Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Dear all,

Durian Democracy has moved to http://www.duriandemocracy.com/.

Thank you and I look forward to seeing you there!

Kar Jin

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Table For One

It's Friday night. There are families and couples and bands of friends seated at various tables in the crowded restaurant. The lights are dim enough to obscure faces, but remain bright enough for me to recognize the flash of smiles, the opening of mouths, the tilting of heads and wine glasses. There is an unceasing background orchestra: the quiet staccato of plate against cutlery, the crescendo and diminuendo of conversations rising and fading, the chords of polite laughter and the occasional chuckle.

I am an island of silence in such a sea of conversational symphonies. There is one set of cutlery, one wine glass, one napkin at my table. I dine alone tonight.

I do this occasionally, taking time off to dine on my own. I am the only person in the fifty table restaurant dining sans companions. The waiter who showed me to my seat most definitely had a look of confusion, then politely masked pity after he asked me: "How many are you dining with today sir?" Some diners' gazes wander to the empty chair in front of me, probably wondering if my date had abandoned me. Little do they know I do this out of choice. 

At first, years ago, it was out of necessity, the consequences of odd hours, a fussy palate and the absence of friends, most of them studying overseas. Why would anyone choose to eat alone?

True, eating alone is, initially, a deeply uncomfortable experience. A seeping loneliness tends to drench you, like a raw egg cracked over your head, cold and cloying and all over you. You drain your bowl of soup only to realize that slowly as you hear the laughter and the multitude of conversations that the clientele is emptying your heart as well, absorbing your silence and turning it into oh so vacuous alienation.

The irony of such solitude is that it occurs in the midst of so many people. It is quite unlike any other sort of being alone. Driving alone tends to be distracted by music, the bastard who overtook you without signalling, the flurry of motorcycles weaving in left and right. Constant vigilance is required. Reading, watching TV or playing video games is a profoundly connective sort of seclusion, for while we are by ourselves we constantly feel, relate, attempt to understand and follow the lives of those others. And then all the rest of the solo activity list can be checked off as either necessity or distraction.

A meal with oneself is different. Precisely because you are in the midst of so many others, you are constantly being reminded of the companionship you are missing out on. You are forced to reckon with the fact that you are truly alone. It is perhaps an event of true loneliness.

Of course, most people resort to distraction. Always the iPhone to cook up some Instagram photo and Facebook status, garnished with an excess of hashtags and sprinkled with a selfie or two to assuage the asinine ego. Or the absent minded turning of a coffee stained newspaper, pretending to pore over the news that reports the same corruption, same celebrities, same old circus of a country over and over again. And if idle pursuits fail then comes haste, a swift devouring of the required sustenance without tasting, and an impatient tapping on the table as the bill comes far too slowly, before beating a retreat back into the world of known people, however fickle and superficial those interactions may be. 

"Ah yes John, how are you? I'm fine hope you're good too! Oh that thing... Oh that was Leonard's project, not mine. Oh no, it's quite alright, how are the er... ah yes, the two girls! Oh, in primary school already? Jessica must be proud. Oh right, sorry, I always get your ex and her mixed up, so sorry! Myself I'm doing fine...er yes I'm still at that company, all is good and well! (but really I just got fired but I'm not going to waste your time, you don't really want to know)"

So yes, deeply uncomfortable. But I have learned to enjoy these moments. I come from a family that has always insisted on meal time as a communal act with all the force of tradition, and a circle of friends that has always pitied the poor sod eating alone in a crowded restaurant. My friends are puzzled over the fact that I do in fact enjoy eating alone, and insist that I call them along to the next meal so I need not dine solo. It's understandable. 

Now I enjoy company as much as any other person, but there is a certain... peace of mind that comes when I dine alone. Over time, I've learned to discard the distractions, the expectations, the stares. And what is left is something that gives me a profound grounding.

