First off, Happy Chinese New Year! It’s the start of the Fire Monkey year and today is the 6th day of the Chinese New Year.
This post is for you, Wei Vern. Yes, you prompted me to return to my blog and write something. I must say I have been embarrassingly busy (I know I shouldn’t use that word; it means I have taken on way too much for my own damn good) but I have been that and I have been a lazy gal. (If you are new to this blog, you can start off with the Start Here page with a selection of my fave posts.)
Yes, I must call a spade a spade. I have been putting a lot of effort on our web design business last year.
Nic and I wrote a book last year (which will be printed by this year, by March if all goes to plan) because we get so frustrated when we see how badly websites are used for marketing small businesses and SMEs. In Malaysia, most websites are pure brochures and are never actively used for marketing! What a waste of resources. I always say, if only more entrepreneurs knew how amazing websites could be.
After thinking it through, we decided to write a book.
And when it rains, it rains.
Besides this book of ours, I’m involved in another book slated to be out by August this year. I remembered telling Emi that we should have a book chronicling the stories of Penang women as inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. That was in November 2014. She took me up on the idea and we pitched it to the powers-that-be and that’s how I got myself into this book project.
As co-editor, the journey has been incredibly uplifting. I’ve interviewed quite a few notable women – Dato’ Maimunah, the President of Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai, for one. I’ve spoken to corporate women and I’ve also spoken to women who consider themselves virtual unknowns such as Christine, an ultra marathoner. Regular people run 42km marathons, but this petite woman runs 100km marathons! I truly salute her mental strength!
So that’s 2 books in the works for this year. I made a little promise to myself that I would love to leave a legacy in the form of more books, writing about things I know – either from my years as a communicator in the written and spoken format to entrepreneurial things, things I’ve learnt as a marketer. Or even not-so-simple things like running an association and managing interns, staff and more.
This year, I also got off the grid so to speak for the duration that I was back in Banting for Chinese New Year. I didn’t want to go online or check Facebook or update my status during the time I was at home. I try to engage my 12 year old nephew and 10 year old niece in conversation – they spend too much time playing Minecraft and watching Youtube videos. This time too Vinnie taught me how to make rainbow loom wristlets and I got quite hooked, pardon the pun.
I believe it’s a lot healthier for me since I spend too much time online, for business. (I also ended up helping my mum clean the house because I couldn’t stand the dirt and grime. I also knew that if I didn’t engage in physical cleaning, I’d be too restless for words. After all, I have not lived at home since the age of 20. While my parents are there, Banting is a mere pit-stop for me before I come back to Penang where I consider my true home to be.)
And when I met with my best pal for a quick breakfast back in Banting, she seemed surprised that I felt more at home in Penang. She was contented to be in Banting – while I am happy for her, I knew I couldn’t last more than a week in that town. I grew up in Banting but I grew up wanting to get away from that provincial town. It reeked (and still reeks) of all that beleaguered me when I was a gangly, bespectacled teen. Mindset-wise, I’ve outgrown the place. I only go home because my parents and sister and nephew and niece live there. And of course, for my nasi lemak Kak Leha and Teluk Bunut bak kut teh and Banting satay.
I try to go home more often but I stay away from discussing my life and business. It’s hard for them to understand – my mum still can’t fathom why I don’t need to go to the “office” although I have one. I tried showing her the websites we’ve done for clients and the results but I think all these are meaningless for someone who thinks smartphones are for the young ones!
In many ways, I am glad to be writing again – and writing for me. One of my resolutions is to stop writing (website content) for clients who commission us to create their custom websites. I’ve had enough of doing that. It’s time for me to move up and move on in the value chain. I have more aspirations than I have time.
So I’ll be training junior writers to do what I do. Perhaps even offer a website copywriting programme. (Speaking of which, my sister who is a fan girl of Joey Yap read my BaZi when I was back in Selangor. She says this year is a great year for me to indulge in intellectual pursuits like learning and studying. I asked her, how about teaching? LOL. I doubt I’ll be doing my PhD. I had enough of studying when I did my Master’s.)
As I grow more experienced, I become more aware of what I should be doing instead of what I have been doing all the time.
So yes, I am back – the hiatus from my blog was good for me. I return to my blog with a sense of clarity and purpose.
Sometimes, we all gotta disappear for a while and re-evaluate ourselves. I did that and I am back.
And in the spirit of the mischievous monkey, I wish you quick-wittedness, agility and smarts. And of course, to be bigger, bolder and badder in all ways!
p/s: I read once that you can’t reach 40 without knowing you who are as a person. I’m turning 42 this year and I realise that ageing isn’t so terrible. At least now I have the chutzpah (or is it impatience?) to do what I believe is good for me. I don’t give a monkey’s ass about a lot of stuff these days. LOL.
Nic and I will be in KL this weekend and we are going to do the BERSIH march.
Do wish us luck and do pray for us! Do leave a message for us on our Facebook page if you can.
We really hope to be back in Penang in one piece and safely of course. We’re anticipating massive crowds but we also know it’s not a walk in the park. We have to be adequately prepared for all emergencies.
You must be thinking that we’re crazy.
Maybe we are. Maybe we’re just frustrated like many Malaysians today.
Many times we’ve been told that businesses and politics don’t mix. For the longest time, we believed that.
But over the past few years, we realised that our lives are not so easily compartmentalised into neat little boxes.
One box labelled Business, another labelled Politics.
Politics used to be like a “secretive” thing one did on the sly.
We weren’t supposed to talk politics – it’s best left to politicians.
But of late, we also noted that we’re made fools of every single day.
I can tell you we didn’t vote for the Government of the day and we didn’t vote for idiots. Worse, look at GST and its timing!
When I jokingly told my market vendor that he should wear a Bersih t-shirt, he said he wouldn’t because he might “offend” some people. I contemplated if I should tell him, those people who are offended, don’t really deserve to be your customers but I held my tongue.
In Malaysia, we’re so used to NOT talking about “sensitive” issues that we never raise them, much less debate about them.
There is this fear – the fear of the police, the fear of being locked up, the fear of everything.
And because of this fear we have come to this stage – where citizens are made fools of, bullied and taken for a ride while our currency slides and slides, and where stupidity is the order of the day.
Nic and I are tax payers and the way this country is going to the dogs is not right. Lots of people complain either in coffee shops or online.
But this does not shame the bullies.
The bullies think they’re kings of the land and they have a right to do whatever they want. Even peaceful marches are not allowed.
A friend who lectures in UITM asked me what use is going for BERSIH when there’s no specific outcome? I ask, what then would you suggest? Discussions? My foot. (Maybe I should un-friend him!)
BERSIH is about an outcome.
The outcome is to let the world know that Malaysia is ailing and what ails us are corrupted leaders who keep telling lie after lie. We want the world to know Malaysia is beautiful and full of amazing resources but due to selfish people, we are at the worst point in the history of our nation.
Look at Singapore. Look at what it has become in the last 50 years. Look at Malaysia and compare. We are the ones with resources and people. And yet we lag behind and now our currency is falling too.
Singapore would be laughing its way to financial freedom if it had our land, our people, our timber, our petroleum.
I once took Political Science as a freshie in USM. I remembered the lessons well. Politics isn’t just about what your MP does or doesn’t do. How your father distributes money in the family is also politics. It is about the resources you get or don’t get.
Politics affects us all. If we had better structures in place, better governance, better systems, we could all do so much better entrepreneurially.
If you’re in business and you still think politics doesn’t affect you, go ahead and do what you like. But each time you complain about prices of goods, the rising costs of living, stupid or unfair policies, the insider cables you’ve had to “pull” just to get something done, remember it’s all politics.
“Do something that scares you, every day” so goes a quote.
Is BERSIH scary? Hell yes.
But what’s worse than what we have now?
What happens if we don’t do something? The amount of cheating, lying and corruption go on. And we will just sit around and complain and twiddle our thumbs.
If you have children, what kind of future do you foresee for them?
Or will you just emigrate as millions of Malaysians have done?
If you have children abroad, don’t you cringe in agony each time the ringgit shrinks and your children may just have to eat bread and Maggi mee? (Some dumbass said the ringgit shrinking won’t affect Government scholars as the Government scholars will still get the same amount. Where does the Government get money? Taxpayers’ money! And this guy has only one point of view – he’s forgets that not everyone is a sponsored scholar. Most people are surviving on their parents’ hard-earned money!)
