Make a Difference

“The right attitude can help us overcome life’s handicaps.”

I HAVE had encounters with strangers who approached me because they were curious about my physical condition. They couldn’t figure out why I looked so cheerful despite my disability.

Many years ago, I was approached by a gentleman while sitting in the car, waiting for my father who was running some errands. The car door was ajar. He shared a little about himself. He was a successful consultant, financially stable, had a girlfriend but he was still unhappy. Something was missing inside of him. He said that he should be happy with all that he had achieved. He was curious why I was in sitting in my dad’s car, singing to myself.

He asked: “Aren’t you depressed having a leg like that? Why do you look so happy?”

That took me by surprise. I tried to understand what he was trying to tell me. I explained that there was nothing I could do to change my disability and that I had learned to be happy with what I have. Complaining would not help me one jot. So I try to make the best of every situation. Of course, life can be difficult because I have to face all sorts of trials. As long as I am in a crowd, I would be looked at differently.

He also shared with me how strangers helped him without asking for anything in return, which surprised him. In his world, everything had a price tag. He related to me one rainy day when a woman offered to shelter him with her umbrella as he headed to a telephone booth to make a call. He was touched that she did not mind getting her clothes wet to share her umbrella with a stranger.

He began to encounter more people who were different from him. I was one of them.

That incident left an imprint on my life. I was in my early twenties then, and often wondered about the purpose of my existence. I believe that man was sent to me to help me see my worth.

He had everything going for him, and yet he was struggling to find meaning in life. He wanted to live life fully, and not just exist. He thought that by achieving material success, he would find fulfilment. But he found that it was not true. I provided an opportunity for him to look into himself.

We chatted for a while and he left with what I had said to him. He told me that he had a lot of thinking to do.

That conversation gave me a little encouragement which I needed badly at that time. I went home awed by what had happened: a physically-abled man actually came to me to seek some answers. I was glad my father took his time otherwise I would not have had the opportunity to make a difference in that man’s life.

 There was another unforgettable encounter when I went to repair my braces or calipers. The man who was repairing it was a wheelchair-user. He was a drug addict who had given up on life. One day, he was so stoned that he slept on the railway track. A passing train crushed his legs.

 He may have lost his legs, but he found a new lease of life. He even got married and worked among the disabled.

He spoke to me one day and said: “You know, I really admire your bravery.”

I was taken aback and asked what he meant.

He replied: “You are the only girl I know who dares to wear skirts and shorts with your calipers on. I’m sure people would stare at your leg. Most people would cover their braces.”

I looked at him and said: “I have no reason to be ashamed of my braces and my leg. I’ve never felt the need to hide my braces.”

He nodded and smiled. He told me that I was strong and encouraged me to keep up the spirit.

During a visit to Penang years ago, I dropped by a bank to withdraw some cash. As I was waiting for my number to be called, an old lady who sat next to me initiated a conversation. She asked me where I had my caliper made.

She explained that her granddaughter was also a polio victim and was told to wear leg braces but they didn’t know where to get the braces. I gave her the address and she thanked me and told me that I was a brave girl. I asked her why.

She said she had seen few disabled persons like me walking around town. Most of them would stay home as they were reluctant to come out. She was glad to have met me. She wanted to encourage her granddaughter to come out of her shell and try to live a normal life.

Today, I realise I can make a difference as a disabled person. I have survived trials and traumas, and come out stronger. I can touch lives in simple or profound ways, and contribute to society, too.

I do not want to be like a tree that stands firmly on the ground but bears no fruits, with branches that cannot give shelter to birds, and no leaves to provide shade during a hot day. Just standing there, not living. Dried up and given up. I may be broken many times over but I’m not beaten.

I can make a difference for myself and among able-bodied people when I speak up or make my way into the able-bodied world.

My existence as a disabled person does make people wonder what their own lives are all about. That gives me a new sense of purpose and puts a spring into my every step.

Strength

Published in The Star (as Shining Star)

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Respect is a two-way Street

“The way you treat people shows your respect for them. In turn, you earn theirs.”

  ANWAR COURT-4

‘Invisible’ help: We need people like street sweepers and garbage collectors, who deserve some respect and recognition, too.

ONE morning as I was driving to work, the radio was on and one particular comment by the host of a programme caught my attention. The host said that you can judge the type of man a CEO is by the way he treats a waiter.   I guess, to some extent, it is true that how we treat others reflects on our character. Do we accord due respect to street sweepers, garbage collectors, toilet cleaners, waiters and the like?

