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In May 2016, I published a news article in Lancet Oncology about a new app designed to help cancer patients ask the right questions about their treatments.

Abstract: CAN.recall is a new app designed to help patients ask questions and retain the information given to them at their surgical, medical, and radiation oncology consultations. The app combines a clinically developed question prompt list (QPL) organised into categories that follow the general evolution of consultation discussions, with flexibility to edit the list to suit the patient’s circumstances. It also contains a sound recording function that allows you to replay the doctor’s response.

Published in the Lancet Oncology Volume 17, No. 5, p564, May 2016

River swim en route Cap Corse, Selmace past Orletta

Cooling down from 32-degree heat in a little gem of a freshwater pool within a forest in Selmace.

Through the airplane window, Corsica looks like a melange of rugged mountains falling into a turquoise sea, staying true to its reputation as the most mountainous island in the Mediterranean Sea.

It is home to large tracts of pine forests surrounding glacial lakes and pockets of beautiful freshwater pools with crystal clear water, as well as quaint villages set among green hills and valleys.

Because it belongs politically to the French but is geographically closer to Italy, Corsica has a very distinct identity. The people speak their own language and have names of both Italian and French origins, and their unique cuisine is influenced by both countries.

The promise of adventure, along with the island’s easy-access airports, tempted us to plan a visit there – with a one-year-old in tow.

And so our family trip to Corsica begins in the hills of Ajaccio, under a clear blue Mediterranean sky.

Beach starter to art

Exiting Ajaccio airport, we are rather befuddled to learn that public transport here is scarce on a Sunday, even at the airport. But after making an SOS call to our Airbnb host Martine, we soon hear a car screeching to a halt outside. Out of a little red vehicle steps a man wearing a friendly smile: “Hi, I’m Guillaume, friend of Martine’s.”

Chambre Privilege 6

Palm trees fringe the Gulf of Ajaccio on the Route des Iles Sanguinaires. Photo: Hotel Les Mouettes

Guillaume drives us past gargantuan, mellow-toned buildings harbouring administrative offices of the island’s capital city. On the coastal road leading to Martine’s spacious apartment, the charm of the old town with its cobbled streets is juxtaposed against the modern-looking, yacht-packed marina.

Since most of the shops and restaurants are closed for siesta between noon and 4pm, Martine comes to our rescue again by inviting us to join her family for lunch. Since we speak little French, our new friend Guillaume interprets, telling us simply that “We’ll be having baguette, cheese and salad”. So we’re expecting a light lunch – but then Martine brings out a roasting pan filled with delectable roast beef and wild mushrooms, complemented by local charcuterie, olive oil, cheese and baguette. Everything becomes fuzzy merriment as we devour this gastronomic feast.

Adjacent to the hotel we stay in on the following day is the peaceful Paillote Trottel Beach, where we pitch a red parasol and kick back while our toddler builds sand castles. We are far from the madding crowds on Corsica’s usually sardine-packed beaches, grateful for our good fortune while paddling barefooted through warm seawater. At sunset, we set off for the old town in search of dinner, and spot the child-friendly Le Via Roma, where the chef is happy to omit salt from our toddler’s spaghetti Bolognese.

Yacht packed marina in Ajaccio

The marina against a backdrop of the city of Ajaccio and mountains in the distance, viewed from the Paillote Trottel Beach.

The next day, we discover more toddler-friendly facilities, this time the petit train that travels from Ajaccio towards the lighthouse at the end of the Route des Iles Sanguinaires. Along the way, the sight of white sandy beaches with turquoise water gleaming jewel-like in the sun make us a little wistful. But then, there is more to Corsica than just its beaches.

For instance, in the centre of Ajaccio is the Fesch Museum of fine art, which is composed mainly of large red halls laced with gold Venetian framed paintings and where we enjoy an enlightening exhibition on revolutionary icon Che Guevara.

But before that, on our way to the museum, we are drawn into an antique toy shop, filled with anything a child could dream of. A few doors down, I spot Amorino, an artisan ice cream shop, and we buy the creamiest blend of hazelnut chocolate, almond and macaroon-flavoured ice cream I have ever had.

The next day, it was time to fulfil my husband’s dream of taking the scenic train journey to Bastia, a route that is often ranked as one of the most picturesque railway journeys in the world. The towns that are dotted along the way have names that roll off the tongue: Mezzana, Vivario, Casamozza and Furiani.

View from the train as it glides on a mountainous route from Ajaccio to Bastia

The train from Ajaccio to Bastia passes through some mountainous terrain.

And right in the middle of this railroad is Corte, the heart and soul of Corsica and an outstanding natural landscape for those eager to hike canyons and rock-climb.

The railroad traverses dense forests of pine and chestnut trees and rivers that snake through valleys of the rockiest mountains. And despite weaving its way around hairpin bends and along unprotected drops, it never feels anything but comfortable and safe.

Twists and turns

Arriving in Bastia at dusk, we make our way through a maze of medieval streets edged by old houses on our way to the hire car office.

We walk past a busy playground and local mums watching over their kids give us warm smiles and exchange knowing looks, signalling our membership in the universal parenthood club.

In our car, we set off on a 20-minute journey towards the village of Erbalunga and the only hotel in the area, Castel Brando. Walking underneath century-old palm trees, we arrive in a peaceful courtyard and reception area from which we are taken to our family suite for a sound sleep – sorely needed to recover from travelling across the island with so many bags and a baby in tow!

