Defensive

I think that I am pretty tough as a person. I was raised that way by my father. No one can bully me without me fighting back. No one can ever try to put an unfair blame on me without me lashing out right back.

Speak it loud, speak it proud and justify! That’s my modus operandi, always. Justify what you do if you believe in it enough.  My father encourages that sort of thing in all of his daughters. So that when people criticize us (and we disagree with that criticism because we have our own reasons), you can bet YOUR LIFE that we are going to be very blunt in defending ourselves. Some people would call us defensive.

If I am defensive, so what? From your position, of course you would prefer that I just nod my head and agree to your criticism. But how about from my position?  Kalau hang attack aku and then aku tak defend diri aku, syok kat hang la kan?” Hahha. But I am only defensive in things that I believe I was right or when I have a very good reason to do what I do. If you are going to criticize me, you can at least try to understand where I am coming from. If after having understood my position, you still believe I am wrong, then fine! Give me your counter-argument! Go ahead and silence me! I dare you! I want to know when I am wrong. Challenge me and make me see. Make me learn! Make me shut up simply because I have nothing else to say to defend myself. Defeat me! Go on!

Otherwise, just admit that I am right. (Yeah, sometimes I am so immature. Haha)

You see, me and my siblings don’t run away from confrontation. Even with each other, we are just like that! We are really loud girls! When we grow up, we realize that other people would find us rude instead of frank. But unfortunately, our manners were set already by the time the realization and insight came to us.

Of course, being adults, we are now quite good at softening our manners somewhat. *coughs*

But still a leopard can’t change its spots… but sometimes the leopard can hide the spots, disguise them. (by making a promise to ourselves to be more polite and more humble yadda yadda yadda. Make it a personal jihad to be nice and so on and so forth. Hahah) But the leopard’s spots do not stay hidden all the time. The disguise could unravel anytime, especially during time of stress (when someone pushes our button and irritates us that we just went, “ugh!!” Then all our resolution to be nice is forgotten! Haha) Sometimes we slip up, our amygdala takes over and our REAL nature comes out. So when that time comes, you beware. It’s either my biting tongue or my sharp written words. You choose! 

With that sort of background growing up, I always think I am a strong, independent person. I can live by myself without feeling afraid. I can drive all the way from Alor Star to JB by myself without any worries. I have traveled on my own across the seas thinking of it like another solo adventure. I can argue and defend myself against anyone if I believe in something strongly enough. If  you piss me off enough, one day just you wait for my retribution because you will get it.

I was raised believing that if you want something badly enough, you just have to work hard until you obtain whatever your heart desires. My father said that it is sunnahtullah. “Aturan alam… you usaha, you dapat.” And my father proves it right, most of the time.  When he wants something, he would insist, persist, and go at it until he gets it. When I had to do my History Project (Projek Salasilah Keluarga or something along those lines when I was in Form 1), I had to do a biography of my father. I interviewed him to complete his biography in the project and when it came to his motto in life, he told me that it was ‘usaha selagi daya’.

His name is Azmee….in Arabic, it means determined, resolute, purposeful. Like the name Azam, I suppose. Berazam… It is about persistence, perseverance and firmness of purpose. So at 13 year old, it struck me as such a beautiful coincidence that his motto in life kind of matched his namesake and his personality. Haha. So then, that became my motto in life too. Do whatever you can, and you will get what you want because you have followed the sunnahtullah of ‘berusaha’. Allah will give it to you. So, ‘learned helplessness’ is not in the dictionary of the Azmee girls.

We are strong ladies. Or so we thought.

Well, but now I admit I am weak in other ways. I am not good at accepting disappointment or failure or setbacks. This is a natural weakness for someone who is raised the way I was; raised to think that effort and systematic planning would always yield good results. People who were raised this way are really bad at dealing with things not going their way. We are such control freaks. That’s our number one weakness. My emotion when dealing with disappointing events is raw and immature and I just want to shout on top of my lungs, rebel at the source of my disappointment or otherwise withdraw myself into a corner to THINK!! about how to deal with this raw, immature emotion! (at least I have good insight about my weakness).

When I have done everything I could possibly do … I couldn’t handle it if things don’t go the way I expect it to go. It perplexes me. Why? What did I miss? What have I done wrong?

Alhamdulillah, I have been so blessed in life. All my difficulties are not that difficult, really. All my trials are not that trying. I haven’t experienced losing someone close to me. There is no such a thing as ‘the greatest lost of my life’ for me. Pfft. I have NEVER lost anything I can’t replace. Even my previous life disappointments are not that severe. It might feel bad to be disappointed at that specific time when I was dealing with it, but I could get over it by simply shrugging my shoulder, moving on and telling myself “well, it doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t really need it all that much.” (or maybe that’s my defense mechanism at work) Because in the first place, I REALLY don’t need anything much to feel happy. I have a great, amazing support system in my family and friends. In terms of material, I just need enough money to afford my freedom and enough money to afford my books. (And I thank God, I love the  job that has given me that money.) I also need enough time and space to be on my own to recharge. And then I am good to go. Good to move on. 

Disappointments in my life are rare and far in between… that I don’t get enough PRACTICE dealing with disappointments. Even when I experienced some initial setbacks, my family would push me to work harder until I obtained what I wanted at last, so that the initial setback felt as though it never happened. If I have been disappointed many times in the past, maybe I would be better at accepting it when things don’t go my way or follow according to my plan. I have been so spoiled to think that I can always get what I want if I work hard enough.

