Monday, February 24, 2014


When I finished primary school my mother enrolled me at a prestigious Catholic middle school in Medan. I don’t know how we could afford it, but my mother probably presented a ‘poor family certificate’ issued by the neighbourhood administration to the school. My primary school was much smaller and friendlier than this new school. My new schoolmates were a bit rough and the teachers were very strict and quite tough towards the students. I felt like a fish out of water. I had always been an anxious child, and this new environment drove my anxiety up the wall. Especially because I had a very severe overbite and could not close my mouth properly, and you know how cruel kids can be to somebody who looks ‘funny’. If that was not enough, my first name caused gasps and giggles whenever I had to introduce myself. I was so anxious that every single muscle on my body was tense, each tiny nerve was as taut as a guitar string.  I began to walk like a robot. I literally had to order my legs to move because all I really wanted to do was hide in the corner of the class. Everyday I got home from school totally exhausted. I went straight to bed and would wake up at 5 in the afternoon (the school finished at around 1). Every morning I dragged myself to school, and from time to time it got too much and I told my mother I did not want to go to school that day. Fortunately, she always allowed me to stay at home. I recently found out that these were symptoms of SAD (Social Anxiety Disorder).  Knowing that explains a lot.

Most of my classmates were nice enough to leave me alone. Some were even good friends to me. Some were rather mean and talked about me (as if I could not hear or could not understand them), one or two called me names in my face (one boy approached me and said, “Hey girl, you’re pretty. Like a monkey.”) I remember one incident in particular. One of my classmates – rather pretty, very good at sports, good at other subjects, very popular – imitated my walk. She did it in front of me, but without involving me. She walked like a robot and pretended to hit the wall at the far end of the class. Then she laughed and laughed with her friend. It hurt, a lot. If you say that it is silly to feel hurt because of this, then you are in the same group as my mother, who used to say, “Why are you upset? You shouldn’t be upset. Just beat them up.” That was why I stopped telling her anything. God bless my mother, she had a rough childhood and was involved in many fights. (She told me that she carried a bicycle chain around as a teenager.) I wasn’t like her but I was tough, too. I cried alone, and I still dragged my feet to school day after day after day. I managed to finish middle school without harming myself. During high school my mother found a professor of orthodontics who was able to fix my teeth (yes, it took no less than a professor). Little by little I felt better. I even managed to become a teacher and teacher trainer.  

I cannot remember what I did yesterday or last week, but I remember those incidents from 30 years ago. How come? Perhaps because I didn’t do or say anything to defend myself. Perhaps because I never told anyone. Well I am doing something about it now. And I am telling the story now. This is my therapy. I am also hoping that I can help others to identify their condition. It is not normal to be anxious all the time. It is not a weakness and it is not just your imagination. The celebrity that I read about overcame her condition through drama classes. A counsellor that I read about overcame her condition through therapy and medication. I find relief through writing. This morning when I started writing I was feeling upset. Now as I am finishing this blog I can feel the pain drifting away. Those events are no longer stored in the painful memory box. They have moved themselves to the ordinary school memory box. I am even beginning to find my classmate’s imitation of my walk amusing.
I am sure that there are a lot of good resources out there and I will certainly keep looking for other resources to help me understand more about SAD. It makes a big difference when you know that what you went through or are going through is a known and manageable condition. I still have a long way to go but I am grateful to be where I am now. I know I don’t walk or move very gracefully, but I hope I don’t walk like C-3PO anymore.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


The first time I met her was at a social welfare office. She looked healthy and bubbly and confident and rather pretty in her tight jeans and long boots and short jacket. She had a mass of long, curly orange hair and was accompanied by a young middle eastern looking man. I remember wondering if he was her man-bag, and then I thought, that’s none of my business. I was surprised that she was a pensioner. That meant she was unable to work and was relying on welfare payment from the government. When the interview was finished she said goodbye and kissed me on the top of my head. I thought that was a bit strange but perhaps that was just her personality.

