Monday, July 26, 2010


As a self-proclaimed loner and the only daughter who got the room to herself growing up, I did encounter some difficulties adjusting to a roomful of girls in the first year of university. Although we started synchronizing our menstrual cycles, our personalities weren't always as harmonious. Of course it didn't help that I was still in my "Greenpeace activist" mode that almost always alienated people.

Sue* was a quiet, unassuming girl pursuing Food Studies. Sleeping on the upper bunk above Sue was the vivacious and carefree Valerie*. On the bunk below me was the delicate and highly volatile Grace*. Of the 3 girls, I hung out more with Valerie. Of the 4 of us, I was the odd Chinese girl who could barely piece Mandarin sentences together.

Valerie was in a tough engineering course by accident. Back then we chose university courses the same way we picked flavors of bubble gum in a candy store (um, the pink one looks good). I remember her poring over thick computer programming textbooks or on the phone asking a coursemate about a tough mathematical problem. Grace was in Business or Economics course, I can't be sure. What I do remember was her insistence that any boyfriend of hers must be an engineer-to-be.

So there we were, the 4 freshmen who are as different as spring, summer, autumn and winter who eventually adjusted to one another's quirks and habits. Of the 4 of us, Valerie was the only one with a car so she had fully explored food options and enjoyed social outings in the adjacent university areas and made trips to the city. I was still cycling while Sue and Grace walked or took the bus (when it appeared). For a while, it felt as though guys were swooping down on us first-year female students, baiting us with rides on their bikes in exchange for dates.

I never thought it was possible to have imaginary walls in which each of us could retreat into for some quiet time. At least that was how I coped when Grace got into one of her moods and pretended that none of us existed in that room. I learned to study and relax on my bed; the only space in the room that was truly mine.

The following semester, Sue, Valerie and Grace moved out but I kept in touch with Valerie. I would chat with Sue when I met her on campus. Somehow I never saw Grace again even though I took classes in her faculty. My new roommate Laura* was a teacher pursuing an advanced degree in education. She was staid, quiet and also cycled to campus. I thought we might get along somehow but the hill leading up to our college was too steep for her so she relocated to another one on lower ground. So voila, just like that and without wishing my roommates away, I had a room to myself for a semester.

In my second year, I moved to a newly-built residential college and shared the room with two first-year Business and Economics students: Marie* and Candace*. Either I have changed or these girls were more receptive of my odd ways; the 3 of us got along fairly well. I felt sisterly towards them, giving encouragement and maybe even some unsolicited advice. We would buy snacks or (illegally) cook instant noodles for each other. Marie was especially endearing to me because she bridged stereotypes of "Chinese-educated" VS "English-educated". I was thoroughly sick of being alienated by my Chinese peers all these years for being a "banana" (outwardly Chinese-looking but inwardly Western-minded), but Marie helped me get over my bitterness and resentment. She was tolerant of my stereo blaring loud grungy music although she did once comment on how unbearable Pearl Jam's 'Do the Evolution' was. Candace was a carefree soul with a penchant for sweet soups (tong sui) that she made with her slow cooker. I adored her creative cooking skills and crooked smile.

In my final year and into the first year of my post-graduate studies, I shared a room with Evelyn*. This time it was a bungalow just outside university grounds that we shared with 9 other girls. I had ditched my bicycle for a second-hand Honda EX5 that served me well. Evelyn and I already know each other since first year and were members of the Volunteers of AIDS Club. I'm not sure if we had synchronized menstrual cycles, but Evelyn and I got along very well. Two years my senior and pursuing Community Health Studies, Evelyn is a person of many interests: she knits, speaks French, and saves stray animals in her free time (I adopted a kitten I named Shelly Rosebutt because of her), among other things. She is one of the kindest, gentlest human beings I've ever known.

While it's a pity I never had the experience of sharing a space with girls of other races or the opposite sex during these first few years away from my family home, female roommates are plenty to deal with on their own. It is true that our bonds were fragile, transient and mutually beneficial at a specific space and time and that I sometimes wished there was something more. But still I am glad to have known these women who contributed subtly to who I am today.

*names have been changed to protect privacy

Friday, March 26, 2010

To FB or not to FB, that is the question

Browsing a local paper one chilly Friday morning over a breakfast of mango-banana smoothie and bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich, I came upon a letter in the Aunt Agony section. The woman was responding to an ongoing discussion about how lonely grandparents felt because their grandchildren seldom maintained correspondence with them. This spunky grandmother decided to tackle the problem head on: she opened a Facebook (FB) account, uploaded photos, posted cool stuff about her life and she reports that her grandkids love it. And they are now more frequently in touch than they ever would be if she had expected them to call her on the telephone.

