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A deeper root

December.12. 2016

It’s hard to see the human tragedy unfolding in that ancient city, and the nightly scenes of carnage (that keep newspeople gainfully employed).

You can say the conflict is geopolitical or sectarian in nature.

But I see a deeper root.

It comes down to hate (and the one religion that preaches hate rather than love. Why else do you think were they dancing in the streets when the towers fell?)

Hate is an insidious thing.

It grows on you quietly, fed by the people who would use it to control you.

And once it gains a hold on you, you have to keep on feeding it.

And if you run out of food for it to feed on, it turns inwards and starts feeding on you.

That’s the story behind the story of all those ruined buildings and shattered and lost lives.

The hate that was created and directed at the rest of the world, has turned inwards and started feeding on its hosts.

The ultimate irony.

The hapless people caught in the crossfire trying to find refuge in the lands of the very people they’ve been taught to hate.

Of course, they bring with them the legacy of hate and blame and violence that their religion has taught them and which is largely responsible for their present predicament.

As they say, human nature is perverse–people tend to bite the hands that feed them.

But they also say love conquers all.

We’ll see which one rings more true here.


The autumn of our discontent

November.8. 2016

It’s leaving the establishment in shock, aghast. Lots of hand wringing.

How could this happen?

Well, you’ll have to ask Bernie that question.

Through various underhand tactics, the establishment managed to propel their chosen candidate through the system, leaving him out in the cold.

And now when it looks like their chosen candidate is not doing too well, they’re asking how all this could happen.

As Abe said, you can fool some of the people all of the time and all the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.

Looks like a revolution is sweeping the world.

The rallying cry, throw out the crooks and the dealmakers.

Bring some integrity and sanity back into the system.

Going to the polls this morning, I felt like an orphaned child without old Bernie.

So I voted for the next best candidate, no prize for guessing who it is.

They say that America’s getting their own Berlusconi.

I respectfully disagree, more like Duterte.

You tell me

October.21. 2016

Speaking of words and actions, it’s quite fashionable these days in some parts of the world to call a certain country the ‘Great Satan.’

And I do agree to a point.

There’re many things in that country that will merit that description.

But when Ebola strikes in some distant corner of the world, who are the ones who go (at great risk to their personal well-being) to help combat the outbreaks?

Funny, I don’t hear of any great martyrs from one particular holy land volunteering to go and help.

But I do hear of volunteers from the ‘Great Satan.’ (with volunteers from other  ‘Satans’)

Very satanic–risking your life to help your fellow human beings fight a deadly scourge.

Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed holy men are out in droves, on a mission to get to paradise where they hear, a few dozen virgins are patiently waiting for them.

So who’s the Great Satan?

You tell me.

The paradox of l energy

July.13. 2015

You’re probably saying, “Now wait a minute, didn’t you say that a love-energy filled life is effortless?

So what’s this about having to put in effort to spread its energy around?”

That’s the paradox about the energy of love.

It’s no effort at all if that energy comes from the heart, but if you have to force it, then it’s a lot of effort.

I think I’ve mentioned it before.

If you have to force yourself to practice the guitar, then it’s a lot of effort.

But if you truly love playing it, it’s a joy.

The same is true of any other expression of love’s energy.

If you truly love someone, your expression of that energy will be effortless, but if you’re doing it simply because you feel you have to, it can require some real effort.

But as with everything else, if you persist and keep on doing it, you will find that over time, that expression will become completely natural and soon, all that energy will come pouring out of your heart effortlessly.

Good heart struck by lightning

November.3. 2014

Interesting how the President’s numbers are so low. With everything’s he’s accomplished so far, you would think they would be in the stratosphere.

Yes, I know everything’s not perfect, but look at the big picture.

Unemployment at 5.9 percent, the best since he took office.

The Dow reaching record heights every other week.

Health care for the uninsured.

Country at relative peace. No major wars draining the country’s coffers.

And yes, let’s not forget enemy #1 resting at the bottom of the sea, keeping the good fishes company.