The next time I met her was on my way home from work, many months later. The hair was still orange but no longer long and luxurious. She was limping because of a bone overgrowth in one of her feet. She looked very happy to see me and she said God probably arranged the meeting because she had been looking for me. She needed some help with something. I was a bit alarmed but I tried to be polite and we said goodbye.

Let’s just call her Melly. The next time we met she called and told me that she was locked out of her apartment and didn’t have any place to spend the night. Melly had a young daughter with her (let's call her Kerry) and she asked if she could come to our home. I don’t usually meddle with my clients’ personal lives but I didn’t have the heart to say no. She came and I made some phone calls to find a place for her and her daughter but could not find any. Then I lent her some money to stay at a hotel. She left but returned a few hours later and said she could not find any rooms near by. I didn’t really believe that but I still felt sorry for her daughter, so after a discussion with my nieces we allowed her and her daughter to spend the night in the living room. She started to tell me her stories. She told me that she was a victim of domestic violence. Her ex-husband beat her up and injured her. She told me she still had to take medication for her injuries. She told me that her father had been a rich man Indonesia. She once studied and worked in London, etc. etc. She also told me about the young man bag, who turned out to only want a permanent visa from the relationship. One day he slapped her daughter and so she kicked him out. She told me about her ex-husbands. Before long I lost track and even now I don’t really know how many ex-husbands she had. She had other children in Indonesia and Sydney. I didn’t know which parts of her story could be believed but I was not a lawyer or a police officer so I didn’t really need to know. The next day she left. Nothing was missing from our home but the bed sheet were soaking wet because her daughter vomited during the night. I was just relieved that she was not a mass murderer, or something scary like that. 

Over the next few years she continued to keep in touch. I tried to help her the best I could, but I began to suspect that she was not very rational. She kept moving from one place to another. There was always something wrong with the apartment. She said one of the real estate agents tried to sexually harass her. By this time she was not really very pretty anymore, but when did that ever stop a wicked man? I guess she was vulnerable and he tried to take advantage of her. I didn’t know how far he went but she was very angry, and as usual, very dramatic when she told me. She told me one of the priest from her church came with her to the real estate agent to reprimand the agent. Also as usual, the story was so dramatic I didn’t know which parts were true and which parts were exaggerated.

She began to wear a short satin bright green dress and shiny black boots quite often. One time a neighbour thought that she was a prostitute.

Amongst all these, she was also becoming quite ill. Every time she called she told me about the pain, the treatment, what the doctor said, etc. etc. I guess I heard about it so often I began to be desensitized towards her condition. One day she just disappeared. I called and called but she did not return my call. I was worried so I went to her apartment but she was not there. Finally she picked up her phone. She was okay. I visited her at the hospital after her surgery and a few other times.

There was always something happening in her live. Each one more dramatic than the previous ones. Her stories and requests became more and more strange. One day she called me and cried on the phone. “Mbak, aku dibohongi, aku sakit hati.” She told me that ‘her priest’, who also happened to be a bishop or a retired bishop, previously planned to marry her. Then he broke his promise and asked her to come with him and live in India instead. She said the priest had done inappropriate things to her. Now friends, what would you think if you hear a story like this? I tried my best not to be skeptical. I googled the name she gave me. Yes, there was a bishop by that name. I remembered that this was the same Father X who shouted at the naughty real estate agent, the same one who visited her at the hospital and embarrassed her for acting quite possessively, the same one who was always mentioned whenever she called. Okay, I believed her, but what did she want me to do? And what could I do? I was quite angry at Father X. He abused his position and power and had take advantage of a sick and unstable single parent. Melly told me that she and another member of the church had written a letter of complaint about the situation. All I did was listen to her and tried to calm her down. Since that day Father X was no longer in her stories.

One of her last requests was for my sister-in-law, who was coming to Sydney, to bring some medicine from Indonesia for her. My sister-in-law was not very happy about this, because in the package there were also some syringes and needles. So I told myself, okay, this is the last time.

