Friday, 27 January 2012

A different side of the same person

Lucy at Angkor Wat

I grew up watching Lucy come into the eHomemakers office. For the longest time, she always struck me as quiet and sometimes uptight. I never saw Lucy as a 'fun' person. Getting her to say something in front of a crowd or in front of a camera was like trying to get a cow to climb a tree... she just wouldn't do it. It would take Lucy a while to warm up to someone, but when it comes to selling eco-baskets, she's all over the place... which is something I still can't understand.

Her first few video journals were the hardest to film. Because she never knew what to say, we would ask her questions that she would have to answer. Since Lucy was so camera shy, she would break off in the middle of her sentence and complain "Haiyo, I cannot la! I donno what to say la!!" but she would then later ramble her answer on and on... off the camera. Slowly though, things started to change and Lucy started to talk more, and voila! Her video journals are quite enjoyable to watch now.

Early January, Ching Ching was invited to Cambodia for a Fair Trade conference. She took Lucy with her as an official delegate. Morgan and I went along as the conference documentation team.

Our trip to Cambodia was definitely a memorable one. Besides the hundreds of pictures I took, the amount of new foods I ate everyday and the thrill of riding a tuk tuk everywhere we went, I also learnt a lot of new things about Lucy.

Lucy's 'funny' angle picture
Lucy was such a sport in Cambodia, she tried everything that was put in front of her (except the fried crickets which she literally ran away from). When we visited Angkor Wat, she asked me to take pictures of her in "funny" angles, something I never thought Lucy would ask me to do, let alone let me take pictures of her instead of shying away from the camera.

During the first day of the conference all the delegates had to introduce themselves. Everyone was actually told months in advance about this but Ching Ching was smart enough NOT to tell Lucy, because if Lucy found out she had to speak for 2 minutes in a sub-regional conference, she would find all the ways to excuse herself from the task.

So 10 minutes before, Ching Ching broke the news to Lucy in the most casual way. "Lucy ah, later when its Malaysia's turn, you come up with me and just give a short intro about yourself, ok? Very easy one... no need to worry!"

But boy did Lucy worry!

She started composing a script in her head, and at the same time her legs were trembling. But in the moment, Lucy's introduction was perfect and she received a big applause. Even one of the German delegates came up to her during the tea break congratulating her on being the best speaker. Lucy just giggled.

Lucy joining Morgan and I for a candid picture 
But still being the same old Lucy, she sold more eco-baskets at the trade fair in 2 hours than the appointed volunteer did in a full day.

On our last night, Lucy went back to the trade fair to buy her souvenirs for people back home. She came back to our hotel with a huge shopping bag. She bought silk sewn butterflies for her SLE friends for about 5USD for 10, and she bought 3 silk purses and gave one to me. She proudly announced, "That day you almost bought it at 11USD. I buy today for 7USD!" Not only is Lucy only good at selling eco-baskets, she's also good at bargains!

When she walked off to her room, everyone who passed by Lucy were greeted with "Look what I bought from the trade fair at this price!"

I chuckled. All this while, I thought that Lucy was a quiet and uptight person! But after this trip to Cambodia, I will see her from a different light; she's fun, (can be very) talkative, and she's one of the sweetest ladies I have ever met. Now I know that I should never judge someone until I know them very well.

Lucy doing a jump shot


Thursday, 19 January 2012

Hair, Makeup, and the Power of Simple Routines

In American culture, makeup and hair have a special place in the female routine. Yet, how important a makeup and hair routine truly is depends on the woman herself. For myself, a two minute brushing of my hair is simply enough, makeup doesn't really have a place in my life. For others, perfect makeup and the perfect hair are essential, it is a tool of power, a shield from the world, or simply a confidence mechanism. Watching Sulastree talk about hair and makeup though gave a whole new dimension to the essentially female tradition of hair and makeup. As I watch the video of Sulastree explaining her hair plucking I notice two things: 1. How calm and matter of fact she is about this frustrating practice. 2. A quote across the screen: "it is a constant battle between my facial hair and me." Sulastree's soothing, matter of face tone and her depiction of the daily routine seem somewhat paradoxical if not completely at odds with each other.