I was reminded of an encounter I had at a food court some years ago. I used to visit this place at a shopping mall when I wanted a change for lunch. During one visit, I browsed the stalls one by one before deciding on my favourite dish – prawn noodles. After collecting my food, I looked around for a cosy spot.   I do enjoy having my meals alone, and this is something many people find difficult to understand. I consider it quality time – with myself – as I have the chance to savour my food, and enjoy its colours, smell and taste. Ah, the bliss of solitude!

As I sat there quietly enjoying my noodles, I noticed a few cleaners clearing the trays, bowls and glasses left by the lunch crowd. After I had finished eating, a cleaner came and quietly took my tray away. I looked at him, smiled and thanked him. He seemed too shy to respond. As he continued to wipe the table in front of me, I thanked him again and went on my way.

A week later, I was at the same food court and went through the same ritual of ordering my food and looking for an empty table. I ate my meal and the same cleaner came to clear my tray. Again I smiled and thanked him. This time, he smiled back.

A couple of days later, I went back to the same place for a bowl of assam laksa. As I was walking towards the food court, I could see a man waving at me from afar. He was indicating that there was a vacant table. It was the cleaner I had greeted and thanked!

As I neared, he started wiping not only the table but the seat as well. I felt so undeserving and humbled by that simple gesture of a stranger whom I had done nothing for except smiled at and said thank you to. I looked at him and he smiled shyly. I said thank you to him once more and he quickly walked away.

(By the way, after that day, I never saw him again. My regret was not asking his name and affirming him for a job well done. My hope is that God will bless him and that his life will be better because he deserves better.)

That day I learnt a valuable lesson about respect for another human being. No matter who a person is and what kind of work he does, he deserves respect and recognition. Not only will it make his day but mine as well.

We always forget that a simple smile or nod or even friendly eye contact can communicate respect and recognition. These are basic things we have been taught since young. They give dignity to every human being. Because I smiled and thanked the cleaner, he did something for me which I never expected.

But nowadays, things are very different. Many adults do not show simple manners like smiling or saying “thank you” when someone holds the lift or opens the door for them. They just walk out, as if the door was being held by an invisible person.

My sister and I tell ourselves to perform an act of kindness every day and it has become a habit. Once she helped the supermarket workers push a long line of trolleys.   Of course, they were surprised and other shoppers wondered what she was doing. I was proud of her because that started our day on a positive note.

I was also very proud of what my niece, then six years old, did. We were in the washroom when she noticed a lady throwing tissue on the floor, instead of into the bin provided. She turned and commented about the lady. Embarrassed, the latter picked up her tissue. Did it really need a child to point out the adult’s irresponsible act?

Once I told my niece to express appreciation to the “kakak” who helped keep the washrooms clean – and she did, by thanking her. If you were the kakak, wouldn’t that have made your day better? I think that sort of affirmation and appreciation made her feel that her job was important – which it is indeed.

Do we take for granted people who take on jobs that most others don’t want? Without these wonderful people, we would not have clean toilets, clean tables, clean roads, and garbage-free homes. Without them, our lives would be chaotic. Do we give them the respect they deserve? Do we give them the respect that we believe we deserve?

We are all CEOs and how we treat a waiter reflects our attitude. I have deliberately taken jobs washing dishes, served and worked in community service, and have learnt about people’s attitude and my own. Lots of people think their money can buy everything, including respect. Wrong! Respect really has to be earned!

I still have lots to learn about respect but these lessons I encounter every day are my best teachers. Who knows, the waiter, toilet cleaner or that stranger could become a CEO or someone who might even save your life one day – all because you smiled at him/her. I believe what goes around comes around, whether you ask for it or not.

 

 “Everyone in society should be a role model, not only for their own self-respect, but for respect from others.” – Barry Bonds

 

Catherine Lim

Published in The Star
Thursday July 19, 2012

Keys To Happiness

“A young pianist finds her calling in life, as she coaxes sweet music from the ivory keys.”

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ONE recent afternoon, my sister and I took a drive down to Malacca to visit a special friend. It has been a while since we last met. Besides, we love that historical city with its quaint charm.

We arrived in the early evening and Jonker Walk was still quiet. So we headed straight to our friend’s house.   As we neared Alethea’s house, a neightbour spotted us and told us that Alethea’s grandmother was at another neighbour’s house. Madam Lai hurried over to meet us when she heard that we were visiting.

