Monday, April 27, 2009

Me and my faith

I am inspired to log in this entry after reading some news and blogs on the goings-on of the Aware saga.

I'm not going to say who is right or who is wrong because I don't know. None of the materials paint the whole picture and many writers have already made up their minds about the mechanics of the affair. At this point, it seems that the issue has become a Christianity versus LGBT tussle.

Whenever there is any mention of Aware, the inevitable joke is whether to enrol our men in Amare. Who knows this NGO could whip up such a storm.

Would there be any response from the general public if the new ex-co is made up of LGBT? If Christians react, we are labelled as bigoted fundamentalists. If we keep mum, it shows we condone/accept their lifestyle. Damned if we do, damned if we don't.

The Straits Times asked in a headline, "Will new ex-co impose personal beliefs?" What kind of question is this? Everyone has beliefs. If one joins an organisation which runs counter to his/her belief, this person would 1. protest, 2. leave, or 3. do nothing because it doesn't matter anyway. If options (1) or (2) are taken, this person is named a trouble-maker. 

I remember catching the Singapore debut of Broadway show Rent many years ago. I'd looked forward to it after reading the excellent critiques and listening to one of its hit songs, the one that goes "525 600 minutes..."

DBS had withdrawn its sponsorship due to the show's thorny issues (HIV, drugs, etc) just a week before opening night. Perhaps the troupe wanted to prove their point, their performance wasn't just good technically, their passion and vigour shone through.

However, I finished the show feeling somewhat disgruntled. 

The HIV+ guy, drug addict and bohemian dancer discovered the meaning of life. The normal guy - the one who has a regular job and doesn't dabble in drugs or other unsavoury practices - was still lost, hanging in the air.

The performance ended to a standing ovation. I walked away wondering what's wrong with living life "normally". Does one have to live an alternate lifestyle to truly find oneself?

Outside of my Christian circle, I seldom refer to my "religious beliefs". In my work, I'm a professional journalist; in my home, I'm a loving and responsible mom; socially, I'm a forthcoming and helpful friend. I am not ashamed to tell people I'm Christian, however, I'd like them to like me, the qualities I possess and the values I hold close to my heart. I would like people to ask why I am what I am and hopefully, they will be impressed that Jesus is my God.

I had engaged in long conversations with friends about Christianity, about God. Many times, these talks turned combative, especially when my friend(s) posed questions like "Can God create a rock so big it will kill himself?" By then, I would be terribly frustrated, angry and emotional. I was fed up with my friend and myself because the conversation wasn't constructive, it wasn't leading anywhere and I couldn't express myself adequately to reach a conclusion that satisfied both parties.

Then again, even CS Lewis had to think really long and deep to find answers to such questions.

Age has caught up with me. I have mellowed. Thus a change in strategy (is this an appropriate description?) to share my faith.

Meanwhile, I think it is important for Christians to make friends from all walks of life. Some Christians are really naive about the real world. Did the new AWARE people consider the recoil when they took on the "old guard"? The leaked e-mails leads me to think otherwise.

There is a Chinese saying, "Know yourself and the enemy, and you will win a hundred battles out of hundred." From Sun Tzi, no?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My place in this world

Relocation is not a straightforward choice for many people, especially those with families. To move or not to move?

As the world goes global, so do the people who work in it. Unless one serves only the local market, it is not uncommon to see "some travel required" on a job ad. Some travel more than others. In certain cases, the family goes travelling too.

The Tohs seem to fit in anywhere they go, don't we? Outside Singapore, we have lived in China and now, Finland. 

China is a common place for foreigners to work in, especially in large cities like Shanghai or Beijing. It is often assumed that since we are ethnic Chinese and speak Mandarin, we would have little trouble fitting in to Beijing.

Finland is a different story. It has an extreme climate - up to six months of winter compared to a whole year of heat and humidity in Singapore. We don't speak the language and have little variety with regards to food.

I am thankful that I had spent many years prior to relocating travelling all over the world. As a journalist, I ventured to far-out places to meet people of different countries and cultures in varied forms of transport. I remember visiting a small city is southern China where my colleague and I were so relieved to see McDonald's; here, we knew exactly what we were eating.

This is probably why our family transit smoothly when we relocate. I, the general manager and logistics head of this family, had already clocked experience in a previous job.

I know and have also heard of families, particular the moms, who are struggling in a new country. 

A friend shared with me a mom from Malaysia isn't happy in Singapore. More than one Chinese (from PRC) in Finland have told me they would approach total strangers who looked Asian to ask if they were Chinese too. 

I'd say that the moms are usually bear the brunt of "relocation anxiety". The husbands are busy at work anyway and moms will always try their best to help their kids settle in. Then who will help the moms?

