Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Perfect Hostess

Being away from home over the holidays is harder than I thought.  As Christmas draws close, I find myself feeling a bit homesick, missing the snow, the traditions and family.  When I came to Malaysia I didn’t know a soul. It’s been tough to adjust to the weather and the big city but it hasn’t been hard to meet people.

I have been welcomed into so many homes.  The kindness of the “strangers” I have met in Malaysia is more than I ever could have imagined.  Ching Ching and Rhonwyn make me feel like one of the girls, giving me a perfect home base, and even when I’m away from KL I still always manage to find a safe place to land.

Pong's House in Ipoh
I went to Ipoh for the weekend to visit Pong and I was blown away by her hospitality!  I brought along three guests and she prepared a wonderful meal for all of us.  We feasted on chicken, rice, pork and vegetables.  After we finished eating, she showed us around the house and we visited with the family.  If that weren’t enough, the next day she invited us back for some Nasi Lemak.  I’ve called Ipoh the land of 1,000 meals and it’s certainly living up to its name.

During my time in Ipoh, we went to visit Pong three days in a row.  The meals were delicious and the conversations inspirational, but the best part of the trip was Pong’s smiling face waiting for us at the door each time we arrived.

What a great smile
Getting to know the women in the Portraits of Perseverance project has been such a gift.  I’m learning about strength and dedication and life, plus it’s hard to feel lonely when you’re surrounded by new friends.
By: Morgan Reed

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Just sit and admire the rain

We also must persevere.

Coming into this project I knew there would be challenges.  Working in a new country presents unique obstacles and I tried to prepare myself mentally.  Coming from a place where I can get wherever I want, whenever I want, I have become a bit spoiled.  I am always over-scheduling and over-stressing. Upon my arrival here in KL, I knew I needed the lesson in patience.

Sitting on a bus in a jam last night, in the middle of my three hour commute back to the house, it hit me again.  There is no point in getting upset.  My getting frustrated won’t make these cars around me move any faster.  I might as well just sit here and enjoy the view.  There is nothing I have to do tonight that is so urgent that it can’t wait.

What a simple, yet freeing realization.  It reminds me of a story that Ching Ching tells me sometimes. It's about a western couple who get stuck in a rainstorm in KL.  They are so upset over “wasting time waiting” when they could be out seeing tourist attractions.  Then their guide points out how beautiful the rain is.  Often, we are so busy getting frustrated with what is coming up next, or what has just happened, that we miss the pleasure that can be found in the “right now!” 

Learning from Lucy
This lesson has been reinforced every time I see one of the five women from the Portraits of Perseverance project.  If I’m following Lucy throughout her busy day of volunteering or errands, or watching Nisha speak on behalf of the transgendered community.  Observing the grace and kindness with which Sulastri interacts with people in her work and play, or hearing Pong matter-of-factly explain why she puts a smile on each morning.  When I see Ching Ching slaving away in her home office, making calls, writing emails and tirelessly dedicating herself to a cause she believes in, I am reminded that I too have to persevere.

Maybe I have trouble getting used to big city traffic, maybe I feel alone in a new country, maybe it’s frustrating trying to complete a documentary, but I can do it.  I’m already learning so much, not just about journalism, but about life.  These are lessons that I will keep with me forever, lessons that can only be learned through trials.  Tough times can be great opportunities.

By: Morgan Reed

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Living in the Light

Justina was always the one who did the talking.  Lucy Goh remembers her friend fondly.  Both SLE (Lupus) patients, Lucy and Justina became good friends.  Justina was the one who first told Lucy about eHomemakers.  The pair took an eco baskets training course 8 years ago and had been dedicated to the project in various ways ever since.  So when Justina suddenly passed away earlier this year it came as a shock to Lucy.

Lucy at eHomemakers
Having just arrived in Kuala Lumpur in November, I never had the chance to meet Justina, but I've heard lots about her from Ching Ching and Lucy.  It seems Lucy's shy demeanour was in stark contrast to Justina's boisterous personality.  At trade fairs and exhibitions they made quite the team.  Justina would deal with the customers and Lucy would keep track of the inventory and the money.

Now that Justina is gone, Lucy keeps coming to eHomemakers.  With faithful diligence, she comes every week to sort baskets and help out around the office.  She'll even man the table at trade shows, if you ask her really nicely.  She's committed to continuing in the path that she and her dear friend started walking together.

Lucy with Justina's ashes
But they're not done their journey yet.  Justina always wanted to see the world.  When she got really sick, Ching Ching and Lucy promised her that once she was well again, they would see the world.  Sadly, that wasn't meant to be, but that doesn't mean her dream has to die.  With Ching Ching's help, Lucy is going to take Justina where she never had the chance to go.  Her ashes will be spread in various beautiful places around the world. 

A trip has already been planned for Cambodia in January.  It will be a great opportunity, for Lucy, and her dear friend Justina.

By: Morgan Reed

Monday, 5 December 2011

The girl next door

Even though she presents herself in quite a refined way, Sulastri Ariffin is really appreciates the simple things in life.  You wouldn’t know it to meet her.  Sulastri dresses very well, often wearing fancy earrings and dressy clothes.  Every detail of her appearance is perfect and she speaks with a confident composure.  Under it all though, she strives for a normal life.

On her off days, when she’s not busy working with the Pink Triangle Foundation, Sulastri spends time in her neighbourhood.  She prefers to go to local food stalls for nasi lemak in the morning, instead of spending her time in expensive restaurants with air con and exotic foods.  On a Sunday, Sulastri spends the morning doing some marketing around the neighbourhood, seeing the errands as a chance to connect with people she knows in the area as well as a chance to make new friends.

