Recent reads: Crazy Rich Asians and Without Reservations

steinbachkwan

One of the best things about being on holiday is probably having ample time to tackle that to-read list. And indulge in some light reading. Joyce, Hemingway and Proust can wait, right?

1. Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan)

Yesterday I started and finished Kevin Kwan’s popular debut novel Crazy Rich Asians. It provides a satirical glimpse (and my, what a glimpse!) into the lives of three ultra wealthy Chinese families. In this world, haute couture, chauffeured Rolls Royces, private jets (equipped with state-of-the-art yoga studios) and impromptu getaways to private and secluded islands are part of the everyday. However, beneath the opulent displays of wealth and tradition, we see a world of hypocrisy, competition and vanity.

While laden with stereotypes of those within the Chinese diaspora, Crazy Rich Asians breaks many of the western stereotypes of Asian men and women. None of the characters are sidekicks – they are leaders in their own world, and play by their own game.

I thought this was quite an interesting read. Think Downton Abbey meets Baz Luhrmann. I thought of Downton Abbey when I read of the aristocratic lifestyles of the upper echelon of Chinese society; a hierarchal society that is driven and shaped by tradition, romance, ambition and desire. Maintenance of the status quo is of utmost importance, but only possible with treachery, gossip and dishonesty. At the same time, Crazy Rich Asians is vividly flamboyant in style and content. Its dazzling, over-the-top descriptions of the characters’ lifestyles borders on the unrealistic and it has the glitziness and exploding fireworks (both metaphorically and literally) of Luhrmann’s films.

2. Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman (Alice Steinbach)

I finished reading Without Reservations a few days ago. It has been on the to-read list for a couple of months now, ever since I did some research into good travel fiction/memoirs. Travel fiction/memoir is easily one of my favourite genres – if you don’t have the opportunity to travel right now, the next best thing is to travel vicariously through someone’s writing, right?

Without Reservations is a travelogue of Alice, a divorced fifty-something journalist who spends a few months travelling solo around western Europe. Although she is very much an ‘independent’ woman in our understanding of the word – having always made her own choices and financed her own lifestyle, she chooses to embark on a journey to discover her independent identity – one that is not defined by her role, or the people and things around her.  Alice seeks answers in Paris, Oxford, Florence and Venice, and along the way, falls in love, befriends people of all walks of life, says ‘YES’ to new opportunities and experiences, and develops a deeper understanding of herself.

I really enjoyed her writing. Maybe it’s because of her background as a journalist, but I felt that even though she was writing about herself, her experiences, and her reflections, her voice never came across as too strong or too self-absorbed. We get a good dose of her own musings, but also some simply but beautifully written descriptions of her surroundings and the people she encounters. I think I will reread this in a few years!

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2014 Resolutions

I’ve been thinking long and hard about whether I should write a post on 2014 resolutions. The cynical me often finds New Year Resolutions to be lacking in any real meaning, and merely a ritual of self-gratification. I mean, we’ve all heard it before. We can make a change in our lives and set new goals any minute, hour, day or month of the year. Also, writing a checklist of vague or otherwise overly ambitious (read: borderline unachievable) goals and actually working towards these goals and accomplishing them are two completely different things. And here, the first thing that springs to mind (my mind, at least) is Bridget Jones’s Diary: ‘Resolution #1: Obviously, lose 20 pounds’. But how exactly do you plan  to lose the 20 pounds (9.07 kilos)?

Before you know it, summer is in two weeks and all you can think of is:

BJD - a little bit fat

But then I thought about it. There’s nothing wrong with the possibility of falling short of achieving your resolutions. It’s really more about the process and the experience of working towards those resolutions that counts. Fearing that sense of shame and disappointment come December isn’t a reason to not make resolutions. Because after all, contrary to what we often lead ourselves to believe, resolutions don’t have to be static. Over the course of the year, while we’re working towards the goals we had in mind, we might come to the realisation that increasing our level of fitness and eating healthily is more important than simply losing 9 kilos. Well, what I’m really trying to say, very inarticulately (oh dear, another Bridget Jones’s Diary reference…), is that New Year Resolutions can simply be taken as a guide as we strive towards whatever we believe will make us happier and more fulfilled individuals. They don’t have to be goals that fit neatly over 365 days, starting from the 1st of January. Instead, resolutions can be a way for us to better understand both our medium to long-term aspirations, and who we are.

So, in no particular order, my New Year ‘Resolutions’:

1. Make the most of my last year of university.

2. Add more recipes/methods/techniques to my cooking repertoire.

3. Maintain work/life/uni balance.

4. Incorporate running into exercise routine and train towards a 5k+ (timed) run. Also, continue to exercise regularly and follow a roughly 80/20 rule when it comes to food.

5. Be more open about new experiences, ideas, and people. Say YES more often!

6. Find beauty in the everyday.

2013: The Year in Review

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” – Zora Neale Hurston

A few weeks ago, I came across this quote on a blog I follow. I was kind of blown away by how strongly it resonated with how I’ve felt this year. It’s such a short quote, yet it expresses a myriad of emotions and experiences in such an eloquent way.

