Saturday, January 24, 2009

Singapore kampung boy reaches new heights


There can be miracles, if you believe.

Lyrics from the soundtrack of "Prince of Egypt" movie rings true for Mr Toh Hong Giep.

Last week, Mr Toh graduated from the inaugural class of Tsinghua-INSEAD EMBA Programme. It was a proud moment for his family as he finally received his postgraduate certificates from two of the world's most prestigious schools.

"I still can't believe I graduated with EMBA," Mr Toh said. "It's quite unbelievable."

Indeed, Mr Toh had neither the family pedigree nor high-flying academic record to even give him any advantage to getting enrolled in the course.

Childhood was largely spent building tree houses using loose wooden planks left around by his father, who ran a small construction company. He recalls fond memories of being chased by dogs - of which scars still remain, climbing and falling down from trees and picking durians in the backyard.

He claims that he took his primary school leaving examinations (PSLE) without realising that it was a national-level examination that would determine the standard of secondary school he would go to. His parents apparently did not know which schools to choose and he filled up the decision forms after a chat with his best friend. 

Mr Toh scored well enough to secure a place at the Chinese High School, a premium secondary school in Singapore. Much of his four years were spent at the courts playing a myriad of ball games, like basketball, volleyball and badminton. Academic success continued not to be a priority.

Those formative years were also spent honing his mahjong skills. Mr Toh recounted a memorable day:

"It was during our 'O' levels exams and we met at a friend's place to play mahjong after school. We played the whole night through 通宵, as is usual for mahjong games. 

"As dawn breaks, one of the guys said, 'Don't we have a paper today? I think it's chemistry.'

"Good thing we were still in our school uniforms so we ate our breakfast and went to school together. I got an A," he grins.

Again, Mr Toh scored good grades and spent the next two years at Hwa Chong Junior College, another top school in Singapore. He aced his 'A' level examinations and went on to read Computer Science at the National University of Singapore.

After the passing of his father in his late-teens, Mr Toh supported himself through university. While his uncle provided for his tuition fees, Mr Toh took on odd jobs to earn pocket money. He exercised physical strength by moving electronic equipment or exhibition panels, cultivated his negotiation skills hawking vegetables and improved interpersonal skills giving private tuition.

Mr Toh began his professional career with a government ministry. Although his performance was regularly ranked at the top, he was not satisfied with his prospects. He thought it was not fruitful to bond himself to the organisation just to attend an overseas conference, neither was it fair since colleagues who had obtained government scholarships did not have their bonds correspondingly extended.

Since joining Nokia in 2001, Mr Toh has had his fair share of travelling. At the last count, he has visited over 40 cities in more than 20 countries. To be fair, not all were for business. He enjoys travelling and exploring new places with his wife of 10 years, Ms Han MZ.

"The kids and I are rather glad now that the company imposed a travel freeze in view of the economic crisis," says Ms Han. 

"We hope to travel together more often but let's see."

Despite spending much time on the road, Mr Toh continues to develop strong and long-lasting friendships. He is affable and cares about his friends without making judgments. People who have not seen or heard from him for some time would come up to him to shake his hand, pat his back or go for a coffee or a meal.

To friends familiar with Mr Toh, he is really a laid-back kind of guy who just wants to relax over a cup of cappucino. He would like to blend in with the crowd but he catches the attention of his bosses and is often thrust into leadership roles.

In 2000, Mr Toh took a break from work to attend a three-month development course at his church Trinity Christian Centre. Called the Alpha Track, participants learn to study the Bible and put some principles into practice. 

"Yeah, he went out every morning and sometimes come home with assignments," Ms Han recalls. "He doesn't seem very busy or stressed."

He was awarded the Best Tracker of his class. He joked that the organisers just couldn't pinpoint any exceptional attributes so they presented a generic title. 

Mr Toh makes achieving look effortless. Even while putting long hours and plenty of hard work he does not forget to spend time with his family and keep his humour.

The love for adventure took Mr Toh on his first expedition to Inner Mongolia, China in 1999. In those days, getting there took almost 2 days, starting with a flight from Changi Airport to Beijing, followed by train and finally bus. Stacking bricks to build a school using bare hands and basic tools and living in backward conditions (toilet was a huge pit dug and shared by all 20 team members) was a memorable experience. 

