Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Pregnant Pause

August 2010: Project I.N.F.A.N.T. in its final incubation stages

In a time when it is fairly common for folks to make mountains out of molehills, I daresay that motherhood is one of biggest life-changing experiences I have ever had.  From the moment I learned that a life was growing in my womb, my outlook and priorities in life shifted drastically.  I see my parents in a new light.  Already I'm imagining the kind of headaches and heartaches this precious bundle of joy will give me during those angst-ridden teen years. 

When is it ever a good time to have a baby?  Most women probably wonder about this at different stages of their life.  As a teen, I had NO business thinking of babies.  There were exams to sit for, ambitions to pursue and projects to run.  Even though I was in serious relationships in my 20s, I had trouble figuring out the logistics and politics of getting married let alone raising a kid.  But as I approached my 30s and having attended my younger brother's wedding, there was a miserable moment of panic about my single status.  For a while I thought of myself as the cool aunt when my nephew was born.  Eventually I wanted my own family. 

Yeah, I had a cool job and a wonderful boyfriend even though he was half the world away.  Could a woman really have everything?  Something's gotta give.  Okay, gave up the cool job, moved closer to boyfriend who then proposed.  We were legally married but lived in different states but hey, at least we were on the same continent.  There was a lot of hemming and hawing about the next move and then one day, after another frustrating day at work, I asked myself, "Life is short. What are you waiting for?"

So I quit the job, planned the ceremonial part of the wedding and prepared for life as a domestic engineer.  Then it occurred to us that as I became "domesticated" (not that I was that wild to begin with; even when living alone I had Martha Stewart tendencies), starting a family made sense.  But we weren't going to kid ourselves about being successful on the first try.  I'm a little past my prime reproductively speaking and he was stressed and fatigued from working very hard.  Imagine our pleasant surprise when we learned that I was 5 weeks pregnant shortly after our honeymoon (whoops, I drank cocktails and ate pineapples with abandon in Krabi). 

The folks here seem to like pregnant women.  Random strangers would talk to me and ask me friendly questions about the pregnancy: how far along are you; do you know if the baby's a boy or a girl; are you going to breastfeed?  Whoa, I didn't know that baby bumps were licenses for asking personal questions! Still, their intentions were good and their kind attention meant a lot to a reserved person like me.

Some strange things happened during the 10 long months.  Typically I was given to flighty behaviour almost monthly (a.k.a PMS) but apparently with the abundance of hormones during pregnancy it was as though I was on Prozac.  I was calm most of the time. However, I developed peculiar cravings: warm milk savored on sleepless nights; ice-cream when it was still snowing outside; milk powder and Milo (eaten, not made into a warm beverage). 

My baby bump was small.  At 5 months under baggy clothes most people couldn't tell that I was pregnant.  A friend lent me maternity clothes that I didn't put on until I was over 7 months pregnant.  By then, we  started playing a game with family and friends where we try to predict the sex of the baby by looking at the shape of the bump. 

I was also very restless.  I started a vegetable patch, painted the garage door, mowed the lawn and other interesting house projects.  Imagine my chagrin when my well-meaning parents-in-law tried to make me sit down and rest as I approached my due date. 

On September 20, my water broke at 3 a.m.  I was thrilled because I was more than ready to have the baby.  But nearly 12 hours later, there was still no contractions.  To reduce the risk of infection, the doctor recommended an augmentation where I was given prod my body along into having contractions.  I was aiming to have the good old-fashioned natural birth but hubby had been suggesting accepting an epidural. It wasn't until the contractions were making me curl like a fried shrimp that I waved the white flag.  Fortunately, the epidural wore off in time for me to feel my legs and the urge to push the baby out.  The doctor kept saying, "Good job, you're close.  And on the next breath, give me another good push." But it was only after about 100 pushes for nearly two hours that our beautiful baby girl Zoe Reika Cheong was born. 

As the nurse laid Zoe on my chest, I watched in amusement as my usually tough husband shed tears of joy.  It was ironic because I am the emotional type who weeps when watching touching commercials or movies. Yet I was the one who was dry-eyed at the most incredible thing that has happened to own little family.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Flying Wonder Known as the Hummingbird

When I first learned that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds could be found where we live, I imagined viewing these lovely creatures as they sipped nectar delicately outside our window. 