Many moms become disengaged and are left to their own devices. 

The first step is the align our expectations with reality. We have to face the challenges bravely and positively. I try not to compare what is lacking but rather look for solutions, for there will always be one. It may not be the best-case scenario but it's likely to be better than the worst. 

I also think it is important to make friends. My profile is not one of an extrovert but I try to meet new people and learn more about their lives. I found that everyone has an interesting tale to tell and it's fun to discuss our similarities and differences.

Last weekend, we finally connected to our neighbours, after nearly one year. We've so far only greeted each other briefly and on Sunday, we met them outside our home after the kids went cycling. We could have gone home straightaway but we lingered to chat and our kids played together. 

On Monday evening, our neighbour knocked on our door and his son came in to play. Today, our kids rang their bell and all the kids played together outside. What a breakthrough!

There are days when I'm alone and have no one to talk to. Blogging is one of my outlets. Now that it's spring time, I can work in my garden again. Or I'll look up new recipes and try them out on my 3 guinea pigs.

Our stay in Finland may come to a close end of this year. I hope to carry on for a few more years. Why? That's another story. We are also ready to move to a new country or city. At this point, we don't have a destination. I'm confident our family is well taken care of, so we are awaiting further instructions. 

To this end, I would like to share one of my favourite songs. Michael W Smith recently sang this with the Jonas Brothers (you can find it on YouTube) but the screaming girls in the background spoilt it for me. I'm not even going to provide you the link.

Anyway, here is the song.

The wind is moving 
But I am standing still 
A life of pages 
Waiting to be filled 
A heart thats hopeful 
A head that's full of dreams 
But this becoming Is harder than it seems 
Feels like I'm

Looking for a reason 
Roaming through the night to find 
My place in this world 
My place in this world 
Not a lot to lean on 
I need your light to help me find 
My place in this world 
My place in this world 

If there are millions 
Down on their knees 
Among the many 
Can you still hear me 
Hear me asking 
Where do I belong 
Is there a vision 
That I can call my own 
Show me I'm

Sunday, April 19, 2009

International flavours at IKEA

I like Ikea. 

I like its cheap and cheerful home furnishings. I love the smell of pine that greets me as I step into the store. I enjoy Swedish meatballs swimming in salty gravy served with a dollop of berry jam and potatoes.

Last month, I had lunch at Ikea in Singapore. I've been there many times before but this time feels strange. 

Having visited Ikea stores in Singapore, Beijing and Finland, I found that Ikea has a very strong brand identity. The stores smell and look the same and stock similar merchandise. One can buy the same Ikea sofa or flower pot anywhere in the world.

Ikea is like being in a dream where the location doesn't change but scenarios are altered 3 times.

In the Singapore restaurant, besides the ubiquitous meatballs and salmon, laksa or nasi lemak can also be found on the menu. In Finland, the special dish of the day may be Indian tandoori chicken or herbed chicken - something non-Finnish.

In Finland, diners commonly clean up after their meal. Not in Singapore, even though there are clear signs informing diners to do so. After spending a number of years away from Singapore, I couldn't accept what I saw last month. On my second visit, it occurred to me that this is the Singapore way of life. Perhaps I was the odd one.

In Beijing, I saw the Chinese eat their spaghetti bolognase using chopsticks. Some added lots of extra ketchup to make their noodles more saucy. Strange to me but perfectly normal to the Chinese: chopsticks are their cutlery of choice whether to eat rice or spaghetti. It's not unusual for people to add condiments to their noodles too.

Our Chinese friends in Finland choose chopsticks if they have a choice. Since we look Chinese and speak Mandarin, we are given chopsticks at Chinese restaurants even though food is served in plates and Finns are given forks and spoons/knives. 

Sometimes I wonder if I actually know who I am or do I change according to where I go. Other times, I feel like I'm living in a dream.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Wild ride

We saw this sign post during one of our long walks around our neighbourhood.

HippoSport. What kind of sport can one do with a hippo?

We can, perhaps, ride on one as it strides from land to the swamp.

Or we can swim in the swamp and see who can catch the most worms whenever it opens its mouth. Limit to three tries.

But HippoSport has nothing to do with hippos but everything equestrian. Those of you who are sharp may have spotted the little horse's face on the sign.

The store was closed the day we visited. If you visit the website, it apparently sells anything you need for your horse and horse-riding. Things you need to wear - from hats to boots, saddles, cuffs, horse food and supplements, cleaning equipment. As well as stuff whose use I don't recognise.

We saw horses in stables nearby. There is a large field a short distance away and that may be where the horses go for their gallop.