Mr Toh seeks adventure although this takes on a different form nowadays. In 2005, he took on his first overseas posting in Beijing and now lives and works in Finland. His family - wife and two young children Estelle and Jules - are faithful members of his exploration team.

Authors of bestselling Freakonomics Stephen J Dubner and Steven D Levitt offer an alternative perspective to economics and statistics.  If the chapter on a child's development track holds any truth, Mr Toh would not have made it to perhaps, university. By the grace and favour of God, he remains the first and only graduate in his family and has now taken another step further.

Miracles do happen.





Wednesday, January 21, 2009

We have a new President!


If the news networks will have it, they want us to believe that we all are celebrating the installation of our new president.

In CNN's world, nothing else is more important than covering Obama, his campaign and now, his inauguration. CNN tends to put everything else on hold while it covers a single event. The lead-up to the inauguration and the event itself has occupied airwaves for the past 48 hours. I find that BBC gives a more balanced view of news occurring around the world but the channel has disappeared from our TV. It will come back somehow.

I'm suffering from Obama fatigue. So please allow me to let off some steam.

I first heard of Obama 4 years ago soon after Bush was elected to his second term. Bush is often the butt of jokes on late-night comedy shows and I think this one came from Jay Leno.

"You know when Bush came to the office this week, he went through the list of senators elected this year. He was shocked and asked: 'How did Osama get elected into our Senate?' To which his staff replied: ' Eh, no sir. It's Obama, not Osama.' "

Mr Obama rose to prominence from a junior senator to the first African-American running for presidential candidacy (beating Grand Dame Clinton) to the first African-American president of the USA.

It's amazing whichever way you look at it. 

Unlike other bigwigs in politics, many of whom were groomed for their positions, Obama is very much an ordinary man. He didn't have a father or mother with a famous surname, he and his wife took walks in their neighbourhood, went out to their favourite restaurants for dates, sends his own e-mails... Quite like us.

Now he has to give up his Blackberry because US Presidents can be asked to make their e-mail correspondences public under a Privacy Act. . Can you imagine not being able to send/receive SMSes anymore? Or stay in touch with your family, friends or colleagues personally? Obama's life changed totally after his election win. For many past presidents, it's more like moving to a new home in a new state.

Obama's presidency is a major triumph for the civil rights movement in the US. Some weeks before the election, a Finnish MP wrote in the Helsinki Times that although Obama was immensely popular, he didn't believe that Americans could overcome their prejudices to actually vote for a black president.

Voter turn-out of African-Americans was much higher than previous years and their participation made a deep difference to the results. This time, it was worth their effort to exercise their right to vote. Many young people also voted for Obama.

I observed that many of those who come to Washington DC to attend the inauguration celebrations are African-Americans. Or maybe the cameras picked them up more. They were truly exhilarated - many were emotional, streaming with tears - when Obama was sworn in. After decades of suppression, Obama brought them new respect. And new hope.

Said Obama in his inauguration speech: "The time has come... to carry forward... the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."

Here I am watching the inauguration parade play in front of me as I type. 

CNN's Wolf Blitzer seems to have run out of words. It's hard to keep a live commentary going all day long. 

"President Obama and Michelle Obama have arrived at the White House. They will be viewing the parade later on. For now they can return to their residence or go to the Oval Office, or wherever. He is the president and he can do whatever he wants."

I'm guessing Michelle Obama headed for the nearest loo and drank a large glass of ice water. She'd been standing and walking in those gummy green stilettos for a long time. Towards the end, she looked kinda tired and thirsty, licking her lips many times.

Joe Biden looked like he is seriously enjoying the attention. When Obama and his wife got out of the "tank" and walked along Pennsylvania Avenue, Biden and his family came out to wave to the crowds too. Every 5 steps, he pointed to someone in the crowd, gave them a big smile and mouthed something like "you look great" or "hey, you are here too", many times with two thumbs up. As if he really knew the guy/gal and could spot a familiar faces among the tens of thousands. 

