Pirates, Bookworms & Six-Figures Later

Decided to write this piece for posterity. You know how stories that get told and retold become unrecognizable a few years down the road?

I never want that to happen.

I want to write this story down so that you know the real story. Not some story that someone else tells and cannibalizes it until it’s a poor shadow of itself. I have seen this happen with a local church set up as some people take credit as no one knows the real story. And the person behind the real story is too humble to correct the incorrect story! (But not me. This is why everyone needs their own blog/website. You own a piece of online real estate that’s your best media and your own media. You get to tell your story. And it lives on the Internet forever if you don’t delete it.)

The BAC logo that Nic designed for the FB Group.

Until today, I still get calls from regular aunties and uncles (who got our numbers from the Guang Ming and Sin Chew newspaper write-ups) about donating books to our TSN BAC. You will see a video I created about BAC when you click this link – Taman Sri Nibong Book Adoption Centre.

Even as recently as last Saturday, a Madam Ho called and excitedly asked in Mandarin if I was with that centre that took in books. I, in my most articulate Mandarin (ahem), told her about our BAC and what we did with books that were donated.

She said, “Oh good. You all are not going to take my books and turn them into scrap paper right? I have very good books but I am moving so I have to donate them.”

See? That was my (and Nic’s) sentiments some 3 years ago when we went to the Tzu Chi Recycling Centre in our taman. The taman is Taman Sri Nibong, Penang.

We had brought our plastics and paper to recycle and we saw a volunteer tearing up books!

To bookworms, it’s a horror movie on its own.

Nic even asked the volunteer if we could buy some of the books. The volunteer said no outright. He said that all publicly donated recyclables had to be recycled. (I know, it’s a facepalm moment.)

Yes, they tore up books that people sent to the centre because they said it was the policy that all contributed recyclables were to be recycled. We even asked if we could buy these books but they said, no, it is a policy that they had to recycle the books, no matter how good they were.

In our minds, we were thinking, what a stupid policy! Either the person we spoke to wasn’t a real Tzu Chi member or if he were, he was not exercising his wisdom.

How could anyone in their right mind tear up books that other people could read? Whatever happened to reuse, reduce and recycle (paying particular attention to ‘reuse’ or repurpose)? And by the way, they were always talking about 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle!

For the longest time, whenever Nic and I went to the recycling centre to drop off our recyclables we didn’t hang around much. I couldn’t bear the thought of good books being torn up and sold as scrap paper for a mere 30 sen per kilogramme!

We were upset with such a dumb policy and so for months after that, we just went to the centre just to sort out our own recyclables and didn’t really look in the direction of the paper scrapping section.

About a year later, we met with another Tzu Chi member whom we had spoken regularly to. He was a fatherly sort of man in his 60s by the name of Brother Goh. He was the second in command at the centre. One time when we were chatting with him, he led us to an area that was filled with boxes of books and asked us if we would like to do something with the books. Brother Goh had saved these books from being turned into mere scrap paper.

That was in March 2016.

Nic and I thought about this for a while and later decided to help do something about the mini-mountain of books. First, they had to be sorted. We started spending our weekends bent over hordes of books, separating them into English and Chinese books. Then we began to rope in EY who brought his daughters to help us sort books. It was messy, dusty work and we were often bitten by mosquitoes that lurked in the centre (it was previously an old food court that MBPP didn’t know what to do about so Tzu Chi leased it from MBPP to run the recycling centre).

We were given a small cubicle to arrange the books we’d sorted. Was it a library? Was it a free book section? How were we going to catalogue the books? What kinds of books were we going to accept or feature?

In the end, we decided that it was to be a book adoption centre. It was NOT a library given that we had no manpower to take care of the library nor did we have a catalogue system (and who was ever going to take charge of cataloguing the books?). It was not a free-for-all section as we wanted to give back to Tzu Chi.

A book adoption was the best system that we could think of. Yes, Nic and I thought about this and named it such and made it into a triple win system for the book contributor, the book lover and Tzu Chi.

Took my Kiwi friend, Olie Body, for a tour of the Book Adoption Centre recently when she visited me in Penang.

It’s a triple win because 1) you get a place to donate your beloved books, 2) the public that loves books get to have a chance to adopt books and donate towards Tzu Chi Penang plus 3) Tzu Chi gets the money they need for funding their dialysis centres.

