Saturday, June 27, 2009

International Cat Show at Mid Valley Megamall, Kuala Lumpur

I was never a cat person. I don’t have ailurophobia (fear of cats). I just had the impression that cats were arrogant and unsociable animals. Whenever I tried get their attention, they turned away with this bored and superior look on them. So, I decided that they were not worth my time and attention.

Ever since I adopted a cat in Phnom Penh, I am pleasantly surprised by their behaviour and ability to provide great companionship. Slowly, I began to fall in love with the cat.

My husband and I are in the midst of relocating back to Malaysia. We have decided to bring our cat back with us since she has become an indispensable part of the family. We have bought some books on cats to understand more about their behaviour and needs. After reading them, I’ve learned a lot about this elegant and “aloof” creature and quickly discovered how much they have been misunderstood. In fact, I actually find them more interesting than dogs.

One of the reasons why dogs are much more eager to receive attention and affection from us is because they have been domesticated much longer than cats. Cats, on the other hand, are still very much guided by their feral instinct, making them more difficult to tame. Unlike dogs, they are known as solitary hunters and hence tend to be more independent.

Apparently, cats tend to avoid people who give them too much attention. It isn’t because they are arrogant or they like to be pursued. Persistent eye contact such as staring and great amount of fussing make them feel challenged and cornered.

Unless they are familiar with you, cats do not like their bodies to be touched, looked at or spoken to. They like to have their personal space in order to feel secure. They prefer to check you out first by rubbing themselves against your legs to leave their scent on you as a way of marking you.

This explains why cats normally follow and pursue a friend of mine who doesn’t like cats and simply ignore them.  By ignoring them, they feel unthreatened and safe which then trigger their interest to get to know the person. So, all those times that I had tried to fuss over them had in fact put them off.

Anyway, since I’ve suddenly became an overnight cat lover, I was excited to find out that Mid Valley Megamall is having an International Cat Show from 26 to 28 June 2009 and coincidentally I am home during this period. I thought it would be a good place to receive first hand information and tips on cats especially when we’re now preparing to relocate our feline friend to a new home.

So, I paid the RM5 entrance fee and couldn’t wait to spend to a few hours going through exhibition booths selling cat products; food, litter, cargo cage, toys, books, etc. I even expected to meet vets or cat experts who could provide advice on how to take care of cats. Alas! I was sorely disappointed.

All in all, it took me only 15 minutes to get in and out again from the show. I didn’t know that when Mid Valley organizes an International Cat Show, it meant having about 15 pedigree breeds confined in small individual metal cages.

I tried to look at the cats but it was impossible as flocks of people were seen gathering close to the cages and since there were only about 15 of them, they stationed themselves by the cage, refusing to budge or give way for others to have a look.

DSC00075 DSC00076 DSC00080

Worst of all, many of the “spectators” spent their time poking the cats through the cages with their brochures, trying to gain their attention (pictures above). The cats didn’t look happy. In fact, they looked miserable, nervous and uncomfortable; most of them crouching at the corner of the cage.

There was nobody there to supervise or make sure that some sort of a safe distance is demarcated between the cage and spectators. This would have made the cats feel more comfortable and provide other people a chance to have a look from a distance.

I left the show feeling embarrassed, cheated, disappointed and upset. Embarrassed because yet again, another Malaysian initiative that has failed to live up to expectations by hiding behind a prestigious label while displaying shoddy and lame effort. Cheated and disappointed because I paid RM5 for absolutely nothing. Upset because the people were uncivilized and insensitive.

I thought it would have been better if there was some kind of sensitization effort made by the organizers, especially for those who might not know much about cats. After all, it’s a cat show and it’s supposed to provide people with the opportunity to learn more about them, not just as displays to be poked at.

Altogether, a very poor and embarrassing show. I hope Mid Valley Megamall will never organize something like this again unless they decide to do it wholeheartedly and not as an opportunistic mean for the organizer to rip off customers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The choices that we make


What if one day you wake up and see that you don’t like this person very much? That this person is more selfish than you think? That you’re seeing this person in a new light, something different, something which you haven’t discovered until now?

What if I tell you that this person is yourself?

There are events that have happened in the past few months which force me to see myself differently. It shocks me. It unsettles me.

One of my friends told me a few months back that she’s not quite sure who she is. She doesn’t have Alzheimer's Disease. Neither does she have temporary amnesia. She’s just confused about her cultural identity.  I can fully understand what she’s talking about.

As a child, there was no such ambiguity. I was fully aware of my duties and responsibilities towards my family. At that time, most of the important decisions; what school to attend, how much allowance I should have, which school trips and various other things I was allowed, etc. were made for me. It was either I learned to accept these decisions, or to live entirely on my own.

I chose the former naturally. It was easy because I had no choice or rather I didn’t know I had other choices. I assumed that this was the right and normal thing to do.

Now, being an adult, I’m being presented with choices because I’ve seen and knew what kind of life I can have. Nobody can force me to do something I don’t want to.

Sure, the cultural expectations still exist. Families and societies will always expect me to lead a certain path; be obedient and dutiful to your family, community and country, and if you come from a religious upbringing, to your religion. Sacrificing my individualistic wants and needs for the benefit of others is what defines my culture.