Even after Obama got back into the car and finally reached the White House, Mr Biden was still waving, crossing from one side of the street to the other. Quite like a hyperactive child. Doesn't he know that the crowds came for Obama? He's the Veep.

We know that names are important and they can make a man or woman. It's great to cheer to O-ba-ma. O-ba-ma. Not easy with Bu-shee, or Buy-den or Mak-Kain. 

I'm a cynic when it comes to politics. One can never fully trust what a politician say or do. I tend to think that they say or do is best for the situation and not from their hearts. Their words are carefully weighed according to the audience. Apparently, Obama's speech was written by a 27-year-old spending much time at Starbucks. No, I don't think age is the issue here. I just think that speeches and policies are intensely calculated to yield the best results. 

As the dust from the parade settles, we await Obama's policies and the results expected of him.




Monday, January 19, 2009

A Shot of Tequila


Tequila is a popular drink at pubs, either on its own (straight) or mixed (Tequila Sunrise, anyone?). It is made of agava, a cactus-like plant that looks like aloe vera, and is produced mainly in a region in Mexico called Tequila.

No, no, I'm not going to write about appreciation of tequila. I'm going to tell you about Tila Tequila, an MTV celebrity.

I've heard of the name in some US magazines but the first time I learnt more about her was on an MTV reality series called "A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila". 

I was trying to figure out what the show was about. Imagine with me "The Bachelorette" aka Miss TT and in this episode, five contestants remained. Four men and one woman are vying for her love. Wait, it's actually three men and two women. I've mistaken - one of the "men" is actually a firefighter and she has such a good physique, she'll put some of my guy friends to shame.

So Miss TT  had to choose a mate among these contestants. This time, the challenge was to jump into a pool of chocolate and see who could transfer the most chocolate into their respective pails. The winner would secure a single date with Miss TT while the others had to share a "double" date.

Mr Bobby won a sweet date where they shared canapes beside a fireplace. Inevitably, they made out. 

Time's up. Miss TT changed an outfit and moved on to the next date. With one of the other guys guy and one of the girls. After some small talk, she kissed one of them while the other one watched. Then switched over.

After another outfit change, Ms TT went to her next date with the last remaining guy and a girl. In the jacuzzi, they chatted and made out again in similar fashion. That lucky girrrrl.

Only when I came to Finland do I realise what MTV really is. It's no longer just music videos like they had when I was a teenager. I've read parents complain their little girls gyrate like Fergie and it is only lately do I understand what the fuss was about. What do you think if your daughter dance with an umbrella like Rihanna?

My kids love Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers. Their music videos are wholesome so far. What will they be like when they turn 18 or 19? Britney Spears made a turning point around that age.

Like much of Europe, Finland is a liberal country that believes that adults are mature enough to decide what they want or don't want to watch, read or listen. Gone are the barriers nanny states like Singapore and China put up to "protect" its people. In Finland, programmes with adult content are usually screened after 10 pm, assuming that kids should be in bed by then. 

Channel surfing one evening, I thought I was watching a home improvement programme. A pretty girl was moving furniture into a new home and had to decide where to place each item. The next thing I know, the girl was frolicking naked in bed. Oops, I had unsuspectingly stumbled onto Playboy of the Month.

I choose which TV programmes Estelle and Jules can watch. For example,Little I Spy is ok but not Wizards of Waverly Place. My kids will grow up and choose what kind of TV they like, ask for their own computers and have full access to the Net. Are parent-filters effective? They will somehow find out about The Hills or Tila Tequila, won't they?

I wish these years spent with them will build up a strong relationship to weather storms in the future. I pray they will turn out to be grounded kids with all the best qualities in the world. Many of us go through a phase in our lives where we snuck peeks at Playboy or some "blue film". When that time comes, I pray I'll react calmly, even if I'm actually freaking out. Hopefully, the phase comes and goes. 

We can't always shelter our kids under a sanitised biosphere. Some of these are rites of passage we go through growing up. I think I'll be more worried if my kids are kept squeaky clean all their lives. They may not survive bigger challenges or temptations later on in their lives.

