Friday, September 30, 2011

11: Music

I started hearing voices in my head when I was a small child.

Eight of them, to be exact.

"Wheeeeennnnn yooooooouuuu knooooowwww theeee noooootessss tooooooo siiiiiiiiing..."

Yessir, repeated viewings of The Sound Of Music have been known to cause the von Trapps to come and reside in your head.

"Yooooouuuu caaaaan siiiiiing moooost aaaaaaanyyyythiiiiing!"

Maria was right. It's really easy to harmonise to any tune when you can picture a scale in front of you; the chords are plain as sight and you just pick which note you'll sing in each chord.

Or something. I would explain more clearly, because I do get asked a lot how I make harmony seem easy. Only I can't explain it now, because I am very, very sleepy, but I can't miss a daily post this late in the game. So I'll leave you with this, which expresses a lot of how I feel about music. And behaviour. And interpersonal relationships.

Did I mention that I love music and am so very grateful to have been soaked in it all of my life?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

12: Depression

I spent a lot of my life feeling as though I were living underwater, or behind several layers of invisible foam. It began when I was around 7. In my mid-20s a friend pointed me towards some literature on depression and the lights began to come on, but I still didn't want to think I was depressed because, well, there seems to be this unwritten rule in most Asian cultures that we don't accept or admit illness. Especially illness that you can't see. I quickly lost count of how many people told me to "just get over it", to "pull myself together" because my life wasn't "anything to be depressed about".

It wasn't until I was 28 and in a Master's elective on mood disorders that I read the diagnostic criteria for depression and thought "Hey, that's me. It's true what that one friend said. And those other people with their 'get over its'... they were wrong." I didn't waste much energy in retrospective anger towards people I'd long decided weren't worth keeping close as long as they remained unwilling to help me on terms I could live with. And this was 2008, the year I had quite a bit to be angry about in the present, and I was learning for the first time that anger can be dealt with in healthy and productive ways. I hadn't the time or energy to waste on conflicts long gone.

I'm only writing this, and beginning to slowly reveal more of my insights on mental health, because I've had enough of the Ostrich Approach to it that practically all Asians have been using. It is a real threat to your quality of life, your relationships and your career -- I hope you won't wait passively until it becomes a threat to life itself, but that is the logical end of all depression if left untreated -- but burying your head in the sand/work/drink/social network/gaming console/DVD box set/designer bag isn't going to bring you to safety.

To begin with, if you think you have even the mildest tinge of depression, please do a self-test. I think this one from the Mayo Clinic quite trustworthy, provided you answer honestly. Consider your results, then decide if you want to get better. I have found that we usually get what we want, but we have to agree with ourselves that we do want it. Take it from someone who wandered some 23 years in the wilderness of unwellness: it can be really hard to admit that you want something good for yourself. We Asians, self-deprecating and humble and ever mindful of keeping face. Now that's something to "just get over".

On my part, I got better on a combination of the following:
  • respite from the career hamster wheel that I'd been running feverishly on since I was 20;
  • prayer and meditation*;
  • counselling**;
  • adaptogen herbs, which come in standardised tablet form these days so there was no pounding of roots and reducing of dark bubbling liquids to be done. (I won't recommend specific plants to you because each person's brain and body chemistry is unique. What worked very well for me might only cause you to bloat and grow poorer. See a naturopath or one of those versatile, open-minded GPs like I had in Sydney if you'd like to go herbal.);
  • restored sleep patterns;
  • fresh air and sunshine (neither of which I had a great deal of when I was working, because I'd usually go from my stuffy sealed-up room at home straight to my air-conditioned office, where I'd remain until after dark);
  • spending more time with what I love: dance, music, movies, writing, friends.
*"Prayer and meditation" is such a floaty, ambiguous phrase. In my case, "prayer" refers to "conversing [largely informally] with God, with whom I have a real and personal relationship through my acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour". "Meditation" to me is little more than "being still and reflecting on the indescribable goodness of God". Where, when and how, whether there are candles or music is played or flags are waved around, all those are just accessories. And no mountain cave retreats are involved. (Not yet, anyway.) As I learnt from Brother Lawrence, the 17th-century French monk filed in my brain as "the happiest kitchenhand I know of": If you can't be still and close to God in the middle of a noisy, full workday, you'll have trouble doing so anywhere else.

**By "counselling", I mean structured, usually 50-minute sessions with someone qualified to hold the title of counsellor/therapist. I had attended "counselling" before with a church leader who eventually, through her entirely unhelpful approach, become one of those people I was glad to leave at the periphery of my life. Later, when I was training to become a counsellor myself under strict supervision, I realised that the type of "advice" she'd given in our "sessions" would be grounds for disciplinary action by any counselling body and if my depression had been more severe, this woman could have been the final push I needed to go run in front of traffic or drive fast into a wall.

I tell you this not to haul up old dirt but because I know counselling is still largely unregulated in Malaysia and there's a strong chance that if you do try to get help, my near-disastrous experience could very well happen to you, too. I don't want it to. If you need help, get it, but only from someone trained and qualified to help you. Pastors and other religious leaders of any faith are not, by default, counsellors. Neither are friends. In my experience, as much as friends may love you and want you to be better, they usually won't know how best to help you. Here's one place where there are people who will: Calvary Life Ministries in Damansara Perdana has a team of professional, ethical counsellors. Don't be intimidated by its name; they're open to clients of all faiths and backgrounds. I know there's a growing number of private practitioners around the country, too.

I'm happy to write these daily posts even if nobody reads, because they are fulfilling their main objectives: to help me enjoy writing again, and to bring focus to what I am most thankful for approaching my 31st birthday. But if even one of my friends reads this and thinks, "Life could be better. I'm going to get help," it'll give me a tiny twinge of satisfaction that I helped chip a flake off the huge boulder of mental health stigma in our culture.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

13: Journal

The first diary I ever had was a pocket-sized page-per-day with pastel-coloured bunny illustrations on every page, purchased on one of my family's annual trips to Thailand.

I didn't know what a diary was then but my parents had told us it was a good habit to keep one, right after they saw the huge selection of cute year-specific paper goods in one of the many stationery shops we frequented in those years. I don't know if making up a good habit to justify buying something cute always works, but it worked that time.

So began a short-lived daily "diary time" for my brother and me. The first day went like this:

INT Dining room. Seven-year-old Ren opens diary to January 1, 1988.

"I don't know what to write."

"You can start with 'Dear Diary'. How about 'Dear Diary, Happy New Year'?"

Somewhere at home, because I come from a long line of pack rats who never throw things away, I am sure there must be a pastel-bunny-filled 1988 page-a-day diary, unused but for one page. On it, a childish pencil scrawl: "Dear Diary, Happy New Year!". The end.

It's funny to bring up that memory now, because I've turned into a compulsive journal keeper.

It all began with wanting to document details of an overseas trip in 2002. But then I discovered something alluring about big pages of unruled paper, so inviting to someone holding a gel ink pen between itchy fingers. I started to doodle. The doodling led to my writing about what inspired the doodle. Which led to further thoughts that led to further doodles.

