11.03.2008

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

One by one, they crept out of the woodwork. Some scurrying, some crawling at a lackadaisical pace, oblivious to the sheer activity around them. Ears popped, tails grew, busts expanded, colours exploded - the metamorphosis had begun, and Halloween was here.

Walking around campus on Oct 31, I had already noticed that students here are seriously into the whole festive spirit of Halloween, decked in superhero costumes that tend to exagerrate rather than accentuate existing figures; or witch hats and wizard capes; or another random monstrosity from one of many forgettable horror flicks churned out every year. Occasionally, the mainstays - Scream masks, Frankenstein - would surface, lending to the timelessness of their appeal.

Fred picked us up from Rieber Hall at around 3pm, taking an alternative route to his house that took about 2 full hours just to beat the horrendous traffic that Los Angeles is so well-known for. The freeways were beginning to pack tightly by mid-afternoon, though the weather was more forgiving this Friday as clouds had peppered the sky since Thursday afternoon. It was amazing to think that drivers in LA could acclimatise somehow to the claustrophobic pressures of being stuck in traffic for a good 2-3 hours on a daily basis without having the urge to take public transportation, which also underscores how inaccessible and inefficient the system is here.

Arriving at Fred and Rose's house, the familiar sight of their humble abode simply washed off the tensions generated from one hectic week at campus. Upon the steps of the front porch, we heard the comforting, staccato (yes, Preeya, I got it right this time) barks and pit-pattering of paws on the parquet flooring as Chi-chi scurried forth to greet us. He is such an adorable dog, and I never thought I'd ever find myself being acquainted or comfortable with an animal around me, since I've never been one to keep a pet.


Which marks one of several firsts in California: my first time that I've had a chihuahua sit on my lap, cuddled comfortably as he lets me stroke his back, behind his ears, ruffling his skin around his neck. Chi-chi has definitely earned his place in the hearts of us three, and Fred joked that the only thing we could remember when we returned to Singapore would be Chi-chi - we were literally showering so much attention on the little one!

While waiting for Rose to prepare her baby back ribs, oxtail and saffron rice, we headed out into the neighbourhood to preview the decorations that others had laboriously set up.

As you can see, the pumpkin makes for a good bolster of sorts.

Be wary of the seductively beautiful...

...for evil lurks closely behind.

Obviously, some undertaker tried to scrimp on the six-feet-under prerequistite.

We also had, in order to please our constituencies, take some time out for campaigning. The difference between us and political action committees (PACs) that are behind the Obama and McCain campaigns? We are self-funded (so no special interests linked to Washington - score one point), self-staffed (Preeya and Kaixian are members of my group, Preeya and I are members of Kaixian's group, Kaixian and I are members of Preeya's group), and self-absorbed.

Kaixian figuring out how to vote for herself.

The Republican...

...the cynical Democrat...

...and the disgruntled Independent!

The girls' best attempt at looking kawaii!

Fred had bought these sheikh robes from Egypt, and Rose simply insisted that I wear them just in the festive spirit of Halloween, along with the girls on one end of the room egging me on. In any case, I did not convincingly look like either Saudi royalty or the rich owner of Chelsea.

This was Michael's first Halloween, so it definitely was special - even more so that his first and our first Halloween experience would coincide! His inexperience was evident when he said "trick or treat!", and then proceeded to walk past the front door, into the house before stopping midway and standing there, wondering what to do next.

Peter Pan just kept his globular eyes trained on my D60.


And to top it off, Rose had noticed that I had mentioned that I love crossaints the other day, so she actually made them herself for us to bring back to our apartments to eat the following morning! Her oxtail was just fantastic, seriously - the faint wisp of red wine diffusing as one chewed through the succulent, soft meat off the bones of oxtail was irresistable. Couple that with delicious baby back ribs that were glistening off the oven rack, and fragrant saffron rice that reminded us of the type that we usually have back home - we truly are grateful to have Fred and Rose take care of us here, and we thank both of them deeply for everything they have done so far to make our stay in California so much more memorable.

On the campus front, we've been able to handle the workload rather efficiently so far, even though I must admit that somehow psychologically, it was indeed rather taxing at one point in time. And her voice penetrated the negativity that was beginning to surround my vision at that time, like a sunbeam piercing ruthlessly through, evaporating the darkness and showing me what I was actually capable of. She reminded me of who I am, why I am here, and that led me to recover from that brief and unsavoury encounter with something that I have always vowed never to become.