How could a beautiful country like ours end up like this?
At least we want to be able to tell others, years from now, that we tried.
We tried to do what we could, with what we have. Taking part in a rally doesn’t sound like much action but it’s hell better than sitting around and being a keyboard warrior. And it is our right as citizens to walk peacefully down the streets of KL.
Fear always paralyses us. That’s what it is supposed to do.
But fear can also be a catalyst so that all of us can become heroes.
Not the super powered sort but the everyday living, breathing sort.
Far too long, marches have always been the kind of stuff activists do. These days we see more and more ordinary folks – old and young – take to the streets because this is what we can do.
Even if you are not joining the official rally, please do your part and wear yellow this weekend especially if you’re in Penang. (A KL acquaintance said to me just the other day, “Penang is almost a country by itself. You guys have freedom.” Yes, we are.)
Show that you’re unhappy and unfrustrated. Show that you know what’s going on and you absolutely despise every lie that you’ve been told. Show that you’re not easily cowed or bullied.
Let’s have the message heard, loud and clear!
P/S: Think about it. Which other nation can have a global Bersih in 50 countries in the world simultaneously? Have we asked why so many Malaysians are overseas? Why do we spend our own money and time to buy Bersih t-shirts, to donate, to fly into KL, to book accommodation, to prepare our Bersih “starter” pack and put our lives at risk to march down the streets of KL? Why do my friends overseas spend time and money organising their own Bersih gatherings?
We’re not crazy because this is an awakening that’s more than about money and time. That we have a belief that our nation can be better. That we can do so much better.
So even if you’re not marching this weekend, please wear yellow. You’ll be showing your support for all of us who are descending upon KL to make our collective voices heard.
Once in a while, I get this sweet tooth craving. Which is weird because I usually prefer salty snacks to desserts. Think murukku, salted peanuts, roasted cashews and the like.
But when I get into that mood, I go into the kitchen and whip up a cake or sometimes two. I figure that if I am firing up the oven, I might as well batch bake some yummies.
Since it’s only me and Nic and eating an entire cake is out of the question, I usually freeze half the baked cake. Cakes freeze well without any loss in taste or texture. I learnt this from some American blogs I read. They freeze everything – raw cookie dough to stews and more.
Anyway, last night I got into this cheese mood. I dug around my fridge and realised I had some mascarpone and some cream cheese. It was either tiramisu or a cheesecake.
I decided to make a cheesecake since I was dying for some creamy dessert. I usually bake after dinner so it was by 10pm or so that I started pulling out my springform pan.
The funny thing is this: I have always eaten great cheesecakes but never baked any until the last 2 years. No, I am not kidding. My aunt bakes a mean cheesecake with canned peaches. My sis bakes delicious blueberry cheese tarts.
My springform pan sat in my cabinet for a long time before I decided one day to just test out some cheesecake recipes. I guess I was inspired by a good friend’s cheesecake which she brought to a potluck party some time ago. I loved the creamy goodness of it all and gobbled a good many slices!
I love this recipe because I just need my measuring cups and my good old electric mixer (I still have my Elba handheld mixer – I want to get a stand mixer but I simply have no space in my kitchen for yet another kitchen appliance).
Actually a cheesecake is easy and quick to make. Let your cream cheese sit at room temperature for 1 hour before you start so the cheese is soft. I’d adjust the sugar and condensed milk quantities if you prefer it to be less sweet.
I used my own homemade vanilla extract (just slice up 2 vanilla pods, stick them in a glass bottle and pour in enough good quality vodka to cover the pods and let this sit in some dark cabinet for 4 weeks or so. You’ve just made your own vanilla extract. You’d NEVER buy the commercial stuff ever again, I swear). As you can see, I like homemade stuff (yogurt, for instance).
OK, enough blabbering.
Here’s the recipe. For the baking part, pre-heat your oven at 150C as you prepare the cake.
Chocolate Chip Cheesecake Recipe
1.5 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 tbsp white sugar (use brown sugar if you prefer less sweet)
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Van Houten brand)
1/3 cup melted butter
Mix all the above and press into a 9 inch diameter springform pan. Leave aside.
250 gm cream cheese, at room temperature
400 ml condensed milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tsp flour
1. Beat cream cheese with mixer until smooth. Gradually add condensed milk.
2. Add vanilla extract and eggs. Beat on medium speed till smooth.
3. Toss 1/3 of chocolate chips with flour. Pour this into cheese mix.
4. Pour mix into the cheesecake base. Sprinkle the rest of the chocolate chips on top.
5. Bake at 150C for 50 minutes to 1 hour. Turn off oven and leave cake to cool in oven for another hour.
Have a go at this recipe and let me know how it goes.
(But if you’re simply too buggered to bake a cheesecake, get some darn delicious slices from Moody Cow if you’re in Penang. Their salted egg yolk cheesecake is to die for. Parking is a terrible thing on Transfer Road so it’s best to go with a friend and you can hop into the shop and get your cheesecake fix.)
May was an interesting month for me because I was asked to speak at 2 events. The first event was a forum where I was a panellist speaking on women entrepreneurship (will share about that in another post) while the second was a little less formal, where I spoke on the importance of marketing oneself.
The Incitement is made up of a bunch of young people – I say young because comparatively I feel so much older in their midst! They’re in their mid-20s with lots of passion and fervour for life.
I like their spirit. I like their concept for an event where 3 speakers each speak on something that aligns with the theme of the month. At the end of it, we all hang out and discuss ideas.
I decided to speak on marketing because I have been involved in marketing for a while now. Back then I didn’t know what I did was marketing.
I wished someone told me back then that it was important (far more important than everything else) to learn and cultivate a mindset of marketing. I learnt it my way, from observation, from starting my own women entrepreneur association, from talking to my clients, from reading business and marketing books.
I learnt it slowly, making the connections in my own way. I am that kind of learner. I need to stuff all the data into my brain, let it percolate and one day, I am all the wiser. I know. It’s like my brain needs its own time and space. I can’t hurry it.
The thing is, along the way I became a super connector.
I don’t know how it occurred but my own shyness helped. I started becoming the host, the event organiser, the go-to person.
Friends started saying things like, “You need anything, you go to Krista cos she seems to know everyone in Penang!”
(When I was 8 years old, I was already willing to help out my fellow classmates especially when it came to homework! My mum often chided me that my friend, A, should learn how to do her own homework than phone me and ask for the answers! I know. I was too kind for my own good.)
I make it my personal goal to know people and to be helpful and to find the goodness in everyone. That’s what marketing is to me. And it has helped me tremendously in getting known, being known and more.
So in my talk, I want to spread the message that the art of marketing is simply the art of un-marketing oneself.
When you’re not focusing on you, your own business, the products you want to sell, your own selfish motives, you stand out. You’re different, unique, special. Most people just want to sell you their stuff, without caring about what YOU want. That’s why marketing is always a game of shoving your stuff down someone’s throat.
That’s why most people proclaim to hate marketing. They think it’s sleazy, sale-sy and gives out connotations of snake oil sales men and such.
I think it’s tragic. It’s tragic because once you learn how to un-market yourself, you become a better marketer!
Below is the talk I presented at The Incitement Penang at Hin Bus Depot, an art gallery on Jalan Gurdwara (opposite Neo Hotel).
If your goal is to get ahead in your life and career, you must learn to market yourself.
When you market yourself authentically, you will be known, liked and trusted by friends and family.
You will be on the receiving end of opportunities of all kinds because friends and family will happily refer you, connect you to interesting people and projects. Most of all, people will be at hand to help you succeed.
But here’s what marketing yourself isn’t. Marketing yourself isn’t about being a boastful, annoying, irritating pest. It isn’t about you talking about yourself on and on at parties and boring half the room. It isn’t about you and what you do or have or accomplished. In fact, the power and the art of marketing yourself isn’t at all about you! Strange right?
By the way, I am sure you know someone like that. Someone whom no one wants to talk to because he or she is always talking about herself! They think they’re having a dialogue when in fact they are having a monologue!
So you must be thinking – if marketing myself isn’t about me, what is it then and more importantly, how do I do it if I want improve myself and be more successful?
I learnt how to market myself by not marketing myself. You see, I was a shy girl growing up in a small town in Selangor called Banting.
