Abstract: In my 20 over years of travel throughout the Indo-China countries (Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos), Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand I have encountered many instances of counterfeit US dollars. Except for Thailand, the most used currency by a foreigner in these countries is the green back. The following post is one of my various encounters.
Mogok – The famous ruby land of Myanmar.
A couple of years ago Calvin, my second son, and I were in Mogok for a 6D/5N trip to the famous stone tract of Mogok in upper Mandalay, Burma. Mogok produces the finest and most valuable rubies in the world, and in the trade it is known as Pigeon Blood Ruby. Calvin had just recently graduated from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in New York City as a Graduate Gemologist (GG) when he was 18 years old.
So, I told him. Don’t ever be a desk-bound arm-chair gemologist. You had to go through the baptism of fire and worked the gems fields and mines, so that you can gain an understanding and appreciation on the up-stream mining operations and activities.
Thus, Calvin would often accompany me to the jade mines, the ruby mines and the various jade markets in Mandalay and Yangon. Travelling with Calvin was fun. He never complain when the going was tough, travelling for hours in a cramped jeep, sleeping in lousy hotels with no hot water for a bath, smelly rooms and rancid bed sheets, mosquitoes’ bites and flying ants, the air conditioner kept breaking down as electricity supply was erratic, even with the gen-set, very hot or clammy rainy weather, diarrhea, or when the food was not so agreeable we ate cup noodles for meals.
Anyway, it was a fabulous trip to Mogok. We travelled back to Mandalay for a night over to fly back to Yangon the following day.
That evening we had dinner at our favorite Western restaurant on one of the busy thorough fare streets of Mandalay. There were four of us, including two of my lady staff members who had been with me for many years.
Gosh! After the meal I realized that I had burnt all my Kyats, the local Burmese currency. On my back pack, I carried a sack full of kyats to Mogok and now I had a sack full of rough stones of ruby-in-matrix, sapphires rocks, cut rubies and sapphires and other gemstones specimens.
The bill came to about 75,000 Kyats, approximately US$72.00. I told the waiter I would pay in dollars. He grinned at me, a mischievous smile spreading on his face. Ah! most probably he would exchange the dollar himself and take a 15% cut on the exchange.
I took out a wad of US $100 bills from my inner pocket of my pant and peeled one out. Then I took out a pen and wrote down the serial number of the note of the Benjamin Franklin bill of US$100 onto the restaurant bill.
Immediately, I saw his crest fallen face. Bang! He could not exchange the dollar bill for himself, as his boss would see my inscription on the receipt.
Calvin was piqued. He asked, “Hey Dad! Why do you write the serial number of the dollar bill on the receipt?”
“Son, it always pay to be cautious.” I replied.
Counterfeit US Dollar
Then I regaled Calvin with one of my travel log episodes.
It was December 1992, a cold wintry night in Hanoi, Vietnam. I was having dinner at a French restaurant with two senior government officials and my Vietnamese point man cum interpreter cum consultant advisor. I was the head of a foreign bank in Cambodia and my responsibilities also included the untapped newly opened markets of Vietnam and Laos. Then, I was a regular flyer, traversing between Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Vientiane (capital of Laos), Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, looking for business opportunities for my company.
While we were having the ubiquitous Vietnamese ca phe nau, a strong brown coffee that dripped down from a silver metal filter into a cup, there was a commotion two tables away from us. A man was standing up, arguing with a waiter, his face was contorted with fury and he was gesturing wildly with the restaurant receipt in one of his hand. He was probably an American Chinese as he spoke with an American ascent. His companion, a young pretty fair lady, his wife or his mistress or his girlfriend or whatever, was sitting quietly with a cigarette poised in between her fingers, a bluish smoke trail wound lazily upwards to the ceiling fan.
The waiter holding onto the US $100 dollar bill kept on saying, “Sir, dis’ dollah no good!”
By now the commotion had drawn the attention of several diners in the restaurant and they were staring at the two men, who were like two belligerent cats on the roof of a house on a moon lit night, with their hackles raised, daring each other in a fight. From their heated conversation we learned that the argument was about the counterfeit US dollar. The American Chinese insisted that he gave a good US dollar and this was not the same dollar he gave. The waiter, with a calm and defiant countenance, stood his ground and repeatedly said that the ‘dollah no good.”
Then the restaurant supervisor appeared and spoke in faltering English to the American Chinese. “Maybe we call the Cong An to solve the problem.”
For a while, there was pin dropped silence at the mention of the Cong An, the Vietnamese police. The lady companion suddenly stood up and with a dismissive gesture killed her cigarette, opened her handbag and took a $100 dollar bill. She then took out a pen, looked at the dollar note and wrote something onto the receipt.
While the men yelled at each other, the cool head of a young lady prevailed. There was a sigh of relief as the matter was settled and the diners went back to their meals.