The public loved the idea and that’s how we started to get so much publicity from reporters who happily came to interview us. We had NTV7, 8TV, Sin Chew and Guang Ming feature our BAC. The idea was novel and the fact that we were giving books a second chance and giving new homes to old books struck a chord with book lovers everywhere. (See Nic’s interview on TV when you click this link.)

We also started with a core group – Nic, me, EY and later, Alan and Eddie joined us. As our books started to pile up, we quickly ran out of space and we had to move from one cubicle to two cubicles and now, BAC takes up a quarter of the recycling centre’s space. That’s how many books we have in our BAC now.

When we had an official opening for our BAC, we pulled in a crowd and even NTV7 and 8TV reported about the uniqueness of our centre. We even managed to get our ADUN, Dato’ Saifuddin Nasution, to come for a visit.

Along the way, BAC started to grow as more people loved the idea and wanted to help out. We accept everyone willingly because there’s a lot to do in BAC. The physical centre needs managing too – from someone to water the plants and shrubs, sweeping the floor, dusting the books, sorting books, etc. Even the Tzu Chi recycling centre in Taman Lumba Kuda now keeps books for us so we get books from all sources.

Between me and EY, we started a Facebook Group called TSN Book Adoption Centre that is growing in numbers week by week. At this point in time, we have about 2,796 members from all over Malaysia. The volunteers who work with us also post up photos of newly contributed books in the Facebook Group so that online members or followers can ‘adopt’ the books. So it’s not just a physical walk-in centre, we’ve spread ourselves online too. And our books are in high demand because unlike a bookstore, we don’t know what kinds of books come in until they come in and are sorted! (Think of a treasure trove of books.)

So it’s like a fun adventure for all members online to stay glued to our FB Group, awaiting our VODs (volunteers-on-duty) to post up exciting new finds each weekend. They get to reserve the books for a flat fee and the books will be posted to them once they agree to contribute the amount directly into the Tzu Chi bank account.

Once the donation is given, EY and Eddie start the book packing process. Some book adopters are so consistent with their book adoptions that special shelves are allocated with their names. The reserved books will be packed, weighed and hauled off to Pos Malaysia by our strong man Eddie. When Eddie is unwell, we have a backlog of books to be packed! However, EY and Eddie are such a good team that most “orders” are sent out within a week or two. I call them our e-commerce team as what they do is essentially e-commerce.

EY basically is the COO of BAC. He arranges the weekly time-table for our volunteers, ensuring they turn up on time for duty. Duty means being there to oversee the centre and ensuring the public who come toddling into the centre know the rules of adoption.

We have had greedy and stingy people who sneak lots of good books out of BAC without giving a single cent. Once, I had to confront a woman in her 60s for taking out more than 20 books (“for her grandchildren” or so she says) and when I asked her pointedly and irately to donate, she said she had no money. There truly is no remedy for greed.

We have also had one so-called TCM practitioner who used to cart away lots of good Chinese books on medicine. EY later discovered that this same man was then selling these books on Facebook!

Because of these shenanigans, we have implemented a 15-book per individual policy.

But this blog post isn’t about the crazy shit that people do. It’s about something that I want to raise – about people in religious organisations. It’s the people that make things work and it’s also the people who make things worse!

We have always been transparent with the donations that we get from walk-in adopters, online adopters and adopters from our Occupy Beach Street as well as the children in schools when some of our team go to schools with books for the school outreach programme. To date, we have raised RM100,000 from BAC for Tzu Chi Penang. It is no small figure and no small feat. Imagine all these books being scrapped by Tzu Chi and sent to paper recyclers!

Nic, founder of TSN BAC, tells his story at our last gathering recently to the BAC volunteers

It was a perfect arrangement. When we started, Nic and I were not Tzu Chi members. We still aren’t. Organized religious bodies are not our kind of thing.

BAC started off as a rogue project, a pirate project if you like. We didn’t start with many rules. The only rules were – save books, give readers a chance to adopt and read books at a lower cost and prevent books from being scrapped and give the donated money back to Tzu Chi (since our source of books was from the recycling centre).

BAC is also successful because we started with few rules and we had the right factors in our favour (we live in an urban area, we had people who were middle-class and literate, we had volunteers who were folks who worked in the nearby multinational corporations, we had space to do this and a neverending source of books).