We turned out OK, didn't we? We become tougher and stronger because of what we went through. 

PS Tila Tequila's parents are Vietnamese and lived in Singapore before moving to the US. She is Singapore-born. Woah... Singapore can claim another famous personality.




Friday, January 16, 2009

Burnt my fingers


Can you tell they were fish fingers? My first food disaster.

They've been pan-fried already but taste kind of cold. The packaging recommended 10-12 minutes in the microwave oven and I set it to 9.

Good thing we don't have a smoke detector at home. We would have been drenched and colder than those fish fingers before they entered the oven.

Tonight, the thermometer outside the kitchen window says -11ºC. Don't worry, Finnish houses are well-insulated. We'll snuggle in at a comfortable 22ºC indoors. Cool... 



Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Taking the driver's seat


All this while, Mr Toh has been driving me. I can now drive Mr Toh.

I passed my driving test in Finland last month and picked up my official licence today.

The journey to the attainment of  my driving licence has been long and sometimes, treacherous. 

It started when I was 18. I gave up after I failed the basic theory test and ran out of money.

Then I met a smart woman who refused to learn to drive so that her husband can't say: "Go, take the car and kids out to the supermarket." When I met HG, I'd thought this was a really great way to engage him in family life. 

My scheme worked. It worked well : D

We bought our first car as we planned to start a family. During my pregnancy(ies), he sent me to/from work, went shopping together, went on outings together, fetched the kids together... you get the idea. Because he was the only one who could drive.

With two kids in tow, moving around without a car is definitely inconvenient. Thank God for the kindness and graciousness of friends who went out of their way to ferry and spend time with us.

Now Finland is not a little island city like Singapore. Public transport does not cover all parts of the country. The nearest bus-stop from our home is 10-minute walk away. Consider this:

Distance = length of legs x number of paces

If the distance stays constant, our two little kiddos need to take many more steps to arrive at our destination. Three of us can take twice as long.

The journey to school/day care centre takes 1 hour by bus (walk-bus-bus-walk) or 10-15 minutes by car. After dropping them off at school, I take as long to come back home. So that's effectively 4 hours on the road. Being able to drive, particularly when HG is out-stationed, is imperative.

I took lessons at Bukit Batok Driving School last year. As I had only 6 months, I had to write letters to the Traffic Police so that I could jump the queue and book early test dates. Ironically, I found out I could accelerate the process from an old friend from JC who had his driving licence suspended because of drunk driving. 

Sadly, I failed my practical test. I was doomed to fail, it seemed, even before the test began.

I was allocated the first slot of the day and had to reach the driving school for a warm-up session at 7.30 am. Since HG was not in Singapore at that time, I had to leave the kids with my parents the night before. Estelle had been running one of her high fevers for a few days so I was feeling very unsettled not taking care of her myself. I didn't call her that morning because she might not have woken up yet.

During the test, I mounted a curb on the obstacle course. As I was driving on the road, my mobile phone rang, and rang, and rang. Three times the phone sang and my mind completely blanked out. At that time of the day, it was probably one of my parents calling about Estelle. True enough, it was my dad calling that Estelle's temperature was very high.

When I walked out of the school, I was still in a daze. It didn't cross my mind to appeal for a re-test or for another date before I leave Singapore. Estelle turned out to be better than the day before and she was playing when I saw her after the test.

Therefore, I arrived in Finland with this issue hanging on the line. Should I pursue a driving licence here or should I wait until I go back to Singapore?

The driving authority in Finland are open-minded yet are careful to ensure they put safe drivers on the road. Ajovarma actually went through all my driving manuals from Singapore before deciding that I should take a theory test and a couple of lessons on night driving and slippery surfaces, after which I could take the practical test.

Driving on slippery surfaces was an amazing experience. Roads on the driving circuit are oiled and I had to drive straight or curved and at different speeds to learn how the car would behave. The car slipped, swung and swerved. I learnt to brake and hold the wheel. Very importantly, I learnt what to expect and how to react if I should slip on ice. 

Deja vu. Did you know our car spun in early December and crashed against a lamp post?