My Vietnamese interpreter spoke to me, “Arthur, maybe the Cong An is in it too. A $100 is more than their 3 month’s pay. It’s a criminal offence to possess a fake US dollar here.”
So, I thought, the Vietnamese were a practical and resilient lot, having gone through a few hundred years of war. Most Northerners may hate the Americans during the Vietnam War, but they loved the American green-backs.
I looked at Calvin and grinned, “It always pay to be cautious. This is to prevent anybody from swapping a good dollar bill with a dude.”
A jester once annoyed the King with an inappropriate joke in the medieval court. To vent his displeasure, he sentenced the jester to death.
Immediately when his words left his mouth, the King regretted it. The jester was his most loyal and favorite subject. But as the King of the court, a command once uttered could not be rescinded.
So the jester was imprisoned, awaiting the day for his execution.
A few days later, the King summoned the jester.
“I shall grant you one last request. You may wish to die by the sword, or by the gallows, or by a chalice with poison or by any other means.” said the King. This was the least he could do for the jester.
The jester, who was on his knees, gave a low bow.
“Thank you, O’King, for bestowing me your grace. I shall wish to die by my old age.”
The King was relieved for the jester’s quick wit. He spared him.
Don’t we all wish that, too.
My father was 94. For the first two weeks of July he was weak and refused to eat. As we could not feed him anymore, we hospitalized him and was immediately put on an IV drip. He succumbed to old age and passed away peacefully.
Below are the comments from my previous post, FB, well-wishers, prayers, contributions and condolence messages during his wake. We wish to thank all of you for being with us at a time of distress when a dear one is called away.
Comment: Arthur, you are a good son. May God bless you, your family and your parents, always.
Arthur: May God bless us all, always.
Comment: I wish I could do that.
(Referring to bathing and feeding my father)
Arthur: Most of us wish too. It is not a chore. It is not a burden. It is not a responsibility. Neither is it an obligation. Simply, it is a privilege to serve.
Comment: You are a filial son. I am sure your children will do the same thing to you when you are sick.
Arthur: Thanks but no thanks. Don’t delve on it, less it becomes self-fulfilling, i.e. I become bed ridden.
Comment: You are lucky to have aged old parents and your parents are lucky to have a good son.
Arthur: Yes. There is an old saying in Chinese: 人见白头嗔，我见白头喜. Translation: Some may not like old folks, but I am very happy to see them.
Comment: Your mother must be very sad at the demise of her husband.
Arthur: They were married for 69 years. My mother is a strong woman. She accepts the inevitable that nobody lives forever.
Comment: In the Chinese culture, filiality is an important personal trait of good character and you live up to it.
Arthur: Filiality is a universal value. All cultures emphasize on it. We contribute to the well-being of our parents in different ways.
Comment: You may have gained a lot of merits by being filial to your parents. You will have good Karma.
Arthur: It’s better to do something for our parents out of love, and not of expectations.
Comment: I have seen many who do not even talk to their parents when they were alive, but cried thunder and rain during their wake. You are a good son.
Arthur: A flower to the living is better than dozens of bouquet to the dead. A spoonful of porridge fed is better than to shed copious tears after they are gone.
Comment (from many): Our deepest condolence to you and your family on the demise of your father. May he rest in peace.
Arthur: Thank you to all for your kind thoughts and condolence messages.
Brief: A couple of months ago, I visited the Lotus Hill in Guangzhou, China. As I was traveling alone, I need to take some good pictures of this scenic spot. And I chanced upon a woman maintenance worker at the park. She handled with ease my Canon DSLR EOS 500D camera as well as my Nikon Coolpix after showing her the shutter button. We broke bread together, so to speak, and she told me a wonderful tale.
To Be Selfish Is To Be Ugly
Lotus Hill (莲花山) is one of the famous hills on the Pearl River Delta located on the eastern sea board about 20km from the mega city of Guangzhou, China. It is one of the best preserved ancient quarry site dating back to the Western Han dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD), with reddish and ochre low hills of sandstone, the highest of which is about 108m tall. With its cliffs, perilous peaks, stelae, winding stone forests and grottoes, romantic names are assigned to each of these sandstones with labels like Lotus Flower Rock, Swallow Rock, Eagle Cliff, Goddess of Mercy Rock and the Lion Stone that dotted this ancient stone yard.
I was looking for somebody to take some photos for me when I noticed a woman sitting on the stone steps with a broom and a long handle dust bin, a hand woven straw hat and a small carry-on blue cloth bag by her side. She was in a blue denim jacket with a white half turtleneck sweater, the standard issue of maintenance workers in that park. I approached her and requested whether she would be able to ‘shoot’ some pictures of me.
Without hesitation, she got up and asked me to show her how to handle my DSLR Canon camera. I told her to use the view finder on the camera, rather than the LCD screen as battery life would last longer.