For years, I went on living with this identity imprinted on my mind. There were the occasional dilemmas during my own pursuit of individual happiness, but nothing so significantly to cause others to suffer. I hope not anyway.

When I first left home to further my studies at the age of 17, I was constantly feeling homesick. My housemates teased me and most likely thought I was a spoiled child. Surprisingly, Mom always told me that as a child, I was so independent that she didn’t have to worry much about me.

At the age of 6, like most children, I attended my first year of formal education. On my first day at kindergarten, Mom accompanied me to meet my new teacher. Other students were seen jostling with their parents, begging to go home while some simply burst into tears. All I did was ask Mom to go home without me.

I was always bad in Maths and Mom would get so frustrated tutoring me at home. One day, she threatened me that if I didn’t improve, I would bring back a “chicken egg” (in Chinese, it figuratively means zero inspired by the shape of an egg) for my Maths test from school.

I replied solemnly, perhaps even with a hint of haughtiness, “I wouldn’t have brought back the egg. I would have eaten it in school.”

In my childish ignorance, I had literally interpreted the meaning of the chicken egg. Later on, I often joke with Mom that I would never go hungry because I will always find a way to feed myself.

My tendency to be homesick in college had become so notorious that whenever I was in a foul mood, all I needed to do was to use homesickness as an excuse and my friends would buy it and left me alone.

Even when I finally got used to living abroad, falling in love with foreigners, having unlimited freedom and plenty of opportunities to pursue a career and family of my own, I was reminded of my cultural identity. There was no ambiguity. I needed to return to my roots.

So, I became convinced that I could be a homemaker, if that is a choice I have to make. I could sacrifice everything for my family and would be happy doing it too.

Lately, I discover that I am not that type of person.

I am the type who gets lost not knowing who I am, what I want and what I can do. I am the type who wants to achieve things on my own, in my own space and at my own time. If I have to include someone else in this decision making, I get extremely frustrated, upset and nasty.

Sometimes, all I want is to be left alone and answer only to myself. 

Having some time to think about this new revelation, I come to understand more about individuality versus responsibility. I think the key word lies in responsibility. I don’t think there is anything wrong with pursuing individual wants. The problem lies in shunning responsibilities while doing it.

I have girlfriends who get upset when a guy they like a lot refuses to commit to a relationship with them. As frustrating as it sounds to the person in favour of that relationship, I personally find it  fair and honest from the other party. If you can’t be responsible towards others, then don’t commit.

It often boils down to the decision you make and the responsibilities you take. If you decide to commit to something, then you should resume the responsibility of taking that commitment, despite how uncomfortable or inconvenient it is to your own individual self.

If you can’t, then don’t. At the same time, you need to understand the consequences for not taking that commitment and learning to live with it. Basically, you can’t have it all and that’s where life is fair because it applies to every single one of us.

Some people are wise enough to know earlier on who they are and what they want and hence are able to weigh their decisions carefully. Others, like me, relish on the concept of sharing responsibilities without fully comprehending its consequences or readiness to execute their side of the bargain.

We often feel unhappy about many things that are involved in our lives; jobs, friends, families, marriages, children, lifestyles, properties, etc. What we don’t realize is that we are the ones making most of those choices.

We choose to keep that job, we choose to befriend someone, we choose to get married, we choose to get pregnant, we choose to buy that house, we choose to stay unhealthy and above all, we choose to ignore life’s realities; with every cause, there are consequences.

We can always choose to extricate ourselves from the choices we made; break up a relationship, get a divorce, quit a job, leave home, etc. but often, we ourselves do not have the courage to do so and as a result, put the blame of our unhappiness on others.

So yes, most of us have individual wants and have the choice to pursue that want but it comes with a disclaimer; only if you’re entirely on your own and answerable to yourself alone.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sex, thugs and NGOs in Cambodia

Girl in middle

At a cursory glance, it’s easy to regard Phnom Penh as Bangkok’s less developed, poorer and “innocent” cousin. In many ways, this is true.

Here, there are many majestic pagodas situated in almost every corner, making them practical landmarks while navigating the small city. The King and Buddhist monks are highly revered by its people.

Every single day, the drones of four-wheeled tuks-tuks can be heard early in the morning without fail while ubiquitous street vendors accessorize the city landscape.

Like Thailand, there are more than a dozen of cramped markets selling all sorts of cheap silk and wooden handicrafts. The ingredients used in Khmer cuisine are similar to Thai minus the hotness.

Before the recent economic depression, hundreds of thousands of women trooped to work in garment factories, spending hours putting together clothes for big labels such as Gap, Banana Republic, Abercrombie and Finch, Ralph Laurent and Tommy Hilfiger. Earning about USD50 to USD80 a month, most of these clothes cost more than their monthly salary a piece.

Yet, many girls aspire to be garment factory workers. They drop out from schools, leave their homes in the village to attend training for three months before joining their “sisters” in the exploit by industrialized nations. What we spend for USD80 at a fraction of a minute, can feed their entire family for a month.

What makes Phnom Penh innocent compared to Bangkok is the absence of red light districts where  sex industry is part of the tourist attraction. You still see the occasional local young girls escorting “barangs” (foreigners) in the city, but not as conspicuous as in Bangkok.

That’s how most tourists would think of Phnom Penh; just a charming developing city with happy and friendly people. If they have lived here long enough like me, and work in the field that I do, there is a much uglier and sinister side of the city than Bangkok.