Then she went to Indonesia! With several nuns and priests! I was left scratching my head. She told me that she wanted to visit the grave of her son, who passed away recently. She was not very well herself, so I thought it was not very wise, but I understood that as a mother she probably felt a very strong urge to visit the grave. She got very ill when she got back from Indonesia. I was not surprised.

Melly got better but her illness continued. She got thinner and darker and her hair got shorter and shorter. Her latest project was arranging an Aussy citizenship for her daughter. And for that she went to Indonesia, again! She also started to talk about death. She said, “Kayaknya aku udah mau mati, Mbak. Aku udah ampunin my ex-husband. Soalnya supaya jangan dibawa-bawa kalau aku mati nanti.” Of course I told her she was not going to die. She would be well again, she just needed to be patient and did what the doctor told her.

She called me from Indonesia to tell me that she had to extend her stay for a few days. Could I lend her some money and give it to Kerry (her daughter) who was looked after by her friend? I met up with Kerry and her six foot tall young male baby-sitter, who would not look me in the eye when I talked to him. Kerry seemed well and happy so for the hundredth time I said to myself, none of my business. And for the hundredth time I scratched my head.

Again she got very ill when she got home from Indonesia. She called me and ask if she could come, if her ‘father’ would give her a lift. She wanted to return the money. I was staying at my brother’s home while he and his wife was away so I told her I would come to visit her in a few days. But I didn’t. I think I was busy and annoyed for having to babysit at my brother’s home. About a week later I called her to ask about her upcoming surgery. I called a few times but nobody picked up the phone. I received a picture message but could not open the attachment. I called again. Nobody picked up. Perhaps she was still in the hospital after her surgery.

A few days later I went out for dinner with some friends. We chatted until quite late at night. The topic included bits and pieces of gossip from the Indo community in Sydney, until my friend suddenly said, ”Ada yang baru meninggal. Melly, anaknya si … yang orang kaya itu. Anaknya yang di Indo nelpon kesana kemari nyariin. Telponnya ga diangkat. Kami juga ga tau. Ternyata sudah meninggal. Katanya sakit.” My feet went cold a bit. I asked a few questions and confirmed that it was the same Melly that I knew.

I googled her name when I got home and sure enough, there she was in the obituary section. The obituary mentioned the cemetery where she was buried so about a week later I went to visit her grave. It was a very simple grave amongst two rows of very simple graves. The cross at the head simply stated her name and date of death. Two small flower bouquets were drying up on the ground. It was so desolate I could not help but weep a little.

I would never again hear her very loud voice on the phone, telling me the most confusing and fantastic stories and the most mundane in the same dramatic way. And what would happen to her daughter Kerry? Melly gave me Kerry’s number when she called me from Indonesia, but in the confusion of living in two places I completely forgot where I had put it. I looked for it in my stack of files, amongst the brochures, and even in the bin. Finally I found it. I was so happy but when I called, nobody picked up. I didn’t know her ex-husband’s phone number or address, where she went to church, or Kerry’s school (she moved school a lot too). I haven’t given up, but I think it is likely I would never find Kerry again. I just want to know how she is and if somebody is looking after her.
I felt a tinge of regret. I wish I had been more sympathetic when she called me for the last time. She told me that she spent hours in the plane’s bathroom, and caused quite a commotion. Luckily there was a doctor on the plane, etc. etc. Again she talked about death and that maybe it’s better to die. I told her I would come and visit her in a few days. I asked her if I went to her suburb would she be able to walk to the station. Looking back I wondered how I could ask such an insensitive question. She passed out on the plane for goodness’ sake. What was wrong with me? I have turned into one of those nurses who ignored patients who cry a little too loudly, believing that the patients are over-acting. In my job, detachment is very important, because the things that I see and the stories I hear are really heart-wrenching sometimes. Maybe I went to far. There is nothing I can do for Melly anymore. I hope she is in peace, and I hope Kerry is in a more stable environment now.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Today a fellow colleague told me that he had just accepted a deployment to Nauru. Remembering that a riot broke in Nauru a few days ago, I was surprised that he seemed happy to go. I reminded him about the riot. He said, "Work is work. Doesn't matter where."

