Tag Archives: generous

The Malay Experience

In 2008, after a short 4th year of medical school, I caught a flight to Kuala Lumpur. My first trip to Asia. Solo. I cannot remember how I came to choose Malaysia. I think I wanted to go to Asia, wanted an English speaking setting and importantly somewhere warm. Sri Lanka was another option but I didn’t know anyone there so Malaysia was the choice I made.

My mama as a human rights activist worked with an organisation with close links to Malaysia so she had been to visit many times and had made some good friends there. When I asked her for help, she was on it. She contacted her friends and asked whether any of them had medical connections in Malaysia. Fortuitously, one of her friend knew the health minister in Kelantan State. The only question was did I want to go to Kelantan, being the most conservative of states, quite ‘Muslim’ in its ways? Well, being a very modern Muslim I could see why some would question my willingness to be in a community that was rather more conservative than I chose to live my life. But I wanted an experience so I had no hesitation in saying yes.  Then I had to find somewhere to live for the month. Another one of my mama’s friends had a GP husband who was resident in Kota Bharu, the capital city of Kelantan state where the hospital was located. His home was too far to walk to and from the hospital so he organised for me to stay with his sister.

A few days before I was to fly out, he emailed to say that unfortunately his sister had a family emergency so she wouldn’t be in Kota Bharu (KB) for my arrival and he didn’t know when she would be back. Before I could panic, he went on to say I was welcome to stay at his and I would have to catch rides with his grandchildren to and from the hospital. So back to the beginning, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on a warm afternoon. As I got off the plane after my 12-hour trip, I felt a queer tingle in my feet. I looked down and lo and behold my feet was swollen and my toes resembled little chipolatas. Remember I was only 22 years old so this was rather foreign. I wriggled my little sausage toes and poked both feet. Clearly, I should have mobilised more on the long flight. Noted. I made my way through baggage retrieval, immigration and customs and got to my hotel without incident. One of my sister’s uni friends generously came to find me later and took me out for dinner. The next day, after he kindly took me to get a phone and camera, we went to the Twin towers. What a sight! My jetlag was cured and I was suddenly filled with excitement. My first adult adventure in foreign country! The next day, my mama’s friend who had been instrumental in organising the whole trip took me to the famous Batu caves where we took in the impressive sights and also had one of the best Indian meals I have ever had.

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I think the sister in KB being away was a huge blessing in disguise. My new digs were rather luxurious compared to what I had been expecting. Dr R and his children were excellent hosts and made me feel at home. Bibi, their Indonesian housekeeper, was a godsend. She couldn’t speak a word of English and I couldn’t speak a word of Malay or Indonesian (a variant of Malay). It didn’t matter! She was a lovely lovely woman. She was short (average for the population) and portly for want of a better word. A little like Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast – very motherly figure. She always had a smile on her face and fed us beautifully. When I came home, there was always a jug of iced tea waiting to cool me down. It was very hot in the afternoons and the icy drink was like manna from heaven. I would change into my cotton Malay dress and throw myself down on the sofa in the upstairs living room which I made my own and down the cold fluid. That was all the activity I could manage until the sun went down and brought with it some refreshing breeze.42

The only cloud on the sunny Malay sky, apart from the relentless over 30-degree heat, were the mosquitoes. I was told soon after landing in KB that we were in the middle of a Dengue outbreak, spread by pesky mozzies. Now I am one of those who will get bitten wherever I go, regardless of covering or insect repellent. I like to say I have juicy blood. So what were my chances of contracting Dengue. Well, reassuringly (not!) I was informed the virus was only carried by the mosquito with the striped-back. I laughed about this – pray how was I supposed to tell whether a mosquito had stripes on its back? And if I had such keen senses, surely, I could just squash the little terrors before they bit me (whether they were the evil striped ones or not). Also I was helpfully informed that I was more at risk of catching Dengue Haemorrhagic fever in my first episode of the illness (I have since learnt that you are more likely to catch the severe strain on a second episode). Fabulous, I was at risk of catching a deadly disease (risk of death from the haemorrhagic disease was significant, 2-3 per 100). I got a few bites despite precautions but avoided Dengue fever thankfully.