We walked around the park, with me as the object and portrait for the photo ops, and there I was standing or sitting like a stiff pole, while she had more poise and style behind the camera, handling it with finesse like a semi-pro. She would bend on her knees, squat on her feet, swing the camera around slightly to catch some particular behind scenes, catch the sun ray on my face instead of being back-lit and ask of me to smile and to tilt my head here and there. At one time, the shutter failed to release and she told me the battery was flat.
Ha! I really enjoyed myself seeing her with all her fanciful pose behind the camera.
We came to a wooden bench and sat awhile. We chatted for some time. She told me that she was a divorcee with a 15 year old son and she had been working in the park for more than 5 years, earning Renminbi 1,600 per month. (~ US$240). Her husband had run away after raking up hefty gambling debts. To supplement her income, she reared pigs, chickens and ducks and grew vegetables in the backyard of her house in the village. And she was still taking care of her mother-in-law, whose son had disappeared for many years.
Then I took out my wallet and gave her a bill of Renminbi 100 (~US$15), saying that this was just a small token for her help. With a smile and a somewhat imperceptible shake of her head, she refused to take it.
A thought crossed my mind. Was the amount too small?
On impulse I upped the ante. I peeled off another two bills of a hundred, making a total of Rmb300. With a smile I offered to her, “This is for your son so he can buy something for himself.”
With grace born of naivety and innocence of a peasant woman, she again refused and said, “I am already being paid by the government. I often take pictures for tourists.”
I quickly offered my humblest apology. This woman must be one of the last remnant proletariats of the utopian communist society as envisaged by former Chairman Mao Zedong where every citizens worked for the State with no self-interest. Even from his grave, Chairman Mao could still exhort some Chinese people to be loyal to the class struggle of the masses, down with all capitalist roaders, down with Western imperialism, down with the bureaucrats, the warlords and compradors, the proletariat will rise up against the bourgeoisie, the revisionist and the US paper tiger et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Then she got up and with a gesture of an open palm, asked me to wait awhile. She took out a small white towel and walked behind a faucet to wash her hands.
From her blue cloth bag, she fished out a small packet of brown paper, unwrapped it to reveal a darkish oily pancake. I kept an impassive face as I looked upon the grubby pancake with some dark edges of being over-fried.
“Do you want some? I share half with you.” She said, as she put her hand out towards me with the pancake in her palm.
Now this was really a moment of truth for me, to be polite and accepted half of her pancake or to be honest with her by refusing it.
“Thank you, I take it.” I said without any further thought.
Trying to mask my trepidation, I sank my teeth into the pancake. At that instant my anxiety evaporated. Oh! That pancake was good, real good with the favour of a home baked wholesome flour, something which I had not tasted for a long time, while I was staying in a village.
As I was munching the pancake I said, “Thank you for your generosity to share with me.”
She replied in between small mouthful of her pancake, “In the village we always share with our neighbour of the food we cooked or the fruits we plucked or the vegetables we grew. That was what my grandmother taught us when we were small.”
Seemingly enjoying every bite of her pancake, she continued jovially, “My grandmother often said that to be selfish is to be ugly. And she would then told us the story of the nun for the hundredth time.”
My interest was now piqued. “Oh! I love old stories from Guangzhou. Would you be kind enough to tell me?” I replied earnestly.
So, she narrated to me a beautiful story:-
High in the mountainous region in a Buddhist monastery in Northern China, one late night, a young maiden knocked on the huge door of the temple to seek refuge in Buddhism so that she may be ordained as a nun.
The Sifu, Reverend of the monastery, received her in the hallway of the prayer hall, which was adorned with a large bronze statue of a sitting Buddha in meditative repose and with numerous arahats and smaller statues of other Chinese deities surrounding it.
The Sifu noted immediately that this young maiden was from a family of the upper crust of the Mandarin class by her colourful fine silk dressing, her porcelain face, her jet black lustrous hair, her smooth fair skinned hand and the dignified manner she carried herself. She was puzzled too that why this beautiful maiden prostrating in front of her would seek to renounce all her worldly and materialistic desires for an austerity life in a monastery. But as chief of the monastery, it was not in her character to question the motive of anyone who desired to enter the gate of her temple for renunciation.
The Sifu directed two of her disciples to give her a light meal for the night. On the morrow this maiden was initiated to the laity of Buddhism as a neophyte with her hair shorn off revealing a nice rounded and clean pate. From then on, this young maiden was to follow the strict regimented life of a nun within the confines of the monastery.
One day this young maiden was wandering around the vast complex of the temple, when she came upon a room filled with wooden statues of Buddha in various repose and in all sizes. All these wooden statues were carved by amateur carvers, she thought. She came from a family of artisan wood carvers, who would extract the most exquisite wood from LiuZhou to be carved into statues of Buddha and various deities as worshipped and perpetuated by the masses from all walks of life. LiuZhou was famous for the production of wooden coffins from its rich resources of trees of sandalwood, fir and camphor, and these coffins were well sought after by wealthy Mandarins who believed that these wooden coffins would preserve the body, long after the deceased had being buried.