And now, 38 books later...

April 2008 to January 2010

My family and others close to me know that I'm seldom far from the book of the moment. It isn't because I'm caught up in a Hemingway complex, or because I'm trying to impress anyone. I simply enjoy having a record of my life at my fingertips. It shows me the person I used to be, reminds me what mistakes I never want to repeat, and keeps me in touch with good things that have happened or that I've been told will happen. I don't always have the infallible memory of my childhood (a childhood where I frequently heard "Ren, remember this for me and tell me later... What? Of course you should, you're younger so your head has fewer things in it than mine") these days, and the journals are a reliable repository of events, emotions, lessons and affirmations. A work in progress, like me, documenting my relationships with people, with things I do, with my Creator.

I hope that I'll reach the end of my life with all my brain and memory function intact but, just in case they lose their sharpness someday and I need these books for a refresher, it's the good stuff that I want to remember. I don't want to grow old feeding myself on bitter recollections of all the wrongs life has inflicted on me. That isn't to say that when you open one of my journals, you're blinded by beams of coloured light populated by smiley-faced daisies and assorted woodland creatures. There are still ugly bits in the books, ugly enough to warrant placing the book in a freezer if that's what you do. But I am finding that by aiming for a journal with fewer ugly bits, I've been aiming for a life with fewer ugly bits. I think it's working. The ugly still happens to me, and comes out of me. But as I work on having the sort of life that would make a potentially vague, doddering 90-year-old me smile, I'm finding that leads to a more smile-worthy, trouble-free life in the here and now.

Still warm from purchase at the MOTL market in July this year, completed last week

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

14: Choice

One of the non-academic high points of my 2009 was getting to meet some interesting public figures. One of those was Baroness Caroline Cox, one of today's prominent anti-slavery and social justice figures. At many points during the interview I felt as though I was living in one of those documentaries where they edit all of this one person's best quotes into a seamless voice-over, because every word that she said was interesting and profound and thought-provoking. To me, at least.

One comment that has stayed loud in my mind since then was on giving aid recipients "the dignity of choice, letting them know their voice matters". She gave some examples, concrete items that communities had said they'd needed that were very different from what would otherwise have been given. Picture, for instance, a village asking for supplies and help to raise food crops. Picture also the outcome of their receiving what they'd asked for, instead of a huge delivery of writing chalk for an already well-supplied school.

I remember that this is how the Baroness and her organisation choose to work, by getting to know the people they're helping and finding out what they most want to receive. I think that we could learn from them in our routine interactions with others.

How many times have we been approached by a friend who wanted no more than an hour's worth of concentrated listening, then disregarded that wish only to bombard them with unwanted and irrelevant advice?

What do we offer the senior citizens in society who don't have the resources to choose their own pastimes: line dancing and bus excursions? The company of other elderly folk with whom they share only two things: being poor and old? Would you want to hang out with someone just because she was born in the same decade as you and earned the same salary?

How often do we try to buy out our guilt with a coin or two for the smelly man sleeping on the street corner, when what he really wants from us is eye contact and an affirmation that he is also human, also deserving of food, shelter, companionship, all the creature comforts we assume to be our birthright?

I detest this about myself, that by default I would give what's easy and convenient. The advice, the contribution to bus rental, the coin. But that isn't my only option. In understanding that even society's lowest have (or should be given) choices, I'm shown that I, too, have a choice. I can see this as the way things have always been and always will be. I can view myself as too small to push against the well-worn convention that society has walked down for centuries. Or I can choose the messier option of seeing the human beings behind the labels, of breaking down demographics until I meet with faces. By fighting my complacency in order to bring choice to those who otherwise had none, I'm choosing to live as more than a complex atomic structure out to gain the best for myself and my own. And I hope that means I'm choosing, truly, to live.

Monday, September 26, 2011

15: Friends

For company on long, aimless drives when I needed to get out of the home-work-home-work-home rut.

For writing and phoning often and letting me know I'm still a part of your life even though I've moved an ocean away.

For emails that go deeper than "Hey" and Facebook contact beyond sheep-throwing. (Does anyone even do that, still?)

For not being pai seh.

For knowing the worst of me and yet not judging me.

For driving me around the hometown where I no longer have a car.

For lending me your mother when I needed one and my own was too far away.

For hearing me say I'd found the books I'd been dreaming of since childhood, and then giving me the box set before I had the chance to buy it for myself.

For getting me to take the risks that have led to a richer life.

For telling me off when I say or do something bad.

For staying on the phone all night if I needed you to, back in the confused days of our early 20s, and then picking me up en route to uni because I was too tired to drive safely.

For helping to keep my Hokkien skills in shape.

For not being shy to burst into song in public, in three-part harmony.

For getting your family to let me stay in your home for over a month.

For keeping silly childhood languages alive.

For talking me down from my overcompensating Chinese ways.

For knowing when I need to bake, and willingly eating the result even if it's on the far side of edible.

For making me feel I'm not so alone, after all.

For being a one-person online cheer team.

For praying for someone you've never met in person.

For sending me your songs.

For proving that real friends don't have ages.

For showing me good food in far-flung places.

For knowing how to be silent without being awkward.

For baking a birthday cake for a friend you'd just made two weeks previous.

For being someone I am comfortable to laugh and cry with.

For keeping the best of me when I think she's lost for good.

For being someone I can trust.

For the many more that can't be listed because this girl's got to get on with Monday, but we know what they are.

Thank you.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

16: Family

A talent for tangential conversation. An unwillingness to accept status quo without question. The ability to improvise in four-part harmony. (It only happened once, but at least it happened.) Literacy. Compassion towards outcasts, two-legged or four -- or less or more, as this cruel world can cause to happen. An appreciation of high-quality baked goods. The capacity to confound bystanders by speaking in shorthand Hokkien. Facial features that, according to natives of several countries across the continents, seem to be right at home in all of those countries. Mad creativity. Unbending tenacity.

(My very favourite things about the one I was born into, in 100 words or less. I think that's 89? Please spend your Sunday in more worthwhile pursuits than verifying that word count. Have a good one!)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A few words on burnout

It's dangerous.

It's not fun, even to the masochist.

If you're in the Malaysian workforce as I know it from my own and my peers' experiences, you're probably somewhere along the path to it.

Please learn about it and tell yourself honestly if you're at risk. If you are, please get help. Do not wait for it to "just get better". Not by itself, it won't.

17: Sewing

I came home from work late one night in 2006, tired and hungry and grumpy. My brother and sister-in-law called to me from upstairs, where they'd been clearing out some long-held childhood clutter from the built-in cabinets. "We have a surprise for you!" my usually not so chirpy brother chirped. I mumbled something about laterafterIfindsomethingtoeat or justcomedownstairsandshowmeI'mexhausted. You don't always have the strength to enunciate clearly, especially one storey upwards, when you've just spent thirteen hours staring at pages of work by writers who have an anarchic view towards punctuation.

"No, come up now. We're hungry, too, so you can rest for a while in your room while we make something to eat."

no said tired then sofa down here call when...

You also don't always have the energy for complete sentences at such times.