However, this paradox does not only show bravery and zen like acceptance within an extremely difficult situation, but also the constant paradox and bravery involved in being a transgender woman. To be a woman is difficult enough, to completely change from one gender to the other, from my perspective anyway, is somewhat unimaginable. It is truly amazing to see how something as simple as plucking facial hair can attain such different meanings, connotations, and battles. It is not a rare situation to challenge or question something that is so much a part of ourselves. Something as simple as our hair color or the shape of our eyes can send someone into a spiral of insecurity, self-hatred, and despair.

As a young American teen, I struggled very much with insecurities due to my weight and physical appearance. In my mind I imagined myself as a very attractive and beautiful person; however, when I looked in the mirror, reality would strike and my mind's image would remain within my mind. It took many years for me to come to the realization that I had to take control of my situation and act purposefully to turn into the self I knew was the true me. Those years were filled with physical pain from running cross country and mental battles over eating what I want versus eating what I should. Long after I had lost the weight, and become more physically active, I still found myself unhappy with how I looked, pinching at the lose parts of my midsection, pulling at my thighs, hoping to look more like my mind's image of the physically perfect me. Through physical perseverance and the development of a healthier body image, I was able to love myself and find the confident beautiful person within myself.

Dealing with a physical attribute to feel more at peace with one's self can be difficult to a certain degree. However, Sulastri's changes to her physical appearance symbolize much more than attaining a personal goal. Every time, this courageous woman performs her morning routine, it is a symbol of endurance and success for others who struggle with their gender identity. I can only imagine, that for Sulastree, plucking hair is at the very least a nuisance and at most a frustrating reminder of certain limitations. But her can do attitude and her patient eyes give me faith in her. I am certain that she will win the battle with those hairs and that the hair plucking battle is only one of many that she will face and win.

So here is to hair, makeup, and the power of simple routines, may they bring us comfort as well as challenge our notions of what it means to be human.

Pong's Story: Take What You Feel and Use It

Pong's story has been very carefully recorded in both the Portraits of Perseverance Blog as well as in several fascinating videos on the ehPerserverance Channel on Youtube. To quickly review, Pong was born and raised in a small village named Ipoh. During her lifetime, Pong endured great difficulty by losing her child, and contracting a viral infection after her still birth. Soon after collapsing at home due to the viral infection, Pong fell into a coma for 2 months. After awakening from the coma, she was able to regain movement and strength in her arms, but her legs received the opposite diagnosis. Pong had her legs amputated but then found that the incision left behind could not to allow her to sit up straight. During this time, Pong hadto rely on dragging herself around the floors of her house on her stomach before receiving a trolly for support. (For Pong's Full Story Please Click Here)

Through all of these difficulties, and more that I have omitted for the sake of brevity, Pong has found a positive light in her life that allows her to persevere. Even with more complications such as leukemia, kidney disease, a heart attack, and more, Pong still beams with the light and charisma that are an essential characteristics of a survivor. Pong's life story is not one to be taken lightly. It is not the type of story to be glorified for the sake of human entertainment or to arouse mass amounts of pity. Her story is really a bastion for others to look upon and draw inspiration from. Even in her handicapped state, Pong serves as the voluntary President of the Hope Era, a society for handicapped citizens in Ipoh, Malaysia. She utilizes her passion and mental strength to produce outcomes that few could do without any of her limitations.

Struggles and obstacles are a natural part of everyone's life, yet Pong has had an unusual share of her own obstacles and struggles. Her life story is not one to induce
pity or despair. Instead, it serves as a stronghold for all individuals with large and small obstacles. I am sure that everyone can see a bit of their own pain and loss within Pong and her story. I feel that it is the reader's responsibility to take the feelings and emotions they receive from her story, whether that be inspiration, charisma, pity, ingenuity, etc. etc., and use those feelings to make a difference whether that difference be in Pong's Life, the reader's life, or people close to the reader. Let us all hope that we can achieve at least one quarter of what Pong can achieve with whatever we are blessed with in our lives.

Choosing Happiness or Sadness

Viewing Pong in the hospital awaiting treatment stirred within me a mixture of emotions. Pity, awe, inspiration, and even a bit of shame. I too have my own problems that I am dealing with on a daily basis at the moment, but they cannot compare to the obstacles that Pong is overcoming. I look at Pong lying in her hospital bed and I can only wonder how she is able to draw such a meaningful smile upon her face. On top of all of the operations she must endure, she reveals that she has recently lost her mother and her brother had an accident of sorts. For me, it would be just too much to bear.

