Soft Pressures in Small Measures: On R̶a̶d̶i̶c̶a̶l̶ Quiet Kindness
This one has been on my mind for months now. Here's a little something on (is) giving receiving help (?), kindness as strategy and the continuous (hard) work of loving one another.
(i) The Reverse Bystander Effect
It was sometime in April of 2020. The State had just imposed fresh circuit breaker guidelines due to the rapid spike in Covid cases. Masks became mandatory. Staying indoors was highly encouraged. Touching was not allowed and social distancing of 1m was implemented. On most parts, I indulged in late night cycling, sometimes with a friend or two, a couple of times a week. On Fridays, it was mostly with J. I don’t know about you, but that period was kinda hazy. This particular Friday night though was high up on the cosmic freak scale. You know where the universe is trying to provide you with some deeply meaningful lesson that you don’t really want, but you somehow never knew you needed, usually through a series of strange occurences? Yeah that one.
On our way to wherever the night would take us, we passed by a barely conscious woman sprawled on the road in the middle of a petrol kiosk. She was either drunk or high or both. I noticed her handbag wide open with a thick wad of $50 dollar notes and when I say thick, I mean thick, like maybe amounting to (or more than) $5000. It was truly the first thing I noticed tbh because I was so broke and remember being put off that someone who had such a big bag of bread can leave it lying around so recklessly. I suggested to J that we should give her a hand somehow not knowing how or what we could do.
First we tried to wake her up. We called out, from a distance and went closer. I zipped up her handbag. Do you have water, I asked J and then sprinkled it over the woman’s face. Excuse me, hello, excuse me, I said and she stirred. J tried to get a taxi to take her home. A man was running, maskless, gradually slowing down to bear witness to our feeble and truly, imo, hilarious attempts at helping her. Ah, a man. He is strong enough to at least prop her up. Can you carry her? I asked. I saw him shirk and shrink, and felt that my question almost set him off running again. He said without hesitancy, No, I don’t think I can do that. Why not? He did not answer but just kinda shrugged his shoulders.
J managed to stop a taxi and was now trying to convince him to take her home. The running man paced awkwardly between us, not really doing anything but probably felt that if he stayed he’d be less of a dick. The woman was now sitting up. I offered her water from that same bottle. She drank and regurgitated some spit vomit slime back into the bottle. We asked if she could stand and she shook her head and said something in Mandarin. I looked at J who replied in terrible Mandarin that the taxi had agreed to take her home. J looked at me and said can you help her up. Without hesitation and much thought, I squatted and placed my arms beneath her sweaty pits and pulled, shifting my entire body weight upwards with her along with me.
The running man was gone by now and the woman closed the door the moment she entered the taxi. Everything ended as abruptly as it started. I felt nauseous thinking that maybe I’m infected. We washed our hands and wipe it down. Sanitised it twice and I still felt pretty yucked out by it all. I touched her, the sweat seeping into my skin. I’m so glad we helped her J said although I did most of the work. I saw the cup toppled over and grab it to return it to J. It looks expensive, yknow those coffee cups sold in bougie lifestyle shops. You keep it she said. We did good today she said. I am so proud of us, she said. I held the bottle like some toxic waste and hesitantly put it in my bag after cleaning it and after another round of cleaning myself up, we cycled off.
My skin prickled from the sanitizer, from irritation mostly at myself for suggesting to help, for saying yes to J, for putting myself at risk, for not saying no I don’t think I can do that, like the running man, and then I felt anger but did not know where to place it. Why did he not help me? Why did J not help me? Why did I help the woman when I didn’t know how deep down? The slamming door of that taxi, the reciprocal mocking silence that followed. I was not proud of what we did, rather ashamed by what I was feeling.
The bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological theory that states that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim in presence of other people. It has focused on increasingly varied factors, such as the number of bystanders, ambiguity, group cohesiveness, and diffusion of responsibility that reinforces mutual denial. If a single individual is asked to complete the task alone, the sense of responsibility will be strong, and there will be a positive response; however, if a group is required to complete the task together, each individual in the group will have a weak sense of responsibility, and will often shrink back in the face of difficulties or responsibilities.
As the pandemic worsened, I realised that at least in our city, there seems to be a reverse bystander effect. Everyone excluded from this global pandemic physically, wished to include themselves in offering to alleviate the impact it has on others. Which in hindsight is truly a great thing isn’t it but is it really? Mutual aid of all forms were organised from the ground and it was truly amazing. Everyone wanted to be involved, stronger together or whatever. However, there was already an unacknowledged uneven distribution of labour even before the pandemic and that unevenness skewed tremendously during a crisis of this scale. Tipping everything sideways with the folks at the bottom hanging precariously off of that same ground, forced to organise these additional support structures from where they are left hanging. Forced to carry out the
dirty essential tasks.
The cup still sits on my sink to this day. I look at it everyday when I wash the dishes. I empty it out every morning of stagnant water that had collected at the bottom. It serves as a reminder of the complexities of that night. How it felt performed and authentic, crucial and unnecessary all at the same time. Apathy too is quietly contagious, crept into my heart in the guise of self-preservation, of survival. Only realising I was already infected that very night. In the following months, I too was caught in the tricks of the reverse bystander effect and made to believe that the only way out was to extend myself and my scarce resources above and beyond and throw myself into these multiple imagined abundance pools, just to be part of the many hands clumsily (and recklessly) holding each other up. No one was allowed to drown but it made it hard to come up for air.
(ii) “They are plastered over with grimaces”
For the truth is that human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment. They hunt in packs. Their packs scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness. They desert the fallen. They are plastered over with grimaces. — Virginia Woolfe in Mrs Dalloway
It was a post show dinner at some Turkish place. I enjoyed my time with T always, her brutal honesty and candid responses always left me laughing to tears. During our rehearsals right before the show, I told T about my bouts of gallstones attack that usually occur when I am under stress. I could not get the operation to remove the entire gallbladder just yet because it is considered a major operation. Many things were at stake, my child’s caregiving duties being the main one. To counter these attacks, I normally pop two Panadol, lie flat on my back and breathe until it goes away. When T asked what it feels like, I said it’s a knife stab through the ribcage on the right side, and the knife cannot be removed. I would just have to wait until it gradually disappears. This could take hours if I am lucky and days if I am not.
I guess T felt helpless, or disturbed by this knowledge During the tail-end of our dinner, she proclaimed really loudly that she discussed this with another friend of ours H who was not really a friend to me but more an acquaintance. Her words were sharp, sharper than that phantom gallstone knife and I could feel it slowly twisting inside me as she went on and on. What about Inaya? she asked. Who would take care of her if anything drastic happened to you? Have you considered that? My face says of course I did, I think about it every day, it’s at the back of my mind throbbing with urgency. Sometimes it occupies my entire being. But I only managed, we are trying to find help but it’s really hard.
We are so angry with you ila, she went on. And the knives moves in deeper, twists in cruel motions. I laughed uncomfortably, ashamed at my silence and lack of response. Ashamed of my laughter. I tried to explain that our sitters don’t stick. That it’s hard with a disabled child to find reliable help. That we are struggling as it is. The words come out fast and clumsy, gush out, porous as tears. Disappearing into my laughter. I wanted my words to turn into knives, into weapons, sharp enough to hurt her. I hated how understanding I come off, how kind I was in my replies.
This is trauma response 101. I was too tired to fight back from all those fights I’ve lost trying to say that was not ok. This is not ok T. Look at my face, listen to my voice. But she wasn’t really listening. And I guess she never really listened before. I disassociated that night. Pretended it was all good. Carried her words knives home with me, still pierced into my softness, took them out while I was in the shower, cried from the gaping holes, brought them into bed with me. They were so polished and shiny, so assured in their sharpness, and they cut me as I slept. This went on for weeks, my phantom knife inside me and her words knives in my bed around me as I slept. And then finally one morning I woke up and realised they are blunt rubber knives, pisau tumpul. I wrapped them up nicely and dropped T a message on Telegram.
