Saturday, January 25, 2014

Coming of Sakura

Which would no doubt bring joy to the thousands of ardent cherry blossom followers ready to party all hanami style.

Surprisingly I don't number myself amongst them. While almost everyone I know raves over the blossoming boughs of sakura trees, I just wonder why no one ever mentions the pink and white flowering trees that we have over here as well. Supposedly called the poui tree, it blossoms here almost twice a year for a brief blinding spell before fluttering to the earth in a handful of days. So why aren't the locals here drinking tea and writing sentimental poetry over these ephemeral blooms?

David : You must see the sakuras! I am sure they are lovely!
Paul : I've seen them blooming in China and Korea before. 
David : But not in Japan!
Paul : Have you seen the flowers blossoming here? The entire town is covered in pink and white for three days. 
David : It's not the same. 
Paul : When it happens again here in October, I expect to see hanami dango and sake in your hands. And you bloody well write a poem. 

A case of the flowers being pinker on the other side?

Sad cynic that I am, quite obviously I am not a dedicated sakura follower. What more Japan isn't all that high on my travel list - much to the horror of my overzealous traveller friends who rave endlessly about the endless wonders to be found there. Somehow the mystique of whispering geishas, chanting monks and frantic manga caricatures failed to enchant me. Sure I do plan to get there someday but there are other destinations higher up on the rungs.

Paul : Sakuras. Meh.
Geisha : Drink this. It will look much better after.
Paul : Could I get a hot samurai to hand me some sake instead?  

Turns out that vague someday is a lot closer than I thought. Especially when they removed the irksome visa requirements for my countrymen. Almost intriguingly followed by my mother developing an irrational preoccupation with seeing shuffling geishas in Kyoto. No news yet on whether she secretly intends to supplant Hatsumomo in the okiya.

Certainly talked me into paying a visit to Japan, if only to see if it could possibly live up to all that praise.

However for a while there it didn't seem written in the cards since the travel dates and the arrangements just seemed impossible to align. And let's not forget the prohibitively priced ryokans ( sadly coupled with our tragically devalued ringgit ) that I'm intending to patronize. Throwing his hands up in the air in surrender, Charming Calvin was all ready to forget about the idea.

Never all that enthralled with the idea in the first place, I was ready to call it off as well. Halted my perusal of Pico Iyer's The Lady and The Monk and left it to my daruma doll to judge.

Which seemed to work surprisingly! Somehow like the sakuras rushing to bloom in a matter of days, everything seemed to fall into place.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bringing Back Movember

I grew a mustache just the other day. It wasn't as a sad sign of slovenliness, a demonstration of burgeoning masculinity or even manifestations of an inner hipster.

Somewhere in the dusty living hall of our family home in Bangkok, there is a wall of sepia-toned pictures taken way back when photographic portraits were an annual event where the entire clan gets dressed up to the nines to be marched off to the photo studio. All suits and ties, dresses and hats - certainly not one of our usual selfies these days in tacky tees and shorts.

My Thai grandfather, ever an avid fan of photography back in their heyday, always seemed to be searching for a reason to take the next picture. There is even one of him seated at the office desk, staring moodily into the camera. The original emo Instagrammer.

Which eeriely resembles me since I'm supposed to be quite the doppelganger of said grandfather. Except he had grown a bushy mustache back then.

Hence the recent dare my cousins made for me to grow one.

Didn't sound all that challenging to me. Fortunately with my family genes, it isn't all that difficult to grow some facial hair since I do tend to be quite hairy - hence my regular daily shave with foam and blade. Figured letting it grow for a week or two would do it.

Didn't look as fetching as Godfrey Gao though. 

Turns out it takes just a couple of days to nurture quite a fine mustache. One look at the fogged up mirror was enough to confirm that my cousins' suspicions were right - and that I did actually look like a still portrait from the 1930s. Even more uncanny the likeness when I put on my suit for a quick snap of the camera to compare.

But the mustache. Highly bothersome! Oh, if only I had known how difficult it would be to maintain! Never expected it to be strangely irritating but seriously, damn it itches. Even the lips get a quick unwary brush every now and then from the one stray hair. Let's not even talk about having food particles getting caught in the brush!

Totally understand now why bushy-beared fellows keep incessantly scratching their face!

