Posted in Life & Happiness

Happy Holidays

Every culture has holidays – a day that celebrates an aspect of the people’s history, faith, traditions or just a certain time of the year. Holidays are days set aside for having fun and sharing a good time with your friends, family and community.

The degree of festivity ranges from low-key days such as a city’s anniversary day, to important annual celebrations that have an entire month of build-up such as Christmas, or even absurd ones such as International Talk Like A Pirate Day. But the bottom line is, holidays bring joy and happiness for many people around the world.

Throughout history, holidays have been a great way to boost morale in people. Even though it is just another day of the Earth circling the Sun, specific days excite us and make us giddy, letting us forget the dreariness and pains of life. Take for example the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, where British and German soldiers called a truce on Christmas Day despite World War I raging on, so that they could all celebrate the day by sharing food and gifts, while playing some spirited games of soccer.

The holidays offer a great excuse for us to be happy. There are plenty of reasons in life why we aren’t happy. Work can be stressful and boring. Relationships are full of dramas and misunderstandings. There are days where it just feels like the universe is hating on you. Sometimes, life just sucks.

But holidays bring a perfect remedy for misery: connection. Whatever the holiday may be, there are many other people celebrating the same holiday as you. This means that on that specific day, everyone feels more connected to each other as they celebrate together. From singing carols together, to looking forward to the New Year and sharing our reflections and resolutions, we are bonded as we live in the moment. Through these connections and feeling present, we feel happier.

Perhaps that is the true reason we have holidays. In a world so full of sadness and madness, isn’t it nice to have any excuse to be happy? Even if it’s just for a day, we are reminded that happiness exists, in the form of our memories and nostalgia of the past, our excitement for the future, and in the present moment that we share with each other.

Happy holidays.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

How’s The Water?

Two young fish are swimming along when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says:

“Morning, boys. How’s the water?”.

The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes:

“What the hell is water?”.

This is a humorous analogy that writer David Foster Wallace told at the beginning of his commencement speech to Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005. Although it is short, it can be unravelled to reveal many important guiding truths regarding adult life.

Much like the younger fish, many of us are not aware of the “water” that surrounds us. Although we live in it, reality is hard to process because it is made up of so many different layers of complexity. To make it easier to live our lives, our brains protect us from being aware of our reality, much like how people are not aware that they live in a simulation in The Matrix.

Even when we are aware that we are swimming in water, we keep asking ourselves “What the hell is water?”. We search desperately for the wise, older fish who can enlighten us – someone who can teach us what water is.

Many of us will be swayed by countless teachers, mentors, gurus, politicians and religious leaders who tell us to follow them to learn what water is. Many of us will firmly believe that we have grown up to become the older, wiser fish, and fight stubbornly against others who have different views on what water is. Some us may even choose to ignore that the water exists at all.

At every stage of our lives, many of us fall in the trap of believing that we have things “figured out”. Teenagers will rebel against adults, thinking that they will reinvent the world. Young adults will believe that now that they are working members of society, they are entitled to their “educated”, “mature” opinions. The middle-aged believe they have been adults long enough that surely they must have gained enough experience and wisdom on the way. And if we don’t feel confident that we know what water is, we seek the answer from those who claim they know it.

In short, we are always searching for the answer, or claim to have the answer. But that is not the lesson to take away from the parable of the fish in water.
It is not the answer that is important, but the question.

It is hubris to think that we can possibly understand how the world works completely within our lifetime. Instead, we should continue questioning what water is. Otherwise, we are just pretending to be enlightened, all the while becoming dimmer as we shut off our ability to learn and see things from a new perspective.

Consider the countless complexities that make up our reality: physical laws of the universe, the historical context, political climate, shifting cultural norms, societal pressures, chaos theory, our connections to other people… Even if you were to make sense of all this, you will never understand the reality that other people live in, as believing in only your reality stops you from being empathic and compassionate. Remember that water is a great environment for fish to live in, but a person would drown if left underwater.

This is why the parable does not tell the story of the older fish teaching the younger fish what water is. Instead, he is asking them how the water is. He is encouraging them to be aware of the context they live in and to keep question it and learning about it, while he himself stays curious as to how other fish experience the water.

So, how’s the water?

