Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking

We’ve heard, read, watched and talked passionately about the holocaust during the Second World War. Then, we did the same for the genocide that happened in Cambodia, Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. What most people don’t talk about is the massacre of more than one hundred thousands of Chinese civilians in Nanking by the Japanese army in the 1940s.

A few years back, I was told that I should read this book called The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. I was naturally intrigued since I had never read any literature touching on this topic. I knew that the Japanese, a German ally during WWII, had committed countless accounts of atrocities in China, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc. But nobody I knew talked about it as much as they had talked about what happened in Europe. So, when Iris Chang named her book, The Rape of Nanking: A forgotten Holocaust, it really meant something.

As a child, Mom would tell me this story. She recalled that during the Japanese occupation in Malaya (now, Malaysia), my uncles, aunties and her had to kowtow whenever a Japanese soldier walked past. If they didn’t, a strong blow to the face was expected and it did happen to Auntie Number One who was about 12 years old then. I was horrified as I listened to this story. But when I started reading this book, a blow to a child’s face was nothing compared to what the soldiers had done in Nanking. I felt nauseous and sick just reading the graphic account of how men, women and children were tortured, mutilated and murdered without any mercy.

The book was a result of extensive research carried out by Chang, a Chinese American, whose parents had fled from China to America during the war. So, the stories weren’t fictional but supported by first hand testimonies of survivors corroborated by personal entries in the diaries of foreigners who were living in Nanking and countless of other official documents, photos and video footages.

Since the publication of this book in 1997, the Japanese government is yet to acknowledge and take responsibility of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by them during the Second World War. This part of the history has been simply wiped out from school curriculum. Government officials insist that these horror stories have been fabricated by the Chinese government as a propaganda against Japan.

On the other hand, there are many Japanese civilians who do acknowledge this event but they are the minority and those who have been really critical are threatened with death.

In 2007, this book was made into a movie and I had the opportunity to watch it a few days ago. I expected it to be a full feature documentary but it was infused with dramatic re-enactments of Iris Chang’s journey while writing the book. To be honest, I was disappointed with the movie as I felt that it was made as a tribute to her, rather than the victims and survivors of the massacre. Chang died in 2004 by committing suicide. Apparently, she suffered extreme emotional trauma from the stories and images she heard and saw during her research.

I do applaud Chang for having the courage and conviction to pursue a cause she felt so strongly about. The world is indebted to her for the publication of this book. She said repeatedly in the movie that she felt compelled to speak for the victims whose voices have been silenced for more than half a century and she did accomplish this through her book, talks and interviews she gave in public. Without her work, what happened in Nanking might have disappeared completely from our history.

However, I could never fathom why she felt the need to take her own life. As I saw the real images of men being used as target practice; women raped and their genitals mutilated; and children who witnessed their whole family being killed, I felt angry that she had taken her own life when others had begged for theirs.

The movie briefly tells the story of Minnie Vautrin, a courageous American missionary who provided refuge to thousands of Chinese during the massacre. Vautrin wrote in her diary of the torture, suffering and pain she personally witnessed in Nanking.  Shortly after, she took her own life as well. What was different between Chang and Vautrin was that the latter was physically present during the war and she saw with her own eyes the atrocities committed. Anyone in her position would have gone absolutely mad.

Then, there were dozens of real life interviews showing real survivors telling their stories. One particularly touched me. By now, the man is in his 70s and yet tears still welled up in his eyes as he recalled how his brother, sister and mother were killed right before his eyes. Before his mother died, she called out to her infant son who had been stabbed by a bayonet. The bloodied child crawled to his mother’s bosom as the latter opened her shirt to feed him for the last time. While nursing, both mother and child died. This man has probably lived his whole life remembering this image over and over again and yet he refuses to submit himself to death, something his mother had died in order to protect him and his siblings from. 

I think I am mostly angry because Chang made a profound impact with her life and she took away that life many people have fought so hard for. I was criticised for feeling this way. I was told that I lack compassion, something which she had a lot of. Perhaps this is true because I couldn’t have done what she did; pursuing a humane cause so zealously that I ended up torturing myself.