With the sea a few steps down the road, we wake to the sound of nature. Picking up a simple breakfast – a baguette, pain au chocolat and fresh pastries – we head to the harbour and sit on large rocks to eat, admiring the view of the soft morning sea.

Erbalunga is ancient and rustic, full of beautiful stone houses, tiny alleys, and nooks and crannies with secret passages. Crumbling Genoese towers dot the coastline, having served as a defence against Barbary pirates back in the 16th century.

Most of our evenings are spent in one of the village’s many harbourside restaurants, ranging from the fancy Le Pirate to the less expensive A Piazzetta. An astounding selection of seafood delicacies is common in this area, with fresh fish and other seafood coming practically straight from the sea to our dining table; there is also BBQ-glazed pork ribs, fresh pasta and pizza dishes, and mouth watering ice creams.

Beside a Genoese Tower at the harbour in Erbalunga

Genoese Towers dot the coastline, which served as a defence against Barbary pirates back in the 16th century. This particular one is located at the harbour in Erbalunga.

Typical scenery along Cape Corse.

Typical scenery along Cape Corse.

We spend our days exploring Cap Corse, the 40km-long craggy peninsula at the northern tip of Corsica that looks like a long finger pointing at the Ligurian Sea.

The dizzying turns of the mountain roads around the commune of Brando lead us to the village of Silgaggia, set among green hills and overlooking a wonderful vista. We find ancient houses and unusual breeds of chickens reared by their occupants.

We drive past charming villages perched on cliffs, and park to walk along little pebbly inlets that lead to secret harbours, fishing ports and wild sandy beaches.

Past Orletta, we discover a freshwater pool within a forest and my husband swims in its cool water.

In the evenings, we go to the Ambuglia and Pietracorbara beaches, where we catch the daily sunsets and swim in the sea to complete the day.

Cosmopolitan city

On our last day, we drive back to Bastia to visit the lively Saturday market adjacent to Place St Nicolas. It offers an abundance of fresh local produce – cheese, charcuterie, aperitifs, biscuits, jams, honey, fruits and vegetables, meat and beer.

Close by, we stumble upon Les deux Mondes, a brilliant bookshop with an extensive children’s section and a local boulangerie (bakery) where we find delicious chocolate and caramel mousse.

The market crowd at the Place St Nicolas in Bastia.

The market crowd at the Place St Nicolas in Bastia.

While Bastia has all the friendliness of island inhabitants, it also has a cosmopolitan quality with all of the shops and commodities you’d expect as part of any modern city.

The easy vibe and elegant Baroque architecture of this part of the island gives the city an authentic charm. It’s tempting to spend a few days here but we are determined to explore the wilderness outside of the city walls.

From Bastia, we drive up steep hills and along winding roads towards Saint Florent on the island’s west coast. Every sharp twist and turn gives us breathtaking views of the Gulf of St Florent.

The most beautiful beach in this region is Plage de Saleccia, accessible by boat from Saint Florent’s harbour. Its dazzling, 1km-long white sandy beach spilling into the emerald sea is undeveloped.

Sunbathers congregate in the western tip of Plage de la Roya, Saint Florent

Sunbathers like the western tip of the Plage de lat Roya in Saint Florent.

Plage de la Roya is also popular with families and sun worshippers. After walking the whole length, we find the western tip of the beach to be a more suitable spot for relaxation, as it is protected from the strong wind that affects the eastern tip.

At the end of our holiday, it is hard to leave. Corsica captured our hearts with its astounding beauty and afforded us a sense of adventure that we had thought was beyond us since we became responsible parents.

Our toddler may not remember much from this trip, but I’m convinced that the sights, smells and sounds of a new place will give her a broader understanding of the way things work. Travelling with our daughter has also added another dimension to our holiday, as we came to see the world through a child’s eyes.

Corsica is a place where one can appreciate a slower pace of life. Visit with no expectations, and you will be rewarded by the beauty of unfiltered nature and a renewed admiration for the simpler things in life.

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As published as a travel feature in The Star2 Travel, March 20, 2016.

london life

WATCHING a young couple walking hand in hand out of a cafe into St James Park in London, I reminisced the days when I was their age.

New to the city, the world at my fingertips and my heart beating wild with nerves, I was getting acquainted with the soul of the city and meeting people who imparted lessons to my life.

Over the years, these lessons form the values that I practise in my current life and perhaps, preach to whoever will listen.

Here in my final piece for this column, I feel that I have travelled a full circle from the day I took on this job.

I am heartened to have had the opportunity to use this space as a way of communicating these lessons, from the mind of someone who has left Malaysia for a foreign ground – who on a daily basis flip between two ways of living, becoming the stiff-upper-lipped English while harbouring the mannerisms of a sunny Malaysian who believes in friendliness at the heart of every encounter; and who till this day is wondering whether to convert the UK permanent residency to a citizenship.

Surely there are things that make the Malaysian nationality status worth keeping, whether it’s for the nostalgia of inhaling the humidity of the rainforest on an early morning walk; the fact that my primary, secondary and tertiary education was all spent in educational institutions adjacent to Jalan Gasing in Petaling Jaya; the mentors who helped me find my footing and nurture my independent thinking; and the striving for the better, otherwise known as kiasu-ness, which landed me where I am today.

And the biggest part of my identity – my large family residing in Kuala Lumpur, who on a daily basis functions as a huge reminder of the love that will always inhabit this endearing part of the planet.

Yet, is Malaysia a good place for my little one to receive her education?

To be in a society that places academic achievements above all?