That is one loving grandmother.

Now I don't know about you, but even though I'm not a grandmother yet, I am one of those people who hesitated for a long time before opening FB account. Call me old-fashioned. When digital cameras first came around in the late 90s, I was actually spending over a thousand Malaysian Ringgit on a Nikon film SLR camera. Now I regret my decision because developing pictures from film is so expensive and I had to be careful with what I photograph (the angle, lighting and composition has to be purr-fect...arrr).

So I dabbled in FB, mainly for a friend I was frantically trying to keep in touch with. She seldom responded to my e-mails and it was difficult catching her on the phone. We'd go for as long as 6 months without knowing what was going on in each other's life...and we were supposed to be BEST friends. She said she was active on FB and that I'd know about her on-goings by signing on. I resisted a bit, citing security reasons for not using FB but she assured me that one could share one's personal details while controlling access to who could see the information. Did FB help bridge the distance between my best friend and I? I'm afraid not. All right, I should have signed onto FB for myself, but hey, that's just some of the things you do for a friendship, albeit a dying one.

In a span of 6 months, I deactivated my FB account TWICE. Although I was virtually connected with over a hundred friends, I felt more disconnected from them as ever. Maybe I was expecting too much from this social network because I found FB interactions to be superficial and unsatisfying. On one hand, it is a nice way to find out what is going on with your friends' lives, not unlike reading the daily news. But the conversation is stilted, unfulfilling. Of course you could always adjourn to the Inbox for a more detailed discussion but that rarely happens. On the other hand, I kept thinking that FB and other social network cannot compensate for true human interactions.

My other pet peeve is that I felt ignored on FB. I'd pathetically sign in everyday, hoping someone would noticed my witty wall posting or (in my mind's eye) fantastic photos. Nothing. FB made me even more attention-seeking than I already was. I get jealous of other Facebookers who get TONNES of responses no matter how trivial their postings. How did they do that? I do take interest in other people's doings and make the effort. I wonder if there was anything further I could've done to improve the situation.

Of course you might say I'm projecting too much here, but maybe my FB status and activity is a reflection of my real social life. That, really, very few persons are interested in my life. So FB, being just a tool, can't change the fact that I've never been a popular friend to begin with.

I reactivated the account after two friends scolded me for quitting. Man, I have to stop living my life like that: doing things out of obligation, because, yea, true to form, I quit again a few months later for similar reasons. So what dragged me right out again, you ask? Oh, another obligation, not surprisingly. This new volunteer stint I'm doing requires me to post pictures on FB. Ah well, I reassured myself, that I can always drop out again after my task is done.

My family and husband assured me that friends are friends...that distance is a real challenge in keeping a friendship alive. That people are busy with their lives and their immediate surroundings. Those are the facts and I just have to learn to deal with being ignored or a friendship losing its spark. But that's the thing that I never quite figure out: how to be nonchalant about people not necessarily wanting to connect with you? I feel constantly trapped in this cycle of reaching out to people, then being sensitive to rejection (or perceived rejection) and I shrink away from human interaction. Perhaps I should develop a thicker skin because this cycle is hardly the way to building fulfilling friendships. I must overcome my constant fear of rejection and learn not to be overly sensitive...because it may not be rejection but just a difference in priorities, attention spans, attachment to the friendship, etc.

Now I wouldn't want my own kids to someday think I'm a weird recluse that they'll never want to be seen in public with. I also wouldn't want them to be overly anti-social. I could accept "mild" anti-social behavior in my kid if she or he happens to be introverted. There is nothing wrong with liking your own company especially when the outside world is quite confusing and somewhat tiring. At least that's from my introverted point of view. I would like my children to have dual abilities: comfortable being by themselves and when situation requires it, be sociable and cooperative so that they could blend into normal societal structures.

So for now I'll stick to e-mail and the occasional Skype phone call to the select few friends who share the same enthusiasm as me in the relationship. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, right? I actually like snail mail but I know that's pushing the if e-mail wasn't considered antiquated enough. Well, the only snail mail I get these days are bills and junk mail...argh!!!

As for FB, I recognize that it is just a tool for keeping in touch, albeit superficially. Perhaps for the hundreds of acquaintances and mere friends, this is sufficient.

