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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Helsinki Samba Festival

Last Saturday was Helsinki's Samba Festival, part of the Helsinki Day celebrations.

We were treated to beautiful costumes, loud music and a great atmosphere of fun. The parade lasted around an hour and half - some people left halfway thinking all floats had passed. The last item was the Sambic band and supported by a troupe of dancers, who looked like they were members of a fitness club.

The weather on Saturday was excellent. We were greeted with chilly winds and later bathed in warm sunshine. I think we got a suntan!

Our kids enjoyed a great, unblocked view of the parade on top of a electrical mains box.

Helsinki is really wonderful in summer.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Where is your photo now?

Following my blog entry last week about the possible mis-use of personal information on the internet, I read a story on the BBC today that backs my claims.

The Smiths from the US were shocked to find that their family photo had been flashed across a billboard in Prague, the Czech Republic advertising delivery services offered by a grocery store. The Smiths had used that picture on their Christmas card and it was also on their family blog.

The owner of the store thought the picture was "computer generated". Somehow, it didn't matter to him/her that the people in the picture were unknown to him. It didn't matter if they were not Czechoslovakians. They were a good-looking family.

Being in the publishing business has taught me to be careful about copyright infringements. I remembered having to pay US$800 for a picture of a girl holding a brightly-coloured balloon for a cover picture. The picture library charge differently according to the use, like for a magazine cover or for a story in one of the pages, for instance.

Some people think that content on the Internet is free for all. Copyright protection is one thing; intrusion of privacy is another. 

So if anyone sees me or any member of my family on any newspaper, magazine, website or darn it, anywhere else other than here, please please, let me know.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Working those muscles

For a week now, I've been working out after putting the kids to bed. My little routine includes skipping, toning using free weights and some stretching.

I haven't worked out since winter. Okay, this may not be a good excuse because I see Finns jogging in the snow... Anyhow, a little exercise is better than none.

Just yesterday, Estelle announced happily that we are having another baby because her mummy's tummy is big. She's not convinced there isn't a baby inside. This just reinforces my will to work out more regularly. 

Tonight, we watched a second episode of Family Fat Surgeons on Discovery channel. This reality series follows the father-and-son team of bariatric surgeons and their patients. One of the main categories of bariatric surgery is the reduction of stomach size so that the patient eats less and feels full more quickly.

Our first time watching this series some days ago, patient Alan was so big he could not move. He laid in bed, couldn't go to the bathroom and his mom wiped him down if he needed a bath. Drs Davis hoped to reduce half his body weight (150 lbs!) after the surgery. 

While I was in the shower, HG told me they featured a patient who had undergone the surgery some time ago and had lost a lot of weight. So much so that as the fat receded, her skin began to sag. What used to be her tummy was now folded over and hanging around her knees. She needed cosmetics surgery because she had difficulty cleaning areas between the skin and infection set in. While her bariatric surgery was covered by insurance, the now much-needed cosmetics procedures would not be.

As for me, I just want to carry on wearing the clothes in my wardrobe. I am happy simply to fit in pre-pregnancy outfits. Well, only those that don't look like they are already 8 years old... I had to throw some clothes out since fashion has moved on.

This week, I feel less lethargic and skip my afternoon naps. The muffin top looks like it lacks baking soda. Summer is almost here - it's still spring in Finland - and I think it's a good idea to get ready to show some skin. 

But I love my food. I'm munching on strawberry filled chocolate as I type. I don't need to be thin. Fitting into my usual clothes is good enough. 

Sunday, June 7, 2009

How safe is the Internet?

In one word: not.

You may recall that I made an entry some months ago about our sauna experience. That was the first time the kids tried out the hot and steamy sauna.

I have removed the pictures from that blog entry. Several days ago, I noticed a referral to my blog from a photo library website. The key word search was for "family" and "sauna". Pictures shown from these words ranged from posed pictures by tourist-related websites to portable saunas. There were also pictures of naked women. 

