Category Archives: True Stories

Nanala

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Last week, a friend of mine introduced me to a refugee from Pakistan (to protect her privacy, let’s call her Nanala). We had an unforgettable dinner together.
From the first moment onwards, Nanala struck me as a self-confident, warm-hearted woman. After a while she began sharing parts of her life journey.

Eleven years ago, soldiers had broken down the door of Nanala’s home in Pakistan. They had shot and killed her husband and two of her four children in front of her eyes.
Nanala had managed to escape with her remaining two children. She had gathered a small part of their belongings and managed to get passage on a ship bound for Europe.
Together with four other families, Nanala and her children spent almost two weeks locked inside a container. They had a small supply of dried food, fruits, and water, and some flashlights. Other than that, only a couple of small, round holes in the sides of the container brought a bit of illumination from the outside. Days began to blend into each other. The journey felt endless, the walls were closing in… but, finally, the container ship arrived in a harbor in Greece.

After months of surviving in a refugee camp on a small island, Nanala and her children were transferred to Zurich, Switzerland. There, they lived for many years in yet another refugee camp. Nanala took any job the Swiss authorities allowed her to have, to be able to provide for her family. Her children went to school and adapted well to their new Swiss home.
Nanala had never attended school. She had never learned how to study. When she asked her children to help and teach her, they said, “We are busy with our own lives, Mom. We don’t have time.”
Nanala was only ever hired on an hourly basis. Each time, she was promised that after a year she would be given a contract. She worked hard. Studied. Learned German. But each time, the promise would be broken and she would be let go.
Each time hope reared its head, it was smacked hard again with a whip. Yet, Nanala kept getting back up on her feet. She never gave up.

Nanala’s daughter graduated high school and found an apprenticeship as a dental nurse. During her studies, she began to distance herself more and more from her mother. She never helped financially. After three years, her apprenticeship was over and she found a good job. At the same time, she was given the Swiss passport. From this moment on, she became very hostile towards her mother and pushed her away ever harder. She was ashamed of her mother who had still not been given a resident permit. She didn’t want to be seen as the daughter of a refugee.
Nanala’s daughter even began influencing her younger brother against his mom. He will finish high school soon, and Nanala is afraid. What if he abandons her, too? If he does, she will lose the rest of her family. She will also lose the social housing they have been given by the government.

Nanala has been assigned a new job. She has started work for a company which makes house calls to elderly people who can’t take care of themselves anymore.
That morning, when Nanala cleaned one older lady’s apartment, a spider fell from the ceiling, landed on her face, and bit her in the cheek. A bright red bruise marked the spot.

What struck me more than anything about Nanala was her capacity to love, her emotional intelligence, her dignity, and her beautiful sense of humor. Even during our chat, she kept raising herself back up and vowed to claim her independence and freedom through further hard work and studies. For her own sake, as well as that of her children, she doesn’t want to depend on them. Or on anyone else for that matter.

Even after all that has happened to her, Nanala wasn’t self-absorbed during our dinner, but present, listening to our stories as well as telling us her own.
She cried when she remembered moments of pain and abandonment. At the same time, she was full of enthusiasm at the thought of being able to help other people in her new profession. Rarely have I seen a stronger, more compassionate human being.

Photo by Victoire Joncheray on Unsplash

When Kung Fu Leads to Coffee

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Hon Kee Café – A Hidden Gem in Macau’s Coloane Village

Walk towards the ferry pier in Coloane Village, then turn right, and trek over the hill until you see a row of eerie, abandoned shipyards on your left. Keep walking until you reach a jumble of colorful, corrugated iron houses. This is Lai Chi Vun Village, where most of Coloane’s boat builders used to live. A little further ahead is Hon Kee Café… essentially a large open shed with just four wooden tables, ringed by tall trees, which provide additional shade and almost cause you to miss the unassuming place altogether.

