Thursday, August 20, 2015

Postgraduate Journal 3.2.4

A moonlight picture of the "America" taken Christmas night, 1901, Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition
(Semester 3, week 2, Thursday)
It is my style now to write about things from which I have been a bit detached, be they things that had happened in the past, ephemeral thoughts, or other things not concerning myself. I was mainly worried about appearing egotic on the internet. However, the need arose for me to put them in order when depression cycles happen too often to be amusing anymore, so a friend has recommended that I start writing again.

My life is a mystery to people now.

I have to clarify that I am now working towards a PhD. I have had to repeatedly explain that I didn't go through a Masters course. Sometimes I suspect that the same people come back to ask me the same questions again, and that even so they leave with a vague incomprehension.

The undergrads do not know. My family does not know. Doctoral students not from my lab do not know. Groupmates probably know, but they don't know anything else about my life. Not one person would know enough. And then I fade into the background of every setting.

A big gathering of my undergrad friends happens. It is in the daytime. I have lab.
A big gathering of my working friends takes place. It is on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday night. I have night lessons.
It happens on Sunday. I am at church or refusing to do anything if not with my family.

The fact is that my acquaintances are becoming strangers, deep friendships are becoming superficial, and that I am shedding my circles. It is like being in a room with walls that are closing in, like a ship sailing in a sea that is freezing over. It always feels like my schedule is to blame, or the inability of others to accommodate it, or that no one would bother to do so.

Me: Aren't you free at all?
Them: We are undergrads. We have classes, we have work.
Me: So do I, but I have decided to put them aside, if only for two hours.
They recede. They disappear. The echoes of their revelry fade away.
I go back to work.

What is the meaning in what I do?

So now I have work instead of a whole bunch of acquaintances. The work is usually something the prof has thought up.

But why? I always ask! Why this in particular?
The prof says: read these papers.
The prof says: it can be applied to such-and-such.
The papers make: no sense
The applications are: castles in hot air

Is there a meaning? How does one get about business? I ask my senior, who have been through more and therefore should know better.

The senior says: just do whatever boss tells you.
And I leave this husk of a human being alone, feeling none the wiser. I have no desire to get chewed up in this system and get spat out as a cynic.
The meaning must be arrived at through work, it must come with pain. Those do not matter, but there has to be a meaning.

Can I quit and do something else?

I can, and then I pay back a year's worth of stipends, and then try to find some job. I have no idea what.
I still feel that doing science is my life's calling.
I can quit next year, and then pay back two year's worth of stipends. It will be as if I had never lived in these two years.

A certain Dr. R. came to talk to us youngsters this Monday. He had found a way around this whole depression brouhaha while he was a student himself. The message is this: light, light is at the end of this tunnel, seek and you shall find! Glumness and despondency seem to be a common affliction across the board for those who have decided to trod this path. I had scoffed at this thought in the beginning, but I think the gravity of the situation is pretty clear to me now.

I stay at an apartment in school. I am dismayed to learn that some of my roommates have been positively antisocial. I have no desire to get chewed up in this system and get spat out as a psychopath.

Can I reach out to anyone?

I reach, but they are elusive. They fly away to fairyland with sunshine and flowers. They have no capacity to understand sadness. They yawn at my morosity.

I reach, but they have very important business to attend to. They go, they get married, they travel. They forget.

After a few tries, I give up.

I sometimes pray to Bubska who is lost at sea. I have no way of telling if she hears me or if she is passing it on. I can only hope.

A treasury of stories and memories are bottled up inside of my mind. They have to be told to listening ears, or they may wilt in this tight, crowded space. I write, but even this blog may be an echo chamber.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Short Stories from the Czech Republic

During the Ascension long weekend in May 2013, I went to Kraków to visit classmates and passed by Prague and Ostrava in the Czech lands. Two years have passed and the memories of the two days that I spent in the country have been distilled to two short stories. Maybe, it's better this way.

1. Prague
The highlight of Prague was the Hare Krishna Parade that came out of flipping nowhere and tore through the Old Town like a tornado.

The procession was heralded by very loud music, which is followed by the peculiar sight of a bunch of people sporting tiny ponytails and looks of profound peace and tolerance on their faces. They waved their hands in the air and danced in sprightly footsteps, as a megachurch member might do. It was a refreshing contrast to the dreariness of travelling alone in the day, so I stalked them as they went on their way, from Wenceslas Square to the Astronomical Clock, always keeping several paces behind them.

