Caught in an epidemic…

When an epidemic strikes, it attacks both the rich and the poor alike. Living in HongKong during the Corona Virus outbreak has opened my mind to the realities in life I took for granted. Experiences I had heard of are now a reality for me living here.


Now Hong Kong is closely connected to China by several bullet trains, flights and ferry services. Wuhan to Hongkong is a crucial rail link. Trains from and passing through Wuhan were running till Jan 23rd 2020 carrying with it several passengers who may have unknowingly brought the virus.


HongKong has reported 36 confirmed cases with only one death so far(Feb 10th 2020). The recent instances identified had no connection with China or Wuhan, prompting that there may be others who are infected by local transmission. The government, to avoid the spread of the virus, has declared that schools and colleges be closed till Mar 2nd 2020 with online classes and students being given assignments to do at home . As of now, many offices, including government establishments, are working with the majority of staff working from home.


Memories of the SARS epidemic are still fresh in peoples mind. We can see people taking care of themselves with masks and sanitizers. Unfortunately, masks have run out in HK. We had to buy ten masks for HKD 150, which is about USD 20, each mask is USD 2. The cost of masks is way beyond the means of the poor. One of my friend’s conviction of sharing her masks with the poor, who do not have them has prompted me to think of what I would do in a similar situation.

My dad was a doctor working in the rural villages in Tamil Nadu, India. We lived in a hospital campus, which was 25 KM from the nearest town and 150 Km from the nearest City. This meant supplies were got only when we went to town or the City. Cuts & bruises were a part of life, growing up in a carefree safety net free world those days. I had also accompanied my dad when he went on medical missions to interior villages.

There were times supplies were over, and treatment had to be administered. My dad and his team would come up with alternatives. Boiling instruments or pressure cooking them were methods they used. Using instruments and linen, boiled, meant that only viruses, bacteria or germs that can withstand 100 degrees centigrade could be found. Pressure cooking these killed more germs as the temperature is higher with additional pressure. Most of the instruments, including cloth masks, were reused with boiling and pressure cooking.

Now, why can’t I use thick cotton or woollen scarf as a mask. Corona Virus is said to be transmitted by the water droplets produced by those infected. It can reach our body when we are in the direction of their sneeze, or we touch articles that were in the way of their sneeze and accidentally touched our eyes and face. A thick scarf would prevent my sneeze from infecting others or being infected with others’ sneeze.

Most masks are disposable, and we feel safe when the mask is thrown away in the trash just as we reach home. Disposing of a scarf after every use is not practical. So how can I be sure I am not carrying the virus home. A safe way would be to remove the scarfs and boil/ pressure cook them for five to ten minutes and drying them.

Will I be doing enough… I am not sure, but I know that this is the best I can do to take care of my self. Personally, I feel comfortable, reusing boiled/ pressure cooked scarfs instead of reusing disposable masks or going out without a mask.

Where is Home?

On a ride back home, our teenage son’s casual remark ‘I don’t think I am an Indian’ caught our attention. My son’s reasons, he did not know Hindi: Understandable coming from Tamil Nadu where it’s not the everday language and efforts to make him learn as a second language failed as circumstance killed his interest.

Secondly, the fact that he cannot handle the heat (Used to Chennai heat, spoiled by Jakarta temperatures and not able to handle Vietnam summer). It was an exciting conversation, but it brought up the question of where is home? When we were planning to move countries, those who had already moved spoke about the ‘Third culture child’. So who is a third culture child? It is somebody who is not sure where their roots are when asked the question where is home for you?.

I was born in Bariatu, Ranchi ( that’s in my passport). After about six months, my dad’s job took me to Pune(Maharashtra – six months), Nuzwid(Andhra Pradesh, one year), RUHSA(Vellore for about fifteen years). USA for a year when I was 5 yrs old. My college studies took me to Chennai for five and a half years. My job took me to Bangalore where I spent the next three years of my life. After getting married, my husband’s job took us to Gurugramam for a year, then Chennai before we finally moved out of India to Semarang, Indonesia. Next stop was Jakarta,Indonesia, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and currently in Hongkong. So where is Home for us?

Home is where people go for their holidays. So during, recent holidays when my husband said he was going home, people understood it as India when my husband meant Vietnam. An unexpected job assignment from my husband’s company required him to move to HongKong immediately. With my job and my son’s school commitments, we decided to join my husband on a later date. There were speculations that my husband may have a Vietnamese wife as they could not understand how Vietnam can be home for Indians. The reality is he has an Indian wife and son who called Vietnam their home then.

