Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas 2008 - Celebrating friendships

Christmas Letter 2008

Greetings! What a year 2008 has been. I just spent an evening with great friends for a year-end party. Times like this remind me of all the great friendships I have formed over the years. Thanks for being friends with us! As always, we remain humbled by all your generosity, kindness and compassion.

This year caught us by surprise. Julia fell ill around April and was in Starship Hospital for 8 weeks due to a narrowing in her bile ducts. She also had unexplainable leg pains and had a series of investigations ending with a bone biopsy. So imagine crutches, moonboots for a period. She later had a minor fracture (had a cast for a month) on her arm from gymnastics and was out of action for a while.

Picking up
Despite all the physical barriers, she didn’t let her illness or physical limitations get to her. She is good at picking up where she left things – and returns to school as if she hasn’t left. She came back from a long hospital stay to win 1st place in the 100m and 200m sprints in her schools athletics’ day for Year 5 girls. She surprises Tony and me with her tenacity and rapacious hunger to thrive. She outdid a few boys in her swimming class and moved up a group! Next year, she continues her gymnastics, her ballroom dancing, her swimming and Mandarin lessons. We are pleased with her achievements in school as she has had an excellent year with a very good school report.

Transplant lunch
In the first quarter of this year, Steve Munn (her surgeon) and the Liver Transplant unit coordinator Margaret asked if Julia could read her poems at the 10th anniversary of the New Zealand Transplant Unit of Auckland Hospital. Initially Julia was reluctant. After a bit of pep talk by her principal Ms Adamson, she caved in! Talk about armtwisting by mom/dad! She read at the luncheon and at the formal dinner. Dr Munn stood by her as she read "Orange" and "The Writer of this Poem" (both written when she was in year 4 in school). She surprised me with her composure and poise, and how well she carried herself in an audience on very serious business. These were all a bunch of professionals belonging to the arcane world of liver magic.

Here is a sample of her poem which she read.

The writer of this poem

The writer of this poem is as chatty as a cheetah,
Bouncy as a flea,
Flexible as a snake,
All these things make the writer of this poem sound fake!

The writer of this poem is as tall as the door,
But not as small as the floor,
Is wide as a baby tree,
But not as round as a bee.

The writer of this poem is as imaginative as vivid,
Is as permanent as immortal,
Is as kind as a friend,
Is as soft as a rose petal!

Julia was also lucky to get her wish granted by from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She now has her own “house” (a playhouse) in our little yard. She plans to move out real soon except she is petrified of the bugs that tend to visit from time to time. She hangs out in the playhouse with her girlfriends. The walls are already covered with Jonas Brothers posters!

Tony moves on
Tony had a watershed year, moving on from APV (which he has been for over 19 years on and off either fulltime or as a contractor) to GEA, doing the same thing. He is learning the ropes in a new environment and is ready for new challenges! His collection of Big Boys toys continues to grow – a fishing kayak, fishing gear, a trailer and other things I don’t even get to hear about in detail, that gets hidden in the garage. We also added a new fancy tent and quite a few other accessories to the garage which incidentally seems to be getting smaller by the day. And oh, a stainless steel BBQ to make a Kiwi home complete!

The not-so-good news this year was Anna (Tony’s sister) being diagnosed with brain tumour. Anna fights on, in an indomitable way. We are awed by her approach and how she copes with all the chemos and countless visits to hospital. She continues to be Julia’s "Aunty Unu" and they provide great company for each other - both feisty and not to be messed about with.

It has been over two years since I left fulltime work. I am still freelancing and am enjoying the freedom. Tony thinks I should get a real job. I think I have a real good deal!

This year, I learnt to knit from my dear friend Sally. My two favourite books this year have to be -- Three Cups of Tea – about the work of Greg Mortenson, who built schools for Afghanistan kids high up in the mountains - and Journey of A Thousand Miles – life story of Chinese pianist Lang Lang. Julia asked me to read a book she fell in love with -- The Power of One -- so I am reading it at the moment and enjoying it too! Julia and I also went through Cleopatra and Boudica -- both romanticised versions of the historial personalities.

I also managed to get rid of a lot of things in my bid to clear clutter. The Woolfs and the Cheahs (and some other families) went camping in Jan08 at Treasure Island, and we fell in love with the concept of waking up late and not having to do housework. Julia continued to be so well looked after by her two older and extremely awesome friends Chelsea and Daryl that we plan to have the Cheahs camp with us sometime soon!

I continue to seek the inspiration of our resident monks and nuns at Dorje Chang (a Tibetan Buddhist Centre which Julia and I) - they show us how to live with compassion and how to cherish others above ourselves.

Mom and dad came for a visit in April. So did my aunty and her family! It was awesome having so much fun! Imagine a bunch of 50-something year old ladies learning dance steps from Julia; competing on sports virtually on the PlayStation. The laugher resonated through our house which continues to be filled with loads of great energy from great people we love! Tony was a away so he didn’t mind the noise.

Thanks again!
To all our friends who came to the hospital bearing their prayers, kindness, comfort, food, toys, games and books – thank you as always! To those who are far away but continue to send their prayers and wishes for health and pray for Julia – thanks from the bottom of our heart.

Here’s a wish for your health and happiness in this and all lifetimes! Have a great 2009!

Love: From the Woolfs

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Joyous effort, joyous season

This is the season to be silly. We eat too much and spend too much. Last week, a bunch of us got together to celebrate the end of the year in the spirit of merry-making.

There were a few things that stood out in this gathering – the amazing food, the friendship and camaraderie. But our kids -- they stood out in particular because they did us proud with their achievements.

Remember, we are a bunch of sometimes pushy moms who stand behind our kids and make them do what our moms made us do – our homework, our practice, whatever it might have been. We Asian moms carry inherent DNA in us that forges our survival. We carry this survival kit, everyday, every moment, seldom easy if we let go.

I was particularly awestruck by 2 kids in our group who made a choice last year to apply to get into architecture school at university. That was plan A. These 2 girls had no plan B, their parents told me. They were so confident of making it. They did. And this week, watching those 2 girls again – made me realise their true prowess. These 2 young adults played the piano for us – they sounded discordant because they didn’t have their own music. But they obliged us. What they lack for in prepared-ness, they made up for in gung-ho-ness. I have no doubt they can play the piano. After a few songs, they told me there were a musical duo to be reckoned with.

Many talent in one bundle
Then we heard another kid (young man) whose parents told me he finished university ahead of time. I know from the past he was a competitive swimmer. He has a formidable upper torso, I am sure. And when we heard him play the piano, I am sure music, studies, sports – they excel within this being at real ease.

One young boy went from having zero Mandarin, to being conversant. I always have admiration for this young man – when he was in college, he came to tutor Princess of the House. He has a great gentleness and patience about him. My admiration for him grew when he started speaking to my parents in Mandarin (from having no Mandarin a few years ago). Oh, then he also grew in stature because he also likes Orson Scott-Card who is my all-time favourite author. He sang us a Chinese song. I think he lost his tune because I know this song. But he earned my respect for taking on a difficult language and becoming so good at it. His mom has raised a fine young man.

Our hostess’ teenage son played Pachelbel’s Canon on the piano – heavenly enough to bring angels down to earth. He also entertained us on his diabolo (a juggling contraption) which made me certain he is a man with many hidden talents. I am also convinced the juggling takes real concentration and effort. He was gentleman enough to play down to Princess’ level at table tennis – very awesome.

Other parents in our crowd have similarly outstanding children who were not there. My Princess was game enough to do 2 pieces on the piano. I noticed her mistakes with Shubert's Moment Musical but then I am used to Vladimir Horowitz’s rendition of the same piece on YouTube. Yet, she did well with Rihanna’s Take a Bow. I am particularly awestruck by Princess because she missed 8 weeks of school, had many surgical procedures and never let that stop her from picking up and continuing as if life was normal.

Behind every success is effort
We Asian parents celebrate our success through our kids. And this is despite all of us being successful people in our own areas of work. A few of us hold full-time jobs, others part-time. We are different in how we lead our lives from our mothers who were mostly stay-at-home moms. But we are no different from our stay-at-home moms who pushed us beyond our limits.

Comfort zone is a dirty word. I think we parents push our kids beyond their comfort zones so they can rise above the ordinary. I don’t mind ordinary people. But it bugs me when Princess skips over the effort bit. Children can do extraordinary things -- with effort. Effort lends itself to success. One of the 6 perfections which the Buddha taught his followers was joyous effort. The other perfections are generosity, patience, concentration, ethics, wisdom – I forget in which order. How wise to master all 6.

So, here’s a celebration of our kids – who do have been practicing effort, concentration and patience (if not wisdom and ethics or generosity). And here’s a celebration of moms and dads who stood behind these great children, ever loyal and faithful, every step of the way.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Do go gently into the good night...

My 3rd uncle died a week ago. He was married to my 3rd aunty, or Koo Ma, in Cantonese. To many of us who know of his suffering – being bed -ridden for over 5 years – his dying was the best way to ease his pain.

My poor 3rd aunty has had to care for him all these years. There wasn’t much anyone could do. Intermittently, 3rd uncle was moved to-and-from a hospital, in-and-out of an old folks’ home. We all marvel at the tenacity of my 3rd aunty, who skinny as bones, still lifted her husband and cared for him – loyal to the end. I haven’t seen 3rd uncle for years and years. But his death saddens me.

Third uncle always calls me “Honey”, my nickname growing up in Malaysia. Honey, after the colour of my tanned complexion. Third uncle was an electrician by vocation. He was our handyman. When something needed fixing that has to do with volts and watts, it was always 3rd uncle’s domain. My memories of him were also those of a smiley, happy man. 3rd Uncle loves to make pineapple tarts for Chinese New Year.

My conversations with him were always superficial – like all conversations with our elders once upon a time. I remember him, always tinkering about, doing home stuff. I remember him, the handyman who tended over his garden which used to be filled with thriving greens that seemed to thrive in the most inhospitable places in his home. I remember him coming to the metal grilled door of his home, unlocking it, always with a kind welcome. And most of all, I remember him always, in his old motorbike, putt-putting away around the neighbourhood.

So, I here was I, thousands of kilometers away, unable to say goodbye. I could only dedicate prayers to him from here and think of his death as a timely release of the immense suffering he had to endure for so long.