BAC is also what it is today because people believed in our mission of saving books and giving them new life and new owners. BAC is also an innovation that couldn’t have happened within Tzu Chi Penang itself because they themselves had too many rules. When you have too many restrictions, you cannot think out of the box. It’s the sad truth but this is what innovation is about – being roguish and a little bit pirate and everything ninja.

Nic and I came to the project without any rules in mind except one mission – to save books.

When I look back at the past 3 years and how we have become such a hit with readers across Malaysia, the money we have raised, the books we found new and good homes for, the team that came together for a mission, I am deeply thankful. (We had the chance to tell our BAC founding story to a group of Catholic students last year when we were invited as guest speakers at their church camp and we have also sent books to the orang asli in Negeri Sembilan who wanted to start a village library for their children. We have had volunteers who found more meaning in life by helping out at our BAC on weekends especially the young and single who want to do some community work.)

And yet, this is where Part 2 of our story comes into play.

I am writing Part 2 of this story because I want people to know the truth about people, power and control.

For the longest time, as a rogue project, BAC was called TSN BAC where TSN stands for Taman Sri Nibong – the place we are in. When we concocted the name, Nic and I believed that as a rogue project, it is good to distance ourselves from Tzu Chi because what we were doing didn’t fit into their rules.

Originally they said that they HAD to scrap and tear all books that the public brought to the recycling centre.

We figured that this was a stupid idea and policy. Where’s the wisdom in doing so?

As a rogue project, we could be a separate entity to do what they couldn’t do or be seen doing. Most of our volunteers weren’t even Tzu Chi members; many were friends of mine who had seen and heard about the project and wanted to be part of it. They really didn’t care much for Tzu Chi, truth be told.

Things started to get disturbing when some of the volunteers went to schools for the school outreach programme. They were asked to wear the Tzu Chi vests over their BAC shirts. Apparently, if we were out to collect donations, it is best to go out under the Tzu Chi brand. A few of our volunteers were really upset as they were not Tzu Chi members!

Once BAC started to grow in popularity and became more well known than the recycling centre, one person inside Tzu Chi decided he was going to set the rules. He said that now BAC was under Tzu Chi. He claimed this project (which was created and started by Nic and I) to be theirs. That wasn’t the part that riled us. The part that pissed me off completely was that we couldn’t reprint or redesign new BAC t-shirts for the volunteers!

I understand how little Napoleans work. Before the project was successful, he didn’t care if BAC lived or died. Now that the revenue from BAC was far more than the recycling centre, people started to take notice. This particular person decided to claim it all for himself and park BAC under Tzu Chi. I really don’t care much but what they forget is that if it was still a rogue project, they had lots of leeways. If it really parked under Tzu Chi, they have some major problems they cannot explain or solve.

Why couldn’t they leave BAC as a rogue project and happily pocket the monthly RM5K to RM7K that we were bringing in to them? By the way, our BAC is the one and only book adoption centre in all of Malaysia and the only one in Tzu Chi so much so that other Tzu Chi chapters such as the one from Melaka came to study our model. Unfortunately, they haven’t replicated BAC yet. It looks simple but it takes the right thinking to get it started.

Because we are the one and only BAC in Malaysia and perhaps even globally, I can see why this person wants to claim this rogue project as his own – conveniently forgetting to inform the people in Tzu Chi Taiwan that two non-Tzu Chi people thought of this brilliant idea.

Now here’s the dumbest part.

One day, someone from Tzu Chi Taiwan came to visit BAC. He spotted a book with a so-called unsavoury cover. He started questioning the people in charge why such a book is allowed in BAC. We accept all books of all genres even holy books like the Quran and the Bible. These books are donated by the general public. We believe that you should be given a democratic choice in deciding what you want to read or adopt. This is not the Tzu Chi bookshop. At one point, we had lots of Japanese manga and again, this disturbed the higher-ups as manga contains graphics that offended their puritanical sensitivities. If they had let BAC stay a rogue entity, they could have easily wash their hands off such issues.

But money, fame and power are so addictive and enticing.

I’ve stayed away from the BAC now for these reasons because it is so disappointing to know that the very folks who talk about “gan en” (gratitude) or helping others are just another bunch of hypocrites. Nic and I are slowly removing ourselves and distancing ourselves from BAC now as the internal leadership is nothing but a farce.

