Toolkit Laban sa Katangahan (A Bullsh*t Detection Kit)

There is an English translation of this post here.

Isang araw, binuksan mo ang TV at nagulat sa nakitang balita. “Isaw, nakaka-doble ng IQ, ayon sa mga dalubhasa!”

Isaw, the new brain food? Image credit: Flickr

Inisip mo siguro, “Weh, ‘di nga?” Sa dinami-dami ba naman ng isaw na kinain mo noong college, wala ka namang napala at kwatro ka pa rin sa Math 17. Tsaka, sino ‘tong mga “dalubhasa” na ‘to? Isaw experts ba kamo?

Siguro, Ginoogle mo yung “isaw high IQ”. Baka naman minessage mo yung kaibigan mo sa Viber para magtanong kung nabalitaan din ba n’ya ‘to. Pwede rin na nilipat mo yung channel para i-check kung nabalita rin s’ya sa ibang istasyon sa TV o kaya sa dyaryo.

Ngayon, isipin natin — paano kung wala nang ibang mapagkukunan ng balita?

Medyo pangit yung comparison. Pero ito ang naramdaman ko noong narinig ko ang balitang tinanggihan ng kongreso ang pagbigay ng panibagong prangkisa sa ABS-CBN, ang pinakamalaking broadcast network sa Pilipinas, noong nakaraang Biyernes.

ABS-CBN ang may pinakamalawak na network sa buong bansa, lalo na sa mga malalayong probinsya. Sa aking pananaw, ang kawalan ng pagkukunan ng balita para sa mahigit 90% na mga Pilipino na umaasa sa TV para rito ang pinakamasaklap na bunga ng pangyayari. Nasa gitna tayo ng pandemya. Saan kukuha ng impormasyon ang ating mga kababayan? Sa Facebook (eh paano kung wala naman silang pambayad ng internet)? Sa kapitbahay?

Ang nakakalungkot pa, base sa mga pino-post ng ilang mga kaibigan at kamag-anak sa Facebook at sa pakikipag-chat sa kanila, marami pa rin ang kumukuha ng opinyon mula sa social media, na walang ginagawang “fact-checking” o pagsusuri kung totoo ba o hindi ang mga nababasa nila.

Medyo magulo ang internet, nakaka-trigger talaga. At ngayon, nawalan pa ng isang mapagkukunan ng balita na — gayong hindi perpekto — ay meron namang ilang dekadang karanasan at kinikilala sa loob at labas ng bansa.

“Civilized society is a working system of ideas. It lives and changes by the consumption of ideas. Therefore, it must make sure that as many as possible of the ideas which its members have are available for its examination.”

Commission on Freedom of the Press, “A Free and Responsible Press”

(Emphasis mine)

Hindi ko naman balak talakayin kung bakit hindi sila dapat ipasara ng kongresista.

Pero sa gitna ng nangyayari ngayon sa ating bansa, nais kong i-presenta ang isang Toolkit Laban sa Katangahan (a.k.a. Toolkit for Healthy Skepticism to Guard Against Bullsh*t in the News), batay sa sinulat ni Carl Sagan, ang National Library Board ng Singapore at ang News Literacy Project, pati na rin ang scientific method.

Naalala n’yo pa ba ang scientific method? High school pa tayo nung inaral natin ito, baka nakalimutan na natin. Ang mahalaga: kapag binigyan tayo ng mga bagong ideya, hindi natin dapat tanggapin ito agad. Dapat may pag-aalinlangan. Tayo’y magtanong, mag-imbestiga, at mag-isip ng sarili nating konklusyon mula sa nakalap nating impormasyon.

Bumalik tayo sa kwento tungkol sa isaw — kung naisipan natin mag-search sa Google, magtanong sa kaibigan, o tumingin ng ibang pahayag — mahusay!

Ano ba ang dapat nating itanong sa ganitong mga pagkakataon? Kung napapa-“shit” ka sa mga nangyayari sa ating bansa — you’re on the right track besh!

S.H.I.T. talaga ang ating tandaan pagdating sa balita o impormasyon mula sa social media: Suriin, Hanapin, Intindihin, Tanungin

1) Suriin – Saan galing yung balita? Sino ang nagsulat at nag-publish?

Maraming Pilipino ang gumagamit ng Facebook or social media para makakuha ng balita, ngunit laganap ang biased pages, groups, at pekeng news websites. Yung iba, madaling mahalata pero yung iba, hindi.

May mga ilang palatandaan na pwedeng alalahanin tulad ng kawalan ng “About” section, walang pangalan ng may akda, walang petsa, o kaya naman ay Gmail or Yahoo e-mail lamang ang ginamit para sa “Contact Us” section imbes na ibang opisyal na domain.

Nagkukunwari na sila raw ang The Guardian, isang lehitimong news website. S.H.I.T.! Source: spot.ph

2) Hanapin – Bukod sa tao o Facebook page na nagbatid sa atin ng balita, hanapin kung mayroon pa bang ibang nagpahayag ng balitang ito. Kailan ito ipinahayag? Kailan kinuha ang litrato sa artikulo? Maaaring totoo ang impormasyon, pero wala sa orihinal na konteksto.

