Monday, April 27, 2009

The beauty of being different

I DID not have a keen sense of humour, I was told, when I said I did not find the Danny Boy advertisement amusing.

If you have not seen the advertisement, which is no longer being shown on terrestrial television stations, it's about a young man whose blind date after an exchange of SMSes turned out not to be what he had expected. The sight of the oversized, Ugly Betty look-alike shocked him and he ran for his life.

I was at a friend's place when the advertisement appeared on TV. One observant teenager in the living room asked why I did not laugh. I said I did not get the joke. He then proceeded to explain the "joke" to me, slowly, and even related a similar experience with his version of Ugly Betty, and how he had cleverly sneaked out the back door of the McDonalds outlet where they were meeting. I told him that his action was not only not amusing but it was also rude.

I am reminded of the painful years when some of my friends had to endure the teasing of their peers for being different. Their physique, health condition, genetic inheritance or even financial status -- or rather the lack of it -- often became the source of jokes among the shallow-minded.

One chap who suffered from albinism was embarrassed when a teacher nicknamed him "Snow White" -- a tag which followed him everywhere until his failure in the Lower Certificate of Education offered a way out of his misery.

One tall girl I know became hunched in later years after constantly bending her head low to escape the "panjang" taunts of her classmates. There were many more who were made fun of.

The emotionally tough ones grew up, forgot about the teasings and went on to lead successful lives. However, the less able ones carry the psychological scars into adulthood, becoming overly self-conscious as they try to stay hopelessly compliant to the norms, real or imagined. And the only ones who benefit commercially from these insecurities are the marketers.

Too dark? Get a cream that will make you fairer. Can't see your toes for your girth? No problem. Join a spa that will turn you into a supermodel.

Can't get any friends? Spray this aerosol under your arms and you will not only smell sweet but have more friends, too. Losing your hair? Slap this cream on your scalp and you will not only get your hair but also the girls back.

In other words, there is something for every complaint that you may have.

After being exposed to such messages long enough, it can cloud your judgment of what is normal and what is not. It gets quite tough, too, when it comes to guiding your growing children through these minefields of perceived norms. I tell mine to just be themselves. It is their lives and they should not let others dictate how they should live it. As human beings, we are entitled to the frailties of being human, even a blemish or two. Beauty that is skin-deep can dangerously mask an even more serious character flaw.

Remember how people laughed at William Hung when he first performed?

Probably the same type of people who also laughed at Susan Boyle recently. And guess who's having the last laugh now?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Road bullies come in all colours and sizes

SOMEONE should undertake a behavioural study on what turns rational human beings into monsters once they are behind the wheels and see if the violent streak runs through certain personality types.

For instance, what causes them to charge at you from behind, announcing their arrival with flashing headlamps, when you are already on your maximum speed limit?

If they fail to grab your attention, they threaten your vehicle with bodily harm by tailgating as close as your rear bumper allows.

In traffic jams, they switch lanes without signalling. God help the motorcyclists travelling in between the lanes who fail to read their next move and apply the brakes in time.

Long queues bring out the beast in some motorists as they muscle in from the left, ready to cut queue so that they can get ahead without having to wait in line. And should their impatience result in an accident, they will hop out and scold you for not giving way.

When we speak of road bullies, the ugly stereotype -- the steering-lock wielding and hot-tempered Malaysian -- comes to mind.

Most of us are more forgiving towards foreigners who drive. They are better behaved on the road, or so we tell ourselves. But nothing could be further than the truth as my colleague found out last week.

She was driving through a stretch where one lane had been closed for roadwork. A signalman had been positioned to direct traffic.

As soon as she saw the gesture for traffic on her side to move, she drove forward.

But before she had covered half the distance, a Mercedes came from the opposite side and met her car head-on on a lane wide enough for only one vehicle to pass.

It stopped inches from her car and the driver just stared blankly at her.

"If I was not running late for work that morning, I would have stood my ground," she said later.

And when she reversed to let him pass, the bully expressed no gratitude and smugly drove off. But what riled my colleague most was that she had expected the white man to have better road manners.

Her story reminded me of my experience some time ago.

The traffic lights had been a bit slow that morning and a queue had built up at the junction.

After 15 minutes of waiting, my car was second in the queue. Suddenly, another car swerved in from the left and positioned itself into the small space between my car and the one in front.

I honked to alert the driver of the dangerous proximity and I was promptly replied with an incomprehensible scream from the driver, a burly woman of African descent.

All that I could make out of the cacophony was the sight of a child in school uniform seated in the backseat. The child running late for school could have been the cause of the driver's violent behaviour.

I gave in and let her pass.

But instead of a wave of gratitude, one finger came out of the window.

