I do not know what to do next: Pregnant with our second child, my wife got diagnosed with cancer

By Mario Taguinod Talosig, currently an OFW in Oman

Jhungien and Mario on her healthier times. This young couple has big dreams and are working their way to achieve them. Until cancer came and challenged their journey. “The first time I was told, I was devastated and unable to speak”, Mario said.

The date June 10, 2018 would be one of the most unforgettable dates in my life. It was the day my wife Jhungien Bernardino Talosig was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), in short – cancer. Nobody will be able to explain that feeling when you hear that a loved one is afflicted with one of the most dreaded of diseases.

What made it even tougher was that Jhungien was pregnant. Our first child Marien Yzabhelle is already seven years old and her pregnancy was an answered prayer. We were excited and thankful. However, she began feeling weak with persistent fever and cough. As she had gone through a tough experience for our first child, we thought it was just normal.

When her blood test showed too low beyond normal, we were referred to a hematologist in Adventist Hospital in Santiago City, Isabela in the Philippines. After the initial tests were done, the hematologist privately talked to me about my wife’s condition. “Acute myeloid leukemia or AML is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. It is also one of the most common types among adults but rarely diagnosed in people under 40.”

What made things and decisions even more difficult was that she was pregnant of our long-awaited second baby. The baby we had been waiting for seven years after our first-born Marien.

Hearing this, I did not know what to say. I asked God why Jhungien. When I was trying to research on her having low platelets and hemoglobin, I even avoided even thinking of cancer.

I was advised not to inform her until the result of the Bone Marrow Aspiration & Biopsy (BMA) was released. We stayed in the hospital for one week until we decided to move to Manila upon the doctor’s recommendation. We never wanted to go to Manila since we are not familiar with the place. We also have few relatives to call for support.

We were then admitted to University of Santo Thomas Hospital’s Clinical Division. The doctors, thankfully, did not charge us with professional fees, but the medicines and laboratory fees were expensive. We stayed for more than a week. We were almost running out of funds.

Jhungien went through the ordeal with a positive spirit, helping rally her family even as they share her pain.

The daily blood checks were done. The platelets and red blood cell transfusion were required. From there, we were advised that she has to undergo chemotherapy as soon as possible. Knowing she was pregnant made us hesitant, as we feared it would have an adverse impact on the baby.

It was a difficult decision to do. We went home to our sister’s house in Maite, Hermosa Bataan to reflect on our emotional, physical and most especially, spiritual condition. We also tried to assess our financial capacity to go through the medical requirements.

Her blood levels were consistently monitored and in the process, she was admitted twice in Bataan Peninsula Medical Center. Due to frequent blood transfusion, Jhungien and I finally decided for her to undergo the chemotherapy.

A meeting was set with the doctors in UST and they instructed us about the preparations. They also organized another meeting with the hospital ethics committee since she wasby then 10 weeks pregnant. We waited for another week and she went through another transfusion of platelets and red blood cell.

AML is rare in her age but is thankfully treatable. All Jhngien needs is your kindness and generosity to be able to continue the treatment.

The cancer cells were found very aggressive in her case and lowered the blood cells count rapidly in few days. We met with the ethics committee and agreed that we have to wait for another week until she entered the second trimester for a greater chance of our baby’s survival to the effect of chemotheraphy.

We are now financially drained – to the last drop. More treatment processes need to be done. It was hard but I told her I need to go back to work in Oman. It was a very emotional decision to make but I have to be strong for my family. Without work, how can I sustain the required treatment for her? On July 9, 2018, I flew back to Oman.

As soon as I opened my phone upon landing, I received the news that she was admitted in the hospital for severe abdominal pain and blood spotting.

The ultrasound test revealed that we ultimately lost our baby and Jhungien has to undergo dilation and curettage procedure. We definitely lost an angel. Looking at the positive side, this brought us new hope that this time the chemotherapy can proceed with ease.

Jhungien recovered well from miscarriage. We decided to proceed with the induction phase of the chemotherapy. On July 23, 2018 she went through a series of medical tests and was cleared to receive the first dose of chemo medicines from July 30 and finished on August 5, 2018. It was her 34th birthday. She is very strong more than all of us combined, always confident she will overcome whatever side effects the chemotherapy will have.

Even for the initial medical assessments, tests and treatment, Jhungien and Mario have to sell whatever property they have invested on to pay for the bills. “We are now financially drained. There are times I do not know what to think,” Mario said helplessly.

Her immune system was down. Antibiotics were administered to fight infections and doses of morphine for pain relief. The blood counts are still low that is why frequent transfusion of apheresis platelets and red blood cell packs were required almost daily.