Monday, February 8, 2010

D'yer Mak'er...homemaker

The notion of being a homemaker may not be as sexy as the Led Zep song. But without much ceremony, I became a full-time homemaker in mid-January 2010. It helped that the first few days after returning from our fun-filled trip to Malaysia and a honeymoon in Thailand, hubby did most of the cooking while I adjusted to winter after two and a half months of warm and humid weather. I acclimatized quickly and ungracefully as the furnace acted up and refused to heat the house to a relatively comfortable temperature of 20 degrees Celcius (in Malaysia, this would have been frigid, but I digress), forcing me to wear layers and layers of clothes, not unlike an onion. Too bad it's impractical to wear a blanket around the house.

It is time to implement my plans of becoming an enviromentally-aware domestic goddess! I have been turning more and more to my "Martha Stewart" side in recent years and now I can fully embrace it. But first things first, I unpacked the boxes shipped up from Alexandria months ago while I left the country to switch visa status. This is the first time in many years I have all of my possessions with me. Since I started my post-grad studies and then work, I've always had a field base and a home base. I think Mom is relieved to have most of my junk out of her immaculate home...hehehe. This also meant that I threw out and gave away quite a bit of stuff as well.

We have since integrated our wardrobe and furniture, cookware and electronics. Thank goodness the basement exists. Summer clothes, unused lighting and furniture were stored there. I then happily organized and rearranged almost everything in the house. Hubby is wary of the fact that the furniture configurations could change tomorrow, next month or whenever. So far so good. I'm only moving the small pieces around nowadays, leaving big pieces where they are.

I set up a daily schedule but give myself plenty of leeway. Towels to be washed on Thursdays. Bathroom and kitchen to be disinfected weekly. Will try to vacuum and wipe dust off furniture at least once a week. But I know myself...that I have a relaxed and inconsistent way of cleaning and tidying the house. Sometimes, I'd clean a section of the bathroom or living room. Othertimes, I clean the whole house in a matter of hours. If there is such a thing, I actually WANT to enjoy my "homework" and not be a slave to chores.

The dry air and repeated contact with water is wrecking havoc on my hands. I am more diligent about applying lotion after shower but looks like my skin needs petroleum jelly.

I have gotten round to planning our weekly menu and we stick to a list when grocery shopping. I tend to cook lazy, all-in-one pot of meat and vegetable like curry or weird pasta-soup combo when living alone. Now I try to prepare a more nutritionally balanced menu, comprising of at least two dishes to go with rice. We both like Japanese food, but I am more familiar with Chinese cooking. I have experimented successfully with grilled fish, roast beef and chicken. I am grateful there are shops where we can still find Asian food to keep homesickness at bay, strenghtened further with some supplies bought from home. Just the other day I made nasi lemak with the high-grade anchovies we bought in Malaysia. Have to be careful not to use up my Marmite as stores here don't seem to sell anything like it.

Recycling is mandatory in Ithaca, to my delight. I haul out recyclables and place them by the roadside every fortnight. When I'm done with the research, the house will have a composting bin as well. I am looking into vermicomposting and installing a disposer under the kitchen sink. Apparently compost bins and worms prefer plant discards as opposed to meat. The disposer will take care of small bones but short of becoming vegetarians I'll have to find other ways of dealing with the chicken fats and bones. Maybe we can buy meat without bones, but I like making stock with bones. So how ah?

Overall, the house is in decent shape but as they say, there is always room for improvement. So onward we go, with our small projects, fixing this and that, redecorating here and there...HGTV and DIY our favorite tv channels; Home Depot and Lowe's our usual haunts. We had a garage door installed recently. We installed laminate flooring at the foyer. Hubby is obsessed the idea of installing recessed lighting and a second bathroom in the basement. I'm interested in refinishing our hardwood flooring and the sundeck. So much to do, but so little money and time. I guess we'll have to prioritize and break big projects down into smaller, affordable chunks and do them in phases.

Hubby is worried I might go cuckoo staying at home all day, all week, so he takes me out for grocery shopping, a visit to the public library, for a nice meal outside or to meet with friends. I haven't created any imaginary friends yet. I like my own company and don't mind solitude as long as I have my music, books and freedom to rearrange the furniture. But yea, striking a balance in every aspect of one's life is a good goal to pursue.

We'll see if I can pick up some sewing skills and do something with the drab curtains...first stop: classes.