The first time someone who is not a lover puts their full weight on you is a revelation. The pressure on your spine and neck. Each cervical nerve bracing against your spinal column, bearing another’s weight.
Before stepping on the mat, you bow. You touch your partner’s fingertips, their fists. You bend your body at the hips, hold up your hands in front of your face in a fighting stance. You circle warily, you feint, you move to grab the lapel and the sleeve. Instead of pushing your partner away, you pull her towards you as you put one foot on her hip. You sit down as you do this and put your legs around her waist.
“Stop writing that email and go to the editor’s office.”
I look up from my desk dinner—lukewarm rice, vegetables, and fried spam. These are long days and we often choose from the leftovers at the office cafeteria, sit in front of our computers, jamming food into our mouths as we push out our stories for the night news.
“I said stop what you’re doing and come with me.”
My editor, a tall, unnervingly soft-spoken man, repeats his demand.
I close the Styrofoam box that holds the remains of my meal and lock my computer screen before getting up to follow him to the head editor’s office.
Opening the frosted glass-paneled door, it is clear to me that she is livid.
“How stupid are you?”
She repeats this statement twice, once in low tones and another time screaming for the benefit of the rest of the office.
“No one replies to a minister’s email without following protocol! And especially not someone like you!”
She jabs a finger into the air near my head for emphasis.
Through her rage, I smell her fear.
“You’ll never get anywhere if I have anything to say about it.”
I imagine the filaments of power and influence uncurling from her slim, manicured fingers. I look carefully at her face, scarred as it is from a childhood accident, and now incandescent with her rage. The uneven, bark-like skin on her face a testimony to what happens when you stand too close to a flame.
You have to remember the steps to escape a mount. Wait for the smallest opening. The gap in which your opponent relaxes her grip on your wrists for just an instance. Later there will be bruises, but for now your body is so full of waiting that this barely registers. Wait for the gap, then destabilize her center of gravity, grab the sleeve of one hand, and push her over to her side. Begin again.
When you live in a police state it is not only that the actual police wield immense amounts of power. It is that everyone is a part of this state. Everyone polices.
No one tells you explicitly what you’re policing against.
But you know.
No system can be total. No hold can last forever; there are always gaps. Even in the confines of our small island state, there are pockets of possible resistance.
But more and more I wonder if these gaps, these hatches, are simply safety valves permitted by the state as it carefully regulates its mechanisms, its organisms.
A poem here, a play there, a piece of rogue performance art, a snatch of conversation in a coffee shop, in a taxicab, a bit of digital chatter, a sliver of code. Or, even, the pleasures of eating well or the fleeting nostalgia for a demolished library, contained in a leftover brick sold at the new library’s gift shop.
What are these trivialities in the face of the state? In the body of the state?
Sometimes, I forget the weight of power. It is so easy to be seduced by the cool, climate-controlled glass corridors, the tropical light without heat. This is possible if I forget what was here before these new glass buildings, their concrete foundations digging deep into the soft red earth.
Sometimes, in between interviews and piece-to-cameras, I inhale sharply: that new building smell. Always fresh paint, newly welded metal, new concrete, cut wires, unbelievably clean carpet. I stand, leaning against a new metal girded pillar, feel its coldness cut through my polyester blazer against my spine.
Sometimes, for the sake of “heritage” and “progress,” new glass and steel extensions are simply melded into an older building. Controlling this architectural version of history means that the state controls our futures in these spaces as well: how we move in them, how we breathe in them, how the light shapes our skin. This is not preservation, just another form of control.
Sometimes your escape doesn’t work. You stay pinned down. Those holds on your wrists will bloom into contusions dark blue and purple.
You learn to be patient. You learn to stop fighting. You learn to wait. No one can keep this hold on you forever. If they hold onto your wrists, they cannot choke you.
You are at an impasse.
“I’m going to do half your face and you’re going to do the other half.”
I look at the makeup artist quizzically. He patiently repeats himself.
“I’m going to do half your face and you’re going to do the other half.”
He begins to draw an invisible line down the middle of my face with his foundation sponge. As I watch in the mirror, the left side of my face becomes an accentuated version of itself. My brow darkens; my cheekbone elevates; my eye is outlined and half my lips reddened. He takes out a silver eyelash curler from his case and asks me to lower my eyelids as he carefully inserts my eyelashes into the contraption. He avoids the paper-thin skin attached to the hairs there. Before I can protest, he closes the jaws of the crimp. He removes the device and I open my eyes—I look wide-eyed and doe-like on one side.
“All right, now it’s your turn.”
I sit in the passenger seat of the news van exchanging pleasantries with the camera crew. Some of them are wizened, weather-beaten, shoulders askew from bearing their hefty gear.
