Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Three years of drumming

At 4+ years old, Caitlin started drumming because she pestered us like mad for it. Before we found her a child-friendly teacher, my pots and pans suffered a lot of dents and the neighbours above and below our apartment probably had to wear ear plugs with all the clanging she made. This is what she looked like then at her first drum lesson with Teacher Andrew.

Three years later, which is now, she will be taking her Grade 2 exam next month. She has so far been able to learn quite easily but the problem is getting her to be more diligent in practising.

I'm worried if she can pass the exam. She did last year in Grade 1, learning the pieces six months ahead and practising hard only two weeks before the exam. This year she started learning nine months ahead and exam is three weeks away. Still no hard practice in sight. Teacher Andrew says she should be able to pass but she can do better if she practises more....

She enjoys playing (when she feels like it) and going for lessons but does not like practising. For me, it's a challenge to draw the line between allowing freedom of enjoyment and encouraging/enforcing compulsory practice. I don't want to make learning and practising a chore because I've been down that road myself as a music student. And I'm disturbed when I see other parents pushing their kids hard to do well in everything.

Caitlin now:

My toddler's gone!! Oh no....

Where's my cute, sweet, adorable toddler gone? I've been missing her for a number of years now. Gone are the days when I used to be the centre of her universe, when she clung to me and came to me for everything, wth her cute babyish voice calling "mummy, mummy..." I do miss those toddler years.

Caitlin is eight years old today. "I'm eight years old! I'm a big girl now!" she declared this morning as she came downstairs for breakfast before heading off to school. I thought to myself, "yeah, yeah, big girl....if only...then I'd be free of headaches and stress in nagging her to eat, do her homework, practise her music, sending her for classes..."

She is still cute, sweet and adorable but not as much as before. The 'not as much' part is when she is mischievous, cheeky, defiant, talks back and prefers to do her own thing. Books and toys are the centre of her universe. She'll only use her cute babyish voice calling "mummy, mummy" when she wants something badly. Ha ha ha.

Happy Birthday, my princess. I pray you will always be the clever, fun-loving and sensitive person you are. Keep your inquiring mind and depth of thought, and learn to be more focused, independent and not give up when things get tough.

Caitlin at 15 months, Jan 2004:

Friday, October 22, 2010

True story of Kal Raman : CEO who studied under streetlights

When we complain that we don't have enough and that life is hard, we need to be reminded that there are others who have less and their lives are more difficult. I received this via email and thought it's a good story to share.

From studying under the streetlights to CEO of a US firm!

Here is the rags-to-riches story of an extremely talented boy from a small village in Tamil Nadu who has risen to be the chief executive officer of a company in Seattle , USA . It is also the story of how Kalyana Raman Srinivasan, who was so indigent that he had to study under a streetlight, but then managed to score excellent marks, rose in life and became today's Kal Raman.

At every turn in his life, he took the difficult path and it turned out to be the right one and in the right direction. His rise to the top is more dramatic than a thriller. Today, he is a very successful entrepreneur and the founder-CEO of GlobalScholar.

Read his extraordinary story of triumph and determination . . .

Difficult childhood

Kal Raman was born and brought up in a small village called Mannarakoil in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. It was a comfortable normal middle class life for him and his siblings as his father was a Tahasildar there.

But the sudden death of his father at the age of 45 changed everything overnight.

Kal was 15 then. "My mother got a pension of Rs 420 a month and you can imagine how tough it is to educate four children and feed five mouths with Rs 420?"

Hi life changed dramatically after his father's death. The family moved from the rented house to a hut that had no proper water supply or electricity. Kal Raman remembers, "All of us used to study under the streetlight and, thank god, the streetlights used to work those days! MGR (M G Ramachandran) was the chief minister then. We had to sell the plates to buy rice to eat and my mother used to give us rice in our hands. That bad was our situation."

But his mother, who had studied till the 8th standard, was very particular that her children studied. "All our relatives wanted my elder brother to stop studying and take up the small job offered by the government but my mother wanted him to continue studying."

"Then they wanted me to learn typewriting and shorthand so that I could get some job after the 10th standard. But mother said, 'My children are going to get the best education I can offer. Education is our salvation.' She was my hero for her vision and she still is my hero."

What kept the family going? "We were sad but because we accepted our fate, we were at peace with whatever that happened to us. We knew our father would not come back to lift us up from poverty. We also knew our salvation was a long way away."

He didn't know why he used to tell his mother, "One day I will give you so much money that you will not know what to do with it!" Years later, he did exactly that!

First turning point in life

Kal Raman believes that God played a hand in all the major turning points in his life. The first turning point in life was after his 12th standard. He got good marks in both the engineering and medicine entrance exams, and for engineering, he got admission at the Anna University in Chennai while for medicine, it was in the Tirunelveli Medical College .