What I am going to share with you today comes from my personal experience over the years. Looking at me now, you wouldn’t think I’m shy. But I have learnt over the years how to market myself.
Marketing myself has opened doors like never before. For instance, I’ve met lots of interesting people. I have wonderful friends and amazing clients. I have contacts from eclectic, diverse backgrounds. I learn new things from all my contacts and I get help from them when I need help. When I organise events, I am never short of sponsors or helpers. When I send out emails, people pay attention and read them. When you go online, you can google my name and find out a lot about me. When I need help, friends rally around to help me.
Is this because I am extraordinary or special?
No. It’s because a long time ago, I learnt how to use my shyness to work in my favour. And I am going to share 3 important tips with you. I hope you will take this to heart because if you practise just 3 tips in your life, you will have all the people, resources and ideas you need.
The first tip is to be memorable. Being memorable gets easier if you start by remembering others! Whenever you meet someone, make an effort to remember their name. There is nothing sweeter to another person than the sound of their own name! The next time you meet them again, start by calling out their name. Plus learn how to spell people’s names. Nothing is more annoying that acquaintances who misspell your name!
For a lot of people, meeting people is all good and wonderful but nothing happens beyond that. When I say memorable, not only do you remember the person and details about him or her, but you’d also want to be memorable to that person.
When you remember them, they start to remember you! It’s odd but it works!
Here’s a story. As the co-founder of WomenBizSENSE, a women entrepreneur association, we hold monthly meetings where networking plays a big role. Our members attend so that they can meet new friends or potential business contacts.
But I have also observed that most people go for quantity. You can’t remember everyone you’ve met if you’ve just said hi and bye to 20 people.
I advocate going for quality contacts. When you go for quality contacts, you will meet fewer people and exchange fewer business cards but you will have a chance to know someone better. When you know someone well, you have made a connection.
But most people leave it at that. They go to a networking event, collect a couple of business cards and absolutely forget about the people they’ve met.
No one has ever told us what to do with the contacts we’ve met at a networking group.
Let me share with you an invaluable strategy. Whenever you meet someone, ask if they’re on Facebook or LinkedIn. If they are, add them as friends.
Continue that conversation online. That’s what social media is for.
From time to time, be useful. Email them to say hello. Email them helpful articles. Don’t spam them. Above all be the friend that everyone wants to have.
The second tip is to be mindful. Being mindful is about paying attention. It is about paying attention to your surroundings, the people and being present in all your senses.
Why is this important in marketing yourself? It helps you notice little things that most people gloss over. It helps you to be more present when another person is speaking. When you are more present, you listen and absorb.
There is nothing like the gift of attention in today’s attention-starved world.
When you are present, you look people in the eye and give them your full attention. People notice little things like this. The give of attention that you give to another person, just by being fully present, makes you a star, whether it is at work or in business.
The third tip is to be a matchmaker. I learnt how to be a matchmaker precisely because I was so utterly shy. I remember in my early years of networking, I’d feel so out of place walking into a roomful of strangers. I didn’t know what to say or do. I didn’t know the right questions to ask and I didn’t want to feel like I was butting into someone’s conversation.
It’s an amazing book which you can learn how to ask the right questions at events and parties.
But one tip which she gave and which I love is this: imagine you have a spotlight on your chest. When you meet someone, shine that spotlight on him or her. This means encouraging the other person to talk about what they do and all that good stuff.
I’ve taken it one step further. If you’re the host of the event, you must play matchmaker.
You scan the room and look out for that lonely guy or gal sitting in a corner, feeling all self-conscious and shy. They don’t know anyone and they don’t know how to start.
You go up to them and introduce yourself and then, you tell them, “Come and let me introduce you to this friend of mine.” No one says no to such an invitation.
You slowly bring this shy person to another person and introduce them. If you know enough about the other person, add in some details. Say things such as “Oh Elisabeth here has 2 young children just like you.” This gives them a sense of shared familiarity. They now have a common topic to start with.
Do enough of this and you will soon be well-known. You become the hostess with the mostest at events. In fact, if you know enough people and your social circle is large enough, you can play matchmaker at events that aren’t even your own! I’ve done this at events where I’ve connected friends from different industries together.
What I’ve shared with you is my personal 3M’s of self-marketing. I want to share one more – I consider it my 4th and most powerful M.
The 4th M stands for magnanimous. It comes from the Latin word – magnus which means great and animus which means soul. Put together it means great soul but to make it simple, it means being generous.
Being generous is what we all strive towards. We want to be kind, compassionate, benevolent, charitable, bountiful and big-hearted. If you want to be someone generous, start sharing and giving unconditionally.
This could mean passing along a helpful email or surprising people in good ways just because you can. This is the ultimate in being a star in selling yourself.
Everyone loves a generous soul. Don’t expect anything in return. If you expect something in return, you end up being calculative and motive-driven. And you become a grouch!
When people know they can count on you without you having an ulterior motive, they will happily refer you, recommend you and help you. Good karma begets good karma.
You didn’t need me to tell you that you should be memorable and mindful in order to stand out in your industry.
You didn’t need me to tell you that your job is to be a matchmaker at events you go to.
In fact you probably know all this by heart. I am just here to remind you that these are some of the important things in life that we all should remember if we want to live up to our highest potential.
All this is easy. What’s hard is this – implementation.
It’s easy to listen and nod but it’s really hard to put it into practice because we’re busy, we’re humans, we’re forgetful and we love doing easy things.
But nothing and no one gets very far in life without some form of doing.
Think of exercise. We know it’s good for us but sometimes it’s so easy to feel lazy about waking early for a morning jog. How about eating right? We know we should avoid fried chicken but it’s so easy to eat fried chicken, right? And so it goes.
But self-marketing is about having the discipline to put into practice what you’ve learnt.
It is only through practice that we all get better. I was a shy girl at 9 but I braved myself to join debates and speak publicly even though I was so scared inside. But to overcome our fear, we need to face it head on. When you face your monster head on, the monster shrivels and dies.
I’ve reminded you about some things and I hope I’ve ignited your interest.
So here are the questions only you have answers to:
How will you be memorable starting tonight?
How will you be mindful starting tonight?
How will you be a matchmaker starting tonight?
And finally, how will you be magnanimous, starting tonight?
P/S: Why do I speak? I speak to spread my ideas and message. Most of all, I speak to improve my presentation skills. The more I speak, the better I get. Who likes speaking especially public speaking? Everyone has jitters, even the most seasoned ones. But I like challenges – and I am quite the Type A sort and like a friend told me, I am the Tiger woman (born in the year of the Tiger). Tiger women are damn ambitious. Nothing wrong with wanting to challenge myself. I am my own best competition. And I love pushing my limits and seeing how far I can go. If you’re asked to speak, always say yes. It is an incredibly interesting experience!
This is the full interview which I wrote up as a feature story, well, for myself. I did journalism in USM but I never worked for any newspapers so in a way, this is my way of keeping my chops lean and working. Enjoy!
“I’ve been in this business for 36 years and I started due to poverty. Due to poverty, I will stand and work like the Chinese. And like the Chinese, I never give up.”
The interview with Kak Lall Bee binti Ibrahim starts this way. And despite my valiant attempts to speak to her in Malay, she smiles and says she can speak English. And so the rest of the interview happens in English, a language that she’s comfortable with.
“You know, there is this young Chinese boy who comes and talks to me every day. He is so amazed that a 60 plus year old Malay woman can speak English so well!” She laughs. Her eyes gleam impishly.
Kak Lall has come a long way from the days of being a divorcee with 3 children – 2 girls and a boy.
“It’s a different kind of feeling when you’re a divorcee. It’s different than being a widow.” Her eyes soften as she says this.
Today, she drives an SUV with the number plate PLA II. She cheekily remarks that the number plate spells “La ll” – her name.
It is far removed from the days she started with a tri-wheel push cart, selling her nasi campur, by candle light from 6am to 6pm everyday to ensure she had money for her siblings and her children.
And she had 16 siblings to feed. These were the two simple reasons that made her start her nasi campur business. And in the early days, it wasn’t the bustling stall with workers busy frying chicken or dishing out piping hot nasi tomato.
It was a simple push cart with some 10 dishes she’d cook with the help of her aunt. She’d set up her stall opposite the old Tanjung Bungah bus stand. She’d also sell by candle light.