I must have walked past this gem a hundred times, never giving it a second thought. Then, one day not too long ago, a local woman told me about Ah Hon, owner of Hon Kee Café. Both, man and café, turn out to be nothing less than local legends…

Many years ago, Ah Hon was one of the young boat builders working in the shipyards. In 1986, an accident with a rusty saw nearly severed his left arm just above the elbow. Two bones, muscles, and blood vessels were gone. Ah Hon almost lost his life that day due to severe blood loss. In the weeks that followed, his body fought against life-threatening infections. His doctors urged him to amputate the arm but, as our stubborn local hero let CNN know during an interview in 2013, “I told the surgeon I’d rather not live than live without my arm.”

Thankfully, Ah Hon’s body won the battle against the infections. However, many surgeries and experimental nerve transplants later, Ah Hon’s arm had shrunk to the circumference of a thin bamboo stick. It was clear, he would never be able to work as a boat builder again.

At a loss of how to earn a living and provide for his family, Ah Hon began thinking of transforming one of the abandoned buildings in his village into a café for the boat builders. His first application for a restaurant license was rejected by the government. Not willing to give up, Ah Hon wrote a letter to the Portuguese mayor of Macau, imploring him to interject on his behalf. The mayor did… and the government authorities relented.

Despite his weak left arm, or rather, as a self-made form of physiotherapy, Ah Hon began building his café all by himself. He fortified the structure of the abandoned shed. He built his own furniture. By the time he opened Hon Kee Café in 1991, Ah Hon’s mangled arm had regained a little of its functionality and strength. This was encouraging, but compared to its former brawniness, the arm still felt useless.

What else could Ah Hon do?

Kung Fu, a simple wood stove, and coffee provided the answer.

Ah Hon built himself a wooden dummy in a small alcove inside the café and began practicing Kung Fu on it. “I am no Kung Fu Master,” he says, “but practicing daily on the dummy certainly helped me regain my physical power.” To exercise even more, he bought the heaviest axe he could find and pushed himself to chop wood for his coffee stove on a daily basis.

During the café’s early days, a foreign couple stumbled upon it. They decided to escape the afternoon heat and have an iced coffee in the shade. Soon, they engaged in lively conversation with Ah Hon and suggested to him to hand-beat his coffee, to lend it a unique strong texture and taste. Ah Hon dismissed the idea at the time. Then, one day the famous Hong Kong actor Chow Yun Fat stopped by and ordered a coffee. Star struck and embarrassed to serve the great international movie star a regular cup, Ah Hon remembered what the couple had taught him and made his very first hand-beaten coffee.

He has been hand-beating his coffee ever since.

According to Ah Hon, he beats each cup 400 times. This, of course, also with his left hand, which, through the café owner’s many years of relentless exercising, is back to its former vigor. Ah Hon uses instant coffee powder for his one-of-a-kind brew. First, he stirs a spoonful of thick coffee mixture for a few hundred rounds at high speed until it thickens. The process takes a few minutes. When more hot water is added to the coffee, a thick layer of foam and cream rises to the top, creating an unusually viscous texture and an irresistibly aromatic scent.

As for food, Ah Hon’s is the simplest and most charming menu I have ever laid eyes on. You have your choice of either toast or instant noodles, with egg, pork, or canned sardines. To add additional spiciness, there is a small squeeze bottle of homemade chili sauce on each table, which I personally find irresistible.

Since 2005, all of Lai Chi Vun’s shipyards have been abandoned. However, even with his initial customer base gone, Ah Hon’s café keeps going strong. Local and international TV stations and newspapers still pay him the odd visit. Macanese as well as Mainland Chinese customers come for some instant noodles and the famous hand-beaten “Chow Yun Fat” coffee. Ah Hon’s story has inspired many. A visit to the humble and cozy Hon Kee Café reminds his customers that everything is possible if your heart is in the right place and you never give up.