When I arrived home suddenly something clicked in my head. My colleague is from Afghanistan, for God's sake. The riot in Nauru is probably comparable to a bar brawl to him. I am such an idiot sometimes.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Five Star Not

I travel a lot, so I’ve experienced all kinds of accomodations. Hotels, motels, homes of relatives. I did not expect much when I go on work deployments, but some accomodations are quite nice, while others are not so nice. I certainly did not expect to have as much trouble as I did in Darwin. For almost 5 weeks I stayed at a small hotel in the city. My room was okay. There was no window, only a sky-light on the ceilling, but it was clean and quiet, so I didn’t mind. Then on the third week I had a new neighbour. This neighbour slammed the door (perhaps unintentionally) everytime he (I am assuming that my neighbour is a guy) went in and out of the room. I sometimes sat on the bed with my back against the wall, and I could feel the wall tremble as the door slammed. Now door-slamming is one of my pet hates, so I was quite annoyed by this. One night I heard the door slammed very loudly. It was 11 pm, for goodness sake. I could not give that guy a piece of my mind because I was not even sure whether he was a neighbour to the left or to the right of my room. One thing was for sure, I was maaad. So the next morning, I got up early as usual. It was almost six. I got out of bed, opened the door to my room, and slammed it as hard as I could. I knew it would not solve the problem, but I hope it shook that @#$* out of his slumber. Who cares about the other guests around me. I felt much better.

When I was told I would be moved to a better hotel, I was happy. Goodbye door-slammer, I thought. Hello one-and-a-half story self-contained unit, with its own kitchen, two TVs, and huge windows. Hello also cockroaches. Thank God they were small. But they were many. On average I killed 4 a day. I felt like a butcher. I bought baits, I bought a spray. I smacked and smacked with my thong. They kept coming.

There was no remote control for the ground floor AC so I had to climb up and down a chair to switch it on and off. There was human poo near the hotel gate. I reported that but nobody did anything. Oh the flies and the stink!

On the 3rd day the kitchen light went dead. My unit became rather dark. I went to the front desk 3 times in 5 days but nobody came to fix it and nobody came to give me a remote for the AC. On the sixth day, I was washing the dishes after cooking in semi darkness, and the tap fell off. That was it!!! I sat down and wrote a letter addressed to the hotel manager, cc-ed to my employer. Basically I told them to fix the problems before I got hurt because of them. I made a couple of copies and I took one to the front desk again. I asked the staff to follow me to my room to see for himself. He looked at the kitchen light, excused himself, and came back with a new light bulb and a remote for the AC. I think I should have thrown a tantrum and made a scene at the front desk on the first day the light died. I have never done that, but seems like a useful skill to have.

Anyway, I was just happy that the two problems were fixed. My unit was bright and cheery in the evening again. I didn’t have to cook in semi darkness anymore. I bought some ingredients at the supermarket and cooked something simple. When I finished I washed the utensils and just as I was putting them back in the drawers I saw a cockroach. I got my thong in my hand, ready to strike. I followed the doomed little roach. It went into the drawer. I opened the drawer but I could not find it. I had a bad feeling. I pulled out all the drawers, and there it was – a NEST! A $%%#% roach nest! A few adults, a lot of babies, and hundreds of eggs. I sprayed the whole thing and went to the front desk, again. They told me the nest would be gone by the time I got home in the afternood. Good thing it was.

Needless to say, I was very very very very ready to go when it was time to go. That hotel was really something. As I was leaving my room, as a farewell present, my bag fell with my new aluminium water bottle inside it. The lid broke and the water spilled all over the inside of my bag. Oh, yeah, I also left my hat at the room. Great. Just great.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Island

This was what happened. I lost a two-hour job because I had to go to deliver some money donated to some Indo fishermen at a detention centre. And because of that I also lost a one-week trial booking. As far as I am concerned that’s the end of the story. But there was more. The friend who got me the one week booking accused the interpreter who took the job of stealing it from me. Actually, she saved me a lot of trouble because I had already accepted the booking to Christmas Island before my one week booking was cancelled. I was wondering how to solve the problem and then it solved itself!

