Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Office Birthday Bash

The suspense was over this afternoon. And I’m referring to my birthday treat that my colleagues were supposed to have planned for me as intimated in a previous blog piece.

But it arrived in the form of a full-fledged lunch, complete with sandwiches, cookies, salad, desserts, and to crown it all, a carrot birthday cake, my favorite kind of cake. Lest you think my colleagues would actually go to this length to celebrate my birthday, let me set the record straight: there were nine birthday cards on the table, and only one had my name written over it.

That’s the result of grouping individual birthdays every 2 months or so, which I happen to think is a more efficient use of office/lunch time.

Oh, the food galore is in appreciation of each and everyone in the office for his/her efforts in meeting the clients’ needs. After all, it’s the humanware, the peopleware, that makes the world turn, so to speak, as exemplified by my firm’s mantra:
Creative People, Practical Solutions.

The highlight of the birthday bash, aside from the great food, was the birthday card, for the birthday boys and girls of course.

Mine spots a fleet of air balloons with gondolas soaring through the air. It can mean freely roaming and exploring, and looking at the bigger picture from a vantage position. It can also mean the sky is the limit, elevating one’s potential the best way one can. More important perhaps, this is not done alone as others are realizing their potentials in the same unbridled way, mutually supporting each other and at the same time, engaging each other in a healthy competition so as to aspire to greater heights.

Comparatively, my birthday card is more “serious” in tone, possibly because of my status of being “chronologically challenged”, to use a politically correct term. I know that because I have signed the cards for my younger fellow colleagues and some are decidedly hilarious, bordering even on the outrageous. But all are received in good fun.

More telling are the words of wisdom/good-natured criticisms dispensed as contained on the inside of the card. In a way, it is a collective view of one’s colleagues as regards the person concerned, one which they feel comfortable putting down in writing and which they reckon will not backfire.

Again, those words seem more restrained on my card, some are curtly inscribed, not unlike some that I’ve written myself. But I’ve to grant that it’s colorful, no inhibition as to the choice of color to write with.

And they are right on with the message:

If all of the wishes on all of the birthdays [53 and counting] you’ve had so far came true – They couldn’t bring more happiness than those we wish for you!

Thanks guys. You sure make my day with your camaraderie.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Releasing Life and Passion for Chinese Martial Arts

After a brief hiatus as we had to attend to several matters over the weekends, we are back to the activity of releasing life, one that is meant to instill compassion in us, again. So last Saturday, at the behest of our able and indefatigable organizer, Sister Yu Huei, we met again at MacDonald’s along Dale Mabry Highway, our usual place of rendezvous.

This time, though, we had some new faces. Two of them are a couple who has recently moved from Utah to the Sunshine State, Steve and Claudia. Then Yu Huei brought along her former boss, Mary, and Jim, who is the son of Mary.

The queue at our usual bait shop was unusually long, so we decided to move on to a neighboring one. And bought three pails of juvenile prawns there. The destination was the east end of Gandy Bridge, a couple of hundred meters from the bait shop.

It was low tide, a beautiful morning, a quiet place by the water’ s edge, the serenity broken only by the occasional swishing action of sea gulls, which alternately strutted on the shallow shoals not far offshore, or glided gracefully in air.

As usual, the activity started with the chanting of the Great Compassion Mantra and Heart Sutra, with Steve, Mary, and Jim standing in attention, evincing piousness in heart. That was followed by pouring of water over the juvenile prawns who were about to be in communion with Nature.

Because of the shallow depth near the water’s edge, Claudia, Jim and my wife trudged further into the bay to effect the life release. However, just when we said the last prayer and were about to leave, the circling sea gulls made a beeline for the release spot. And Yu Huei had to practically jump into the water to fend off their feeding frenzy. Such is the cycle of food chain in Nature and we could only do the best we could.

At the conclusion of the activity, we drove across Gandy Bridge to enjoy the coffee and bagels at Einstein Bros Bagels. [This image of rodeo but on a bagel is shot in a room in the establishment.] It was there that Jim shared his passion for Shaolin martial arts and film directing with us. He has graduated from UCF, Orlando two years ago and is into his directing debut.

On his foray into the realm of traditional Chinese martial arts, he told us that he started in the Wah Lum Kung Fu of USA headquartered in Orlando and has also learned Lion dance, a two-men team under the cloak of a beautifully embellished replica of a lion's head and its posterior extension that mimics the movement and steps of a stalking lion to an accompanying drumbeat.

