Just a quick note to say that I'll be blogging more regularly over at lokfox.com, a productivity tool launching in early 2014.

View my posts on Lokfox so far.



Niece: What's a dutchie?
Me: Something that must be passed on the left-hand side.
Niece: Huh?
Me: Something that must be passed on the left-hand side.
Niece: *Comes back 5 minutes later*
Niece: You're not funny.


Oh! The Drama

“People don't want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.”   
– Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor

A long time ago, when I was a bright-eyed graduate fresh from university, I worked with a Dr Enid Hennessey, one of those rare women who manage to be super-intelligent and formidable, but feminine and approachable all at the same time. One day in conversation she told me that 37 had been her favourite age. It was, she said, the age where a woman was stable and independent while still retaining her youth and all the boons that accompany it.

At the time I thought my thirties were a million miles away – as you’re inclined to when barely in your twenties. Thirty-seven. No! Surely, twenty-seven was far better, I thought in all my ineffable naiveté.

Then, my twenties happened. And, Jesus Christ, they were hard. One year alone – May 2006 to April 2007 when I was 24 – damn near killed me. Arranged marriage, divorce, estrangement from my family, and losing my father – plus one or two things I’ve never written about – made for the hardest 12 months I’ve ever faced. After that, some things got better and some things got worse until, eventually, I arrived at that crest all women are taught to fear: thirty. All downhill from here, right?

Only, earlier this week while dining with two younger friends and listening to their exciting tales of love and ambition, I realised two things:

1. My life was relatively boring compared with theirs.
2. Actually, I didn’t miss all the blood-pounding excitement that comes with unrequited love, bad sex, unexpected promotions, perpetual flat-hunting, and the optimism that, while you weren’t quite doing what you were meant to be, one day you would be.

In short, I didn’t miss the drama. My experience is that women tend to instigate drama far more than men. All that anger, yearning, passion and sadness makes us feel alive – or, at the very least, worthy of a Script song.

Turning 30 seems to have dialled down my desire for drama. I still want to do big and exciting things, but I no longer feel that I have to battle for them. And I’m genuinely relieved about that. Every girl needs to battle somewhat in her twenties – it’s probably the way it should be and I wouldn’t change mine – but would I do it all again? No fucking way.

For the first time, I think I’m beginning to see what Enid meant about 37. This decade will serve up new battles I’m sure – gravity not being the least of them – but I’m quietly hopeful that it will be better than the last. Yes, there’ll be deeper laugh lines and bigger waistlines. Yes, I’ll attract fewer eyes on the commute into work. And, yes, I might be stepping into the big scary unknown, but you know what? I think it’s going be okay. I really think it will.



Tribe Talk

Once in a while – perhaps five or six times a year – I’ll find myself standing next to an Asian girl on the train silently wondering what she’s like as a person. She’ll usually be like me in many ways: not über glamorous but not exactly Waynetta Slob either; dressed conservatively from a western point of view, but liberally from an eastern one. Perhaps I’ll catch a snippet of her phone conversation or see her pause at an interesting poster, and suddenly I’ll feel an overwhelming sense of wistfulness.

You see, over the last 10 years, I’ve seen my pool of female Asian friends drain painfully dry. It’s true that we all have a string of faded friendships behind us, but I’ve found this specific flavour particularly hard to maintain. In the early years it was because many of my friends married young, had kids or moved away, their absences punctuated by occasional stories of overbearing parents or controlling in-laws. Our bonds splintered in the way our lives already had. Then onto university where I studied Computer Science – not a subject known for its proliferation of female grads.

A few years after graduation, I began to lose more friends to marriage. Some fell out of touch because they were happy and busy with kids and husbands and jobs and lives, which felt natural and of course I was happy they were happy. With others, however, there was something more pernicious at play. The last time I met a particular friend, she had told her mother-in-law she was working an extra shift when in reality, she was having dinner with us. Another recently told me she was at her mum’s for a week rather than at her in-laws and was therefore able to meet up. I hate talking about this because it reinforces ugly stereotypes about my community and portrays these women as weak when in reality they are strong and intelligent, but also mindful of their families’ rules of respectability.

I was reminded of just how much I take my lifestyle for granted when I came back from a trip abroad earlier this year. A 24-year-old Asian girl I worked with at the time looked at me wistfully and said: “That’s what I’d do if I was in control of my life: travel.”