Compared to the financial meltdown of 2008, things are looking pretty good. And yet, for some reason, the electorate is not happy with this record.

And they’re looking to bring back the crowd who gave us the good old days.

When the country was embroiled in two wars, casualties everyday on the evening news, the nation’s surplus turned into a deficit overnight, warlords getting away with record profits, while the stock market took a free fall, and we were all poised over the abyss at the end of ‘08.

It reminds me of an old Chinese adage that my mother is fond of quoting.

“Good heart struck by lightning.”

Don’t expect people to thank you for your good deeds. On the contrary, be prepared to be blamed and maligned for whatever problems they have.

Or to use an example.

If people fall into a river and you rescue them, be prepared for them to blame you for why they fell into the river in the first place.

A father’s love

August.22. 2014

So there I was again – it’s almost become a summer ritual – sitting in the back seat of a cab in Kuala Lumpur, exchanging pleasantries with a cabbie.

I’m not paranoid by any means, but I don’t like to reveal too much of my personal information to strangers.

So when this extremely nice and chatty cabbie asked me where I am from, I told him ‘Sibu’ which is not entirely wrong.

That didn’t seem to satisfy him, because he then asked me what I do for a living and I told him I’m a teacher.

He looked at me and said, “It’s a weekday today, are you on holiday?”

I knew what he was really saying was, “You’re kidding me right? It’s a weekday today, and it’s not a school holiday, how come you’re sitting here in my cab?”

Knowing when I’ve been cornered, I told him, “I’m a teacher in the US and we’re having our summer holidays there right now.”

At the mention of the US, almost on cue, he immediately started telling me about his daughter who had gone to university there. She had apparently just returned to Malaysia and had started work with Shell.

I could see he was proud of his daughter.

He fished into his pocket and took out a Samsung device (you can’t escape these things these days) and showed me a picture of a beaming young lady in a graduation gown. No wonder he was proud of her, she was not only smart but a real beauty.

“So where was your daughter in the US?” I asked him.

He told me “Indiana, Purdue University.”

Now everybody knows Purdue University. It’s as expensive as it is prestigious so I was wondering in my mind how a cabbie in KL could afford to send a daughter there.

Almost as if he could read my thoughts, he said, “Yes, it’s an expensive place. I spent over RM600,000 on her education, had to sell my condo and my car just to raise that money.”

I was stunned, to put in mildly, and asked him. “That’s a great sacrifice. You sold your condo and your car to send your daughter to the US?”

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Just a parent’s duty.”

A parent’s duty.

To say I was touched beyond words is an understatement. I was floored.

Life is for learning and that day I learned what the true measure of a father’s love can be.

It’s an honor to meet you, George Teo. Hope you don’t mind me putting your name out here.

Roach motel — Malaysian style

November.7. 2012

On a recent trip to Malaysia, I happened to come upon an interesting package in one of the hardware stores I love to frequent in Sibu, a package featuring a drawing of one of my favorite animals – roaches.

Turned out it was a roach trap or as we call them here in the US, roach motels.

I bought one without hesitation and tested it that same day. Within a day, I was able to snag a victim, not a roach but a lizard.

The only problem was that of disposing of the catch.

You see, it was still very much alive.

I thought of drowning it, but the thought of having to clean the trap after that put me off the idea. So I decided to flush it down the toilet.

Great idea, but not so easily done. I emptied the lizard into the bowl but the nimble thing was able to clamber up from the water, and before you can say alamak, it was almost out of the bowl.

I pulled the lever immediately, but surprisingly the flood of water did little to dislodge it.

I saw a tin can nearby filled with rainwater (my mother loves to catch rainwater in all kinds of containers, a habit she acquired when she lived in the village and clean water was hard to come by — all the streams in the area had reddish water.) and managed to send the poor creature back down to the water. I pulled the lever again, and mission accomplished.

Back in Texas, I was anxious to give the contraption a test run.

On the very first night, sweet success! I managed to bag a roach, not one of those famous Texas-sized roaches, but still one of respectable dimensions.