"You really have to come up now."

All right, but you can't stop me being grumpy while I do it. I stomped upstairs and past two dusty, sweaty but inexplicably cheerful people, threw open my room door not looking forward to the messy sight of a bed I knew I hadn't had time to make before rushing for work in the morning, and saw...

"Surprise! Remember them?"

I don't know if I answered audibly, absorbed as I immediately was in being three again. It was Lowly Worm and his... lady worm friend whose name I can't recall. But I did remember. They were among the many stuffed toys in our childhood, distinctive for one very special reason. These were no store-bought, mass-manufactured worms.

They were hand-stitched by my grandmother, or mother, or both. In those early days when craft felt first came to our tropical home, and Richard Scarry was a hero in my household, someone had mentioned to someone wouldn't it be nice if the children had a stuffed worm, a three-dimensional, fully detailed stuffed worm, to play with? Not long after, we had worms. If only every child's early encounter with worms were so fuzzy and friendly and non-parasitic.

Image from here, but who knows where this person got it

In that moment I remembered something that used to be a major part of my life, but which I'd pushed aside except for one or two isolated incidents in the six years since my mother's death while I tried to be a responsible grown-up with no time for fun. I used to sew. I'm part of this family of women (and some men) who Sew. We enjoy this. We have huge stashes of sewing and knitting needles, crochet hooks, frames, patterns, threads, flosses, yarns, transfers... earlier that year I'd made a small concession to that part of my life when I made an E. coli, but I'd gone from that job into an even more hectic one and sewing was shelved again.

By the time the food was ready, I wasn't very hungry. Or grumpy or, magically, tired. I just wanted to play again, with the worms and some other long-forgotten toys that my brother had arranged on my window bench... and as I examined the tiny, even stitches holding Lowly together, the precisely copied Tyrolean caps, Ms Worm's string of pearls, the impossibly detailed red sneaker on each worm's... end? Well, I can't possibly call it a foot because worms don't have... anyway, not to split hairs, but that's the way Scarry drew 'em so we'll leave it at that... I realised how much I missed sewing.

I have tried since then, though life has continued to be just as busy and full of external stressors like you wouldn't believe, to keep sewing and related skills close by even if the projects are small and simple. Because if ever I lose touch with sewing again, I'll have again lost a huge chunk of me.

Friday, September 23, 2011

18: Work

I little knew in 2004, when I was part of the team writing Drunk Before Dawn, that four little lines I wrote for the womenfolk in the opening ensemble scene would be so frequently quoted (usually as Facebook statuses or desperate chat messages) by overworked friends.

Work all day, toil all day
Not a moment can we waste
Dawn to dusk and beyond
Turn our backs and life is gone
Is this all life is, can there be more?

I've often wondered that myself, while sitting at the many desks I've occupied in paid employment. It's worth noting, too, that I wrote those lyrics in the earlier half of my 20s demonstrating my awareness of that restless questioning... and, for nearly all that remained of that decade, stayed in that lifestyle without even attempting to find a better way. I knew there probably was one, but I was too busy and tired to look for it on top of everything else I had to do. I knew I didn't like clocking 25 hours' unpaid overtime (not that there was such a thing as paid overtime) in a single week, checking work email on weekends, and rushing from a late night at work to another late night at rehearsal and fighting all the while this nagging feeling that it was all, to a point, meaningless. I hated frequently falling sick from the stress, which meant either that my equally overtaxed colleagues had to pick up the slack or I'd come back to work to be greeted by a corpulent In tray. And I did not enjoy holding a nebuliser mask over my mouth and nose with one hand and texting my boss with the other to say that I'd be in as soon as I could breathe. But like the characters into whose mouths I put those words, I asked without much expecting to hear an answer: Can there be more? Even if there was, I couldn't afford to go off in search of it. If I was meant to have this "more", it would have to find me.

Oops. You know what they say about being careful what you wish for...?

I realised with shock last week that it's nearly a year now since I was in a regular, paid job. This year I've had the very infrequent client hour and that's it. My family is not one of those with a deep-pocketed patriarch who keeps grown children afloat indefinitely while they figure out what to do with life. On the contrary, actually, "parentification" is a term my brother and I learnt by living it. It isn't something I'm proud or pleased about, but it's true and I'm learning to make the best of it. So, that I've got this far without becoming good friends with pavement and a hand-lettered cardboard sign, I can only say is through the grace of a loving God. Which isn't to say it rains legal tender whenever I step outside hungry. That grace has mostly appeared in the form of relatives and friends. You know who you are, and I thank you for loving me. Well, I knew you loved me before you fed and sheltered me but now I know it... more?

Being unemployed at 30, for a year at that, was never in my plan. I'd been working to support myself since my second undergraduate year, when I was 20. While I can't say I've loved every inch of my jobs, I have plunged into them with everything I had because that's the way I was brought up. But, as should have been apparent when I was writing this, this, this, this, this, this and especially this, I was all out of balance and as we know from watching accidents in acrobatics, road use and building construction, balance is the only way to long-term endurance. In all that time I hadn't had a single holiday -- my definition of holiday being a dedicated time, preferably spent physically apart from all the usual distractions, of not being needed or summoned by anyone for any reason. Collapse was bound to happen sooner or, as it was in my case, later.

I feel -- I hope -- I'm approaching the end of this unforeseen, yet very necessary, fallow year. As recently as a month ago, I couldn't bear the thought of any work, anywhere, of any sort and duration and commitment level. The very mention of it produced instant nausea and worse. Let's not even mention work; most days it was an achievement if I managed to do the most basic things: get dressed, prepare meals, clean up, do laundry, clean house. It was a bonus if I made it to the mailbox; an extra bonus if I could walk to the shops for groceries instead of driving. After years of letting rest be an incidental, often disposable part of my life, I've had to make it my focus for this season.

One day about three weeks back, I woke up early in the morning, instantly aware that I wanted to work. I wanted to work! I looked forward to getting out of bed! And doing something worthwhile that would help other people to live and, at the same time, give me some of what I need to stay alive. I wanted to work! And, I knew, that meant that something had changed: I can work again.

I can't wait.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

19: Cats

I am partial to them, these slinky furballs with their undulating tails and their glass-marble eyes.

Fort Cornwallis, Penang

I love their agility, their imperturbability, their unblinking -- if somewhat disdainful -- acceptance of their humans. I love the way they're aloof at first, but when they let you in you're in for life. Or until you do something terrible to them or someone they love, and then you'd better sleep with both eyes open.

The Rocks, Sydney

I love the smell of the sun that they bring in from long days of outdoor pursuits. Or naps. Very important pursuit, napping. I love to watch their collapsible ears in action when it's too noisy and they can't decide what to listen to. I love their individuality: I knew one who loved wheat porridge (bubur gandum) but only from a human's cupped hands, never from a bowl; another whose best friend was a dog; one who mooed and one who squeaked; one who'd dip his paw into the water bowl as though testing the depth (temperature? texture?) before he'd lower his head to drink.

People's Park, Singapore

I love that you can't own one any more than you can own the moon.

