Sunday, September 27, 2015


For  Connor  Franta who used to get nervous speaking in front of big crowd, speaking is now his job. He is a YouTuber, vlogging is what he does for a living.

Connor writes in his memoir, ‘ To this day, my voice STILL cracks, but now I roll with the punches, make a few self-deprecating jokes, and continue. Some things never really change. You can only control your perspective. If you do, the big things that haunted you at school seem so pointless.
In his memoir A Work In Progress, he writes about his pubescent self-consciousness and how he, the goody-two shoes became engulfed in teenage angst and rebellion in high school.  He was never the bad kid, he was only made aware of the real world and did some things that were out of character for him- the consequences of trying to care less. . He didn’t care if his homework wasn’t done to absolute perfection and ended up failing several tests, got pulled over a few times for speeding, staying out late instead of taking care of his responsibilities. His parents eventually had a little chat with him and he knew he was not being himself so he went back to the old him.

Connor also writes about how as the new kid in school, he had to improvise and live the lie as long as his social status benefited. He wanted to be the cool kid and as he reflects in his memoir ,  he cared far too much about what he wore and how and about the words that he spoke. So in a lot of ways, high school can be the training ground for going out to the real world.  He writes, 'That’s the downside of growing up. There’s a lot of pretending involved. We frequently act like someone other than who we really are because we don’t know or aren’t comfortable with our true selves. “Just be yourself “ , parents and grandparents often say, but that’s easier said than done. It seems we must grow up before we can even begin to think about flourishing. It’s taken me years to realize and embrace this.

A cynic  probably scoffs at these successful people who keep telling us not to be afraid of failing and that success involves failing first. Connor writes, ‘Failure is your teacher, not your judge. Like any other good thing, ti takes time, and you’ll just have to wait it out. All you have to know is why you’ve done something and like it, without seeking the validation or approval of others. If you think it’s unique, that’s all that should really matter. Create first and foremost for yourself, no one else.’

Whenever we have a fabulous meal at home or when we eat out, my elder daughter will stop everyone from digging in so she can snap photos of the food before we start eating, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. She has an eye for taking the best photographs for the food before us and she takes photos with not just her Cannon 60 D also her iPhone. I do take photos of the food I eat to  remind myself of where I have been and to capture the wonderful dining experience. In his memoir, Connor talks about his passion in photography and how he whipped out his iPhone , stood on his chair, and began to take five to ten photos until the angle, light, and overall aesthetic were perfect despite hearing people around him giggling and could feel the eyes of strangers burning through his back like the hot summer sun. I recall an incident when an European middle-aged couple was looking at us with an amused look as my daughters started snapping photos of the seafood before us at a restaurant inside Les Halles  de Lyon Paul Bocuse, Lyon’s famed indoor food market named after the legendary Paul Bocuse. It could be my hyper-sensitivity, the man was not only amused, his expression was one of condescension.

Connor is a self- accepting millennial and wise beyond his age. He talks about our addiction “nomophobia” ( no-mobile-phone phobia). When he dines with his friends, they  play the “all phones in the centre of the table” game where everyone has to turn their phones on silent mode and place them in the no-touching zone on the table. The first person to reach out and use it must pay for dinner. It is true that whenever we go out for dinners we cannot leave our phones behind. It is ironic that we  have a tendency to interact with those who aren’t with us. We tend to reach out for our phones in moments of  awkward silence around the table. I feel terrible if I am distracted and look at the phone when I have a  friend or friends in front of me.

The choice is ours: engage with real life or escape into a virtual world. Do you want to communicate with living, breathing people right in front of you ? Or wait until some lifeless words pop up on a screen ? You decide which is more fulfilling.’

I could not agree more when Connor writes that it is the act of making and  savouring his coffee that he enjoys when he drinks his coffee. Though  there are  days when I need to knock off a cup of coffee for the caffeine to keep me going because I am particularly tired, more often than not , having a cup of coffee means ‘me time’ when I can sit down with a book  as I take a break during a work day or between running some errands.  These days I am in such a race to fit in both my work and everything else that I find myself missing out on the joy I used to get from making a cup of coffee in the morning.  I actually much prefer grinding and making my own coffee. It is a ritual to start off the day ahead.

I also totally agree with Connor when he writes that life is about figuring out who we are and that we humans are all complex beings. We can never place anyone in a particular box for everyone of all ages cannot be defined by labelling them. Every individual is a lot of things if they care to reach out  their full potential.

'We are constantly growing, learning , and changing as people, and I love that. Honestly, I could barely recognize the person I saw in the mirror a year ago if I saw him today. I want to be able to keep saying that through life.'

