Memoir and Melodrama

It took a Personal Essay class to make me realize how much I work through my life in writing. I transferred down to a private liberal arts school in the small city of St. Petersburg, Florida in an effort to “sober up” and hone my academic skills and expand my knowledge base. While the public university I attended in Boston was welcoming and endearing, a ripe open playground fit for destructive self-sabotage, freedom and teenage debauchery, I soon had my fair share of fun and became bored.

I needed a challenge and moving to Florida provided just that.

No longer required to take General Ed classes that—although interesting—were already concepts that I had covered in Singapore, I took the plunge and signed up for classes purely out of my intellectual interest in them: Literature and Creative Writing. I had decided to double major (sticking to my original Communications with Lit as a second) and chose my classes to fulfill the needed requirements. Creative Writing seemed like a natural progression, but being a transfer student, I had been slightly late for registration and while I had my eyes set on an introductory class for Fictional Short Story or Poetry Writing, they were booked up or conflicted with other classes I needed to take, so in the end I settled on a genre that didn’t seem like my kind of thing: the Personal Essay.

Excited as I was to finally take a class on writing, something I could never have done back home in Indonesia or even in Singapore, I was also nervous. Most of the positive feedback I’d receive up until that point came from people who (although well-intentioned) spoke English as a second language. They were all too quickly impressed by my perfect grammar—which of course as a native speaker came naturally to me—to scrutinize my flair, substance or tone. Worse, this class was also a Workshop, which meant we would have to submit pieces to be dissected and criticized by the entire class.

It was time for my (non-existent) ego to be shot down, for me to enter the big leagues and finally realize how much of a crap writer I am among those who actually practice the tricks of the trade.

While I was prepared for all of that, the moment never really came. Personal Essay as a genre, is a type of writing that incorporates the writer’s perspective on things, usually drawing on personal experience as a catalyst for exposition. (While Memoir does fall under Personal Essay, the Personal Essay can be about anything, while the Memoir focuses more on the writer’s past and their interpretations of it.) I’ve unknowingly dabbled in this art through blogging—I write about myself and my life constantly, forging meaning out of it, making sense of it.

In the end, for my second workshop submission, I turned in a 34-double-spaced-page long essay entitled Liminal Spaces. It was my pièce de résistance, my magnum opus, my life looked at as a whole, broken down into key moments and unified by an overarching theme of identity, transitions and liminality.

It was in my final consultation with Professor Wolfe that lightning struck.

“You’re obviously grappling with a lot of things here and while this does work as stand-alone piece—a testament to your abilities as a writer—I feel like there’s more to work with here,” Prof. Wolfe says. “You should consider writing a book.

Consider it, I did. It took getting to San Francisco to finally have the time to sit down and work on it. And by work on it, I really mean revisiting all the assignments I did for Wolfe’s class and rewriting them, reworking them. The final rendition of Liminal Spaces really was a culmination of my life so far at that point in time.  It ended in Florida, and so much has changed since I left, so much has happened. And I find myself unable to write anything new. I travelled to Korea and Bali. I volunteered abroad in Tanzania. Now, with San Francisco also under my belt, life seems to be moving too fast of me to sit down and write about it.

Or worse, the things I felt like needed to be write about—certain things about Tanzania, for instance—were painfully nostalgic. Tanzania was still too soon, too fresh. And due to recent developments, part of me even wishes not to think about certain parts ever again.

It was in an effort to get myself out of this “writer’s block” that I turned to The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.

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The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Mary Karr, who has not one, not two but three best-selling memoirs under her belt, also teaches the art of memoir at Syracuse University. Her book is a perfect combination of practical writing tips (bring the carnality of a scene to life! use sensory details!) and navigating the potential legal pitfalls (warn those you write about well in advance. let your friends choose their own code names.) to the more deeper guided introspection of what memoir does and an author’s purpose in writing and publishing their life story.

This book has made me think I’m not cut out to write a memoir, yet at the same time, has made me more determined to do so.

Chapter 3 of the book is “Why Not to Write a Memoir” and includes a checklist (in reverse order of importance to the point I’m leading up to):

“4. Also if you’re young, you might want to wait. Most of us are still soft as clay before thirty-five.”

Ah, the dreaded “I’m too young to do this.” It was a small fear of mine when I set out on this venture, and while I was momentarily dissuaded by this, I stubbornly strengthened my resolve. Being young didn’t mean I didn’t have enough experience or anything worth saying. And no offense to Mrs. Karr, but I trust Prof. Wolfe’s judgement more. (Though the soft as clay metaphor makes me wonder, if I have perhaps already been hardened by my past.)

“3. If the events you’re writing about are less than seven or eight years past, you might find it harder than you think. Distance frees us of our former ego’s vanities and lets us see deeper into events. “

Read previous paragraphs about Tanzania. All I can say is, some memories make me cringe. Badly.

“2. If you have a bad memory, give it up. Many people ask me how to recall the past, and I say if they don’t, they’re lucky—get a real job.”

Bad memory. It’s a concept that has terrified me for a few years now. It’s not like I have bad memory as some kind of personality quirk, like most people do. It’s the deterioration of my “good” memory that frightens me. I used to be able to recall memories with such clarity, retain information at a staggering rate. It’s what helped me ace all those tests and become a straight A student.

Yet somewhere along the line, my memory blurred and turned hazy. I first became aware of it during my second year in Singapore. All that cramming for tests the night before, proved to be a poor way to store information long-term. I remembered everything I needed to know long enough to answer the tests and once tomorrow rolled around, I could barely recall any of it. Though this sounds like the typical plight of an average test-taking student, it made me question my memory in a way that helped me stumble across an important truth.

