Accepting Death and the New Reality

Buddhist saying: “Death is the mirror in which your life is reflected.”

I haven’t written anything for a while or done anything creative since my father passed away in the summer. This month I’m slowly pulling myself together, working through a writing course and speaking at a conference. Doing little things to stop my brain from going crazy with grief.

Since I live in North America and grew up in a safe environment I have never really experienced much death. The death of a few friends over the years did impact me, however, the death of a parent is a totally different thing. I work in healthcare which is a double edged sword because I know where all the resources are to get help, but when the worst outcome happens, I find myself feeling responsible for this failure. Rationally, I know not all patients make it through the healthcare system because people do get sick and don’t survive. Stats don’t help when the situation is personal.

It is inevitable that we all die. I know this. But when a parent dies, you’ve lost your home, your source of wisdom (which you only listen to half the time!) and a person who loves you unconditionally no matter how many times you screw up. This event totally destroyed me and my heart shattered.

People who have lost their parent(s) approach me and we have a connection since we are living in a new reality which we do not want to live in, yet we have no choice. As a parent myself, I know that if I go, I would want my child to be happy and free of sadness. However, at the moment I find it very difficult to feel any joy because I have survivor and filial guilt. I know I am drowning in pain. I know I am majorly depressed and have PTSD. I am getting professional help. It’s been a slow climb uphill to patch together pieces of my heart and to survive minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.

One thing that has really helped are Buddhist Dharma talks by a monk called Ajahn Brahm. The Buddhists really take a positive spin on things. Instead of the concept of the body being an enemy as you age, the Buddhists consider death as a return to nature. Ajahn Brahm compares the life of his father (which he only knew for 16 years) to a great concert in which he was grateful to have attended the performance. I recommend listening to this monk as he imparts a lot of wisdom about living life to its fullest and how to handle difficult situations.

A friend told me that we have perhaps 40 good years to use between the age of 30 and 70, when we are mature enough to realize that we have to pull our crap together and really live before we start getting sick/die. Also, my Chinese doctor told me that I must do good before I die. To do good only for oneself is being selfish. So one must do good for oneself and others in order to make this world a better place.

I don’t know when death will be at my doorstep. So I will use my time to create more stories which I hope will make a dent in this big world and will carry on the legacy of my father by taking care of my family. Nothing was more important than family to him. He sacrificed everything for us and I have to learn, grow and do good from the experience of his death. If you have parents that are still here, please tell them you love them. Because life is precious, fleeting and unpredictable, but death is a certainty we will all face one day.

Quick Nursing Home Stories

Today I took some time to visit my 98 year old grandma in the nursing home and then “broke her out of jail” as she calls it, for some dim sum at a nearby restaurant.  It seems like she really hated the place as they cooked crappy food (she was a really good cook), rushed her during bath time, didn’t have enough activities and in generally, she was really bored.  We only asked her to go to the nursing home (at age 95) after she kept falling and bleeding when her head hit the walls since she was on a lot of aspirin.

She described one of the activities, in which all the residents are suppose to sit and listen to Chinese Opera in a common area on a big screen:

Nursing Home Worker: Hi, would you like to join us in listening to some Chinese Opera with the others?

Grandma: No, my leg hurts.

Nursing Home Worker:  The music is so beautiful.  Your leg won’t hurt after listening to it!

Grandma: What kind of BS is this?  Of course my leg will keep hurting.  If I fall, can you even lift me up little woman?

The worker ran away soon after this conversation.  It’s not hard to imagine where I get my cynical humor from as I started laughing after this story.

Grandma also described some of the residents she avoids:

The 94 year old lady – I can’t talk to this lady who is in a wheelchair, she is crazy.  In the beginning she asked, “What is your last name?”  So I told her.  Then she kept asking me, again and again, “What is your name?”  OK, that was annoying.  But then at meal times, she would say, “Oh, my mother-in-law is waiting for me to eat” and then she would wheel herself out of the dining room.  She is 94, I’m pretty sure her mother-in-law is dead!

The new resident – Recently at my dining table, they assigned a new resident, a man.  He won’t go to physiotherapy because he says nothing is wrong with him.  I told him something must be wrong with him, or he wouldn’t be here!  He is also a pervert because he keeps looking at the nurse’s butts.  He claims he can tell their fortune by their faces and touches them.  Yuck!

