Once in a brown moon...
An enlightening journey of self discovery through public ranting
Special thanks to the ND editors for giving me the opportunity to write this article and putting the 50th anniversary of the Auckland Medical School edition together.
If you'd like to read the magazine in its entirety including interviews of lecturers, you can download a copy here: https://webdropoff.auckland.ac.nz/cgi-bin/pickup/d6df76a3fede0d7f6a7e499c407cf595/1002592
I finally watched the infamous “Crazy Rich Asians” and I’ve got a slightly controversial take on it. I’ve got to say, I don’t think it lived up to its hype. Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice, light-hearted, feel good type movie. An all Asian cast in an otherwise Hollywood style movie was certainly refreshing to see. There’s no denying it’s a good movie but was it really as great as people are making it out to be? Maybe years of NCEA English has poisoned my brain into overanalysing the heck out of everything but I feel like the film was far from doing justice to the purpose it was supposedly set out to achieve.
The film is being hailed as part of a movement for greater Asian representation in Hollywood. My question is, what does representation really mean? Creating a film with an all Asian cast is perhaps the first step but we also need to see more stories that we, as Asians, can connect with. Sadly, I think the film missed the mark when it came to a relatable storyline. I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to love stories but how many of us are going to find ourselves in Rachel Chu’s world falling for a millionaire? I understand that the story is not supposed to be a fairy-tale but rather how love can transcend all barriers. Sadly, all the richness and glamour portrayed detracted from any deeper messages the film was attempting to convey. It was certainly beyond my realm of reality and it didn’t explore Asian culture as much as I would have liked. I felt like I’d just had an Asian fusion experience where the authenticity had been sacrificed for greater western acceptance. In fact, Ronny Chieng, one of my favourite comedians and also an actor in the film joked on a talk show that the “minorities” the film sheds light on is not Asians but rich people. He’s honestly not wrong. The dumpling making scene and the mah-jong scene at the end were perhaps the only real glimpses of Asian traditions we see in the film. These were beautiful scenes and I would have loved it if the film had been more grounded in its cultural context.
The other tricky thing about this film is the term Asians itself. Asia is such a large continent with cultures that are so diverse, so I completely understand that it is difficult to capture Asians as a whole in one film. What I do expect is that if you are going to set your story line in Singapore, at least capture the diversity in cultures that exists in that country. If you just wanted to focus on rich Chinese folk, that’s fine by me. Just set your story in a rich Chinese city like Hong Kong. Singapore’s population consists not just those of Chinese descent like the film would have you assume, but also those who are ethnically Indian and Malay. It disappointing to see that the only glimpse of Indians was turban wearing, creepy looking security guards who scare Rachel and her friend. We’re all minorities here so its definitely not funny to throw another group under the bus. While fighting to dispel certain Asian stereotypes, it felt like the film successfully perpetuated others. It continues the idea that the term “Asian” is associated with a narrow set of physical characteristics rather than its much broader geographic origins. The film also reaffirms some dangerous rhetoric already circulating in our society. It’s hard to ignore the unfounded sense of resentment towards the Asian community in New Zealand society due to some wealthy investors. In light of such racist sentiment, I can’t help but feel that Crazy Rich Asians may be unconsciously adding more fuel to the fire.
Once again, I’m not saying Crazy Rich Asians was a terrible movie. It was certainly good, but let’s all stop praising it like it is some thought-provoking, 12 Years a Slave type film. I’d recommend watching it purely for entertainment but before jumping onto the praise bandwagon, have a think about how culturally authentic it really is.
Initially, I wasn’t overly keen about AUMSA’s campaign week. I didn’t want to relive an all too familiar high school style popularity contest. Here’s how I pictured this would go - each candidate would spill their numerous talents and make claims that they genuinely do care about the wellbeing of the cohort. I think it's really sad that I seemed to view people in my year as shallow and self serving. I guess when the most hyped thing at uni is the next stein or pub crawl, it was so easy for me to condescendingly judge my wider cohort. Seeing the candidate list and campaign week itself helped change all of that and address my prior misconceptions. Campaign week stimulated some interesting discussions and thoughts that ended up surprising me. I realised that until now, there hadn’t been any opportunity all year for us all to get to know each other in a meaningful way and connect about issues that mattered the most.