Naturally she picked up the skill as an artisan carver when she was young. So she set upon the task of carving a Buddha statue from a piece of camphor wood she had brought along.
The Buddha figurine turned up to be the most beautiful and finely carved sculpture among the thousands of other Buddha statues in the room.
She was proud of her carving and other nuns who saw the figurine were also in awe.
Soon after she thought that she would have to honor the statue by offering the burning of camphor incense to her Buddha carving. Daily she would lit up a coiled camphor incense and placed it in front of the statue.
Several days later, she noticed that the sweet scent from the incense she burnt almost permeated and wafted the whole room and other figurines were also taking in the fragrance. There upon, she made a sort of a funnel so that smoke from her incense would only be directed to her Buddha statue.
Not long after, her Buddha statue was covered with black soot.
It became the ugliest statue among all others.
Thus, I thought, this is a good story to write and to share.
Question: It has often being said that when life hands you a lemon, then make a lemonade out of it. This oft-mentioned phrase is used to encourage optimism and faith when one is faced with adversity, hardship, disappointment and setbacks and to maintain a calm composure and positive attitude towards the handling of personal crisis.
But what will you do when life hands you a bunch of lemons?
O’Mother of mine
My mother is 86, sharp of mind and with boundless wisdom. She has her share of health related problems, osteoporosis, some of her lumbar bones in her spinal cord have fused causing her to bend to the front and a hump back has appeared for years. She walks slowly with a tri-support walking stick.
Her eye sight is still very good with the help of her bifocals. She reads the vernacular Chinese newspaper daily, poring over headlines and in particular she reads the Life Style section meticulously. She cuts up those articles relating to health, life and death, handling of mid-life crisis, marriage and divorce, living philosophy, religion and in fact the whole works, that affects the mental and physical health and the well-being of a person.
Ah … all these are for the benefit of her son …
Me, Yours Truly.
To quote part of Thomas Gray’s elegy (1716 – 1771), written in a church court yard: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” Perhaps this is somewhat sombre and solemn, but I am not about to let these timeless moments lay fritter away.
So I video-taped a number of her readings.
On the following newspaper cutting from Sin Chew Daily (星洲日報), she read in Cantonese, (the most common dialect in southern China), “If destiny will to hand you a bitter lemon in life, one of the best approach is to make a sweet lemonade out of it …….”
I listened intendedly for her to finish. This was the proverbial phase written in the early 20th century and was re-introduced into the mainstream by Dale Carnegie in his million selling book, “How to stop worrying and start living.”
“Mother, I have lived for over half a century, destiny did not hand me a lemon or two, it hands me a big bunch of it!” I said as I raised my two palms, portraying an imaginary bowl of bitter lemons in front of me.
My mother was silent for a while, then tilted her head up ever slightly with a compassionate glimpse at me, her countenance mirroring a calm disposition with the smallest of a smile and her eyes had a faraway look, that perhaps she was caught in this moment with some distant thoughts of my past. This was my mother who gave birth to me, raised me as a somewhat sickly child, saw me through college and university, career and business-wise upstarts, on a plateau, crashed and came back again, borne witness to my marriage and the kids coming along, and probably she would remember every occasion of significant events on my life-time continuum.
This was the mother of mine who shared my ‘love’ story when I fell in love for the first time and in no less than a year, my mother pulled me out of the deep abyss of depression, when the girl-friend dropped me like a hot potato and I had fallen flat on earth from Cloud Nine. In this case, there was to be no hackneyed and old fashioned words from her, like ‘Cry it out if it makes you more comfortable,’ or ‘This girl friend is not suitable for you’, or ‘There are plenty of ladies in waiting.’
My mother was not the type who added drama to a deteriorating situation and instead she would made some allowances for healing and then no more. ‘Get over your loss fast, and you can love again.’ she said, and I found this to be more comforting than by aggravating the present circumstances with over-used and oft-repeated advise, as in some tear-jerking B-grade movies.
This was the mother who slept with me on the same bed until I was almost eleven years of age, because I was a somnambulist – a person who sleep-walked. I would wake up in the middle of the night, got off the bed and walked around the room. At times I would walk out of our wooden house in a dream state, ignoring the bark of stray dogs or the hoot of an owl. Discreetly, my mother would follow me around, lest I fell or being bitten by a dog or met with some untoward accident. She also feared that to wake me up would lead to disastrous outcome on my mental equilibrium.
Later, I would return to my bed on my own and in the morning I had no recollection at all. It was my sister who told me of my somnambulism much later when I began to understand more about life.
