15 November 2014

Why is Chinese (Mandarin) so difficult to learn?

I just read that Mark Zuckerberg spoke in Mandarin during his Q&A at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

I watched the video in the article and frankly, I could hardly make out what he was saying, but the Chinese audience seemed to get it. 

The article went on to discuss how extremely daunting it is to learn Chinese if you are not native Chinese and / or not living in China where people speak the language the whole day.

I wholeheartedly agree with the reasons given in the article as to why it is so damn hard to learn Chinese:
-- Because the writing system is ridiculous.
-- Because the language doesn't have the common sense to use an alphabet.
-- Because the writing system just ain't very phonetic.
-- Because tonal languages are weird;
-- Because East is East and West is West, and the twain have only recently met.

Uh, that last reason probably just applies to Westerners.

I am a Malaysian-Chinese. I did not learn Chinese growing up, but instead learned my country's national language, Bahasa Malaysia and of course English. My family speaks the Cantonese dialect at home, and I picked up a smattering of spoken Mandarin from my mother who was educated in the Chinese medium of instruction. I also picked up the tiniest knowledge of the Hokkien dialect from Hokkien colleagues at work.   

Now, my 2 children attend Chinese vernacular schools where they are instructed primarily in Mandarin, but also learn Bahasa Malaysia and English. It has been very tough going to keep them in Chinese schools when both my husband and I are illiterate in Chinese.

I just cannot comprehend how an entire language can be constructed with no alphabetical structure. Chinese words seem to have been created at the whim and fancy of whoever it was that conceived the language. A large part of learning Chinese is having to memorise words, to memorise how those words are supposed to be written (this stroke first followed by a curve then a dot then another slash etc.) and to memorise how those words sound.

It is so simple in English: if you come across a new word, one you have never ever seen in your life, you can at least pronounce it. That's half the battle won. No such luck in Chinese!

Whenever my kids come across a new Chinese word, they are well and truly stuck.My kids are intelligent and I know they would do much better in their exams and school ranking if not for Chinese derailing them. I continually encourage them and tell them so.

I am proud and happy that despite the difficulty of learning Chinese my kids have persevered in Chinese schools and not asked to be put back into the English or Bahasa Malaysia medium schools.

It has so often been said that the world is now witnessing "a major shift in economic and cultural influence, from the U.S. to China," hence raising the profile of the Chinese language. 

For me, I feel it is good to learn more languages and being ethnically Chinese, there is that added obligation.

07 November 2014

My first mammogram

I went for my first mammogram 2 days ago.

Being above 40 (under 45) my doctor said it's time to do it. I've been asking for it the last couple of years but she said wait a few years.

I live in Ipoh and my doctor told me to go to the Ipoh Specialist Hospital(ISH), part of the KPJ group. No problem with that. It's close to home and well established in Ipoh.

What did I expect from my first mammogram?

I was expecting discomfort, some pain and embarrassment.

This was my experience :

1. Register at the radiology department

This is on the ground floor of ISH, the same level as the covered parking. It was relatively quiet at the hospital today (Yay! Means not many people are sick and more people are enjoying good health, hopefully). There were 2 patients ahead of me and 2 patients after. Out of the 5 of us only 3 were going for the mammogram.

It was a short wait. I was called in after about 10 minutes.

2. The mammogram room

The technician brought me to the mammo room with some small chit chat along the way ~ is this your first time,  are you married etc. It was an appreciated distraction.

The mammo room was small but adequate. It contained a small changing area with curtains, the mammo machine and the control desk.

I was asked to undress from the waist up. No robe. Then I noticed my name lighted up in a display panel at the foot of the machine.

Even though the technician is a lady I still felt awkward stepping out from behind the curtains when she called me. She asked me to take off my shoes and stand close to the machine.

3. The positioning

Now, people have mentioned the pain and discomfort but nobody said anything to me about the awkward poses expected of you and the effort needed to position your breasts just right onto the plastic plate!

I am doing a 3D mammo today. I don't know how different an experience that would be from a 2D mammo.

Now, here is the big mammo machine. You see the black lower plastic plate? And the upper clear plastic plate?

Well, one has to position the object of scrutiny nicely between the 2 plastic plates. The technician explained to me that that the image would be taken from 2 angles for each side, so 2x2 in total 4 times.


The first angle: I was asked to stand directly in front of the machine. The lower black plate was positioned exactly beneath the breast. Lean forward slightly for the technician to lower the upper plate that would then compress the breast as much as possible. The technician needs to help you position the breast correctly onto the lower plate for the upper plate to compress it the way it should.