Now life taught me that my math is faulty. That the equation involving effort and outcome is not always right.

It is right only most of the time. But not always. Sunnahtullah cannot beat fate! Cannot beat qada and qadar.

For example you could have done all you can to make sure your patient gets the treatment she deserves, and then things go awry. Badly awry, that it devastates you.

For example, you could have planned everything to make sure the patient’s relative understood what he was supposed to do, but then he didn’t do what you told him to do. And then, you got blamed for it. Even though there was no way you could have foreseen what the relative would end up doing despite of your clear, specific instruction.

For example, you could passover your case to another center as flawlessly as you could over the phone, but things still ended up haywire and not properly carried out from the other side because of their own lack of communication with each other. And then, you got blamed for it.

I don’t mind being blamed. I can defend myself really well and I don’t care whose butt or feelings I hurt when I am being defensive. If you are going to attack me, I am not letting you do that without you understanding my position. If I sound defensive, be it. I AM defending myself, so OF COURSE I will sound defensive. Come on, what did you expect? You can label my behaviour whatever terms you want and I will keep on doing it because that’s what I do. I have been labeled ‘defensive’, ‘keras kepala, ‘stubbborn’, ‘asyik rasa dia saja betul’…. hahaha. Even my own mom said that to me. And then I said the same things to my own sisters, too . But really… deep inside, we understood that we are these stubborn defensive people not for ‘saja-saja’, you know. It’s because we have our own reasons for doing what we do. It’s because we believe that you have laid the blame at the wrong person and we are just trying to enlighten you until you see it. You can call it as ‘being defensive’, but I am still going to do it. As long as we know why we do it, we can ignore what you call us and keep on right doing it.  

But when things go badly awry for a patient – something you didn’t expect – it is really disappointing. Really disheartening. There is no one to blame. Nothing to be defensive about. Nothing for me to do. But just to deal with the feeling that I don’t have enough practice dealing with.

Disappointment really sucks. Full stop. 

But I will get over it.

I will shrug my shoulder and get over it. 

But…this time, how do I just shrug my shoulder and say “it doesn’t matter.” Because it matters.

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My Mother’s Epiphany

My patient came to me recently, with a tinge of happiness in her voice, as she said, “I did as you said, doctor. I am finally free. I am so happy now.”

I swallowed. “What did you do?” I waited with bated breath. 

“I’ve left my husband. I gave him 3 years but he never changed. I am done with that useless man”

“Are you doing this for you? Are you doing this because this is really the right thing to do, FOR YOU? Or did you leave the man because you simply wanted to follow what I said when you asked me what I would do if I were you?”

“I have always known you were right. I just didn’t have the courage to do what I have to do. Your words gave me the right push to make that move.”

She is an educated lady of nearly 60 years of age and thus our whole conversation was in English. She is one of my favourite patients. 

I do have favourite patients, you know. I can’t help it. I treat all my patients the same – that is, I give them what they need. But with some patients,  consultations with them feel more stimulating than usual because they themselves are psychological minded and they ‘get’ what you are trying to say. These people usually have the capacity for self-reflection, self-examination, introspection and personal insight. When you ask them a question (which is meant to get them to think for the answers themselves, even though you already knew the answer) they give a delightfully honest answer that helps you to help them. I like these kind of patients.

This particular patient, let’s call her Mrs H, is a well-off lady. She has her own pension and has invested in a few lands as an asset. She has her own house in KL prior to coming to Alor Star. She plays the piano as a hobby, and she already has a grown-up son from her previous marriage. Unfortunately, when she first came to me in 2013, she had just recently remarried to a 70 year old Kedahan man, for whom she had left her KL hometown. She was stressed by that marriage. She felt cheated, used and taken advantage of by her new husband and his family. She was in the clinic crying her eyes out because she felt like she had made a huge mistake.

Even though at that time, I wanted to tell her that “yup, you probably did make a huge mistake” but I refrain myself (of course). You see, therapists in general TRY not to impose their own opinion on their patients. It is okay if you cannot help having judgmental thoughts, but you should not APPEAR to be judgmental. You MUST preserve the illusion that you are always on the side of the patient. The patient should always feel safe to confide in you about anything… and they would only feel that way if you give off the vibe of being understanding and non-judgmental. But human beings, as a species, are active thinking beings! Judgment and thinking are what make us so special. I would be LYING if I say I don’t judge what my patients do. Part of the evaluation process HAS to be judgmental. If you don’t judge, you can’t diagnose. If you can’t diagnose, you can’t treat.

If you go back to the psychoanalytic era when Freud and his followers reigned supreme… they could make snap judgment about others without any evidence whatsoever and they called it psychoanalysis. Hahha. Those were the DARK AGES of psychiatry, in my opinion.

So to be clear, I am a judging, thinking being. (Believe me, ALL OF US are. I am just more upfront and honest about it). But I just don’t have to tell my patients about what sort of judgment I come up with, that’s all. Instead, I store that judgment in my head and use it to treat the patient. I use my judgment to help them.

Some patients have zero insight about their marital problems.

“Saya tunggu dia nak berubah. Saya okay ja. At least, mak mertua saya baik. Suami saya pun kadang-kadang baik.”

“Apa contoh kebaikan yang puan dapat dengan dia? Tadi puan kata, dia tak cukup duit, kahwin sampai tiga. Siap perabih duit puan nak tanggung isteri ketiga.  Kereta dia pun puan bayar. Kalau puan rasa dia baik,  puan report kat saya benda-benda yang tak baik saja saya dengar selama ni. Apa kata puan habaq apa yang dia baik pula hari ni?” Nice, soft tone was used to mask the biting sarcasm. (So, dear readers, please reverse and read again my dialogue in a softer inquiring tone. Haha)

Some patients have good insight about their marital problems.