From now on, I'll be driving Mr Toh and the family. For starters, I know how to drive to and from school and Iso Omena*. Driving in winter still makes me jittery but I expect to drive more come spring/summer. 

* Iso Omena is a large shopping centre near the children's school. It has a Singapore link - Capitaland has a 40% stake in it.

When I failed my test in Singapore, I knew there has to be other lessons I need to learn. Comforting myself this way seems self-deprecating and making God a scapegoat. When Christians hit a rough patch, they like to say "God has other plans, God is putting me through a test," etc.

When I told my story to friends after I failed the test, it seemed like a lame excuse. Why didn't I admit I was a poor driver? But I wasn't a bad driver. I believed there was more I had to do as much as I believed that Jesus is God. 

This experience has taught me patience, perseverance and putting down my pride. I learnt that it's ok to doubt and to hold on to faith when I don't fully understand my circumstances or my thoughts. I also had the chance to learn more about Finland, how this country works and what wonderful people it has. 

It's not too late to learn a new skill. I'm happy to be in my mid-thirties and a new driver.





Monday, January 12, 2009

DIY Hair Cut - Easy as ABC

Well, almost.

This blog entry chronicles my first major DIY haircut. I'm not talking about the mere trimming of the fringe. This is chicken feet which I accomplished at tender age of 4.

The service sector in Finland tends to charge exorbitantly. The cheapest haircut I can find in Helsinki/Espoo costs €30. At this price, one can get a nice haircut at a salon in the Orchard/CBD area, along with a hair wash, head massage and some styling. In Helsinki, the fellow gave me a few snips here and there, and sent me on my way.

My last haircut was in September and my hair is starting to feel long and thick. Do you know that YouTube is an excellent resource for anything under the sun. When I wanted to find out how to use a dishwasher, I looked up YouTube. Now that I want to cut my own hair, YouTube must have something relevant.

My inspiration comes from this video where Italian actress Elisa Bagordo (I thought they were speaking Spanish) had her lustrous long hair chopped off. Hong Giep called it "Nightmare on Elm Street" for beautiful women. But wait. The effect was surprising chic.

I've had a similar experience many years ago at a salon located at the Hyatt Hotel in Singapore. Imagine my shock when the hairdresser told me to bend over - dripping wet locks and all - and all she did was cut bluntly across. After I sat up and hair dried, my hair was nicely layered and textured. This salon experience took place such a long time ago, I don't remember the details. 

But now, I have a reason to try out something new.

video

What you saw in the video was actually the second cut, which explains why you saw me cut off short lengths but I showed you a long bunch of hair.

The results aren't too bad, don't you think? 

The first chop was quite scary, then the second and third chops (yes, there was even a third time) became an obsessive urge to achieve the best effect. 

You can tell the cut was conservative. In case it turns out to be a disaster, I can run to the nearest hairdresser tomorrow and there's room for salvation. The Daddy was supposed to do the cutting but we realised he has to commit himself to the camera. 

A tip for ladies out there brave enough to try this. The higher you tie the pony tail, the more layers you will get. So I tied my hair at 3 different heights and snipped off the ends. 

Take courage. You can do this stunt at home.
 


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sick and tired

The flu bug bit me on Christmas Day and til today, I'm still coughing and sniffing, especially at night.

The little bug found a new host in my little Estelle yesterday. She came down with a high fever in the early hours and had been coughing and sniffing just like her mom. While I'm nursing my own illness, I have to take care Estelle too. I need a break!

As we discussed whether to take our first step out of Singapore, a major concern was the kids' health. In Beijing, we chose an apartment near an international clinic. Chinese hospitals are almost always crowded and we weren't sure about the quality of care and medication they disburse. Although we speak Mandarin, the terms we and the Beijing doctors use might be different and we didn't want to risk communicating the symptoms incorrectly.

Before we left, we visited our GP and discussed the list of medications we should take with us. We stocked bottles of paracetamol (for fevers), cough mixtures, smecta (for diarrhoea), rehydration salts, among others. When we left for Beijing early 2006, Estelle was 3 and Jules 8 months old. Hey, we have already had a combined total of 4 years of experience.