I don’t remember much about my childhood. There is a blanket sensation of me being generally happy—genuinely happy, I’d argue, for the last time (until perhaps very recently)—but I’m unable to focus on any details. In conversations with other people, I find myself envying those who are able to retell childhood tales so vividly. The best I can do is relay the information—the year I was born, the names of the schools I went to, the city I lived in. Semantics, not episodes.

If episodic memory is the backbone of memoir, I’m as spineless as they come.

It is almost superhuman to me, the way Karr describes the sensation of remembering. Sometimes all she has is a small fragment, a rough idea of what is happening, a single image, a smell. Then she starts digging, chiseling away at the edges of the memory until the floodgates burst open and she is filled with clarity. She describes it as suddenly being transported back in time, sitting in the body and looking through the eyes of her younger self.

Yet despite this disadvantage to the form, I find myself writing memoir precisely because I can’t remember much about my past, and though writing may not ever fully bring those memories into the light, writing about it—writing through it—is the only way I sort through the mental mess I make for myself.

“No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle with your very self—your neat analyses and tidy excuses… Your small pieties and impenetrable, mostly unconscious poses invariably trip you up.” 

I’ve been tearing myself apart over how my brain is letting things—letting my memories—go far too easily. My coach, ever the voice of reason, reminded me that the brain is mysterious and magical thing and while “your brain doesn’t process everything, your heart does.” Karr echoes a similar sentiment: “Neurologist Jonathan Mink, M.D., explained to me that,… we often record the emotion alone, all detail blurred into unreadable smear.”

And while yes, I agree, the emotions are still there and palpable enough to recall vividly (and even elicit a few residual tears from me), the details matter too, because without the details I have no idea what the feelings are in response to. I have no idea what the story is anymore, lose sight of what it’s supposed to mean.

You think you know the story so well. It’s a mansion inside your head, each room just waiting to be described, but pretty much every memoirist I’ve ever talked to finds the walls of such rooms changing shape around her. There are shattering earthquakes, tectonic-plate-type shifts. Or it’s like memory is a snow globe that invariably gets shaken so as to shroud the events inside.”

Of course, for all my certainty that my memory has become “damaged,” even if that weren’t the case, memory is already a malleable and slippery thing.  What’s worse is that we can purposely, and perhaps even selfishly, mar the veracity of our memories in order to for them to fit the story we set out to write in our heads.

Everything becomes magnified in a way, sensationalized. While memoir strives for veracity and truth, it is, in some ways, melodrama. And often that melodrama focuses on the bad and ignores the good in order to appeal to emotions, or rather justify our own, the ones we feel have affected and shaped us on a deep and profound level.

In sorting through that melodrama, a writer may find that their deepest wounds are self-inflicted. Mary Karr talks about reversals, a sort of real-life plot twist in which a memoirist’s quest for the truth proves their long-held notions about certain events to be false. In talking about the reversal in Cherry, her second memoir, Karr writes:

All my life, I’d relied on the premise that Daddy had abandoned me a decade before I took off But could find no scene to exemplify his abandonment. I’d be at work, and he’d bring me a supper plate wrapped in foil. He’d offer to make me breakfast in the morning or to take me squirrel hunting or fishing; I’d say no. I was the one who shrugged his hand off my shoulder.” (emphasis mine)

The fact that Karr’s father was, especially towards the end, a heavy alcoholic who did little to shield Karr and her sister from the dangerous tendencies of their mother growing up, gives Karr every right to internalize his presence as something that negatively affected her psyche. But it also stands that while he was an alcoholic, Karr’s father cared for her and was there for her in his own way. She simply refused to see it at the time, and for years afterwards, until the benefit of hindsight afforded her the chance to correct her misconceptions.

It is amazing how easily we can forget how complex people can be. Instead, we tend to see them in extremes.

What is my reversal, you ask? Everything seems to always come back to Singapore, somehow. It was a turning point, perhaps even a breaking point, where the worse of my neuroses came to pass.

Now, I’m beginning to suspect that it wasn’t as bad as I make it out to be.

One point of contention: the panic attack. I’m not sure if what happened to me can rightly be referred to as one. Sure, I was stressed out and unhappy, and it all came out in a burst of emotion, but physically, I don’t think I was actually in any panic-inducing-can’t control-my-body danger.

Another point of contention: the way I left Singapore. I seem to have fed myself this story of how I was essentially shaken up so much by the ‘panic attack’ that I became this broken, withdrawn girl who decided to leave out of desperation. But the act of leaving was less driven by emotion or impulse—it was calculated and meticulously planned. If it was impulsive, I would’ve left in the middle of the night and hopped on a plane home.

“Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there is suffering involved.”

About a week after the panic attack, I somehow convinced myself to see the school counselor. I was actually taken out of my morning history class—which was very conspicuous when you go to a newly established school with a cohort of only 80 people—and soon found myself trying to articulate what had happened to me and what I was feeling. There were tears involved, real tears, and as I hastily wiped my eyes out in shame, my counselor told me that I was bottling up my feelings. As if pointing out the blatantly obvious wasn’t enough, she took out a piece of paper and drew me a fucking bottle and labeled it feelings.