Did it hurt? For me, yes!

The technician tells me to hold that position and to avert my face slightly away from the top of the machine as she said the machine will move when taking the image.

The technician retreated to her control desk, leaving me trapped and feeling extremely vulnerable. Oh, and in pain. The machine then swiveled above my head from left to right, making an almost 180 degree arc. Done.

I am released from the painful grip momentarily until I got into position #2. This time I had to stand at an angle, with my hip close to one corner of the lower black plate. I was told that I had to assume a leaning stance. How?

The technician pushed me forward and asked me to extend my right hand forward to grab a hand-hold in front of me. At the same time my upper body was half-lying on the black plate. The technician had to do a lot of handling of the breast to get it just so onto the black plate while again lowering the upper plate to compress the breast. She didn't get it compressed to her satisfaction so she raised the upper plate, readjusted my body's position and maneuvered my breast onto the black plate until it was just right. The pressure came back on.

"Right! Stay right there! Don't move! And remember to tilt your face back."

I think I gritted my teeth.

And this was repeated for the other side.

Then, it was done. The technician was professional and polite, apologizing for the discomfort numerous times.

Screening is important

Despite the discomfort and awkwardness of the procedure, we are fortunate that medical science has come so far in providing a way to detect potential breast abnormalities. I have relatives and friends who have suffered from breast cancer. My cousin-in-law impressed on me the importance of regular screening and early detection.

I hope and pray for good health, for myself and you.

13 October 2014

Buy a house get a BMW

Housing deals are getting more creative!

Even here in Ipoh, not exactly the Big Apple or in our case, the Twin Corn, of the country.

One Sunday morn, we went to have a look at Golf View Residences.

It is a small development of not more than 20 semi-detached houses located within Taman Golf. It is a gated and guarded enclave inside Taman Golf.

The houses are designed in 3 levels, with each unit equipped with a lift.

IF you don't want the lift, you may swap it for a brand new BMW. It is a smart partnership between the developer Kai Zen and Tian Siang, the BMW distributor here.

Prices for the houses start from about RM1.5million.

26 September 2014

Nasi Lemak in Cafe Central, Ipoh

Over the last 1 1/2 years, with the cost of living in Malaysia shooting upwards like a star, prices of food have been increasing crazily.

Over at the famous Kong Heng coffee shop in old town Ipoh, our favourite kai-see hor fun now costs RM5 per bowl, with visibly less noodles, chicken and prawns. And the hawkers don't even want to admit that they increased prices this year - the kai-see hor fun vendor said it had been priced at RM5 for a long time. I am quite sure I am not losing my memory as it was RM4.50 before the new price hike. Compared to RM3.80 when we first moved to Ipoh in 2009.

It was the same story at the Wooley Hawker Centre in Ipoh Garden. My daughter's favourite beef noodles went up to RM6 from RM5.50 and the vendor told me the same thing when I asked - it has been RM6 for a long time.

If you have to increase your prices just say so honestly when your customer asks you and don't insult her by lying.

But I want to talk about our all time Malaysian favourite, one of the unifier of the rakyat - the nasi lemak. Hmmm, how many Malaysians dream about their nasi lemak after being away from Malaysia for some time? I sure do.

The fragrant steamed coconut rice, bright red spicy-sweet sambal thick with onions, the crispy fried ikan bilis, golden brown peanuts and soft, rich boiled eggs accompanied by slices of cool, neutralizing cucumber. Delicious!

Alas....with the high cost of basic ingredients in Malaysia now, the quality of our nasi lemak has dropped tremendously. It has been a long time since I tasted a decent, banana-wrapped nasi lemak out there. I remember the days when any bungkus of nasi lemak you bought from any makcik under any tree, or in any warung or coffee shop would be great. Not anymore.

Today's nasi lemak has hardly any coconut milk in the rice. No fragrance. The sambal is flat. You would be lucky to get 5 tiny pieces of ikan bilis in your packet. You might get 15 peanuts. And about 1/10 of a Grade C sized hard boiled egg. And no cucumber. Is that called nasi lemak? And sold for anywhere between RM1.50-RM2.80.

Which is why I am so happy to have found a nasi lemak vendor in Cafe Central, near the dim sum street of Ipoh and opposite Wah Nam coffee shop. It costs RM2.50. The rice is fragrant, and the vendor is generous with ikan bilis and peanuts, by today's standard. And you get one half of a hard boiled egg. One whole  half! That's a lot! (ok, ok, I'm over doing this right?) Plus several slices of cucumber.