“Doktor, saya memang tak tahan dah dengan suami saya. Saya memang nak bercerai. Ni lawyer suruh mai psikiatri, sebagai bukti yang saya trauma dengan perangai suami saya. Senang ada surat doktor kalau pi mahkamah nanti. So saya mai lah.” This patient is direct, honest, and knows exactly what she wants. I like these sort of patients too. But…

“Baguslah puan dah ambil keputusan yang tegas dalam hal ni. Cuma saya tak bolehlah nak buat-buat puan ada kemurungan kalau puan tak murung.” I am also direct and honest. I like direct and honest patients because I reciprocate and mirror their own style, which is really my default style, anyway.

Some patients know what to do already, but they couldn’t commit to any action because they are afraid of the unknown.

“Saya tak mau orang mengata. Saya tak mau jadi janda kali kedua.”

Mrs. H belong in this category – fear of the unknown made her stay on until one day she couldn’t take it anymore. And neither could I.

So, it took her 4 years (2013-2016) to ask me “What would you do, if you were in my place?”

I was very upfront about it. “It is not my place to tell you what to do. After all, it is YOUR marriage and you are the one who have to live your life. Not me. But since you asked me about what I would do if I were you….well, I would leave him. But then, you have to understand that we make decisions based on specific context and our own natural inclination, and our own personality. My personality and my personal inclination is such that I can never love someone I cannot trust; and I can never trust someone I cannot respect; and I can never respect someone who cannot fulfil his responsibilities. I am very strict about these things. If I have a husband such as yours, I would have left him a long time ago. Of course, some women have such a huge capacity for love that she can continue to love just anyone regardless of whether or not she can trust and respect  that person… so if she’s okay with that, who am I to insist otherwise?” I paused, allowing her to digest what I really meant.  “At the end of the day, we live with the decisions we have made. I don’t mind to continue seeing you, because trust me, medication cannot cure you. Your husband is the perpetuating factor to your depression.”

She is an intelligent woman, dear readers. She knew that I also had had enough. She knew that my “some women have such a huge capacity for love” is an euphemism for “misplaced loyalty”.

I have mentioned before that it is not enough that we do what we like. We have to learn to like the right thing. For example, I have to learn to like literature. Haha. And I end up liking it.

Love and loyalty is also like that. Learn to love and be loyal to the right person. The person you can respect and trust.

So when one day she finally said, “I am finally free, doctor,” it truly made my day. It took her four years of suffering before she would commit to a decision. And that was only because she had asked me personally about what I would do, and I was impatient enough to actually give it to her. Who knows what would happen had she asked the question sooner.

Some psychiatrists would probably say that I am unduly influencing my patients.

Well, to be honest, we all influence patients in variable ways and extent.

I don’t like to stick to only one blanket way of dealing with patients. I would use different approaches for different kinds of patients.

As a doctor (and especially in psychiatry), we learn that there are a few models of doctor-patient interaction, namely:

The Paternalistic model: It is assumed that the doctor knows best and the patient is expected to follow the doctor’s decision. Usually this approach is desirable in emergency situations. However, this approach may result in clash of values.

The Informative model: The doctor is seen as a dispenser of information. The choice is left wholly up to the patient. May be useful in one-off consultations, but may not work well if strictly followed on long-term professional relationship.

The Interpretive Model: Here, the doctor will be treating the patient for a long time and might know his/her patient well and understand the circumstances of their micro- environment. Here, shared decision-making is established.

Deliberative Model: The doctor here may act as a friend or counselor to the patient, where information dispensing is coupled with advice on a course of action. This is commonly used to enable lifestyle modification and to address maladaptive coping.

Some doctors like to use only one approach regardless of what type of patients they are dealing with. Maybe they like that particular style and think it is the best interaction style with every patient. For example, some prefer the informative model because they think it is the most neutral and would suit most people. Maybe they don’t know the patient enough and therefore doesn’t want to feel responsible should something bad happens as a result of the patient following their advice.

I don’t know. To me, in each specific case, whatever model of doctor-patient interaction that we use, it actually reflects on our own conviction or our own insecurities about that particular case.

We learn from experience and we would know what approach to use for each of our own patient. Paternalistic style won’t work well with manic patients, for example. It would only make them more irritable towards you and you would then lose the patient.

I would use the informative model for someone who is educated, and like to make her own decision, especially if I don’t know this patient all that well (other than that she is educated and has good judgment skills). I would NEVER use this informative model for someone with low education level. I wouldn’t want to take a chance of her making the wrong choice as a result of her disadvantaged background. This model requires that the person on the receiving end can make sound judgment based on the information that doctors have given. This is not the case in patients with low education attainment.  

With Mrs. H, I have known her for 4 years. She is educated, and yes, I could stick with the informative model if I chose. But I know her case inside and out. I know her micro-environment. So, I think I am still within my professional boundaries if I use the Interpretive Model and Deliberative Model with her, especially when she had specifically asked me about what I would do if I were in her place. (To be honest, interpretive model is my preference, most of the time. Followed very closely by deliberative model. If I just want to be informative, I could just ask the patient to read a lot and google, right? Pfft. A doctor is more than that.)

She asked me a question. I gave her the answer.

