Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Learning a Language

    The other day I was reading my friend's blog, "Pick of Penang", in which he was telling of his decision to begin learning both Mandarin and Bahasa Malay. I commend him for being so brave and ambitious.  Reading his blog brought back my own ambitious attempts to learn a language once I moved to Penang.

    A number of years ago I took Mandarin Chinese lessons in Boston's Chinatown. I remember  driving to Chinatown every Sunday morning, through ice and snow and heat and rain to attend a 3 hour class in Mandarin. I did this for a year and a half. The first part of that time the teacher was from Taiwan and taught Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent. The second half the teacher was from Beijing and taught with a different accent. I must also say that she was a staunch supporter of the Communist government, which didn't make things any easier. I learned enough to be understood in Taiwan and China, so I didn't starve to death while visiting these places. I worked in a hospital with a large number of Mainland Chinese doing research work. I tried to practice with them, but they either wanted to talk just in English or they couldn't stop laughing at hearing a Caucasian trying to speak Mandarin. My closest friend at the hospital was from the Mainland and helped me quite a bit. The vast majority of the Chinese living in Chinatown Boston spoke Cantonese, so when I went there I spoke English.

    Upon moving to Penang, I realized that Mandarin was not widely spoken, but Cantonese or Hokkien Chinese was. I also realized that Bahasa Malay was the official language. Thank God most people speak English.  Whenever I had dinner with Kevin's family I was totally confused. Kevin is the only one in the family who can speak English. His nieces and nephews know a little, but are too shy to say much. I decided to study Hokkien and Bahasa Malay. I bought books for both languages, but I must admit I haven't really given either language a good try. The reason I get confused when I am with the family is that sometimes they speak Hokkien, sometimes Bahasa and sometimes Cantonese. When we visit Kevin's family in Kuala Lumpur everyone speaks Cantonese. The niece and nephew also are learning Mandarin, but I have forgotten most of mine.

    Most of my local friends are Chinese and speak Hokkien, Cantonese and Malay. There is no way I can learn all three at the same time. So I have decided to stick with English and dig out my Rosetta Stone Mandarin language CD's to try to brush up on my Mandarin, hoping I can learn a little Cantonese at the same time. I really admire the people here who speak 3 or more languages, while people back home are struggling with just one!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My First Visit to a Malaysian Hospital

    I haven't posted here in a few days since I have been a bit under the weather. Wednesday evening Kevin and myself along with our neighbors, Linda and Cheah went for some Indian food. I always get the banana leaf here with some Chicken Butter Masala. We also had a number of other dishes, whose names I can never remember. I eat Indian food occasionally  and usually don't get any ill effects. Until now.

    I woke up at about 4 AM with a dull pain in my stomach. I got out of bed and walked around for a while in hopes that the pain would go away. I must note that I have GERD and do take medication for it. This pain was not new to me, as I have had similar episodes back home. Usually the pain gets better after a couple of hours, but this time the epigastric pain just intensified. About 10:30 I called Linda and asked her to take me to the hospital. Linda and Cheah took me to the emergency room of Adventist hospital here in Penang.

    Upon entering the ER I was put on a gurney and hooked up to a blood pressure monitor. A nurse came over immediately and asked the routine questions. I explained that I had experienced this pain before. My blood pressure had skyrocketed to 200/112, because of the stress from the extreme pain. I was assured that the doctor would be seeing me soon. I had heard these words before, so I didn't take to much stock in them.  Surprisingly he showed up in about 10 minutes. He agreed that I had an episode of acute gastritis and made his recommendations. He then directed a shot of morphine to be given to ease the pain.