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Posted in History & Literature

Namaste

Yoga has become a popular fitness trend in the developed world. People enjoy yoga as they feel it combines regular exercise, flexibility and meditation all in one session. One popular tradition that is seen in modern yoga is how instructors (yogi) will say “Namaste” at the start and end of a session.

What does namaste mean? Some people think it means “goodbye” in Hindi, while some people ascribe deeper meaning to the word such as “love and peace to all” or “the divine in me bows to the divine in you”. All in all, it has become somewhat of a catchphrase in the yoga world.

In reality, namaste is simply a greeting. It can be used either when you meet someone or say goodbye, but the important point is that it is a very formal greeting. It is more often used in formal settings such as important meetings. The word comes from the Sanskrit roots namas, meaning “bow” or “to pay homage to”, and te, essentially meaning “to you”. Therefore, a literal translation of namaste would be “I pay homage to you”.

Interestingly, namaste has never been an important part of traditional yoga. Yoga in India generally come from religious traditions. Since Hinduism is a polytheistic religion involving many gods, each yoga lineage would have a specific greeting praising their respective gods. This is in contrast to namaste, which puts more importance on the individual person than the god. So ironically, namaste somewhat contradicts the traditional philosophy of yoga.

Unfortunately, the worst part is that most people do not even pronounce the word correctly, saying “NA-ma-stay” instead of the correct “nuh-MAS-the” (“t” is pronounced as “th” in Hindi) with the emphasis on the middle syllable.

It is unclear when the trend of saying namaste in modern yoga came from, but it is certainly a product of the Western appropriation of the practice. Perhaps it was introduced to add a more spiritual, faux-profound flavour to exercising.

Nevertheless, to quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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Posted in History & Literature, Special Long Essays

Hell

The concept of hell is one of the oldest and most widespread concepts in the history of humanity. The idea that you are punished in the afterlife for your misdeeds during your earthly life is found in both the Western and Eastern hemisphere, from ancient civilisations to tribal communities to modern societies. Hell is typically described as the place the wicked are sent to for eternal damnation. It is often populated by all kinds of demons and monsters, located underground in a hot, fiery location. Depending on the religion, there may be a “death god” ruling over the realm, such as Satan, Yama, Hades or Hel. In hell, sinners are usually punished with various forms of torture, often fitting their crimes or having an ironic twist.

For example, in the Buddhist hell, seven “death gods” judge you for 49 days. One judgement tests whether you committed crimes of the tongue, such as lying or conning. If you are judged guilty, your tongue will be pulled out and it will be ploughed and sowed with seeds for eternity. In another court, you are judged for “how cold you were to others”, turning away from them when they needed your warmth and generosity. If you are guilty, you are locked away in a frozen hell for eternity. After being found not guilty in all seven courts, you are granted a chance to be reborn into your next life.

Why is hell such a common concept around the world? Every child knows the answer to that: if you do bad things, you will burn in hell. Ergo, you should not do bad things. This is the classic appeal to fear fallacy that has been used time and time again by politicians to control the masses. Death is an excellent deterrent to misdemeanour. In ancient times (and in certain modern nations), the death penalty was used to keep order in society, as the threat of death is usually good enough to persuade people out of doing something bad.

However, if a person does not care about death because they believe that all the woes of earthly life end with death, then what do you do? Early religious leaders most likely found the answer in hell – a place where you will suffer for eternity, without relief. Hell is an extremely simple way of persuading the masses that living by the law and a moral code will lead to a peaceful rest in the afterlife. Heaven is the perfect positive reinforcement and hell is the perfect positive punishment.

In Christianity, breaking one of the Ten Commandments is a clear sin. If you do not repent for this sin or ask for forgiveness, then you will be barred entry from heaven and be sent to a fiery hell, where Satan and his minions will put you in a chamber full of torture for the rest of eternity. However, the greatest punishment in Christian hell is not the torture itself, but knowing that you will forever be separated from the love and blessing of God.

