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A Monster Called Allopurinol

This year has been positively crazy. I’ve seen the insides of the hospital far too many times and I am sick of it.

I just got home to Penang last Friday after some 12 days in Banting. I had gone home to take care of my 74 year old dad who had been hospitalised.

He had developed pustules on his face and rashes all over his torso and limbs suddenly. His eyes were red as if he was suffering from conjunctivitis. His lips bled. He was fatigued.

Initially, my sis thought he had one prawn too many at a friend’s son’s wedding banquet dinner. I thought the same too.

But seafood allergies do subside within 1-2 days (I should know, Nic has seafood allergies that make him itchy all over so he stays away from prawns and crabs, especially softshell crabs).

Finally my sis took my dad to the private clinic and they quickly referred him to the general hospital in Banting. From there, they quickly transferred him to the hospital in Klang (HTAR) where he was promptly put into the isolation room of the ICU ward.

In the end, it wasn’t the seafood. It wasn’t an infection. It was a drug allergy. My dad was seriously allergic to allupurinol, a type of gout medication. He was given this medication because the doc said he had gout.

If you google allopurinol, here’s what you’d find on Wikipedia:

Allopurinol, sold under the brand name Zyloprim and generics, is a medication used primarily to treat excess uric acid in the blood and its complications, including chronic gout. Allopurinol has rare but potentially fatal adverse effects involving the skin. The most serious adverse effect is a hypersensitivity syndrome consisting of fever, skin rash, eosinophilia, hepatitis, and worsened renal function. Allopurinol is one of the drugs commonly known to cause Stevens–Johnson syndrome and toxic epidermal necrolysis, two life-threatening dermatological conditions.

Note the words I’ve made in bold.

My dad was diagnosed as suffering from Stevens-Johnson syndrome or SJS for short. SJS was caused by the medication given to him by his doctor. I am not going to scare you  by putting up images of patients with SJS. Please google these images on your own.

My dad had hallucinations during his stay in the ICU ward. He felt terrible all over. He couldn’t eat properly as his lips were bleeding.

Now here’s the best part: did my dad actually have high levels of uric acid in his blood?

From what I gathered from my conversations with him, he just told his doctor he was experiencing some pain in his leg. And the doctor gave him allopurinol which gave him SJS which made him suffer 16 days in the hospital (10 days in the ICU staring at four walls and a stupid clock and 6 days in the general ward, surrounded by dengue patients).

My problem is this: why did the doctor prescribe him allopurinol just because he said he had some pain in his leg? I find that a lack of wisdom in doctors a frightening thought. My dad was one of the few who’d been rushed to the hospital quick enough to get help. What about others? What about others who aren’t so lucky to live near a town with hospital facilities that could help? What about those who shrugged off the rashes and fever and didn’t seek help?

This isn’t the first time I am angry at public healthcare. Granted, my dad was treated well in the ICU ward. He had a nurse stationed near him all the time. He was closely monitored and given the attention he needed. I wish I could say the same of the nurses when he was transferred to the general ward (when his condition stabilized and his ICU bed was urgently needed by some other patient). In the general ward, you’re a blip on the radar. An unimportant blip by the way.

My dad in the general ward. His friends came to visit and cheer him up.

My dad in the general ward. His friends came to visit and cheer him up.

Things got so bad at one point that my sis and I went to the First Class ward to find out if there were any available beds! You see, my dad was supposed to be transferred from ICU to First Class. Yet they didn’t have beds in the First Class ward so he was temporarily brought down to the general ward.

The general ward was, as I later found out, a dengue ward. Patients with dengue are given beds in this ward. The nurses rush about but nothing ever happens. The doctors (young ones, perhaps on housemanship duties) walk about checking patients’ files and scribbling furiously in each one but they never came around to update me about my dad’s health status.

My dad was wearing diapers and each time he soiled them, he felt so bad about calling the nurses to help him change. At one point, I almost lost my temper as he had been in his soiled diapers for 45 minutes and no nurse came around although they were all at the nurses’ station some 10 feet away! I kept pressing the button over and over, showing my displeasure.