“You are in control of your life,” I insisted like some second-grade therapist. She shook her head and said plaintively, “No, I’m not.” And it’s true: she’s not – just like I wasn’t when I was 24 and living with my parents, blindly walking into an arranged marriage I knew I didn’t want. But I digress.

If you’re wondering about the emphasis on Asian female friends, let me try to explain. I have lots of white British friends (of course), but I need some friends with whom I can share ‘tribe talk’. I’ll use an example to explain what I mean: When I was at Asian Woman magazine, one of the girls (who was dating a white man, shock horror) told us how weird she felt calling her boyfriend’s parents by name. We all murmured in agreement, commenting on how odd it would feel. Our one white-British colleague said: “What on Earth’s wrong with that?”

I explained that we don’t call any elders by their names. Everyone unrelated is a kala or sasi (aunt) or mama or sasa (uncle). Elder sisters are afa while brothers are bhaisaab. Calling an elder (particularly the parents of your partner) would be deeply disrespectful. I was met with bewilderment at which point another colleague stepped in and said, “Don’t worry. It’s just tribe talk.”

It was a great way to describe something rather intangible. Many, if not most, Asian girls of my generation share a common bond. I suppose you could liken it to Jewish guilt. It’s a bond forged by the patriarchal culture we grew up in, by the freedoms that were curbed, by the marriages that were arranged, by the heritage that we bear. There’s a comfortable understanding of each other’s lives that doesn’t come as easily with others. This is why I miss those faded friendships so much. It’s why I wonder silently about those strangers on the train. They are women I could be friends with, but haven’t quite found my way to. Sometimes they make me hopeful, but mostly they make me sad because they remind me of everything that is lost and all that could have been.


7 Tips for Travelling Alone

As someone who lives alone and who has spent much of her career freelancing, it’s safe to say that I’m pretty comfortable in my own company. When it comes to travelling, however, it’s a different story. I like sharing the experience with someone else, be it a friend, boyfriend, family member or colleague. I like having someone to share thoughts and ideas with, someone to put me right when I'm heading down the street in the wrong direction, someone to fret with when it's 3am and the bus that's meant to take me from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville is 2 hours late.

I recently stood over the spot Hitler's bunker used to be ­– the place in which he spent his last days before taking his own life. I looked around at all the residential buildings in the area and thought: 'Jesus, can you imagine waking up every morning and looking out onto this?' Alas, there was no-one to whom I could ask the question, for I was in Berlin alone. I don't make it a habit to travel this way. I’ve been to around 20 countries, few of which I visited without some sort of company. As such, I may not be best placed to issue this advice, but I have a couple of stories to share that might be useful ­­– and since we need few credentials to impart advice on the internet, here’s mine…

1. Don't feel like you have to make friends 
All the travel experts bang on about how you’ll meet amazing people and make lifelong friends on your travels – but sometimes that’s just not true. Granted, locals are usually friendly, surprising, eye-opening and delightful, but fellow travellers are often of the single-serving variety. I recently boarded a plane and chose a seat next to two young women, thinking they would potentially be good to hang out with. Almost immediately they began to talk 100 words-per-minute about bags and shoes and shopping, and which shoes to wear while shopping, and which bags are best to store shoes in when swapping shoes from heels to flats when shopping. Groaning inwardly, I put on my headphones and turned up the volume, steadfast in the knowledge that I’d rather be in solitary confinement than spend time with these two.

I made a few acquaintances as the trip wore on, but none whom I wanted to become ‘lifelong’ friends with. If the same happens to you, don’t worry about it. Make as many single-serving friends as you need to, join a tour if you feel lonely and then go home and be happy in the knowledge that you never have to spend another hour talking about bags and shoes and shopping with those people again...

2. When in Rome... don't be an idiot
If you’re in a big party town, go ahead and go crazy; if you’re at a peaceful retreat then try your hand at pretentious Pilates – there’s nothing wrong with getting into the spirit of the place that you’re in, but just don’t be stupid about it. A couple of years ago I was on the beach in Miami when a green-eyed model specimen of a man came up to me (green eyes and dimples are my two biggest weaknesses in life so bear with me here). After a short conversation, he asked if I wanted to go for a swim. My British reserve mixed with my Asian conservatism (and the fact that I just felt a bit pale and flabby next to him) elicited a quick ‘no thank you’. I seldom dance with strangers let alone swim with them and, as I said here a while back, I’ve never done the casual thing so I denied his gentle attempts to persuade me.

