Tag: Reflections

Arranging a Room Full of Possibilities

For years, I did not sleep on a bed. While most people fuss about making their bed sheets and buying the right mattress, I’ve never had to think of these when I slept on a tatami mat.

Such rice straw mattresses are more commonly used as floors in Japanese-style homes. I lived in a public housing apartment in Singapore with only a single mattress big enough for me to lie on. It could be folded into a compact accordion in seconds, and laying the mattress to start and end the day became a ritual. After arising from slumber every morning, I would flip the bed up on its side, and fold it to keep at one corner of my room until it was time to sleep again.

The impermanence of where I slept turned my bedroom into a space of possibilities. Some days, I woke up to the sight of my neighborhood. And on other nights, I turned in under the watchful eyes of the world map and graphic posters plastered on the wall perpendicular to the windows. With the bed tucked into a corner whenever I was awake, the room became my office, a sanctuary to read, a spot for meals, and a cocoon for contemplation.

This flexibility mirrors the regular shifts in a room where I assembled and formed my identity for over two decades. My family and I moved into this two-story apartment on the sixth floor when I was five years old. I used to share one of the three bedrooms with my grandmother until she passed away after I turned twelve. With the room to myself, it became a canvas for the teenage me to fashion who I wanted to be.

Then, I did not have a tatami mattress yet. But I was already without a bed, a nomad in my room. The adults had decided it would be more spacious if my grandmother and I slept on mattresses without bed frames so they could be kept aside in the day. Rather than fill the void with the passing of my grandmother, I kept this arrangement and cherished the newfound space.


Arranging your room is an act of constructing self in material form. One of the first things I moved in was a shelving system from IKEA. This became an early framework to house my life. While the room’s in-built cabinets hid my clothes along one wall, perpendicular to it were the open shelves that displayed my youth: books by Roald Dahl, science fiction novels like Robotech, and space-aged LEGO toys.

As I grew up, so did the contents of the shelves. What once took up half a wall next to my door eventually stretched the full length up to my window. Throughout the years, I periodically re-arranged the shelves and its contents to make room for new interests in my life. First came the computer magazine, MacAddict, and books on Steve Jobs and his company, Apple. Then I started buying CDs: Matchbox Twenty, Fastball and Oasis. In the mix also came political manifestos and guides, as Bertrand Russell, Karl Marx and Michel Foucault moved in. They became neighbors to a burgeoning book collection on Singapore history and culture. The newest kids in the block were the stacks of design books as well as flyers and catalogues picked up from exhibitions and galleries over the years.

Like sediment layers, these reflected my own evolution. But I treated the shelves more like a jigsaw to my life. Often, I appropriated, adapted and arranged the artifacts on the shelves to create self-portraits. As I cleaned the dust and looked at these things through time, I could review my life, revisit my memories and rewrite my story. Things that no longer mattered were thrown out, others gained prominence, and often, new connections were discovered.

The annual spring cleaning that comes with every Chinese New Year was always an opportunity  to give the room a major reconfiguration. For a while, I had a table integrated with the shelves as I sat facing the wall of books. When I wanted to expand my worldview, I shifted perspective to the windows instead. As the room’s edges ebbed and flowed, the only constant was an open space in the middle where everyday I laid out my tatami mattress—a gift from my parents who decided if I was to sleep on the floor then I should lie on something intended for it. Although they did not mean to do so, it was also a reminder that my room was still a part of their apartment.

As I approached thirty, it became more and more difficult to keep reshuffling my room. The shelves multiplied in numbers, and as more books and artifacts weighed them down, they sunk roots into the floors. The posters left their shadows on the lime green walls and clung on more desperately than before. Maybe, I was growing a little old too. Most definitely, I was settling.

That was when I decided that the only arrangement left was for me to leave the room and start afresh. To put down everything I had and lead a life of permanent impermanence again. That led me to the United States. For me, the bedroom was never a shelter for self-preservation. It was a room full of possibilities, where I wandered on a journey of self-discovery through the ritual of arrangements.

Written for Akiko’s Busch Reading Design class at D-Crit.

Mourning & Memory: Recommendation Letters

I had discovered the letter while packing to leave for New York city. Sitting in the corner of a drawer was this sheet of folded paper, slightly yellowed with age.

Two words on it stood out: “Ngan Yow”.

That was the name of my grandmother, who had passed away 13 years ago. As both my parents work, she raised me up as a child. We used to share the room in the apartment, until she died when I was 16.

Before she took care of me full-time, my grandmother was an “amah”. It was what the British called domestic servants in Singapore when they still ruled the country. But I never knew much more than that, until I read the letter last August.

It was a recommendation written by her employer, a Mr. Michael J Cook. In 1980, some four years before I was born, my grandmother had decided to retire after serving the Cooks for 20 years. I later found out that she could finally afford her own apartment and my father, as well as both of my aunts, were already working.

The letter was addressed “To Whom It May Concern”, but it felt like a personal ode I had never written to my grandmother. Mr Cook praised her for being hardworking and reliable. I remember waking up bleary-eyed daily to see my grandmother up and about preparing breakfast and working on chores. Mr Cook said she cooked both Western and Chinese food. How can I forget the butter cakes and Cantonese soups that I never got to taste again? At the end of the letter, Mr Cook wrote, “It is with regret that we see Ngan Yow leave us after such a long time…”

I miss my grandmother too.

