Thursday, January 21, 2010

Money problem

Now that Estelle is in primary school, she has access to the school canteen where she can buy food.

Estelle feels grown-up when she can buy something for herself without an adult's help. She prefers buying to bringing food from home. Her pocket money was withdrawn for one day last week when I found that she had been buying sweet drinks and jelly instead of food. By the time she was dismissed from class, she was famished. We have come to an understanding that she has to spend the money on food and she can decide what to do with the balance.

She has done pretty well this couple of weeks. For days she had fishball noodle during recess. Finally, on Tuesday, she ventured to a new territory called chicken rice and yesterday (Wednesday), she conquered another frontier, duck rice.

I suspect she is still not sure how much her food cost. For days she told me her food cost $1.00 but she got money back. Nevertheless, she has come up with a clever way to pay.

Apparently, she gives the stall owner $1.00 and waits for change.

She is figuring her way around the economics of buying and selling.

I have used this trick myself during my travels. Whether in Bangkok, Tokyo or Finland, I will try to speak the local language to assume the role of a local expatriate. In other words, I'm faking familiarity with the market place. Usually in the first couple of days, my ears are still not tuned and I can't make out the price quoted, so I'll give a sufficiently large note and wait for change. Throw in a smile and a word of thanks in their language always makes the shopping trip a pleasant one.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Frustrations of renovation

Last Friday, we officially moved back home. It feels great to come back to where we started. For 5 years, this apartment was someone else's home. Finally, we reclaim it as our own again.

Early last year, we decided completely renovate our apartment. We'd thought we would take this chance to give it an overhaul and have it done up the way we want it.

That was the ideal. Reality sometimes sucks.

Boxes waiting to be unpacked

By the time the movers came last Wednesday with our belongings (all 80 boxes of them), renovations were still incomplete. The kitchen wasn't ready, the children's wardrobe hadn't been fully installed and our bookshelves were also left undone.

Storage aside, other fittings like the kitchen countertop was not ready - without which we couldn't use the taps. Simple washing like mugs or hands and even brushing our teeth were done under a shower head.

As of today, we still lack a gate and to make matters worse, the lock on the main door is faulty.

"When are you coming to fix it?" I asked. "We are rushing it," was the answer: a response I've heard many times this past month.

Last month, there was an article in the Straits Times entitled "Dream house, renovation nightmare". Ours isn't exactly a nightmare but it's certainly no sweet dream.

As days go by, we detected more and more defects. Chips in the kitchen, a hole on the wooden laminate floor, scratches on the bathroom doors... There were some gooey patches on the kitchen floor and other parts of the kitchen. When we pointed this out to our designer/contractor, he suggested that we buy some Jif because Jif would clean it silicon binders. What a turnaround in attitude compared to the start of the project when they would take care of everything. A month ago, we'd probably get "don't worry, I'll take care of this" and they would sort the problem out.

Now that 90% of the costs have been paid - we felt we were hunted down by loansharks for the last 30%, perhaps less forthcoming help should be expected.

Today, a couple of men came to install locks on our kitchen windows and change the panelling on the bathroom doors. Not only did I have to clean up the mess they left behind, I noticed they also left hard-to-remove stains on the doors and wash basin.

How long does it take to fit in 5 wooden planks for my shelves? The carpenters take at least 6 days, and counting. The same guys are responsible for changing the hinge on one of the kitchen cabinets. I'm still waiting.

I have 20 more boxes to unload. A OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) seems to be developing as I sweep the floor 5 times a day, each time cleaning up more debris and dust. Frustration continues to build up.

So I wouldn't recommend Cartel Design if you are considering renovation works in Singapore. We chose the company through the reference of a friend. Renovation is a dodgy industry, at least in Singapore, so we had expected delays and shoddy workmanship. Other friends we asked say they would recommend their contractors only to their enemies.

While other aspects of our life seem to be getting on fine, this on-going renovations, especially the dribs and drabs in these last phases, is clouding up my nice outlook.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The patriot

Third week into Primary 1, Estelle still thinks school is fun.

Tomorrow will be her first spelling test. She has never had spelling tests before so when she got the list of words to be tested, she told me those were for a "spelling contest". There is a programme on Singapore TV called Spell Cast, which is basically like the Spelling Bee in the US. She thinks she is like one of the contestants on TV.

She has learnt a favourite song at school. It's called Majulah Singapura, which is our National Anthem. For 2 weeks now, this is the only song she's been humming. Last week, she thought she was learning a Malay song - our national anthem is in the Malay language, not English. Today, she sang it at the top of her voice, much to her parents' amusement. She was a little shy so she closed the door and sang passionately. She didn't realise the walls have ears.

We call her our little patriot.

At Estelle's school, each class has a class blog where the teachers update parents on the topics covered in class or inform us of administrative matters.

In today's entry, her form teacher wrote: "The children sang the national anthem loudly and with pride at the end of the lesson, which I thought was great."

That explains the loud singing we got at home today.

When Jules came home later in the afternoon, she tried to teach him the song and bring him through the procedures during morning assembly, when the children start the day with the singing of the national anthem, the school song and reciting the pledge.

