Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dancing with old age

This year, I have been thinking a lot about how I want to age. Being home in Malaysia recently, seeing the women in my clan, I am reminded of how we can always have a good laugh, always try to do the best, including aging gracefully.

And lately, I visited a friend in the Sir Edmund Hillary Retirement Home, in Ellerlie. It reminded me again of how we have some choices on how we choose to be when we grow old, although we don't necessarily have any control over our genetic disposition to early degenerative diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer's.

Three of my aunties -- on my dad's side -- are in their 80s. My oldest aunty, or Koo Ma, has such an incredible can-do attitude. Even with a crooked leg, on a walking stick, she drags herself around the kitchen, whipping up three big pots of her signature dishes when she came for a potluck dinner at our place. Never one to sit idle, never one to complain, never one to shy away from work. She is firm, determined, loving, caring and unstintingly loyal to her family and clan. This is something I aspire to be.

Yet, on the other spectrum, getting old can be hard. What happens if early dementia sets in? What happens when your knee goes? Your joints give way? Arthritis sets in. A hundred things can go wrong with your old body -- as you edge closer to the end. Unlike the golden phoenix, we don't have the opportunity to crash, burn and be reborn. So, best get ready with the best mindset -- to grow old gracefully, and have a lot of fun.

Here's my take in my column in the Malaysian News Straits Times "How we age is like a dice game"

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Of reunions, a planet under strain and legacies of harmony

A bunch of 50 or nearly 50-year old girls can truly turn a café upside down. An afternoon tea that started at 12 started to wind down only at 4pm as time came and left and no one took any notice. After leaving school in 1979, we parted ways as teenagers filled with our personal trepidations as we take a new passage to life after 5th form.

Needless to say time has left its indelible mark on us. Our youthful bodies are fast showing the stress of modern life. Grey hair poke out like bean sprouts on our heads although some of us with better genes have survived the cruel hand of our biological limitations a lot better than the rest. A little tint can make a lot of difference we found. Here and there, the post middle age spread begins to take over. Some of us, again, refuse to age, seemingly able to battle childbearing and age marks better than others.

We laughed at our own foibles. We try to pry as much information as we dare – about our peers; on how they were doing in life; on who was doing what and where they were. It wasn’t too long ago that we of the same class would ask, “Eh, what did you get for Sejarah (History).” “Not telling,” the ultra private and kiasu (afraid to lose) teenage would say. “Ah, you only got 70%, I have 80%),” the more bashful would proclaim.

In school, we were ranked by our academic abilities. You were either placed in Science or Arts stream, based on what you achieved in your LCE (Lower Certificate Examination). I couldn’t understand why some of us were so upset for not making it to Science Stream. I was jubilant in the Arts stream. I was not natural with numbers and Science seemed like a journey to an alien planet back then.

Therein lies the problem with the school teachers then – we were never told we could be anything we wanted! We were never even told that just because you can’t understand trigonometry means you were going to completely fail in life.

We were never told that everyone comes with a certain gift, a different set of inherent intelligence. You could be mathematical, artistic, atheletic, analytical; or you could be a visual genius, a deft communicator – all based on which level of intelligence becoming the dominant force. If we were told all of these, we might feel better about our prospects in life and feel better equipped to seek a corner to nurture our dreams.

We were never told to dream big. We never had school guidance counsellors who helped us navigate our way through the horrific passage to the education jungle or the unknown world coming to greet us.

Our system of education taught us to obey, to repeat, to adhere to rules and tradition. Thinking outside the box, pushing the envelope, those phrases were not common ones during our time. There were model answers, model students, model behaviours. There was an order to the universe and the explicit message was, never rock the boat. The girls who dared to challenge or raise questions were deemed rebel rousers who needed to be snuffed out like forest fires.

How the world has changed. In 1969, we watched man take on the moon but only one person on our street was kind enough to let the neighbourhood kids watch his black and white television. It was one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Today, man is starting to explore space for leisure. Martians still elude us but Arthur C Clarke’s A Space Odyssey has left the realm of science fiction. A cool US$30 million might take you to the International Space Station.