Eventually, he looked at me admonishingly and said: ‘Come on! You’re in Miami!’ Those words triggered something in me. He was right. I was in Miami for Christ’s sake! I had just come out of a messy divorce and though I wasn’t about to start doing the casual thing, if I couldn’t go for a swim with a model type in Miami, then I was too square to even be there. And, thus, with a warning that it would be ‘just a swim’, I stepped out of my dress and waded into the warm water with him. A few minutes in, he began to get tactile and almost immediately I froze up. Gentle persuasion quickly turned into forcefulness and with his arms locked around me, I began to panic. ‘Relax,’ he kept telling me. ‘Just relax.’ I tried to push him away to no avail. My protests grew increasingly panicked until, eventually, I spotted someone walking towards us. I told him in no uncertain terms: ‘Let me go or I’ll scream,’ which had the desired effect. I ran out of the water, gathered up my things and rushed back to the hotel. I don’t think I felt truly threatened while in the water; it was only when I was back safely that I realised how shaken up I was. I realised how wrong things could have gone if I had made that snap decision in a slightly different place at a slightly different time. I’m by no means saying that anyone who makes a similar decision is an ‘idiot’ as the title suggests; it’s just a way of saying be careful. Yes, travelling is about releasing inhibitions and having fun, but just keep your wits about you and don’t do something you’ll regret.

3. ...But do keep an open mind
Having said all of the above, it’s worth adding that you should keep an open mind (without compromising your safety). Women in particular employ all sorts of mechanisms for curtailing come-ons. Some walk around with a permanent scowl, others with headphones and a newspaper. Most are well practised in avoiding eye contact when a man is so desperately trying to catch it (yes, boys, we know when you’re doing that). All that armour can form an unassailable barrier when you’re travelling so start conversations and be open and approachable. If you’re concerned that someone will read too much into your interaction then mention a boyfriend or girlfriend early in the conversation (even if you have to make one up). That won’t always work as a deterrent, but at least you’re making your intentions clear. 

One thing that travelling will teach you is that people generally have more depth than you may think (unless they spend hours talking about bags and shoes and shopping). Take the gay guy whose overly camp dramatics had me dismiss him as a bleach-blonde, air-headed Mykonos type, but who turned out to be the son of a diplomat that had lived in seven different countries, could speak four languages and who was one of the most amusing people I had met. Or the guy who joined me for a coffee uninvited but who – instead of the sexually aggressive Italian he seemed on the surface – was a real gentleman who regaled me with tales of everything from Perito Moreno to anthropological studies of Polynesian tribes. Be wise but don’t be paranoid. It’s a thin line, but you’ll figure it out.

4. Watch your snacking
It might just be me but in lieu of company, it can be tempting to grab a donut in the morning and then a mid-morning coffee and then a mid-afternoon crepe and of course a nightcap before retiring for the day. Travelling alone means being on your own schedule. Stopping for snacks is a great way to break up the day, but don’t overdo it. Travelling is meant to be indulgent, of course, but try not to go overboard. It’s not good for your health and you’ll feel worse for it.

5. Travel Light… No, Lighter
I’m not a girly girl. I never wear jewellery, I hate shopping, I f*cking hate the Twilight films and, as Asian Woman magazine’s former Beauty Editor can attest to, I can barely open a lipstick (to be fair, it was one of those dodgy ones you have to press down and slide open), but I have been known to take four types of footwear with me on holiday (flip flops for the beach, flats for walking, heels for parties, and boots for the actual travelling part). Streamline for God’s sake! I was in Cambodia for a couple of weeks last year and wore about 10% of the clothes I took. Wash and wear if you have to, especially on long-term travel. Opt for a backpack over a suitcase if possible. Travelling alone means there’ll be no-one to watch your luggage and, trust me, trying to manoeuvre in a bathroom cubicle with a suitcase is just no fun. 