Taboo no more

In my phone calls with mom the past 2 weeks, we talked about 3rd uncle’s death and the burial afterwards. Years ago, this would have been taboo – to talk about one’s death, was a no-no. It was like inviting death to your door. But mom has moved on, I suspect. So, we talked about death and dying.

Mom tells me, she told me she doesn’t want the spectacular funeral processions the Chinese have – those filled with mourners parading on the command of the Taoist monks banging cymbals and gongs, leading the dead across 18 levels of hell. I agree. Mom says her greatest fear is that all the other aunties in the clan would not agree as Taoist burials were what the family is used to. Mom wants Buddhist nuns/monks chanting peaceful Buddhist mantras. I told mom I like the idea. I said this thinking how wonderful it would be if we knew exactly how to prepare for our dying.

Coming out charred at the other end
Once, mom and I laughed about how one of my aunts fear cremation. This aunty had visions of herself coming out at the other end of the world, charred and burnt. I told her how some cultures chopped up their dead and leave them uncovered. We both agreed cremation was nice and easy.

Death and dying – how does one approach this in the most sensible way? Dylan Thomas’ lines from his poem rings loud and clear – “Do not go gently into the goodnight….rage, rage against the dying of the light.” For me, I think, when I go, I will go gently…into the good night…and accept the moment.

Lately mom has been told of an investment scheme to buy a funeral plot. The scheme is expensive, she says. But a relative of ours told her the said-funeral plot will have sculpted gardens and all the bells and whistles that make funeral plots amazing – attempts at bringing a piece of heaven to earth, I think. But this is still nothing compared to the Eqyptians, and how they bury their dead.

“Ah,” I said to mom, “better not to get involved in these dodgy schemes to invest in funeral plots.” I even suggested I could put her ashes in a vase, and bring the vase hoe to New Zealand with me. I think she wasn’t too keen.

Gentle exit
At least mom and I have come to some sort of an understanding about how she wants her “exit” from this earth done. I say to her, “remember, when you go, don’t look back at us, your life would be done, let go of everything in this earth…..go gently”

What do I know about dying? I haven’t been there. But I subscribe to this belief system – that “be here now” matters. Death is the culmination of years of living. It is better practicing living a peaceful life. In the end, we become our practice. If we practice hate, impatience, envy, jealousy, anger – we become those things. If we practice compassion, loving kindness, patience, generosity, wisdom and humility – we become those things.

Mom reminds me again, at one point of our conversation this week, the secret to being happy is to remind ourselves of how fortunate we are, so when we do die, we have no unhappiness...This is her daily mantra. I couldn’t agree more.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

7 Weird Things About Me

Annie Fox tagged me to list 7 weird things about myself. I haven't actually considered anything about myself to be weird. I am an ordinary person.

But for the fun of it, here goes.

1) I hoard cookbooks though I seldom use recipes.

2) I believe we are not alone in this galaxy.

3) I once fell off a trap-door and was "saved" by a pile of "gold paper" my aunty was going to burn for the dead.

4) I once tried to play circus mistress and nearly set my brother and cousin on fire.

5) I have been buying meal worms to allow them to live longer.

6) I didn't drive a car until I had my daughter.

7) I ring my mom once a week.

I have to tag seven people so here goes; and they have to respond by typing their weird too.

Christina Yin
Serena Soosay
Daphne Chua
Hugh Bucknall
Linda Lau
Travis Field
Janet Ben

Here is Janet's response (well done girl!)
Weird things - well the list could go forever - depending of course on who is writing the list about me....

My number 1 weird things... total hoarder of cookbooks too - the hawker, who comes every fortnight selling books to our office, can retire on what he has made from me purchasing cookbooks - my theory is that they are better than magazines and I will continue to keep them and read them for years to come - but a magazine - well they are so full of rubbish that it is all old news inside a week anyway.....
Weird thing 2 - I have an enormous library of cookbooks - but always make the same recipes - that aren't in the recipe books anyway - but one day - when I have time.....
Weird thing 3.....A fear of the hairdresser - like Lavender Lady my mother considered herself an expert on hair and when I was 11 years old she insisting on cutting short my lovely long, very straight hair. Even she has to admit that it looked dreadful - so dreadful that she rushed up to the local chemist and bought a home perm. So I went from long straight hair to short frizz - and all the children at school laughed..... scared me for life so I am always nervous getting anything done to my hair...
Weird thing 4 - a desire to be tidier - which disappears as soon as I actually have the opportunity to do something about it - constantly plan whilst at work .... when I get home I am going to ..... and when I get home -yep the desire has gone and instead I go outside and garden or take the dog for a walk home.....!!
Weird thing 5.....a desire to have more land - so I can have more trees - which I love - which in turn is more work and who wants that..... there are so many plants that I would love to have....
Weird 6....a wish I could communicate with my parents - my mum died 6 years ago and Dad 3 - and I would give almost anything to have just another day with them both.... moral here - don't put off until tomorrow... those things that you would like to ask your Mum and Dad - we dont' know when our clock of life is going to stop... and even though we knew that both my parents were fading.... there always seemed time 'tomorrow'....
Weird thing 7.... still married to the same man - 44 years...... and against all predictions and parental advice.... - that is not to say that some days.....are not as perfect as others, but in the current culture of not marrying or only staying together a few years - it is definitely a weird thing to still be living with the same man after all this time and to still actually tolerate each others company.....

Actually the weirdest thing is that I don't know how to write on your blog......

Here is Anie Fox's post on weird facts about herself

1) With predictive texting, my name comes up as 'bomb'. Which some of you might say is perfect.

2) I'm related to Lord Nelson and Abraham Lincoln. True.

3) I've played four musical instruments in my life - violin, piano, bassoon and of course the recorder. Piano is my favourite, bassoon the most fun. Why I stopped playing them all is one of my regrets.

4) I used to be a lefty loser. I recovered from this socialist cancer, but it stuffed my immune system so now I can't overcome Non-Hodgkin's :o).

5) I own a house with a woman - but I’m not a lesbian (I know you all wonder). This is an increasing trend amongst those who don't want to live miles out of town, but can't afford a decent home, in a decent location by themselves. Now this definitely doesn't suit everyone, but Em & I are naturally brilliant - the key is keeping the money issues straight and keeping the palace clean and ordered.

6) My favourite album is the ‘Stranglers Collection 1977-1982.’

7) I hate, hate, hate, hate the colour purple. And I’m not too big on whistles either. And a bonus fact I'm a trader, an objectivist and a libertarian. Which means I make my own money, and I like to keep it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Transplants – It is about hope & normality

Princess of the House had a liver transplant when she was 4.5 years old. Most of our close friends know this. But most people have no idea Princess has had such as disastrous health record. Last week, I stood as a proud mum of a 10-year girl who battled other normal kids to take 1st place in the 100m and 200m sprints among Year 5girls in her school. This, for me, is a pretty fine endorsement that she is "normal".

I will always remember the liver transplant team’s message to us -– the central pursuit of any transplant is to give the recipient the opportunity to live a normal life. Princess was lucky she found a close enough match; and is under the hawkish care of her liver angels at Starship Hospital. She is into her 5th year as a transplant patient. She is living life like any normal kid – swims, plays tennis, does artistic gymnastics and ballroom dancing. And oh, she even has an attitude problem from time to time.

Who is David Poa?
Recently our specialist nurse sent me a message about this kid called Karl David Poa. I took one look at David’s pictures in the document our nurse sent me and was in awe of David instantly.

I saw this huge mop of long, bushy hair – wild and free – and his mischievous smile. I saw his beautiful face – not a trace of worry or care -- and the twinkle in his eye. I saw total abandonment. Most of all, I saw great hope for him.

I don’t know David. But I know he has intestinal failure. David spent the first 3.5 years of his life in hospital. He is 7 now but has spent most of his childhood for extended periods in Starship Hospital. His “food” is fed intravenously over 15 hours a day.

They are running out of veins (used to administer his feeds) to put a line into David. Lines get infected despite the best of care. His best option is to have an intestinal transplant – which is not available in NZ. He needs to get this transplant done in the US. He has been accepted by specialists in Omaha-Nebraska for an assessment, and likely wait-list for a transplant.

I learnt of David's story from Princess' specialist nurse. Now I want to share this story with you my friends, and hope you too can reach out to your circle of friends –to help with David’s journey.

The NZ health system will fund his transplant cost. But before he can go to the US, he needs to raise big amounts of money for him and his family to live for 3-4 years in the US. The KIDS Foundation in NZ has set up a fund raising campaign for David.

The nurses at Starship Hospital at Ward 26B describe David as a sweet, cheeky, mischievous boy who is also funny, charming and endearing. He is sociable, loves to be in the hub of everything and is inquisitive about what's around him. Like most boys, he loves the PlayStation and his cartoons.

To give is to receive
Now, when I think about David’s fund raising quest, I wish he could get on that plane soon. I wish for David to be able to taste “real” food, to bite into a muesli bar, to have Weetbix and crunchy fries, and not have to rely on TPN (liquid) feeds.

I want David to feel what it is like, to live life normally – but most of all, I wish for David to be given a chance – that’s all. To donate to David’s fund, visit the KIDS Foundation's website

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On mothers and parenting skills

Asians tend to “mother” their children to death. I shan’t argue with that. Mum brought me up to be somewhat of a clone of herself. She used to tell me what to do, how to dress and much more. She loves her perms. So she thinks I should have perms. But I hate perms. Always have. I remember how she used to insist I need to perm my fringe. Why I hate perms I do not know. But I think ever since I had hair, mum wanted them permed!

Every school holiday, mum used to march me to 3rd Aunt’s home-based hair saloon. I was too compliant to resist. I was also too polite to tell 3rd Aunt how I hated perms. So, after every school holiday, I end up looking like one of the Three Stooges. And every time 3rd Aunt finished my perm, I would politely pretend how nice my perm looked and Aunty would look at me as her masterpiece.

But ever since I found freedom as a “young adult”, I never had another perm. And I never allowed any hairdresser to tell me I need a perm to lift my limb hair. I like my hair the way it is, straight, unpermed – thank you.

Turning into mum
One would think that I would have learnt. But why do I insist Princess of the House ties her hair this or that way when she goes to school? Or why do I insist Princess puts on a proper pair of pants or tights when we go for our hospital visits or to the movies? Perhaps I am turning into a mum who "over mothers".

