Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I am a chicken

You probably won't know it but I am the worrisome type.

I am scared of heights. Living now in a 16th-floor apartment, I worry about accidentally slipping from the balcony while I'm hanging out the laundry. Or the windows giving way if I or either of my kids lean against them.

I imagine being involved in an air traffic accident. Free fall is a horrible way to die. Do you know vacuum pockets exist in the atmosphere and if an airplane flies into it, there is no air pressure to support the weight of the plane and it will simply drop? There is at least one documented example of this and many passengers suffered broken limps. So my kids and I are always buckled when we are seated.

When I was a teenager, I'm fearful of ghosts and all things paranormal. I blame multiple viewings of The Exorcist and Nightmare on Elm Street I, II, III; but I thought the Hong Kong-produced movies were more eerie. During late nights studying for exams, I waited for a green-faced zombie to fly across my window.

When I took up my first editorial job, I would wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, thinking: did i put a full-stop at the end of the sentence? Oh no, it's already gone to print!

I'm not a gambler because the likelihood of winning is near zero. I've tried blackjack, slot machines, poker, roulette, Toto... usually lost it all in the end, so seldom keen to try again.

I am a bystander of the stock market. My heart can't take the stress of the price of shares going down. Once, I watched the indices of my mom's shares and broke out in cold sweat as the numbers fell. I walked away, thanking my lucky stars it wasn't my money.

Low appetite for risk, that's what I have. No pain, no gain, my husband advises.

Am I an eagle thinking I'm a chicken?

I've taken hundreds of flights. There were some harrowing experiences that finished with a bag full of puke but I'm still here.

I've been to the top of the Petronas Towers. Not just the Skybridge on the 43th floor - yes, I clung on to the side railings in case the glass floor gave way - but a privileged ride all the way to the 86th. Just 2 floors away from Dr M's office, I'm told. The clouds were floating before my eyes and the tower was swaying in the wind. Motion sickness threatened my recent buffet lunch but thankfully the contents stayed in.

There hasn't been any sightings of headless horsemen or powdered Qing-dynasty zombies. I haven't had much trouble sleeping alone in a strange room for several years now. As long as the 24-hour news channel is on.

I'm in the midst of a transformation, I believe. There's more than meets the eye.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Balls of Old

We planned for breakfast together this morning. Then breakfast became brunch.

Our choices for an in-between meal were wide at Tiong Bahru market. This is our first visit since it was renovated thus it was familiar and strange at the same time.

The old stalls seem to be still around: chicken rice, wanton noodles, roasted pork and duck, zhui kueh... Some others didn't ring a bell but they might have been there before.

HG had zhui kueh, which are rice cakes topped with fried turnips. They were the famous Jian Bo variety.

My food of choice was Teochew fishball noodles. Should I have mee pok (flat yellow noodles) or kway teow mee (flat rice noodles mixed with round yellow noodles)? Decisions, decisions...

This yummy bowl of mee pok ta (dry flat yellow noodles) comes with 3 fishballs and slices of fish cakes, in white and orange. It's been years since I had orange-coloured fish cakes. When I was a child, I used to love a little stall at the Toa Payoh Lor 8 market that sold Teochew noodles. That stall changed hands almost 2 decades ago.

This noodle stall at Tiong Bahru has an unassuming sign. All it says was "Teochew Noodles Dry/Soup". It doesn't have stickers proclaiming endorsements by food programmes or foodie gurus. The ingredients were simple too: no minced pork or liver or dumplings. The noodles were lovely because they were simple.

As I gave my orders to the stall assistant, I noticed that there was a man working at the back. He was making fishballs!

The little fishballs this stall dished out were odd-shaped, unsymmetrical and slightly gray. Not the large, round and white ones that my mother-in-law buys for my children. They had a different sort of bounce as I chewed on them. They were hand-made, that's why. Made by mixing fish meat, flour, salt, sugar and water until they reach the right texture, to be squeezed by hand and scooped up with a Chinese soup spoon. Piece by piece, he made those buckets of fishballs.

When I finished my bowl, I went back to the stall and asked if I could take a picture. They asked where I was from - as if I was a curious tourist. In a way I am, I guess.

Seemed that nobody noticed the man at the back. The man, whose queue I interrupted to take a picture, immediately took out his camera from his pocket when he realised what happened and snapped too.

The man making the fishballs was the boss, I was informed. So he is a "crouching tiger, hidden dragon".

My friend M said how funny it is our emotions are tied to a place. Today, I realised that my memories are tied to the food I eat. Isn't this funny too?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sinful indulgence

Today marks our 4th day in Singapore. We've had 4 breakfasts, 4 lunches, 5 dinners and 3 suppers. I'm not counting snacks and coffee breaks.

On display here is tonight's supper, char kway teow. For S$4 (or a mere €2), we got a medium-sized portion of yummy and greasy fried noodles. This is from an apparently famous stall at Zion Road hawker centre. In between mouthfuls of moist noodles, I picked out a tablespoonful of lard pieces. Lard - yes, cholesterol-laden porky fat - is the secret ingredient to a delicious serving of char kway teow.

You might notice lots of beansprouts and chives in there. They make up the recommended serving of vegetables, you see.

We've been treating ourselves to tasty hawker fare in Singapore. I have yet to cook this week...

HG took a walk to Zion Road just now to buy supper. We are more excited by the possibility of ready-prepared food at odd hours of the night than the actual ingestion. Nevertheless, my "spare tyre" got a little more plumped compared to last week.

He said this as he scooped a mouthful of kway teow: we should have come back earlier.

Wait til we attend the Primary 1 registration this Saturday. Not sure if he will feel the same way about our education system.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Moving out and moving on

Tonight is our last night in Finland. By tomorrow this time, we'll be on a flight to Singapore via Frankfurt.

Yesterday, I watched as the movers pack our belongings into cardboard boxes. Clothes, bed linen, toiletries, kitchenware, books... Our worldly belongings were then loaded into a large Evergreen container, bound for the Helsinki port.

We took pictures of the nice guys who helped us move. I'm too drained to pull out the wire from my luggage to connect the camera to the computer. You'll see them another day.

The house we called home the last one-and-a-half years was cleaned and back to its original condition. There is no longer trace that we were ever present. The refrigerator looks strange without the children's drawings and little magnets. Our bedrooms are bare and devoid of our presence, our smell.

Snow fell softly as the container and the trucks drove off.

Although we have moved several times already, this time is especially poignant. We made many friends during our time here and we feel so welcome. A part of me wants to come back, actually a part of me can't believe we are really leaving. We made some good friends late into our time here but real relationships take time to build.

So heippa Suomi. We will miss you.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Comes and goes

Snow came early this year.

Last Wednesday, we woke up to a scene of white. Temperatures had been near zero for a while now so the kids are already wearing winter gear. On this day, they switched from rubber galoshes to snow boots.

We love the snow. On the way to school, they talked about making snow balls, snow men, snow angels and hopefully some sledding too.

More snow fell that day but temperatures were rather warm. By warm, I meant 2 or 3ºC. The snow soon melted and we didn't have much left by Saturday.

It didn't matter anyway because the kids fell ill last weekend. Estelle started with a fever on Friday evening and then Jules on Sunday morning. The daycare centre has 3 confirmed cases of H1N1 by today, I'm told.