Knocking out Popularity
As with every election, popularity did kick in but it was refreshing to see diversity in the candidates. It was just so nice to see unknown faces step into the limelight and really put themselves out there. It made me think about how it's not so much about winning or losing but how campaigning provides a platform for the lesser known to become better known. I honestly appreciate how they opened themselves up for public criticism and bravely stood against popular faces to share their passion for creating a wonderful 2019. As a voter, it also forced us to interact with new peers and opened our eyes to those doing amazing work outside of the university sphere.
What do I really stand for?
Campaign week called for introspection, not just for voters but also for the candidates themselves. It was incredibly fascinating to see some become acutely aware of the persona they present to the public and evaluate whether it was a true representation of themselves. Working with the opposition made others realise that perhaps the best work for the greater good would be through collaboration. Rather than a competition to prove one’s worth and tear each other down, campaign week became more about appreciating everyone’s efforts and fostering a communal sense of belonging.
AUMSA for everyone
I really appreciated how the focus of this year’s campaign was about being fresh, inclusive and diverse. Almost all the candidates had ideas on how to get more of us involved with AUMSA and how it could cater everyone - not just the steiners and crawlers. I loved how those running for the ND (New Doctor) magazine position really took this responsibility upon themselves. It was a bold move for both teams to acknowledge the current magazine for what it is - saucy, scandalous, admittedly funny, but certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Instead of just hyping questionable behaviour and claims, next year regardless of who the editors are, we’ll be seeing more opinion pieces from our fellow Graftoners. Some real literature will be greatly welcomed.
I have no idea who’s going to end up winning and frankly I don’t really care either. I’m just content with the wholesomeness of the previous week and how much love and kindness was showered around Grafton. I no longer felt like we were a disconnected, superficial cohort that had zero interests other than the many varieties of ethanol. Instead, I've started feeling proud of the people I'm surrounded by and how everyone was able to come together to decide the path our cohort will take in the years to come. Its sad that this opportunity for redemption only comes around only once a year but who knows, maybe this has paved way for more cute cohort bonding sessions.
“Can someone please turn off my mind?
My thoughts are racing all the time
There is no reason or no rhyme
I'm trapped inside myself"
As usual, we bantered away about the randomest topics. We complained our way through friends' relationship dramas, the stresses of the uni life and dumb things family decided to do. It was pretty chill and I was enjoying the good company. He cracked some jokes about being dark and twisted on the inside and I found myself rolling my eyes. He reminded me of one of my closest friends, J. She’d spit some seemingly harmless jokes about death and the squad would sit around encouraging her dark humour. He then slipped in how it was funny that his friends were worried about him. Again, I thought nothing of this and brushed it aside. J and I would always kid that if the general public heard her humour, they’d send her off to counselling. As he continued, I kept laughing his comments off until he said something that stabbed right through me. He casually mentioned how his friends were worried he was going to commit suicide.
I stopped dead in my tracks. He continued on some long winded story about how they tried to get him help. I found myself saying the hmms at all the right places to get him to keep talking but my mind couldn’t process any of it. The world suicide kept ringing in my head. I couldn't laugh anymore and I was choking on my words. I had to leave to go to uni and all I could utter in response was “fam look after yourself.” He responded with a weak smile and went back in. He’d said something so significant to me and I had responded in the most pathetic way, as though he had just caught a cold.
As I walked towards the bus stop I was panicking. It wasn't right for me to just walk away like that. I also felt like I wasn’t close enough to him to offer any meaningful support. I desperately wanted to rewind time and tell him about all the ways I appreciated him. As I stared at my phone screen, I noticed my hands were shaking. I proceeded to send him a heartfelt this world loves you message. It felt weird to be so sappy but I couldn't care less about how it would come off. I felt terrible that I’d waited for him to talk about something so dire before I felt the need to appreciate him. It was all I could do but I took comfort in knowing his friends noticed and were there for him.
