I am in love

Natural selection has kindly bestowed upon us the gift of loving (as well as the obsession with sex) to ensure our continuity. That is as simple as it gets. Millions of songs, sonnets, poetry and other kinds expression exist solely to praise or curse love. Countless essays have made attempts to wade out and explore the perimeters of love, so much so that there may not be a square inch of space left on the topic for the human imagination to discover. Therefore I will not write such an essay. What I will do however, is to stop and marvel at this brief moment in my history when I have discovered the happiest point in my life (however this does not deny the possible existence of happier moments to come) and would simply like to express my joy. 

I have been seeing someone. We knew each other through Facebook – a miracle worker – but only met for the first time at Masjid Jamek to attend an Occupy Dataran event, under the blanket of a black sky. That led to a string of meet-ups at Dataran Merdeka, a historical monument that represented both our unwavering love for the nation as our beloved home. Our conversations delighted me as we talked about anything under the Malaysian sun. His accent was thick and unfamiliar to me but his warm voice spoke of issues that hit home with me, straight to the heart. I was often captivated by his wit and intelligence; I did most of the listening because he is much more well-versed than I in certain subjects. Not to mention that charming smile. It begs me for one in return.

He is entirely unlike the men (or rather boys) I have previously met. Many of the more intelligent ones that I have come across are either too conceited or too insensitive; some have issues with their personality. This is not to say that the majority of smart men are out of my league, because that would be very pretentious on my part. They were simply never compatible with me. With him, I have never even stopped to think about our compatibility, nor have I checked our horoscopes. For the last few months, it has been the simplest routine to meet up and be utterly content with each other’s company. Never have I felt so certain of my feelings for someone. Never have I felt so irrevocably happy about knowing – merely knowing – that such a person could exist! It sometimes feels as if I just discovered a new element or have been washed ashore after being stranded on an island for 2 years – the length of time that I suffered a draggy and empty relationship prior to this. I never thought that it would be so easy to love a person, where there would be no compromises. A person who shares the deep appreciation I have for the universe, who loves reading the same books as I do, who is passionate about upholding justice and protecting the weak, who vehemently criticizes the greedy. Who makes the silliest jokes and knows when to make it up to someone with free ice-cream. In short, he is everything that I never knew I wanted and could have.

Addendum: Oh and he’s “largely sensible too” as he would like to describe himself. A teetotaller and a cheapskate too. What more could I ask for, really?

 


I call bullshit

Bullshit would be synonymous with ‘bad science’, although people tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the latter because the mainstream media’s journalists have trigger fingers, their left hands on their notebooks and their right hands in the public’s pants scratching their asses for a few pennies. Bad science also happens to be the title of a very well-written book that painstakingly (and painfully) sifts through the ugly of sensationalised scientific news which mislead the scientifically illiterate and feed on money of those who are shameless about one thing – being utterly wrong. That is Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. It explores the tantalising surface of cheap tricks like detox scams, exposes the blatant lies of nutritionists that make ridiculous claims and give a bad name to scientific investigation and also mutilates the sham of homeopathy. Goldacre is quick-witted and sharp to pick up on the false claims of pseudo-intellectuals who are quick to change their game once he burns their reputation with a pinch of common sense.

Thanks a great deal to this book, I have been introduced to the rough terrain of scientific study and general scepticism. A few weeks after reading it came both the monsoon and the exam season. Though the smell of bullshit is around all-year long, it was particularly pungent during this time of the year, when people tell me rain gives you a cold (people do, but if you disagree I’d like to hear what you have to say). Out of all the myths that I have taken note of, nothing gets me going (read: irritated) more than the claim that supplements will boost your academic performance.

It’s the exam season. The perfect time for tuition centres to make a quick buck by herding 200 students into a pe- room with a single projector and promise to help them achieve success! Too bad this doesn’t happen at pre-university level and above (or does it?). It is at this stage where the blinds are put up and a show is put on. What can else can we milk from these students? In exchange for confidence, let’s sell them a food supplement and convince them that it will increase their brain performance. Let’s.