Noong bago pa lang ang balita ng Covid-19, shinare sa akin ng tita ko ang isang message na may malaking “Unicef” logo, tips daw laban sa virus. Nagduda ako agad dahil parang hindi propesyonal yung dating ng payo (huwag daw kumain ng ice cream at malalamig na pagkain — huh?! parang chika lang ang peg). Tsaka bakit tine-text ng Unicef yung mga tao, hindi ba mas official kung ianunsyo nila ito sa pahayagan? 2 segundo lang ng pag-Google, nalaman ko agad mula sa Unicef official website na peke ang tips na ito.

Madaling mag-fact check gamit ang websites tulad ng Snopes, atbp. Kailangan lang natin ng konting effort para mag-double check kung totoo ba ang finoforward natin, bago natin i-click ang “Share.”

Isang halimbawa naman ng litratong wala sa konteksto ay yung meme ni Prince William na sumikat kamakailan lang. Ha?! May minumura ba s’ya?

Nag-iiba ang istorya, depende sa anggulo. Source: Reddit

Ngayon madali lang putulin o i-Photoshop ang mga litrato depende sa motibo ng nagsusulat ng balita. Bago tayo magalit kay Prince William, hanapin muna natin sa internet kung kapani-paniwala ang litratong nakikita natin.

3) Intindihin – Dapat malinaw at may kahulugan ang binabasa natin. Sadya ba nitong tini-trigger ang emosyon natin sa pamamagitan ng salita o litratong ginamit sa artikulo? Masyado bang maganda ang balita para maging totoo?

“Agot niresbakan ang kampo ni Jinkee!” Nainis ka ba noong nabasa mo ang headline na ito? Nagalit ka ba kay Agot? Labanan natin ang unang reaksyon natin sa mga ganitong artikulo at tumigil ng sandali. Maraming pahayagan na sadyang gumagamit ng nakagigilalas o nakakagulat na mga salita upang hikayatin tayo na i-click ang link nila o i-share ito sa Facebook page natin.

Huwag tumigil sa headline — basahin ng buo ang balita at intindihin kung may kahulugan ang nasusulat dito. Minsan, walang kinalaman ang kwento sa headline na nagpagalit sa ‘yo!

Source: Abante

4) Tanungin – Tingnan ang balita mula sa iba’t ibang panig. Tanungin ang iyong sarili: joke-time lang ba ito? (Halimbawa, may mga news websites tulad ng The Onion sa Amerika o Adobo Chronicles sa Pilipinas na gumagamit ng “satire” na pang-uuyam ang pangunahing layunin.) Tanungin ang sarili kung merong biases o emosyon na nakakaapekto sa pagtingin mo sa balitang binabasa. Magtanong-tanong at magisip-isip bago mag-share!

Source: Scoopwhoop

Eh paano kung ginamitan mo na ng S.H.I.T. toolkit ang balita ngunit pagpasiya mo sa dulo ay taliwas sa iyong orihinal na paniniwala?

Sabi nga ni Carl Sagan, “The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premise or starting point and whether that premise is true.” Ibig sabihin, kailangan nating maging maunawain sa iba’t ibang pananaw. Hindi porque atin ang isang paniniwala, tayo ang parating tama.

Source: I Was There

Hindi madali i-S.H.I.T. lahat ng balita. Hindi madali maging skeptic. May extra effort na kailangan. Pero may tiwala ako sa ating lahat. Sabi nga ng isa sa aking paboritong palabas noon, Buksan ang pag-iisip, Tayo’y likas na scientist!

Source: NLB Singapore

Lalo na sa panahon ngayon, maging mapanuri po tayo!

Yesterday Once More

I’m a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to my favourite music.

My philosophy on music – as with life, in general – is that it’s worth trying anything at least once.

A quick look at my Spotify playlists shows it runs the gamut from The Beatles to the Backstreet Boys, Diana Ross to Death Cab for Cutie, Nancy Sinatra to The National, Wilson Phillips to Weezer, Pare Ko to Part of Your World. I love them all.

(Side rant: one of my pet peeves is people who dismiss whole genres or artists just because it’s “mainstream” or “pop” or from Nickelback or whatever. What does that even mean, anyway?

Music is a deeply personal experience. Just because a person’s musical taste doesn’t conform to our particular idea of what’s “cool” is no reason to dismiss her/him or the music altogether. We’ve all stopped being anxious high schoolers long ago – by now, if you’re still judging people by whether they’re a Belieber or not then you’re the a-hole. Everyone is unique. If we all listened to the same songs the world would be a much more boring place. Ok, rant over.)

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I recently came across an old NY Times article written by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz called “The Songs That Bind.” By crunching Spotify data on how frequently every song is listened to by men and women of each particular age, Seth came to a fascinating conclusion: the majority of us, when we are grown men and women, predictably stick with the music that captured us in the earliest phase of our adolescence.

That’s right – the songs we were listening to as our voices cracked and our hair grew in strange places are most likely still going to be our favourites when we’re in our 30s or 50s. More specifically, these are the songs we liked at the ages of 11 to 14 (for women) and the ages of 13 to 16 (for men).