Dining alone is one of the few activities that allows myself to simply be. I am in the moment. The here and now. There is a certain hyper-awareness that washes over me. Colours and smells become more vibrant. The ever so slight vibrations in my knife as I slice into a steak. The hint of herbs in the spagghetti before me. The firm but moist texture of risotto as I slowly chew and savor. Actions become more deliberate, movements measured.

Then there is the observing. To look around a restaurant, and realize it's like an exhibition of so many worlds, little bubbles of society that are so evanescent and fragile they only last as long as the food continue and is popped at the ding of the cash register. To see the sweat on the brows of waiters scurrying back and forth, the hidden scowls of waitresses as they deal with yet another change of mind, the bemused expression on a bartender as he indulges a child demanding to know why she cannot drink the beverages on display, as a hapless papa hovers protectively. I suppose it is almost voyeuristic. But a writer thrives on such observations.

By far the most observed is the self. When I eat alone, I am left with only myself as company. It is a ritual of self examination that I withdraw into in moments of confusion or crisis. The restaurant becomes a hall of mirrors, with every customer, waiter, and chef metamorphosing into reflecting glasses. I see myself through them. Perhaps this is the true reason why dining alone is so uncomfortable. Because everybody is to a certain degree insecure with themselves ... and you are never truly alone even when nobody is around, you are always facing your own demons and personalities and dreams and frustrations and perversions. 

It's Friday night, and I am dining on my own, but not alone.

Mmm. That piece of meat was really juicy. 

"Meeting" Taken December 2013, NY. OKJ.
Click for larger image.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Eat, Pray, Gov

A plate of plain, simple nasi lemak is sitting before me. The other customers around me are wolfing the coconut rice down, bits of egg, sambal and fried ikan bilis disappearing into chomping mouths. Chomp chomp gulp, goes the rhythm, alternated by giant swigs of iced Milo. Within minutes, the plate is emptied.

Nasi lemak. Image from wikipedia.

I turn back to my own plate of nasi lemak. I appraise it, observing the ratio of sambal to rice, how crispy the fried anchovies look, how the sunny side up egg glistens in the amber light, how fluffy each grain of rice seems, how there are wafts of steam rising from the plate. I smell it, a deep breath, a lover inhaling perfume within another's embrace. I smell the fragrance of fresh coconut milk, a hint of onion from the rice, and then I'm assaulted by the spice of the sambal, the subtle fishiness coming from the anchovies. 

And then I have a sip of water. Cleanse the mouth of any residual tastes before diving in. I first try the rice, slowly letting each granule dissolve in my mouth while soaking in the coconut flavors. A sip of water. Then the sambal. Another sip of water. The process continues until finally, I eat nasi lemak the way it was supposed to be eaten: a wonderful mix of nuts, sambal, rice, cucumber, the yolk of the just fried egg oozing onto everything and bringing everything together. 

I'm guessing this scenario seems pretty ridiculous to you. Indeed, ever since primary school, my friends have often been rather amused or annoyed with my food antics. But as anyone who knows me will tell you, I love food, and I take food very seriously. 

Food is more than food to me. It is not just sustenance, it's not just entertainment or socializing, it's not just something you put in your mouth and wonderful things happen, it is a way of life. I'm a very firm believer in the importance of food, and its influence on the way we live, the way we look at things, the way we approach people. 

Look at some of the most explosive political shenanigans that have happened in Malaysia for example. There is the most recent scandal, where Cadbury chocolates apparently contained pig-DNA and the religious authorities went berserk on the report. Then of course, there was the infamous cow head protest, when protestors against a Hindu temple gravely offended everybody by marching down the road with a bloody cow head, an animal that Hindus do not consume as it is considered sacred. And then there are minor tussles here and there over halal status, about the segregation that happens in certain facilities, the complaints over organ donors being pork-eaters so on and so forth. Just think about it, among the worst insults one can suffer in the Malay language is being called babi, pig. 