Letters are really redundant these days. We hook up via the internet on social media sites. We play “Angry Birds” and “Temple Run” on Apple devices. We build virtual gardens because our real gardens seem like such hard work. We explore “Farmville” because modern life throws us to the other extreme of wanting to dig our hands into some dirt while not really wanting to get dirty.

The Luddites among us, rather than battle with Wii games on the Xboxes or Playstations, we try real exercise. We fear falling into the overweight category to bring on high cholesterol, heart attacks or strokes. Cancer which was never really a part of our pyche in the 1970s, has become a common noxious weed that haunts all our landscape. We have lost friends to cancer yet we are only turning 50 this year.

Our world is truly suffering from excesses as we lap up resources and the planet show signs of cracking. We would like to think the planet regenerates at its own pace. We hope global warming scientists have messed up their data somewhat – their message have indeed become an inconvenient truth in all aspects.

Yet in place of modest houses, people prefer to build concrete monoliths paved to the maximum with tiles that wipe out the need for weeding or gardening. In place of car pooling, we drive big vehicles that guzzle too much gasoline. In place of washing party plates, we take on styrofoam cups and plates; plastic forks and spoons. In place of homemade food, we take on caterers, fast-food and takeaways. We used to have flour bags for shopping, today we have enormous piles of plastic.

Putting aside the mundane drone of our daily lives, on April 15,2012, we hot mamas binged, teased, laughed and squealed. We returned to our carefree days when we pinched each other for fun; knocked friends at the back of their legs to throw them on the floor; dropped earthworms into our friend’s blouse in the science lab; squirted ink on each other; and drooled on Donny Osmond because he was singularly the best dude who manage to steal all our hearts as he sang “Puppy Love”.

It is 2012 yet, we the Class of ’79 feel so much joy at the having the chance to catch up. We put aside religious and racial differences; we put aside the vile Malaysian politicians who are bent on destroying a beautiful country with their twisted minds. We knew long before the politicians knew that harmony can only be reached when we have a genuine concern for shared prosperity which involves cherishing all Malaysians without pride or prejudice. We learned long ago to love our friends unconditionally, rich or poor, without fear or favour. We hope our children carry on this message of tolerance.

PS: Thanks Kay for creating this network and Nellie for organising the recent reunion!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Hanging onto our tradition

My mother worked herself silly in the lead of to the Year of the Dragon. Over the last 50 years, as far as I can remember, mom has put on a splendid feast for our family. On Chinese New Year Day, if there is nothing else in the shops to eat, chances are if you came to our house in Klang, you can get a very decent meal of mushrooms and chicken, cooked-to-perfection curry, sea cucumber braised with pork leg, fish maw stewed with meat balls and bamboo shoot.

Mom doesn’t do things in bits and pieces. She is not into modest spreads. Besides feasting on her amazing food, what I treasure most is the tradition she has left me. I know as we evolve, our culture and tradition take on their own shape-shifting. Just as Christmas is not complete with Christmas pudding, for me, Chinese New Year is not complete without pineapple tarts! I miss mom’s cooking and her disproportionately ambitious spreads.

I don't have the time to recreate all the dishes mom showed me how to make. What I try to do is recreate some of the things I love. I make pineapple tarts once a year, just to remind myself there is great torture in the labour-intensive process but there is also wondrous satisfaction that comes having extended a bit of an old knowledge that relied mostly on tacit know-how. You can can't tell a person who has never made pineapple jam how to spot a jam that's about to cook. Over the last two years, I have made love letters (kuih kapit), an ultra wafer-like crisp made from rice flour, eggs and coconut milk. I burnt my fingers making these slim biscuits, rang mom a few times to chat about the results. I am please with my effort to keep mom’s knowledge alive.

Over the last 5 years a group of us Malaysian and NZ-Chinese have gotten together to celebrate Chinese New Year. We give the kids a $2-token sum of Ang Pow (red packet) to remind them of the Chinese tradition of wishing your elders longevity and happiness and health. My kid, like all kids, is more interested in the money and how much she can stash up. I am sure over time, when she gets older, the tradition will sink in – she will realise wishing someone longevity is akin to spreading hope and positive potential. She will realise what she has experienced is something uniquely hers, it might be buried and hidden but can be nurtured and extended far into the future.

