Between January and February this year, I ate Japanese food for 35 consecutive days in Singapore. Using food, place, and other materialities as placeholders for my sister, I was trying to reprogramme my body out of grief.
It will soon be a year since my sister passed away.
I feel very proud of myself for making it through the past eleven months. Even though the guise of my high productivity and hyper-enthusiasm at work obscures this, I expend a lot of energy in order to do life as normally as possible and to get through every single day.
I know this experience is not extraordinary or special.
Statistically, grief is extremely normal. Every one experiences it at some point in their lives. People who live in war-torn parts of the world experience grief as a daily facet of life. So some times I feel like my languishing in this little grief of mine feels overstated, pompous, and self-important. Yet, there are also days where the grief overwhelms me and I stay up for fifty hours on end wondering why I am still alive or cry until I cannot breathe and want to stop breathing.
Writing about grief alone, by myself, on my own terms helps me process my pain and feel better about the rest of my life. I’ve come a long way from wishing every day that I could trade places with my sister, wishing I was dead and dead to this pain, and that I could just live in a black box and not be stimulated by any thing. So here’s hoping that the more I grieve and the more I talk about this, the easier all of this will become.
I tend to do things in sprints.
For instance, in my work as an academic, I do all my fieldwork in one stretch, binge write papers for hours and weeks at a go, and go for conference marathons in two stretches of the year. In my life as a musician, I acquaint myself with every possible rendition of a song I want to know and learn well through tens of hours on YouTube – I can direct you to any live/cover/instrumental/a capella version of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Merry Christmas Lawrence and John Legend’s Ordinary People, if you like.
In my personal life, I accumulate bad feelings in long bouts before making sense of them and letting them go. I’ve long had this ritual where I store away bad feelings in different spaces inside my head until I have the space and time to sort them out safely. I visualize these compartments as velvet boxes of different colours that are bursting at the seams, but they are held together by brown twine in ribbons and knots.
When I roam around inside my head, I try to avoid these boxes as much as possible, aside from making the occasional deposit when I have to. And then when it feels too full and I feel I can no longer function joyfully or properly, I literally set aside time to go inside myself, to unravel all of these clumps, to become unbecoming, and to housekeep my insides by laying out all the knots and clumps on the floor and working out what they are and how to process them and where they should go.
I do this as a coping mechanism because I don’t want to feel depressed and sad all the time, so keeping these bad feelings in safe boxes and attending to them conscientiously and carefully during dedicated times allows me to function in normal human society the rest of the time.
What this unravelling actually looks like varies a lot.
Some times I visit physical sites that are my ritual pitstops for this process: I sit by the Esplanade bay facing the Singapore River and walk the length of the water until my legs are too tired to carry myself; I play my glock or read a book on a grassy patch by Matilda Bay until the wind becomes uncomfortably chilly or it gets too dark. But there are also ritual practices that I fall into while trying to unravel my insides: I curl up in a dry bathtub and hug myself for a while; I lie down on a grass patch and try to make shapes out of clouds until they go away; I walk around the city and take pictures of pretty things while humming to myself; I go onto one of my many writing spaces to unload all that I feel. All the while there is an ache that is urging to come out of my body, so I release it slowly, rhythmically, measuredly.
Early this year, I ate Japanese food for 35 days in a row.
For this to make sense, I need to talk about some thing that is painful for me to relive.
I was in Osaka for a conference in November 2014, bunking in C’s spare room courtesy of my precious friend J. The night before my talk, I had a nightmare that my sister fell ill and that if I didn’t stay awake she would die. I know this sounds ridiculously superstitious and silly, but I panicked so hard in that moment and immediately texted my sister to check if she was okay. It was the middle of the night. I deposited panicky text messages to my partner and my precious friend G who both know about my struggles with sleep. They beeped me transnational comfort via pixels and I fell back into sleep.
But my nightmare woke me up again.
I checked my phone and saw replies from my sister. And that was the first time she told me she was ill.
