Part Two of my thoughts on The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

I want to start writing fiction. I don’t think I’ve ever tried, unless you count PSLE essays as fiction. “Alan saw a spider and it was big and scary.” But I’m also scared of the responsibility of fiction. That I can’t write about taboo topics, even though I don’t think there should be a limit on what one writes, because I am not allowed to write about sex or lust or anything that is non-Christian. The pastor once explicitly said that none of us should be reading or watching Fifty Shades of Grey and I thought, “ok that means I definitely cannot contribute to What a shame.” Fiction to me is a way to expressing everything in my head. All the thoughts that people don’t speak aloud, the anxiety of waiting for a pregnancy test result, the ambivalence when I really want to murder someone but I also want to keep him alive because I want to torture him slowly. Cutting off bits and pieces of his skin. I guess those aren’t normal thoughts.

There seems to be an expectation that as a Singaporean writer who writes fiction, it has to be Singapore fiction. About laksa and chicken rice and living in a HDB flat. Things that are very local. And if you are a Chinese writer, you cannot portray your culture as being backwards, but you still need to stay within stereotypes or else you won’t be authentic. To me, humans and animals are not restricted to certain geographic regions or cultures. If there is a character in my head who is a heavy smoker but also a conjoined twin and Russian, even though I know nothing about Russia, but just saying, then I would have a difficult time imagining what the character does. But it doesn’t mean that I can’t write things that are true. There are universal emotions- regret, anger, annoyance, shyness. I know these feelings.

So, yes, I was aware that Hollywood might look at The Joy Luck Club as a proving ground.

That’s a terrible burden, especially when you’re just trying to create your own vision and not necessarily right past wrongs, or set the record straight on the history of China, or break down cultural barriers, or open film job markets for other Asian-Americans, or put every single stereotype to rest once and for all. If we had set out to do all those things, we would have been looking over our shoulders all the time, running scared, and would have been unable to make a movie that was personal and intimate, that had more to do with universal emotions than specific cultural concerns.

Universal emotions, and not specific cultural concerns. Perhaps I should write something to do with boredom. “Constantly empty-headed, browsing Youtube to look at pretty girls, and then panicking whenever deadlines are due, that empty feeling in her chest when A does not reply her text messages.” Would that be very relatable? I can imagine writing things which are honest and true- a story about how “S has a friend whom she’s jealous of because the friend is prettier, richer, more well-mannered, and everything that she’s not, but she would rather be with the friend than without, because at least she can be with a popular person. It also is in line with the saying, keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

The second time I saw it, I told Wayne: “I want you to remember this day. We’re going to get a lot of different reactions to this film later. But I want us to remember that on this day, you, Ron, and I were proud of what we’d accomplished. We made our vision.”

“We made our vision.” This applies to entrepreneurs and writers, painters, musicians, rain-makers. Whatever your vision is, go and do it. You will never know what will happen. I tell myself this often, but that doesn’t help in creating my ‘vision’. But can you imagine the joy and sense of fulfilment to finally say, “fuck, we did it. We made it. Look at how far we have come! Despite everything.” And then you take the life lessons to make a second movie, a third, a fourth. Going further than anyone else you know. I want to know the journey, the uphill process, the late night crying sessions, and the creating.

I chose an unnamed goddess while writing my then untitled second book. I didn’t think it was good manners to ask her for anything as crass as good reviews and placement on bestseller lists. And anyway, if she was anything like my mother, my goddess had never even heard of The New York Times. In the end, I asked only that I be able to write the best book I could, and that no matter what happened to it, I would have no regrets, no sorrows. I called my statue Lady Sorrowfree and titled the last chapter after her. I titled the book The Kitchen God’s Wife, which was how she was known, as the wronged spouse of a wandering husband. I gave her offerings of airline mini-bottles of Jack Daniel’s.