We went to the clinic this morning. My request to be tested was declined because apparently there is only one laboratory serving the Greater Capital region (meaning Helsinki and its nearby suburbs). It was expected to be swarmed with samples anyway so it seemed that only more severe cases will be tested.

Do we or do we not have the swine flu? Doesn't matter as long as we recover, the doctor advised.

We have 5 days left in Finland. The meteorological station has forecasted at least 10cm of snow by tomorrow morning. We still have a chance!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Spot on

Every evening, my kids would have a selection of yoghurt, fruit and some biscuits for dessert. I think they have as much fun trying out different foods as I have buying them.

Tonight, I bought a new Paula yoghurt (as shown above). Two new flavours are introduced this week: strawberry or peach in milk yoghurt. The kids were really excited.

Jules: Mummy, do you know why the yoghurt has a picture of a cow?

Me (thinking): Because yoghurt is made from milk which comes from cows?

Jules (answering anyway): Because cows have spots.

By the way, Estelle loves the strawberry Paula but Jules had some trouble finishing it. He prefers the chocolate flavoured ones... What colour do you think are the cows?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bracing for change

I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about the increasing influence of Mandarin on the Chinese population in New York.

According to NYT, the first Chinese, who migrated to North America in the first half of the 1900s, can be traced to a region in the Pearl River Delta. Over there, the key languages are Cantonese and Taishanese. (To those who might know the history and geography better, do you think the author is referring to Tangshan?)

Over the turn of this century, Cantonese is increasingly being replaced by Mandarin as NY Chinatown's de-facto Chinese language, said the NYT story. With China rising as an economic power, more Chinese thought that their children would benefit more from learning the "official" language, which is Mandarin. In recent years, more Mandarin-speaking immigrants are arriving in NY and they would, most certainly, want their children to learn Mandarin rather than, say, Cantonese.

In fact, a new "Chinatown" is rising in another part of NY in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Flushing, Queens. I'm not familiar with NY at all, so I can't tell where the two areas are relative to each other.

As I read this story, I find cold comfort in the similarities faced by Singapore and NY.

G, who used to be a Chinese teacher in Singapore, was lamenting that the teachers Singapore's education ministry imported from the mainland tried to correct the terms used by Singaporean Chinese. They were apparently brought in to "raise the Chinese standard". Singapore, as a society has developed together with our Malay and Indian compatriots, an amalgamation of Chinese dialects as well as the strong influence of English. It shouldn't be surprising that we use Mandarin differently.

I've also read that Geylang is the new Chinatown in Singapore. If one is looking for "authentic" Chinese cuisine - food prepared like it would be done on the mainland - then Geylang is the place to go. Internet cafes, which had mostly died out in the late 1980s except for some gaming centres, are thriving in Geylang. Known affectionately as wangba 网吧 , they are a common sight in many Chinese cities.

For at least a generation now, many Singaporean Chinese are using less and less of their families' dialects. The likelihood that the children of my generation will learn to speak our dialects fluently is, sadly and realistically, not very high. From the academic point of view, we will be overjoyed if they can score As in English and Chinese taught in Mandarin.

The fault is not China's. It's not the immigrants' either.

China is the world's most populous nation. She is gaining strength and her people are easing away from its bursting seams to seek their fortunes elsewhere. For the same reason, we are seeing more and more Indians living overseas.

As we prepare ourselves for the move back to Singapore, I wonder what changes to expect in our home country. Now it seems that my concerns aren't so different from New Yorkers'. Looking at the comments left on this story, Chinese in Seattle, LA and other parts of the world are thinking the same thoughts.

PS I think it was last week when I read a story on NYT about Chinese in NY debating whether traditional or simplified Chinese should be taught in schools.

PPS This summer, a South American classmate D asked if Singapore is a part of China. I explained that Singapore is mid-way between China and Australia. That's how far away the two places are from each other.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Conking those conkers

Yesterday, after I've taken out the cleaned laundry from the washing machine, I can still hear noisy clonking against the metal wheel. I looked in and found two brown seeds.

They looked like chestnuts. I wonder if they are edible.

In many parts of Asia, including Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and China, one can find street vendors roasting large cauldrons of chestnuts. The smell of warm chestnuts swimming in, apparently, coal pebbles is heavenly. The coal may explain why my fingers turn brown as I peel open the shell to get at the sweet fruit inside. During my time in Beijing, the warmth of the chestnut in late autumn was very comforting.

I left the two chestnuts on the washing machine and Jules spotted them as he was taking his shower.

Mummy, those are mine, he laid his claim.

What are they? I asked.

They are conkers, he replied.

Ah, yes. My "Westernised" son knows these things as conkers. He explained they are the seeds of horse chestnuts.

I'm not sure what he does with them but I found another one in his pocket today.

That's my conker, he said as he added it to his stash.

Meanwhile, his old man is thinking: kao lat.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

3 years old and smoking

I just read this crazy story on The Guardian of a man who was sentenced to 18 months jail for allowing a 3-year-old girl to smoke. Here is a report by the BBC.

This irresponsible act is absolutely appalling.

According to the report, the man thought it was funny that the 3-year-old girl left under his care smoked. The video showed the little girl inhale, then exhale, and asked for more. The girl, apparently, already knew how to smoke by the time she was filmed. She had had three sticks that day already!

Both stories did not mention the relationship between the man and the child. Who is he? Where are the parents?

My father is a smoker; he has been since he was a teenager so he says he can't quit. He says he had tried but thought it is better for his overall health if he doesn't. Everyone in the family, and now his grandchildren too, chides him for smoking. I don't like the smell of tobacco smoke. I pray for his good health and long life because he's a beloved member of my family.

I can't remember what he did when I was young but I recall ash trays in our home. But in the last few years, he would step outside to take his smoke. He doesn't share his smoking habit with his family, so to speak. I've noticed that when my kids go outdoors to chat with him, he would wave them off.

It's bad enough to subject children to second-hand smoke. Some time ago, I read that the Finnish government is mulling a law to ban smoking in cars (and maybe at residences too) if a child is present.

The choice to smoke belongs to the individual. Please don't read this and think that I dislike you because you smoke.

Two years ago, I met an old friend from college and we chatted about our families. His wife had just delivered their second child and I asked if they were having any more. He replied they would consider this if his wife would stop smoking. She'd probably stopped when she was pregnant but she could start again after she had given birth.

I hope more people can be like my father or my friend and his wife. Smoking is their prerogative but caring for their loved ones is also a top priority.

Friday, October 9, 2009


And the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize goes to...

Barack Obama.


I think Obama is over-rated. I had thought so back in January and I hold on to this view now.

Ironically, Saturday Night Live made a skit of Obama last weekend and US news channels, like CNN and Fox, had been running commentaries on it. I came across this story on CNN yesterday although it was first published 5 October.

I guess the Nobel committee don't watch SNL or follow what's happening in the US.

Yes, we can. No, we haven't.

What do you think?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

In and out of control

Two summers ago in Helsinki, I found my Estelle biting her nails. In the quietness of her bed, she would nibble at her fingers.

Over two years later, my Estelle is still an incessant nail-biter. She's had her nails (fingers AND toes) trimmed less than 10 times during this period.

We talked about it many times. I tried to appeal to her physical self, mental faculties, vain alter ego - yelling, encouraging, affirming, bribing, caning, rewarding, explaining, praying... I am exasperated. My emotions swing from anger to helplessness and back.