Whether or not she would follow my advice, was totally out of my hands.

***

When I was in my early 20s, my mother imparted to me a piece of her wisdom when she said, “Older women and older men are not the same. Older men benefit more when they remarry after having lost their wives. But older women would lose a great deal if they remarry after having lost a husband. If anything happens to your father, I will never remarry.” She declared, confidently.

She came up with that epiphany after listening to the woes of her friend who was in the situation of suffering after remarrying at a very mature age of 50. It was not unlike the situation that Mrs. H herself was in when she remarried at the age of 60 in 2013.

At that time, I thought my mother was being loyal when she said she would never remarry. But actually, she was just being smart. She was right. There is very little benefit in remarrying when you are already old.

All the benefits are on the elderly man’s side – they get a free maid and a free nurse, all combined in one person. In fact, sometimes they even get a free financial provider if the women they marry are richer than them. 

Mrs H could have enjoyed her own money and her own freedom had she remained single at that age of 60. She has the company of her friends from surau and the care of her own son.  She could have been far more well off than she currently is if she did not remarry a man who was older than she was (and therefore, couldn’t even work or provide for her financially because he was too elderly). Had she remained single, she wouldn’t be expected to do any housework or housechores if she didn’t want to. She didn’t have to cook or clean or look after another person when she herself was at the age of 60. Her son wouldn’t come to resent her because she had to obey her new husband and hurt the feelings of her only son. She wouldn’t have to play the role of a breadwinner to an elderly husband when she herself was not that young.   

But…unfortunately… she had remarried.

Her pension, which should have been enough for herself, was no longer adequate. So she had to work, selling sandwiches, because her husband was no longer fit to work. Her husband’s children expected HER to care for THEIR father just because their father had married her.

This is the problem with our society!

The elderly man who had lost his wife wants to marry again. And their children also prefer their elderly father to marry again…so that they won’t have to be the ones who have to care for their own father and their father doesn’t have to live with them, disturbing the dynamic in their own household.

BUT, they don’t provide their father the money that is required for their father to be a husband again. So the new wife suffers! The household money would not be enough. In the case of Mrs H, the husband’s children often scolded her when she asked them for money. Such nerve! Such audacity!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not giving a blanket statement that elderly people shouldn’t get married. I am questioning the fact that some responsibilities might not be met with such marriage. (so, if you can fulfil your responsibilities, go ahead and marry even if you are already at 100 year old of age)

My own grandfather had remarried at the age of 72 to a 40 year old woman. That means, my  new step-grandmother is younger than my own father!  My grandfather remarried NOT because my father refused to care for him, but it was because my grandfather preferred to marry. I remembered feeling so perplexed that my grandfather at the age of 72 STILL wanted to marry another woman. It was all done within 6 months after my grandmother died. It just boggled my mind at that time. I didn’t say anything to my grandpa about what I felt. To be honest, I was really disappointed because I had expected that my grandfather would live with us.

I did NOT expect that he would remarry! My grandpa should have looked forward to playing with his great-grandchildren instead of playing house with another woman. I felt quite personal about the whole thing.(well, but to be fair, my sister was not yet pregnant at that time and there was no great grandchildren around to play with, yet.)

But since my grandfather just wanted to marry no matter what, my father had asked around for anyone who wanted to marry his 72 year old father. We NEVER thought it would ever come to anything. I mean, WHO would marry such an elderly man, right?  But miracles happened. Can you believe it?  A 40 year old woman agreed to the marriage. I was flummoxed by the development. My grandfather remarried when I came back from Australia at the end of my 2nd year in med school. (At least, he waited for me to come home before he tied the knot). I was by his side when he pronounced the akad. I had accepted (reluctantly) that it was his decision to marry and maintain his own household.

My father increased the monthly allowance that he gave to my grandfather so that my grandfather could provide for his wife. A small house was bought where they could live together, so that my grandfather didn’t have to pay the rent. My step-grandmother is a full time housewife and DOES NOT have to work to support my elderly grandfather. My parents were in charge of all my grandfather’s appointments with doctors and did not simply leave the care of my grandfather to his new wife.

Mrs. H was not as lucky as my step grandmother. Mrs. H was the financial provider, the carer and the maid, all in one. (It’s like being a mother to a big toddler, ain’t it?)And on top of that, her 20 year old son who is still a student resented her marriage and did not get along with her new husband. If I were the son, I would resent the whole situation too. Here’s an elderly man taking advantage of his mother! If his mother disobeyed this elderly man, the religious line “I am your husband. You must obey me,” would be flung around. Isn’t it ironic when a dayus husband insisted to be obeyed? It’s a trick designed to make the wife feels guilty, in order to deflect his own inadequacies. His mother was better off not marrying that man. When she married him, her life deteriorated right before her son’s eyes. It violates all sorts of social-exchange theory I have learned. In this marriage, the risk-benefits assessment skews in GREAT favour for the elderly man and a HUGE disadvantage for Mrs.H. 

I couldn’t bear it if I were the son. I would probably perform some serious rebellion and would say “You have to choose between your son or your husband.”. (Hahah. I am a dramatic diva like that.)

But here lies the problem. Talak is NOT in the woman’s hands.

That’s why when an elderly man remarries, his children don’t feel that they have lost their father as much. In fact, they would feel like they have gained a free carer for their father. A man holds all the executive decision making. So, his children won’t feel that they have lost their father so completely. If they want, they could influence their father to make any decision that would favour them against their step-mother and the father would say, “Okay, I have made my decision. My children were right. I am your husband, so you must follow me.”