I read once that you can’t raise spiritual children unless you and your husband/partner have the same spiritual qualities you seek in your children. How true. You can’t teach your child to be truthful when you constantly lie. You can’t make a child hardworking if you display an excessive liking for slothfulness. I am mindful I am a living example for my child.

Mum is my living example. We never used to have much money growing up. But mum fed not only our family but kids who came to play with us. Mum made cookies for Chinese New Year, not only for us, but for the entire clan. I haven’t had a single friend of mine who has met mum who doesn’t fall in love with her immediately.

Storehouse of strength
I have been looking at my mum closely lately, mostly as a storehouse of strength and wisdom. A kind of person whose qualities I would like to assimilate. And whose qualities I hope someday, Princess will come to appreciate too.

Today, when I spoke to her on the phone, she tells me she had a spectacular failure making one of our favourite Chinese New Year cookies – Kuih Bangkit. It is a cookie made out of tapioca starch, coconut and eggs. Made properly, it crumbles in your mouth – a perfect blend of coconut sweetness with the scent of the pandan leaf lingering in your mouth, perking your senses. Made badly, it is cookie whose taste you want to easily and quickly forget. Mum tasted my version when she was here last May. She pronounced me fit to make the cookie – an image in her own likeness, I think, I was. She laughed -- about how she, the mother wave has turned into a ripple, and I have become the next wave in the ocean.

Mum potty trained all of us from the time we were born – by potty train, I mean she held up our legs as babies and trained us to do our ablutions early in the morning so our bowels recognised it was time to move. My brothers and I never had problems in that department.

Mum didn’t smack us willy-nilly. She smacked us when she wanted us to learn a real lesson. Mum didn’t compare herself to those who had a better life than hers. She used to tell me in Hokkien “lang bi lang, kah toh pi yian tang” which loosely translated means you can never ever compare yourself, nor a part of your leg to the smoke pipes.” I take it to mean, don’t ever be foolish enough to make unnecessary or non-useful comparisons.

Never hurry a person at a meal
Mum doesn't like to rush people when they are in the middle of a meal. “You can hurry a person when he gets born, or when he is about to leave the word. But never, ever hurry a person when he eats,” she used to tell me.

Mum is extravagant in how she treats everyone but stingy in how she treats herself. She is a maniac when it comes to cleanliness. In this department, I am such an inferior sub-specie compared to her. I like randomness, she likes order. She loves and worships beautiful clothes, I treat them like pieces of material to wrap around myself.

So, today, when we chatted, I am reminded again, of how generous mum has been, and always will be. We said our goodbyes on the telephone when I had to rush off to pick Princess from school. She said “thank you” for my time, and my call, and tells me to take care of myself. And I couldn’t help laugh at the irony. Shouldn't I be the one thanking her, and telling her to take care?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Halloween and Cleopatra

This week, Princess of the House told me she would like to go “Trick or Treat” with 2of her classmates. I hesitated for a while before saying yes. Last year, after Halloween, I said there would be no more “Trick or Treat”. But I buckled.

I don’t believe in Halloween. But I do believe in allowing Princess some freedom to exercise a bit of creativity, and to have lots of fun. So every year, I am a dutiful accomplice as she takes her flights of fancy into the hollow world of Halloween.

Last year, I went over the top. To greet the neighbourhood’s kids looking for treats, I decorated our front door with a huge spider web, completed with a rubbery mother-spider with her baby spiders -- I even spun my own spider web made out of wool. The funny thing was, the real cob webs at my front door lent real spectacular effects to my Halloween decoration. Mum would have been appalled at my standard of house cleaning.

Halloween, it is not a Kiwi tradition, nor a Chinese one. This Halloween business is a result of globalization, or the Americanization of the world, whichever you choose to call it. Would we see an American kid carrying a Chinese lantern to celebrate the mi-Autumn festival? I don’t think so? But I hope Chinese lanterns will sprout over supermarkets all over the world, one day, near mid-autumn.

The last few years, Princess went around in fairy outfits. I think she has outgrown this fairy thing. This year, she wants to be Cleopatra. Ah, Cleopatra – the most beautiful woman of Egypt. Or should I say, the most feared woman?

The little that I did know about Cleopatra from my limited history was that she was a woman of beauty; she charmed men and ruled an empire with a fist.

“Who did Cleopatra marry?” Princess asked Hubby.

“Huh? Hmmm…. Tutunkhamun??” Hubby replied.

Princess and I cracked up, roaring in laughter. Clearly Hubby wasn’t a history whizz.

Cleopatra trivia
Lately Princess of the House considers herself a bit of a Cleopatra expert. Her class has been learning about ancient Egypt. She has just read a romanticized version of Cleopatra’s life as a 12 year old, a book written by an ex-banker turned writer, Caroline Corby.

“Caesar first,” she quipped, “and then Marc Anthony,” she adds, still smarting from her victory over Daddy.

The Egyptians, Princess of the House tells me, invented eye make-up and the water clock. They invented writing and paper. They embalmed their dead, wore plenty of amulets.

Eye makeup
For now, Princess is most concerned about how to make herself look like Cleopatra using eye makeup – just like the ancient Egyptians. She had an “Egyptian” dress ready, one she made with her friend Holly during the school holidays – using a hot glue gun and lots of sparkly bits and fabric paint.

I wasn’t sure about that the eye make-up thing. And I wasn’t sure about Caroline Corby’s version of the romanticized Cleopatra who was all good and sanitized.
Did Cleopatra wear heavy eye makeup?

So I googled a bit. Cleopatra, as it seems, isn’t all sugar and honey. She was ruthless and cunning, and ruled to win.

She had two main lovers in her life – Caesar and Marc Anthony. Caesar, it was said, she admired for his intelligence; and Marc Anthony, probably out of sheer fatal attraction. Historical sites say Marc Anthony had his affair with Cleopatra while still married to his wife, Fulvia. And when he had a chance to marry Cleopatra after Fulvia died, he didn’t – he chose his rival Octavian’s sister (to secure political support), Octavia and continued his fling with Cleopatra.

Cleopatra gave birth to three children (one by Caesar and three (including a set of twins sired by Marc Anthony).

The Marc Anthony-Cleopatra combination as lovers was far from romantic. It reeked of fatal attraction, and cloak-and-dagger politics. It was about animal instincts, a woman’s need for love, a woman’s quest to secure a crumbling empire, and a matriach's desperate attempt to keep her family in power. What is most interesting is Cleopatra wasn’t even Egyptian – she was a Macedonian!

Hollywood's Cleopatra
Cleopatra, I imagined to be a woman of untold beauty. Ah, the Hollywood version of Cleopatra was a woman of Elizabeth Taylor-type beauty, with bangs on her hair, a sharp high-bridged nose, and almond-shaped eyes decorated with heavy eye make-up.

The more I googled, the more I found myself to be wrong. As it turns out, Cleopatra’s image, minted on coins, showed her to be somewhat plain, with a large hooked nose and not so beautiful. Apparently, in real life, she shaved her head and wore a wig with tight curls. Princess is convinced Cleopatra wore eye makeup.

What else did I learn about Cleopatra? Well, her father Ptolemy was also a murderer –he beheaded his own daughter (Berenice) to regain his throne. Ptolemy then married Cleopatra (who was around 18 years old) off to her brother (who was around 12, according to one source) – all to keep the throne within the family.

This was getting too much for me. After her first lover, Caesar, was assassinated, Cleopatra used her relationship with Marc Anthony in various ways to have her hold over Egypt. In the meantime, Marc Anthony was using Cleopatra and Egypt’s finances and harvest to keep his hold over the struggle for Rome.

In ended in tears – Marc Anthony committed suicide (one source says he did so because he thought Cleopatra was dead) and lost his struggle for Rome to arch rival Octavian.

On discovering Marc Anthony dead, Cleopatra apparently chose to commit suicide too. One source says she allowed herself to be bitten by an asp (a poisonous snake) smuggled into her room via a basket of figs. The different sources that I read make me think that Cleopatra used Marc Anthony – yes she did have a soft spot for him -- in her struggle to keep her empire intact.

How tragic. This was the life of Cleopatra. A highly intelligent woman no doubt; brave on all accounts; an exceptional linguist I found; and a woman who can charm with her brilliant speech. Cleopatra of history was also a woman drunk on power and reckless ambition. A murderer and nasty piece of work by all accounts.

I shudder to think why Princess would want to go as Cleopatra in her Halloween outing. I’d rather she go as a fairy, with wings, a magic wand, and glass slippers.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Of ABBA, the sisterhood and, oh sorry mum!

We had a girls’ night out. It would have been nothing out of the ordinary for girls to have a night out. But we were a bunch of Asian women – six to be precise. We were a conservative lot, brought up the old-fashioned way by our mums who knew nothing about getting away. Our sense of the world is defined largely by how well we looked after our family.

We were also a bunch of gals who led busy lives. Some of the gals in the sisterhood had been through the worst time of their lives with family dramas of heinous proportions. I had just been through months of stay with Princess of the House in hospital.

I was brought up by a mother who dedicated her entire life to being a kitchen goddess, which means, she spent -- and still spends -- most of her waking moments in the inner sanctum of my parent’s home, cooking, cooking and cooking. Mum comes alive when she cooks. She also takes great pride in crisp clothes and spotless floors. Mum forgets about herself when she is taking care of us. We were never short of good meals or clean clothes. She never talked about time out. She never had time out. She never had a life beyond caring for us -- her family.

Defining success
I suspect my girlfriends have mums just like mine. But unlike our mums, we all had jobs, and modern machinery to help us with our chores. Like our mums, we tended to fuss over our family. Like our mums, we forget about our needs and focus entirely on how to keep the family together, in one piece, at all cost. Like a protective lioness, we guard our dens well. Like our mums, we define our success mostly by how our families are looked after, and how they cherish us.

But unlike our mums, we feel the attraction posed by our feminist sisters – those who fought for a voice, for equal opportunities, and also a time-out concept. We are not the bra-burning types and you won’t find us marching for women’s rights. But it didn’t take us long to feel the intoxication of the moment – of being free for one night, from cooking, scrubbing burnt pots, handling laundry, taking the garbage out and stacking dishes away.

This gathering of the sisterhood is good – especially when you have great company. We had a fantastic meal at this place called Eiji. To be that busy on a Friday night, the restaurant must have something special going. Our dishes were cooked to perfection. We ooed and ahhhed at how well everything was presented. We rolled out of the restaurant, happy as kids!

