooking.

Some of us can’t express appreciation for the nostalgia and laughter shared over some mulled wine in front of an open fire.
And they are neither Ebenezer Scrooge nor in serious need of psychotherapy.

They just hate cheese.

Since when has cheese earned such a terrible reputation? We act as if being cheesy is the uncoolest thing to hit the human race since that shoulder-padded jacket we wore at secondary school thinking we were making the biggest fashion statement ever.

Is this our anti-thesis to NKOTB, Westlife, Rick Ashley, and the entire boy band fad of the 80s/90s?

Or a prolonged silent protest against the loving hippie attitudes of the 60s and 70s?

Or our reactions to the every big studio romance film starring Meg Ryan?

Or maybe it’s our acquired distaste for being bombarded by advertisements as our good ol’fashioned emotions are manipulated by marketing firms of mega-conglomerates?

Or is it really that child inside us all that feels a bit betrayed by the happy families portrayed in every cheesy song and film when we discover that real life just isn’t quite so?

Is it the build-up of frustration with having to cope with the family dramas that could only annoy and disturb as much as they do because they are built upon decades of history together?

Is it the frantic preparation followed by the disappointing unappreciation that scares us into realistic apprehension of allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the significance of the occasion?

Could we let our guard down and demolish the fortress that protects our hearts this Christmas?

After all, it’s the season for forgiveness.

I’d say, why not let yourself go this holiday season?

Merry Christmas one and all, and I pray that the spirit of giving is with you.

11 things I learnt in London – a pseudo-ethnographic exploration of British vs Singaporean culture

How time has flown. As of the 5th July 2011, I’ve been living in London for 11 years. It was 11 years ago when I wrote a ridiculous feature called ‘a Singaporean Bimbo in London’ for a Singaporean newspaper and it still makes me giggle to remember the girl that I was. Looking back, there has been some valuable lessons in those 11 years, somewhere…and perhaps living here both as a participant and an observer could somewhat make me an ethnographer of London pop culture, albeit not a systematic or academic one. On that note, here are the top 11 things I’ve gathered from my past 11 years.

1. Personality

My assumption: Enthusiasm and confidence are clearly positive things.

My experience: I used to greet my fellow housemates with a loud and cheery ‘Good Morning!’ and one day, overheard a conversation between two of my housemates that went something like this, ‘What’s she on? Nobody can be that enthusiastic. I can’t trust her. It seems so insincere’.

Lesson learnt: Enthusiasm and overconfidence can be regarded with suspicion (especially coming from a woman)

2. Intonation

My assumption: Coming to a country that speaks the same language, I immediately assumed that what I said would be understood in the same way too. Now, if you are not familiar with the Singaporean accent, imagine putting the word stress on the last syllable of every word, and the last word of every sentence. Now imagine this situation.

My experience: I was living a houseshare and the bins regularly were filled up but not emptied. After taking out the bins for the 11th time, I politely asked a housemate, ‘Could you take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ I later heard rumours that I was very aggressive, and so I tried to change the way I said things, ‘I was wonderING if you could possiBLY take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ to no avail. To them, I was still aggressive.

Many years later, when shown Gumperz’s research that featured two different accents saying ‘That’s the wrong one. It’s the Wembley account,’ to a bank manager and how they were perceived differently, I suddenly realised that the unconscious placement of my sentence stress and intonation had created an impression I had no intention of making.

Lesson learnt: Accents may be part of your identity, but that identity could be misconstrued (so please don’t judge me for changing my accent…)

3. Forming new friendships                                                               

My assumption: The thought of moving overseas almost seems like an adventurous prospect. A chance to start over, to start afresh.

My experience: Most people I have met have close friends they have met at university or at school, and those seem to be the main friends that stay with you for life. Coming to a new environment in my mid-twenties only means that most people already have an established circle of friends, and this makes the task of making friends even more challenging.

Lesson learnt: By starting afresh, this includes the social circles that you’ve built. And if you don’t go to the pub, you might have problems making new friends.

4. Indirectness

My Assumption: People say that the Brits are very indirect and pride politeness.

My experience: I wrote long-winded work emails in the belief that I was being polite and indirect. When asking for time-off, I would write 3 paragraphs explaining why I needed it. When I received what I considered to be curt and abrupt replies, I spent nights worrying that I had offended them.

Lesson learnt: Generalisations can backfire. Context is everything. Regarding emails, it is totally acceptable to get to the point.

5. Perceptions of attractiveness 

My assumption: Being cute and silly is what you do when you flirt. Girliness=Sexiness. When showing affection, hit the member of the opposite sex playfully.

My experience: When I did the very same things that would have worked for me back in Singapore, the guy I was hitting (on) said, ‘What’s up with you? Grow up!’