Unlike Thailand, majority of the sex workers in Cambodia are being forced into prostitution.

Unlike Thailand, there is no specific districts or locations where strip bars, brothels and sex shows operate on a nightly basis.

Here, everything is carried out more discretely and hence gives the impression that sex is not for sale in Cambodia.  Because it’s so discrete, nobody knows the brutality of this sleazy and inhumane business.

Not only is sex for sale here, the girls and boys are as well. Many of them have been sold by their own family as sex slaves to meet the perpetual sexual demands of expat and local men while temporarily feeding the basic needs of their families.

Phnom Penh_rainy 015 Girls_com Girl close up_2

This is not the only ugly and sinister part. Many of these girls and boys are under the age of 16. Here, it is a paradise for paedophiles.

In Cambodia, the responsibility of taking care of the family lies in the daughter. Boys are often given more opportunity to attend schools while girls remain at home to take care of household chores or get a job.

If this isn’t enough, there is another solution.

They are sold to traffickers or pimps. These girls are supposed to work as prostitutes to pay off their debts. The trick is, they don’t receive any payment in return and hence holding them as financial hostage forever.

Sexual slavery, like any other form of slavery, is a multi-million dollar industry.

If the girls try to escape, they are beaten up, tortured and threatened to death. They receive similar treatment if they don’t smile and seduce customers or have the audacity to reveal any hint of coercion from their handlers. So, customers go on thinking that they sell their bodies voluntarily.

Remember, they don’t even get paid.

Because Cambodia is considered less developed and poorer, it’s infested with hundreds of international NGOs, pouring in millions of dollars to help the people, to free them from any kind of bondage. In the end, the majority of people who do benefit from this “industry” are NGO workers, companies who provide the logistics for NGOs, the government and the lowest of the lower income group.

I recently had the opportunity to visit an international NGO providing free formal education and vocational skills training programmes to children and youths living in Steung Meancheay, a garbage dump in Phnom Penh.

When I entered the training compound, I was astounded by the extravagant infrastructure on its 5 hectare land. After more than one hour of tour around the whole area, I concluded that this is the Disneyland of Vocational Skills Training Centre.

With 600 full time staff and USD5 million annual budget for its operating cost alone, it’s no wonder that the hospitality, cooking, hairdressing and spa training areas are able to simulate what you would get at a five star hotel.

All  200 students are smartly dressed in clean and pressed uniforms. The products used at the hairdressing training are all genuine L’Oreal and Evian brands, none of the counterfeited ones used by the other training centres.

They are even expanding their training centre to include a full size swimming pool, basketball and tennis courts for their students. It’s even better than the school I attended in Malaysia.

The Head of Public Relations told us that all students are guaranteed jobs with the tourism industry upon graduation.

While I listened with great amazement, my heart was filled with sadness. Sadness for the millions of children from low income group who are not able to share such privilege.

I have been visiting many governmental and non-governmental training centres for disadvantaged group in Cambodia. It is part of my job to gather information on how to improve the training curriculum of the NGO I am volunteering for. None of them could ever compete with the Disneyland of Vocational Skills Training Centre. The quality of training is far below reasonable standard and most of the trainees do not benefit from job placement upon graduation.

One day, I asked a local colleague of mine whether any of the rescued women who have been sold as sex slaves (the NGO I work for provides rehabilitation, training and reintegration of trafficked women) comes from Steung Meancheay.

He replied, “None.”

I expressed my surprise, seeing how much poorer the families living in the dumps are and hence presumably more desperate.

He answered solemnly, “Nobody wants to touch these girls from Steung Meacheay. They are dirty and they have diseases.”

Then, it dawned on me. Unless you’re rich or an “untouchable” ; the lowest of the lower income group, you will continue to struggle and suffer like the majority of the people I meet here.

Note: This article was first published at Loyar Burok, a leading human rights portal run by a group of young lawyers in Malaysia.

The Story of O’wnership


I get annoyed with people who pay too much attention on being politically correct. I’m not talking about using discriminatory language. I’m talking about people who pick on every single word you say and then interpret it as politically insensitive.

He’s not black. He’s African.”  “She’s not old. She’s OLD-ER”. She’s not fat, she’s well-endowed.” “He’s not short. He’s vertically challenged.” (Not that vertically challenged is any better!)

Well, let’s call a spade spade, shall we?

Not too long ago, I looked through some materials on discriminatory language for an effective writing course I was conducting. I didn’t realize that so many terms are now considered insensitive.

For instance, we don’t use the term ‘disabled’ anymore. The correct term is ‘people with disabilities’.  An epileptic should be called ‘a person with epilepsy’. You shouldn’t call someone deaf and dumb but ‘a person with a hearing/speaking impairment’. Calling someone a victim of AIDS is incorrect. They are people living with HIV/AIDS.

Unless you’re a diplomat or someone who is working in political, humanitarian or human rights field, it’s difficult to keep up with evolving terms like the ones above.

Recently, I received an email from someone expressing her concern about a reintegration case we were following up on.

We had previously visited a girl who had been rehabilitated and trained at a shelter for rescued victims of sexual exploitation. (Actually, I’ve been told that victim is the wrong term to use, but seriously, how else would you call it? A victim is defined as one who have been harmed by or made to suffer from an act, circumstance, agency, or condition and I believe it qualifies the description.)