So I planted hummingbird-attracting flowers and set up a feeder outside our bay window and filled it with ruby red nectar.  Weeks went by but not one bird was seen.

Then one day I noticed that the feeder was empty.  It was impossible; could a small bird swig that much nectar in a day?!  I finally figured out that the wind rotated the feeder, causing the nectar to spray around attracting ants...not exactly the creatures I was hoping to entice to the feeder.

I moved the feeder to our vegetable patch.  Maybe these birds were shy or that the pines hid the bright red feeder.  The new location doesn't allow easy monitoring compared to the tree outside the bay window.  Sigh.  But what to do, I really want to see the hummingbird.

Then one day in June, after almost 2 months of dutiful monitoring and maintenance of the feeder (the nectar needs to be changed every 4 days), a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird was sighted at the feeder.  We were overjoyed and spied on it constantly.  At first, Ruby (uncreative name, huh?) was shy.  She'd flee when she realize we were peering at her through our binoculars or photographing her.  Eventually she got the hang of us. 
Once we picnicked near the feeder and watched in amazement as she divebombed to defend her feeder from a pair of male and female hummingbirds. Ruby was fierce!  The feeder and the beautifully flowering Lobelias were hers and hers alone. 
It is now spring again.  We look forward to receiving Ruby again when she comes back from her wintering grounds. 

Monday, July 26, 2010


As a self-proclaimed loner and the only daughter who got the room to herself growing up, I did encounter some difficulties adjusting to a roomful of girls in the first year of university. Although we started synchronizing our menstrual cycles, our personalities weren't always as harmonious. Of course it didn't help that I was still in my "Greenpeace activist" mode that almost always alienated people.

Sue* was a quiet, unassuming girl pursuing Food Studies. Sleeping on the upper bunk above Sue was the vivacious and carefree Valerie*. On the bunk below me was the delicate and highly volatile Grace*. Of the 3 girls, I hung out more with Valerie. Of the 4 of us, I was the odd Chinese girl who could barely piece Mandarin sentences together.

Valerie was in a tough engineering course by accident. Back then we chose university courses the same way we picked flavors of bubble gum in a candy store (um, the pink one looks good). I remember her poring over thick computer programming textbooks or on the phone asking a coursemate about a tough mathematical problem. Grace was in Business or Economics course, I can't be sure. What I do remember was her insistence that any boyfriend of hers must be an engineer-to-be.

So there we were, the 4 freshmen who are as different as spring, summer, autumn and winter who eventually adjusted to one another's quirks and habits. Of the 4 of us, Valerie was the only one with a car so she had fully explored food options and enjoyed social outings in the adjacent university areas and made trips to the city. I was still cycling while Sue and Grace walked or took the bus (when it appeared). For a while, it felt as though guys were swooping down on us first-year female students, baiting us with rides on their bikes in exchange for dates.

I never thought it was possible to have imaginary walls in which each of us could retreat into for some quiet time. At least that was how I coped when Grace got into one of her moods and pretended that none of us existed in that room. I learned to study and relax on my bed; the only space in the room that was truly mine.

The following semester, Sue, Valerie and Grace moved out but I kept in touch with Valerie. I would chat with Sue when I met her on campus. Somehow I never saw Grace again even though I took classes in her faculty. My new roommate Laura* was a teacher pursuing an advanced degree in education. She was staid, quiet and also cycled to campus. I thought we might get along somehow but the hill leading up to our college was too steep for her so she relocated to another one on lower ground. So voila, just like that and without wishing my roommates away, I had a room to myself for a semester.