This is how I view X product – sceptically. I don’t want to name it in fear of legal implications, although virtually no one views this site. Packaged in green (I won’t say more), this product has virtually no competitors and has successfully led a nation of parents who – sorry to say – grossly overestimate their children’s capabilities to believe that this product will help. I have a bone to pick with not the truth of it because after searching through online journals and reliable sources I cannot find a single independent study on the effects of their ingredients, hence I have no evidence whatsoever of the falsity of it. Mind you, a couple of studies by the same company whose main source of income is dependent on the sales of the same bloody product is NOT AT ALL convincing.

I put it up to a group on Facebook called Advocates of the Propagation of Science Literacy (APOSL) and I got a bunch of startling (and startled) replies.

Smells funny to me. Not just literally.

Even if this stuff actually works (although I will never relent until MORE PROOF of its effectiveness shows up and not just by market-driven crazies) in the sense that it enhances brain performance, memory yada yada yada, I wouldn’t buy it. A box of such stuff is too bloody expensive for a humble home maker. I would rather invest in fruits and vegetables, food items that will aid the growth and maintenance of my child’s health. I wouldn’t treat it as a magic potion. Trust me, there are parents who do and even advise their children to take it before they eat their breakfast (didn’t we learn that food stays in the stomach in a mixed, gooey lump BEFORE absorption? Some drugs are taken after/before food for several other reasons). Why? So the brain absorbs it first. *coughs blood*

Some may argue that it works as a placebo and that it will boost one’s confidence levels. This is true to some extent because even coloured water can do the same. However when we rely on a supplement, we are merely deluding ourselves and ignoring the real problem. We forget that activities like exercising, eating well, avoiding dangerous situations, hard work and passion are also important components of academic success. A bottle of black liquid will not make up for the lack thereof of the above. Blinded by the flurry of pretty advertisements and persuasive salespeople we must not give in to the childish dreams of ‘shortcuts’ in life that greedy people make. Unfortunately too many are too quick to grab onto the promise of an easier way – and get scammed in the process, due to either their ignorance or wishful thinking. Social media makes their job a much easier one when ignoramuses move in droves.

Clench firmly to your wallets people, because they’re not done with you yet.


I Want Your Babies

That phrase brings to mind fearful images of saturated diapers, late nights and a very, very sore back and arms. As someone who is expected to present my mother with grandchildren someday, to get married and have my own children is alien and distant, partially because in this part of the world teenagers who get knocked up don’t stay in school and because I am not ready. For the most part, it’s because of the latter. However I am a complete sucker for soft-skinned, tiny humanoid creatures that try very hard to speak intelligibly. And I occasionally daydream of the exciting things I may do with (and to) my imaginary dwarfs. At times I may be doing something completely unrelated to babies and afterwards find myself lolling on the bed giggling at the thought of a small child clutching to my leg (I guess it isn’t such a distant idea after all). In fear of being thought of as a baby-crazy nut, I don’t go around telling people such things. When someone tells me that they want to have 10 children, I tell them to marry a millionaire. I am aware of the consequences of having children, just as I am aware of the pathetic number of viewers this blog has.

Who I intend to dilute my genes with, I have no idea. During a pointless discussion on marriage and commitment in an atheist group, someone suggested to me that I visit a sperm bank. A part of me instantly revolted against the thought of being inseminated by a stranger. The rest of me didn’t want to think of the possibility of me being so lonely and desperate. Considering the reasons for my recurring images of raising a child though, I suppose that buying sperm isn’t such a wayward idea. Other than having a live plaything, I have much noble plans (cheh).

I want a child to teach. A young, helpless soul that will absorb absolutely anything that I teach him. Untainted by the prejudice and biases that ignorant parents pass down, my child will be born to a house filled with books. All kinds of books, on history, science, literature, art, philosophy, all waiting for him on the bookshelves to enter his literate years. Aunt Jane will teach him how to be a gentleman in the 19th century, Mr. Sagan will offer a ride around the Universe, Murakami will show him the romantic world of two moons. He will be exposed to all that I was not and he will seek solace in disciplines that I did not. I will do my best to equip him with the fundamentals of reasoning and most importantly, compassion and love.