Of course, I will never forget that it was this very emphasis that gave me the opportunity to achieve and live among predominantly English people today, a nationality whom I have only gotten to know through the TV box in my pre-UK life. Today, these folks form my social circle.

But an individual is a product of their environment and in spite of how strong their views are, they will latterly become superseded by societal pressure.

If my daughter chose to embark on a career in the arts, would I be as supportive if we lived in Kuala Lumpur, as I would be in the UK?

Or would I tell her what many well-meaning relatives told me in colloquial Cantonese in the past, that she would not be able to find a way to eat?

On the flip side, I wonder if England is suitable to bring my daughter up, seeing how quickly children morph into adults in this country.

Soon she will talk back at me, wear a crop top, make her face up like Kim Kardashian and act like an opinionated know-it-all.

While this proves to be a First World problem, to me they’re real – the environment you put your child in shapes them into whom they become.

Would the alternative be to move away from London and dwell in the nicer suburbs for an opportunity to be close to better schools, stripped of the modernity of cosmopolitan life?

Nearer to nature, so she will grow the roots of her willpower and blossom into a tough child, who will weather the storm, stand her ground and learn not to take anything for granted?

Or maybe I am merely repeating what my mother did all those years ago, protecting me from the evils of the world, resulting in the awkward and sheltered child that I was.

And it was not until I left my childhood behind that I really flourished.

I guess it is right that you have to see the vast reaches of the world in order to understand the ebb and flow of your own heart.

As I make sense of my potential adoptive country, I thought of these qualities that have won me over:

Diplomacy – The Brits excel at the art of diplomacy, where one knows the truth about something or someone but packages it in a way that does not cause a rift or embarrassment to the person involved.

Self deprecation – A way of reprimanding oneself by being modest or purposely undervaluing oneself. The Brits are so good at not talking about their strengths that they have evolved vocabularies and phrases to suit these social circumstances. Phrases such as “I won’t go that far” can often be heard in response to a compliment. They love to make fun of themselves or their friends (also known as “taking the piss”).

Redundancy of university education – Education is pivotal to securing a first job but it is mainly talent, hard work and experience in the industry that gets you a better salary. If you decide that the career that you would like to forge values industrial experience over graduate or postgraduate qualifications, go out there and fight for your place.

Minimalistic living – Most people in this country are happy with second-hand goods and are willing to refashion what they own into something else that they need, rather than having the need for brand new things.

New-age eating – So healthy is this “airy-fairy” eating regime that some have developed an illness known as orthorexia, an obsessive clean eating by adhering to a healthy diet, avoiding unhealthy foods, exercising religiously and stocking up on superfoods. While I love the idea of sourcing healthy ingredients and occasionally enjoy gluten-free, dairy-free and superfoods-loaded meals, I sadly do not have the time or funds to transform this into an everyday habit, and therefore, will never be a full-time orthorexia sufferer.

It is with these observations that I wish to mark the culmination of my views as a Malaysian living in London.

I hope that my words have a resounding message of inspiration to ferry the younger generation across the pond to a different way of living, or simply to help one escape the daily grind, to reflect on a life that beat to a different rhythm in a much colder part of the world, at this point in time.

 

Published in Malaysia’s The Star Metro, February 6, 2015.

670x450 change

HOW often do we look up from navigating our daily lives and realise, perhaps there could be more to this?

Some people live in a heightened state of awareness, knowing they are living the life they want, while some never really find their dreams no matter how long they search.

Some of us find the middle ground, where we are content with the things that we think make us feel complete, and settle.

No matter who you are and which category you belong to, the truth is, you are always going to want something more. After all, the grass is greener on the other side of the world.

Having lived in two different cultures, I have always noticed how Asians strive to better themselves and efforts of doing so are often applauded by friends, family and society.

Perhaps we are inspired by the American dream, where anything is possible as long as your heart is in it.

“Genius is one per cent inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

“The best thing in life is to do what people say you cannot do.”

These are some of the phrases that fuelled my ambitions.

Looking back from the remote countryside in the UK that my husband, me and our one-year-old are staying this weekend, these sentiments are an echo of a distant memory.

I was reading an interview in The Times about Tina Brown – the Brit who took Manhattan – a media mogul who dines with the Clintons and hang out with Angelina Jolie, and something got my attention.

She expressed a slightly insulting thought of people who live in Europe. “I think people get stuck in Europe,” she said, “while Americans rise and fall, switch coasts, divorce, change career, are almost exhaustingly mobile.” If she had stayed, “I might have had two more children and moved to Shropshire.” (English countryside.)

Now that got me thinking, is it so bad to want to move to the countryside and rear chickens and be content with your life?

Then it struck me, at one point in the not-so-distant past, I had wanted the same. After all, we work so hard in life and when we need to re-centre our thoughts, we go away to places like this.

But I grew up in the metropolis that is glorious Kuala Lumpur, a bustling bazaar of sizzling street food, colourful heritage and extraordinary people who love shopping complexes, switching accents and slangs as they go, and who never get tired of achieving.

Perhaps the peaceful happy ending of moving into a country house and rearing chickens that we so often hear about is not for everyone.

Some of us prefer to be in constant movement, to live a life of star-spangled rhapsody, interacting with the world, and shudder at the thought of living in isolation. We need to be around people.

And so this got me thinking about the beauty of life, its fluidity and movement, if only we allow it to be dynamic.