Estelle's fingers started to bleed because she had been getting at the skin on her finger tips now that nails are pretty short. You HAVE to stop this, I warned her.

"Why don't you let me do what I want, Mummy?" my little girl pleaded, tears streaming down her face. "Why don't you let me be?"

"Because I love you."

I am now having a discussion about nail-biting with my 5-year-old. In a few years time, we might be talking about boys, tattoos, smoking, ear rings, navel rings, nose rings... and goodness knows what else.

Earlier this week, I caught up with the school manager Nannu and asked for her help. Perhaps the teachers could look out for Estelle and remind her not to bite her nails.

Nannu confessed that she is a nail-biter herself and she had only recently stopped because her older son Joonas has started the habit. She hadn't been able to prevent herself from continuing this habit and she couldn't stop Joonas either. And mind you, Joonas is in Estelle's class and right under his mother's nose all day long.

Estelle joined us as we talked and she listened intently. Joonas and Estelle can remind each other to stop, Nannu suggested.

At least I can be consoled that in this aspect, the school manager, the supposed child expert, is as out of control as I am. This is also about letting go and loving Estelle more than ever.

I hope she will overcome this habit soon. Estelle's struggles to curb her urges are as difficult as my efforts to leave her alone.

It is important we can talk and bare our emotions to each other. I still want to do this when she is a teenager.

As we finished our conversation with Nannu and getting ready to go home, Jules hopped to his locker to show me a treat his friend had given the class. It was Julia's birthday and she gave her classmates a little chocolate bar each.

One of Jules' friend H had also come into the cloak room to show his dad the treat. Half a minute later, H was howling and raising a ruckus. According to my kids who witnessed the incident, H's little brother had snatched the treat away and refused to give it back.

H's father was persuading him to let his little brother have it. If H was as excited as Jules was, he was not giving in without a fight. H somehow knew he could not get it back by force so he begged his father to "get it back for him". The father then asked the younger boy to give it back until the older one put on his clothes to go home. The father went between the two boys like a headless chicken.

The little one may be the smarter one: he held on to his treasure and stood quietly in a corner while his older brother wailed and stormed.

Nannu came out for a look and pacified the commotion by offering the younger boy a lollipop.

While I tried not to gawk, my kids watched the events unfold and seemed to take in every detail.

This incident reminded me of my not-so-distant past. I was often told to give in to my brother because he was younger. You should love your brother because you only have one, they kept saying. My brother was a harmless chap (still is!) but perhaps my mother especially, felt that he needed help to get more in life. She may not be thinking about favouritism but it sure came across as being terribly unfair for me.

My heart went out to H that day but I was in no position to interfere.

I try my best to be fair with my kids. They know their entitlements are not affected by age or gender. They also know that some things can't be helped: like Jules can't put on a dress or skirt. Otherwise, they get equal portions of dessert or they get a new T-shirt each when I go shopping. Because they have been given 'freedom of speech', they can speak up for themselves if they think they are being 'discriminated against'.

Sometimes I wish I can simply reply "because I say so" when they ask a question. But I am also constantly kept on my toes because I know that my kids don't accept ambiguity.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What do you get...

... when you put together snow and a couple of cars?

Loads of fun.

But seriously, any of these situations are possible in winter and it's no laughing matter.

We met with an accident last winter when our car spun out of control one morning on our way to school. The car slid and spun 180º and before we knew it, we had hit a lamp post.

Thank God we were all alright. The window on the passenger side (my side) was shattered and the door dented. My heart leapt to my mouth, not daring to scream lest I scare the kids. We were all quiet for seconds afterwards.

Then Jules broke the silence. "Mummy, your window is broken," he announced, as a matter of fact.

I don't like accidents. One can never be too prepared for an accident. That's why the term 'accident'. Still don't like them.

PS Woke up to -1ºC this morning and HG had to scrap ice off the car. The Farmer's Almanac predicts a cold winter (for the US) this year, contradicting global warming warnings. We'll see.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Watch out, autumn is here

You don't want to crash into one of these.

This is a taxidermal specimen of a moose. Also known as an elk, there are about 150,000 of them living in the forests in Finland. Apparently, just about 30km away from home, we might be able to encounter one of these.

Here in Finland, between six months and two years after passing the driving test, one has to take what-is-called Phase II driving lessons. Phase II consists of an approximately half-hour drive with an instructor so he/she can point out areas that need improvement, and a 6-hour course at the slippery tracks.

Three weeks ago, I spent 6 hours at the slippery track driving centre. After an hour of briefing on the day's programme, the class of 6 took turns slipping and sloshing on oiled roads. One by one, we drove our cars around strategically-placed obstacles. Instructor-of-the-day Merja reminded us many times over the walkie-talkie: "Winter is coming very soon. The roads are going to be slippery."

After the driving session, Merja brought us to the "Safety House". More like house of driving horrors. We went through a maze of exhibits relating to traffic accidents. Mr Moose here and a badly-crumpled car was the first scene to greet us.

Mr Moose and his friends like to venture out of the forest when the day turns dark. This week, the sun rises at around 7 am and sets at 6.30 pm. They don't realise that at 7 pm Human Time, the night is still young and the highways are buzzing with vehicles. Statistically, the highest rate of accidents takes place between 6 pm - 7 pm during winter months.

The specimen in the Safety House stands at over 1.8m and weighs more than 250kg. According to Merja (a well-built lady who referred to me as "the small girl"), this was a young moose - it's just about 4 years old. A typical moose can grow taller than 2m and adds bulk on its body as it ages.

Should a car crash into a moose, the bonnet will hit its legs, thus smashing its huge body against the windscreen. The force of impact will easily cause lethal injuries to those in the front seats.


This morning, we woke up to 4ºC. The highest day time temperature reached today was around 9ºC. Looks like we are bidding the teens goodbye. First snow fell in the north of Finland yesterday and we are expecting sub-zero nights later this week.

I haven't update the blog for 2 weeks because I've been nursing a bad flu. I showed symptoms like headache, high fever, muscle aches, fatigue... Is it, dare I say it, swine flu? I didn't see the doctor or got tested. Thank goodness I've recovered after plenty of rest and some analgesics. This couple of weeks felt so long, but I was floating in and out of sleep so time flew by in a blur.

The good news is: I'm back!

Before I close this entry, I want to share with you another exhibit from the Safety House.

An axel turns this car 360º on its side to simulate an accident situation. The students, including myself, experienced the importance of safety belts as the car turns and we also learnt to climb out as the car is upside-down. I'm thankful I'm agile enough to climb out easily and pray that I will never have to do it in real-life.

I commented that it's a good thing I'm not pregnant, otherwise this would manoeuvre would have been very difficult. Another student, Kevin's eyes grew large. I noticed a child seat in his car so he probably has a family he's concerned about.

Autumn is here and the roads may be icy and slippery before winter arrives. Got to drive carefully.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Ripe for harvest

Autumn has arrived.

Temperatures this week barely scratched 20ºC and goes to about 12ºC in the night time. Skies were overcast and showers come down every other day. My potted plants are practically flooded.

The most significant difference is the daylight hours - the sun rises after 6 am and sets at around 8 pm. This timetable feels like the regular routine in the tropics where there are even amounts of day and night. Very soon, the balance will be tipping (more like lunging) towards darkness.