(from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch)

As with many aspects of religion, hell was an important part of keeping order in ancient civilisations. To enforce this system, the picture of hell had to be fleshed out with as many grotesque, horrific details as possible. Luckily, hell was a rich source of inspiration for artists and writers throughout history. Dante wrote extensively on how he imagined hell to be structured in The Divine Comedy. Hieronymus Bosch painted large works where he used his twisted imagination to create all kinds of strange monsters. Auguste Rodin made a large sculpture called The Gates of Hell to depict imagery from Dante’s The Divine Comedy (this is where the famous figures of The Thinker and The Kiss come from). Some of the most famous Greek mythology stories involve hell and the underworld in some way, such as Orpheus’ rescue of his wife and the banishment of the Titans to Tartarus by the New Gods.

Hell appears to be the perfect form of divine judgement of your sins, but it also poses a question. Many religions preach that their gods are benevolent, just and moral. How could a god that sends their beloved children into a place of eternal suffering be called just? One would expect this to be too harsh a punishment and unnecessarily immoral. This is especially the case for those who are called “wicked” for being a non-believer. The Rapture described in the Bible explains that on Judgement Day, Jesus Christ will collect those who are good and worthy of God’s love and ascend to heaven, while the rest of the world will be left in hell. This is very different to the doctrine of Buddhism and Judaism where it is believed that hell is a “process” through which you are cleansed of sin after paying for your sins, after which you may receive peace and rebirth.

One proposed answer to the so-called “problem of hell” is that human beings are given free will and what we decide to do with it is our responsibility. Therefore, going to hell is seen as a “choice” you make in life.

(The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, from the Sistine Chapel)

But is going to hell really a choice? I cannot speak for the process of going to the afterlife as I have never been there. However, one interpretation you could consider is that hell is not some fiery realm in another dimension – but Earth itself.
It appears that Earth itself is not the best world to live in. Children die of starvation, men are murdered, women are raped, the elderly suffer from incurable diseases… If that does not sound bad enough, most people live in a hell of their own in one way or another.

Our insecurities prevent us from truly loving. We fail to achieve our dreams because we are too afraid of taking the risk. When things do not go the way we planned, we blame and beat ourselves up about it until we are miserable. The neurotic are trapped in constant anxiety, the depressed cannot see light amongst the darkness they wallow in, the pessimists are too cynical to see joy in this world and the optimists have their hopes and dreams crushed by the cruel face of reality.

We do not know whether there is hell or heaven in the afterlife, but there certainly is a hell on Earth and that is the one you create in your own mind. Instead of worrying about what kind of eternal suffering we may experience after our death, perhaps we should focus on saving ourselves from the hell that we live in. Until you find a way to escape this hell, whether it be through love, happiness or success, you will forever be trapped in misery and regret. Hell is not a fiery underworld of suffering nor a frozen wasteland of damnation – it is a state of mind.

(Image source: http://akirakirai.deviantart.com/art/Fear-194527543)

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Posted in Simple Pleasures of Life

Simple Pleasures of Life #22

Being proud of and propagating your cultural heritage.

First of all apologies for not keeping to the “post every day” rule. I had short cases on Tuesday and was up till 4am the night before prepping for it : Was pretty shattered last night so instead of studying I chose to play Magic with a friend for hours, get Nandos for dinner, and watch TV shows until I went to bed early. Recovered since but study is boooring.

Anyway, today was Hangul Day (한글날), yay!!! Hangul is the Korean alphabet and was invented by King Sejong the Great (세종대왕) 567 years ago. It is a beautiful written language that was designed scientifically and logically to better represent sounds, making it easier for common people to learn. To celebrate it, I made a small event on Facebook where I wrote my friends’ names in Korean haha. One friend jokingly said “Arnold Schwarzenegger”, so I happily obliged… along with a sketch 😛

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Posted in History & Literature

Merlion

It is common to see creatures in mythology that are a combination of different animals. The unicorn, griffin, chimera, basilisk, hippocampus… The list goes on and on. But perhaps the more interesting combinations are those between humans and animals. Centaurs are a cross between man and horse, harpies are a cross between woman and bird while mermaids and mermen are half-human, half-fish. Although these examples are all from ancient mythologies, there are more recent examples such as the merlion.

The merlion – top-half lion, bottom-half fish – is the national symbol of Singapore. This symbol was designed by Alec Fraser-Brunner in 1964 to promote the name of Singapore. Since then, the merlion has been used frequently in Singaporean art such as in statues and souvenirs. Although the concept of merlions have been found in certain ancient Indian and Hellenistic cultures (not to mention the “sea lion” which is an actual animal), it is almost synonymous with Singapore in modern times.

