Chapter 1

Book 1 : Childhood

Early Days

I’ve tried to start this thing so many times, cajoling, persuading, teasing and outright forcing myself to write. None of it has worked. I would dream about the times I would finally get started, and the words would flow like water, and I would recount triumphs and tragedies both, and tell the Story of My Life. Frankly I’ve also felt that capitalizing too much makes the writing process harder, not easier.

But here I am, with the Book, the Novel, at The Start (see I’m doing it again!) While I’d like to begin with the events that led to its writing, I think that would only serve to confuse the reader. So I’ll start where all things generally do – at the beginning.

I came to life on June 15th, 1982, in Kandang Kerbau Hospital in the nation of Singapore. Or so I am told. Like most human beings I have no knowledge of my own conception or birth. I was a premature birth and weighed 5.2 pounds. A healthy baby boy!

My parents didn’t have a place of their own when I was born, and so for a time I stayed at my paternal grandmother’s place called Palmer Street, a fetid cesspool of a house completely unfit for human habitation. I would like to say I am exaggerating because of artistic license, but I am most certainly not.

There was a pond outside which looked like the Black Lagoon that a certain creature might come out of. The house itself was cockroach infested and filled with all sorts of junk. Not a great place to live, for a baby or anyone else.

According to my mother, I was moved about a lot (to various relatives’ houses) until my parents finally bought an apartment when I was four. Not the most auspicious or comfortable circumstances for a newborn, the effects of which would make themselves known in my later years. Most books on parenting, and common sense besides, would tell you that moving a baby here and there in his first years is not the wisest course of action. But I was also not a planned pregnancy, and my parents did the best they could with what they had at that time.

From the ages of one to six I spent most of my time after school at my maternal grandmother’s place. While it was not as bad as my OTHER grandmother’s “house”, it was sorely lacking in love, care or attention. You see, my maternal grandmother – I’m going to call her Ma Ma, which is what I called her when I was young – didn’t speak to me at all. Neither did my grandfather. (who we called Gong Gong) My aunts and uncles were busy with work and besides, didn’t really know how to take care of a young child.

It’s at this point that I would like to convince you, gentle reader, that it’s not going to be one of THOSE books. Yes, you know the ones where it turns out Poor Baby has Such a Terrible Childhood that was Full of Pain, and then you cry and weep and get all emotional. My life is a lot more varied and interesting than that.

Of course, growing up I didn’t know any of this. How could I? I was only a kid. And despite all the fallout these things would have on my later life, and how lonely I remember feeling, nevertheless I remember that I was happy. I think all children are. The world is so new and bright and shining, and everything is great and wonderful and nice.

I’ll give you an image to go by. Imagine, if you will, a Chinese version of Charlie Brown, the “little round-headed kid” as my mother used to call me. He is playing with blocks on the floor. Short wispy black hair, a big smile on his face, a faded green shirt and blue pants. Big black eyes and a straight, open gaze.

Dei Po Road was where we lived, and for the longest time I wondered why you didn’t pronounce the “t”. There was a little shop nearby which sold ice-cream, and as we all know, all children love ice-cream. My favorite flavor was lime, and if close my eyes now I can still picture myself licking the emerald lolly on a warm evening while following my parents back home. The harsh lights of the shops around us flickering, the dark night all around us – and my surprise at how the center turned to vanilla.

My parents would come every night to bring me home from my grandmother’s place, and I would wait and wait and wait for them. It was indeed a long way home for a four year old, and they would sing songs to me all the way to keep my spirits up, as well as lift me over the manholes and the broken bits of road I couldn’t easily walk over. There was a copse of trees along the way, and I would always would look for it, because that would mean we were halfway home. The songs they sang were from their time spent studying in England. I remember a “Long Road to Tipperary”, one about a train, and others.

I stayed with a few of my cousins at Ma Ma’s place. Their parents were also all working and so their children were there as well. I would learn in later years that my grandparents always resented the fact that the children of the male side didn’t come to their house, but the female side did – an ancient Chinese tradition from times gone by that would haunt me for years to come. But I was young and all that meant absolutely nothing to me.

I also had more than my fair share of childhood mishaps. My mother tells me that by the age of four to five I had yellow fever and jaundice, as well as breaking my head. (more on that below) I can’t remember any of it of course. I also had this horrible ear infection which cleared up on its own that I do recall a trip to the doctor to deal with, but nothing else. This isn’t to mention a host of other flus and blocked sinuses and other things besides. I must have been a tough kid!

In Japanese they say awareness of yourself and the world around you is “knowing the spirit of things.” and that was I was four. Most of what I can remember starts from that time.

One of my cousins who was with me at my grandmother’s was Chen Guanling. He was around my age and really naughty, running around all the time (and getting beaten by his mother for doing it) While we were there I was the Good Kid, and he was the Bad Kid. I actually wanted to play with him but at the same time I was kind of scared of his behavior. He could be quite out of control at times, once even climbing the window grilles and almost falling out of the apartment.

Then there were my other two cousins, Andrea and Mark Lau. They were the offspring of my eldest aunt and were there for a few years with me. My clearest memory of being with them is lying on the straight flat bed in my grandmother’s room and all of us slapping our feet against the wall. We made such a racket that another of my aunts came in and told us to stop it.

I also almost broke my head when I was around four or five. I was jumping around on the bed with my cousins and I hit my head on the steel bedpost. Everyone was worried and with good reason.

They called the ambulance and the hospital called my mother and father. I don’t have a clear memory of this, but I can remember my mother standing over me and crying at the operating table. I still have a scar on the side of my head where no hair grows.

What are my earliest memories? Loneliness. Happiness. Being read to. Being scolded. I would wait patiently and silently the whole day for Mum to come home, and I was so happy when she did. But when I got home sometimes she would scold me for no reason and I would be so sad and lonely. As I child I had no way of knowing what demons lay inside her. I loved and I cried in equal measure.

Oh yes, I went to kindergarten, which I also don’t recall that well. My mother tells me stories of the teachers making fun of me because I wore underpants when I was only five or so. One of them asked me what God looked like (it was a convent school) and I said that he looked like a genie with blue skin. They seemed to really find that funny and laughed a lot. I didn’t see what the big deal was.

The second kindergarten I went to starting when I was age six (Wingham something or other) was better. The teachers were nicer and actually spoke English, for one. I didn’t speak any Chinese despite my biological origins because my parents didn’t either. They told lots of interesting stories too, like how one of them used to trek through the jungle and catch and eat snakes for dinner. Whether they were made-up or not, I couldn’t tell – I was a kid, remember? But I do remember that story time was definitely the highlight of the days spent there.

It was about this time that my maternal grandfather (we called him Gong Gong) passed away. I don’t remember him very well. He used to wait for me downstairs after I was driven back by the kindergarten driver. He would walk with me up the stairs in silence, and that was that. I don’t think he ever spoke a single word to me in his life.

I don’t remember the funeral clearly, but I do remember my mother clinging to me, weeping, and me trying to console her as best as I could. I remember looking out the window and trying to be… strong? Calm? I’m not sure, but I don’t think they were the emotions of a “normal” five to six year old.

In the absence of playmates and parents (i.e. when my cousins were not around) I watched a lot of TV. My grandparents didn’t talk to me much (if at all) and my aunts who lived with them were working most of the time. I was lucky to have some of the Very Best of British TV for Children to mitigate the loneliness. I watched Noddy, (quite a cultural institution back in its day) Gumby, the Wind in the Willows, (which I think to this day has a beautiful, beautiful opening song) and Supergran. A little old lady turning into a superheroine when she eats oatmeal – only the British would think of that!

My grandmother’s house is much the same today, though she is no longer around. The dusty bookshelves lined with books that no one read. The clunky garbage chute at the back. And the small plastic cup that I always drank from when I was younger – which amazingly looks the same after thirty odd years. It’s a faded, chipped little thing, barely big enough to hold in your hand…but just the right size for a child’s fist.

So that ends the days of my early childhood. The years that followed would be some of the best of my life.

Chapter 2


Chapter 3


I have often wondered what would have happened if we had not gone to America. You most certainly would not be reading this. I would have been a completely different person. Suffice to say that it changed my life forever.

Why would an Asian woman from Singapore go halfway around the world and bring her entire family along? PhD studies. My mother wanted to do her PhD and we were to come along because she couldn’t leave us with my father in Singapore. I’m sure at this moment you are well acquainted with how my mother’s and father’s relationship (or lack of one) was, and how she wanted us to be with her and not him.