Estelle tends to develop very high fevers whenever she is ill. Perhaps her immune system is fighting extremely hard but it's very scary when she peaks at 39ºC. During these times, no amount of paracetamol or sponging seems to work. If her temperature only falls down to 38ºC, it's time for me to take a break. For other kids, 38 is when parents panic. 

Nevertheless, it is helpful to always have familiar medications at hand and I like to bring some basic ones even when we are just taking a short holiday. Pharmacies in other countries may not have the same medicines we have at home: they may come in different brands or different dosage or a completely different formula altogether. 

In Singapore, paracetamol is often prescribed for fevers. Although ibuprofen seems to work better, it is more caustic and should be taken after food. In Finland, I was prescribed ibuprofen to bring down my fever and also for my inflamed throat. Today, Estelle was prescribed Naproxen for fever and inflammation.

Paracetamol (or other analgesics) is good to have to temporarily lower the temperature or relieve pain. Fevers usually mean that the patient is fighting an infection so if the fever persists for more than 2 days, it's time to see a doctor.

I find it complicated to self-medicate coughs, especially for children. There are some medications our GP wouldn't recommend for children under 3 years old, like codeine. Then we have to see if it comes with running nose, or phlegm, or wheezing, or how long it has gone on for... During these times, it is best to leave them in the hands of professionals.

Good and affordable healthcare is an aspect Singaporeans take for granted. Fees at government polyclinics is around S$10 or less and private GPs start at S$20 or so for consultation. In Beijing, consultation at the international clinics typically start at around S$80. When Estelle needed antibiotics and other medications, the bill came up to S$200. This was when we realised the importance of health insurance. During our first year in Beijing, we could only claim up to 30% of total bill. Now, our total expenditure is reimbursed. It makes a great difference to how we approach healthcare concerns.

We are thankful that our health insurance now covers all that we are charged. In Finland, consultations start at around €30 at private clinics and practically free at public clinics and hospitals, I'm told. The welfare system here takes good care of every one although some medications are still expensive. Like Jules' cough mixture which comes at around €30 per bottle, furthermore it is not subsidised by KELA, the social welfare department. Today, we spent €14 on two types of medicines.

In terms of healthcare - comparing the level of service and quality of medicines - Finland is actually more affordable than China.

The cost of a medicine is largely tied to its branding. A generic drug costs just a fraction of a similar one from a big-name pharmaceutical company. In Singapore and Finland, the quality of generic drugs can be trusted and generic drugs are commonly used by public healthcare services. 

International clinics in China only use medicines made by branded pharma companies. I think this is to allay foreigners' fears about the authenticity and quality of the medicines. Not only do patients pay more for the brand, the clinics further mark up the prices since foreigners thought them to be "trustworthy" sources. They also know that expatriates are usually insured by their companies and cost is not an issue. My friends and I complain about the prices and competence of some doctors but where else can we go?

At Beijing's Vista Clinic (Kerry Centre), I find Dr Pauline the most attentive paediatrician. She tries to connect with the child and find out all symptoms. I think she's from the Philippines so it's easy to communicate with her in English. 

When Jules had hand-foot-and-mouth and I showed similar symptoms, another doctor told me I was "heaty" and should take some Chinese medicines to "cool down". Adults don't get this disease, he laughed. It turned out that adults CAN be infected and I WAS ill. I've never had so many ulcers in my mouth all at once and it was really painful to eat or drink. I could fully empathise with my son, whose usual hearty appetite was curbed for over a week. 

Many Finnish people speak English and the doctors I've seen so far were happy to discuss the condition of the patient and discuss the medicines they prescribe. Their open attitude is certainly very assuring for patients and parents like me.

Estelle took the medications before she slept and she has not coughed since. She is perspiring as she sleeps, which is a good sign because this means her fever is subsiding.

Hopefully, I can have a good rest tonight.




 

Monday, January 5, 2009

Drinking milk in China


China inspects melamine tableware

China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, the top quality regulator, told Xinhua on Tuesday it was organizing tests of melamine tableware, following reports that some products contained poisonous ingredients.

"The administration has always put great stress on food and tableware product safety. We are keeping a close eye on this issue and conducting product safety testing," it said.