That was when I started thinking about J again. She’d been down at the dumps more times than I could count. She was sadder than the average but did that count as depression? She had periods of despair and she hated herself for letting it get the better of her. When it hit, she would grow more tired. She wouldn’t be able to get herself out of bed, feeling like the world was going to suffocate her anyway. She would smile if off though, crack her death jokes and we would all ignore that she was barely keeping afloat. She had confided in me numerous times but I never took her wholly seriously. I would listen to her but deep down I relied on my belief that she would eventually be okay. Today was the first time I considered otherwise. What if one day she decided to give up? What if the next time it hit she didn’t spring back up? She was the same as him. Both were extremely intelligent, funny and thought provoking people who were good at hiding their feelings. The more I kept thinking about the parallels, the more freaked out I got for the both of them.
I found her as soon as I got to uni and started to bawl my eyes out. She hugged me and tried to calm me down but I was guilt ridden. I’d ignored all of her warning signs and I wasn’t there for her as much as I should have been. As she held me, I told her about how I was consumed with a fear that I might lose her. She called me an idiot and kept reassuring me that she’d be okay. She laughed a little and joked how seeing me cry was good for her. It reminded her that her friends loved every one bit of her. I was trembling all over when I asked her if she had ever considered taking her own life. She kept telling me she wasn’t stupid. Yes, she was struggling with her lows for years now but she knew that doing something drastic would break her mum. Her reason to live was out of love for her precious mum and that made me cry even more. I just felt like an absolute idiot. I was supposed to be look after her when she needed me yet I was just standing there tears streaming inconsolably. I'm sorry J that once again I made it about myself. It was a complete role reversal and J had to put on a brave face and be the strong one for me.
The shock of it hurt then, the gravity of it still hurts now. The knowledge that two of the most amazing human beings around me were struggling with such dark emotions killed me. J was the most dynamic person I’d met during school. We related on such a spiritual level due to our brown heritage. She was also the proud mum who always cheered me on as I tried to forge my own path. The person I keep referring to as “he,” is someone I had only met a year ago. He constantly broadened my mind, making me question my internal biases and beliefs. He even injected some culture into me, introducing me to the surprisingly insightful world of rap. Both of them are truly beautiful human beings and I am sure that everyone around them can attest to that.
I just want both of you to know that you have had such profound influences on my life and I have so much to thank you for. Keep reaching out to those that love you and please look after yourself fam.
“Life can bring much pain
There are many ways to deal with this pain
(Intro K.O.D album 2018)
A stethoscope clad girl took charge and before I knew it the bottom of my t-shirt was held firmly beneath my neck. I faced the wall, my back exposed. My peers took turns, as I had done before, to meticulously examine my breathing. I stood there silently, fighting the urge to cover myself up. I was consumed with fear, feeling convinced that I would be judged for my physical flaws. I obsessed over whether they noticed the rings of fat creeping in from the sides or the speckled spots that dotted my skin. I was nearing the point of breakdown but I held myself together until it was all over. Along with the embarrassment, self hate started creeping in. I was extremely pissed off at myself for freaking out. The girl before me had done it with confidence yet here I was consumed with anxiety. After all, my back hardly counted as an intimate area. For weeks after this particular workshop, I couldn’t stop thinking about my overreaction and how critical I am about my body.
I had always prided myself on not caring how I looked. I’d be the one saying amen to the whole true beauty being on the inside. When friends opened up about their appearance related insecurities, I would get super preachy. I would then loudly proceed to claim that I was totally confident about my own body. I thought such rhetoric made me superhuman, immune to the unrealistic standards of beauty that are imposed on us daily. I see now that it had the opposite effect as I mistook denial for empowerment. I was still receiving my dose of the poison but because I believed I was an empowered individual, I kept denying the effects of beauty on me. It turned me into more of a hypocrite. I was trying to reach the “strong independent woman” ideal by simply putting on a confident act, laughing off those who were brave enough to vocalise their struggles. While preaching about being comfortable in one’s own skin, I hid under shapeless clothing and higher necked tops to cover up what I believed were my physical flaws. It was only during my clinical skills session that I was forced to accept the reality. If I truly wanted to break free from the influence of beauty, I had to first look deeper into my own insecurities. What I needed was not pride but rather a profound acceptance about the way I looked.