I am thankful for my own space in this blog that I can write about this openly. I want others to know this story and see for themselves how people who are selfish will always be selfish no matter which organisation they are in, religious or otherwise.

Nic and I have created and started many initiatives in business and for our community and this is but one of them. We have some interesting plans for 2020 with regards to our original mission of saving books. Stay tuned.

We decided that BAC now is no longer the original pure BAC that we envisioned. It’s a tragic truth but with all endings, new beginnings arise. There’s always opportunity and this may be a blessing in disguise for me, Nic and some of the pioneer team members.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth that Tzu Chi Penang doesn’t want to hear – Nic and I started BAC because we didn’t like seeing how the Tzu Chi volunteers at the recycling centre were tearing up books! They were just very good rule followers, never once questioning the archaic and ridiculous practices (this is exactly why innovation is about being rebellious – you can’t work in the system that locks you down and shuts you up).

In the future, they would erase the founding story too precisely because they can’t tell the founding story as by telling the founding story, they would be branding them as rigid, unwise and inflexible. You see, that’s the problem with claiming something that’s not your own.

Anyway, I’m optimistic about our next phase with our BAC – no one can stop a good idea from spreading and in 2020, we will share with you what’s brewing. And if you are interested to be on our pirate ship, contact me. We won’t make you walk the gangplank but we are surely geared up for a damn good adventure!

The BAC team of volunteers today. We have grown to 30+ volunteers.

Of Ducks, Books & The Dreaded M Word

I met Alex of Bunnysprints last week for matcha latte at Secawan Hutton (a fabulous cafe by the way) and she reminded me that I have not been updating my blog. Thanks Alex for keeping me on my toes!
Anyway, she was up in Penang for work (she’s writing lots more business-related projects now and she sighs that people still think she does a lot of travel and food articles). I also wanted to meet her as I wanted to present her my book! (*doing a proud little jig*)
Yes, my book has been published (you can buy the print version or ebook version here). It hasn’t been launched yet. See how narcissistic we authors are these days? The book isn’t debuted properly until it has been launched, usually by some VIP because when VIPs come, so does the press. And that’s when we all get the five minutes of fame in the newspaper.

krista goon with alex wong
Alex and me in front of Secawan Hutton

So yes, my book’s all done and published. Nic and I are heaving huge sighs of relief! It was a project that we undertook because we figured that it was the last frontier. If you want to know all about the book, titled Web Wisdom (I know, I love my alliteration to death), go check out this blog post on my business blog. I tell you all about the ramifications of a writing a book and self-publishing it.
Back to Alex and our tete-a-tete.
Sometimes conversations can be startling. People often remind me of the things I told them years ago. I forget half the stuff I say but you never know how people hold on to some nuggets or words that resonate with them.
(Just like I read Alvin Ung’s book called Barefoot Leadership – an excellent book on Malaysian heroes, btw – and remember this about Helen Read, the founder of the fashion label, Ms Read. Helen Read endeavours to leave a public washroom clean so that the next person using it won’t be disgusted. I hold this in my heart each time I use a public restroom. I flush properly and sometimes even use the water hose to hose down the floor of the toilet cubicle so that there are no nasty footprints etc. I think that’s true consideration and empathy for the next user of the loo! You see, I remember things like these. Things that others may scoff at and say, well, that’s why you have people who wash loos, right? At least I can make the world a better place, starting with the public loo!)
At our women entrepreneur showcase last week, a KL friend attended and then told me in a Facebook comment that I’d once told her that a duck may glide effortlessly on the lake but underneath the surface, the legs are paddling furiously. What looks successful may have taken lots of effort; effort that most people do not see and assume immediately that success is easy for others.
I was touched she remembered these words of mine.
web wisdom book
Nic and I with our KL friend and book-buyer, SY Phang