As part of the Portraits of Perseverance documentary a lot of the women are working towards a goal.  They have been helping make video journals chronicling their lives over the past year.  Watching the videos I have seen them grow and change.  I feel like I’ve gotten to know them.  Sulastri comes off as a real character.  She is so natural on camera.  Her sense of humour resonates with the viewer. 

You would think that considering her charisma and potential, Sulastri would be working towards a performance of some kind as her goal at the end of the film, but Sulastri has something much simpler in mind.  She wants to go fishing.  I guess it makes sense, taking her down home roots into account.  What better way to cap off a busy year than with a nice relaxing afternoon by the water?  It’s a reminder for me to take time to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.

See more on Sulastri’s work on the website for the PT Foundation:

By:  Morgan Reed

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The most inspirational woman I’ve ever met

Nestled in the shadows of the limestone caves, in the picturesque setting of Ipoh, Malaysia, lives a truly amazing human being.

Jenny Pong Seow Chin has a gift.  If you ever get the chance to interact with her you’ll know what I’m talking about.  It’s impossible to miss, clear from the moment you see her or hear her voice.

Pong shares a modest home with seven other family members.  They live in a lush, green, wonderland, but Pong says she’s never really noticed.  She has always been far too busy working to stop and gush over the trees and mountains.

From the time she was young, Pong worked in a tire factory, earning $2/day.  It was labour intensive work, but that’s the way Pong likes it, feeling productive and taking care of herself. Even now, confined to a trolley, Pong feels it’s important to work.

When I went to visit her I asked, “Why hasn’t anyone helped you?  Why hasn’t an aid group offered you money to buy a new van or house?”  Pong told me she’s been offered donations before, but she graciously tells people she doesn’t need a hand out.  Not yet.  For now she is still able to work and that is important.  She would much rather earn her money than have it handed to her.

 Right now she is making funeral shoes, to sell as part of a Chinese tradition. Pong has found a way to keep working, even though she is disabled.  She doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for herself or worrying about what happens next.  Instead, she “brings her happiness to the front.”

She says God gave her the gift of this day, and to be happy in the moment.  How many of us have that ability?  Even though, on paper, our lives are much easier with Pong’s, few of us have the spirit and the energy to attack the day that she has.  That’s why I think Pong’s true calling is to motivate others.  If you put a microphone and a crowd of people in front of that woman, you could change lives.

To learn more about Pong's story and past see previous blogs on the Portraits of Perseverance website, or watch some of her video journals also posted on the site!

By: Morgan Reed

Thursday, 1 December 2011

She lights up the room

Nisha Ayub was meant to be in front of a crowd.

I watched her sing last night at a benefit for World Aids Day, (December 1st 2011).  Nisha was part of a group of performers.  Every person was talented but Nisha’s performance was special.  She filled the room with her presence.  She chose her own rendition of “Colors of the Wind,” from the movie Pocahontas and called it “Colors of the World.”  It was creative and fitting for the occasion.
Shaz from the PT foundation wowing the crowd with a colourful performance

I only met Nisha yesterday at the Pink Triangle office where she works, but she and Sulastree were welcoming right away.  They filled me in on their schedules and Nisha invited me to hear her sing that very evening.  What a treat!

But when I say Nisha was meant to be in front of a crowd, I don’t just mean performing.  She has dedicated her life to becoming an advocate for the transgendered community.  As part of her job as Programme Manager with the Pink Triangle Foundation, Nisha often speaks at functions.  She also organizes events associated with the transgendered community in her spare time.  That means she’s a very busy lady!

To Nisha, it’s worth her spare time to spread a message of tolerance and understanding.  Because in an environment where everyone seeks to understand his/her neighbours, we are more free to reach our true potential, free of criticism and discrimination.  As Pocahontas would say, “How high will the sycamore grow?  If you cut it down, then you’ll never know!”

The more time I spend here on the other side of the world, the more I realise how much all of us have in common.

By: Morgan Reed

Monday, 28 November 2011

The last of the original team

Lucy Goh, hard at work

Twenty some women participated in the first Salaam Wanita basket weaving training session in Kuala Lumpur 8 years ago.  Now, Lucy Goh is the only one still working with eHomemakers.  It’s actually a good thing, since many have gone on to become self sufficient, but Lucy has joined the eHomemakers team on the administrative side of things.  She’s a pleasant addition in the office every Tuesday.

Once a week she makes the long trip from her home to the office to volunteer. She spends the day in the eco-basket inventory room busy with tasks like tagging baskets, cutting tags, or packing up orders for buyers.

There is a lot of work but Lucy doesn’t mind. She sits by herself in the inventory room, working diligently with a smile on her face. She says she enjoys her time at the eHomemakers office. It is peaceful.

Lucy keeps coming back every week even though she is very busy with 3 jobs.  She also works twice a week with a company called TLC selling environmentally friendly cleaning products.  But perhaps the job that is most near to her heart is working with SLE (Systematic Lupus Erythematosus) patients.  A patient herself since the age of 19, Lucy had a terrible relapse in 2001.  She nearly died and lost her job as a result.  That’s what brought her to eHomemakers in the first place.

Now that she’s feeling better Lucy keeps coming back because of the women who are helped through the Salaam Wanita project.  She says they can’t come into the office and have to work from home, so she’s happy to come in and help them sell their products so they can support their families.