My wake up call always seems to come while volunteering at the hospital. I met a woman who was in her 50’s yet had still not come to terms with her body. She detested her body to the point that she resorted to surgeries. She had undergone a breast augmentation in Thailand and a failed arm lift that left her with a numb arm and ghastly scars. Her most recent venture had been a gastric bypass to help her lose weight. Instead, she wound up in ICU because of a near death allergic reaction to the anaesthesia. When I spoke to her later on, she had no regrets. She believed she was reclaiming her life and these surgeries were giving her more control. I was honestly so shocked because she was an example of somehow who struggled with her image yet was in denial. All these years she had been striving to look beautiful but all she needed was to feel beautiful. Feeling beautiful doesn’t require surgery but it requires something even harder. It requires acceptance that the body we are born with is physically flawed but we’re going to live with it anyway.
Yesterday, I went in to uni without covering up my blemishes. I took one look in the mirror and felt disgusted but refrained from grabbing my trusty Thin Lizzy. I tried on bright blue polka dot pants that I hadn’t touched for the last two years. They pressed hard on my thighs, making them balloon a little. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea but the thought of becoming the lady at the hospital scared me enough to stick with the pants. To my surprise the polka dots drew compliments and I found myself, once again, showing off as though it was a calculated decision. I guess I’m still all talk, but hey, at least I’ve started taking some baby steps.
The day was rather uneventful. There were hardly any people coming through the doors, hardly any lost souls requiring my help to find their way. I’d already spent an hour counting the number of bricks at the isolated end of the hospital to pass the time. I’d also dabbled in a customary round of small talk with the other ladies. Ooh yes this winter is the worst it's ever been. Ah yes, you’ve already told me about your cats but that isn’t going to stop you from telling me about them again. No no, you can take your break first. After all, counting bricks all morning isn’t particularly energy demanding. Slumped across the volunteer’s desk, I considered all the alternative universes in which I wasn’t stuck wasting the fruitful hours of my morning. I was sleep deprived, waking up early after a mere nine hours of sleep (okay yes I’m a weakling) and stressed as heck for an upcoming test. Why did I even bother to turn up? As I sat there wallowing in my self pity, my answer came in the form of a woman who I’m going to call Maria.
Maria was a fashionably dressed brown lady with an air of confidence in her stride. I found this surprising as she didn’t seem typical of people of my kind. I later learnt that she was old enough to be my grandmother but at first glance she let no signs of her age show. She was extremely polite, asking me where she could charge her iPhone as she was expecting a message from the wards. Since I had nothing better to do, I started chatting with Maria. I’d only really expected conversation about cats and winter but oh my god, I learnt so much about humanity in the hours that ensued.
“Family is the foundation without which society can not prosper.” Maria was a successful lawyer who had specialised in marital law. She believed that having a loving, stable family is what determines whether the next generation reaches their potential or whether they descend down the twisted path of negligence. In a way, the progress of society depends on families supporting and raising their kids right. “But marriage isn’t about love anymore in India” she explained, “it’s about bringing the two best horses together and making them breed.” There was so much truth in Maria’s daring statements. People choose their partners according to their wealth and once their honeymoon period was over, divorce promptly ensued. We touched on the hardship women face while having to work as well as look after the home. We talked about the abuse women face at the hands of their wicked mother-in-laws. Maria couldn’t fathom how one women could inflict such pain on another and allow the cycle to be perpetuated. It was in this moment that I realised how little I could relate to the society Maria was describing. Yes I was born there, my skin a constant reminder of my heritage, yet what I was hearing sounded like the struggles of some distant, exotic land that wasn’t my own.
I asked Maria what brought her to the hospital. What was a prominent lawyer doing mulling in the corner, desperately checking her messages every five minutes? It was then that I experienced the despair of a mother who had flown in to see her precious daughter having surgery. She ubered to the hospital as fast as she could but her daughter was already taken in. And yes she ubered because if I can spend all that money flying in, I can spend money on an uber. Maria was quirky in that sense. Tears began streaming down Maria’s face - she was worried sick but had to wait a few hours before any news. The confident women teaching me about patriarchy and women’s rights had crumbled into a vulnerable individual, desperately praying for her daughter’s health. I sat holding Maria’s hand for a while until I got whisked away to run some meaningless errand.