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Hon Kee Café

Merendas de Lai Chi Vun Park, Coloane, Macau, +853 2888 2310

Open daily, except Wednesdays, from 7:00am to 6:00pm

 

The Road Ahead

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It’s been a while since the publication of my first book Paralian.
From the very first word I typed into my laptop in October 2013, to the publication of Paralian in May 2016, it was an amazing experience. I felt whole. Driven. For the first time in my life, I did something that felt entirely worthwhile and meaningful.
Considering the business side of it, I was naive when first getting started. I thought I’d be able to sell thousands of books. To this day, I sold only about 900. But I am told, for the first book of an unknown author, (and it being in the hard-to-sell memoir genre to boot) this is a fabulous outcome.
Paralian won 5 literary awards. I’m so grateful all the hard work and soul I put into it has been recognised. However, the real success of Paralian lies in how many lives I was able to reach. I loved being in touch with some of my readers, being accessible and doing my best to be there for them. Someone once quoted Spiderman to me, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I agree wholeheartedly. I have powerful stories to tell, and have the power to write well enough to be able to share these true stories and tales in a natural, authentic, compassionate, and honest manner. I believe I do have the power to touch people’s hearts. It is a responsibility I take very seriously.
One thing I also discovered through the entire publishing journey is that I am a gifted public speaker. I enjoyed these face-to-face moments with small and large groups of enthusiastic listeners as much as they did. The Q&A sessions after each event were surprisingly engaged and open. I enjoyed putting myself out there, building bridges, and making a real difference, no matter how small my contribution might have been in the grand scheme of things.
Last year, family and work led me from Europe to far away Southeast Asia. As soon as I left the Western World, all opportunities to give presentations and continue building my author network dried up instantly. As much as I treasure all new life experiences, I feel as if I have lost part of myself. Every day finds me longing to write (but mostly being too physically exhausted to keep my eyes open when I come home from work). I know I’ll have to fight exhaustion and make time, even if this means getting up early before work every morning to find 2-3 hours of uninterrupted writing time. So far, I couldn’t. In the long run, I hope I am tenacious and strong enough.
I also long to get out there again, connect with other writers, readers, kindred spirits. I long to find ways to continue giving presentations and make a real difference in my passionate, personal, and soft-spoken way. If this is impossible in Southeast Asia, who knows, maybe I will be coming back to the Western World again in due time. Or, hopefully, I’ll find a way to build the necessary connections from afar, travel long distances to get to the events where speakers like me are needed.
My second book is currently still in its first draft… slowly developing… The aim for the months and years to come will be to finally find a literary agent who will believe in my potential. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that I suck at negotiating business deals. Plus, it takes too much energy away from me. It distracts me from focusing on the creative process.
Keep your fingers crossed on all fronts, dear friends. I’ll always keep you up-to-date, even if sometimes there will be longer pauses in between.

(for the photograph, a big thanks goes to Literally PR who have been nothing but fabulous in all our work together)

The Power of Music

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Ever since watching Bohemian Rhapsody the other week, I’ve been thinking about the power of music. Music has such a fundamental emotional impact on all of us. It brings people together. It touches us deeply, it reawakens memories, it energizes our very souls. In a stadium and concert hall, music briefly unites everyone present in a profound way no other art form can achieve. We experience together, letting go of all our differences, simply enjoying the beat pulsing through our bodies and minds. We live in the moment while all else fades into the background where it belongs.
Bohemian Rhapsody also reminded me of an old friend who many years ago introduced me to the music of Queen. My friend’s name was Peter. He and I met at the CD store where he worked. Peter was shy, awkward, and introverted. He looked a bit like a paler and ganglier version of Freddy Mercury, protruding teeth included. Peter was obsessed with Queen. He had all their albums and would make tapes with selected play lists for me every chance he got. He would come over to my place, bring his latest compilation, and we would spend whole afternoons listening to Peter’s favourites together. During these music-filled moments in time, his eyes would light up, his posture would straighten, and his shoulders would relax. His smile would cease being self-conscious but would rather become radiant and open. For Peter, his favourite songs were his salvation, his bridge to the world. He was a champion, indeed.

(Photo by Valentino Funghi on Unsplash)

The Silver Box

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Two weeks ago, Macau was hit by Typhoon Mangkhut. It was a turbulent day with wind speeds matching those of a decent, medium-sized car on a German highway. The village where we live was flooded and, consequently, things moved. Sofas, old chairs, trees, and various types of heavy debris meandered to and fro. The ocean took over the streets, creating surge and currents where usually tourists would amble along, brandishing selfie sticks and nibbling on Portugese egg tarts.