I want a child to tell stories to. Every night I will bide half an hour of my time to sing or tell stories to my child before he sleeps. These are the most formative years of his life and if I have to forgo an hour of extra sleep for him, so be it. I will instil in him a desire to think out of the box. As the years pass, I will trade in a Peter And Jane book for a Penguin Classic, a Ladybird Book for one with no pictures. At some point he will be tired of his mother’s slow pace and read them on his own. I will scream at him from downstairs to stop reading and sleep because he has school tomorrow.

I want a child to nurture. To give my unbridled attention. To watch eat the food I’ve been making for years. He may not be the most grateful child on earth, but I will know that I have done my best. When all hope is lost, I can look to him and marvel at how I have created a beautiful life. In the face of the bad and ugly, I will encourage him to adopt a positive lookout on life like his mother, whether or not he is genetically inclined to be as cheerful as I. I want to show him the magic of reality and the magic of life.

…And all too vivid! Scares the heebee-jeebees out of me. Maybe this is one of the things that you don’t spend more than 5 minutes thinking of. Though it is a pretty picture. A girl can dream, can’t she?


The taste of death

She burned a hole through the cool membrane I was creating for myself, a temporary sanctuary I was settling into, in preparation for my impending public examination, the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia. It was hotter than any sambal belacan that she had ever made and more spicy than her best laksa. She had a character tougher than the chicken livers which none of us in the household had ever wanted to eat – but she did anyway, for she also led a remarkably frugal existence. My family members had bitter times aplenty with her whining and intolerable antics, until we were practically immune to it. Maybe that was why we didn’t mind chomping up the stir-fried bitter gourd dishes she made. However her death left an abhorrent taste in my mouth, and on the tongues of many others. Like a bowl of petai gone bad.

My late grandaunt, whom I call ‘apo’, is far from the sweet-little-grandmother picture that is portrayed in storybooks and fairy tales. She isn’t even my grandmother. Most people know their grandaunts as ‘that vague figure of a relative’ that happens to be the mother of their mother’s cousin. Or some relative who lives in Penang. Some distant relative. I don’t. She was the grandmother of my childhood, my diaper-changer, my pacifier. I was one of the many children in the Tee family that she witnessed trade-in black pinafores for blue ones, and nagged for not listening to her. I was the best kind of ‘manja-pot’, because I knew exactly when to grow out of my childish antics. She was like the smelly pillow I used to chim every night.

Apo used to rattle on about how adorable I was when I was a baby, and liked to recollect the times when I missed ‘seven’ in my arduous struggle to count from 1 to 20. It seemed as if only she savoured my childhood moments, like someone stopping to pick up sea shells, not minding that she was far behind. Whenever she told me about the mispronunciations I used to make when I was a toddler, her face would light up in delight. Those were one of the many times when her plain Jane face was undoubtedly pleasing to look at. Almost like a real fairytale grandmother.

To say that she was economical would be a huge understatement. Apo was a terrible, terrible hoarder. She kept stacks of unusable items, things that she kept insisting ‘eh sai eong la’ (‘still can be used). This sparked many arguments, especially between her and my mother, who acquired her father’s tendency to make sure nothing rots and goes to waste (lots of plastic containers were beginning to turn sticky). I once thought of building a plastic fortress instead of the usual pillow fortress, but decided otherwise when I thought of apo’s bouts of rage.

My grandaunt picked fights. Oh boy, she did. And these were not just ordinary fights, because she knew little of surrender. She often spoke badly of people behind their backs, making people uneasy with her complaints about each family member. Everybody was aware of it. As the Malays would put it, she had a mulut laser. Her bitterness was sometimes contagious, which was the worst part. Thankfully I never learned the ‘dark art’ of backstabbing. All we could do is to shake our heads in unison and wait for each storm to pass. We understood the reasons behind her behaviour. Her actions were definitely inexcusable, only because we knew that she had an unhappy past, one that involved a failed arranged marriage and a disowned daughter.