How did this bizarre combination of a lion and fish come to be? The union of the lion and fish is a symbol for Singapore’s history. Singapore originates from a small fishing village called Temasek – which means sea town in Javanese. This is symbolised by the fish tail, which forms the “root” of the icon. The lion symbolises modern Singapore, which gains its name from Singapura, which means lion city. Furthermore, Singapore is an island nation – a combination of land and water. The core culture of Singapore is descended from Asia via the land mass of South-East Asia, while its affluence and modernisation came from the sea via trade routes. Singapore is one of the most famous and important trade ports in modern history as it controls the passage from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This allowed the country to thrive economically from the flourishing trade, being dubbed one of the Four Asian Tigers (along with South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan – all four countries achieved exceptionally high growth rates from the 1960s to the 1990s).

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Posted in Science & Nature

Tea

Among the many hot beverages the world enjoys, tea is probably the number one. No matter how many people drink coffee, no beverage has a history like tea. From the tea ceremony cultures of the East to the Boston Tea Party of the West, the history of tea is long and full of stories. As everyone knows, tea is a drink made by boiling down the leaves of a plant. There are many types of tea: black, oolong, green, yellow and white being the most common. Teas made from more aromatic plants such as jasmine and chamomile are typically put in a separate category known as herbal teas. One surprising fact about tea is that most of them are derived from the same plant.

The plant Camellia sinensis is the source of all teas, with the aforementioned black, oolong, green, yellow and white teas all coming from the leaves of this one plant. However, what makes each tea unique is the way the leaves are processed. For example, if you steam freshly picked leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant then dry them out, you make green tea. If you wither the leaves then lightly crush and bruise them to promote oxidisation, you make black tea. The different ways of processing tea leaves gives each type of tea a unique flavour due to a variety in the ratio of various chemicals. For example, black tea is rich in tannin because of oxidisation, whereas green and oolong teas are milder as they have higher levels of catechins than tannin (the oxidised product of catechin). As catechins act as antioxidants in the human body, green tea is effective in slowing the aging process.

Although the source of the leaves are the same, the different ways of processing makes each tea unique in their ways of preparation. The milder white, yellow and green teas are best prepared by steeping them in water heated to (or cooled from boiling) 70~80°C for 1~2 minutes, while oolong and black tea should be steeped for 2~3 minutes in near-boiling water (80~99°C) for the best taste.

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Posted in History & Literature

Week

In Genesis from the Old Testament of the Bible, it is said that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. But the system of a seven-day week can be found in many other cultures and religions. The origin of the seven-day week system is ancient Babylonia. The Babylonians believed that every seventh day was one of misfortune, with 7 having the significance that it is the largest single-digit prime number and the number of heavenly bodies known at the time (sun, moon, five planets). This was passed on to the Jewish people who made the seventh day the Sabbath. This was then adopted by Catholics in Rome and in 325AD, it was officially decided at the Concilium Nicaenum (official council that was held to vote for the official religion of Rome) that every week would be seven days long.

There is also a reason for assigning a heavenly body to each day (Monday = Moon, Tuesday = Mars, Wednesday = Mercury, Thursday = Jupiter, Friday = Venus, Saturday = Saturn, Sunday = Sun). At first, the order of the days was the same as the order of heavenly bodies by their distance from the Earth: “Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon”. This was then cross-referenced with the astrological 24-hour system of planetary hours, resulting in a new order of “Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus”. Because of this, the week started on Saturday in ancient times. It was only during Roman times when the week was changed to start on the Sunday, with Sunday becoming an official day of rest.

The Romans named the days after the heavenly body assigned to that day. For example, “Sunday” obviously comes from “Sun”, with the same applying to Monday and Saturday. This system is used in Korea and China, where each day is labelled according to the assigned planet. For example, Thursday is 목요일(mok yo il) in Korean, where 목 means wood, with 목성(mok sung) meaning Jupiter.