By: Morgan Reed

Sunday, 27 November 2011

A Helping Heart

Siew Lian’s whole life is about helping others.  I’ve only just met her but this theme is clear to even the casual observer.  With a quiet peace, and kind patience, Siew Lian reaches out to everyone in her world.

Although she tries her best to be self sufficient, Siew Lian’s mother needs help getting around.  The two go to church together every week.   Siew Lian lovingly watches over the tiny woman as she makes her way to and from service and helps her in and out of the car.  The women share laughter and conversation in the car.  Family is a wonderful thing.

Then there are the lupus patients whom Siew Lian dedicates so much of her time to helping.  A patient herself, Siew Lian doesn’t waste time bemoaning her condition but instead uses her experience to help others who are struggling.

She even makes time for a stunned intern from Canada, who’s trying to adjust to a completely foreign environment.  On Sunday Siew Lian brought me to church with her and her mother.  Although the sanctuary was much bigger than I’m used to and I obviously didn’t know anyone there, as I sang along with the group I felt at home. 

Then Siew Lian and her mother took me for not one, but two welcome lunches.  I might get very fat during my time here in Malaysia, but I won’t ever feel unwelcome!

Its women like Siew Lian, and the other members of eHomemakers who make it a priority to reach out, that pave the way for other women like me.  They give us the leadership and inspiration we need to succeed in this life.
The only downside is that sometimes when we are so focused on helping others, we forget to help ourselves.  Self love is sometimes the hardest, but as Whitney Houston once said, "learning to love yourself, is the greatest love of all."
Sorry to quote Whitney Houston, but it is a good song!

By: Morgan Reed

I don't understand why........

I grew up in Ipoh in the sixties and seventies. A beautiful place, full of natural resources. But, it was also full of stories of sorrow.   Young fathers burning themselves with kerosene because they couldn't take care of their families. Teenage girls sold to brothel in KL so that their fathers could pay farm debts to loan sharks. That was how Ipoh girls were known to be pretty and fair -- the most beautiful in Malaysia in the sixties according to street assessments.

So when I came to KL in the mid-eighties, taxi drivers and petty traders laughed or winked their eyes when I told them I was from Ipoh. "Oh, Ipoh mali..( come from Ipoh...girl??) 

It was a compliment which was too much to bear.

I didn't know why there were so many sad stories as many things were not known by us locals.  For example, why aren't some farmers not given land titles when they have lived on the land for generations? Marble slabs have been taken from limestone hills for decades but why are the people staying around the hills so poor?  

Pong at KL GH in September for a sugery

In 2011, I finally read that billions were taken out of Ipoh through the limestone hills.

But why are there poor families like Pong's near the limestone hills still?

At the Ipoh General Hospital, so much more could be done to help the long lines of people needing free medical help.  People like me in KL have to organize campagnes and appeal to many parties to fundraise to get Pong accessories for her disabled situation because she can't get the assistance she needs.

Why can't a small amount of the billions go to improve medical facilities all over the country?   

When we did Pong's video journals in September at the KLGH, the aircondition in the elevator and some floors didn't work for a few days, patients and visitors were sweating.  The toilet for visitor was filthy.

                                                      I was shocked by the condition.
I don't understand.

 Pong needs a specially made hydraulic wheelchair so that she can sit up after lying on her tummy for over 26 tears


Eating rendang with the transgender community

Nigel ( from the project blogging team) couldn't go to the PT Foundation's Hari Raya open house alone. And since no one else was free to go with him, I was (sadly) the last resort. But I was probably the happiest one to be able to attend the open house. I heard so much about PT Foundation from this project, but I just never been there. Also, I have met Pong, Siew Lian and Lucy but I haven't met Nisha and Sulastri. Attending the open house would also be my first experience with the transgender community.

Now was my chance.

Since neither Nigel or I could drive, we had to rely on public transport. In one train, out one train, in one train, out one train. So by the time we reached the PT Foundation building, we were both hot, sweaty messes.

When we entered the open house my eyes widened.

All the transgenders were dressed so beautifully! Their baju kurung's were beautifully designed and their make up was flawless. I only wear make up on rare occasions, and today would have been a good day to do so.  A little eyeliner on my eyes would have made a difference... if only I knew where and how to apply it. Without my mom's guidance, I'm useless when it comes to make up. And of all days she had to be in Penang. I  smoothed out my plain green baju kurung and tried to fix my sweat drenched hair. I had to look more presentable.

Sulastri greeted us and invited us to eat. I wanted to stay and ramble to her about how I was such a big fan of her video journals. She always spoke with so much confidence and the way she talked made her look very sexy, which is something I think many women find hard to do naturally. But since Sulastri was one of main hosts of the open house, she was very busy so I did not get to tell her.

When I sat down on the mats to tuck into my rendang, I still kept thinking to myself, "If only I had planned my outfit beforehand and Googled how to apply eyeliner, I would't be feeling sorry for myself now..." Despite my hunger, I tried my very best to act as ladylike as I could while eating. But it was difficult for me to do so while eating a piece of rendang, so I gave up and went for the kill. While chewing my first bite I realized all around me were the transgenders who ate their rendang in small bites and they had no traces of rendang sauce on their faces. I gulped down my mouthful and to avoid any further embarrassment on myself, I turned around to face the wall to finish my food.

When we found Nisha, I was bedazzled by how beautiful she was. She donned a black baju kurung and she looked so graceful as she walked. From across the room I could already hear her sweet melodic voice. Her make up was also evenly applied. She knows how to behave more like a woman than me! I took big steps towards Nisha and introduced myself to her while vigorously scratching an annoying itch that suddenly appeared on my lower back.When I noticed what I was doing, I stopped.

