Stranger To Myself: Diary Of A Bangladeshi In Singapore by Md Sharif Uddin


Stranger To Myself: Diary Of A Bangladeshi In Singapore

Author: Md Sharif Uddin

Rating: B+

There’s a mamak restaurant near my old office where, rumour has it, the workers - after working 14 hours, will shutter the place, rearrange the tables and turn them into beds.

They sleep where they work, so say the rumours. Whether it was true or not, I don't know, but I have always wondered how their lives were like behind the polite smiles. They made me realise how blessed and fortunate I am because unlike them, I could snuggle in my comfortable bed at night, not narrow table in a restaurant.

Sharif is a very eloquent writer, and his voice is really needed at a time when migrant workers are nearly invisible.

In this book he shares his diary entries and poetry where he details life as a migrant worker in Singapore. I love the raw, unpolished prose even if at times he seems maudlin, almost melodramatic. bBut how can he not be when faced with a life where his employers feed his rotten food, or where he couldn’t see his  parents before they passed away or watch his son grow up? 

Sadly, it would appear that even down south in Singapore, migrant workers are treated horribly. I had mistakenly thought that they had better lives.

“The owners of the companies are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. As long as you have the ability to work, they will care. If you stop for any reason, they will throw you out.”

This is a book that needs to be read. The only thing I wish was that it was available in ebook form because physical copies of it are hard to come by and his message needs to be spread far and wide.

Review: Happy City

Finally, after a string of blah reads, I score something truly amazing. I have always loved books about sustainable living, minimalism, and this book combines both of my loves.

Montgomery tells us that happiness is not an accidental thing - sometimes it can be caused by design. Urban living has torn apart village living, tossing people into isolated McMansions, taking away their freedom of mobility without dependence on fossil fuels and thus causing a ripple effect of unhappiness throughout society. But as inspiring as this book is, it's also frustrating because - there are so many things that the powers that be are doing wrong! If only Montgomery was in charge of urban planning. Ha!

But the good thing is the author doesn't leave us stewing in frustration, wishing that we lived in Vancouver or Amsterdam. 

He acknowledges that a lot of work has to be done before the urban sprawl can be repaired and village life be restored, but there are still ways to bend the city to your needs, or to change your life to get that village life you've always craved.

That's why I identify most with Conrad Schmidt, a man Montgomery interviewed, who changed his life bit by bit by instinct. Like him, I felt strangely unhappy in the urban sprawl that was the Adelaide suburb of Colonel Light Gardens. After visiting New York City in the 90s, I've always dreamed of living in the heart of a city; it doesn't matter what city, I just wanted to live where the action was, and where everything is within walking distance.

When I returned to Malaysia, by happy chance I got the opportunity to live in the heart of a small satellite city, something I've been dreaming about for a while. My apartment is a few blocks away from malls, a light rail transit station, a park, a great gym, a community book exchange and wonderful cafes. I made friends with the cafe owners, I walked daily to get my groceries and took trains to the city - I only drove my car to work, and even then my work enabled me to escape the insane KL traffic as I worked odd hours, so work is only a quick 15-20 minutes drive away. 

I've also downsized, got rid of much of my possessions, lived in a much tinier space. All this has a ripple effect in my life. I'm exercising more, spending less, and more content with my neighbourhood. I've never been happier in my life. And now I understood why!
Instinctively, like Conrad, I've re-engineered my life to make myself happier. 

This book also made me realise that maybe Malaysia is heading the right direction - at least in Selangor. The popularity of mixed developments, where residential places are above commercial areas, and light rail transits which snake through these neighborhoods makes me glad. Perhaps one day, one of our cities will be one of the most livable in the world too.

Verdict: This book could help you build a happier life for yourself!

Review: Tiger Babies Strike Back

Surprisingly, Tiger Babies Strike Back was rated lowly by some folks on Goodreads, and I think it's unfair.

I suspect that some readers have imposed their expectations on this book. And this book is not a rebuttal to Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. There won't be long treatises on why HER version of parenting would be better than Chua's. 

Instead, this is a book that de-glamourises the Tiger Mom form of parenting. Think that you should be a drill sergeant mum in order to ensure that your kid becomes a success? Read this book before flicking out that whip. You may not like what you see here. Also, this book speaks best to Tiger Babies - people who were children of Tiger parents. They will be affirmed and validated by this book.

Tiger Babies Strike Back is best read as a memoir of a woman's experience of being parented by a Tiger Mum and how that form of parenting has affected her. In many ways I am amazed at how the author's experiences echoed mine - down to the ritual fat shaming by the relatives during the holidays! 

For one, Kim's book has helped me deconstruct and understand so many things - Chinese family dynamics that had frustrated me for ages (and that I now realise is shared by many in the Chinese community) and best of all - the root of my Drive.

It's the Drive that makes so many Chinese kids star students. By many standards I was a star student. I had a scholarship to study in university, was a straight-A student in college, became a freelance writer for the No.1 newspaper in Malaysia when I was 18. Yet, the Tiger parenting that enabled me to be a 'success' warped me in ways that surprise me till this day.

Being a Tiger baby is both good and bad. Good if you happen to thrive on competition. Bad if you happen not to. Good if you revel in the pedestal the family puts you onto if you happen to be No.1. Bad if you're can't meet the sky-high Expectations.

What resonated most with me is Kim's discussion about stoicism, and how many Chinese people valued that characteristic and try to pummel a kid so that they have this "quality". Again, good if you happen to be naturally stoic. VERY BAD if you are a passionate and sensitive person. 

Basically, traditional Chinese parenting only favours a certain type of personality. But even that personality may buckle under the stress. The author writes poignantly about the suicide of super-successful-by-anyone's-standards Iris Chang, and how she suspects that the constant Drive to be No.1 played a part in her undoing.

Because, after a while, you get really, really, really exhausted trying to run that up never-ending mountain, and you just want to QUIT. Unfortunately, in a culture where it's all about "face" and external success, quitting isn't desirable.

Back to the memoir - she does ramble in the last 1/4 of the book, and I found myself skimming the pages. But she comes back with a blast with the epilogue, where she tells Tiger Babies how to "turn to the light" like she did. That epilogue alone is worth the price of the book.

Final verdict: 4 stars. An amazing book that has been unfairly judged by folks who wanted it to be something else.