They treat me like a daughter, granddaughter, or beloved niece. They call me “little sister” and as we wend our way through the island they stop occasionally to buy me treats wrapped in brown paper or packed in plastic containers: a mess of noodles in coriander sauce, sweet glutinous pastries made by an elderly couple in a hidden shop, milky fish soup infused with ginger or cilantro.
When we tail ministers or members of parliaments in their tours of the orderly housing estates, I buy them little plastic bags of milky tea or coffee. These brews are always too sweet and too bitter at the same time. We wait endlessly to place a microphone in front of the mouths of these men. I hold our microphones in a crush of others like me. Painted, mascaraed, sweaty in the torpor.
They speak; we record, faithfully transcribe. We edit only for clarity.
The snacks at the end of each event fuel our compliance. We do this over and over again.
We work on weekends, night shifts, on public holidays. I learn to hold a microphone in one hand and a tape recorder in another. I start to transcribe in the van, listening to their speeches on my headphones, carving out their soundbites, feeding these back to the station even before I return. An efficient conduit.
We are hemmed in by the people on the streets. We have never seen people on the streets like this here. We are taught that people on the streets are dangerous—they might assemble, organize, riot. People on the streets happen in other countries, other climates, other nations on our screens. Yet tonight, there are bodies all around us, moving as if in unison.
An opposition candidate has held on to the only seat that a dissenting party has in parliament and the people in his ward have taken to the streets in a brief, joyous, anarchic celebration. He has held this seat for more than two decades and against all odds. In recognition of this feat, of their own stubbornness, really, the people come pouring out of the stairwells and corridors. In the humid tropical night, their faces jubilant under the ubiquitous orange street lamps, they bring traffic to a standstill. Hundreds, thousands stream out of the orderly blocks of flats. Car horns sound. There is cheering.
We are disoriented and I can see the confusion in my colleagues’ faces, even the ones who have spent long decades balancing their machines on one shoulder and then the other, eye to the lens, faithfully recording the nation’s history and the politician’s banality.
This is an old, defiant ward. Its refusal to disavow the lone dissenting voice in parliament clearly punished with its aging elevators, peeling paint, and the chipped concrete of its high-rise blocks. Each nick and imperfection a sign of a space bypassed in the nation’s march of progress. There is a certain makeshift quality to any improvements that have been made. Improvisations to make the living easier. The grass is just a little overgrown, the trees just a little under pruned — little errors in the overall algorithm of our island life.
We are pushed through the streets. My crew stays close to me because we aren’t popular here, after all. Bits of state machinery in a part of the state that is in open revolt, refusing to slip into the proper gear.
“Hey! I bet you aren’t going to film this!”
A high-spirited youth taunts us with an obscene gesture before sprinting away to catch up with his friends. They return as a group, hamming it up for a camera that—he’s right—isn’t recording. We know that even if we let the tape roll, there is no way an editor would approve this footage. There is too much glee here, giddiness almost, which would be wholly inappropriate for the late night bulletin.
With great difficulty, we make it back to the live feed point. We dutifully file the report. We wait for our slot in the news cycle. We frame the shot, carefully hiding the magnitude of the crowd on the streets. We do this wordlessly, because after months, years of this work, we know without knowing how, what he wants. I wait for the lights to be angled properly on my face. I wait, holding the microphone, ignoring the crowd and watching for the red light of the camera to blink on next to its eye. I wait for my cue.
There is an increasing complexity to the submissions that you are learning.
“The arm has to be held straight, the thumb pointing up. Otherwise you won’t be able to inflict any pain.”
When you are caught in an arm lock, you learn how to master your panic. Carefully, your partner begins to straighten your arm beyond its ability. The only way to stop her from breaking you is to tap her side with your free hand.
Tap twice, quickly, and the pressure stops.
“All right, now it’s your turn.”
Under the watchful eye of the makeup artist, I begin the other half of my face. I erase every blemish, every freckle and wrinkle from my skin. I fill in the fine lines under my eyes, the skin there ever so slightly darker than the rest of my face. The foundation marks as it erases. Later, I will call it battle paint. I pick up another brush and spread a light pink hue on my eyelid, repeating the gesture with gray and then another brush with dark eyeliner. I use yet another brush on my cheekbone, endowing it with a faint blush. A dewy-eyed bride, I am.
We look at my face in the mirror. The makeup artist frowns. He points out my faulty lines, my clumsy attempts at shading, how all my angles are wrong. My face, before us, is asymmetrical. He soaks a cotton pad in an expensive Japanese cleansing oil, and starts to smear off all the colors on my face.
“Let’s try this again.”
“You’re turning the wrong way.”
You lift your head from the mat, inclining your ear towards this injunction.
“You need to turn to face her, brace yourself against her, and then push away.”
Repeating the drill, you fight against your instinct to turn your back on your opponent, exposing yourself. Instead, you place one foot flat on the mat and push hard away from your partner while facing her. Your knee on her hip exerting the force you need to escape.