Tbh, this occurs quite a bit in other ways. Raising a child with multiple disabilities and being chronically ill with seasonal depression is truly challenging because of it. People extend themselves to us all the time and for that I am thankful. I have received so much love and kindness in these last seven years but also a fair share of incidents such as the one I’ve shared that it had made me wary in receiving help, have made me more measured in ways in which I open up and allow others into our lives. Have made it easy to tell the difference between quiet kindness and kindness as performance. I too am guilty of it myself sometimes when I rush to offer help. Niat tak cukup and help is truly hard work and to do it with kindness, that requires empathy and consistency, requires time and moments of discomfort and lots of hurt in between.
Sometimes I imagine slamming my fists on some hard surface and say no I don’t want your box of organic greens, or your expensive purifier, or your offers of help if it involves you shoving a morality mirror into my face and telling me I need to help myself. And no I don’t want you to feel good because you help me for a day thinking that’s going to be enough. But I cannot do that because it so fucking hard to do say it with kindness.
And no I don’t wish to educate you while running on three hour sleep and lack of options and make you understand me. And no I cannot reciprocate your help with immense gratitude because you deserve it for all that effort you’ve put in just telling me things I already know deep in my bones. And no I don’t wish to help you to help me help myself. But I can never bring myself to it. And so here we are, more knives in our words pressing hard against each other, plastered over with grimaces, getting in the way of doing the actual work of finding the shape of pain, and holding it close and fearlessly letting it shape us and free us.
I wish to bravely leave the truth of Woolfe’s quote and move towards what Audre Lorde wrote in her Cancer Journals:
“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialised to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.
The fact that we are here and that I speak now these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilises us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”
(iii) “It’s how I’ve learnt to survive through everything”
(**Massive spoilers from Everything, Everywhere All at Once)
I grew up during a time where there was still kin in kindness. My father would send all of my mother’s friends back home when he fetched her from work even if it’s not along the way as my sister and I slept through the ride at the back of his van. My mother took in her friend and her daughter for several months to stay with us to escape domestic violence. Food that was cooked in our block was shared with our neighbours and the plates and bowls returned were never returned empty.
Informal babysitting was a big thing and I moved through our neighbours homes waiting for my parents to fetch me after they were done with work. My mother did the same each time she did not have to work and took the neighbours’ kids off their hands. We rotate and reciprocate with ease. Nothing felt laboured or difficult. Our toys and things were passed around from curry leaves to cassette tapes and no one kept track. On the 12th floor was Cik Ana who gave tuition to the kids of the neighbourhood at her dining table and it was less expensive than private tuition.
How (and when) did it all turned so sour? When I was staying at my mother’s rented flat at Dover Road, that kin-ness grew small. People moved in and out, some passed on and other folks moved in. Everything became more condensed and fractured and people had no time to get to know each other in the same ways we did during the nineties. When I finally had my own place, that ease seems to have evanesce and replaced with something more precarious in nature, more careful in manner. I yearn for that feeling when the world was still small, and time was so slow. It feels like if I was kind, I’d be left behind and this steely detachment, this cold exterior keeps us protected, keep us out of that other thing, something opposite of kin but more malicious than stranger.