After filming Nisha and Sulastri, Nigel and I had to leave. We thanked the two of them for hosting us and made our way down the stairs to start our long journey back home.

As we sat on the train, many thoughts were running through my head. I am born a real girl, and the transgenders aren't, but yet they still manage to show more ladylike etiquette than me! I guess I just take my gender for granted. Growing up a girl, I thought that I didn't need to act anymore girlier since I already was one. But now I realize how far behind I am.

That night as I prepared for a date, I wore my black dress instead of wearing shorts and a blouse like I normally would. To add a little zest, I even put a ribbon in my hair and put on some cherry flavoured lip gloss. I looked in the mirror and nodded. This wasn't a make up occasion, but this was a start to acting more like a lady right?

Now, after 10 years of tolerating growth of white hair begging me to wear ribbons in my hair, my mom is still in shock that I am suddenly wearing them out of the blue.

A special thanks to the transgender community for giving me the drive to act a little more ladylike in my life. My first experience at PT Foundation was certainly a memorable one.


October 18

After two days full of upheavals and critical moments of reflections, I calmed down and got buzy at work. Working hard help me to forget about things that bother me. In the midst of email replying and document editing, it dawned on me that I had forgotten to turn to this project for inspiration during those worst moments.

The five women who know me for years will not see me  as 'a failure'! If I were to confide in them about October 16, they would have said,"I've been through much harder times than you. I haven't quit what I am doing, why should you?"

There was Sulastri, jovial and easy going. "My past is gone, I want to be as happy as I can. I don't want to worry about my future. There are so many good things in my life now!"

She sees her blessings rather than the shortcomings.  I know about such advice for the longest time. But I forgot to do a mental sommersault to bounce back to normal when I was so depressed over the harsh words about 'failire'.

I must remember what she said.

Nisha is always smiling even when she was tired
and agitated with uncaring people. After that long journey of coming out as a transgender, facing prejudices and getting support from her mother for who she is, nothing else can beat her down any more.

"I am fighting for issues about the transgender. I am willing to do anything for my community."
This says a lot about her commitment.
I too must learn to hang on to my own social mission, and keep going.

     Then there is Lucy, deligently going about
      working and volunteering. The public transport
      she has to take to do all these activities would
      have cowed many women if not of her
      determination to be self-reliant instead of taking

     " I want to live every minute of my life with
        meaning, so I want to be buzy. Of course,
        there are bad times, but I ask God to give me
        strength to keep going."

Swee Lian fractured her spine due to too
much hardwork and lack of rest.  For over
a month, she was suffering from great physical pains, and still she took care of her sister and
elderly mother. Having taken care of my
Down Syndrome brother and my elderly parents,
I know how exhausting it is especially when you have to do it all by yourself. 

And I am not a Lupus patient.

The inner strength she has to cull to
take care of her home even at a time when she herself is at risk, has got to be immesely deep.

Her filial piety to her mother shows the person she is -- caring about others more than herself.
She still went out to buy her mother's favorite foods instead of buying something for herself.

Most of all, she never quits in doing what she has to do, and she has strong faith that God is there for her.

And Pong
I almost cried when I filmed her at KLGH.
Despite leukimia, deaths of beloved family members, urinary tract pains, and financial constraints, she kept smiling and being jovial
during the few days of filming video journal.

She CHOOSES to stay happy instead of
wallowing in sadness over her situation.
She exercises CHOICE!!!!!!!!
I have so much more material assets, formal education and physical freedom than her, but
I haven't been able to CHOOSE happiness
whenever I trip over little bumps.

Now that I have the opportunity to look at myself through the women, I must start to let go of my fear of failure and CHOOSE to not seek approval from every one, but to nurture my own sense of being with the help of people who really care about Me.

At this beautiful spot in FRIM (Forest Research Institute of Malaysia),  by the BIG Rock, several critical realizations about myself were revealed to me by myself. A supportive group of friends and the positive ions in the surrounding helped me made baby steps to clear my mind of fears, guilt, and self-imposed sacrifices.

I haven't had time to go there this year. 
I should try to give myself the time to reflect, refresh, rejoice, relearn and rejuvenate in the beutiful place and thank God that such a place is accessible to me any time I want. 

And I must remember this whenever I feel like a complete failure --

'Some people always throw stones in your path. It depends on you what you make with them. A Wall or a Bridge? Remember you are the architect of your life.'

Saturday, 26 November 2011

October 16

It has taken me more than a month to clear all the emotional threads in my mind before I write about this critical day- October 16 of the year 2011.

I will never forget it for the rest of my life.

I went to a special session to get help for eHomemakers. I only manage to finish the template for my presentation the night before. There were terms I didn't quite understand in the template but I tried my best and made ten slides.

However, things didn't turn out the way I had imagined it would be -- supportive people giving advice in a friendly way, guiding me to amend what I didn't know. At slide three, one of the persons became agitated with my presentation and he started to give me the strongest  verbal 'commentaries' I had ever heard in my 14 years of building eHomemakers.

This was what I heard, "You have failed. eHomemakers is not making any money and you are using your own money sometimes for cash flow. You can't grow a social enterprise without making profit. YOU need to get out of eHomemakers. It is because of you that eHomemakers has failed."