Ngan Yow

In many ways, recommendation letters are a kind of mourning. They are only written when someone you care about is leaving — to seek employment elsewhere or in pursuit of further studies. Writing it is bittersweet: as you pen what you loved about the person, you recall the good times together. It only makes the departure more poignant.

Reading Mr Cook’s letter reminded me how much I’ve lost with my grandmother’s passing. Her death was sudden, and I never got to say a proper goodbye.

I also thought of the recommendation letter a close friend wrote for my application to graduate school in New York. He had been the least excited about my departure, and I found out why when he insisted I read what he wrote. In it, he confessed it was selfish to have discouraged me from leaving, but only because of he would miss the great times we had together. In the end, he realized I wasn’t leaving, but going some place better for my career.

That is the other side of recommendation letters — they are messages of hope. They contain good memories we have of the departed, and the wish they end up someplace better too.

Written for Akiko’s Busch Reading Design class at D-Crit.

Forgotten your password?

It’s a simple question that has stumped me countless times: What’s my password?

As I stare at the computer screen, my blank stare is reflected by the empty space prompting me for my password. A cursor blinks like a wagging finger chastising me for being absent-minded.

But how am I to be blamed when I have to keep track of so many passwords for my digital existence today? Social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest; multiple e-mail addresses for work, school and personal correspondences; as well as various online services from internet banking, to reading the news, and even shopping! All of these require passwords to access. And each should preferably be unique so that my personal data remains protected even if one gets compromised. But we all know the truth: it’s just more convenient to have one password to secure them all.

I use a few different passwords for my various accounts. This is partly driven by paranoia as I’ve come across more and more stories over the years about hacked accounts. Most of the changes, however, have simply been because I’ve forgotten my password and had to reset them. While I usually get my browser to remember a password after setting them for the first time, the horror comes when I’ve gotten logged out or had to use another computer to log-in. I cannot recall the number of times I’ve had to click on “Forgotten your password?”.

Having multiple passwords is a hassle, so it’s no wonder that “123456” is the most popular password in use today, according to a survey by SplashData. This password management service which analyzed stolen passwords available online, also found that the next most common password was, well, “Password”. Six numbers lined up consecutively on the top left corner of the keyboard and a word that describes itself — how easy are these to remember?

These passwords go against security expert’s advice to keep them complicated — at least 8 characters long, a mixture of uppercase, lowercase, numbers and symbols, not a complete word, does not contain your name— but their popularity reflect an expectation many of us have of a security system: it should protect without becoming inconvenient. With a physical lock, we feel secure as long as we hold on to the key. Similarly, we think our digital accounts are safe as long as only we know our passwords — regardless how simple it is. After all, who even knows I have an account? Even then, they need to figure out my username, and why would anyone expect me to use such a silly password. The chances are probably much lower than me struggling to remember a complicated password each time I need to log-in.


My passwords are based on things that are dear to me. While a password gives access to personal data and information, in itself, the combination of numbers and letters often contains fragments of the owner’s identity too. According to a 2013 survey of Google Apps users in the United Kingdom, personal information such as significant dates, place of birth, as well as names of children or family members made up the ten most common passwords. Pet names were the top choice. Like these users, I personalize my passwords so I can recall them better. Mix a birthdate with my initials, throw in bits of my home address, and maybe, a nickname of my parent — and voila! — my very own “unique” password. Paradoxically, this helps people set on hacking into my account. A bunch of unmarked keys could belong to any lock out there, but the School of Visual Arts lanyard on mine narrows it down for someone who’s picked it up. This is especially so in this digital age, when we live out much of our personal lives online.How difficult is it for someone to figure out the name of your pet from your endless stream of Instagram photos? Having to become my own locksmith, I’ve realized that behind every lock is a set of paradoxes. Their very existence calls out to the fact that something valuable is behind it. We want our locks to be secure against strangers, but also convenient for those we trust.

Passwords have become the keys of our digital times. My girlfriend knows most of my passwords, and increasingly, we find ourselves creating ones that reflect our shared lives. In the way one makes a set of apartment keys for those we love, we’ve built our very own digital keys to share too. Sharing passwords becomes a practical issue as we lead more of our lives online. Services such as Facebook and Google have policies on how family members can get access to accounts of loved ones who have deceased. It involves various layers of verification which can be saved if one had simply shared their passwords. That’s one reason why I’ve written all my passwords onto a sheet of paper. A physical copy is probably safer than a digital note, I like to think. And just to be extra safe, I’ve even come up with a rudimentary code to protect it. Change a letter or two, or write it backwards instead — just some tips I picked up from my love of spy novels as a child.

The truth is it does not take too much for us to feel secure. No security system is foolproof. All locks really do is to buy us time and the assurance of having tried to keep our possessions safe. A determined intruder can break our locks and find alternative entry points. Even the Berlin wall eventually fell! As recent thefts of credit card data from Target and Neiman Marcus’ customers have shown, online security is not entirely within our control. Regardless the complexity of your passwords, it can easily be compromised by someone else’s mistake in this networked world we live in. All it took was a Heartbleed bug to send all of us scrambling to cook up new passwords.

Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to create trust and transparency between people rather than build security against one another? Maybe the question is what am I securing myself against? As much as locks keep out, they also keep in. In that private space I’ve kept away, I may just find nothing more than my deep insecurities about the world that I live in. As much as I like to think it is safe and that people are good, it really isn’t. It’s my dark secret about humanity: evil lurks somewhere deep inside each of us.

Written for Akiko’s Busch Reading Design class at D-Crit.