I can remember my parents talking about this in hushed voices (one of the few times they talked about any issues, or anything for that matter) and how she wanted him to come along with her to support her. He took a year of absence from his job and joined us in the States.
At the tender age of ten, I had no conception of how life-changing the move would be. I innocently assumed that we would be there for two years, come back, and then everything would be the same. I didn’t want to go! I wanted to stay here, in Singapore, with all my friends, where it was familiar and nice and good. I think most kids would have thought the same.

But the die was cast. My mother had acceptance letters from Edinburgh and Chicago, but she rejected the former on the grounds that it was “too colonial” (a strange reason if there ever was one) Chicago was excellent in her field (which was education) and the decision was made thusly. My Dad would come along to help us settle in and then he would go back to his job in Singapore.

I was sad to leave. I can still remember the last visit I had with Connor and Calvin, walking down the stone steps to their place and across the roads to mine. They wrote farewell messages into a scrapbook that I still have today.

And so we packed, and said our goodbyes, and we went. The packing was such a big deal to a ten year old child. It looked like my entire world was going into those huge brown boxes. I looked over each one with worry and wonder. Would all my books and games be safe, going halfway around the world? I remember my Dad telling me that freight could be insured for emotional value and I immediately wanted that for everything that was mine.

A plane ride later and we were halfway around the world. It has been twenty-three years since but I can still remember the first few things I saw. The streets of Chicago, so unlike those at home, tall and wide and seeming to go on forever. The soft carpet of white snow that blanketed everything. The TV channels (more than fifteen of them! not just four!)

The tall old black waiter who brought me a Coke and smiled. It was the year of the Clinton/Bush election and I was watching it on TV, looking at how the ratings measured up. I was completely and utterly convinced that Clinton wouldn’t win and I said so, quite loudly if I recall. He just came up to me, placed the Coke on the table in front of me and left, smiling all the while – not amusedly at all, just a warm, gentle smile that I can remember till this day. I was so embarrassed at my outburst but he didn’t seem to mind one bit.

The snow! I had never seen snow before, let alone felt it. The thick white mass that covered everything, the sensation of cold on my fingers, and the seemingly endless flood of flakes that rained from the sky. Coming from a tropical country to the middle of winter was a shock in itself. I had never ever worn so many clothes before. It was as cold as Singapore was hot.

Everything was new. The streets, the cars, the sky, the entire world. Taxis were too expensive, we had to drive. All the food in the grocery shops was different, and no one spoke a word of Chinese. I remember this black lady crossing the street and singing gospel songs and I was just blown away. Whoa, people sing in the streets? Can you even DO that?

My Mum had her heart set on me going to Chicago Lab Schools (despite the price) and so it was there I went. It was a nice place, almost too nice, to be honest. Everyone was so well-behaved and upper middle-class. Nice, but also a tad artificial, I felt.

School was different too. No bowing to your teacher as they came in and out of the classroom. People sat around and talked and discussed things, instead following exactly what the teacher said to do. We could read books out loud – in fact it was encouraged! You didn’t need to wear a uniform either.

Coming from the hothouse academic environment of Singapore, schoolwork was a cinch. The first take-home assignment I ever got was to keep a journal. We could write whatever I wanted but being the nerdy Asian kid I was I wrote about coming to stay and live in the US. What I REALLY wanted to write about was knights and dragons and princesses but I took the safe option that I was sure would get me an A. I was really quite addicted to A’s back then.

There was a Physical Education class where a fat black girl named Katy was teasing me about something (what about I can’t quite recall – I was only ten at that time) and not knowing that teasing was pretty normal in American schools I reacted rather badly. All that homesickness and frustration and anxiety about being somewhere new must have come pouring out of me, because I ran right at her and started beating her with my fists. The other kids and the teacher had to come and break it up. To be honest I was kind of shocked at myself. I didn’t know I had that in me!

I still feel a bit bad about it now. I hope Katy, wherever she is, forgives a young Chinese boy who was just so out-of-his-depth and confused that he went kind of nuts. The homeroom teacher called my parents and I remember wanting to hide my head in a hole.

We bought a Super Nintendo (the system I didn’t get to buy at home because of the TV, remember?) and I played a Link to the Past – of course you have to get a Nintendo game for a Nintendo system! Which was pretty amazing. I think that may have been the first video game in my life that I tried to get every item, defeat every enemy and leave no stone (or bush) unturned.

Speaking of video games…I remember my first time stepping into Blockbuster Video. So. Many. Games. Rentals in Singapore had amounted to my Dad on his bike (with me often in tow) going to remote (and often kind of seedy) locations around Singapore to find games to rent, and the selection was never really that good. This was something else entirely.

Hundreds of games lined the shelves of each store, and all of them were in English to boot! In Singapore I often had to make do with awkward Chinese translations which I couldn’t understand a word of. But now for the first time in my life, the names that I saw in the stores matched those in the gaming magazines that I spent many a long afternoon poring over.

And, of course, Final Fantasy 4. (or 2, as it was known at that time) I stared at the shiny red case on a cold night at Woolworth’s, wondering why it was fifteen dollars more than all the other games on display. I would soon find out.

It wasn’t just a game, any more than every other game in my life was “just” a game. It was an adventure, a journey of truly epic proportions. It firmly cemented my love of JRPGs which began with Phantasy Star 2. It has a story which was more than just “go here, save the world” but one which encompassed two worlds and a lot more besides. Fighting. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies (especially Rydia!) Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles. True love.

My parents didn’t take to the city well at all. They found it unsafe, scary, and threatening, and worried endlessly about the danger factor. While it’s true that Chicago is not exactly the safest city in the world, I always thought they blew it way out of proportion.

My sister? She was still quite young (around four) But she loved the kindergarten she was at. Everyone adored her and she adored everyone. Especially her father – she was always a Daddy’s girl. One of the teachers used to say that “she’s got her father around her little finger” and that was so, so, true. We played together a lot (since we didn’t have many other friends) and one of my clearest memories of Chicago is her watching me play FF4 while dressed in a tutu from school. Meimei was now old enough to talk and read books so having a little sister suddenly didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.

I have a lot of good memories of my time there. We ate hotdogs outside the “bee place” – which was a little grassy steppe outside a bookstore with a lot of bees. I read books while swinging my legs on the bench in the university library while waiting for my mother to finish her classes. My sister and I made snowballs and snow forts and snow angels and snow castles. If there’s anything I will miss about Chicago, it’s the snow. I know it can make driving tough and shoveling walkways a pain in the ass but playing it in, feeling that hot-cold sensation on your bare skin and mashing it up in your hands and letting it fly…pure magic.

Eventually my mother decided the city was unlivable and that she didn’t know anyone, so despite it being an objectively worse choice in her career she decided to move us to LA. In later years I would also learn that she couldn’t take the academic heat (I believe Chicago University requires four publications a year or something similar) I don’t think I had a strong view about that decision one way or another. I was ten and a half and Asian, I went along with whatever my parents said.

So we packed (again) and moved (again). My schoolmates were sad to see me leave and bought me a book (I still have it, Terry Brooks’s A Spell for Abernathy) but I can’t say that six months had particularly endeared me to them. Maybe it was just too short a time and I still wasn’t used to America. I still have their farewell note though, and wherever they are now, I wish them all the best.

Chapter 2

The Happiest Family In Sanc Ville

Which is what my mother called us, and for a time I think it was very true. From seven to ten I was really very happy. There were still tears and fears, disappointments and upsets, but on the whole it was a good time – quite possibly the best time of my life. Ah, but everyone says that about their childhood, don’t they?

What’s Sanc Ville? My second home after Dei Po Road. That was sold and we moved to a new place, an apartment block right next to a shopping centre which had BOTH a video game store AND a comic shop – which to my young mind meant that basically it was as close to heaven as you could get. Plus our new home even had a swimming pool! What bliss.

I believe that at this point it would be a good idea to give you an idea of who my parents were and are. They are, after all, the people who made me, and they will figure quite prominently in everything that comes next.

Let’s start with my mom. Her is name is Liew Sim Mei, though she also took the name Clarice when she studied in Australia.

I am of course biased but I have always thought my mother was on the pretty side. Certainly the few photographs of her that we still have of her earlier days would seem to lend credence to that fact. She was (and still is) uncommonly intelligent, fast on her mental feet and very well-educated indeed.