At any one point in it, we may transition from someone who had it all, to losing it all; someone who had nothing to someone who then grew content with their lives only to grow bored of the very thing that they thought made them happy.

And the best part of it?

As long as you are fit and healthy and your mind is in the right place, you are able to meander from one state of life to another.

If only you would allow yourself to go with the flow.

When I was asked as a 20-something what I wanted in life, I said I just wanted to be happy.

Now, the 30-something me would revise that: I want to be interesting, to always have the awareness to examine what I love about this existence and what it takes to bring happiness to the people I love.

Life allows us second chances, whether yours is the hope for change while you are neck and neck with your colleagues in a stressful company’s board meeting, or you are sauntering among the relaxing vibe of people in London’s Regents Park.

Here’s the thing, whether we are happy with our place in life or not, there is an opportunity for change.

There’s a season for everything, from slowing down the pace to picking it up again.

A season for material gains. A season for appreciating familial love. A season for working on friendships or yourselves. A season for achieving your dreams.

At the turn of the new year, as we put the ebb and flow of 2015 behind us, I hope that 2016 brings you the attainment of whatever you want.

Make this your season for change!

 

As published in Malaysia’s The Star Metro, January 2, 2016.

Recently on the production set for a commercial, I was asked to portray the older self of a 13-year-old girl, who looked uncannily like me.

With this striking resemblance came the inevitable question from the crew, “Did you look anything like her when you were 13?”.

I studied the young girl, whose sparkling eyes, long silky hair that coiled ever so slightly at the tip, and sunny smile made her seem much more confident than I ever was at that age.

The 13-year-old me lived in a terrace house in Subang Jaya and took the school bus to my secondary school in Petaling Jaya.

At that age, the thought of speaking to a room full of strangers would send me into a nervous fit.

The unflattering haircut, too-long-below-the- knee school pinafore, copious amount of belly fat all enhanced the anxieties of someone who was neither clever nor beautiful enough to stand out.

And it seemed that living where I was at that age, those were the only qualities that mattered.

The future was an unfathomable place, a vision that I can only describe as a blurry smog-filled sky.

Little by little in the ensuing years, light began to enter my adolescent life.

Whether it was because I made some good friends who shared my growing pains or that a teacher took me under her wing, I grew to see the possibilities of a promising future.

My mentor, my Form 4 Biology teacher, told me then – “You’ve to give yourself a chance”.

Her advice echoed through the decades, embedded so deep in my psyche that even now my 30-something’s sleep-deprived brain can recall.

My teenage self believed that a bright future was attainable if only I worked hard enough.

I was working hard to become someone others would look up to.

How different are my perspectives on this now from this view over the pond.

Today, 11 years after I first stepped on British soil, I can safely say that I know better.

On a blustery autumn night in Leeds, I arrived at the coach station on an airport bus.

Stepping out to unexpected strong and icy gale beating my face, I felt like a green grasshopper straight out of a green field.

What no one tells you about going abroad to study on your own is the sudden realisation that you’re completely alone once you get there.

Reflecting on those first few hours of arrival in England, the sea of blonde and grey hairs, the incomprehensible Leeds accent, the cell-like atmosphere of the student accommodation, and the aged building that appeared mouldy on the inside.

The loneliness was palpable, and along with it came a fear of never fitting in.

My first year in England was spent in Leeds, where I did my best to adapt, to learn more about the culture than I did my course.

Near where I lived were blocks of council flats, where I often saw pre-adolescent girls roaming the streets on their own.

One day, on my way back from grocery shopping, I walked past a pre-teen girl who was wearing make up and playing with a boy.

My friend, who was jaded from years of living in that part of the UK, commented, “You see this young girl there, in a few years she would be pregnant with his child and that would be her life”.

Of course that opinion was skewed and not all teenage girls in England lead the life that my friend described.

But this, along with countless other more positive observations made me feel that children grow up far too quickly in this country.

Young people in the UK dress and act a lot older than their age, much different from the jeans and baggy T-shirt that I wore at that age, bearing in mind it was also the 1990s then.

I came to understand that children are more independent from a younger age in the UK, and the general parenting consensus is to not push their children too hard towards a particular career path.

This was in contrast to my adolescent years in Malaysia, when you would only be deemed worthy of anyone’s time if you decided to choose one of the following vocations – doctor, engineer, architect, or lawyer.

With this revelation came the rebellion – I no longer wanted to become that brainbox.

Instead, I wanted to be cool, urban and to live the life that I missed out on while studying so hard.

I wanted to fit in, to become so assimilated into the British culture that no one could tell I was foreign.

When that was over, when I truly became a worldly person, I wanted to shed the personalities that were not me.

I spent a quarter of my life trying to become who I was not in order to fit in, then the next quarter trying to unbecome everything that isn’t really me, so I can be who I am meant to be in the first place.

It feels much more cosy in my own skin. As to whether it was worthwhile making that journey crossing oceans to get here only to find my way home, yes it was.

Had I stayed, I would never have known that life could stretch into so many different colours, even if I had just chosen the only shade that I’m most comfortable with in the end.

As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken”.

 

As published in Malaysia’s The Star Metro, December 5, 2015.

Bugs

AS THE leaves turn brown and wither to the ground, all beings prepare to hibernate.

Winter is coming to the UK.

In this part of the world, though we don’t have to worry about all-year tropical diseases, a particular microbe causes misery to families as it strikes at the turn of the season when the weather becomes cold and damp.

Norovirus – a stranger to me before I had my child but is now the invisible terror in my life.