In my second year, I moved to a newly-built residential college and shared the room with two first-year Business and Economics students: Marie* and Candace*. Either I have changed or these girls were more receptive of my odd ways; the 3 of us got along fairly well. I felt sisterly towards them, giving encouragement and maybe even some unsolicited advice. We would buy snacks or (illegally) cook instant noodles for each other. Marie was especially endearing to me because she bridged stereotypes of "Chinese-educated" VS "English-educated". I was thoroughly sick of being alienated by my Chinese peers all these years for being a "banana" (outwardly Chinese-looking but inwardly Western-minded), but Marie helped me get over my bitterness and resentment. She was tolerant of my stereo blaring loud grungy music although she did once comment on how unbearable Pearl Jam's 'Do the Evolution' was. Candace was a carefree soul with a penchant for sweet soups (tong sui) that she made with her slow cooker. I adored her creative cooking skills and crooked smile.

In my final year and into the first year of my post-graduate studies, I shared a room with Evelyn*. This time it was a bungalow just outside university grounds that we shared with 9 other girls. I had ditched my bicycle for a second-hand Honda EX5 that served me well. Evelyn and I already know each other since first year and were members of the Volunteers of AIDS Club. I'm not sure if we had synchronized menstrual cycles, but Evelyn and I got along very well. Two years my senior and pursuing Community Health Studies, Evelyn is a person of many interests: she knits, speaks French, and saves stray animals in her free time (I adopted a kitten I named Shelly Rosebutt because of her), among other things. She is one of the kindest, gentlest human beings I've ever known.

While it's a pity I never had the experience of sharing a space with girls of other races or the opposite sex during these first few years away from my family home, female roommates are plenty to deal with on their own. It is true that our bonds were fragile, transient and mutually beneficial at a specific space and time and that I sometimes wished there was something more. But still I am glad to have known these women who contributed subtly to who I am today.

*names have been changed to protect privacy

Friday, March 26, 2010

To FB or not to FB, that is the question

Browsing a local paper one chilly Friday morning over a breakfast of mango-banana smoothie and bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich, I came upon a letter in the Aunt Agony section. The woman was responding to an ongoing discussion about how lonely grandparents felt because their grandchildren seldom maintained correspondence with them. This spunky grandmother decided to tackle the problem head on: she opened a Facebook (FB) account, uploaded photos, posted cool stuff about her life and she reports that her grandkids love it. And they are now more frequently in touch than they ever would be if she had expected them to call her on the telephone.

That is one loving grandmother.

Now I don't know about you, but even though I'm not a grandmother yet, I am one of those people who hesitated for a long time before opening FB account. Call me old-fashioned. When digital cameras first came around in the late 90s, I was actually spending over a thousand Malaysian Ringgit on a Nikon film SLR camera. Now I regret my decision because developing pictures from film is so expensive and I had to be careful with what I photograph (the angle, lighting and composition has to be purr-fect...arrr).

So I dabbled in FB, mainly for a friend I was frantically trying to keep in touch with. She seldom responded to my e-mails and it was difficult catching her on the phone. We'd go for as long as 6 months without knowing what was going on in each other's life...and we were supposed to be BEST friends. She said she was active on FB and that I'd know about her on-goings by signing on. I resisted a bit, citing security reasons for not using FB but she assured me that one could share one's personal details while controlling access to who could see the information. Did FB help bridge the distance between my best friend and I? I'm afraid not. All right, I should have signed onto FB for myself, but hey, that's just some of the things you do for a friendship, albeit a dying one.

In a span of 6 months, I deactivated my FB account TWICE. Although I was virtually connected with over a hundred friends, I felt more disconnected from them as ever. Maybe I was expecting too much from this social network because I found FB interactions to be superficial and unsatisfying. On one hand, it is a nice way to find out what is going on with your friends' lives, not unlike reading the daily news. But the conversation is stilted, unfulfilling. Of course you could always adjourn to the Inbox for a more detailed discussion but that rarely happens. On the other hand, I kept thinking that FB and other social network cannot compensate for true human interactions.

My other pet peeve is that I felt ignored on FB. I'd pathetically sign in everyday, hoping someone would noticed my witty wall posting or (in my mind's eye) fantastic photos. Nothing. FB made me even more attention-seeking than I already was. I get jealous of other Facebookers who get TONNES of responses no matter how trivial their postings. How did they do that? I do take interest in other people's doings and make the effort. I wonder if there was anything further I could've done to improve the situation.

