A Dinner Conversation

Son: Hi, Mum, what’s for dinner?

Mum: It’s your favourite long beans fried with onion and garlic.

Son: Wow, what delicious organs!

Mum (puzzled): Huh?

Son: Do you know that a bean is basically a seed-containing pod, which make it scientifically, a fruit? Since fruits are organs, thus beans are organs, thus we are eating organs.

Mum: Wow.

Son: What wonderfully caramelised onions. Just the other day, my friends and I looked at the onion cells under a light microscope. The upper epidermis has cells which are more oblong compared to the lower epidermis. Potato cells even have starch granules which turn an amazing turquoise when iodine is added, due to the formation of the starch-iodine complex!

Mum: Wow, wow, wow.

Son (oblivious): What’s that lovely smell, Mum?

Mum: It’s the night fragrance of the butterfly ginger flowers.

Son: Oh my, are we indulging in the smell of a reproductive organ?

Mum: Aren’t we glad that you receive such a good education.

Note: The reproductive system of plants are generally covered in the Y3 Biology syllabus.

Note: Sambal-fried beans are yummy.


What I like most are lab sessions. The slicing and dicing of potato cells, the skinning of onions, the faces that little things seem to make under the glare of a microscope. Some of these critters just do not appreciate attention. 

The mixing of chemicals is the equivalent of a Potions class, the double bubble boil of trouble. Flares of magnesium light and effervescent joy of discovery.

It is intuitive, perhaps, but onion cells look so different. Those from the purple outer skin are squashed oblong figures while those on the white inner skin are stretched rectangles. Things are simpler under a microscope. 

Lab sessions, usually and unfortunately, are a mess. Sometimes, a sense of being inundated, swept away by so many voices clamouring for immediate attention. 

'Cher, is this okay?

'Cher, is this what I am supposed to see?

'Cher, I broke glass. 

'Cher, my cover slip fell into the sink. It is gone.

A thin square glass fell into the sink and the poor child asked for help. How could glass disappear? I walked over. There was a smooth watery mirror and I - with mild reluctance - who knows what have been poured into this sink? - used my hand to tap around.

There was a thin square glass. I held it up and looked at him. 

But, 'cher -

I waited. My eyebrows might have been raised in anticipation of a juicy retort. 

But... never mind. 

Another student requested for help when the thin wet glass refused to budge from the plastic petri dish. 

How, 'cher, how?

I reasoned that this problem of surface tension could be resolved by using  a paper towelette to dry the petri dish. It worked.

Big brain, wow, thanks, 'cher.

I felt strangely validated and rather virtuous. 

When surrounded by so many voices - each urgent and insistent - it is easy to feel an adrenaline rush. At the end of most lab sessions, I would be deflated, like a poor helium birthday balloon, all limpness and lethargy.  

It's no wonder why my neighbours keep screaming at their three children, insisting that they behave, else threatening to throw them out. 

So, yes, I am thankful. 

Thankful and grateful for the care that my parents have afforded to my brothers and I. The four of us, once scampering around like invasive chipmunks, now adulting to various degrees of success/failure.

 So yes, happy fathers' day, to those who have kids, who look after kids, who might have kids. 

Cheers to one and all. 

Animal cell with its nucleus, mitochondrion,
endoplasmic reticulatum and other organelles.

Best Wishes

These days, I miss my students. Their antics, their humour, their sarcasm. Their agitated bouncing on seats whenever they are released late for recess or from school. Their misguided - and utterly foolish(?) - impatience to grow up. Their distemper against authoritative figures, power and hierarchy.

I remember secrets that they would tell me on the condition that I would not tell anyone. On one occasion, I promised to do so... and what a spectacular fallout. The child turned out not to have told the truth and the resultant brouhaha was memorable

The truth, crystalline, susceptible to fractures. The truth, refracting into multiple truths. The truth was it was tough. Tough to hold on to a student's bag and ask him what's wrong while he tries to squirm free and begins to cry. Tough to speak to the girl who post videos of red marks on her forearm, only to realise that they are just realistic make-up.

The truth was it was hard to leave. These chewren are young men and women now, people of promise, people of potential. I remember how I used to call my first batch chewren because they are always masticating food. I hope they grow into assured adults who know how to eat in a refined manner. I hope they are happy with their growth. I hope they are well. 

I remember how students would spend their time co-creating romances between their teachers. Maybe their Science-CCE-form-English teacher would pair up nicely with their Chinese teacher, if not the adjacent class's English teacher.

They are, of course, busy with their own romances too. For example, a battle to the death in the Eco-garden between two barely presentable mammals and the winner gets the hand of the fair damsel. 

I remember Sol, her frailty, her charisma, her stage presence. That magical performance - what else could it be but magic? - that feeling of being shaken, destabilised. I remember telling Ms Chan that I was touched to the point of tears. She looked at me and said, 'Aiyoh, I already started crying.' 

I remember J, how he confided in me about his feelings for this particular girl after everyone told me that he liked her. The class - any class - is a rumour mill where the slightest side-way look could be interpreted as a look of love, despair or displeasure.

Of course, I did not do up the seating plan so that two nice kids would sit side-by-side due to their good nature and compatible looks. Of course, I did not need any entertainment throughout the academic year.

As I write this, I think of all the brilliance that I have missed, all the brilliance that the nature of this job demands that I miss. Just a short interaction - a year, or two, four if I'm lucky - before they go on their ways and I'm relinquished to a dusty corner of their memory, pulled out for a good laugh during reunions every other year. It's not the present that we miss. It's not the present that we treasure.

Dear child, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, do good, do well. All the best.

And here's a picture of the oyster mushroom I fried for lunch last week.

Trekking in Bako National Park

It has been a long while since I last posted anything.