Then we headed off to a Mama Mia! We didn’t have sequin tops or platform shoes. But we had the cinema mostly to ourselves, truckloads of popcorn, icecreams and lollies. Only our reserve and conservatism kept us from total abandonment and jumping up to dance to “Dancing Queen” or “Mama Mia”.

What is it about ABBA?
What is it about a movie like Mama Mia! that manages to strike such a chord that box office receipts have totaled over US$440 million? Perhaps there is a dancer inside all of us, dying to surface? Perhaps inside us, we all crave the garishness of shinny outfits with plunging necklines, fancy furs, and platform boots? Perhaps it is the catchy tunes of ABBA, expressing our wish for eternal youth, romance in a complicated world? Who knows?

The total escape from home into the world of Abba songs and the romance of the movie was most electrifying.

By the time the movie finished, we came close to midnight. No carriage awaited us. But like Cinderallas afraid our cars would revert to being pumpkins, we stepped into the dark Friday night to hurry to our separate homes. We weren’t on curfew but our inner programmes told us we were meant to head home now that we had our share of fun and laughter.

Sorry mum
Our ladies night out was a resounding success, we all agreed. The sisterhood plans to have another outing. Perhaps a get-away where our families can’t call. Only this time far more than a few hours in a night. Dare I? Dare we? For me, a sisterhood get-away weekend would be a brave new world. It would be like travelling on a train to Hogsworth, on a matrix that would spin me into a different world – that so far removed from what mum taught me – family above self, family above all. Mum, so sorry I have moved on. So have my sisters, I suspect.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Food fried with plastic added into oil?

I found this post on a blog called This little story has caught my attention because my friend told me of how she threw out a packet of fried ikan bilis (anchovies) bought at a local Chinese grocers because she had heard the Thai manufacturers fried them in oil mixed with plastics to make them crispier. Amazing! The moral of the story? Avoid eating snacks that come from a source you don’t trust.

Are the fears completely unfounded? Who knows but I would rather not take the risks. Here is a cut-and-paste from Malaysiabest’s post which he found from another blogger. It seems unscrupulous food makers/sellers are adding plastic straws and bottles to give their food more appeal. A lot like the melamine case. So, watch out for those fried onions and fried anchovies, or fried banana crisps.

Story begins...
Consumers’ demand for crispy snacks like goreng pisang and keledek (keledek = sweet potato) has allegedly caused hawkers in Johor Baru to literally coat fried snacks with plastic, creating a health scare.

Emails are said to have been sent out warning people to keep away from consuming extra crispy fried snacks or even chicken.
The emails tell how some hawkers had allegedly been seen adding plastic straws and bottles into boiling oil before frying their snacks.

The snacks thus produced would remain crispy for several hours, the emails said.
A factory worker, Rauf Hamdan, 24, claimed he actually saw a goreng pisang (banana fritter seller) seller in the city throwing a plastic bottle into boiling oil, causing the bottle to melt.

“When I asked the hawker about it, he just matter-of-factly said his customers had not complained of any health hazards from eating his goreng pisang.

“He also said this ‘recipe’ was now popular among many hawkers like him.”
Rauf said it was shocking that sellers of fried snacks were not bothered about the possible health hazards to their consumers.

Plastic bottles are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which can cause various forms of cancer and birth deformities, if eaten.

According to the emails, the trend allegedly started in Thailand, for frying ikan bilis (anchovies) and onions. It spread to Kedah and Perlis, then the rest of the country.

The sender of one of the emails said his uncle had allegedly seen a goreng pisang seller adding plastic drinking straws into hot oil in Perlis.

A friend said he had seen a hawker in Cameron Highland allegedly melt a five-litre empty cooking oil bottle in boiling oil by stirring it in.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Basket of goods in our cost of living changes

How things have changed. The basket of goods that is used to measure our cost of living has altered with the times.

Things such as video cassettes, photographic films and writing paper are no longer used to measure the cost of living in NZ.

Statistics New Zealand has also removed solid fuel burners, old style cathode ray tube TVs from the basket of goods it uses to calculate cost of living. This review is based on a survey of 2,600 households and their spending habits.

According to the number crunchers at Statistics NZ, food accounts for $17.83 of every $100 dollar spent ($17.38 in 2006) and $22.75 goes to housing/household utilities ($20 in 2006).

Heat pumps and Navmans
The new basket of goods include items such as heat pumps (which my hubby won’t let me have!), in-car satellite navigation units (a Navman, or Tom Tom would be good!); free-to-air digital TV receivers (which we don’t have at home) and digital music downloads (which we do partake of).

Items from the services list which has made its way to the new basket include lawn moving (hubby is the lawn mover); house cleaning (I am the cleaner, an auction services (wonder if this is all the Trade Me costs).

Statistics are beyond my comprehension. But what I do know is the cost of living in Auckland has gone up tremendously – starting with parking! When I was working in the city, it used to cost $7 per day to park my car. The last time I went into the city, the average cost of a full-day carpark was $14 to $16 dollars. And some Wilson carpark magnate has set draconian rules such that if you choose to call yourself an “Early Bird” at a Wilson carpark, you must have your car in by 9.30am or thereabouts but can only leave after 3pm or 4pm, not before, to enjoy this offer. How stupid is that?

Real imagination
Managing a household budget takes real imagination. Kudos to the grocery shoppers out there who take the extra effort to brave Pak n Save or Lim’s Groceries – it is also a jungle out there but things are much cheaper.
Hubby complains I stock up too much. But why not? Things on sale are worth hoarding. Free range eggs were going for $3.99/dozen at Nosh 2 weeks ago, pity there are only 3 of us and Princess doesn’t eat eggs.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

More melamine in the food chain? This time lactoferrin

Another case of melamine contamination or just a tiny bit of scare? Princess and I were having dinner with some friends when we were discussing this news – Tatua’s product has been fouund to contain traces of melamine, and Cadbury has withdrawn 11 Chinese-made products, including chocolate eclairs sold in Australia, after tests found melamine in them.

Waikato's Tatua Co-operative Dairy Company has voluntarily suspended exports of dairy protein lactoferrin after tiny amounts of melamine were detected in its products in China.

China this month stopped production at Fonterra joint venture Sanlu after its baby formula containing melamine caused the deaths of four infants and made tens of thousands of babies sick. (Source

My google search tells me that South Korea has also found melamine in its lactoferrin. It remains to seen which other countries will come up with the same findings. What is at stake is the export of a high value protein that is extracted out of milk.

Tatua didn’t know of the contamination until one of its agents told it so. The CEO of the company Paul McGilvary said the company called in the New Zealand Food Safety Authority after a customer highlighted to Tatua of the discovery of a trace of melamine.

In boffin-speak, tests results showed contamination of less than four parts per million. The authority will take action at 2.5 parts per million but five parts per million is generally considered safe. According to an NZPA report, NZ food watchdog the NZ Food Safety Authority has no legal maximum residue level (MRL) for melamine in milk, even though in June it published MRLs for melamine at 0.3mg/kg in sheepmeats, and 0.15mg/kg in poultry and eggs. The funny thing is regulatory authorities are only coming to terms with how to set melamine limits for dairy products, including 2.5 parts per million in Hong Kong and McGilvary understood the US was using 10 parts and China was thinking about five parts.

Tatua now has to repair the international damage done to its lactoferrin. What it has to do is to retrace how melamine got into its product. It says its milk is unadulterated, and its process impeccable. Could it be the packaging? The insecticides use? Or the fetilizers? It will take at least a month to come out with some answers. What is also at stake is Tatua’s proprietary manufacturing process, which it sold to another dairy company Westland – also a producer of lactoferrin.

A satellite lactoferrin plant at Westland Milk Products in Hokitika has also found as having low levels of melamine contamination, and food safety officials said they were looking at the possibility that the contamination is being introduced by the manufacturing process (Source: Food and Beverage News)

Lactoferrin, which sells for about $500,000 per tonne, is used in baby formulas and dairy-based drinks. Fonterra also makes lactoferrin.

Mr McGilvary said Tatua, which has 112 suppliers, exports about 30 tonnes of lactoferrin per year, and he could not say when the suspension would end.

Series of unfortunate events
This is unfortunate for a dairy company hailed as one of the most successful competitors to Fonterra – Tatua has just announced record payout for milk solids for its farmers.

What is an acceptable level of melamine for the human body? Who knows! This phenomena is only just beginning to unravel. Now we know how fragile the human existence is. In the past, the hunter gatherer learnt of what to kill/what to eat and what to forage in the forest. Now, we have the benefit of science to tell us what is safe and what is not safe. Let’s hope the boffins are right.

Mom used to tell me not to microwave plastics. I used to ignore her. Now I have stopped using plastics to microwave my food – I am getting more paranoid by the day. So, better safe than sorry. I am microwaving only in ceramics/corning/glass.

Footnote: he NZ Food Safety Authority had on Sept 30th released a statement to say this:

With regards to the industry reports of the presence of incidental trace levels of melamine in lactoferrin, NZFSA confirms that one result from four tests of lactoferrin has returned a result at around the limit of detection of 1 ppm. This does not constitute a health hazard, particularly as lactoferrin is used as a minor ingredient and is not consumed as a food on its own.

“It is NZFSA’s belief that this trace level may have arisen out of this specific unique process and is continuing to work with the industry concerned to better understand the biochemistry as to why this is happening.

“From all 116 tests there is clearly no indication of any deliberate adulteration whatsoever and based on results to date we are confident that all New Zealand dairy products are fully compliant.”

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Obese? Blame it on your mom!

This is the best piece of news for those who constantly battle with their weight. We are fat because we could be genetically pre-disposed to being fat. I found this in an article on the Aug 20th issue of a weekend magazine. Now I don't feel so bad carrying that extra 5kg!

The article points to the risks of children being obese due to “metabolic imprinting” from their pregnant mother's high blood sugar levels. This imprint goes on to affect these babies’ weight, apparently.

Fat because of your genes?
We are also fat because evolution makes us predisposed to being so. The body’s weight command centre, at the hypothalamus, is calibrated to preserve rather than eliminate fat. Ah, so, no need to feel guilty about trying to shed the last 5 kg – it was always going to be hard.

Researchers also found that a genetic defect in your brain’s command centre could also affect as much as 70% of the variation in your weight.

Inside your brain is one little soldier receptor (melanocortin 4 receptor) that tells you to stop eating by triggering the feeling of you being full. If that soldier malfunctions, you are going to be eating, and eating.