    After 7 hours of excruciating pain I finally got some relief. I remember leaving the hospital, riding home and going into my apartment. I was out like a light and slept for most of Friday. I still have some intermittent pain, but with the increase in my medication and Maalox I am slowly getting back to normal. I owe Linda and Cheah many thanks, as well as the staff at the Penang Adventist Hospital Emergency Room. They were very professional and caring. The best part was the bill. For medication, the injection, use of the ER and the doctor visit, the cost was RM146, about $48. A true bargain

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Green Penang, Green Malaysia

    One thing I must commend the Malaysian government and in particular the Penang state government for is the efforts in saving the environment. In the three years since I have lived in Penang I have seen the destruction of the environment by developers. Coastal areas have been reclaimed for housing and rain forest hillsides have been cleared for luxury condominiums. But on the positive side I have seen the government and volunteers trying to save the environment.

    On January 1 of this year the Penang government outlawed plastic bags. Plastic bags were given out everywhere, from the grocery stores and malls to food courts and hawker stands. Here take out drinks at food courts and coffee shops are not served in cups, but in small plastic bags. Empty plastic bags cover the landscape. Larger grocery stores and drug stores now do not liberally hand out plastic bags, but charge for them if you do not have a shopping bag.  The money goes for charity or the environment. This will have a strong positive effect upon those who shop in upper end locations, but will have no effect on the rest of society.

    A couple of times a year I see volunteers meeting very early on a Sunday morning to clean up the garbage and trash along the beach at Gurney Drive. I have read in the newspaper about other volunteers, including a cardiologist, cleaning up the rivers in the area. This community activism is doing wonders in cleaning up the environment.

    The biggest problem facing the government and volunteer environmental agencies is educating the public, who are used to treating the rivers and coastal areas as garbage dumps. I remember last year visiting the beautiful island of Lankawi. I was disgusted to see all kinds of garbage just tossed along the beaches. Glass bottles. plastic bags of all sizes, Styrofoam food containers and aluminum cans were strewn from the waters edge to the grassy picnic areas. Close by were very few trash cans, which were empty. It was interesting to see that foreigners disposed of rubbish properly, but locals just dropped it along the way or tossed it into the ocean. They seemed to have no pride in their beautiful island.

    Yesterday I was walking back home after having lunch, when I noticed a man walking in front of me, while eating his lunch from a takeout container. He finished most everything in the container, except for a large portion of rice. He simply dropped in on the pavement of the road we were walking on. Next he threw away the plastic bag containing his drink and then dropped a small plastic bags containing bones and other garbage onto the pavement. Since this was the road leading to my condo I felt it was within my rights to say something to this gentleman. I told him that he could have waited a minute to properly  dispose of his garbage. He just looked at me and told me to mind my own business. Another time I was eating at a little seafood place on the beach. I observed a woman from one of the small stands bagging garbage, Styrofoam cups and plastic cutlery. I sort of felt good that she was doing her part for the ecology. Then she just took the big bag and threw it into the sea.

    The majority of the people have to be educated as to the importance of keeping the environment clean. A since of pride has to be instilled in the people to protect the beauty of their home. One suggestion I can offer local governments is to make trash receptacles available, so people have someplace to dispose of their litter. Trash cans can be very rare in most of Penang. Penang is a developing country, but they are doing a great deal of work in protecting the environment, even compared to the developed countries of the West

Monday, June 20, 2011

Cemetery Destruction/Construction?

    Whenever I ride past the Chinese cemeteries on Mt. Erskine Road I always gaze at them with amazement. I wonder at the long history of the Hokkein Chinese in Penang. The graves are overgrown with weeds and brush, but one can still see the aged tombstones with Chinese inscriptions. I can't help wonder about the lives of those buried there. How long did they live in Penang? When did their ancestors come here and what did they do for a living? How did they die? These cemeteries are steeped in history and tradition. Heading towards Georgetown from my home in Tanjung Tokong I always look at the cemetery on the left had side of the road. There is an old Japanese gun battery, from WWII, right in the middle of the cemetery. What battles this area must have seen!