While I’m ethnic Chinese, I have not found the time nor inclination to really immerse myself in learning this aspect of Chinese culture. But my fascination with the Chinese martial arts did translate into my liking for Chinese martial arts novels and movies. This movie genre has been made popular by such martial arts exponents as the late Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. The proliferation of kung fu schools in Europe and US attests to the popularity of this mode of self-defense arts, which invariably involves training of the mind as well.

However, all is not lost as my eldest son back in Malaysia has taken up Shaolin Kung Fu and Qi Kung from the world renowned Sifu Wong Kiew Kit’s Shaolin Wahnam Institute based in Sg. Petani, Kedah, Malaysia. The picture below shows the international group training session he participated last October in Kedah, Malaysia where he is at the front center with Sifu directly behind him. Good job, son.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Birthday Rambling

Today, Feb 26, is my birthday. Early in the morning my wife said happy birthday to me. And last night my brother-in-law called to wish me the same as it was already Feb 26 in Malaysia, being 13 hrs ahead of us.

I did not get to see my D this morning as she had sleep-in today and was not required in school until 11.00am. So she got a ride from her friend, Christiana who lives in the same apartment complex. But the first thing she said to me when I picked her up after school was “Happy Birthday, Dad”.

Then my D from Oregon was on the phone with her Mom just now when I came home from work. And she wished me happy birthday too. While in the middle of blogging, my S from Malaysia called and wished me the same.It does feel good to be remembered.

How old am I now? I was reminded of that when I exited the apartment gate this morning. There across the road, stands the Fifth Third Bank. Need I say more? Actually my wife is one up on me, she has a bank that is named after her birth year, the Fifth Third Bank.

Rarely does a bank name itself after a set of numerals. So I decided to look up the story behind the Fifth-Third Bank and this is what its website says:

Fifth Third traces its origins to the Bank of the Ohio Valley, which opened its doors in Cincinnati in 1858. In 1871, that bank was purchased by the Third National Bank. With the turn of the century came the union of the Third National Bank and the Fifth National Bank, and eventually the organization became known as "Fifth Third Bank.

Upon closer examination, I note that the name is actually separated by a slash in the form of a fraction of 5 over 3, which algebraically is greater than 1. I guess that would seem more appropriate than if it were to call itself third fifth, following the chronological order of merger, as that would connote less than whole or unity.

Actually, I have not celebrated my own birthday for some time now. It comes a point in one’s life where the celebration of maturity gives way to being reminded of one’s advancing years. Then again, birthdays are meant to be celebrated by your loved ones and friends for having outlasted the vicissitude of life for another year.

And my office does have a tradition of hosting a small office birthday party for employees on a monthly basis. You get a birthday card with a theme befitting your personality/behavior wherein all your colleagues would scribble their thoughts about you and your coming year, and a cake that you get to cut and share with them. But it did not happen today, may be they just want to put me in suspense …

And last week I got a birthday letter from Stadium Toyota, the people who sold me my Toyota Sienna, three years ago, and who carry out the car service periodically. While some may view this as a sales gimmick, I think that is starting to become an integral part of customer relation. Repeat business is important, and any personal touch is going to mean something in the long run. Thanks guys.

Well, I guess I get to indulge myself in some rambling on my birthday. Come to think of it, everyday that I blog is a self-indulgent act because we bloggers are, to varying degrees, self-indulgent diarists, as Debbie Weil so aptly puts it in her book, The Corporate Blogging Book (2006).

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Seeking Malaysian and Asian Food Out West

Our Portland trip has also taken us to several area restaurants, one of which, the Salty’s, has already been featured here. In what follows I will delve more into our forays into the realm of bon appetite!, but the Asian variety, simply because these are harder to come by and my wife really needs to reacquaint her taste buds with the wide range of taste sensations that only Malaysian foods can offer, to put it mildly.

We did partake of other western foods offered by Stanford’s Restaurant and Romano’s Macaroni Grille, both located downtown and they are both as good as can be as far as western/continental cuisine goes.

On the night we landed at Portland, our D and Dan brought us to a Malaysian restaurant that has just opened for business several months back. It’s the Malay Satay Hut [at the time of this writing, this link is broken; but hopefully it will be back up when you see this. Otherwise, try again later] operated by a Malaysian from Ipoh. This is its only outlet in Portland, but the third after Seattle and Redmond.

Upon entering, patrons first walk through a wooden portal in the establishment and are then greeted by a bamboo hut built against the wall on the right that houses the drink and cashier section. The other walls are adorned with large wall murals featuring an outdoor market in Kelantan on the back wall and the Petronas twin tower and its immediate environs on the front wall. Smaller frames claim their spots on the walls on the remaining side but they are too far for me to make out.