‘Mai hao siang gak lu eh lao peh si liao’ (‘Don’t cry as if your father just died’)

She taught me that being too emotional never rewarded anyone. She cooked and cleaned willingly for all of her brother’s descendants, as a sign of graciousness for taking her in and saving her from possible homelessness. If there was a respectable equivalent of the word ‘asshole’, she was one.

A few days ago, I found myself holding her cold, bony hands and telling her that Yok Yi and Benjamin (my cousins, both no more than 3 years) were waiting for her, that she needed to wait for them to come home. My uncle and I were kneeling on the tikar, making futile attempts at saving her from imminent death. I did what I was told, and tried to circulate blood through her body by massaging her palms and body. Her sarong was falling off of her stomach, showing the bloated tummy that formed during the past few days in her sickly condition. Apo’s face was falling. Her body was failing her. And the rest does not need to be said.

My apo, the rebel, the hoarder, my pseudo-grandmother, is gone.

I am still recovering from the initial shock as I become more aware that my days are equally numbered. I yearn to feel her presence, but my actions betray me as I clear her personal belongings and pack them up in bags ready for disposal, or to be given away for charity. I feel weary and mentally exhausted from going through the motions of a traditional Buddhist wake and seek momentary respite in sugar. I have lost a grandmother – that is what I shall tell people from now on. I have lost my chow chow (smelly pillow). My apo.


One

Young, bold and brash is she
With not a speck of dirt to be seen
Strutting her iridescent hues by the riverbank
Her beauty reflected on the river’s surface
The water quivers as fish swim
Churning up mud and moving every stone and pebble
But all of this she does not see
She is blind but she is beautiful
She is beautiful but she is blind
How could one blame her
A pathetic fowl heedless of danger
The fowl places her head underwater hoping for a miracle
Then the fowl and fish meet
The fishes cry,
“Tell your teachers to quit their jobs
Their methods seek not depth but death
The suicide of the philosophical.
Tell your father to wear a headscarf
And wear the chains you bear
For his complacency has destroyed your beauty.
Tell your children about the river
It beckons to whoever yearns to see its contents”
Water and earth merge harmoniously
Forming streaks of mud by the river
The fish continue their journey and the bird is gone.


KL Series: Smoke, Sand, Syria

His arabic features stood out, as any other middle-eastern would have in a mixed crowd of Malaysians and Indonesians. The sunlight hit his face mercilessly in spite of the roofs above us that stretched along Kasturi Walk. A cigarette was carefully lit. The volume of noise was suddenly raised as the bazaar reached its peak hour. He raised the cigarette up high as if it was a drink to be toasted, and flashed me an Arabian smile.

‘After 30 over years, this is my only friend,’ he remarked. We both nodded.

‘Ssssmoke and ssssand?’ I said in jest. Thankfully my effort was not in vain. He puffed rings of smoke in delight. It seemed as if the topics we discussed were strangely related, alphabetically – smoke, sand, Syria.

‘I hope you don’t mind…’ he trailed off and let the rest of his sentence drown in the din around us. I casually waved a hand to mean that it was okay. Normally at this point, a voice inside me would be narrating the opening lines of an eulogy. Evidently, like the bustling crowd around me, that voice was out to lunch. I perceived his cigarette to be a minimal threat, but later I would find out that his enthusiasm and ciggy, teamed with the occasional spittle, proved to be a deadly combination.

A little while before, we were inside the air-conditioned refuge of Central Market, yet to be touched by the sweltering heat. He was telling me about history, his humble life as the son of a merchant who did sand art – decorative bottles of intricate designs, filled with nothing but coloured sand. He never received any formal education because that was the norm for children who lived in the vast expanse of Syrian desert. The sand art he marks everyday for a living has been his one and only source of income for the past 30 or so years. In action, one would certainly attest to his fantastic competence. He says that it’s a matter of practising a particular design, one at a time.