The medical experience was quite opening. Based on the old British system, it was still quite paternalistic and the doctors knew best in most cases. A big population of KB was poorly-educated farmers and fishermen so many of the patients had no interest in being given hard choices. They wanted the doctors to diagnose them and tell them what was to be done. The nurses and healthcare assistants were also very much directed by the doctors and there was a noticeable hierarchy. The respect for doctors was palpable and that extended to us the medical students. To be fair, the doctors I came into contact with were respectful in return.

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I was with a group of female medical students, most of whom were indigenous Kelantanese girls coming home from KL for their elective. They were lovely girls. Very welcoming. They were my unofficial translators with the patients and did the job without minding how much of a drag it was.  They were all quite petite. I think the tallest was 2-3 inches shorter than I was. At 5 foot 6, I never thought of myself as tall but there I was being referred to as the tall foreigner. It felt rather nice. The girls all wore the hijab (hair covering with their traditional Malay dress) and were all shocked to learn that I was  Muslim as I wore the lightest formal clothes I could find and no head covering. However, they didn’t judge me. If anything, they seemed to be impressed by my independence. One of them, Nurul became quite close to me and I got to visit a more traditional Malay family and eat with them. Again, her family was so welcoming and humble that I wanted to adopt them all. Nurul had a small car which she generously used to take me and the girls to the markets, museums, cultural centre and even the seaside. Their culture was beautiful as was their food, music and natural environment.

Back in Dr R’s home, I made friends with the loveliest little girl called Ayin. His granddaughter, the youngest of his 3 grandchildren who I shared the school runs with. She was a tiny little thing. I think she was 4 or 5 years old and either she didn’t understand that I understood not a word of Malay or she didn’t care. She would come to my room after work and tell me all about her day (in Malay). She would share jokes and laugh. She would admire my little knick-knacks and tell me how much she loved my things. I would laugh with her, reply in English and invite her to look closer at my things and show her what new things did. She particularly loved my Malay silver butterfly earrings which I got there in KB and I would let her borrow them. One afternoon, me and my little friend were hanging out and chatting when Dr R came home early from his GP practice. As he walked past my room, he heard us conversing and was amazed. At dinner, he asked what it was we were talking about. It amused him to hear that I had no idea what Ayin was talking about but that we had these conversations. I was her ‘aunty’ and she was my little niece. Didn’t matter one bit that we spoke completely different languages but we were great friends which was all that mattered.

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The month in Malaysia flew by and although I was off on holiday to Thailand for 10 days, I was quite sad to leave my new family. I had an absolutely amazing elective in KB, met the most wonderful people and experienced healthcare with different levels of expectations and resources. I haven’t been back since then but I definitely want to take my husband and baby there so they can experience the great country that is Malaysia.

Corazon Por Corazon

I speak very little Spanish but being a salsa fan, I have heard enough Spanish lyrics to know the Corazon means heart and the Spanish-speaking world is always ‘Corazon this’ and ‘Corazon that’. The title is a nod to the video I just watched on Facebook which has inspired this piece. It was posted by Andre Gayle who has stuck English subtitles on a Spanish video entitled Corazon por Corazon (heart by heart…changing the world). Basically, the video is about the loss of our humanity, the very essence that is supposed to make us superior to other animals and plants. It highlights what cruelty and sadness there is in the world and how a lot of us are desensitised to the sight of another human in need. So much so that when we witness suffering, many a times our response now is to take out our smartphones and take a video instead of offering our help.

It made me cry, especially the scenes of animals and children being abused. It made me ask ‘why’ again. I am the half full glass type of a girl but occasionally, I become despondent when I watch the news and it is full of pictures of little children being bombed by Israel or another old pensioner being abused by a carer. It makes me question what I am doing spending so much of my time doing NHS/eportfolio paperwork when there is suffering out there and I have the medical training to perhaps make a difference to so many, in Nigeria for example. It makes me question whether having children is a good idea because what legacy are we leaving behind for them to inherit?