What kept me sane was that I knew my dad was going to be discharged and this would soon be over. These encounters with public healthcare will be over soon, I kept reminding myself. I don’t need to see any of these doctors (not that they were seeing or talking to me).

The day my dad was discharged, I was relieved. He was pleased to be going home. I was happy he was going home. I had spent the last 12 days being a care-giver, cook and driver which isn’t the easiest job in the world. When my sis went off to teach, I’d wake up and cook porridge, mostly vegan, for my dad. I’ll then pack them into two portions, one for lunch and one for dinner. I’d use thermos containers as I needed the porridge for his evening meal to be warm, even at 6pm.

I’ll then drive 40 minutes from Banting (where we live) to the Klang hospital and feed him his lunch around 1pm. When visiting hours ended at 2pm, I’ll grab lunch at the AEON Bukit Tinggi mall which was 10 minutes away. It came to a point that I was so freaking bored of the cafes at AEON that I didn’t know what to eat! Even now I can close my eyes and see in my mind’s eye the cafes and fast food chains in the mall and nothing would interest me. Around 4.30pm, I’ll drive my way back to the hospital and pray I’ll find a parking spot. The Klang hospital is always abuzz with visitors so their car park is always full and I’ll have to encircle the area a few times before I’ll find a spot.

I’ll then spend the next few hours talking to my dad or feeding him his dinner. And at 7.30pm, I’ll drive my way back to Banting, braving the after office hours traffic as well as all the lorries and trucks that are going down to the Teluk Panglima Garang FTZ area. I’d reach home about 8.20pm and I couldn’t even think of dinner. I was dead tired and I knew I had to go through the same thing again the next day.

When he was in the ICU ward, it was a climb of 10 flights of stairs! The ICU ward was on the 5th floor but the hospital elevators were so old and slow that it was always faster climbing the stairs! When my dad was in the ICU, all of us including my 13 year old nephew huffed and puffed ourselves up the stairs twice a day. It was a great cardio workout though. My calves and thighs got firmer so at least there’s some silver lining there.

The good thing was, I started becoming more creative with my vegan porridge. I tried to incorporate as many healthy ingredients as I could. This was where my SoupQueen experience paid off. I cooked with fresh wai san whenever I could. I put a medley of vegetables into my porridge – all nutritious stuff to help his skin heal from within. Carrots, pumpkin, corn, mushroom, goji – they all went into the porridge. I became quite a pro at making my porridge too.

I also discovered that mung beans were excellent for clearing toxins in the blood and so I made mung bean dessert. (The doctor was telling me my dad had sepsis – toxins in the blood – and I knew that TCM or Traditional Chinese Medicine would have a solution in the form of food. Yes, my mantra is – let food be your medicine.)

When he was in the hospital, I made him a plethora of fresh fruit juices. I also gave him plenty of Yakult to replenish his good bacteria – all those antibiotics he took probably zapped the good ones dead.

When he was discharged from the hospital, I made him lots of watercress soup with lean pork and carrot. I made sure he ate lots of fruit too.

The weirdest thing was, I was quite all right when I was attending to my dad for the 12 days I was in Selangor. The moment I flew back to Penang, I developed a fever!

But I am thankful that episode is over and done with. I wanted to write this blog post because I want you to know that doctors do make mistakes. Their mistakes create plenty of suffering and pain for their patients. It shouldn’t have happened. It could’ve been fatal for my dad. He came this close to death just because some stupid doctor played God with medication.

I’ve been fortunate that among all my sisters, I am the only one with enough time flexibility to go home and care for my dad. My youngest sis had to work (she’s a teacher in a Chinese school and that says a lot as Chinese schools are slave-drivers) and my second sis who works in Singapore couldn’t take leave. So it was up to me – the one without a boss – to figure things out and help my dad the best I could. That is perhaps the best reason for entrepreneurship. Freedom of time.

 

 

 

The Art of Marketing Yourself

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.

incitement penang hin bus depot

Here’s me, the first of three speakers at The Incitement Penang on 29 May 2015 at Hin Bus Depot

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.)

incitement penang hin bus depot

An interesting night for me

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).

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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.

But I am a huge fan of learning. Whatever I don’t know, I know somehow somewhere out there, there is a book for it. And the book I found was this book by Leil Lowndes called How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships.