In the end, it’s a great irony that someone who felt so strongly about the wanton taking of lives should voluntarily surrender her own life. The mind-boggling part is that she wasn’t even there. The survivors were.

Finally, the movie would have been much better without the dramatization. The role of Olivia Cheng who played Iris Chang was completely unnecessary and the production of a drama cum documentary movie has diluted the essence and spirit of the issue. The story of Iris Chang’s journey should have been told in another separate movie.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Alexis Bistro Live Performances @ Great Eastern Mall, KL

When I first knew that Alexis Bistro is going to run a series of live jazz performances (July – September 2009) at one of their branches in Great Eastern Mall, Jalan Ampang, I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that Rachel Guerzo was going to perform a tribute to Cole Porter. (For those in the know, Cole Porter was a jazz legend in the 1930s-40s. He was famously known for his hit song Night and Day and countless other soundtracks for Hollywood cinema at that time.)

I must admit that I was first surprised to learn that there is actually a niche in Malaysia that appreciates refined Western entertainment to warrant such a performance but later on felt guilty for thinking so. However, after attending the performance, my initial thought was completely justified and my guilt immediately flew out the window.

The restaurant was fully packed that night. The ambience was nice and the space was small enough to allow a more intimate setting for the show. Thankfully, I managed to reserve a table in advance and had a lovely dinner with a friend prior to the performance which was scheduled to start at 10:30pm.

After being seated, I noticed that there was a small printed card that served to remind diners to switch off their mobile phones and remain silent throughout the performance on each table. I was glad that the organizer was smart enough to do that. They even announced the reminder right before the show in case some people had missed the notice on the table.

As soon as I thought my Friday night could not get any better than that; great meal with wonderful company proceeded by live jazz music, I was oh-so-wrong. Throughout the show, people continued to talk and laugh on top of their lungs. While Guerzo’s voice was powerful and warm enough, all I could hear was a cacophony of chatters coming from every direction. It was obvious that majority of people were there for the food and company, not the performance.

What I find disconcerting was that the organizer at that stage did not do anything to calm the diners down and I blamed them completely for this disgrace. I hate to say this but it isn’t that surprising anymore that Malaysians will continue to be Malaysians; rude, disrespectful and above all ignorant. But I expect the restaurant to take up the responsibility of crowd control. After all, they had organized the show and there were some people like me who wouldn’t have gone there, if not for the show.

As I sat there trying to drown the annoying noises around me, I felt angry and shameful at the same time. I was angry and embarrassed that people were not respectful enough to give their attention to the performers. They should have left their tables if they wanted to dine and chat only. At the end of each piece, Guerzo tried to interact with the audience by providing them with a trivia on Cole Porter and introducing the band members, but I could not hear anything because the chatters were louder than her voice on the microphone.

Needless to say, my friend and I left the show during half time. There wasn’t any point in staying if the organizer and diners  were going to behave like jerks and I was not interested to participate in such an initiative. I won’t attempt to dine or attend anything organized by Alexis Bistro again.

So, if anyone from Alexis is reading this (I hope through some miracle, you do), I would like to give you this advice. DO NOT organize such shows anymore if you can’t deliver. If you’re willing to sell your integrity as an organizer (who ideally should have protected the audience’s right to enjoy the performance without disruption as well as provided the performers the respect that they deserve) in order to keep your dining customers happy, then remain as a restaurant. Otherwise, have the courage to enforce rules by turning customers away if they’re not there for the show.

This whole thing about the “Malaysia Boleh” (Malaysia Can) mentality is not about how many things you can do, but by the things that you can do well.

Live an extraordinary life

As a child, I was a bit of a dreamer. Unlike most girls, I didn’t dream of meeting my knight in shiny armour. Nor did I dream about my wedding day. What I dreamed of was to become an extraordinary person. You know, not just the Ah Moi from Klang or, with a bit of embellishment, the girl who becomes a millionaire by the age of 30.

No siree! I wanted to be as extraordinary as a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate or a space traveller. (Well, being a millionaire at the age of 30 is something extraordinary except earning an indecent amount of money is almost everybody’s dream!)