"While going in the bus with my mother to join the medical college, I told her, "If I join for medicine here, the high probability is that my life may begin and end in Tirunelveli. I really want to see the world.' She agreed with my decision to go to Chennai and join Anna University and study Electrical Engineering and Electronics."

So, he stepped into a new world outside Tirunelveli, and that was Chennai. Though he had got merit scholarship and a lot of good people helped him pay the initial fee, the scholarship amount never used to reach him regularly or on time.

"The mess fee was Rs 250 a month and I used to be a defaulter in the mess at least six months in a year. Till you pay the mess fee, you cannot eat in the mess. So, I used to live on day scholars' lunch boxes and also use to fast. That is when I learnt to fast ! I must say a lot of friends helped me with money and food."

Scarcity of money was so bad that he had no money to buy food just before the final semester exams. When he gave his final semester exams, he had not eaten for a day-and-a-half. "After finishing the exam, I almost fainted."

The day after the exams came all the scholarship money that was due and it was around Rs 5,000. "So, I went home a rich man and that helped us repay some loans."

First job

Like opting for Chennai and joining Anna University instead of a college in Tirunelveli, Kal Raman took another risk with his first job also. His first job was with Tata Consulting Engineers (TCE), and he had a choice of joining either Chennai or Mumbai.

Although he knew nobody in Mumbai, he chose the capital of Maharashtra .

He remembered the first day. "It was interesting. With bag and baggage, I went to the TCE office after taking a shower at the railway station as I had no money to go to any hotel. After the first introduction at the office, the manager noticed that I was wearing slippers to the office. He called me and said, "I don't care which college you are coming from but this is not acceptable. You should come in shoes tomorrow."

I said I couldn't come in shoes the next day and this the manager construed as arrogance. "How could you talk like this?" he asked me. I said, "Sir, it is not that I don't want to, but I can't afford to buy shoes. Only after I get my first pay cheque, can I buy shoes. Sir, I request you not to terminate my job because of this. I and my family need this job."

Shocked to hear the explanation, the manager asked, "Where are you staying?" and the reply was, "Dadar Railway Station."

So distressed was the manager to hear Kal speak that he immediately released a month's salary in advance and also arranged for him to be at his friend's place till he could find a place to stay.

"He bought me a pair of shoes and those were my first shoes. The next day, I sent Rs 1,500 from the advance to my mother."

From electrical engineering to programming

Kal's rise in career was meteoric in a short span of time. Within a month, he got a chance to move to Bengaluru (then Bangalore ) and also to programming.

Soon, he was in Chennai with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). Within a few months, he was sent to Edinburgh , UK .

From Edinburgh , his next stop was the United States . In 1992, he went to the US as an entry level contractor with Wal-Mart. In two years, he was a director running a division.

When he left Wal-Mart after six years, he was a man running the information systems for the International Division of the retail giant.

In 1998, he joined Online Pharmacy as the chief information officer and in 2001 at the age of 30, he was the CEO of the company.

He was at the right place at the right time. "God was there at every step guiding me to take the right decisions. I was also willing to take risks and tread new paths," Kal says.

Starting GlobalScholar

Philanthropist Mike Milken who had donated more than a billion dollars to education, wanted to use technology so that high quality education was accessible to ordinary people.

Milken convinced Kal to join him. That was the time Kal was building schools in his village for poor students.

In October 2007, GlobalScholar was launched targetting both teachers and students by acquiring four companies -- National Scholar (USA), Classof1 ( India ), Excelsior (USA), and Ex-Logica (USA) -- that were into education.

"Three months after the launch, I travelled all over the US , India , Singapore and China talking to teachers and companies and the public. I found that the only way to impact education was by impressing teachers. The biggest scarcity in the world is good teachers. We decided to help teachers with teaching practices and kids, learning practices."

Kal Raman decided to concentrate on the US market as the US is more advanced in using technology. "They are also willing to pay money for technology. At present, schools buy the material which can be used by teachers, students and parents."

Today, they have 200 people working for GlobalScholar in Chennai and 150 in the US . The study material is prepared in the Chennai office.

The company that was started with $50 million will have in excess of $32 million and will generate $5 million of profits. In 2008, the turnover of the company was Rs 40 crore (Rs 400 million) and in 2009, it was Rs 80 crore (Rs 800 million). In the current year it will be 150-160 crore (Rs 1.5-1.6 billion).

"GlobalScholar is growing at 200 per cent every year. We have 1,000 schools and 10 million students, which is one out of 10 kids in the US , using our study material. This is almost 18 per cent of the US population. We are the fastest growing education company in the US ."

GlobalScholar will soon introduce a pilot project in India and China . In the course of all this, Kalyana Raman became Kal Raman. "The country gave me everything and took half my name."

