A Stab at Freedom

I was visiting Grace last Friday evening when we ended up talking about her work. She runs a business but at the same time, she is also helping out with the Vietnamese workers who come to Malaysia.
Grace is in a very special position to help her fellow Vietnamese friends – she herself is Vietnamese and she speaks both English and Vietnamese. She is also kind and warm and nurturing.
Talking to her was such a breath of fresh air because she truly shines with optimism despite the hardships she sees happening to Vietnamese workers who come here to work. In her eyes, there’s a fire of compassion and gutsiness.
She and her husband both volunteer with Tenaganita where they help with court cases involving Vietnam nationals. It helps that her husband is a lawyer who is proficient in Vietnamese too.
She recounted tales of how Vietnamese girls were duped to work in Malaysia. When they arrive, they are immediately sent to East Malaysia (Sabah particularly) to work in massage parlours. In these seedy joints, they are forced to become prostitutes to service male clients. They cannot escape as their passports are held by the ‘agent’ who brought them into this country.
One Vietnamese girl braved herself to get help by contacting Vietnam through fax. Eventually she was rescued.
But she’s only one of the lucky stories.
What about the unlucky ones who never get a chance at freedom?
Another case was of male Vietnam workers who came to work in Penang but their employer never pays them their salaries, withholding the salaries for a reason. And because their passports again are held by their agent, they have no means of escape. And they still work 12-hour days.
“But how do they live if they have no money?”
Grace gives a grim smile. “They borrow from their fellow Vietnamese friends. They live on credit.”
Through a network of friends, some are lucky enough to get in touch with the organisation that Grace volunteers for. Then comes the tedious process of making police reports, going to court, getting their passports back and all that jazz.
Human trafficking in Malaysia is a serious matter. Malaysia always gets into the news for the wrong reasons and we’re in Tier 3 in the 2007 U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report.
Reason? For not fully complying with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and not making significant efforts to do so.
Accordingly, “Malaysia is destination country for a significant number of men women, and children who are trafficked from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, and the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.), India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan for sexual and labor exploitation. Many victims voluntarily migrate to Malaysia to work in factories, construction and agricultural sectors, or as domestic servants, but are later coerced into debt bondage or involuntary servitude.”
It’s a sad fact.
It’s happening under our very noses. Sometimes we don’t know it because we don’t come across people like Grace. Sometimes we live in our middle-class world, ensconced in our material comforts and don’t bother to know.
Another friend also works closely with the poor. And he told me that he was shocked beyond belief when he visited a squatter area which had burnt down not too long ago in Seberang Perai.
“I couldn’t believe this is Malaysia,” he said.
He saw the poor in their wrecked hovels, with nothing to call their own and who had lived for decades without running water or proper sanitation system. And no one did anything to help them. Initially when he and his friends went to help them by giving them food and blankets, the poor were suspicious. They looked at outsiders with unfriendly eyes and they didn’t feel comfortable talking to them. Many didn’t go to school because they did not have birth certificates! Their fathers were drunkards. This wasn’t a Tamil movie. This was real life and it was unfurling before my friend’s eyes.
He’s trying to help in the ways that he can.
And that is why I am grateful for him and Grace and countless others who have the heart to help people we normally don’t see in our everyday lives.
These folks are under the radar. They are not visible to us because they live in a totally different world from us.
But it brings home a concept we take for granted: freedom. Freedom from poverty, freedom from bondage, freedom from modern-day slavery.
I say we are all very lucky. Very lucky indeed.

Why I Stayed…And Other Such Rubbish

I know I’m supposed to regale you with my traveller’s log but I had to interrupt and put that on hold for a while while I get this off my chest.
This topic bugged me to no end especially after I watched last night’s Oprah Winfrey show where this pastor’s wife spoke about her husband’s infidelity and wrote a book titled “Why I Stayed”. Yes, you guessed it right. She stayed put in the marriage after her husband confessed that he took drugs and had a gay lover!
“I loved him and I still do.” She said something to that effect.
Of course locally we don’t have to look too far for such marital trangressions.
What I still cannot understand (and no, don’t tell me that personal is personal and public is public because when one is in the public eye, everything is public but try telling this to our Malaysian politicians!) is that some have the gall to bounce back victoriously!
Yeah, so Malaysian politicians are cheap.
Tell me about it. They’re cheap and men”siahsuay”kan.
Even after their bed prowess videos have been circulated like no one’s business, they’re still back in business. Either some voters are as blind as masturbating bats or they really think a man without morals can lead them. Either way, that party’s going to the dogs.
But his wife. His wife stuck to him. Weathered the damn storm with him.
And of course, that great drama by Jack Neo during the press conference not too long ago in Singapore takes the cake for him being the most cowardly man who got found out for infidelity.
Not only did he not dare to face the media alone (come on, where are your balls?), he dragged his poor wife with him, traumatising the woman to no end. I used to have great respect for Jack although his movies are on the preachy side and sounds like the Singaporean Government mouthpiece at times. I thought he had heart. He made REAL movies. It’s sad that even men like that can be brought down by sheer lust and power.
And let’s not forget people like Tiger. But he’s old news now that he’s back in the golf circuit. All’s forgiven because without this man on the green, there really isn’t much to cheer about for golf is it? At least Tiger was man enough NOT to drag his wife into his press conference.
But my point is, why do women stay on?
Why do they stay on and give their men a second chance? Or am I the only ruthless, heartless one?
Why do they quietly accept that men are men and they will stray? Or do they accept that no matter how far the man strays, he will still come back to the home?
What about women? If women strayed, will their husbands be as forgiving?
Someday I would like to meet with women whose husbands have strayed and I really want to interview them and understand why they stayed.
I wouldn’t. I couldn’t live with myself if I did.
Would you? Could you?