The menu displays all the standard fare one would expect in a restaurant back in Malaysia, replete with yummy dishes that we have grown up with: roti canai (once this was my staple as far as the breakfast meal was concerned when I was in Form 4 in Keluang, Johor, about 24 miles from my hometown and where I was renting a room. It is an Indian circular thin bread made from flour and oil with some dough spinning action during its production, much like that associated with the making of pizza, I later learned. It is usually crumbled by hand before being served, and eaten with curry gravy (in bowl), shown below here on right); assam laksa (rice noodles served in sour fish soup flavored with tamarind), Hainan chicken rice (one of my favorite lunch meals); Penang Char Kueh Teow (fried flat noodles with soy sauce, chilli, shrimp, cockles, bean sprouts and Chinese chives, which used to be my favorite supper dish until over-ruled by health reasons); and Singapore Chilli Crab (my wife's special order, shown below on left).

We dug in, and devoured the tasty treats the best we could, but could not hold our ground as we kind of over-ordered in our zeal, the last time we saw so much Malaysian food being back in 2005 (or was it 2004?) in the Penang Restaurant at Atlanta. But there was an easy solution, we packed and left the savoring for another day.

Incidentally, we found that the two proprietors, the one here and the one in Atlanta referenced above, have actually worked together in the same restaurant business before they each went their separate way. Both are entrepreneurs, in the restaurant business, who have made good in US as we are all endowed with so many taste buds that crave for the same good food regardless of its ethnic origin. You make good food, people will come. It’s as simple as that.

On our return leg, the flight transited at the Midway Airport, Chicago. It was around noon when we exited the jetway and entered the huge concourse area (A, B and C). As we sauntered along the corridor, sometimes taking the conveyor belt, our eyes were sweeping for eateries, preferably one serving Asian food. And we were not disappointed as we found Kim Wah, an outlet of prepared food items running the gamut from vegetables, tofu, egg foo yong, to chicken and shrimp, all cooked in the unmistakably Asian style, mixed according to the patron’s choices and served in a plastic container and eaten with plastic cutlery. The one hand-picked by my wife for my consumption is shown below, lavishly topped with tofu, my favorite dish.

Our transit at Midway was for about two hours, long enough to walk along the whole length of the three contiguous concourses. And we came upon several display features that may well worth a separate blog. But we will see.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Splendor of Portland and its (Distant) Environs

The only other time we visited Portland was way back in 2003, when we chaperoned our D to University of Oregon, Eugene. It was early fall, and we were fortunate to see Portland at its best. Well, according to the second-hand accounts from my brother-in-law anyway. Then we visited most of the popular nature sites within a couple of hours’ drive from Portland.

In the mountain category, there are Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens, its truncated cone-like remain from the famous eruption of May 18, 1980 is a sight to behold, a consequence of the earth bursting at its seam when its interior rumbled to a boil. The barren hillside where lush forest once stood bears testimony to the unforgiving fury of nature. Read more about the ensuing Volcanic Monument erected in remembrance of the epic geo event here where this picture, which happened to be taken in the same year as our visit, was taken, including a spectacular shot of the mountain spewing out gigantic plumes of volcanic ash in its throes.

Then there is the Bonneville Dam and Lock straddling the Columbia River. Since 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been operating and maintaining the Bonneville Lock and Dam for hydropower production, fish and wildlife protection, recreation and navigation. It is the only engineering accomplishment that we visited then where we looked in amazement at the giant turbines that convert the energy latent in the swift flowing water over the drop into usable electricity, a process known as hydro-generation that emits nothing to the atmosphere, in addition to being a veritable renewable source of energy, unlike the coal- and oil-fired power generating plants that contribute to greenhouse-induced global warming. Read more about it here including a fish cam.

Moving toward the Pacific, we also visited the Columbia River mouth jetties (as part of the technical tour during the Coastal Structures 2003 conference that I attended but my wife followed the tour as well as part of the spouse program), the town of Seaside, and drove along the Pacific Coastal Highway, taking in all the coastal panorama/vista that the Oregonian coast has to offer, including making a stop at the coastal town of Tillamook and its famed Ice Cream factory.

What we missed was the Portland downtown area, save a cursory survey on a cable car ride. For some reason which escapes me now, I also passed up the chance to visit the Chinese Garden in which the conference dinner was held. But not this time.

So fast forward three and a half years to Feb 17, 2007. The scene was the downtown waterfront area on the bank of the Williamette River. It was one of the rare days during this time of the year when the Sun decided to call the shots.