But when an elderly woman remarries, the children would feel the lost acutely. Now THEIR MOTHER who they have known their whole lives is the new wife of a complete stranger. The happiness of their mother lies in the hand of someone they are not sure they can trust. And this stranger holds the power on their mother. Even if the children could influence their mother for a specific decision, what can the mother do if her new husband disagrees? Even if eventually their mother wants to be free from the marriage, talak was not even in her hands.

So a mother remarrying would be taken as a loss for her children, because like Mrs H, now her whole life and energy revolves around the new husband… as a breadwinner, a maid, a nurse! What’s left of herself for her children?

The bottom line is: The elderly man’s life becomes easy when he remarries. The elderly woman’s life becomes harder when she remarries.

And therefore my mother was right to decide never to remarry should anything happens to my father. (I wouldn’t allow it, anyway. I would be very forthright about it too.)

Of course, there is context to everything. Just like there is an exception to every rule. For example, the elderly woman could have married a richer guy, right? Haha. But then putting my self in the shoes of the richer  guy, I might as well marry a young woman instead of an elderly one (haha, just trying to think like a man). So MOST OF THE TIME, an elderly woman ends up with a poor elderly man whose children might or might not provide financial support for their father to enable him to provide for the new wife. 

So in general, my mother hit the nail on the head when she declared her epiphany.

Imagine if your elderly mother remarries? Can you bear the thought? I am not talking about young mothers, but elderly mothers! What benefit do they get from such marriage? Would you advise your elderly mother to remarry? Am I (and my mother and sisters) the only one who think like this, I wonder?

So that day, after Mrs. H finished telling me that she was now a free woman, and she was going back to KL, I smiled at her and said, “I wish you all the happiness in the world. Don’t hesitate to come back should you need anything else. If you need to talk to me about anything, just call the clinic. You know, I will always take a call from you.”

Since then, she had called me twice.

We kept in touch.

***

Disclaimer: Some details are hidden, altered or disguised to preserve Mrs. H’s privacy. But the gist of the case remains the same. This is not only the story of Mrs. H, but also the tales of many other women, even when they marry as a young woman. When they marry as an elderly woman, it gets even worse. Take care of your elderly mother. Never make her feel like she has to marry again for companionship. In most cases, it’s just not worth it.

Reading Is Life Long

I found out from RCPsych website that my exam result would come up in February. More than two months after the exam itself!

In my mind, I went “Another month of waiting and uncertainties?? I couldn’t bear it!”

We were speculating among ourselves: “Maybe most of the candidates had performed so badly that they need to review the questions again to decide which ones to include in the overall marking.”

This can be bad and can be good.

I am just not sure which one is which for me.

We had also gone to the website to analyze previous patterns of result pronouncement.

Guys, most of the time the result would come out only one month after the exam! So, this is a new pattern emerging all of a sudden!

I just don’t know what to think.

I was not kidding when I said the exam was tough. It was not false modesty on my part. If I pass, it would totally be by the grace of God. Most of the exam questions were HOT (higher order thinking). There was  not much of a straightforward question. It’s not a true and false…. which only requires you to KNOW rather than to apply.

Questions in MRCPsychs gave you situations and asked you to pick the BEST answer rather than the TRUE answer. Several of answer options could fit the situation just as well… and you really have to KNOW in order to apply your knowledge to choose which one is the BEST answer.

By the end of the exam, we were exhausted and depressed. Haha. One of my friends from SP did not finish answering six questions due to lack of time. I myself only finished answering all questions 5 minutes before the allocated time ended. I did not even have the time to check all my answers properly.

And now that the RCPsych examination board had moved the result date to another month, I am assailed by all kinds of apprehension.

Previously, I felt like I could use the waiting time to read a lot of fiction and literature, catching up on my readings. I told myself that it’s okay to be hedonistic for one month! But for two months?? My superego started prodding me to feel guilty! I couldn’t believe myself when at last I picked up my academic book after one month of complete fun reading.

My mother was astonished that I had bothered to study again. She knew me. I only study when the exam is near. (My parents used to badger us to study all the time when we were kids. But by the time we started studying away from home in residential schools, they pretty much thought that we were mature enough and left us to our own devices. I remembered thinking back then, “Yeah, freedom at last” hahha.)

“Baguslah kak ngah study.” She said one day, upon seeing me holding an academic book, while grappling with disbelief at my dramatic behaviour alteration. 

I cringed. “Lama sangat baca buku lagha. Takut otak angah berkarat,”

She laughed.

So nowadays when I am at home, I read on addiction since I am an Addiction MO. And in the clinic, I read a non-fiction book titled “Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry” by Jeffrey A Lieberman which was lent to me by my colleague. I am currently 3 chapters through the book. I must say, this book is quite good and doesn’t feel dry  even though it is a non-fiction.

So be proud of me, dear readers. I am diversifying into non-fiction too, these days! Hahah. I am proud of myself. 😉

You need to read a lot and diversify your reading in order to improve your knowledge and your writing. I believe that reading is the kindest thing you could do for your brain and your soul.

It’s like you are updating your brain software, you know.

My mom had once said to me, “Sampai ke tua ke angah nak baca buku cerita ni?” She had asked, half playfully and half incredulously.

“Ya lah, mak. Mestilah sampai tua. Takkan bila tua tiba-tiba nak berhenti baca buku pula?”

Really! Has anyone stopped feeding when they get old? Reading is like feeding to me. I cannot stop.