Many years later, I had a heated discussion with a British friend about what she thought was the ‘infantilisation of women’ in Far Eastern cultures…strangely, we never saw it as infantilisation…just uh…cute?

Lesson learnt: What is considered attractive and flirty can be extremely different culture to culture.

6. Machismo

My assumption: Being romantic, liking romantic comedies and cheesy love songs are not gender-specific characteristics. (Some of my male Korean students will even attest to romantic comedies being their favourite genre of films)

My experience: Countless discussions with British and European men quickly brought light to the fact that it is just not cool for a man to like romantic films and cheesy love songs. This is further affirmed by the phrase ‘chick flicks’. But it is not just the British men who are wary of the Hollywood brand of romance. Several years ago, when I heard someone say, ‘Your eyes are like the stars in the sky’, I instantly responded with a cynical ‘Oh please…’, at which point I thought, ‘Oh my! I’m turning British!’

Lesson learnt: Cliched romantic notions could be considered not just very girly, but rather insincere.

7. The Media

My assumption: In Singapore, there is a relatively heavy-handed censorship of the media. The number of tabloid newspapers and reality TV shows far exceeds those in my country.

My experience: A student pointed out to me that she found it admirable that the mass media in Britain constantly chides celebrities for having cheated on their wives. When I probed further, she said that many women in her culture would not want to talk about their partner’s infidelity as they feel it might be a reflection of their unattractiveness. She added that if such news was in the papers in her country, the men would probably want to pat the celebrity on the back and celebrate his manhood. The open criticism of such behaviour in the media, whether it be on tabloids or the Jeremy Kyle Show leads to a public mentality that cheating is unacceptable, no representation of one’s manliness and definitely not the norm.

Lesson learnt: Tabloid media can serve to uphold certain values in society and reflect the beliefs and the values of a culture (and can be good ‘fry-your-brain’ entertainment too).

8. Studying

My assumption: When I was at school, the popular kids were always the ones who had the straight As, in addition to excelling in other extra curricular activities like the piano, dance, chess. The boys who studied hard were the ones other boys wanted to be, the ones that the girls were drawn to.

My experience: I was never really the hard worker or the star pupil back at school, but perhaps growing up and finding a passion for teaching and Applied Linguistics has propelled me to put quite a bit of effort into my teaching qualifications. But I soon realised that one’s grades or knowledge is not something one should publicise.

Lesson learnt: Studying and the procurement of knowledge is best done quietly (otherwise you’ll be known as a nerd)

9. Class

My assumption: Having money and being upper class are considered desirable qualities. Coming from a country that had moved from third world to first world in such a short period of time, a rat race had developed to push people to compete so as to learn more, produce more and achieve more. The fight for status and the 5 Cs (Cash, Car, Career, Condominium, Credit Card) was what elevated the country’s economic status.

My experience: The rich and upper class are sometimes treated with disdain. Many have a fierce pride in their regional accents. People protest against bankers’ wages. Of course, it is no secret that the TEFL world I work in is populated by liberals in pursuit of fairness, but I would like to think that it is a fair representation of the majority.

Lesson learnt: Being or sounding posh can be detrimental in the UK. Obviously, I frown upon any kind of discrimination, but the citizens of the UK can be proud to be striving towards the values of altruism and meritocracy.

10. Wit 

I could almost write a whole blogpost dedicated to this. But better yet, read pop anthropologist Kate Fox’s ‘Watching the English’ which dedicates a whole chapter to this topic, and a whole section to irony.

My Assumption: There are several things I had taken forgranted in this area. Among these are – humour is important but just one of many character traits that could be nice to have; Mr Bean was a good representation of British humour; winding someone up is usually done with malice. But the examination of different brands of humour deserves much more than just a few throw-away sentences that can hardly summarise the underlying features of what we intrinsically find funny.

Situation: Couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a Singaporean friend’s video on Facebook that was shot during a house party. A boy at the party teases a female friend as being very girly in front of the others, she throws her hands up, stomps her feet in a girly manner and screams, ‘Ai yoh! Don’t sabo (Singaporean English short for sabotage) me! You always like that one!’ (translation: Oh my! Don’t tease me! Why are you always like that?) and the rest of their friends laughs along at her display of ‘cuteness’.  Upon watching this video, I intrinsically found myself laughing adoringly, relating to the scenario. There was a part of myself that understood that brand of humour, despite knowing that there was a stark difference between that and British wit. At that moment, I realised that humour was something deeply entrenched in our upbringing.

Lesson learnt: In Britain, humour is everything. Irony permeates everyday life and best delivered with a dead-pan face. I love the wit of Mock the Week, the self-deprecation of Little Britain, but I probably will never really be able to ‘do it’ the British way. And that’s ok.

Most importantly,

11. Speaking the same language does not mean having the same culture.

The above might seem pretty obvious, but it was something I simply hadn’t considered when I started living here. Basic concepts which I took for granted as universal were clearly not. And these are concepts no book about culture could shed light on.