When I returned, Maria was a mess. Being left alone to her own thoughts, she began to freak out. She was on the brink of an anxiety attack. “I’m glad you’re back, I was just googling how to calm myself down.” The fact that she had to resort to google honestly broke me so I took it upon myself to spend more time with Maria. I wanted to distract her from her reality and instead learn more about her life. The more Maria spoke, my respect for her exponentially increased. She was the living embodiment of what I hoped to one day be. She called the other lawyers “money making scum” and said that she only charged those that could pay. Maria’s mission was to serve the under served. When another lawyers tried to bribe her to settle she'd vehemently refused. “I couldn’t accept” she explained. “I’m responsible for my soul.” She also couldn’t possibly move to New Zealand because the people that needed her the most were back home. And plus I’d have to redo my tests, I hate tests. She was even above materialism - “When I have only a dime in my pocket, God will multiply it.” Though when I later recounted Maria’s words, the cynics claimed that Maria must be balling as only the rich can afford to say that. I found that an interesting paradox - only the wealthy could afford to be poor.
We spent some time musing about the world but eventually the conversation came back to her daughter. She’ll be fine, I assured her. She’s in good hands, she’ll be fine. But who was I to dish out potentially false reassurances? Heck, I was just a kid who’d spent her morning counting bricks for the lack of nothing better to do. "She’ll be fine," I said with increasing certainty. Because you are a good person, you have done so much good for people. Now let others do good for your daughter. “But why does bad things always happen to good people?” asked Maria, as she launched back into another round of teary story telling. We were no longer strangers but strangely friends.
Maria revealed her deepest, darkest woe - the passing of her husband. She raised two children alone in a society that didn’t look kindly upon widows. While walking down the street with her children, a passerby had chastised her for wearing green. You’re mourning, you’re not supposed to wear green. Green was her children’s favourite colour, Maria explained. She wasn’t going to sit around and weep all day. She was a young mother who was going to do all it took to cheer her children up and provide them with all the opportunities in the world. That included sending her children here to study in boarding school.
We talked about my deepest and darkest woe - immigration. We know the struggle. What was I supposed to know about the struggle, I was only five years old when we moved yet Maria made me realise that I had still lived through it. I was part of a large collective “we” that even a five year old couldn’t escape. Now it was my turn for tears to well up. I recounted how my dad worked during the day and my mum worked during the night. They only time they saw each other was the five minute overlap between when one entered the house and the other exited. My mum was stuck working in a job where she got no respect. She sold groceries to white couples that threw money at the counter while exclaiming loudly “It’s so hard to see our own kind here.” My dad was stuck pushing wheelchairs to get so called local work experience after spending twenty years building a career for himself. Yet when we explain the struggle, we get asked “so why did you even come here in the first place?” I’m sure my parents asked themselves that every day. Now we do fine though. We frolic in town sipping starbucks, eating sushi and complaining about first world problems. The struggle did exist, but fourteen years later I had forgotten all about it.
Eventually Maria did get that text. The surgery went as planned, her daughter was in recovery and she could go up and see her. My volunteer shift had also ended. Maria and I embraced with the knowledge that we would probably never see each other again. Maria blessed me and my family stating that this is all God’s work allowing our paths to collide. Now, I’m not an overly religious person and statements claiming God’s intervention tend to make my eyes roll. But I let her have this one. She thanked me profusely for sitting with her though I wondered what I had done for her. She had taught me so much about life that I truly felt honoured to be in her presence. Maria left me feeling refreshed and alive, as though I had just finished a midnight scrolling of Human's of New York. Then, like a perfect cliché, we parted our separate ways.
The funny thing is that I don’t know her name. But I do know her story.
Why a brown moon?
Simple, our world is coloured by racial perceptions. My experience of life is inherently coupled to my heritage. So yes, when I stare out into the distant darkness of space, I don't see a white moon. Instead, I see a brown one.