She was an aspiring poet, a editor of plays, a teacher (her job for most of her life) and lover of books. Among her other achievements, at the tender age of seventeen she wrote a which when produced, ended up with her being invited to talk to a man who would later become the Prime Minister of Singapore. I was so awed, impressed and proud of her when I learnt of this fact years later.

She is and was also the most critical person I have ever known. Nothing was so bad that it could not be made worse by complaining about it. There was always something wrong with something. It could be the government, the world in general, industrial pollution, men…anything, really. Most often it was my father, but you can rest assured that in any given situation there would be a problem and it would be someone else’s fault.

As you can probably expect a lot of this got transferred to her children as well. Most Asian parents (especially women) set very high expectations for their brood, and my mother was no exception. I think even when I was a child I was hard on myself. Everything had to be done just so, no excuses, no exceptions. Very good was just acceptable. Work hard, study hard and don’t slack off! That was drilled into me pretty much every day as a kid.

She could be tender and caring, and often was. She prized learning about all else, and our house was always filled with books upon books upon books, so much so that visitors would remark on “the library”, a tall brown study at the back of the house. She (and my father) were most definitely very very academically oriented, which meant lots of reading for everyone in the family.

She also shouted, and scolded, and her rages would be things to be feared. As a child whenever she got angry I would run and hide and just wait for Mum to get over it. It seemed to work pretty well.

Oh yes, and she beat me. A lot. I know all you Westerners must be shaking your heads and tut-tutting up a storm by now, but at this period of time in Singapore, beating children as a form of discipline was not exactly uncommon. Though I must say that the amount and the intensity that my Mum whacked me with was most probably outside the norm – though I had no way of knowing that. She would beat and beat and I would cry and cry but it would all be ok because at the end Mum would come back to being Mum again and love me and everything would be ok once more.

As a child, she doted on me (when she wasn’t shouting or scolding) and I on her. I was the happiest when Mum was there, reading to me or playing a game – which due to her work schedule often was not as often as I would have liked. She would print out cards with words with which to teach me reading, and read to me a lot besides.

Then there were games, some of which I did not like. She had this thing about tangrams and often tried to get me to unsuccessfully play with them. But most often it was books. Books and books and more books! As a lecturer she had access to the university library and brought back books nearly every day. Some of my happiest memories are of my mother coming up the driveway, smiling, with a bunch of books in her arms, and me running to see her.

Children’s books, so many of them! I read the Wind and the Willows, Frog and Toad, and almost anything by Janet and Ahlan Ahlberg. I guess one of the advantages of having a lecturer as a mom is that you get access to the Very Best of British Children’s Literature. I would roll around in the big bed that we had and read to my heart’s content.

Which child does not love his or her mother? It’s a rhetorical question. I sat on her lap and she would read me stories and even sometimes play computer games together. We played Moon Patrol and I wanted to shoot, (man did I wear the spacebar down) she could drive. The same went for Space Invaders (actually the game wasn’t really Space Invaders and I can’t remember the name but it was close enough!)

She was pretty hip and cool for a Mum, even if I do say so myself. She had her ultra-traditionalist, Do As Your Mother Says and Respect Your Parents side (which probably came from HER parents) but her time spent aboard had given her a wider view of the world. She used to smoke and even played Super Mario Brothers for a while – although she never made it past World 2.

Along the rages though was also the agoraphobia. And the panic attacks. I never realized (until much later in my life) how much those two things must have burdened her and shaped her life. She couldn’t go out of the house alone, and so she took me everywhere with her. To shopping centres, to buy clothes, to see her family…as a child I just took this as a matter of course and I followed docilely, almost always with a book in hand. Everyone I met cooed and smiled and told me what a smart boy I was to be reading so much at such a young age.

This was of course related to the panic attacks. My mother had suffered from them most of her life, and sometimes her face and hands would tense and she would look around for a danger that was not there. It was pretty scary to be around, especially for a young child. A lot of her behavior could be traced back to that fear – never going out alone, needing somebody around, and not going too far from the house. Agoraphobia and panic attacks both is a deadly combination.

Oh, and the high-blood pressure. My mother has had high-blood pressure since before I can remember. There was a trip to the doctor’s office where I can remember looking concernedly on as the doctor attached a strange-looking device (which actually was just a pump) to her arm. She just smiled and said that it was something Mum had to have done.

It’s kind of obvious now that my mother wasn’t the healthiest of individuals. These things would take their toll on her in the later years in ways which we couldn’t see at that time. But once again to a child they were just things that Mum had and did and that didn’t matter. I loved her and she loved me – what else was there to know?

And now I come to my father. My dad is a tallish, kind and gentle man who worked as a researcher for the Housing Development Board of the government. He was that rarity of rarities – a gentleman who was actually gentle. Perhaps due to his years in the United Kingdom, I have always thought he carried himself with a certain refinement. He was intelligent, learned (perhaps not as much as my mother) and loved (and still loves) motorcycles and detective novels.

He was also (and continues to be) the most negative person I have ever met. In his world there was a cloud behind every silver lining – or better yet, no silver linings at all! If something could go wrong, he would assume it would. Like my mother he was giving to brooding, and when I was a child, I could remember him sitting, staring into nothing, for the better part of an hour. He was adept at seeing the negative quality of any situation and dissuading you from doing anything to improve it. To him it was just being realistic.

A maxim of his was “prepare for the worst.” And boy would he prepare – checking things over ten times and getting to the airport four hours early in case “anything happened.” A born worrier, he used to drive my Mum (and to a lesser extent, me) nuts with his anxiety.
Cheapskates had nothing on my father. He would make a pan-handler looks like King Midas. When it came to purchasing anything his view was that the exchange of goods and services was a battle, and you won if you didn’t buy!

He was a born rationalist. If there was no scientific study on it, it as good as didn’t exist. He analyzed everything. He always looked, asked, but never touched. It wasn’t safe to do anything without rules, use-by-dates, or instruction manuals.

People have many talents, and two of my father’s were cooking and art, especially the latter. When he was younger he was selected to represent Singapore in a regional art competition, and then later on, was offered a position at the Birmingham College of Art in the UK. There’s a whole story behind that as well, but that will come in time. His cooking was never chef-quality but he could whip up quite a few good meals in either the Western or Eastern style.

Strange for such a negative person, perhaps, but my childhood memories of my father are often of him smiling. And yes, he did smile a great deal and was great fun to be around most of the time. I can remember him spending almost every weekend tinkering with his motorcycle in the open space below the stairs of our apartment. He would give me rides to wherever we wanted to go and I can still remember the feeling of the wind streaming past my arms and legs, the helmet two sizes big and heavy on my head.

Of course I didn’t see my parents like this when I was younger! The good and bad were there, but they are very different in a child’s eyes. Mum was the one I went to for advice, the one I was closer to, the one that I had to obey. (or beware the consequences!) Dad was good for games and stories, not so good for help or for work, and the one that I should not get too close to. For even when I was young I knew certain things – the laws of the world, if you will.

Namely, that there was no love lost between my parents. I mean that quite literally, because actually there was no love at all. Perhaps there had been earlier (they DID get married and had me!) but the time I was six they didn’t talk to each other much, if at all. Those of you who are reading this and come from families with divorced parents (or maybe are divorced yourselves) are probably quite familiar with the perpetual Cold War that rages.

There is a relationship of a sort but it’s largely based on false pretenses. No one says anything, and if they do, it’s all very practical and polite. There’s little to no conversation, and absolutely no touching regardless of the circumstances.

But as a child I thought this was the way all families were. And individually, my dad and mom loved me very much. My loyalty to Mum (whom I was closer to) also came with a certain distance to Dad – aided in no small part by his own distance from everything. I was taught (perhaps unconsciously) that Dad was no good. Dad himself was there, but in a sense never really there. For instance, he did nothing whenever my mother scolded me or beat me. I now realize that he was probably terrified of her, and with good reason – she could be pretty scary when angry!

My childhood world was interrupted by the arrival of a little sister. Meimei would become (and still is at the time of this writing) the most important person in my life, but I didn’t know it at that time. In fact, I actually thought she was kind of a bother. I loved to eat out, and now with this new and most unwelcome addition to our family, we could not do so any longer. My mom tried to counteract this by eating out a lot beforehand so that we would have a reservoir of sorts when Meimei came along…but try telling that to a kid! Delayed gratification is a concept that not even the most intelligent seven year can comprehend.