We don’t stop often enough to celebrate our culture and its nourishing effect on our soul. Traditions not only give us a distinctive flavour. Traditions bind us to a past which has become increasingly hard to define in a world whose dominant culture is globalisation of brands and consumer offerings. Without the anchor of our tradition, we are set up to be driftwoods in a global world that’s increasingly amorphous yet ambitious in its zest for same-ness and hegemony.

While our children sit in front of their computers, ipods hooked onto their ears, fingers fast flying over their face booking activity, it is good to know we can give them what it means to be who we are by the simple act of getting once a year to feast on familiar homemade food our moms used to make and to enjoy the happiness brought by friends and the good fortune of health and happiness.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A wasteful generation

Consumerism, I gathered from Wiki, is “a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods and services in ever greater amounts.” I have been asking myself this question: Am I am consumerist? Do I buy goods in ever greater amounts? Am I driven by greed and the desire to own things in hoards?

I confess, once upon a time, when I worked in the city, I bought something nearly every other day – from the shops. Once upon a time, I was always in need of a new serving dish, a new spatula, new cookbook, a new wok, a new pan, a new blender. The list has no end. My desires have no end.

When my kid was growing up, and while we lived in Singapore, we had a wall lined up with toys….We had cupboards choking with clothes for our kid. We had CDs running out of a space on the CD rack. We had books that were bursting from the shelves. Our clothes kept filling up the cupboards. The situation is pretty much the same in NZ.

A few years ago, I made a resolution to stop buying things. I have been partially successful. This year, I haven’t bought anything I didn’t truly need – I have prevented myself from buying a fruit juicer although it does look a bit dated. I am still wearing T-shirts I bought 10 years ago. I should feel so proud of myself. But then, how did I go so wrong with passing on this to my kid?

Have my bad habits set up up my kid into a consumerist? My child threw out a whole of clothes into the “pink bag” for recyling. “Why,” I asked. They looked perfectly good and were barely worn. “Last season’s clothes, mum,” was the answer. She has been through 3 handphones since she was Yr 6. She is in Yr 8. Her fourth one has just been ordered -- using her birthday money from family/friends.

Consumers are driven by their need to ever possess the latest in products and services. Our society is built upon growing at all costs. The “small is beautiful” economic theory propounded by British economist E. F. Schumacher doesn’t go down well in our consumerist world. Isn’t every country after greater GDP growth; every company after greater profits; every household after the latest iPads, iPhones or iWant! In this arena, the Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s Gross National Happiness pursuit is definitely a worthy cause. Bhutan's macro economic policy is built upon attaining GNP, which encompass Buddhist ideals of spiritual wealth and health rather than pure materialistic wealth/health.

My teenage kid has never been through a single day of “lacking” in anything. I have to keep reminding her that there are people who have no food to eat. “Mum, what are we having for dinner,” she quips. “Fried rice,” I answered. The disappointment was evident. “Can we have something nice!”

Every generation needs a war, some wise person once said. This is so true. We live in a world where we have everything we want -- instantly! If we had to grow all our food, would we still be throwing our so much food into the compost or bin? If we have to draw water from the well, would we be having long showers? I read in Moa's Last Dancer -- the Chinese village folks were so poor, they ate everything that moved. They were lucky if they had meat once a year, for Chinese New York, even then, with more fat than meat!

The struggle for me has, and always will be, to live a moderate life -- one not driven by the need to own and consume, but a life based on moderation.

Every day, I become more aware that my teen has an extremely different set of values. Is my generation so different to hers? Am I out of whack in that I can't see the point in having so many pieces of fashionable clothes, all the nail polish, all the hair products, eye shadow, Chucks, Vans, Supre. Is this just the way the world is going and am I am fighting a losing battle?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"I am not smart"

Over the weekend, at our local tennis club, I met this young lady Judy (not her real name) who is a highly talented sportsperson. She is a high achiever in all areas of sports: table tennis,swimming, netball, socceer,and athletics. Her grandma tells us she has only been playing tennis a few years yet she is playing such high quality tennis at the moment.