As an adult, it’s obvious that those dreams were wishful thinking. Instead of becoming a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, I became a humanitarian worker and although I didn’t get to travel in space, I did become a globe trotter. Perhaps as I mature and become wiser, I realise that I don’t have to be an extraordinary person to live an extraordinary life.

Five years ago, I met a guy in Kabul. He was the kind of guy many women would not have considered as potential husband material (that if you know what kind of life he led before). Basically, his background and upbringing were so disturbing that most potential in-laws would have disapproved of the union immediately.

This guy had lived such a harsh and traumatic life that under normal circumstances, one would assume that it would have rendered him a sociopath. Coming from a dysfunctional family, he finished his education early and became a drug addict. There were long periods of time when he wandered aimlessly, slept on cardboards on footpaths and sold drugs to buy drugs. This went on for a while until one day he decided that he didn’t want to live such a life anymore.

He got himself cleaned up, performed menial jobs and established meaningful relationships with others. Yet something was still missing. The jobs he was doing didn’t quite earn him the kind of life he craved for. He longed to do something much more meaningful and adventurous.

Perhaps it was fate that he managed to get a volunteering position with a humanitarian organisation. Impressed with his determination and commitment to serve, the same organisation recruited him as a full-time staff. His life began to change dramatically as his jobs took him to Croatia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkey, Chad, Pakistan and finally Afghanistan where I met him. Later on, we would travel together to Ethiopia and Cambodia as he continues his work with an international humanitarian organisation.

There are probably many other such examples where ordinary people decide to leave their comfort zone in search of something extraordinary but there are many more who are content with a 9-to-5 office job and a weekend of fine dining and home movies.

By now, you’re probably thinking that I’m being condescending since not many people get to do the kind of jobs that provide the opportunity for adventurous living. Well, here’s the thing. You don’t have to manoeuvre a beat-up four-wheel-drive across 215km of unpaved rocky road from Dili to Los Palos to get food and office supply, or to be stuck at the Shatu pass on top of the cold mountains of Central Highlands in Afghanistan, to live an extraordinary life. (But if you have to, it’s up to you to make it happen. These jobs didn’t just land on our feet. We searched for it.)

I’ve encountered a few people who have done pretty extraordinary things with their lives. I have a friend who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago but went on to become a wonderful mother. She’s now going back to work with the Justice Department in her country. She wrote to me recently that she might even travel to The Hague for her new position with the war crime division. In her email, she wrote: “It’s all very exciting but scary at the same time!” I could not be more thrilled for her as I read her email.

I know one woman who decided to break away from an abusive marriage and subsequently become a successful photographer. She’s now taking great portraits of famous personalities for Reuters. Another friend of mine decided to give up her job to become a full-time mother and now plans to impart her breastfeeding skills as a lactating counsellor. According to her, she has heard countless of discouraging testimonies by new mothers who find breastfeeding a huge challenge. Since she feels strongly about the benefit of breast milk, she wants to help nursing mothers ease into the routine of providing their babies with the best nutrition.

I have a friend who is training to become a cardiac surgeon but challenges herself physically and mentally by doing outdoor mountain climbing. Her photos taken at the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro, Chamonix and Huayna Potosi are just astounding and no less a mighty feat. Back in secondary school, she was known as the girl with brains and we were always the last few who arrived at the finish line during our annual cross-country challenge.

Then, there are many other inspiring stories where lawyers try to do more than just conveyancing by engaging in human rights advocacy work. Writers who are doing volunteer work for children’s rights organisations or simply teaching at orphanages. Another person I am in complete awe with is a working single mother who attends book reading, writes plays and shows great interest and in-depth knowledge of socio-political issues.

Whether you’re doing something extraordinary for your personal satisfaction or to help others, it’s all about engaging something else that is out of your otherwise mundane and routine life. It’s about embracing meaningful challenges by leaving your own comfort zone.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were dining with a couple of friends here. Very often, our work in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Cambodia becomes a topic of conversation. The only problem is, these conversations don’t last for too long.

We’re often asked what motivates us to do humanitarian work in countries that offer nothing much except bombs, children with distended bellies and depressing stories of Pol Pot’s regime. Our usual answers are, “We like the adventure”, and this is often greeted by uncomfortable silence.