In my case, this seems to be true. I have a soft spot for a lot of ‘90s era pop and alternative music. I can still belt out, word for word, the lines to nearly all the songs from the Disney Renaissance movies. The lyrics from the tracks on the early Now That’s What I Call Music! albums are forever etched on my subconscious, it seems.

Interestingly, I also realised I still listen to a lot of the songs I was exposed to at that age – not necessarily from the ‘90s. I’m talking about the music my parents listened to. They controlled the car radio and what played on our home stereo on lazy weekends – which meant a diet of Billy Joel, The Jackson 5, Jose Mari Chan, and ABBA. The Manhattan Transfer, Simon & Garfunkel, Phil Collins, and Air Supply were staples. The Sleepless in Seattle soundtrack was a family favourite (“Give me a kiss to build a dream on and my imagination will thrive upon that kiss…”).

The sound of nostalgia, for me

One of my continuing favourites from my parents’ playlist is the Carpenters.

They had a song for almost every occasion. Slow start to the week? Rainy Days and Mondays. Your boy ghosted you? Please Mr. Postman. Imminent alien invasion? Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.

I remember dedicating – privately, in my diary haha – the Carpenters’ ‘Goodbye to Love’ to an unrequited crush (opo, ma-drama na po ako since nineteen kopong-kopong). Karen Carpenter’s smooth vocals and the sweet innocence in some of their ballads contrasted with the tragedy of her early death, and lent some of the songs a haunting quality.

Suffice it to say, I was already a bit of a Carpenters fan. I was pleasantly surprised then, to come across the 1994 tribute album If I Were a Carpenter on Spotify.

The Carpenters with Chibi eyes (Source)

I was already familiar with Sonic Youth’s emotionally charged version of ‘Superstar’ from the movie Juno (another awesome film soundtrack btw). I dug around and found it actually came from If I Were a Carpenter, a whole album of ‘90s alternative rock bands covering the Carpenters’ hits.

Apart from Superstar, my favourites include Dishwalla’s cover of ‘It’s Going to Take Some Time’ (it put me in a very ’90s mood), Shonen Knife’s ‘Top Of The World’ (had a joyful Ramones sound to it which I liked), and The Cranberries’ rendition of ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You’ (mainly because I like Dolores O’Riordan’s voice haha).

It’s especially tricky for tribute albums to get the formula right (*ehem* a certain Eraserheads tribute). They can’t just sing the song as is, otherwise it’s no different to a ho-hum karaoke version (at best) or a poor copy of the original (at worst). They can’t render it too unrecognisable either, because they’ll leave the original band’s fans disappointed.

I felt that If I Were a Carpenter hit all the right buttons – it was a fresh take on songs I loved, with the distinct vibe of the era I grew up in. What a trip down memory lane. The feeling is best captured in the Carpenters’ own words:

All my best memories come back clearly to me

Some can even make me cry, just like before

It’s yesterday once more

How about you, what’s your favourite music? Has it changed since you were younger? Let me know in the comments!

Think critically dear readers,

Featured image by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #8: Singapore

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Today’s a special post since it’s Singapore’s National Day, so it’s not quite about a trip. Happy 55th Birthday, SG!

Celebrating SG51 with pancit canton and Peranakan kueh back in 2016

八 (Bā) or 8 is an auspicious number in Chinese culture because it sounds similar to 发 (fā) which means to “become rich, make a fortune” (among other meanings). This year marks the 8th National Day my small family has celebrated in this Little Red Dot. (I also just realised this is my 8th #SundaySofaSojourns post!)

2020, of course, is turning out far differently than any of us expected.

National Day in Singapore is held annually on 9th August. I think it can be best described as a celebration of how this city-state proved itself to be “the little nation that could.”

There’s a live parade (a.k.a. the NDP) where members of the Singapore military, police, and civil defence force as well as its best homegrown companies march, where almost everyone from students to seniors showcase musical performances, and where one can see all the nation’s politicians don their best red & white clothing on TV.

My kid watching a past parade with his pork floss bun

There’s a much-anticipated fly-past of the country’s flag, the Red Lions freefall jump, and the fighter jet display (usually, they spend over a month practising this – from our office building in the business district, it was common to hear the deep rumble of the jets every day in the weeks leading to the NDP). The parade itself is broadcast real-time on free TV, but tickets to see it live are balloted to citizens months before.

This year’s NDP Funpack includes hand sanitiser, face masks, and a digital thermometer (Source: Mothership)

Apart from the NDP itself, there are signs of celebration elsewhere – sales, commemorative cakes & breads, ‘I ❤️ SG’ t-shirts.

Bread Talk, a popular bakery chain, offers a Taste of Home Set which includes breads with local flavours like kaya (coconut jam), seafood laksa, and otah (a delicious fish paste)
Toys“R”Us is still operational here

Everyone is encouraged to participate. This year’s theme song is “a tribute to Singaporeans’ spirit of community” and gratitude for each other. While NDP 2020 will be a more sombre, more reflective affair, the ceremony will go on.

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For any country, there is value in this kind of active retelling of its history — for the younger generation, that they are introduced to this sense of belonging (outside of their immediate families and communities), and for the older generation, that we may remember what we were taught in school. It is easy to forget. And when we forget, we risk repeating past mistakes.