When I have time, I try to call or visit grandma as she is quite lonely.  My mother says she shouldn’t complain as she is fed and someone does her laundry.  Mom plans to run for senior president on the floor and party once she gets to the nursing home.  My dad says that is BS…oh well…things to look forward to!



The Price of Changing Your Sex

The other day at dinner I commented out of anger due to pain from time of the month that I wanted to be a man.  My male dinner companion quipped, “It’s not too late!  You can do it anytime; there’s lots of surgery options!”  I was a bit taken back by this as usually my Viking just groans and nods whenever I complain like this.  Anyhow, I decided to look into it and see what is involved.

The official term is sex change or gender reassignment surgery when one decides to change their gender.  There are usually 2 reasons for this: 1) babies are born with intersex deformities, so their sex is decided by the parents and surgery is done or 2) people believe that they are physically a different sex mentally and emotionally.  There is also the unofficial reason #3 of people being exploited for the sex business, but all the sites I found were for people who want to do it on their own.  Stats are difficult to come by as many surgeries are done in private clinics. estimates that annually in the US 100-500 people have such surgeries and the number worldwide is estimated to be two to five times larger. outlines a number of steps for either female to male or male to female surgeries required.  Before some of these surgeries, extensive planning is required, such as scheduling multiple doctor appointments; dealing with family, friends, work; insurance; legal documents; taking time for recovery from surgery, etc. offers tons of advice and financial calculator for those serious about change.

Male to Female (MTF) Surgeries

Breast Augmentation
One Stage MTF SRS/GRS – vaginoplasty
Orchiectomy -removal of the testicles
Tracheal Shave – Adam’s apple shaving

Female to Male (FTM) Surgeries
Ring or Simple Metoidioplasty – constructing the penis
Testicle Implants
Top Surgery – Chest reconstructive surgery

Male to Female (MTF)

Other than surgery, according to someone named “Clones Don’t Have 200k Pts” on Yahoo answers who made the transition from man to woman, there are a number of other things needed.  Their transition cost about $80,000 USD:

  • Therapy. Sessions run $100-150/hr.  At least a couple dozen sessions.
  • Facial hair removal. Done with electrolysis, laser or a combination of both. Electrolysis can cost $50-80/hr and between 150-300 hours is required to be hair free.
  • Body hair removal. Many people need laser treatment to help reduce excess body hair still left after starting hormones.
  • Endocrinologist. This doctor evaluates health, prescribes hormones, monitors progress and orders labwork to check hormone levels and liver function. Average cost per visit (with labwork): $500.
  • New Clothes. Cost depends on person’s fashion sense.
  • Legal fees for legal name change. New Birth certificate. New passport. Costs vary.
  • Facial surgery. Facial Feminization Surgery, the most expensive part of transition. Usually $20,000-45,000.
  • Breast augmentation. About $6-8,000.
  • Sex reassignment surgery. Costs vary,  North America ($18,000-20,000) or overseas ($8,000-15,000).

Historically, one of the first recorded surgeries took place in the US in 1962.  For those that aren’t queasy, it is amazing what kind of female organs can be created – medical diagrams and pictures are on this vaginoplasty site.

Female to Male (FTM) states that  female to male reassignment surgery can exceed $50,000 USD while male to female reassignment is $7,000 to $24,000 USD.  I’m guessing that female to male is more expensive due to removal and reconstruction of so many things (taking out uterus, making penis, creating broader torso, etc).  Also, female plastic surgery in general is more common than male plastic surgery, so there is most likely better competitive pricing.  Other items cost relatively the same (therapy, legal changes) and overall estimates I’ve read about online roughly total $80,000 USD as well, same as male to female.  Medical pictures of these surgeries are outlined in a scientific paper published in Seminars in Plastic Surgery journal and surgery recovery time from penis reconstruction is stated to be about 2.5 weeks.  This is only recovery time for one surgery, for multiple surgeries, times for recovery would vary.

And Then?

For the rest of their lives, people who change gender will need to continue taking hormones to counteract their “natural” ones.  In an article published in Archives of sexual behavior, researchers studied 32 male-to-female and 23 female-to-male post surgery and found that female-to-males seem to have better sex lives.  Generally, people’s expectations were met at an emotional and social level, but only 80% reported improvement of their sexuality.

What if you regret surgery?

Apparently it’s possible to go back…just do it all over again!  A British millionaire named Sam Hashimi became Samantha Kane and then became Charles Kane.  Dailymail UK interviewed him and apparently he is happier as a man now.  Granted, going back and forth isn’t very good for the body as there is probably some consequence such as desensitization to certain areas due to nerve damage, etc.  There are a number of other stories of regret online as well in which people become miserable for the rest of their lives as they suffered from bad surgeries or just changed their mind, but couldn’t go backwards for some reason.