Giving back to society

Kal Raman is in India now for the Kumbhabhishekam of the temple at his village Mannarkoil. "It is taking place after 500 years. It is the culmination of two-and-a-half years of work. I have spent more than one and a half crore rupees (Rs 15 million) to renovate the temple and do the Kumbhabhishekam. More than anything else, I have given jobs to all my friends in the village who are masons and carpenters."

Other than this, he has also adopted all the orphanages around his village and he takes care of around 2,000 kids, some of whom are physically handicapped.

"I feel if I can educate these children, eventually we can make a difference in the society. We also help 100 children in their higher education. Around my village, everyone knows that if a kid who studies well cannot afford to pay fees, he has to only come to my house; his education will be taken care of."

"I do not do this as charity; its my responsibility. I am giving something back to the society that fed me, taught me, and took care of me and gave me hope. "

Monday, October 18, 2010

School story of the day

Early in the morning, someone naughty wrote using crayon on the class white board "All the 2 Aman (name of class) teachers are stu**d. From: I won't tell you my name."

A CSI-like investigation is about to be launched among a few classmates despite the fact that tomorrow, the year-end exam starts. The class teacher happens to be absent today. The 'reporter' suspects that she has gone on another date with her boyfriend as they are getting married next month.

When the teacher for the first period for the day arrived, all the boys posed in a dramatic posture and drew the teacher's attention to the board by making the sound effects of "ten, ten, ten, ten..." (5th of Beethoven intro). The disciplinary teacher came to the class and took photos of the crime scene and asked who did it. Of course no one owned up.

To be continued....


Inhale, exhale

I shall be very busy this week again. I guess it's an understatement since I'm busy every week, every day, and almost every hour. It's just that I'll be busier than usual. On top of the usual daily stuff, I'll be single parenting again this week. That means covering E's job of sending C to school in the morning, and walking Rusty.

Caitlin's school year-end exam starts tomorrow till Friday while her other extra classes still go on as usual. She's hardly studied for the exam, but I'm the one who is worrying like I'm taking the exam.

I've a 3,500-word report to write, due in three weeks' time which requires me to start ASAP while my memory is still fresh. Don't know where or how to start. Nine speakers' half-hour presentation each to consolidate...

Then, on Saturday, we're celebrating C's 8th birthday at home with family. That means planning the decor, games and food, plus it's a costume party so I need to make a costume for her and I guess mine will be a last-minute one. No time to bother what costume E will wear.

And the house is a mess and getting dustier by the day. My weekly hired cleaners will not come this week as I'll be out in the morning sending C to school (because E who sends her daily will not be around) and they are in such demand that they cannot reschedule if I am not available during the time allocated for me.

I must remember to stay calm and breathe.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Age matters

When you are a young child, you think you have a long, long time more ahead of you. And when you look at adults, you think they have lived for a very long time and imagine their past as so very long ago before you were born. And then, you always wish you could grow up faster to become an adult, mainly so that no one can tell you what to do and you can do as you please. At least that's what I remember of myself during my days as a kid.

When I was in primary school in the 70s, my classmates and I were hooked to these sci-fi TV series called Lost in Space and Space 1999. We would run about the grass lawn near our classroom aka the netball field during recess time, acting out the latest episode, each of us assuming a character in the show that we think we resemble in terms of looks (LOL!). The year 1999 seemed so futuristic at that time.

The cast of Space 1999

Now, I'm living in the 21st century. The year 1999 came and went 11 years ago. I was actively climbing the corporate ladder then. I had visited my brother in the United States (or was that in 1998?) and conquered Mt. Kinabalu. I was in love with this guy who is now my husband. There were no space ships or aliens in my midst like the TV series  in 1999, not even now. Bummer. How unexciting! 

When I look back, it really feels like so very long ago. It is what Caitlin refers to as 'the olden days'. Yes, it's her turn now as a young child, to have the notion that I've lived for a long time. And she views her grandparents as having lived even much longer, saying that I'm old but they are "eeeeven older" with emphasis of voice and facial expression on the word 'older'.

It's funny to get a glimpse of myself as a young child in my own child. Age-wise, she's one year short of the time when I was crazy about Space 1999. Maturity-wise, she's further ahead compared to when I was eight, growing up in a different era and being more exposed. But for an eight-year-old, or for me when I was a Space 1999 fan, nothing is impossible, and you go where your imagination takes you. I was Sandra (Benes), a data analyst because we both had the same hairstyle. We live in the here and now. Tomorrow has no worries, only dreams. I don't remember what I dreamed of becoming as an adult when I was eight or nine. I think I wanted to be a doctor or a veterinarian. Caitlin dreams of becoming a lead singer and musician in a Christian rock band. Before this, she wanted to be a veterinarian or zoologist. When she was four or five, she wanted to be an astronaut. I wonder what's next.