A couple of weeks ago, a search for the words "naked", "kids" and "sauna" ended at my blog. The IP address is one of those phantom ones where you can't tell which country or computer the user is at. I cringed.

Any and all information posted on the Internet is available for all to see. There is really little one can do to stop people getting to know you better without you knowing.

For instance, some time ago, I was reading a popular Singapore blogger's blog and saw a picture of a cute girl. I clicked on it, thinking it might be the blogger's daughter, or it might be someone from his family. The click led me to a Flickr account of someone I know, someone who is probably not related to the blogger. 

I'd basically clicked on a Flickr advertisement,  gave Flickr some hits, brought the blogger some income and viewed my friends' photo album. My friends probably don't know I had seen their pics, or for that matter, anyone else who had intruded into their privacy.

Maybe someone can let Adrian and Jasmine know I think Cherise is pretty cute...

The sanctity of my privacy is the main reason I am not on Facebook or MySpace or other social networking sites. Thus, I hesitated to blog, and now that I do, I find myself thinking through sensitive issues and content that are appropriate for broadcast.

I often worry about identity fraud. I am careful about where and how I throw paper trash, making an effort to shred bank statements or personal documents. A credit card statement, for example, contains my name, address, card number and how much I had spent. A thief with intent can easily gather information from my trash. Combine these with information available on, for example, Facebook, and birth dates, spouses, family or work add on to the profile.

You might think I am paranoid but there are already cases of people who have lost their ID cards or passport and subsequently found themselves with empty bank accounts or changes to security systems linked to their ID numbers. In this age where personal information is easily available on the Internet, building a personal profile from scratch is not difficult.

So please be careful about what you post on the internet. This is advice I give myself.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cheap accommodation in Singapore?

In today's Straits Times, there was a report of unauthorised sub-division of housing units at Grangeford Condo in Singapore. 

The proposal is a simple one: each housing unit is divided into more units to increase rental yield. For instance, a 3-bedroom unit may fetch S$3,000 a month. But if the same unit is partitioned into 2 1-bedroom units, or more, and each is then rented at, say, S$1,800, viola! The landlord can now earn more with the same resources.

What has this got to do with me, you might ask.

When we were in Singapore in March, we needed an apartment for the 4 of us. Serviced apartments, like Somerset or Frasers, were out of the question since monthly rates start at S$4000, not including taxes. I also wanted a kitchen to prepare meals for the kids.

As we trawled the internet, we came across advertisements for "cheap apartments in prime locations". A friend shortlisted some for us.

Starting at S$1,500 a month, we could choose from an assortment of 1-bedroom apartments near Orchard Road and Holland Village. Some came with kitchens and/or attached bathrooms. Our friend explained that some condominium estates had gone for en-bloc sales and residents have moved out but they were not torn down and rebuilt due to poor economic prospects. The units were then sub-divided and rented out on a short-term basis. 

We opted for a 1-bedroom apartment at Holland Hill equipped with a kitchen. Each apartment is fully furnished with a sofa set, TV, internet connection and a queen-sized bed. We were told that the washing machine, refrigerator and microwave oven were brand new. At S$1,800 a month, it was a bargain in expensive Singapore.

When we arrived in Singapore, we found that we had checked into a house of horrors. 

Our "apartment" was one of two in the original unit. Upon entering the main door, we shared a common corridor with our "neighbour", a family who essentially lived in another bedroom. The apartment was musty and dirty. It did not have a window, except for a balcony in the bedroom which was kept closed to keep out insects. 

Our bathroom was a tiny toilet and a shower which was recently installed. We asked for cooking utensils since we couldn't be stuffing these into our luggage and the estate management agreed to provide these. Alas, on arrival we got a kitchen without gas nor utensils and cutlery.