What else does a child remember from his childhood? Video games! I loved (and still love) video games. Except that this love is more akin to what Christians have for Jesus, or parents have for their children. No, I’m not kidding – when I say I loved video games, most people had no idea how much.

For though I did not know then, they were to save my life, open the world to me, and teach me almost everything important about Life, the Universe and Everything. Not to mention being incredibly fun!

I had no gaming consoles as a kid, and so my dad used to bring me to a place called PP Park to watch games instead, which I would do for hours and hours. There was Super Mario Brothers (of course) and Dragon Spirit and Pooyan (who remembers that?) and Megaman and a whole host of other games that I couldn’t identify because I was six years old.

I had an uncle who gave us his Nintendo when he was done with it and that was like the Best Present Ever. Finally I could play games instead of just watch them! I think my favorite game in my childhood had to be the Legend of Zelda. I used to play that with my Dad quite a bit. He completed the game before me, staying up on several nights to make maps and chart dungeons. There was one night where he couldn’t get past a room with eight blue Darknuts and I had to help him fight through it. I almost beat all of them before the last one got to me and I burst out crying – which lead to Mum to coming in and berate him for letting me stay up and play video games on a school day.

So I played video games, and when I say I played I PLAYED. I think now that had I not been so lonely at school and at home, and had parents who spent more time with me (not to mention each other) I would have had more outlets for my youthful enthusiasm. But as it went most of my childhood was spent in front of the TV screen – not an uncommon phenomenon. Contra, Castlevania, Super Adventure Island, and of course Super Mario Brothers – all the classics.

I didn’t just play video games (although my mother would have disagreed with that statement most vociferously) I read a lot – anything I could get my hands on, really. There was absolutely no shortage of books in the house. But I think my favorites had to be fantasy and sci-fi. I read Dragonlance (didn’t everyone at some point?) and I had to endure my mother’s scathing comments about how it was so derivative of the Lord of the Rings and I should read that instead. Whatever. Beverly Cleary was another childhood favorite of mine.

I also remember being really into Arthurian legends when I was younger. The sense of chivalry, heroism and virtue in those tales would stay with me my entire life. I guess all young boys dream of slaying dragons and rescuing maidens in some fashion. I loved myths and legends from all around the world and would collect every folk and fairy tale I could find. The Fairy Book series (The Red Fairy Book, Blue Fairy Book etc) was another childhood favorite of mine.

How about what was on the TV? Star Wars! I never was that big into the whole franchise when I grew older but when I was seven years old I watched the single VHS tape we had of Star Wars (recorded straight from the TV no less) so many times that it wore out. Same goes for Transformers – I loved it to bits as a child (I probably watched the movie the same amount of times I watched Star Wars) but I sort of fell out of it as I grew older.

I also met my first good friends during this time, Connor and Calvin Ying. They were brothers – Connor the younger and Calvin the older. I was Connor’s age but given our mutual bookish nature, I sometimes felt a lot closer to the older brother, Calvin, giving rise to some feelings of shame and misplaced loyalty. But I liked them both and so we all got along – except when the brothers fought, as all brothers do.
Connor was most definitely the best friend of my childhood. We had all the same interests – video games (for him it was computer games, actually. He was an early PC adopter and was always faster with the latest technology than me) comics and telling each other stories. We even had our stuffed animals introduce themselves to each other!

I liked Calvin a lot too. We shared a mutual interest in tabletop RPGs that Connor never really got into. I remember a silent, starless night in which he invited me over to his room to look at his prized collection of RPG books (which were really hard to find in Singapore at that time) and feeling such a sense of togetherness that I could read all the “big boy” stuff with my dear friend. He was four years older than me – a lifetime to a boy of eight or nine.

We had great times together. Like I said, these were some of the best days of my life. We played games all the time and ran around and did all the things young boys do. I ate with his family and they ate with mine. We watched movies and played more games and each day that I spent with them was filled with fun and joy and laughter.

What else was important during this time? School, of course. It is generally a big deal in most young children’s life and mine was no exception. I was both a mommy’s boy AND the teacher’s pet, which of course meant that I had no friends. I remember reading a lot. About the only attention I got from the other kids was when it was time to do homework, at which point I became the center of attention for the whole class. Why? Well, because then they could copy my homework and then get back to playing games of course. Me? I just wanted to finish up everything as fast as I could so I could get back to reading.

While I excelled (more like “beat the pants of anyone close in terms of grades”) at almost every subject, there was the bugbear that would plague my life for years to come. Namely, Chinese. Now, despite being of Chinese parentage, my parents did not speak any Chinese, and I stepped into the classroom in Primary 1 (first-grade to you US folks) without knowing a single word of Chinese. Guess what language the class was taught in? I can recall spending almost the entire lesson looking out of the classroom windows in complete non-comprehension, waiting for my Dad to come and fetch me home.

It was not a huge problem in Primary 1 but grew into one as I got older. At first I just ignored it – like most kids do when they are confronted with something that they don’t like. The thing is, you couldn’t. Or rather for the first year or so you could, and the second year I still got a few passing marks, but from then on no one could ignore the fact that Kain couldn’t speak Chinese to save his life. It was the only red mark on my otherwise pristine academic record.

To make matters worse there was this constant refrain of “you are Chinese, how come you can’t speak Chinese? You Have Brought Shame To Your Ancestors!” I swear I could hear the capital letters even when I was all of eight years old. Many people would tell me this in many years for years to come and internally I would always think “well, I don’t speak Chinese because no one at home does!”

All the usual panaceas were trotted out. I was bought children’s books in Chinese, I had tuition in Chinese, I tried to watch Chinese TV. Nothing worked. All that happened was that I grew to hate it more and more. My mother would also tell me about how she was forced to study Chinese by her own father and how she hated it (in my mother’s family they spoke Hokkien, a Chinese dialect – not Mandarin) All the teachers would tell me about how shameful it was that I was a Chinese person who couldn’t speak his own language. I just stared blankly back at them. Didn’t they know my first language was English?

Chinese lessons were horrors for me. I especially dreaded Wednesdays – two and a half hours of sitting around understanding absolutely nothing. I think it would be quite the ordeal for anyone, let alone a eight to nine year old child.

To be fair, the curriculum wasn’t designed for children like me. The teachers and educators probably assumed that a potential student would understand at least a BIT of Chinese (not an unfounded assumption) I would have been much happier in a Western-based educational system which taught language in terms of grammar (definitely my strong point) or phonetics, rather than the straight-out immersion and memorization approach that the schools in Singapore took.

I would continue to hate Chinese for the better part of two decades. It would get worse until getting better…and though I did not know it at that time, it would be an epic tale of forgiveness and redemption. But you’ll have to read on to find out how that happened.

I was lonely at school and also lonely at home. My parents didn’t get back from work until around seven or so, and there wasn’t much time for playing before it was bedtime (which I recall being about eight P.M or so when I was eight) All I had for company most of the time were games and books, and so I read voraciously and played ferociously. There were other kids on my block that I played with now and then, but none as close to me as C and C, and since they were only free to come over on Saturday, it was for Saturday I waited for with bated breath every day.

No matter how dreary or boring or friendless the weeks were (and they could be all three) it was all worth it when Saturday rolled around. I don’t think it was much of an exaggeration to my younger self to say that I practically lived for that day. Saturday was when I could be with my friends, where we could play the whole day instead of doing homework (that had been done at lightning speed on Friday night) and eat at McDonald’s, then go over to each other’s house and play some more.

I was also pretty close to my cousins, Andrea and Mark from my mother’s side and Jason and Chris from my father’s. The former I spent some time with back when we were all at my maternal grandma’s house. The latter often came over to my place (or I would go to theirs) to play and just generally spend time together. I remember once Jason saying plaintively once when Andrea and Mark were introduced as our cousins “but we’re YOUR cousins too!” Kids say the darndest things.

No mention of my childhood would be complete without talking about Robotech. Ohhhh, how I loved that series. Robotech was also my first exposure to anime – much like most of my generation, come to think of it. Though I had watched some anime before (mainly Sailor Moon dubbed in Chinese) I couldn’t understand it at all because…well it was in Chinese! And I wasn’t one of those kids who were just content to watch the pretty pictures. I wanted to know what they were saying, what the story was!