I’m glad these 11 years have taught me that.

A Singaporean Bimbo in London – a newspaper article I wrote in 2000.

This is an article I wrote for a Singaporean newspaper called The New Paper (yes, I know…) 11 years ago, shortly after I arrived in London. In light of my 11th anniversary blogpost, I’m rehashing this article, published on 14 January 2001.

The few of you who are asking where the Triple Nine-cum-Speak Mandarin Campaign girl has been this last year. I’m back. All right, maybe not physically, but in literary spirit I am back to enliven my fellow countrymen of my discoveries in Europe. Mainly, the self discovery of the Singaporean bimbo.

Rumours that Chong Chia Suan had gone to London after her filming in Prague to ‘discover new showbiz opportunities’ were floating around. Fact is, upon realising the tip of my bimbo-quotient iceberg, I decided to stay on in Europe to uncover the rest of it.

It began in Prague when I mistook one of the assistant directors to be American when he clearly had a British accent. The truth was, no matter how I had pretended to be Ms-Know-All in the past, I really couldn’t distinguish accents very well. After all, this is the same girl who had to read the subtitles to Trainspotting to understand what the movie was all about.

A stuntman who saw that I did not know anything about Europe at all suggested that I go to London, it being the centre of the arts and everything, to learn a few things. My lesson began almost immediately as I crossed the channel from France to London by rail. My mind was instantly fogged with bimbo-ish ideas of france being on the other side of Europe from London. Voila! They were actually right next to each other. But, hang on a second, weren’t they supposed to be two big and different countries with separate cultures and languages, united by the one similar desire to beat each other at everything? So, how could they be neighbours?

Bimbotic revelations continued as I walked the streets of London, ecstatic that the places on my Monopoly board REALLY did exist. There I was, all by myself, in the middle of a busy street, jumping up and down, giggling uncontrollably and yelling to anyone who would listen, “Hey! Trafalgar Square! Piccadilly Circus! Bond Street and cheapo Old Kent Road!”

And I started to sob at the sight of those red toy buses and postboxes I used to play with, here, blown-up life-size, and moving for real.

At first, I thought I could get away with the excuse that being Singaporean, I lived a sheltered life and did not know quite as much about the rest of the world. My new Finnish flatmates soon caught on to the fact that my ill-knowledge of the world was incurable when I actually believed them when they told me that penguins were kept in residential backyards, and that polar bears were sold in pet shops in Finland. They found my stupidity quite funny at first, and repeatedly tried to convince me of ridiculous trivia which sounded perfectly plausible to me, starting with the high rates of deaths in Finland caused by men peeing out in the minus 50 cold to the number of Finnish people who lived in igloos.

I stood uncontested as the very personification of ‘bimbo’. For a while. They soon tired of insistence that the capital of Switzerland was Stockholm, Holland was just another name for Denmark, Budapest was a Middle-Eastern city, and Netherlands used to be part of Russia.

Thankfully, the people of England seemed to not only forgive, but are deliriously obsessed with stupidity. Top television programmes readily feature cerebrally-challenged people. Think Harry Enfield, the Monty Python Series, The Fast Show, and those of you not familiar with any of the above, you force me to mention – Mr Bean.

Compare this to the highly-rated programmes in Singapore which tend to feature more intelligent people like Mulder and Scully, Phua Chu Kang, the cast of Friends…er…well…never mind…

I must admit that following through with my bimbocity was rather fun and attention-grabbing at first, until it became really life-threatening. I openly told a Scotsman, who worked as a baked beans taster for a major supermarket chain (this is true!) that Scotland was part of England! Along with my lucky stars, the man had a great sense of humour, probably owing to his job, and I was let off the hook. My fellow actors in class, upon hearing about the incident, marvelled at how I survived it without landing in hospital.

Now you know why I cannot return to Singapore until I succeed in becoming remotely intelligent, or my trip would have been for nothing. Meanwhile, I am still trying to figure out if my flatmates were teasing when they said that salami was made from horsemeat.

Gaelic – To Save or Not to Save

The Highlanders are generally quite proud of their heritage, their traditions, and their uniqueness. I know, because I’m engaged to one. From their faithfulness to Scottish football, to their pride in adorning the kilt and embracing Céilidh dances and the traditional events of the Highland games, one could say that a typical Highlander is in no doubt about his/her identity, and keen to show that to the world. So you can imagine my surprise when I met not just one but five Highlanders who all expressed annoyance at talks about saving Gaelic by encouraging children to study it at school and the introduction of Gaelic into bilingual road signs (see above picture). They unanimously argued that Gaelic is a dying language and that it is useless and impractical for their children to spend their time on – time which was presumably better spent on learning languages like Spanish or Mandarin. The bilingual road signs, they insisted, were the product of a profit-making scheme by the government to attract tourists to Scotland – tourists who might find Gaelic exotic and exciting.