(Uh, if that was you who fell for that email scam... sorry you had to find out this way. How's that bank account doing after you sent your details to the Nigerian minister? Uh-huh. Would you like a cat?)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

20: Loss

School ties, a mobile phone. Heirloom earrings, tacky keyrings. Important emails. Blood from persistent nosebleeds when I was a child. Health from persistent overcommitment as an adult. Buttons, buckles, beads. Too many pairs of sunglasses. My mother. A grandma. A favourite auntie. My perspective, my cool, my temper. Weight. Ten cats, two dogs, a forgotten number of hamsters. Friendship (natural drift). Friendship (chronic neglect). Friendship (immature backstabbing). Friendship (death). Joy. Sleep. Track of time. Skin cells. Hair. Whole toenails.

I'll run out of time before I run out of losses to document. Some of the above weren't really lost; more like I let them go through poor choice. Some were accidental but no less painful for that fact. Some I got back. Some weren't worth getting back. Some I'll never get back over here, but someday.

Through it all I've learnt that life is loss. That though we try our best, relationships and things and people may slip away. Still, we try. We learn where we went wrong. We embrace what's here. When it's time to let go, we do so. We cry. We write long and laboursome journal entries. We draw. We talk to trusted people who are big on hugs, tissues and chocolate; small on useless platitudes. We so discover who really loves us and who needs to be relegated to the category Only Good For Superficial Air Kisses At Social Occasions. We resist the temptation to fill the void with cheap and undeserving substitutes. We bear the pain of emptiness. We ask that it be filled with good. The time invariably comes when we find that it has. We give thanks. We know we'll never forget. We know it was worth it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

21: Reading

One of the best things about childhood was all the reading I got to do. I was privileged to have parents who read to me every night at bedtime, something I was later surprised (and saddened) to hear wasn't what all literate parents did for their children. All my cousins, at least on my mother's side, were read to, too, so I'd come to assume that it was a built-in component of childhood.

(If I was disturbed that not every child got read to, imagine my response not long after when I read the newspaper for the first time and discovered that not every child gets fed, sheltered from the elements, or protected from harm.)

So I'm thankful that my parents saw it as important that I learnt to read as early as possible, perhaps so that I'd stop pestering them to read to me. I'm thankful that my childhood was a time of relative financial stability in my family when my parents belonged to a club that had a good children's library. I liked that the adults' library had James Herriot, but I had to get my accomplice (also known as Pops) to check his volumes out for me because those stuffy post-colonials wouldn't let anyone under 13 into the library, no matter how quiet and reverent. I'm thankful that my nanny's family had 50 years' worth of Reader's Digest. From those yellowing pages I pieced together a view of how the world had moved on in the decades since the war, just as much through the advertisements as the editorial. The magazine introduced me to some of the authors I still admire now: Torey Hayden, Alex Haley, Erma Bombeck.

If I had to pick one favourite from the childhood library years, it would be Capyboppy by Bill Peet: an illustrated first-hand account of living with a pet capybara. It was written way before the exotic pet trade was the illegal, dangerous, irresponsible circus it is today -- or at least, before we became aware that it was dangerous and irresponsible. I was a kid. There were nicely drawn pencil sketches of a gigantic rodent terrorising pampered domestic cats so, unquestionably, a good book. We would check it out from time to time, sometimes getting my mother to phone the library ahead to reserve it for a long loan.

At some point my father, whose business at that time included a photocopier/printer distributorship, must have decided the serial borrowing was getting ridiculous so he photocopied the entire book and bound it into our very own copy, right down to the illustrated cover plate with a picture of Capy sitting resolutely in his inner tube. Over time my father became a staunch anti-piracy advocate, and I eventually followed. But you still can't get me to let go of our family's bootleg copy of Capyboppy, possibly even after I inevitably buy legit copies for myself and for my brother's offspring. It's hard to let go of something you can hold, concrete evidence that my father did try. He did want to be nice to his family. Those are the things that help me to remember that he always has and he does still, when at times the opposite seems to be true.

Monday, September 19, 2011

22: Belonging

I had a working mum all my life. Well, not all. All but the two months after she gave birth to me and the slightly over one month before she died. And I guess I could add the weeks she had to take off each month from work (under heavy suspicion from amazingly uncaring employers who accused of her abusing her paid medical leave privileges) to travel to Singapore for chemo and recovery. While I maintain that I missed out on a lot from not having a mother who was more practically and emotionally available, I know I'll also always have reason to be thankful that this is the way our lives played out: if she hadn't needed a daily babysitter for me, I wouldn't have had a ketchup family.

(The name was coined when I was about 6, adapted from an episode of Punky Brewster, and once my "siblings" [also my real, blood sibling] and I got used to it we found we couldn't replace it with something more sensible-sounding. And we never really wanted to.)

They were the family who looked after me while my mother was at work five days a week, all through the year except when we went on holiday, for 10 years. They were the ones who kept tape recordings of my earliest attempts at speech, who mediated early fights (of the fist, nail and foot kind -- we were pretty badass) between my brother and me, who hold the negatives to that most embarrassing of all baby photos: the potty shot. But I don't just want to be nice to them because they possess incriminating pictures of me. I don't just want to be nice to them. I'm simply steeped, for the rest of my life, in gratitude for all they've been to me.

The babysitting arrangement was informal, unwritten as things were in those days before the nightmare of abuse in child care was widely reported. (But it existed; an older girl who later came into the same family's daytime care had previously been looked after by a woman who would lock her in a small store room without ventilation, food or water until her parents picked her up.)

Anyone would agree that all that was expected of this family was: in exchange for what my mother paid, they'd feed me, change me, bathe me and otherwise see to it that I was well in body.

But being with them did so much for my heart as well. Every child should be so blessed to have just one person love them as completely, unconditionally and irrevocably as Ah Poh (grandma to the non-Hainanese) loved me. Not only her; I grew up feeling so very precious to the entire family. And not, I can tell you, because I deserved it. I was the typical child. (The typical younger/youngest child, even, so you can add the requisite number of Insufferable Points for that.) I fought, loudly and often violently, with my brother and talked back to older members of the family. I screamed when I didn't get what I wanted, and then screamed louder when discipline arrived. I took for granted all that they, with the utmost tender patience, did. I was, in general, a Lot Of Work. Yet they've never made me feel like a lot of work.

Amazingly, 20 years after I stopped being under their daily care, this family is still my family. My ketchup sisters and brother are still my ketchup sisters and brother. They still love me way more than I deserve. Auntie still offers to cook chicken rice for me on the rare occasion I'm back in town. She still clucks anxiously and asks if I need medicine if I so much as sneeze in her presence, even if it's nothing more than a reaction to the chopped chili on the dining table. They helped keep food on my table when I went from self-supporting development sector worker to unemployed postgrad student. They chipped in, everyone in the family, to give me a large Christmas cash gift that first year I spent the season away from home.

It's impossible to reflect on the nearly 31 years I've lived without acknowledging all that this family has been in that time. They've demonstrated to me that you don't love something just because it's yours; it becomes yours in response to how you've loved it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

23: Dance

I was born to move.