Since that incident, I have stopped expecting foreigners to have better road manners than Malaysians.

I have also stopped cursing locals who misbehaved on the road.

I have come to accept that all road bullies are the same monster underneath -- black, white or yellow-skinned, men or women.

Their rude behaviour does not bother me anymore because I know that one day, their paths will cross and they will teach each other a lesson neither will forget.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Don't pick and choose who to punish

KUDOS to the Petaling Jaya City Council for declaring its seriousness in tackling haphazard and illegal parking in the city.

The council has said that cars parked indiscriminately in the "hot spots" in Sections 5, 8 and 52 will be towed away.

Hopefully, this move will discipline the most hardcore of errant motorists when they find themselves poorer by RM300 -- which they will have to pay to reclaim their vehicles -- not to mention the storage fees for each day that their cars are left in the council's yard.

If the move by the council is successful, law-abiding motorists will not only find relief in a smoother traffic flow but they will also be able to go about their businesses with peace of mind as they know that they will not return to find their cars blocked by another vehicle.

The Kuala Lumpur City Hall has been doing the same thing.

City Hall tow trucks make their rounds in Jalan Raja Laut, Chow Kit, Pudu, Imbi, and other problem areas, striking fear into the hearts of errant motorists.

It helps to deter motorists from leaving their cars where they like while grabbing a drink at the mamak stall or picking their children up from tuition centres.

The reason why people park as though they own the road is because enforcement has been lacking.

If there had been strict enforcement from the start, discipline would have been instilled by now.

The Kuala Lumpur City Hall has so far been quite diligent as seen in Bangsar and several other hot spots.

City Hall traffic wardens have promptly attended to vehicles that were indiscriminately parked as well as those legally parked but with expired parking tickets.

If the authorities keep up the enforcement, a culture of discipline among motorists will be established. Traffic congestion from illegal parking will be a thing of the past.

However, in dealing with illegal parking, local authorities must also look at the root of the problem.

The curse of a bustling business area is often the lack of parking space.

Often, one finds parking bays occupied by either inconsiderate restaurant operators who place their tables and chairs for alfresco dining or by workshop operators reserving not only one but several parking bays in front of their shops for their clients, all duly marked with their own "No Parking" signs.

If no action is taken against these inconsiderate business operators, the authorities will be seen as practising double standards.

After all, if they penalise those who park illegally, shouldn't they also take action against those who illegally hog parking spaces?

The authorities risk putting their image at stake if the law is not seen to be applied justly to all.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The blessings on the table that we take for granted

CITY folk are so lucky when it comes to eating out. Food is available practically round-the-clock and at almost every corner of the city.

My friend from Tasmania, who noticed this, marvelled at our good fortune. She has chalked up a fair share of local food knowledge within weeks of arriving in Kundang for her artistic residency.

By the end of the first month, she had shown me some of the best vegetarian food outlets and yong tau foo shops in Sungai Buloh.

When I told my friends living in the area about her discovery, they were surprised that such food havens existed. Of course, I cannot blame them for their ignorance.

These days, eateries grow like mushrooms after rain. Good times or bad, people have to eat.

Take a look around the city, or better still, drive into Jinjang, Setapak, Imbi, Pudu, or even Cheras and you will be surprised to see how houses are transformed into makeshift restaurants by nightfall.

Some have even become more popular than the licensed restaurants in the neighbourhood, which, by now, would have to lower their prices or be driven out of business.

The fact that there are as many nasi kandar joints in the city as there are seafood restaurants in the Klang Valley speaks volumes of our insatiable appetite for food.

Many of my friends from out of town often surmised that city folk were either filthy rich as they eat out so often or simply too lazy to cook. I told them that neither of these were true.

Sometimes, eating out is the better alternative, especially if you are single or there's only you and your spouse.

The economies of scale aside, getting home in time to cook a decent meal is often just as challenging as figuring out what to cook so that you do not repeat what you ate three days ago.

Most city folk would rather deal with the dilemma of deciding on what to eat at the food court. And the cost -- both in time and effort spent in cooking and cleaning up after eating -- is not exactly cheaper in the long run.

Of course, people who are lucky enough to be served home-cooked meals at their dining tables every evening can thumb their noses at eating out.

They can extol the benefits of home cooking to the envy of those who had to subject themselves to the daily doses of monosodium glutamate hidden in the tasty street fare.

I salute working spouses who manage to find the inspiration amid the perspiration to cook up something at the end of a long day at the office. Only love could have powered their stamina day after day -- not just the love for food but more importantly, the love for the well-being of their loved ones.

On the other hand, their other half who come home each evening and complaint about their cooking not being good enough should try and see if they could do better without losing their minds in the process.