Fat because of a virus?
That’s not all. Apparently a kind of virus can also make you fat. We have Nikhil Dhurandhar (an associate professor at Pennington Biomedical Centre in Baton Rouge) to thank for figuring this one.

Some 20 years ago, while treating obesity in India, he drew the link between obesity and chickens that died from carrying an avian virus (SMAM-1. He found these dead chooks to contain lots of fat in them.

Later when he worked with a human virus (adenovirus 36 or AD36), he found that in his lab, every specie of animal infected with AD36 became fat. This virus is present in 30% of obese people (is this a conclusive study? I don’t know. My guess is not.) and affects 15-17% of the human population.

Want to know if you have this fat virus? There is a company in Richmond (Virginia, USA) called Obetech that can conduct this test.

But what's the point? They haven't figured out how to get rid of the virus. This very smart professor Dhurandhar, he is now working on a possible vaccine for those infected with the AD36 virus. Bless him.

So, don’t beat yourself up if you are pre-disposed to being fat. The extra serving of pudding and extra serving of fatty meat may be the cause. But you can blame someone else now – your genes, your mom, and the bloody virus.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Underneath all skin - we are all the same

A friend of mine sent me this a few weeks ago. I think it is a very good read, for those of us who love to live in harmony; who love the ideal of being one race, one people, one nation, one world. I have taken the liberty to reproduce on this blog. Hope the owners of the content don't mind.

Race and prejudice in Malaysia
Sep 26, 08 6:22pm
teh tarik

MCPX The TehTarik sessions are the brainchild of a group of young Malaysians
at Cambridge University who desired a non-partisan platform to foster open
discussion on burning issues. Sessions are open to all as long as they have
a shared passion for Malaysia. The following is based on the discussion that
took place over a hot cup of self-made teh tarik.

The all-too-familiar tourism advertising gimmicks portray Malaysia as a
multi-cultural and pluralistic society, an emerging democracy where people
of all cultures, races, and religions live and prosper together; a society
where cultural differences are honoured and enduring ideals of humanity can
thrive. However, how far do these perceptions differ from the reality of the
Malaysian social fabric?

In Malaysia, the third question succeeding name and gender is almost always
regarding race. We are identified by our race and the fact is, for better or
for worse, the concept has been institutionalised. Though possibly relevant
historically, the current generation must ask whether these
institutionalised concepts are still appropriate.

At the time of independence when races served different economic functions,
leaders would have envisioned the country moving away from such divisive
concepts. But looking back 51 years on, it seems that divisions have
persisted and we have still not moved forward.

Notwithstanding the methodological limitations of opinion polls, the results
of the Merdeka Centre poll on race relations reveal a lack of understanding,
poor interaction and strong stereotypes across races.

A mere 36% of Chinese respondents as compared to 89% of Malay respondents
said they understand Malay culture. Interestingly, 84% of Chinese
respondents thought that Hari Raya Puasa is a Malay New Year celebration.

With regards to stereotypes, 60% of Chinese and Malay respondents agreed
that Malays are lazy. 60% of Chinese and Malay respondents agreed that
Indians cannot be trusted as compared to 20% of Indian respondents. A
majority of Chinese and Malay respondents agreed that the Chinese are

The conceptions of racial groupings have often been controversial for
scientific as well as social and political reasons. While the general
consensus favours a biological basis for such divisions, it is possible for
a Chinese to be genetically further apart from a fellow Chinese than a

Furthermore, the definitions of race have been fluid. For example, whilst
Arabs may be considered Malays in Malaysia, they would be Arabic in origin.

Take the path of most resistance
Race concepts have been reinforced throughout the colonial era and used as
powerful organising tools for western governments. In Rwanda, divisions
between the Tutsis and Hutus were non-existent until the arrival of the
Belgians, who started classifying them according to the size of their

Unlike ethnically Malay countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia
where races are not rigidly defined within the confines of religion, the
definition of Malay is uniquely enshrined in the Malaysian constitution as a
Muslim who speaks Malay and practices Malay customs.

Nevertheless, the term bumiputera has never been formally defined in any
official documents. The late Tunku Abdul Rahman in his answer to the
parliamentary debate of November 1965 stated that the term had no legal
meaning except to denote the natives of Malaya and the Borneo states,
Chinese and Indians who have been born locally for several generations, and
natives less able to compete with others.

He was eventually pressured to accept the definition which excluded all
Chinese and Indians, a concept used politically. Subsequently, the Malays
and bumiputeras possess special rights under the constitution. However, the
constitution is equivocal as to whether the rights are permanent or remedial
and transitional. It is also silent on the time frame. These are contentious
issues at the core of race relations in Malaysia.

Studies suggest a cultural basis for race where segregation stems from
perception and evolves through differences that are humanly defined.

When the Americans first arrived in Japan, they perceived the Japanese as
lazy. Probably there was no economic reason to be hard working in a then
slow-paced and isolated Japan. Today, the stereotypes pertaining to Japan
are anything but lazy. Similarly, any form of racial stereotypes should not
be accepted by Malaysians as a given but as a man-made construct or

Perhaps the way forward for racial integration is the path of most
resistance. Perhaps everyone should be compelled to learn the all the
languages of other races in schools to facilitate greater understanding
amongst races. This is not impossible if we look at countries such as
Switzerland where citizens are fluent in three official languages.

Also, education curricula should be revised to provide an impartial
perspective of subjects such as history. The original objectives of the New
Economic Policy (NEP) to help the needy regardless of race should be
strongly advocated and not manipulated to the whims and fancies of certain

We're suspicious of one another
The problem of racial strife is that of perception. Remedies suggested have
always involved major political changes which are beyond the reach of any
one individual. However, we need not be too ambitious and underestimate our
roles in the civil society. The fact is not so much that there exists
interracial animosity but that we are suspicious of one another.

This is partly because we did not have the opportunities to develop
friendships with people of other races at the personal level. Many are
brought up from a mono-racial background and attend vernacular schools.
Instead of defining ourselves against other races, we should endeavour to
place ourselves through the lenses of the other races and empathise with
their situation. The quid pro quo approach would be the first step to racial

For the non-Malay, would you be willing to sacrifice your special rights if
you were Malay? For the Malay, would you give up vernacular schools if you
were non-Malay?

It is argued that one cannot discuss racial issues without touching on the
ill-fated May 13 incident. Although politicians have taken the stance of
ignoring the big elephant in the room, perhaps the only way we can solve the
problem of interracial distrust and suspicion is by digging out and
examining old skeletons. The question is, are we willing to be objective or
do we continue to have a chip on our shoulder?


JOSHUA CHU and MOHAMMAD A HAMID anchored this session. Chu is an alumnus of
St John's College. Mohammad is an engineer by training, currently taking one
year off from work to pursue masters degree after 10 years in the industry.
Interests include voluntary work with young people and writing.

WILLIAM TAN edited this article. He is currently reading chemical
engineering. An arts and music enthusiast who plays the piano during his
leisure, Tan also takes interest in and discusses passionately about
economical, political and social issues pertaining to Malaysia.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Extraordinary moments from the ordinary

After over 3 months, our Merlins at Hotel Starship seem to have sorted out the cholingitis (inflammation/infection of the bile ducts) that Princess of the House has been battling with. In June, we checked into Hotel Starship for what we thought would be a short stay. We ended up with a 6-week hospital vacation, and a series of Percutaneous Transhepatic Cholangiogram (PTC).

A PTC is a surgical procedure where a sort of “x-ray” is done on the liver and the bile ducts. Imagine a plumber, going underneath your house to have a look at the pipes. Well, a PTC allows the Merlins at Starship to have a look at where the blockages are in Princess’ bile ducts.

During a PTC, our magician at Starship inserts a little needle into Princess’ liver and watches the needle on a special x-ray machine. A contrast is injected into the bile ducts, to see how the contrasting agent flows. The x-rays will tell whether the plumbing of the bile ducts is ok. Princess of the House has had a sort of odyssey with PTCs in the last few months.

The PTC she first had 3 months ago found a 5 cm narrowing in her bile ducts. So the plumbing exercises began. We had a magic maker Dave Duncan who dressed in surgical clothes looks almost as formidable as Dr House (except Dr Duncan is more dashing).

Dr Duncan was Princess of the House’s “plumber”. The first two “pipes” (rubber stent put in to stretch the bile ducts so bile can flow freely) didn’t do their job. A third stent did the job. Still, the stent had to stay inside, to stretch the stricture.

On Monday, our magician did his usual magic. Princess of the House was put to sleep after a 12-hour fast. He squirted some contrast to see how the ducts did, and was happy the stent did its job. Out came the stent.

This morning, just after 8am, a very on-time and exuberant Dr Ben Hope came with the happy news for us – we can go home - only after one night at Hotel Starship – unbelievable!

Seeking the extraordinary
Princess of the House is happy the stent is out. (She has had an “appendage” or a tube which has bee capped hanging out of her abdomen for ages). It means she can get back to the love of her life – her gymnastics; and perhaps swimming and her ballroom dancing. Maybe a season of touch rugby, depending on how her legs go (the pain in her leg is another saga of epic proportions).

We humans seek extraordinary events to reaffirm our existence. But it is in the ordinary things in everyday life that me and my house have come to appreciate these days. A simple meal cooked in our own kitchen; our own bed at home; our own bathroom; our own telly; and a transient stay of the beautiful maple leaves coming out in spring to grace our tree.

For those of you who have sent us prayers and wishes, came with food, books, toys and games for Princess of the House, our most humble thanks. And to the nurses at ward 25a, 26B, our liver nurses, the other magicians from the Gastro team - you all are very special! We are looking forward to more ordinary days!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Road to damnation – racial politics

I am anti anything drawn along racial lines. The more I think about it, the more toxic I think racial bias is. Asians (or should I say, the Chinese) are brought up to identify with the “superiority” of their culture. History tells us that the Chinese already considered themselves a superior civilisation while the West still lived in the dark ages.

It doesn’t take long to see how flawed the notion of race superiority is. I have been trying to shed my own ethnocentricity for years, but it is not easy. Being married to a pakeha (white) and having a half-Asian-half-pakeha (white) daughter, I am reminded daily of how my racial/ethnic background dictates how I live, view the world and think.