Or so I thought when I was young enough not to be inhibited, when I'd use any excuse to twirl and hop around my nanny's large living room or the upstairs hall at home. Music was optional. I just wanted to move, and I didn't care how I looked.

And then I started going to ballet class, and attended a primary school that was known at that time for sweeping most of the prizes up to national level in performing arts contests, and that was the end of dancing for joy. I still enjoyed dance (except in ballet class, but then again, not a lot of dancing happened at ballet class) but it began to take on a different purpose: looking good, getting the best part in the number with the best costumes, beating Those Other Schools. Even with these at first unfamiliar pressures, I still enjoyed being in rehearsal way more than sitting in class so it was nice to get a valid pass out of institutionalised boredom for a good hour or two each day during the run-up to competitions.

It's interesting that in school, the teachers would nod approvingly at me and say to each other, "Of course she's better than the others, she's a ballerina." Like any good Chinese girl, I'd be embarrassed and run to the back of the line because unlike the teachers, I knew the truth -- at least the truth according to my ballet teacher. One evening a week, I would turn up at the ballet studio and be snarled at for a solid hour for any/all of the following: having fat buttocks and thighs, not turning out enough, having my hair pop out of the classic bun we had to wear, sloppy movement, floppy arms and neck. If only my school teachers could see me now, I'd sometimes think.

Years later, in an undergraduate creative writing unit, over several tutorials we worked to create and develop characters. One such tutorial was devoted to villains and our lecturer told us to go over the top at first; we could dial back the evil later when the story was drafted and we could see how the characters interacted with each other. I didn't have to imagine at all; simply described That Woman's voice, her looming appearance from the perspective of a six-year-old, her repertoire of insults. (Note to all parents, teachers and others whose life brings them in contact with Small People: do not ever compare them or selected parts of their bodies and facial features to round pastries eaten to commemorate the eighth lunar month, to animals renowned for their slovenliness, to unattractive cartoon characters, to anything at all. At worst, they will grow up with damaged body image that takes years to correct. At best, they will become writers and... good luck.) The passage of nearly a decade since I'd last seen her hadn't dimmed the unpleasant memory of her presence in my life. The lecturer commented on how well I'd been able to convincingly evoke fearsomeness in a completely natural, believable human being. Imagine that, I thought.

I sucked it up for seven years in that ballet class under that teacher, until the combined pressures of puberty, fatigue from being expected to bring my best to school, tuition and every single extracurricular, and That Woman's abuse got the better of me. I'd been skipping at least one ballet class every month since the beginning of the year and my mother told me off sharply for wasting my parents' money. I knew she was right, although her aim might have been to guilt me into perfect attendance rather than getting me to quit. But quit I did, after another few months of fighting with my parents. ("We don't want you to think it's OK to quit anything you like whenever you want." "I'm not 'quitting anything', I just want to leave my ballet class." "What if next you say you don't want to have piano lessons anymore? Or tennis?" "I won't." [I was equally sure of both for opposite reasons: I loved piano enough to want to stay with the practice and exam route. Tennis was my parents' idea and I'd tried several times to edge out of the twice-weekly three-hour lessons to no avail, so I knew it wasn't even worth trying anymore.]) At first I tried to negotiate with them: maybe we could find a different teacher in a different school? A different class time, too, so that they wouldn't have to jump through flaming logistical hoops trying to get me out of school in time to zip across PJ to arrive in class on time, with my mother working against the clock and the moving car to coax my stubborn hair into a teacher-sanctioned bun. None of those approaches worked. So I left the class, and I still remember the first of those evenings when I didn't have anywhere to be: the relief of being able to eat a whole dinner at leisure, and the rapturous thought of never having to stand there in silence and have That Woman yell at me again.

But I don't want this entry to be all about how I lost my joy in dance because the good news is: I got it back. Throughout high school, I seized any chance I could get to join occasional dance/musical performances. I even made a friend in Form 2 who'd been under the same ballet teacher and whose experience corroborated mine, down to the same stock criticisms -- despite my friend being a good bit taller, slimmer and better turned out than me. I started to realise then that maybe the bulk of the problem with That Woman was in her head, not in any part of me. In my early 20s, enrolled in a tertiary dance programme in Australia, I had ballet and contemporary teachers who were able to show me that the faults I'd beaten myself up for all those years were simply the way my body was made. I might very well have been born to dance... just not to be a professional ballerina.

For years, I remained in that mindset of needing dance to be for something. If I danced Latin, it was to be for the sake of joining competitions, otherwise why bother? Tap was fun, but I couldn't hear myself and the perfectionist in me couldn't cope with knowing if I was making mistakes or not. The only performance and choreography I did for years was for church productions which, at least with the KL church in question, were even heavier on appearance and perfection than That Woman.

I arrived back in Sydney in January 2008, already burnt out but not knowing it, and one of the first things I observed about my new university was: dance studios. Well, of course I'd known they were there, seeing that I thought I was a dance therapy student after all. But I didn't know they were available to dance and DMT students for free, so long as we booked ahead and didn't clash with paying renters or other therapists seeing clients.

I started to use the studio for an hour each week. I'd bring my own CDs and pop the padlock attached to the sagging latch on the aging DMT supplies cupboard so that I could borrow the CD player. Sometimes I'd bring my tap shoes, happy to have a floor I needn't worry about scuffing. Other times I'd let my bare feet trace the old sprung boards, feeling the texture and history beneath them. Sometimes I'd crank up Salvador and put on my Latin stilettos. Sometimes I wouldn't move at all: I'd just play music and lie on the floor, slowly having the rhythm and colour seep back into a soul depleted through all those years of aiming for and beyond expectations. A few things became clear in those solitary studio times:

I will never be a professional dancer.

I am perfectly happy with that admission.

Dance has the capacity to give me so much more than the cash it could have paid me if I had been built to go pro.

I can't put it in a box and expect it to behave the way I want it, when I want it. I can't do that with any form of creativity. If art is true, there comes a point when it leaps out of the artist's hands and surpasses all limits self-imposed and external. But like a shy nocturnal animal, it is highly unlikely to show its true self if all we want to do with it is put it in a cage with no stimulation and thrice-daily meals.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

24: Thailand

I'm pretty sure the one country I have spent the most time in that isn't:
  • my country of birth
  • my country of normal residence
  • home to relatives or very close friends
  • occasional work location
is Thailand.

All through my childhood, my family travelled there about once a year on average. Not just my immediate family, but often my mother's siblings and mother as well. If you were ever in Haadyai in the 80s and nearly got run over by nine adults and seven children trotting along at a brisk clip, I apologise on everyone's behalf. There was always so little time, so much to [eat, shop for, discuss loudly in Northern Malaysian hokkien while drinking fresh-pressed sugarcane juice by the street].

And then there were my parents' company outings. I am suddenly curious as I write this. Why was Haadyai (Hat Yai? Had Yai?) the destination of choice for so many in the 80s?

Or was the so many just us?