In an interview of the podcast, Script Apart, the Daniels explained the purposeful chaos in the opening sequence as we met the Evelyn and her family for the first time:
“Oh let’s make Evelyn’s life overwhelming before there’s any science fiction so then that metaphor is just so clear and then we understand the dynamics…
One of the interesting things is that we wanted it to feel chaotic without any sci-fi as you mentioned but then also making sure that it felt like everyone was talking pass each other, like everyone was already in the multiverse. Everyone’s already in different universes. Everyone’s in their own world….So the whole thing kinda felt like an opportunity for us to show the audience that we already exist in the multiverse before the multiverse even comes into play. And basically it’s setting up the problem for our character which is this idea that in a chaotic world that’s constantly pulling your attention towards all these other different things, it becomes impossible to just look at the people you love and to see eye to eye with them and how that accidentally hurts people. And we wanted to make sure there’s no moral judgement in this film. No one is necessarily evil. No one’s doing anything wrong. It’s just the fact that we exist in this chaos is enough to hurt each other. It’s enough to cause any well-intentioned person to hurt each other. So the opening is just full of these micro agressions. There’s like tiny moments of careless racism, careless sexism, careless ageism. It’s all in there and it’s not because any of this people are bad people but it’s because they don’t have the time to fully look at each other and say you’re a human being who contains multitudes.”
Anyhoos if you have watched Everything Everywhere All At Once, you might remember this particular scene where Waymond’s monologue is intercut between two verses.
Waymond Wang : [to Alternate Evelyn; subtitles] You think I'm weak don't you? All of those years ago when we first fell in love... your father would say I was too sweet for my own good. Maybe he was right.
Waymond Wang : [to verse-jumpers] Please! Please! Can we... can we just stop fighting?
Waymond Wang : [subtitles] You tell me it's a cruel world... and we're all running around in circles. I know that. I've been on this earth just as many days as you.
Waymond Wang : I know you are all fighting because you are scared and confused. I'm confused too. All day... I don't know what the heck is going on. But somehow... this feels like it's all my fault.
Waymond Wang : [subtitles] When I choose to see the good side of things, I'm not being naive. It is strategic and necessary. It's how I've learned to survive through everything. I don't know. The only thing I do know... is that we have to be kind. Please... be kind... especially when we don't know what's going on. I know you see yourself as a fighter. Well, I see myself as one too. This is how I fight.
Ahh this scene really </3, I cannot. And DO YOU KNOW THE SCENE WAS IMPROVISED?
Anyways, in another interview from The Director'‘s Cut- A DGA Podcast, the interviewer asked about this particular scene and the inspiration behind Waymond as a character and how kindness became the main elements explored in the film:
Dan Kwan: Yeah it was improv, he just came in and was like here’s a monologue. It’s not that one person in particular. I will say a lot of this movie was you know…It didn’t start out this way but it slowly became this where we were just dismantling like Asian American stereotypes growing up especially because a lot of the stereotypes were actually true for me, you know,But like but like, you know…And so with with Wayman's character, just felt like such a beautiful moment to celebrate the fact that I am a soft beta male, you know, like and I do think that there is, there's a time and a place for strength, there’s a time and place for for anger and all these things that I think are very popular right now, but I just wanted to make one one movie that had gave voice to these kind of people who just really held the other end of the spectrum.
And and I think it was like, for me, it was exactly what I needed to be working on during, you know, the past five or six years.This feeling that like everything was tearing apart.Everything was moving in in just yeah, this very divisive environments and I actually came across a tweet. I was scrolling and I came across a tweet that said empathy is not foolish. It does not mean agreement. When you empathize with someone it is, Necessary, its strategic and it's like morally important. I needed to read that tweet and I was like, I need, I need to put this in the movie.I need to figure out how to prove to myself. That is true because…I don't know if I could believe that. That's like, that's like Hallmark card stuff. It's like too easy. So yeah, there was a challenge to ourselves to be like, can we convince ourselves that empathy and kindness is just as strong as all these other impulses.
Ending this post with a cake a dear friend baked while others gathered much earlier and cooked delicious prawn noodles and gave me back rubs and we sat and ate until our tummies were full and spend some time getting to parts of us that we have not met before. In those precious few hours I felt like I was nine again safe at home in someone’s else house being treated like kin with deep love and quiet kindness. Until next time my loves, thank you for reading <3