Some people are obsessed with gadget. They hold their smartphones all the time.

When I am alone at home, I hold books. So my friends already know not to whatsapp me if they want something urgent from me. Because I won’t notice the messages. If it’s urgent, just call. And I will pick it up, if I am in the mood.

If you are not a good reader yourself, you will never understand the difference between those who read and those who don’t read. I don’t connect with people who don’t read. I can do superficial conversation with them but I don’t feel  stimulated by their talk and their thoughts. I am bored to tears by ordinary small talk.

Stimulating and fascinating conversations can be found among readers… like Miss A, Miss L, Mr. D.

And great writing can only be produced by readers who read a range of books from trashy (picisan) to commercial fiction, to literature to non-fiction and finally academic books. If you don’t experience each category of reading, you yourself are not qualified to give a fair review of books. If you are an English teacher who don’t read a lot, you are going to be clueless on how to give marks to your students’ essays. You will set a low standard. And towards anyone who surpass your standard, you will have no idea how to deal with them.

A ‘picisan’ essay that is not glaringly obvious in grammatical error can obtain an A just like other better essays from other greater students. The marking criteria for English essay is so low that just anyone can get an A. (It’s like budak sekolah agama dapat A dalam karangan bahasa Arab. Entah-entah punya banyak orang yang lagi terer sastera Arab akan rasa karangan Bahasa Arab yang dapat A ni macam level sekolah rendah. Haha)

When I was in high school, me and my friends would read each others’s essay. I can tell, simply by reading their essays, what sort of books are their main staple.

I give you an example: Let’s say you are asked to write about your best friend.

Below are the examples of the many possible introductions to the essay. And I would tell you what I meant when I said I could tell what you read by how you write.

First Example:

I have a best friend named Ratna with whom I always hang out. I have known her since kindergarten and our friendship has remained strong through all these years.

(This is trashy/picisan, folks! While there is no grammatical error whatsoever, I would not give this essay an A. The sentences are simple rather than complex. There is no rhyme or rhythm; no variety in techniques. But at SPM level, this is already considered good enough and MOST English teachers would not mind giving this essay an A as long as there is no glaring grammatical errors. But in my opinion, this introduction is uninspiring, straightforward and nothing special. It is too clinical to be interesting. Sure, the language is effective enough to tell a story… but is it good? Heck, no! So, can you imagine my distress when I was in high school seeing other people had gotten the same A that I got? Look, I wasn’t great myself. Miss A was MUCH better than me. I bet, Miss A had also felt distressed that I got the same A for my essay as she did. Hers was literary, out of the league. Mine was inferior than hers. But what I am trying to say is, picisan kind of writing doesn’t deserve an A. But that’s the SPM level during my time). 

Second Example:

When I first met Ratna, I was struck by the elfin mischief in her eyes as she held my hand and whispered to me, “You and I are going to have the greatest adventure of our lives.”  Since that fateful first meeting, I was stuck with her through thick and thin and only now do I admit that there is no one better I would want to be stuck with.

(This is better! There is usage of complex sentences. The writer also employed the dialogue technique to create a variety. The usage of idiom “through thick and thin” would give the writer an extra mark. There is also an element of suspense when the writer wrote “You and I are going to have the greatest adventure of our lives”. The introduction is already gripping enough that you WANT to know what is going to happen next. You can picture Ratna as a mischievous, fun-loving girl who would bring some sparks into the life of the narrator! You cannot wait to read how the story of their friendship would unfold. I would say the language level of this writer is competent. I would say that the writer reads mostly commercial fiction. I wouldn’t mind giving an A to this writer if the rest of the story is as good as the introduction with no glaring grammatical error. This is good… but not great! I believe that when I was in high school, this is my level of competence. I tried to inject some element of suspense in my essay from the very beginning of my introduction and I use commercial fiction language to do it).

Third Example:

A friend is someone who knows the poetry of your heart and can recite the stanzas back to you when you have forgotten all the poignant words. Someone who can read the unspoken messages between your spoken lines. Someone with whom you can cast your silvery glance at her direction and she would smile meaningfully at you because she knew the hidden treasure of your mind at that moment in time. 

(See? Can you see the difference of the level of competence between all these examples! This one is literary! A lot of metaphorical words. There is some rhythm and rhyme to this whole paragraph. This is the level of Miss A when we were only just high school kids. Most adults and even most English teachers don’t get to this level of competence because they STOP reading… OR because they don’t read literature. This is only an introduction to the essay, not even the whole composition yet! But the beauty of the words struck you somewhere in your chest, and you just KNOW it is going to be a good story. You also just know that this writer is a better reader than you! And you will become slightly envious of her. Hahah)

So, this is why I read! Believe me, language becomes rusty if you don’t polish it up consistently. Ask your friends who attended Chinese School growing up. They forgot their Mandarin if they don’t practice enough after having graduated from school. Even my elder sister had said that her English has become rusty after she started working and having kids because she doesn’t have enough time for reading anymore. It is so sad when you don’t have time to read.

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***

I got along with my English teachers, most of the time. Out of all my English teachers I have had, I was in bad terms with three of them only. That’s not a lot, right? Hahha.