So far, Estelle seems to be fitting in well into the new system. School continues to be a fun experience.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Getting ahead of the pack

After 7 days of formal schooling in Singapore, I'm getting a little worried.

Today, Estelle brought her English language worksheets home. She not only learnt about pronouns (like female = she, male = he) but had completed a cloze passage: this is when she had to read a short story and fill up the blanks with helping words. Looking through the list of new words she will be learning, one of them is 'exasperation'. I am exasperated she is learning this word at Grade 1.

I'm happy to say that she had all the answers right. At this point, she can quite easily cope with the English exercises. Many thanks to her teachers at ICEC who have helped her so much!

So what am I worried about?

Do all 6 or 7 year-olds in Grade 1 already know how to read? If they can't read - and I don't mean simple words like cat or dog but stories - they can't do their English worksheets at all. Pitching the level this high, it is little wonder Singaporean parents send their children to prep schools months before they start Grade 1.

How much flexibility are the school and teachers giving to students who are not up to mark to catch up with the syllabus? I'm furiously resisting tuition. But if Estelle can't cope in time to come, I may have to change my mind. I hope and pray I don't have to.

Since we came back to Singapore 2 months ago, we caught up with old friends and long-lost friends whom we have not seen for a decade (or more). For those with children, when they learnt the school Estelle is going to, their responses range from "Wow, congratulations, that school is really hard to get into" or "Well, good luck!" The school does not achieve glowing results through fun and games.

Our friends ask which school she is in and how we gain entry. For the record, we submitted the necessary forms online and were chosen in a balloting exercise. We learnt that our friends sacrificed to get their children into the school of choice. We heard real-life examples of parents who spent tens of hours "volunteering" to serve the school, some paid premium real estate prices to live near the school, and others paid (one told me he spent S$1,000) to join the school association. The highest "donation" I've heard of was... S$200k.

I am thankful we got things easy. If we were living in Singapore and didn't get in the school, we'd probably blame ourselves for not trying harder. I am grateful we didn't have to think about Plan B. Truly grateful.

In Finland, and in other Scandinavian countries, children are not expected to have learnt to read, count or write when they start Grade 1. Children play all day before 6 years old. Some children are obviously ahead of their peers, but the rest are given ample time and opportunities to catch up.

In Singapore, we pride ourselves as a meritocratic society where the ability and talent gets one ahead of the game. Egalitarian Finland, on the other hand, believes that everyone is equal regardless of economic, social or political status.

The Singaporean system exalts the educated and wealthy; the Finnish society helps the less abled, sometimes at the expense of the better-off.

People living in Singapore are urged to excel in the rat race; the incentives to move ahead are limited in Finland.

Merciless meritocracy vs forgiving egalitarianism.

The complete argument should be multi-faceted and would reveal that each society has its pros and cons.

I wish for my children to shine in their strengths and allowed to grow where there are weaknesses. Where is my perfect world?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A new start

I'm back!

Sweeping aside layers of electronic cobwebs, I realised that only one miserable entry was posted for the month of December.

Here is a brief account of what I accomplished - a word that makes me feel good about how I used the time that has passed me by - in the last one month.

Renovations of our home is almost complete. Almost every morning last month, we visited furniture stores and shops for kitchen equipment, bathroom fittings, lighting, tiles... Sometimes we would meet with our designer to discuss colours and progress of the project.

I'm happy to announce that we are nearing the end of this project. Just in time since the lease of our temporary accommodation expires next week. The movers will come middle of next week and we will move ourselves in by the end of the week.

Next week, we bid farewell to regular housekeeping service, the swimming pool and the convenience of a shopping mall under our feet. We will then say hello to our "new" home and stability as we finally settle into normal life in Singapore.

Estelle started primary school last Monday. I've been meaning to post her progress since Monday but the routine has been pretty tiring.

For the past week, we woke up at 6 am so as to get ready to leave for school before 7 pm. We noticed the kids move in slow motion in the mornings. Nevertheless, time proceeds at its regular speed. Thus one whole hour just to wash up, change and have breakfast.

As for me, what I had been feeling this week is somewhat close to jet lag. My time zone shifted 3 hours ahead since Monday. I much prefer the old schedule of waking up at 9 am.

Estelle seems to be taking to Primary 1 (Grade 1) pretty well... better than we had expected. She has made new friends, found her way around the school and learning new cultures, like singing the national anthem, school song, putting on the school uniform or bowing to greet teachers.

On day 1, Estelle conscientiously finished the bread I packed for her during recess.

By the second day, she bought food herself in the school canteen. She bought a bun and a bottle of Yakult - the latter a treat for herself since it is restricted goods at home.

How much money do you have left? I asked her when I picked her up after school.

Three coins, she replied.

So how much is that, like 10 cents or 20 cents, I queried.

Oh, 30 cents, I think, she said.

On the third day, she bought a bowl of fishball noodles and a bottle of flavoured water.

The noodles cost $1 and the drinks $1,20, she proudly announced.

Where did you get the money from? I asked. Her daily allowance is $1.50.

A teacher had "lent" her money, apparently. I don't know who this good Samaritan is or if she is keeping track of her "loans".

By the fourth day, my little girl lost her purse.

Thus is Chapter 1 of the chronicles of Estelle's adventures at school.