I was always a keen hand washer. The kind of person who cannot relax when my hands are dirty.

Since becoming a mother, this hygiene freakishness has morphed into some kind of obsession.

Soon after my daughter came home from the hospital with us, every cream, ointment and oil that we use for her care ritual was selected carefully.

They had to be organic.

For months, she was completely free of any serious ailments.

Then, she began to crawl, and in the process of doing so, discovered that she could now reach most of the objects of her heart’s desire.

Whatever she found on the floor, food or not, went into her mouth.

Some were spat out in disgust and others made their way safely into her intestines.

The crawling became faster, as I dutifully followed right behind with a baby sanitiser.

Relatives and friends told me to relax and that my daughter needed to pick up bugs to build her immune system.

The all-or-nothing me took the advice and proceeded to allow her to eat while she was crawling on the floor, sometimes picking up food that she dropped.

She seemed well, it must be ok, I thought to myself. I relaxed.

Then, just as I got ready for bed one night, she threw up.

My mind raced through what we did that day – the tube journey into London, the picnic in the park (where she picked up a cigarette from the grass), and the library, where I let her crawl on the grimy floor.

What was I thinking?

As she threw up for the 10th time in the space of two hours, we hit the hospital’s emergency room in the bitingly cold early hours.

They told me that she was most likely inflicted by norovirus.

Norovirus was the most traumatic thing that has happened to my daughter.

It was over quickly but so contagious, and you can pick it up from anywhere – bedsheets, clothes, your baby and even the air that you breathe.

I logged on to eBay with a hazmat suit in mind but it was too late.

Soon, my husband and I were both infected and laid up in various parts of the house, while my baby crawled weakly towards us seeking cuddles.

She lost around 1.5 kg from that ordeal and became what my mum thought was a beautiful and slender Asian baby.

And I lost the post-birth baby weight that I was struggling to lose for months, but I would n’t recommend this slimming method.

After that incident, the sanitising became more urgent.

As soon as any stranger as much as brushed against my daughter’s hands, I whipped the sanitiser out of its hiding place.

I lived in constant fear of bugs taking us down.

Two months passed without any illness and my baby regained some of the weight that she lost.

So, we came out of our quarantine and went to a baby dance class – at the library!

It should have been completely fine, had I not set her free on all fours on the studio floor, and beyond into the hinterlands of the vast carpeted library floor.

She crawled at lightning speed, back and forth from the studio to the library, laughing as she did so, thinking that I was playing catch with her.

Seeing how happy she was, I allowed her to do so.

She would be fine, right?

I washed her hands afterwards, applied the hand sanitiser, which kills 99% bacteria, and promptly gave her a blueberry.

That night, she threw up 15 times before we went to say hi to the hospital emergency staff again.

When we were discharged at 6am, all bleary eyed and head pounding from the adrenaline, I swore to fight this bug.

I would not let norovirus as much as even dare to whisper to us again – we washed every single bed sheet, outfit and floor and made sure we held our breath as much as we could in the house until we had finished sterilising everything.

I rechecked the label of the hand sanitiser that we were using and I realised it does not kill viruses, or fungi (while we’re at it).

So, I bought another brand which kills nearly all microorganism.

My husband and I now act like two big, bad bug guards to our little one, who had turned one and showing interest in walking.

Perhaps now that she is walking, she would not pick up norovirus so easily.

When I took her out to the park, she was allowed to play with the leaves while I watched like a hawk.

As soon as she tried to put her hand to her mouth, the sanitiser was thrust in her direction.

Needless to say, my daughter’s hands now get washed more than 20 times a day.

I know this may not be healthy as she needs to retain some natural flora on her hands but if the alternative is to end up in the emergency room again, I choose the former.

A couple of months have passed now without any incidence caused by norovirus, so I took my daughter to baby classes and allowed her free rein in the playground, never once leaving her sight.

Every time she tumbles onto the floor and lands on her two hands, I burst onto the scene with my hand sanitiser.

I still wash her hands regularly and live in constant fear of the vomiting bug.

As she grows, I find myself wondering if I would ever relax about her state of hygiene and if she would ever grow out of getting frequent colds and stomach bugs.

I certainly hope she has the chance to experience the childhood that I had – rolling in mud (to my mum’s dismay), climbing trees and swinging myself high on the swing.

While I was writing this article, my husband promptly told me about an app that works as a radar system to detect outbreaks of illnesses such as flu, stomach virus and norovirus, so you can avoid the area.

I instinctively think of downloading it and then wonder, “When will I be free?”

 

As published in Malaysia’s The Star Metro, November 7, 2015.

Last weekend, I spent two days with my daughter Raphaella in Rye, a medieval town in East Sussex. The night before our departure, I paced the flat feeling intimidated that I would be her sole “in charge parent” for the next two days. What if she threw a tantrum all day? What if she was suddenly sick in the night? How would I carry all our bags and her in the carrier? Would I be able to finish my meals?

In spite of this trepidation, I miraculously managed to leave the house to get to St Pancras in the morning. Fortunately, there were lifts and escalators taking us up each level from the underground to the Javelin bullet train speeding into Ashford International. All in just under 40 minutes.

A taxi took us to the Old Borough Arms in Rye, the 4-star Guest House that we were booked in for the night. As the taxi pulled up at the hotel, the sight of its romantic white and blue wooden exterior returned feelings of serenity to me. I may be in medieval Rye, but this beautiful hotel has already performed wizardry on me and not just because it sits at the foot of the enchanting Mermaid Street – this could be Europe, it really could.

res6

Res bench

I looked upwards to the steep uneven stone steps leading into the main entrance and the fairytale bubble momentarily popped.