Because it certainly took years for me to produce a book despite being a seasoned blogger, copywriter, and communicator. It took me and Nic some time to decide what type of book to write. In my younger days, I fantasized that I’d be writing fiction.
How life turns out. Our first book is non-fiction. It’s about websites and how to use them for effective marketing. It’s meant for small business owners.
When I was talking to Alex, she reminded me that I told her years ago that she should focus on marketing. She said that back then, she thought I was the literary sort and those words coming from me didn’t seem to make sense.
It now makes sense to her and bless her, she took action (many people may listen but never take action at all). She learnt marketing. She learnt how to position herself and her writing and price her services like a true business professional. She is now reaping the rewards of taking herself seriously as someone who can help business owners communicate better.
I told her that there is no need to be starving writer, just like there’s no need to be a starving artist if only the writers and artists marketed themselves. There is nothing wrong with marketing one’s skills. There is everything wrong if you have a damn good skill and you’re not marketing yourself, hoping that people will find you on their own!
I’ve never been too literary for marketing, that’s for sure. I don’t know when I started to be a convert of my own beliefs and philosophy of marketing but I know that I am all the better for it. Without marketing, I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have today. Like right now.
Even Audrey, my book editor, told me that I made marketing something that’s not sleazy. I see so many experts of their field who remain just that – people full of good knowledge but without the knowledge of marketing themselves in positive ways.
That’s why I am such a huge advocate of marketing without cheesiness or sleaze. I call it authentic marketing. It’s making sure people know about your skills and abilities in good ways and remember you when they need your skills the most (especially if they’re ready to hire you or work with you).
Writers who only know how to write and expect the crowd to beat a “lorong” to their door won’t be able to see much happening. As a writer (or any other profession), you need to get out there and tell the world what makes you special or worth working with.
Having the attitude of “I’m a writer, not a hustler” and that “my work sells itself” won’t cut it today. And never, ever call yourself a freelance something (freelance artist, freelance writer, freelance designer).
Adding the word “freelance” just tells people that your prices can be bargained down to a pittance and you don’t have a union to complain to (and they can bully you however they want). If you need to have a designation, call yourself a writer. Only you need to know you’re a freelancer.
Alex illustrated the need for marketing accurately when she told me that she had been a regular patron to this cafe in KL (around her neighbourhood). The woman would bend over backwards to serve her customers well. She cooked well.
But she didn’t pay attention to marketing. Dear Alex with her heart of gold hinted multiple times about helping her do some marketing but the lady said she didn’t have time for marketing. Eventually, her business fizzled out. She lost her cafe and Alex lost a place for good food! When a small business collapses, it isn’t just one person’s loss. The entire neighbourhood could be pining for what could have been!
So there. I’ve said my piece about marketing. I hope to say more but I don’t want to be some old broken record.
(If you’re wondering why the long silence, my mum passed away in August. I didn’t feel like writing much after the funeral though I did journal. I cried pots of tears. I still get a bit pensive when I think of my mum. You can read this post on my other blog to find out more.)
p/s: I must be getting famous. Just last week, a friend whatsapped me saying that she got an FB friend request from a profile page with MY photo but the person apparently was named Shin Ching. I quickly reported it to FB and in 2 minutes, the profile page was deleted by FB. Still, it was such a weird feeling knowing that someone just took my photo and started a FB page! Unfortunately for that impersonator, I have friends who know me and alerted me before any damage could be done. Quick tip: there’s no need to confront the impersonator. Just complain to FB and they will take care of it.

Reading Autism

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).
You can’t write if you don’t read. Extensively.
I was loaned Anthony Macris’ When Horse Became Saw just a few days before the close of the year by Vern.
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 read Temple Grandin’s book and watched a movie made about her life. I’ve read The Spark:: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism, an inspiring book written by a mother who didn’t give up on her autistic son and whose son turned out to be a prodigy.
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.

My Lean In Story

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? 

No.

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! 

 

Leaning In, Leaning Out

I would have never read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book if it were not for YB Chong Eng. Honestly. Even though I am a big fan of books, I always have too much to read, too little time and too much planning.

Sheryl Sandberg Lean In Book
Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Book

As it is, I am always reading at least 3 books at any given time. A lot of people say they don’t have time to read. I say, you DON’T make time to read. Not having time is just a stupid excuse. And I hear this from educated people.
Can you stop watching so much of TV? (Anyway these days Astro keeps playing re-runs so I’d rather turn off the TV than watch another episode of some travel programme that’s spliced from previous programmes. Yes Astro, this is a hint. And stop bloody segmenting your channels. Soon, there’d be nothing left to watch. And that RM2 hike in subscription is magnificent. Simply magnificent. Since I have terminated my subscription to The Star and Flavours, perhaps one day Astro’s going to go too.)