Apparently comes in roast pork flavor too. (Yes I know it's been cleared up now just a joke). Image from VenusBuzz.

Malaysians complain about a lack of unity and national identity. I think there is nowhere you see this clearer than in the food industry. The kopitiam, which used to be the de facto community centre, always with Malay, Indian and Chinese food stalls has become the domain of the Chinese community. People like to shout a lot about appreciating Malaysian food, but rarely does this go beyond the mamak staples of nasi lemak, roti canai and such standard fare. Increasingly, Chinese stick to Chinese/ Western/ mamak food at best. 

Malaysia is blessed with such incredible diversity. Yet we rarely if ever take advantage of it. I frequently find myself being the only Malaysian Chinese at many Malay or Indianrun joints, whether it be eating mee udang, or nasi padang, lontong, tandoori, banana leaf or some bubur cha cha. And I know far too many people for whom lontong and ayam varuval are as foreign as foie gras and paella, despite these things being right on their doorstep. Maybe I haven't seen enough, or maybe I just happen to run around in rather unadventurous circles, but I fear that this is a greater trend in Malaysian society. 

Curry laksa. Image from wikimedia.
I liken it to curry laksa. Curry laksa is a great dish not only because it tastes great, but because it's a wonderful coming together of cultures that make something truly Malaysian: noodles from the Chinese, curry from the Indians, the spices and sambal from the Malays, and with every state having their own unique spin on it. Yet, what seems to be happening in Malaysian society is that we're not coming together. The ingredients are all there, but they aren't mixed together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Maybe I'm taking it all too far, this the world through food lens of mine. But I've often heard it said that a family that eats together stays together. And what about the Malaysian family? 

Heh. All this talk of food and politics is making me depressed and hungry. Oh well. Nothing a bowl of curry laksa won't cure. 

Malaysian terms
nasi lemak- coconut rice served with condiments. Considered perhaps the most iconic Malaysian dish.
sambal- a light chilli paste of sorts. Often served with anchovies.
ikan bilis- anchovies.
Milo- a chocolate-flavored drink.
babi- pig
kopitiam- a Malaysian cafe. Thus the kopi/ coffee.
mamak - restaurant serving standard Malaysian fare that are often open 24 hours and are halal.
mee udang- prawn noodles.
curry laksa- curry noodles.
lontong- rice with a light broth. ugh. it's hard to explain. search them up! 

Monday, April 28, 2014


It's still there.

The plastic bag caught on a twig, dangling in the tree right before me. It's been there for almost a week now, or at least for as long as I have noticed it. 

That flimsy white piece of plastic has been holding on despite the winds, the rain, the booms coming from Spring Fling, the drunkards shaking on the tree, the chattering and goings of L-Dub courtyard. 

It looks worse and worse everyday. The plastic shows tiny tears, the color turns a little more grey, the green spots fade out into the white that it once was. One day it will probably the torn to bits, the plastic shreds floating in the breeze like little artificial snowflakes, and its alabaster shade will turn to muck and grime as it is trodden on and forgotten like the grass on Old Campus after a night of partying. 

I wonder whether anyone notices. Whether anyone else sees this puny plastic bag that is clinging to this branch, an outcast in the white spring blossoms that surround it. What do they think of it? As a abomination? A blight on what is for the most part a beautiful tree? Some sort of sad cooked up symbol for some environmentalist gobbledygook? An allegory for the human condition? 

More likely no one notices. No one cares.

It's still there.

"Apathy and Abomination" Taken in New York, October 2013.
Click for larger image. OKJ All rights reserved.

Monday, February 10, 2014


It is cold.

It is 3am, and once more I find myself, alone in a sea of sleeping lives, on Old Campus. It seems like my melancholy can only express itself in solitude, with no one watching, no one listening, no one judging. I walk, mind intensely aware of the sounds I make as my shoes trudge across the snow-laden ground.