I feel that  to a large extent we are the same person we were yesterday , or the day before or years or decades before. It is our perspectives that evolve constantly.

To the question : ‘ Who are you? Connor’s  answer :  ‘You are who you are in this given moment. Label-less. Limitless.

Connor shares with us his mantra : Live now, worry later  and reminds us that you can’t change the past. It’s done. Finished. As we all know the future is an unknown and he writes, ‘Destination unknown. It’s like being in a movie where you don’t know  the end . Think of it that way.’

Connor’s words are heartfelt and sincere when he tells us about his hang-ups and how he comes to terms with his sexuality. The  book is about many things and one of them is about coping with loneliness and how loneliness is really a state of mind. He writes, ' But Mom's right - a thought is only as strong as you allow it to be. We either fuel it or release it. Same with loneliness. '  While he tries to reach out to  young adults, the core of his message is timeless : Don’t be afraid to be yourself and to go after what you truly want.  I believe no matter what age we are, we are all work in progress.

Connor Franta must be taken seriously despite his young age. Impressive.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Story of Books

During my trip to London in July, there were three books that I had wanted to get. They were Muse by Jonathan Galassi, Why Grow Up by Susan Neiman click and A Work in Progress  by Connor Franta.  When I entered the London Review Bookshop, I immediately spotted Muse and Why Grow Up  which were on display on top of  the table in front of the cashiers. On the last day of my stay in London, I bought Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee click and I ended up reading it before reading the non-fiction by Susan Neiman. Muse has taken me longer time than it should to finish reading  as I had not been able to give my undivided attention to it. Muse is a roman à clef   by an author who had a career in the publishing industry. Jonathan Galassi is the president and publisher of Farrar, Strass and Giroux. The novel is set against the backdrop ‘when men were men, women were women and books were books, with glued or even sewn bindings, cloth or paper covers , with beautiful or not –so-beautiful jackets and a musty, dusty, wonderful smell; when books furnished many a room, and their contents, the magic words, their poetry and prose , were liquor , perfume, sex, and glory to their devotees. These loyal readers were never many but they were always engaged , always audible and visible, alive to the romance of reading. Perhaps they still exist underground somewhere, bidden fanatics of the cult of the printed word….’ The story ends with the changing landscape of the traditional book trade when the books become accessible on electronic devices .  In the story, there is Ida Perkins, a poet who is made to be larger than life. The protagonist is Paul Dukach the heir apparent at Purcell & Stern, one of the last independent publishing houses in New York. He learns the ins and outs of the book world from his boss, Homer Stern and also Sterling Wainwright, Homer’s biggest rival who happens to be cousin, lover and publisher of Ida.

Paul is the youngest son and the bookworm in the family. He has a football star father and  three older brothers‘ all obsessed if only moderately talented athletes vying for the largely withheld approval of their college football star father, now the local district court judge.’

As an introverted teenager desperate to escape from the rah-rah bell jar of Team Dukach, Paul had had one saving grace : Pages, the rambling, heavily stocked bookstore housed in an old brick office building on Hattersville’s run-down town square where he worked afternoons and Saturdays all through high school.  Morgan Dickerman, Pages’ owner, was  a woman of kindess and discernment, statuesque if not conventionally pretty, with prematurely graying hair; a long , elegant neck; and an assured stylishness that stood out in Hattersville , which still felt stuck in the Eisenhower era.’

Morgan is the bookseller  who first introduces  Ida Perkin’s poetry to Paul and since then Paul has read every single one of Ida’s work and eventually he meets the elusive poet who entrusts  him with the manuscript that  changes all of their lives forever.

Galassi writes,

Morgan was an extremely canny bookseller who’d outsmarted the chains by making Pages the heart and soul of the community in and around Hattersville. She had local and visiting authors give readings weekly; she had children’s hours on Saturdays; she was the den mother to a hundred book groups; she supplied books for events at Hattersville State and Embryon, the local private college. Besides , she was Morgan Dickerman, and people naturally gravitated to her the way Paul had (he wasn’t self-deluding enough to believe he was her only protégé , though he liked to flatter himself that he was still Number One.) So Pages was still doing all right. But some of Morgan’s perhaps less talented or less energetic colleagues were not faring nearly as well. The chain store across the square had gone out of business, too, which , paradoxically, hadn’t helped matters at Pages.’ 

