Thursday, April 17, 2014

Letter 694: Silent Observations

My first patient on the list was deaf. I didn't realise this until I called to her in the waiting room and was puzzled by the lack of response from the only patient sitting there. I was pretty sure my patient had arrived, but perhaps she had gone to get changed. So I went round to the admissions booth to ask if she had been checked in. Yes, I was told, she is sitting right there, the admissions clerk told me, pointing to the only person sitting in the waiting room. She's deaf. Oh. 

I went up to her and pointed to the name on the file, wanting to confirm if she was the person I was looking for. She nodded, seemingly apologetic yet seemingly glad to have finally been able to see a doctor. I brought her into the consulting room and closed the door. I introduced myself, verbally and aided by a few comical gestures, letting her know I was putting her to sleep for her endoscopy. She smiled and gave me the thumbs up. We were enveloped by a thick blanket of quiet, punctuated only by my monologue of questions and hand signals. I had a conundrum-- if she couldn't hear what I had to say, she couldn't consent to the anaesthetic. It was 8 in the morning, and no sign language interpreter was in sight. 

I stepped out and went round to admissions again. Surely she would have been brought in to the Day Surgery Unit by somebody. The clerk brought me out to the family waiting area and introduced the patient's mother to me. Her mother had a Spanish name for which I now cannot recall for the life of me, but spoke fluently and understood sign language, so she became my translator in that tiny consulting room that had only a desk and a few chairs within its four walls of silence.

Upon being satisfied for her to proceed, I got the nurse to bring her round to the Holding Bay. As I sat and finished my notes on her, I couldn't help but wonder what her 50 years of life was like. Without sound. Without voices. Without the ability to detect spiteful gossip spread by vengeful personalities. She must lead a peaceful life, blissfully unaware of malicious slander. It must be like the blind person who is unable to see the ugly side of man, the side which destroys all things beautiful, inside and out.

In my almost 30 years of existence, it still befuddles me how humans can hurt another person so easily, sometimes without even trying. We overanalyse things, and make mountains out of molehills at times. We don't like being scapegoats, yet how many of us point fingers at others all the time? How many of us tend to turn a simple question into a loaded one, and blow things out of proportion? How did we become entangled in so much emotions when all we were having was a simple conversation about, say, next day's theatre list?

I once wrote about kindness. And I am going to write it again. And again and again. Until everyone who reads this gets it: There isn't enough kindness in the world to make it go round. That kindness is not something to be ashamed of, or stingy about. That we are all capable of extending a helping hand to those who need it. That the world can never get enough of this act of compassion. That compassion needs to come from the heart, and not from some intention for secondary gain. That kindness can put a smile on someone's face and brighten up their day, and in doing so, kindness can give rise to hope. And hope is what we live for. A word of encouragement, a breath of hello, a whisper of are you okay. Is it too much to ask? It disturbs me deeply and saddens me profoundly when I think how easily it is for one person to hurt another.

Humans are supposedly highly evolved creatures with supreme intellect. We think with our brains, and feel with our hearts. But sometimes I wonder if we're really foolish, because all we're doing is destroying ourselves-- and our fellow human beings-- with the negativism we harbour: jealousy, contempt, hatred, prejudice, spite, and resentment.

I wonder about our intellect, I really do.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Letter 693: And Then Some...

A man sits in front of his desk, writing a story. It is a story that starts with a man sitting in front of his desk, writing a story. How much of it is fictional, and how much of it is factual, remains a secret within his solitary repository. In his story, the man writes about his contrite relationships with certain people-- people who form his circle of social network and with whom he would sit down, every Friday night, without fail, at the downtown basement bar, a glass of whiskey in hand, discussing esoteric poetry and literary expositions with unparalleled wit and ferocious perspicacity. He is a writer, and when he isn't having his weekly dose of provocative discourse with fellow pot-smoking intellectuals, he spends too much of his time trying to dissect the nature of his relationship with these people, because although he relies on them for providing the stimulating material needed for his next great literary work, he also knows that within that small circle of poets, journalists, writers and playwrights, he sticks out like a sore thumb. He cannot yet fathom what it is that makes him so similar yet exceedingly different to these people (if he knew, he wouldn't be spending so much time analysing this complex web of human interaction). Maybe it was his ethnicity, or his apathetic political affiliations, or the fact that he listens to too much Warren Zevon and smokes too much weed and drinks too many bottles of Jack Daniels. Maybe it was his Kantian approach to world crimes, including corruption, nepotism and money laundering.