Mr. M was my English teacher when I was in standard 5 and standard 6. The reason we clashed was because I was always caught talking with my two friends at the back. We were not noisy or anything, but we might not be paying that much attention during his class. He called us ‘The Three Musketeers’, when he was in a good mood. But when he was in a bad mood, he would criticize my handwriting (okay, fair enough. I had the worst handwriting in the class. If I had known then that I was going to be a doctor, maybe I could tell Mr. M why my handwriting was actually prophetic in nature. Haha). But otherwise he was a great teacher. He gave something extra in his lessons that were not in the syllabus. He taught us idioms and where to place it in our essays. He explained why a particular sentence was grammatically wrong. Not many English teachers can properly explain grammar, trust me.

But I didn’t get along with my English teachers in MRSM Langkawi. When I was in Form 4, we were asked to form a group to come up with an essay. I attached myself to Miss A, of course. By that time, I already knew that Miss A would come up with better prose than I ever could. We also had another girl from KL whose command in English was great too. We were supposed to write an essay in two pieces of mahjong papers and read it out loud to the class. We had a great team and we wrote a great essay, in my opinion. Ours was the last group to present. But even before the presentation, some of my friends in other groups already commented on what a beautiful story our essay had been.

At the end of the presentation, we fully expected that the teacher would give us a good comment. It was so glaringly obvious that our essay was better than the rest. We had Miss A in our group. It’s a given! But the first comment from the teacher was, “Where did you get the idea for this essay from?”

We were so upset by her comment. It was as though she could not compute that we could come up with something like this on our own!

When I was in Form 5, again another English teacher had accused me of plagiarizing from a novel which she could not even name! How the hell was I supposed to plagiarize during an exam, I had no idea. How her brain could justify such a claim when there was no evidence whatsoever, I could not credit. (But I admit, that essay was controversial. She was a conservative. I was just being creative about a taboo subject. Haha. Like I said, my writings do get me in trouble at times). My mother came to my school to confront the teacher. For the first time, my mother had stood up for me against my teacher. Because my parents knew what I was capable of. They knew that this time their interference was justified.

I didn’t mind if my English teacher didn’t like the subject of my essay; I understood even then how conservative people could be. But she could just tell me why she disagreed with what I had written and why she found the subject distasteful. I could accept that (perhaps not gracefully, but at least I wouldn’t feel a sense of injustice had she simply said that she didn’t like the essay). But to accuse me of plagiarism, that’s a hit on my integrity and my pride and I would NEVER take such an accusation standing down. No way! No matter how controversial and distasteful the subject matter was, I came up with it myself during the exam and her accusation was unjust and unfounded.

She finally apologized… but I was still upset because I didn’t think she would have apologized if my mother hadn’t come to see her, bringing a whole lot of my previous essays and short stories as a proof of my creative acumen. (If it was my father who came, he would straight away see the principal. So, I was kind of grateful that it was my mother who came. I really didn’t want to make a big issue out of this. My father was far more intimidating and forceful than my mother. And as upset as I was, I really didn’t want that teacher to be in trouble. But at the same time, I had to stand up for my rights.)

What I have learned from this experience is that people can only judge you based on the level of their own capability. If they themselves have never been able to come up with something great, they would find it difficult to believe that other people could do something they never could.

Miss A has a far better command in English and writing than ANY English teacher I have ever had as a student. If Miss A were my English teacher, she would never think that her students could not come up with a good essay because she herself had been able to do it multiple times. To her, writing excellently is nothing extraordinary at all and thus she would not have any trouble believing that others could come up with the same quality just as well. She would have no reason to be suspicious of other people’s ability that she herself could display so effortlessly. (But Miss A is now a doctor in a Klinik Kesihatan. She is brilliant in BOTH arts and science). But these English teachers were not that good themselves, so they just found it unbelievable that their students could come up with something better than they could ever dream to come up with! So, the only explanation they could think of is “the student must have plagiarized this from somewhere. It’s just too good”.

I would respect a teacher, if the teacher has a skill worthy of my respect. I would even respect a teacher who may not be skilful in English, but has the mental capacity to recognize a good writing when she sees one. But I could NOT make myself respect someone like my English teacher in MRSM Langkawi.  If that means I ‘tak hormat cikgu’, well, be it!  Memang aku tak hormat pun!

Another lesson I have learned is teachers and authorities are not always right.

I believe that KPM has far better teachers than MRSM. MRSM was great because in the first place they have already chosen straight As students to begin with. My seniors won National Olympiad Competition (for physics, Math and Chemistry) beating TKC and other top schools because they could answer questions that were only appropriate for university level! In our school, it was not surprising to find students who could answer advanced physics and Add Math questions far better than the physics and Add Math teachers themselves. That’s how our school won the Olympiad… our seniors were geniuses whose understanding in those subjects had far surpassed what could be found in regular SPM textbooks and revision books.

Sometimes, we learned from each other far better than what our teachers could teach in the class room. During my time, MRSM teachers were much younger than KPM teachers, and they did not even have diploma of teaching. One of our Physics teacher has a degree in engineering rather than a degree in teaching physics. I also heard a rumour once that one of our biology teachers was supposed to be a doctor but ended up being a teacher in MRSM because she was not able to complete her training and thus she repaid her MARA loan by giving service to MRSM. (Again, she  didn’t have diploma in teaching) When I was in Form 5, our chemistry teacher had some health problems and rarely made it to class. We studied with each other using revision books and by doing a lot of questions.

In the first place, MRSM already have a highly motivated students who are also competitive with each other and would try to beat one another’s marks! Very little of our progress depended on the teachers alone.