The river side promenade was awash with people doing their own thing. There was even a man doing his bicycle tricks, but hardly drawing any notice from the revelers that were just there to relax.

Occasionally, a boat would sail by, its stern-roller fixture seemingly from another bygone era. Incidentally, the white-capped mountain in the background is Mt. Hood, the highest peak in Oregon.

Williamette River is famous for its many bridges that seem to criss-cross haphazardly. Here is one of them, the Hawthorne Bridge, a steel bridge finished in 1910, is “Portland's oldest surviving highway bridge, a lift bridge, and is one of the oldest surviving lift bridges in the world” according to this website of Portland bridges.

Now, the highlight of the self-guided downtown tour is the Chinese Garden snuggled in the heart of China Town. The front portal, which separates a small open square from the road, boasts of a pair of the mystical Chinese animals. The portal itself is lined with Chinese calligraphy, both front and back.

Beyond the small square and seemingly guarding the wall of the garden, is a perforated stonescape that towers over the visitors, providing a kind of prop to the tree that bears the plum blossom, a species of flower that is known to sprout with a flourish in winter and arguably one of the two acclaimed national flowers of China (the other being the peony).

The garden is replete with verandahs, crossings, and old-style rooms reminiscent of historic Chinese architecture (I was stumped by a question from my D as to the significance, whether out of utility, feng shui, or asthetics, of the outward and upward bending of the roof edges. Help, anyone?) and d├ęcor, with all manners of plants lining the pebble-embedded walkway (sort of like the reflexology stone paths back home), and bonsai and other ornamental potted plants tastefully dotting the interior areas.

Not to be missed is more Chinese calligraphy inscribed on the interior pillars and overhead lintels, the words evoking a sublimate state of mind: serene and carefree, at least momentarily before reality hits.

There is a tea house for tea connoisseurs to savor the tranquility of tea drinking culture. But our party was too numerous to be accommodated at a single table and we were reluctant to be seated apart. So that will have to be partaken in a different time. We also missed the lion dance display slotted for noon, but I think only Dan has yet to see one in action. We will make sure that his trip to Malaysia, which is as yet unscheduled, will overlap with the CNY period so that he could be awed by the prowess of Malaysian lion and dragon dance troupes, which I recall have earned world acclaim.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The House of Flying Spoons

You may have heard of the Chinese movie, The House of Flying Daggers, starring Andy Lau, Ziyi Zhang and Takeshi Kaneshiro, a romantic kungfu flick that debuted in 2004, directed by the talented Yimou Zhang. Those who know Chinese would have known that the English title as used has nothing to do with the Chinese title at all, which literally means multi-directional (ten to be exact) ambush.

Anyway, I did enjoy the movie, even though I would not rank it as high as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, another in the same genre but was considered as the epitome of love, honor, and sacrifice, the chinese kungfu way when it first hit the celluloid screen in 2000 directed by the now famous Ang Lee of the Broke Back Mountain fame. Not to mention the mature portrayal by Michelle Yeoh, a fellow Malaysian.

But that is not the theme of my blog, though it does lead nicely to the game that we came to know, thanks to our newly acquainted in-laws.

The game is simply called, spoons. I will come to the flying part later. It’s a card game that can be played by a number of people. The dealer first deals out four cards in succession so that each player will have 4 cards. The objective of the game is for the first player to achieve a hand with some pre-determined combinations such as four of a kind.

To start the game, the dealer first takes a card from the remaining deck and decides whether to keep it or throw it. To keep it, he has to throw away one from his existing hand. The player next to the dealer, going clockwise, then picks up that card and go through the same decision making process, and so on to the next player.

Now comes the flying part, though it’s not mandatory, but in the ensuing pandemonium it’s usually the unintended consequence. In the center of the table, a number of spoons (preferably plastic if not then metal, but chinaware could prove bloody) are placed in a circle, and the number is always one less than the number of players. I’m sure the game of musical chairs comes readily to mind [I'm not quite sure what Natalie was doing with an empty hand with Mike on her left looking on intently, perhaps ready to pounce on the heap of spoons.]

The player who has the desired outcome in his/her hand first, will initiate the spoon grabbing. But he/she can do this in a number of ways: stealthily, nonchalantly such that it will go unnoticed by players engrossed in keeping the score in their hands. Or he/she can do it with a bang, letting fly the spoons while keeping his/hers. Realizing what has transpired, the other players would start going after the spoons that are still on the table or in the air. The one without a spoon (there will always be one) then claims a letter, in the correct order, from the word spoon, claiming the dubious moniker, an ass (s), in the process.