Pages sounds like a delightful bookstore  to be spending Saturday afternoons . When I read Muse, I think of jazz, books and Venice.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Work in Progress

Here are the possibilities in your youth. One is that you go after your dreams and you should be happy even if you fail at achieving your dreams because you follow your passion. If you play it safe and not go after your dreams as you feel that you have to be realistic and pragmatic, you might be comfortable in life, you may not be happy with the choices you have made. The other possibility is you work hard at acquiring or perfecting some skill before turning it into a passion. It is obviously a skill that you think you can potentially get very good at. But will the skill be one that can sell and earn you a comfortable living?

Hard work matters. It is trite that one must strive in order to thrive. The harder you work, the luckier you get is not just a cliché. I remember as a seven year old, when I finally figured out some phonetics in Malay language that I had been struggling with, I was so jubilant that I started calling out my mother to tell her  “I’ve  got it ” as soon as  I reached my house door. My interest in the Malay language did not  last. So what makes one persevere in one subject or a hobby but not another?  When come to choosing a career path or a job, some people  may not have a particular interest and they are in a scenario where they find that they have no passion for their work and they merely do it for a living. On the other hand, some may want to pursue their passion but find that it is not practical or feasible to make a career around that passion, so they will have to be contented with pursuing it as a hobby.

Imagine if you could go back to the past  looking at your future which is  now, what would you be thinking? As the famous quote says Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." - Soren Kierkegaard  
But  how do you lead your life forward so you do not live in regrets? A friend highly recommended  a  book entitled What I Wish I knew When I was 20 written by Dr. Tina Seelig. It is one of those books that I feel like running out and get a couple of copies for my friends who have grown up children like me .

Dr. Tina Seelig in her book writes: “ The process of finding the gold mine where your skills, interests, and the market collide can take some time.”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a favourite topic for school essays. For me that was  a  lifetime ago. Seelig has met many students who literally show her a detailed map of what they plan to do for the next fifty years. Seelig writes, ' Not only is this unrealistic, but it's sadly limiting. There are so many unexpected experiences ahead that it's best to keep your eyes open instead of blinding yourself to the serendipitous options that might present themselves.'

I am  often amazed  and  wonder how some people can plan so well as I cannot even plan for the next five months. For me the future is an unknown. When I was in my youth, I had trouble visualizing because I was an indecisive person. I was rather clueless about what I really wanted to do from the moment I graduated from the university. As I was circumspect about exploring the alternatives , I returned to my hometown and settled down. Decades later, I realized that  I had been too much of an existentialist that  time has literally slipped through and I am still trying to make sense of my life. 

I totally agree with  Seelig that  Passion is a big driver. It makes each of us want to work hard to perfect our skills and to excel.” In Chapter 6 of her book , the author illustrates  at length why we should not discard the unexpected findings and be afraid to get into uncharted territory as the anomalies tend to lead us to new breakthroughs and remarkable discoveries. Seelig quotes the statement by Randy Komisar who ‘claims that his career makes much more sense when viewed through the rearview mirror than through the windshield.’ as the statement is true for most of us.  I certainly feel comforted by the statements ‘ When you look back on your career path the story makes perfect sense. The road ahead, however, is always fuzzy and full of  boundless uncertainty. It is easy to get frustrated by the lack of visibility ahead.’ However the author also quotes Randy’s suggestion as to how to increase the odds that great opportunities will come your way. It makes sense when she states that ‘you should work in organizations that grant you access to a stream of interesting opportunities.’ She also suggests that it is important to reassess your life and career  relatively frequently and sometimes it’s time to move on to a new environment in order to excel.  It is important to identify the intersection between your skills, your passions, and the market by constantly reassessing where you are and where you want to go and experimenting with alternatives in order to find the right roles so that you can tap into your passions and potentials in a constructive way. She writes, “ Don’t worry that the path ahead appears out of focus- squinting isn’t going to make it any clearer. This is true for everyone. Don’t be in a rush to get to your final destination – the side trips and unexpected detour quite often lead to the most interesting people , places and opportunities.  And , finally , be wary of all career advice, including mine,  as you figure out what’s right for you .’

What I Wish I knew When I was 20 is definitely a must-read book. Chapter 5 “ The Secret Sauce of Silicon Valley” drives home the message that quitting can be empowering and not a sign of weakness so learning when to call it quits is crucial and also it is important to quit gracefully. I particularly enjoy reading the anecdote in  Chapter 7‘Turn Lemonade into Helicopters’ about how she had offered to show someone new in the neighbourhood  the recipe to make frozen, canned lemonade and in turn she and her colleagues were treated to a spectacular surprise  ride in the person’s private helicopter above the city, up to the surrounding mountains, and over his family’s ski resort.