“I borrowed RM100 from a chettiar to get my business started. Every month I’d pay him RM20 in interest. Back then, RM100 was a lot of money!” she exclaims. Pointing to the fried and sambal-stuffed, plump ikan terubok (one of her bestseller dishes), she said that when she started her business 36 years ago, ikan terubok was only 10 sen each. Nowadays fresh ikan terubok costs RM60 per kilo.
Kak Lall says she managed to pay back her chettiar loan in 4 months.
In the early 80s, it was rare to eat out. Tanjung Bungah was a quiet stretch, unlike today where it is peppered with hotels, apartments and restaurants. She often struggled to sell her dishes. Things improved considerably when the hotels started opening up, starting with the Rasa Sayang Hotel. Her customers comprised hotel employees as well as the Chinese who lived around the area.
Later she’d move to where the now “tsunami flats” were.
Back then, she’d open her stall from 6am to 6pm, making a meagre RM40 a day. She’d go to the wholesale market at midnight, buying fresh produce like fish and vegetables. She’d come home, sleep a few hours and wake up at 3am to prepare her dishes with her aunt’s help.
When the food court (where she is now based) was built and opened, she decided to rent a proper space at RM100 per month.
At this humble and nondescript Medan Selera, she recounted that her business in the first year was bad as her regular customers couldn’t find her.
Over time, they discovered her stall and business resumed its brisk pace. Until today, the majority of her customers are Chinese who live around the Tanjung Bungah area. Each Raya, she invites all her best Chinese customers to her open house to thank them for their support.
She has so many Chinese customers eating at her stall that many out of town people have asked if the stall was started by a Chinese.
Kak Lall laughs and believes that her dishes are of quality and with plenty of good variety. That’s the reason why her customers return again and again. Although she isn’t hands-on in the kitchen now (her daughter Nordiana has taken over from her mom), she still visits the stall every day to check on the quality of the food.
“My specialities are my kerabu, black chicken and fried terubok. You know, a few months ago, a TV crew from the UK came to film me making kerabu mempelam. Their chef wanted to learn how it’s done.” Kak Lall points at the black chicken, a dish of sticky, sweet and savoury chicken slow cooked for 5 hours. If the food is not cooked well, she sends the food back to the kitchen.
“I don’t know what to do if I retire! I am so used to being here, at my stall. If I don’t work, it’s hard to pass time!”
Lidiana has about 30 dishes and more laid out in typical nasi campur style. A good many were stir-fried vegetables and ulam (fresh basil, fresh mint, cucumbers). Her nasi campur stall now opens from 7am right till 9pm daily (except Sunday). Her employees start to prepare and cook at 4.30am in order to open for the breakfast crowd at 7am.
What is striking is that the dishes are cooked in small batches, ensuring as Kak Lall says, quality and freshness. As we talk, her employee (and this is quite interesting – her employees are all women) scoops up a batch of fried chicken from a hot kuali. Dishes are replenished quickly. Kak Lall tells me there is a particular Australian gentleman who buys and eats 8 pieces of this fried chicken from her stall daily!
Lidiana, the name of her business, comes from the names of her 2 daughters, Nordiana and Lidia. At the moment, the business is run by her daughter and her son-in-law. Her grandson, she says, is interested in the business. A lanky teen, he was seen discussing what to buy and how much with his grandmother, as a catering order from a Chinese customer comes in.
“Prawns are expensive these days but my Chinese customers still want to order prawns.” When I told her that Chinese love prawns for their symbolism, she nods.
Despite the rise in fresh ingredients, Lidiana’s has never raised its prices.
“You know how expensive red chillis are these days? But we still make our sambal belacan every day. We may not make as much money but it’s OK, give and take some. It’s nonsense when people say you can’t make money in the food business.”
Many of her KL and Johor customers have no problem hopping on a flight to Penang just to eat at Lidiana. As her food prices are reasonable, many of them would even tip her employees saying that they would never be able to get such good food at such prices in their own cities. Lidiana is packed during school holidays with customers lining up beyond the gate of the food court. On Fridays, Lidiana serves a special dish – nasi tomato and dalca.
I also note that she’s an astute business woman. As the food court gets unbearably warm during noon, Kak Lall invests in cooler fans and places these strategically at her stall so that her customers can eat comfortably.
She reveals that her mother was a good cook and her sisters also have their own food business in Tanjung Tokong and in town.
Lidiana also does catering and special side orders if advance time is given. Some dishes are not on the menu but can be ordered by special request such as crabs.
“I am thankful to God for good health, strength and determination,” Kak Lall says. She also says that the food business is a good business to run because of the cashflow.
She claims she had little education but upon probing, I found out that she had studied in Convent Pulau Tikus up to Form Three. Her eyes grow a bit misty as she talks about how race relations have gone badly. An elderly Chinese lady, clearly a customer, comes by and pats her back. Kak Lall seems fond of all her regulars, whispering to me that the lady was a widow of a rich towkay. She comes by regularly to eat at Lidiana.
“You should see my business on the first day of Chinese New Year,” Kak Lall says. All the Chinese patrons who grew up with her food would come with their families.
“Many people tell me, it’s hard and tiring running a food business. I say, how can you be tired? I was a one woman show when I started. I did the marketing and cooking and setting up stall. I had to drive to the wholesale market at midnight, and start cooking at 3am. It was like this, day in day out.”
“A woman can succeed because she has responsibilities. I’ve seen men who run food businesses. Once they get a bit of money, they tend to spend it all either on gambling or other activities. Over time they’ll spend all their money and then stop running the business.”
“In life, one must struggle against all odds, yet you have to be honest and live up to your own expectations.”
I ask her about travel. This feisty lady has travelled for her umrah, and happily recounted that she’s visited Israel, Turkey, Jordan and China. She thinks she wants to visit India and Syria. A moment later, she shakes her head, “Syria is too dangerous now to visit. Maybe India is better!”
As the fourth child in the family, she was considered one of the elder siblings. When her sisters were about to marry, she’d always help out with the marriage expenses, noting sensibly that a woman should never start her married life with debts!
In retrospect, Kak Lall’s determination seems to stem from her divorce.
At the end of our interview, she pauses a while, collecting her thoughts. Finally she says, “I want to advise divorced women that a divorce is not the end of the world. It is not the end of the world when your husband leaves you.”
Lidiana is at No. 5, Arked Tanjung Bunga, 11200 Tanjung Bunga, Penang. They open everyday, Monday to Saturday, 7am till 9pm (closed on Sunday). They do catering for private events too (please call Mak Lan’s daughter, Nordiana at 016 415 8686 for enquiries).
I wrote the below on 8 March but only published this today.
All photos below were taken by Hau Chern, who also took part of the photos for the Unseen Faces, Unheard Voices exhibition. I was waiting for his photos to include with this post.
Look out for Part 2 for the interview I did with Mak Lan of the famous Lidiana nasi campur in Tanjung Bungah.
I worked on my birthday which was 2 days ago. I don’t normally do this because each year I try to give myself a break and a pampering session. After all, I work pretty much all the time even if I am nowhere near a computer.
Well, it was for a good cause.
I was preparing and revising some 100+ slides for today’s International Women’s Day celebration. Mariam had roped me and 3 others into this mini photo exhibition of hers in early January. I thought it’d be fun to try out a project. I am crazy like that. I like challenging myself. Yep, the madness of me.
When we first got together like a merry band that we were, we had no clue what we were going to do. We talked about it and finally settled on women food vendors.
Given that we were all working (with the exception of Mariam who is a retiree), it was crazy juggling our timelines.
We had to factor in Chinese New Year (and that all of us would be away or busy), the availability of the women hawkers we wanted to interview and photograph and of course, our team’s schedules (one team member had some major upheavals in his life while all this was happening but he was such a team player and did his best and another team member went MIA for a bit).
We did pull this off even with budget constraints. (Yay to resourcefulness!)
What was supposed to be a super mini photo exhibition turned out to be quite an interesting project – something which we all learnt from.
We focused on women because of International Women’s Day and also at the same time, food because Penang is a food haven.
But how many times do you truly appreciate the hawker who makes and serves the food you love so much? (As an aside, you must read my curry mee vendor who died but that is a different story. Still, that incident reminds me that we should never take our food vendors for granted.)