I wonder if HippoSport offers horse-riding classes. I'd meant to try riding last summer but didn't know where to start. Hopefully I can take lessons here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Time for ice-cream!

We took a walk along Helsinki's southern coast last Saturday and noticed that ice-cream stands are open for business. As you can see, business is quite brisk.

Ice cream is a summer staple in Finland. We have just started spring and the temperature last Saturday was just around 5ºC. Apparently, this is warm enough to enjoy some ice-cream. Never mind that gloves, scarves and beanies are still the order of the day.

Actually, the Finns love ice-cream anytime. Even in winter, we still see people (children too) licking away. In summer, ice-cream can be enjoyed outdoors.

We would have had a earful from our elders if they see our kids having ice-cream now. In Singapore, a rainy day would see ice-cream sales stall (haha, pun intended) because people generally think it's too "cold".

Our kids had ice-cream many times when they were in Singapore last month so we said they couldn't have any. Jules was thrilled when he realised what the crowd at the stand was queuing up for. I don't think I can continue to reject him much longer.

Maybe next week. And I want one too. Double scoops.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Why we don't need a lot of money

"Because if our wallet has lots of money, it will break and have many holes."

This is the logic of Estelle, my five-year-old little girl. Her deduction is not incorrect, although receipts, vouchers and cards (credit, discount, membership, etc) may be the actual contributors to a bloated wallet.

She came to her conclusion as we sat down for a snack at the petrol station after a car wash. HG and I were discussing how expensive car washes are in Finland: we paid €17.50 for a full wash (comes with soap compared to €14.50 for just water) and another €2 to use the vacuum cleaner (our interiors probably yielded a cup worth of gravel). Estelle was confirming the meaning of the word "expensive".

We try to teach our kids the value of money. They can't buy everything they see or want. They can't visit the pay-per-entry playground every day, or even every week. At €9 per hour per child, I bring them only when I really need to let off some steam.

My aunt thought it's shameful that we don't buy toys for our kids. How could they walk out of a toy store or department store empty-handed? We were heartless to deny them their childhood joys. Since it's not a matter of affordability, are we being stingy?

But we think our kids have many toys already. And we do buy them new toys, just not ALL the time.

We also want to teach our kids patience and decision-making. Since our holiday in Lapland last year, we established this practice where our kids could buy one item at the end of the trip. They would look wherever we went (aka window shopping) and make their final decision the day before we leave.

This means that if our holiday lasts 5 days, the kids have to wait for 3 days to make the actual purchase. Besides patience, they also learn to prioritise their wants. We think they will ultimately be happier with their buy than we having to argue about why we aren't buying a second (or third, fourth...) item or having them regret their initial choice if they buy the first thing they see.

Like other kids, they periodically receive gifts from friends and relatives, which all add up to their trove.

I didn't grow up having everything we wanted. I remember going out with parents and leaving the shopping centre empty-handed most of the time. Sometimes, I could buy a bottle of teddy bear-shaped juice, which left me rather satisfied.

Fast-forward to present day, I'd say that I don't crave for an IT bag or shoes. It's ok not to carry a branded bag or be spotted in red-soled Christian Louboutin heels.

Would I like to have them? Sure. Can I live without them? Sure. And not feel like I'm missing out? Most of the time.

Friday, April 10, 2009

All about food

During the last 3 weeks in Singapore, I didn't have to cook. Rather, I couldn't. 

I chose an apartment with an attached kitchen because the management promised to provide us with pots and pans, as well as gas. Upon arrival, we were told that there was "miscommunication" about the cost and installation of the gas cylinder and the manager could not find pots or pans. Whatever...

Food is everywhere in Singapore. The range and availability of food rank top on the list of things we miss of our homeland. We ate at our parents' homes, hawker centres or restaurants.

If we were hungry at 11 pm, HG would walk down to the Commonwealth market to buy fried beehoon. Cheap, yummy and frankly, too much just before bed.

The night before we leave for Finland, our kids stayed with my parents. So we spent some quality time at Holland V. Supper was sambal stingray, sambal sotong (squid) and fried rice at the coffeeshop. More ticks for our to-eat list. Very tasty and not at a king's ransom - we spent around S$30, including drinks.

Now in Finland, I am happy to have my kitchen back. HG invited a colleague, a Finn now living in Singapore, home for dinner yesterday. I cooked lor bak 鲁肉, a Chinese cabbage dish and baked chicken wings from the supermarket. My kids enjoy stews because the meat is tender and the dish has lots of other ingredients like mushrooms, beancurd and egg.