He’s a frail man when I finally meet him to plan our first and only interview together. The words “authoritarian regime” seem flimsy when associated with the liver spots on his face, the wisps of white on his scalp, his slow stooped gait.
But his beady, combative eyes remain the same ones that we were all accustomed to from posters and television specials. Those eyes unsmiling and calculative even as he planted trees, kissed babies, eulogized late colleagues, and cut ribbons.
As I look at him across the boardroom table, I understand how the nation is obsessed with brief moments of his supposed anguish—so much so that we chronicle the moment of our independence by showing his televised tears on loop.
Later, when his closest allies die, when his wife passes, photographers and cameramen push up against each other, bodies flush against the black, unyielding surfaces of their recording devices, to capture his tears. Is he terrified by his own mortality? The papers print and reprint the image of him supported by his bodyguards as he stiffly tilts down over her coffin to touch her cheek one last time. A husband seemingly humanized by loss.
Yet all this has not happened at the moment I first encounter him. We are supposed to be deferential and quiet. To not complain about the temperature of the room—set at a chilly 18°C to allow his mind to function efficiently in spite of the tropical heat. My lives, my vitae, laid out before him, just one of a series of stacked manila folders. He would not have walked into this meeting without preparation, without his personal assistant who is always a military attaché, interchangeable men who are always then put out to pasture in foreign missions or put forward for elections as members of parliament.
My orderly progression through the educational ranks seems to please him; he notes with relish that my credentials have slotted me into the correct position in his hierarchy of things. That I have taken his well-known admonishments to study in both the United States and in China seriously, that I have not broken my bonds or the Official Secrets Act, that I am working assiduously with the national broadcaster to ensure that his government’s press releases are transmitted accurately to the general populace, that I have learned to cross my ts and dot my is and line my eyes with kohl just so. I am a powdered, rouged, sleekly groomed cog in his giant machine.
It does not really matter what I say to him. Small talk or otherwise. There is no possible actual encounter with the man. Indeed, I am beginning to doubt the veracity of my own memory of the moment. Did I really meet him in preparation for our television interview? Did I imagine the lights, the cameras, the studio, the earpiece in my ear buzzing with my producer’s instructions?
But we are here again at this moment, as he reminds us of what he wants to happen. He is wearing his characteristic navy jacket, collar upturned, his hands clasped in front of him on the table. He smiles at me, shifting the wrinkled skin that covers his cheeks ever so slightly, his eyes unchanging, his small white teeth in neat rows.
“I want this to be a conversation between us. I want you to ask me anything. Ask me anything.”
It is at this moment that I realize, more thoroughly than at any other moment, that I have always lived in a dictatorship.
I smile at him, lower my eyelids at his gaze. I feel the contours of power in the room, in its stark lighting, the cold surface of the table, the high backed chairs. Is there now a kernel of rebellion in me? I imagine how swiftly his security apparatus would incapacitate me if I suddenly pushed back my chair, became a feral animal lunging for his delicate old throat.
A decade later, when I learn how to use the blade of my wrist and a small fistful of fabric at a collar to cut off the blood supply to an opponent’s brain, I think again of this moment. I learn more about my body than his. I learn how I am small but if I pivot my foot in a particular way I can exert more than my weight to pin women much larger than me down on the ground, dictate their movements and non-movements.
Can I take him on then? At that moment, I demur. Later, when the actual interview is being recorded, I allow myself one slip: I ask him about retirement, about a renunciation of power, about unpinning all of us collectively.
He laughs as if I had told a particularly funny joke on air.
He turns his eyes towards me and I know I have found an opening.
“I’ll stay as long as I am useful.”
Because you cannot bear another’s weight, because you are so small, you learn alternate moves. You cannot stand as your partner’s legs are wrapped around your hips, but you can use the sharpness of those hips to apply a specific pressure on their interlocking ankles.
You place your hands on their pelvic bones, you turn your body in a swift motion. You escape.
My eight-year-old self is sitting through a long arduous session of 听写 tingxie (listening/writing) exercises. The education system insists Mandarin is my mother tongue. I must write out the corresponding character in Sinitic script as my teacher dictates a passage at the front of the classroom.
If I fail to complete this task, as I often do, there will be a red pen jabbed into my arm, my exercise book thrown across the room.
I am resolutely monolingual. I refuse dictation. I do not want to be told what to write and how to write it. I refuse idiom, idiolect, vocabulary, and thus also national legend, myth, belief.
Later, of course, I realize that this is his language policy. Another way that his control begins with our tongues, our scripts, the only ways in which we can express ourselves. My role as an obedient citizen is circumscribed by the small repeating squares in my exercise book, one for each character. I can never fill each square as it is meant to be filled. Each square should be filled with neat calligraphic strokes, each radical in its own side, each stroke in its set order: upwards, downwards, sideways. Drawing a box, filling it in with minute repetitions and then sealing it, for good.