However, I did have glimpses and flash-back even to this day on certain occasions, that what I saw was not of this world, probably in my altered state of mind, I might have wandered off to another realm of a parallel or alternative universe or into an era long past. In one incident, I saw a huge mansion, aglow with golden aura and it lit up like a crown jewel in the darkest of its surrounding. There were a lot of people in costumes and dressings of an old imperial Cathay – talking, feasting and drinking and it was a sort of a grand celebration. And I was a spectator or a witness who accidentally stumbled onto this event. In a flash, the whole scenario disappeared. I was alone in the dark again and I felt a gust of cold wind on my face, jotting me. Someone placed a woollen sweater onto my shoulder and then I remembered no more.
My somnambulism weaned off around the age of 11.
There was also one poignant occasion that I remembered clearly. I was probably about 6 or 7 years of age or there about. We were living in that part of the town, called the New Town, before we shifted to a village.
For a few days, I was sick, running a fever on and off in spite of taking dosages of western medication. Late one night my fever escalated. My father was frenetic and was closed to panic. My parents had already lost a son and a daughter before me. He was all thumbs when it came to handling a sick child. And so it was my mother who took charge, as my father too had to mind my sister and a younger brother who were sleeping.
My mother wrapped me up in some warm clothing and tucked me securely to her back in a traditional sarong. She had to take me to a private clinic immediately, located some distance in that part of the town across a bridge, called the Old Town. Those days there were no taxis and the few public buses had run their last route by 9:00pm. Trishaws, the normal form of transport at that time, were all retired for the night. My mother had to walk all the way to the clinic, which was closed, but as the western doctor was residing upstairs, she was determined to knock hard and called for help.
Certain parts of the street were alive with activities in the New Town while it was almost deserted in the Old Town. As she walked in quick strides along the street with her two hands firmly around my buttock, my head was lolling onto her shoulder. My whole body was limp and my little hands were too weak to hold onto anything, though it was swaddled inside the sarong. Strange that it might be, after a certain distance away from our house, I began to have some sensation of waking up. I opened my tired eyes slowly and suddenly I was keenly aware of where I was:
I begin to see the world around me with a kaleidoscopic pattern of vivid colors. I see the dimly lit street, lamp posts spaced apart with the soft glow of sodium light buzzing with hordes of flying ants. There are rows upon rows of little birds perch on three parallel overhead electric cables, forming a jagged pattern on the wire silhouetted against the moon lit night. Fuzzily, I recognize the blur outlines of bodies scattered along the veranda of shop houses, these are the homeless beggars covering themselves with old newspapers to shield against the bitter wind that might come later in the night. Once in a while a few dark shadows passes by, people going home after the night’s work is done. A soft zephyr breeze rattles the leaves on the branches of trees and the silvery reflection of the moon on the mantle of low height bushes adds a surrealistic view unfolding before my eyes.
My nostril begins to pick up the slightest scent. After a prolong spell in bed, the familiarity of the smells of the night street comes back to me once more, burning stoves, aroma of roast meat, fetor of waste food, kerosene permeating the air, steam vapour from Chinese dumplings bamboo containers, cigarette smoke and hot charcoal blazing on clay kilns, clogged drains of decaying leaves and rubbish and the strong body odour of people as we pass them by. An acrid stench assails my nose as night-soil collectors dump buckets of human waste onto a large truck, which is the usual means of removal of human faeces in urban areas. To ward off that stinky smell, I quickly put my whole face onto the soft fabric of my mother, and I inhale her redolent scent, she is perspiring from the labour of her brisk walk. It was a familiar scent which always put me at ease for I know that the whole world can come apart but my mother will still be carrying me on her back.
I begin to feel with heightened sensation. As a gust of wind blows across, I experience the slightest of pin pricks on my face. I feel the warmth of my mother’s back and my fingers begin to wriggle, clinging onto the side of my mother’s dress. I feel her continuous soft patting on my small backside and she is muttering a prayer or repeating some mantras of her own or that she is telling me to stay with her, do not go, stay with me, child.
My hearing becomes very acute, attuning to almost every sound that emanates from people, animals and nature. Some mid-night street hawkers are packing up, ranting loudly, cleaning their utensils and the cacophony of noise of the clanging of porcelain bowls and dishes added to the milieu of the night’s activities. I hear the crunch of bicycle tires on the macadam road. I shiver inwardly at the bay of stray dogs and the shrill meow of two cats in a fight with its hackles raised. Then I place my right ear onto my mother’s back. And I hear the wonderful sound of her quickened heartbeat. I know the familiar throbbing of heart beats, I have heard this before, some far away years ago, probably, when I was inside her womb.
My stomach begins to gnaw at me. I was hungry. I bite onto my mother’s fabric and it tastes a bit salty. I struggles to put my thumb into my mouth. It was tasteless. I am still looking for something to bite as now I want to taste anything within my grasp.
All my senses are now in a heightened state. And there is more….