What do you know of your favourite hawker?
What is her story?
Do you know her as much as you know her food?
Well, that is what our photo exhibition titled “Unseen Faces, Unheard Voices” tried to capture in its totality. Remember, we had limited money to print up the photos. So we turned the rest into a slideshow, to explain more of the story that these 5 women were telling us.
Everything came together excellently despite the paltry funding we had. That’s how I came to work my butt off on my birthday when I should’ve been having a facial or a pedicure or a foot massage.
Bah, the things I do.
But the reaction of today’s audience to the slideshow and the photos reinforced my belief that our work did mean something. Of course, many became utterly hungry after watching the slideshow – after seeing huge bowls of curry mee, nasi campur, Hokkien mee, vadey and more, who wouldn’t? Some told me they were going to try out the food.
I think the title’s apt, thanks to Jana. These women food vendors finally had their stories told. I always believe that each one of us has an interesting story to tell. And we assisted them in telling their stories of resilience. The life of a hawker is unbearably tough but these women are stoic, accept their circumstances and do the best they can. Do they want any help from the Government? No. Do they want any perks? Not really. They do what they can with what they have.
I made sure I was at the exhibition today, mainly because I wanted to gauge the reaction of the people who visited and viewed the slideshow. Many were positive with their comments which they wrote on Post-It notes and stuck to the comment board.
One lady even told us that we should make this into a coffee table book, highlighting even more women hawkers.
Jeya, the vadey lady attended today’s exhibition with her daughter, Sandra. She was pleased to be the subject of an exhibition and as a thank you gesture, she brought piping hot vadey for everyone.
As an aside, I am sometimes taken aback by some people’s reactions. I spoke to a 40-something engineer about these women hawkers and he said, “Why is it always about women, women and women?”
I replied carefully, keeping my voice even, “Because it is International Women’s Day and we’re celebrating women’s work and efforts”. This outburst was so uncalled for that I was a bit pissed. What’s wrong with celebrating women? Then again, some men have a chip on their shoulder. They may be jealous of the attention that we women get. They get upset that there’s no worldwide celebration of International Men’s Day.
On another note, I met an 80-something gentleman who, after watching the slideshow, advised me to interview the woman who sells spices and curry paste in the Pulau Tikus market (apparently her business allowed her to send her two children overseas for their education). He also said that we should also record an interview with Jimmy Choo’s mentor, an old man who used to run a shop in Muntri Street but has now relocated to Kimberly Street. His elegant wife pulled me aside to inform me that the shoemaker’s custom shoe price is getting higher and higher each year!
The exhibition and slideshow is still going on at LUMA Gallery, Whiteaways Arcade until 31 March. On 1 April, we’ll put up the slideshow online so you can view it too.
Never mind, I’ll put it at the end of this post so you can view it. After all it’s only a couple of days before 1 April. I might forget!
We’ve decided to add on a few more women food vendors plus I managed to get some photographers interested to help us with Phase 2 of the project. A foreign artist was also enamoured by the kuay teow th’ng couple – so much that she wants to paint them as a mural somewhere in George Town!
Honestly, I am satisfied that this pilot project touched so many Penangites in so many ways. It’s not just about the food we crave but also knowing the stories of hardship and toil of the common man and woman makes us appreciate our food heritage more.
I don’t know where this project will lead us but I am sure we will continue recording these stories. Part of what makes Penang unique is our mixed bag of stories intertwined with our favourite food. I believe honest stories like these are far better than pretend critiques of food! (Most people don’t critique anyway – otherwise they won’t get called back for another food review!)
If you’re a storyteller or a photographer or just eager to help in any way, join us in documenting our food heritage!
If you’d like to participate in this project, please write to Mariam at firstname.lastname@example.org
We need people who can speak the local language, ask questions, write, create slides, take photos and more.
Enjoy the slideshow below! And leave me some comments too – I’d want to hear what you think!
Nic and I watched an interesting yet thought-provoking documentary last week called Living On One Dollar. The one-hour documentary chronicled 4 American boys, in their early 20s, who decided to spend their summer in Guatemala – living in a village of 300 people atop a mountain. The village people didn’t speak much Spanish but communicated via a local dialect.
The reason these boys – happy, optimistic fellows – did this was to research if it was possible to live on one dollar a day. They had learnt about this fact in their studies and with funding, decided to experience if this was indeed possible as 1.1 billion people around the world did earn one dollar or less a day and managed to survive.
Sean, Zach, Ryan and Chris recorded their 56 days via video as well as journals. They decided to also draw a number, any where from 0 to 9 each day from a hat. This number represented the amount in dollars they could spend that day, assuming that was the amount of dollars they had earned that day.
They also wanted to lease a plot of land, a small piece, just to plant radishes. This satisfied their need to know what it took to be farmers, as most of the villagers grew their own produce for sale. One woman grew onions while others grew other crops.
As much as the research factor kicked in, reality also dawned on the four of them that it was not easy subsisting on a few dollars a day. On the days they drew 9 which meant they had $9 to spend at the local market (which was a bumpy truck ride down the mountain), they bought firewood, beans, rice and bananas.
What initially started out fun (eating plain cooked black beans and rice) turned out to be dreary and you could see it as the gaunt faces of the 4 boys became more evident day by day.
One of them also contracted parasites in his intestines which gave him stomach pain and gas!
On days they drew zero which meant zero income, they started to feel like the villagers – hopelessness. When they spoke to the villagers, they realised that most of the villagers depended on farming and they depended on their children to help with farming. Thus, a boy called Chino had to stop school because his father couldn’t afford to buy school books – he was asked to work in the plots of land which grew produce for the family’s subsistence.
When 12 year old Chino was asked what he wanted to be, he answered that he wanted to be a farmer. Upon probing, he finally said he wanted to be a pro soccer player.
Some of the villagers also remarked that it has hard not to feel tired or lethargic – all they had sometimes was salt and tortillas for their families. The better-off ones like a 24 year old family man called Anthony (because he had a job in town as a cleaning person) could afford to cement the floor of his home. Small improvements like this helped to prevent water flooding their houses when it rained. In most villager’s homes, such as Chino’s, the floor was just plain mud.
Anthony’s wife, a 20 year old, was already a mother. She had harboured dreams of becoming a nurse but had to stop schooling as her family couldn’t afford to pay for school. It was tough being poor as she said she didn’t have the nice dresses to wear to school and it made her feel bad. She seemed to console herself that it was just as well she stopped schooling.
But she did the next best thing.
She took a loan from the local Grameen bank to start her weaving business and started using the profits to slowly fund herself through classes to see if she could get a licence as a nurse.
One of the American boys went to the local bank to find out how or if the villagers could get a loan. What they found was that the bank set such high criteria that the poor villagers could never afford to get a loan! Luckily there was the Grameen bank which gave small loans to the village women to get their small businesses started.
Now what got me thinking was – why was it that women had the brains to think of starting a small business while the men didn’t? Apparently, women are the best people as Grameen loaners – they did not default and were reliable enough to pay back their loans in small instalments. And what do the men do?
This documentary was touching because not long after, I had tea with Jana, my bestie from school who had now relocated to Penang. She works for a regional NGO called PANAP involved in helping ensure our food sources are clean and safe. In other words, pesticide-free food, food that was not genetically modified and food that honoured the farmers, the people who cultivated our food.
She had just returned from Nepal where she did a short program with the children of a Nepali school called Snowland Ranag Light of Education School. This school is in Kathmandu and offers education to the disadvantaged children of the 13 districts of the Upper Himalayan region.
The school was founded by Guru Ranag Tulku Rinchen Rinpoche who is also known as Dolpo Buddha in 2002. He believes that education improves lives and started this school in Budhanikantha, Kathmandu.
The brochure notes that: “Life is hard for the 5.85% of Nepal’s total population of 26, 494,505 people living in the region. Income generating activities are very low and literacy rate is also very low ie. 52.67%.
“Cultivatable land is very little and whatever pastoral land there is used for cattle grazing. Lack of communication and transportation has made the region inaccessible….children are compelled to work wit their families to provide more hands with little knowledge that education could provide them with the means to a better future even in such challenging condition.”
The school offers free education thanks to the donations from well-wishers and supporters of Dolpo Buddha.