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?

Thank you.

incitement penang hin bus depot

The Q&A session at the end of the 3 talks

 

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!

My Interview With Mak Lan of Lidiana

I interviewed Mak Lan of Lidiana’s in Tanjung Bungah for the 8 March International Women’s Day exhibition.

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!

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Lidiana nasi campur Tanjung Bungah

My friend & photographer taking photos of Mak Lan

“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. 

nasi campur with ulam Penang

Nasi campur with fresh herbs and ulam

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. 

Malay style stir fried vegetables

Malay style stir fried vegetables at Lidiana

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. 

fried ikan terubok

Fried ikan terubok, a bestseller at Lidiana

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. 

Customers lining up for lunch at Lidiana Tanjung Bungah

Customers lining up for lunch at Lidiana Tanjung Bungah

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.  

lidiana tanjung bungah nasi campur

Lidiana’s is open 6 days a week and is Tanjung Bungah’s best place for nasi campur

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.” 

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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). 

Living On One Dollar

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. 

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Find out more about the documentary at www.livingononedollar.org 

Find out about the Snowland Ranag Light of Education School at www.srleschool.edu.np or email: db.rinpochetrust@gmail.com 

It Takes Two

The more I want to sit down and post my thoughts, the more stuff lands on my plate and the more they drag me away from blogging.

Such is life, sometimes!

I had a great Chinese New Year break – despite the fact I didn’t get to visit Bangkok with my parents, no thanks to the political unrest in Thailand. My sister and I were quite adamant that we go, protest or not but the thing with travelling with parents is that they INSIST everyone stay home and quit moaning about not going shopping in Bangkok.

I was so looking forward to a change in my Chinese New Year routine so we got our Air Asia tickets cancelled (and got the credit shell from them in exchange – they weren’t giving us back our money but credit shell was all right).

Read more

The Accidental Entrepreneur

Hello. I am back.

Yes. I have been missing. But for good reason. Sometimes we all need a break, even from our favourite rant machines a.k.a our blogs. Sometimes there’s just too much to say and sometimes there’s no reason to say anything. I’d rather have something important to share than gab on mindlessly.

Anyway, you must be intrigued by today’s post title.

I got around to thinking about this when Alexandra, a friend who writes for The Star’s Weekender, emailed me. We were in USM together about a decade ago and although we weren’t in the same course, we met up while taking elective classes. In her email, she said that I didn’t really look like the type to go into business. She figured I’d be a lecturer or something like that. The bookish sort, really.

I am what you would call an Accidental Entrepreneur.

I got around to pickling her question in my head. It is an interesting observation from a friend. You know how sometimes we go around having this Image in our heads of ourselves and suddenly someone comes along and tells you the Image of You that they have in their heads?

Yup. It makes for a great dissection. (Also another friend, Rona asked a very provocative question – should she still be an Employee or start a new chapter as an Entrepreneur?)

I started thinking. Now what if I weren’t running this business with Nic? What would I really be doing? Did I even imagine running a business? Hell no. I never even minored in Management while in university when all my coursemates did and here I am, running a business.

How things turn out…

I always believed (OK laugh if you want) that I’d be some head of the corporate communications department in some glitzy multinational corporation. Oh, perhaps jetting about every few weeks or so. Ordering subordinates about to write press releases, plan the next press conference etc. I’d be president or at least VP some day (you know I watch too many TV dramas about climbing the corporate ladder – actually I wanted to be a hotshot lawyer but that is totally another story for another post).

The thing is, I NEVER majored in PR either during my years in university.

Completely odd.

I did Journalism and minored in English. Then I had itchy fingers and went back to uni to get my Masters (in English!) just for fun. It was that time that I jumped from being gainfully employed (makan gaji) to being the mistress of my own universe (running a business with my husband).

The things people often told me not to do, I did anyway. Just to experience life on the wild side, so to say. I quit a well-paid job to go into the unknown. I had no experience except that kind that I racked up as an employee. I had no idea what I was going to do except use my skills in writing for the business. My Dad was secretly worried I’d be eating Maggi mee for the rest of my sad life. The other no-no is never run a business with family (that includes spouse) because it complicates relationships. Personal is personal and business is business right?

