Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Beauty, life, regret, and toilets

In his 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning feature article, journalist Gene Weingarten tells the story of famous violinist Joshua Bell’s street performance experiment. ( This incredible musician positioned himself in a high pedestrian traffic area of Washington D.C. discreetly, if you don’t count the priceless instrument emitting heart-breakingly beautiful music produced by an internationally renowned musician whose playing has been said to do “nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live." The gimmick was the brain-child of the Washington Post; an effort to see if people can or are willing to recognize and appreciate beauty amidst the stressors of everyday life.

The result? Of the 2,004 people who passed Bell on that busy morning on their way to work, 27 gave money, some gave pennies, every single child tried to stop, straining to listen only to be pulled away by a hurrying parent, seven stopped to listen for more than a minute, and one of 2,004 recognized Bell for the famous musician he is.

I read the Washington Post article yesterday. I stopped to pick a flower on my way to work today. I had never noticed them growing there before. Before I pinned it in my hair, I buried my nose in the soft pink petals and inhaled, letting the sweet scent fill my lungs.

Beauty is an ambiguous concept by nature. Can we really define it? If it is beautiful to me, is it beautiful to you? Is it beautiful if no one is there to see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, smell it, love and appreciate it? What makes one thing beautiful and another not? Is beauty limited to the physical world? Can we really define it?

Maybe not. But I do want to know it. I need to know it, and see it, and hear it, and touch it, and taste it, and smell, love and appreciate the ambiguous it everyday. We all do. We need it to survive amidst the evils and ugliness the world can sometimes hold.

I tried to find beauty in my everyday activities this weekend; jazz, yoga, sun bathing, gym going, and movie watching with friends and the girls. I promise it’s there, just waiting for someone to look, to notice.

The cake, so to speak, was an e-mail from my friend Claire inviting me to Sunday afternoon, ladies-only tea and homemade cookies. And the icing?...the link to an article from “Yes” magazine online titled “Now I Become Myself.”

The introduction to the article by Parker Palmer reads as follows:
“What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been. How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep identity—the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation.” (

Wednesday evening I had the privileged of attending a preview party for “Asia 360”, a new economic and political magazine covering 28 major Asian nations to be launched next year.

There are moments in life when you realize you are exactly where you should be, doing exactly what you should be. Surrounded by prominent journalists, investors, and professors from all over the world, I had one of those “this is exactly where I’m suppose to be moments’ (and I don’t think it was the beautiful venue, free snacks or open bar either). I have an incredible passion for the art, the science, the field of journalism, and this experience, teaching, writing, learning in and exposing myself to Asia, is exactly the path I should be following at this point in my life. Like being slurped up by a big helium balloon and then floated softly around, chest all puffed with excessive joy, on this random Wednesday night in October I felt closer than I ever have before to finding Palmer’s seed of authentic vocation. On a path, discovering a deeper identity.

Back to the violinist. Among those seven who paused to listen to Jason Bell play his violin that morning, was John Picarello, a supervisor at the U.S. postal service who, in his youth, had studied to be a concert violinist. When he was 18, he gave up his music studies for a more practical line of work.

In his award winning feature article, Weingarten writes of Picarello, “When he left, Picarello says, ‘I humbly threw in $5.’ It was humble: You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.”

After I finished the article, this particular section struck me. It scared me even. It was my biggest fear manifesting itself in a complete stranger. I have, since I was young, promised myself I would never look at another person and realize they are who I once wanted to be. What I hope, is to look in the mirror and realize I am the person I once wanted to be. I’m here to grow, evolve into and reveal that person.

I try to go to my hot yoga classes with a mantra. Not only does it seem very yogic and worldly of me, it also prevents me from falling over when trying to hold these ridiculous balances in the 95 degree heat. Tonight this will be mine: “Find beauty everyday, constantly seek your true and deep identity, never regret, you can be the person you always wanted to be.”

But of course I cannot close this serious, personal and heartfelt glimpse of the private workings of my brain for the last week without a lovely story about, what else but...

Toilets. I actually can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this topic before. They really have been an integral and interesting part of my life in Singapore. A perfect example: Just a few days ago, I had a very in-depth Skype conversation with Tim about what exactly would be the correct method to plunge the toilet in my apartment that just doesn’t seem to be flushing correctly lately.

Another random toilet phenomenon, are these signs that are posted in most of the “Western” bathrooms in Singapore. Basically there are pictures of people squatting, literally on the toilet, with a red X through them like the “no smoking” signs in America. The correct way of sitting on the toilet is shown next to the wrong way. At first this seemed ridiculous. I mean who would actually squat on a toilet?

Um…people that have never seen a Western toilet before of course. You see, in much of Asia, toilets are holes in the ground build for squatting over, and you can imagine the confusion of someone who has never seen a Western toilet before encountering one for the first time. In addition, if you really think about it, squatting is much more sanitary than sitting your bum on a toilet seat that a complete stranger’s bum had been sitting on only moments before. So if you aren’t accustomed to the Western toilet, it would only seem logical to you to squat on them.

Now don’t get me wrong. Singapore is certainly westernized, but if you really want them, Asian toilets can be found in almost every restroom in the city. There are even these squatter toilets at my school, and I’ve been in situations in the suburbs, at the soccer game on Tuesday night, and in Malaysia where the squatter is my only option. Never did I anticipate the years of camping and bonfires in small town South Dakota and Wyoming would teach me such a useful skill.

One final note on toilets: When my students ask me if they can use the restroom, it typically goes something like this, “Cher, I need to go toilet please?” To me this sounds equivalent to, “Hey you, I have to pee,” but when translated to English from Singlish, it actually means something like, “Teacher may I please use the restroom.”

May you find beauty everyday, may you constantly seek your true identity, may you never regret, and may you learn how to squat to pee if you come to visit me in Asia.


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