    I hadn't been in this area for a few weeks, until last night when Kevin and I were going for dinner. As usual I surveyed the cemeteries as we drove by. I was shocked when I came upon the old Japanese gun battery. It was one of only two structures still standing. The other structure was a large ornate tomb, evidently belonging to an influential family. All of the rest of the old historic tombstones were bulldozed into hundreds of tiny fragments. To me this was sacrilegious. I can only imagine how the families of those buried there must feel. I know that in the West if a cemetery is moved, it has to be for a very good reason and each grave is ceremoniously and reverently moved to a new location.

    I can only imagine why this was done. I hope I am wrong, but I think the reason for this desecration is that someone is going to put up some luxury condominiums on the site. Apparently making a few bucks is more important than respecting the dead. If this is true I hope the developer realizes that no Chinese person will live on land that once was a cemetery. I don't think too many other people will want to live there either. I sincerely hope I am wrong, for the sake of Penang's future. If  the condominium developers are allowed to ignore and disrespect Penang's history and ancestry, as well as it's environment, the island is doomed to become a concrete ghost town.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Television in Malaysia

    When I lived in Boston I enjoyed having cable TV with many and varied channels to choose from. As all TV in the US is digital I became accustomed to watching all channels in HD. I had hoped that television in Malaysia was at least acceptable and in English.

    Upon moving in or new condo signing up for satellite TV was one of the first priorities. There actually was not any choice. It was Astro TV or nothing. The pricing was  quite reasonable. At that time HD or Astro Beyond was not yet available. We got the premium movie package as well as the package which included Discovery, National Geographic, CNN etc. This was all I needed and it was all in English. There are other local channels in Cantonese, Malay and Tamil as well. One of the premium movie channels, Cinemax, shows older movies, some of which are older than me. The other two offer standard fair movies like back home.

    After having Astro for a while I started noticing the small differences between television in the US and television in Malaysia. First of all in the US all channels, except for the public broadcasting channels include advertising of all kinds. It is rather annoying to be watching a program and having in interrupted by a commercial for automobiles, food or other products. Here in Malaysia there are extremely few  commerical ads. However, Astro advertises it's programing on all of the other Astro channels. They do this repeatably often with the same ad. It is very annoying. I don't understand why they do this as there is no competition. Along with the advertising being repeated, the programing is also repeated. So if you miss a program you can find it later in the day, the week or month.

    Another difference is that there are only stations in Kuala Lumpur, whereas in the US there are thousands of stations in cities of all sizes. I am surprised that in Penang, where I live, there is no television station. Penang, is roughly the same size as Boston and Boston has 8 stations. I do miss watching a local news program, as the local news here covers all of Malaysia. I now receive most of my local news from newspapers, which are not local either, except for the Chinese paper, which I can't read.

    The last difference I have noticed is that television here is censored. It is quite annoying to be watching a movie and suddenly the sound is muted as you realize the character has uttered something considered to be obscene. Portions of the movie also disappear, having been censored out. It is quite amusing sometimes to be watching Jay Leno and something he says, which in not vulgar is censored while something that may be vulgar slips by the censors. Probably because the censors are not familiar with American English and culture.  I only watch new programs on CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera as these are not censored, as far as I can see.

    These actually are only minor differences that one has to get used to. We download movies to watch, so the TV movie censorship does not bother us. In addition to the international news services I rely on the Internet for my news, so I get as many points of view as I can.  Now we have Astro Beyond, which is HD programing, which is quite good. Presently we don't have that many HD channels, but Astro seems to be improving their channel lineup.  All in all I am quite satisfied with Astro TV and I think it will become better in the future.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

It Just wasn't My Day

    As you may have read yesterday we had a plumbing problem which flooded the kitchen. Because of this the water to our unit had to be shut off. Our neighbors, Linda and Cheah graciously allowed Kevin and myself to use their relative's unit upstairs to shower etc.  I was supposed to meet the plumber this morning so he could assess my leak. As today was the day the cleaning lady came, I wanted to take a shower early so I was prepared to meet the plumber. A little before 9 AM I went up to take a shower and locked the front gate and front door behind me. I finished my shower, got dressed and was ready to leave. I tried to unlock the front gate and I tried and tried. It wouldn't open. I called Linda, I called her about 15 times, but no answer. The next door neighbor heard my rather loud expressions of anger and came to help. He couldn't get it open either. Finally I called the management office and they couldn't open it. Fortunately the locksmith was in the building and managed to break the lock and give me my freedom back.