Now that rainy season has come, it's the time to pick mushrooms. Yellow chanterelles are apparently tasty and expensive, and easy to identify. Others look similar to familiar ones like button mushrooms (champignons) but are actually deadly. In this tough economic climate, it seems that more people are foraging in the woods to look for food. Tragically, some lives are paid in exchange for free food.

Our landlord is a gardener so we have a wide variety of plants in our little garden. We've had some tiny but sweet strawberries. Over the past weeks, the apples on our trees have turned red and today, we harvested some more.

Yummy apples from our own backyard. Gorgeous.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Learn by playing

This week marks the beginning of Helsinki Design Week where all things related to Design are presented.

Last year, I found out about the Design Week pretty late so the only event I attended was the Design Market. Designers and companies from around Finland took part in a "warehouse sale" where they sell off overstocks or items from previous collections. The event was held at the Cable Factory in Helsinki, which used to be an abandoned factory which has since been turned into offices and working space for hip companies.

I guess this is kind of like the 798 Dashanzi arts district in Beijing or downtown Waterloo Street in Singapore. Maybe the urban planners thought artists may be inspired by the past. Or maybe, they just can't find other less premium property to give away. Anyhow, old buildings are now "in".

So I was looking though the programme to see what other events I can take part in. There seems to be lots more organised this year, and the range is much wider too. When I checked the website over a month ago, many events were still not unconfirmed. Todays' programme looks very comprehensive.

There are several events I am interested in. The Design Market this Saturday has already been marked on the calendar and I am determined to buy something this year. I'm not sure about the furniture - they look really cool but I'm not so hot about the prices. I'm hoping to attend at least one of the conferences.

Then I came across this seminar on architecture and design education Kulttuuruareena Gloria. It sounds a lot like my Interdisciplinary Product Design workshop, until I clicked on the web link and found out about Arkki, the School of Architecture for Children and Youth. In keeping with the Finnish culture, children are taught architecture through play. Looking at the video presentations, it's amazing that kids in their pre-teens are working with architecture plans and building pretty complex models. Above all, they are having lots of fun.

Here is a video of a Hut Building Camp held during summer time.

Classes start for children as young as 4 years old. This would have a really good course for my kids and I am sure their lives will be very much enriched. Whether they will finally become architects is besides the point.

Unfortunately, we can't commit to their attendance until they are 18 years old. Secondly, I suspect the classes are conducted only in Finnish, which puts us at a great disadvantage. If we want to live in Finland in the long term, we really should be learning the language. But we only have short term plans here, which excludes us from fully benefitting from what Finland can offer.

The kids' kampong father thinks building those tree houses are chicken feet, while their mom reminisces those happy RR days building teepees and other structures. We hope our kids will develop a love for nature, and find their place out of this sanitised and air-conditioned world.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Small car good, big car bad

This is true at least in busy European cities like Paris.

In Helsinki, like in Paris, when a strip of road on the side is designated for parking, it's just that, a strip of road. Quite unlike in Singapore where each parking lot is marked clearly on the ground. This means that as long as your car fits in the lot, go ahead and park.

In this case, as long as the car fit and it did not disrupt traffic flow, park it.

Thus, small cars like the 2-person Smart or Mini are very popular. Large or long MPVs tend to be quite rare but I suspect finding lots in suburban or rural areas are less difficult. We also spotted a large Humvee with a Middle Eastern/Arabic licence plate parked outside a luxury hotel.

My mother-in-law saw the Smart car when she visited us this summer. She thought that this model wouldn't sell in Singapore where cars are a status symbol - the bigger the better.

But some families need an MPV since grandparents and children (and sometimes maids too) are huddled into one car.

We have a Mini - a seat for each of us. Just nice.

Friday, August 28, 2009

I wuz here

Jules and his family joined the rest of the over 32 million tourists to Paris each year. According to Econovista, Paris' promotion department, the city is the world's most popular tourist destination.

We visited many sights in Paris over the past 6 days. We checked in at the necessary attractions: the Eiffel Tower, Lourve museum and palace, Pompidou Centre, Panthéon, Notre-Dame, Jardin des Tuileries. We also went shopping at the famous Galeries Lafayette and admired its beautiful stained glass ceiling. As we strolled through the city, we also saw countless wonderful churches, opera houses, museums and other buildings whose names were too insignificant to feature on our tourist map.

We rested our tired feet at cosy cafés and munched on delectable sandwiches and pastries. There was the organic market where we snacked on fig and nut bread, muffins and even a piece of freshly rotisserie chicken. We headed to Paris' specialty street for crepes and apple cider. Our children savoured steaming bowls of wakame udon. Japanese was one of their favourite cuisine and the last time they had it professionally done was back in March.

I made time for a haircut, having had 6 inches snipped off. Ala Audrey Hepburn in the Roman Holiday, my friend tells me. Why go all the way to Paris? Because it is cheaper in Paris than Helsinki...

HG also had his hair trimmed. I noticed the hairdresser didn't speak English although her colleague helped to translate his requests. What do you think is the result?

Although we had more time this round, there are still sights I wish I could have visited. Like the Musee d'Orsay, the Bastille, Montmartre district and Little Vietnam where another friend has sourced a list of good restaurants. Do you know you can get the nicest baguettes outside France in Vietnam? I can imagine the reverse is true: one can get very good Viet food outside Vietnam in France.

Our lives and resources are too limited. I can't get enough of Paris. I'm thinking of going back already but I also want to visit other parts of France, Sweden, Britain, Japan, Korea... and the list goes on!

Can't wait to go to the next destination to stamp my mark "MZ wuz here".

D'amour Paris

Paris is lovely.

There is Disneyland in Paris so that's the excuse to make a trip with the kids. This is also a holiday for the adults where we can see, eat and shop.

Paris is best explored on foot so we walked, and walked, and walked. By Day 1, we had walked along Avenue Charles de Gaulle, all the way from La Defense to the Arc du Triomphe. That's a spectacular 4 km. I'm so proud of my kids.

In an interesting twist, we spent 2 days in Paris with two Japanese classmates of mine from the Helsinki Summer School.

Memi is partly based in Paris where she is taking a year off work to tour Europe. Yuta is taking a 3-day break in Paris before going home to Sendai in Japan.

Many Asians visit Paris for the luxury shops. Louis Vuitton along Champs-Élysee feels more like a market than a high-end boutique. Conversations in Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean were exchanged along crowded counters. Handbags filled the display shelves and counters on the ground floor of the boutique, which basically means that these are the cash cows of the brand.

Looking at the H12009 results of LVMH, Louis Vuitton's parent company, revenue fell across all categories (wines and spirits, perfumes and cosmetics, watches and jewellery, and others) except fashion and leather goods. Thus, the outlook for this sector is brightly positive. Double-digit revenue growth was registered for the first half of the year, with strong momentum in Asia, Europe and Middle East. LV thanks its Japanese clients who have been purchasing abroad (like Paris) due to the strengthening yen and not to mention, what it calls "exceptional" support from its Chinese clientele.

As for us, we thank LV for letting us use their washrooms.

I resisted buying a designer bag. Since this is my second visit to Paris, the temptation has weakened.

The most fashionable item I bought from Paris is the French edition of Vogue. The delicious jambon (ham) baguettes have been digested. The beautiful sights are captured in our minds and camera.

More show-and-tell will come in the next few days.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Live to eat

Estelle and Mommy at dinner

People have varied ideas about whether children should be seen or heard, or both or neither.