This year, the damage wasn’t as bad as had been expected. Soon all the debris and mud were cleaned away. Only a couple of broken trees remind of what happened.

And the big, shiny, silver box.

A recycling receptacle.

Standing askew in the middle of our romantic roundabout.

It was there before, but a few meters to the left, just in front of the bushes. I’ve been watching this box closely. Every other day, when I throw away the garbage, I wonder if I should just grab the thing and move it myself. Admittedly, I’ve even tried. But it’s too heavy to move for one person.

Sitting at my desk, writing, I catch myself staring out the window, eyeing the silver box.

Each time a city worker walks past I think, “Yes, yes, you must see this, right? This big silver recycling container, standing askew, crying out for you to move it?”

The workers are not even glancing at it as they walk past.

The front doors of the recycling box are busted now. Pet bottles, plastic, and glass have started to spill out. The silver garbage monster is regurgitating what it was forced to digest.

Each day, around 2pm, the garbage disposal truck arrives. A group of workers start picking up cardboard and garbage bags. There I am again, cheering them on in my mind, thinking, “Yes, yes, look right ahead of you. Yup, now a little bit to your right. The big silver thing you almost ran into.”

Nope… off they go, oblivious.

Two city workers came to clean up yesterday afternoon. They swiped a little around the Ying and Yang symbol on the floor, threw most of the garbage into the bushes, then sat down to rest. They leaned against the silver box, a couple of old pet bottles rolling around between their legs.

I looked out the window, more hopeful than ever, “Yes! you must notice those bottles between your legs. Maybe you’ll turn around and notice the doors to the box are busted. Then, maybe, it’ll click and you’ll realize the flood has pushed this ugly contraption away from its original position.”

But all my attempts at mind control failed yet again. The workers lit a cigarette, chatted for a while, then flicked their cigarette butts in a high arc over the silver box, got up, and walked away.

I still feel the urge to go down there and push with all my might.

Instead, I’ve now decided to exercise self-control and rather wager on how long it will take until someone moves or removes the silver box. Considering it’s been 14 days already… I’m thinking it’ll take at least 6 months. Great training for me to let things go. Ohhhhhmmmmmmmmm.

Fast-Flowing River

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Most mornings over the last 3 years, my work days began like this: I would get up, have a strong coffee, then stumble out the door and walk down the hill from our house to this place, where I would be greeted with a beautiful view of the river Limmat. I would then proceed to walk along this stream for an hour towards the office at the center of town. I would breathe deeply, inhaling the refreshing scent of fast-flowing water, marvelling at lounging lizards, elegant grey herons, clumsy ducklings, bright green trees, and wildflower patches buzzing with bees. As always, being close to water made all the difference. Not a bad commute at all and the greatest possible start to a productive, cheerful day!

Time Traveling

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Just spent an inspiring and heart-warming weekend visiting relatives. In between vivid conversations and laughter, I also took some moments to time-travel through their extensive family photo library. It was wonderful to dive into old family history as far back as 1908. To visually follow the path of my grandma, see how she lived her life… from huddling in bomb shelters in 1942 to attending christenings and weddings of the next generations throughout the years. I also saw my dad growing up in these photographs. His kind personality already shining through on the yellowed photographic paper…

At times, I miss my grandma so much (even now, 18 years after her death) it becomes hard to breathe. Frida had so much strength. She gave without boundaries. Her genuine laughter brought sunshine and happiness to everyone around her. No matter how tough her life was at times (and it was damn tough, believe me), she gave her heart to everyone around her. To this day, she is the source of my strength and my greatest inspiration. My uncle told me this weekend that Frida used to say “If I had cried every time I decided to laugh instead, I’d have been in deep trouble.” I still need to mull this sentence over for a while… for there is some profound truth in her simple words.

In the years to come, I am planning to write at least one book about Frida’s life. I copied a good portion of my relatives’ family photo archive. It will help me to remember my grandma more vividly, not just through my eyes but also through the eyes of others… and to weave all the things I’ve heard about her into a story you and I both will enjoy reading and remembering.