This girl had started a small business with the help and support from the NGO I am volunteering for. During the visit, we noticed that her business was not doing well and we offered her some suggestions on how to attract customers, etc.

Anyway, according to the email, this girl has disappeared two days after our visit. Her shop has closed down and all the materials have been vacated. This is obviously very worrying.

However, when I read the person’s email, I got really furious. The person wrote, “I am concerned about her very much and fear that I would lose her forever. If we do not take actions now, we will lose her forever.

This is the funny thing about language. How it has the capacity to be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the writer’s language proficiency as well as the reader’s perceptions of things.

As I mentioned earlier, people who pay too much emphasis on diplomatic language annoy me. At the same time, I have become one of them when I read this email. Do allow me though to explain why it has infuriated me so.

The words ‘I’ and ‘lose’, when coined together implies ownership or possession. To me, the girl belongs to no one. Not her family, not the people who have exploited and used her and definitely not any NGOs or any individual working to help her.

The thought that just because we, the NGO, have given her shelter, medical treatment, training, financial support, etc. does not make her a possession.

Many people have often misinterpret the meaning of love. When we think that we love someone, we feel like possessing them. Families, marriage and relationships imply exclusivity and demand unwavering loyalty and obedience from one another that we often forget that we’re human beings, not objects.

I’ve learned this hard lesson through the relationships I’ve had. The more we think we own someone, the more we fear the thought of losing them. The more we fear losing them, chances are, we will.

If you have not watched the movie The Story of O, you should although I doubt you can find it in Malaysia. It tells the complexity of sexual relationships between a master and slave. We’re not talking about conventional slavery but a voluntary “contract” between a couple where one assumes the position of a master and the other a slave. This contract can be terminated at any time if either one or both wishes it to be.

If you have watched it or perhaps one day have the opportunity to do so, I would like to ask you to try to view it not just as an erotic movie which involves the act of sadomasochism, dominance and submission but an unconventional concept of love and ownership.

There is one scene in the movie where the man explained why he could offer his lover away so easily to other men without any feeling of jealousy or remorse. He said that the fact he could do this showed that he had truly owned her for isn’t it true that only the real master has the “legal” right to do whatever he wants with his possession? And if she decides to return to him after being with other men, then she truly belongs to him.

It’s a really strange concept to grasp but nonetheless a rational one. In such circumstances, perhaps one can say that nobody belongs to anyone unless if someone offers him or herself to someone willingly.

Some would say that the same kind of contract applies to marriage or even employment. But does this imply total control over your spouse or employee’s life? I certainly don’t think so.

Buddha said that the only way to eliminate suffering is when you renounce any kind of desire and this includes the desire to possess.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

It’s raining fish and frogs!


A few years ago, I watched a movie called Magnolia starring Julienne Moore, Tom Cruise and William H.Macy. It was one of those movies which makes you want to hang yourself after watching it. The characters were all miserable, sad and lonely.

I kind of like the movie though for all its dark intent and purposes. I thought Tom Cruise’s portrayal of a  misogynistic estranged son was very convincing and should have earned him that Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Anyway, there is one bizarre scene in the movie where toads started to fall heavily from the sky. I couldn’t quite understand the meaning behind this. I thought that it was some kind of a hidden message because surely, amphibians (or anything for that matter except for snow, hail and rain) don’t just fall from the sky, right?

It bothered me that I couldn’t figure this out.

Then, a few weeks ago, I finally read Haruki Murukami’s Kafka on the Shore. Again, it’s a bizarre story where one of the lead characters was able to talk to cats and provoked fishes and leeches to fall from the sky.

Hmmm…I realized that both books (Magnolia is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) are fictional; stories written by people who have very good imaginations. If Tolkien and Rowling can let their imaginations run wild, why not them?

Well, not quite.

I read on the paper today that such impossible phenomenon did happen in Nakanoto, Japan recently. Prior to fishes being strangely discovered by the roadside in a residential area in Nakanoto, 100 tadpoles were seen in Nanao, about 15 kilometres north of Nakanoto. (Get this, the character in Murukami’s book is called Nakata.)

It wasn’t clear whether anyone had actually witnessed these animals falling from the sky but the mystery remains. The public had suggested that it may be caused by birds spitting out the tadpoles or a tornado had picked up the fishes from shallow water and dropping them off randomly.

Raining cats and dogs Garfield and Odie

So naturally after reading this, I became interested and did some research online. I also wondered whether the idiom raining cats and dogs has some kind of connection; whether it did happen and wasn’t just invented by some lunatic person. I know, I know, it’s crazy but at least let me try to find out the origin of this idiom.

I’ve found several possible explanations but two sounded plausible and no, nobody ever saw cats and dogs pelting from the sky. (Damn!)

The first explanation is that during medieval times, animals spent a lot of time on roofs. When it rained, these animals would either be washed out or jumped from the roof to seek shelter from the rain. This created an impression that it was raining cats and dogs, literally.

The second explanation is that prior to the creation of drainage system, animals like cats and dogs would drown in heavy rain and washed down from the gutters. More explanation can be found on Grahams Random Ramblings.

Right. So, did other similar “meteorological” phenomenon not involving mammals, but reptilians and amphibians really happen then?