This is the most complete nasi lemak priced below RM3 to be found. But I don't know how long it will hold out - in terms of price and quality. So hurry there to taste it before it too suffers the same high-price low-quality syndrome afflicting Malaysia.

01 July 2014

Relationship with your maid

I just read The sacrifice my Filipino maid makes.

It speaks of a compassionate and understanding employer. Of which I am sure there are many.

The relationship between an employer and maid is different from an employer and a normal employee, because:
  • your maid lives with you
  • you see your maid everyday, the whole day and night
  • you pay for her food and accommodation.

I completely agree with Timothy Tiah that foreign domestic maids (Filipino, Indonesian etc.) sacrifice a lot leaving their families behind to earn a living abroad. And for the service they provide, they must be treated right.

Malaysia has had its share of maid abuse cases as well as maids abusing their employers or robbing them. I guess it's just human nature. People make mistakes, people commit crime, people break down under work or emotional stress.

My Indonesian maid is into her 10th year with me.

You could say I am lucky to have a good maid who has stuck with me for so long.

But you could also say that my maid is lucky to have a good employer like me, otherwise why would she stay, right? I think many people do not give credit to good employers, only sensationalising the bad ones and constantly sympathizing with the maids.

It is not a one way street - it is always 2 ways.

Of late, I am starting to feel that I am being too accommodating to my maid. These are some of the things that my maid enjoys:
  • annual increments that range from 11%-20%. This is certainly higher than what many working people out there get
  • she gets her salary net, as she does not need to pay anything for her board and lodging. Any employee out there gets this deal?
  • works in a comfortable, safe and clean environment
  • we have taught her English, hygiene, how to save up her money and invest back home
  • able to take naps, whenever
  • having worked for me for so long, I no longer dictate her work schedule. I trust she knows her work well enough. But of course, being human, who doesn't slack off? Do I say anything? Hardly. If I do, I have to put up with her sour face. Do employees out there pout when their bosses yell at them for rotten work? And I don't even yell. Nope, don't even raise my voice. Heck, I remember my boss raising his/ her voice at me when I was still working!
  • putting up with my maid's moods. Which are getting worse over the years. I thought employees were the ones who had to "read the weather" and tread warily around their erratic bosses. Not maids, I guess.
  • I drive her to her orthodontics treatment. She pays for it herself (of course!)
  • Paid-for return air tickets for her holidays back home.
  • Chinese New Year ang pau, birthday cake and ang pau. The first time she got a birthday cake from us she cried. Now, she takes it for granted. Only human, as the novelty wears off.
  • and, I am no lady of leisure who does nothing. I am hands on with house work and garden work, so nobody say the maid does everything!

I realise I am making a gripe list....needed it today.

11 February 2014

A new year, 2014 and it's the Horse

Time really flies!

I can't believe the last time I updated my blog was on Christmas eve last year, 2013. I've been that busy!

Christmas dinner was good, but I couldn't get the roast turkey from Maria's Cafe. They said they weren't doing any roast turkey last year. Sad......Citrus didn't sell take-away turkey and Secret Garden was sold out!

In the end, I placed my order with Beacon Point. It was our first time trying it.

The roast turkey was ready for pickup by lunch. It came nicely wrapped. It was nicely roasted but not to a dark brown, just a light colour. The gravy was a little disappointing as it was bland and chunky, as if there was too much starch in it. Compared to Maria's Cafe's turkey, this is a distant second.

I also ordered a Yule Log from Beacon Point. It was very pretty to behold but not so delicious to eat.

Still, Christmas dinner was a joyous family event.

And now, it's already February 2014!

My boy is in his first year of secondary school, and has already turned 13. A teenager!

Chinese New Year zoomed by with a flurry of dinners and visits to relatives' and fireworks nights.

The dust is settling now, and slowly but surely I am getting into a new school routine for my children.

My wish for my family and you is for good health, safety and happiness all through the Year of the Wood Horse! Gong Xi! There's still 4 more days of CNY left....enjoy!

24 December 2013

KTKLN, visa and your Indonesian maid

Many Malaysian households include an Indonesian maid as part of the family.

We do.

Having a maid eases my workload, and having the same maid for many years makes her presence an accepted and appreciated part of our lives.

And when you have an Indonesian maid, there are documentation issues that you have to know.

Working visa

The most crucial and basic issue. This has to be renewed on an annual basis. The Malaysian Immigration Dept is the responsible authority for this matter.

Most employers I know use the services of a maid agency to get this done. The agency charges around RM400-600 for this service.