There are no short cuts in courting luck your way. We are told to be innovative, experimental, tune in and pay attention to our environment so we can  find fascinating things around every turn. The recipe for success is not limited to hard work and dedication, being fearless, accumulating experiences  and  keeping an open mind  are amongst  the ingredients for opening doors for yourself.

There are plenty of wisdom in the book What I Wish I Knew When I was 20.  Seelig is  generous in sharing her personal experiences and anecdotes besides  telling us about real people’s fascinating success stories and  how they recover from failures, overcome barriers and adversities and that most problems are remarkable opportunities in disguise.  I absolutely agree with Seeling that how we view the world around us very much depends on our emotional state.  I tend to go for hair cuts when I feel edgy and down and I often tell my hairstylist “ It's not the hair it's just me.” Simple food tastes heavenly and hideous accessories  look  gorgeous when you are happy.

No path is preordained, and Seelig imparts with what her father has told her.

'Reflecting on his life, my father determined that his most important insight is that you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously nor judge others too harshly.  Her dad wishes that he had been more tolerant of mistakes he made and those made by others, and that he could have seen that failure is a normal part of the learning process.'

 I am comforted by the passage:
Uncertainty is the essence of life, and it fuels opportunity. To be honest , there are still days when I ‘m not sure which road to take and am overwhelmed by the choices unfolding in front of me . But I now know that uncertainty is the fire that sparks innovation and the engine that drives us forward.”

In essence, we are encouraged to challenge assumptions, constantly  reassess ourselves and be prepared to get out of our comfort zones, re-adjust  and be confident. Very positive insights and forward thinking  indeed.
San Sebastian

As I write the post, I googled and read about Randy Komisar, the venture capitalist’s response to the following questions on Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers  KPCB’s website click 

Make a call to 20-year-old Randy Komisar, what kind of advice would you give to him?
'“Trust yourself. You don’t have to become someone else to succeed in life.”

Define your own success and don’t surrender to the expectations of others. Don’t worry about what you can’t change and don’t concern yourself with the ultimate questions of  life’s challenges, focus instead on the here and now. Know yourself in order to know others. And don’t be fooled by money. It can empower greatness if you are truly great, but it comes at a steep cost and can be a burden that keeps you from living a meaningful life. In the end, it’s the relationships with others and your help for those who need it that will define your happiness. Trust in goodness.'

If you can leave one  message to make the world better, what would be your message?
Be kinder. Move beyond yourself and deeply empathize with others. We are all in this life together and no one will get out alive. While our generation is obsessed with how we can make and consume more, twenty-five hundred years ago the world’s best thinkers on every continent wrestled with a much more powerful question,“how should we live our lives?” I think it starts with losing your ego and being kinder to each other in the process.  

Spot on.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Shanghai is one of my favourite cities in the world.I was in Shanghai for a few days during mid-October 2010. On the third day, instead of accompanying my mother-in-law to the Shanghai Expo together with my husband followed by a dinner with his cousin and his wife to be, I bought myself a ticket to watch the semi-final match between  Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at  Shanghai Masters that was held at Qizhong Stadium. I was absolutely gleeful as I arrived at the stadium  early in the  evening. The match was spectacular and  I was  on an adrenalin high until it was time to leave the stadium when the match ended. As I exited from the stadium and got on to the roadside, it  dawned upon me that everyone seemed to be picked up by pre-booked taxis and cars. A couple of  gentlemen who were in office attire were kind enough to offer me a ride to somewhere in the city where I could catch a cab to Donghu Road where the hotel was. Just as I was agonizing whether to take up the offer, a rather  old and beaten white taxi pulled up and I managed to flag it down. I thanked the two gentlemen in a haste and  got into the cab. The taxi  driver drove like he had to hurry somewhere and I first heard him mutter something when he hit  the lane  that somehow led to a closed road due to road work. He then u-turned and got onto another road and subsequently hit the highway where we came across a long line of traffic. Just as I thought I was going to be stranded in the car for a long slow drive, he overtook cars and somehow took a separate lane  and  ignored the traffic police who was directing the traffic flow.“沒事 沒事“ Mei shi mei shi he kept assuring me that it was nothing to worry about and  it was okay to drive in defiance of the traffic police’s instructions. He zigzagged through the heavy traffic as I  sat tight with my seat belt fastened ( I think the seat belt was working, can’t quite remember)  The next thing I knew we arrived at the hotel entrance. My husband was  surprised that I had got back in such a short time as from what his cousin had told him, the journey would take more than double the time I had taken to get back to Donghu Garden Hotel in the city from the stadium.