The earliest record of such event was probably in the Old Testament, Exodus 8:2 where God cursed the Egyptians by sending them ten plagues; one of them frogs, in order to compel Pharoah to release the Israelites from enslavement.

Now, I’m not religious and hence it doesn’t really convince me that God was trying to punish the people of Nanao, Japan by sending them tadpoles.

I found this website on paranormal phenomenon which gave a list of documented events involving raining frogs and fish which date back to as far as the 19th century. There has been no other logical explanation attributed to these events except that a powerful whirlwind must had carried these animals from their point of origin and dropped them off in the middle of somewhere else.

In 1981, citizens of Naphlion, Greece, woke up one morning to find small green frogs falling from the sky. The Greek Meteorological Institute concluded that they were picked up by a strong wind. Problem is, the specie of frog was native to North Africa!

Whether it had truly been a strong wind (force of nature), or perhaps an aeroplane transporting these frogs had accidentally dropped them (a coincidence) or simply an inexplicable miracle, it did happen.

I think this is the point that the author of Magnolia wanted to bring into his book and movie. Culture Snob wrote a great analysis of this scene.

To end this note, I think there are three points to be made from this.

Firstly, I think we shouldn’t dismiss something just because they’re so bizarrely impossible. I never really believe that frogs or fish could literally fall from the sky, but it seems that they do.

Secondly, even if something like this does happen, we need to try to understand whether there is some sort of logical explanation or coincidence before concluding that it is an act of miracle.

Finally, sometimes when there is no logical explanation, miracles might just happen.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

I know who you are when I hear my ringtone


Technology has in many ways made out lives more fun. Since I’m one of those people who don’t really care much for new gadgets; iPhone, Blackberry and what not, I usually settle for a really simple phone with as few functions as possible.

However, I’m intrigued with what mobile phones can do with personalized ringtones, especially those which are customized for individual caller identification. I find them practical and some can be hilarious.

Here are some great ringtones which I thought might go very well with the particular caller. Feel free to add on to them.

  1. Mother – Mamma Mia by Abba
  2. Father – Daddy Kool by Boney M
  3. Brother – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother by Neil Diamond
  4. Sister -  Little Sister by Cheap Trick, Big Sister by Dio
  5. Spouse – Love and Marriage by Frank Sinatra
  6. Children – Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns and Roses
  7. Lover – All I Want To Do Is Make Love To You by Heart, Hush Hush by Paula Abdul (if he/she is your secret affair)
  8. Ex-lover – Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off by Gershwin, Goodbye My Lover by James Blunt, Sexy Back by Justin Timberlake (if you’re hoping for reconciliation)
  9. Secret Crush – I Hate Myself For Loving You by Joan Jett
  10. Fling – Mambo No. 5 by Lou Bega (if you’re a guy), Promiscuous by Nelly Furtado
  11. Best friend – You’re My Best Friend by Queen
  12. Fuck Buddy – I Want Your Sex by George Michael
  13. Annoying friend – Shut Up by Black Eye Peas, Beat It by Michael Jackson
  14. Gay friend – She Feels Like A Brand New Man Tonight by Aaron Tippin, Free, Gay and Happy by Coming Out Crew, Macho Man by Village People, Dancing Queen by Abba
  15. Boss – Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie, Every Breath You Take by The Police
  16. Gynaecology – All My Eggs in One Basket by Irving Berlin, No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley
  17. Doctor – Do You Really Want to Hurt Me by Culture Club
  18. Lawyer – It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy, Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley
  19. Accountant – One Plus One by Lolly
  20. Insurance Agent – Not Dead Yet by Styx
  21. Real Estate Agent – The House Song by Peter, Paul and Mary
  22. Bank – Money, Money, Money  by Abba
  23. Landlord – Landlord by The Police, Dear Landlord by Janis Joplin
  24. Tenant – Life for Rent by Dido, Rent by Pet Shop Boys
  25. Mechanic – I’m in Love with My Car by Queen
  26. Weed supplier – Magic Friend by 2Unlimited
  27. Vet – Who Let The Dogs Out by Baha Men
  28. Gym/personal trainer – Gonna Make You Sweat by C & C Music Factory, Sweat (A la la la la long) by Inner Circle

With all these ringtones, who needs an iPod, eh?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

American Romance

Fred Astaire  Ginger Rogers swingtime2

There is something so remarkably uplifting and romantic when you watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger gliding and dancing cheek to cheek in the countless number of movies they did together. Then you have something so deeply moving and again, romantic when you see Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in a movie like Casablanca.

I can quote a long list of classic American movies made in the 40s and 50s bearing similar theme, but I won’t bore you with it.

I adore American cinema during that time and I believe that it was THE golden era for romantic comedy or drama. Nothing like the present time chick flicks which are made to target specific niche. The good ones are usually those which portray lives back in the olden times when couples still express their feelings in more subtle but dazzling ways. Now, it’s all so garish and impersonal.

The special effect, artistic direction and casting may be way more sophisticated now but they still lack that je ne sais quoi and charm often found in these classic romance. I think the characters in many new movies often lack characters and even the musical score is pale in comparison.

I’ve been watching some romantic chick flicks recently on TV and I’ve come to one conclusion; most of them end in public confessions. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Picture Perfect, Definitely Maybe, Because I Say So, Baby Mama, 27 Dresses, etc. Jerry McGuire’s “you had me at hello” would have been better without the group of divorced women gawking at them.