Living away from Singapore, the internet is an excellent resource for home-cooked food. I discovered so many food blogs. Most are amateurs who love cooking or baking, or moms who, like me, seek out new recipes to keep their families interested in food. The food they cook and their blogs are products of their love.

I discovered love and nostalgia overflowing in Nice Recipes blog

The blogger dedicates the blog to her grandmother's cherished cookbook. Besides sharing recipes with readers, she explains the background of each recipe and/or ingredient. Each entry is like a history lesson, a glimpse at what went into mouths in ages past. 

If you are thinking of trying out any of the recipes, cut/paste functions would not work here. This blogger scans the recipe direct from her grandmother's cookbook. To copy the recipe, you have to:
1)  decipher the handwriting
2)  write down/type the recipe
3)  interpret the ingredient list and instructions
4)  apply the recipe.

You see, the cookbook was compiled by hand starting in the 1950s. Nice's recipes remind me of old cookbooks I referred to circa 1980s and earlier. Some units of measurements have changed, some abbreviations are hardly used now, and new equipment and shortcuts have since been invented. 

I've heard that many established cooks, whether professional chefs or cooks confined to their humble kitchens, seldom pass down their recipes. No two persons cook the same way. Certain ingredients they add or technique or extra step would make their food stand out from the ordinary. Their secrets leave with them, so it is said.

Thanks to Niceties, we can still taste bits of the past. Even if you don't cook, you will appreciate her labour of love.

PS Reading this entry again, it occurred to me that perhaps Niceties is not female. I had started by adding "his/" before every mention to "her". I apologise if it's actually Mr Niceties.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spring cleaning

It's officially spring in Finland.

We returned home yesterday to less white and more green/brown. This morning, we wondered how to dress the kids as we prepared them for school. The usual winter gear, we guessed, since it was around 1ºC outside - much like when we left 3 weeks ago.

By the afternoon, temperatures climbed up to 6ºC. Today was a bright and beautiful day.

As I cleaned out our luggages, I took the chance to throw some stuff out. 

In Finland, wastes should be sorted. The bags you see contained paper, metal, glass, plastics or biological wastes. The cardboard boxes on the left went to the children's school, which will be used for junk modelling. Whatever that is.

I enjoy sorting out garbage. Sometimes, I get confused. Like the time I threw out a tub of unfinished yoghurt into the "Bio-Waste" bin and my Finnish neighbour tried to tell me I should have put it in the "Plastics" bin. But the tub was over half full, I was throwing out the yoghurt inside the tub.

Later, I read that I should have poured the yoghurt out first - either down the drain or into a plastics bag for bio-waste - then the tub could go into "Plastics". A quick rinse of the container is recommended.

Is all this effort that goes in recycling worth it? Many people wouldn't go through the trouble.

I learnt about Reduce, Reuse and Recycle way back in secondary school but never really got a chance to put my knowledge into practice. I've lived in Europe for almost a year. How much long can I keep this practice going?

Don't know. Remember to ask me when you next see or e-mail me.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Making the news

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

I've just had my story published in Helsinki Times.

Sometime into my first year of university reading Chemistry, I thought about pursuing a career in publishing or something related to the creative line. The inspiration came suddenly, like a lightbulb whose switch was turned on.

I've liked science and my favourite TV programmes while growing up include Eureka! or Beyond 2000. In between Nancy Drew, I read Discover and New Scientist magazines, and science fiction by Edgar Allan Poe or Isaac Asimov. Mills & Boon wasn't really my thing.

After all that input, some output was inevitable.

The very first time I had a story published was in Lianhe Zaobao when I was twelve years old. I submitted a composition story I'd written in class and it was published in the children's section. My mom probably still has that newspaper cutting somewhere.

The next few years could be described as my "wilderness". Many of my classmates had a much better grasp of the English language and they could express themselves most vividly. My sentences seemed awkward and cold. Much as I tried, my teachers were not impressed.

In university, perhaps because I was in Science faculty, many of my classmates were copying seniors' notes and didn't spend much time preparing their lab reports. It was then I realised perhaps I have an edge in this field.

So, more than 12 years after that first published story, I was back to writing and publishing, this time for a biotech magazine. My second publishing job took me around the world. And now, as I dedicate more time to my family, I can still do what I love.

Although I've had hundreds of stories published, I'm sharing this latest one on a mainstream medium. It has been a long, 20+year journey - one whose path was not clear at times.

Where do I go from here? Occasionally, I thought I would plan for my future but nothing comes out of it. Other times, when I was not purposeful in what I do, I seem to be taking baby steps towards my destiny. Like this article.

I walk on. Every stroke of the pen (rather, tap of the keyboard) takes me closer to my finishing line.