While I realized she was just trying to help, something inside of me hardened. Maybe it was her sense of pity and misunderstanding, chalking up my woes to mere stress. Maybe it was her unintentionally talking down to me, talking to me as if I was some lost kid who needed a diagram to sort through her feelings. I decided then and there, that I was going to leave. Worse, I chalked everything up to everyone being idiots, morons who were too comfortable in their ignorance to see what I saw.  That I was unsatisfied with how ‘things worked’ in the education system. And it’s not that I was struggling, I was bored.

So horribly bored that I pulled a Sherlock, metaphorically cocked the gun and fired holes into the wall of the house I found myself in. Each shot was precisely aimed for and hit its mark, designed to get a kick out of me.

The counselor asked that I wait a month to see if things got better. I felt perfectly fine the minute I left her office, but I kept the charade up, kept pretending like I was struggling and trying to make things better then feigned that it wasn’t working. It could’ve worked, me staying in Singapore. I just didn’t care enough to try.

My Dad asked me to come up with a plan. I did have one in mind—lie to everyone convincingly enough then once I was home and the ruse was exposed, ignore their admonishments and do my own thing—but I didn’t tell him any of that. I told him what he wanted to hear: that I wasn’t giving up my education and applied to Universities in the States.

(I didn’t do this when I said I would. I said that I would apply and see if I got accepted. If I did then I’d leave Singapore, having a safety net and all. I did apply to Boston but that was much later, after came home. To think that I dropped out of school without any certainty that I could continue, boggles me. To think that my Dad, in some ways, let me.)

My friends would hear news of my departure and be taken aback, question me, my motives. What’s been going on with you? What led you to make this decision? The fact that we were so caught up in our own lives, made it easier to lie. Made it easier to paint myself as the courageous adventurer who is leaving the nest even farther to brave new uncharted waters. In a way, I liked the way people sounded impressed. I took their legitimate concerns and twisted everything into a narcissistic production of look at how cool I am.

To top it all off, the lies came easily to me. Not surprisingly, as I have a checkered history of compulsive lying. (By history, I refer to just one incident, one huge lie that went on for months. The details of which, perhaps, belong in another post.)

Who would ever want to admit that they dropped out of school because they thought they were above it and threw a hissy fit?

Not me, apparently.

Then again, I do have a tendency to be unnecessarily harsh on myself. Maybe my “reversal” is an artificial one, a reversal in itself. That I want to see myself as a sociopathic asshole is somehow a better story to me than the alternative.

Or maybe, there was a schism inside Singapore Karin that cannot be resolved. Maybe both sides existed at once. At times, when I let myself fall apart, I am withdrawn and broken. And other times, perhaps out of self-preservation I detached myself, so much so that I became hardened and callous and gave little fucks about the opinions and feelings of everyone else involved. “Saving myself” was both an act of courage and cowardice, cruelty and compassion.

Such is the loop I find myself in. It’s dizzying, this internal shadowboxing match against what I think and what actually was. ‘Round and ’round we go.

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On Narratives and Self-Condemnation. Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed.

In a similar vein to maybe things weren’t as bad as I made them out to be, digging into my childhood has unearthed another reversal.” As I said before, I don’t remember much about my childhood, the happy times I experienced growing up in the Philippines. But I’ve realized the way I sectioned off my childhood—pre-The Big Move™, only in the Philippines—was actually odd. I was nine when I moved to Indonesia, yet everything after the move was never a part of my childhood to me, even though I was still technically a child.

I came to this breakthrough in therapy. Talking about my past, I stumbled upon those gaps in my memory and eventually it became apparent that when it came to those early years in Indonesia, those gaps were self-inflicted. I repressed some things out of self-preservation, but though the memories of the events were ‘forgotten,’ they were still there to affect my psyche.

And while some of these things were in fact, harrowing and not good for my developing-child mind (I have flashbacks of entering a darkened bedroom and a shaking figure in the shadows, wrapped underneath blankets, being unresponsive as I call out to them, then turn limp. My au pair calling someone in a panic, the sirens of an ambulance. Bits and pieces), most of them were, objectively, minor (my parents fighting, being chastised for crying when I cannot help it, my brother ignoring my existence in the school hallways).

It was me reliving in retrospect that pinpointed those moments as “causes” that shaped me to be who I am today. They where embedded in my mind almost subconsciously, festered in my mind for years until I recognized them as an automatic thought process brought out by habit.

But if I were to actually crawl into the skin of my younger self and look at the world through her eyes, I would be greeted with an unbounding sense of innocence and optimism. I bounced back quickly, I realized, perhaps as only a child can. I’d bawl my eyes out, scared shitless as I was too young to comprehend what the ‘bad thing’ that I was witnessing actually was one day, to bouncing off the walls of my tiny house and playing pretend with my imagination the next.

I still find it hard to wrap my head around the idea, that there was a time where I was young, carefree, innocent and practically invincible. Immune to all hardship and heartache the “real world” had to offer. That despite my family falling apart around me, I’d still pose and smile for silly photos, hold up a fencing sword and pretend to duel with my brother in the middle of a shoe store.

It hurts in a way. Sometimes, when I’ve fallen into a vortex of nostalgia, I scroll way back into the archives of this blog, and re-read the posts I wrote back when I was 14/15. There’s so much… optimism in the words I set down. So much hope and fearless expression with every “LOL” and “xD.” If you read them in chronological order, you can practically chart out how my writing turns more cynical and cold. It takes a dip around the time I was in Singapore, but it shoots up sometimes, me fighting the bitterness, trying to hold on to some of that early naiveté. The contrast of then and now is so stark, I can’t help but ask what happened? Who hurt me? How did I fall so far?