Whether the confessions are carried out in front of a large group or just one or two people, the couples are never alone. This includes making a public apology. (If only most politicians could learn from that).

27 dresses

I rather like the movie 27 Dresses and almost thought it was romantic in the way that the love interest turned out to be the wedding section writer whom the main character was “secretly” in love with. Then by the end of the movie, she jumped into a private boat wedding, grabbed the microphone and declared her love. Most of you might find such act courageous or even romantic, but if I had an erection then, it went flaccid.

It’s almost as if there’s nothing these couples can’t say in front of anyone, even at the most intimate moment like saying “I love you” or “Marry me”. At the end, what is supposed to be the climax of the movie, the big moment when two persons are about to reveal and share that exclusive conversation is ruined by the thunderous claps of bosses, colleagues, friends and strangers. Whatever shred of romance or dignity left is killed there and then.

And what is with the public proposal thingy?! Is it really romantic or it’s just plain rude for the man to put the woman in such a public spot where saying “No” or “I need to think about it” would make her a spoil sport or a bitch?

Maybe by saying all this makes me a romance killer but excuse me, romance is not about being an exhibitionist or voyeurism. It’s that special emotion, gestures and moment between two people. Don’t you think so?

Call me old fashion but is declaring one’s love or faults in private so passé? I would like to see more movies bringing back that old-fashioned honest-to-goodness kind of romance, rather than the present cliché where there is a need to define romance based on what other people can or cannot see.

Now, I beg of you. If you’re an American reader, I would like to know whether it’s common practice for people to do this in America or it’s just dramatization by movie sellers.

For female readers, do you really think it’s romantic when your man proposes in public? 

Sunday, June 7, 2009

My encounter with an inspiring man in Timor Leste

It’s rare that I meet inspiring people despite the kind of work that I do. I’ve met some who are really intelligent, industrious, enterprising, wise, funny or kind, but not many are inspiring. I think they are like a needle in a haystack.

In 2001, I worked as a UN Volunteer for the first time in East Timor. I was working as a Civic Education Officer then. I was posted to the furthest eastern coastal district of Lautem.

I still hold the same belief that it’s the most  tranquil and heavenly place I’ve ever been to. Since then, no beaches I’ve seen have come close to the uncorrupted white sand and crystal clear blue water of the beaches in Los Palos, Tetuala and Jaco Island. It was also the first and only time when I had sighted a whale from a distance in the ocean.

Every few months, I would drive through five to six hours of unpaved roads alongside barren fields that seemed to last for an eternity, curvy, narrow and hazardous coastal cliff towards the capital, Dili, to attend trainings.

We had an Australian trainer, “KD”, who had been living in East Timor for quite some time. Words had it that he was previously a human rights activist in Australia, fighting for the Timorese’s rights way before the country became a sovereign state in 2002. So, he wasn’t just any trainer. He was a trainer with a deep cause.

KD’s method of training was rather unconventional. Since, we trained together with our Timorese counterpart, it was important that the session was conducted in 2 languages, sometimes 3; English, Tetum (official language of Timor Leste) or Bahasa Indonesia. It was equally important that these trainings took into account the level of education of our local friends. So, we engaged in a lot of group activities instead of sitting in a classroom, listening and taking notes.

Anyway, KD was the only staff who could switch from English to Tetum with such ease that it was rather surreal to watch. After that, it was just amusing looking at this white man clad in his usual T-shirt and knee-length khaki pants, speaking in a language which most of us could hardly get used to, what more mastered it.

Apart from that, he was extremely funny and witty. He was also the sort who was so down to earth that everyone warmed up to him quickly.

Our training sessions usually lasted for about three to four days. It was a time when all the district Civic Education teams got together to share experiences, brainstorm, draft action plans and receive new materials. Above all, it was a time to get to know each other and build team spirit. Every training session ended with a special lunch and dinner where everyone of us could just let our hair down and have some fun.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun and motivation while attending training sessions than the time I had spent in East Timor. Looking back, it was simply because KD was responsible for them.

I remember one day during one of these trainings, KD gathered us outside the training room. There were about thirty of us. Since it was held in a school, there was a big field just outside the classrooms and we were made to form a large circle. KD stood right in the middle of the circle.

He started doing all these silly movements and we were supposed to follow him. It was really funny to see all of us; different shades of black, brown, yellow and white of very different age range as well; wiggling, squatting, jumping and shaking all about. We all felt as giddy as kindergarteners and inevitably, roared with unrestrained laughter that when we finally trooped back into the room, we were filled with renewed energy and a huge dose of endorphins.

That was KD for you. He was never too proud to make a fool of himself and hence, we were never intimidated by him, just admiration and respect. He’s just like that; whether as a trainer or an individual.

He was the one who opened up my mind about how fun training can be, even if it’s for adults. He taught me how to engage people, explore different methods on adult-learning, using games and activities to awake the participants’ senses and to build team spirit. Learning isn’t the only important thing; sharing and bonding are as well.

Sometimes, KD would go on trips to visit all the Civic Education Officers stationed at the districts just to provide additional support or guidance for our activities. Once, when he came to Lautem to visit. I went to welcome him as he stepped out from his white four-wheel drive Tata, grinning from ear to ear. He has a narrow gap between his two upper front molars which made him looked goofy when he smiled. We hugged each other and he brought me chocolates!