Today having travelled and moved countries we are grateful for the opportunities and experiences life has offered us… some unique to those who choose to move… visiting countries is exciting but learning the culture of a country staying there makes us a better person.. we learn tolerance… we learn to respect each other in spite of our differences… we honour each other’s traditions and culture…

Today trips to India are exciting to meet extended family but the flight back is what we look forward to as we are going home…

Challenges of making a house our home…

when moving countries

  • There will be a lot of giving and taking – be clear on your priorities.
  • Decorate the house in such a way you would want to live there; however, short your stay is. During the transition, I make the houses we stay still feel like a home.
  • For more extended stays, buy items that reflect your personality but be careful that you don’t regret it in the next move.
  • Comfort for the mundane is a priority. I needed a second refrigerator to store my Indian spices and groceries. I went ahead, bought it. Sold it on the next move; don’t kill yourself trying to manage without it.
  • There is a constant “taking stock” of what we want vs what we need. We draw a balance by getting some items we want but don’t need, while others may be required but we chose to live without them.
  • Connect and make friends. For us, church is where we get connected and feel at home. The challenge is trying to belong, but over time we figure out and have developed skills unique to constantly being on the move.

Work life Balance

It’s mother’s day…. a casual conversation in the lift …led to an interview the same evening and a job offer…. My status changed from a stay at home mom to an working mom…before the change could sink in I was at work three days later… my years of planning to how I would manage my life after I get back to work didn’t seem to make sense….life had changed …. This was one year ago….

Exciting as it was, the challenges were real and striking a balance was not easy… Looking back a year later…on Mother’s Day it’s ironic to know that As my status changed from a stay at home mom to a working mom on Mother’s Day…..I am a mom first…. As I started accommodating a new software job into my daily routine, after a break of fifteen years the reality of going back to working started sinking in…. The no of little enjoyable activities I had to let go was daunting. This while facing the mammoth challenges that lay ahead of me, technically, physically and emotionally was a journey I learnt to enjoy…

Just after my studies I got a dream job and was working full time on a software job….. I took a break from my software job when my son was born , which to me was more than a regular full time job…. you are on duty 24 x 7… As my son grew , I was intentional in making him independent. This gave me more time on hand… but circumstances did not allow me to take up a full time job….This did not stop me from having my calendar full doing things I enjoyed. As years progressed they involved getting out of the house and taking up activities which challenged me. So technically I was working full time.

Now getting back to a ‘full time job’- working eight hours in one office….it just feels that what occupies my working day has changed. I still decide what I get to do on a particular day, earlier it was family and my personal choices, it’s still is the same, though is it revolves around my schedule at work.

Does it mean all of a sudden everything takes a back seat and work is priority. Yes and No. Yes because most of the waking hours I am at work and it takes my whole attention. It started with 12 hours initially including my commute to office… now it’s better about 9 hours a day. No because my priorities are still the same. My family and my personal needs don’t get compromised because I am now working. Though my priorities have not changed, the way I achieve this has definitely changed. I still make sure we get three meals but it’s not those elaborate time consuming delicacies I made but quick healthy and hopefully tasty food sometimes not made by me. I miss my workouts at the gym though I still make time for a quick one and am working on getting it into my daily routine to name a few…

What definitely I have learnt is to use my time wisely. One thing that I really miss is my writing. Writing for me needs the calm and quietness of long hours which helps me gather my thoughts which seems to be a premium now…

Thoughts to ponder as you think of work life balance…

  • Don’t let people define you by what your job is- explore new avenues
  • Keep working on your skills and acquire new skills
  • Think out of the box
  • Find opportunities to put your skills to work
  • Run your house as a corporate business
  • Work on your confidence, you cannot satisfy all your families desires
  • Learn to remain positive in spite of the changes and challenges
  • Realign with the expectation of the kind of job you can fit in
  • Be ready to take a drop in the designation and compensation
  • Keep your eyes and ears open you never know where your opportunity lies
  • Don’t belittle any opportunity you get but be sure of what you want….

Do we know what we are eating?

As I was cleaning my kitchen shelf this morning my stored asofetida caught my attention. It had 30% maida. The package that caught my attention was the one I bought in my hometown Chennai. I was happy that finally Indian products were starting to have the ingredient list. I checked my current package which was bought in Jakarta and was suprised to see how it’s ingredients were described differently. Wheat starch sure sounds healthier than maida. 