If I am to write about my past, I need to acknowledge that there were moments like that, in between all the Big Bads. Moments of naiveté and happiness and fun and good. It might make me cringe (look at how young and stupid I was), especially with the hindsight I have now, knowing how badly things often ended, but it was there and it was true. Trying to play it cool does not undo any of that. It shouldn’t, anyway.

“Dumb hope is what it hurts most to write, occupying the foolish schemes we pursued for decades, the blind alleys, the cliffs we stepped off. If you find yourself blocked for a period, maybe goad yourself in the direction of how you hoped at the time. Ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.”

Though I often joke about how emotionally stunted I am, I like to think that I’m an emotionally intelligent person. I’ve dealt with enough of my own emotions and thought processes to see the value in being honest about my emotions and expressing them in healthy ways. Going to therapy, initiating difficult conversations and all that. I’ve struggled and dealt with it for so long, that being open about my feelings has become almost second-nature to me.

And I realized not everyone deals with emotions the way that I do, pushes through the icky-ness of vulnerability because they see it as vital and necessary. It baffled me how some people could keep such important feelings to themselves, feelings that ought to have been shared sooner, feelings that they only felt comfortable finally saying aloud under certain (arguably forced) circumstances.

“Sometimes people just need permission,” my coach observed. “And I think that’s what makes you so good at writing, it’s your permission.”

I like the idea of that. That my working through my life in writing—on this blog, on this soon-to-be memoir—is me giving myself permission to feel things and feel vulnerable, say what I feel needs to be said. To get that damn monster out of my chest.

The crux of my writer’s block then is simply that I forgot to give myself that permission. Forgot to not only let myself think and rethink, feel and revise what I think and/or feel, but to see the reconciliation of those two sides as valid, no matter what conclusion I come to. That conclusion is mine alone to forge.

Here’s to giving myself permission to write through things, and hopefully, coming out the other side feeling better.

“To watch someone scrutinize a painful history in depth—which I’ve done as teacher and editor and while working with former drunks trying to clear up ancient crimes—is to witness not inconsiderable pain. You have to lance a boil and suffer its stench as infection drains off. Yet all the scrupulous self examination over time I’ve been witness to—whether on the page or off—always ended with acceptance and relief. For the more haunted among us, only looking back at the past can permit it finally to become past.”

–Karin Novelia, “Publishing the book was a way to reclaim ‘what was left of me.'”

Thoughts. (Entry #1)

I guess this shall be the first of many entries. Remember that “Learning Journal” I mentioned a few posts back? Well, I couldn’t really think of a good name for it. So I shall just title these posts, Thoughts. which is beautiful enough a name in its simplicity, because essentially that’s what these are, just my thoughts; opinionated, uncensored, raw.
 
I’ve done a lot of digesting this morning, and yesterday morning as well, mostly on current affairs.
 
The whole Syria issue is interesting to follow. Tensions have been high regarding the US’ decision for a military strike. I’ve looked at the ‘graphic’ footage of the gas attacks in Damascus (though honestly it wasn’t that bad — though perhaps the actual graphic footage isn’t so easy to find) and it was disturbing to see the effects of a chemical attack. I saw Obama’s national address on the matter (it might be just me, but he seems considerably thinner since I last saw him speak — then again, being POTUS must not be an easy job) and it was nice to see how much of the people’s concerns he took into consideration. His decision to pursue a more diplomatic path, i.e. not resort to military intervention, was a good call in my book.
 
A new Van Gogh painting has been authenticated. I’m really glad to see people appreciate his work (though it’s sad to think he’s not still around to see it). I’m a bit self-conscious whenever anyone mentions him, because naturally I say I like him, but then I feel pretentious. My fascination with Vincent van Gogh and his work stems from the episode they did on him in Doctor Who, which though was based on his actual life, is still fiction. And it was great way to be introduced as it made me relate and attach myself to him on an emotional level. But from a factual perspective, it probably wasn’t the best springboard. I would love more than anything to learn more about his life and perhaps see his works in person, but for now, I will respectfully say that my knowledge on Van Gogh is narrow and limited.
 
September 11, otherwise known as 9/11, has been a significantly remembered date since the event that occurred in 2001. At the risk of sounding very unsympathetic, it has been 12 years after 9/11 and I fail to see why the US feels the need to go to such extravagant lengths to commemorate it. Granted, when 9/11 I was 4-5 years old and had no idea that such a tragedy was even happening so perhaps it’s not my place to say. But when you go as far as reading out the names of the 2000+ victims lost to the terrorist attack, it seems a bit much doesn’t it? I do believe that what happened was a tragedy, but they are better ways to remember them, better ways to mourn. Especially for those who actually lost someone in the attack, shouldn’t their remembrance be something personal? 12 years on, people all still haunted by 9/11, which to an extent is understandable. But when I discover stories of discrimination (against Muslims, people of Arabic descent) still being strongly present then maybe it’s time to move on, not completely forget what happened but to at least move forward to a world that’s all the more better for it.
 