A granny was among their ranks, and she was in charge of dancing particularly vigorously and handing out promotional flyers to hapless people who got in the way. As it happened, Prague had a not trivial population of destitute people, and one of them had planted himself in Kožná, prostrating himself at the side of the alley behind his upturned hat. Emanating an air of overwhelming benevolence and compassion, the granny let drop a flyer into the man's hat and rejoined the parade. But the beggar, philistine as he is in matters of spirituality, only gave it a dismayed glance and then cast it contemptuously aside.

2. Ostrava
The highlight of my stopover at Ostrava was this meal, which was quaint as balls:

Thursday, July 16, 2015

From the Coffee Table at Siem Reap

It just so happened that I am now in Cambodia to join Dad for a few days. I am pleased to report the existence of St. John's Church, but probably won't be able to make any of their mass/rosary timings. The church is rather understated in stark contrast to the insane fixation that people have on Angkor Wat, which is not even currently used as a house of worship. In other news, we biked out of town to visit some farmers in the morning. The highlight was trying salak, which is a fruit imported from Thailand. The Australians saw those things for the first time today and they (the fruits) were much better-tasting than their Indonesian counterparts.

UPDATE: Turns out people worship at A.W., and I stand corrected

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Sound of Trees

The Hispanics threw a big party at Lancaster event center a month ago. I wore the Friar's Brew t-shirt to the party and the people there loved it. I explained that my late ex-girlfriend had bought it for me and I now keep it as something to remember her by. It read "Friar's Brew / St. Mary of the Angels" and it had a small stylised figure of a very fat friar above the words, much wider than he is tall. According to Tina, this little friar "looks like he makes a sound", and she would make a sound like a rubber sheet stretching.

Everything makes a sound in Tina's universe. One day we had to walk down Jubilee Road, which was lined with some trees, and Tina told me that each of these trees made a sound. The sounds were similar to the the wordless babblings of very young children. If a tree had drooping foliage, it made a sound of a bummed-out youngster; if it had lively, upwards-pointing leaves, then the sound was gleeful; if it leant, it was a sound of the child falling asleep in his mother's bosom. In this way she called each tree along Jubilee Road by its name.

At the heart of this person who fill the very rational roles of girlfriend, daughter, sister, or teacher to those around her, lies a universe where everything has a name and a life of its own.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Story of Lincoln

I am back from the work trip. It was not too bad as work trips go, and I got quite a lot of stuff done and learned, so there's that. On the other hand I had been quite hesitant and wary of documenting my emotional state for this stretch of time. As a result, people back home probably thought of what I went through in the States as a vague and murky cloud of ideas such as "experiences" or "time of your life".

Maybe it's time that I told a better story.

Long story short: I was scared of death all of the time.
Long story slightly less short: I experienced the worst feeling of abandonment by friends and family back home during this period, even though the whole time I was aware in my mind that it was an illusion. I had to do all I can to resist slipping into disrepair and dissolution. I changed my habits and my disposition to keep this spiritual death at bay. Everything I did, I did out of fear of death.

Death loomed above in the spring thunderstorm that brought tornadoes to the county. Death hissed menacingly in the roaring north winds that came and froze the town in May. Death taunted me in my hours before and after work, whenever I was alone, and tried to convinced me that no one would be bothered if I plain disappeared one day.

Culture shock? Not much at all. Singaporeans are no stranger to all-engulfing American cultural exports, but Lincoln has been more pleasant than I had expected, anyway. Travel opportunities? When you are under the thrall of the Gloom, travel for leisure goes to the bottom of your list of priorities.

Instead, I tried to make every moment at work count. I started an exercise regime, and set for myself repetition quotas that increased every now and then. I started going for daily mass. I met the priests. I started going to the weekly market. I started conversations with anyone I met or anyone who did so much as look at me funny. I gave to the homeless and heard their stories. I got wind and kept track of local events. My list of things to do in Lincoln grew and kept growing as my feelings of despair diminished. I still had things left undone when I flew off.

What does this small city on the prairies mean to the world?