Many people expect us to tell them that we want to make a difference or to save the world. The truth is, if we’re really that altruistic, we don’t have to travel that far to help people. Suffering is everywhere and it’s just outside our doorstep if we care enough to open our eyes. So, basically, we wanted to see the world and at the same time do something meaningful.

While I no longer want to be an extraordinary person, I hope to live an extraordinary life. A wise person once said, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination and my experiences have confirmed that he is wise indeed.

For the next subsequent posts, I will try to share some of the extraordinary experiences I’ve encountered during my travels. But for now, I would like you to share yours.

This article was posted here at The Malaysian insider on 19 September 2009.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Our past

Lately, through some miraculous intervention, I’ve ran into a couple of old friends whom I haven’t seen or got in touch with for a long time. When it happens once, you think it’s a coincidence. Twice, it’s purely luck. Thrice, surely someone (or if you’re religious, God) is trying to send you a message.

Since I grew up in Klang, most of my old school mates are from there. It’s not a big town and I often go back to visit my parents who still live there. As for Kuala Lumpur, it’s much bigger in terms of size and population but still, majority of the people seem to hang out at the same spot; shopping malls and popular cafes. Yet, I hardly bump into anyone for the past few years.

Never mind the fact that I travel a lot because emails and social network services have allowed long lost friends to reconnect easily across the globe. Yet, I hardly receive any email or friend request from my childhood friends.

Since I returned to Malaysia slightly more than a month ago, I’ve somehow reconnected with some old friends whom I never thought I would see again. The weirdest thing was, it wasn’t planned at all, except for one who reappeared suddenly after seven years through Facebook.

In one occasion, it had been rather spontaneous and turned out to be enjoyable. Another was just plain awkward and slightly uncomfortable because I couldn’t remember her name. The most recent one, which happened today, was a real shocker which serves as a wake-up call or rather a huge slap in the face.

Today’s gathering was something extraordinary. An old friend brought some of us together after more than fifteen years. He was known as a funny, warm, charming, cheerful and handsome guy. The thing is, when age has finally caught up with you, there are many things which you tend to forget, especially in my case since I have a very bad memory.

But I do remember that he was funny and easy going. I also remember that he had a unique long name which was somehow related to one of the X-Files main characters (and I was right!). Finally, I also remember that the last time I heard about him, he was flying all over the world as an air steward. Come to think about it, he was the perfect guy for the job; cheerful disposition, charming and pleasant. OK, OK, he was cute too.

So anyway, I was glad that because of him, I was reminded of my past, something which I have forgotten and was too busy to remember. The sad thing is, I am not able to thank him for this.

Today’s gathering was to pay him our last respect as he passed away unexpectedly. May he rest in peace.

Although we haven’t been in touch for over fifteen years, I felt an uncomfortable sensation upon learning this sad news. I felt guilty for not knowing him better even though his name was brought up occasionally when some of us do meet up. I felt shameful that it takes the loss of a precious life in order for many of us to see each other again.

When I was going out with my husband before we got married, I was often consumed with jealousy whenever I knew that he was still in touch with his ex’es. He told me this: “Even though we’re (his ex’es and him) not together anymore, she was part of my life, part of who I am. The memory we had together will always remain in my mind.”

I’ve learned from him that no matter what happened, we should be thankful for the people who have touched our lives and whether we like it or not, nothing can erase that away. It’s part of your past and who you are.

I guess I’m writing this because I’m being reminded that it’s not often when good people enter your life. When they do, treasure it before it’s too late. These group of friends today were part of a crucial phase of my life. It was a phase of untainted innocence and idealism which unfortunately diminish with time. It was a phase of growing up and slowly learning the harsh reality of life and yet, privileged to be able to look back and laugh ourselves silly at what happened during that period of our youth together.

These are the friends whom I am honoured to have shared an exclusive experience together.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

You can take your heart away from home but you can’t take home away from your heart

I’ve recently started a column with The Malaysian Insider which appears every fortnightly on Sunday. This is the second article which is accessible here under a different title (Find heart in your home, you’ll have home in your heart) or just read below.