‘I can make something different, but it would take additional time to finish because it needs practise. What I’m used to can take 5 minutes. The most difficult design takes me 30 minutes’

His job pays well enough for him to travel to different countries. He has been to Italy, Africa and most of the Arab world and aspires to work in China and Singapore next. Talk of his home inevitably lead to the Syrian war and the Arab Spring. His cheerfulness subsided a little and made way for a more serious character. He struggled to express himself. It was then that he suggested we step outside (which was only a few feet away from his stall) to facilitate his habit. I also learned that his name was Ahmed.

The way he pronounced ‘Ahmed’ was bizarre to me. It had a foreign ring to it. The letter ‘h’ silenced. It was refreshing to hear an Islamic name pronounced differently, kind of like the new perspective he gave me on the war. Ahmed inhaled a few deep drafts before he unleashed a long speech on the current affairs of his homeland’s war. He emphasised a few points through repetition: that on average, 200 civilians are killed everyday by the army and the Syrian tyrants are stupid behemoths.

‘Yesterday, 45 people died. At any day, it could be 100. Or 200. It’s a war against innocent civilians. We have 7000 years of civilised history. So much richness of culture. Look at Malaysia, only 40 years and you — you made something out of almost nothing! But war must come first now, we have waken up.’
‘Sacrifices must be made.’
‘I’m sorry, what?’
‘It’s alright. Er, to have something good, there must be some bad first.’
‘Ah, a price.’
‘Yes.’
“A lot to pay.’
“Hefty.’

I couldn’t tell if his eyes were red from the high-riding emotions, the scorching sun or the smoke. Every time he wanted to make a point, he swung his arms about, causing some of the ash from his ciggy to fall away. I had to watch my distance; I didn’t like burns.

I wanted to say something along the lines of, ‘we young punks here don’t quite like our government too, albeit for individual reasons.’ But it came out as ‘I don’t really like the Malaysian government.’

‘Ah, I like your Mahathir Mohamad. He did many things for your country. Do you know how many bridges you have? Thousands. In Syria, we have a few bridges, and even those most of us can’t really get to.’

I chewed on that for a moment. About how dire the situation is in Syria. His stories of women being raped and the dead being mercilessly chopped up and young men being denied their most basic rights. How extremely incomparable the situation of these two countries are. He sensed my discomfort and tried to lighten up the mood.

‘Even though my best customers are Chinese, the Chinese government back Bashar. And Russia.’
‘Oh, god. Power?’
‘What else is there? Oil. Gas. Our own government will only take. And take. They do not care for us. Even the Muslims wage war against their own brothers. I’m sorry, do you understand the war between the Sunni Muslims and the Shia Muslims?’

So he explained to me, very concisely – and impressively, given his limited vocabulary – about the fundamental difference between the two. A very messy and bloody clash of beliefs.

‘The funny thing is, in Syria, the Sunnis are the majority. Shias are minority, but they are very powerful.’
‘Bullying. That’s bad.’
‘Very bad. Did you know a Muslim means to be… I’m not sure how to say this… to make peace with one another? This makes the government very stupid people. Even Iran supports the president, because Iran follows the same denomination.’

I was at loss for words. It was too much information in a short period of time. Probably my punishment for not reading up enough. But I did not care much before. I did try to care, I did buy last year’s last edition of TIME, which featured Ahmed’s people. However, I found myself right then and there, struck by the full force of his words. His cigarette butt’s end in crumbs on his lap and sweat trickling down his neck. Never have I seen such fear in a person’s eyes and determination to survive. My bubble used to extend, at its furthest, to near-death experiences with irresponsible drivers while on my bike, roadkill and my father’s dolled-up corpse.

Although Ahmed left his country in time, just before the Arab Spring, he tries his best to help the younger and more tech-savvy Syrians through the media and facebook, helping circulate relevant and pressing news and updating other expatriates like him on both good news and bad news.

‘If I went to school and realised the importance of education earlier, I would have become a journalist.’