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Of Russian Spies & Kenching

I’ve just finished reading a few books and by books I mean, fiction. In any given week, I’ll be plowing through a bunch of books (online and offline) but these days I read a lot of business and marketing and social psychology books.
To me, fiction is a respite from the business stuff, though I must say these days, some business books can be hilariously good.
I’ve been reading 2 books – one was loaned to me by Lerks and the other I dug up from god knows where.
The first book – my introduction to Anthony Burgess – is called The Malayan Trilogy. I have never read Burgess. I had no idea what sort of writer he was.
The only thing I knew was he wrote that magnificently famous Clockwork Orange which was turned into a movie (which I have not watched) and he used to live in Malaya.
Some googling brought me to this a local blog which said that Burgess’ book was supposedly banned in Malaysia.
Ah!

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Chicken Poo Leaf & A Sassy Penang Nyonya

The thing about Penang is, I don’t know how I know the people I know but I can tell you it can be quite discomforting to know that people know me!
Convoluted? Not really.
Not when these people tell me that “Oh, I’ve been reading your blog for ages and now I know you’re the blogger!”
I don’t know if that’s good or not.
Because you know and I know that I write for myself mainly. I write because it keeps my writing chops lean and mean. It keeps me sane in the insane world of marketing and business and new projects and my women’s entrepreneur group and all that.

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Saturday Book Club


It’s one of those things that just happened.

But it takes friendship and some love for books to make it come to life.
So Lerks and I have started our Saturday Book Club. It wasn’t planned to be  – it was just some crazy bantering over breakfast of homemade bread at her kitchen nook one day.
We had had breakfast and some masala chai and we’d adjourned to her spacious, comfy porch. It was a bright Saturday morning. Ai Lee had come a tad late but she was forgiven – she brought some utterly delicious appam from the Pulau Tikus market.
You know those moments when out of banter comes some serious talk.
The talk came around to books.
We started sharing about our fave authors.
Of course Lerks and Ai Lee didn’t have the hots for the marketing and business books I read. I couldn’t blame them. If you’re not in business, reading business books can be rather dry and trying (not to mention totally unapplicable to real life….at least I have the chance to try out some ideas in our business).
They started telling me that life (and women’s skin) start changing once you hit 40. I was like, OK. (And now you wonder why I stuff my face with goji berries and black sesame seeds and raw almonds?)
Goji berries are legendary for keeping you healthy all over while black sesame seeds are nutritious and get this, help your hair remain lustrous and silky and most importantly, black as a raven. Raw almonds is another snack I have on hand at all times. They’re chockfull of Vitamin E for again, great skin and great hair.
I love talking to my girl friends. They keep me real and feed me all sorts of fascinating information. From aging gracefully, we sauntered to books we love. That’s when Ai Lee and I spoke with such passion about Maya Angelou’s books that Lerks had to google for a podcast interview on Maya Angelou.
That’s how our Saturday Book Club was born.
We agreed to meet for breakfast and of course share about the books we love and bring along some books for an exchange.
But you know life gets in the way especially when Lerks has 3 kids with a part-time job, and Ai Lee’s a full-time teacher and me being me. So dates got pushed about, postponed, and all (amidst holidays and work and life).
We did meet – last Saturday – and despite Ai Lee going AWOL, Lerks and I and her sister, Ling, had a good two hours to talk about books we hated, books we loved.
I brought 3 books for Lerks – Jung Chang’s powerful Mao: The Unknown Story, Julia Childs’ My Life In France and Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain.
Above photo shows what she loaned me.
All authors that I’ve never read before but these are books that came highly recommended so I shall give them a spin. Though these days, time is always in short supply. So much to read, do, plan!
We did agree that Virginia Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic was one of the worst (and most traumatic) books we both read as teenagers.
Maybe one day our Saturday Book Club will be as famous as Oprah’s Book Club!