I decided I could probably do it, if I had carried the equivalent amount in weight while I was pregnant, and proceeded to juggle a wheelie case, a changing bag, and all 9.8 kg of my lovely daughter up those steps to the hotel reception. A friendly lady popped her head around and introduced herself as Sarah. I noticed a panting small black terrier wagging its tail behind her.

“Look Raph, it’s Hairy Maclary (a character in her favourite book)!”

Raph was obviously fascinated by the familiar creature. Being an innocent 1 year old, it was likely that she had thought that her mummy had arranged this encounter for her.

Sarah showed us to room 6, which is the only one in the building with a four-poster bed. After she left us to take her terrier on a walk, I put Raph on the bed and did a little jiggle on the spot. My daughter finds this hilarious and decided to join in by rolling from side to side, squealing at the same time. She is lovely, that girl.

res room 6

With the unfurling of the muslin, bottles of water, changes of clothes, bibs and snacks from my engorged changing bag came a sense of liberation from the tedious business of travelling solo with one’s child. The room is tastefully decorated – birds of paradise and butterflies graced the wall, a well-stocked courtesy tray, complimentary mineral water, toiletries made from watercress and sunflower seed oil, and the olive green shabby chic oak furniture gave the room a timeless feel. They also offered complimentary travel cot and highchair, which was always nice to know.

The town itself is quaint, Raph had walking practice on the pavement and squeaked at the shop window displays containing a variety of soft and wooden toys designed to lure unsuspecting little stompers. We walked past many specialist shops – a vintage furniture shop selling home and gardening furniture, a deli selling locally sourced food produce, pubs that don’t smell like the way old boozers in London do, and children’s curiosity shops.

res toy shop

As with any seaside town, fish and chips were the most sought after cuisine and Marino’s Fish Bar is centrally placed and has rightly earned its reputation as the best in town – and they didn’t disappoint when they welcomed us for an early dinner that evening and were even kind enough to warm my daughter’s Hipp Organic Spag Bol (a must when staying in a hotel room with no self-catering facilities). When I promised to clean up the colossal mess of red (tomatoes), orange (pasta) and green (mushy peas from my fish and chips) goo off the floor caused by Raph’s food gymnastics, the waiter told me to leave it as he completely understood (his girlfriend has a 2 year old). I almost wept, it’s so rare for someone to not only view the erratic behaviour of a toddler as normal but also offers to help.

With an enhanced respect for the locals and a refilled belly, it was still too early for bed and so I took R for a walk along the cobbled Mermaid Street just as the sun was about to set. The light was shining down the walkway at dusk and we jostled along merrily towards St Mary’s church. It was quiet and the world became just Raph and me. I held both her hands as she toddled along between the tombstones, spring in each steps.

res rye dusk

Back at the hotel, Raph and I got ready for bed after a power shower. Sinking into soft pillows and what felt like an orthopedic mattress next to my sleeping daughter, I reflected on my unfounded fears of travelling solo with her. She’s had the time of her life today, where usually she would pass time by looking out of our living room’s window or tugging at my ankle while I cooked. As for me, I’m very happy to have this precious moments bonding with my daughter in a distinct part of a country that never fail to surprise me. I may have been bitten by a new kind of travel bug – the mum and baby kind.

It was still dark when I was jolted from my deep slumber by a ball of energy at 6 am, who repeatedly shouted “Momma” like her life depended on it. With some time to kill before my 8 am hotel breakfast, I made a bowl of porridge for us and ate it next to the window that displayed a world in stark contrast from yesterday’s blue skies. The streets were wet and somber underneath the grey clouds above but even that did not seem to dampen my spirits.

Safe under an umbrella and with Raph in the carrier, we ascended the Trader’s Passage from the foot of the Mermaid Street Café towards Rye Castle Museum, passing pretty little cottages with blooming gardens along the way. In spite of the rain, the air was crisp and my eyes welcomed miles and miles of open country fields, which reminded me of how much I miss being close to nature and how devoid of its wild beauty I am living in London. Even the rain couldn’t ruin it but instead added to the mystery of the Rye Castle Museum or Ypres Tower, which was the sole defence of Rye in the 13th century and subsequently used as a prison.

res rye castle

Walking onwards to the Gun Garden, I was undeniably misty eyed about the sweeping view of the estuary and River Rother. There was something about Rye that relaxed me, and I found myself wondering if I could live here and if the sights, which initially enchanted me, would seem timeworn overtime.

river res

Until our next rendezvous, my heart remains in this mystical town, which has undeniably restored peace in my being.

The Javelin bullet train takes just 40 minutes from London St Pancras to Ashford International. A 30 minutes taxi would get you into Rye, and a further ten minutes drive along the farms filled with sheep that dot the country road would get you to Camber Sands Beach.

London lifeWHEN life knocks you down and off balance, often a visit to the abyss of despair is necessary, while waving your fist towards the sky and asking “why me?”. You mope about for a bit, and eventually, the right thing to do is to choose to spring back up.

Perhaps sometimes, it is easier to stay just a little longer in the abyss, licking your wounds and getting the disappointment out of your system. And the younger and more idealistic you are, the more setbacks can seem bigger than they are.

Maybe I have reached a ripe age of existence or some may say cynicism, because I almost certainly expect injustice in my life.