I realize I have this tendency to zero in on news regarding Indonesia and the Philippines, and to be honest, Singapore news especially regarding the government, policies and public figures. I do think that the Singapore government has gotten their things in order but as I’m not an actual citizen of this pretty cool country, I might be a little blind to the downfalls. Again, not to make my identity crisis syndrome act up, but I think that one reason why I am quite a fan of Singapore (well, most of it, definitely NOT it’s education system) is that I’ve been subjected to the negative torrent of criticism and lack of propriety shown by the Indonesian government and to see Singapore be somewhat well-governed is damn refreshing. I do however, place a lot of hope and optimism upon the land of my forefathers, and though I may not feel emotionally attached to Indonesia, it’s good sides, such as it’s tradition and culture, is apparent even to me. I even have both the Indonesian and Singaporean flags, which I obtained from their Independence day celebrations (which are just a week between each other), mounted on my wall. (If only I could get a Philippines one somehow). And I guess it serves as a good reminder of the diverse, rolling stone life I lead.
 
Anywaysbacktothenews.
 
Indonesia is gearing up for the 2014 general elections and of course, it’s never to early to speculate who will find themselves in the presidential hot seat. It was interesting to see the name Joko Widodo and it actually sounds like a good idea to me. Joko Widodo is quite young for a politician and is currently serving as governor of the nation’s capital, Jakarta. He has been making decent progress so far. He’s pushing for the railway system to finally see the light of day, he’s been cleaning up the streets. And it’s refreshing to see new blood try to (hopefully) revamp the corrupt government. There’s been some criticism to the very notion of this. Some believe that Jokowi has yet to prove himself, but let me remind you that he’s had 5 years experience under his belt from running Solo, and for those who say he isn’t even done with ‘fixing’ Jakarta, any plans for the capital will surely be more effectively run in the president’s seat, because if there’s one thing the Indonesian government is good at it is at not being able to coordinate.
 
Philippines has been hit by rebel attacks in some villages, and though I’m not completely sure why, I hope that they manage to resolve the problem peacefully, before any more innocent people are hurt.
 
Following Singapore headlines has inexplicably introduced me to what’s happened with the IOC (International Olympics Committee). Tokyo has managed to secure its bid as the 2020 Olympics host (yay for Japan!!) and they’ve just elected Mr Bach as its new head. Now, the elections was especially fascinating as I realize that Asians got some power, man. Ng Ser Miang, a Singaporean, was a strong candidate during voting and seeing what he’s done such as introducing the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore a few years back (if I’m not mistaken. I was sadly unable to follow and be more involved in the Games, though I was very supportive of this initiative). It’s nice to know that someone is so invested in the youths of today, and also nice to realize that Asians do have a significant presence and authority in the “Western” world and being able to read about people making a difference out there is quite inspiring.
 
Well, I started writing this thing around 11 pm and now it’s close to 1 am (what can I say, I got distracted). I am quite satisfied with how this first entry came out, though I should probably be more focused next time. Anyways, if you took the time to fully read this post, then I thank you very, very much and I hope that what I’ve written gets you thinking. Any comments are welcome (though honestly I’m terrible at keeping up with them).
 
So, ’till the next post then!
 
–Karin Novelia, Trying to Stay Current in a Fast-Paced World

Sauntering Through Singapore (Part 3)

20th of December, 2012
The banks of the river are lined with the towering skyscrapers, stacked masses of steel and concrete reaching up to touch the azure sky. The water is slightly murky, but clearer and definitely cleaner than the rivers back in Jakarta. My eyes are drawn to the black lampposts that are spaced at even intervals. Something about them seems regal, almost out of place as the old-fashioned design is laid against a background of urbanity. I instantly think of Victorian England, and perhaps there is something to that comparison. Singapore is the mini-London of South East Asia, perhaps with a touch of New York about it too.
The Singapore River Walk was incredibly reinvigorating. We started with classes but that soon passed quickly as our excitement mounted and our time of departure loomed closer. We headed out together, taking the MRT from Toa Payoh to the Raffles Place station.

We emerged to a street, posh and modern to the highest degree. Men in suits and ladies in heels walk along the sidewalk, looking professional and busy.

A few statues are scattered here and there.

There’s one dedicated to Isaac Newton. A gaping hole can be seen in his head and chest, an artistic expression of ‘open-mindedness’ and ‘open-heartedness’, two qualities one requires to survive in today’s world. Another is one of a large, non-proportional bird. It’s supposed to signify optimism and serenity to propel Singapore’s future development.

We walk a littler closer to the riverbed, leaving behind some renowned buildings such as the Maybank Office building and Raffles Point. Another point of the interest that catches my eye are the beautiful white bridges that span the width of the Singapore River. The Cavanaugh Bridge looks like something plucked out of the heart of London. The Anderson is more minimalist in design. A large bumboat passes underneath this bridge carrying a band of tourists with sunglasses on, cameras in hand. By the side of the bridges aforementioned, a sculpture of young children jumping into the river makes one reflect on those days gone by, when Singapore was a humble fishing village with a filthy river and stands as a reminder of the immense progress this country has made.

We encounter more statues on our scenic route, this time catching a glimpse of Singapore’s diverse cultural history. There’s a display of three people, standing and sitting round each other, engaged in a conversation. One of them is a foreigner, someone from the West; the other of Oriental descent; and the third, a man wearing a Peci, hailing from the lands of Malaysia.

We also took a look inside the Fullerton Hotel, one of Singapore’s most elegant establishments. Christmas was just around the corner and so the lobby was decked with holly and merry devour. Again, something about the Hotel’s architecture gave me a sense of colonial Britain while offering something modern to the senses as well.

We soon come across a statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, a prominent figure in Singapore’s modern development. There were these men with snakes nearby, offering passersby a chance to be adventurous and take a photo with the large, scaly creatures. It was a chance I didn’t pass up.