Snow. Such a peculiar thing. It's hard for my mind to grasp that it is simply frozen rain. Hardened water. My tracks stop and I look up. The flakes even as they fall and caress my face, threaten to hurt my eyes. The snow even as it covers Yale with a blanket, threatens to smother it and choke it beyond recognition. 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that such beauty comes with such coldness.

I attempt to catch a tiny bit of that beauty but the little flakes disappear in the warmth of my hands. No matter. I reach into a pile of snow but feel nothing. The senses of the world seem not to have been made for protected hands. 

Without gloves, I clutch at the snow. The cold hurts. And quickly whatever beauty the cold held is melting away in my grasp. Trying to save it, tightening my grip only hurts myself and makes the moment even more evanescent. 

Protected, I cannot feel. And uncovered, I cannot bear the pain. True tragedy is perhaps not when a fate is inevitable, when there is no free will, but when there is a choice but all the choices can only lead to unfulfilled desires. The words of Hamlet spring to mind. "To be or not to be."

My hands are sore and numb.They can no longer feel, like they have been gloved over. Maybe this is my body's way of protecting myself, of telling me that to feel any more would be too unbearable. And so it shuts off. It withdraws. It feels no more. 

Abraham Pierson's statue is pelted with snowflakes. Some of them are dropping on his face, trickling down and melting as they touch him. I wonder what he weeps for. 

In the end, the snow is probably best observed from a distance. In the security and warmth of a heated room, wrapped up in a dozen layers, mind and body insulated from the elements. 

Yet it begs the question: Why then am I out here in the alabaster blindness of it all? Why reach out knowing full well the outcome? Why expose myself? 

Indoors, I feel the blood creeping back into my limbs. The frigidness is fading. My hands are there. My hands exist. My hands are alive. Not feeling them has allowed me to feel them anew. The warmth of the suite is inviting, welcoming, safe. 

And yet despite all the heat in the world, I cannot help but stare outside, beyond the window. 

And despite the dozen layers, despite the radiator before me, despite the hot coffee that runs through me...

It is cold. 

Photograph by Alexey Kljatov.  See more of his work on:

Saturday, February 1, 2014


"Do you miss home?"
"Yeah well, of course I do, I mean... yeah... of course I do."

My voice quivers ever so slightly, lips recoiling almost defensively as I speak the words. I cannot help but feel a pang of guilt. It's a question I am asked often, and short of giving a lengthy explanation, I opt for the much simpler, cookie cutter reply of "Who wouldn't?" and launch into a even lengthier panegyric on the beauty of Malaysian cuisine.

Occasionally though, I cannot bear to hide beneath a flurry of superfluous words.

"Do you miss home?"
"Not really."

Every single time I say this I feel like I am being judged, like I am admitting that I am a horrible person wracked with familial problems, or worse yet, an ungrateful brat who can't be bothered to remember my parents.

What is home anyway?

Sure, I miss my family. I miss driving with my father in one of his old cars, just the road and some Lynyrd Skynyrd playing on the stereo. I miss my mother's cooking, which is the strangest thing, because when I was at home I wanted nothing more than to escape from it. I miss my brother bothering me in the midst of a movie or reading a book to show me his latest cool magic trick or the latest Youtube fad he has discovered.

I miss my bed, my dog, my house. I miss the lonely walks beneath the stars to the abandoned playground, just sitting on the swing and contemplating life in solitude. I miss the colorful and vibrant food, the sweet-as-sin milk tea in the morning and the fragrance of fried rice at 3am at night.

But it's far more complicated than that. With "home", there is also chaos. There are the frantic 2am rushes to get a press statement prepared on time. There are the heart-stopping moments as you look into a riot police officer's visor and see your own reflection staring back at you. There are the speeches that come rolling, one after another, until they all blend and mix and form this amorphous, all-encompassing ball of lies that devours everything in its path. There is that fear, that anger, that disappointment that permeates the air, the front page of the newspapers, the websites, the cyberspace, the conversations at coffeehouses.