The world is made up of all kinds of people and among those are people who cannot fathom the needs of others. So, we won’t always get what we want and feel short-changed as a result.

Early on in my life, an incident occurred which showed me that the world can be unkind. I must have been about nine or 10 years old when I went on a shopping trip with my mum, my younger brother and sister.

My siblings were being, as children are, curious about stationery in the shop, while I walked side by side with my mum, who at the time was a stay-at-home mum who rarely had the time to do her hair and coordinate her outfit of the day.

All three of us children were holding on to my mum’s flared skirt – it was her way of letting us know that we were safe as long as we held on to a piece of her clothing.

From the corner of my eye, I could see a woman who appeared to be the shop assistant eyeing us with suspicion – perhaps because we looked like a pack of feral cats, wild eyed and spirited.

As the woman inched closer towards us, somehow I knew what she was going to say even though I could not actually hear her.

She quietly urged my mum to step into the manager’s office and in there, she searched our bags. Of course, they could not find anything but that led mum to launch a tirade of grievances at the lady, vowing to come back and lodge a formal complaint against the shop assistant.

Early on, the world revealed its ugly side to me. I knew from that day that we are often judged by our appearance and clothes and it seemed we were perceived as paupers in the mall that day.

This, I find to be more of a problem in Malaysia than in the UK – the absurdity that you will be judged based on what you wear instead of who you are deep in your skin.

This experience, along with many others, shaped the feistiness of my character as I grew into a young lady, who believed you needed to fight for your rights to be heard and given what you deserve.

And so I fought for every right that I was owed, from a right to study abroad, a right to not be made to feel inferior in spite of how others perceived me, a right to get a good price for the things I purchased, a right to get a raise, down to the right to have extra French fries in McDonald’s.

As I grew more streetwise, I realised I could even use my charm to get them for free.

And when situations were unfair, I would sometimes get into rows to seek justice by being bold and loud.

But after a period of being assertive, insisting things go my way and noticing that sometimes, not every battle was worth fighting, things took a turn for the better.

These days, armed with compassion and perhaps some renewed understanding of the world – that we reap what we sow and that not everyone is always out to be unkind to us, I realised that the way you react to injustice makes all the difference.

And nowadays, when faced with disappointment or failure, I choose to seek a solution, in a far more mild-mannered way than before.

At a recent junction at my career where I had to make a big decision that would impact my life forever, I did not get what I wanted.

My boss could not agree to my request, and as a result, my life would not be as easy as I had hoped, but I did not fight for it this time. I weighed the importance of the consequences of this decision with the ones had he given me what I wanted. As a result, the route ahead requires me to stretch outside of my comfort zone, and perhaps, fight my battle in a different way.

It may not always be possible to deal with disappointment with resilience, but we are made of stronger stuff than we are led to believe.

As for me, I am a sum of my mum and dad – possessing the eternally optimistic foresight of my dad, and the worry-wart tendency of my mum on a day-to-day basis.

The result of which is that I have often found myself at the cusp of being optimistic that things will work out, yet worried that I cannot quite see it happening yet.

The next time life knocks you down with worldly troubles, banish your worries, stay true to your heart, choose your battles carefully, and just because you have to speak softly to get your points across, it does not mean that you are weak.

As they say, “Speak quietly and carry a big stick”.

 

As published in September’s paper and online edition of The Star Metro.

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WHEN Martin Luther King Jr stood before 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he spoke about his dream of ending racism in America.

The echo of his magnanimous “I’ve a dream” speech shook the nation and is widely known as the top American speech of the 20th century.

In the same spirit, Maya Angelou, one of the greatest authors and poets that ever lived, wrote “And still I rise,” the opening of which represents the sentiments perfectly:

“You may write me down in history,

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may tread me in the very dirt,

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

These inspirational figures focused on hopeful determination to rise above discouragement in times of difficulty, to fulfil the dreams that they harboured, dreams that would impact millions within their spheres and the world at large.

These are people with an aspiration, an enduring passion for their causes, and a fighting spirit in spite of the difficulties they encounter.

And since fulfilling one’s dreams often comes with overcoming its own set of obstacles, surely we should be single-minded in doing so?

By epiphany, I recently discovered the works of a late creative.

While strolling around Hampstead one fine afternoon, I chanced upon Keats House, a museum in a house once occupied by the English Romantic poet John Keats.

Keats decided to forsake his medical career to fulfil his dreams of becoming a poet.

A life as a poet was tough, as he wrote book after book that were unjustly critiqued, giving him a sense of never being quite good enough.

Regretfully, he caught tuberculosis while travelling on the back of a carriage on a stormy night, and subsequently died at the age of 25.

He asked for the following words to be engraved on his tombstone, “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water,” which were subsequently interpreted as “to show his Classical Genius cut off by death before its maturity.”

Reading this evoked a feeling of sadness for someone whose work of such tremendous genius had ended before he was able to reap the rewards for the sacrifices he had to make to pursue his dreams. And perhaps leaving it all behind, thinking that his work never left any impact on humanity.

Taking a lesson from this anecdote, do we still single-mindedly pursue a dream regardless of our ability to sustain ourselves?

And what’s in a dream?

We often hear that we have to pursue our dream career in order to be happy in life, but no one tells us how to get there and in the meantime, how do we survive?

Growing up in Malaysia in the 1980s, I remember very well the subservience of my childhood, being one of five children in a Chinese culture that believed that children should be seen and not heard.

I am a product of the hopes of my parents and the comparisons they made between my otherworldly intelligent cousins and me.