Being brought up in a small town, it was definitely difficult getting away from the great racial divide where schoolyard jokes like these are common: “If you meet a cobra and an Indian along the road, who do you kill first?” (Answer: The Indian, because he can be more potent than a cobra), or “why did the Jews spend 40 years wandering in the desert? (Answer: “Somebody lost a quarter!”).

Hubby tells me all the time that “you Chinese are the most racist lot on earth.” I protest every time, for the sheer dramatic effect that results. But I tend to agree with him.

Devils, devils
Growing up in Malaysia, I often wonder why in colloquial-speak, the Cantonese Chinese call the Indians kee-ling kwai or Indian devils; they call the Malays, Malai kwai – Malay devil; and the Anglo-Saxon hung-mo kwai (red haired devil). Naturally, everyone else is a devil but the Cantonese Chinese.

It is human nature to fear what we don’t understand. It is human to draw simple conclusions based on our immediate experiences. It is also human to make errors in judgments, until we are shown the light or choose to see otherwise.

I rarely encounter personal episodes of racism although I have lived in Canada for 5 years, and have been in NZ seen 1997. It must be because I don’t allow myself (anymore) to sink into that thought pattern of seeing me as a target for racial discrimination.

I was tickled by how NotPC’s blog readers got into verbal fistfights (this is based on a my interpretation of the trail of "conversations") on his blog on the subject of unsafe dairy products from China (original post from me). Somehow, the discussion took a tangent of its own based on a cheeky remark on racial stereotypes. Race debates can make people’s blood curdle, boil and erupt.

Growing up, I used to threaten mom, saying I will marry an Indian one day. Why not? I love Indian food, I love Indian music. Then, I used to threaten that I would marry a Malay. Why not? Malay men are gracious, gentle and dress better than most of the Chinese men I know. Mom would have loved for me to dutifully marry a Chinese.

I decided sometime ago that I would be against anything grouped along racial lines. Therefore, I am anti race-based parties (such as the Maori party in New Zealand). I am against Peter Low’s Asian Anti-Crime Group in Auckland (although I admire his effort to help others fight crime). Crime in Auckland is not confined to Asians. The solutions should not be addressed by Asians choosing to protect their own.

I hope in this lifetime, I would see the disintegration in my former homeland of all race-based political parties – the MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association), MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) and UMNO (United Malay National Organisation).

I hope, in this lifetime, Malaysian politics will be defined by ideologies and aspirations, not by myopic concerns built along the colour of one’s skin.

May13 and the flat earth
Raja Petra Kamarudin, a Malaysian blogger(now in detention under the Internal Security Act) posted a blog about May 13, 1969 (parts 1, 2 and 3) a while ago. His version of how race riots erupted is one that I have heard years ago. May 13 happened when I was 7. Every Chinese family knows Dato Harun as a dirty name.

For the longest time, it wasn't wise to discuss May 13.

I never use to view my Malay friends through a different looking glass. Not until I was told Malays have privileges that I don’t. Then I saw how different I was to them, and felt differnt. In primary school, I had a best friend, who is Malay, called Zubaidah.

What has changed since May 13, 1969? Nothing. Racial tension is at very high voltages in Malaysia at the moment. There is a threat of outage.

But what has changed is the world is “flatter” today. Blogsphere has given the average Malaysian a voice he/she didn’t use to have.

Malaysians, I think, are sick and tired of being taken on a ride that leads to the heart of darkness -- it is a journey of perpetual hatred, suspicion, jealousy, and discrimination.

A sort of change is edging its way over the Malaysian landscape. It remains to be seen whether the Malays, Chinese and Indians can shed their narrow racial concerns to work towards a new social contract -- one that opens up real possibilities for national healing, and for redemption of the lost 40 years.

Princess of the House
By the way, Princess of the House and her friends participating in the Maori cultural group did sensationally well last Thursday. The kids at school had a sampling of the beauty of cultural diversity. Princess is now gearing up for a friend’s birthday party, and practicing a Chris Brown song on the piano. Tomorrow, we check into "Hotel" Starship for the surgeon to take a peek at the strictures in her bile duct/and how the stents are doing.

Friday, September 26, 2008

How much can a fat cat CEO earn?

The world is a very comical place. About 1 billion people still live on less than US$1 per day, according to the United Nations. Out of this, a total of 640 million of the world’s poor live within our region - the Asia Pacific.

International efforts to eradicate poverty (Millennium Development Goals) do not get much media attention. Well, not when there is much more critical news at hand, the death of America’s financial empire in the absence of a US$700 billion bail out.

At Wall Street, things are definitely tougher than the sub-Saharan desert and Melanesia where food, water and healthcare are scarce.

At Wall Street, the top guys at Lehman Bros, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are starving too as they lose millions of dollars in their personal wealth due to their stocks or options all having tanked.

Greed is good
Tough luck on these Gordon Gekkos (character from Hollywood’s 1987 “Wall Street” movie) who motto is “greed is good”. Watch these guys' wealth dim a little.

These are the losses tallied by executive compensation guru Graef Crystal (as at July 2008):
 James Cayne, the former CEO of Bear Stearns Co (since swallowed by JP Morgan Chase & Co) who sold most of his shareholding, lost $984 million (on paper) due to his Bear Stearns shares having plummeted. Crystal’s calculations show that Cayne lost $1.1 billion based on all the options, free-share grants and shares that he holds. Poor wee thing. Bear Stearns has sunk, like a Titanic.

 Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc, another poor guy now, is estimated to have lost $823 million in the stockmarket. Poor guy. Lehman has filed for bankruptcy.

 Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs Group Inc, well the value of his shares dropped $128 million, and his option paper loss was $51 million – his total “loss” was $179 million.

 John Mack of Morgan Stanley, estimated market loss was $120 million.

These poor men in Armani suits used to run the world’s financial markets like they owned the universe (remember Tom Wolfe’s book Masters of the Universe?). It is about time American shareholders put a stop to excessive compensation for CEOS.

I don’t envy these CEOs' wealth. I just find it ludicrous that one sixth of the world lives on less than US$2 per day - just as I find it ludicrous that there are men with $60 million in annual compensation.

I find it even more ludicrous that the pay for performance culture in American has been fed to us, and held up as the only model of reward system. What sort of reward systems are management consultants selling to our part of the world? A culture that sanctions the "greed is good" principle, just like these modern-day Gekkos?

Income disparity
In the report, "A Decade of Executive Excess" which was released a while ago by the Institute for Policy Studies and United For a Fair Economy (liberal study groups based in Washington, DC and Boston respectively), it says that during the 1990s, CEOs compensation (salaries, bonuses and stock options) rose 481 percent (after inflation 459 percent) while wages for the average American rose 28 percent during the same period. CEOs in the US earn 82 times more than the average workers.

Judging by recent salary trends, these excesses have not stopped.

Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs’ CEO, earned $67.9 million in 2007 – a record at Wall Street. Mr Blankfein, 53, will receive $26.8 million in cash plus $41.1 million in shares and options on top of a $600,000 base salary.

The payout is the largest ever for an executive at a Wall Street investment bank according to research by Bloomberg. Goldman Sachs announced record pre-tax profits of $17.6 billion for 2007.

Merrill Lynch paid its former head honcho E. Stanley O'Neal $46 million in total compensation in 2006. He had $700,00 in salary, $18.5 million in cash bonus, and stocks worth about $26.8 million. O’Neal also had use of the company’s private jet, and full-time car and drive. Not bad for someone who managed to cause the great Merrill empire to crumble. And oh, he also got compensated over $160 million when he departed (this was despite his trail of disasters).

His successor John Thain got himself a package that could end up being over $140 million if he could move Merrill’s share price back to it high. Wonder what happened to his job with Merrill being taken over?

Paul Krugman, as far back as 2002, wrote in the American Prospect, (I first read this in 2006) that the average American families are not benefiting from income rises and productivity growth in the US.

According to Krugman, the top 1 percent of the US wealthy are the real benefactors of America’s wealth and income growth. Although the median family income (from 1979-89) rose 11 percent, 70 percent of the rise in average family income went to the pockets of the top 1 percent (in this 1 percent universe, the average income for a 4-person family was $800,000 and above).

“There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese” – sings the mouse in An American Tail, anticipating his good fortunes in America. Well, you can get all the cheese you want, provided you are not too busy fighting off the fat cats.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

NZ White Rabbit toxic too

Lame, very lame. That is what I would say is the NZ's Food Safety Authority's (NZFSA) response to its discovery that China's White Rabbit lollies contained unacceptable levels of melamine (a compound used to make plastic). Instead of advising the public to stay away from eating White Rabbit, the NZ FSA should force retailers to remove this toxic product from our food aisles.

The NZ Herald reported today: that NZ FSA's testing found the presence of 180 ppm of melamine, the substance which has been implicated in the tainted baby milk powder scandal in China. "This is a serious concern" said Sandra Daly, NZFSA's Deputy Chief Executive.

"We have issued a Director General's statement advising people not to eat these products as we cannot discount the likelihood of health risks resulting from the consumption of these sweets. The product appears to come from a number of manufacturers via a number of importers and we are advising against eating any of these products."

I wonder why the government has not moved to ban the product altogether or make Asian retailers remove these off their shelves.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ugly Americans protecting their cows

Ugly Americans – What did we expect, free access to their dairy market?

According to this story I read online today, American farmers are beginning to shiver at the prospects of any Free Trade Agreement between the US and New Zealand . NZ’s dairy farmers will clobber them, no doubt.

The report says: The US National Milk Producers Federation is demanding full exclusion of Kiwi dairy products. The United States has agreed to begin free trade talks in March with the P4 nations, comprising New Zealand , Singapore, Chile and Brunei. American farmers are seeking the exclusion because of what they call our dairy industry's unique structure and excessive manipulation of the dairy markets globally and in the US.”

Spokesman Jerry Kozak was reported as saying this manipulation will drive down dairy farmer income in America, force farms out of business and create a ripple effect swamping dairy plants and other rural business. He says the New Zealand Government must be salivating at the prospect of getting unfettered access to the US market. Bollocks, this is protectionism personified!

Well, Mr Kozak, free trade must work both ways. America must wake up to the fact that it can’t force the rest of the world to sing the free trade tune, and when it comes to its prized industries under threat, it suddenly sings from another song sheet. Shame! Shame!

Dump these Chinese products too

Today's NZ Herald reported that Fonterra denied any knowledge of revelations that its Chinese subsidiary San Lu received complaints as long ago as December last year blaming its infant formula for illnesses in babies.