The Book of Me

And no, I am not being narcissistic LOL.
Dotty, as always, remembers my birthday with such thoughtful gifts that I am sometimes quite embarrassed! Of course it makes me feel special and honoured. Each time, without fail, something arrives in the post.
Thanks Dotty – for always being there. I know how odd this must seem for both of us, that we’ve never met, not even once and yet we are the best of penpals in this digital, Facebook, Twitter age.
I love “The Book of ME…A Do-It-Yourself Memoir”. I promise to write down all those honest and crazy things about myself so that I can cackle over them when I am 80!

And of course, who can forget the quirky card with a cow looking cute and sleepy at the same time?
Dotty – you outdo yourself each year.
Thanks for everything, pal! And yes makan-makan we must!

The Sojourner's Tale

Hong Kong was a good break.
We were there for 10 days but we did not go to HK Disneyland, having heard that it wasn’t such a big deal. Moreover I’d been to Ocean Park before so I didn’t want to spend a precious day at a theme park.
Funnily enough, most people go to HK on a whirlwind 5-day, 4-night trip to cover the must-see sights and popular spots. Fair enough.
But to truly understand a country, one must take time. Time is what you have the least when you have money. That is when you most need to get away.
HK, small as it is and dense as it may be, deserves more time particularly if you really want to get under their skin and find out what makes the Hong Kongers such a resilient, smart and quick workforce. They’re like ants, forever industrious and forever moving along speedily.
We had 10 days to explore and literally stop to smell flowers. In my case, I was forever stopping to bend over some osmanthus bushes to inhale the gorgeously sweet fragrance. Osmanthus (or “kwai fah” in Cantonese) is also a herb which you can make into a nourishing tea. You can get dried golden osmanthus flowers even here in Penang at herbalist shops.
But nothing beats the real thing, of course.
And stopping to truly close one’s eyes to smell the osmanthus is something one does not get to do everyday, not in tropical Malaysia where I heard this temperate plant cannot really grow too well.
In my head, I am always the journo with a keen eye for sights and sounds. Particularly when I travel, I try as much to absorb the experience so I can come home and transform these insights into my blog or journal.
Having said that, our trip to Hong Kong wasn’t so much of a break as it was an escape into the novel and new. Sometimes we get away so that we can be refreshed with ideas.
Many famous artists and poets recommend travelling and living abroad for a few years, if only to foreground the familiar. Comparisons, while odious, can be make easily because we humans thrive on differences.
We can only see differences if we get out of our familiar surroundings and stimulate our brains. In a new place, our brains work better somehow.
In an alien land, we start to ‘see’.
And so, this trip – worthy of more than a couple of blog posts – will be a subject for a few weeks at least.
There’s so much I want to share with you, if only to remind myself what humorous episodes we experienced or what culture shocks we had.
I spoke a lot more Cantonese in HK than I ever did in my life.
I started to really value how versatile and multifaceted we are here because we could speak in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien and Bahasa Malaysia. (We met a Taiwanese man who was totally surprised we could speak Hokkien. The Hong Kongers we met often looked impressed that we could bark back at them in Cantonese, coloured by our Malaysian accent, nevertheless! And to bitch about the locals while riding the MTR, we used BM.)
In our 10-days in chilly HK where temperatures fluctuated between 14 to 18C and the day was mostly grey and overcast, I appreciated the sunshine a lot more when we landed in hot old Penang.
Heck, even landing on Malaysian soil and handing my passport over to the Immigration officer felt so familiar and comfy. In HK, the Immigration officer just throws the passport back at us, which I find (and I am sure I am not the only one) totally rude! (Hong Kong Tourism Board, you may have spiffy campaigns and great ads but you sure have to educate your Immigration officers on civil behaviour.)
We learnt so much about what made Hong Kongers tick which a 5-day trip would never uncover. It helped that we stayed with a Malaysian friend who works in HK. We had a temporary home for a while.
In travels, one can be a tourist or one can be sojourner. Nic and I do not wish to be the typical tourist, wanting to cover all tourist spots just so we could show off photos of where we’ve been or where we ate.
Travel is a private endeavour because only you and you alone can understand what you see and felt. And there’s really nothing more boring to your friends than forcefully showing them your hundreds of digital photos – they weren’t there and they really don’t quite care. What they cared about are your stories of your travels. The photos are secondary.
A sojourn is one where lots of reflection takes place as the new land unfolds its magic.
In the beginning, all is wondrous and strange. Then one finds one’s way slowly, navigating along, being curious about everything.
In a way, it is like becoming a child again. Everything fascinates, even the grumpy old lady who sells hot sweet potato and hot chestnuts. Everything feels new, like watching with growing interest as the piles of people busily flocked this way and that, while we stood at the kerbside, eating our ice creams.
Come back as our stories get told…