Add to these at-least-once-a-year-to-buy-clothes-and-school-supplies Haadyai trips the occasional time in Phuket or Koh Samui and the still more occasional trip to Bangkok and I grew up with an unlikely familiarity, for a non-Thai living way too far south of the border for that to be a factor, with the Thai language and pop music. Which isn't to say I understood any of it; it just wasn't foreign.

I was always the moody, pensive kid in the extended family, and once I got old enough to do more than eat and nap in between markets and shopping malls, I started to ask questions. Mostly in my mind, these questions, because my parents and other elders had their minds on other things. When it's one for 80 baht, six for 250 and there are more than six colours/designs available, who on earth has time to answer a seven-year-old's queries about why so many of the street people are missing legs, how come you see beggar families with a young mother and three children but no fathers, and why did the lady in the nightclub last night sing in such a deep voice?

With my mother's death in 1999 came the end of the extended family's yearly trips to Thailand.

(Actually, it was the end of the extended family as we knew it, but I am not going to talk about that now.)

But by that time I'd already grown to love the country, regardless of whether I got to see it yearly or not. Despite only having the opportunity to visit twice in the past decade, I still think of it often: its heartrendingly high number of people living with AIDS. Its equal status as home of pristine island hideouts and hub of Southeast Asian child trafficking. Its shops. Its sweatshops. The smiles that inspired its unofficial tourism tagline. The disparity between swish air-conditioned department stores and the peddlers surviving on subsistence just outside.

My memory still holds countless stores contributed to by all my senses: the sweet singsong lilt of shopgirls calculating the final tally on my mother and aunts' purchases after more, more, more discount give for them. The dull tap of a dozen bronze coins in an aged plastic begging bowl, times several for each street corner we passed. The roar of tuk-tuk engines, the only way to transport such a large group from one place to the next without losing anybody or wasting precious retail time. The sensation of travelling very fast in an open-sided van whose driver, more often than not, favoured taking corners on one wheel. The sizzle and snap of street foods fried and fried again in oil so dark you don't want to know: spicy battered chicken pieces, glazed chili cuttlefish, pigeons. Soft, fluffy batter spheres filled with green kaya and baked in purpose-built moulds. Setting off from the hotel in the early morning, the thought of all of us together in some semblance of relationship so strange to my mind of today -- all 15 or 16 pairs of legs, various lengths, various levels of fitness, all trooping together to the corner Chinese restaurant two blocks away that served dim sum in the morning and shark's fin at night. The discovery of a pau variety we were not to find in Malaysia for over two decades to come. Strange now that I think about it, but we didn't eat a lot of Thai food in Thailand. The stockpiling of clothes, school shoes, good Japanese lingerie at a fraction of the Malaysian prices. Nissin cup noodles by the 24-cup carton, at least two cartons per family if everyone was feeling restrained.

Thinking of all that, with fond regard for everyone on those trips -- for the parents who cared to give us overseas travel in whatever ways they could afford, for the cousins who were my earliest playmates, for the countless Thais who drove us, served us food, showed us clothes, took up hems, taught us to count in Thai, offered us kids durian and coconut candies, showed us how to spot fake leather (of which, of course, none in their own shops), I have to concede that there are things we saw on those trips that I'd never expose a child to, places we went where I'd be happy never to go again, "entertainment" that I doubt I will ever find entertaining. On the whole I'm thankful to have seen what I have of Thailand, and to feel what I now feel: I still want to go back, and I know as a country it still offers me so much. But now, I have more to look forward to that stuffing my suitcase and my stomach. Now that I'm not a tot on someone else's time and budget, I can think of what I can bring to it, too.


For just over a year now I've been reading her blog, occasionally joining in her online community and simply learning how to live from someone who does it so well. Her constant refusal to let chronic illness take her joy while it stole her breath, her energy and her voice showed me that I also had a choice in how I responded to the difficulties of my own life.

Image from GitzenGirl

And now it looks as though soon there won't be any new posts, as she moves on to where life -- finally, after all these years -- won't be constant pain and struggle. But if I know her at all, as she's allowed her readers/book club friends to know her, she isn't focusing on what won't be but on what will: being home. I just didn't want to wait until I had to refer to her in the past tense, because she is and always will be all about the present. I'm so glad that soon, her present will be forever.

Edit 29/9/2011: Sara passed away on Saturday, September 24. Even if you don't visit Sara's blog, please read this. I don't think we could ever stop learning how to live well.

Friday, September 16, 2011

25: Rest

I feel for Rest, I really do.

Despite its venerable old age, right up there with existence itself, it's given only the most suspicious of welcomes in most of today's societies.

It's underrated, especially when you compare it with the response given to its siblings Activity and Achievement.

It's misrepresented as a luxury, so that instead of letting it fill the space it was meant to have in our lives we sigh, "If only I had the time!" (Although we Malaysians are more likely to phrase it something like: WHERE GOT TIME LAH! The block capitals are optional, but you catch my drift.)

It's supplanted by counterfeits like the Educational Holiday, the Productive Weekend and the Power Nap. I mean, really? Why can't we just let rest be rest without adding an energetic adjective to it?

It's a genuine physiological need that we often can't seem to distinguish from Laziness. I've found a simple way to tell the difference: Rest leaves you wanting to go back to work. (Unless you hate your work in which case, my friend, perhaps we should have a talk.) Laziness... well, you put it together.

So on the eve of the weekend as most of the world observes it, here's to you, Rest. May you be enjoyed as you were meant to be enjoyed, in all the right ways and all the right dozes (I'm not above puns. Cue self-satisfied little chuckle.) to refresh us for the good and satisfying work that awaits.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

26: Baking

I like to bake.

I like to use traditional recipes that other people have used for generations. It gives me a sense of connection to the rest of oven-equipped humanity. Some of these recipes are from my own family. It feels nice and warm mixing ingredients together and thinking of my grandmother, my aunt, my mother, my sister-in-law, their arms having mixed exactly the same things together at some time.

Cupcake baked using my maternal family's sugee cake recipe, 2010

Others, I get from recipe sites...

Banana bread, 2008: nothing but a sweet memory now
and until banana prices come down from over A$10/kg

... adapting them to suit what's in my kitchen, whether something more seasonal or a poor choice when grocery shopping.

Papaya bread, 2010

Others are from blogs.

Lemonless yoghurt cake from Orangette's lemon yoghurt cake recipe, 2009

I like to bake with friends.

Dual-flavour cupcakes, with Michelle, 2009

Frosted chocolate cupcakes, with Maggie and Bek, 2011

I like to bake for other people, to express my appreciation...

Improvised chocolate cake for my cousin who
braved my graduation ceremony despite a bad cold, 2010

... and my good wishes.

Chinese New Year cookie gift box, 2010 (year of the Tiger)

For a very short time, I thought baking would be a good way to earn some money. I did; but I also got myself another concussion and some colourful bruises. I think for now I'm back to baking for love.

Pineapple tarts and almond squares all packed up with pre-orders to fill, 2010

Finally, I like baking savoury things, too, meals that I hope are better for me than those processed things with scary numbers that I see in the shops.

Stuffed mushrooms, 2010

Mini pizzas on homemade wholemeal crust, 2010

I like to bake.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hello, who's there?