But the weirdest part is, I’m still around and I am truly enjoying this chapter of my life. I wouldn’t consider myself particularly enterprising in that gung-ho, in-your-face way.

There’s no need to be ruthless or unethical or even plain money-minded. Those myths about people in business belong to the last century! (That said, I can be quite persistent when it comes to money matters.)

It starts with me and myself.

Running a business is always crazy – you are responsible for what you do, or don’t do. I’ve had to pick up and read a whole lorry-load of marketing and business books (and I still read ’em).

I’ve had to learn psychology because when you deal with people, you need to understand what makes us all behave the way we do. I’ve had to change my mindset (don’t go after clients, attract them to you).

I’ve had to change the way I viewed life (my most precious resource now is Time and don’t let others waste your time unnecessarily).

I’ve had to re-learn what I know (customers aren’t always right and you must get rid of those who suck the lifeblood off you) and yes, remove those awful habits that were in the way of success (if you want to get ahead in business, you must factor time for play – really it’s all about working smart).

Much of the growing comes from the inside.

For the past few years, Nic and I find ourselves challenged in so many ways. And each time we hit a wall, we only only re-strategize and come out better, we’ve also created some of our own ways and systems to deal with future issues.

It’s your game, play it your way.

Whenever we face an issue, I always tell Nic, “Look, it’s our business. We can run it however we want. We can make our own rules if we don’t like the old ones.” You see, in business, we can run the business any way we want. There’s no hard and fast rule. If you know Nic, you know he has never been one to toe the line. All his university friends know this. If there’s a rule to be broken, my mad husband will be the one to break it.

I can tell you what I love about running our own business. We can take a vacation any time we want and however long we want (that is why the system set-up is so important). Our last holiday was a 10-day stretch with minimal email. We can go off at a moment’s notice (we once had a durian lunch on a Wednesday and took the rest of the day off). We can have the freedom to do the things we like, as long as the team knows how to do their tasks right. But it wasn’t overnight. We struggled through a lot in the early years, fighting a lot of inner demons, adapting, modifying and figuring out how we were to run this business. Oh and lots of arguments too. Nic and I have differing opinions on most things and we often have to argue things out first.

The secret sauce to a more intriguing marriage.

Having a business also brings a special dimension to our marriage. While most spouses grouse about not having anything in common to discuss, we have a bit too many! Our business discussions sometimes go way overboard, during meal times, during holidays, during family events. We talk about marketing ideas, we talk about clients’ issues, we talk about our next big thing to do, we buy and read the same marketing books and get excited over business stuff most people find tedious.

Oh and we see each other all the time. I see him 24/7. (God, give me a break sometimes! That is why I go off on my own at times – maybe that’s really why I started a businesswomen’s networking group.)

The thing is, running a business can be the most exciting thing for some people once they “fall” accidentally into it (like me).

Funnily though, I was also quite happy being an employee. Sure there were office politics and petty annoyances. But I loved every bit of it. I loved reporting to my CEO and telling him what I had planned for the Corp Comms department. I loved the office parties and gossip. I enjoyed the offsite retreats.

So are you cut out to be a business owner?

I guess what I’m trying to say is this – you may not think of yourself as particularly enterprising or business-like but running a (small) business has a lot of advantages – personally and financially. If you’re the type who likes being independent and making decisions or solving problems and can retain a sense of humour about it all, it’s gratifying to be in business for yourself.

The not-so-nice part is, the early years can be tough on you and your family. If you are willing to rough it out and live on less, you can probably make it. We rented an apartment for 9 years because whatever we made, we re-invested in the business. The business came first. We didn’t have a holiday for the longest time because we didn’t have proper systems in place – if we weren’t around, the business couldn’t run itself. If something happened, we had to fix it. No one else could do it for us. (Maybe I should start another blog on sharing the lessons learnt in our 13 years of business. Hmm…just a little maybe.)

And did I tell you we were a work-from-home business in the early years? Yup we were. I could tell you about the incredible joys and horrors of working from home.

So tell me, are you in business? What do you like about it? What do you despise about it? If you’re not in business, do you wish to be in it one day?