A closer look

A closer look

But then came the same problem, how do you dispose of it?

I knew the flushing trick was not likely to work, plus I didn’t have access to my mother’s rainwater.

Over the years, I have developed a rather fine technique of using plastic bags to catch cockroaches (you use it like a glove and when you manage to catch one, you tie it up in the plastic bag and throw it away.) so I took a plastic bag and managed to coax the unsuspecting roach into the plastic bag. Another mission accomplished.

But after all that, I decided it was just too much effort to get one cockroach, so I gave up on the device and now it lies underneath my kitchen sink.

These days, I use my sister’s trick, which is to make a concoction of boric acid and honey and leave them in strategic places in the house. It seems to be working; just the other day, I saw a dead cockroach lying on the kitchen floor.

But why am I so obsessed with this particular one of God’s creatures?

The answer may lie in what my mother told me.

Apparently, I was born severely jaundiced. As luck would have it, my grandmother had come to Kanowit for the confinement period.

And as luck would have it, she had the perfect remedy for jaundice, which was to catch a cockroach, extract its entrails (is there such a thing?) and smear it on the jaundiced baby’s lips.

It must have worked because I got over my jaundice, but the trauma of that incident must have left a lasting impression on my young mind, because these days, nothing terrifies me more than the sight of these creepy crawlies.

The Flying Sheik

January.21. 2012

Catching a cab in Kuala Lumpur is always a hit or miss affair. You never know if you’re going to get an honest driver or be taken for a ride (figuratively as well as literally).

On a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, I had to catch a cab from Mid-Valley Megamall, (my favorite stomping ground in KL) to Sungei Wang, (my second favorite stomping ground in KL).

It was the week before Christmas and the mall was packed. There were literally people and cars everywhere, as far as the eyes could see.

After trying to hail a cab for ten minutes, one finally stopped for me.

Now, one thing I’ve learned in KL is to always ask the driver indirectly if he was going to go by meter or if he was going to charge a flat fare (usually an exorbitant fare).

The way to do this is to ask if he would go where you wanted to go, like “Do you go to Sungei Wang?”

If he says yes, that means he would go by meter, if he gives a number figure like RM40, that means he’s asking a flat fare.

As luck would have it, when I asked him, my cab driver said RM30*. I made a motion as if to decline the ride, and he quickly changed it to RM25.

I was desperate and RM25 sounded much more reasonable, so I got into the cab.

Almost as soon as I got into the cab, he said, “I’ll take the tunnel.”

I was curious so I asked him, “The smart tunnel?”

“No,” he said. “The tunnel.”

As he said this, he made a right turn and there, right in front of us, was an opening in the wall of concrete. We went through it, and almost miraculously, we emerged from the other side into a side road which took us straight into the freeway.

I was amazed at how easily he was able to bypass the huge traffic jam outside the mall, and I asked him, “Do other drivers know about that tunnel?”

“No, that’s a secret way,” he said.

Then he looked at me slyly and said, “I know every road and shortcut in this city. Other people need a GPS but I don’t need a GPS because my GPS is in my brain.”

We sped down the freeway and exited to an unfamiliar street. He was about to make a left turn into another street when he suddenly changed his mind and continued straight on.

I looked back and saw why. There was a police officer hiding further down that street. Even as I looked, I saw a car behind us turn into the street and was immediately stopped by the officer.

The cab driver saw this too and he laughed. “These people are stupid. They want to get a love letter from the policeman.”

Then he added, “I never get a love letter from them because I know where they hide and I know where they put their CCTV cameras.”

He went on. “We call them dogs. Because all they want is money. And the more money they get, the more they want.”

“You see, I’ve been driving this taxi, not five days, not five weeks, not five months but fifteen years. I know every road in KL. I’m the fastest driver in KL. You can drive a Ferrari and you still can’t beat me.”

I was really impressed by now. The guy was truly a virtuoso of the highway. He handled his old beat up Proton Saga as deftly as Heifetz handling his Stradivarius and he did it with almost as much panache and artistry too.