The player who first “completes” the word, spoon, then leaves the game. I did not play, but my wife and D did. But that afforded me the opportunity to witness the different personalities at work. Those who have played the game understandably make prompt decisions, leaving the passed cards to pile up at his/her neighbor while others will be prodding the poor guy to hurry up. [Here you can see my wife already had one spoon safely in hand while Natalie seemed to have acted a tad too slow.]

Then there are those who have been brought up not to grab things, lest a cane of sort would land on the knuckle. Like those whose reaction times are suspect, they will usually end up spoonless, unless their hands are lucky whence they will be the initiators of spoon fest.

It seems to me that perhaps a practical strategy would be just passing any card that comes along but focusing on any untoward/furtive hand movement from anybody reaching for the spoon so that one could follow suit. But nobody seemed to be enamored of my insightful tip. Perhaps they find it less challenging to recognize pattern in cards rather than hand motion, which can prove faster than the eye.

Then there are occasions when two hands, from two different players, grab the same spoon, one on each end. On both occasions, the younger one was seen deferring to the elder one. The two who exhibited such acts of reverence were our D and Natalie, a bubbly girl whose boy friend is Bryce, Dan’s best man, both of which are easy to spot from the picture. And on both occasions, the beneficiary was none other than my wife. Such was one of the many advantages that age confers.

After having had a good time shuffling cards and jostling for spoons, all in good fun and definitely fabulous as an ice breaker, some of us adjourned to the Portland downtown waterfront, partaking of the rare sunny atmosphere in all its splendor. But that will be the subject of another blog. So stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

From Union to Reunion

Last Thursday, we practically flew diagonally across the entire continental width of US, from the Atlantic Southeast to the Pacific Northwest. When we told the taxi driver that we were heading for Oregon, he commented that we were going to a colder place. But I demurred, saying that it was going to be warmer, knowing fully well that Tampa was about to be hit by a cold front over the weekend that would plunge the area temperature into the mid-30s.

And I was vindicated. Except for the following day when the sky was overcast, a typical weather this time of the year for Portland, Oregon, the sun broke through for the next two days, banishing the winter gloom to oblivion.

That certainly heralded well for my D’s most momentous day in her 23 years of youthful life thus-far, her wedding, the reason why we were there. It was especially opportune that the day, Feb 17, was also the eve of Chinese New Year (CNY).

For Chinese, the CNY’s eve is the occasion for reunion when family members return from far flung corners of the world because of work, to the place where it all began, the place that everyone calls home. Siblings embrace and engage in animated conversations on happenings in the past year. Children pay homage to their parents, seeking forgiveness for being away. Friends rekindle flames of friendship that have perhaps been doused somewhat due to the distance, promising to keep in touch.

It was a simple but dignified occasion, attended by relatives and close friends, and presided by a judge vested by the State to solemnize marriage. It was held in the home of the groom’s parents, the morning sun filtering through the white satin drapes of the glass window, lending a haloed glow to the newly wed (like so).

After eliciting the mandatory “I do” and witnessing the exchange of wedding rings, the judge bid a retreat to attend to the conjugal needs of other husband-and-wife to be that he had lined up for the balance of his day, and so I was told by the friendly judge whose name escapes me now.

“We are family now,” Mary said to me, wearing a contented smile after witnessing his son’s transformation into a man of responsibility. Mary is Dan’s mother, and Dan is of course my son-in-law. And here's a portrait of the two proud mothers, having labored over the years to nurture two toddlers-turned-kids-turned-teens-turned adolescents to two young adults who are at the threshold of starting a family of their own.

Dan is really a fine young man, patient and loving, both traits that did not go unnoticed in our brief and yet close interactions (read here and here). He seems even-keeled, unruffled, and spots an engaging smile that could possibly weather all storms. We are happy that our D has found the harbor of her life where she could regroup, and together face life’s many challenges in seeking and living their dreams.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine's Day and the Nights of Sevens

Rose and chocolate. That’s a powerful combination on Valentine’s Day, which is today. However, a rose bought on Valentine’s Day is always easily double one bought on any other day in cost, a classic case of market forces of supply and demand at work. So we bought a combination of carnation, orchid and some other which we do not recognize instead. First thing in the morning at Sweetbay on the way back from sending our D to her school.

And last night, we had to do a last-minute stop at CVS for her to buy packets of chocolate candies so that she could pack them in equal portions into little red/pink bags (like so) for distribution and exchange with her coterie of good friends in the school. How time has changed since we were last in school. Probably didn’t even know about Valentine’s Day then.