As soon as she recovers from the induction phase, they will proceed with the consolidation phase, which will have five cycles. Each cycle will be for three days of chemotherapy requiring her to stay in the hospital to recover before proceeding with the succeeding cycles.

Every cycle requires at least Php300,000. We have already exhausted all our savings, taken salary advances, took loans from relatives and sold most of the valuable properties we worked hard for together to be able raise what we need for the medical bills. I made her feel assured that these materials things are not important.

Her recovery is our priority. We know her case has very high chances of getting treated. This process will take at least one year depending on how fast she will recover after each cycle. At this time, we need not only for financial support but also for your prayers. It will be a long, painful journey. With your help we can continue to fight and eventually win this battle.

Mario reflects how this journey taught them about humility to ask for support because they have reached the end of the rope. Both of them also held on to their faith in God above all.

She was the one who tells me all the time to be strong and to pray always. Yes, we both believe this too shall pass. She reminds me to seek God in our hearts and we will find peace. Jhugien’s strength in faith brings positive energy to all of us. She firmly believes everything that happens for a reason and we should hold on to our faith.

This ongoing, and very painful, challenge for my family taught me humility and courage. I have always worked hard and did my best to be a responsible person and family man. Humility because I have to go beyond my own capacity for Jhungien’s sake and courage because this is what it will take for us to rise through this.

It is not easy to ask for help. But I am reminded by Matthew 7:7 – “Ask and you will receive; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.”

For Jhungien I can do it all.

Jhungien and Mario with daughter Marien.

o0o

For those who want to help Jhugien and Mario, you may contact them at this email: M.Talosig@omn.tcmbranch.com or call her sister Jelly Bernardino Malsi at # +63 9565860437

For donations, please deposit at Jhugien’s account: Jhungien B. Talosig

  • BPI Savings Account #1239199131, Swift Code for international transfers is BOPIPHMM (Cauayan City, Isabela, Philippines
  • Banco De Oro Account #003420038806, Swift Code for international transfers BNORPHMM (Cauayan City, Isabela, Philippines

Note: Please do not give to any one asking in behalf of Jhungien or our family except on these contacts and accounts. We thank you for the prayers and the support.

About the author

Mario Talosig works as a materials control assistant in an engineering, procurement and construction company. He is based in Sohar, Oman.

Halloween Special: I survived my scary bed-shaking nights in a Bacolod hotel

Atox’s first time trip to the lovely city of Bacolod has become a very memorable one.

Guest blogger: Arthur “Atox” Condes

This one will go to the pages of horror stories just in time for the All Saint’s Day.

Or maybe the script for a short horror flick.

September 29, 2017

It was my first time to be in Bacolod City in the Philippines. Known for its annually-held Masskara Festival, this beautiful city is located in the northwestern coast of Negros island.

Though I have spent many years in the neighbouring city of Iloilo, I have never taken any chance to visit the lovely, bustling Queen City of the South. I have heard stories about its glory and fame: with many sites and sights to behold, delicacies to enjoy and relish, experiences to enjoy. All too difficult to resist.

I woke up earlier than usual, around 3:00 am, although I was scheduled to leave at around 5:30 am for the airport. While waiting for the pick-up vehicle, I struggled hard to keep myself awake. It was a raining and for someone who slept late, the coolness of the dawn and the sound of the pouring rain was lulling me back to sleep, tempting me to stay in bed longer.

It was still raining when we left for the airport.  That morning, the traffic was already slow but the good thing was that we were moving. We made it to the airport. Everything went well.

Though I have started to give up on my daily caffeine intake, I had no choice that time but to take a few sips of that sweet-smelling potion, once again, just to stay awake.

The trip from Manila was smooth, all the way to Silay City, where the airport is. A rainy afternoon welcomed me to Bacolod City. Not bad for my first visit.

The vast fields of green are refreshing to the eyes, especially my tired, sleepy eyes. The activities that afternoon went like a breeze. And then it was time for us to be brought to our hotel.

I settled in my room immediately, tired as I was. The room was quite large, with high ceiling, wide hallways and some dimly-lit corners.

Apart from the famous Masskara Festival held annually on October, Bacolod City is also known for its delicious food and friendly people. (Note: photo is screen grabbed online)

The whole place was bustling with people and activities, as the whole City of Smiles was preparing for the famed Masskara Festival. The hotel was right in the downtown area and I know that it will see some action during the festivities. In one of its corners, on the second floor, a mannequin that was dressed up in a colorful carnival-inspired attire stares blankly at the hotel guests as they pass, with its fixed wide-mouth grin. It reminded me of the clown in the movie “IT”.

The hotel is not so new but still decent, and had some surprises for me that night.

I shared the room with the driver from the host office. He was out most of the time and it was I who had this ‘different experience’.