Robotech was…quite a tour de force to a nine year old, which is when I started watching it. I don’t think I fully appreciated every aspect of the series at the tender age of nine (I definitely didn’t understand all the romance and wished they would get back to the fighting) But it rocked my world and I remember finding and reading all the novels I could get my hands on. Its sheer scope and depth left a deep impression on me – as did the animation quality (so much better than Western cartoons!) and the poignancy of its story.

And yes in case you’re wondering I watched Voltron. I think EVERYONE watched Voltron at some point.

When my sister was born my mother hired a domestic helper, Mary, to help around the house. She was the best hired help you could ever ask for, always remembering our birthdays, out favorite food and what we liked to do. She would wake me up at nine am every Saturday so I could watch Robotech. My mother never really took a shine to her, perhaps subscribing to the Great Asian Conspiracy that all hired help is out to cheat you and steal your money.

Mary used to sing Micheal Jackson songs in this incredibly high (and kind of irritating) falsetto, which in later years I realized is quite a Filipino Thing. Once I even tried to get her to play a video game with me (I think it was Jackal, for the NES) but she refused. Probably for the best.

Seven gave way to eight, and then to nine. I remember buying a Sega Genesis! Which was supposed to be a Super Nintendo (or rather, a Super Famicom, the Japanese equivalent) because it had Mario on it (Mum’s orders – get the one with Mario) but realizing that it did not work on our TV, which was only NTSC. The owner of the game shop himself came down to try and fix it – which to my eight year old mind was akin to the Emperor coming to give YOU gifts, rather than the other way around.

One of the happiest childhood memories I have is of my 8th birthday. My Dad bought me Phantasy Star 2 (which I had spent hours watching at the game shop nearby) and finally I could get to play it! It was a warm and dark evening when I opened the box to discover an instruction manual (I was my father’s son, I loved to read instruction manuals) and a map and a hint book AND the game. Truly an embarrassment of riches! So much material to go through before even starting to play! I was going to start on it but my father told me to have an early night – tomorrow was Saturday and I could have the entire day to go through everything. I went to sleep a happy boy indeed.

Phantasy Star 2, my first JRPG. The fact that you could level up and learn new skills and techniques and equip new gear and armor completely and utterly blew my younger mind. It was so different from all the other games that I played which were action-based – jump here, jump there, shoot this, shoot that. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but I think I hungered for something more and PS2 definitely delivered. I must have put a hundred hours into that game at least. To this day my entire family (including Mary!) can remember its battle theme. Among other things it left me with a lifelong love of purple hair and pointed ears.

Those were good times, the best times. Very possibly the happiest times of our lives. Maybe everyone thinks their childhood is the best time of their life, and in some cases it is even true. That was when Mum and Dad read books to us, and played with us (sometimes) and even still slept in the same bed (but not together) and we had friends and books and games.

Every weekend or so all the domestic workers on the block would form an all-Filipino Alliance and have a barbeque downstairs. All the kids from every house would come down and ride bicycles and play badminton and generally have a grand old time. Even I managed to get my nose out of a book enough times to participate in the festivities.

How about holidays? We took more than a few but it was the one to Club Med in Malaysia that I remember the best. I made sandcastles on the beach only to have them washed away – but that just meant that I could make them again. I discovered that there was a thing called undertow and I flung myself into the sea just to feel the pull of the water on my legs.

I had my ninth birthday party, which was a big affair with ice cream cake! I think I was so excited that I forgot to enjoy myself. I was really into Super Mario Brothers 3 at that time (to be honest I think every boy I knew was) and my Dad, always the artist, decorated my room with paper cutouts of Goombas and Koopas and the smiling clouds of World 3. I was torn between ecstasy and a vague feeling of shame that I was having so much done for me without working hard enough to deserve it. It ain’t easy being Asian.

It was in almost all respects a normal, happy childhood. My dad gave all the kids on the block rides on his bike. I combed the bookstores of Singapore searching for every fantasy novel I could find. There were school trips to the zoo, the aquarium, and the park. We went on more holidays and visited aunts and uncles once in a while. There were big fights about homework, and small fights about everything else. Games were bought, played, talked about, and tossed aside for well, more games.

We took home videos, we were happy, we were normal. I didn’t at that time know that it was not exactly “normal” for parents to almost never talk, or to have to follow your mother around everywhere she went and hold her hand (literally as well as figuratively) But I was happy, and I think so was everyone else.

As a child I thought those days would go on forever, but of course they didn’t. So here we come to the first major turning point of my life.

A Short History of the Singapore Cosplay Scene, Part 2

Cosplay starting getting bigger. Some of my friends were interviewed by Channel 8, and there was some articles in the newspapers about it, but the aunties selling clothes in Chinatown still had no idea what I was buying all this cloth for, so all I was able to tell them was that it was for a 穿夸张的衣服表演(performance where you wore exaggerated clothes)

We move on to 2005. Joash stepped down to pursue other, better things and so did most of the original board members. The MAC was renamed the Shiro Tsubasa Animation Club at this point. (someone also forgot to tell them that it actually should have been the Shiro(i) Animation Club, because you need an -i with adjectives, like white)

I’ll admit that I don’t know much about this period because there was so much Drama that I bowed out. Why the drama, you ask? Well, a friend of mine (you know who you are) put it best…get a bunch of young people who parade around in fantastic costumes where they try to outdo each other in how good they good together and drama of some kind is bound to ensue.
I left the politics to the people who were interested in them and I concentrated on well, cosplaying. I was never really good at sewing and but I loved making armor, and what I really enjoyed was design – envisioning the costume from scratch and creating it piece by piece. So that was what I did. I hung out with friends and we talked about games and anime and what we were going to cosplay and I led a team to a pretty successful event.

I’d like to include some pictures with all these memories but the simple fact of the matter is that I have very few of them. This was a time before handphones and I think I have lost the original negatives of the photos that I did manage to take. Plus there is the need to respect others privacy. So you’ll have to make do with what images my words can conjure.
Time moved on and 2008 rolled around. A year or so afterwards the anime boom had hit and there was no turning back – AFA came along on the scene and changed everything. The tide has turned from fan to professional and there was no stopping it. Where in the past we struggled to even get lighting and sound for a single expo hall, now we had world-class talent coming down multiple times a year. It was completely different now…deliveries from Taobao, weapons from Caesar’s, and the ability to actually commission things. It seemed like everyone knew what cosplay was, whereas before it had been a long and laborious process of explanation.

Part of me is still nostalgic for the Good Old Days, in which everyone knew everyone and watched the same series and…see, I’m showing my age again. The newer anime and cosplay fans today are growing up in a very different world, in which you can Google everything and series like Full Metal Panic and Shakugan no Shana are considered old (to me, stuff like Xabungle and Creamy Mami are considered old!)

Where you can look up on your handphone at any time and the aunties in Chinatown actually know what events are happening instead of giving you strange looks when you buy things. Where you can order from Taobao instead of having to hem and sew and stitch everything yourself. (Though I would heartily recommended you DON’T order everything from Taobao – the quality of the merchandise often leaves something to be desired.)

I left the scene around this time due to the copious amounts of Drama (which I hate with a passion) in the scene and to deal with my own personal issues. I’m sure a lot has happened since then, but that will be a tale that someone else has to tell.

I haven’t even cosplayed in 8 years but as much as I have tried to deny it to myself, the urge is still there. I think it will always be there. Once bitten, the cosplay bug never really lets you go, try as hard I might to pull away from it. I still look at costumes and sigh and think about how I would do this, or that, with this pose or that look and that wig and argh…I guess I may actually bite the bullet and cosplay again someday.

Cosplay, anime…The Scene. Why is it that everyone who mentions it sounds like they are using capital letters? I don’t even where I go from here (or if I’ll even be in Singapore come next year) but it has been such a part of my life for so long that I felt I should at least write SOMETHING about it.

Cosplay itself has grown all over the world, even as its roots have spread from its parent tree in Japan to countries as far as Russia (man those Russian cosplayers are something else!) South America and even Israel. Nowadays even my dentist knows what it is. (did I mention he likes Naruto? and Sasuke Uchiha is his favorite character?)
Everyone, thanks for all the memories. And I wish all new anime fans all the best. May you have all the fun and excitement that I had all those years – no, even more! May your costumes fit ever in your favor, your props never break, and your wigs always remain in style.

Cosplay forever!

A Short History of the Singapore Cosplay Scene, Part 1

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…wait, no, wrong story, this one is about the Singapore cosplay and anime scene.