For most people, "home" is this place of refuge. This place of shelter, where everything becomes OK and life stands still. Whatever storm, quake, disaster stops at that invisible wall people call "home" and whatever exciting, crazy ups and downs go away for a monotony that most people decry but I crave.

For me, "home" is the storm. Home is the embodiment of chaos, of messiness, of burden. Yale, for all its "stress" and "commitments" and "assignments" is a safe haven for me. At least here I know I can close my eyes, I can fall asleep, I can let go of myself and life goes on. I am not constantly bombarded by an insidious hopelessness, assaulted by the egotism or stupidity of politicians, weighed upon to take upon the mantle of a fighter.

Not all people share my sentiments of course. Many can ignore, forget, forgive what happens on a daily basis in Malaysia. As much as I would like to, I cannot. I feel a sense of responsibility, of duty that does not permit me to pretend like all is fine and good with the system when it is clearly not.

Malaysia is like family to me I suppose. No matter how bad things get, I cannot let go of it.

"Do you miss home?"
"No. I don't."

Perhaps there is a better question to be asked then.

"Do you love home?"

"Lost Home". Taken in New Haven, December 2013. OKJ All rights reserved.
Click for larger image.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Cold Hands

"And who's that guy over there? Another college president?"
"Nah, he's Nathan Hale, this guy who got caught spying on the British. His last words are pretty famous."
"What are they?"
"My only regret is that I have but one life to give to this country."

It's late at night. Old campus is silent but for a few drunken stragglers, and the sound of my footsteps crunching on heavy snow. There is no one to greet me, no one to ask me for money, no one to stare at me sideways as I mutter nothings to myself in the solitude of it all.

My only companions are Woolsey, Pierson and Nathan Hale. There's the usual chuckle as I walk by Woolsey's golden foot and as always I simply ignore poor Abraham Pierson and his Latin inscriptions. Under normal circumstances I wouldn't even spare a second glance at Nathan Hale but tonight I stop right in front of the man.

The odd one out. The youngest. The spy. I look up to him and his eyes remain as distant as ever.

There are four things that are incredibly important to me. I've often thought about them and I neatly organized them into an acronym of sorts, something I called wisdom for the AGES.

A- Acceptance. The ability to accept that there are things beyond my control, that I am far from a perfect being, and that there are times when I will hate myself but those times are alright.
G- Generosity. To give without thought. To do little things for people that brighten up their day. To let your heart and world to expand to include the people around you and beyond.
E- Empathy. To understand others, including their circumstances, their mistakes, their quirks and faults. To put myself in their shoes and to move beyond the me and to consider the feelings of others as my own.
S- Sacrifice.

I don't always live up to these standards. In fact, I rarely do. But I try my best. And tonight as I'm staring into the face of Nathan Hale, it's Sacrifice I ponder upon.

Perhaps the reason why Nathan Hale sits among the presidents, intellectuals, millionaires of Yale is because he gave the most. Others give their time, their money, their mind... But Nathan Hale gave himself. I close my eyes and I imagine the last moments of the young man. Did he know his words would be immortalized? Did he say them only to infuriate his captors, to deny them the final satisfaction? Was it only youthful bravado, a middle finger to his torturers?

Did he truly mean them?

Nathan Hale's statue turns towards me, draws a gun and shoots me in the heart.

I open my eyes and the statue remains, as still as ever. The stillness stirs the workings of my mind.

Can I make that sacrifice? Can I impale myself for another, knowing full well such a sacrifice may never, no, should never be found out? When you take away the fame, the bravado and the admiration surrounding Nathan Hale, what are you left with?

I edge forward and slowly reach out for Nathan Hale's hand.

It is as cold as mine.

"Sacrifice" Taken November 2011, New Zealand. OKJ All rights reserved.
Click for larger image.