“Place your knee on the belly and then push down.”
You struggle with this instruction, unable to use your weight against another human being. Later when it is your turn to have your back on the mat, you take a small breath and contract the muscles around your ribs, hardening them against the knee placed just below your sternum, above your navel. Correctly positioned, this can cause discomfort and, occasionally, panic.
In a rare apology, he says that he is sorry for his language policies. That he was wrong to think all of us capable of bilingualism, let alone multilingualism. That our brains were simply not capacious enough to contain many worlds.
But it is not the language itself. In any language he wanted no dissident poets, education reformers, or guerrilla fighters. He exiled poetry, banned books, and erased lives. But he kept grammar, syntax, Confucian analects, and standardized exams. He did not write each exercise or dictate each test, but it is now impossible for me to think of these moments without feeling the pressure of his decisions on the very way I think my thoughts. His knee on my belly preventing me from speaking, allowing me only to listen and write in an incomprehensible series of strokes.
Here’s how to escape a knee on your belly: palm of the hand in the gap between collarbone and throat. Push out. Fold your body at the waist. Move away from your opponent while facing him at all times. It may not work the first time. It never works the first time. Wait. Rest. Catch another opening. Push out again.
“Let’s try that again.”
I place my foot on the teleprompter. If I press the ball of my foot down, the text scrolls down. If I push my heel down, the text on the monitor above the camera reverses its flow. I can control how fast or how slow I want to read by calibrating the minute differences in pressure that my foot exerts.
“Let’s try that again, but this time I want you to remember to pause.”
I’m being trained to read the news. How to arrange my face in a perfectly neutral yet friendly way, even without smiling. It’s an expression that, once mastered, is difficult to lose. I study the tapes of my predecessors, absorbing the correct methods—screen to eye to brain to cheek muscles. Widen your eyes slightly to convey interest and attentiveness; purse your lips ever so slightly to indicate a readiness to reply; tilt your head the tiniest angle down and to the left and then move it again up and to the right. Hold that expression for three seconds before the news clip you have introduced begins to play.
Never turn your back to your opponent. If they are well trained, they will immediately hold on to you from behind, putting their legs around your hips and digging their feet into your thighs. If they are fast, they will already have one arm under your neck in a V shape, closing in on your carotid veins.
Like any blood choke, they must know when you are about to lose consciousness. They must stop.
Twice a year I am tested on my diction, as if they know that my accent is not a fixed creature. We are led into a soundproof booth where two or three veterans wait for us with clipboards and checklists. We are given a list of words and names, names of obscure Thai politicians, French tennis stars, Argentinian footballers, and local roads. We are made to repeat each one slowly into a condenser microphone. When we are done, the assessors patiently repeat our errors back to us, giving us advice about where to place our tongues on our teeth, our palates, and our lips in order to make the correct sounds in the correct order.
We learn how to speak all over again. For it is a slippery thing, an accent, and I have spent a long time cultivating its slipperiness in order to adapt, to assimilate, and to escape. Vowels and consonants travel from the back of my throat to the hum of my mouth depending on who I am speaking to, who speaks to me. The timbre of my voice changes depending on the inflections of the situation.
Is speaking freely and slipping between languages and accents akin to being free? Now, I consider this as my opponents wrap their calves above my hips, their muscles pulling me into their guard. When I wrestle control of their hands, some other language is conceived. How are the words pronounced?
I fail many times. I fall on my partners as they embrace me laughing, catching my clumsiness and encouraging me to try again. Their accents: Peruvian, Danish, Quebecois, Jamaican, Somali. This is not poise, posture, diction, or dictation. In the change room, I try to talk about my past. But I am unable to find the right words, in the right language, the correct order of phrases.
In quiet moments, I find the muscles of my face and around my spine arranged in their familiar configurations, my neck held back to the right degree for my eyes to meet the camera.
Once, on air, my co-host makes an inappropriate political joke. I feel his skin redden beside me as he realizes the magnitude of his gaffe. I remember my own performance, my quizzical turn to the camera, as if trying to cover his out of place body with my own. We are so vulnerable in that studio space, the three automated cameras moving up and down their hydraulically powered stands, each a black glassy eye that reflects our foundation-caked faces. For a moment there he had laid bare the mechanisms of power, how the man and his family were connected to the money, in this, the most incorruptible of states.
“Do you want to get us all fired? Don’t ever do that again!”
The head editor screams from her desk just outside the clear panes of the studio wall. Apologizing profusely, my co-host unbuttons his suit, his skin clammy from the shock of the truth. I hum in wordless sympathy. I open my compact. I powder my nose and check my lipstick.