Of course you might say I'm projecting too much here, but maybe my FB status and activity is a reflection of my real social life. That, really, very few persons are interested in my life. So FB, being just a tool, can't change the fact that I've never been a popular friend to begin with.

I reactivated the account after two friends scolded me for quitting. Man, I have to stop living my life like that: doing things out of obligation, because, yea, true to form, I quit again a few months later for similar reasons. So what dragged me right out again, you ask? Oh, another obligation, not surprisingly. This new volunteer stint I'm doing requires me to post pictures on FB. Ah well, I reassured myself, that I can always drop out again after my task is done.

My family and husband assured me that friends are friends...that distance is a real challenge in keeping a friendship alive. That people are busy with their lives and their immediate surroundings. Those are the facts and I just have to learn to deal with being ignored or a friendship losing its spark. But that's the thing that I never quite figure out: how to be nonchalant about people not necessarily wanting to connect with you? I feel constantly trapped in this cycle of reaching out to people, then being sensitive to rejection (or perceived rejection) and I shrink away from human interaction. Perhaps I should develop a thicker skin because this cycle is hardly the way to building fulfilling friendships. I must overcome my constant fear of rejection and learn not to be overly sensitive...because it may not be rejection but just a difference in priorities, attention spans, attachment to the friendship, etc.

Now I wouldn't want my own kids to someday think I'm a weird recluse that they'll never want to be seen in public with. I also wouldn't want them to be overly anti-social. I could accept "mild" anti-social behavior in my kid if she or he happens to be introverted. There is nothing wrong with liking your own company especially when the outside world is quite confusing and somewhat tiring. At least that's from my introverted point of view. I would like my children to have dual abilities: comfortable being by themselves and when situation requires it, be sociable and cooperative so that they could blend into normal societal structures.

So for now I'll stick to e-mail and the occasional Skype phone call to the select few friends who share the same enthusiasm as me in the relationship. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, right? I actually like snail mail but I know that's pushing the if e-mail wasn't considered antiquated enough. Well, the only snail mail I get these days are bills and junk mail...argh!!!

As for FB, I recognize that it is just a tool for keeping in touch, albeit superficially. Perhaps for the hundreds of acquaintances and mere friends, this is sufficient.

Monday, February 8, 2010

D'yer Mak'er...homemaker

The notion of being a homemaker may not be as sexy as the Led Zep song. But without much ceremony, I became a full-time homemaker in mid-January 2010. It helped that the first few days after returning from our fun-filled trip to Malaysia and a honeymoon in Thailand, hubby did most of the cooking while I adjusted to winter after two and a half months of warm and humid weather. I acclimatized quickly and ungracefully as the furnace acted up and refused to heat the house to a relatively comfortable temperature of 20 degrees Celcius (in Malaysia, this would have been frigid, but I digress), forcing me to wear layers and layers of clothes, not unlike an onion. Too bad it's impractical to wear a blanket around the house.

It is time to implement my plans of becoming an enviromentally-aware domestic goddess! I have been turning more and more to my "Martha Stewart" side in recent years and now I can fully embrace it. But first things first, I unpacked the boxes shipped up from Alexandria months ago while I left the country to switch visa status. This is the first time in many years I have all of my possessions with me. Since I started my post-grad studies and then work, I've always had a field base and a home base. I think Mom is relieved to have most of my junk out of her immaculate home...hehehe. This also meant that I threw out and gave away quite a bit of stuff as well.

We have since integrated our wardrobe and furniture, cookware and electronics. Thank goodness the basement exists. Summer clothes, unused lighting and furniture were stored there. I then happily organized and rearranged almost everything in the house. Hubby is wary of the fact that the furniture configurations could change tomorrow, next month or whenever. So far so good. I'm only moving the small pieces around nowadays, leaving big pieces where they are.

I set up a daily schedule but give myself plenty of leeway. Towels to be washed on Thursdays. Bathroom and kitchen to be disinfected weekly. Will try to vacuum and wipe dust off furniture at least once a week. But I know myself...that I have a relaxed and inconsistent way of cleaning and tidying the house. Sometimes, I'd clean a section of the bathroom or living room. Othertimes, I clean the whole house in a matter of hours. If there is such a thing, I actually WANT to enjoy my "homework" and not be a slave to chores.