I do it myself. It's not very difficult:
  • go to the Malaysian Immigration office
  • bring your maid's valid passport with the attached working visa that is about to expire
  • ask for the relevant form to extend your maid's visa
  • bring copies of the employer's IC, the first page of your maid's passport and the current working visa 
  • bring money to pay for the new visa (about RM495)

Maid's passport

Now, getting this document extended is much more difficult and demanding!

Only because the Indonesian Embassy on Jalan Tun Razak in KL is always, always inundated with hundreds of people. Which means you and your maid have to get there well before 8am and start queuing.

You pick up the form and contract of employment from the officer while you are queuing.

I usually fill up the form and the contract of employment as the both of us walk in the queue. Don't worry - the queue moves quite slowly so you should be able to write while standing. Although my maid says the others in the queue often stare at me writing and walking. Well, I'm not about to give up my spot in the queue just to sit down and fill out the forms!

Then you get inside the Embassy and wait for your number to be called. Your maid will be called to another room to have her photo taken for her new passport. Don't expect to leave the Embassy until around 4-5pm!

You need to bring:
  • your maid's passport, original and a copy
  • a copy of the visa
  • 2 copies of employer's IC
  • 2 copies of authorization letter because in my case, my husband is the registered employer
  • 2 copies of domestic maid insurance
  • employment contract which you have just filled up, signed by both you and your maid
  • your maid's bank book with her salary credited inside

Go have tea and lunch at the Embassy cafeteria upstairs. Bring a book or Ipad to play games.

KTKLN  (Kartu Tenaga Kerja Luar Negeri)

Now, this is the real bummer that we were caught unawares 2 years ago. As I understand it, many others were caught unawares too.

You can read more about it at about KTKLN  but in a nutshell, if your maid doesn't have it, she's gotta have this card. Otherwise, when your maid returns to Indonesia for a holiday and plans to come back to you to continue work, she will be prevented from leaving Indonesia. Simple as that.

That happened to my maid 2 years ago, and after much worry, toing and froing, changing the date of her return flight, she managed to secure the card and come  back to Malaysia.

That's not all. The KTKLN has to be renewed. Sigh....and all this can only be done in Indonesia.

I sure hope the Indonesian Embassy will be authorised to issue the KTKLN in the near future, or at least enable us to obtain and renew the KTKLN online.

23 November 2013

Holiday in Hong Kong

A hotel offer came along for Metropark in Kowloon for 4 short nights, and we decided to go.

So, what to do in Hong Kong?

I was actually happy to go on such a short holiday, because our recent vacations have been rather long - 3 weeks+. That is too long away from home for me. Too many clothes to pack, too many "standby" meds, wondering how the house is, the dogs etc.

At this time of year, Hong Kong's climate is just like Malaysia, so we could travel light. We did the usual checks on the net, saw what other people like to do in Hong Kong and checked with my friends. They all thumbed their noses up at Kowloon, where out hotel is, and said that the area is rough or too Chinese.

Well, we found the Metropark Hotel on Waterloo Road in Kowloon to be well-located, clean, comfortable and most of all, spacious! And the hotel shuttle bus would take us to Mong Kok or Tsim Sha Tsui - that made getting around so convenient! Plus all the shopping streets like Ladies Street, Sports Shoes Street are all in the Mong Kok area. We found nothing wrong with the area.

After all, having been conditioned to how things are in Malaysia, most Malaysians would be alert to personal safety issues abroad.

On the afternoon of our arrival, we walked to the shops close to our hotel and found interesting places including a dog hotel and a little supermarket which sold my son's favourite Nissin brand of tonkotsu-flavoured instant noodles that we can't find in Malaysia. We bought 27 packets.

Our first meal in Hong Kong was the Chinese fast food of chicken rice/ charsiu (barbecued pork) rice/ roast goose rice.  It was time to get used to Hong Kong prices. A plate of charsiu rice costs HK$42 (about RM20)! You do get a lot of rice and meat, though.
In our short time in Hong Kong, we used the Star Ferry thrice to cross over to Hong Kong. The kids and I really enjoyed that short ride on the sea. And it's so cheap. HK$1.50 for kids and HK$2.50 for adults.

Hong Kong's Symphony of Lights was a short 15 minutes display of light and sound. On the night we watched it, it was calm and warm, and the crowds were not too bad. It was quite enjoyable but not jaw-dropping.