I had to go to the airport the next day and needed a ride there, so I asked him if he went to the airport.

He looked at me and said, “Yes, only cost you RM70 one way. But my regular customers give me RM120. They know I can take them there in half an hour when other people take one hour.”

He’s right there too. KLIA is 75 kilometers from KL and it normally takes about an hour to get there by car.

Part of me was curious about how he was going to cover 75 km in half an hour, but part of me says no, you have a plane to catch, don’t risk it, so I decided not to ask him to take me there, but I wanted his phone number so I asked him, “Can you give me your phone number?”

He gave it to me, then I realized I didn’t know his name so I asked him his name.

He looked at me and said, “They call me the Flying Sheik.”

Now, I know you probably think I’m making all this up.

What are the odds of the world’s foremost authority on virtuosity meeting someone in Kuala Lumpur (of all places), who goes by the unlikely name of “The Flying Sheik,” and who seems to have  mastered every one of the principles enumerated in the said authority’s blockbuster book “The AOV?”

From the principle of economy (taking shortcuts) to the principle of lightness (a traffic citation becomes a love letter) to a healthy disdain (and respect) for rules and authority, this man seems to be the very embodiment of all the qualities I wrote about in the book

But happened it did, everything, exactly as I described above.

In fact, I have the man’s phone number in my phone under the name “F Sheik.”

We reached Sungei Wang in less than 15 minutes, which was nothing short of a miracle, considering the traffic congestion everywhere.

And I’m resolved next time to ask him to take me to the airport. I’m curious as to what unearthly shortcuts he’s going to take to cover 75 kilometers in half an hour.

* RM stands for Ringgit Malaysia, the currency of Malaysia. As of the time of writing, $1.00 USD is roughly equivalent to Rm3.00.

Desperately seeking number 14

November.20. 2011

I must confess I have an obsessive streak in me. Take my fascination last summer with #14.

What’s #14, you might ask?

It’s a local Sarawak brand of hand forged iron tools, specifically knives – parangs (machetes) and cleavers.

It all started when I went looking for a parang to open up coconuts. (I’m a firm believer in the health properties of coconuts.)

I went to downtown Sibu, Market Street, to be precise, and the first hardware store I walked into, the storeowner handed me a fearsome looking object and said, “You want one of these, it’s a number 14.”

I had no idea what was #14 so he enlightened me. Apparently, it’s some ironworks place in Kuching and they specialize in forging knives from springs – the stuff that’s in the shock absorbers of trucks.

I bought the parang and was soon opening up one coconut after another. It really was an exceptional tool.

And then it occurred to me. Do they make cleavers as well? I have fond memories of my mother’s old cleaver (handmade by one of my cousins) and had wanted to get one of those for years.

So I went back to the store and the man said no, they don’t have #14 cleavers because, as he said, they don’t make them. They only make parangs.

Undaunted, I tried other hardware stores. I found a lot of handmade cleavers, but none made by #14.

As it so happened, I went to Kuching the next week and guess what I was doing for most of my trip, going from one hardware store to another, looking for #14.

No luck. I did find out where the factory was located, somewhere in Bintawa, but my obsession only went so far. No side trips to Bintawa for me.

And as it so happened again, I took another trip out of town the next week, to the town, or should I say, village, where I grew up, Kanowit.

I was walking down the main bazaar, close to where I used to loiter in my pre-Sibu days, when I noticed a hardware store, barely five doors down from where I lived as a boy.

Out of curiosity, I went into the store and asked the lady behind the counter if she had a #14 cleaver. To my amazement, she said yes, and produced not one but six of them.

Success finally. Mission accomplished.

Needless to say, it was a happy camper who left the store clutching four of those cleavers.

#14 cleaver

The object of my desire

#14 logo

The famous logo

So back in Texas, with my prized possessions, I went to the local supermarket to get a coconut, one of those from a Central American country.

Trying to get the coconut open was another story entirely. I had never known that a coconut shell can be so hard. It literally became a battle of spring cleaver versus hard coconut shell. In the end, spring cleaver won, but the flesh turned out to be almost as hard as the shell. Since I didn’t want to have a battle of teeth versus hard coconut flesh (knowing what the outcome was going to be), the whole fruit ended up in the trash.