The environment is a huge worry for me. I drive a Nissan Leaf in an attempt to be greener and I recycle and try to minimise waste. I know my efforts mean something but are probably insignificant in the grand scheme of things but at least having made the effort, I go to bed with a clearer conscience. For every person who drives a ‘green’ car or cycles or walks, there’ll be 10 people who drive cars with ridiculous amount of emissions, who waste more than half the food they buy and who never do any recycling. As the ozone layer thickens and the greenhouse effect is compounded, global warming intensifies. Formerly temperate climates develop extremes of weather. Flooding, draughts, tsunamis, tornadoes, forest fires and earthquakes occur with greater frequency than ever before. Large populations of the world who are dependent entirely on subsistent farming are living in famine conditions year after year. Ironically, in Europe and the US more and more of the population are buying excess food and every week are binning it as they buy too much and let it all go to waste. Too much of land is taken up by refuse which no one knows how to get rid of properly. Mountains of waste piling up as we become more and more wasteful. Turns out that even our recycling is not all recycled. Because our Governments have not invested enough into recycling plants so only a fraction of the potential recyclables are being  recycled.

Kindness is becoming short in supply too. As the video highlights, it is now commonplace to watch a person being beaten, robbed or even stabbed and no one wants to step in because it is all about protecting the self. Every year, there is someone on the regional news who has been stabbed or mugged in a bus or at a bus stop or somewhere similarly public where everyone has just stood by and watched. Yet some of these people have the audacity to whip out their phones and video the event and then post it on YouTube. I always wonder how these onlookers would feel if the victim was not a stranger but their mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son or best friend?

As for the violent offenders, many of them are children who are old enough to know between right or wrong but even at that early age, they seem hardened and lacking in the most basic of human kindness. I know this lack of kindness and empathy is multifactorial but I am convinced one of the main reasons is poor parenting that comes with the modern time. As a paediatrician, I am in a privileged position to be able to closely observe the intimate relationship between parents and their children. There are many things we see that cause us to raise our eyebrows and a few that send us running to Social Services. But what I find most disappointing is when a young child aged 3 or 4 does or says something cruel and the parents, instead of taking the opportunity to point out what is right or wrong and explain why, turn their faces away and throw away the chance to shape their child into a decent person. A couple of weeks ago, I was on-call and went to see a 10 year old boy who was in pain with my registrar (senior to me) and an ST1 (junior to me). The registrar examined him and decided we needed to investigate by taking a blood sample. The boy’s reaction was to shout ‘You are not f*****g touching me. I will bash your f******g head if you come near me’. What did his father do? He bowed his head and my registrar shot the top of the dad’s head a look. As more swearing came forth, I stepped closer to the boy and said firmly ‘I’m sorry you are scared of having a needle but you are not allowed to speak to us like that. We are here to help you.’ That stopped him in his tracks and he resorted to sobbing. His red-faced dad followed us out of the cubicle to apologise and all I could think was ‘don’t apologise to us, teach him to have a bit more respect.’

Speaking about respect, I think that has run off with the kindness. As doctors, we are at the receiving end of a lot of disrespect but we put up with it because we understand when people come in contact with us, it tends to be the most stressful, frustrating, unhappiest time in their life. I think a little respect goes a long way. It is in the small things like saying sorry when you barge into somebody, holding open a heavy door for the person a few paces behind, picking up an item someone (especially frail, old or pregnant) has dropped right in front of you or even smiling at a stranger who makes eye contact. It is about saying please and thank you to anyone helping you out even if it is their job to do it. It is about acknowledging your work colleague who does a little extra work so you don’t have to do it or staying longer at work to finish a task so they don’t have to hand it over to you. It is about realising your loved one is sad and giving them a hug. It is about saying the occasional thank you to your spouse for all the little considerations they give you daily that make your life better without you even realising they’re doing it.

I will say that I am lucky to be surrounded by lovely people who I am proud to call my family and friends. I know I did not get to choose my family but I certainly chose the family I keep close and the friends I surround myself with. These people are generous. They are donating to charity and taking part in fundraising for charities. They are courteous to strangers and helpful where they can be. They smile easily and are generous with their hugs, kind words and cups of tea. They recycle. They reclaim furniture. They treat their pets with love and tenderness. They are there when you get bad news. They hold your hand and sit beside you when there are no words that can ease the pain and hurt. They pray for you to succeed and celebrate whole-heartedly when you do succeed. They turn up when you need them the most. They laugh with you and not generally at you (but sometimes they laugh at you too if they know you can take it). They care about their neighbours and it is not always about them. They are diamonds…beautiful bling with surprising strength. They inspire me every day to be a better person and whenever I reflect on the people in my life, I feel blessed.