Sam Hashimi  Samantha Kane   Charles Kane

Gender is a complicated issue and there are no easy solutions if one feels like they are suppose to be another sex.  For those who actually do take all these steps to fulfill their dream of becoming a man or woman, they are super brave!  Kudos to them!  I hope they find happiness after all these challenging steps.  In the future, would these surgeries become easier?  It’s hard to say, cutting into flesh seems painful regardless.

When I was joking with my Viking that if I get a penis it would be bigger than his, he nodded with raised Spock eyebrows and said, “Of course, dear”.  Hm, I guess this is what he means when he claims that I test/torture him everyday!  Anyhow, I hope you learned something new from this random post!

Being Sold into Marriage Sucks…lesson from a "Scar Film"

Yesterday afternoon the TIFF goddess took me to see a depressing film called “The Women from the Lake of Scented Souls” (Winner of the Golden Bear at the 1993 Berlin Film Festival).  The main character is a woman named Xiang, who was sold at 7 years of age to a rich family and forced to marry a crippled husband.  She wanted to commit suicide, but didn’t, due to her iron mother-in-law’s lecturing.  Later on, she establishes a scented oil business and made her family the wealthiest in the village.  Her husband would party all night (watching singing and HK movies on boats with other men, as well as drinking) while she did all the hard labor, running of the business, etc.  They have a son who is mentally delayed (also has epileptic seizures) and a normal daughter.  One day her son demands a wife as he sees some children pretending to get married.  Since her son has a crush on a local girl from a poor family, she buys the girl to become her son’s wife after some manipulations of local lenders who couldn’t collect from this family.  The business grows bigger as a single, modern Japanese lady invests into the business, making  Xiang realize that her life is pretty crummy in the rural village and she has a really crappy husband.  In the end,  Xiang becomes enlightened as she realizes she may have destroyed this girl’s life by buying her and forcing her to marry her son.  So she offers to let the girl go.  But the girl cries as she doesn’t think anyone would want her as a wife.

The cinematography was incredibly beautiful in this movie and the people traveled down the river in wooden boats, adding to its exoticism.  The director Xie Fei was there, explaining that he had been sent to this village for “re-education” as he had been a professor during the Communist Revolution.  The TIFF staff who did the Q & A asked if he was sent to the village to learn, as if it was a vacation or something.  Xie Fei just smiled politely and said that he learned a lot about the struggles of women there, as he said the women did all the hard labor while the men partied on the boats, doing no work.  We learn that because of the Cultural Revolution, films were not made for popular consumption between 1966-1977.  He is a “fourth generation” director, which means he had received his training before 1966, but then had his career disrupted by the revolution.  This film is also considered a “scar film” which depicts the harsh reality of rural life, oppression, subjugation of women/peasants, old patriarchal system, death, destruction, war and lots of suffering.

women scented

Are Chinese women gaining more ground in society?  There are articles on rich Chinese women in Forbes and many are more educated than before; but there is much contradictory data on the web.  In a study by National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the New York-based Asia Society, they state that just 10 of the 205 Communist Party’s Central Committee members are women, and no woman has ever held a spot on the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top decision-making body.  In a 2010 survey of women’s social status in China by the All-China Women’s Federation, 61.6% of men and 54.6% of women surveyed said that “men belong in public life and women belong at home,” which actually increased in numbers from a survey done in 2000.  Accounting firm Grant Thornton surveyed 200 businesses in China, of which 94% employed women in senior roles, which is good news.  If you are interested in reading more, there is an article with links about the topic here.

This movie reminded me of my grandmothers as one had an arranged marriage and one did not.  The grandmother that got to chose her spouse seemed happier I suppose, but there were also other factors; such as her wealthier family background, a chance at education and a choice in career (she became a high school principle).  The other grandmother grew up in a rural community and was arranged into marriage at the old maid age of 18.  This grandmother laments that her family refused to educate her, although her father was a school teacher and ended up only being able to do manual labour or crafts for money as a result of this (farm & embroidery work).  Both grandmothers wanted the best for their children and grandchildren, especially the females, and passed on the lesson of the importance of education and not depending on anyone else for survival.  Years later I asked the grandmother with the arranged marriage if she ever fell in love with grandfather, like on the Hong Kong soap operas.  Her answer was that “it was different back then.”  Today, the project manager that I work with listened to my description of all this and commented on how in present day that things are skewed the other way.  People have fantasies and expectations of the other sex which are not realistic.  They are all looking for a perfect someone which does not exist.  The reality is that no one is perfect and being with someone means accepting their flaws.