We bring our kids wherever we go. This is especially so in Finland where we live by ourselves and don't have any babysitters. Domestic helpers are not common in Finland, and even if families have nannies, they usually work during office hours or they will call it a day soon after their wards have had their dinners.

Perhaps this is why there are many children-friendly restaurants in Finland. People have to bring their children along if they want to go out. High chairs are readily available as well as microwave ovens to warm up ready-to-eat foods.

Besides places that serve Asian food where we could order some dishes to go with rice or noodles, we patronise family restaurants like La Famiglia in Helsinki or Rosso. They have children's menus, offer options like spaghetti bolognese or pizzas in smaller portions as well as a children's corner where the kids could play. Since eating out in Finland is quite expensive, we go out less often than in Singapore or Beijing. So our kids appreciate the times we give them a treat.

Thus, I found this story on "The restaurant-friendly child" on The Guardian pretty interesting.

I agree with the author that it is the parents' responsibility to teach their children to behave at restaurants. I'll extend this responsibility to include other settings, like shopping malls or parks. Children, and adults too, need to respect other people's personal space.

On the other hand, it is frustrating when public places are not accommodating towards children. I'm not referring to fine-dining restaurants where even the slightest chink from cutlery is thought of as causing a ruckus.

Which way should it be: a restaurant-friendly child or a child-friendly restaurant?

How about tackling the question in another context: a child-friendly home or a home-friendly child?

HG and I are of the opinion that instead of child-proofing our home, like installing locks on the fridge or cupboards, it's better to teach the child boundaries and not to step over them. Nevertheless, wisdom has to prevail over principles. When our kids were younger we covered our power sockets with plastics covers but we stopped when we moved to a new city. Over time, they learn to play with their own stuff, not to touch things that do not belong to them, and to ask for permission if unsure.

Note: they don't follow protocol ALL the time, in case you are thinking I have a pair of angels.

Tomorrow we leave for a short holiday to Paris. Although HG and I were just there last year, we didn't notice if Parisian restaurants are child-friendly. This time, we go as a family of four. So I hope our kids are restaurant-friendly so we will be welcomed every where we go.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Working for a living

Yesterday, I chanced upon this article on the Finnish broadcaster YLE's website. It features a fresh graduate Liu Tianyan in the tough job market.

I met Tianyan last autumn while covering a university-linked event. He was the President of International Student Organisation (Tsemppi) at the University of Helsinki and at that time, was pursuing a Masters degree in IT. He seemed like the sort who excels academically and busied himself with student activities and part-time work at a software company. He was good-looking and presented himself well.

Tianyan is Chinese. His family came to Finland some years ago. I remember his father was a diplomat and his family left when the posting came to an end. He chose to stay on in Finland partly for the free education and also because he wanted to be with his girlfriend, who was Finnish.

In Singapore, students with this kind of record seldom have trouble getting a job. Most times, they would have received offers even before graduation, sometimes even several to choose from.

Last autumn, Tsemppi arranged a get-together for students concerned about life after graduation. At that time, the economy had not plummeted so the students' anxiety seemed, to me, just normal for people preparing to enter a new phase of life. Things took a turn for the worse by Q4 and as time went by, joblessness of young people below the age of 25 became a social problem for governments worldwide.

Soon after that Tsemppi event, I dropped an e-mail to a professor from NUS who had helped me land my first job. Hearing those students made me realise I got things easy, so I'm grateful.

All these years, I have also kept in touch with my boss from my first job, who had been a great mentor, continually offering sound advice. As I come to the end of my summer course and we talked about intellectual property protection, I'm reminded that my ex-boss tried to persuade me to take up a second degree in law since the IP law is a lucrative, not to mention respected, profession. I turned down her best of intentions because I didn't really want to go back to school. Did I regret my decision? Not exactly because it wasn't what I want to do, but in view of job opportunities, I am probably more employable as a patent lawyer than as a writer.

At this point in my life, I am blessed that my family and I can lead a good life even though I am not contributing to our household income. I am happy I can spend time with the children and do things I like. Many other families out there can't have this luxury.

But I won't likely remain like this. My team mate from the summer course could tell that I won't be staying at home long, even though we've only known each other for 2 weeks.

I am in transition. The past 5 years feel like a long transition. Now that the summer course is coming to an end (tomorrow!), I wonder where life brings me next.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Back to nature

Last weekend was a hectic one.

The family woke up at around 8.30 am and we rushed through breakfast and attire changes so that we could reach the centre of Helsinki by 10 am. We arrived at the pick-up point at 10.15 and thankfully, the bus hadn't left yet.

About 40 minutes later, we arrived at Finland's Nuuksio National Park. No more sounds of traffic, just lapping waves on the shores of the lake and bantering of students.

I began the day with canoeing. My partner was a software developer from Switzerland and he related funny stories of his visit to Malaysia's Taman Negara. One night, he and his friends heard a loud crash on their zinc roof and everyone went rushing out. They'd thought a bomb had gone off but it was actually just a durian. He said he wouldn't have minded durian if it wasn't so pungent.

We canoed along one end of the lake, taking in the greenery and quaint summer cottages situated along the coast. Such peace and serenity.

After working out the arms, it was time to stretch the legs. We took a hike along rocky paths, which our guide said were formed as the glaciers receded after the Ice Ages. We climbed several hundred feet to look down at the pristine lake, 7 km across, beautiful.

This is my first time hiking in a coniferous forest, which I find a different experience from a tropical one. Humidity was low so I hardly perspired and we didn't encounter pests like mosquitoes or leeches. Instead of damp dead twigs and leaves, the forest floors at Nuuksio were carpeted by blueberry shrubs. There were blueberries everywhere. We didn't have lunch before the hike so many of us were kind of hungry. The berries provided some relief.

I guess I have some experience with berry picking this summer so I munched on them as I walked. Some of the other students were hesitant to eat the berries. We also spotted mushrooms along the way - mushroom season is on the way. Our guides said they were edible, if you were looking for special effects. Ah ha...

We finished the day with sauna and BBQ. The lake was open for swimming. It must have been exhilarating but I'm not a good swimmer, so I won't risk my life.

HG brought the kids to join me later in the afternoon. I saved some sausages and tortilla for them; I think they have gotten the hang of Finnish BBQ.

At some point, I want to bring our kids camping. We bought a tent from Ikea and placed it in the garden. They played in there for a while, but they moved out when the bugs moved in. Oh well, we tried.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Opening the door of knowledge...

... is tiring.

Today ends the second week of Helsinki Summer School. If we had thought the pace of last week's course was "just right", it picked up speed from Monday. We've had workshops and hands-on projects almost every day.

The students didn't really know what to expect as we begun the course, each given a broad outline. According to the programme, each day was described by a one-liner. Yesterday (Thursday), for example, was to be a two-worder: PD6 workshop.

It turned out to be the most intensive project we had to undertake, thus far. After a 1-hour introduction-cum-briefing, we spent the next few hours working on our assignment, finishing off with a prototype and presentation. Man, most of us were totally exhausted by the end of the day. We were rewarded with a BBQ, sauna and pool afterwards, for whoever cared to stay behind.

Again, I'd say that I learnt lots in the past 2 weeks. I met with many experts who were so willing to share their knowledge and threw myself into the assignments and learning from my team mates and classmates.

I have a very good team - enthusiastic, serious, knowledgeable and fun. We have built up excellent team spirit over the past few days, playing and working together.