While doing some editing work on my mobile phone, I decided to sit on bed, with my back on the headboard. I was so absorbed with the thing I was doing and I never thought of anything extraordinary that will happen.

I could hear some noise next door. “Maybe the guests were just rearranging the furniture”, I thought. It sounded like they dragged some chairs on the floor. Unusual because it was quite late at night.

Having stayed in various hotels during my other travels both here and abroad, I am quite well-aware of the unusual ‘first-night-of-stay’ feeling that would keep most people awake or on the edge.

Not for me. I get at ease quite easily even in a new place. More than 30 minutes had passed and I still sat on the bed working.

Then I felt the bed shake! It lasted for a few seconds. I thought it was because I moved to reposition my back on the wall. It can’t be an earthquake.

This time, I tried to keep still to observe. The bed shook like someone was rocking it! Still, I didn’t mind it and kept working on my mobile phone. When I was done sending mails, I washed up and got myself ready to sleep.

Nothing unusual happened aside from that bed-shaking incident — and the occasional noise next door.

As I drifted off to sleep, I began to hear that dragging-on-the floor-noise again. It never stopped! It sounded like the whole crew of housekeepers were setting up a venue for a party and they couldn’t lift the chairs or tables so they just dragged them!

I tried to ignore the dragging sounds until eventually I was off to dreamland. Still, I could hear some noise next door. I heard the door open as my roommate came in.

I remembered waking up, it was well into the witching hours. Nothing strange but the sounds of furniture dragging was still there.

I was beginning to think that it was not normal. “How could these people be so sloppy in their jobs? What is taking them too long to finish their work, to the point of disturbing hotel guests?”

Many other questions are racing through my mind. “I must talk to the front desk staff. I need to know who could be staying next door.” It was part of my ‘to-do” list for the next day.

The next day came, like any other day. I got up before 6:00 AM. Got ready for breakfast. On my way out of the room, I met a hotel personnel in the hallway. He delivered something to the guests in another room. I asked him if room 323 was occupied. We were in 324.

Indi ko sure, sir ba. Pero mamangkot ta sa front desk. Ngaa tani, sir haw?” (I am not sure, sir. But we can ask the front desk. Why do you want to know, sir?)

I told him about the noise which lasted the whole night. The sound of the chairs or tables being dragged on the floor. He smiled. A dry, uncomfortable smile. He tried to laugh but it was a nervous one.

I was beginning to have that weird feeling. Goosebumps! It started to creep from my hands all the way up to the few remaining strands of hair on my head!

As I felt light –headed, he said: Ah. Nagpabatyag gali sa into, sir?” (Ah, so IT made you feel its presence, sir?”). I was with the driver and the other hotel guest and we were all dumbfounded, stumped. I was trying to rub the hair in my arms to keep them from standing.

The big reveal was quite potent, more than the morning mug of coffee that I always have.

The place has been known to have these unseen forces and staff either took it as funny or scary. Would you dare?

September 30, Saturday

The “experience” that previous night, which I now consider to be paranormal, did not end there. That morning, at the buffet table, I shared my tale with the other hotel staff.

“Well, we heard a lot of stories from the other hotel personnel”, one of them said. She went on, “Some staff dealt with guests who walked out of their room after having that nightmarish experience of hearing things falling with no one around, also the usual sound of furniture being moved and dragged on the floor.”

“You know, there were guests who opted to sleep at the lounge chairs at the front desk lobby just to be sure they are safe from the ‘annoying entity’ in their room,” one of the waitresses recounted.

A room boy shared that it gives him creeps when he passes through the cavernous hallway. “I don’t really believe the stories that much but when you are there walking alone, bringing food or anything to the guests during the unholy hours in the morning, you would really feel like somebody’s watching you or someone’s behind you! I try to run away, if possible.”

Another hotel staff revealed that other guests heard someone cleaning up the hallway, only to be shocked to know that there was no one there. The list can go on, I thought, if I ask all the others but what I heard was enough.

After their ‘expose’ or their version of ‘tales from the unknown”, I came to think about the past experiences I had with the unseen world, the different dimension, the spirit’s dwelling, whichever you may call it.

I believe that the spirit world exists. It is something we cannot shrug off, ignore or disregard. Our experiences, whether we believe they exist or not, will eventually lead to one conclusion: that these entities are real.

The book “The Filipino Spirit World” by Rodney L. Henry (1986, OMF Publishers), is an interesting read. I couldn’t agree more when he said, “A “conspiracy of silence” exists regarding certain religious practices of Filipinos.

The Church has ignored a spirit-world belief system held by most of its members. As a result, Filipinos take their unmet spiritual needs to the out-of-church spirit-world practitioners (faith healers, diviners, etc.)”.