To her, I dedicate this entry, just like every other entry before - for each letter that I scribe, I feel the inspiring power of her words run through the course of my veins, into my fingers as they fly across the keyboard, surging with purpose. I feel the tenderness of her voice permeating the harshness of the static generated by the travelling of sound waves across continents as they are filtered through numerous channels and devices; and as it arrives, it electrifies even with its gentle embrace.

I cannot find words to display my gratitude, and so I endeavour with every inch of effort I can exert from my mind, body and soul to keep her safe, because to see her hurt would render my heart asunder; to let her keep me safe, because I trust her as I have never trusted anyone before; to devote to her my heart, because we deserve each other.

Only a day to the elections, six weeks to the end of the quarter. I shall be patient, and we shall be together soon.

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10.13.2008

Crabcakes Deserve a Heading of Their Own

Sweet, sweet Saturday - Malibu, we're coming for you!


Stepping out of campus is such an exhilarating feeling, and it is acquiring an addictive element to it each weekend that we spend on campus grounds. This was to be the last outing that Fred and Rose could take us on before they left for their journey to Egypt, and we were just anticipating as to what we would see in Malibu.

Fred and Rose stopped by this Jewish franchise diner, and the first thought that popped into my mind was that classic scene from Pulp Fiction, when John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson are talking in the diner with the red plush cushions, and a hold-up happens!

I just ordered a simple cappuchino, just like Preeya and Kaixian did. It was frothy - just like it should be - and certainly welcome on a lazy Saturday morning, in a classic American diner.


Along the scenic drive to Malibu, our eyes traced the yawning, mountainous landscape of California's numerous majestic valleys - it resembled some potential Survivor setting, which was what came to mind given my eternal obsession with everything Survivor-ish.

At some point, it even looked like where Lost could have been filmed. Ok, I should just not spout more lines betraying my closet couch potato persona. According to the Fifth Amendment, I have the right against self-incrimination, and therefore I shall exercise my Miranda rights.

In case you were wondering why the invocation of the Constitution, that precious document is a current focus of one of the courses I'm taking right here in UCLA. Miranda rights have been immortalised in the phrases spouted on TV that are uttered with the dispassionate and cold tone, "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in court..." How intriguing to observe the extent of influence the document has in everyday entertainment!

And to think that I once assumed it to be a given right respected by police forces in developed countries. As if to disprove the assumption even more concretely, the professor remarked that the police in Britain can use both one's silence and one's words as evidence for incrimination.


Arriving at the Hindu temple at Malibu, we felt a certain sense of propriety descend upon the place, and I found myself even more conscious of the fact that I had to be respectful of the sanctity of the temple, the practices, the people visiting, the devotees offering their prayers, the priests offering blessings. Employing self-perception theory, I believe that I must have felt compelled to behave more sensitively to the situation because this place represented a metaphor for something close to home, something "untouched" by the less-than-savoury aspects of life in California.

Santa Monica was indeed pretty, yet it offered no glimpses of the crazy waves that California is well-known for. That was until our feet touched the sands of Malibu Beach, where we were greeted on a chilly day to crashing waves, thick-skinned surfers in their Speedos or Spandex, and frigid waters that actually sent Preeya into hysterical yelps. I, on the other hand, was just too happy to be able to feel the warm, soft sand at my feet as I dug them in, and the smell of the sea rushing up with every crescendo. It felt as if no matter where I ventured, the beach would find me.

Fred drove us to a diner near the beach, one that he had been talking about for quite a while. Neptune's Net reminded Kaixian and I of the fish-and-chips eateries right beside the harbours of Australia, especially Fremantle where smoked sardines and chilli mussels were accompanied by a cool glass of Semillon Sauvignon Blanc or two. We were just estatic to be able to taste seafood again, and we became acquainted with something delicious called crabcakes.

I have to learn how to make crabcakes. Surely you must agree!

Truth be told, Malibu's coastline accommodation is a sheer work of disfigured trash posing as uninspired architecture. Not only does the exterior look like it could be used for the next Hollywood movie involving Communist-era Eastern European buildings, the accessibility problem (houses right next to the Pacific Coast Highway) and terrible location with regard to sound pollution lead us to scratch our heads and wonder why anyone could even want to live near the beach.