The Summer School has organised an outing to the Nuuksio national park tomorrow. I tried to offload my place since I'm pooped and would have preferred a lazy day at home. It turned out that several of my classmates have signed up for tomorrow, meaning that those who are interested to go are going. Went to the supermarket after class today so I'm equipped with makarras, tortillas and possibly marshmallows.

I'm praying the rain will hold tomorrow. Daddy HG will be spending quality time to bond with the kids while I'm off to the wilderness. Should be fun.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What's the big idea?

Today is Day 4 of my Summer School course and the topic covered was idea generation.

How does one develop a good product? First of all, we start with a good idea. Or rather a whole lot of good ideas and pick the best one, or two, among them.

The class went through some drawing and idea generation exercises. I found the two workshops particularly intense because each team had to generate as many novel ideas as it can within short periods of time.

I enjoyed today's class very much since we spent less time listening and more time working out our cognitive faculties. I'm also happy that I can power up and get into the flow very quickly.

Thus, I am happy to announce that my team came up tops with the most number of ideas. Not bad for an official stay-at-home mom! Sshh... nobody in my class knows.

Yesterday, I went on a dragon boat safari on the seas around Helsinki. Enough participants from the Summer School came to fill up 3 dragon boats. We took about an hour to go from the Canoeing Centre around Seurasaari and back again. I've had guy friends (one of them is my dear husband) complain that their female friends tend to sit back to enjoy the "wonderful sea view and breeze" while they paddle like crazy during canoeing trips. Well, I really enjoyed rowing!

Nearly a week after I've started school, I realised that the competitive streak in me never went away - it was just latent. It's been a while since I've felt so challenged, so motivation levels are running at all time high.

Still, I have to remind myself that my classmates come from different backgrounds and live in various circumstances. Being over-zealous will, quite definitely, backfire on me. Besides gaining some hard-core knowledge, this course is also about learning to get along and work with others.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Moon, class and Jules

We kinda know that the season is changing because the sun finishes its shift around 10.30 pm this week. I chanced upon a full moon tonight at 11.30 pm.

Today is officially my first lesson at my course. I think I have learnt a lot already, on the first day, about product development.

I was late because I couldn't find the venue - Aalto Design Factory, and was driving around Otaniemi (one of Helsinki's high tech region, quite like Silicon Valley) for over half an hour.

After a tour of the facilities, each student took turns to introduce themselves, their background, what they think are good and bad qualities of product developer, and companies or products they appreciate.

Again, it's fun to hear from everyone. Apple was an oft-quoted company and looks like it has many admirers.

After lunch, our lecturer Mr Kalevi Ekman gave an introduction to the process of product development. I came to the course thinking we'll be taught how to design new and innovative products. Then I learned (but really, it should be obvious) that there is much more involved and a lot more factors to consider before simply saying "I want to design a new product".

Besides getting lost in Otaniemi, today is also a challenging day because Jules has fallen ill. He awoke this morning to a slight fever (37.5ºC) so we decide to keep him at home. When I called during lunch, HG told me he had puked several times and not eating or drinking much. He couldn't retain any inputs.

Times like these really make me think about giving up pursuing what I enjoy and instead stay at home to fulfill my maternal responsibilities.

But I have a supportive husband, whom I have to learn to trust to take care of the household while I am away.

Jules hasn't rejected any food since dinner. He didn't eat much either but better than nothing. His fever is now hovering between 38.4 and 38.8, unfortunately.

I have a long day tomorrow. The class will meet at 8 am for a couple of industry visits and scheduled to end 5.30 pm. Just now, I read some pages from my textbook - rare! I'm looking forward to tomorrow and pray that Jules will be better when he awake.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Back to school

Summer holiday is over. The children started school this week. Their daycare centre was closed for one week and we missed 3 days before that when we took a cruise to Sweden.

The kids were very excited to go back to school. Finland starts the academic year in autumn so the kids went back to new classes. They are excited to see their friends again, and seem keen to make new ones.

But I am also referring to myself. Today is the first day of Helsinki Summer School where I have enrolled in a course.

Back to school after more than a decade. I'd thought I'll be the oldest student but it seems that I have a companion in Esther, a girl from The Netherlands. I may have dwelt on my agedness too much because she had to tell me that both of us are actually still young!

During the welcome ceremony today, the course coordinator announced that 60 countries are represented among the 360 participants, starting from Albania to Zambia. The largest representation came from China (40), followed by Germany (37) and a wide array of students from all continents (except Antartica). Seems that Finland has just around 10 students. Only 1 from Singapore... moi.

My course held a briefing today so I had a glimpse of my classmates. There's a German, an Italian, a Venezuelan, a Japanese, a Finn, a Swedish Finn... I didn't catch all their names and nationalities.

It's always fun to meet people from other countries and cultures. Everyone is different... unique.

I have a Chinese classmate who spoke fluent Finnish. Initially I'd thought he is studying in Finland and has taken Finnish lessons. It turned out that he is from Beijing but had lived in Finland when he was a young boy. His primary (elementary) education was carried out in Finland and he returned to China 8 or 9 years ago. He didn't use Finnish afterwards until he arrived in Helsinki 2 or 3 days ago. Amazingly, he spoke Finnish and to me, he spoke like a native. He claimed that he isn't very good but I believe that he just needs some time to "warm up". It's like someone had turned on a switch in his brain and he speaks Finnish all over again.

I'm sure I'll meet more fascinating people the next 3 weeks. Besides meeting new people, I also hope I can follow the course and learn something useful.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Celebrating family ties

The last couple of weeks felt like a whirlwind holiday. Together with our parents, we covered three countries - Finland, Sweden and Estonia - in 13 days. Whew!

Using Finland as our base, we took a 3-day cruise to Stockholm and a day-trip to Tallinn. Compared to holiday tours boasting 8 countries in 14 days, we travelled at a more relaxed pace. We spent more time shopping, going back to points of interest if needed and rest when we were tired.

Stockholm is a great shopping destination although we only had time for Gamla Stan and the area around T-Centralen. Shopping in Finland gets a little boring after a while because there are only a handful of brands and they are duplicated around town. In the homeland of H&M, I am re-acquainted with some favourite high-street names. I tried on a TopShop denim skirt which proclaimed my size but I couldn't pull them beyond my knees. Blame it on the good food my mother-in-law had been preparing over here.

I sailed away from Stockholm with only a book bought at a second-hand store - The Accidental by Ali Smith. Too bad we didn't have time for the Ostermalm district where there are many hip boutiques and cafes.

Tallinn Old Town from a high vantage point

Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia is about 2 hours by ship from Helsinki and is a popular destination among Finns, especially during summer time.

Tallinn's Old Town, a UNESCO heritage site, is a beautiful medieval city fortified by thick stone walls. According to this history brief, only 20 of the original 66 towers are left. Good enough because they are wonderful samples of ancient architecture that have withstood the test of time. Nearly 800 years after they have been built, the city walls and towers are still as tough as ever. Outside of the Old Town, remnants of Russian architecture stand starkly.

HG and I visited Tallinn about 8 or 9 years ago. This trip brought back many memories for us as we revisited the various locations. There's the Flower Street, McDonald's restaurant, Fat Margaret Tower, and the Artist Path where local artists display their works on old city walls. As I looked at the painted scenes of Tallinn, I'm reminded of the ones that still hang in our matrimonial home in Singapore.