The highlight about of the trip was reaching the Marina Bay area, where the island’s iconic Merlion is situated. Though it’s a site I’ve previously visited there’s something about the breeze, the sight of the water expanding towards the horizon, the close proximity of architectural feats such as the Marina Bay tower, the Arts and Sciences Museum, and the Esplanade that makes me feel like there’s a whole world laid out in front of me, waiting to be explored.

The walk, as I’ve pointed out, acquainted me with Singapore’s culture. It was appropriate then that our final destination was The Peranakan Museum. The term ‘peranakan’ refers to the new generation of Singapore, those who became the embodiment of different cultures, coming from a mix of different backgrounds and ancestry. We marveled at the antique items on display, each telling a story of tradition that collectively makes up Singapore.

Two hours were spent in that museum and to be honest they passed by in a flash. The idea of living in Singapore continued to grow on me. And if living her meant getting to see, learn and experience new things, then I just might like it here.

–Karin Novelia, Soaking in the Culture

Sauntering Through Singapore (Part 2)

6th of December, 2012 

Whenever someone mentions India, I envision these crowded, smelly streets, the scent of curry pervading through the air. It’s a limited picture, I know, but I caught a glimpse of it when we visited Little India today.
Unlike Chinatown, Little India was a part of Singapore I’ve yet to explore. The opportunity to acquaint myself with it made the experience all the more appealing. 
We got through the first half of the day in class fairly quickly, going through coursework as usual. Once we were dismissed, we set off towards the bus stop in Toa Payoh Central and boarded the 56, headed towards Little India. It wasn’t easy, cramming the 20 or so of us into the already packed  bus, but we bucked up and tried our best to enjoy the ride. 
From the bus stop we alighted, then we walked a little farther towards the MRT station underpass. There were rustic murals displayed here and there on the walls, and it certainly felt like a warm welcome to the district. 
We exited the station and found ourselves in Tekka Market. The aforementioned smell of curry soon caught my nose, but not in the delicious scent when the dish is in front of you. It was a myriad of disparate smells that made up the dish’s ingredients: the ginger, the coriander and other herbal names which I can’t be bothered to recall or make up right now. The market also smelled faintly of fish. When we walked by the sidewalks of the wider streets later, the mixed smells of jasmine, roses and lilies would form a fragrant perfume, emanating from the stalls that sold these leis.
We had lunch together at the nearby food center. I had a go at Nasi Briyani, which was this yellowish-orange rice with a helping of curry drenched meat (I tried the mutton, absolutely delish). Once our stomachs were full, we trekked through the streets again on foot and found were shown this little villa, painted in a splash of eye-catching shades, embodying what Indians are like: colorful.
Just across the road from the Tekka Market Food Centre is a place called The Little India Arcade. It’s like this small shopping mall that sells a various range of handmade crafts such as handbags, hanging lanterns, sandals and jewelry.
The Little India Arcade is also a good place to get Henna tattoos. The black ink (which comes in other colors too) sinks into the skin, forming a crusty layer that later peels off, revealing the semi-permanent pattern underneath (it lasts for at least week). The result resembles the surface of a cup of capuchino, only the colors are inverted — smooth streaks of brown atop creamy, pale, froth-like skin. 
We returned to the food centre to try some Indian cuisine, courtesy of our tour guide. We had some roti prata and teh tarik, the warm salty crunch of the bread and the sweet heat of the tea, making us feel comfortable in the middle of a torrential downpour of rain. 
The final stop in our tour was the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple. The teachings of gods and goddesses, characteristic to the Indian culture,  have always been something I saw interesting. Whether one believes in it or not is another matter, but the values behind the teachings are presented in such a way that is understandable, even enjoyable. 
I’ve now ventured into two of Singapore’s unique ethnic neighborhoods, Chinatown and Little India. Both trips have left me feeling cultured, not to mention grateful at being given the chance to even be where I am. 
Next week, is the final chapter of this little series, and I’ll finally see what Singapore itself has to offer as a whole, as we saunter through the banks of the Singapore River and pay a visit to the Peranakan Museum. 
Until then!
–Karin Novelia, 

Sauntering through Singapore (Part 1)