She was pleasantly surprised to see us, and quickly ushered us into her house with characteristic hospitality. Alethea was having her dinner.  Madam Lai could hardly surpress her excitement as she told us that Alethea had passed her Grade 5 piano exam. She proudly showed us the certificate.

Well, Alethea did not just pass her Grade 5 – she scored a distinction! My sister and I were so happy for her.   I  hugged Alethea and congratulated her on her achievement. You see, Alethea is blind and she plays by ear.

She performs in the evening just outside her house, and she earns a living that way. I am momentarily transported to another realm when I sit down to listen to Alethea coaxing beautiful music out of the ivory keys. Her passion for her craft is palpable.   To me, Alethea puts sighted people to shame, especially those who are not willing to work to earn their keep.

She is proof that we can achieve anything we set our hearts on. I admire her confidence, humility and intelligence. I love it when she regales us with stories of her travels with her grandmother. She obviously enjoys travelling.

When I see Alethea, I am humbled because I have eyes but I may not always see life as clearly as she does. The inner vision of my heart is sometimes clouded by worldly distractions.
Alethea lives a simple life, thankful for every blessing that comes her way. I believe she has so much to offer, and I pray that she will have a bright future ahead of her.

Later that evening, Alethea played some short classical pieces which my sister gave her a year or two ago. Mesmerised, I soaked in the sweet strains of music that saturated the air. Appreciative passers-by and tourists readily dropped their contributions in a box placed nearby.

Alethea exudes joy as she performs modern and classical pieces. She gives her best every day. She spends at least two hours practising daily.

Alethea is an inspiration to me, and each time I think of her, my little imperfections – I had polio when I was one, and now walk with leg braces – pale into insignificance. She helps me to see my own strengths, gifts, and self-worth. And in doing so, I begin to see the true worth in others, too.

As I am writing this, my heart beats a little faster, knowing that I have acknowledged my true self. I thank God for the privilege of knowing Alethea and her grandmother. She is a reminder of what true strength is all about.

IMG_0613

  Alethea Loh, 21, plays with a passion that is almost palpable.

Published in The Star
11 October 2012
Catherine Lim

From Baggage to Blessings (Part 2)

reaching-out-helping-others

I carried all the resentment and hurts with me into my teens. I still questioned my existence and wondered  why I was always misunderstood and not loved. I wanted to be accepted, and to lead a normal life.   Was my leg the only issue? Was I a curse to my parents? I began to believe that I was a burden and  a bad omen because the people around me treated me differently.

Why was I different? What can I do to be accepted? How can I make myself visible to people around me?  These questions came pounding relentlessly during my growing up years.   I was crying inside. I wanted so much to be like everyone else. My relationship with my parents took  a turn for the worse. I resented them for bringing me into this world. I didn’t ask to be born and I didn’t ask to be crippled. My very soul was crippled. I was struggling to accept myself  and my own disability. I began to hate my very existence.

When I was 11, my parents moved into their own house. However, my struggles continued.   Whenever my mum asked me to do something, I would fight back or do just the opposite.  I was 16 then and didn’t know how to handle the hatred that was burning inside me.    I used to cry in my room, which was my sanctuary, and threw things around to release my anger.  I found it difficult to open up to my parents and kept largely to myself.

I grew up alone and coped with my problems as best as I could. No one knew what was happening to me.  I enjoyed going to school because it was my only escape. I never had the chance to go to the movies or hang out with friends. My parents did not allow me out of the house after school, except for religious functions.   I began to question my faith in the Creator. I did not believe in anything.  I looked forward to having visitors in the house because I was lonely and wanted some attention.   I could not understand why my mum hated me when I was her only child.   My dad, who didn’t like trouble, would leave the house whenever my mum and I quarreled.

My relationship with my dad was strained after he went to work outstation.   I was no longer his little girl and he began to treat me like a stranger. He didn’t hug me anymore.   My conservative parents felt that all this show of affection were for Westerners.    Compliments and affirmations would only spoil me, so I didn’t get any.

Now when I look back decades later, I began to see things from my parents’ perspective.   I have grown in maturity after years of soul-searching following a turbulent childhood and teenage-hood.  I found emotional healing and reconciled with my Maker. That brought on a new sense of purpose  as I discovered the gift of life and learnt to treasure every day.

Along the way, I discovered, too, my fondness for children. I could relate easily to the little ones and their innocence warmed my heart to the core. Children place their trust in adults.  They need all the guidance and love they can get, and a nurturing environment that will instill   good core values to help them navigate the stormy seas of life.