This year has definitely been a year that has asked questions. I’ve had mini existential crises over the year, as I questioned and rethought what I really want to achieve in the medium to long term. And even now, many things still have a question mark (or two) attached. But I’ve come to the realisation that it’s perfectly okay to not have everything worked out. What does matter, to me at least, is that we give everything our best shot, embrace the opportunities we are given, and pursue other opportunities with equal enthusiasm. In fact, I think that years that ask questions are valuable opportunities for personal growth and self-development.

So here’s to 2014! Happy New Year! 🙂 

December

December is a special month. It’s the last month of the year, a time where we reflect upon events past, a time where we are often filled with childlike optimism (and perhaps a little naivety) about the future. There is no one telling us to be more realistic. We’re allowed to dream. We’re allowed to build our castles in the air. We speak to our friends, family, loved ones, and even strangers, with a kind of wistfulness. We express our disbelief over how quickly the year passed by. And we muse over the things we had hoped to but failed to achieve, the times we said ‘no’ instead of ‘YES’, the times we let opportunities slip from our fingers and the little (or not so little) regrets of the year.

And of course, December is also a festive season for many. However, as my family never really celebrated Christmas, I’ve never felt super excited about Christmas.

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One of my earliest Christmas memories is actually from my pre-school years. The pre-school had organised a little Christmas party in December, and had hired a Santa (or I should say, a man in a Santa costume) to give us our Christmas presents. I remember all of us sitting cross-legged on the ground, looking up at Santa in his vibrant red clothing, white hair and long white beard, with a sense of anticipation and excitement. Santa then called out our names, one by one, to give us our presents. I was ecstatic when I ripped open the wrapping paper to find that it was what I wanted. To be honest, despite this memory being a vivid one, I have little recollection of the present itself. I do remember that it was a toy of some sort, something with lots of small pieces – I’m pretty sure it was a ‘playing grown-up’ kind of toy. I was puzzled: I didn’t quite understand how Santa could have known what I wanted for Christmas. When I asked my parents, I was told the truth – they had bought the presents, wrapped it up, and given it to the pre-school teachers – so Santa could in turn, give it to me. I couldn’t quite comprehend any of this at the time. It was too complicated for my four-year-old brain to wrap around. I guess part of me believed that Santa and his telepathic powers were real.

My other childhood Christmas memories are not so vivid. Primary school was very festive around December – we would sing carols in the school choir, decorate the classroom with stars and tinsel, make paper mache wreaths, learn about the Nativity and share Christmas cards and gifts.

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Now when I think of Christmas, I think of a season of giving and sharing, and love and joy. But I can’t help but think of the ways consumerism has become intertwined with these elements of the holiday season – it’s become almost a vehicle for expressing these feelings and emotions. And how popular culture and the media continues to perpetuate ‘ideal’ Christmas traditions. There are ads everywhere of smiling and incredibly photogenic families, couples and friends, gathered around a designer-decorated Christmas trees and surrounded by beautifully wrapped presents. Long dining tables laden with all sorts of festive meats, fruits and desserts. Ads telling us that material objects are the only way we can show our love and gratitude to those we care about. And their message to you, the slightly vulnerable and sentimental consumer, conflicted over what to buy for a loved one: it’s not really just the thought that counts. Your kind thoughts are really lovely, but they really ought to be expressed in a brand new electronic gadget, some nice jewellery or a flashy watch. It’s really quite amazing (and at the same time, terrifying) how companies/ad agencies can really tap into our psyche…

I’m not really that cynical about Christmas and consumerism though. At the end of the day, we need to put our cynicism aside, and simply enjoy Christmas. Or the holiday season, if you don’t celebrate Christmas. It’s a joyous time, a special time of the year where we can embrace old traditions, or create new traditions. You can be celebrating by putting up and decorating the Christmas tree with fairy lights. Playing Secret Santa. Holding a ‘traditional’ Christmas lunch. Listening to Christmas albums from your favourite artists. (I must admit that Michael Buble, Josh Groban and Il Divo’s Christmas albums have been on my playlist this month…) You can be re-watching a few romcoms set in Christmas. (Love Actually, Bridget Jones Diary and The Holiday are some of my guilty favourites…) Create your own traditions! It’s a time to wind down, catch up with family and friends, indulge in some food and drink and enjoy the small things in life.

Season’s greetings everyone! 🙂 

Writer’s block

(Source: Tumblr)

I’ve been wanting to write a proper post for a few weeks now, but it’s been so difficult. I had many ideas about what I could write during the semester, but now that I actually have time to sit down and write, I feel as if I’ve been handed an impossible task. Sometimes, I actually feel that the above quote from John Green’s incredibly popular (though in my opinion, overhyped) book The Fault in Our Stars does a pretty job of explaining how I’ve felt about writing lately. There are many ideas and thoughts I would like to convey in writing, whether they be on life, society, politics, economics, or popular culture, but my attempts to articulate these ideas and thoughts have been somewhat futile.