In English, the names of each day are mixed. Some are based on planets like the Korean system (Saturday, Sunday, Monday), while others inherit their name from the Germanic people. The Germanic people assigned one of their gods (from Norse mythology) to each day (except Sunday and Monday, which are related to the Sun and the Moon, while Saturday had a completely different name). Tuesday stands for “Tyr’s day”, Wednesday stands for “Wodan’s(or Odin’s) day”, Thursday stands for “Thor’s day” and Friday stands for “Frigg’s day”.

Interestingly, the Norse god assigned to each day correlates with the Greek/Roman god assigned to it. For example, Thursday is “Thor’s day” and also “the day of Jupiter”. Jupiter is the Roman king of gods (same as Zeus from Greek mythology) who uses lightning, while Thor is the Norse god of thunder.

Not every country calls each day a meaningful name. In China, Monday is simply 星期一(xing qi yi), or “first star period”, with each day after that being one number higher (Sunday is specially called 星期日(xing qi ri), where the number is replaced by the character for “Sun”). Although China used the same system as Korea and Japan based on 음양오행설(eum yang oh hang sul, system of Five Elements and Yin Yang), the days were renamed with the simplification of the language.

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Posted in History & Literature

Honeymoon

It is customary for a newlywed couple to embark on a romantic vacation to celebrate their marriage. This is known as a honeymoon. The word originates from the Scandinavian region – the home of the Vikings. The Vikings had a tradition (as did many other European cultures) where a newlywed couple would drink mead for a whole month. The reason being, it was believed that mead was good for stamina and would facilitate fertilisation. Ergo, the honeymoon’s original purpose was to provide a time for the couple to make a child. Ironically, alcohol has the effect of inhibiting not only the cerebral cortex (causing sexual disinhibition), but also testosterone, leading to erectile dysfunction. Thus, drinking like the Vikings on your honeymoon would be very counterintuitive if you are thinking of making a child (or just love). Furthermore, it may endanger your marriage right from the start.

Whatever the origin of the word, a honeymoon is indubitably the sweetest time for a couple as they celebrate their promise for eternal love and look forward to a future they will build together. Perhaps the true meaning of “honeymoon” is a metaphor for the sweetness of a newly developing romance.

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Posted in History & Literature

Taegeukgi

The Taegeukgi is the official flag of the Republic of Korea. It was chosen as the official flag of Joseon by Emperor Gojong in 1883 and has been used as the flag for South Korea since 1948. The Taegeukgi is an extremely symbolic flag that expresses the values and ideals of the Korean people while also containing the sorrow caused by the great tragedies in modern Korean history: the 36 years of Japanese colonisation and the Korean War. Even before Korea was founded, the flag was used in protest of the Japanese Empire and for the independence of Korea (especially in the famous March 1st movement). Much like Hangul (the Korean alphabet), the Taegeukgi, designed by Park Young-hyo and commissioned by Gojong, is a very scientific and mathematical flag. Let us analyse each part of the Taegeukgi.

The Taegeukgi is composed of a red and blue taegeuk symbol (“yin(eum)-yang symbol” is technically a misnomer) on a white background, surrounded by four black trigrams (4괘, sa-gwe). The white background symbolises brilliance and purity and the Korean people’s traditional love for peace. The taegeuk symbol symbolises the harmony of eum (blue) and yang (red), an imagery of the interaction between the two extremes and the natural rule of continuous generation and progress seen in the universe.

The trigrams in each of the four corners is called geun gon ri gam (건곤리감, 乾坤離坎) in order and each trigram symbolises a certain characteristic of everything in the universe.

Geun (three lines) symbolises the sky, spring, metal (geum, 금, 金) and humanity (yin, 인, 仁). Gon (six lines) symbolises the earth, summer, earth (toh, 토, 土) and righteousness (eui, 의, 義). Ri (four lines) symbolises the sun, autumn, fire (hwa, 화, 火) and courtesy (ye, 예, 禮). Gam (five lines) symbolises the moon, winter, water (su, 수, 水) and intelligence (ji, 지, 智). The taegeuk lies in the centre of the four extremes in each each corner to establish an infinite harmony and balance.

As you can see, the taegeuk is far more scientific and deeply philosophical than simpler flags such as those symbolising the Sun God (Japan), the number of states (USA) or a composite of three different flags (UK). It is the ultimate flag that prides the Korean people’s wisdom and advanced culture.

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