Jana tells me that the children have had to trek for one month to reach the school! The children live at the school as their homes are just too far away. When I heard she was going to this school in Nepal, Nic and I asked her if she could bring two boxes of Faber-Castell gel ink pens for them.
More than 10 years ago, Nic had backpacked to Nepal and he had seen how everyday items we take for granted, are in much demand. Items like sewing needles, pencils and pens. We didn’t want to overburden Jana’s luggage with too many things so we figured two boxes of pens would be light and easy.
As a child, I used to write with red pens, copying the answers from the borrowed library book “Tell Me Why” into my battered school exercise book. I didn’t know why I did that but the memory of writing down words thrilled me to no end.
I was gratified to hear that the children were indeed pleased to be gifted with pens. They used the pens to draw and write. But most of all, the children made us two simple gifts – friendship bands! I was deeply surprised at their gratitude. After all, the pens were a simple, inexpensive gifts from Nic and me.
But it also dawned on me that what we take for granted – black pens, going to school, a cement floor – were important to most people whose lives are challenging.
Just like it is challenging to live on one dollar a day.
I think it isn’t just in Guatemala. I bet you there are Malaysians who are also poor, living hand to mouth.
But I am always thinking: what makes one person get out of poverty while the rest don’t? Do they need money to get started? Or they need something other than money?
The other thing I am always thinking and asking – would it help if people had role models?
I’ve learnt a lot from House of Hope, a drop-in centre in Rifle Range which provides food and assistance to the people who live in Rifle Range particularly the children, single moms and the elderly. My WomenBizSENSE members hold annual parties at House of Hope and this year, we’re doing a steamboat dinner for the elderly on 13 February using funds that we have accumulated under our Social Responsibility fund as well as donations from generous friends and members.
Many of these children come from broken homes – they either only have their mother or if they don’t have parents, they live with their grandparents. Some of the children are bright but they lack opportunities.
One of the opportunities is the access to role models. I’ve felt that role models can be a catalyst, that one spark that could transform someone from never aspiring to much to someone who is excited to follow in the footsteps of her inspiration.
I am still tinkering with this idea. Based on my networks, I know I can easily get people, from friends to clients, to give talks to these kids as a way to open up their worlds and most importantly, their minds.
You can only be who you want to be if you know it can be done. You need to know that someone just like you has done it. You need to know you’re not the only one forging the path.
I once remembered Nic and I talking to 4 teenagers – 3 boys and a girl – what entrepreneurship was about. They were off to college soon but they weren’t quite sure if what they wanted to study was important or worth it. One boy quietly noted that he was going overseas to do medicine because his father chose it for him! If he enjoys medicine, he’ll be an inspiring doctor. If he despises his chosen field, his parents will be disappointed.
Yet all of them expressed surprise that business could be a viable option besides the traditional occupations – doctor, lawyer or engineer. A degree is always important but what you do after you complete your degree is as important too. After hearing us speak so excitedly about our business and the principles we hold, they now knew that (small) business wasn’t always about the boring stuff.
Part of what my blog does is my own self-reflection – to note down my ideas and perhaps to connect with people like me who want to do better for our community.
I don’t want you running off to Guatemala to help; in fact, my friend’s spunky daughter joined the Raleigh Project in Sabah last May and had a grand time helping build water pipes for the villagers in Sabah.
Can you imagine that 50+ years after Merdeka there are still villages in Borneo without proper access to something as basic as clean water? (And here I am dissing the slow Internet speed!)
Anyway, Sher Ryn had such an incredible learning experience that she gathered a group of friends (which included her mom’s friends and that meant Nic and me) and had a small presentation where she showed us photos of her month-long trip and what she learnt from her jungle experience.
The expedition influenced and touched her immensely. She saw with her own eyes, how getting water was never easy and what piped water could do for the kids and families of that Sabahan village. She learnt how to understand the quirks of other people – people of other nationalities who joined the expedition.
I know she’ll do great things in time to come – she is such a fireball of energy plus she has amazing attitude – and she is an inspiration to me! She’s only 20 but she had the guts and the spunk to rough it out in the jungles of Sabah.
But more than that, she has supportive parents. I know Peter and Fidel, her parents, and they’ve brought her and her brother up to be spontaneous, well-mannered and considerate young people. Fidel even backpacked with her daughter to Myanmar!
Anyway, part of why most people feel disconnected and bored stiff today is that they’ve never thought about anyone but themselves. They’ve never realised how fortunate they are. They don’t know how the rest of the world lives. They don’t see the world, cliche as it may be, from another person’s viewpoint.
When I was a Girl Guide back in my secondary school days, I went for a week-long camping trip – a jamboree in Templer’s Park with Girl Guides and Scouts from all over Selangor. During the entire camping experience, we had to do our “business” in a large trench about 5 feet deep. We squatted on planks placed across the trench. The four corners of the trench was covered with tarpaulin – sans roof. The sky was our roof. You never want to look down into the trench. We liberally sprinkled baking soda over our poop once we were done. My bestie tried not to go to the open-air toilet because it stank badly.
The trip was eye-opening. At least for me. I never took my bathroom for granted ever again.
Can I wish you a Happy New Year? I know, it’s already 11 days into January. But a belated is better than never, right?
I have been reading – and thinking and writing. Just that so much has been happening that I have not had time to sit down and let my thoughts percolate and write down those very thoughts.
This year, I am inspired to write more. Personal chronicles, of course.
I have not been doing much of personal writing last year and I think what defines me is my writing. It’s my way of expressing what I feel (and sometimes I feel a good many things before breakfast LOL).
If you read this blog often, you’d know that Vern is a friend and neighbour. She pops by whenever she’s back from KL. She’s a brilliant thinker, an old soul at a mere 26. I know quite a few young people (I mean what else could I call them right? They are young. I am 14 years older so I have to admit I am older) and very few are thoughtful like her.
Vern knows I have this personal interest in all things autism because I discovered why Nic acts and thinks the way he does. I often proclaim that I discovered his autism by chance. In Borders bookstore of all places. (Remind me to tell you that story.)
Anyway, the past few years have been interesting because I am curious about autism. And precisely because I can “validate” my readings with a live sample (Nic), I find it utterly fascinating!
I’ve also listened to an intense podcast episode on Radiolab called Juicervose. The episode was fraught with emotions but what was more incredible was the outpouring of comments after that podcast went live. (By the way, everyone should have a go at listening to Radiolab. I super love them, in addition to Freakonomics. These podcasts have helped me appreciate my world a lot more.)
I’ve known my husband for 20 years and married to him for 13 years. I always jokingly say that I’d be the first to write a book about being married to an autistic man. Every book I’ve read seems to be written by a parent (as in the case of Anthony Macris’ book which was published in 2011 or Kristine Barnett whose book came out in 2013). The rare ones are books written in the first person perspective by the very person who is autistic like Temple Grandin. Are there any written by the spouses of autistic people? I don’t know. If you know any, please let me know. I’d be pleased to read some.
I have a friend who tells me that her friend’s son is autistic and he has a hard time fitting in with the community but he is slowly learning. Then there are those who prefer to say someone has Asperger’s rather than autism (autism seems to be a hard label to own). And like Macris’ says in his book – everything he reads says that “there is no cure for autism”. That gets parents quite depressed!
But here lies the bit that is fascinating – what if autism is not a disease? What if you looked at autism as not something to be cured per se but as a different way of viewing the world? What would that do for you, as a caregiver or spouse or sibling?
People who are not like us are often viewed as abnormal. And abnormality is often seen as “not good”. There’s often a need to make abnormal people normal again so there are lots of methods to try to ensure an autistic person is “normalized”.
Sure, you need to teach kids (any kids regardless of their abilities) how to live in a community, how to do basic stuff (cook, bathe etc.) and essentially how to co-exist with others so that we can make up a functioning community. That’s needed and no one will argue with that.
But in the same vein, why don’t we rehabilitate or normalize geniuses? They’re abnormal too. Sure they’re smart – but they’re not exactly like us, are they? Why are geniuses placed on a pedestal and looked upon in awe when they’re abnormal? Why doesn’t society try to normalize them and bring them back to our realm?
I have these kinds of provocative conversations with Nic all the time. We discuss things which aren’t likely to be romantic like most couples. Maybe it’s because we’ve been working together for such a long time; that we are partners in life and partners in business and our conversations are always about stuff we read/discover/heard.