While we were yakking away watching my other half play, Judy was asked what she wanted to do after she finishes school. I heard her made this remark: “I am not smart in school.” Her pronouncement was made as if her fate was sealed and the doors to future academia was closed to her forever.

I took the opportunity to tell her not to believe in the “I am not smart” thought process. Here is the thing about our brain – it is like a muscle, the more you use it, the better it becomes. At the end of the day, it may take Judy a lot more time to get to where “the smart kids” can achieve, nevertheless Judy can learn to make her brain work harder in areas she cannot do.

Noted author cum paediatrician Mel Levine’s One Mind at a Time is worth revisiting. Levine’s book highlights that our mind comes in different shapes and forms. Some kids may have advance verbal language skills but are poor spellers or writers. Another kid can’t follow things in a sequence. Have you ever met someone who can take apart complex parts of a machine but is never interested in school and its process? His overriding message is it is not that important to be good at everything.

Judy the sportsperson has superior kinaesthetic skills. Some people are wired like that. But boxing herself as “not smart” couldn’t be furthest from the truth. She is very smart – just in a different way.

Looking back at my school days, I can’t help but notice, a lot of the good sportspeople weren’t necessarily the most academic; and the top girls usually were quite poorly coordinated. There were exceptions of course but they were few and far between. I remember a girl in my class who could draw the most detailed pictures in art, obviously she had far superior spatial skills, but was never that good at other stuff in school. Again – nature can be cruel or kind – you can be endowed with all levels of intelligence or miss quite a few.

There is a message worth reinforcing to our kids – being smart (in the way that implies one has natural aptitude for passing exams or getting a high score by not having to work as hard) does not guarantee success in life.

The early bird catches the worm. The tortoise eventually won the race. The hoards of ants around my house never stop working to feed the queen ant. There are plenty of examples to show our kids that effort counts the most. If we work at something long enough, eventually we too will “get it”.

Mum used to always tell us “failure is the mother of all success”. It wasn’t necessarily internalised when I was young. But now, a lot older, and hopefully wiser, I would like to pass on this to my kid: the real advantage is not having brains but being able to keep trying, never giving up. Eventually, the person who succeeds is none other than the one willing to stay in the game the longest.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My 3rd Aunt -- farewelll, till we meet again

3rd Aunt is in red jacket, in front.

What is it about death that so preoccupies us? I think about death or dying often. It is morbid. But our gurus tell us to practice dying. So often, I think, about how I want to die – peacefully of course, and in my sleep. Hopefully my death will not cause much grief. Hopefully by then I would have gained enough merits so that I will have a good rebirth. That’s a simple wish. For now, I wish to live a long and healthy life!

My third aunty died about a month ago. I call her Koo-Ma in Cantonese. Sam Koo-Ma, to be exact. That’s how I will always remember her.

I will always remember how she loves to put curly fringes on my hair. She thinks my hair too straight. Everytime we go to her home-based hair saloon, she would put little curlers around my fringe to make them curl. How I hated those curly fringes. Out of politeness, I always told her they looked good (how can anything which shimmers in front of your head like little black earthworms look good?). For the first 14 years of my life, I reckon, I had my hair done by my Sam Koo Ma. Her fashion was to be my hair style.

The last time we had a big ball was when Sam Koo Ma came with other aunts to visit me in Auckland. So in Auckland I heard, for the first time, my Sam Koo Ma’s vocal prowess. She was a fa tan (principal female voice) in the Cantonese opera troupe she sang in. She tells me then, she practices daily, even into her 70s. She sang at my friend’s house – and she gave me a sense of her real accomplishments. How I wish I had asked her more about her love of Cantonese opera, how it came about; what she sang of; and whose stories she was singing.