I recently read  China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan and it is one of those stories that is a perfect fit for a soap opera. It is a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians by the same author. The  respective titles  and bright glossy book covers are representation of the plots and characters you will be expecting in both novels. By the time you reach the end of the book, the behaviour and lifestyle of these super rich Chinese do not  entice you but revolt you. There are not many likeable characters in the book. The protagonist, Rachel Chu is grounded and likeable. Rachel's mother had to flee from her abusive husband and consequently  left China, her home country with Rachel  and  single handedly brought her up in the U.S.  Rachel  is a professor of Economics and she happens to be courted by the most eligible bachelor in Asia, Nicholas Young, a Singaporean law graduate from Oxford who decided to teach History at the university in California . Here is one excerpt on their experience when they were in Shanghai.

Sorry , I just need to get around those trucks. Don’t worry -I’m a very safe driver.”
    Nick and Rachel exchanged dubious looks, knowing Carlton’s recent history. Rachel checked that her seat belt was securely fastened and tried not to look at the zigzagging cars in front of them.

“ Everyone on the highway seems totally schizo - they’re changing lanes constantly,” Nick quipped.
“Listen, if you try to drive in an orderly fashion here and stay in your lane all the time, you’ll get killed,”Calton said, accelerating again to overtake a truck full fo pigs.” The rational rules of driving do not apply in this country. I learned to drive in the UK, and when I came back to Shanghai the first time after getting my license, I got pulled over on my first day driving. The policie officer screamed at me ‘You bloody fool! Why did you stop at that red light?”

“Oh yeah, Rachel and I have almost gotten killed trying to cross the road several times. Traffic signals mean nothing to Shanghai drivers,” Nick said.

“ They are merely suggestions,”Calton agreed, suddenly slamming on the brakes and veering sharp to the right, narrowly avoiding a van in the far left lane.

“Welcome to China,”Calton said nonchalantly.

Shanghai 2011
The other likeable female character  is Astrid Leong who is hailed as the Singapore's It Girl and her wardrobe sounds like a dream wardrobe for those with discerning taste. Astrid is married to Michael who  is a newly minted tech billionaire. There is a ring of truth about such a union as Astrid will soon discover the dark side of her husband who certainly suffers from some complexes  due to their disparate backgrounds. Things become complicated when Astrid's ex boyfriend continues to be supportive of Astrid and his actions seem selfless until he declares his undying love for her. Meanwhile Michael becomes so  overly consumed with his desire to expand his successful tech company  that he becomes vindictive and conceited.

When Astrid had to be in Venice due to her job, she found out that her son had been locked in the closet for four hours after he had accidentally made a small scratch on the door of his dad's vintage Porsche 550 Spyder and then a couple of days before when the boy used a Chinese swear term that he picked up from the kindergarten he was attending, he was sent to bed without any supper by his dad. When Astrid  placed a call to Michael and told him that he was being harsh , Michael explained this is the time for him to learn some discipline. As Astrid tried to reason with Michael , he said,

" You know what the real problem is , Astrid? The problem is that you've never had to worry about money a single day in your life. You don't realise how hard it is to make money - you blow your nose and money comes out ! You've never understood the fear that normal people have. Well, I was motivated by that fear. And I build my own fortune out of it. I want to install in my son that same fear. He is going to inherit a great deal of money one day, and he needs to know that he has to earn it. He has to have boundaries. Otherwise - he is just going to end up like your brother Henry, or anyone of your pompous, entitled cousins who haven't worked a day in their lives but feel like they own the world."

The story is about  opulence, snobbery, the ultimate consumerism and how money can become an obsession and completely mutilate one's behaviour. 

Here is another excerpt from China Rich Girlfriend written in the voice of Rachel who writes in her diary the  remark she heard from Mrs Bing as they shopped around Paris.

I’ve never understood the fascination with Hermès, but I had to admit the store was pretty cool –it’s set in the Hotel Lutetia’s former indoor pool, with all the merchandise scattered around different levels of the vast atrium. Perrineum was indignant that the sotre wouldn’t close to the public for her and decided to boycott the place.She then proceeded to walk around making disparaging remarks about the other Asian shoppers. “Don’t you feel self- conscious trying to shop around these people ? “ she said to me . “ Do you have something against rich Asians?” I joked. “ These people aren’t rich - they’re just Henrys!” Perrineum scoffed.  “What are Henrys?” She gave me a withering look. “You’re an economist-don’t you know what HENRY stands for?” I racked my brains, but I still didn’t have a clue. Perrineum finally spat it out” “ High Earners, Not Rich Yet.”

Are you a HENRY? 
Peace Hotel Shanghai, 2007