As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I am trying to think of a unified ceremony celebrated in a similar way across the entire Philippines (one that covers all Filipinos, so religious or provincial holidays don’t count) and I am coming up short. (I may be missing something here, so if you have an example please share in the comments.)

For us personally, this question of national identity is becoming more relevant as our kid grows. We want him to feel connected to both countries and to be able to navigate both cultures, with understanding and mutual respect for each. How do we do this? What stories do we tell our children? These are not easy questions.

It is in the stories we choose to tell that we shape our nation’s collective memory, or leave it without one.

Think critically dear readers,

Goodbye Kiss

I lost them in quick succession.

The CASAA Food Centre was the first to go, in a fire in 2015. Apart from being a named location in a song from one of the Philippines’ most iconic bands (and a personal favourite), CASAA was one of my main haunts as a freshie in UP Diliman. Palma Hall — or AS, for short — was next door and it was where all our GE subjects were held. I lived steps away too, in a campus residence hall nearly as old as my mother. The CASAA steps was where I could get my favourite monay with cheese, sold in large, white Styrofoam coolers to keep the bread warm.

The following year, the UP Faculty Centre also burned down. My memories in FC were coloured differently, mainly because they had to do with me waiting for papers to be marked, or waiting for grades to be released, or waiting for “prerog” results during a particularly dismal semester when I got nearly zero subjects in CRS Online. (“Prerog” was a manual enlistment process where UP students had to plead with professors to enlist them in a particular class. It was the teacher’s prerogative to give you a class slot — get it?) But I had calmer moments in FC — I walked its halls from time to time, for no particular reason other than I loved how it felt and smelled (earthy like aged wood, with a hint of books). I also remember watching a film screening of the original Ring film there for some reason. It was before the whole craze with Sadako started and the film was still relatively obscure. I left FC in the dark, properly terrified.

Then, as if the loss of two beloved campus buildings wasn’t enough to sate the fire’s hunger, in 2018 the UP Shopping Centre or SC also went up in flames. You must understand, I lived mostly on campus for a good five years so the loss of SC hit particularly hard. My memories here were more mundane — SC was where I shopped for small essentials, photocopied my 1×1 photo in one big sheet for all that semester’s index cards, ate my fill of tapsilog at Rodic’s, bought my first UP t-shirt and hoodie, and photocopied accounting standards in bulk (with apologies to the copyright gods, but we were just students back then). Small day to day stuff. Then again, memory is made up of these small moments.

All three — gone.

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Today, I found out that The Chocolate Kiss Café at the Bahay ng Alumni (a.k.a. Choco Kiss) was closing its doors for good due to losses driven by Covid-19. No school, no students. No students, no customers.

We went to Choco Kiss when we were feeling fancy and had extra pocket money — Choco Kiss, with their bottomless iced teas that came with a separate syrup glass, decadent cake slices (the marshmallow crests on their Devil’s Food Cake!), my usual Chicken Kiev and his usual BBQ baby back ribs. I remember they used to serve one of my favourite appetisers — rumaki, made from water chestnuts and chicken liver wrapped in bacon and fried. They sometimes had a piano going and had paintings from local artists on the walls. Like I said, it felt special, for near-broke university students like us.

Now the feeling — like the places — exists only in memory.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #7: Venice, Italy

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Venice to me is a beautiful, eccentric grande dame, bedecked with heavy jewels. Her lipstick is a shade too bright. Her gait is a step too slow and heavy with history. She’s seen everything – from the elegance of the Renaissance to the steady grip that tourist kiosks selling knock-off carnival masks and keychains from China have on her narrow streets.

A city built over the Adriatic Sea. What can get more romantic than that? Venice sparked my imagination ever since I read an adaptation for kids of ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ Later I came across Casanova; I imagined the sea salt in the air as I read about his escape from the Doge’s Palace. I sensed how eerie the city’s canals must look late into the night, reading Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Don’t Look Now.’

And then there I was. I could taste the air and meander through her alleyways myself.

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We queued very early the next morning for Basilica San Marco and a climb up the Campanile for a wider view. (There’s also a lift to the top.)

I felt something magical looking down on Venice’s brown tile roofs and seeing Sky blue meet Sea blue on the horizon. It made me feel absolutely at peace with the world.

Piazza San Marco is a great place to hang out. You don’t have to buy coffee from the pricey caffès around the square. The Hub and I each had a bottle of Lipton peach iced tea bought from a small convenience store and sat on a bench a little way from the Columns of San Marco and San Teodoro (where public executions used to be held, imagine). We people-watched.

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To get around, the Hub and I often rode a waterbus or vaporetto. Before you start thinking about boats traveling at breakneck speed à la The Italian Job, note there are actually speed limits for boats because of wave-induced damage to stonework and building foundations. The vaporetto travelled at a measured, leisurely pace – as did life in the rest of the city.

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We went on the Doge’s Palace Itinerari Segreti or Secret Itineraries Tour, which I highly recommend. You have to book it separately – this section of the palace is not accessible on the standard ticket. The hushed tone of the tour was set from the start when we entered through a small wooden door which led us to hidden rooms, with floors that groaned with age.