The Price of Marriage in China is a fascinating article about modern spouse hunting in China in a country by the end of this decade, which will have a surplus of 24 million unmarried men.  Chinese women postponing marriage to pursue careers, but are pressured to try to marry before 28 or they become stigmatized as “leftover women” or shengnu. Opposite are shengnan, “leftover men”, mostly poor rural men left behind as female counterparts marry up in age and social status. The article follows Diamond Love, a dating agency for rich men (fees range from $50,000 USD to more than $1 million USD) who want women that are young, beautiful and of course, a virgin.  Interestingly, the agency rejected a rich woman client who wanted to spend $100,000 USD to find a husband which they said was impossible as she was too successful.  The reporter also follows a mother trying to find a wife for his son who has a lower salary than women he meets.  The girls either reject him, or offer to take care of him for the rest of his life.  Very interesting and long article, have a look if you have time!

How To Warp A Child's Mind…

What do you remember from your childhood in regards to movies, television or other forms of entertainment?  Seeing an old Chinese gangster movie last night made me remember some horrible stuff I saw while I was trapped in the playpen.

This weekend, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) goddess invited me and my husband to screenings of old Chinese movies which were part of “A Century of Chinese Cinema” featuring films from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The first one we saw was Chungking Express (1994), introduced by cinematographer Christopher Doyle.  He said that the apartment in the film was actually his old apartment in Hong Kong and that the movie couldn’t have been set anywhere else but Hong Kong as it paid homage to the city at the time.  He was rambling a bit and perhaps slightly drunk as he laid on the carefully covered grand piano, then started dancing at the Faye Wong song during the credits.  TIFF goddess sighed at the lack of professionalism; but I smiled knowingly, thinking about all the Anime North guests I had taken care of in the past who were just as difficult and had to be chased down all the time to keep their activity schedule.  The ending in which two characters waited for each other for over a year made me wonder if people now would wait such time for true love even it if was uncertain?  Then I remember that my Viking (this is my nickname for my husband due to his red hair & beard) and I had been separated for three years as we were in different schools for a while.  It seems like a small blip of time in our relationship now that we are on year 14.

Christpher Doyle introduces Chungking Express
Christpher Doyle introducing Chungking Express

It was the music in the second movie, A Better Tomorrow (1986) which made me and much of the audience (Chinese girls/boys) feel nostalgic as we grew up listening to this music which infiltrated Hong Kong culture at the time.  The movie was not really about cool gangsters (trend of the 90s) as they were on the “wrong road”, but about comradery and the Chinese title “True Colors of a Hero” explains the extent of sacrifice one would do for their friends.  The long trench coats, brick cellphones, cd players, eighties hairdos and horrible subtitle translations added to the charm of the film.

The songs in the movie were mainly sung by Leslie Cheung, a super talented pop star who came out in the later years and then committed suicide due to depression.  Nansun Shi was the executive producer of the movie and she had some great stories about how everyone thought that the film would fail as nonsense comedies were the trend at the time.  She sounded like a super smart lady who would make a great role model; will have to learn more about her sometime.  “Surely your mother would not have let you watch gangster films as a child!” the TIFF goddess lamented after I told her how the music reminded me of my childhood.

Nansun Shi Q&A, A Better Tomorrow
Nansun Shi Q&A, A Better Tomorrow

I started to recall what the days were like when trapped in the play pen/child jail.  Back in the day, there were barely any Chinese video stores around, so my mother’s friends would record many movies onto VHS tapes and lend them around.  It was important that the children watch Hong Kong entertainment or we would never learn the language!  I remember watching happy children cartoons…which faded into static…then movies with war, monsters, ghosts, vampires and other things that were adult rated would come on as the tape kept rolling.  My most vivid and frightening memory of a movie during my play pen days was one about the Vietnam war and a scene in which a prisoner was tortured in various ways before finally being hung upside down and having his throat slit.  I remember crying out for my mother, but no one came.  I’m sure they were busy with something at the time.  Anyhow, speaking with my brother, he remembers a movie with a clown running around raping police women.  The clown was caught after the police hired a prostitute to dress up as a police women as a decoy.  He was scared of clowns for years and still is, perhaps.