6. Learn the language (yes, even if 'everybody speaks English'!)
I was in Tiergarten Park in Berlin, watching the Italians lose 4-0 to Spain when it started to pour with rain. The stranger next to me gallantly offered me his umbrella. I stepped under and thanked him, after which he asked me a question (in German). I replied with: “I’m sorry, I speak English.” He tried again and I shook my head. He said, “Tourist?” I nodded with embarrassment. Usually, I try to pick up a few phrases of the local language, even if it’s just je ne parlais pas francais in preparation for Paris, but in this case I hadn’t bothered because apparently ‘everyone speaks English in Berlin’ and since Berliners aren’t snooty about their language like the Parisians, I figured I’d be okay.

The German gentleman managed to ask if I was supporting Italy or Spain. When I said Italy, he pretended to take away the umbrella (since they had beaten Germany in the previous match) and we laughed: a short exchange that needed no words, but beyond that, conversation was impossible. I felt pretty ashamed that I couldn’t even say ‘I don’t speak German’. So the moral of the story is: learn some of the local language even if your own is widely spoken!

7. And of course: Don’t forget the practicalities
Let someone know where you are on a frequent basis and don’t forego the boring stuff like making copies of your passport, buying insurance and using protection (both the UV type and the more fun type). Travelling is meant to be liberating, a way to indulge the free spirit in you, to run wild and free, but people at home care about you so don’t neglect to tell them where you are and where you’ll be.

Overall, seeing the world is one of the most exhilarating things you can do. It can change your perspective on life (it will if you’re doing it right) so if you really want to go somewhere or you just need some time out, but can’t find someone to go with... just go.



Z: What are you listening to?
Me: The Weeknd.
Z: Aren't you too old to be listening to The Weeknd?
Me: You know The Weeknd!? I'm impressed.
Z: *Giggles*
Me: Wait, you're blagging, aren't you?
Z: I think it's safe to assume you're too old for anything you listen to.
Me: Fucker.


Fly-by Shooting

Two months ago, I jumped out of a plane at 13,000 feet. According to some friends I saw this week, I haven't done a good enough job sharing/bragging about this fact. As such, here's me, well, jumping out of a plane at 13,000 feet:

45-second freefall followed by a 4-minute float down to Earth

(I can tell you I was less cavalier about it when my sisters decided to show the video to my mum the last time I went round (no, I didn't tell her before I did it)).


Things I know at 30 I wish I knew at 20

A 30th birthday is an anomalous creature. For some, it’s a day of genuine celebration; for others a time of wistful reflection. As mine fast approaches, I find myself suitably philosophical. I look back on the last 10 years and, while I agree that we are who we are because of what we’ve seen and done, I wish I could reach back through the years with these five simple truths:

When you get there, there's no 'there' there
As with anyone, my twenties were a maelstrom of soaring highs and gutting lows, the latter of which involved arranged marriage, divorce, estrangement and bereavement. Today, one might say I have finally found peace. I live in a spacious flat in one of the world’s greatest cities, I travel far and wide, I work at the world's biggest publishing company, I’m writing my third novel and, most importantly, I’ve figured out that true love is the most precious thing one can have. Am I happy? Yes. Am I ‘there’? No. Because ‘there’ doesn’t exist. Human beings are hard-wired to want more; to chase the next thrill; to set the next goal; to want bigger, better, faster and NOW. There are days I question if I’m wasting my life on the London Underground. I dream about relocating to somewhere warm, living near a beach, revelling in a simpler life. I’d like to tell my 20-year-old self to stop chasing ‘there’ and instead enjoy here.  

Don’t be with someone you don’t love
I went from a working-class Tower Hamlets girl who wore a hand-me-down coat for six years to a lady of leisure in a 3-bedroom Greenwich semi, courtesy of my high-earning husband. I had everything I wanted – freedom, stability, space and time – and yet I’d find myself staring out the kitchen window, repeatedly asking a single question: ‘Is this it?’ My unhappiness stemmed from a single cause: I didn’t love the man I married. When I found his incriminating emails to another woman, more than anger or betrayal I felt relief; overwhelming relief that I could finally end our charade. Fast forward to February 2012 and I’m signing for a delivery at the office. It’s a stunning evening gown sent by someone who read in a column that I wanted it. My fashionista colleagues do some reconnaissance and we find out that it's worth several thousand pounds. They tell their friends about it, they tweet about it and they tell me in no uncertain terms that I have to keep the dress – alas, I am compelled to return it. My 20-year-old self would have been completely enamoured, but at 30 I know I can't be with a man that I do not love. Perhaps I had to earn this wisdom the hard way, but things would have been so much easier had I always known it. (I probably should have kept the dress though.)