A child discovered this dying blog - the final effervescence of forgotten wine, the dehiscence of a poorly stitched wound.

Is it because words have dried up, from an overflowing river to a mere trickle to a dehydrating puddle of mud?

Thoughts are there, still there, just not processed into anything coherent, anything worthy of being read.

I wish I could talk about how the baby mammals misbehave, how they remind me of those infant primates clinging to their mummies' tummies.

These little creatures run around, hooting, screeching, touching, smacking. They are adorable and infuriating and (sometimes) show sparks of intelligent life.

But since I am circumscribed by my circumstances, I shall talk about what I did this holiday.

Let's start with a photo of this handsome fella, ruggedly bearded. He was loitering around the accommodation in Bako National Park and seemed lovingly tame.

There are many beautiful pitcher plants - seven different subspecies! - twining around trees, like snakes.

The most charismatic animals are, of course, the endangered proboscis monkeys. This one was foraging for tender leaves just a few meters away.

Silver leaf monkeys are more cautious and take extra care to maintain a healthy distance.

Here are photos of the flora and fauna we encountered in the park. I'm lazy to write descriptions of the many wondrous things we have seen.

There was a constellation of stars in the sky and a constellation of fireflies in the mangrove and everything was blinking and the world was magical and beautiful.

It is banal and unfortunate and irrefutable that everything must become the past. Work will begin again next week.


There are always bright spots in the darkening sky. That's how we see metaphors in constellations, Orion in the scatter of stars, Ophiuchus from disparate pinpricks of light.

We see meaning in what that may be essentially meaningless. Random clusters of rocks are imbued with myths. Within stars, there is an archer, a lion, the snake charmer.

We are meaning-making creatures, prone to see colours in drifting leaves. Apophenia: that's our tendency to attribute meaning to perceived patterns between unrelated things.

Sometimes, it's easy to be disheartened by young people, how they lose their temper for what may be trivial reasons. That vulgarity, that arc of marker across the classroom, that defiant tilt of the chin.

How easy to see patterns in these acts, a constellation of why not to be. How easy to forget the oft printed call to make a difference.

Much more challenging to remember the laughter within the classroom, the easy smiles along the corridors, the unexpected gifts between lessons.

There are many people to leave behind, many reasons to leave. How then to perceive the network of light to stay for, to remain for.

A Reminder On Why We Teach

Sometimes, it's easy to forget why we teach. There are exams to set, students to counsel, stacks to mark, meetings to attend, parents to call... There's a litany of activities, one after another, a frantic rush.

The key point, of course, isn't grades. It isn't about the number of passes, the percentage of distinctions, the mean subject grade.

It's about sitting down and talking to students and explaining your point and raising your voice when you have to and softening your voice when you have to and trying to grow with them, beside them, alongside them. It's a balance that's impossible, given the sheer number of individuals we try to help.

It's easy to be swallowed by the rush, to forget.

Today, during assembly, the principal shared about a call she received. Usually, these calls are complaints about students not moving to the back of buses on their morning trips. I was ready to nudge students into paying attention.

"A seventy-five year old uncle called me last week," she said. "He was on his bicycle when he made a turn and fell off. Two of our students went past, paused and offered help. He told them that he would be fine, just let him rest on the ground. Our students said, "We cannot leave you in the rain." This was the line which touched him: "We cannot leave you in the rain." They helped him to the bus stop and wanted to call for an ambulance. But the uncle said that his wife was waiting for him at home. So they helped him home and even called him regularly to ensure that he is well. Turns out that the fall had caused a fracture and he needed a surgery to insert a metal plate into his hip. Our students help were invaluable."

It's incidents like this, that reminds us of why we teach.

The warmth, it's akin to swallowing a mug of hot chocolate.

(Monkeys seen in Bako National Park)

Day at the Flower Dome

I rushed into the staff room with a box of orange files and a fistful of papers. There was a need to prepare them - files and forms - for checking by some colleagues. It was the last day of the first week of June holidays and I simply wanted to rest.

In the neighbouring cubicle, there was a little girl playing with Lego blocks. My colleague's daughter.

'Hello, girl girl. Do you still remember my name?' I smiled, hopefully in a non-creepy way.

She mumbled something. 'Sian Yoo.' For that, she deserved and got a bottle of Vitagen drink.

'Girl, you must be polite and say thank you loudly,' my colleague pointed to me. 'Do you call him Kor Kor or Uncle?'

The child looked at me, paused and said, 'Kor kor.'

It was a sweet glorious moment.

After a while, my colleague wanted to bring her to the washroom. She came back up and whispered, 'Uncle, I'm going off to visit the forest today.'

Look at her. She's not cute at all. How could she call me an UNCLE?!
We were going to the Gardens by the Bay, to meet up with a group of elderly and show them the myriad of flowers. It was strange, every interaction with such elderly seniors, their vulnerabilities and ours, all exposed.

I wondered if I would be stuffed into an old folks' home next time, deprived of possessions, a living thing waiting for death.

My colleague and I were paired with a 76 year old lady. She kept reminding us that we were fortunate to receive an education and to be paid decently for the work we do. At the end, she reminded a nurse to buy 4D for her.

Some of these old ladies told another colleague - very forthrightly, perhaps too forthrightly - that she should lose weight. 

There were many flowers in the dome, all resplendent and cheerful. Their colours were a promise; their youth, a harbinger of rot. 

There were many orchids as well. Some look so different from others that one could scarcely believe that they were grouped into the same sub-genus.

All in all, this was an interesting trip - the intersection between the faded, the fading, the blooming and the just-blooming.

Where we are, the multi-generational fabric is fraying. Threads unravel, everything falls apart.

Through this trip, we remember the whys of our existence.