Imagine this: A man commits theft and robbery. Most people would agree he is in the wrong. BUT. If his intentions were to feed his family of eight because he was recently dismissed from work owing to a re-structure in his company, does it then give him the right to steal from others? Let's say this is a man who has no criminal record and who, up until now, has been one of the most responsible workers in his company with one of the strongest work ethics-- never turns up late, always meticulous with his work, always delivers assignments on time, always holds one of the highest key performance indices within his workforce... Out of sheer misfortune, he finds himself among the hundreds of employees given the boot. He has a wife who is a full-time mother looking after their six children, the eldest 18 and heading to college, the youngest just turned 2. He has no other skills nor qualifications that would enable him to land a new job, and, owing to the current economy standing of his country, there are no job prospects available. Months pass without any forecast of employment, so he finally decides, against all his morals and principles, that he would try breaking into a jewellery store one night and sell some wares on the black market.

The first time, he succeeds without getting caught. He makes a small fortune from this little endeavour of his, enough to provide for his family. This inspires him to continue with his illegal ventures, all the while telling himself that once he finds a job, he will not commit to another act of felony. Are his actions justifiable because although he is committing a crime, he is, in fact, exercising his duty to provide as a husband and as a father? In other words, does this make his actions morally permissible?

Let's say he gets caught, and he is brought to the supreme court, where he could either be fined, or be sentenced to life imprisonment. How does one come to the conclusion as to whether this person-- an innately good person who just happened to have done the wrong thing circumstantially-- deserves a light punishment, or the ultimate retribution? Does one see beyond his intentions (providing for his family and thus creating a utilitarian solution for his wife and children) and serve him the jail-for-life card because of the consequences to others (having their assets stolen)? Or does one take into account his intentions and circumstances and therefore acquit him or deliver him a lighter sentence?

The writer in this story is in a dilemma. On the one hand, he feels strongly that one should acknowledge the crimes that this man has committed and punish him accordingly, yet at the same time, he also acknowledges the circumstances which had led this man to this point in his life. However, many wrongs do not necessarily make it right. In other words, repeated wrongdoings do not make the action veritably virtuous. Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor may seem utilitarian, but this does not make Robin Hood an honourable person. Similarly, politicians who create wealth through inappropriate means and channeling those money back into their own pockets, whilst resulting in stimulating a nation's economy, does not make this a morally justifiable action.

What, then, is a "morally justifiable action"? Coming back to the story of the man and his theft-- are his actions "morally justifiable"? What about the writer who smokes too much weed? Cannabis is a "bad" thing, isn't it? What about his Consequentialist contemporaries who argue that as long as the consequences are meritable, why care about the actions? As long as the poor is getting money and avoiding starvation, why penalise Robin Hood?

This is how the writer got into the habit of smoking too much weed and drinking too much whiskey and listening to too much Warren Zevon. He cannot reconcile the antinomy between his beliefs and others'. There has to be moral thought behind every action, however dire or desirable its consequences. So he sets out to examine the morality of our existence, and how it influences our interactions with others. This becomes his Chapter 1.

At this juncture in time, the man, who is sitting in front of his desk, gets a writer's block. He takes a long drag from his joint, exhaling wisps of cannabis-laden smoke towards the French windows behind his typewriter, pauses to take a swig of his Jack Daniels, presses "Stop" on his CD player, butts out his cigarette, grabs his well-worn leather jacket from the back of his chair, and saunters out the door, disappearing down the hallway for his usual Friday night saloon of intellectual discourse at the downtown basement bar, where Chapter 2 will begin...