I tried to protest and gave meekly the names of the awards we have won. "That is the past! Who cares?  Can't you see you have failed?" The person threw a brochure I gave to him onto the floor.  His voice boomed, it was the only thing I could hear.

I tried to defend myself several times but he shouted me down.  The others were nice but they too asked me to leave eHomemakers. I told them that as of two years ago, I had already told the team that I will retire from actively running eHomemakers in ten years' time as that was the time period I estimated for it to grow in the financial aspect without sacrificing the social profit --the pro-poor and disadvantaged side of eHomemakers.  As of six years' ago, I had already identified a key weakness in eHomemakers -- none of us in the core team had business profit experience so I needed to bring in business minded team members but I haven't had the money to pay high corporate salaries to bring them in.  The chicken or the egg sitiation for social enterprises, so common all over the world, but does that mean I have to be shouted down and labelled a 'failure'?  My mind silently cried out my protest.

"Can't you see you have failed? What kind of social enterprise it is when you can't afford business salaries?"
The walls in the room started to cumbled in my mind's eyes. 
The words 'you are a failure' echoed loudly in my ears.
I crumbled internally.

Other loud voices rom my past were telling me -- the child of primary school years, the teenager of secondary school years -- YOU ARE A FAILURE, you are NO Good, You are STUPID (even though you are a school leader and you are in the A class!)  You will never be able to fulfill our expectations!.

The fear that stemmed from the past was so real.
In those moments when the word "failure' was
thrown at me, I felt tears stinging behind my eyes.

Just like the me in the past, I never shed tears.
I couldn't because I wasn't allowed to cry.
I wouldn't because the fear of harsher and more derogatory words paralyze me. 
And that fear has been a huge mental block in the way I deal with people -- I always choose the
path of least resistance and let aggressive people walk all over me and take advantage of me.

I am unable to stand up for myself many many times.

That night, I couldn't sleep. My mind churned rapidly with the words, "You have caused eHomemakers to fail." I felt so ashamed of myself, and crumbled further into the night. 

At 3pm that night, I woke up, wide eyed. "I am going to quit eHomemakers in the morning. And if no one dares to take over it, I will close it down." In the 14 years I have been helming eHomemakers,this choice has never been an option in my mind. I only knew that I had to keep going untill it can stand on itself without me. 

After putting in so much of my time, internal resources, financial resources and sacrificing my own international career for eHomemakers, I have actually caused it to fail, according to the group of people I met with that day. It hurt so bad to think about it.

At 6.30 am on October 17, I got out of bed and told myself, " I am going to tell Mazmin that I will not be going to the conference with her and I will ask her to tell the conference organisers that I will not be speaking at the last panel session."

I felt awful, it was the first time in my life that I  quit a speaking agreement for a conference. The panel session was very important breakthough for eHomemakers as I spent at least three years trying to speak about the issue to the targetted audience.  "I will incur bad reputation from now be it." Several other engagements in the next few weeks came to my mind, "I have to turn them all down!" I dreaded living.

The new me that day did not have any more inner resources to go on.

At 7.10 am, Mazmin who drove from Terrengganu to KL, came right on time. I told her I had quit eHomemakers. Her eyes pierced me sharply before she said, "I am driving you to the conference, you don't have to do anything. So dress up and we must go now. You can't disappoint me."  All the way to the venue, she told me not to quit.

We reached the conference venue and was told to join the CEO breakfast group. As soon as we sat down, the key oprganizer, a big CEO, sat down at our table and said to me, "Yesterday at the conference opening ceremony, the Minister mentioned eHomemakers' e-community as a talent pool for the nation. I am so sorry that all these years, we didn't listen to you when you tell us that women and men can telework from home. Now that broadband is accessible and the cost is lower, it is time we listen to you!"

Mazmin smiled at me.

Courage returned to my being, I spoke confidently at the panel session, knowing that there was one key pillar of support among the audience -- Mazmin.

The moment I stepped inside the gate of my house, my daughter appeared immediately and opened the inner gate for me -- an unusal gesture from the teenager who is more glued to her Facebook during her free time than to pay attention to mommy's arriving home.

"I don't know why, I just know that you are coming home now and my opening the door will make you very happy," the teenager gave me a big peck on my cheek. We hugged tightly. She knew I needed her in those moments. We sat down on the sofa, I told her what happened.

"Mommy, you can't quit eHomemakers, you have to fight on in the way you have planned it!" she said calmly.

That night, I turned on my computer, a Canadian friend skyped me. After listening to my woes, he sent me email reminders to show me I wasn't a failure and that I had tried my best to live my life.  Melissa Morgenstein, our online intern for this project, also skyped chat and encouragerd me to go on.

By 12 am, I chose to carry on.
All these critical moments happened within 24 hours. Down and down and back to middle ground to carry on living.

Isn't this part of life?
But, is God having fun with me again?
Or has HE given me an answer to my prayers about where to go from now after standing at the junction of my life in the whole year of 2011?


Friday, 25 November 2011

Music and Her Persons

I used to think that the song 'I will survive' by
Gloria Gaynor, was in its deep essence, about single moms who have to overcome social prejudices.

I first heard this song at Pattaya at one of the famous 'lady boy' shows. I was at Pattaya for a conference and brought my parents along. They heard so much about the lady boy shows in Ipoh that they insisted on going there 'to see.'

The trangender who lip-sang it was so beautiful that I was mesmerized by her face, her long gown, and every one of her gesture on stage, and then later on at the photo session when the audience paid to take photos with the lady boys.

I asked her why she sang the song so impressively. "The song is about my life, I am a lady boy!" The beautiful smile she gave me belied her struggling past in a small village in the North.