And trust me, it is almost impossible to shave properly. Especially when you're trying to grow a mustache in properly in equal parts. Nick one part too much and you'd have to cut the opposite side just to balance it out. Future mustache growers, please get a pair of mini scissors to trim the edges as well.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wrinkles Cometh

Not mine, at least not yet.

Don't think I would mind that much honestly. Certainly wouldn't want to be an eternal Dorian Gray botoxed to the gills, what a terrifying thought that would be. Unlike most of my friends - especially those in the medical aesthetics line - who sincerely devote themselves to battling the frightening disease known as aging, I actually think wrinkles are actually a lovely physical marker of times past and gone.

Not too many though. Just a few denoting my age.

Having far too many wrinkles would result in people like me making mistakes like the one I did yesterday. Though seniority and social hierarchy aren't as important as it would be in more traditional societies such as Japan and Korea, we still maintain a level of respect for our elders here. Even the terms we use to call them are far more deferential such as makcik or kak in the colloquial Malay for the older ladies.

Which is what I'm used to calling the amahs in the hospital. Basically amahs - also an ancient post-colonial term - function as the cleaners and janitors in the hospital. These days where we're unfortunately far too politically correct, they are probably better known as nursing / healthcare assistants.

Colleague : You do know you're not a house officer anymore?
Paul : Oops. What did I do now?  

Obviously I totally forgot that I was much younger way back then as well.

Nurse : Did you call just call her kak? 
Paul : Certainly did. Why? 
Nurse : You do know the amah is younger than both of us? 
Paul : Good God. Seriously? 
Nurse : At least five years younger I think. 


In my defence, she certainly doesn't look like she's in her early thirties. Certainly got me thinking about all the shopkeepers I've been calling kak or makcik. Oops. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Daddy Warbucks

There are times when I do actually envy my niece and nephew.

Paul : Man, I wish I had an uncle who would buy me everything when I was a kid. 
Mother : You weren't exactly impoverished. 
Paul : Yeah but it's different to have an uncle just buy whatever I pick out at the store. 

Since my niece and nephew do live a thousand miles away - especially with me across the Big Puddle, I do try to spoil them whenever and wherever I can. Isn't that the solemn duty of a doting uncle after all? And it's not often that I find my wallet so pleasantly filled. So despite their father's constant nagging about financial prudence to his disinterested kids, lo and behold their devoted uncle comes along and buys them whatever they can reasonably carry to the store counter.

And we're not counting their shockingly spendthrift grandparents yet.

Lucky kids they are. And I was dead envious.

What? Another LV bag? Meh. 

Till I realized that it does make them cherish their gifts just a bit less. When you have adoring relatives constantly bestowing largesse in the forms of gifts, it does tend to become a tad less special, doesn't it? What is one more pretty dress when you have an entire closet full already? What is one more toy gun when there's practically an arsenal enough to take down a toy nation?

Find that just a little sad.

There is a small book of poetry, something of very little significance to anyone else but me, kept wrapped up in a silk sash in my bedside drawer. Certainly faded, worn and dog-eared since it should be roughly the same age as I am, given to me on the day of my birth. Lots of fireworks and fanfare for the birth of the first child so it's easy enough to dismiss the birth of the second. So you can imagine that it was the only commemoration I had as the second child.

And I did treasure the book, possibly quite as much as Gollum with his precious ring. Think I read every simple rhyme in it, memorized every etching in the plain hand-painted drawings. Even the foreword with a brief note bearing good wishes still rings true.

To appreciate the sun, you gotta know what the rain is. 

In the days of plenty, we do tend to forget how to appreciate what we already have. Wonder if years from now, my niece and nephew would still value one of their gifts quite as much.  

Wednesday, January 08, 2014


This month coincides with the birth of one of my nieces in Thailand. Hard not to miss that fact when my camera-crazy cousin puts up entire galleries of the photogenic infant in every possible permutation almost every other day. To match the season, it's been Santa hats and reindeer headbands all last week. Pretty little bundle of joy that oddly enough looks just like my mother did as a baby in her sepia-toned pics of yesteryear. Something my cousin remarked on just the other day.

Paul : There certainly is a strong family resemblance.
Cousin : Imagine what it would be like if you guys had been brought up here!

I can well imagine. Since her two younger siblings returned to Thailand after their schoolyears, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that my mother would have seriously considered heading back as well. For those who haven't seen her, my mother already looks the part of the Thai society matron with her stiff silk jackets and her sizable hairdo.