It’s the part of the palace where the torture chambers used to be. This was where old Venice’s political prisoners were detained and made to confess through a disturbing yet ingenious device constructed from rope and water, where the cells where Casanova was jailed (and escaped, and jailed, and escaped again…) are located. The small barred windows in the cells were claustrophobic. There was barely any sunlight and the stone walls felt cold to the touch.

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My favourite part of our trip was when the Hub and I just walked aimlessly along the back streets, chatting. It was quieter there, with less tourists and fewer souvenir kiosks.

We stumbled upon a genuine Venetian mask shop, La Bottega dei Mascareri, in the market. The shop crafted intricate, detailed masterpieces and even supplied those mysterious masks used in the movie Eyes Wide Shut. We found creamy gelato and deep-fried cheese sandwiches. I enjoyed the fresh seafood best though.

While the map on our guidebook tried to be helpful, Venice’s streets had a mind of their own – they squeezed out of straight lines and twisted, turned. Leapt over canals, led us over nameless bridges with railings for safety and without.

It was in the quiet side streets that Venice let her hair down. We both liked the city better that way.

Think critically dear readers,

Rate My Setup! The Pandemic Edition

Welcome to the Pandemic Edition of Rate My Setup! Today, let me take you on a tour of my home office! (Insert air quotes here)

This is where the work magic happens!

As you can see, my “home office” is conveniently located a stone’s throw away from where I have my meals. No need for a FitBit — I hardly step away from my “desk”. What fun!

a. An old monitor from the office that I managed to snag before the circuit breaker period started. Perfect timing, as monitor prices suddenly shot up the weeks after and supply was scarce (It’s now back to normal I think)

b. Work laptop with obligatory post-it over the built-in camera. Zuckerberg does it, so why not poknat?

c. A gamer headset with soft over-ear cups, because my lola ears cannot stand all the marathon Teams / Zoom calls happening since we all started working from home. And I figure if anyone knows about ear comfort, it’s gamers. I need crisp sound to drop annoying corporate jargon such as: “Let’s take this offline” or “I have a hard stop at 3” or “I’ll circle back to you on this”. Adults adulting, folks!

I’ve hit BINGO too many times to count (Source)

d. Octopus connections, since I work opposite the Hub. One of my fervent wishes these days is for our salaries to climb as high as our electric bill the past months

e. I have owned some variation of the Chonky Accountant’s Calculator since university days. Keep your TI BA II Professionals and fancy scientific calculators — all I need is a calculator with big keys (all the better for those fat fingers, my dear), an even bigger “+” function, and a button with double zeroes

f. A nearly finished jumbo bottle of Eye-Mo eyedrops

g. You may also have noticed that both my monitor and laptop are resting on their own respective stack of books. As I’m too cheap to spring for a proper laptop stand, I’ve repurposed some of my thickest books to serve this purpose for me and the Hub #diy #blessed

h. Bluetooth speaker so I can listen to my Spotify playlists on full blast (on those rare times I’m not on above-mentioned Teams / Zoom calls)

i. My Pandemic Essentials: bottle of Green Cross 70% Ethyl Alcohol for regular wipedowns of everything you see in the photo, a smaller bottle of antiseptic germicide to grab and go, and gum for chewing away ever-escalating work-from-home stress

j. My kid’s drawing tucked under the keyboard. Why do I simultaneously feel I see too much and too little of him these days?! Also, more octopus connections.

Hope you enjoyed the tour of my home office! In the next episode of Rate My Setup: top 10 best electric back massagers — perfect for dining chairs!

Think critically dear readers,

P.S. Written tongue in cheek. This post is dedicated to all of you out there working from home at your dining tables, sitting in non-ergonomic “work chairs”, possibly with children screaming at the background. WE GOT THIS. 💻

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #6: Moscow, Russia

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Moscow’s train stations had an old-book smell, which I loved. I think it was because of the wooden escalators. Until our trip, I had never seen wooden escalators before. In London they were banned because of a big fire at King’s Cross in 1987. In Moscow, they are still very much in use.

Moscow was one of the more difficult cities we’ve had to navigate in by far. There were no English translations in the Metro. The Hub and I tried memorising the station names to navigate our way around but belatedly realized most of them ended in “-skaya” so we got lost anyway. To add to our confusion, the Cyrillic alphabet kept fooling our brains into thinking we understood the signs — but the letters in the Roman alphabet all mean and sound very different here.

C in Cyrillic is pronounced “es”

I clearly recall that the interior of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in the Red Square was just as beautiful as its unusual onion-shaped domes. Inside there were colourful frescoes, tall ceilings painted with somber-looking icons, and a male choir singing Orthodox chants.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral
The cathedral interior
The Kremlin

The Kremlin State Armoury is a must, must, must see. Of the many museums we’ve visited, I think it’s by far the most impressive and the richest. The collection was vast and clearly valuable — ancient medieval plates, golden Bibles set with rubies and precious stones, Tsarist-era gowns, dainty French clocks, intricate wooden carriages (with their original wheels!), ingeniously crafted Fabergé eggs. It spanned several ages and even countries (were the pieces donated? were they “borrowed” from other museums?). The Orlov Diamond in the Diamond Fund (where you had to pay a separate entrance fee) was sparkly and crazy huge, it almost hurt my eyes to look. On the bright side, I could stare at it for as long as I wanted.