29th of November, 2012
I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, this English Bridging course me and my friends are taking in preparation for school next year. What I didn’t realize, coming into it, were the regular outings we would take, getting out of the classroom and sauntering through Singapore and seeing it in all its splendor. 
Our first stop was a bit familiar: Chinatown.
Beforehand though, we stopped by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) building on Maxwell Road.
The name plaque of the URA building
Here we saw how the city of Singapore, at first a humble village housing fisherman, turned into a lavishing port and not long after, an attractive cornucopia of all things urban.
The section of an illustrated timeline of Singapore, showing its humble
beginnings as a fishing village called Temasek.
The first floor holds a display of a wooden miniature of Singapore. Designs for a Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City Center — slated to be built in China by 2020 — which were submitted for a Conceptual Design held by the Eco-City Administrative Committee, were also exhibited. It was so fascinating to see all of the different designs from different countries. There was China’s own nature-inspired details, US’s colorful theme based on geological mineral stones, and the German’s clean-cut artistic blocks. 
A wooden miniature model of Singapore
A snapshot of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City concepts
On the second floor of the URA building lies the Singapore City Gallery. 
Here you can learn all about the development process of Singapore, what it takes to make sure a city can blossom, what development techniques can be applied. The Gallery also features a wide range of not informative media, but interactive media as well. There are touch screens which move and illustrate the population comparison between Singapore and other countries, a screen that can show you various places of interest, a set of animations that show intensification and collocation (look it up), a more detailed scale model that boasts a lights show, even a small space where you can a play a multi-player city building simulator game. 
One of the interactive touch screens at the City Gallery
A skyline shot of more detailed scale model of the city,
equipped with a light show that plays every hour
The final result of the city-building simulator game
It’s nice to see how well-organized and ingenious people can be. Singapore has done a good job in planning ahead, seen by there use of The Concept Plan and The Master Plan which is meant to map out the country’s development for the next 40-50 years. Walking through the Gallery is like walking through an art museum — there’s a certain sort of aesthetics behind the numbers and logistics that goes into building a city, a type of artistic skill that makes Singapore the beautiful place that it is.
The 2008 Singapore City Master Plan, put up for display
Our visit to the Gallery soon drew a close, but the day itself was far from over. We walked quite a bit from the URA building and planned on getting lunch at the nearby Maxwell Food Center. Unfortunately, it was currently undergoing renovations and our lunch had to be postponed for while.
We made our way to South Bridge road, passing by an ornate, oriental building: The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. It’s quite a well-preserved establishment, with its red Chinese-style rooftops, green-painted window grilles towering a good four-storeys high.  I heard it has a splendid altar with a golden statue inside, but I’ve yet to see it with me own eyes since I was unable to enter. 
Snapshots of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple exterior
We walked a little further until we met Temple Street. We saw the Sri Mariamman Temple which flaunted this massive and ornate gopuram (something like a pagoda) placed above its entrance. We also passed the local mosque, situated at an angle a bit different from the surrounding buildings, following the Muslim custom of pointing it towards kiblat, the direction of Mecca. 
The Sri Marriaman Temple on Temple Street
The local Mosque
We soon dispersed from the tour group and set off on our own to find something to eat for lunch. Me and my friends found a small hawker’s centre that sold all kinds of food, mostly Chinese noodles. Besides that, we shared a plate of chicken martabak, which we disappointingly found out was a bit different from the ones usually sold in Indonesia. Nevertheless, it was still quite delicious. We had some free time to look around, observing the unique architecture and wares the district had to offer.
A snapshot of one of the Chinatown stalls selling a
variety of products from clothes, accessories, toys
 The colorful and well-preserved buildings, showing their Chinese 
influence and architectural details stemming from its colonial past

Another wonderful thing about Singapore, is the importance they place upon preserving their historical and cultural heritage. As we walked we could see statues and landmarks that might seem insignificant at first, but in truth embodies a period of Singapore’s rapid development.  
There was a statue in front of URA building that depicted a woman, carrying something on her shoulders. This is one of Samsui women who came from Cantonese. They wore red head-dresses and loose black samfoos, those Chinese-style jacket and trousers. They seldom married and usually did heavy labour, which was inspiring, seeing the way women back in those days could be just as hard-working as men, doing work outside the home. 
Another of the statues were brass ones, depicting coolies who did heavy labour such as construction work, farmers and even little children surrounding a nearby pond.
A stone statue of a Samsui woman 
Statues of children from China, playing near
a man-made pond in the middle of Chinatown
The last stop was Ann Siang Hill, name after its previous owner, Chia Ann Siang. It used to a plantation farm, a place where they grew spices such as cengkeh and pala. This well was once the only place that supplied clean water for the area.
The humble well that sits atop Ann Siang Hill
I found myself sore and tired at the end of the day. But today has shown how much I can learn and experience in Singapore, and I can’t wait for our next learning journey next week: Little India.
I’ll tell you all about it soon enough. 
–Karin Novelia, Enjoying the Sights

Blogging on Foreign Land

Today is a momentous occasion. It’s December 14th, 2012, and the one-month milestone of my time here in Singapore. It’s been a blast here so far. I’m currently going through an English Bridging Course right now, and with 10-hour sessions from Monday-Saturday, let’s just say it’s been challenging. 
I’ve really begun to rediscover myself here. I’m not as quiet as I used to be since I’m constantly in the company of other people. Being forced into close proximity with about 18 other crazy gals does keep one up all night, but I’m strangely also sleeping better. I guess the only thing I’ll miss is the peace and quiet of my own room (even though it doesn’t stay that way once my sister comes around). Finding time to just recuperate alone and gather one’s thoughts isn’t as easy, but it’s not exactly a bad thing either. 
I’m loving have my own room. It’s spacey, and actually stays tidy after I clean it up. The soft board that covers the wall on my side of the room is still bare, but I’m hoping to ‘nerdify’ it as soon as possible and making it feel like home. Meals here are wonderful, though do little to reduce the waistline. Housework, laundry especially, is a bit tedious, but it feels nice to be doing things on my own. I need to get into athletics, and although volleyball might seem like an implausible option, I feel an intense urge to play, somehow. Been hitting the gym in CJC, the Junior College right next to my hostel, CJCH, for the past few weeks every Tuesday, but since Christmas holidays are looming near, the supervisor (the hostel mistress’ husband) won’t start taking us again until next year.
I’ve also learned to put things into perspective — just because I was seen a certain way back in Indonesia, doesn’t mean I’ll be perceived the same way here. Same goes for studies. I need to remind myself that although things might not seem as hard here, it’s still a different system that I need to get used too and whatever I’ve faced in the Bridging Course so far will be probably be the easiest, ‘honeymoon’ phase. 
Good news though is that the Course really encourages reading and I’ve gone through 6 books (5 really, cuz one was just… crap). Best reads: Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas. Genius. Also relived a childhood favorite, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Am currently reveling in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Speaking of The Hobbit, I’m likely definitely going to see it this weekend. I’m so excited, I-I just can’t… What I love about Singapore is it’s convenient transportation. Back in Indonesia, I always had to worry about getting around, especially on weekends when I wanted to hang out with my friends in Jakarta, which was a bit far. Here on the other hand, I can easily find my way to any place I want. That makes it especially easy to watch movies. The first movie I’ve watched was Breaking Dawn Part 2 (don’t ask) but that was quickly redeemed by a double feature of Life of Pi (the aesthetics were amazing!) and Rise of the Guardians (JACK FROST FTW).
… Am I spending too much on movies? Nah. Even if I am, then blame Hollywood for producing such wonderful cinematic gems. 
A roller coaster ain’t a roller coaster without some downs too. Worst thing that happened here so far? Being disappointed with my class allocation. I was put in a class with a Full Literature class (which I’m not really sure how I’ll manage, since I’ve never taken such a Lit class before) but also was told to make a choice between Physics or Biology. There’s another class with the exact same subject list, only they take both Physics and Biology. Although I’m not pursuing a career that would require either one, I got used to taking both in my old school, and ambitious as it may seem, I see those subjects as something that needs to be learnt, at least in its most rudimentary form, and have actually grown to like them. Both
It’s pretty late now. I’m not sure if my body is recoiling against the one-hour loss of sleep, but I should turn in so I can at least survive tomorrow. Don’t worry, with my oral presentation done by then, I’ll be back soon to tell about all of my city adventures.
Until the next post then.
–Karin Novelia, Recently Moved (Again)