Despite dust balls rolling on the floor, the estate management (Ideal Accommodation, the same company managing Grangeford) insisted that the apartment was cleaned. My poor Estelle had horrible insect bites on her legs. I couldn't tell if they were by bed bugs.

After I kicked a huge fuss, the manager agreed to have my unit cleaned. Imagine my surprise when the manager herself turned up in the evening with cleaning equipment! So she and her friend cleaned up the place in under 15 minutes - this was after arriving 1 hour later than we had scheduled.

The estate had a security guard whose working hours were 6 pm to 6 am, but he went home (or to sleep) early on certain nights. I believe only one cleaner was hired for the whole estate, whose responsibilities were to empty the garbage bins every day. The estate, in general, was hardly kept.

After spending many years travelling, I'd hardly had to deal with jet lag. This time, I had trouble sleeping at night and getting up in the mornings. My family could hardly believe the hell hole we got ourselves into. 

Three weeks later, I was just glad to get our S$1,000 deposit back. The manager glanced around the room and that was the end of the "inspection". I guess the apartment was deemed clean and ready for the next tenant.

When my friends in Finland asked, "How was your trip to Singapore?" I could not bring myself to say it was great. We enjoyed catching up with our friends and family but Holland Hill cast a long and dark shadow over us.

I had a draft of this experience in April but it was deleted afterwards. I'd thought I leave the past behind instead of shaming the housing company, which I had every intention of doing during those sleepless nights. Three months on, I can put aside emotions to report and comment on a current issue.

A resident living in Chinatown wrote to the Straits Times that his block had many apartments converted into multiple units or dormitories. The lifts break down often, bringing inconvenience and possible danger in case of emergencies or fires. Overcrowding poses a clear and present danger should Singapore have a pandemic, like the H1N1 flu. 

Although S$1,800 a month is not a small sum for a 1-bedroom apartment, it was the most viable option for us. We weren't hoping for a luxurious temporary home, just somewhere neat and clean where we could rest. 

We wouldn't try this sub-divided apartments again, if this arrangement is still available. The police is coming down hard after complaints from the public. 

Where, then, can we stay next time we go to Singapore? Room rates are too high, sometimes even higher than parts of Europe.  We had considered going for a one-week holiday in Thailand because the costs, including airfare, came up to around the same if we stayed in Singapore. 

What options are there for reasonably-priced short-term accommodation in Singapore?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Spring Gardening

It's really hot in southern Finland this week. For the past few days, we've been having 25ºC afternoons but standing in the bright sunshine, it sure feels hotter than 25.

Two weeks ago, we received a notice about an event on 28 May. Since it was in Finnish, my limited vocabulary tells me it's something to do with spring and gardening. Maybe an expert is coming in to share experiences with us at 6 pm.

Ten minutes to six on 28 May, I noticed some neighbours gathering in our backyard. In autumn/winter last year, some residents got to together to tidy up fallen leaves and dead plants. I reckoned they must be getting the yard ready for spring/summer.

I brought the kids out around 6.40 pm, after we've had our dinner. The neighbours were clearing weeds, mowing grass, mulching, pruning trees and bushes. Guessing that I'm a novice, I was assigned a pair of scissors to trim dead branches. 

In between playing with other children at the playground, our kids helped to rake the leaves. Our neighbour's boy, Santari, found a long and thick earthworm.

We finished work at 7.30 and got together for some BBQ sausages and drinks. This is really the typical way Finnish people celebrate the warm weather. 

I created this clip using iMovie '09. My previous movies were made using iMovie HD but this time, I wanted to add subtitles and ran into difficulties. As usual, the internet is a great resource to trouble-shooting. This was when I realised that I should have the new iMovie '09. I haven't used it because the iMovie HD logo was on my Dock. My techie hubby guided me to the latest version which has been hiding in Applications : )

The new iMovie is soooo easy to use. I'd spent more than 3 days working on the project but finished it in 30 minutes on '09.

This means you'll be watching more movies on this channel! I love Mac!