All at once I feel something departing from me, like a part of me is leaving my body. There, I am hovering in front, suspends in mid-air upwards and I see my mother carrying a child on her back, walking in brisk strides, and the child is me. Strange, I am seeing my mother walking vigorously with me on her back, while I drift through the ethereal space effortlessly, like a ghostly figure.
Then I slumped forward onto my mother’s back and darkness enveloped me. When I received an injection I did not feel the pain but on the next day I was still very much alive.
It was truly remarkable that I could recall certain episodes of my younger days so vividly and on occasions certain smell, touch, sight, sound or taste would trigger off these memories. When it came, I was overwhelmed with emotions, as if it had only happened yesterday, and I would close my eyes for some time to ponder, reliving all those moments. But these emotions were not one of anxiety or fear or apprehensions, rather it was a moment of cherished contemplations.
In the course of my life’s journey I came into contact with priests, monks, men and women of cloth, spiritual ‘masters’, religious teachers from various sects, psychologists, psychiatrists, men and women of learning, fortune tellers, tarot card readers and even to the extent of consulting a Taoist monk who went into a séance. To some I asked questions. I was curious and was interested to know whether these episodes had any bearings on my future. But nobody gave me any satisfactory answers, and I believed that most of them were interpreting these mini episodes of mine as dreams, imaginations of a child, a make believe, my days were marked, some nether world spirits would like to possess my soul as well as all sorts of ridiculous spiritualistic explanations. They gave answers as relating to their own experiences, their individual parochial leanings, their distorted perceptions or according to what they had been taught at religious schools or institutes of higher learning.
Later I realized out that there were no exact answers to these imponderables and unknowns. The answers from these multitudes of people and from the various literatures I read were not as important as the questions any more. It just had happened and there was no necessity to find out why.
Perhaps part of the answer was within me.
The probable cause could be that I was in a near death situation that sparked off an epiphany of sorts. I was walking precariously the thin line between living and death and my life was slowly ebbing away. At that age I could not even understand death.
At a critical point when all my faculty of senses was elevated to a heightened state, I felt that I was truly awakened, if only it was just for that very brief interlude in time. I became acutely aware of where I was. Keen awareness created memory and this memory would sear, like a hot sizzling iron being branded onto flesh, into the core of my very being. And this memory would not decay with time nor with age, though it may dim with the passage of time, but occasionally, it would just bob to the surface like a cork being released under water.
My mother was trying to frame a response for me when I answered my own question. “Mother, I think it is best that if destiny will to hand me a bunch of lemons, I just eat the whole damn lot, instead of making lemonades out of it.” I flicked one of my hand upwards to emphasize my intent.
An instant smile spread across my mother’s face. She said, “Perhaps you are right, son. When a situation is irreversible or we think that there is no going back, we have to accept the inevitable, no matter how bitter it is. One has to move on instead of lamenting the past, holding onto regrets or hurts or trying to self-console.”
She continued in Cantonese, “There was this Chinese poet and writer of the late Ming Dynasty, Feng MengLong, who was attributed with this quotation, “To take the bitterness and hardship of life inyour stride is to rise above humanity.” (吃得苦中苦,方为人上人).We can learn a lesson from here.”
She folded the newspaper cutting, while I disengaged the camera from the tripod. Here was my learned mother who cared for her children with unconditional love. Her frailty was quite visible with wrinkles in folds on her cheeks and there were some faint worry lines on her forehead. A medium size liver spot had appeared slightly below her right eye which had grown bigger in size with her passing years, but which did not otherwise mar her facial appearance. Her hair, which was cut from time to time by my sister, had grown sparse with streaks of white on the fore. Her eyes were alert and she spoke clearly with rhythm and reasons, quotes and proverbs, and never mince her words with flattery and unnecessary praises. There was still a lot of iron in her.
I say, she is a commoner but in my heart she has the bearing of an aristocrat or a royalty and I being a subject must always give her the utmost due respect, love and care as well as to honor her. The old Chinese adage has a familiar ring to it, “To raise a child for a 100 years, one has to worry for 99.” (养儿一百岁，常忧九十九). Thus, my frequent prayer and my supplication plead to God will be that if she lives to a hundred years or more, or if she lives to a hundred years or less, then let me live just one more day than her. She had already sent off 2 of her children and it will be the most painful experience for her to see me going off earlier.
But then again, that is not my call.
Note: The translation to English on the two Chinese proverb is my own, as I cannot find any suitable translations as yet.
Lesson: How the children learned about the international assigned code words for alphabets of A for Alpha, B for Bravo ….
Last couple of months, I was in the car with the two boys. William, the youngest son, was speaking to a staff member in Shanghai on his iphone, giving instructions in fluent Mandarin. Then I caught a word he spoke in English, SWIFT, Sierra Whiskey India Foxtrot Tango followed by some numbers. He was relaying instructions in some financial transactions and he was using the international call sign for alphabets.
