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.