It doesn't have many attractions for the casual traveller. It doesn't have upscale shopping areas or breathtaking scenery. It's just a place where people lived. In such a trip, I am thankful enough to wake up every day and find myself still breathing. What do I care for the myriad distractions of tourism? The town and her people have given me all I need to keep alive.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Language of Love

Sometimes you can tell how much someone liked something by the way they pronounce the word for it. Podcast DJ Roman Mars loved flags, and gave a TED talk one day which was all about flags. During the speech he repeatedly said the word "flag", and basically would not shut up about flags for more than a few moments. He also pronounced the word "flag" in a way that made it sound as if he had glazed it over with dollops of honey, or as if the word "flag" was a very soft bed, and he was lying right in it. I had an English teacher in high school who loved cats. She had a way of saying the word "cat" that just makes your insides light up. It's nice to have people around who like things and spread that like around.

The Story of Jane

Jane comes in front of Newman Center every Tuesday, after afternoon mass, to hand out some flyers. This time she was decked out in an immaculate white dress, a white headscarf and white socks and shoes. She wore three strings of rosary beads around her neck, had cross earrings and wore a cross on the forehead where Hindu folk would wear a bindi. She had a sweet smile and had a distant look in her eyes, because her eyesight was failing. People who come out of church after mass generally gave her a wide berth, but I decided to get a flyer from her to find out what it was about.

Curiously enough, the first thing Jane noticed about me was that I was wearing the Iceland shirt. "You've been to Iceland!" she exclaimed, "how was it there?" Jane was curious about what it was like in that country and whether it was cold, like how you would think about a country that was named Iceland. I explained that I went in the summer, and it wasn't that cold at all. Next she asked if I was from Wenzhou. I wasn't, but I've met people who come from there and were Catholic, and so has Jane. Jane recounted some of the Asians whom she had met. She taught art in the capital to Asian kids, mostly South Korean children who she found so intelligent and charming.

Jane stopped teaching art because of eye problems, and an accident far back left her with foot problems, so she couldn't stand for too long, so I suggested that she should rest. But she looked determined to persevere.

The Story of Iceland

I was in Iceland from 6 to 10 June 2013 with some of the other Singaporean exchange students at EPFL. It was a large island for three hundred thousand people and looked empty much everywhere except in Reykjavik.

This is basically how it looks like in the summer. Also depicted above is a silly habit which we developed along the way, namely trying to stack cairns as high as we possibly could.
Iceland was awesome. I should go to more detail about it in a future entry.

The Story of Wenzhou Catholics

Photo: Ke Yichen
The Chinese RCIA in my parish, Holy Cross, had a visitor in February. His name is Chen Xu, and his trade was physics. He was on a visit to my school to do as much research as he could for (two months?). One of the parishoners gave him lodging and he came for class on Wednesday nights, which was where the rest of us met him. He had been baptised with the name Peter. He might have been baptised also on a few other occasions, but the circumstances of those baptisms were extremely murky. He came from the country around Wenzhou, where the Catholic tradition had its stronghold. In the city where he went to school, however, there's hardly a church to be seen. Such is life in China, I guess.

He joined us for a retreat and then had to leave us for home too soon. He is a nice guy. Such is life.

The Story of Jane's Pamphlet

The stuff that Jane is dishing out to unsuspecting passers-by is quite interesting, even a little unhinged. Here's what it says near the end:

"Wear a rosary for best influences so you won't be effected by subliminals or nano/stemcells. Put honey on face with oil so others think you are sweet. So you don't masturbate and self inflict or form a child wear garlic in pockets or rosary in undies with cross outside waist band. Because of cussing on TV throw out TV, flag poles & put white crosses on entry ways, on top of page, on windows so you don't get gasses, on ground and head of bed for better care. Lick clay for any disease, drug or tainting. Get a log lock on door & rosary for door knob. Don't eat beef or lamb: prion detector machine was taken down."