Perhaps I would like to preen a feather or two here that he learnt the international call sign in London from his old dad when he was 9 years of age. This young lad here has a phenomenal memory.
Sojourn in London
I smiled inwardly as I reminisced those halcyon days in London. It was winter in the mid 90s and we were touring the United Kingdom, Her Excellency and me, eldest daughter and the two boys (then 12, 11 and 9 years of age). I had stay in London before while doing my MBA, so I marked out those places which we would visit and let Calvin, the second son, be the tour leader to find our way around. A quickie lesson on the London Underground Map was all they needed to know, East-West & North-South bound, the next station, the end station and the switching stations, the circle line and the color-coded lines as to learn the names of these lines would be a mouthful.
One morning at breakfast in the hotel, I decreed that we were going to China Town – Leicester Square and there was an Underground station on the Black Line. Calvin whipped out his Underground Map and the 3 kids pored over it. But nowhere was Leicester Square to be found as I pronounced the name the way an Englishman did.
So I spelled it out for them.
Slowly my daughter recounted and wrote on a paper serviette, “L for London, E for Edinburg, I for India, C for country, E for elephant …” then I stopped her. She knew of Edinburg because it was on our travel itinerary.
“Hey, you are mixing up the names of cities and animals and noun.” I remarked. So I wrote out the name and told them that Leicester Square was pronounced as ‘Lester Square.’
“Now each of you will give me the name relating to an alphabet as you have done in school.” I threw them a bone.
“A for America” Marilyna said. “B for Boy” William said jumping ahead of Calvin. “C for China” added Calvin, “D for Donkey” Marilyna echoed, ‘E for Elephant,” the reticent William spoke again.
I was stupefied, now there were a mix of countries, people and animals for the English alphabets.
‘F for … for …” Calvin was stumbling. Maybe he did not know a name associated with a country or perhaps he was about to say the 4-letter word.
Marilyna jutted in. “F for Finland.” She pumped her fist in the air jubilantly.
Phew! that was a close call. Her Excellency was paying attention to the banter by now and if I guessed correctly of what Calvin was about to say, then I would have gotten a great admonition from her with a good earful.
No, made it two earful.
Her Excellency would make a meal out of me if Calvin would say what I thought was on his mind. She just did not like the idea that the kids were using some foul language, while I was laissez-faire. She had a habit of attributing all the sins and transgression of the son to the fault of the father.
My daughter just saved my ass for the day, so to speak.
Then, I had an idea and it was time for a lesson to be learnt.
I took up another paper serviette and scribbled out the 26 alphabets as such.
“This is the international call sign for alphabets. It is used by the navy, army, air force, hotels, airlines, government agencies, private sectors as well as all foreign voice to voice call so that all alphabets are standardized.” I placed the paper on the table.
“Tonight all of you are going to memorise it and you are going to memorise this for life. No A for America or Australia or B for Boy, now A is for Alpha, B is for Bravo, and so on and so forth.” I sniggered. “Only when you are speaking to those who does not know the international call sign, then you are to switch to whatever names are convenient.”
So, for that day we had a good time at Leicester Square.
The morrow found us at our breakfast table again. I asked Calvin, what was in it for us today.
“Today we are going to Kilo Echo Whiskey Gardens, which is on the Green Line, south bound.” He said, as he pulled his cap backwards.
I was caught off-guard for an instant, then I realized that Calvin was just telling me that he had memorized the whole table of call signs.
In between mouthful of scrambled eggs, Her Excellency declared vehemently, “I am not going to any Whiskey Garden today!”
Immediately, there was pin-drop silence among us and I was refraining hard not to roll my eyeballs heavenwards.
Just the other night, I took them to a pub before the off-office rush hour of 5:00 pm. So we got ourselves seated as the pub had not been filled yet. I had the idea of regaling them kids some tall tales of my previous stay in London, some pub crawling episodes, some cranky jokes that always accompanied a few pints of Foster beer and a way of showing off too. Pub hoping indeed, I was as poor as a church mouse as I was on a tight shoe string budget then. Anyway, it was always a good feeling to feel awesome in front of them kids, and I was hoping that the pub would play my favourite of Mary Hopkins, “Those were the days.”
A big bosom waitress appeared in front of our table, with a somewhat unfriendly attitude. “Children are not allowed in pubs.” She said in a stern manner.
“But I will be the one drinking beer, the children will have a coke each.” I smiled coyly and trying hard to avert my eyes from the cleavage on her ample bosom.
“This is the law, children are not allowed in this premises.” She added.
Her Excellency was agitated by now, and before she could bare her fangs, I quickly bundled them up, apologized profusely to the big bosom waitress and left. Two women quarrelling was bad news and it was better to leave the party. What a pity! The bosom waitress had just rained on my parade, but a law was a law.