Where did it all start? No one really knows. Reports have come in from various sources that in ancient times, there was a group that was called the RKFC (Rurouni Kenshin Fan Club) who actually cosplayed in void decks and community clubs, where anime was only something you could find in VHS tapes and had to be more often than not ordered from the US of A.
And before that, another group of people enshrouded even further in mystery, the Black History (bonus points if you get the reference) of the Singapore anime cosplay scene. No one really knows what happened to those brave souls, or if they even cosplay anymore…I don’t think so, to be honest. They’re probably all married and with kids now.

But I like to imagine that they still have their old costumes which gather dust in some forgotten closet or another, to be taken out and examined at birthdays and Christmases with oohs and aaaahs and little children peering at them…ok I don’t think that will happen either.
But those are tales for another time. I can only tell my story and my own part in it, and so that’s what I shall do.

I was but a callow youth of 13 and had gotten my first taste of anime and all I knew that was that I wanted more. So did what any teenager with a computer would do – I used the Internet. I can’t remember how, but somehow I found my way to what in those days called the MAC, or Miyuki Animation Club. It was the first (and only) anime club in Singapore and I showed up a table in some hawker centre with my little sister and Mum in tow and I uttered the immortal words “Hi, I’m Zhou Tai An, a 14 year old Chinese male, and I’m interested in anime.” Yeah, it was like Alcoholics Anonymous and a dating site all rolled into one. Not the most normal of introductions, but there you go.

They were, however, a great bunch to hang out with. We talked about Robotech (remember, this was in 1995 or so) and Vampire Hunter D, and Ranma 1/2, and the other classics of that era. It’s been so long ago that I can’t quite remember everyone and everything, but I do recall saying “hey, don’t kick Saber Riber” while discussing the robot horses of Vampire Hunter D.
Saber Rider. Does anyone even still remember that when it aired on TV Tiga? TV Tigs doesn’t even exist anymore. Sigh. Memories!

(BTW, anime trivia fact – Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs was known as Sei Jushi Bismarck, but it wasn’t very successful in Japan, which is probably why it was sold to World Events Production on the cheap, just like a lot of other anime at that time.)

But back to Singapore cosplay. The founder and chairman of the MAC at that time was a guy named Mak Kum Shi. He was…not one the nicest of people. (Sorry Mak, but I have to tell it like it is.) He had ego issues. Big ones. He wanted everything to be done his way, all the time. He would listen to you but not really pay much attention to what you said or did, and he once dreamed up this crazy idea of making an animation featuring a girl riding a floating air-conditioner over Orchard Road. Yeah, the guy had issues alright.

Why the name MAC? Apparently he had a Japanese girlfriend named Miyuki once. Whether that is true or not, only the man (and perhaps the girlfriend) know.

There was still nothing by way of cosplay in Singapore at that time. MAC activities were limited to talking on forums, chatrooms and IRC, and occasionally watching anime together. Let’s fast forwards a couple of years or so.

There was this mailing list called SGAnime that it seemed every anime fan in Singapore was on.
The moderator was named Kujaku (though I believe she now goes by the handle Evacomics?) and there were some lively discussions held there. In the MAC, Mak eventually passed down the torch to a lady named Alice. She was a nice sort but not very hands-on when it came to leadership, and so all we did was meet up in Fengshan Community Centre to well, watch anime.

But enough about the behind the scenes politics. You want to know about cosplay. Back then there was only one event every year, the aptly named EOY, or End of Year.

I still remember that very first cosplay event. I went as Larva from Vampire Princess Miyu, and my sister went as Miyu (and my mother sewed her costume thinking that it would be the first and last time…how wrong she was!) Those are some of not only the happiest memories of my time spent cosplaying, but also of my entire life. My sister didn’t want me to go make a fool of myself onstage singing Getter Robo, so I contented myself with joining the crowd and singing Zankoku no Tenshi no Teeze instead, probably my favorite song in the whole Universe.

I met a lot of friends and compatriots there, most of whom still stay with me to this day. The highlight of that event was most probably the transforming Escaflowne, which a friend of mine made with loving detail from the Escaflowne artbook out of cardboard. It’s probably not a big deal by today’s technological standards, but hey, back then everyone gave him a huge round of applause. I even did a writeup of the event which is probably lost to time in some hard drive or something somewhere. Timewise this was probably about 2000 or so.

Here’s where I enter the picture again. Through the SGanime mailing list I met Joash Chee, whom I introduced to Alice at the first event, leading to him taking over the reins of leadership of the MAC. And so under Joash’s expert guidance the MAC flourished and grew strong. I know I’m making Joash out to be some kind of kingly figure but that is actually not so far from the truth. He was (and still is) one of the most capable administrators and leaders that I know.

At around this time Kareshi Kanojo no Mise (which is still around) popped up, Singapore’s only fine purveyor of anime merchandise. There were more EOYs, and more cosplays, and much joy and jubilation was had by all. Other events soon followed. There was Comic Fiesta (which I only attended twice) It’s technically not part of the Singapore anime scene but the Malaysian one, but since we were so closely related everyone I knew who went to one went to the other. J-rock was also on the rise and it started spilling over into cosplay as well, causing some tension between both fandoms. All in all it was a exciting time.

America, Day 17

Felt pretty good today. I think I am shedding the idea that writing has got to be this incredibly emotional endeavor involving blood, sweat and random inspiration. You just have to get out of yourself and your head and let it flow. Easier said that done, but also easier done than said.
I sort of understand why I’m in such pain at some moments though. This is the second stage of rebirth, and no one ever said that was easy. In fact being born is probably the most painful thing ever…just ask any mother or newborn. Well you can’t ask the latter because they’re only a few minutes old, but the way they’re screaming should generally clue you in to what is happening.

Another poem for your perusal :

No one ever said that being born was easy
It’s probably the hardest thing one can either do
or have done to them.

But now as I am conscious I can feel these pains
more keenly, and I know that they are but
the birth pangs of a new creation
to be welcomed rather than cast aside.

I have never felt such kinship with
caterpillars of I do now
I look at the small white capsules of
their metamorphosis with kindness
what miracles of life and creation must be
working through their cocoons
their entire forms liquefying and combining
into something new.
Becoming a butterfly can be hard work.

I am trying my best
to greet each new day with anticipation
until I realize that I have no need to.
So much of the past has been going forwards,
but sometimes what you are searching for
comes to meet you instead.

Old habits die hard, but I can feel them breathing their last gasps inside of me. For once I am not trying to commit everyone to either words or thought, but just letting it happen – also both harder and easier than you might think.

Spend some more time with my friend, whom I have known for 15 years…a pretty long time. We went to Tatsu Hobby, the only Gundam store in the area.


That is a lot of Gunpla.


Amazing intro by my friend.


Only thing cooler than Gundam is Gundam with horse.




Valuable Pod is Valuable.


This guy continues the long tradition of Gundam antagonists that look like some kind of waterfowl.

If there is a Kirby, we must take a picture of it.


The rare Samus Arandam. The modeller did a great job on it.

I actually really want to watch Tekketsu no Orphans but at the same time I’m kind of afraid because it’s all about child soldiers and yeah…I can relate to that, sometimes too much.

Later went out with some of his friends, who were new anime fans, and I reflected once again on how things have changed and not changed. They still talk about the same things for the most part – which characters are coolest, who they’re going to cosplay next, which is your favorite scene in so and so…I guess geeks never change. I realized once again that I’ve been watching anime longer than most fans have been alive, and that really shakes me sometimes.

I sometimes think this self-reflection thing really goes on too far, and I’m sitting here thinking about life rather than going out there and living it. That’s true to a certain extent, but we do need some time to sort things out and hey, at least I’m writing it all down in the blog nowadays.

Still breaking free of my parents’ influence. It often seems to me that my entire life has been one long fight against everything that they wanted and stood for. I wanted adventure, they wanted safety. I wanted to create, all they wanted me to do was settle down and get a steady job. It’s been a long, uphill struggle and sometimes I can still feel the last vestiges of an internal war. Argh. And I’m supposed to be on my fucking vacation here!

What does one do after meeting anime fans? Well, go to karaoke and sing anime songs of course. Here we are :

Another pretty multicultural karaoke. only my railgun, Flying in the Sky (omg talk about nostalgia…) Common People (English song!) a Chinese song (whose name I cannot remember and that I used the furigana to sing along with) Zankoku Tenshi no Teeze (of course) and to top it off…Stand Proud. We both agreed that no song we sang after that could possibly beat someone punching the TV screen furiously and decided to call it a night.


