Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A story for Valentine's Day

She was a bookish student who liked keeping to herself. He was a good-natured chap who was always with his friends. It was 1996, when the school year began for a gaggle of Sixth Formers at King George V Secondary School.

It had been a rough start for her. Her class, Class 6 Muzaffar, was a "floater". As class monitor, it was her duty to find a classroom whenever they got booted out of a class they squated in. In the previous year, a kind schoolteacher had advised her to go into the Arts Stream for she fared better in the languages (Malay and English) than Mathematics and the sciences Physics, Chemistry and Biology. She ignored the well-meaning advice, deciding to follow her dream of being a scientist or maybe a doctor (almost every parent's wish). To make matters worse, their class teacher was a deadwood who constantly belittled them. He would say that she and her classmates were wasting his time and that they were better off being hawkers selling fried kuey teow. Now as she wandered along the corridors looking for another classroom, she cursed her decision.

School assemblies were dreary affairs but she looked forward to seeing one person: the tall, quiet guy from the other Form Six science class. He came to KGV from the Anglo-Chinese School to take the A-levels not offered at his alma mater. Noticing the glances she cast his way, a classmate tactfully told her that he has a girlfriend who was in the Arts Stream. At learning this, she stopped looking at and thinking of him.

After a tumultuous one and a half years, the Sixth Formers were ready to spread their wings and fly. Despite the teacher's prediction that they would fail to make it into any university, a timely government policy to increase the number of science graduates saved this hapless class from being fried kuey teow hawkers. All of Class 6 Muzaffar were accepted into local universities except for one student (he flunked most subjects) in spite of their outrageously horrendous A-level results. She got her top choice: a 3-year B.Sc (Honors) Biology program at Universiti Putra Malaysia. He attended the same university as she, where he trained to become a veterinary doctor.

She was grateful for the second chance to further her education. She worked hard and did well. She also broke out of her anti-social shell when she became an activitist seeking to raise awareness of university students on HIV/AIDS. It was an odd choice of extra-curricular activity but she liked the type of people who formed the group Universiti Putra Volunteers for AIDS Club (UPVAC). When other clubs and societies were highly polarized and homogenous, UPVAC members were fun-loving, wacky and were of different ethnic groups and programs.

They would bump into each other every now and then on campus and they would talk and talk. But they never made the effort to connect beyond the opportunistic meetings. They had separate lives, interests, partners and ambitions.

One day, she received a phone call from him. He said he was leaving for America. He had been going around calling and meeting up with friends as he wasn't sure if he would be able to see them much.

Those feelings that she kept buried all these years resurfaced. She realized that she really, really liked him. But it won't work: both of them were still in their respective relationship. Besides, he's going far, far away.

Months later she received an e-mail from him, broken-hearted and alone in a foreign land. His girlfriend had left him. She offered words of comfort and told him to be strong. Little did she know she was headed down the same path. Her boyfriend of 5 years had suggested that they get married but she suspected that he'd only said that to curb her freedom. She had been offered a job in Sarawak. The ugly truth surfaced when she forced the boyfriend to talk to her parents about marriage. The boyfriend said that it was a misunderstanding and that she forced him to get married. Her mother also decided at that moment to give him a piece of her mind. The end result of the meeting: angry parents and irate boyfriend.

After two months of verbal abuse, she decided to end the relationship for real. The ex had given her enough hate fuel to launch herself out of his orbit forever, to her parents' relief. They weren't sure if the ex was the man for her.

She sent an e-mail to him, to share the sad news. The next day he called her from the US, surprising her at work. After 3 months of grieving and bitching about their respective exes, they realized that they love one another.

Two soulmates who finally found one another...

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Finding Marmite in the US

Living in a foreign land, I have several mechanisms for coping with homesickness. Calling home to talk with friends and loved ones. Speaking Malay to Malaysians working in the organization. And, having my black little bottle of Marmite.

I love Marmite since I was a kid. Mom would mix it with porridge and sometimes she prepared it as a watery brown soup to help me finish my rice.

Since I arrived in the US, I have been surviving on two bottles of Marmite. I've been holding off using the last bit of it because I haven't been able to locate Marmite in any of the international food marts.

I didn't know Marmite was a British product.

I LOVE marmite. Husband hates it

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Waiting, doctors, tests and then some more waiting

Worry is a sneaky thing. It starts out small and insignificant. But when you feed it, worry doubles its size every second. Before you know it, you have an anxiety attack. Your mind starts to play tricks on you.

A colleague recently noticed abnormal bleeding a few days after her period had ended. This usually tough woman was reduced to tears when the doctor said it could be cancer or even have her uterus removed. Later the two of us raged about the doctor's speculations without waiting for test results. To add salt to the wound, urine and blood tests results will take 2-3 weeks and potentially 2-6 months wait for appointments with specialists. She's now waiting to see a specialist and if he can't find out what's wrong with her, she's flying back to her home country to get treated. In the meantime, we both agreed that she should NOT worry herself to death. Easier said than done.

Two years ago I was called by the hospital where I donated blood. I've given blood many times but have never been called back for re-testing.

So I went to the hospital, thinking there must be some mistake. My real mistake was leaning over to see what was written next to my name: retrovirus. I felt as though the floor fell away from my feet. How the heck did I get a virus like HIV???

The nurse, oblivious to my reaction, proceeded to extract my blood while chatting away happily. I numbly replied her questions. I do have a pale complexion but at that time I must have been a whiter shade of pale. She then cheerfully added that I can come back in 2 weeks to get my results.