NB 1: Screenshots taken from Californication, pilfered from the ever-resourceful Tumblr. 
NB 2: The season finale of Californication premieres in the US on April 13, exactly 7 days from now.
NB 3: Despite the profuse profanity and numerous displays of nudity, Californication is actually very well-written.
NB 4: If you haven't already seen it, you should start watching it.
NB 5: Damn I'm gonna miss that show. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Letter 692.2: Notes on Penang

The last time I came back to Penang, my grandfather's house was still as it was-- stoic, untouched, unyielding. It was my sanctuary, my safe house, free from any form of threat from the outside world. When we brought my grandparents to Kuala Lumpur to live with us, my aunty took over residence in that house. A few years ago, when the house was sold, she relocated to a 3-storey house-- one of the many 3-storey houses that seem to mushroom on the island of late. After an absence of six (or was it eight?) long years, I find myself driving past my grandfather's house, curious yet very much afraid of what I'd see. The exterior is barely recognisable. The white swing in the garden is gone. The gate a different coat of paint. I wonder who mills about in its belly now, taking up residence under its zinc roof? A part of the roof could be slid open by a pulley system in the kitchen, revealing the clear blue sky, letting sunlight dance across the tabletops. It was special to me in a way, because my grandparents would open up the roof every morning, and the times when they'd pull it shut was when it was about to rain, or when it was time to sleep. In a way, the sliding roof was my cue to the weather, and slumber. I miss that house, and the people who lived in it a long time ago.

My aunty and I in the kitchen, circa 2006.

It is late afternoon when we arrive in Georgetown. Many of its streets are now one-way streets, an attempt to ease traffic congestion. We drive around town under the blazing sun, familiarising ourselves with the streets once again: Penang Road, Armenian Street, Chulia Street, Love Lane... A few things I've noticed: The streets are much cleaner than I remembered, and people stroll down the roads without any fear of being mugged, unlike in Kuala Lumpur, where pedestrians clutch tightly their bags to their chest, constantly vigilant of their surroundings. Colonial buildings and houses erected from the Straits Chinese era are dutifully restored to reflect their past glory and to showcase their architectural elegance. Indians hold conversations in Hokkien, and the Chinese sometimes patronage Malay warungs; in other words, racial polarisation isn't as obvious as that in, say, Kuala Lumpur. If one wants to see the true Malaysia, one has to come to Penang.

My father asked me what I wanted to eat. I always had a food list whenever I came back to Penang, because our visits were always too short, and the list of things I wanted to eat was always too long. So each visit I had to narrow my list down to a certain number of items, depending on the length of our trip. This visit, I couldn't think of a single thing. I have been away too long, too long for me to remember what I used to like eating. There's a sadness in not remembering.

My father buying ham cheen peng and steamed rice cake from my favourite stall on Cintra Street.

We took a walk up Kek Lok Si Temple one afternoon. Air Itam was a familiar place, because my grandmother (and my aunty) used to shop at the Air Itam market in the mornings, bringing back fresh finds of the day in which they would turn into scrumptious dishes for dinner that night. Kek Lok Si Temple has got more tortoises than I remembered. I once had a pair of pet tortoises when we were living in a modest 2-bedroom flat in Penang, not too distant from Air Itam. I kept them in a small green pail filled with colorful pebbles procured from an aquarium. The pail was placed in a corner of our bathroom, in which my cousin once peed on because he was a cheeky three-year-old at that time. Fortunately my tortoises survived Kelvin's ordeal, but as they grew bigger, we had no space in our tiny apartment to continue housing them, so I took them to the river and set them free. Since then I've always had a soft spot for tortoises. A man was selling tortoise feed next to the pond at the base of Kek Lok Si Temple, which must house at least 500 of such creatures. I bought some potato leaves from him ("3 bunches for RM1!"), and started feeding the shelled reptiles. They came in swarms, chomping on the leaves like they hadn't been fed in a thousand years. I stood feeding them for a good 15 minutes. I don't know why, but it felt therapeutic.

The aunty who sells freshly-pressed sugar cane juice on Burma Road is still selling freshly-pressed sugar cane juice at the same spot under the tree, next to a big monsoon drain. I used to get my sugar cane juice fix here ever since I was a kid, and not once did I have an upset stomach. She probably doesn't remember me, but at least I remember her-- or rather, the rapture of quenching my thirst with her ice-cold sugar cane juice on sweltering hot afternoons. I have no idea where to get freshly-pressed sugar cane juice if she decides to pack up.