So what happened to the #14 cleaver?

Sitting patiently in my kitchen drawer, happily rusting away. Occasionally, I still take it out to admire its workmanship, and the love and passion that went into its fashioning.

It takes two to tango

September.18. 2011

This is a continuation of my previous post, and expands on one of the points I raised in that post.

In a perfect world, learning occurs when a teacher imparts knowledge and a student receives that knowledge.

That’s all there is to it.

For years, this was the unwritten contract between teacher and student.

And teachers were especially wary of students who were not ready for instructions.

Martial arts lore is replete with stories of masters who would not accept students until they knew the student was ready.

I read about a martial arts teacher in Beijing who made a student exercise every day with him for three years (at a distance) before he would accept him as a student.

The great piano pedagogue Leschetitzky almost made Paderewski jump off a second story building to test his sincerity and eagerness to learn before he would accept him as a student.

But we live in a very imperfect world.

Being a teacher these days means many other things.

Now, we’re expected to become cheerleader, counselor, entertainer, babysitter, magician, parent, mentor, on top of our duties as ‘teacher.’

And the minute we assume the teacher mantle, we also become miracle workers – we’re expected to make students learn, no matter what.

And if students show no interest in learning, it’s our fault.

If they don’t do their homework, it’s our fault.

If they have low test scores, it’s our fault.

In other words, we teachers are one hundred percent guilty of any failings in the student’s education.

The student is blameless, the parents are blameless. The student bears no responsibility towards his own learning. The parents bear no responsibility towards their children’s education.

I’m not sure how and when this shift in perception of the teacher’s duties took place.

But suddenly we’re not just charged with imparting knowledge, we’re also charged with changing mindsets, we’re charged with making student receptive to our teaching.

And this is the crux of the problem.

That’s really not our job description.

That’s the parent’s job. That’s the parent’s responsibility.

It’s the job of parents to show an active interest in their child’s education, to make sure that homework is done, to provide a good learning environment at home, to encourage them, motivate them, fire up their ambitions.

In other words, it’s the job of parents to mentor their own children and make them receptive to learning.

If parents do this and step up to their responsibilities as parents, I guarantee test scores will go up across the board.

This is not rocket science, it’s just common sense.

Here’s a little anecdotal example from my own experience.

I went to school in a third world country. Classroom size was, on the average, 40 students per class.

And I remember some of the teachers were not the most enthusiastic and inspiring of teachers.

There was the science teacher whose idea of teaching was to copy endless notes on the chalkboard and we had to copy them down by hand. During tests, we had to memorize all these notes and regurgitate them.

There was the history teacher whose idea of teaching was to read from the textbook. He was so lazy, he didn’t even bother to read the book himself. Instead he would get one student after another to read it for him.

Not the most inspiring of situations. No fancy teaching techniques, no smart boards.

Just teacher, student, textbook, and chalkboard.

But did we learn?

As one famous politician is fond of saying, you betcha!

Because we were all fired up to learn. Yes, we still clowned around in class, but when the time came for testing and exams, we all knew we had to get serious.

The secret was expectations. Expectations from parents mostly.

If you didn’t do well, the shame you experience was enough to force you to study harder the next time. I remember having to show my ‘report card’ to my parents every term end. If the test scores were bad, it was more a matter of personal shame than any reprimand you could get from them.

Modern educators might shudder at the description I just gave.

But the proof is in the pudding.

Where are all these extremely ‘disadvantaged’ students now? Flung all across the globe, from New Zealand to Australia to Malaysia to Canada to the USA.

Engineers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, accountants, bankers, teachers, real estate developers, and yes, even a guitar professor in South Texas.

As I wrote earlier, teaching is a two way street.

For the transfer of knowledge to take place, the teacher must be willing and able to impart knowledge and the student to receive it.

And if the student is ready and receptive, learning will take place, even under the most adverse conditions.