We took the Mid Levels escalator all the way to the top and walked down, passing by the Glenealy International School and stopping to rest and admire the Zoological and Botanical Gardens on the way down to town. (the kids did complain about the walk down!) We observed that up there way above the city, the condominiums were more luxurious, the cars driven much larger and the community more expatriate. This network of escalators brings you away from the bustle of Hong Kong's streets below into the quiet cool of bistros, restaurants and the residences of the expat community.

The skies above Hong Kong were grey and choked throughout our stay so we decided to give the Peak a miss.

On another day, the kids had a fun time in the Hong Kong Space Museum, after which we hopped across the road for high tea at the Peninsula Hotel (recommended by a friend). This old, classy hotel brings you back to the days of old Hong Kong when the British were still around.

Finally, Ocean Park. It was a toss up between that or Disneyland, but Ocean Park was always the top contender. We wanted something local and unique to Hong Kong, rather than a licensee presence of a giant amusement park from a country half a planet away. We were not disappointed.

Oh and of course, the food! 5 days was not long enough to sample all the great eats, but we had great dim sum at One Dim Sum in Kowloon, which in my opinion beats the much touted Tim Ho Wan.

Yung Kee's roast goose and century eggs were eaten with relish.

And my friend's recommendation of Tsui Wah went down well with the family. Famous for their fish ball noodles.


My husband had a second lunch one day of Mak's famous wanton noodles, not far from Yung Kee restaurant. Too bad he didn't have enough space in his tummy to try out the rival wan ton mee just opposite called Tsim Chai Kee.

Taking a break from Chinese cuisine, we enjoyed a Vietnamese dinner in Nha Trang at Harbour City after we hopped off the ferry. How convenient.

23 October 2013

Malaysian Teenager Found Dead in Suitcase

It is a parent's worst nightmare.

To find your missing teenager dead, and that was the headline in the Star today.

I truly feel for the mother and the rest of the family, and hope no other teenager suffers the same fate and no other family needs to go through this torment.

But how do we keep our children safe in this age of Facebook and Twitter and smartphones?

This generation of children are net savvy, way more mature at their age than we were at the same age and do not take kindly to parental advice/ control. Violence and sex are plastered all over TV shows and movies.

When I forbade my son from opening an FB account under his own name, he did it anyway. I found out, and we had a long serious "discussion". He added me as a friend and I check in on his account.

When his friends wanted to spend an afternoon together at one of the boy's house, I gave him permission to go but I accompanied him to the meeting point, saw that he and his friends were picked up as arranged. Later that day, I drove to the friend's house, earlier than the appointed time, to bring him home. Needless to say, my boy was not happy to see me an hour before the official end of play day.

Well, that's too bad. Whether he likes it or not, my priority is to make sure he is safe. And that he is where he said he would be. That's why I went earlier to pick him up.

I foresee it is going to get more difficult to keep track of my boy. And I can't keep saying "no" to his requests to join his friends for outings. He is only 12. Heck, I didn't go for outings with friends till I was in college!

This poor girl, Ng Yuk Tim, who suffered such a tragic untimely death is a stark reminder to all of us of the dangers of making friends on the net. When and how do we really know a person? Even if you befriended a person physically, not virtually, there is no way to tell if he or she is a pervert, murderer or just plain dishonest. 

But there are questions to be answered in Ng Yuk Tim's death and I hope justice will prevail.

I am worried.

22 October 2013

Rescuing stray dogs and cats

Unlike developed nations in the west, Malaysia's stray population of cats and dogs is large.

You can see them everywhere on the streets, near food stalls, at the market. If you come from a country where there are no or very few stray animals on the streets, you will probably be very surprised.

The answer in reducing the stray population lies in changing the mindset and attitude of Malaysian pet owners.

If you cannot maintain a pet responsibly, then don't have one. Do not buy or adopt a pet only to release it later because you find it too troublesome to care for another living thing.

Neuter your pets, as there are enough backyard breeders in Malaysia.

I recently became aware of  Noah's Ark Ipoh Animal Welfare. Founded by a local vet, Dr. Ranjit, this body attracts volunteers with the same love for animals and the heart to rescue strays. These strays are taken off the streets or rescued from the council pound death rows and treated, fed, neutered and put up for adoption.

Emaciated stray dog rescued

The lengths that Noah's Ark volunteers go to for these strays is touching and amazing. Through rain or shine, night or day, they lovingly approach stray dogs and cats and bring them home to be treated. The lucky ones find new homes and new owners.

A stray kitty

Noah's Ark has rescued and neutered over 2000 strays since its inception in September 2009.

Well done, and Ipoh is lucky to have Noah's Ark.