As for me, after the horrible torture scenes, I was not bothered by aliens, monsters or any “horror” genre things after this.  It might also explain how afterwards I started reading lots of Stephen King and Clive Barker to find the initial “thrill” of being shocked again.  My parents assumed I was reading Jane Austin, but they didn’t really care as long as I was reading something to improve my English…My siblings and I turned out ok in the end, but I’m not sure if I would do the same to my child as I think I’m become indifferent to many things compared to my Viking. Horror movies gives him nightmares and he is not my partner when it comes to watching that type of stuff.

Japanese psychological horror movies are more interesting to me now than the American slash stuff as I have read/watched too much of it as a teenager.  The most disturbing scene in the famous horror franchise Ju-On (American remake – The Grudge) for me is not the killing, but it is when the main character tries to hide under her bed sheets, but can’t, as the little boy ghost is there watching her.  Similarly, in the Japanese manga Uzumaki in which people turn into snails and are trapped in a small town; the most horrible scene is when starving business men start eating the snails and saying that it tasted like sashimi.  After randomly picking up that book and reading that panel, I thought with glee – wow, that is so horrible, that it’s going to be stuck in my brain forever!

But for now, I think I’ll pause and listen to this beautiful music from “A Better Tomorrow” while feeling some nostalgia.  Some people tell me that childhood was their happiest time in their lives due to lack of responsibility and worries.  For me, I remember being depressed and a bit suicidal starting at the age of four, perhaps due to watching so much death on film.  My brain was warped early on I suppose, which explains why I’m so dark and cynical sometimes!


My Father's Nightmare…Is What I Am Now!

There is an excellent play at Soulpepper Theatre (in Toronto’s Distillery District) on at the moment called Kim’s Convenience, which is about a Korean family and their first generation Westernized children.  Basically, the father has high hopes for his children and he also wants one of the kids to continue running the family business, a convenience store.  This is my second time watching and the acting was just as wonderful as the first time.  I don’t want to give away the plot, but it there are a few twists and hilarious lines (“Only skinny Asian is the gay.  That’s rule.”  “Fat guy is black, brown shoes, that’s no steal.  That’s cancel out combo!”)  To my surprise, before walking out of the venue, staff were selling books of script.  I bought a copy to read as some of the dialogue was in Korean and while it was easy to imagine what the characters were saying, it is great to finally solve the mystery of what was actually being said.

Kim's Convenience Cast Picture
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee & Grace Lynn Kung. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Anyhow, the play got me thinking about my own father and how disappointed he has been in me.  His dream was that I would be a professional of some sort, such as a doctor, lawyer or accountant and I am none of those things.  I think I have a fairly good job, but it is difficult for me to explain what I do as I don’t fit into any standard job definition of what he understands.  Wanting to write or paint or do anything creative is viewed as a luxury.  This is not surprising, as he spends a lot of time working and any arts stuff is frivolous as free time should be spent fixing the house, babysitting the grandchildren, driving relatives to multiple grocery stores, etc.  I’m also sure that immigrating to any country is difficult, as well as raising a generation of kids who are growing up in an environment the parents didn’t grow up in.  On a recent multi-family road trip with some teenagers and their parents, I remember the teenagers complaining that their parents didn’t understand them.  I told them that quite frankly, their parents will probably never understand them as we all grew up in different countries and are exposed to so many different things culturally.  Maybe I sounded like an old person, but I told them that they should think from their parent’s point of view sometimes as things are difficult for them as well and to respect the elders regardless.  My advice was ignored as they started to yell rudely at their mother to pack all the luggage and to remember the cell phone power cords.

My father once said to me that I should specialize in something and do one thing very well in my career…or else I would know a bit of everything and not be good in anything!  Over time, the latter has happened as I haven’t been focused on just doing one thing.  I think I have attention deficit disorder (ADD) or some sort of impatient person syndrome as I get bored with things over time easily and I like having the adrenaline rush of trying or doing new things.  However, I have been fortunate to also not be afraid to jump at opportunities when I see them, so I have worked on some incredible projects.  I’m sure he is thinking about job stability, etc, but I think in my generation, one doesn’t really have job stability anymore.   As I keep looking ahead all the time for new/exciting prospects, having a bit of ADD is perhaps an advantage as you can gain skills in lots of stuff and apply them to roles not necessarily in your field.  Here’s hoping that some of the selling skills I have learned in side marketing jobs will help me with this book stuff!