Henry, in this book, “expounds the development of folk Christianity in the Philippines, the theological foundation of the spirit-world, including the angelic and the demonic, and the discernment of supernatural powers.”

It will not come as a surprise to know that the Filipino folklore is full of ‘characters’ from the other world: from tamawos or engkantos (fairy folks that can change features), dwendes (elves) and tiyanaks (vampires that imitate the form of a child), kapres (a tree giant often described as black, hairy and muscular), aswangs (monster with traits of a vampire or a ghoul) and others.

Some can be benign, others are vicious or mischievous. While others hide in the shadows, some spirits can make their presence felt in a lot of ways.

Our elders have their stories to tell as well. Maybe, back in those days, the ‘other-wordly’ beings were as real as the page you are reading, the phone you are holding and the chair you sit on.

Well, after having read that book, my understanding of the ‘spirit-world’ concept seem to have fallen into its place, established after the fact. I haven’t had the faintest idea about it at all, yet I already believed they were real.

Some spirits can move in the physical realm. They can move objects, cause them to fall or be destroyed or make them disappear. Such a case can be observed in homes where little things get ‘misplaced’ too often. They can choose to appear to some people or be captured in CCTV, standard or mobile phone cameras, in their various forms.

Still on Saturday, 30th of September

Scary stories aside, Bacolod is a must-visit and one of the good reasons is Mambucal Hot Springs.

After the breakfast exchange, we were off to some other places. An activity-filled Saturday, I felt that it was one of those Saturdays that took longer than usual. We hopped from one place to another, not too far from Bacolod City, high into the mountains and forests and checked some nice places, with endless photo sessions despite the rain.

Towards the evening, all you can think of would be the nice, comfortable hotel bed, after a warm, refreshing shower. It’s an irresistible thing, after a tiring day.

That morning at the hotel, when the room boy confirmed the presence of “something” in that place, I uttered a prayer, in Jesus’s name, that we will not be disturbed by the “entity”. It makes a difference when you declare openly that you believe in a God “who is above all and over all”, both the physical and the spirit world.

True enough, not much was heard about the noise from my next door ‘occupant’ or the hallway that night until the next morning. I still slept late, doing something online but it was a quiet night.

The next day, a Sunday, I was awakened by my roommate’s alarm clock. He set it up quite early and loudly and I think it roused everyone within 10 meters of our room. Nothing unusual, though. I prepared to take a bath and my roommate left to prepare the vehicle because he will bring us to the airport that morning.

Halfway through my shower, I heard the alarm sounding off again. “He must have left the phone and he didn’t turn off the alarm!”, I muttered to myself. I had to turn the shower off to hear the sound. It was ringing alright, it must be in his bag.

Then I finished my business and get dressed to have breakfast.

I met my roommate at the buffet hall and I asked if he left his phone in the room. He said no. “I got it here.” I was a bit shocked. So, what was that noise from a cellphone alarm that sounded like his?

I shook the thought off that someone was still playing tricks on us during that last few hours of stay. It was not that scary, no goose bumps this time, because I understand what is happening.

We left Bacolod early for our 10 AM flight back to Manila. We all bid farewell to the hotel staff but I extended my hello, on the other hand, to their ‘resident entity’ or a poltergeist (noisy ghost) who gave us a “different experience.”

-o0o-

Arthur Condes is currently an executive assistant at the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) in the Philippines based in Manila. Aside from writing feature stories, he loves to paint, take photos and reading.

Communicating: Just break that glass!

“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”Albert Schweitzer

A cooperative becomes true to its name when it’s run by an inspired and involved team. Koronadal 1-A Director Myrna Clavesillas working with her group.

The Communications Workshop for 25 participants, an interesting mix from different departments of South Cotabato Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Socoteco-1) did not disappoint. I made it a point it was not my workshop but theirs. This was often easier said than done, but in this case it was a breeze. Making it great or not, it is in their hands, not mine (well, a big chunk will also be from me, not passing the buck). They did it! The 3-day activity aimed to uncover many opportunities that will make service better for its over 100,000 consumers from 10 municipalities of the province of South Cotabato located in the southern part of the Philippines.

The first day was quite gloomy. Few people came early. An uncertain thought crossed my mind. Will this work? Maybe? As I settled with the materials I bought, I assured myself that in my years of doing a communications workshop, I never went home empty-handed. The house was always brought down. But there could be a first, right?

A frontrunner in the country’s electrification program alongside 120 electric cooperatives in the country, Socoteco-1 has seen many awards roll up its sleeved through the years. How do you keep up with the reputation and service reliability in the social media, and generally the digital communications age? Service includes prompt and effective information sharing with consumers, many of whom are now the milennials – young income-earners who pay the bills.