    A little after being held captive for over an hour I returned home soaking wet with sweat. I saw that Linda was home and I told her I had been calling her for quite some time. She embarrassingly told me she went out and forgot her phone. I told her what happened and we had a good laugh at my imprisonment. I was disappointed that I had missed the plumber, but this feeling didn't last long. Luckily the plumber was late and he was able to pinpoint my leak. We agreed upon a price and it was a lot less than I had expected to pay. Work begins tomorrow, but it will take 2 days to finish. Hopefully during this time I will be able to take a shower without locking myself in for half the day.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Another Plumbing Problem

    In previous posts one of my other sites other sites I described a problem with a leak, which caused my master bedroom to flood. After more than a week the source of the leak was found and the owner of the unit, where the leak was originating, finally fixed it. In the month since this situation there have been 7 new leaks. I really empathize with the people who have to go through the same agony I did.

    After finally cooling down from my anger over the developer's cheap construction techniques and his use of substandard plumbing material I once again began to enjoy condo living here in Penang. That was until early this afternoon. I walked into the kitchen and found water oozing up from the kitchen tiles, in 3 locations. Water was also seeping up through the tiles in a small adjacent bedroom. Needless to say I hit the ceiling. I called the building manager and he couldn't believe that water was gushing form the floor. Kevin was home and immediately turned our water supply off, which seemed to stop the flow of water. The building manager said the plumbing contractor would be here tomorrow as he has to deal with another leak on our floor and a leak on a lower floor which was just discovered this morning.

    In another previous post on my other site I mentioned that an owner in a unit of a floor beneath mine has been doing renovation and had knocked out the load bearing walls. I cannot help but think that the leaks began to occur at a higher frequency since the renovation began. The constant drilling and shaking has to have some effect of the cheap plumbing here. I know I will have to shell out more money to fix this problem and wait until the next one appears. It angers me when I see the new condo developments rising in Batu Ferringhi and elsewhere, which are being built by our condo's developer. They continue to make money, with shoddy construction and cheap, substandard materials. I really feel sorry for those people who are buying up these properties. They don't know what they are getting into. For anyone considering buying a condo in Penang, please check out the developer and talk with people who live in their properties. As always, buyer beware.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Superstitions and Old Wives Tales

    Since I have lived in Malaysia I am in constant amazement of the extremely numerous Chinese superstitions and old wives tales. To a Westerner it is somewhat incomprehensible how anyone can actually believe these notions. Today I heard about one that concerns moving in to a new house. A friend of mine had bought a condo unit and is almost finished with the renovation. He is Chinese. He is moving in on Saturday, because according to his beliefs if he doesn't move in then, he has to wait several months more to do so. He has to move in between 7 and 9 o'clock in the morning. His family is coming to perform the "moving in ceremony". This consists of draping the entrance in red cloth, putting salt on either side of the door, placing tea leaves in the entrance and having a kettle of boiling water on the stove while moving in. Also rice is strewn on the floor so that if any ghosts were there they would make noise walking.  After this 2 hour time limit, all electrical lights must be turned on for exactly 3 days. Upon hearing this I was speechless. This was not coming from an elderly person or an uneducated person. It was from a supposedly educated professional person, who firmly believed in the custom. I did ask other Chinese friends of mine about the custom, but they said they were unfamiliar with this one.

    The other day I was at my local food court having lunch and chatting with some of the Chinese  employees who work there. The subject of "gastric" was brought up. In Malaysia people call anything like, nausea, indigestion, heartburn, bloating and gas, gastric. You have to ask a few questions first to nail down what they are actually talking about. What they were talking about was "gas". They related a story of how one customer always has gas and bloating and has to drink only hot water. I asked why. They looked at me surprisingly and explained that everyone knows cold water causes gas. Since I am a retired medical professional I couldn't help but make a comment. I explained that the temperature of liquids has nothing to do with gas and that it is actually caused by bacteria. They looked at me like I was nuts. I tried to explain further the difference between good bacteria and bad bacteria. I was put in my place by one older lady who said "people don't have bacteria in their stomachs and if they did, they would be sick". I didn't say another word!