Maybe it’s because we both have a natural curiosity about the world and asking why questions help us uncover more what we don’t know. Or maybe it’s because we don’t have children and we’re not caught up in the day-to-day routines which most parents have to take responsibilities for.
If autism isn’t a disease, then there’s nothing to cure.
If that’s the case, then it is about helping autistic people to live with other people in a community and co-exist happily and comfortably.
On the flip side, it is also about understanding what happens in the minds of the autistic person and more importantly, knowing how to leverage how they think and see the world so that they can help us!
For the longest time, I never understood why Nic loved weeding. He’d squat out in the backyard and spend an inordinate amount of time plucking weeds. I just thought he was weird. OK, maybe even crazy!
He later revealed that plucking each blade of unwanted grass was a pleasurable sensation. Each plucking motion was unique.
Early in our marriage, he would get frustrated with me because I couldn’t see the things he saw in his mind’s eyes. We’d get into major rows because of this. He’d say “Why can’t you see this? It’s so simple!”
Only later when we found out he was autistic that he realized he sees real-time movies in his head and he could easily “see” things in his mind. This makes it easy for him to do troubleshooting when our clients called to ask about a problem. He could easily “pull out” the image or visual and know exactly what issue the client was having! I have no such abilities.
But before he realized he was autistic, he thought the whole world was like him – able to pull up a visual and see 3D images (which can be rotated, viewed from the top or viewed from the bottom)! So he got really frustrated because I kept saying “I don’t see the world you see and I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
When we realized he was autistic, I started reading a lot just to understand how the autistic mind works. I must admit that he has some truly amazing abilities yet his super sensory abilities can be a liability too.
Take for instance, sounds. I often found it funny that thunder affected him deeply. He’d recoil when he hears thunder. He tells me that thunder is very loud though to me, thunder is just thunder.
Or his fascination with watching sunsets. I do appreciate an amber hued sky when the sun is setting but I am not particularly in love with the sun setting. Yet Nic never fails to watch the sunset intently until one day I heard a podcast about a woman who could see more colours than others. She has a heightened colour sensitivity and found great pleasure in looking at colours, able to differentiate the varied nuances in a colour! So I excitedly asked Nic if he was watching the various colours in that orange setting sun and he said, yes.
All I see is just a swath of orange!
The super sensory abilities extend to foods – especially sour foods. For a long time I just thought Nic didn’t like eating sour foods until he told me there are gradients of sour in the foods that he eats. His tongue detects the different gradients of sour – some he enjoys and some he hates. He hates passionfruit sour with a vengeance though he likes apple cider vinegar, tamarind, ‘kiam chye’ and ‘asam boi’. To me, sour is sour. I have no spectrum of the degrees of sourness on my tongue.
Even the breeze affects him. He enjoys the pleasurable breeze but unlike me, he feels the subtle nuances of the breeze on his face! I could never differentiate the feel of a breeze.
Why am I excited and hopeful? You might think I am nuts to feel like this even after discovering my husband is autistic. I should be worried. But I am not because he is an example that you can live with your autism and yet use your abilities to the max. His abilities have helped him make the most of his world and work.
Of course he is not skilled in everything – he couldn’t possibly be. I often berate him for his lack of empathy which does not help his social skills. When he looks at something, he can deconstruct it and view it as both content and overall structure (which I cannot do and this is where I suspect his empathy disappears).
You see, if you’re de-constructing something in your mind, you are focusing deeply on content and structure and this is a highly objective exercise. You can’t de-construct if you’re emotionally involved. Like how I can’t think straight when I am angry. Something has to be sacrificed.
Yet in Nic’s mind, he can split up the parts of everything and re-assemble them. If it is an object, he can transform it into a 3D image where he can easily rotate, view from all angles. He can immediately see what problems the object could have. He can do so because he is focused on the object and its structure. But as I told him, when you do this, you need to suspend emotion. Perhaps that is why Nic isn’t as emphatic as I’d like him to be. The data consumes him. His brain starts ticking and working out the various possibilities, analyzing and “playing” with them.
So what does this have to do with other autism people?
The jobs or tasks we find boring (like weeding) are extremely enjoyable for autistic people. Repetitive tasks could be given to them and they’ll do very well. Of course I don’t advocate you hiring an autistic person to weed your garden (but then again, he’d probably do it for free!)
The questions are: what could autistic people do with their enjoyment of repetition? Or how can we stop looking at autism as problem that needs to be cured but instead ask, how can their abilities complement us, the non-autistic ones? Can their abilities help us innovate in business? Can their abilities be a peek at the technologies of the future? If we read more and understood more about the autistic brain, could we not co-exist with autism in ways that serve us?
Nic often mulls that one day we should be able to help. In his words, autistic people are different because their operating systems are different. It doesn’t make them any less human. Once we understand that there is a different operating system out there, it’s about understanding what that system can do and working in tandem with that system.
Right now, everyone is bent on re-configuring that system to be like a regular operating system and that’s tough. How about appreciating that unique operating system and working with that?
I don’t have all the answers and I am not an expert on this matter. But I think that’s a better way to approach autism.
This year has made me realize a few things – that I have less patience for people I used to have patience for.
I think growing older and interacting with people of all kinds of backgrounds made me re-evaluate my relationships. Some of my relationships go way back to my secondary school days. Some relationships were started in university. Still, some were started during my working days.
I guess we all start the same way – we don’t really choose our friends. They chose us and we accepted it and we all got along fine.
I never bothered to evaluate these relationships but I am someone who treasures and values people. In many ways, I discovered that not everyone valued relationships the way I did.
I am sure you know a friend or two who will disappear for aeons, never call or even meet up but the moment they need something, they’d be all over you.
Ah yes. Those kind of “friends” get booted to the very bottom of the D category.
Then there are some friends who grew up with you but somehow you felt that they’ve never changed. In a way, this can be good. After all, you know that this also means they’ll still love eating nutella and chocolate and getting them gifts is super easy.
The not-so-good thing is that suddenly you feel out of place with them. You’ve grown and I am not even talking about physical growth! Sure, our waistlines have expanded and our faces are plumper and our cheekbones don’t stand out so much. But mentally, we’ve changed too. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I felt I’ve moulted so many times in the past 15 years that I am no longer the old me. And yet, these friends are still the same. In every dimension and thought. (The middle class syndrome is a mind-eating disease of the well-fed.)
Many years ago, I used to get terribly disappointed with them. Our conversations get harder because our topics and hobbies and interests are different. Each time we go out for coffee, it’s an uncomfortable chat.
Until I decided that I should not see them as I am, I should see them as they are. This is where they are truly a product of their social circle and environment. When I switched my thinking this way, I became less jaded. I could even indulge myself and partake in their conversations which are totally out of my usual chit chat sphere.
I did not judge – I just accepted that they are what they are and I just stepped into their world for a while. It made me happier. I wasn’t going to change anyone and no one was going to get hurt. I’m not so invested in them anymore but we’re still OK as friends. Something had changed but by not putting all my hopes into these friends, I have an easier time.
Then there’s that other category of friends whom I used to call friends but were actually acquaintances. I had a friend during campus days who used to be such a negative person. Upon reflecting I figured out why she was so hard on everyone. She was hard on herself. She saw herself as a competitor in this world and she had to be the best. At one time, she was so obnoxious she went up to another girl and asked her, “You don’t study at all so how come you got such good grades?”
We tolerated her on campus for 4 years. Many disliked her intensively and would walk the other way if they saw her coming! I’m so ashamed that she was my “friend” for 4 years and that I didn’t have the guts to tell her that she was nasty and obnoxious.
The good news was, we lost contact after graduation. The bad news was, each time she needed something from me, she’d somehow locate my phone number and call me. I never dreaded anyone calling but she took the cake. Talking to her for 5 minutes was like torture. She’d be all snide and catty. I still wondered, why the heck did I ever tolerate her?
And of course, this friend disappeared after a while. I was secretly thanking God that she’d left me alone.
Until Facebook re-connected us again. She started using another name and I had added her as a friend, not knowing that she was that dreadful person. She started privately messaging me one day and I had the shock of my life.
This time, I had to do something. I un-friended her. I never felt more relief in my life. I should have un-friended her years ago but finally, something snapped. My patience was running thin. I no longer felt I had anything to lose by cutting her out of my life.