A tourist from India who studied transgenders in Asia gave me his insights about the lady boys. "This song really describes our public prejudice against transgenders all over Asia. If we are not so hypocirtical, judging them from cultural and religious views, they will not have to sing this song with such gusto!"

"Our Asian society still can't accept that there is a third gender!"

He told me that Buddhist Thailand is one of the most welcoming places on the earth for transgenders or kathoeys.   In the last ten years, the Thais also call them '(Thai: สาวประเภทสอง,"a second kind of woman").  The toilets with the 'male and female' signages, the term of endearment for transgender by the locals, and the various beauty pagents from district level to national level.  "The Thai society accepts them as women ( See the Thai audience's reaction in this video).  Sadly, your country is not very nice to transgenders, transexuals and cross-dressers," he shook his head and sighed. "You have too many negative dramas on them!"

His research revealed that there are estimated 10,000 to 30,000 transgenders ( or Mak Nyah) in Malaysia. He read Dr Teh of UPM's research in the year 2000. Among 507 respondents, at least half have been were detained by the police and the Islamic authorities for indecent behavior and cross-dressing.  62% had difficulty finding a job and 50% had to go into sex work to support themselves. (Dr Teh recently in 2011 affirmed that thie statistics haven't changed much for 2011).

After that chance encounter,  every time I meet a transgender, the man's revelations rang in my ears. "Mak Nyahs have been killed and attacked on the street for no reason in your country!"

The dancing in this video reminds me of  the transgenders I have met in musical events. They have beautiful bodies and very beautiful dance moves. All of them are more beautiful physically than most of us women!
     And when they sing "I will survive', I feel like
     my whole being is electrified by 
    the strong emotions, or rather 'the silent cries and
    tears' that I can't see.                     

Although I had known for years that they have been discriminated by the public especially the religious people, the lack of close contact with transgenders did not allow me to nurture a deep sense of empathy with them especially when I was already involved in speaking out on issues related to single moms, disabled women and women with chronic illnesses.

In the last few years, eHomemakers' Salaam Wanita project has involved training some transgenders who wanted to learn computer and teleworking.  I laise with Nisha and Sulastri at the office level and I have never asked them about their personal lives. The only mental conclusion I have about them is: they are more well groomed than me. They care a lot about their make-up, hair do and clothes more than me.

Now that I am working on this project, I get to know them at a personal level and I dare to ask the questions in my mind.

Nisha told me recently that there are still men who ask her how much is it to sleep with her as she walks on the street!

When I asked her how she felt about such disturbances, she shrugged her shoulders, "I am used to it. I am not bother about it."

It suddenly dawned on me that They look like women, they behave like women, they think like women, but they can't be as free as us women!

Because some people don't think they are women, the transgenders are seen as low-class sex workers who hook other women's husbands, sinners who are immoral, criminals who should be locked up in jail, religious deviants who should be re-educated in lock-up camps!

So, what kinds of life do they actually lead beyond the women's physical looks? How do they react to prejudices?

                                           Watch Nisha's video journal explaining beauty

Are they really as women as us - the women? 
Do they cry like us women or swallow the feelings up and 'go to the cave' to settle their emotions like men? Does talking to someone make them feel better when they have problems?  Do they envy us for our menstural problems? Do they have maternal instincts too?  

The first time I met Nisha in a private event, a group of transgenders was singing this song to the birthday person. Nisha sang the song with so much emotions that I was transfixed watching her.  At that event, I learnt that she just came out of jail after being arrested as a transgender and a sex worker.

I told her about our first chance encounter several years ago. She laughed, "I have sung that song so many times at parties, I can't remember which one that I impressed you with!"

"Do you want to sing more?"

"I love singing, but I am not good at singing," she lowered her head shyly. " I can only sing in groups." ( Watch this video journal where she finally admitted that she loves to sing.)

"How about you sing a song for this documentary project? You never know what will happen!" I suggested.

"No-lah, people are going to laugh..." she smiled coyly.

"Why do you care if they laugh at your singing? You have to be you, right?  So sing!" I persisted.

Nisha agrees.

This documentary project is going to be great as I got to do things that I never dreamed I would do for a transgender -- making Nisha's dream come true.


A Canadian in Malaysia

Hello team!

Fresh off of the plane, 2 days into my Malaysian adventure and so far I’ve managed to avoid the jet lag! Although, one thing I haven’t been able to avoid is the heat. I was so excited to leave minus 25 for plus 30, but it’s a bit more of an adjustment than I had anticipated. I find I have to change my clothes at least twice a day. Too much information? Sorry, we are just meeting.
Hi!  I don't know how to rotate pictures, sorry.
I’m Morgan Reed. I am a video journalist in Canada with a news organization called CTV. I do reporting and filming and writing for the daily news in my home city of Regina, Saskatchewan. If you’ve never heard of Regina, you’re in the norm. It is quite lovely, but not a very large city.
This is me and some of my co-workers last year on the Christmas float in an annual parade.

Conversely, Kuala Lumpur is a busy place.  Having just arrived, I find myself in awe of the lush greenery.  Everything is so alive.  I also have great tour guides.  Ching Ching and Rhonwyn have been so nice to show me around,  answering my dozens of questions, and pretending not to be upset when I burn food in their kitchen...

When I first heard about the Portraits of Perseverance project several months ago I was inspired by the women involved.  That’s what brought me here.  I consider myself a storyteller and Ching Ching and the other women involved with the eHomemakers organization seem to have great stories to tell.