No photos are allowed inside the armoury, so this photo of the exterior courtyard is all I have.

Included in the Kremlin ticket price — a visit to the medieval Dormition Cathedral
The impressive interior of the Moscow GUM (State Department Store) facing the Red Square

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I wasn’t leaving Moscow without my own matryoshka dolls (also called nesting or Babushka dolls), so after a failed search at Arbat Street we trekked up to Izmaylovo Market. Izmaylovo is a flea market of sorts and a Russian souvenir paradise: you could find the kitschiest (NBA nesting dolls, anyone?) to the most detailed of matryoshka dolls (with up to 15 little ones nested inside). Even better, you’re allowed to haggle.

Interestingly, Izmaylovo Market also seemed to have been an amusement park in its former life. If you look up when you enter the market, you’ll notice a rusty kiddie-size roller coaster track leading nowhere. There are also stranded pirate boats in odd locations. Does anyone know how it ended up as a market?

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We used the Metro to go everywhere. Almost everyone in the city did too, I think. It actually felt quite nice being part of the rush hour crowd, shoving and bumping along with everyone else.

I think Moscow’s Metro train stations are things of beauty and worth a trip by themselves. Each had its own unique character and style. So towards the end of our trip that’s exactly what we did — we station-hopped with no particular destination in mind.

Partisanskaya Station, the stop for Izmaylovo Market, had Soviet statues.

Partisanskaya Station

Ploshchad Revolyutsii Station had even more bronze statues of Soviet citizens under each of the station arches. Presumably they’re holding the ceilings up?

Ploshchad Revolyutsii Station

Mayakovskaya Station was decorated in an art deco style.

Mayakovskaya Station

Kiyevskaya Station had interesting Russian-themed mosaics between the arches.

Kiyevskaya Station

Novoslobodskaya Station had back-lit, stained-glass panels.

Novoslobodskaya Station

Komsomolskaya Station, with its Baroque-style chandeliers, was especially unique for me. It had a lot of Communist-themed hidden Mickeys. We spotted a bust of Vladimir Lenin and a ceiling mosaic of him rallying the troops (I think!).

Komsomolskaya Station
I see you, Lenin

Ironically, we ended up missing our train to the airport and having to race through the airport Home Alone-style to catch our flight. We barely made it.

Think critically dear readers,

I Got Swabbed: Covid-19 Testing in Singapore

Big news first: my result turned out to be negative. Yay.

That said, I wanted to share with you my experience of getting tested for Covid-19 here in Singapore to help assure you that the process is quick, relatively painless, and fuss-free. If you have any of the most common symptoms of Covid-19, please visit your nearest clinic to ensure you get timely and appropriate care. You’re also doing your part to keep everyone else in your community safe. 😊

JUST A SORE THROAT…?

The other day, I felt a scratchiness at the back of my throat and some pain swallowing. Any other day — heck, any other year besides 2020 — I would’ve brushed it off and taken a lozenge. But I was feeling extremely paranoid and thought to go to a clinic to have it checked out.

Google “common covid symptoms” here in Singapore and the first result that comes up is the Ministry of Health (MOH) Covid-19 self-assessment website, where you can check out your symptoms and decide next steps after answering a few basic questions (data is anonymised). The most common Covid-19 symptoms are fever, dry cough, and tiredness.

I was not presenting any fever and felt no other symptoms apart from my scratchy throat. While sore throat is indeed a symptom of Covid-19, it’s a less common one, along with aches & pains, diarrhoea, headache, or loss of taste or smell.

After going through the MOH self-check, it recommended that I go to a Public Health Preparedness Clinic (PHPC) or polyclinic that offered SASH (Swab and Send Home) tests for Covid-19, along with a link to a website where I can check all the nearby clinics that offered SASH tests.

WHAT IS THE SWAB AND SEND HOME (SASH) INITIATIVE?

According to The Straits Times, previously, all swab tests for Covid-19 were done at hospitals. With the SASH initiative, swab tests were extended to polyclinics and some general practitioner clinics. This helps to strengthen active case-finding in the community, as well as reduce crowds at hospitals. Patients who meet certain criteria are swabbed and then sent home to wait for their test results. Results can take up to three working days, though I received mine much faster.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE CLINIC?

I found a nearby clinic offering SASH tests and called ahead to say I had a sore throat. No appointment was needed, but I was told to bring my employment pass.

Upon arrival at the clinic, I was asked to fill in a health declaration online by scanning a QR code posted at the entrance. It’s the standard SafeEntry declaration where you’re asked if you’ve had contact with confirmed cases recently, have travelled in the past 14 days, etc. The clinic had seating outside so I did not need to sit with other outpatients in the clinic lobby.

After they had prepped the room, a doctor wearing full PPE called me over and asked again about my symptoms. She checked my temperature using an in-ear thermometer and listened to my heartbeat with her stethoscope.

Afterwards, she recommended that I do a swab test. Because I was not a highly suspect case I could refuse, but for public health reasons and also for my own peace of mind I decided to go ahead with it.