There is a beautiful song by Ilir Shaqiri, a Kosovar Albanian singer, that captures the immense joy and comfort of finding home in a foreign land better than any other songs I’ve known. (You can listen to it here)

I first heard of this song in Timor Leste when I was working with the United Nations back in 2002. One of my Kosovar friends had played it and despite not understanding a word of Albanian, I fell in love with the moving ballad, Shaqiri’s warm voice and the exotic sound of the Latin-Slavic language.

Naturally, I was curious to know the meaning. With my friend’s help, I discovered that the lyrics were even lovelier than the song itself.

It tells a moving tale of a Kosovar Albanian who travels to Istanbul on a business trip. During the trip, he enters a poçari shop (poçari means a clay vase seller in Albanian) and asks to see the best vase available. While inspecting the vase, it accidentally slips away from his hands and breaks into twenty-five pieces, much to his mortification.

The poçari goes berserk and starts to swear in Turkish. Offended by the poçari’s unnecessary insults, he swears back in Albanian. Expecting the poçari to put up a fight, he sees tears welling up in his eyes instead.

“Is this Turk, this Muslim going crazy? I swore at him and he’s hugging me,” he wonders.

The poçari reaches for another vase and hands it over to him and says pleadingly, “Swear on me again, please. I am also Albanian. Brother, swear on me in Albanian again. Albanian words cannot be bought here in the bazaar.”

Alarmed by this, the other customers run out from the shop. When the poçari and him are finally alone, the vases come crushing down and shake the Sea of Marmara.

According to my friend, there are many ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia who were forced to escape to Turkey during the first and second world wars as well as the series of wars that erupted in former Yugoslavia during most of 1990s.

The Serbian government was determined to exterminate the “Turks”, a term given to ethnic Albanians who are predominantly Muslims, in reference to the spread of Islam by the Ottoman empire in the Balkans. An estimated 250,000 to 300,000 ethnic Albanians were driven out from their homes to Turkey between the first and second world wars and 250,000 more after the second world war. An estimated 2,000 (I was told 20,000) ethnic Albanians were killed in Kosovo under Slobodan Milosevic’s leadership.

It’s no wonder that the poçari is moved to tears when he hears his mother tongue uttered for the first time after a presumably long and painful period of exile, despite its ill-intention.

Five years ago, I was in Dubai during a transit from Kabul to Kuala Lumpur. I only had time to check into a hotel and leave the next day on an early morning flight. Feeling bored, I decided to check out the hotel’s boutique shops.

An interesting shop selling Middle-Eastern paraphernalia sparked my interest. I wanted to buy one of those make-your-own bracelets with intricate carvings on silver alphabet cubes as a gift for someone. The problem was, each cube would set me back quite a lot and the person doesn’t exactly have a short name.

“Do you give discounts for these if I buy more than five pieces?” I asked in true Malaysian fashion despite the shop owner’s sombre expression. He didn’t look like he was going to entertain my attempt to haggle.

“Where are these from?” I persisted in an attempt to break the silence and hopefully, during the process, he might soften.

“Iran,” he answered rather grudgingly. By then, he probably assumed that I was not worth his time since I appeared to be a cheap-skate.

“Are you from Iran?” I persevered. He nodded his head.

I smiled and said, “Chetor Hasti? (How are you?)” perhaps a tad too enthusiastically. I was feeling smug that I could converse in basic Farsi, a similar language to Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages.

Unexpectedly, the Iranian man broke into a huge smile. I could literally see the muscle on his cheeks relaxed and his initial hostility disappeared altogether.

He replied cheerfully, “Khoob Hastam, khoob Hastam (I’m fine, I’m fine).”

He was curious with my rudimentary knowledge of the language and I obtained his further approval once I explained that I worked in Afghanistan.

“You take this. Gratis. It’s gift from me,” he urged. It was impossible to refuse him as he pried open my hand and pushed the bracelet firmly onto my palm. I decided to accept his well-meaning gift graciously for I understood that by refusing him, it would insult his generosity and kindness.