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

About the Berries

On Sunday I plucked and ate a berry from the tree at the wetlands. I was reminded of all sorts of stories about berries. In Finland you could taste any sort of berry that you liked; most can be eaten, and the ones that can't won't kill you. People in that country were crazy about berries and I could not forget the sight of the lady at Lautasaari squatting in the trailside, making short work of the berry bush and eating the berries as soon as she had plucked them. She looked as happy as a lark because at that moment her life is all about the berries. I remembered hearing about Thai people ferried to Finland just to go to the forests to pick berries, which was why we went hiking in the forest and scarcely saw any berries. I saw cloudberries by a railroad near Vaasa, but did not dare to touch them; I only realised they were edible afterwards. People like us grew up eating supermarket stuff and have always been cautious about wild berries. On Sunday I was not so sure about that berry, but decided to eat it anyway. Today I am still alive, so that probably means it worked out well.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Lincoln Parish Visits

On a day when the Gloom was on its way out, I spent Pentecost with the Vietnamese. Khiết Tâm Mẹ, or Immaculate Heart of Mary, served the Vietnamese Catholics in the north of Lincoln, while St. Andrew Dũng-Lạc took care of those living in the south. I arrived by bicycle and by flailing my way through the suburban maze. It was a foggy morning and everything in the outdoors became coated in a fine veil of mist droplets, myself especially.

Whole families arrived to the church compound by car, the women decked out in yellow áo dàis for the occasion. The readings were Vietnamese, but obviously they were about that time in the Acts of the Apostles when the Jesus folk were gathered in a house, and the Holy Spirit descended upon everyone in tongues of fire, and they began to preach to the befuddled foreigners, who understood them perfectly. And I understood what the priest said perfectly.

But most of all, the children... Since I was late, and the church was already overflowing, I took a chair and settled at the rear, outside the prayer hall and where kids with no chair to sit down on were allowed to run around and annoy people and make as ghastly a din as they liked. And they bawled in a tongue that I understood perfectly. They assured me that the church is alive, and has a future. And they left hope in my basket of sorrows.

Also, no one seemed to have realised, or seemed to mind, that I wasn't Vietnamese, nor spoke a word of the language.

A week after the Gloom was on its way out, I spent Trinity Day with the Hispanics at Cristo Rey, or Christ the King. This time I was early, and sat at the front. One or two people might have thrown me suspicious looks: it is strange, after all, to see an Asian guy at Spanish mass, but I speak Spanish now and Chinese Latin Americans exist and people just have to be used to it.

I blended right in. It seemed much easier to do so here than in any other Catholic Church in town. I don't know if it's the warm sunshine that shone on us from the window, or the mariachi guitarist choir, or the warm glow seeping out from people around me. The annoying kids are around again, and would not keep still. The mother of three who found a place to sit beside me struck the very image of indomitablility; with her left hand she held one wild goat of a son, by her left hand the other, and  with her right foot she rocked her infant daughter's cradle on the aisle. And the baby drifted to sleep ever so unhurriedly.

After scrawling the blessed red crayon all over the hallowed pages of the colouring book, the son turned to his sainted mother and beamed: ¡Mom, look at what I coloured! And of course the sainted mother let out a sigh of resignation and told him to please put that away for now. And Our Lady of Guadelupe watched over each parishoner from up above.

I had planned to go home and prepare my own lunch after mass. The church offered me to join a food fair instead, so naturally I agreed, and bought some tickets to exchange for some unhealthy Mexican cuisine. I met the vicar, Padre Craig, a young pastor with an indestructible accent, and envied him for his time serving among this jolly bunch. I thought again of the people at Tagaytay whom I went to stay with on this very day last year.

After I went home, I played the Mariachi Kyrie on the guitar from memory, and my parents loved it.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Newman Parishoners

Today Father Benjamin Holdren invited the people who came for Saturday mass, including his parents, for doughnuts and coffee, and I have to write that down as a big plus.

I've had lots of beans to spill these days. It actually seemed less like me spilling beans at people than it is like picking up my friends by the belt and then hurl them bodily into a ten-storey tall grain silo, filled with beans. I am just thankful for all who have sifted through my irrational thoughts, or laughed at my laughable thoughts, or even chastened me for the wrongheaded ones.

Maybe I have not been mindful of the people who have gone through what I am going through now. I pray now that I can recover and then do the due recompense. When the World takes its leave on the Happy Boat, Lord, just let me know I'm not left alone on shore. Send me, wherever you need me to go.

UPDATE: PTL back in commission from this depressive episode and back to petty acts of mischief in this wonderful new place and PTL it's officially summer