I am a product of the umpteenth self-help books that traversed my path every time I attempted to buy a book from MPH, and of the financial circumstances that I grew up in that encouraged me to seek a more effervescent life, a life in a world beyond my comprehension.

Obtaining the scholarship to pursue a postgraduate degree in cancer research was just the beginning.

Moving to London made this dream real. I was on a journey to making a difference to the world, and perhaps earning some respect along the way.

But this is where I notice the difference between the type of dreams in my home country and those in the Western world.

Back home, my ambition was to obtain a doctorate degree, make a difference, serve the society and look after my ageing parents.

It’s very much about serving others and getting a nod in our direction that acknowledges our significance.

More than a decade on, London has taught me that for many, the attainment of personal dreams very much boils down to the fulfilment of one’s ego or desire to sample all of life’s pleasures, to understand, to question humanity, and to grow.

In other words, in the West, we are becoming more about self-indulgence and improvement.

Whatever the reasons are that fuel our journey to chase our dreams and gain significance in the world, perhaps we can all learn something from Keats.

And it is that it’s simply not enough to pursue your dream career at all costs.

Especially if you are abandoning a job that pays your bills to concentrate on your dream career full-time.

What is more important is that we find a way to sustain ourselves while we pursue our dreams.

Working hard to support yourself can be more rewarding than waiting for the perfect career while receiving pocket money from your parents.

The key to finding a balance is time management – unlocking the techniques to fit in a full-time job and our dreams around the clock.

Sure, we may never sleep again, but then again, no one understands sleep deprivation as much as new parents.

So if you are without a young baby, you really have no excuses. And even if you do, there’s always a time and place to sow your seeds and harvest.

For what is life, if without a dream?

As published in August’s paper and online edition of The Star Metro.

tumblr_norin9KIN71slhhf0o1_1280I COULD be in Malaysia today – it’s a humid 33 degrees Celsius in London as I sit in my garden amid freshly bloomed marigolds, lilies, roses, lavenders and lobelias.

The aroma from the chocolate cake baking in the oven relaxes me.

With a bit of imagination, it almost looks as though I live a charmed life.

A year ago, I feared embarking on an extended maternity leave, wondering how I would fill all the hours of my days and most importantly, who I was going to spend it with, my baby aside.

Of course, I did not know then that there aren’t enough hours in a day or at all to spend on your hobbies – wrongly assuming that I would be able to finish my novel in this “year off”.

With a baby who relies on me for her comfort and survival, I rarely get more than 15 minutes straight to dedicate to a task.

And you know what, in between cooking, playing and bathing your baby, loneliness hits you at times – something many new parents who live away from their families face.

I began to dream about moving to the countryside, assuming that London was much too vast for me and lacked a community vibe.

I looked for houses in Surrey and north of the country, imagining a life of simplicity and happiness, planting my own vegetables and growing flowers while looking out of the window to rolling hills, despite never thinking to work on my own garden at the time.

Then, when the option proved impossible owing to my hubby’s work, I stopped all the escape plans in my head and figured a more viable solution, something I should have done in the first instance – to befriend mums in my area.

I surprised myself by how long it took me to get down to it, when one of the incentives of having children is that you get to make new friends with other parents entering this new chapter together.

But I was much too shy and it took a friend’s advice to remind me that I could not rely on just that one friend for company as people live busy lives.

A head of psychiatry at Stanford University once gave a lecture on mind-body connection – the relationship between stress and disease.

The lecturer said, among other things, that one of the best things that a man could do for his health was to be married to a woman, whereas for a woman, one of the best things she could do for her health was to nurture her relationships with her girlfriends.

Women connect with each other differently and provide support systems that help each other deal with stress and difficult life experiences.

Physically, this quality “girlfriend time” helps us create more serotonin – a neurotransmitter that helps combat depression and can create a general feeling of well-being.

Women share feelings whereas men often form relationships around activities.

We share from our souls with our sisters and mothers, and evidently that is very good for our health.

The psychiatry lecturer said spending time with a friend was just as important to our general health as jogging or working out at a gym.

In my search for mummyhood solidarity, I ventured into a baby class, where one particular mum stood out.

She welcomed me with a big smile and mouthed a “hello” from across the room, something so unusual around this part of the country where most people would suspect you might rob them if you attempt as much as a handshake.

As the class began, the look of wonder on my baby’s face was priceless and as if to convey, “It’s so fun here, momma!”.

Later, I would discover that this particular mum was the reason there is a community of parents who meet regularly in our area.

Four years ago, when she was a new mum herself, where there was no professionally-led baby playgroup at her doorstep, she set this up.

She sought out teachers, made a website and created a buzz to attract visitors.

“If you build it, they will come,” the apt quote from the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams comes to mind.

Having this realisation opened up a part of my mind that was not there before – if something that you are looking for isn’t immediately there, don’t bail out. Instead, dig deeper or create an opportunity.

Before you run off to the corners of the country, make sure you’ve given your best shot at improving your life.

The philosophy is much like life after marriage – if something is wrong with a house, instead of moving out immediately, fix it first.

As for the chocolate cake in my oven, I am sure it will go down well with the group of lovely mums I will be meeting for a picnic tomorrow, and it will take me no more than 10 minutes to get there.

So what is the secret to a successful life of a stay-at-home parent who lives away from family? I say, to have a support network of local parents at your doorstep.

And to plant flowers in your garden, of course.

As published in July’s online and paper edition of The Star Metro.