This is not something I use in large quantities but it triggered my topic for today, What are we eating?
Having grown in the villages of India where fresh unadultared produce was freely available, I can spot the difference. I miss the tastes of my childhood. I remember how plain stirfried cabbage with just a green chili and salt would tickle my senses. It was never my favorite but I still loved it.  When I was small I was annoyed when my parents would buy only fresh local produce. They would tell me the other did not taste well. Today it’s my turn, they were right!!!

When the milk powder and margarine have palm oil, mock chicken and lamb have no trace of chicken and lamb, not sure where the chicken and lamb on the menu is actually real or mock, when the rice and egg we eat have plastic and the beautifully gorgeous looking vegetables have absolutely no taste because they maybe  genetically modified, going organic may seem the safe bet. 

I’m sure that all the organic products, you get in the market is 100% organic? We can be sure only if  we grow and produce everything we eat ( I know people who are doing that). Is this the life we want? Secondly the organic and good quality produce available in the markets are so expensive that even if we are aware there is the question of affordability?  So where do we draw the line? Some tips to reduce the harm we cause ourselves. 

1. Have kitchen gardens when space is available. 

2. Whenever possible prepare everything from scratch, including sauces and spice powders.  Homemade French fries are better than the ones we pick on the go.

3. Buy good quality produce whenever possible and available.  We need to realize not everybody can afford the best so never look down on people who are not eating like us.            When calculating costs include the medical costs incurred because of our bad eating habits.

4.  Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean its the best unless I have grown it.

5.   Just because it’s vegetarian doesn’t mean its better. According to me butter is still healthier than margarine. Chicken is better than mock chicken. 

6.  Just because the package says it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s not artificially flavored. I was amused when I bought a natural flavor microwave popcorn which was artificially flavored. 

7. A longer shelf life means it’s likely to have a lot of preservatives.

8. Too much of anything is bad. It’s about balancing.

9. Above all trust your instincts and taste buds, they usually don’t lie!

Empowering Vs Protecting 

When you have a thirteen year old going on fourteen, the question on our mind is

  • How much do I empower?
  • Do I just protect my child ?
  • How much do I push?
  • When do I hold back?

This is a struggle we face almost every day, from helping them find their socks to what they do online. The pressures and challenges of life, along with the teenage blues can become a nightmare or an enjoyable phase in our lives.  It is that phase when we see our child blossom into a young adult, as they progress through these teenage years. Some values which are helping us enjoy this phase are

1. Help them develop their Identity by allowing them to choose early.

‘How early’ would be the next question? From the day they can make choices and I should say its child specific and parent specific. Start as early as possible. One of the first choices kids want to make is the clothes they wear. I remember our
son crying he did not like the clothes we picked up but wanted only full length jeans and some round neck T-shirts. We realized it was not a tantrum but to do with his identity. It next went to the colors he liked.  Already the choice for boys is limited and now our son made it narrower. We wanted to see our son in shorts and shirts, formal wear but he did not like it.  Once we gave in he would accept the boundaries we set. Though jeans and a round neck T-shirt were ok most of the time, there were occasions where he was expected to wear formals etc which were nonnegotiable. As they were agreed on it was easier for all of us. Now as a teen he has not given up on the round neck t-shirt but yes he wants only shorts how times change!!! I would add that we need to allow them make age appropriate choices. We don’t get them something just because they want it or demand it.

Some of the rules we follow are

  • We don’t get something just because our friend’s have it.
  • Is it a need or a luxury?
  • Can we afford it right now?
  • Even if we feel it is a need and we can afford it, can we wait for some more time before we actually get it? This has been crucial as when we wait, sometimes we may realize it’s not a need and we have saved ourselves from buying a white elephant and other times we get better deals cost wise product wise.

2. Be consistent, this helps them trust you.

We need to earn our children’s trust. Yes early on we are their world. As years go by we start competing with their friends, friend’s parents, teachers and society in general. I fondly remember the days my son would come and argue that the method I taught him was wrong and his teacher was right. Letting go of my ego I encouraged him to learn from his teachers and also to make sure he went to the teacher to get his doubts clarified. In the process I taught him to learn on his own at school. In the meantime as a parent I told him how the teachers would ask extra questions to see who the smart kid was to have learnt the whole lesson. I remember my son thinking I was just trying to make him study more, but when the questions I had prophesied came in the paper he was overjoyed and would look forward to my opinion.  This happened in grade 1.  Today I am that annoying mom who gives him my two cents but in his heart he knows it’s for his good and is willing to engage in those conversations.