We had a lovely time when he stayed over albeit it being a short trip. I took him for a short drive around Los Palos and it was pleasant looking at him talking to the locals amiably along the way. He even made them laughed but not before shocking them first with his fluency in Tetum.

The last time I saw KD was when he visited me in Kuala Lumpur nearly seven years ago. I usually don’t receive foreign guests when I’m home; not because I don’t want to but I’m rather shy and uncomfortable meeting people whom I haven’t seen for quite some time. I made an exception for KD because he was different from many people I’ve met. There was no air or pretention in him and he had this special knack of putting people at ease.

I’ve lost contact with him since then even though I’ve tried to get in touch with him through some mutual people we know. At some stage, he was offered a transitional justice position in Afghanistan with the UN but decided to work in Nepal instead, much to my disappointment as I was still in Afghanistan at that time.

I recently googled him and he is apparently back in Timor Leste, working as the UN’s Spokesperson. He was speaking to ABC Radio Australia on the handing over of police forces to the local authorities in Lautem, the first district in Timor Leste to have such ownership. It is strange to read about him and Lautem, the place which has linked us together.

There are people who make policies and there are those who really make a difference. KD is the second type and this is what makes him truly inspiring.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Slurping oysters in Bouzigues


I’ve never been to France during spring. I have always been there during summer, autumn and winter but never spring. What’s France, particularly the South, without spring when towering sunflowers and lavender scented fields grace the landscape of charming villages?

My husband owns an old 19th century family house in a quiet village called Gigean near the city of Montpellier. It’s not particularly a charming village but it’s close enough to Bouzigues and Sete, which come alive during the summer due to their coastal placement. Many city dwellers make their annual summer pilgrimage there to enjoy the azure Mediterranean sea and of course fresh seafood.

My husband always insists on going to Bouzigues for its famous seafood platter whenever we’re there. There’s a small but extremely quaint restaurant that serves a big platter of fresh oysters (huitres) for two and a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet white wine at a very reasonable price (around 30 Euros in total). Nothing really beats enjoying this dish al-fresco style where the temperature is perfect while listening to the distant flapping of seagulls’ wings.

Since we dined there quite regularly, we had become familiar with the owner of the restaurant, a dignified-looking woman in her mid-40s, who according to my husband, laughs like a horse and was unashamed to tell her (much to my mortification). I doubt she remembers us since we haven’t been back to the restaurant for more than two years. Unless of course, my husband decides to remind her of that neighing laugh.

I was never a fan of fresh oysters. Growing up in Malaysia, the only oysters I enjoyed was the fried oyster omelette (O’Chien), which I’m sure would horrify any self-respecting French. I can just hear them scream out reproachfully, “Wat iz it? Mais non! Im-po-zee-ble! You ex-peck me to eat deez, huh? Aarh you crah-zee?! By ze way, I am not ungry anymoghre, huh. No, no, I am not angry, I am ungry. UNG-RY. No, I mean not ungry. Ooh-la-la, merde!”

Fortunately, over the years, I’ve begun to appreciate the taste of it after my husband persistently persuaded me to try them.

I’ve slowly discovered that eating oyster is not the same as eating foie gras (goose or duck liver pate), and yes, I love foie gras right from the beginning despite the cruelty of it all. Actually, eating oysters is no less cruel since you eat them while they are literally alive!

Anyway, eating fresh oysters in France has a ceremonious ritual to it, a bit like tea-drinking ceremony in Japan with none of the subdued rigidity but the same elegance. You wouldn’t imagine that the sight of slurping that piece of slimy meat off its shuck (oyster shell) would be anything but elegance.

First of all, the French eat oysters only during the months that are spelled with a “r” (from September to April). It has nothing to do with superstitions. During spring and summer, the water in the sea becomes warmer which causes the flesh to become milky and hence impairing the taste.

Secondly, the French don’t just tackle the oysters straight away. Before the platter arrives, they carefully spread salted butter on a small piece of brown bread. They exchange news while drinking aperitif; usually whiskey, pastis (or the infamous Ricard!), or kir.

When the platter finally arrives, they show appreciation towards the oysters, nestled on a bed of crushed ice and garnished with fresh sea weeds with a sigh of delight and a huge smile. They take a few moments to feast their eyes on the large platter, sometimes in two tier.

It’s interesting how the customers sitting next to your table almost always tend to take an admiring peek at the platter and flash a solidarity smile while they anticipate theirs to arrive. For those who order something else, there’s always this regretful look on them.

Then, they take their time to garnish each shuck with a splash of shallot vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice (oyster purists will have theirs without any condiment), stir it delicately around the oyster with a tiny fork to ensure optimum blending.

The vinegar or lemon juice is to complement (not to get rid of)  the strong sea water smell and taste. When opening an oyster shuck, the sea water must never be drained or wasted. This salty water must remain in its shucks even when you eat them. So, never drain them out before you prepare the oysters for eating. What really tells a fresh oyster apart from an imported frozen one is the sea water.

At the same time, the fork is used to gently scrap the meat off the shuck. For a true novice, there is no telling whether this might end up in a disaster. Unless you want to be Mr. Bean having a vacation in France, do attempt this with utmost vigilance.