I walked out of the room and noticed that the world looked surreal, as though I was on MTV complete with strong, vibrant colors and weird background music. This was back in the days when MTV used to play music instead of reality shows. As I walked to the van parked on the hospital grounds, a doctor friend happened by and noticed that I was whiter than white. He took me to his office and asked what had frightened me so. I hesitated but looking at his kind face, I knew I could trust him. There was an outpouring of emotions: fear, anger, and sadness. I told him I could not wait 2 weeks for the results. I would have pulled out my hair, bitten my nails to the quick and gone insane. I had to know NOW. He pointed out that I could get faster results by getting re-tested in the city. Good, I now have a distraction, a mission.

After getting permission for an emergency leave, I drove toward Kota Kinabalu in the rain. It was as though the heavens felt my pain. It was difficult to remain optimistic. Will I leave my job? What will my boyfriend and family think? Will I ever have kids of my own? Perhaps I could deal with the virus since monthly cost for the cocktail of drugs is less than RM1000 if I am still employed. But the stigma and discrimination can be the deal-breaker for a weakling like myself.

By nightfall and just 30 minutes outside the city I accidentally ran over a puddle of water. It was deeper than I thought. After running for 300 m, the van sputtered, choked, gasped and finally stopped near traffic lights, of all places. Things couldn't get worse, could they? Let's add a full bladder and no nearby toilets to the equation. Desperate, I called a friend but he was out of town. I contacted another colleague who gave me the phone number for a taxi company. While waiting for the cab to arrive, 4 strange men walked by the van and taunted me a little before moving on. I could barely contain my tears at that point. Finally, the taxi arrived and I asked to be taken to one of the hotels I normally stay at when in town. Tired but unable to sleep, it was one of the longest nights I've endured.

It worked out well that I had no appetite that night and the following morning since it's standard procedure to fast before going for a blood test. The technician who attended to me was very kind and gentle. He sensed my desperation and offered to call me as soon as he got the results...the next day! Gohonzon always had a way of sending angels my way in my darkest hour.

The mechanic who went with me to fix the van found that the problem was water that got into the carburator. Fortunately, the water had dried up and the van worked fine without too much meddling. After he left I forced myself to eat to regain the strength to drive back to Kudat.

Another night of fitful sleep and I awoke, heart and mind racing. Will the technician call as promised? The hours crawled by as I paced the field house and listened to some loud music to drown out my growing anxiety.

The phone rang at 2.30 p.m.

"Miss, results from the lab confirm that you've been tested negative for HIV."


Monday, February 2, 2009

Have you ever had a cockroach wake you at 2 a.m.?

It had been an easy-going day at work. Although there was an event to organize, it was not crazy or frenetic like other times because: (a) advance preparation (b) sufficient support from all around (c) the cat wasn't around.

I retired early at night after reading a page or two of Sophie's World, a novel on the history of philosophy. Just as Sophie and her philosophy teacher Alberto started dwelling on unification of Christianity and philosophy, I decided to get my zzzz.

My slumbering body sensed an intruder in my left ear. My pinky finger automatically moves in to get at it. The next thing my sleepy brain knew was that a cockroach had crawled right in.

I reluctantly got out of bed and went to the bathroom. I took a quick look at the watch on the counter. "Darn bugger woke me up at 2 a.m.!" Of course this was not verbalized. There is always an odd sensation in the mouth after waking when you don't feel like talking or eating or anything but sleep.

I took at a cotton bud and jabbed at the critter. I wasn't sure how big this cockroach was. I noticed 2 types of cockroaches roaming my apartment happily. Last night I saw one about the size of a small ant, say 5 mm, exploring my computer. From the frightening noise and frantic scratching I can safely say it was the bigger variety, about 2-3 cm in length.

I considered using the tweezer but worried I might drive the critter deeper and possibly damaging my eardrum. As my mind raced through the options (not many rational ones I could muster at that hour) the cockroach decided to exit on its own.

My immediate emotions: relieve, disgust and irrational fear. I started thinking about prevention. Ear plugs. Cotton pads. Headscarves. Cellophane tape. Headmasks, like the ones robbers and terroritsts wear. Then I worried about how my hair would look like in the morning (I can't go to work wearing a paperbag over my head). In the end I settled for earphones.

So wearing earphones in bed I decided to find out on the internet how other people dealt with insects or foreign objects in their ear. There was a decent article that suggested using oil to kill the insect or running water to flush out a bean that's not too tightly wedged in. Ah, nice. An oily ear or wet head at 2 in the morning.

The article also warned about not using inflexible objects like tweezers for fear of hurting the victim...presumably the article was written for mothers or guardians dealing with a panic-stricken child who is struggling and crying to have the bug out of his or her ear. Well, I want my mommy too!

When my irrational fear had lessened somewhat I started musing about the hilarity of the situation. I have slept in worse places and had not endured a cockroach lodging itself in my ear. I had the bigger ones crawling all over me and my brothers when we spent the first night at a field house in Langkawi for my first job in marine conservation. There is always the first time for everything I guess.

I sure am glad the pest control folks are coming over to attempt eradication of those critters. But if I understood correctly, they are only targeting the kitchen area. Moments after the intruder launched itself out of my ear, another one came out of the bathroom sink. It's going to take more than just a visit from the pest control to get rid of these bugs.

As far as I'm concerned, the cockroaches have started a war...