I know it will be a long process but I am anxious to learn more about everyone.  I feel like I know some of you already from the blogs and video journals but I’m sure there’s so much more to know.  It’s such an amazing thing to always be learning.  I consider myself very lucky to have the opportunity to learn about Malaysia and about inspirational women over the next few months.

By: Morgan Reed

Thursday, 24 November 2011

About Sulastri Ariffin

Sulastri AriffinSeveral years ago, eHomemakers was organizing a Mother's Day contest with this theme -- Mothers who take care of children who aren't biologically theirs. One of the nominations was from Pink Triangle Foundation for a former sex worker who founded a center to take care of other sex workers' children. In order to determine the authenticity of the nomination, I went to Pink Triange to meet the nominator, Sulastri Ariffin.

After listening to her enthused testimony about the nominee, I asked her to take me to see the nominee whose center was just a few blocks away from Pink Triangle. "We are going to pass by some lorongs with different kinds of people, you are ok with this?" she asked, her eyes twinkled. 

                                             Sulastri at Pink Triangle 's Drop-in Center
                                                            She loves her job!

She seemed to be quite amused that the Executive Director of a women's network was going to walk with her through KL's notorious backstreets at 10 am.

We passed by a woman who was leaning at a wall, wearing a very short skirt . "Hi," Sulastri waved at her and stopped to ask about her business.

"Agak slow sikit ( a bit slow today)," she said, a cigarette dangling at a corner of her mouth. "Nak bayar rumah besok ( I need to pay house rental by tomorrow)!"  A flicker of sadness flashed across her eyes, she blinked and stared at the traffic in front of her.

Sulastri comforted her, they then discusseds in a low voice.

When we turned to the next side street, I asked her, "Is she a sex worker?"

Surprised by my question, Sulastri chuckled, "I thought you know? She is postive. I reminded her about using condoms and that she should come in for another check at our clinic."

"I kind of guess, but I wasn't sure. It is only 10 am..... too early for this kind of business ..." I murmured.

Sulastri burst out laughing. "When people need money, any time is business time! Look," she pointed at two women standing near a staircase at the front of a dingy looking kedai kopi, "they are also in business now. See the men drinking kopi at the shop? Someone may just stand up any time and ask the girls to go upstairs!"

My cheeks burnt with embarrassment. I had always thought I was a liberal and that I could spot things like these easily without asking stupid questions. It looked like I had been working from home far too long and my life had been evolving inside a gilded cage!

As we weaved ourselves through the lorongs, Sulastri waved to several women. She was well known here!

"They are my clients, I take care of them under the Sex Workers' Program', she said non-chalantly. "I work at night too, meeting them and helping them with their problems."

Her baju kurung swayed slightly as she walked in a very Malay femenine way -- lengkang lengkok. She was every inch a woman.

Untill then, I had never been so close with a transgender before.

For the next two hours, Sulastri waited patiently for me to interview the nominees and take pictures.
I thanked her for specially coming to help me on her off day. "I will do anything to help sex workers.  They are my people." She said.

Weeks later, someone from Pink Triangle told me about Sulastri's trials and tribulations.  I was more than surprise-- the lady was so humourous and jovial thoroughout the few hours I spent with her. There was no way I could detect that she had just passed through some very tough time including jail  time not long ago for being a transgender and a sex worker.  The person reminded me that women like Sulastri have proven to be very resilient. "You know,  its not important to hold all the good cards in life. But it's important how well you play with the cards you hold. I have heard so much from you how your members complain about not being able to balance home and work life, not able to find a teleworking job, etc, etc. Women like Sulastri don't complain, they live!! Ever thought of her being a  model woman for your eHomemakers' community?"

I was stunned by the suggestion.

And I thought about it for a long time, knowing that there are many women I know who dislike transgenders and they will put up great resistance if Sulastri is featured in our website as a model for the e-community.

When I wrote the application for this project to the Krishen Jit Astro Award committee, I knew Sulastri had to be one of the women because her belief in herself has affirmed to me that I should openly believe in women like her and not be afraid of the repercussions. 


"I'm Just being honest to myself.
 Honour and celebrate my trueself.
Just believe in myself and my creator.
Enjoy life to the fullest coz life is too short.
I will live and die as a Mak Nyah/Transgender!!!!
Nothing in this world can change me,except God."  by Sulastri Ariffin

Blogpost by Dr Pepper Lim about TS


He is going

Gordon from the Crown Plaza Hotel helping my father walked

Besides learning to overcome obstacles like HD camera's availability while developing this project, I also have to watch my 78 year old beloved father deteriorating physically.  Several years of depression has led to Parkinson like syndrome, he is now unable to walk properly. And I know why.
My heart cries at every step he takes when he drags his feet. His cerebellum is unable to tell him to lift them up when he walks.
And he used to walk with dignity.

I am sure deep down in his heart, he feels ashamed of himself. A Tai -chi master who founded the 'Balanced Tai Chi' is now unable to walk properly without help?  My poor father!
He was running faster than me at the park behind my house when he was 70!

My father who didn't say a word all night sang the birthday song to me in English.
Is he conscious about what he is doing? Ah Ba!!!!!!!

The other day when I came home, he was sitting on the lazy chair staring at the ceiling. His sunkun cheeks hollowed out his face, he looked like a skull with two blank eyes. I called out to him, "Ah Ba, I am home."

Silence. He didn't move his head nor his eyes in reponse to my voice. He was oblivious to the surrounding.