There have been media reports in the past week that some melamine tableware sold in domestic supermarkets and wholesale markets had ingredients that were poisonous when heated.

(Xinhua News Agency December 31, 2008)


Melamine is actually a common plastics raw material that can be made into familiar tableware, like bowls, cups, plates or utensils. It is cheap and durable so melamine products are popular in Asia. Many children's tableware are made from melamine.

This common manufacturing material is now dubiously linked to milk after it was used as an additive for milk formula in China. As the Chinese government  and other health and safety agencies around the world widened their search, they found that melamine has contaminated a broad range of food products. It looks like anyone could have been exposed to melamine poisoning.

Last week, Xinhua, China's official news agency, announced that even tableware (the rightful use of melamine) might have some problems.

The pink spoon on the left was manufactured in Thailand and bought at Takashimaya Shopping Centre in Singapore. The green spoon on the right was produced in China and bought from a Carrefour store in Beijing. Both were used equally regularly for the past 6 months and have been washed in the dishwasher. 

I've noticed that the Chinese spoon cracked a while ago but last week, the distinct split appeared. You can imagine how shocked and appalled I am.

This incident is making me think very hard about products manufactured in China. I have been warned by local Chinese about making purchases from mom-and-pop shops thus we've always shopped, whether for food or daily necessities like shampoos or utensils, at major supermarkets like Carrefour or Wal-Mart. 

Now even foreign-owned supermarkets can't be trusted? I don't think the fault lies with the retailers. The manufacturers need to take responsibility for what they put in, or leave out.

Back to milk. 

During a recent conversation with my aunt, she said: "Wah, lucky you didn't let the children drink milk from China."

It wasn't about luck. When we lived in Beijing, we would regularly bring cartons of milk formula for the children from Singapore. Firstly, my dad works at a wholesaler for a certain brand of milk formula so we got them cheaper. Secondly, most expats (at least the Singaporean and Malaysian ones) suspect there is something wrong with Chinese milk, although no one could say exactly what. Well, now we know.

When I first went to Beijing, I would try fresh milk from the local brands like Sanyuan or Mengniu. A Singapore friend chose Sanyuan because the carton said its milk was used for the Great People's Banquet. Another tried Mengniu since the source was cows that lived on the Mongolian pastures. (Sanyuan, by the way, was about the only major brand that was not implicated.)

I didn't like either because I thought they smelled odd and I found that the milk turned sour 3 days after the carton was opened. The problem could lie with the transportation or storage process and not necessarily with the milk. For me as the consumer, I chose not to buy the Chinese brands and settled for UHT milk from France. 

My children liked cheese sticks from Yili because they came in cute cartoon characters. Even then, I'll buy a pack once every fortnight. To spread the risk, I'd thought.

Don't forget that I was a chemist and I view hygiene and food science seriously.

My decision was further justified when I watched a documentary about the plight of milk farmers produced by a Beijing TV station. In the second half of 2007, prices of agricultural produce were skyrocketing. The programme documented a farmer who lived on the outskirts of Beijing struggling to earn a living with his cows.

His 2 miserable cows lived in a dirty shed and had hardly enough to eat. The farmer milked the cows by hand and milk cans were driven from his farm to the milk collection centre on an animal-driven barrow. I say animal because I can't recall if he had a horse or one of the cows was used. All these was done without sterilisation or refrigeration.

At the milk collection centre, the so-called middlemen would weigh the milk and pay the farmer accordingly. It is likely at this stage that melamine is added to prop up the protein (nitrogen) readings before they are sold to milk companies.

The farmer wanted to give up because the price of feeds were rising beyond what he could fetch for the milk. 

Although the documentary aimed to show how high feed prices were adversely affecting the livelihood of farmers, I realised that the milk industry in China was actually segregated and the quality of the milk can't be good if the animals weren't eating well enough. At least from what I see on TV, cows in the West or Australasia lived on large farms and they are milked by a network of machines where the milk is collected at centralised venues.

When the news broke, many Chinese reacted vigorously. On the internet, many Chinese directed their anger at the milk companies and the middlemen. They blamed the milk companies for setting unrealistically high standards which led the middlemen to "dope" the milk.