A leader is often one who is very much part of the team’s work, from the trivial to the most critical, sleeves rolled-up and making decisions. All eyes on Socoteco-1’s new (OIC) General Manager Edsel Epistola (3rd from left) as he takes the coop to new heights in rural electrification.

What have we learned together?

  • Everyone is genuinely interested to be part of change for the better. Looking at internal communications, it was acknowledged that change has to keep on – and going digital is the future that needs to start soon. While printing documents is still valuable, use of emails and online messaging cuts all the tedious bureaucracy that makes the flow of information slower, and thus, often missing its consumer service targets.
  • Planning isn’t always boring. There are many ways to do it, and involving as much people means many great and exciting ideas can come out of the table. Of course there should be someone to take the lead and ensure the best ideas get to the chopping board and into the cooking wheel. But having those ideas out is a good – even great – start. As we did this, it was fun and amazing to see how the groups came up with fantastic media plans for major coop events (think annual meetings, district elections, etc.) deemed boring because they’re done every year on same process.

  • Go for macro and get their minds up and running. While learning activities such as grammar review, how to do an online publications (and so many how-to’s) or specific skills building are critical, making them contribute to the big goals can help them see what are the skills they need to build to make the big one happen. They become part of if and they know where the organisation wants to go. How will you exactly know the parts to fix if you don’t know where you want to be? Decide on the goal and work next on the small ones that will run it.
  • It’s fun to talk about the issues. Get them out sun-dried on the table! What are they? Before getting that group activity to the participants, I was quite curious how open, daring and courageous they are in sharing the challenges and issues that slow down service, and even their own enthusiasm to do things. They did! This time they did not talk about them in the hallway but also came out with very practical easy-to-do solutions. Audience considered, creative activities and resources (fun, I must add), minimal budget and a lot more. Let’s wait for them to make it happen!

  • Social media is the way to go. It’s cheap, it’s in and it’s where everyone goes for the latest news. There are risks, yes. But as everyone has realised quite loudly, there’s no way ignoring it. When people need information, they hardly buy a newspaper (sadly) anymore. They open their phones and browse to find it. While a printed newsletter or report is still much valued, how do we get them online so more consumers can read them? Looking forward to the electronic version of Socoteco-1 Today very soon. At least we’d live to see the day it is available online.
  • Being a service utility means preparedness. To put is clearly, is the coop ready for an emergency? Apparently, resources-wise, they are! A response team is in place and a rough plan and how it will be managed. Does everyone knows about it? Not really. Then this is an opportunity to get this organised while there is time. How do you ensure protection of the coop’s electricity distribution and its services going when there is a disaster? It also has a community responsibility to assist when it can. Reviewing the plan and it’s roll out turned out to be a great time for everyone!

Often, all we need is to sit down and listen to each other’s ideas. That’s what teamwork and serving is all about.

What did I personally learn in the process?

It didn’t take a while to pick up the pieces. Working for 12 years in Socoteco-1 isn’t an easy thing to forget, I wasn’t even trying. It was also my first job in conducting trainings, publishing newsletters (changing it’s name to Socoteco-1 Today) and annual reports, writing its creed (that, fancy, they still use as a pledge until today), running a medical mission in cooperation with South Cotabato Provincial Health Office and more. In short, it became my foundation for the next phase of my career and jumpstarted my love for humanitarian work that took me to different countries. It felt good to be back sharing what I built up after I left 16 years ago. What I learned is that you always have that chance to go back and share. Then and only then can you say you’ve come full circle.

We’re not hanging gloves with this statement. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

“The 3-day workshop was very enriching and fun-filled. It made me realise how important well-planned activities through the use of communications tools and multi-media channels can effectively convey information and influence the stakeholders and public’s behaviour and support. I am happy to be part of this workshop and grateful to have witnessed how talented the Socoteco-1 staff members are! I believe it was able to unleash the potentials. Kudos to Socoteco-1 and thank you Cecil for facilitating the activity.” – Myrna Clavesillas, Director of Koronadal 1-A, Socoteco-1 Board

I should say the future of rural electrification in the country is bright if we make use of these excited and inspired minds to run it! It was more of a pleasure than work – thanks to Socoteco-1 especially to the ISD team led by ISD Manager Shean Roxanne Munar for making it happen!

“Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.” ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

-o0o-

Happy to hear comments, feedback or interest. Please email me at cblaguardia@yahoo.com or mobile at +639399262669. Better yet, follow the blog by ticking the box up or in FB @istoryya. Thanks for the visit and share.

Growing Up at No.195: Embracing my roots as a Rojak Malaysian

By Joanne Tay

There is a stereotype that the Chinese must have their soup daily, master the art of eating rice in a bowl with chopsticks and naturally, speak Mandarin. I was anything but those.