I visit my aunty's 3-storey house for the first time. It is near the airport, so in other words, very, very far from my grandfather's house and the area we grew up in. Her dog Casey greets us with a bark and a slow wag of her tail. She is 12 years old now, arthritic, eczematic, and hobbles around with a slight limp. The last time I saw her, she was a boisterous puppy. The last time I saw my cousins, they were in college. Now, one is working late, and the other is working in Singapore. I don't get to see my cousins this time. Casey looks up at me with sad eyes. My aunty says to me, "Feel Casey's hind breast, she has a lump." I palpate her breast, and find a golf ball-sized mass.

My mother used to buy her chee cheong fun from a stall outside one particular coffee shop on Macalister Lane during her schooldays. It was the same stall at which I was initiated to the breakfast staple of steamed rice rolls doused with shrimp paste, sweet sauce, and chili sauce, over which a healthy sprinkling of sesame seeds are scattered upon. Whenever we re-visit Penang, we have to have our chee cheong fun here. Just as we were leaving the coffee shop, I caught sight of a wrinkled old lady, hunched over the next table, clearing empty coffee cups and wiping the table clean. I wanted to ask her how old she was, but my Hokkien was out of practise. My father taught me the question in Hokkien, but I was too shy to approach her. I left the coffee shop that morning wondering about a lot of things-- how languages ebb and flow within us, how we age and fade, but mainly, and mostly, about regret, and how it can sometimes swallow us whole.

Late one night, I met up with a couple of my childhood friends. They were girls of my mom's schoolmate, so while my mother and her friend chatted away, we girls caught up on the other end of the table. They are probably my oldest friends, in the sense that I've known them since pre-school and have sort of grown up with them before I moved interstate. We probably knew each other when we were babies, only at that age we have no formed memories of the world, much less of each other. How do people come together? Is it fate, or pure coincidence? Or perhaps it's because we choose to keep in touch and make that connection work? For if our moms hadn't stayed in touch, we wouldn't have kept abreast of each other's lives, and if we ourselves hadn't been keeping in touch, we wouldn't be where we were that night. So maybe people come together by choice, ultimately.

My heart sinks whenever I'm back in Kuala Lumpur, but it swells whenever I'm back in Penang. I don't know why, because Penang has changed so much in the last two decades. Some roads, some buildings, are unfamiliar to me; just like Kuala Lumpur, a stranger to me. Unlike in Kuala Lumpur, however, where I feel lost most of the time, in Penang, I feel unsurprisingly at ease, despite my broken Hokkien. I was never one to speak the dialect when I was younger, preferring the more refined lithe of Mandarin and Cantonese. Now, I realise how useful it is to have practised the local dialect as a kid, because the old man who served us calming pots of rose and pomelo tea in a Chinese bookshop on Beach Street kept conversing in Hokkien, and I had no idea what he was talking about. I smiled politely and sipped my tea in silence.

We were supposed to leave Penang at noon, but I came up with a food excuse to delay heading back to Kuala Lumpur so soon. In truth, I wanted to soak in the feeling of just being in Penang for a few extra hours, on the island in which I was born, in the place where I took my first steps, uttered my first words, and tasted my first mouthful of chilli. Yes, there was still Bangkok Lane's mee goreng and mee rebus to be savoured, but to just be on the island is a feeling that I suppose no one else but islanders dwell upon. There is a connection that exists, one that pulls you back to your roots and reminds you that no matter where you are in the world, no matter how many dialects escape you, this is home.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Letter 692.1: Notes on Kuala Lumpur

Every time I come home, I have this indescribable feeling of something being not quite right. It is the feeling you get when you see a new watercolour painting on the dividing wall between the hall and the kitchen, or when you see your books rearranged differently on the shelf, or when the sheets smell faintly newish because your mom threw out the old ones and replaced them with a fresh set. It is everything that isn't a problem, yet is too. The funny thing is, I'm not even talking about my house.

The city is foreign, and almost unwelcoming at one point. The haze is suffocating, there are too many motorists on the highways (too many highways, even), too many people raking up a living here in this city but wasting too much time on the roads. Too many apartments and condominiums tower over each other, vying for a breath of fresh air past the blanket of haze. I don't remember so many high rise dwellings in this city before. It is almost as if Kuala Lumpur is turning into Singapore, or Hong Kong. People are constantly trying to outrun each other in the rat race, only to end up living like hamsters in claustrophobic apartment units.