While more than 6000 languages exist today, Swerdlow (1999) predicted that by the year 2100, the number of languages on our planet could fall to 3000. Schaefer and Ebokhare (1999) who investigated the loss of African languages in southern Nigeria concluded that English is giving rise to the abandonment of indigenous, minority languages. But this phenomenon of the global spread of English giving rise to the extinction of indigenous languages is not a new one. We in the UK need to look no further than Scotland and Ireland to see how English has not only taken over the local languages, but perhaps also their culture. If one believes in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that we see the world through the tinted lenses of the language we speak, then despite attempts to keep out the English, whether it be by historical wars waged by William Wallace or wearing ABE (Anyone but England) T-shirts at the World Cup, the Highlanders are already allowing the imperialism of their culture and their view of the world by taking on the English language.

In response to my passionate plea, these North-Eastern Highlanders claimed that Gaelic was not only unrepresentative of their identity, but that it was spoken mainly by people from the Western Isles such as those in the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and that those in the East originally spoke Norwegian dialects. They then jokingly stated that if the government had wanted to preserve their historical roots, the road signs should have been in Norwegian. I found all this quite interesting, but a little hard to believe, so I decided to go ahead and do my own research on the origins of Gaelic.

While my friends are right about the fact that Gaelic is now seen as a regional language spoken largely on islands like Skye, Harris and Lewis, historically, it was actually the language spoken by the majority of Scotland. It is not clear how old Gaelic is but there is written evidence of the language dating back to as far as the 5th Century. Gaelic flourished for many centuries and even replaced Pictish as the main language of Scotland north of the River Forth in Edinburgh. It only began to suffer a decline in status as a national language in parts of mainland Scotland in the 13th Century, gradually being displaced by English. Ngugi (1986) describes how colonial powers devalue the culture of the local people and try to replace their language with that of the colonizer, and, in this way, control the way the people perceive themselves and the world, thus dominating and colonizing their minds. Yet, the Highlanders stubbornly resisted and the language survived.

The highland-lowland line emerged and Highland Gaelic, or what we know as Scottish Gaelic today, eventually became one that distinguished the Highlanders from the Lowlanders, who had their own brand of Lowland Gaelic, a dialect that is now completely defunct. Having been the language of the bardic culture of the Highland clans for many years, Scottish Gaelic preserves knowledge of pre-feudal ‘tribal’ laws and customs and was representative of the Highlanders and their traditions. These traditions, alongside the language, were unfortunately persecuted during the Battle of Culloden in 1746 where the Jacobites, made up of an army of mostly Highlanders, failed at their attempts to overthrow the reigning House of Hanover.

The Highlanders and their language were further tyrannised during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, where masses of Highlanders were forced to emigrate to make way for agricultural reforms of the then British government.Waves of mass emigration to North America and Australasia meant that these immigrants had to learn the lingua francas of the countries they immigrated to, i.e. English, and subtractive bilingualism occurred.

Even in the 20th century, despite the council fiercely resisting continuous attempts to allow for bilingual road signs, it was not until 1973, when this was finally allowed. However, today, many with Scottish ancestry fail to realise that they belong to a culture that has its own language and take for granted the new rights they now have to celebrate this language. It’s a bit like the generations of women who have campaigned for the right to vote, only to have lots of women, decades later, not even bothering to head to the polls on election day. We humans do have a propensity of taking things for granted, things that generations have fought to have.

Most Scots would be pleased to have organisations like Historic Scotland to look after, to preserve, and to show off their amazing irreplaceable heritage. Places like Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands are older than the Pyramids of Egypt and tell a story of the history of a people, a story of where we come from and what we were, and places like this need to be conserved and studied with care.

Yet, many do not seem to see a parallel between these places and a complex language like Gaelic, which is filled with historical clues to the beginnings of the Scots. Perhaps an organisation like Historic Scotland could be accused of being formed for the profit-making, tourist-attracting schemes of the government, more so than the use of Gaelic on road signs. But no one would ever think that. It is, after all, not difficult to see the connection between historical monuments and the history and culture of a people. It is much more difficult to see that connection between a language and one’s culture, perhaps because language infiltrates every part of our everyday life and, therefore, is much more easily overlooked.

So, no, if we don’t believe in taking a wrecking ball to Eilean Donan Castle, then let’s not let Gaelic die.

Bibliography

Ngugi, W.T. (1986) Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Schaefer, R.P. and F.O. Egbokhare (1999) ‘English and the pace of endangerment in Nigeria.’ World Englishes 18/3:381-91.

Swerdlow, J.L. (1999) ‘Global Village’, National Geographic 196/2:2-6.

For more information, see http://www.savegaelic.org/