Back to Santa Monica and the pier with the amusement park. I initially imagined that this was exactly where Ryan and Marissa of The O.C. had taken that ferris wheel ride, but apparently this wasn't it.

Just a few observations that are worth mentioning, before the kookiness of this place called California start compelling me to address the stirring dissonance within my mind that some individuals can't possibly be that irritating.

Dinner at Rieber was superb by any standards - if there were any to begin with - tonight, for we were treated (at a cost of US$8.25) to dory fish with tangy sauce and spaghetti with meatballs. We probably were the most passionate patrons of the fish counter as we went back for unabashed seconds, thirds and fourths. One must understand that seafood here is as common as any Hollywood-made Chinese movie with a villian not played by Jet Li.

Even the tomato basil soup didn't raise suspicions of culinary skill, and that earned Rieber a decisive three points to take them to a comfortable second place in the rankings. While De Neve clearly held her ground this week with the ever-dependable pasta, the name-changing chicken slabs and lasagna, Covell did not manage to capture any points as of yet due to a rather non-tantalising menu all week. Hedrick played it safe with his two-trick pony of a sushi bar this week, leaving them at a cosy second place.

The dessert - chocolate brownie - probably clinched it for Preeya tonight, for she completely embraced her unusual, oh-my-gawd-this-is-sooo-good side for about a good thirty seconds before the plate was licked clean.

Friday is approaching, and with it the much-awaited weekend. Tomorrow is Anatomy's night, and I just can't wait to kick back and enjoy, after what has seemed to be a rather hectic week.

Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert have been informing me of the latest campaign gaffes by Palin, McCain and company, and it's only three weeks to the elections! I'm thrilled at the fact that we're right smack in the centre of the malestrom of American politics as the nation decides its own future - kind of, if one could wish away the ingrained doctrines, fossilised special interest group linkages, bureaucratic legacies and organisational constraints of administrations past.

Aside from the obvious cynicism that Jon and Steven have never failed to remind us of every single weeknight as we gingerly tread towards Indecision 2008, I'm nevertheless anticipating the outcome of this sometimes-ugly contest between two men of entirely different styles and personalities. Why? So that America need not watch the mud-slinging tactics and sometimes downright vicious personal attacks being made against the candidates that have perpetuated and exacerbated prejudice and partisanship - which will, if left untreated, render American faultlines even clearer than before. As a pundit had remarked, the person who seeks victory must remind himself that he cannot pursue it simply at any cost: he will have to heal the rift that he sought to exploit to galvanise his core support groups when he assumes the presidency.

Three weeks separate the American public between the old era of profilgate spending, callous foreign policy and devastating economic problems, and the new era of hope and change - or so they all seem to think. Ironically, a man expected to play it safe in the wake of the exit of one of Britain's most prolific prime ministers has emerged as the trumpeted agent of change: Gordon Brown, finally showing some promise that he may be able to step out of Blair's shadow.

On November 4, someone will triumph. Long after November 4, we will then know whether the American people or the age-old partisanship of Washington has triumphed.

Five weeks separate that momentous day in American politics and the end of the quarter, and time shall expediently be spent.

A solitary week of anticipation, possibly wandering through the bright lights of glitzy casinos and mesmerising razzle-and-dazzle spectacles at the Bellagio and the MGM, before another week of pure, innocent delight with Disney's beloved and timeless creations of decades past.

And it will have arrived - the shrinking freeways and boulevards, the towering palm trees reduced to dandelions far down beneath, slicing the clouds with precision and purpose; the dry air permeating, the occasional grunt and creaking of chairs as bodies shift in search of temporary comfort before the next ache sets in, and the dim luminescence of yellow illuminating the lone reader as she lackadaisically pores through the pages while others lie around her in peaceful slumber.

Anticipating it requires purely an exercise at visualisation.

Anticipating that we will be holding each other again - that demands of me more than simple imagination. It is not merely visual - it is intense, electrifying, energising. And it keeps me going even though its demands are relentless, because I know for certain she has been holding up strongly against its demands as well, and that assures me that it is worth every ounce of effort.

Soon, my dearest.

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9.30.2008

Outside Our Enclave

To all who think we are living it up in LA and not paying adequate attention to our academic work, this is irrefutable proof!