Honestly Murakami

Did I tell you I am usually horrible at luck games but often lucky when it comes to contests and such?
This means if I go to a casino, I’d never win money. The slot machines will eat up my money so much so that I’ve given up.  I don’t take that kind of risk with my money. That is why I don’t like family holidays which centre around Genting Highlands. A total waste of time and money.
And then there’s the chill.
I don’t tolerate cold very well (not that heat gets any better). At least with heat, I can shower or I can switch on my room aircond. With the cold, I can’t even feel my feet and hands and wrapping up like a Michelin man makes me look like a whale. Or a blimp.
So over the years (actually many years) I’ve won a number of prizes. My biggest win was a 5D4N trip for two to Bangkok and Pattaya in 2001. This was a funny win – it was like God was playing a trick on me. You see it was a Campbell Soup contest and I’d been bitching about how awful their ads were. I’d entered their slogan-writing contest for the fun of it and when I won third prize, I was like – “Really?”
Usually the contests I’d win were those which needed creative slogans. I love those. Those contests give me an edge because I love playing with words and making sentences rhyme. He he.
This year, I won myself two prizes – one was a set of miniature Monin syrups (it was a contest from Flavours magazine of which I am a loyal subscriber – been one for the past 7 years) and the other was a 900-page book by Haruki Murakami.
Of course the book has a special place in my heart.
I’d entered the contest because I had bought 2 Murakami novels from Borders here in Queensbay Mall early this year. I have never read Murakami before this although a lot of people have been gushing about this Japanese writer. He was something else. The something else bordered on mysticism and awe and an incredible sense of otherworldliness. And this was just about the writer!
When I read the books I’d bought, I went “eh?” They were dark and sombre, and had underpinnings of unfulfilled teenage angst and puberty blues. The kind of story where you reminisce about past loves and sexual encounters and wonder if you made the right soul mate choice.
Yes. It was strangely very much like Japanese films.
But the magic of Murakami is that he is able to hook you so freaking bad that you cannot put his book down. Even if the theme is dark and melancholic. It’s not like a page-turner like The Da Vinci Code because you want to solve the mystery. It’s a page-turner because it grips you and never lets you go. The characters become friends. You just want to know what happens.
And a lot happens within a Murakami book.
So it was with such glee that I collected my prize, Murakami’s latest bestseller, IQ84 from Borders when they called me up a few months ago. It was heavier than most books with a cover that was not exactly cheerful and happy. (When is Murakami cheerful and happy? I bet the man never smiles.)
And I immediately put it away.
I did that because I knew if I got started on page 1, I’d never do anything else. His stories are fantastical journeys, where things are not what they seem. Where women turn out to be assassins and where modern culture infuses Japanese norms.  He educates you about classical music, jazz, classic literature, wine, cats and wars. All wrapped up in love. That’s his classic theme.
Oh and there’s sex too. Lots of Freudian connotations. Nothing like a romance novel sex.
It’s like he put a hex on the book.
The moment you start reading, you cannot stop reading.
So things get undone, work gets left behind, laundry piles up, even hunger gets ignored if only to savour the next 20 pages of his book.
But two weeks ago, I decided to read my prize.
And I’m done with it. I spent a week blazing through the 900 plus pages. I had to.
How could I live with Murakami lying in wait in my store room just calling out to me?
Honestly, I am starting to love his work. If you ask me what genre it is, I don’t know. Murakami is hard to pigeonhole. His plots play with your mind, challenging you to accept fantastical imaginings and makes you re-look your world, if only to wonder if you are who you are.
They’re dangerous books because they will make you fall in love with the world again.
Because he writes about  classical music, jazz, classic literature, wine, cats and wars. And love. And melancholy.
That’s not too bad because at this moment, we’ve perhaps become a bit too jaded for our own good.

My Kerala Trip: Discovering Sankar

Another India post – a much delayed one!
On our final day in Sopanam, we had a plan. It was a plan borne out of the desire to see Kochi city, at least before we flew back to KL. Towns and such are located a distance from each other so we left Sopanam with our luggage all packed on top of our Innova. We would go to the airport directly after entering Kochi.

Sopanam to Kochi was about 1 hour's drive
Sopanam to Kochi was about 1 hour's drive

We didn’t have a plan for Kochi – Uma deftly instructed our driver to drop us off at M.G Road. In the end, we didn’t get to M.G. Road for traffic reasons.
It was a Saturday but traffic entering Kochi was as bad as on a week day. Even the trip from Sopanam to Kochi took us more than an hour.
We were angsty from all that sitting in the car and with the way our driver drove, we were dicing with death at every sharp turn! In the end, we vent our frustrations by conversing with each other in Bahasa Malaysia.
See? Our national language is very useful overseas because you can bitch in that language and no one will know.
Finally he dropped us off at a busy part of town where a few shopping complexes were. Everyone had a stare fest at us because we were different. Some thought we were Japanese and tried to tempt us with “konnichi wa?” There we were, Yvonne who was Dutch, Uma was Malaysian Indian and me, Nic, Faye and Gwen were Malaysian Chinese.
Mobile phones are very big in Kochi too!
Mobile phones are very big in Kochi too!