A comment I saw on sina.com summed up my emotions. 

欧洲的奶牛过得比中国的奶农好,中国的奶牛怎么可能生产跟欧洲一样品质的牛奶呢?

This means: "Europe's cows live in better conditions than China's farmers. How can it be possible for the quality of Chinese milk be the same as those from Europe?"

Despite reports that many Chinese are snapping up luxury goods and eating more sharks' fins, the ordinary Chinese is still actually struggling to make a living. My heart goes out to these ordinary people I meet every day in Beijing.





Saturday, January 3, 2009

How do you spell - cosy or cozy?

Depends on which side of the Atlantic Ocean you live on, really.

Cosy if you spell it the British way or cozy if you are American. Or Americanized.

My personal preference is the British way of spelling although I've been told by some "experts" that the American way is the modern way to go. Anyhow, I was glad to have spent some years working on a plastics magazine that was owned by a British company so I could go on 
spelling 'licence', 'authorise', 'armour', 'lorry' and so on.

Early December, I wanted to order some books from amazon.com. Prices of English-language books in Finland are generally expensive, it's almost like the same price here and on amazon except you change the euro sign to a dollar sign. 

The orders didn't go through even though I had finalised the book list because shipping came up to almost 40% of the cost of the books. It wasn't so economical afterall and I'd thought we could wait until we visit Borders or Kinokuniya in Singapore.

Last week, I visited amazon.co.uk to check out the prices since the pound has lost almost 50% of its value against the euro. The two currencies are now almost 1:1!

The point of this blog entry is not merely to announce that I spent almost €80 on 10 books (for the kids and myself), including postage and UK VAT.

Do you know that the books recommended by both websites are markedly different. Has anyone read "Harold and the Purple Crayon"? It's apparently a popular children's book in the US written by Crockett Johnson and celebrates its 50th anniversary.

I've never heard about this book. 

At the UK site, I was happy to find Enid Blyton, having ordered two books from the Faraway Tree series for Estelle. She's too young to read them now but I hope she will enjoy them as much as I did. At Amazon.com, one can hardly find Enid Blyton unless you do an author search.

When I'm shopping for books, I don't make choices based on whether it is written in the US or in the UK. Living in Singapore, most of us are comfortable and versatile to switch between variety in spellings or style. While the British may have a strong literary history (Shakespeare, Dickens), the Americans literary scene dominate in later times (like the NY Times bestsellers list). 

Have you read Frank McCourt's Angela Ashes? McCourt now lives in New York while the book is based on his childhood in Ireland. I had to stop many times to laugh at the funny and quirky things that happened in his hard and tough life. 

I don't recall if he wrote British or American English - most likely American since that was where the book published. But it doesn't matter. It was an excellent book and I enjoyed it. 

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Great balls of fire


Happy New Year!

The Finns welcome the new year with plenty of fireworks.

Since last week, we've noticed special stands at the supermarkets that sold firecrackers and sparklers. We were wondering what they were but didn't think they were relevant to us.

Today, while the stands were probably at their busiest, we bought a box of butterfly crackers and a bunch of sparklers. We also headed to a fireworks display at a nearby sports field at 6 pm. Yes, at 6 pm because the sun had long ago set at 3.30 pm.

The four of us arrived at 5.45 pm and the kids were wondering why we and hundreds other people were standing around a hill, freezing in the cold. The kids were complaining about being very cold and had nothing to do, going on for 10 minutes - which is a long time when one hears the same whining over and over again.

And then the show began. We were standing less than 100 m from the launch site so the fireworks came out close and strong. Fireworks is one of those expensive public goods that bring high levels of satisfaction to those who participate.
This is when we realised that those long sticks of rockets we saw at the supermarket stands were actually fireworks. Anyone can buy and launch them. It is now 12. 25 am as I pen this entry, fireworks have been going up all around me for the past 1 hour and still popping away.

So far, I have found the Finns to be responsible and filled with common sense. They play on empty fields and direct their rockets away from buildings or trees.

Christmas in Finland was quiet. But New Year celebration is a blast.