My friend singing his heart out. I’m so proud of him…he used to be such a shy boy.

America, Day 16

Had a really good talk with my close friend last night, in which we discussed many things, some unprintable. It was humbling to discover that we humans, despite our many shields and illusions, are actually really much the same at heart. We have our differences, our hangups, our pains, but we’re all here on the same planet, and we often forget that.

I often fall into the trap of thinking – “with all the therapy I’ve done, shouldn’t I be free of this stuff ALREADY?” until I realize that all the therapy is so that I can live with my hangups in a healthy manner, not excise them completely. That is firstly impossible, and secondly would put me back on the slippery slope to OCD.

When we are open and honest with ourselves, I find that hangups tend to dissipate on their own. There’s a blog article in there somewhere, but I think I’ll write this one first.

Checked my mail. Resume was accepted, partially, and now I take a translation test, just like old times. I’m kind of looking forwards to it! I’ve forgotten (like so many other things) how much I actually like taking tests (OMG, so Asian) and how much I like translating.

So yeah I’ve totally and completely ended up working while on vacation. But like my old friend (the one I called, not the one I’m staying with) said, part of having a vacation is doing whatever you want to. So if you want to work, work.

So today I’m doing an experiment and seeing how much I can get written in a day…or I so I thought until I went out for a walk and forgot to bring the mobile with the data plan. Which led to my getting lost. At least I got some pictures out of it!


Random snail.


Nice view.

Had to ask a few friendly folk how to get back, but I successfully retraced my steps. It was wet and rainy which was kind of nice actually.

Tried to mess around with my blog somemore to get things into shape. I picked WordPress because of it’s plugins but boy is the thing hard to use or what! Maybe I’m just not used to it is all. Decided not to try anything funky and settled for super-simple layout.

More past appeared to bug me, but today I thought that I would try to ignore it and focus on other things instead. Blogging, for one. Writing for another. And completing the translation test.

Or so I said but as evening neared I felt more flashes of pain go through my mind and I thought that I should attend to them instead. And I did, by doing things and not thinking about them.

One thing I’m learning though…just taking a fucking break sometimes. I’m moving at a good clip (even the critic in myself knows this) and there’s no need to push myself too hard.

My friend came home early and we went out to In-N-Out Burger, another Californian staple. I remember a long time ago wanting to eat at it all the time and my parents doing so only rarely. Another opportunity for nostalgia.

So…In-N-Out is definitely NOT as good as I remember. I don’t recall them being quite so…greasy. But they are definitely much better than McDonalds. (Then again, ANYTHING is better than McDonalds.)


Went to a gaming arcade after dinner. It was pretty fun and filled with all sorts of good stuff.

There was a rhythm game which had a Cruel Angel’s Thesis as one of the song selections, so of course I had to play it.


Fifth down.

Then we played the lamest game in the universe…Sailor Zombie.


I don’t think I will ever get the appeal of idol groups and AKBK48. I mean, I understand why people like them, but they personally don’t do anything for me. Give me a live girl anytime! But I don’t judge. The world has to get past this ridiculous conception of real always being better than virtual. There’s a time and a place for each one.

Also, Kirby and friends :


Had another semi-attack of nostalgia…but I think it was a good one. I can remember my 15 and 18 year old self wandering through video arcades, thinking of stories and possible games and so much else besides. Trying his best to survive amidst everything that was happening in and around him.

I think that’s the thing about working through the past. There are so many good memories mixed in with the pain that it can be hard to tell them apart. But I remind myself that I just have to keep walking.

I love gaming arcades. There’s something about them, their sounds, the cacophony and the sheer energy of people playing their hearts out. Long ago I wrote a poem about them, which I think is perhaps worth dragging out now :

Video Game Arcade

loud noises, stale smoke
sound of blip-blip-blips and cha-chings
frenzied teenage yells
a bored old woman sits at a desk,
doling out silver bits of amusement

the driving machines are off at one side
people facing off in a furious race
down virtual streets and alleys

next is the UFO catcher machines
a couple wanders by
the girl points at the glass casing
she wants something

the boy doesn’t look so pleased, but he gives in
fishes out a coin and puts in it
suddenly there is cheery music and flashing lights
he takes the controls

they both wait with bated breath
the world seems to stop as
down comes the metal hand with a clank clank clank

it scoops

almost misses
the girl lets out a stifled shriek
but then the claws – clankclankclank – find purchase on something furry
and a stuffed bear is the prize
smiles all around!
the boy looks relieved

right next to that a balding man faces down hordes of zombies
a gun in each hand
he’s playing a 1-player game in 2-player mode
wow so macho! or maybe he’s just showing off
maybe both?
a crowd gathers to watch as he starts mowing the undead down
he picks them off with ruthless efficiency
a creepy-crawly here, a snarling ghoul there, abatcomesdownfromtherightside
but he sees it, it’s gone
but then

lurid red words appear on screen


I guess I’ll never really get gaming and anime out of my system, ever. As my friend remarked, my bond with the latter is really deep. I mean, it fucking saved my life. It doesn’t get any deeper than that.

How some things change, and how some don’t…arcades are somehow much the same as they were 10, 20 years ago. There’s still Pac-Man and Street Fighter and lightgun games. I’m still talking with my friend about the same things we discussed when I first knew him.

Speaking of which, we had another long talk with my friend at night, about everything from relationships, the nature of the Divine and what anime and game girls were the hottest. It’s really difficult to have frank discussions about any of them, and I am immensely grateful to him for sharing with me his thoughts.

Gratefulness…I think it’s about past time for me to reclaim the meaning of that word. I still sometimes feel a twinge in myself when people remark how lucky I am to have this opportunity for travel and to look at everything again. How can you be so ungrateful? Other people have jobs they have to do, and children they have to feed…and then I try and fight back by recounting how much I suffered during those years. I would have that steady job and those other things if I didn’t need to be a parent for most of my life.

It doesn’t work that way, mother mine. There is no sliding scale, no give and take or quid pro quo. One plus doesn’t erase one minus. I am in grief for my loss and grateful for my opportunities at the same time.

It’s just the past again. My mother’s words which aren’t even actually hers…passed down through the ages unthinkingly, tearing barbs and wounds and tears in generation after generation. The buck stops here. I open my heart and mind and receive all light, letting it cleanse the darkness.

But as I remarked to my friend, it’s one thing to comprehend this in your mind and another to integrate it fully into everything else. Some things just take time, whatever they may be. Day by day the awakening beckons…because it has already happened.

And as time and space and memory whirl within me, another day comes to an end. Goodnight everyone.


Hi, this is my little corner of the Web. I hope you are alternately entertained and enlightened as best as I can possibly manage.

Who am I? My real name is Tai An Zhou. I’m a writer, a poet, a singer, a translator, a cosplayer, a HUGE anime and video game fan, voice actor, an erstwhile philosopher (aren’t we all?)
a student of life in all its intricacy and wonder, and lover of all things weird and wonderful.

I love to write, and I’ve written everything from poetry to essays, travelogues, fanfiction and original works. You can read it all here.

I run a delivery service from Japan. Check it out at

I plan to eventually have a lot more content here. Stay tuned!

I hope that everything I’ve written here helps you, delights you, or enriches your life in some way. May the Divine that resides in all things shine on your soul always.

America, Day 15

Woke up early again. I know why I sleep less everyday now… no one’s trying to kill me anymore! Whoo-hoo, score one for Captain Obvious!

But honestly, though, it’s a great feeling to have less energy with less sleep. More time for blogging, for one.

Pizza for breakfast! It doesn’t get more American than that.

Something my cousin says comes to me…two months is a long time. I hadn’t thought it that way before. I was always so trapped by the conceptions of time. But day by day I feel the patterns of the past breaking up. This trip is worth its weight in gold!

Decided to go update and send out some resumes today. Yes I know, I’m still technically on vacation…though I’m like 300% more productive here than I am back in SG. Must be the air and the sunshine.

Went out with a nice gentleman through my church connections for lunch. Persian food, pretty interesting! Pics.




I realize that I am going to have to tell people what this church thing is all about, lest they assume I am Christian, which I’m not. (Well, not TECHNICALLY but it’s a long story…I guess I’m technically Christian the way I’m technically on vacation?)

Wikipedia to the rescue!

Took a nap later and walked around a bit. No pics this time.