I stare at the back of the menu, trying to make sense of the areas in which this cafe has branch outlets: Capitol Square, Bangsar South, Setiawalk, Ara Damansara... I recognise none of them. There are too many places beginning with "Damansara", and too many places ending with "Heights". What do they mean? How do I get home? Where the hell am I?

On the first day back in Malaysia, upon landing at the airport, we drove 3 hours south to attend a friend's wedding. We weaved through traffic on the North-South Expressway, and continued our journey along bumpy roads that snake through palm oil estates, rubber plantations, and quaint Malay kampungs fringed by thatched huts and banana trees. I saw little kids huddling by the roadside, playing games invented with sticks and pebbles, and waving to travellers on occasion. Both sides of the road were dotted with stalls selling ice-cold cendol, piping hot lemang, and a variety of made-in-China soft toys wrapped in clear plastic sheets. Some villages were hosting wedding kenduries under big white tents, though we never managed to catch a glimpse of the bride. Despite the fact that we were running somewhat late for our friend's wedding, the sight of rural Malaysia brought a sense of peace in me. I have missed this feeling of contentment in Malaysia, and surprisingly found it in between Negeri Sembilan and Johor.

Bak kut teh aunty in Segamat, Johor. Because I don't have pictures of rural tranquility.

There is a panic button on certain pillars in shopping mall carparks. I repeat, there is a panic button on certain pillars in shopping mall carparks. What the hell kind of city has panic buttons on certain pillars in shopping mall carparks!?

I don't crave for any local dishes in particular. I don't feel the urge to go shopping. I don't get that tingle of excitement anymore whenever I come home, if "home" is the country where you were born and grew up in. I just want to see my family and friends, and get the hell out of here. 

More than 20 years of friendship (Photo credit: Alex- far left)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Letter 691: Torschlusspanik

I don't do lists. There's always some sort of list floating around: 20 Things to Do in Your 20s, 10 Things to Do Before You Turn 30, 5 Signs He's not THAT into You, 50 Places to See Before You Die... After a while, it gets tedious. Of course, you can gain some insight with certain lists, like being inspired to travel to Huskvarna or read a particular book that is not written by JK Rowling, but asides from such lists, the other lists that tell you what you should do before your next birthday seem very subjective. After all, not everyone is keen on the idea of bungee jumping. 

So, like I said, I don't do lists. Jotting down a list of things to do only serves to make me panic at the sight of numerous tasks waiting to be done. If it's important enough, I would have gotten it done and dusted. Yet, what you're about to witness is a list I've created, sort of like a New Year's resolution (which I don't swear by either), in preparation for me entering the third decade of my life. This list is personal, so it is not going to be my recommendation for everyone who's going to turn 30. Why am I generating such a list? Perhaps I am in search of a certain something. I'm not entirely sure what that something is, but I do know it is not going to be an exquisite handbag or some sort of material achievement. It may be physical wellbeing, or inner peace, or the ability to reconcile with all the ugly truths in the world. I don't know. Whatever it is, I am hoping to find it in here:

1. Yoga. (For someone who once thought yoga was a waste of time, I'm eating my words now.) 

2. Yoga in Bali. (Flights and accommodation-- check. And no, Elizabeth Gilbert has nothing to do with this.)

3. Write more. 

4. Eat less ice-cream. (Shit. I know, because Ben and Jerry's just came up with another awesome invention.)

5. Read more. Read read read.

6. Go on a juice detox once a week. Go vegetarian once a week. Incorporate organic foodstuff into diet. (Sounds plausibly better.)

7. Eat more fish. 

8. Master the art of letting go.

9. Cry less.

10. Be more assertive. Sometimes, one just has to be a fucking arsehole surgeon. 

11. Spend less time on Tumblr. Spend less time on Facebook. 

12. Avoid being burnt-out from work again. Even if it means working less hours and getting paid less.

13. Treat my parents better.

14. Forgive myself more often. 

15. Drink less coffee, more tea.

16. Try NOT to be grumpy without coffee in the mornings. 

17. Worry less.

18. Be more optimistic about the future.

19. Practice mindfulness.

20. Swim in the Indian Ocean.

21. Initiate conversations with strangers, rather than the other way around (which happens not too infrequently).

22. Watch more sunrises and sunsets.

23. Count my blessings more often.

24. Attempt a change in career.

25. Keep calm.