But I don’t think I could be stingy on the chocolate part. And I know just the place for that: a Godiva outlet within walking distance from my office in Old Hyde Park. So I made a brief stop there on my way home for lunch. There were several customers doing the same thing too: picking up the right gifts for their loved ones. This year’s box comes with an elegant design featuring water color painting of heart-shaped flowers, seemingly afloat and ascending, beaconing to couples everywhere (like so).

No candle-lit dinner. No romantic showmanship. Just a couple enjoying each other's company and whose connubial tie has withstood the passage of time, the affection sublimating with each Valentine’s Day, one that has actually crossed the millennial threshold. We are indeed blessed.

Valentine’s Day is essentially a western celebration of love. For Chinese, the counterpart occasion is on July 7 (double 7) of the lunar calendar, and is variously known as The Night of Sevens (left) or The Festival to Plead for Skills (right). Personally, I prefer the Night of Sevens as it contrasts with the Day of Valentine's Day. It is based on a love story made in heaven (pardon the pun) between a mortal cowherd and the weaver girl from heaven. I have known about this folklore even before I was first smitten. Last year, it fell on August 30 but it’s Aug 19 this year, a Sunday. So mark your calendar if you missed doing the needful to your loved one today.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Chinese New Year Greeting to All

Chinese New Year (CNY) is now barely a week away; but here in Tampa, it might as well be just another hohum day. We can only imagine the atmosphere back home: vendors hawking CNY wares/food items, fireworks, and loudspeakers blaring Chinese/Cantonese songs, all featuring Gong Xi Fa Cai, or variants thereof, in some parts of the lyrics.

In fact, the theme of Valentine’s Day, which falls three days ahead of the CNY, is much more prominent here. Such is the reality of life, especially where one is a minority. Not only is any display of the festive mood restricted to establishments operated by ethnic Chinese, be they restaurants or grocery stores, but CNY is not recognized as a public holiday.

It’s during these moments of festivity that we reminisce of the “good” times back home marked by two consecutive public holidays: the prior preparation involving nightly trips to the night market to pick up all things red for good luck (this image, while taken two years ago in January 2005 courtesy of our good friend, Eric Ko, is a typical scene during this time of the year), the reunion dinner on CNY’s eve, the dishing out of ang pows (red packets) to kids of all ages as long as one is unmarried, followed by a visit to the local temple to express gratitude for the good fortune in the past year and to seek blessing for the coming year, and gathering of old friends who have not seen each other for eons, exchanging tall tales and recollecting nostalgic moments. Then there are the fireworks and pyrotechnic display, the acrobatic dragon dance, and machine-gun like blast of fire crackers (at designated localities), as well as CNY celebrations telecast on TV beamed from China, Taiwan, HongKong, Singapore, and the local production, Malaysia, all vying for the viewership of the local Chinese populace.

Another good friend of my wife back home, Nancy Ung, has always made it a point to send us CNY decorative designs, knowing full well that those things are hard to come by here. And they, in the ubiquitous red as seen here, do add some semblance of the impending CNY festive aura to our home.

As is the case during the Christmas season, sending and receiving CNY cards are a “chore” not to be trifled with: careful card selection with the right message tailored to individuals. We can all use some prospitious words, at least to set the mood right while ushering in the new year. This is especially germane for those in the business of making money, to put it bluntly.

Some are Chinese zodiac sign neutral, while others are specific such as the Year of the Boar that is 2007. With the advent of the Internet Age, these printed cards are gradually being replaced by the electronic version. Nowadays, there are many websites that provide free e-greeting card service for all kinds of festive seasons. Here is a sample of some that we have received.

And from the team at Going Global and aPleasant Surprise(s), here's wishing all Chinese bloggers and readers out there a prosperous year of the Boar!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Finding Love Beyond the Shore

It used to be that marrying beyond one’s village was taboo. Blood had been shed in the name of upholding the honor of the village. Then as the world grew smaller, facilitated by improved transportation network first and then later, communication network, people of different backgrounds and cultures began to mingle and something got to give: the imaginary barriers that straightjacketed people into different molds based on ethnicity, religion, culture, and a myriad of other nebulous notions.

Love began to blossom sporadically across these barriers. In the name of love, these brave souls dared to put their faith in each other to the test, sometimes with costly/deadly consequences that we only read about.

With time, marrying across village boundaries were less frowned upon. Then across county, province, state, and eventually race, culture, religion, and nation, one by one love conquers them all.