The girl from No. 195. Bubbly Joanne sure knows how to treasure her roots and the rich Malaysian culture along with it.

Give me Sambal Belacan anytime of the day and I’ll gladly have them with anything just like how the Westerners like their cheese. While I master the art of eating rice with chopsticks, I equally excel eating rice on a plate flooded with curry with my bare hands. This way of eating is usually more common amongst the Indians and Malays but as a child, it never crossed my mind as uncommon for a Chinese family. It was just a familiar way of life in my household. This goes to show that a child is not coloured by stereotypes.

Growing up, my father sent me to a public missionary school. Penang, where I grew up, was a former British colony and I was Mandarin illiterate. The vernacular Malaysian education system means Chinese was not taught as a subject in some public schools. I learned the Malay language (my national language) and English, while I spoke a dialect known as Hokkien at home like most Penangites.

The beauty of having Rojak roots

But, Hokkien with my late amah (grandmother) was a little different.

[Hokkien mixed with broken Malay] “Ini kasi lu sambal belacan gua yang buat. Lu bawak balik makan.”

[Hokkien] “Wa ka-ki cho eh sambal. Hoh lu gia tui ki chiak”

Meaning: “Here, this is my homemade sambal belacan for you to bring home and eat.”

Hokkien’s ability to switch, mix and match languages and made them her own never ceased to amaze me as a child. When speaking with the Indian uncle who rented a corner of our pre-war house to operate his little his tuck shop or the Malay couple who sold sheaved coconuts by the side of our house during the morning market, amah would pepper it with broken Malay slangs. Then almost at an instant, she would completely switched to a full-on Hokkien with the Chinese uncle who rented the front of our house for his tailoring business.

The streets of No. 195 saw Joanne’s growing up years – and that also include her dreams and challenges overcome. (Photo-grab from Google)

Claiming that she was a nyonya (Straits-born Chinese who are the descendants of Chinese immigrants in the olden Malay archipelago, now Malaysia and Singapore), she embraced the peranakan way of life – food preferences, language, attire of baju kebaya, sarung and kasut manik (beaded shoes) with her hair dolled up into a bun with decorated pins.

Little did I know then, those formative 18 years of my life growing up with amah would eventually shape a big part of my identity and heritage. Often robust with spices and intertwined with a myriad of cultures, my Taosist family who also adopted Indian gods worship during annual festivities like the Thaipusam, made us such a rojak (a local fruit and vegetable salad dish, which also means “eclectic mix” in colloquial Malay) bunch! I could never quite settle for an identity.

The crammed space at No.195 with cracked walls and crackling wooden flooring was constantly buzzing with people as relatives live together. Situated along one of Penang’s major roads in town, traffic was always a little too loud and the house even shook a little when heavy vehicles passed by. But the aroma of amah’s cooking filled the kitchen (and our stomachs) daily and I always look forward to what’s cooking!

What’s cooking? This delicious rojak is very much a part of the Malaysian culture where food always takes the centerstage. (Photo from The Star Online)

By the time I started school, I had multiracial classmates and was welcomed into their homes. Because of my love for spices and eating with hands, my Malay friends’ families were intrigued by my upbringing. And yet, I was puzzled why can’t they eat at my home?

School had me learn, unlearn and relearn a lot. Sometimes, when your home isn’t as what the school taught it to be, things can be a little confusing. I didn’t understand why race, language or the colour of our skins would be barriers in defining who we are. Because where I grew up, it was multiracial with my neighbours, food and language.

Joanne as a baby in her gangstah-look; one of the few rare photos with her dad while growing up.

Education propels me to search for an identity to call my own. And like all beginnings, I started to question my Malaysian identity and what it means.

“I can’t speak, read or write Chinese (but I’m supposed to be Chinese!). Neither am I Malay (but I eat with hands!). Neither am I Indian (but my family pays respects to the Indian gods!). So how should I call myself? Should I even categorise who I am?”

“Are we so different by our race?”

Malaysian at heart and a global citizen of this world

In the later years of my life, I had the privilege to see the world a little more and worked with international friends. These made me realised that humanity in itself is one global race. We are not so different after all despite where we come from, the language we speak or the stereotypes the society puts on us.

Remembering my late amah and her way of life taught me that despite what are seemingly stark differences, we can live in harmony if we choose to adapt and adopt the cultures that surround us and welcome them as our way of life.

We are who we choose to embrace. I am Malaysian without a doubt because it’s the only home I know. But I am also a global citizen who choose to think beyond the labels of races.

So what if there is a certain perception how a Chinese should eat their rice? Well, I  choose to eat it differently. So what if people say you’re not Chinese enough because you can’t speak Mandarin? I choose to embrace that part about me because as a Malaysian, I can effortlessly string three languages into a sentence!