It’s easier to just admit to myself that I still love the USA and that yes, I wished I could have been back here 10 or more years before. There, I said it. My child’s heart still cries out in love for those streets and cars and bushes. I hold his hand and stroke his hair. It’s ok. It’s alright.

Reflected once again on the fact that I really shouldn’t be alive and writing this considering the sheer amount of trauma I was subjected to while younger, including breaking my head at 4 and suffering multiple blows to it later. Not to mention the depression. And OCD. And suicide attempts. It’s truly a miracle I am here at all.

Still learning more about blogging and getting this whole damn thing into order. Whoever’s reading this please bear with me.

Social media is pretty wow. Just yesterday I coined the phrase “moonies” to describe Sailor Moon fans in a random Facebook post. Today it’s all over my newsfeed and Twitter. Did I really do that?

Chatted with another old friend, and her advice is worth sharing, I think. If I feel like working on vacation, then I should go ahead and work! I should’t “should” all over myself.
Leftover pizza for dinner. It was delicious.

Went out to meet some of my hosts’ friends. As expected, they are completely different from the people I met 10 days before. 18 year old cosplayers who use mobile devices like a pro and whose lives revolve around the latest anime, as opposed to people over 70 who wouldn’t know Rei Ayanami was if she bit them in the face and to whom using mobile devices at the table is a form of blasphemy.

It’s like being in two completely different worlds. I must say though, it’s quite a priviledge to be able to move through both so easily.

Still in a kind of a tailspin of sorts. Time, distance, money, relationships, ideas, school, work…I can’t make sense of any of these things now. It’s all in flux once again. I don’t even know who I’ll be at the end of this trip, but I’m looking forwards to it.

And so we come to the end of another day.

America, Day 14

Woke up to…another attack of the past. I guess I should be happy it’s coming up to be healed but at the same time it’s kind of a drag.

I’m getting more and more familiar with the sensations of them now though. Much of what I am experiencing are things from my post-suicidal period in my late teenage that I did not get to fully comprehend or process. Life back then felt like a perpetual low-level panic attack was being diffused throughout my body. I probably would have been diagnosed with GAD had I not already had the diagnosis of depression.

But that was in the past. In the now I am far stronger than I was before then, and a combination of prayer and well wishes dispel it well enough. Also the realization that well, sometimes it doesn’t go away immediately and that’s ok. We can live the day without needing to handle everything. There will be time aplenty to heal.

For some reason went to listen to this :

sang a bit and ended up crying a lot. The English version really didn’t do anything for me but the Japanese one opened up a lot…well that should come as no surprise now should it? Also, I vastly prefer the Japanese lyrics. Music therapy is pretty helpful.

My friend was actually still home when all this was going on and so I felt abashed when he came out of his room. Still more than a bit embarrassed when I’m crying my heart out and there’s someone in the house. Which is pretty normal I guess.

I contacted another close friend of mine from the past and at the end of my introduction he was a bit like “whoa that’s a lot to take in at once.” I have to remind myself other people are living more comparatively normal lives and to go easy on them (and myself!)

I sometimes also wish this was a normal travelogue and I’d, you know, actually go out and see sights and take pictures of them. Nope, you get lots of internal images instead. But like I said travels can take place both inside and out.

Decided to go take a rest after all that emotionalism. Probably the right course of action. After that a short walk, and then I called another old friend.

She shared something that I feel is worth blogging about. “A lot of people think that shared trauma is the basis for a relationship, but I think giggling together is probably better.” Wise words!

Then it was time to go to my cousin’s house, which interestingly enough had the exact same street name as my friend’s.

I played with her kid a bit while dinner was being delivered. Kids always make a feel a little complicated. I love kids so I’m generally glad to be around them, but I also wish that I had the happy, loving childhood that they are having right now.

But then at the same time I also reflect with compassion that how my parents treated me was probably how they were treated when they were younger…actually they were probably treated worse. I get angry and then I feel compassion and then I get envious and then angry and then…all part of being human I guess. I’m pleased to report that usually compassion predominates. Guess all that therapy really helps!

Time for dinner…burgers! This is the first time I’ve had American food on my trip…oh wait no I had a pizza for lunch earlier.


Gave the elevator speech about my life story again and I let them weigh in a little bit on what was going on. Lots of good comments and question, no space to relate them all, but my aunt also concurred that there was no danger of burnout. If you like something, and you’re good at it, you’ll do well. It often energizes instead of enervates.

She’s also all about concrete things. She once told me “I don’t understand you psychological people, you’re always talking about things that don’t exist.” I must admit I can’t quite agree with that, but I can see the point of having something real to hang your hat on, so speak.

She also mentioned that it was pretty miraculous that I managed to derive such strength from video games and anime, It was. It still is. That’s why I wrote a whole fucking book about it. Caught up in my past battles as I sometimes am (also nothing to feel ashamed of) I sometimes forget that it’s a miracle that I am even here. That indeed, everything is a miracle and we often don’t realize it.

A quote from Albert Einstein seems appropriate here :

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

As you can tell I love my aunt a lot. I really, really do. She’s helped me a lot more than I even ever realized.

Got to catch up with my cousin some more, which was really good. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to speak to her at length about personal matters, which I did some of.

The visit yielded more prereaders for the book, for which I am most grateful for. My most valuable prereaders are those without any knowledge of games or anime, so I know what a non-fan thinks.

I had some delicious cookies courtesy of my cousin, which I forgot to take pictures of because they were too delicious. I don’t have the recipe but I’ll share that when you have really sweet cookies like these, some sea salt sprinkled over it (not too much!) brings out the flavor a lot more. It’s the same principle as why people in Japan sometimes put salt on watermelons.
More memories as they drove me home. The green road signs and the long freeways still elicit powerful emotions from me. The motels across the roads with names like “America’s Best” and the fir trees that dot the sides of the roads.

Still, it’s good to be here. I thank my friend once more for her advice. The child within is healing even as my adult self comes to grips with reality…only to discover that reality isn’t so bad after all. There’s no need to escape when there are no enemies to run from.

I also no longer feel so horrible when someone doesn’t listen to what I have to say or interrupts. That is another old wound from when I was much younger and NO ONE listened to the important stuff, which I had the right to speak and be heard by. It’s also nice to not feel that I have to share everything with everybody…which is of course impossible to do in the first place.

Family is always important. It’s good to have close relations whom you can trust and be trusted by. There is a certain intimacy between family members which you can’t find elsewhere.

And like I told my aunt, no matter what else has happened in my life, I have also always been blessed by having many good and true friends, who have given me a lot in many different ways. I mean take this trip, for instance…I’ll be staying with friends almost the whole time! That’s a lot of savings right there, not to mention shared experiences.

Came back to watch some new anime with my friend (that’s basically all he does, besides work…BQ you know that’s true, don’t deny it) I was pretty cold to Rainbow Days and Re: Zero but Kiznaiver looked really interesting. Wanted to watch more but I was sleepy and also not 19 anymore so I couldn’t fight off sleep and just watch anime the whole night. I also have blogs to write and appointments to keep and all of that Real Life ™ stuff to do. Such is life.

More musings about anime in general :

I can’t quite turn off my translation sensors whenever I watch subtitled anime. I noticed that Funanimation and Crunchyroll have differing quality of translations…Osomatsu-san had a REALLY GOOD ONE (I don’t think I could do as good a job!) but most of the others were weaker.
I spotted the old kludge of multiple commas in a sentence more than a few times, a sure sign of weak translation. There were some errors in definition as well. But generally I doubt the audience really cares or knows because meaning gets across okay most of the time. Professionally though, I can’t help but pick apart the sentences that bother me. 仕事の癖はそう簡単に治りそうもない. (Not so easy to fix work habits.)

Trying to level up my E to J as well, and not just my J to E. As with everything else on this trip, we’ll see how it goes.

I still can’t find it in myself to watch the majority of newer anime…for one, I don’t like the flat colors and thin lines. Though I have another cousin who has the exact opposite reaction – she can’t stand the thicker lines of old anime. I guess it boils down to tastes and what you grew up with. A chance Facebook comment comes to me “don’t be an anime snob/elitist.” Also very true. I would be the last person in the world to rain on anyone’s parade.

A lot of my resistance I guess comes from my past (like so many other things) in that I wished for the world to stop moving until I could get back on my feet and participate properly. But there’s no time like the present, and no trains to catch.

Still not going to watch Love Live though. Ever. Okay maybe just one episode, for analysis and research purposes.

Another long day. Sweet dreams everyone.