Fonterra chief executive Andrew Ferrier issued the denial today after an official Chinese investigation reportedly found San Lu had lied for eight months to hide complaints about its melamine-contaminated baby formula.

While Fonterra slugs it out to clear its name. Householders like moi will be avoiding all China products if possible. My friend sent me an unqualified list (I think it is from Hong Kong, based on my limited ability to recognise Chinese characters)) of dairy and related products to ban from your household.

香港检测的 不合格名单
Not qualified list
Manufacturer's name & address

1 . KLIM Instant Full Cream Milk Powder (1.8 kg)
( 淨重 : 1.8 千克 )
Manufacturer: Nestle Shuangcheng Ltd.
Address: Friendship Road , Shuangcheng City , Heilongjiang Province, PRC

2. Nestle Carnation Calcium Plus Non Fat Milk Powder (1.6 kg)
三花高鈣脫脂奶粉 ( 淨重 : 1600 克 )
Manufacturer: Nestle Shuangcheng Ltd.
Address: Friendship Road , Shuangcheng City , Heilongjiang Province, PRC

3. Nespray
3 + 歲以上
( 淨重 : 900 克 )
Manufacturer: Nestle Shuangcheng Ltd
Address: Nestle Shuangcheng Ltd., PRC &nbs p;

4. Nestle Dairy Farm Pure Milk
雀巢牛奶公司純牛奶 ( 淨容量 : 1 升 )
Manufacturer: Nestle Qingdao Ltd.
Address: Weihai Xi Lu, Laixi City , Qingdao , P.R. China

5. Mengniu Pure Milk
( 淨體積 : 250 毫升 )
製造商:中國內蒙古蒙牛乳業 ( 集團 ) 股份有限公司
地址 : 中國內蒙古呼和浩特市和林格爾盛樂經濟園區

6. Monmilk Breakfast Milk Walnut Milk Beverage
( 淨體積 : 250 毫? ?/FONT> )
製造商:中國內蒙古蒙牛乳業 ( 集團 ) 股份有限公司
地址 : 中國內蒙古呼和浩特市和林格爾盛樂經濟園區

7. Monmilk Suan Suan Ru Sour Milk Beverage (Mango Flavour)
蒙牛酸酸乳酸味奶類飲品 ( 芒果味 )
( 淨體積 : 250 毫升 )
製造商:中國內蒙古蒙牛乳業 ( 集團 ) 股份有限公司
地址 : 中國內蒙古呼和浩特市和林格爾盛樂經濟園區

8. Monmilk
Milk Deluxe Pure Milk
( 淨體積 : 250 毫升 )
製造商:中國內蒙古蒙牛乳業 ( 集團 ) 股份有限公司
地址 : 中國內蒙古呼和浩特市和林格爾盛樂經濟園區

9. Yili High Calcium Low Fat Milk Beverage
( 淨體積 : 250 毫升 )
地址 : 中國內蒙古呼和浩特市金川開發區金三道 2 號

10. Dutch Lady Pure Milk
( 淨容量 : 1 公升 )
Manufacturer: Tianjian Dutch Lady Dairy Foods Co., Ltd.
Address: South of Dongting Road , Hexi District, Tianjin , PRC

11. Vita Fresh Milk
( 淨容量 : 236 毫升 )
地址 : 中國廣東省深圳市光明華僑畜牧 場

12. Nestle Vanilla Flavour Ice Cream Cone
雀巢雲呢拿味雪糕甜筒 (8 支盒裝 )
Manufacturer: Nestle Tianjin Ltd.
Address: No.149 Nanhai Road , TEDA, Tianjin , PRC

13. Nestle Chocolate Flavour Ice Cream Cone
雀巢朱古力味雪糕甜筒 (8 支盒裝 )
Manufactur er: Nestle Tianjin Ltd.
Address: No.149 Nanhai Road , TEDA, Tianjin , PRC

14. Meiji Ujikintoki (red bean and green tea frozen confection)
(6 支盒裝 :6 x 75 克 )
Manufacturer: Guangdong M&F- Yan Tang Dairy Products Co., Ltd
Address: Datanggang Shahe, Guangzhou , China

15. Meiji Hokkaido Azuk i (red bean ice cream)
(6 支盒裝 :6 x 70 克 )
Manufacturer: Guangdong M&F- Yan Tang Dairy Products Co., Ltd
Address: Datanggang Shahe, Guangzhou , China

16. Trappist Dairy Low Fat Yogurt Drink
( 淨容量 : 200 毫升 )
地址 : 香港元朗青山公路二十八咪半

17. Strawberry Sorbet
戀愛果實士多啤梨雪巴 ( 淨重 : 54 克 )
Manufacturer: Xincheng Greenearth Food Co., Ltd
Address: No.62 Xingjianzhai, Huazhou Road , Pudong, Shanghai , China

18. Natural Choice Milk Ice Bar
( 淨體積 : 85 毫升 )
Manufacturer: Shanghai Yili AB Foods Co., Ltd
Address: No. 269 Beidou Road, Minhang Zone, Shanghai P.R. of China

19. 牛奶木瓜口味飲料 (Papaya Milk Drink) (350ml) -- 尚効
製造商:春喬食品興業股份有限公司 ( 地址 : 台灣彰化縣員林鎮鎮興里山腳路 3 段 25 巷 72 號 )

20. 阿薩姆奶茶 (Assam Milk Tea) (350ml) -- 尚効
製造商:春喬食品興業股份有限公司 ( 地址 : 台灣彰化縣員林鎮鎮興里山腳路 3 段 25 巷 72 號 )

21. 藍山炭燒咖啡 (Carbonize Coffee) (280ml) -- 尚効
製造商:春喬食品興業股份有限公司 ( 地址 : 台灣彰化縣員林鎮鎮興里山腳路 3 段 25 巷 72 號 )

Cancer - the dirty word

Cancer is a dirty word, well at least to me. We went to my cousin’s wedding and hubby discovered a lump under Princess of the House’s arm. We took her to our GP. The GP thought it wasn’t serious. He suggested we wait to see what happened. My friend at work, BY, (I have her to thank!), told me in no uncertain terms, I had to seek a second opinion, and gave me her pediatrician’s name. The rest, like they say, is history. That was when Princess was 2.5 years old. She is now 10.

At 4.5 years old, Princess had acute liver failure. We found a liver match at the 11th hour. We were lucky. Others are not so. But near midnight on the day of Princess’ transplant, we had a call from hospital. It didn’t sound good.

Stephen Munn, our surgeon, told us when they cut Princess up, they found cancer in a few places. They suspended the surgery for a while (45 minutes was it? I can’t remember). But after consultations with the best around the world, Dr Munn said (and I will never forget Dr Munn’s words) they decided to go ahead with the liver transplant as cancer is “an imminently treatable” disease. This has been my amulet for a long time now “an imminently treatable disease”. That should be ever cancer parent’s amulet, I reckon.

We have never personally thanked Dr Munn for making the professional decision he and his team made. But he knows -- probably from years in the trade that patients or parents never truly show their gratitude. Why is there need for words when we eat it, drink it, walk it, and live it everyday our Princess is alive.

Cancer – many lives

The cancer saga didn’t end there. Post transplant, when her new liver was thriving, we found cancer lurking again, inside Princess.

Cancer is an insidious disease. It creeps and takes over, when you least expect it. It can be wiped out and killed. But it reincarnates often, like a cat not with nine but a thousand lives. Lucky for Princess, the drugs are getting better. We had had Rituximab in our last treatment, a kind of missile drug, that targets the cancer cells rather than destroy all cells in the body indiscriminately. The first treatment protocol used in Singapore was CHOPP (a cocktail of different drugs, used in chemotheraphy). That was the chemo with its side effects – nausea, hair loss, weight gain (from prednisone, a steroid), constipation. Not wonderful.

World Lymphoma Day

I found out from the NZ Listener magazine that Sept 15 is World Lymphoma Awareness Day (WLAD). How uncanny. Hubby’s birthday is Sept 14th.

Now I will never forget WLAD now! I am not a very scientific person so I find it hard to follow all the different scientific bits of cancer. But I know Princess had Hodgkins, the slow-growing form. It took them a while at the National University Hospital to get a conclusive reading on whether it was Hodgkins or non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL). The differences are very fine, even under super microscopes.

Non-Hodgkins is the one deemed a faster growing cancer. The difference between the two types of lymphoma is based on what type of predominant “bad” cells they find in the “diseased” location, T-cells or B-cells and much more.

I haven’t looked very closely at what a cancerous cell looks like, but I have seen what they have shown on House -- under the microscope, cancer cells look like little colonisers – definitely aggression personified. They give you the goosebumps when you look at them because you know their capacity to render you powerless, like an imperialist master over your body, the colony.

These are some facts I have since found:

 In NZ, lymphoma (since the source is not specific, am assuming it refers to both Hodgkins and NHL) is the sixth most common cancer in the country affecting about 800 people every year. Certain types of lymphoma can kill in as little as six months.

 There has been a 30 percent rise in lymphoma in NZ over the past five years and this is projected to rise further.

 What’s scary is most of the people surveyed think symptoms of lymphoma are just signs of flu. Some 89 percent of 501 people surveyed in NZ could not correctly identify that lymphoma was a cancer of the lymphatic system and 94 per cent did not list lymphoma in the top of their mind as cancers. Only 2 percent could recognise the symptoms.

Lymph nodes are like your body’s ammunition against infections. They are the size of a jelly bean (about 1 cm) and when they are in battle mode, they become enlarged.

Princess of the House had a node the size of a ping pong ball under her arm. No other symptoms that I can recall. Other major hubs for your nodes are your neck, armpit and groin. So never ignore those lumps. Other symptoms are: night sweats, persistent fevers, rapid weight loss, trouble breathing, chest pains, weakness and tiredness for longer than two weeks.

The not-so-bad news is the success rate for lymphoma cancer treatments is about 75 percent, according to one report.

US stats

In the US, NHL is the 5th most frequently diagnosed cancer in the US. More than 66,000 new cases of NHL are expected in the US this year (close to 35,500 males and 30,700 females). (Sourced from Genetech). Of the estimated 360,000 Americans living with NHL, about 30 percent have diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and approximately 30 percent have low-grade lymphoma.

You can get very deep into the subject. There are something like over 40 different manifestations of lymphoma.