I don’t worship any statue or have any ritual for expressing my thoughts, because I am not supposed to worship any heathen idols or use images which are not Christ-like. But whatever works, works. I am glad that Lady Sorrowfree answered her prayers. Because if The Joy Luck Club remained as her only (good) novel, it would have been extremely painful for her. I can’t imagine the fear and doubt and self-reproach, that cat in my head telling me “knew you weren’t good enough, now the whole world knows it, why did you even have to try?” And year after year of writing, “told you that you can’t make it even after fifty years, just relax, go and do something else, like playing the piano.” The silent reinforcement when magazines stop calling for interviews and for the rest of the author’s life there is just this drought of publicity and muses. Better to be talked about than ignored, because at least there’s something to discuss.

I asked him what it would take to prove that his life meant something- a medical discovery, charitable work, children? It’s not too late, I said. You can still choose to do things differently. Eric underscored the false simplicity of my words: “It’s not that simple,” he said.

I thought about Eric’s spiritual malaise, a common unease that plagues many from time to time, the longing to be special, the fear that one is not. I’ve had the sense that what I do is ultimately meaningless in the larger context of humanity and its pain and suffering.

I don’t understand the part about how it is not that simple. Eric is an anaesthesiologist who works for plastic surgeons, which means he has a lot of money. Is it possible that when you reach a certain age (he was hitting 40), you forget everything that you wanted to do as a child? Or that you find meaning in your work and you like it very much, but you still know that it doesn’t matter in the larger context. If a doctor dies, another one will take his place.

There’s always someone waiting in the wings, and that is how it is with 99% of occupations. Unless you are a creative (photographer, writer, dancer), or there are many ways to deliver your work (teaching, volunteering), your work will not be unique. What happens then, what else can you do? And if one is 40, that’s half a life gone. The question is- when I am financially independent, will I continue to do what I have done? What have I learned, who did I love? Or will I regret. I think I won’t know the answer until I am 30 or 40, it is too early to know what I love when I am 23.

And I remembered also how I didn’t want to hope too much, knowing that those hopes might turn into almost unendurable pain. In spite of what I didn’t hope, the pain was still unbearable, a void so empty, so completely without meaning that it made me hope our existence did not end with the last breath and heartbeat.

Remember my previous post about Pastor C and his sister? If there is no resurrection after death, then all we have is the last goodbye. I don’t think I can bear that. I want my work to mean something.

What are ghosts if not the hope that love continues beyond our ordinary senses?

This paragraph taught me how to see my mother as a whole person. I think my love for my parents is genuine, but the adolescent years might have gone by much more smoothly if we were able to communicate well.

I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother’s “limited” English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say. that is, because she expressed them imperfectly, her thoughts were imperfect. And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and in restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her.

My parents grew up in Chinese-speaking families, and they are also familiar with dialects. My dad can also speak Malay and a little bit of Tamil, depending on who he is around. But my mother started being a housewife when I was born, which meant that her social circle was limited to the parents of my friends in primary school, and a lot of them are also Chinese-speaking (I have been in Chinese speaking schools my whole life, lol). She only started responding in English to me when I was in my late teens, and only at the start of my university education did she become confident enough to serve as a volunteer in English sermons and hospice visits. Did I feel that she was a second-class citizen because she could not speak English? I don’t think I did, because the majority of people in Singapore can understand Chinese. Communication with other people was okay, but communication with her own children was poor, because her two kids are lazy ass millennials who can only understand, but can’t speak it well.

The irony is that both my parents speak without the Singaporean accent because they listen to mostly American/Chinese priests, and when I am presenting my projects etc, if I am nervous, I was told that I sound a bit ang moh. It’s not fake, it’s just my nervousness pushing through. I literally sound like my mother.

Ask the important questions. What makes a story worthwhile is the question or questions it poses. The questions might be: What is love? What is loss? What is hope? Those three could take a lifetime to answer. My story is one answer. Your story is another.

At the end of my life, I want to say that I have known love, loss, and hope. I have known what it is like to struggle, to really struggle, for what I want to accomplish. And I might not have succeeded at all, maybe even disgraced myself because I don’t have the ability. I can’t control words or bring the people in my head out and watch them come alive on paper. I might lose the ability to trust myself, to move forwards, I might not care for humans at all. But at the very end, I hope that there will still be hope.