Admittedly, time has changed. So do social norms and mores. But some aspects do so at a much slower rate. We may discard the traditional garb for the western suits, but inter-racial couples are still a rarity, back in Malaysia that is.

So far I have only one non-Chinese brother-in-law, on my wife side. And that is about to change, very soon. Actually the sign was already on the wall for quite some time; it’s the solemnization of the occasion that is a matter of days away.

Both my wife and I are open-minded parents, harbouring no prejudice against any human being. There are only good and bad human beings, and those in the latter category are merely temporarily lost souls who need guidance to be brought back to the right path according to Buddhist teaching.

When we made the move to send our children to US to study, we are under no illusion that they will restrict saying wedding vows to those in the same ethnic group, Chinese, or from Malaysia for that matter.

We have to trust them to make their own choice of the other significant half, believing that our incessant drilling of morally defensible thoughts into them, our constant dispensation of well-intentioned guidance, and most important, our own steadfast adherence to leading an ethically upright life, will equip them with the capacity and capability to see through the facades that people tend to put up, some with malice, and see them for who they are.

And if in the process some sparks fly, some paths coalesce, then so be it. The union of two souls, while started from a chanced encounter, is continuously nourished through contacts as they get to know each other better. And when the thinking meshes in more ways than one, when the little irritations born of idiosyncrasy are endured, and when the seeming chasm of cultural disparity is bridged, by a crossing that is founded on a solid understanding of each other’s goals in life and underpinned by a lifelong commitment to staying together to face life’s challenges, then we offer our blessings to them, with the proviso that they would always count on us to be there when needed, anytime.

Welcome to the family, Dan.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Tethering the Monkey and Reining in the Horse

One of the books I’m reading now is Life After Death: The Burden of Proof by Deepak Chopra, which I finally managed to lay my hand on via a local public library loan after a substantial period of being on the waiting list. That by itself certainly attests to the popularity of the book.

This is the very first book by Deepak Chopra that I actually pore through its pages, a few pages a day. To him, life and death, which to some of us signifies the end of the road, is one continuous creative project. “At the end of our lives, we “cross over” into a new phase of the same soul journey we are on right this minute,” so says on the inside flap of the book cover. But there are caveats, which are reflected in his urgent message below, so continues the inside flap:

Who you meet in the afterlife and what you experience there reflect your present beliefs, expectations, and level of awareness. In the here and now you can shape what happens after you die.

So turns the giant karmic wheel of life, and afterlife. This is accountability at the most basic and individualistic level. Good karma comes from being good as in being virtuous, and vice versa. And bad deeds are only offset by good merits, but not written off, and accrue over a single lifetime.

Yesterday I reached the preamble to Chapter 5: The Path to Hell, which tells the story of a monkey who was kept captive in a small room in a castle tower, and who grew restless by the minutes.

At first, he was distracted by the view outside. Then his thoughts started to dwell on his predicament, raising questions why he was so confined. Failing to come out with any answer, his mood grew sombre. Claustrophobia set in. Perspiring profusely, the monkey felt like in a cauldron buried deep in a dungeon, the infernal fire striking up a hellish heat and demons imparting unbearable pain.

After what seemed like an eternity, the monkey grew accustomed to the ordeal and his mind started to drift to the fact that no one was bothering him and the realization that the view out there could be enjoyable too.

Encouraged by the seeming well-being, he started to harbor more positive thoughts as the demons spirited away. In time, he was so buoyed that he found himself ascending to, where else, paradise, pampered by doting angels.

Now the monkey thinks he is in eternal bliss, the diametrical opposite of abyssal hell, until he gets bored again, and you know where the story is headed, intones Deepak Chopra.

And yes, the parable has its human parallels: “The monkey is the mind, sitting alone in the tower of the head,” the book declares. Here I think is best not to paraphrase like what I’ve done above, but rather defer to the story teller that is Deepak Chopra:

As the mind expands with pleasure and contracts with pain, it creates every possible world, constantly falling for its own creations. The monkey will believe in heaven for a while, but then boredom will set in, and being the seed of discontent, boredom will pull him out of heaven and back down to hell.

So are we then caught in a perpetual flip-flop or roller coaster ride? The ever eloquent Deepak Chopra, by way of the character of Ramana, the ascetic monk, answers with an emphatic NO:

Only if you agree to be trapped. I didn’t say the tower was locked. There is an infinite domain outside the castle walls. You can take your mind beyond walls. There is freedom outside, and having achieved it, you will never have to go to heaven or hell again.”