One of these towers is nicknamed Fat Margaret. Guess which?

Tallinn's Old Town is very much a tourist haven. Almost every lane is lined with souvenir shops selling fridge magnets, old-styled Estonian apparel, pottery and amber accessories. It was only in our last hour in Tallinn that I stumbled upon a little shop selling hand-made clothes and jewelry. Sigrid Valgma studied industrial design and made jewelry as a hobby. Earlier this year, she turned her hobby into a business. She didn't abandon her major because she told me she built the furniture in her shop herself. You can click on her name to view her gallery of products. The work of her partner, Kadri Siirman, can be viewed here.

I bought a ring made of white jade, freshwater pearls and glass beads designed by Sigrid. I am very pleased with my purchase because I'd really wanted to buy a unique piece of local art.

Our visitors left today. I think they enjoyed their first trip to Europe very much, experiencing new environments, seeing different people and lifestyles, walking on cobblestones, trying out new foods... and of course, spending precious time with their grandchildren.

We are back to our usual routine... starting with a major clean-up tomorrow.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Change is the only constant

The children's grandparents are here to visit, so we have been busy sightseeing, including places we seldom/never visit.

Last week, I brought them for a nature walk around Villa Elfik. The folks enjoyed the fresh air, tranquility and greenery. We spotted many species of birds and even a fox. We also noticed some large piles of poo - according to the information board, a species of hairy cattle live in the area. Unfortunately, other than their trails, we didn't see any specimens that day.

Over the weekend, we went to Market Square to browse the stalls. On Sunday, we visited the Botanical Gardens near Hakaniemi. The last time the kids and I visited the Gardens was 2 years ago when we were staying in an apartment nearby. Some plants looked familiar while others were new and fascinating. It was really refreshing to come again.

Last Wednesday, we took a 3-day cruise to Stockholm. This is our second trip in 2 years. With our parents, we revisited Stockholm's Old Town Gamla Stan. They were impressed by the strong and sturdy walls, the gates and even doors. My mom thought the palace guards (especially the one watching the front gate) were very handsome. These fair-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavians are rather good-looking.

Although we were in Stockholm just 2 years ago, Gamla Stan feels kind of different. This time, I noticed more glitzy brand shops, like The Body Shop. There's also a Ben and Jerry's, but it might be already there the last time since the whiffs of freshly-made waffles smelled familiar.

I mentioned my observations of Gamla Stan to my neighbours and they seemed pretty surprised. At the same time, we weren't too taken aback either. The invasion of large shop fronts is part and parcel of global branding. Starbucks at the Forbidden City in Beijing, McDonald's in Tokyo, and endless examples in modern cities like Singapore and Shanghai.

Here in Helsinki, Wayne's Coffee shop used to be our favourite little coffee joint when we first visited 9 years ago. In those days, we used to love to pop in for their hearty soups or soft muffins and a hot cuppa. It was cool place to hang out.

Today, Wayne's Coffee is all over the place. There are now outlets at shopping complexes in the suburbs. Not so thrilled with Wayne's nowadays. Maybe it's time to throw out that blue mug we bought yonks ago.

We'll be visiting Tallin in neighbouring Estonia tomorrow. I wonder what changes await us after our last visit 8 years ago.

Look out for the next instalment of MZinLalaland.

PS Everyone please give a round of applause to welcome my new follower, ~Sal~. Also join me in congratulating her on successfully re-embarking the journey to parenthood. Need some maternity clothes from H&M?

Friday, July 17, 2009

When you wish upon a star

Estelle had just finished her shower and I was drying her up when I heard a noise.

Poot... poot... poot...

Me: (covering my nose with the towel) Estelle! What's that sound?

Estelle: (laughing) What sound, mummy?

Me: (nose still covered) Oh my goodness, what was that?

Estelle: It's just a shooting star, mummy.

The kids are really happy these couple of days because their grandparents are here to visit. HG and I were initially worried about putting them up in the living room. It turned out that the kids moved downstairs to join them. Our living room has become a camp site. A very happy one.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Strawberry fields

Strawberry fields don't last forever; strawberries are fruits of summer.

I received an sms just after 6 pm today from one of Estelle's classmate, Holly's mom.

"Hi, today seems good to pick strawberry. Would you like to around 6.30-7pm?" she asked.

I replied: "My husband is not in. I don't have GPS..."

Since we live rather close by, we arranged to meet somewhere (actually, it's the Nokia office since my knowledge of Espoo is limited), then their car led ours.

I've picked apples, pears and peaches on the outskirts of Beijing. This is my first time picking strawberries.

At farms like these, visitors are typically allowed to eat all they can on-location. Visitors can bring their own baskets or containers and are charged according to the weight of fruit collected.

The farm is just less than 10 km from our home. We are thankful for friends with local knowledge! We arrived after 7.30 pm and had only half an hour because the farm closes at 8 pm.

Nevertheless, the kids had lots of fun running around the large field. We ate as we picked and had a pretty good harvest. The strawberries were very sweet.

During the 5-minute walk from the field to the weighing station, our yield dropped 20% as the kids munched along. Good thing anyway, since we pay 80% less than what we would have.

In the next 5 minutes between the farm and our car, our stock had nearly halved. We had some more for dessert tonight...

So we now have a good reason to go down to the strawberry field again next week. Summer is short in this part of the world - we have to enjoy while it lasts.

PS Do you realise it's really bright for past 8 pm? These two pics were taken on the way out.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Goodbye, James Reynolds

James Reynolds is the BBC's Beijing correspondent. I've followed his blog on a fairly regular basis and kept up with his work in China.

Today, as I was reading BBC's coverage of the Xinjiang riots, I clicked on the link to his blog and found out that he is coming to the end of his posting in China.

James has many fans. From the comments left on his blog, his ardent followers can be categorised broadly into 1) China Chinese who are now living overseas, 2) China Chinese still living in China, 3) ethnic Chinese who are living or have lived in China, 4) non-Chinese who have spent time in China, and 5) non-Chinese who are interested in what's happening in China.

Poor James gets plenty of flak particularly from categories 1 and 2. Many accuse him of attacking China and the Chinese people. No matter what he was saying, these readers think he does not know China at all or is looking at events as a bigoted Westerner. I wonder how they will react to his departure.

Categories 3 and 4 are much more sympathetic. I belong to this group.

I got to know a friend from Beijing and whenever we discuss China, I think my friend can't help but put up a defense. "Why are you foreigners criticising China all the time?" she must be thinking. "Isn't there anything good to talk about?"

A number of Beijing taxi drivers had welcomed me back to Motherland but I had given up explaining Singapore is my home. Perhaps my Beijing friend viewed me as "Chinese" except my Mandarin is not as fluent. So she is still somewhat tolerant of my views, even though they may be quite different from hers. But if I had been of another colour, the same views and thoughts would have prevented us from becoming friends. The Chinese, in general, are wary of foreigners.

Since I myself have done some journalistic snooping around during my time in Beijing, I can empathise with the obstacles James faced.

It's almost impossible to interview someone from government agencies. I am consoled that even a BBC journalist is often rejected, let alone a freelancer like me. I didn't even have a fax machine. My e-mail requests for interviews - government and private companies alike - were often lost in cyberspace. The other party never seemed to receive my mails and I kept sending. Or the boss' schedule was so packed he was only available 30 February.