After my sister passed away in May 2016, I went ahead to attend a conference in Fukuoka the following month. This wasn’t because I was a heartless robot or an extremely dedicated workaholic – I just desperately wanted to get out of Singapore. It was too painful being around people in grief and inhabiting spaces that my sister and I used to share – to some extent, I even began to hate the place and the fact that my sister’s traces were every where even though she was no longer here. Every one thought I was crazy, and even my partner wasn’t confident that I would be alright alone in a foreign place. But in that time, I was just fixated on leaving the place in which my sister had died and continued with my travel plans.
In Fukuoka I put on my veneer of academic professionalism once for half an hour to give my paper. And then I spent the rest of the conference alone in my hotel room, roaming unfamiliar streets for catharsis, or doing touristy things with a few friends. I texted my friend S prior to the trip to explain the situation and to ask for their company; they lovingly obliged and we spent hours hunting down sushi joints, whacking machines at the arcade, trying on quirky Japanese fashion, and then sitting at beautiful music-filled places to have drinks. There was also a lot of mad sobbing on the phone to my partner in the dead of the night, but for the most part I was glad to not have been in Singapore in that time.
To me, Japan and all of the beautiful things I used to associate with it are now reduced to bookends of grief. It was where I first learnt that my sister was ill, and where I escaped to after she had died.
But I used to associate a lot of happy feelings with Japanese food.
When I started working part time in my late-teens, I’d take my sister to have ramen as a treat whenever I got my paycheque. When my partner and I were dating and he introduced me to sashimi, we would take my sister out and experiment with new foods. When I was working multiple jobs to pay for grad school, my partner would occasionally take me to have sushi to cheer me up. My sister and I celebrate both hers and my birthdays over sushi every year. The last birthday we celebrated together was at Genki Sushi in Orchard Central.
And just like that, eating Japanese food has transited from a celebratory ritual to emotional coping. I now eat sushi whenever I miss my sister. Some times I post these food photos on Instagram and my friends mock me for being bourgeois, but I lack the energy to engage and half-heartedly respond with lame emoji.
In those 35 days, I wanted to teach my body to dissociate bad feelings from the things I used to enjoy. I started with food. I didn’t want to only have sushi when I felt sad, or feel sad every time I had sushi. And then I tackled places. I started returning to the spaces that used to mean a lot to my sister and I, and would force myself to eat at specific cafes, or attend gigs at specific venues, or sit at specific spots in specific landmarks around Singapore. And then I started wearing the clothes and using the things I was avoiding because they were what I had on me during the multiple hospital visits.
But some times, despite my best efforts, unexpected triggers come to eat at me.
Nine days ago, while on the train to my fieldsite, I spotted a person who was a friend of my sister’s. I don’t know them personally and they have never met me, but I recognized their face from the hours I spent scrolling back through the years of my sister’s feeds. All of this was so sudden and I wanted to sit down and cry. But my next interview was due in ten minutes and I had a long day of work ahead of me. So I took this bad feeling and deposited into one of the boxes inside my head.
This is grief that I have learnt to manage and process in my own time.
But it isn’t always like this.
This morning, while on the bus to another fieldsite, some one elbowed me and said hi. I couldn’t place them but they recognized me. They asked where I was going. They asked how I was doing. Then they asked why they hadn’t seen my sister around. I was caught off-guard and so shocked that I began blabbering about my work. Completely out of context and like a bullet train, I started talking about where I was heading, who I was going to meet, and what I was going to do. It didn’t work. They asked if my parents were doing well. They asked why we hadn’t caught up in a while. Then they asked if my sister was still in university. I wanted to vomit. To cope, I fished out my phone from my bag and pretended to look busy – very very busy. And then I got off the bus before my stop and sat down for a while.
This is grief that comes from no where to paralyse me.
It is now 0257hrs.
I wish I could teleport to a place where the spaces and peoples and materialities are not inscribed with any bad feelings, and where I can be anonymous. But I am now in a place where I need to manually unravel these bad feelings and release them from my body so that I can do normal life among normal people in normal society.
I have another 2.5 months of fieldwork in Singapore. I love my work and I want to power through this period. And as much as this time will bring forth many more unexpected grief triggers, I suppose it is simultaneously a prolonged opportunity to reprogramme my body’s experience of spaces and peoples and materialities in grief, post-grief.
For starters, I haven’t had sushi in 12 days.