The dry air and repeated contact with water is wrecking havoc on my hands. I am more diligent about applying lotion after shower but looks like my skin needs petroleum jelly.

I have gotten round to planning our weekly menu and we stick to a list when grocery shopping. I tend to cook lazy, all-in-one pot of meat and vegetable like curry or weird pasta-soup combo when living alone. Now I try to prepare a more nutritionally balanced menu, comprising of at least two dishes to go with rice. We both like Japanese food, but I am more familiar with Chinese cooking. I have experimented successfully with grilled fish, roast beef and chicken. I am grateful there are shops where we can still find Asian food to keep homesickness at bay, strenghtened further with some supplies bought from home. Just the other day I made nasi lemak with the high-grade anchovies we bought in Malaysia. Have to be careful not to use up my Marmite as stores here don't seem to sell anything like it.

Recycling is mandatory in Ithaca, to my delight. I haul out recyclables and place them by the roadside every fortnight. When I'm done with the research, the house will have a composting bin as well. I am looking into vermicomposting and installing a disposer under the kitchen sink. Apparently compost bins and worms prefer plant discards as opposed to meat. The disposer will take care of small bones but short of becoming vegetarians I'll have to find other ways of dealing with the chicken fats and bones. Maybe we can buy meat without bones, but I like making stock with bones. So how ah?

Overall, the house is in decent shape but as they say, there is always room for improvement. So onward we go, with our small projects, fixing this and that, redecorating here and there...HGTV and DIY our favorite tv channels; Home Depot and Lowe's our usual haunts. We had a garage door installed recently. We installed laminate flooring at the foyer. Hubby is obsessed the idea of installing recessed lighting and a second bathroom in the basement. I'm interested in refinishing our hardwood flooring and the sundeck. So much to do, but so little money and time. I guess we'll have to prioritize and break big projects down into smaller, affordable chunks and do them in phases.

Hubby is worried I might go cuckoo staying at home all day, all week, so he takes me out for grocery shopping, a visit to the public library, for a nice meal outside or to meet with friends. I haven't created any imaginary friends yet. I like my own company and don't mind solitude as long as I have my music, books and freedom to rearrange the furniture. But yea, striking a balance in every aspect of one's life is a good goal to pursue.

We'll see if I can pick up some sewing skills and do something with the drab curtains...first stop: classes.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wedding planning and other scary thoughts

And so wedding receptions were created. Some are simple and others elaborate. Some couples do away with it altogether, some brides find it offensive if it's not up to par. It's not uncommon for the woman to take charge of everything, other times the man pays more attention to the type of frosting on the cake. Tons of money are spent on these fleeting events. The tiered cake, the dress, the menu, the photographs, the long list of guests...have a band or don't have a band, to karaoke or not to karaoke...that is one of the many questions.

I revisit the root cause of weddings:

1. Boy meets girl

2. They fall in love

3. They dated for a bit

4. They decided to tie the knot

5. Parents are elated

6. Parents decide to celebrate and annouce their union to the world by sponsoring WEDDING RECEPTIONS

I used to wonder why women become bridezillas over weddings and now that I'm halfway to becoming one, I can relate to the self-imposed anxiety and gradual slide to insanity. It suddenly feels as though the wedding planning are the sole responsibility of the woman. True, women can generally multi-task and revel in the details of planning. True, it's supposed to be fun, doing all the girly-wirly things with your girlfriends and mother...sisters if you have them, or brothers if they tolerate this sort of thing. It would be really cool to have a gay friend as portrayed by Rupert Everett in 'My Best Friend's Wedding'.

In the past I had thought it amusing that so much pressure rested on this event when the more important thing is how the marriage would proceed, long after the guests have left and said their best wishes; the venues no longer have traces of your merry-making; and long after you come home from honeymoon and a huge mound of laundry is staring right back at you...