If I did the swab test, I would be given a mandatory 3-day medical certificate and was not allowed by law to leave my home until I got a negative result or served out the three days, whichever came sooner. If I decided not to do the swab test, I would be given a mandatory 5-day medical certificate.

I’ll add here that the consequences of flouting your medical certificate — for example, by stepping out to get a quick takeaway lunch before the three days are over — are taken very seriously here in Singapore. You could be fined S$10,000 (around Php 360,000 or over US$7,000), imprisoned for up to 6 months, both, or even deported and barred from re-entering Singapore forever. Totally not worth that takeaway bubble tea.

HOW DID THE SWAB TEST FEEL?

The doctor told me the swab test would be quick but to expect some discomfort. She said there were rare cases where patients got a nosebleed (!), but this was usually for people with more sensitive noses.

I was understandably a little apprehensive after reading horror stories, but the swab took less than 30 seconds to complete. I was told to blow my nose, tilt my head back, and stay still while the doctor inserted a thin flexible stick into each nostril.

It felt slightly uncomfortable, like the feeling right before a big sneeze. Nothing alarming though.

HOW MUCH DID THE TEST COST?

The invoice did not break down the cost of the swab and the medicine I was given for my sore throat, but it did indicate the cost was subsidised under Singapore’s Flu Subsidy Scheme. For the swab test, medicine and throat lozenges, I paid a total of S$32 (around Php 1,140 or US$23). MOH, on its website, states Covid-19 testing is free (excluding the clinic consultation fee and/or medicine).

Free testing or a subsidy makes sense — you want to encourage people with symptoms to step forward and get tested on their own accord so you can prevent undetected infection in the community.

If the swab is too expensive, what incentive is there for people who have less financial resources to get tested?

Which is why it was crazy to me to read that in the Philippines, a swab test could cost up to Php 4,000 – Php 12,000+. At least there are a few LGUs, including Manila under its Mayor Isko Moreno, who are offering testing for free.

WHAT HAPPENS WHILE I WAIT FOR RESULTS?

I walked home — you’re not allowed to take public transport — and self-quarantined in a room separate from my family. You’re also encouraged to use a toilet separate from the rest of your family.

It’s safest for you and for everyone in your household to assume you’re positive unless told otherwise.

I was told it would take three working days for the results to come out. I would get a call from the clinic or an SMS from the MOH.

It was a nerve-wracking wait — my mind kept turning to worst-case scenarios. Later that evening, the Hub called me over Facebook Messenger so I could still be “in” the room while he read bedtime stories to our kid, a family nighttime ritual. “Come over here!” my kid said. He knew I was in the other bedroom. I don’t think he understood why Mommy wasn’t there to kiss him goodnight.

Thankfully I didn’t have to wait for too long. The very next day after my test, I got a call from the clinic to say the results came back negative. I could hug my kid again!

WHAT NOW?

Dear readers, to be frank, my anxiety hit the roof while I waited for my results.

I knew that my family and I had taken all the precautions — washed and sanitised our hands on the regular, worn face masks 100% of the time while outside, taken showers after stepping outside, taken our Vitamin C, practised safe distancing — but this virus is a crafty one.

I think that the virus often gets framed in a way that suggests that if you do catch it, you failed at following precautions or something. Make no mistake — Covid-19 is highly contagious. If you think you’ve caught it, focus on next steps like how to get tested ASAP and how to get immediate care for yourself & the rest of your family.

As we reopen gradually all over the world, let’s not let our guard down. Let’s not get complacent.

We’ll get through this together.

Think critically dear readers — and STAY SAFE!

All images (except for my personal screenshots) on this post are from the UN Covid-19 Response page on Unsplash

I Want to Eat Sleep! (On Mandarin Chinese Tones)

I think most beginner Mandarin learners would recognise Transition’s ‘Duìbùqǐ’ song. It’s probably the most-played tune on the first day of any Mandarin class:

Why is the song so popular with first-time learners? Maybe because it perfectly highlights one of the trickiest things you grapple with when you start out learning Mandarin: the four pronunciation tones (with the bonus of a light, catchy tune!).

Image credit: Ninchanese

You can read more about the four tones here. Suffice it to say that in Pinyin — which is the Romanisation of Chinese characters based on their pronunciation — the tones are usually indicated by marks at the top of the letter (for example, mā, má, mǎ, mà are four different words).

The interaction at the start of the ‘Duìbùqǐ’ video has a young English guy approaching a snack stall to order boiled dumplings (shuǐjiǎo 水饺). Instead of doing that though, he inadvertently mixes up the tones and pronounces it as shuìjiào (睡觉). He ends up saying “I want (to eat) sleep.” Both words are composed of “shuijiao”, but the tones are pronounced differently.

“Oh, are you tired?” the dumpling man retorts.

Eventually the message gets across, and a sweet apology song ensues: “Sorry, my Chinese is not so good!” (Duìbùqǐ, wǒ de zhōngwén bù hǎo! 对不起,我的中文不好!)

In my opinion, while pronunciation tones are indeed very important, we also shouldn’t dwell on them too much to the point where we’re afraid to speak at all. I find that generally native speakers can still understand me even if I get a few of my tones off, as long as there’s enough context. (The ‘Duìbùqǐ’ song just exaggerates the situation for comedic effect, but in reality, I think the English guy might have gotten his dumplings eventually.)