Even when I was standing right in front of the official, he couldn't answer my questions because his flight was about to take off.

I had felt really guilty towards the publication I was working for because I wasn't able to submit many stories. Although there were relevant reports in the local papers, I couldn't write my own story because none of the facts can be checked and substantiated. I didn't tell them I had actually made dozens of calls and sent loads of e-mails. Just lame excuses for incompetence, my employers might think.

My colleague N was pretty sympathetic. She's a Chinese who had spent many years in the US so she is well aware of the workings of her home country.

Aside from the frustrations of working in China, I am awfully touched my James' stories of the people he met.

Many times, we think of China as a economic powerhouse, we are wowed by the skyscrapers of Shanghai or the glitzy movie industry. The fact of the matter is that not all Chinese are benefiting from the economic progress. For every new car added to the road, there is someone out there who is still living poorly.

I am tearful when I came to the part about siblings Li Tangmo and Qingyi whose parents died during the Sichuan earthquake. What will happen to my kids when we pass on? At least they have grandparents who will love them and look after them, and they will be well-taken care of by insurance payouts.

Not the Lis. Their future is in peril, like numerous other children who have lost their families. But what can we do to help them? Or how about the families who have lost their children? How can we heal the hurt?

Nothing much, unfortunately, within our power. I hope, however, to live my own life differently knowing that we are in a much more privileged position than many others in this world.

So thank you, James Reynolds, for revealing the lives of real people in China. I wish I had a chance to meet you to draw from the depths of your experiences. All the best on your future endeavours.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A cloudy night

We woke up to a bright and cool morning. I opened the back door to be greeted by a light 16ºC breeze. Nice.

The clouds built up after lunch. We had planned a picnic at Kaivopuisto this afternoon but had to settle for some drinks and snacks at Carousel Cafe because the sky was displaying dark shades of gray.

Rain drizzled down around 7 pm. In spite of the heavy clouds, there was no downpour. Maybe later tonight; I hope so because my garden desperately needs some watering.

Today's picture was taken just before 11 pm. Darkness has not yet fallen. Compared to previous summer nights, it looks as if the dimmer is on.

Even as the sight of lit street lamps remind me of the normalcy of day and night, I also remember that this level of brightness comes on as early as 3 pm during winter days.

From the equator where the sun rises at (about) 6.30 am every morning and sets at (about) 6.30 pm every evening, pole living proves that the world is different to different people.

Quite like the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant, isn't it?

Monday, June 29, 2009

I am mother, hear me roar

I think it's a mother's natural instinct to care and protect her cubs. Other family members included.

I have reached the age where friends around me 1) have children, 2) are adding children, 3) are planning to have/add children, or 4) made up their minds not to have any.

This time back in Singapore, I met an old friend at Bukit Timah Plaza on a Sunday afternoon. The elder of his two girls was taking ballet lessons. We went there with our friends whose boys were taking music lessons. Being out of Singapore for several years now, HG and I didn't know that Bukit Timah Plaza is actually a popular site for children's enrichment classes.

Pulled along by the tides of time, we bump into friends these days at places like Bukit Timah Plaza, and no longer at yuppie coffee joints or pubs at Holland V or Mohamed Sultan.

I don't know about other moms out there but I often think about what kind of mother I want to be.

Is staying at home full time the best decision a mother can make?

I enjoy the autonomy to decide how I want to bring up our kids. It's also fun planning the menu and whipping up delicious and nutritious meals for the family. I am thankful I am there whenever my kids need me, like when they fall ill and need to stay at home, or when the teacher calls that they'd run into trouble at school.

However, I think this routine is dulling my senses. I miss meeting deadlines, socialising with colleagues, dressing up for work, traveling and most of all, the satisfaction of a job well done. I don't wish to be enslaved to my family, not now or in the future. I want to live my own life!

I was rather pleased to strike a balance in Singapore and Beijing, where I could work from home and still travel occasionally for press events and conferences. Work has dwindled since I come to Finland. I'd bet the cashiers at the local supermarket recognise this Asian woman who comes in nearly every day, sometimes to buy something, sometimes nothing.

Besides personal satisfaction, a full-time job would certainly boost our family income. More money is helpful, not to mention, gives me the power to pamper myself with material things. I'm far from noble so I must confess that I wish I can splurge liberally on designer clothes, jewellery, shoes, holidays... the list grows the more I mull over it.

These days, I can't help but feel resigned to my state of affairs. Then last night, I read an article by NYT columnist, Judith Warner. Warner is a stay-at-home mom and an author. This week, she wrote about her run-in with working moms.

On the other end of the spectrum is Lucy Kellaway of the FT. Back in February, she wrote about her guilt as a selfish working mother.

I can identify with both women. At some point, I was one or the other, and my status may change again when we move to a new country where career opportunities and childcare arrangements are more readily available.

"I am woman, hear me roar." Do you know this feminist anthem by Helen Reddy?

Stay at home versus full time work. I'm still searching for the point of equilibrium.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Daylight in the night time

I captured a beautiful sunset from our bathroom window tonight.

Can you guess what time it is?

The weather was great today. The clouds moved away to show off the sun in all its glory.

When we picked the kids up school today, they were playing outdoors and had shed their jackets. Seemed that the teachers brought out benches, colouring materials, mats and books outside and all the kids have been out after lunch. Temperature was hovering above 20ºC and warmer at places where the sun shone.

After dinner, we went out (again) to play with the neighbours. Our neighbour's boy (the one with the thick earthworm) was running around in singlet and shorts. Our kids had some sleeves to protect their shoulders, if this helped.

These days, the kids sleep after 9 pm while we usually go to bed around 1 am, after we've caught a few minutes of Wolf Blitzer. What's the diff - like the hours preceding him, it's all about Iran anyway...

I took an early shower today. 11.30 pm. That's the time I caught today's sunset.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Catching the sunset

Do you know what time it was when this picture was taken?

Make a guess.

Midsummer is the longest day of the year, also known as the summer solstice. Astronomically, the summer solstice falls on 24 June. In Finland, Juhannus is a national holiday that is celebrated on the Saturday that falls between 20 and 26 June.

On Friday (19 June), shops will open at 8 am and close at 1 pm, and remain close on Saturday. Long queues at the supermarket can be expected on Thursday evening and Friday morning. I have already prepared my battle plan to conquer the supermarkets Thursday.

Finns celebrate Juhannus by lighting bonfires. Seurasaari, an island in Helsinki, is the annual site for bonfires, dances and traditional costumes. We hope to catch a Juhannus celebration this year, whether at Seurasaari or elsewhere.

During summer in the upper northern latitudes, like in Helsinki, the sun sets at around 10 pm and is up 3 am. Some people have trouble sleeping and their body clocks go topsy-turvy. I've read suggestions like installing thick dark-coloured curtains and sticking those black garbage bags to windows to block out the sun.

The Toh family just sleeps. ZZZ... zzz... ZZZ... zzz...

The kids go to bed at around 9 pm and wake up at 8 am the next day. If the little ones cooperate on weekends, which they usually do nowadays, we all get up at 9.30 am. A real treat for parents with young kids! Estelle looks forward to weekends because "I can sleep for as long as I want".

So, have you guessed what time it is?

12.30 am. Serious.

This is the midnight sun. Further up north, the phenomenon is more obvious where day light is turned on even at midnight.

I'll be taking more picture over the next few days. Stay tuned.