Ah, maybe Her Excellency was still smarting for being booted out unceremoniously.
“We are going to the Kew Gardens, mum.” Marilyna told her with a giggle.
On the train, I was seated with Calvin. He whispered to me, “You are a nincompoop, Dad!”
“Pardon me.” I looked at him, but Calvin knew that I always let him speak up to me. And he learned fast from all the cockney and colloquy English words and some great phases I always used when speaking to them as I took immense pleasure to display my command of the flowery English language, including some vulgar swear words too.
“O Ye of little faith!” Calvin said. Now, this was too much, as this little fella was quoting me word for word. I was sure he didn’t read the Bible as yet.
“I was going to say F for Florida yesterday and not what you think of the 4-letter word.” He smiled impishly.
Praise the Lord for the small mercy in life, this was a clever son in deed and in words.
“Why Florida?” I asked.
“Please take us to Walt Disney Land in Florida next year. I heard from my friends that is Agreat fun”. He looked at me with pleading and expectant eyes.
“Alright, let it be said and let it be done, son.” We slapped our palms, bumped our fists and the contract was signed, sealed and almost delivered.
Sure enough, the next year I took them to Walt Disney, but it was in Anaheim, near Los Angeles.
My father is now 92 years of age. Eight years ago, a minor stroke left him bed-ridden. He is almost blind, his left eye was totally sightless some twenty years ago because of a motor vehicle accident and his right eye has probably less than 1% of sight because of late detection of glaucoma.
Now, relegated to the bed he can only sit up, often times, he has to make a Herculean effort to do so. He can barely distinguish whether it is day time or night time and often asks us the time of the day. He recognizes us by our voice and not by sight. His mental faculty is still intact, though his response is slow, and it takes some time for him to register our questions. We can still engage him in a normal conversation. He can remember his younger days but he cannot recall what he has taken for lunch a few hours ago.
Deprived of his sight and restricted severely in movement, however, he is not a bitter man. He does not indulge in self-pity nor does he laments his predicament. He just accepts that this is his life and that he is thankful for all the mercies life has shown him. He still has 3 children who are devoted to him and a great wife who takes care of his daily needs. My mother is 86, frail as osteoporosis has taken its toll but her mental faculties are still razor shape.
My daily work of caring for him is almost routine, though there is a maid to cook for us and other household chores. He is just a simple obedient child, asking simple question like, ‘Should I eat the bread first or drink the cereal?’ Probably he choose to please when we give him affirmations.
On alternate days I give him a lactulose solution and a double dose of enema to help his bowel movement. I clip his nails, trim his nostril hairs, shave his pubic hairs and all those short bristles of hairs sprouting on his upper lips and chin. Occasionally I have to feed him when he refuses to eat.
In the morning I take off his overnight diaper which is soiled with urine. In the toilet he sits for about 10 minutes for his bowel movement. He brushes his own teeth and he uses the toilet paper to wipe his rear, whether there are any defecation or not. Then I scrub him thoroughly with a sponge laden with mild soap. And he sits back and enjoy a hot bath.
So my daily work is done.
But there is something more.
With not much external stimuli, his mental awareness and memory are slowly impairing and fading away. Though cannot read anymore, he still asks the where about of his books, which he will occasionally feel them with his hands, as if he can read them by going through it with his palms.
My father is a keen reader of the works of the famous poet of the Tang Dynasty, Li Bai (705 – 762 AD). His favorite classical book, the Three Hundred TangPoems (唐诗三百首)which is yellowish, well worn, tattered and thumbed-through by many readings. This book is a compilation of poems of some of the most acclaimed poets during the Tang era, where Li Bai was featured prominently.
So the best way to challenge my father’s mental faculty is to ask him to recite some of these poems, which he had memorized by rote during his younger days.
Bravo! He can still remember many verses, though I have to prompt him whenever he falters as he tries hard to recall what he had read about 80 years back.
One of the most famous poem is 静夜思,or loosely translated to be ‘Contemplation’, by Li Bai. This short poem is well recited by almost all Chinese educated children and it remains one of the most favorite poetry for recital at school events.
I search through a lot of English translation and there is none that I feel reflects the beauty of this poem clearly. I give it some thought and come out with the following translation which I hope it reflects the mood, essence and the ‘longings’ of the poet when Li Bai penned it. Clearly, I take some liberty to put in something which is not in the original Chinese poem and which I think is relevant to the time and place when it was written. If some Chinese scholars think otherwise, then, I offer my apology.
The luminous moon hung over the bamboo blind
Icy frost glistened on the earthly loam
I gazed raptly at the round silvery moon
Pining for my kith and kin far away home.
This is also my favorite poem which my mother taught me in Cantonese, the prevalent dialect in Southern China, when I was 8, though I came from a purely English stream.
When I travel far and wide, I often recite this poem and I want to go home to be with my parents.