We visited Queenstown – she marvelled at every shop in Arrowtown, fussed over buying the choicest bit of greenstone but didn’t end up with a piece. She loved the Warehouse, going through bits of cheap Chinese imports there. She loved the WinterGarden at the Domain, and marvelled at the plants -- their vibrancy. She loved the feijoas in our garden and helped sweep my back deck – putting me to shame. There she was, with my other aunty, cleaning my house while on holiday. That’s their nature…never sitting still. Working, working every minute.

She ran a hair saloon, cooked, cleaned, raise 4 children. I know her to be strongly independent and fiercely outspoken, never once to mince her words. What amazes me most is her having her last child, at 40. My cousin, the most beautiful baby ever, was born when my aunt was 40 and my mom looked after her baby for a while, while my aunty ran her saloon at home. She didn't stop her work even when a new baby arrived. She just kept on and on.

When I think of her, I also think of someone who just gets on doing what she does best. She is full of her own brand of wisdom, telling me once to always wash my dishes with a clean little towel so the detergent doesn’t linger; to always eat without too much salt; to not eat too much fried food. I must confess, her food is a little bland to me but she makes a mean Hainanese-style curry chicken. She practices her own brand of compassion: when my step grandmother died, Sam Koo-Ma helped take her ashes to be spread out in the sea at dusk, weeping for my step-grandmother, sharing in my mother's step sister's grief.

She was never one to raise her voice. But you can feel her anger or disapproval. Her eyes, they told you everything. Her face is pretty much an open book. She was a pretty black and white person.

The last time I saw her was in Klang, in July 2010. I made an attempt to drop by her house – by then she was in a wheelchair, unable to speak due to a muscular degenerative disease (I was told). She tried to give me back a little money I gave her…generous to the end, that’s how she was. She couldn’t speak – but through her eyes I could see defeat, frustration. I see disappointment too, a sense of “what has become of me”. I soothed her hand for while, letting know all is well with us in Auckland. Princess is fine. I told her to take care. Inside, I wept for her loneliness which she shares alone, for her inability to do anything for herself. Inside, I wish she had a peaceful death. May you have a good rebirth my beloved aunt. You will always have a special place in my heart. Till we meet again.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Halloween no more - the things we used to love

2008: Halloween Loot

Today and for the last few days, it dawned on me that my little Princess is no longer little and she has definitely been pushing away things that confined her to what what she was. A definitely pre-teen has emerged full blown – monster or angel who can tell?

For the first time this year she didn’t make me buy her a Hallowen goodie bag, and she didn’t dress up, and she didn’t go trick-or-treating. YAY! No more Halloween dress ups and cleanups!

Somehow, the moment also struck me as sad -- a strange passing – a sort of rite of passage. That’s how our specie evolve. We take on new experiences, discard the old. We grow new cells, the old ones die. We take on new adventures, look for new heights. What used to be important can be of little significance. Ah, the passage of time can dull even the sharpest thrills.

So Halloween came and went without much fan fare. I always grumbled about the work associated with getting her ready. Last year, our dear Princess was still Cleopatra, lugging home mountains of lollies in her Halloween goodie bag bought from the $2-shop. She has been a princess, a fairy, a sort of nothing…But every year for the last 5 years, she always went trick-or-treating. Once, a grumpy old lady who was our neighbour, told Princess and her friends to “Go away, I am too old for this.” I thought that was mean. The kids thought so too.

Our dear neighbours’ two little girls came knocking on our door on Sunday – “Trick or treat!” Eva said in an animated voice. Her little sister Xanthe came toddling by….Oh how sweet…We gave them heaps of our snake-shaped lollies…They stayed for a while and went away to their next house. I secretly wished there were more trick-or-treaters. I secretly wished I had put up black rubbery spiders sitting on home-spun web on my front door…for the fun of it all!

Time flies. My Princess is more interested in her ipod, skping, boys, dealing with a sprout of pimples invading her forehead, and chatting with her friends on Facebook.

In another time, another year, she would have had her loot from Halloween spread all over the floor, stuffing herself silly and going on a sugar high for the rest of the evening. Today, all she wanted to do was get back to her online chats!