Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Calculus of Happiness

by Yeefoon Choon

(This short story has not been edited, or critiqued. Please be kind.)

I suffered from arithmophobia as a child.

Of all the subjects taught in school, mathematics always made me lose all sphincters control. Numbers were peculiar to me when I was growing up. Sometimes they were odd. Sometimes they were even. And like us, they became complex as we moved from one age bracket to the next; eight was lucky; thirteen -- bad luck and four was invariably tied up with death, for the Chinese. Zero was versatile depending on the angle from which you viewed it. To some of us, certain number like thirty four, as I discovered one day over MSN, could indicate that time was running out.

My friend, Kong, turned thirty four last year. He was a successful producer for a local television station and single. His colleagues were ever fond of addressing him as the Big Producer -- a badge he modestly declined to put on, whenever they left comments in his Facebook. Nonetheless, it made him feel invincible and happy. Several weeks after his birthday, Kong’s mother, like a cat on hot bricks, grew more alarmingly concerned of the massive amount of “Single” boxes Kong had crossed, and, in cahoots with his sister, a beautician, organized two consecutive weekend Avon-themed parties to introduce girls they deemed were the right ones for Kong, in an attempt to save him from the eternal curse of childlessness and dying alone before “it’s too late”, his father warned severely.

After two unsuccessful matchmakings and embarrassing moments that felt like several lifetimes, Kong absconded from the third one on the day of our chat. It was on a Sunday and he peeled himself off, the way you would on the gum that got stuck on the sole of your shoes, from his bed and left home so early in the morning before the rooster had a chance to crow. For the next few hours, Kong roamed about aimlessly in the empty streets of KL until he found himself some safe distance away from the mind-numbing party and a kopitiam, the fancy sort that had mushroomed all over the city in recent years, parked his Toyota Vios and spent almost the entire day like a refugee inside that over-priced coffee haven.

When I came online later that morning, Kong was already determined to kvetch. He was getting fed up and tired of the incessant question of “When are you getting married?” from relatives whom he couldn’t decide if they were being genuinely concerned or just plain busybodies. It was a phase every single people of all ages was going through or had gone through. Some bachelors, and bachelorettes, buckled under the tremendous pressure of these unwavering interrogations, surrendered and grabbed the next girl/guy who happened to mosey by to walk down the aisle with. Even then, that would not stop them from extending the well-intended “When are you having children?” right after the wedding ceremony. 

And in the middle of his raves, on the little chat window, Kong wrote:

I felt like Harrison Ford today.

I typed: Really? Which one? Hans Solo or Indiana Jones?

He replied: The Fugitive!

He was a man on the run and being single was his crime.

I like children. But I am not ready for one of my own yet.

Besides who can guarantee that we won’t die alone eventually?

While Kong contemplated the prospect of growing old as a contented single man, a message arrived in my Facebook’s mailbox a couple of days later.

It was from Lina, a colleague I’d not seen since she had her mole the size of a chickpea removed from her cheek in 1998, a move she firmly believed would greatly enhance her chance of meeting the right one. But a decade had passed and Linda was now thirty four and still single. Lina was a doctor turned a Master’s in International Public Health turned a secretary for UNICEF who turned out to be “the smelliest Asian pig I’d ever dated,” her Aussie boyfriend shouted one day. And I believed it was not simply made up to evoke even a modicum of sympathy from me. Lina and I had dated briefly prior to 1998 and while out shopping together one weekend, she tried on a beige-colored tube and paraded in front of me barefooted asking for my input. In that moment, I caught a distinctive pong and it was then I knew in my heart that Lina would forever be condemned to an ineffable celibacy she didn’t desire.

But it wouldn’t have mattered, I thought, since she now had a promising career, traveled extensively for work and leisure and stayed in an expensive apartment near KLCC. It was not until I received one of her rapid fire replies that I realized she was not happy. In my following reply, I walked her through all her accomplishments and after which, she wrote,

Yeah, it is not bad, except there’s no husband or kid to call my own, hahaha.

You could almost taste the bitterness in her laughter, virtually notwithstanding. Without a wedding ring to restrict the void expanding in her soul, all her achievements had equated to zero. So, that was what was dividing Lina from the happiness that she should be celebrating from the kind of happiness that only appeared relentlessly in fairytales.  And I began to wonder if Lina had an innate fear for mathematics like me. In this complex calculus of life, some of us were born with a steep learning curve that enabled us to quickly master the art of counting our blessings. Unfortunately, some of us were not; like Lina: why should the minus of one, or two in her case, feel like it almost added up to nothing at all? And really, must we multiple in order to live happily ever-after?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Scholarship Offer: The Search for Asia’s Next Top Writer in English

The Department of English at City University of Hong Kong is pleased to announce a one-year full Tuition Scholarship, to be awarded to a 2010 candidate for our new, international, low-residency Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing. The winner will be the applicant who submits the sample of creative writing that demonstrates the greatest potential for success as a professional literary author. Applicants in any genre are eligible, as long as they meet the acceptance criteria for this postgraduate degree. There is no restriction as to country of residence, age or nationality.

At City University, we seek to develop Asia's future writers, and this scholarship is offered to attract the most talented writers to our programme. This summer, we begin our first class of writers for the MFA in Creative Writing specialising in Asian Writing in English, the first programme in the world to offer this specialty. Based in the English department, the innovative 45-credit, two-year programme will accept a limited number of students in creative non-fiction, fiction and poetry. The degree is benchmarked to international standards for the MFA. The Hong Kong native author Xu Xi assisted in its development and joined the Department as their first Writer-in-Residence on March 1.

"We anticipate the majority of applicants to be from Asia," Xu says, "but many writers in the West, both of Asian and non-Asian ethnicity, are increasingly drawn to Asia, especially China. They're not always best served by MFA programmes in the West where there’s little focus on either a contemporary or historical Asian perspective or Asian literature." The faculty will all be writers who 'know Asia, live Asia, read Asia, write Asia' as the programme’s advertising says. The top criterion for admission will be the quality of creative work.

This initiative is part of an overall strategy to develop the creative curriculum at the university. Professor Kingsley Bolton, Head of English at City University says, "Our English Department is a very young one, but probably one of the most dynamic and innovative departments of its kind in Asia. In the next few years, we are aiming to make the English Department here a leading centre for creative writing, drama, and cultural studies, not only for Hong Kong but also for the whole of the Asian region." The MFA is generally considered a professional degree, qualifying students to work in professions where good writing skills are required, as well as providing the groundwork for an international writing and publishing career.

The low-residency graduate degree model is relatively new in Asia. A long-established pedagogical model in the U.S., such programmes are especially suited for the creative arts. In particular, this programme is ideal for working professionals who cannot afford to spend two years as full-time graduate students in a traditional writing programme. Structured for individualised learning, students work via distance learning with writing mentors on a one-on-one basis during the semesters, and attend brief 'residencies' at the university two to three times a year. The low faculty-to-student ratio allows for intensive feedback on the student’s work and approximates the professional editor-writer relationship.

The first residency is scheduled for summer 2010. The internationally renowned novelist Timothy Mo will be Visiting Writer and the faculty writers for the 2010 class features an international cast from Hong Kong, India, the U.K, Canada and the U.S., with connections and roots in China, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere. The writers include Tina Chang, Marilyn Chin, Luis Francia, Robin Hemley, Justin Hill, Sharmistha Mohanty, James Scudamore, Ravi Shankar, Jess Row and Madeleine Thien. For applications, please visit For further information, please email or call Xu Xi at ++852.3442.8732.

March 11, 2010