But then I hear her say: "I have to choose between Happiness and Sadness, and I choose Happiness". How wonderful, I think to myself as I hear this. She is able to just succinctly and efficiently tell herself to choose happiness and to persevere. I am sure it is not as easy as it sounds, and entails much more than just a simple mental choice. But I think it is so admirable that she can put herself within that mindset. It is something that I am striving to do at the moment as I integrate myself more into China.

It is definitely not easy and at times I don't even know if I can do it. As a Masters student in China, I find that I have practically every advantage in the world. I am financially secure, on my way to achieving a respected degree in a respected field, I have my family, friends, and so much more. But at times, some of the smallest negative things, like being faraway from family or even being unable to buy turkey for thanksgiving, can bring me to my knees with despair. Why is it at times that when individuals face the most devastating of situations they can be so full of courage and light, while others with every advantage int he world can find it so hard to even smile? Maybe it is because only at our worst we realize what we do have and how empowering it can be. Or maybe it is because when we are stripped of all our material items and connections that we are able to find our true spirit and strength. For me, it is through the love and support of others that I am able to find my own self. However, Pong is able to go through so much more, relying basically on her own strength and some charity from others. Her will is something that is truly remarkable.

To choose happiness, despite it being the obvious choice (like the choice between good and evil) can really be a challenge, especially when you do not feel strong enough to choose what one truly needs. However, Pong, in her state, not only has that ability, she seems to excel at it. There really aren't enough words to describe the intensity and the miraculousness of Pong's situation and fighting spirit. But it is a thrill to watch, and it is inspiring to know that someone in her state can still be so positive and move on with her life. See part 2 and part 3 of her hospital when you click on the embedded links.

Siew Lian's Couch: Everyone Needs Their Couch Comforts

From her video: Siew Lian "One Sunday & My Couch", one is able to see Siew Lian in one of her most vulnerable states. This state is something that we all may have trouble showing to others, but it is an important one nonetheless. The state I am referring to is one of being human. It is a state that we very much like to hide from the rest of society, especially during such a time when the world is becoming more interlinked and the pace of development is growing exponentially. But is a state of being that cannot be forgotten and should be nurtured.

Siew Lian is obviously a filial daughter and a hard worker, but it is also refreshing to see this go getter survivor's softer, more human side. For Siew Lian, one of the items in her life that serves as a holy grail of rest and refreshment is her office's couch. As Siew Lian relaxes on her couch, one can almost see the tension leave her.

It is a refreshing site, in my opinion, due to this habit/action being something that everyone does/needs. For myself, it is hard for me to find this "couch comfort". I live faraway from my family in a country that is definitely not my own. Finding those creature comforts for me can be expensive, hard to find, or down right impossible. But it is through Siew Lian's video that I begin to acquire hope, that even in a difficult graduate program in a country so different from my own, that I too can find those comforts to help me along in my personal journey.

Siew Lian's hard work and dedication is obvious even from a computer screen in China. However, only those who have the capacity for sensitivity, openness, and humor are able to cherish the similarities between one's self and another individual who may appear so different and far away.

Hooray for Sulastri!

Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure of meeting Sulastri Arrifin. I can only hope to travel to Malaysia this summer for that honor. Fortunately, thanks to Portraits of Perseverence and Youtube, I have been able to learn at least a little about how dedicated and diverse Sulastri's work truly is.

As someone who has worked with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender youth in China as an English teacher, it can be a true honor to work with individuals who face so many social obstacles and yet succeed and live life to the fullest in spite of them. It can also be heartbreaking to hear their stories of failure, secrecy, and negativity towards the future.

However, it is really wonderful to see how Sulastri has not only risen from her previous state as a sex worker and is now in touch with and helping others to rise out of the same situation she was once in. In my personal struggle to find a home in Nanjing and rise above my own troubles I find one quote to ring true within me: "Its not important to hold all the good cards in life. But it's important how well you play with the cards you hold". In her mission to play the cards she was dealt the best she could, she has inspired others to do the same. I too hope to be able to play my cards the best way I know how.

A Treat Well Deserved for Someone Deserving

Everyone has had the desire or need to treat themselves every once in a while. Some even more than others. But how many of us get to enjoy a treat that is equal to the work and pain that we truly endure? It appears that Lucy Goh is now one of those people.