As an adult now, I understand why my parents reacted the way they did.  They were a product of the cultural upbringing and economic circumstances of their time.    Today, my aged parents and I speak the same language. We have learnt to hug each other,   and express our love for each other with words and gestures.    They are very proud of me, and I love them dearly.

It was only when I learnt to love myself, that I was able to love others in return.   Having a disability does not stop me from making the most of what life has to offer.   I find great fulfillment in helping others who are in need, for I was once in their shoes.   Now I have stepped out from the shadows, and life is looking brighter than ever.   I not only exist, but I have given disability a new meaning.

Published in The Star
19 January 2012
Signed as Shining Star

From Baggage to Blessings (Part 1)

selfworth

“Adversity builds character, and that’s one of life’s painful lessons.”

RECENTLY as I was chatting with an able-bodied friend, she mentioned something which made me think about my life. She was sharing how upsetting it was to read about children being abused and killed; of violence here and there. She also talked about how some people made a difference by giving themselves unconditionally in the name of peace, love and humanity. Then she remarked: “You know, some of us are just existing, not living.” It got me pondering about the meaning of the word “exist”?

As I look back on my past, I remember how hard it was to try and exist. I wanted so much to be taken seriously. It was tiring and discouraging to be considered a burden to people closest to me. Every time I did something that upset people around me, I received comments like: “You’re a real burden” or “You are nothing but trouble.”

I was a cute, cuddly, hyperactive baby. I would tire any adult who carried me. When I was one year old, I contracted polio. No one had told my parents about polio vaccination. My parents were young and were not aware of the medical help that I could have gotten. They tried their best to find a cure for me through alternative medicine but nothing seemed to work.

I was hospitalised for months. To add to their nightmare, one day, my parents were involved in an accident while on their way to the hospital to visit me. They were on a bike, and sustained minor injuries when they were knocked down by a car.

I was a very mischievous kid. I ran, climbed, and fought with the neighbourhood children.

I turned rebellious when my dad was away for three years and mum paid less attention to me. I was often punished with the cane. That did not deter me from speaking out. An aunt once told me that I should only be seen, not heard. More harsh words and spanking followed. An uncle even threatened to beat me up to teach me a lesson for being naughty.

I ran and hid from this particular uncle for one whole day, to avoid punishment. Dad was not around to protect me. I was only nine years old then. I felt all alone, with no assurance of love from the adults around.

I looked forlornly at the neighbourhood children who were always getting hugs and compliments from their parents. I had no such affirmation. I felt dejected.

“Do I really exist? Who am I?” I asked myself.

After school, I would take a quick lunch, do my homework and then babysit my cousin. This particular aunt had other teenage children but they were not required to help around. They were nice cousins though, and played with me whenever I had some free time.

My mum was working for a relative, while my dad was away. Mum had a hard life. On top of that, she had to cope with a disabled child who was hyperactive. She was torn between her loyalty to my grandmother and her love for her only child. I had to pay the price. Whenever I was considered naughty, I would be caned without a thought.

The caning was not one or two strokes, but a series of strokes. I was not allowed to cry otherwise it would invite more caning. So I endured the beating without a tear.

I was once punished and made to peel big bags of prawns till my fingers became wrinkled and bled. What a life for a nine-year-old! I couldn’t understand why my mum didn’t protect me. I started to resent my parents and all the adults who had hurt me in one way or another.

One day, an old relative from overseas dropped by for a visit. She adored me. She liked my smile and showered me with attention. When I was mischievous, she would advise me. I quickly grew fond of her.

She would step in to protect me whenever I was about to be spanked. She pointed out to the adults that I was just a child and that all children are mischievous.

“A child needs love, understanding and assurance, and not the cane,” she would tell the adults. However, her wise words fell on deaf ears. She stayed with us for a month before she returned home. That was the last time I saw her; she passed away years later.

…….. to be continued…….

Rising From the Ashes (Part 2)

up-from-the-ashes

………Life continued and I lived as I would like any girl. Looking for relationship, someone who would accept me for who I was. I was disappointed, jilted, hurt, you name it. I hated men as I hated my father. I hated most women as I hated my mother.

That didn’t stop me either. I continued to do what I did and enjoy the freedom I had.   Over the years, I began to have this urge to discover myself internally. Within me, there was this belief that I am worth something and I can be something; most importantly, happy and confident.. I wanted to walk tall and proud and just be me.