I hope in your own journey in discovering an identity, you will choose to embrace the cultures that uniquely shape you. Those are the stories that define you. As for me, No.195 was a little chaotic but it was the spices of my roots. And it will always be my truly rojak Malaysian chapter.

What’s a rojak? No other dish embodies the essence of being Malaysian more.

Building her goals one brick at a time, Joanne’s journey is as fascinating as her cultural heritage.

Joanne Tay is proud to hail from the little island of glorious sun and food haven of Penang, Malaysia. She was a humanitarian worker and loves a good conversation, especially with children. Joanne is venturing into the new grounds in the field of science education for her next adventure. She believes FUN is the essence to creativity!

Defining women’s beauty in Bangladesh: How my short hair defied the norm

By Arpona Ghosh

2016. Arpona defied tradition and stood up to her choice.

Towards the end of my education in Dhaka University in Bangladesh and while preparing for my first job, I tried a new comfortable look. I cut my long, bouncy and silky hair short. It was sassy and manageable.

At that time, I was also seeking for a soul mate I can tie the forever knot with. In other countries, it was just a haircut. In Bangladesh, it is not.

That was 17 years ago and it was not welcome change for my parents. In fact, they got seriously worried I might not find the best groom in town because the men in my country would usually prefer their women with long hair and fair complexion. You can roll your eyes from where you are, but in my country, these are critical priorities for many prospective bridegrooms.

With the short hairstyle, I looked odd to many of my peers and people around me who did not lose time expressing their dislike to me frankly. I was determined to keep my short hair. I want to set my own description of beauty.

1992. Her moms and aunts found the time to nourish her hair to make it look nice to people.

In Bangladesh, just like many Asian countries I should say, long hair and fair complexion are two major indicators for beautiful women. In thousands of literary works poets, novelists and artists praise women by describing their long and black hair like clouds or fair complexion like milk white.

When it is time to choosing brides especially in arranged marriages (mostly decided by parents end elders), these two things automatically come in their checklist. The bridegroom’s status, whether he is a student, a professional or unemployed, often do not matter.

This practice is gradually changing in urban areas but still many people are not ready to accept or welcome women with short hair (if I may add, dark complexion).

Just like the millions of Bangladeshi girls, I grew up amidst these socio-cultural perceptions. In my childhood, I observed, my mother and aunts have very little time even to comb their knee-long hair properly since they were busy with their children, running around for household chores and their day jobs. Many of the women in my family are schoolteachers.

2002. Defying the norm. Cutting her hair short caused a lot of alarm and arguments in her family and even at work.

However, they would all take time to nourish my hair, keep it longer and silky. All it aims is to attract people’s attention. This alongside making sure I go to a good school for quality education.

Cutting my hair, therefore, is challenging an age-old tradition. I chose comfort than what is fashionably acceptable.

When I started working with this ‘unusual’ hairdo, many of my colleagues remarked negatively, some even regarded me indecently. To them, I was trying to be younger or I am hiding my real age. Yes, I get that with my hair short.

By just looking at me, some concluded I was a very rude, unfriendly and a cruel woman. In 2004, in one formal gender training session, one of my feminist friends wrote an appreciation note for me. She said, “She is a wonderful lady but she looks like a boy due to her short hair.”

Even today, when I am in public, I can sense there is still a raging debate around me speculating if I am a boy or a transgender. When I stand up to my decision or choice, I often heard, “Oh, she is behaving like this because she is a man.”

1996. In the country, a beautiful woman is defined as someone with long hair and fair-complexion.

Despite all the odds up against me, I kept my hairstyle because I believe it suits me well and shows my personality perfectly.

My story represents the challenge many women from different cultures are faced with – if we choose what we want that goes against common socio-cultural norms, we must be ready to stand up to it. In Bangladesh, pulling tussles of hair is a common form of violence against girls and women.

During the International Women’s Day celebration this year, one renowned local branded hair oil has advertised one woman who went to the parlor and had a short haircut to protect her from domestic violence.

However, cutting hair to prevent a form of violence might create hundreds of different forms of violence by the husbands, in-laws or other perpetrators. It is not a solution to the problem. This sort of advertisement also teaches women to adjust and to remain silent against violence committed often. This is also a provocation for continuing the culture of silence and accepting violence as normal.

Women need to be bold from our innermost hearts to respect ourselves and make a choice. We need to come together to stop violence against women. At the end of the day, it is our life and we must live it according to our own choice.

Arpona has stuck to her own decision; she is a mother of two boys and continues to advocate for the rights of women in Bangladesh.