We were hungry too and the first shopping mall we entered had a Marrybrown outlet! I have only eaten once in Marrybrown when it was in Penang and despite it being a Malaysian franchise, I had no desire to eat Marrybrown in Kochi. Uma then went off to buy her Enthiraan CD while we hung around, waiting for her.
A quick prata lunch in Kochi
A quick prata lunch in Kochi

Once she was done, we decided we really had to have lunch. Off we went in search of food. We landed at a typical Indian restaurant selling dosa (thosai to you and me) and roti prata (roti canai). We wanted to shop and look around more so having prata was the fastest way to gulp down our food. Though it was the last day, we still didn’t take any chances and decided to have hot drinks like milk tea instead of the plain water served to us in typical stainless steel cups.
Again it was funny to be stared at. In the restaurant, everyone looked up at us as we entered. It was a 2-storey restaurant with upstairs seating. However, the rule was, if you wanted to eat banana leaf rice, you sat upstairs. If you wanted to eat other stuff, you sat downstairs. After taking the stairs up and learning of this quirky rule, we all came downstairs again. Indian restaurants seem to run low on electricity – they’re badly lit and very dim.
Spent some rupees in this Himalaya Herbal shop inside the airport
Spent some rupees in this Himalaya Herbal shop inside the airport

Finally with our meal done in super fast timing, we trooped out. Already it was past noon and we had 30 more minutes before we had to get back to the Innova. Our driver seemed intent on hurrying us and worried that we’d not make it to the airport on time. (We had plenty of time except that the AirAsia staff in Kochi took a heck of a long time in checking the 5 of us and our luggage in.)
In the end, we didn’t buy anything at all due to the time constraints though Gwen tried some ice cream and vadai.
We still each had lots of Indian rupees and thought perhaps we could have some McDonalds at the airport. After all, how much of prata and dhal curry can one eat right? I was excited at reaching Kochi Airport and the thought of biting into a luscious beef burger made me cheer up.
This unassuming building is the Kochi airport!
This unassuming building is the Kochi airport!

The Kochi Airport is fairly large but we had to show our passports in order to enter! Unless one was legitimately travelling (taking a plane that day), one could not simply waltz into the airport.
Waiting for the driver to unload all our luggage
Waiting for the driver to unload all our luggage

I didn’t know if the security was high as it was nearing the New Delhi Commonwealth Games (which would be held in a couple of days and no one wanted to jeopardize the security of the host nation). Once inside, I spotted a shop where I knew I could spend my rupees. (It was the Himalaya Herbals shop where they sold their products comparatively cheap.)
A familiar brand greets us!
A familiar brand greets us!

But first, where was McDonalds?
There was none. Not a fastfood outlet in sight! The airport had food kiosks which sold masala tea and snacks like vadai at reasonable prices (and were mighty tasty too unlike the crappy sandwiches we get at the Penang airport food kiosks).
An Indian touch at the Kochi Airport - at least it is not crowded like LCCT Sepang
An Indian touch at the Kochi Airport - at least it is not crowded like LCCT Sepang

As we reached the airport earlier than the others, we had plenty of time to spare. I spotted Sankar’s, an unassuming bookstore near the departure lounge. It was small but its size did belie the selections! The books were incredibly varied, from business to Ayurveda (this is Kerala we’re talking about) and even some eclectic books which I think I will never find in Borders. As the books are printed in India, the prices were comparatively cheaper. Novels were going for RM20 to RM28. Thick autobiographies selling for RM35. It was a gleeful time as I went from shelf to shelf picking out books. Then I realized I had already checked in the luggage and how many books could I carry into the plane?
What a conundrum isn’t it? To come face to face with the loveliest little bookstore in Kochi Airport and have to DECIDE which books NOT to buy because we had some constraints in carrying these books! (Sankar’s is found in most major airports in India so if you are going to India, stop by their bookstores. They’re very worth your while.)
I heard that there were more well-stocked bookstores in the city but Sankar’s would do for me. The Indian salesman was polite and smiled happily as we complimented his good selection. It seemed I wanted every book. Kerala, a friend told me, has the highest literacy rate in the whole of India.
I had to tear myself away from the bookstore as I had finally spent all my available rupees!