And It All Comes Down To This

It’s been 3 months now into the year 2012. Maybe it’s a bit too early, but seriously, things have been pretty hectic around here. The 9th grade really kicked itself up a notch by throwing an array of tests, quizzes, Tryouts, Practical Exams and drama, and I must say I’m a bit overwhelmed.
Most overwhelming thing of all? Well, I’m not sure if I’ve written anything about here before, but I signed myself up for a scholarship application in Singapore. And guess what? I got it.
Now, before you throw congratulations around, I’m still not sure how I feel about this scholarship thing, about a month later since signing a damn contract.
First of all, the test was a bit… easy. Mathematics weren’t always my forte, but the limited time also was a main factor in me not finishing the 2 hour test of 30 something questions. The English one was also surprisingly easy. The other applicants in my school took a special preparation course called Ignatius, and the kind of question they gave them were far more advanced then what was being tested.
I honestly did not expect me to get a chance at that scholarship. I mean, I was in the mindset that the standards would be very high. And passing, well… makes you wonder doesn’t it?
After the written tests, I was asked to come to Hotel Atalia for an interview. I skip school the next day, but it turns out I have no ride. Rotten luck, you’d probably think, right? Wrong. I was thinking it was the world conspiring, strengthening the idea that this scholarship thing wasn’t meant to be.
And then my Mom goes into super mode and orders us a cab. Interviews weren’t that nerve-wracking, though the wait was boring and prolonged. Speaking in English was definitely an advantage, and a few hours later the results were posted and ta-daa! My name was on it.
Of course there was some sense of mirth. I practically tried bailing on interviews, I get the scholarship anyway. Twisted kind of punishment, I suppose. Then there was a tad sense of accomplishment. I did it. I actually got it. Then of course, the whole ease of it all nagged a the back of my mind, and I was starting to wonder if it was going to be worth it in the end.
So why did I end up signing my name? Not for personal reasons, obviously.
When I first considered applying, I asked my parents, of course. But as usual, they provided adequate freedom and close to no input. So I figured I’d apply. I didn’t expect to get it, anyway. If I did, did that mean I have to take it? I later found out that I sort of had to. Something to do with courtesy and social niceties and avoid being blacklisted, which I still cannot manage to fully comprehend (inner sociopath talking, guys).
I also pondered on the slim chance that I did get accepted. A few factors did jump at me. First, the financial burden would be almost non-existent. On a full scholarship. That meant my parents wouldn’t have to spent so much money on my education. Speaking form the heart, my family’s not exactly poor, but their not like most kids whose parents make so much more.
I’m taking this scholarship more for them than me. I can still remember the look on my Mom’s face when I told her. She looked so happy, so relieved. She also looked at me so… proud.
Sure, the prospect of living on my own, more independantly, appealed to me, as I continued to talk myself into this. But it also seemed a bit lonely. A proper school, with proper facilities and a better curriculum, would help bring out the best in me. Wasn’t I always feeling so unchallenged here? But it also seems like a lot of pressure.
When ever I feel like bailing, giving up, not set myself up for a life of stress and expectations of perfection, and opt for settling for a live a little more ordinary. A little more safe.
Hell. What was I thinking? I’m through with being ordinary. I want to be extraordinary. I want to go far.
But as much as I want to be the best I can be, something keeps on asking me to stay. My family. I practically act as the glue for the disfunctionality. If I left, how long would they last before they unravel?
Would it be worth it to go abroad, study, become highly-educated and successful and perhaps rich and famous, but leaving my family behind albeit for just a few years? Or would it be better to stay and just look after them, settle for being an auto-dictact and learn about the world from the confines of home, as long as I stayed with family?
I’m getting a little emo here, I know. In hindsight, it might be better to vent here than to start talking to a skull.
Laterz.
— Planning Out The Future, Karin Novelia