As I grew older, I desired to be better and wanted all the more to break free from the devil and negative emotions and behaviours I had inside. I was interested in the psychology of the human mind. My mind was so tortured, I needed to do something. I could spend hours sitting in a mall and just observing people and thought why these people who are physically perfect not smiling.. What is so bad about their life? I began to look inside of the human particularly myself. I read books and would seek spiritual advice too.

That desire to be free took me to many more adventures and I have found many wonderful friends, acquaintances, strangers and good samaritans. The not so kind ones also taught me valuable lessons about life; Never to be like them!

Today, as an adult, I am a totally different person. I love being me with a physical disability which is a blessing in disguise. I see myself in a different light. I am able to embrace each day knowing the God has a BIGGER PLAN which you and I will never know until it happens.

When I see children, I see their beauty of being a child. Children should just be them, they are the greatest teachers to me. They teach me to be simple, forgiving, happy, love unconditionally and so much more.   Adults confused children as I was confused by adults in my life. They make life so difficult for themselves hence their children.

Physical disability is a blessing because it has taught me painful but valuable lessons about me and what I am capable of. I stand proud eventhough not straight, with my chin up and a big smile on my face.

My life has been painful and many times traumatic. My whole world collapsed a few times, but I managed, through my stubbornness and spirit within to fight for survival.

GIVING UP LIFE IS AN OPTION! I have fallen into the dark pits so often, I could have given up but I didn’t.

I have forgiven my parents as they were just doing what they know best in their circumstances and their ignorance. Most importantly, I have forgiven myself. I love me! When I love me, I love others around me.

Today, I coach those who need my help because I understand the struggles inside and get out of the dark pits of life. All one needs to do is make a choice.

LIFE IS GOOD AND WILL BE… There are two sides to life, which do you choose. I chose the better and brighter one! I want to always shine even when the sky is dark.

Published on 28 July 2011 – the Star

Rising From the Ashes (Part 1)

Being a physically different had really made my life not worth living, or so I thought. Struggling to find my identity and to be accepted in society had taken me to many painful, uphill journeys.

I struggled to seek my own identity since I was young as I was deemed a bad luck and someone who would never make herself useful in life.. Being female made it worst because I would not be deemed marriageable as no man nor no in-law would want a handicapped bride.

Applying for work was also an uphill journey. Some interviewers, God bless them, would either look at my qualification then looked at me down up then offer low rates. There was once the interviewer would not even look at me (this one I will never forget), which happened to be in a reputable hotel. I then also did not have much confidence in my ability to get high paying jobs as I believed I wasn’t qualified either, in every aspect.

However, I had held jobs which I took for experience and for survival reasons. I had to get out of my home, away from family. I had to find my freedom where I wanted to just be me.   Every corner I looked, people would look at me differently. Although I had good employers I also had very mean ones. Good employers loved me for my cheerful personality. Inside I was crying, depressed, unhappy, self-hate. I just could not break free.

To make my life interesting, I took on other activities like charity works, church activities, tuition (teaching English), etc…     Socially, I would love to blend but others would not. For me, it had made me feel smaller and smaller over time. I had no one to turn to and no one who would understand. I was all by myself. I spent time in my room most of the time and I would just read or listen to songs. I spent a lot of time contemplating suicide. I hated me and God.

As a child, I was hyperactive despite my disability. I wanted to play sports but was refrained because my mother told the headmistress not to let me play. I could only sit and watch. I love to run and play but in school I couldn’t. I was totally controlled by my mother. I could take part in school activities because that would mean, my father had to take me and that would be burdensome for him. Staying home was the only solution for them.

I was rebellious and also fearful at the same time with life… My inner struggle had caused my self hate. I had no desire to study because I was deemed unintelligent by my teachers, peers and my own family did not bother to encourage but condemned. I was never good enough for anything. I was even compared with neighbours’ children.

The moment I finished secondary school, I started looking for work. I was told by my family that economically, there was no way, I could further my studies like my classmates so I was on my own. I attended interviews and depended a lot on my father to send me. Again, he would complain and I just gritted my teeth.

Whenever I can, I would struggle to walk out of the house and take a bus, during the weekends, in the morning and come back late at night. I just didn’t want to stay home. Quarrels and shouts would be heard but I didn’t care. I want to be free. My parents wanted to control me but I fought even harder to break free. Eventually, I had problems with my leg, as I had put so much strain that it gave me problems and I had to wear braces.

 

                                                                                    Part 2….. coming next…..

Published on 28 July 2011 – “The Star”