Hubby’s sister

Darling Aunty, my hubby’s sister, is dying from brain cancer; NHL, it is. The kind that spreads fast and furious, like a wild fire. She had it in her kidneys, they killed it. The cancer reinvented itself in her brain, taking over her body – her new master. We are staring at death, very up close and personal.

Princess of the House had just had 2 months in hospital, a narrowing in her bile ducts. The wizards at Startship’s Gastroenterology are doing their best to keep the bile ducts stretched, with a stent. It stays in there till the ducts are wide enough for bile to pass through without clogging up. We are waiting, waiting. We have faith in these Gastro folks. They are the best in the world, they are our Merlins.

Now Princess has unexplained pains at the back of her right ankle. After every imaginable scan and biopsy one can expect, her ankle is still hurting. She now wears a "moonboot" to keep her ankle from being stressed too much. Is there cancer lurking somewhere in the nether regions of ber body? Our oncologist gave us the clear recently, no cancer, she says. The PET (Positron emission tomography: a type of scan where radioactive material is injected into your body to tract cancer/blood flow etc in the body) scan we did on Princess in Melbourne in June gave us the clear. Yet, we never relax. We can never relax.

Truth of suffering

Sometimes, I throw all these vestiges of fear or nightmares at the back of my mind, deep, deep at the back where I can easily snuff out every trace of it. It is easier to forget. Recall takes courage, real courage.

Then, this week, I heard from a dear old friend of cancer in his family. Lymphoma as well. We all have our nightmares to deal with. We all try our best to bury these nightmares and walk tall, relying on their inner resource to face the day. My concerns become imminently less important when I focus on other people’s suffering.

I see the boy in a wheelchair in hospital school with no arms, no legs; and he is using his little “bit of stump” to throw the dice in a game he was playing. No fuss. Just getting on with his game. He is a hero to me now. I talk to our liver nurse (a mom with a kid who had cancer and now in remission) who has to face sick kids waiting for a liver against the clock ticking. She becomes my reminder of what courage is - to face everyday with inspiration - to go out and do the best we can.

What is real is suffering is universal; not exclusive to me. How we choose to respond makes the difference.

Tomorrow, we hope to escape Starship as Princess’ fever has subsided.

Tomorrow, Princess -- wrapped in a beautifully hand-painted dress with koru design done by her best mate’s mom (Kororia take a bow) -- will sing with over 30 other kids several Maori songs – songs that celebrate bravery, fierceness, courage, warmth, love and friendship.

Useful sites on lymphoma
Leukemia and Blood Foundation NZ

Lymphoma Research Foundation

New York Online Access to Health

Monday, September 22, 2008

End of a great memory - White Rabbit

As Singapore and Malaysia move to ban products from China containing milk or dairy products, what is the NZ food authority doing? Haven’t heard anything at all in the news

Those of us who shop in Asian groceries must therefore be vigilant, and avoid those ultra-cheap candies, preserved foods and biscuits and chocholate wafers from China. Sad as it is, we must do all we can to protect our family from contaminated food.
Sad as it is, we must let White Rabbit go - a lolly mom used to give us as treats. I love how the rice paper melted into my mouth and stayed stuck to the roof of my mouth.

Here’s what Singapore and Malaysia have found. Singapore has discovered that White Rabbit Creamy Candy, a milk-based treat popular with children and adults here, has been found to be contaminated with melamine.

Other brands--Dutch Lady strawberry-flavoured milk and Yili Choice Dairy Fruit Bar Yoghurt Flavoured Ice Confection—are also found to be adulterated by the chemical normally found in plastics.

Since 19 Sep 08, the Singapore government’s food watchdog, AVA (Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority) has suspended the import and sale of all milk and milk products from China. These products include milk, ice-cream, yoghurt, confectionery such as chocolates, biscuits and sweets as well as any other products containing milk from China as an ingredient.

Singapore, Malaysia

Singapore’s national daily, The Straits Times, found on Saturday that a 7-Eleven outlet in one of its neighbourhoods, Braddell, had pulled a list of products from its shelves. The list included Snickers bars, M&Ms, Nabisco Chicken In A Biskit, Dove chocolate bars, Mentos yogurt balls, Oreo wafer sticks, and Want Want Take One Baby Bites.

In Malaysia, the Star newspaper reported that: The Government has widened its ban on dairy products imported from China to include confectionary that contain milk, chocolate, chocolate milk, white chocolate and other foods that contain milk. The ban also includes flour-based confectionary products like biscuits.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Back in Hotel Starship

Latest news for family and friends

Princess of the House developed high temperature on Sat after an afternoon at a friend's birthday party. Hubby checked her into ED (emergency department). We are now back in hospital, on two different antibiotics (Gentamicin and Amoxycilin). Waiting for blood cultures and bile cultures to see what's brewing.

Princes of the House looks a bit tired today and worries she will not be able to get to tomorrow's first and only full-dress rehersals for the school's cultural festival on Wed and Thur night. She is in the Maori performance group. I can't wait to hear the kids sing "He Honore".

Nothing much to report. Outside the hospital, the city looks still and awfully silent. Ant-size cars can be spotted from our window. Spongebo and Patrick are having their inane conversations. Since we checked in at 1.30am this morning, I best get some sleep.

Amoxycilin, Aciclovir and Heparin – Safe or not?

I picked up some Aciclovir from the local pharmacy today. Aciclovir is one of the three drugs made by Ranbaxy from India. Ranbaxy made headlines after it failed the USFDA's (US Food and Drug Administration) audit process. Should I give the Aciclovir to Princess of the House? I am not sure, so I rang my local pharmacy. The pharmacist I spoke to says there is no evidence to suggest Ranbaxy products in NZ are problematic.

Ministry Chief Advisor Public Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says "there is no evidence that individual drugs have been affected and patients are advised they should continue taking them." To be really cynical - how does Dr Bloomfield know? Can he trace the origin and the compounds used by Ranbaxy and can be sure it is not sourced from China? Can he assure us there is no contamination in Aciclovir or the Amoxycilin?

I find it distressing Dr Bloomfield can be so certain when the audit process done by the US has failed the company. What can we do??? Is your child ill? Is your child being given Amoxycilin (an antibiotic) or Aciclovir (to treat cold sores)? Princess of the House’s best mate the one with Rapuzel-hair, slept here last night. She has had 2 doses of Amoxycilin since yesterday evening. Should her mom be worried too?

The US FDA has banned about 30 drugs made by Ranbaxy including Cipro (which Princess of the House is also on!) and cholesterol pill Zocor – citing poor quality at two of Ranbaxy’s factories. According to the Financial Times, “Ranbaxy’s latest troubles come only two months after the US Justice Department intensified legal action against the company, alleging adulteration of some of its products. The company has insisted the claims are “baseless”.

The USFDA last week criticised Ranbaxy for violations to ”good manufacturing practice”. It said it could not be sure that processing took place in sterile conditions, nor that there was protection against cross-contamination of pharmaceuticals

What should we do? My local pharmacist tells me there are other sources of Aciclovir (Pacific Pharmaceuticals), but that is not funded by Pharmac. I checked the box on our Cipro – it says “Marketed by Pacific Pharmaceuticals”. Good, do I feel safer?

Am I being paranoid now? Shouldn’t I be? What if Ranbaxy’s Amoxycilin is indeed substandard. Will NZ be scrambling (like the rest of the world will be) for fresh supplies? According to the Ministry of Health’s web info, about 400,000 Amoxycilin prescriptions are made a year; and a 160,000 prescriptions for Aciclovir.

I think I am going to be more paranoid than ever. Pretzel who commented on my blog led me to a site which lists stories of counterfeit products made by China. I felt sick in the stomach when I saw heparin on the list of counterfeits that have shown up in the world. Princess of the House was in hospital for 8 weeks and had many doses of heparin injected into her body. Heparin helps thin the blood to prevent clots.

Heparin is made from the intestines of slaughtered pigs. The mucous membrane from the intestines is collected and cooked, eventually producing a dry substance known as crude heparin.

Baxter suspended the production of heparin in multi-dose vials after four patients died in the US after high doses of heparin. There were also 350 reports of severe allergic reactions to heparin, with symptoms including a rapid drop in blood pressure, burning sensations, headaches, throat swelling and a shortness of breath.

According to the website (check it out yourself Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy (BASCAP) contaminated heparin has been linked to 19 deaths in the US and hundreds of allergic reactions. The gist I got from reading the site was that Baxter, which has been buying active ingredients to make heparin, was being sold counterfeit by cowboy operators in China.

Baxter bought its heparin ingredient from China’s Changzhou SPL, a factory in the city of the same name. This facility is actually 55 per cent owned by Scientific Protein Laboratories (does this sound familiar - Sanlu and Fonterra??) which has another manufacturing site in Wisconsin, US. All this happened in April.

The US, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland and Japan have been reported to have pulled heparin products from the market due to the presence of contamination or as a precautionary measure after API links to China were made.

When I did more reading, I found that Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) too had discovered contamination in samples of heparin distributed by UK-based drug giant AstraZeneca. Other manufacturers of heparin are: Hospira and Pfizer. Australia’s drug watchdog TGA says: “AstraZeneca has since confirmed that its heparin API was sourced form China and it is in discussions with the TGA to recall the affected product as soon as possible. The firm also indicated that it is now evaluating its China supply chain.”

I checked NZ’s Ministry of Health’s website and found this statement: “So far, testing of the finished products being supplied to patients in New Zealand indicates that these products are free from contamination.” Should I rest assured? Are we relying on our own testing mechanisms or USFDA to do our job? Do we trust the drug maker’s supply chain?

What everyone should be asking of the Ministry of Health is:
 How many drugs do we import from NZ that have compounds made in China or India or Thailand or Cambodia etc?
 How do we know these compounds are safe for users in NZ?
 Is Pharmac’s funding warped in anyway? (If I don’t buy Ranbaxy’s Aciclovir, who else can I buy from??)
 Should NZ rely on the USFDA to do primary regulation/tests for us?

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Our logic must be, for now, to have some control over NZ’s own supply chain. We know we can’t trust big MNCs -- be they hotshot financial companies (like Merrill or Goldman or AIG) or big pharmas like Baxter or Astra Zeneca who do get duped by unethical Chinese merchants. I have stopped buying Made-in-China food. But the question is can I stop buying drugs with Chinese ingredients or ingredients from unknown sources.