Lucy's "Tiger Year" began with the four deaths of her mother in law, her aunt, her mother, and her best friend who also was a model for Salaam Wanita's eco-basket exhibitions. This not to mention that Lucy suffers from Lupus, a debilitating and crippling disease for any single mother. Lucy has also had a near death experience with her disease that was so detrimental that she had lost memories of her family. After this experience she was basically retaught to live her life and identify herself.

Although this simple and short explanation does very little justice to explain Lucy's trials and successes, I am happy to see Lucy go through something as luxurious as a spa treatment. The spa to me is one of the ultimate symbols of luxury and pampering. It is a place that at once rejuvenates, refreshes, and renews the self both spiritually and mentally. It is also a great treat that few can afford regularly. Lucy's spa treatment is certainly a great thing to witness not only because I am personally jealous, but also because it is nice to see luxury go to a person who is not merely financially capable of purchasing such a treat, but instead to someone who has endured a multitude of life's tribulations. So here is to seeing the deserving truly receiving a deserved treat. See Part 2 and Part 3 of her treatment here.

Exercise for Life

As a Masters student in Nanjing, China I find that exercise is an essential part of my daily routine. Without that one hour of hardcore stretching, sweating, and just a slight ounce of pain, I feel as though something terribly important is missing from my life. If I go for more than a few days or more without exercise or stretching and I can slowly feel my muscles and mine going slack. If I wait a week or more, then I become a nervous wreck. So one could definitely say that I am an exercise addict.

For Siew Lian, however, exercise is something even more essential. From watching a clip of her physiotherapy, one can see that Siew Lian's physical therapy is the difference between life and deterioration. From her other videos, I have been able to gather Siew Lian enjoys being busy. I can relate to this type of mentality, because when I am not busy I either feel useless or guilty. To avoid those feelings, I fill my free time with work, study, volunteering, and anything else I can think of. One of those things that I use is exercise. Yet in Siew Lian's case, exercise can be a means for her to continue her life's work and to be the busy, active, and proactive Siew Lian that her friends and family know her as.

Watching Siew Lian go through physiotherapy connects me to her in a way that I feel could not happen in any other way. Siew Lian may battle her debilitating disease in more than one way, but she battles her obstacles in the same way that I do! I use exercise to fight off the demons of laziness and depression, and she uses it to fight off the effects of her Lupus. Exercise, no matter in what form can be therapeutic, but it also is something that is essential for the healthy and the sick, the strong and the weak, and the active and the passive. Movement, in any form, not only binds us together but acts as a form of communication. It can communicate strength, love, security, and more.

Watching Siew Lian through her physiotherapy to me communicates a sense of endurance, security, and normality. I believe it takes a lot of courage to share the intimacies of your life on the internet for the whole world to see, and while Siew Lian is not the first or the last, she is certainly one of the few whose message has actual substance and something important to communicate to the world.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

We are family

They say there is safety in numbers and it seems that’s a very true statement.  This sentiment rings especially clear in times of hardship.  When things are tough, it really helps to have someone else around to help pick up the slack, listen to you worry, and pick you up when you fall.  Who better to fill this role than family members?

Jenny and her mother making funeral shoes.
I have noticed people who have a strong support system tend to be happier and healthier than those who don’t.  They are able to come through difficulties more easily than those who are alone, regardless of how dire the circumstances seem.

Jenny Pong comes from a close knit family.  No matter how bad things get, they stick together.  She lives with her family in a modest home in the shadows of the limestone hills. Jenny has the support of her brothers, her niece and her father.  But her greatest ally was her mother, who recently passed away.

Jenny's Mother
When Jenny was in a coma and lost the use of her arms and legs, her mother stayed by her side in the hospital.  She patiently worked with Jenny to help her regain the use of her arms and she bravely fought off those who didn’t believe in her daughter’s chances at survival.

When Jenny’s former father-in-law bought her a coffin, it was her mother who told him to get rid of it and leave the family alone.  She was a strong advocate for family and a valuable resource for Jenny.

Now that her mother has passed away, Jenny is taking a leadership role in the home. She teaches her niece about the value of hard work and a positive attitude.  These are lessons Jenny learned from her childhood, from her mother.  They are lessons that will live on.
A smile that's contagious.

I’ve said it before that Jenny is an inspirational woman.  It makes sense that she would be, she’s continuing  the tradition.
By: Morgan Reed