As they grow old they are evaluating us against what we teach them and what they see us practicing. They need to see us consistent in our words and actions. As parents this is important to capture their trust and also protect us from not being taken for a ride by our kids. This will also help them to trust us and allow us help them during their difficult times.

3. Start money management small.

In this age of supermarkets, when the kid friendly racks are arranged at their level, it’s not a surprise many of them appear in our trolleys at the billing counter even if we did not pick them. When our son was small it was mainly snacks and every trip the no of items seemed to increase. So we had a family meeting and it was decided that he would pick five items every month. He was only about three at that time.  Slowly the bill value was increasing though the number of items was only five. So now we agreed on a budget for the five items. We moved from the quantity to quality. He started making his choices. The next logical step was pocket money and though he was five we decided to go ahead. So we decided on a monthly allowance for our son and he was to put into three boxes – offering for church (10%), saving (50%), treats (40%). He had to remember to take his offering to church on Sundays. He could not touch the savings. He could use the treats to buy what he wanted at school or when we went out. This money was for the whole month. He had the choice to keep it for a month or finish in a week. At the end of the year depending on the savings he was able to pick up toys in this budget. Within a year or two he realized that if he saved his money on treats he had more money to spend at the end of the year. As years went by my son comes up with his plans for spending money and has even learnt to get the best price deals. Now he has moved to three year plans. He now negotiates with us as to how much he would give and how long he would have to wait if we needed to fund the rest.  Having said this, it was tough as a parent to actually make him give his part of the money. At times it was also difficult to stay in the budget but this is where consistency helps. He has made mistakes but he is also learning to handle money effectively. It takes a lot of letting go on our protecting nature but I would encourage parents to try it and you will be surprised. Important principle here is to lead by example. If my spending habits are bad I can’t expect my son to be better.

4. Make them accountable for their decisions.

To be accountable, boundaries need to be set. Right from when they are small, be vocal with your expectations. When our son was about two I remember having conversations in the car telling him what we expected in terms of behavior when we went to a particular place. It had a list of do’s and don’ts. On the way back we would evaluate saying where we were happy because he followed the expectations and where we were upset that he failed us. The do’s and don’ts were not a set of rules, but we tried explaining why we expected that behavior. I was surprised it worked.  Always have a discussion of what you expect from them and also ask them to come with a punishment which is agreeable for both if they fail to deliver.

Once we are vocal with our expectations and are willing to listen to their limitations, we empower our kids to choose what they want to follow and along with it decide the consequence if they fail.  Again start young with age appropriate issues. Gadget time is an issue across ages but the consequences need to be revisited as they grow old. It’s important to stick to your side of the deal and to be consistent.

5. Protecting is easy and false, empowering is the hard reality.

As parents we need to realize protecting is easy and it creates a false sense of safety. In a world of protection we create the world we want for our children, shutting out those we don’t. The more we protect the more we live in a false world.  For example we teach our kids honesty. We may be honest, but unfortunately we live in a dishonest world – how are they going to face it? We try to shut out dishonest people from our lives and then we live in this bubble of ‘we are honest and others are bad’. When we choose to empower them we teach them how to stay honest and teach them when to trust people and when not to. It takes hard work. It means making mistakes and correcting them. Isn’t this the reality of life? We understand situations and we learn to come up with solutions not letting go of our values in life.

The small changes  we embraced  when our son was small is paying off now. The issues we deal with now have changed but the principles remain the same. Life is about enjoying every stage of our children let’s do our part to make it stress free for all of us.

The unpredictability of Life

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Staying on the other side of the world and following the US elections was an interesting journey I should stay. Watching the primaries and then the conventions was an experience. What stood out for me was the day of results. Being about twelve hours ahead of Washington,  just as the day starts for us,  it is prime time in US. So just as polling was going on we had our sleep and was up well rested to see the much expected results. As I turned on the news the special coverage host was sharing with the available data how it would be easy for Hillary Clinton to become the next president and how it was almost impossible for Trump to become President. As results were being announced before we could realize, Trump was leading and it was becoming impossible for Hillary to win. Even as America was voting silently in my home country overnight the money was demonetized. Suddenly people had to go through the hassle of changing their money.  That’s how unpredictable life is.something-bad-happens-life-quotes-sayings-pictures

A casual visit to the doctor ends up in life changing diagnosis. We go to work to give our best, and we come home without a job because the company is not doing well or our project has no funds or just the changing market. We loose our house because there was an earthquake, floods or some natural disasters. The reality of terrorism is everywhere that no place on earth is safe any more. What you believe is recognized in some places but takes us into hiding in other places.

