Older

My attitude towards my birthday has always fluctuated. For some reason, I can never remember the major milestone ages: I think I turned 18 pretty much without fanfare (except for my immediate exercise of my new right to buy alcohol), I turned 21 while on exercises in Thailand with the SAF, and now I’m turning 30 while staying up way too late for my ageing body checking my email because one of the joys of growing older is finding out that work never waits.

I also don’t remember when the last time was I felt glad that I was growing older. Most of those birthdays passed by without me feeling much older: I feel like I was 15 until I turned 21, and then stuck at 21 until I was 25, at which age I’ve more or less remained. But tonight, I feel old. I feel terrible, actually.

It’s been so long since I last felt carefree, or even just glad about something I did. With some very few, very notable exceptions, I don’t feel like I’ve even done anything right for years. Since I graduated from Cambridge, it feels like I slipped on the stairs and have been falling, ever since, just tumbling from one step to another, lower, bone-bruising step. It’s been one disappointment after another, a nonstop, unrewarding, unrecognised scramble to stay abreast of a tidal wave of mediocrity.

Five years a working adult, and I feel ready to throw in the towel. I look back at the last five years of trying desperately to be relevant, to make a difference, to just connect with something worthwhile, and think of the glaring nothing I’ve achieved and project that on to the future, and I can feel my heart grow grey. For every student saved, a class goes under; for every meaningful or rewarding connection, endless hours of drivel.

I’m 30 today and I feel twice that. I feel used-up, wrung-out. I feel like a scalpel that’s been used as a shovel. I know how it feels, oh my dear Alfie, “to rust unburnished, not to shine in use”. I feel under-utilised and overstretched at the same time.  My blood feels thick, my skin thin.

I’ve worn down my body and my mind and for what?


Perhaps as a younger, more ambitious, more brash young man, I might have said that sentiment is meaningless and that only achievement counts. But tonight I’m 30 and all I have is sentiment. I mark the absence of regret as my brightest joy.

A family I will never regret having been born-into, brought-up in, growing-up with. Friends I will never regret having been vulnerable with. A beloved fiancée I have no regrets having wooed and won. You I remember with a joy that remains constant, fresh and welling-up unceasingly from old memory and new acquaintance. When I look back on 30 years on this Earth, I can’t help but think that what I truly celebrate is that all of you were born, and that we could meet the way we did, and that we are as we are.

If there is anything that I should like to remember to mark 30 spent years, it is you.

And if, next year, at the end of my 30th year, I should have anything to be glad of, may it first and foremost be you, all of you.

And if I want to have more good tidings besides, to have something else worth celebrating… well, I guess it’s up to me, isn’t it?

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Chinese New Year: some things I don’t love about being Chinese

Chinese New Year Calligraphy Wallpaper Pics Wallpaper

Now, don’t get me wrong: usually, I’m very much proud of my culture and my upbringing, as deficient as it might have been in anything approaching authentic cultural immersion. Even if I connect with my heritage more through the martial arts than through language and popular culture, I try to always be open to learning more about my heritage.

Even then, I suppose, I must profess an ulterior motive. I have a bad habit of using knowledge as as a weapon. At least one reason for my enthusiasm for Chinese history and culture comes from the many evils perpetrated by the ignorant, who invoke the sanctity of tradition without enough knowledge to provide discretion and context.

That aside, I’m genuinely a big fan of my own culture. I may not be its best ambassador, but I’m generally at least a staunch supporter. I suppose it must show, since I’m spending part of my New Year holidays reading and writing about Chinese socio-cultural history instead of whatever festive venality I’m supposed to be embracing.

At around this time of year, however, during the Chinese Lunar New Year, I always end up being reminded of things that diminish my enthusiasm somewhat. I like Reunion Dinner, I like getting together with relatives I don’t usually see (even if I don’t always say much, victim of language and generational distance as I am), and I love the food and the festivities.

Every year at around this time, though, I always end up asking myself why the Chinese attitude towards prosperity and wealth has to be so vulgar.

Culprit A

That flash git up there is Cai Shen Ye, or the God of Fortune. Insofar as he’s a Taoist deity of some significance, I have no quarrel with him. Deities of wealth are de rigeur for every pantheistic faith I can think of (Lakshmi, Plutus, and Freyja come to mind readily).

I do, however, resent his annual intrusion into a cultural event. Yes, yes, most cultural events have religious myth at their roots, but there’s a difference between, say, Diwali, where the religious myth in question is about renewal and the triumph of light over darkness, and Chinese New Year, where Cai Shen’s religious myth is about materialism, avarice, and greed. There are literally mascots who dress up as Cai Shen and go to schools to throw candy at kids, because I suppose it’s never too early to indoctrinate kids with an ideology of sticky-fingered acquisitiveness. Sure, some people hold Diwali as sacred to Lakshmi too, but I’m pretty sure nobody dresses up as Lakshmi and goes flinging gold-foil-wrapped gulab jamuns at tykes to teach them the importance of scrabbling for cash at the earliest age possible.

Yes, there’s actually a verse in there encouraging you to go buy lottery tickets. Chinese New Year and Easter are both fertility festivals, but I can’t remember offhand how many traditional Easter songs exhorted you to get out there and bet on some horse races or something. And if they want chocolates on Easter, the kids go look for it themselves; the Easter Bunny doesn’t dance up to them singing about the virtues of blackjack and craps while lobbing eggs at them.

Maybe I’m something of a New Year Grinch, but I’d love to be able to celebrate being Chinese without the constant reminder that I’m not properly Chinese if I’m not Taoist  (and wealth-obsessed) as well. I’m not sure any of the other major festivals that Singapore recognises suffers from this weird religious/cultural identity crisis. Hari Raya, Diwali, Easter etc are all explicitly religious in nature, while stuff like National Day and Labour Day are explicitly cultural, with their roots in historical events, and all of those things have their appropriate trappings. Chinese New Year, however, often seems like a tacky mash-up between trappings and icons I can get behind (melon seeds symbolising fertility, mandarin oranges symbolising wealth, but tastefully) and ones I can’t (songs encouraging you to gamble).

Everyone loves money, I guess; I’m not immune to avarice, either, and some material-consciousness isn’t an altogether bad thing. You can’t really separate material abundance from the essential virtues of health and longevity that everyone wants to enjoy, and all cultures and religions celebrate fertility and prosperity.

I just wish we could be more tasteful about it.