Go with a smile!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

My Sister's Plight / My Contradictions

When I moved to America, one of the main priorities was to be closer to my sister. In a way I had thought that my sister would be able to help me somewhat with my settling in. As it turned out, it wasn’t that difficult for me to settle in. I had already had some experience living overseas, and I had work experience. I wasn’t obviously more mature than people who are 10 years younger than me, and I wasn’t even staying close enough to her that I could see her on a frequent basis. During my first academic year, I visited her almost every quarter. But after that the visits trailed off. Come to think of it, over the last 18 months I visited her around 4 times, which is not a terribly high number.

We talked on the phone a little bit more. I think we talked more on the phone than at any point in our lives since we were teenagers and discovering the world. A lot of things, including this blog, was in no small part a consequence of that period of time in my life when I was talking about the world with my sis, or Mr CEO. We were young and still discovering how the world worked. Obviously what we learnt in school was important, but I think that those conversations that I had over 20 years ago taught me as much as any other experience I had when I was in RI. We could just talk about anything – our relatives, school, our experiences, art, music.

One word about my sister. I was a average-to-high achiever at school. I wasn’t really fantastic in anything but I was good at a few things. She was some kind of superstar, she represented not only her school but also Singapore at some competitions, and won a prize at that level. And she was also as good at art as I was, except that she was good at different things – she was more into painting, classical music and Chinese literature. I was more into writing plays, music composition and jazz.

The last 10 years weren’t that kind to us. I always knew that my jack-of-all-trades abilities were not necessarily going to translate to me climbing the corporate ladder. I struggled in my first few years at work. It’s better now but I know there’s a glass ceiling somewhere. It seemed at first that my sister was going to achieve the impossible. She earned a medical degree in the States – very hard thing to do if you’re not a citizen. And she was matched for a stint in surgery. Against my advice – I told her that she had to do something more sane instead.

Then things started going wrong. Her mental state grew more fragile. I wouldn’t say that she’s insane or anything but she had been under a great amount of stress, from her work, from the constant worrying that accompanies an immigrant to the US about whether she’s ever going to get that green card, from unhappy relationships with guys, from my dear parents who are too dumb to realize that they’re supposed to be a pillar of emotional support under these difficult circumstances.

Long and the short of it is, I realized that it was my turn to take care of her. She had always seemed to be the stronger one, the more disciplined and resourceful one. But she had stretched herself too far, and I had to give her counseling.

Well it was a very strange experience. For one, she usually had a better idea and understanding of other people than I did. But it did turn out that guys have the gift of daftness. Like guys are actually stronger than women because they’re stupid at reading emotions. This decreased level of emotional sensitivity manifests itself as a form of strength. Let’s see how this works.

The imposter syndrome

This takes place when somebody changes the role he plays in his life, and suddenly thinks that he’s an imposter, and not really worthy of the respect or responsibility that comes with that role. Like a person who’s just promoted to being a manager and suddenly wondering if he deserves it all, and thinking that one day people will find out the dirty secret that he’s not actually fit to be a manager. This imposter syndrome is more common in women than men.

Sensitivity to criticism

Women can be sensitive to criticism. I learnt, after talking to my sister that she was more concerned about being judged by people, and getting the adulation and respect of people. I never really was that concerned about that. In fact, as I will touch upon later, there are a few things that people persistently misunderstand about me. If she excelled in school, she did it because she thought it would get her plaudits from people. And when my parents complained about her going into medical school (mainly because of the fees) she was pretty pissed off about that.


I’m pretty amazed that my sister made such a bad decision to do surgery. I’m wondering if I should have been more forceful back then, instead of just “well I just think it’s a bad idea”. Eventually she admitted to me that she was in love with the idea of being a surgeon, with the idea of being a gung-ho all action hero. It was like being a cop, or a pilot, a football manager or a shift manager at a factory. You just ran on adrenaline all the way and after that you came back for more.

Well, surgery is brutal. You get punished very heavily for your mistakes. People are often very sarcastic to each other and harsh on each other for those mistakes. A lot of bullying takes place on the surgery room. And you can get really hurt if you don’t have a thick skin. I’m amazed that my sister didn’t see that coming. Really bad decisions, particularly the big ones, come because you make decisions based on emotions. Emotional people – many of whom are women – make decisions based on emotions. On the upside, being more in touch with your emotions does make you better at dealing with people, and make you better at sensing and detecting subtle undercurrents in the interpersonal dynamics between people. But that is not the same thing as intelligence. That is not the same thing as thinking things through and bringing some form of reason into the decision making process.