Now I'm a little bit obsessed about getting this hopefully once-in-a-lifetime event right. I guess I have always been one of those people who realize belatedly what certain things entail. And weddings are one of them. As I navigated assumptions, expectations, "assumed" expectations and realities of a budget, my stress level sky-rocketed. There were restless nights where I found myself staring at planning spreadsheets, mulling over guest lists, budgets and protocols.

What protocol? There is NO protocol. And the conflicting advice from well-meaning aunties...aren't all these things written down somewhere like a manual entitled, 'How to Carry Out a Malaysian Chinese Wedding for Dummies'? Both sets of parents established that the receptions won't be traditional but there must be some framework, some remnant structure to follow, right? Or do you just show up, eat your fill, then get up and leave? I realize as the dates draw closer, I wanted something more from the two receptions; some level of cohesiveness and a good flow...I want them to have soul...whatever that means.

I used to be proud of the fact that I didn't really concern myself with what other people might think. Now I do. Is it a sign of maturity or just an implosion of self-esteem?

Well, I probably am just stressing myself out for no apparent reason. I mean, the big things are pegged down: the venues are booked. Invites to the bridegroom's reception have been sent and many have RSVP-ed. We are looking into the invites for the bride reception this week. I selected a design for the tailor-made dress.

Maybe part of the problem is that I still view myself as a tomboy. I may have grown my hair long and seldom leave the house in some shapeless and baggy garb. But I actually dread trooping from bridal house to bridal house, looking for a decent dress that wouldn't make me look like a cupcake or burn a hole in the pocket so deep I can see the earth's magma.

Having rambled all the way down to this paragraph, the realization hit me like the monsoon rain at 4 in the afternoon: the biggest source of anxiety is that the wedding and all its intricated planning represent the beginnings of how two families will interact with each other. A precursor event that will be reflected and referenced upon, with your closest relatives, friends and colleagues as witnesses.

So now I take a deep breathe and although I am not Christian, I will murmur these soothing words of prayer: "Grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change; COURAGE to change the things I can; and the WISDOM to know the difference."

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Recently for a staff retreat and team-building exercise, I took a MBTI test and found out that I am a ISFP. At the workshop though, I validated as a ISFJ. As WWF-ers, my colleagues and I enjoyed the acronyms because our world is flooded with them: PMP, USAID, TNC, CI, WCS, WFC, CTI, SOM, WOC, CCC.

Anyways, an ISFP is described as someone who is:
1. Able to "live in the moment"
2. Aware of people and the world around them
3. Independent
4. Faithful to people and things important to them
5. Guided by strong core of inner values, with a desire to contribute to people's well-being
6. Adaptable and flexible, unless a core value is violated
7. Quiet and unassuming
8. Seen by others as quiet, reserved and private

This fascinating tool was developed Isabel Briggs Myers based on psychological theory by Carl Jung. I was unsurprised by the results and was pleased that the tool confirmed who I already knew I was. Some questions weren't easy to answer, requiring at least a beer or two before taking a stab at it...not given much room to say, "well, it depends". Of course, you might get different results if you used the tool after a "major event" or after considerable lapses in time.

E (extraversion) or I (introversion) - where you focus your attention
S (sensing) or N (Intuition) - the way you take in information
T (thinking) or F (feeling) - the way you make decision
J (judging) or P (perceiving) - how you deal with the outer world

The preference clarity index showed I was clear about being an I and a F. I was only slightly a S or I might swing the other way according to circumstances.

At the workshop we were grouped with people with similar preferences for the four preferences. Most of the groupings confirm why I worked well or got along with certain people and less so with some. I understood better the sources of conflict and tension.

A manager seeking to restructure would find this useful for setting up his or her team. While it is tempting to choose people who are the same type, there is strength in diversity and that different tasks would suit certain people very well. I think it's a recipe for a happier work place...of course when you have the luxury of choosing what you want to do. Most of the time you just do what you have to do.

I really like that the facilitator said that just because you are of a certain type, it doesn't give you the excuse for bad behavior. I guess despite my preference for solitude, I'd have to venture out for social gatherings every now and then. I'd have to learn to fight the urge to follow my heart too much and use my head when situations require it.