Kaixian's dad's friend, Fred, and his wife, Rose, brought us around on Saturday to see the sights outside our tiny enclave of UCLA, and the first stop was Chinatown - extremely visible given the sheer amount of red paint, Oriental font and deliberate usage of tiled roofs even for the gas station pumps (which is utterly ridiculous, if you ask me).

Even China doesn't have lanterns hanging from street to street all the time.

Sun Yat Sen's memorial sculpture - apparently, the Chinese community in LA just celebrated its 70th anniversary, which spans close to perhaps two or three generations of Chinese Americans. A common topic of conversation among us these days is how detached the current youth of Chinese Americans is from their root culture and heritage. Everything about them save their physical appearance shouts "American", and if parents do not consciously provide their children with cultural education and knowledge about traditional customs and practices, these future generations will only cling onto the American variant.

Furthermore, given the ascendance, proliferation and popularisation of American culture, it seems unlikely that Asian-Americans would resist the temptation to associate themselves with a dominant culture that allows them to circumvent their minority status and maintain more inclusive relationships with native-born Americans. Yet we believe that retaining one's heritage and assimilating into a foreign one are not mutually exclusive goals, for we as cosmopolitan individuals in an increasingly globalised world should be able to feel proud of being members of one culture and ambassadors of another. Only then can cultural diversity, and not cultural uniformity, be entrenched.

Then we realise for ourselves how blessed we are to be in Singapore, to be able to speak our mother tongue, to discover an identity for ourselves that encompasses more than just being part of a nation-state. Nationalism is a construct, and while some may argue that ethnicity may be as well, the traditions and customs that we practise in Singapore, including the language that we speak - all these aspects reinforce an identity that we can fall back on for comfort and familiarity. And it is such a loss that Asian Americans who shun their original identity just to blend in.

We went to eat dim sum, and it was nothing short of fantastic!

We also managed to visit one of the largest Buddhist temples in LA and offer our prayers. Kaixian was extremely contented after the visit, and Preeya is looking forward to visiting the Hindu temple in Malibu. Just being able to find spiritual comfort in religion, especially in a foreign land, is highly reassuring. I felt there and then the true essence of what they call "transcending boundaries" - finding deep resonance with one's religion no matter where one may reside.

Drove over to Beverly Hills, home of the rich and the famous, the scandal-ridden and the tabloid-hoggers.

Beverly Hills is pretty and posh, but there's really nothing too fantastic about it. To me, it's like deconstructing the Paragon on Orchard Road and placing the boutiques side-by-side on the road such that it stretches from Far East to Cineleisure. Not impressed.

The scenery is impressive indeed, as we cruise down the freeways.

Silver Lake - finally, I get to see the actual place that Death Cab was singing about in one of my favourite tracks, Tiny Vessels!

I spent two weeks in Silver Lake The California sun cascading down my face

The La Brea tar pits, where one can witness the bubbling of methane and carbon dioxide from below, emitted from the decomposition of fossils millions of years ago. Animals wandered too close to the pits and then became stuck; predators saw the animals who were stuck and wandered too close and then they became stuck, and so on.

Plus we were walking along the pavement when we bypassed a couple walking their dogs. The man was a tad pudgy but of considerable height and build, greyish hair and a greyish beard. I jokingly remarked to Preeya and Kaixian that the man reminded me of William Petersen from CSI, or Grissom.

It was him.

Then the gasping begun with the girls, to which I was rather nonchalant about, me not being an ardent fan of CSI, though there was that tinge of star-struck-ness tingling somewhere in my gut.

Grand Avenue Festival was pretty boring, save for a performance by the L.A. Philharmonic String Quartet, saxaphone and double bass. They adapted Stravinsky's Rite of Spring into a more modern composition, which was rather nice indeed. Still, I find Stravinsky's usage of fast and slow parts of his piece rather jarring and uncomfortable - which is what made Rite of Spring so disturbing and controversial when it first was revealed.

Had dinner with some of the NUS students who had also arrived in UCLA for the quarter, and it was pretty comforting just being able to engage in conversation free from drawling accents.

A fulfilling and reassuring weekend spent, and we're satisfied indeed.

Two weeks have gone by, with six more to go for the presidential election on November 4. After that, another five before I meet up with Mingwei and Joyce for Disneyland in Anaheim. Then after that, I'm home-bound - to my family, my dear friends.

And of course, to her warm and soft embrace, for which I crave and yearn every single moment that I am here.

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