Anyway, off I went. From Sydney to Perth and then from Perth to Christmas Island. The first few days was very hard, because I practically knew nothing about the locations and procedures. There were many other interpreters there, most have been deployed to the island many times, so I felt like a new kid at school. But I was very lucky because the other Indonesian interpreter was very kind to me. We talked a lot. Actually, she talked and I listened, but it was fine, she also listened when I felt like talking.

I loved the island. I loved the view of the Indian Ocean, the fishies at the jetty, the robber crabs, the sea birds. Funny that the animal feared the most on the island is the centipede. And the one most hated is the crazy ant.

My fellow interpreters come from all over the world. Some of them I dislike, but most of them I get along with, and some of them I get along very well with. There was one handsome interpreter who used to be an actor in his home country. I once asked him a question, he looked up, and I saw a very beautiful pair of olive green eyes. No wonder he worked as an actor. One day I was stationed at the jetty because a new boat was coming. It was a Sunday and there were people swimming at the beach. A swimmer emerged from the sea and it was him! Slim and tall and well built, glistening in the afternoon sun. Now I have my own Daniel Craig moment to remember.

I met a local there who was a good friend of my roommate. One day he took us to his small plot of land where he had pet robber crabs. The crabs roamed freely, were not cuddly in anyway and did not come when called, so they were not ideal pets. But they looked like prehistoric animals and to me they were amazing just to watch. I even tried to lift one, but it clung to the table very, very firmly, so I let it go.

There were annoying colleagues, of course. One person had to be the first in everything - first to look at the daily schedule, first to use the computer, first to sit on the bus, etc. etc. One time he made comments about me to his friends (in Arabic) and they laughed. I didn't say anything but I stopped speaking to him at all for a week. Finally he spoke to me and tried to be nice. Huh!!

Still, I am very grateful that I was given the opportunity to go there. And as I am writing this blog, I am not even angry at those annoying colleagues anymore.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Being Chinese

I was waiting at the lounge in Cengkareng airport. A woman stormed into the lounge and hurled her back pack onto the scale.

“Is it light enough NOW?!!” she shouted. [What a rude woman, I thought. Oh dear, I know her. She was a client. She thought any rules should be bent for her convenience. I hope she doesn’t see me.]

“Not yet Ma’am,” replied the airline’s ground staff.

“So what on earth do I have to DO?!!!!”

“You have to choose what to bring and what to leave behind, Ma’am.”

“Then I will just carry these and leave the rest in the back pack!” [That would be pointless, wouldn’t it?]

“But that means you are still carrying excess baggage, Ma’am. You cannot do that.”

“But this cake is for a little boy!! A friend asked me to bring it for her son. The boy would be so disappointed!” [All this fuss is over a cake? I doubt it.]

The airport staff didn’t say anything.

“Fine!! Fine!!!” screamed the woman.

She threw the box on the floor and stomped on it.

“Biarin!! Biar kalian juga ga bisa makan tuh kueh!!” plus several other expletives. Then she threw the box into the bin.

“Sudah??? Sudah cukup sekarang????!!!!”

“Masih lebih, Bu. Tapi kali ini kami bolehkan.”

Gosh.. money, living abroad, children in America and Europe sure can’t buy manners. And what a typical Indonesian Chinese of olden days. Rich (and even the poor ones too), above the law and regulations (or so they think), arrogant and chauvinistic and proud of it. I am Chinese myself but at that moment I would rather be any other colour than yellow.

After that tantrum, with most people’s eyes still on her, the woman looked around and spotted me.

“Eh, it’s you!” she said and smiled. She walked towards me and sat next to me and started to complain about the situation. Then she asked me to carry gadget for an aquarium [What the...?] It was just a small item so I said yes. When we started the boarding process the same airport staff still looked at us as if we were smelly dog poo.