Then there’s another who’s always asking for help but never helps in return. He’s always up to something or other and will happily ask me for help. When I ask him for help, he’ll make some excuse that he doesn’t have any contacts. These freeloaders are the people I ignore.
Another kind of friend will always eat with you but never fork out a single cent. Ah yes, these friends are aplenty. Their wallets and purses are often glued to their pockets. I have encountered many. But these friends will only see me once at best because we will only dine together one time and that’s it. If you cannot be generous and pick up the tab once in a while, you don’t deserve to have a dinner companion.
These days, I am more aware of myself and more confident of who I am becoming. Yes, you get to a point at 40 when you go, “What the heck!” I have nothing to lose by removing deadwood from my life. I only want to be with people who appreciate and value me; not parasites who come and go as they please.
Sure I am a giver when it comes to friendships. I am intensely loyal. I will go the extra mile for you. But don’t manipulate me. Don’t give me a whiff of your ulterior motives or greed. The moment I sense that, I will be awfully brutal. Remember that ditty about the girl with the curl on her forehead? “When she’s good, she’s very, very good. When she’s bad, she’s horrible”.
I strive to be the A type of friend – the bestest friend you’d ever have. And if I leave, you’ll have a gaping void in your life.
This morning, I did something I am proud of.
I finally decided to cull yet another person from my life.
I had tolerated her for a long time, overlooking her obsessive compulsive behaviour and her control freakiness. She was often hyper and excitable. I really don’t know how her poor husband lives with her. She is also stubborn and thinks the world revolves around her. I decided enough was enough and I wasn’t going to be her friend the way she wanted me to be. And I heaved a major sigh of relief!
Like all other things in life, once in a while we need to re-evaluate our friends. Are they the kinds of people we want to surround ourselves with? Do they complain all the time but the moment you suggest a plan of action they shut you out? Are they friends and enemies? Are they ready to jump on you the moment you falter?
If yes, be a dear and start eliminating them from your life. I make no excuses for being so upfront about my relationships because I thrive on the absolute good ones. Good friends make you better. The crappy ones are energy and time vampires.
Do you have weirdo friends? Are you as brutal as I am? What are your coping strategies?
Below is a story that I wrote to share at tomorrow’s Lean In networking tea at China House Cafe.
Emi and I are planning to announce the book project at this tea.
We plan to create a role model book of sorts – a first for Penang anyway – to document our own personal Lean In stories inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s book of the same name.
One of the things that’s startlingly obvious is that we don’t have a book of local women heroes and trailblazers (yes we have a lot on famous women and celebrity women but what about local women, local heroines, the everyday woman?).
In the last couple of months, I have met some super smart women and I believe it is high time we recorded our own Malaysian history – of incredibly accomplished yet virtually unknown local women who are doing excellently in their own fields.
If you’d like to contribute a personal story to our Lean In book (and we’re still sourcing for sponsors!) please do. In the meantime, let me know what you think of this story of mine.
I used to work before I joined my husband in the business. I always tell people that if I didn’t run my business, I would be just as happy out there in the corporate world, having worked for 7 years before I took a break to do my Masters in Linguistics.
I thought I was quite a self-aware individual.
Until I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book.
I thought I knew what I knew about myself and the world. And here I was, nodding vigorously as I read her book. It felt like someone you know is telling you how she viewed the world and you find yourself going, “Ohmygawd, me too!”
Suddenly women didn’t feel so alone and ridiculous with their thoughts.
It felt very emotional at times too because Lean In addresses issues which are close to women – it doesn’t matter if you’re single or married, working or not. Of course her book is targeted at women who work but I chose to look at it as a universal message for all women.
While some lambasted her for the book, I believe she opened a door to discussions – discussions that most women would not have engaged in if she had not put those messages out in the open.
With her book, we realise that women have stop underestimating their abilities. It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are or how high you are on the corporate ladder. Most women have insecurities.
We’re often not good enough, not clever enough, not confident enough.
Over the years, I have learnt to focus on my strengths. Never believe it when books tell you to work on your weaknesses. You can but it will be so de-motivating. Work on your strengths instead – and I find that I am more energetic and enthusiastic when I am doing things I am best at, for instance, writing. And work on the messages that your brain tells you. Many of the messages are negative and throw you into a spiral of, you guessed it, underestimation of abilities!
I was once at an event where I watched a smart, articulate corporate woman give a good presentation. When I finally caught up with her after the event, she turned to me worriedly and asked, “How did I do? Was I OK?”
Another friend always starts apologizing for her inability to park her car each time she tries to park her car. She doesn’t believe she can park her car properly and she doesn’t. Some people believe they’re always unlucky and guess what, they’ll end up having episodes that reinforce their bad luck!
I think we need to be aware of these negative self-talk. This negative self-talk is dangerous and allows women to underestimate themselves, even when they’re excellent at what they do.
This reminds me of my own childhood.
I was a very shy child.
In school I used to watch my best friend go right up to the front of the class and animatedly launch into fantastic storytelling. She was unafraid of standing in front of 40 pairs of eyes and telling her story complete with gestures and facial expressions.
I wanted to be just like her! She was good at storytelling and everyone envied her skills. I didn’t know how she did it but all the same, I wanted to be just like her.
Despite my fears of public speaking, I decided to raise my hand the next time our teacher asked if any of us wanted to join an inter-class storytelling competition.
I decided to do what I feared most.
Did I know what I was getting into? Nope.
Did I know it involved days of committing the story to heart and having to re-tell the story with all the enthusiasm and passion I could muster?
Did I win?
But did I learn something? Yes, I learnt that I could try and trying is better than sitting at the sidelines, watching others live life.
Of course I wasn’t as magnificent as my best friend in storytelling – she had a natural flair. However I went on to join school debates and a whole lot more because I knew I could not underestimate myself if I wanted to reach out for what I wanted.
I would always give myself a chance to work things out.
That one tiny step – of braving myself to take part in storytelling – allowed me to move a little more out of my shell. It made me a little more sure of myself. It gave me the courage to try things, one step at a time.
And once I read Lean In, it all fell into place for me.
Women need to sit at the table, to welcome unexplored opportunities and to stop giving excuses.
We can all succeed if we stopped holding ourselves back from that project, that opportunity, that promotion especially if we really wanted to jump in and get going. We can all succeed if we stopped worrying about the future that’s 5 or 10 years away because we’re deciding to live life to the fullest today.
I wish I read this book when I was just starting out after graduating.
It would have been such an inspiration and confidence-booster. To take heart that we all have abilities and we don’t need to underestimate ourselves but to just have fun and gun for it.
No one gets anything if they don’t think they deserve their success.
No one gets anywhere if they don’t think they’re good enough.
Sheryl says, believe in yourself, negotiate for yourself, own your own success.
It does take time and experience for each of us to feel truly comfortable in our own skin before we can truly own our own success. We will make many mistakes before we can be cool enough to admit we’re fine the way we are.
But we also need friends who support us. Or encouraging stories of women who have been there, done that and that road is not as rocky as it seems.
Or women who are kind enough to mentor us and teach us how to ask for a raise, how to say no firmly and how to evaluate if something is worth doing. No one teaches these things in school or university and we’re left grappling with issues and trying to find our way in this world.
That’s why I look at Lean In as a leadership manual. It has given me permission to give myself an opportunity to try. That is how I got involved with facilitating at the Lean In Forum at Hard Rock Hotel. That is how I got involved with this book. That is how I am writing a non-fiction book on my own.
A year ago, I would never have thought I’d write a book. Not because I couldn’t write. I majored in Journalism and I have been writing ferociously since I was 9 years old. Everyone tells me that if anyone were to write a book, it’d be me.
I knew I had the skills.
But deep inside, I asked myself, “Who am I to write a book, and a non-fiction one at that too?”
It was a fear that gnawed at me and that monstrous fear kept pawing me, pulling me back. I didn’t feel I was worthy enough to write a book despite having the skills!
I have to say that Lean In gave me the courage to ask, “Why not?”
Why should I not share my message with the world? Everyone has opinions and perspectives to share and mine is just as valid as the others out there. Why shouldn’t I be proud to talk about what I am passionate about?
Every girl and woman should keep asking “Why not?” over and over because frankly, there is only one life to live. We might as well live large, exceptional fulfilling lives!