Arpona Ghosh, a communications and media relations expert of Bangladesh works in a development organization. For more than 16 years, she promotes stories of successes and challenges in the communities focusing on women and children through NGOs and donor organizations. Apart from roof top gardening and reading, her great passion is to analyze electronic and print media advertisements and other media content. A mother of two growing sons, she also loves to listen and discuss issues on children.

From the Middle East to New Zealand: Traveling mom explores new horizon

By Manel Balbin-Marzan

Manel’s adventurous spirit took her to different countries and new cultures. Not all are beds of roses but she rose up stronger and tougher.

Going out of my comfort zone, leaving behind familiar faces and places has been my life after graduating from college. My first adventure was to build my nursing career in a very conservative country in the Middle East– Saudi Arabia.

I packed away everything including my sheltered life to learn what it is out there in the big world. I conquered the new city with unusual bravery, adjusting with the culture and religion that is totally different from my own.

I dealt with homesickness every single day, my eyes welling in tears until I sleep. Without even a month of hospital experience from the Philippines, I faced the competitive world of nursing abroad. I did not know how to operate the modern hospital beds and machines; did not know how to handle non-English speaking patients and worst, how to handle people with seniority complex.

I was a newbie finding out that the world out there is not at all that lovely. Some people can be cruel. Living through the newness, I managed to get by. I learned the country’s language, worked hard to be a better staff nurse, discovered new friends and lived life as happily as possible.

However, I cannot put aside my sense of adventure. I dreamt of going out of that country, work and explore another. With that in mind, I left my job and moved to Qatar working with Hamad Medical Corporation. I met Borgy, the love of my life, married him twice in a civil and church wedding, got pregnant with my son Red.

She found Borgy in Qatar and they got married twice in civil and church weddings.

Marriage and motherhood is not a walk in the park especially when you need to balance it with work on shifts and studies. At 30, I realized that my life was different: it was faster, harder yet fuller. I was living my dreams of having a family and my dream career was on track.

With my spirit firm, I knew that there are still dreams to pursue, places to see and people to meet. I looked back at the dreams I have listed when I was 23 and realized that my dreams are still alive.

Just when I thought I have settled in Qatar for good, my family and I decided to jump into a void. I took the risk to leave it all. With tears, we left our careers, our comfortable life and our friends who are already family.

Just when she though she has settled well in Qatar, Manel packed up for another adventure.

Almost a year later, I found myself in New Zealand, braving another chapter of my life pursuing further studies at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology taking Post Graduate in Management (Health).

My dream, in parallel with my husband is to move into a country where our child can grow up with quality education and healthcare. We wanted a simple, laidback life unstained by politics and discrimination.

I do not know yet what is in store. I do not know yet the human strategies to succeed through this new phase. I only know one thing—that I was a girl with big dreams, now a woman with great faith. I will never stop dreaming and believing.

My tips moving to a new workplace and environment:

Read a lot about the place. I always read about my country of destination. Adjustment is easier if you know what to expect. Travel guide books are worth the investment and I make sure I read the essentials about mode of transportation, fares and passes, rules of the road, emergency contact numbers, accommodations, communication, customs and duties, health insurance and safety.  I download maps and train/bus routes and timetable.

Be friendly. Expand your network. I believe in the saying that network is your “net worth.” I talk to anyone who gets in my 30 degrees angle. On my way to NZ, I talked to my seatmate on the plane and found out that he is going to the exact same town where I am going. He became my instant travel buddy for the entire 17 hours journey. He looked out for me and my luggage. I eventually met his wife who turns out to be my classmate and up to this day, they are my friends. You will never know if the people you talk to will be the friends who will become family.

Borgy, Manel and Red. Now she has her boys as travel buddies for life.

Stay positive. Along the way, you’ll meet people who has more experiences to share than you. Listen to them and pick out what best applies to you. At the same time, you will meet people whose life stories are depressing or sad. It will put you down or discourage you to continue your journey. Listen to them but never allow them to dishearten you. Always stay positive.

Pray. Going out of your comfort zone and your own country is not easy. Going to NZ a month before Borgy and Red, I immediately felt the loneliness especially when I am alone. Homesickness is real. But there is courage in crying.  Eventually, I realized I need to experience these moments because my little family needs a mother who is courageous. I will never know my strength and my character have I not experienced these things. And these are the times that you can experience how God works in your life and how His love never runs out.

I knew that there will still be a few more tears along the way. But with everything that I have now and with everything I was put through and managed to survive, I know that it is only by God’s grace. I am excited as I anticipate answers to all my prayers. My dreams and my heart are steady.

Traveling is meeting people, learning new things and skills. Traveling alone, Manel found refuge in people and prayers.

Manel is a Registered Nurse from the Philippines. She is a wife and a mommy. She is currently an international student in New Zealand taking up Post Graduate in Management (Health). Traveling, reading and learning a new language are her interests.