That reminds me of a Chinese proverb that likens the heart to a monkey, and the mind, to a horse. The former is restless, swinging from tree to tree while the latter is galloping out of control. We need to tether the monkey and put a rein on the horse. And we will be able to see everything in a whole new light.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Law of Attraction

The Law of Attraction here has nothing to do with the fact that opposites poles attract as we learn in physics in schools, nor does it relate to the more mundane aspect of opposite sexes attract.

Rather, it is in the core of a secret that I was let into unwittingly, or actually after some Internet sleuthing. I first heard about the Secret from my wife, who in turn was alerted to it by her sister back home who gave her the website with the name Rhonda Byrne. She has accessed the website but did not go any further as purportedly it requires a registration followed by logging in.

For several days after that, nothing happened. Then one fine day (it’s always fine) I finally remembered the matter and accessed the website, with the byline, A New Era for Humankind. I must say the short introductory movie clip did pique my interest, somewhat a la the Da Vinci Code.

According to my wife, my sis-in-law has seen the movie on DVD several times and seems to think that there is something worth further exploring. Using an advanced video technology, the movie can be watched on demand for a fee ($4.95).

I learned also that a book on the movie has been published, but a check on the online catalog of the Hillsborough Public Library system did not show that the book is in circulation.

Undeterred, I kept pursuing other online leads and eventually thought of wikipedia, and found the article by searching for Rhonda Byrne. And there it is, at the end of the article, the link to the free online movie at Google Video.

So I watched the Secret on our computer screen with my wife, the so-called secret unraveling by the minutes. Using a series of monologues by the teachers who have learned the Secret, embodied in the Law of Attraction, and dramatizations: a young boy wishing for a bike, a young man yearning for a sports car, both answered by following the triple steps of the creative process: asking, believing, and receiving.

The premise of the Law is simply good thoughts beget good outcome, and vice versa. Often, we focus on the opposite of what we want (more on this later). We complain about shortcomings, scarcity, and all the other bad vibes and guess what materialize, more of the blues. This kind of reminds me of one of the Ghostbusters movies where Dan Aykroyd, despite the urging from Bill Murray to banish all thoughts from his mind, could not resist thinking about the Marshmallow Man, and then there was the Marshmallow Man, all 112 ft, stomping down the street.

Try, for a change, to set your mind on abundance, on prosperity, and the proverbial Genie of the Aladdin and the Magic Lamp fame, which actually did not restrict the number of wishes according to the old tale, would gladly declare, “Your wish is my command.”

However, the operative words are “setting your mind on what you want.” You have to feel the want, and have an unwavering faith that it will materialize. You need to evince affirmation, expectations, and obedience. Yours is to verbalize what, and leave the how to the Universe, the divinity if you will.

Just when I thought this all sounds wishy washy, the hosts went on to elaborate how one could turn one’s life around:

Gratitude: focusing on what we already have, be thankful, be appreciative.

Visualizing: dwelling upon the end result, imbued with a good feeling of what’s in store.

The above, to me, boil down to articulating what we need, rather than what we want (even though the movie does refer to “want”, a choice of word that I find less appropriate). To me, need is purposeful while want is, well, superfluous.

What the movie resonates most with me is that inner joy and peace is the path to happiness, unlike the popular thinking that takes the linear path of “outer things”. “Your joy lies with you,” so says one of the hosts. “Build yourself to fullness, and let it overspill to others,” says another. “Have a healthy respect for yourself. Appreciate, and not complain about, the other person,” admonishes yet another. “Choose to live in possibility, in hopefulness.”

What is disease? It’s dis-ease, the body not at ease.

What is incurable? It’s curable from within.

The human mind is at the heart of healing and self healing is contingent about right thinking as exemplified by the placebo effect (the power of suggestion at work). Put in another way, the body is the product of our thought. However, do not negate medicine, the movie cautions.

Stated in another way, the Law of Attraction is the manifestation of energy flows where attention goes. In that sense, those anti-war lobby, while well-intentioned, is doing it the wrong way. Instead, it should be the pro-peace lobby. Seems like the erstwhile slogan, Make Peace Not War, should fit the bill.

In essence,

“Man becomes what he thinks about.” [my note did not indicate any source, but I did find this online here: "A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes." -- Mahatma Gandhi.]

What you resist, persist.” -- Carl Jung.

So if you want/need to be like the other 97,769 viewers (at last count), see it for yourself this full-length feature film, all 1 hr 31 min 12 s of it, online and free, and banish all bad, sad, and even mad, thoughts from your mind. Instead, think positive, think virtuous, and act helpful.

I guess the Secret, to an abundant life that is, has always been there. As always, we always miss the obvious. But from now on, you have no more excuse.