    I have many more stories, which I can relate in another post, but I will finish with one of my favorites. Many Chinese people I know say that one should never go to bed with wet hair. Some people believe going to bed with wet hair causes mental retardation, while others simply believe the act causes colds. I have given up explaining that colds are caused by viruses. I just listen, shake my head and smile. Superstitions have developed over many many years in many cultures and will probably always exist, regardless of every scientific fact to disprove them. I suppose the old saying, "don't fix what isn't broken" could be relevant here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

    I am a member of my condominium management committee and have been for a couple of years now. I have never lived in a condo before and needless to say I have never served on a management committee. I have friends who serve on condo committees back in the US and only have their experiences to relate to here in Malaysia. I am learning a lot about the local culture and how different it can be. As every condo does, here and in the US we have our own House Rules, by which all residents are supposed to abide. We have had few problems with people not living up to their responsibilities. Recently this changed dramatically. We have a resident who submitted plans to renovate his unit. According to his plan he was only going to change the location of toilets in the bathrooms and replace the bathroom tiles. His plans were approved and he was given permission to begin renovation. As the renovation started he moved a rather expensive massage chair to the nearby elevator lobby on his floor. This was so that it was in plain sight of the CCTV and would not be stolen. He then put all of his belongings in an air well next to his unit and padlocked it. This air well is used by the fire department in case of fire and cannot be locked. These two facts were bad enough, but what was really surprising is that he had the entire unit gutted, including load bearing walls. The fire department came and insisted that the air well be unlocked and the chair be removed as it a safety hazard.

    The management sent the owner of the unit a letter citing the safety violations and calling attention to the non adherence to the renovation plans. The letter called for him to remove the chair, to unlock the air well and remove his personal property from this common area and to cease renovation until new and actual renovation plans were submitted. To me this was the natural course to take and I expected the owner to responsibly comply with the terms of the letter. Well that didn't happen. The day he got the letter he stormed into the management office, tore the letter to shreds and threw it at the building manager. He then demanded to see the chairperson of the management committee. She just happened to be in the office at this time and came to meet the man. As she appeared he assaulted her and threw a desk fan at one of the office employees. He explained that he owned his unit and he did not have to follow any body's rules but his.

    The police were called, but as it happens here, they would not come. The chairperson had to go to the police station to file a report. The police still did nothing, as usual. The owner, later that day threatened the woman and her young children. He made over 30 harassing phone calls to the woman that evening. The police advised the woman to go to the doctor and then contact her lawyer, as they thought this was a personal matter. In other words they didn't want to do anything. The situation is still not resolved and I am anxious and concerned to see what the outcome is.

    I know that this is an isolated incident, but it does show how arrogant and ignorant some people can be. I am sure that things like this happen in condos and apartment building all over the world. There are just too many people who think the rules apply to everyone, but themselves.

Friday, June 10, 2011

My New Life in Penang Continues

    On July 4th of this years I will celebrate the third anniversary of my move to Penang, Malaysia. About 2 months ago I began writing a blog about how I decided to retire and move to Malaysia. I had never written a blog before and I knew nothing about what it involved.  I originally started writing the blog on another site, but recently I decided to start this blog on the blogger platform to avail myself of the many bells and whistles it offers.

    This blog will be about my life, as a retired American here in Penang. This is not really a travel blog, but a blog about retiring away from home.
I will continue to describe my life here in Malaysia as well as giving my views on daily life here. I hope all of those who read my other blog will continue to enjoy this blog. I also hope I can interest others, especially those who are contemplating retiring abroad, in reading and following my new blog.

    Thank you very much for your support.