So when my specialist Dr. S had sent her young daughter to MRSM Langkawi, I endorsed the school because of the learning environment prevalent in MRSM. But I told her “Tapi cikgu KPM lagi berpengalaman. Cikgu saya kat Asma lagi pandai mengajar. Cikgu kat MRSM pula, lepas diorang grad, sambil bekerja diorang akan buat teaching diploma walaupun diorang dah ada degree dalam bidang masing-masing. Sebab time degree dulu diorang tak diajar teknik mengajar because their degrees are not in teaching. They have degrees in biology, physics, chemistry… but not a degree in TEACHING biology/physics and chemistry. Some of them were supposed to be engineers, doctors or biotechnologist to begin with. Cikgu KPM pula waktu belajar kat uni dulu memang degree in teaching and they will be taught P&P techniques (teknik pengajaran dan pembelajaran). Diorang tak perlu ambil separate teaching diploma dah sewaktu bekerja.”

She shared the same view as I do that KPM teachers are better, because she said her own daughter had said the same thing. “Cikgu Sultanah Bahiyah lagi bagus daripada cikgu MRSM.” even though her daughter obtained four flat in MRSM Langkawi. That four flat was not a reflection of good teaching skills, but good competitive environment. All your friends are clever in MRSM and it is embarrassing when you get bad grades. And thus you tend to work harder and push yourself. So, don’t underestimate learning from peers and peer-driven excellence. Sometimes it might be the only thing that helps. 

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If you are a science/Math teacher, your students can prove that they are better than you by producing OBJECTIVE answers to questions that you could not answer. (Ni dia, cikgu! Ini jalan kira dia. Ini formula yang kita kena pakai). The fact that you could not answer a question that your student could, is already an objective way of proving that the student is better than you. Math and Sciences are factual subjects. If you learn them, you will know them… and no one can dispute your answers!

But how would a student who is better than you in language or arts can prove to you that she is better than you? Arts and language are not factual subjects. There were times when I wished that I had had the heart to go to her and say, “Let’s compete! Choose one title for an essay. Let’s write the essay based on the title that YOU choose. Set a time limit. And let us write the essay within the given time. Then we can let other English teacher decides whose essay is better! Let’s see how good you are. Let’s see whether your grammar is flawless. Let’s see whether you can use complex syntax and metaphorical prose. Let’s see how well-read you are and whether or not you are qualified to judge my essay or Miss A’s essay. At the end of the day… let’s see whether we are the ones who can teach you how to teach English!” (But people would think I am rude if I ever say such a thing, right? Hahah. Tapi kalau kau tak cabar aku, aku pun takkan cakap macam tu! Aku tak pernah terfikir nak cakap macam tu pun to my other teachers in ASMA or KMB, for example.)

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Art is a talent. It is VERY LIKELY for you to be an art teacher and then find out that your students’ painting is much better than yours. A vocal teacher may not be a better singer than her own students. That’s why not all vocal teachers are also singers.

Language is partly talent and partly effort. Just because you are a language teacher teaching ‘high-school level’ language, doesn’t mean you are a talented essayist.

A teacher who doesn’t read well, would never be able to appreciate whose essay deserve what marks. That teacher may not even be able to appreciate whether the language used is trashy/commercial/literary if she herself is not good at language in the first place but just happens to choose TESL as her undergraduate subject. Even my own sister had admitted that her friends who were studying TESL with her were not very good in English and she could not compute why they wanted to be a TESL teacher in the first place. I was surprised that some of my friends whose command in English are far inferior than me ended up being an English teacher. They may be slightly better than the average Malaysian students (who don’t read much and prefer gadgets over books)  but if they ever come across an above average student who has been reading English all her life, would these teachers still feel they are better than the student? Would these teachers be better than my nephew Eshan and my niece Aayra when they grow up, for example? Maybe when Eshan and Aayra are still in primary school, these teachers might still have something they could teach the kids. But by the time Eshan and Aayra grow into their reading, get into secondary school and become friends with better readers than them, would these English teachers still be able to teach them much if they themselves have mediocre command in the language and just happened to choose TESL as an undergrad once upon a time? Or would they end up accusing their brilliant students of plagiarism just because their brains cannot come up with something good themselves?

So it is even MORE imperative for English teachers to get into the habit of reading continuously so that they can upgrade their language skills and would not embarrass themselves in front of students who are better than them. But how many Malaysian adults STILL read by the time they start working? Most of my friends don’t read anymore, citing petty reasons such as ‘Tak ada masa, anak kacau, banyak housechores’. Most of my doctor friends only read academic books when they are studying for their master, but how many of them read great works of literature? Not many of them do so.

‘Tak ada masa’ is simply an excuse, in my opinion. These people think that reading is a waste of time and something trivial and just a hobby for some people. They didn’t think of reading as a nourishment for God’s greatest gift to His greatest creation. The brain is God’s greatest gift to us, folks. Don’t neglect it.

So this is why I will always continue reading commercial fictions, literatures, as well as upmarket works. And I am now diversifying into non-fictions as well. You can never read enough. You can never improve your writing enough. Reading and writing are the exercise for your brain. It is one of the reasons I have a blog. I also have one specific folder in my computer for other essays/short stories that I write for fun, only to be read by myself and other close friends and family members.

And you cannot write well if you don’t read well. And this is the universal truth!

So I implore you to read continuously for the rest of your life. Reading has stopped becoming just a hobby for me. It has become my mental nourishment, my definition of having a quality of life. I am an advocate of reading because the joy of reading is too immense not to be shared with the rest of mankind. Try it and see for yourself how different your worldview will become the moment you realize how much reading has opened your mind.

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