There was a survey released some time back, and they ranked the professions which had the highest level of psychopathic behavior. To nobody’s surprise, being a CEO tops the list, but being salesmen, lawyers and – there it is again – surgeons also top the list. It is not surprising. Psychopathy is closely related to the ability to shield yourself from negative emotions.

My sister had a lot of strengths that made her a good surgeon. She was good with her hands, very smart, quick thinking, able to synthesise a large amount of information, good with people. But she lacked that one crucial ingredient: the ability to shield yourself from negative emotions. That was the thing that killed her. I felt she would have been fine in any other speciality. Now it was a bad choice that nearly ruined her life.

It used to be a frustrating experience being a young man. People do want to kick you around a little bit more, and you’re a little too daft to avoid stepping on peoples’ toes. But I always knew that if you did stick around long enough to get into middle age, guys generally enjoy their middle age more than women do.

She could have benefitted from having me to talk to. It’s not as though I’m smarter than she is, but because I’m so different in many ways, even as we’re similar enough that I can understand her better than many other people can. Well she’s getting better now. She’s transiting her way to a more sensible occupation, and she may or may not succeed, given her visa issues. But I hope that everything is alright with her.

The big story for my sister is that she’s basically disappeared from my life. At first, it seemed legit – she was going for overseas studies. But then after that things became more complicated. Now, she’s spent almost half her life overseas, and almost alone. For reasons I don’t completely fathom, she’s chosen to lead a hard life.

After talking to my sister last I found out that she was going to switch to another speciality, and she might be successful in doing so. Well good luck to her. I always knew she would be a good doctor, just not in the speciality that she originally chosen.

People will look at me and see a big mess of contradictions. In certain ways I am not an easy person to understand. I was thinking about some contradictions about myself, so I’ll list some here:

Chaos muppet vs Order muppet

Many people would assume that I’m an order muppet. This is not true. I’m more a chaos person. Don’t be fooled by the fact that I’m good at mathematics and music. Yes, they are great ways to live your life, but for me there are no real rules in life, only guidelines. My thoughts are very messy and complicated and I’m mainly interested in some form of method to help me get everything organized.

Horny vs Single guy

Yes, I used to crack a lot of crude jokes. I still enjoy crude humour. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a ladies man. I have limited patience with women. I like to try and understand women, but that is because of the intellectual challenge. And I used to be obsessed with going after one or two women in the past. But the fact that I have now spent more than 10 years (and counting) as a single guy should tell you the real story. And contrast this with my sister who at one time had never been single for more than 6 months at a stretch. It tells you something about how we’re very different people.

Establishment vs rebel

I had studied in RI, a school almost infamous for stamping out civil servants with not much personality. Except – it’s also produced a lot of people who turned out to be rebels. It’s pretty meaningless to ask whether RI produces obedient people or rebels – of course it’s a large enough place to produce both.

People can see that I’ve managed to maintain a good academic record, and get puzzled when I can be so strident and disobedient sometimes. And other people could also legitimately ask, if I’m supposed to be such a rebel, then why have I confined myself to the straight and narrow path of being an engineer. But then again, scientists and engineers do have a little more lee way to act independently of authority as opposed to people in strictly executive positions.

How did I sit in a place long enough to become good at studying? I have to credit my parents for this. They were tough on me when it came to cranking out good grades. They made me do practice exams over and over, and they did it early, during which I was able to pile a pretty solid foundation, which held up in spite of my being a little more sloppy as I grew older.

I was never a particularly obedient person, and I will never be one. But I did my studying because it was something I was particularly suited for. Because people in power, and people in the establishment like to paint people who do well in school as some sort of obedient lapdogs. They are not obedient lapdogs. Education is not submission to authority. It is just as often a great weapon against authority, because people resist obedience by using reason to question authority. It naturally follows that if you’re good at arguments, you’re also good at resisting authority. And that was one of the reasons why I was so interested in education.

Arts vs science

I’ve shifted myself to being a science person, but I also have my artistic side. I’m much less emotional these days. But at the same time I have been working on artistic projects over the years. I might release something out at some point, but don’t take this as a promise because it’s something that involves a lot of work. This will be my next big project after I had attained that post-graduate degree.

Ang moh vs Singaporean

I’m quite westernized even when compared to other Singaporeans. I don’t really understand people from China very well, and I go to a school where I’m constantly surrounded by people from China.

People like to say that I’m quite westernized for the heck of it. It’s just true that I don’t fit in well, and I particularly dislike following social norms. And just as I dislike following social norms from the East, I also dislike following those from the West. Believe me, there are aspects of Western culture that I dislike as much as those that I’ve rejected from the East. I suppose what I end up doing is picking and choosing different things I like from different cultures and try to mesh them into something whole in my own unique way.


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