Sometimes it is strange to think that one of the only clear career/life ambitions I’ve ever had was to be a writer. If you had asked me in primary school, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, I would have answered, “A writer”. And unlike many other children, I never went through the ‘typical’ list of childhood career ambitions. I never expressed any interest in being a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse, or a policewoman. I was pretty set on being a writer as a young child. I remember my many, many attempts to write stories in my spare time. But I also remember that I wasn’t a particularly good writer. My writing was littered with cliches, and my fanciful story lines didn’t exactly help either. Most of these stories were abandoned after I had written the setting. As was this early-life ambition of mine.

This was partly due to my belief that writing was not a skill that could be acquired and fine-honed, but rather, an innate talent. And even though my view on this has altered over the years, I think I still have a rather romanticised view of the entire writing process. Even to this day, part of me dreams of writing as an almost effortless task, a task where once I place my (metaphorical) pen to paper, words (emerging to form beautiful sentences) will flow on and on without the slightest hint of ebbing. But deep down, I know that this is not the case for even the most talented of writers.  

So what’s next? I don’t want to give up on writing – whether it be a draft to be published, or simply two sentences I want to jot down somewhere. I shouldn’t just give up because it’s hard. And here I shall finish with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”

Summer break

I’ve been wanting to write for a few weeks now. However, as the semester was drawing to a close, a wave of major essays, take-home exams and finals ended up consuming most of my time. The uni library became every student’s second home and was lined with rows and rows of students hunched over their […]

Goals

A couple months ago I came across this interesting blog post on goals that resonated really strongly with me. I’ll insert a paragraph, because I couldn’t have said it better,

Anyway, all I’m getting at here is this: You don’t have to constantly be working toward something you think will be bigger or better. You don’t have to sell your first house to buy a bigger one. (You don’t even have to buy a house in the first place.) You don’t have to visualize your life as you want it to be. It’s OK to be happy where you are right now, and to find contentment in the mundane. You can live in the same city for your entire life and still be a well-rounded, fulfilled person. Reading a book you found by chance on a park bench can be every bit as thrilling as going skydiving. It’s OK. Leave yourself open to opportunities you could never have thought of in the first place. You don’t have to be that person who’s constantly planning for the next amazing thing. That doesn’t make you boring or a loser or a failure. Everyone everywhere feels disappointed in themselves at times, and none of us are ever really living up to our true potential. That’s alright. We don’t have to be perfectly realized humans living carefully mapped-out lives. If your only goal in life is to be a decent person, that’s already a lot to think about and work toward. Human decency is an ongoing process that requires constant introspection as well as observation of those around us. That’s a pretty huge goal.

I felt (and still do) a sense of relief and comfort after reading this a few months ago. Maybe we don’t need a coherent plan in life, with clearly defined, long-term goals. Because not everyone is the same. Life lists work for some people, but they don’t work for others.  We often get so caught up in the idea of something as opposed to its reality; what we think we want is often influenced and shaped by what others want. After all, we’re told that happiness is relative, right? But it’s too simplistic to just extrapolate from this and make a bold, sweeping statement that blames society; as if ‘society’ was the sole perpetuator of our problems and our disappointments. In blaming society, we forget that we are also part of society, and our choices, our values, our beliefs and expectations help to shape and reshape society. With these broad generalisations, we end up marginalising our own voice in society; diminishing our capacity for change.

Anyhow, I digress.

I don’t really have concrete long-term plans. If you ask me where I see myself in five years time, I will probably only be able to give a remotely coherent answer. Because I’m honestly not sure, and don’t know!

The problem is that ‘not knowing’ is rarely regarded in a positive light; let alone as an acceptable answer. It’s as if not being overly ambitious is both a cause and product of laziness, incompetence, and (God forbid) boringness. Because only people who are lazy would choose to not have any goals – they have no real desire or drive to work towards what they want. Because only people who are incapable would choose to not have any goals – the absence of goals becomes a natural defence mechanism through which ‘failed’ endeavours can be left unaccountable. And because only people who are boring would choose to not have any goals – they are too dull to imagine anything different.

It can be scary if you’re surrounded by people with people who visualise their future (on a near-daily basis). It’s intimidating.

But as Anna suggests, it’s okay to be comfortable where you are. It’s okay to find comfort in the mundane, happiness in the familiar. And it’s also okay to have long-term goals and grand aspirations!

The goals I set for myself are simple. It might be to smile more; say yes to more things; make time to catch up with old and new friends; go to the gym four/five times a week; be less judgemental and more open-minded; go to my uni lectures and tutorials or be more empathetic towards others. In our pursuit of larger (and ‘better’) goals, we often forget that small goals like these are also important – living a happy and fulfilling life doesn’t have to start tomorrow. Or when we achieve that milestone/goal/aspiration/lifelong dream. It can start now.