He was gone.

As I walked past him, he murmured to himself, "zi hooi ge jiu mo zhe (just die and there will be no problem)."

Anger and deep sorrow filled me as I walked into my bedroom.
Why? God? Why? He was such a good and kind man who helped many. Why does he have to go in this pathetic way?
The room was wraped in silence.
I took a long cold shower.
I said to the bathroom, "Ah Ba, this project I am doing is for you because you believed in me all my life when few people did."

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A Foreign Intern's Contribution/一个老外实习者的贡献

I have studied Mandarin Chinese for 5 years. 3 in my home country: the USA, 1 year in China, and 1 year in Chinese Restaurants in the USA as a waitress. And now I am learning Chinese language and how to live my life, as a graduate student in Nanjing, China. My sole link to Malaysia resides in my partner in crime in Beijing, a Malaysian native who is part of a scholarship program that sends students to study Chinese language and culture for 5 years at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Through her I learned that in Malaysia, "Da Bao" is also used to ask for takeout food. But a small advertisement for an internship opportunity on has led me to a truly remarkable organization.

I think that Ehomemakers is remarkable for the obvious reasons: the staff appear to be positive, hardworking, and passionate, the clients'/participants' stories are inspiring, and the mission of the company is more than admirable. But I think what is truly admirable about ehomemakers is how the founder, Chong Sheau Ching, is able to reach out beyond her immediate surroundings to individuals around the world. During my first phone interview with Sheau Ching, I was awed by her stories of interns from the US, the Netherlands, Korea, and more and I thought to myself "Wow, I hope I can make an impact just like they have when I go there."

I've recently had the opportunity (aka time away from reading Chinese academic articles) to watch the story of Pong and to read about Siew Lian and her work with Ehomemakers. Honestly, I pray that I can find and cultivate the strength over 2 years of graduate studies in China that these two seem to exude naturally in their everyday lives. Writing an analysis paper in Chinese is tough and impressive in itself from an American's standpoint, but living life to the fullest on a trolley is a true triumph of human endurance. By learning about these women, I also feel that I am learning more about myself and how to endure tough times and breakthrough life's lofty walls. I am looking forward to reading more about the 5 women of Portraits of Perseverance and sharing my insight and experiences with others throughout the learning process.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Wah, is that Lucy?

I have known Lucy for over eight years because of the Salaam Wanita project for ecobaskets

She is unassuming, humble, and never demands anything for herself.  She smiled quietly when Justina ( who was supposed to be in this project but she passed away this January) was getting attention from all of us and often, getting things that Lucy was never given because we all felt sorry for Justina who lived alone. Because of this, Justina was the one given the chance to go to different places to speak and to experience things. We had limited resources, so we had to choose between the two of them even though both are models for our Salaam Wanita project.

Lucy is a strong woman with a quiet determination. She was the pillar behind the scene, supporting her best friend, Justina. She quietly smiled and shook her head whenever Justina was over active in public life. One can miss her presence easily.

Justina's passing has made me realized something all these years I have known her -- Lucy hasn't been given any nice opportunity to enjoy herself and to be free of 'serving others'.

So, for my birthday celebration in July, I specially arranged for Lucy and Swee Lian to experience someting new for them -- facial spa, professional make-up and a Middle Eastern buffet at Crown Plaza in the city center.

This video shows Lucy receiving the first step of a facial treatment from Genile Beauty in KL

When I watched this video of Lucy lying still on a bed like a mummy -- listening to soft music, and letting someone touched her face without flinching, allowing someone to pamper her --  I could hear Justina laughing, "Ha ha, whoever heard of Lucy getting a facial spa!!!

I laughed too when I first watched Lucy in 'actions'-- getting toner application, having someone peeling facial masks off her while she passively laid still!!  Lucy is constantly on the move to help, serve others, letting others serve her is unheard of in Lucy's history.

The close-ups of Lucy's face show that she is a beautiful woman.  The picture on her Malaysian identification card is that of a fair skin woman. The Lupus drugs she has to take all these years has darkened and thinned her skin.  She looks like a Malay lady.  But does it matter whether she is dark or fair? She is the same Lucy who gives her time to others selflessly without thinking about money and things for herself.  Watching this video reminds me of a saying, 'Search for a beautiful heart, don't search for a beautiful face. Beautiful things are not always good, but good things are always beautiful.'

Then we went to Crown Plaza for dinner.

 Kenny showing us the Middle Eastern dips. I was so excited, these dips were part of my life when I was in Egypt! Babaganoush, tahineh, I used to make them in the kitchen! It was Lucy and Swee Lian's first time tasting such dips and the rice dishes.

By 8.30 pm while we were having desert, Lucy's eyes were gettng red. The mascara on her eye lashes was falling off........ The face powder that was applied for her make-over two hours ago had started to dissolved in her sweat. 

"Is it 9 pm yet?  Very itchy-lah, can go wash or not?" Lucy pleaded. She kept fluttering her eye lashes like a very shy Chinese girl. It was so funny that I had a good laugh.  ( I gave her a 9 pm deadline to keep the professional make-up on just for me otherwise she would have washed it a few minutes after the make-up was finished because she claimed it made her whole body 'itchy'!!)

Before she washed her face off all the make-up, I made her take a picture with her beloved daughter. 

                                       This picture is for Justina who couldn't be there.

Justina was very dedicated to the ecobasket project. She paired up with Lucy in exhibitions.
My birthday celebration was also for her as I promised her last year that I would love myself more.
And so I kept my words.