Niceness is not a weakness

According to the professionals, all our issues and neuroses can be traced to back to childhood. I hate to admit it, but they might just be right. Growing up in a violent household with a drug addict brother meant that I was constantly striving to prove how strong, unafraid and invulnerable I was. The guilt-tinged relief I felt every time he chose to beat one of my sisters instead of me hardened instead of softened me. I dismissed kindness and compassion as weaknesses, and trained myself into the cynical, aloof, world-weary twenty-something I’ve been for the last 10 years. In my previous job, my staff would liken me to Anna Wintour, notorious for her steely demeanour, but I took it as a compliment. After all, who’s going to touch you when you’re made of ice? I don’t think I’ll ever have the optimism or open-heartedness of a well-adjusted adult, but I’m slowly learning to thaw. If I could tell my younger self that being nice is not a weakness, perhaps I wouldn’t have to work so hard at it now.

Smart and pretty aren’t mutually exclusive
I’ve never dyed my hair and I don’t own a lipstick. I have five pairs of decent shoes and even fewer handbags. I’ve always dismissed women who spend hours on hair, makeup and shopping as vacuous fools, blindly following the whims of fashion. I haughtily dedicated my time to more noble pursuits – learning a foreign language, taking horseriding lessons and reading Camus – while other girls found their perfect foundation, learnt to backcomb expertly and amassed a vast array of accessories to suit any occasion. I would like to tell my younger self to lighten up about this stuff; that being feminine doesn’t make you stupid; that you don’t have to try so hard to prove yourself; that it’s okay to want to look good. Sure, Camus was fun but so were the secret superpowers endowed to me by those semi-permanent lashes I trialled last summer. Enjoy your youth for it won’t last long.

Your parents (probably) did the best they could

This is a cliché I wish I had heeded. Alas, somewhere between my brother’s addiction and my parents’ inertia, my relationship with my mother disintegrated. I despised the fact that she protected her son as he destroyed her daughters. My family’s Asian conservatism won’t allow for the kind of angry, accusatory but ultimately cathartic and reconciliatory mother-daughter exchanges you see in the movies so I don’t know if I’ll ever work my way through this one. I guess what I’d say is: try not to get so angry with your mother. She’s probably doing the best she can and, one day, you’re going to have to forgive her.

If you could reach back through the ages, what would you say?



The Fourth Decade

Is there a term to describe an abandoned blog? Perhaps it entered the vernacular a few years ago and has now become obsolete because everyone already knows that the cool kids don’t blog anymore. Even so, it saddens me that my blogging frequency has dwindled from one post a week to one post a year. It used to be a place in which I could voice my anger and disappointment, trumpet my triumphs and lament my failures. Here, I could write outside of my ‘writer mode’. Some posts were tooled together in seconds, others took a bit more thought.

Today’s post was prompted by a few different things: first, a reader’s email about a specific post which led me here and made me realise that I have blogged only once this year; second, the customary end-of-year review most people do, be it on a blog, on paper or in their heads; and third, the fact that it’s the third anniversary of my 27th birthday next year (yes, I’m turning 30).

This year – despite my name trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons – has been relatively drama-free. My family has finally found some semblance of balance; my job, though stressful, allows me a living from something I love; and I have managed to tick off most of this year’s ‘to-do’ list (unofficially I’m allowed to leave one item unticked). Learning the new things on my list has been more fun than I had hoped. I’ve always preferred mental-based learning but this year I started horseriding and also learnt to ride a bike (yes, at 29) with the help of a very patient friend.

The prospect of turning 30 is scary. When I was 17, age 27 seemed old but when I got there, I still felt young. Now that I’m on the cusp of my fourth decade, I actually feel old. I don’t know what next year’s list will hold yet, but I think the key is to learn about things that make you feel ignorant and do things that make you feel silly. And in the spirit of this philosophy, here’s me after 40 minutes of feeling very, very silly indeed:

On to the next.




Me: Is it okay if I run in my North Face or will I get too hot?
P: It's fine. Just take it off if you get too sweaty.
Me: But I don't want to sweat in my North Face!
P: What? But that's the whole point.
Me: No, the whole point is to look like the kind of person who sweats in a North Face!