Blogger tells me there are people -- a surprising number -- viewing this blog. And here I've been thinking that I'm talking to myself. (Okay, and my Facebook contacts.) Thanks for dropping by! I hope you're actual human beings and not, like, Internet-crawling algorithms with a stuffed donkey fetish. Well, even if you are...

Who are you? Would you please drop me a comment so that I know?

27: Travel

Some reasons why travel is one of the big things in my life:
  1. It forces the ol' brain to develop new neural pathways as I figure out routes to unfamiliar destinations. Not only does this apparently lower the risk of my someday developing Alzheimer's; it's making me smarter now.
  2. It relieves me of the occasional temptation to sink into comfort and complacency. Things are less easily taken for granted when even the most basic of affairs, like ordering a drink, becomes an exercise in daring.
  3. It shows me something of who the Other People in this world are. Not just what they do, how they spend and what they wear, but how they interact with their loved ones and how they treat the less fortunate in their societies. (It also says something about a place when there are no seemingly no homeless, no mentally disturbed or substance affected people on the streets. Leads to the question: are they not there at all... are have they been put away somewhere to make the picture prettier?)
  4. It satisfies the curious, adventuresome side of me that wants more than the same, known landscape day after day after day. Sure, the unknown can be scary... but turning it into the known is usually fun or, at bare minimum, enriching.
  5. It sharpens my appreciation of what's already before me all the time in said landscape.

In my mid-20s when I was back in the Klang Valley workforce, the four years after I returned from Sydney and before I returned to Sydney, I would often have this sharp longing to be back in Sydney because I knew that chapter of my life hadn't completely come to a close yet. What kept me grounded, and possibly made my eventual return to Sydney go a lot more smoothly despite the odd injury and career-altering change, was my resolution to first enjoy all that home offered me. I made myself aware that where I lived year-round was a dream holiday destination for some and economic situation booster for others. (I had a hard time convincing myself, but all those maids and construction workers aren't pouring in just because they like to risk their lives building stuff under sparsely regulated safety conditions or leave their own children behind to look after a stranger's.) I chose to see where I was as the best place for me to be at that moment. And although I had to leave behind the people I love most, I had to tell myself -- as I do still -- that I travel not to get away, but to go towards something good, to the place that's best for me to be in next.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

28: Penang

The Penang I know, admittedly, is a Penang of short visits filled with wonderful company. I have never lived there so I don't know first-hand how it treats residents. I have never worked there so I can't comment on its economy. I have no comments, really, nor idealistic ramblings -- I've sat in its traffic; experienced the rudeness of some of its veteran hawkers; been rubbed the wrong way by the tourist-flattering peddlers of the Batu Ferringhi night markets. I don't think I'm entitled to feel anything but what I always have: an abiding fondness for the island where my parents grew up and where they met; and which they never quite left behind in their hearts, despite having set up their family south and inland.

And the food. If food were like people, I think every animal and vegetable destined for the table would aspire to finish its journey in Penang. It's the place where food becomes the best, truest, most guileless form of itself -- no wonder some call it a food paradise, since that is what most of us hope will happen to us upon reaching that place.

For instance, the cendol, the famous Penang Road cendol that everyone will tell you must be bought from the stall that is on your right as you enter the side street; never the one on the left. I have been perplexed for many years at the survival of the stall on the left, since I have never seen it with a single customer whereas the other one has an ever-present queue. Some of us have a theory that both are owned by the same people; the second was set up to provide an illusion of competition and high demand. Profits fall to the same family/group and, we are quite certain, if ever the "popular" stall runs out, there must be some dim alleyway nearby where staff members from both "sides" meet for the surreptitious handover of refills.

In matters such as cendol buying, at least, I go with the herd. Above: a bowl from the stall on the right. Note the subtle green, a shade that one can believe comes from pandan leaves. This is most unlike the lurid modern variety that resembles alien slime and usually has the texture of powdered cardboard. I wish that you could taste the Internet, because you would want to taste the slippery, beany, coconut-milky, palm-sugary iced wonder above.

And then there's the equally renowned asam laksa stall at the Ayer Itam market,

as reductionist as a stall can get with its one dish offered, one size only.

But what a dish!

Everything in the laksa appears in perfect proportion to everything else: the minced fish, the tamarind soup with its small chunks of pineapple and its julienne vegetables, the spices, the hae koh, the fat noodles that are not, as some would claim, simply overfed bee hoon. Unlike regular rice vermicelli, laksa noodles are springy, just the slightest bit chewy, and resistant to soaking up liquid so that slow eaters do not start on a bowl of soupy noodles and end with a dry bowl filled with expanding starch. I am a fan of this last attribute.

After dark, the eating continues. At Padang Brown, kuay teow gets cha-ed with duck, not hen, eggs over a charcoal, not gas, flame. It tastes as distinctive as those two factors would suggest.

But who ever heard of eating only one thing per meal in Penang?

Satay is as it should be: glistening, yellow and sweet with black crunchy bits falling off the edges. I once met a Kiwi who told me he'd get by on meals of nothing but good Malaysian satay sauce if he could. You would feel the same if, after a long tiring day in the cranky heat with the irregular meals of a typical holiday, you had it bathed around a skewer of lean meat sandwiching fat, or a lump of compressed white rice, or a chunk of cucumber or piquant red onion. Or you might agree with my acquaintance that the sauce is an event in itself.

Lor bak, too, is textbook at Padang Brown: the meat is seasoned with perfect amounts of five spice, white pepper and other secrets, deep-fried till the beancurd skin blisters and shrinks protectively around the meaty core. The sweet lor, the dipping sauce that I loved as a child until some mischievous elder told fat-hating me it was mostly lard, runs out repeatedly as I catch up on all that I missed out on during the 20 years or so that my eating was picky. But not just me; everyone around the table is scooping it up. And why wouldn't we, when it's almost like having a smile on your taste buds?

Still at Padang Brown, the chai kueh (literally "vegetable cake") are a mathematician's or an artist's dream of ideal fractions. The skin is just translucent enough to show you what's inside, whether shredded turnip or koo chai (Chinese chives) with tiny cubes of dried bean curd. And, once again, what comes to mind as one chews is completeness. Nothing lacking, nothing out of place.

Finally, the mua chee for which a special detour is made to New Lane (Lorong Baru, if you're mapping). What is the minor inconvenience of driving out of the way and waiting double-parked on a congested road, when this is the reward?

Any attempt to pronounce the name of this dessert from this stall should have heavy emphasis on the "m", because you too will involuntarily hum with joy as you encounter every sweet-and-salty, crunchy-chewy morsel from a box that's always too small.

All that from just one day of a nine-day trip with my brother's family last year.

I doubt I would know how to experience Penang alone when so much of its food is centred upon communal eating... and so much of its experience is centred upon food.

Monday, September 12, 2011

29: Conservation

I don't want to write about conservation of the type people usually think about: white men in Attenborough- or Irwin-inspired khakis, telling everybody off for flushing toilets too many times a day and using too much paper. (Toilet, or other.)