There’s a fine line between sounding stilted (like a TV variety show host) and making yourself understood.

It’s hilarious how he uses the hand technique to remember tones

I still often get self-conscious about my tones. But I think the more important thing is to get out there and start using the language. That will help you recognise your mistakes and tame your unruly tones faster.

*

By now you might be thinking to yourself, “Tones are too much trouble.” Let me assure you they’re not. In fact, I believe Filipinos are a pro at tones already. Let me demonstrate.

Imagine you’re waiting for the elevator. Ding! The elevator doors open and you see a fellow Filipino inside.

“Bababa ba?” you ask.

“Bababa,” she replies. *

If you understood that monosyllabic conversation, you’re good to go with Mandarin tones! 😉

Think critically dear readers,

* Translation for non-Filipinos: “Going down?” “Going down.”

Featured image by shiyang xu on Unsplash

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #5: Marrakesh, Morocco

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

If I dig deep enough in the recesses of my memory, I find the Moroccan souks.

We wandered down its narrow, sun-dappled lanes where we promptly got lost. There were the tanneries – streets covered with animal hides drying to make leather, heavy with the smell of cow.

Vivid colours from baskets of saffron and turmeric, the heady scent of lavender and verbena, bottles of argan oil and sticks of cinnamon. A strange, sticky mound that looked like the sundot kulangot one finds in Baguio. Chameleons in cages, blending with the rust. Fanous lamps made of coloured glass and rusty metal; small silver lamps shaped like Aladdin’s; miniature camels carved of sweet-scented cedar wood.

*

We stayed at a local riad, within walking distance from the famous Jemaa El-Fna square, a UNESCO cultural site. The walk is a bit tricky, but once we got the route down pat it was easy to navigate. Inside our riad it was quiet and peaceful, in contrast to the nightly carnival outside.

Riad Altair, where we stayed.

They served great breakfast. We had soft cinnamon bread and yoghurt with fresh fruit and honey. The little spreads included fig, which was seedy like kiwi, but sweet. I remember the pot-holder with hot breakfast tea shaped like a man wearing a djellaba, the national dress.

Oh, the tea. It was everywhere — mint tea that both cooled our throats and left a warm feeling in our bellies. It was made simply, from mint leaves steeped in hot water (no tea bags here!) and served with generous amounts of sugar cubes.

We waited with our hot tea until evening came, then made our way to Jemaa El-Fna. The map on our guidebook’s back cover had plenty of white squiggles which were meant to represent streets – except there weren’t any street signs so the map wasn’t particularly helpful. The Koutoubia Mosque stood tall and was visible from afar, so it was a more useful compass.

Koutoubia Mosque.

I remember the hustle and bustle of Jemaa El-Fna, which at night magically transforms to an open-air food market. For our first dinner in Marrakesh, we opted to try our luck there. Don’t be intimidated by the very forward food hustlers. We took our time considering what each stall had to offer and politely shook our heads each time a plastic laminated menu was shoved in our faces. Funnily enough we were greeted with endless ‘Konnichiwas’ and ‘Nǐ hǎos.’ Maybe to them all Asians looked alike.

There was a lot of food on offer: grilled meats, snails in spicy broth, hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with cumin. We picked stalls that were packed with patrons. Our first meal was at Chez Ali. The grilled lamb and couscous were unremarkable but the staff were very friendly.

I love ox tongue, so naturally we just had to try the stalls that served sheep face and tongue boiled in a delicious brown sauce (in what looked like Oscar the Grouch’s can). Delicious, but not for everyone.

Ox brain? Kelangan mo nun

*

It was back to the souks for us the following day. Cross the street at your own risk. Go slow and you might see live peacocks on a bicycle. I didn’t want to think about where it was headed.

I remember Le Musée de Marrakech suffused with a warm, gold light. There were plenty of artists, all women, sketching the paintings.

We eventually found the Medersa Ben Youssef after several false trails into the souk streets. The colour of the glazed tiles and the intricate carvings on the walls were an enigmatic, yet calming sight. We took our time wandering the small rooms, which used to be student cells back when the Medersa was an Islamic theological college.

Medersa Ben Youssef.

*

That evening, we were drawn back to Jemaa El-Fna. While some may think the square too touristy, I found there was much to observe.

Apart from the food stalls there was the entertainment and the market, which had modern touches but also parts which to me felt and looked like it came from a different, much older time.

Ever wondered what a Coke in Morocco looks like?

We saw young acrobats performing in the street–cheerdancers making pyramids with no safe, soft rubber mats to fall on.

But there were also more unconventional sights: tooth-pullers with small piles of teeth hawking their trade; charmers with sleepy-looking snakes under large cloth hats; murmurs of rapid French and Arabic; pink clay rooftops all dotted with satellite dishes; tired horses pulling caleches for the tourists; stray cats having sex in the corners; the faint sounds of prayer punctuating the times in between snacks.

*

If I concentrate hard enough, I can almost smell the clay pot of tender, steaming Moroccan tagine. Soft slow-cooked lamb, tarty olives, fragrant spices, chopped apricots.

The aroma of Marrakesh lingers in my mind.

Think critically dear readers,