Now, they are ready. They gently slurp the oyster, let it settles in their mouths for a few seconds and then slowly swallow it with great relish. While the taste still linger on their palettes, they wash it down with a sip of white wine. Picpoul de Pinet is often the best companion for this.

Usually, the French are rather chatty when it comes to dining. They converse animatedly, argue passionately and laugh heartily. But I’ve come to notice that when it comes to eating oysters, they tend to become more “civilised” in manner. Perhaps, the concentration of  coordinated hand movements while preparing an oyster makes it harder to gesticulate and focus on topics that require full engagement.

Thirdly, if they don’t live by the sea, most French indulge in oysters during Christmas and New Year. It’s that special kind of dish that takes a lot of hard work to prepare. Sure, they are eaten raw and there is no need to cook them but cleaning and opening the tight shucks require special manipulation of an oyster knife.

Since it needs quite a substantial amount of force to pry the shucks open, the men usually attend to this task. It’s a bit like opening up a durian. Instead of being pricked by the durian’s spikes, if not careful, you can easily be pricked by the oyster knife since it’s difficult to have a good grip of the tiny rough shuck while giving it a good pry. It’s best handled with gloves or towels to protect your hand.

I used to like moule frite (mussels and fries) and soup de poisson (fish soup) best amongst all the seafood in France, but now I’m actually looking forward to my next oyster experience in France. It’s not so much the taste that excites me. It’s the whole ritual. If you’re eating something else, you tend to feel left out.

Shucks! I guess I’ll have to wait patiently for it.

P/s: I’m thinking of starting a series of stories on my experience in France. Please feel free to provide any comments on what interest you about the country.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Secret

Time taken to get over a major heartbreak – 2 years, and good thing it only happened once.

Time taken to get over a fling – a few days.

Time taken to get over not getting that job – 1 week.

Time taken to get over the death of a pet – 2 weeks.

Time taken to get over a fight with my husband – 1 day, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on whose fault it is.

Time taken to get over not getting something I really really want – 1 hour, which surprises me.

These days not many things seem to pull me down. I’m not saying that I’m constantly jumping for joy.

A good friend told me that I’ve turned into an indifferent person. She said I’ve lost my spark. She told me I could be depressed.

It got me worried because how could I give anyone the impression that I was depressed without even feeling it? Was I sending out negative energy, all the way through cyberspace?

Anyway, I did get depressed yesterday because I didn’t get something I really really wanted.

About two months ago, I applied for a scholarship to do a distance learning course in Creative Writing. I received a negative reply yesterday. It broke my heart.

As I read the reply, I felt tears streaming in my eyes. I don’t even know how to explain that feeling. It has been such a long time since I felt that way and I was surprised at my own reaction. Mainly, I wasn’t prepared to get a “no” for an answer.

Most of the time when I want something, I tell myself mentally that I might not get what I want to spare myself the disappointment if I don’t get it. This time, I changed my strategy.

For my birthday, a dear friend gave me The Secret book. If you haven’t read or heard of it, it’s a book that teaches the law of attraction. It’s main theory is that if you want something, you need to visualize that you already have it. You will attract the things you want if you believe in it.

So anyway, this dear friend knows how long I’ve been looking for a job and how desperate I am to get a paid job. She wanted me to get what I want and as a birthday gift, she shared The Secret with me. She wanted me to believe and hence urged me to read it.

I did and decided to adopt the theory. It wasn’t so much as I am a believer, but I wanted to believe, or perhaps, I wanted to test the theory. So whenever a negative thought came to my mind, I dispelled it quickly and replaced it with positive thoughts.

That positive thought occupied my mind for 2 months until yesterday.

My first instinct was to feel sorry for myself. Then I started to question what went wrong. Why didn’t I get it? What had caused me to lose that scholarship? Was my submission letter not good enough? Most importantly, did I not deserve it?

Whatever questions I had, I knew it would never be answered.

I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my husband about this because by confronting it, it would confirm that I didn’t get it and what a failure I have been. That was when I knew how much I wanted it, the scholarship more than anything else. I wanted so much to make it on my own, not asking anyone to pay for the fee but the institution itself.

After brooding for about an hour, I suddenly snapped out of it. Yes, I didn’t get what I wanted and nothing’s ever going to change that.

I was informed that the two successful applicants are from Nepal and Zimbabwe. I don’t even know them but I can pretty much guess how much they wanted this scholarship too, perhaps much more. I wasn’t the only one who applied and I don’t know what they have written on their submission letters, but I’m sure it was way more compelling than mine. Simply put, they got it because they deserve it more than I do.

Should I not be happy that two strangers who really deserve and need the scholarship got what they wanted? To be honest, this thought shocked me. I never knew I had the ability to be happy for strangers at my own expense.

Then it got me thinking. It’s so easy for us to feel sorry for those who have it bad but how often do we feel happy for those who have it good, while we don’t? Must our happiness be guided only by what we have or don’t have?

I think The Secret really lies in learning and knowing how to be happy for others.

To be frank, I am somehow relieved that I was able to feel some sort of emotion, even if it was painful. It reminds me that I still want something badly enough to feel hurt and that I still want it despite it all. So, I’m going to keep on trying.

Maybe that’s what they mean by it’s better to love and lost than to never have loved at all.

And P/S:

Time taken to find the peace inside me to be happy for someone else – an hour.