“Tashakor (thank you),” I said to him with a polite head bow and my right arm folded across my chest. He laughed good-naturedly and replied, “In Farsi, we say ‘merci’.”

I am constantly amazed by our desperate need to identify ourselves with something familiar and it reminded me of the time that I had spent in Wales as a law student. We had a large Malaysian student community and I have never felt more Malaysian since then.

The issue of racial differences never came into question despite the Chinese and Indians being highly outnumbered. If anything, we all embraced and magnified the differences by flaunting them in cultural events.

Since we didn’t have sufficient Chinese and Indian Malaysians, the Malay students had to participate in Chinese and Indian dances. They never complained but were eager to partake in the cultural exchanges. We even had friends from Britain, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, India and Pakistan who volunteered to get involved.

Our spirit of solidarity and unity attracted them and that made us true ambassadors. We were in a foreign territory and hence, there was no issue of whose soil it belongs to. Life as a Malaysian was simple and unambiguous.

Malaysia is not just a country for many of us, it’s home and the experiences I had from living abroad teaches me the horror of ethnic intolerance and how precious it is to be free in your homeland.

I received unverified information that in a seminar conducted by Tun Mahathir, he had said that the only way for Malaysians to be united is if everyone were to become Muslims. I snorted and thought about the sectarian fights between Muslim brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here’s what I think. Unity can be achieved in three ways. First, for those people who call the minorities as pendatang to be sent off to a foreign land where they are subjected to discrimination and restrained from practising their faith. Hopefully, they’ll understand how it feels like to be unwelcomed.

Second, for all of us to become minorities in a foreign land because then, we will not be Malays, Chinese or Indians, but simply Malaysians. Third, nobody has to leave home but, we have to start treating each other as Malaysians.

The poçari and Iranian man taught us an important lesson. Home has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity. It’s a place where your heart belongs to.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Malaysians drive me crazy!

I had an epiphany today. I am more convinced each day that one of the best ways to judge a population’s mentality is through the way they drive. Mind you, I’m not a good driver myself as some people would testify but I believe I respect traffic rules, I don’t pay bribes and I try to be courteous on the road.

Malaysian drivers, particularly those around Selangor and Kuala Lumpur (I can’t say much for the rest since I don’t live outside of these two regions) are known for these:

1) Double-parking;

2) Driving out of the designated lane;

3) Driving on emergency lanes;

4) Ignoring red lights;

5) Reluctant to give way to pedestrians or other cars and worst of all, ambulances;

6) Driving on the wrong lane;

7) Impatient - they will terrorize you into giving up a parking space just because they don’t have the patience to wait for you to park;

8) Jumping queue at the traffic light;

9) No common sense or rather the sensitivity to move their car just a few inches forward so that the car behind can past through to make a turning;

10) Hogging a parking space which could easily fit one more car;

12) Stopping on a yellow box;

13) Dumping their cars on no-parking zones;

14) Blaming others for their own mistakes.

All in all, their driving habits indicate their self-centred, stubborn and ignorant attitude. Basically, the I-am-the-only-one-driving-on-the-road-and-there’s-no-one-else-so-I-don’t-give-a-fuck mentality.

Lately, I’ve noticed another trait and it’s even more disturbing. It’s the flocking-like-a-herd-of-sheep mentality. Most drivers don’t use their brains to form sound judgment. Instead, they tend to follow the drivers in front blindly and hence, causing a massive traffic jam unnecessarily.

I was waiting at a traffic light junction, the huge crossroads that split into the directions of Kuala Lumpur-Bangsar South-Klang-Bangsar. I noticed how all the cars were sticking to the two lanes on the right that lead to Bangsar South and Klang when it’s actually a 4-lane road. Nobody thought about moving to the left lanes.This has happened at other traffic junctions too simply because most drivers think that it’s best to stay on the right when you’re going to turn right (although it’s a 2-lane road which allows both to turn to the right).

In the end, who is to blame? We continue to think and behave like idiots because our law enforcement officers allow us to. All they care about is taking bribes because their superiors are too busy looking out for their own interest than paying them a decent salary.

If you want to understand how Malaysians are, just drive around the city.