Life in Bangkok way back when

Who knows, I might very well be blogging in ภาษาไทย from our family home in Bangkok if that had actually come true. Probably would have been different with my draconian grandparents around. More traditional. More conservative. Certainly more stylish. Even have a name to fit from my grandfather since my name is readily translatable in most Asian languages - มังกร which basically means dragon. 

Though it wouldn't surprise me if I had developed severe body issues

As naive lil kids, we used to tease my visiting cousins for taking the longest time with their rigorous beauty regime - and that's even before they've achieved their problematic acne-prone teenage years. So you can very well imagine how seriously the beauty-conscious Thais take their various cosmetics, lotions and creams.

Would say it is impossible not to when you're constantly bombarded with instagram images of amazingly perfect Adonises at every juncture. Google search Thai boys and you'll find hard pecs and sculpted six-packs flashed at almost every moment from every possible angle. Of course that doesn't mean all of them resemble preternaturally perfect cover models - but trust me, finding a spectacularly built specimen of manhood right on the grimy streets of Bangkok isn't all that difficult.

In fact you might even find that absurdly gorgeous fellow casually frying up pad thai in a dingy shabby stall right around the corner, with his sweaty grimy white tee tugged up to reveal shockingly cut washboard abs.

Man, the boys are hot. 

Just imagine the relentless competition! Since a troll like me obviously didn't inherit any of those famous Thai good looks, I would have to work doubly hard to keep up. In short, to vie with these dauntingly perfect Stepford boys, I would have to undergo serious plastic surgery, have facial spa sessions every other day and practically live in the gym 24/7. Not forgetting forgoing any form of delicious fat-laden sustenance like ever. Talk about exhausting.

And that's only the boys we're talking about.

From what I've seen, I certainly wouldn't want to compete with the local girls either, some of whom look as if they'd just stepped off the catwalk. If you're thinking the brainy girls wouldn't bother about their looks, you'd be dead wrong. One time I escorted my grandparents to a free medical clinic at one of their premier medical schools and trust me, I thought I'd mistakenly walked into an Asian Victoria Secret catalog - with pristine white coats instead of lacy lingerie of course.

And let's not even start with the perfectly-coiffed, beautifully presented katoeys - who even I find impossible to differentiate from the real deal.

Man, it's hard to be Thai.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Outlaws of the Marsh

Back in school, there were little protection scams being played out by amateur wannabe thugs seeking to make a notorious name for themselves. Though I numbered several prominent sons of tycoons in my class, I never did see them being roughly manhandled for a quick buck though. Didn't realize we were all relatively sheltered from such petty criminals being in the better classes. Turns out it's always the miserable loner who gets clandestinely bullied by the gangs into handing over his lunch money.

So I never did see whether I would pee in my pants ( which I probably would ) if forcefully accosted by street toughs. 

Gimme My Money!

In a notorious crime haven like this however, it was a matter of time before I had my cruel brush with the outlaws though. Simply put an extortion scam designed to put the fear of God - via the brutish fists of a merciless hoodlum - into the unfortunate victim. Basically repeated calls threatening to intimidate said victim for reneging on some previous unregistered loan. Think ah long.

Think the usual response would be to cower and hand over the money to the dubious bank account listed on the message.  

Me, I kept wondering who I had been mistaken for.  And that was when I actually understood the gist of what was being yelled at over the phone line - since it was lamentably expressed in a rough guttural Chinese dialect. So it basically went something like this. 

Hoodlum : @#*$#%@!!
Paul : Excuse me, what did you say? 
Hoodlum : *%@$@##!!! 
Paul : Do you have the right number? 

Undoubtedly not a profitable call for said scam artist. 

Since I was pretty sure I hadn't borrowed any amount of cash from the local ah long moneylender, I did suspect that I could be the hapless victim of some cheap extortion scheme. Which prompted a quick google search - thank God for the internet - to find a week-old article about a similar shakedown being played out in a neighbouring town. Certainly irritated me enough reading about their unsavoury exploits. 

While I wouldn't mind these raffish crooks playing fraudulent hoaxes on each other, I do hope some poor diligent fellow out there in the boondocks isn't being scammed for his entire life savings. Threatening someone's home and family when he hasn't actually done anything worthy of brutal reprise is a dishonourable crime. Perhaps the real ah long moneylenders could find out that some con artist out there has been misappropriating their good name to scam the locals, then there would be hell to pay.