But she definitely views the past, the time before she was born, as a long, long time ago. She views Mummy and Daddy as 'old'. Just last night, we were chatting over a supper of 'char siew pau' and she asked me something about my past. Before I could answer, she said "You can't remember right, cos you are so old, 40-something already!"

I was amused. I told her 'no' and I could remember, and answered her question.

As they say, time flies. Ageing is a natural thing. You're only as old as you feel and think. We must continue to have the child-like characteristic of living in the here and now. Live in the moment, dream more, worry less.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Another busy week

These two weeks will see me burning the midnight oil as a number of writing jobs came in unexpectedly. I have an Oct 10th deadline for two long pieces and four short ones. I completed the two long ones on  Friday and yesterday. The next four should be done this week! On top of that, I have to catch up on stockpiling for my regular bi-weekly column in the local daily that I've been writing for since 2.5 years ago. I've really fallen behind for some time already and have just been giving one before every deadline. Then there's another one-day event next weekend to turn into words....that's a rather long piece with a one-month deadline...oh gosh....all for the much-needed money, of course.

It sure looks like my writing jobs are just like the current weather. When it rains, it pours, but in a positive way. That means I get to earn some extra money. Good timing for the year-end when expenses double or triple due to all the presents we have to get for Christmas, Caitlin's birthday in three weeks' time and maybe a trip that would be nice to go on during the school holidays.

C came home from school with a stuffy nose on Friday. It carried on till yesterday afternoon with the post-nasal drip giving her a cough. I think it's partly due to her not drinking enough water at school. So I've kept her home today hoping that by tomorrow the cough will reduce or be gone so that she can go back to school. Right now, she is enjoying breakfast in front of the tv....

It's hard to work with one talkative kid around the house, and one who doesn't do as I say nine out of ten times. I can't write with someone interrupting my thoughts all the time. And it's also hard when I have distracting thoughts on what to cook for dinner, what needs to be done around the house, and watching the clock on getting C from school, to her music lessons etc....I'm amazed at those who can write anytime, anywhere. For me, I need the mood, the inspiration, peace and quiet and sometimes the 'lightbulb' moment.

I have to remind myself to live moment by moment, one day at a time. That's what I've been doing ever since I became a stay-at-home mother. It's hard to plan way, way ahead when you have other lives to be responsible for. It could be possible if one's responsibilities are more focused and not 'all over the place' , having to juggle almost everything form A-Z. Many SAHMs are like that, especially those who don't have anyone to help.  That's the norm in most western countries where labour is expensive and househelpers are only for the rich. But in the Malaysian context, most SAHMs would have some form of help from either extended family or paid help like maid or maids.

When I compare myself to other SAHMs who don't have outside help like me, and have more than one kid and even more amazingly, homeschool all of them, I'm thankful that at least I have part-time cleaners who come once a week and spend two hours cleaning my house. They don't do the perfect job but what can one expect when I only get them for two hours a week.

So, the mantra so to speak will continue to be 'cross the bridge when I come to it'!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Roti Jala and Chicken Curry

As I was going to be busy on Thursday, Cooking Thursdays took place on Wednesday this week instead. Although I had earlier planned to try out new recipes on Thursdays, it has turned out that I was doing it on non-Thursdays instead lately, like last week when I made strawberry cheesecake on Saturday.

I'd been meaning to try making roti jala for some time now. I had planned to make it earlier on Malaysia Day two weeks ago but that didn't materialise and since I had time on Wednesday, I took the opportunity.

The recipe for roti jala is very simple, but you need the roti jala making utensil to produce the net-like pancake. 'Jala' means 'net', 'roti' refers to 'bread' usually but is used here although it's more like a pancake.

The utensil can be bought from most super/hypermarkets or shops that cater to cooking/baking needs. I bought mine for around RM1.50 more than a year ago. Yes, that long ago and only now I'm using it! This is what it looks like.

Alternatively, a good substitute would be a mayonnaise dispenser with a row of nozzles which looks like this. I saw it at the Daiso shop here which sells every item for RM5.

After using the utensil I have, I'm thinking that maybe the mayo dispenser bottle could work better, unless it's my inexperienced hands that's the problem. When I dripped the batter onto the pan with the utensil, somehow the 'strips' that were created tend to spread and join up, filling up the gaps between each line. Not sure how to describe it actually but the end result gives you a pancake that looks like the regular pancake you make with too few netting-like holes. Maybe the batter was not thick enough thus making it 'run' around the pan?

Anyway, they improved a bit after the initial pieces and looked closer to the professionally-made ones after I folded them into triangles. You can also roll them up like in the recipe and video of the mayo bottle (click on the two links above).