Today, truth is I don't really want to write about anything at all. But I set myself a goal and I don't want to see it go the way of all paper (toilet only), just two days after beginning. I'm glad I listed all these topics in advance so that I wouldn't be able to pull the "I don't know what to write about" card.

I wish it weren't so, but I have a strong resistance to saying that I am in support of conservation. Don't get me wrong: this world is a complex, captivating place and I would like it to stay that way for the rest of its appointed lifespan, without our needing to become dependent on full-body climate protective gear and other props from bad 1950s sci-fi films. I would like the existing number of plant and animal species to stay right where it is and, if it insists on changing, to go up rather than down (discovery, rather than extinction). I would like our water to be unpolluted, our landfills kept skinny, our lifestyles less excessive.

Yet I get the feeling that isn't all that comes to mind when you hear "conservation" these days. I can't help but also think of violent acts by animal rights activists. Of projects thick in red tape and thin in quality-of-life improvements for those on the ground. Of publicity gimmicks that foster the delusion that if you switch your lights and TV off for one hour a year, you are Doing Something to Save the Earth. And all of these make me weary and sad, as does the thought of all the hot air that gets generated talking about all the good we could do the earth while we go about our lives in ways that are completely contrary to what we're saying.

I don't automatically buy cleaning products just because they claim to be "eco friendly"; I need to know that they'll live up to the claim with ordinary household use, not in obscure lab tests. I am sceptical that recycling is always superior on all points to manufacturing new -- what about the water and energy used to collect, store and eventually recycle these materials? Isn't it also worthwhile to explore how to have less to throw away in the first place? And, every March, I am one of the increasingly few who conscientiously object to Earth Hour. Now that is one rare point of total agreement with the rest of my family, who have been increasingly bemused by its presence in Malaysia. (One year, my father sent me an email about how Important People had been quoted by the press as asking everybody to observe Earth Hour, after all it's only one hour on a Saturday, and even without TV or the movies you can always hang out with friends! Talk to your family! Spend time with your kids! One hour is all we ask; I mean, who ever heard of making investment in key relationships a regular lifestyle choice? Anyway, my father: he had gone for his routine neighbourhood watch patrol that particular Saturday night and seen more than a couple of cars, most with no more than two or three on board, slowly circling the neighbourhood while driver and passengers observed Earth Hour by gawking at what the place looked like with everything turned off.)

Small, fluffy endangered Western Australian native

I know I'm a far cry from some of my composting, home-farming, permaculture-type friends and relatives. I can't say I'm satisfied with my current level of caring. And I think it's quite apparent by now that I have a strong self-critical streak. However, what I've finally been able to tell that streak, whenever it rattles off a soliloquy on how much more I could be doing, is: at least I am doing something. For what it's worth, I'm engaging my brain in my decisions on how to go about life, what I eat and wear and use, how it was produced, how it comes to me. I don't bring home anything I don't need, and when something needs to be thrown out I find out the best way/place to dispose of it and direct it there. I keep cloth totes with me almost all the time, so that I won't need to use a plastic bag. (I commented, years ago, on the use of "ecology" as bag marketing gimmick in place of genuine social responsibility topic.) I like my toilet paper recycled because that's one context where I really believe colour doesn't matter. And -- unlike many of the well-meaning "conserving" types I know -- I refrain from preaching at everybody else that they need to do exactly as I do. I acknowledge that everybody has a part to contribute towards restoring some of the terrible damage we've done to nature. I just don't presume it's my place to tell you what your part should be and grade you on your failure to do it.

Unless you're one of those who spend Earth Hour by deliberately getting into an air-conditioned fossil fuel-run vehicle to drive it around an already polluted suburb -- such people I do judge, with more enjoyment than is good for me. But it's hard to resist when they make it so easy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

30: Food

I wonder how it's possible to say too much, too little, or just enough about food. For some of us, it never bears thinking about; it's simply what you take at mealtimes to avoid getting hungry and eventually dying. For others, it's an all-consuming passion.

And for still others, it's a dream: elusive, seemingly unobtainable.

See what I mean? So hard to pick just one thing about food to write about. So here's my one thing about food today: the lack of it. Also known as hunger.

I went through a foolish period on the border of my teenage and adult years when hunger was frequent, mainly because of my misguided response to circumstances. But in recent years, there's been only one day when I went hungry because I had no money. I'd started a new job in an upscale neighbourhood where the cost of one meal could literally feed a family well for a day. I had to rush to work that first day, and ended up leaving my packed lunch in my nearly-bare fridge; I'd thrown it together out of the only provisions I had remaining until my first pay.

I still remember how, somewhere around mid-morning, I began to feel the usual rumbling in my midsection. I usually counter that with some low-GI snack to tide me over until lunch. But that day there were no snacks, and there was to be no lunch. The hungry feeling in my stomach went away in the late afternoon as, I imagined, that organ decided it had had enough of being ignored. But for the rest of the workday, I felt my alertness fall, watched the lines in spreadsheets grow blur, willed the words to stop merging into one another and swapping places on documents and getting lost in my brain just as I was going to type them out.

On the one-hour train and bus journey home, all I could think about was that plastic container of food on the second shelf of my fridge. The girl next to me on the train had an open container of trail mix on her lap, from which she would periodically pull a nut, granola cluster or other typical trail-mix component. Every crunch was excruciating, amplified by the juddering across every single rail along the Harbour Bridge that had never bothered me before. Walking through Town Hall station underground to get to the bus stop, I was assailed by the smells of frying chips and seafood, sushi, panini being toasted, dark nutty breads from the German bakery -- all just an arm's reach away, yet they might as well have been half a world away because my wallet was empty.

I had long before that made a habit of saying grace before every meal, and meaning it. So I can't say it was that one day last year that caused me to be thankful for food, because I was already thankful. But maybe it made my thanks into something real, rather than an abstract concept. Now that I had been hungry, I knew now just how privileged I was each time I had food before me.

I resolved that day to go without food every year on that date, as far as health permits, so that I'll constantly be reminded of the many for whom hunger is not a choice. They're not always in some dusty faraway land, and they don't always have the "starvation look". Whenever I'm able, even if in the smallest and seemingly most ineffective of ways, I want to help the hungry to not be hungry. Sometimes I sink deep in ideological questioning, in suspicion over institutional motives and feasibility, or in beating myself up over how little I'm doing to solve a huge worldwide problem, but then I bring myself back to the blank-minded, wobbly-kneed reality of that one day and am reminded of the simple truth: the answer to hunger is food. Will at least a small part of that answer will come from me?

A final note: it's quite rare for me to directly address you, but I'll do it this time. Each of the links in this post is to a different not-for-profit programme addressing the contemporary hunger problem. If you can, please click to learn and give, or search online for other channels if none of these suits you. This post-a-day project has reminded me that there are so many material gifts I could place on a birthday wish list, which I still might do, but right now what would make me happy is knowing that there are just one, two, 13, 58, however many fewer (I know, what an awkward phrase, but the sky is blue and the sun is shining and I am in a hurry to post this so that I can go for a walk) hungry people on earth. For starters.
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