Life has moved from living safe predictable lives, to being able to live through the unpredictability and coming out victorious at the end of the day.

Some of the ways we can live this unpredictable life.

  • Choose to live life, face the unpredictabilityno-matter-how-good-or-bad-you-think-life-is-wakeup-each-day-and-be-thankful-for-life-someone-somewhere-else-is-fighting-to-survive-1 and still make our life  worthwhile.
  • Be sure of what you believe as what you believe will help you go through life.
  • Invest time with people who will help you go through these times.
  • Never wait for things to settle down as before an issue settles, another would have risen.
  • Learn to enjoy life in the midst of unpredictability.

 

Now that’s my Name

Sherene Ellen Sornamalar Rajaratnam was the name lovingly decided by Dr. Rajaratnam Abel and Dr. Jolly Rajaratnam for their daughter, me. When I was four, my dad got namean opportunity to study abroad, so off we went as a family and as protocol would have it, my name was added into my moms passport (those days kids did not have separate passports) in its full length.

After a year abroad we came back to India,  I joined school, I grew and before I knew, I was in my tenth grade. Our tenth grade mark sheet being an official document,to prove one’s identity, the school sent a form asking for our official names. Not realising the caios it would cause in my life, the form was submitted with the name ‘Sornamalar’ dropped. The wisdom of my parents at that time suggesting that I go by  “Sherene Rajaratnam’ was overruled by the love of my middle name. ‘Sherene Ellen Rajaratnam’ was my official name till my passport went for renewal a few years later.

‘This is not the same person, your passport cannot be issued’ was the verdict of the passport office, as the name on the application ‘Sherene Ellen Rajaratnam’ did not match the name in their records ‘Sherene Ellen Sornamalar Rajaratnam’. After all the legal hassels and a lot of running around to change my name, which included publishing in the government gazette and local newspaper, I finally got my passport to find that my name was still ‘Sherene Ellen Sornamalar Rajaratnam’.  All our efforts seemed wasted. Thankfully it did not cause trouble with my travels abroad.

The most annoying experience with my name happened when i started a joint account with my husband. By this time I was hoping to change my name to ‘Sherene John’ (once I had a passport with the name ‘Sherene Ellen Rajaratnam’). It was the time personalised ATM cards were launched. ‘Sherene John’ was the choice for the name on my ATM card (they assured me that it would not cause any problems). As time went by I realised that the checks I signed were not getting encashed. On probing we found that while the bank went digital they had entered my name  as “Sherene John” and had forgotten to store my signature. To add my signature, they just needed a document saying I was “Sherene John”. Now where will I go for that? This was needed even to close the account. So on advise from the bank we had to abandon and start a new bank account with the original name ‘Sherene Ellen Rajaratnam’. By this time I was getting annoyed with the filling of applications for colleges, banks and other government documents with my long name. There were times I did not have enough space to fit my long name.

Time went on…. our son was born and he needed a passport. The procedure included my passport being endorsed in my husband’s and my husband’s passport in mine after which both our passports were included in my son’s. Thankfully with the other documents the passport office put my name as ‘Sherene Ellen Rajaratnam’ in my husband’s and son’s passport. Finally my passport went for an address change and the passport office issued a passport  with the name “Sherene Ellen Rajaratnam”. Time for celebration and change!!!

Life went on and we moved countries – Indonesia and now Vietnam. Our passport has become our lifeline. Now to think of the nightmare of changing my name and have it reflect in my passport, my husband’s,my son’s, our residence permits etc, etc  we as a family have decided to stick with my maiden name for life.

After years of dropping my name “Sornamalar” I had an interesting experience. In Asian culture names carry a lot of significance. Somebody I met recently asked what my name was in my mother tongue? I thought that my parents did not give me one. It was then I was reminded of my name “Sornamalar” and found out it meant a golden flower.  I had never liked that name but realised the love with which my parents had given me that name. It was also from my grandma’s name “SornaKani”.

As much as it is cute and significant to have many names practically speaking its good to just have one name. There’s nothing in a name but this name helps us identify who we are and makes us unique. It isn’t worth having multiple names  My parents had realized this as my brother has only one name, our son too has only one name other than his surname.

This blog is the gazette of the social media to announce that I hear by will revert to my official name Sherene Ellen Rajaratnam. Moving countries and making new friends I need to stick to my official name never know where they will be looking for me!!!