Tuesday, April 22, 2014

remembering the dead

For the Chinese, there is a time every year to remember the dead.

The Qing Ming Festival, when hordes of pious descendants throng the columbariums in Singapore with food and hell money to be burnt for the dead, is alien to me.

Schooled on English Bible stories, I am unfortunately more familiar with the idea of heaven and hell than the whys of traditional Chinese ancestral worship.

I blame it on a solidly English education.

It is a loss, for not understanding it doesn’t make it meaningless.

To my folks, at least, honouring their ancestors is still an important part of their lives. I imagine the ritual would die with their generation. I know no one my age who would do so of their own accord, or who would even know what to do.

This Qing Ming, they head to Pek San Theng – former cemetery turned columbarium in Bishan – and another columbarium at Sin Ming to pay their respects.

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* My folks with the offerings

The girls follow. Lu is not happy!

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For them, it was a rather unpleasant excursion of sorts: One which they would associate with swirling pungent clouds of joss stick smoke, humid heat exacerbated by the blanket of smoke from not only the joss sticks but giant furnaces which incinerate the thousands of paper offerings, and unpleasant things like no seats, no food and no drinks.

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* Oh wait there is food! We eat up the food after its offered to the spirits. Its delicious.

They do, however, enjoy seeing the black-and-white photos of all sorts of ancestors in yellow urns.

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* Saying hi to their great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather

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* Great-great grandfather: The medical guy whose board is hanging on our wall. But wait! How come his name is different from the name on the board?

And Pek San Theng is quite a nice scenic spot. 

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

not your maid

Auntie Theresa visits. Making herself comfortable, she sinks into the cushion, sips her Nespresso coffee and asks Lulu to please pass her the strawberries.

Lu is annoyed: I’m not your maid, she retorts.

Theresa cannot stop laughing. I am horrified at the lack of respect and hospitality.

Unfortunately, Lu is parroting what I say several times a day in different forms.

So friends who request for a glass of water from the trio might hear any of the following:

“You have two good arms and legs, do it yourself.”
“It’s good to be independent.”
“It’s no good imposing on other people.”
“This is an important skill you need to learn."
"I am tired."

It is at this point, however, that I need to make a distinction between self-independence and prostrating oneself in the name of civility towards guests.

That is, always help yourself… and others too.

Ah. That will do it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

excursion snacks

I follow the 10-year-olds on a school excursion.

What left the biggest impression is not that each pair of pupils is given smartphones with lessons embedded in it (technology!), or that the pupils are made to sit for 90 minutes under shelter due to ‘lightning risk’ despite no rain (how cautious!), but what they all bring out of their bags for their snack.

(It is the only thing they eat between their breakfast which is at 7am or earlier, and their lunch after school dismissal at 1.30pm)

Pringles chips, barbeque chips, Jack and Jill chips, Mamee, fish crackers, Jagabee.

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* Chestnuts with coco crunch and honey stars

It… it… it was a veritable birthday party!

(On the healthy side, I counted one lunchbox of sandwiches and another of fruit in my group. I didn’t even see buns. I gave Day two sweet potatoes but he brought rice crackers on his own in order to join the party)

I’m not very nutritionally responsible. I do give the kids crap. But it was a bit of a shock to see how so many kids brought junk.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Monday, April 14, 2014

perspective

We view our children through the critical parents’ lens.

But what do their peers think of them?

I had the fortune (or misfortune) of having to attend one of Day’s birthday parties from 2-11pm because the girls wanted to see the boys, and I cannot unfairly saddle his friend’s mum with two extra little girls.

His garrulous little primary school friends said:

Auntie, your son is the daredevil of the class!

Ya ya, he dares to do anything!

You know, last time he stapled his hand? And another time, he used a piece of paper and sliced his hand until there was blood? Wa!

Which was all very surprising to me.

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* "Waaaa!" (Skinny Day in orange and yellow shorts)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

better cooking, dammit

This year I determined that I would cook better.

(Every year I make one or two silent resolutions which I keep)

Well this one’s not silent anymore, but it’s still going.

The background: I don’t hate cooking anymore, but I still dislike it.

There are people in the world who like being fed, and those who like to feed others.

I definitely, surely, inexorably belong to the latter category.

It could be the way I’m wired, or that I was brought up being fed like a baby bird in a nest. All I ever had to do was open my mouth and delicacies were dropped in.

But today, as long as I cook, I cannot enjoy my food. It’s not that it’s not good because some dishes actually merit praise, but I just can’t.

After all that slaving away I’m just not in the mood, you know?

It’s a good way to lose weight, not that I want to. I know for a fact I eat a lot less from Mondays to Thursdays when I cook through the four days, but I really pig out from Fridays to Sundays.

Another possibility is that once I knew what went into food to make it tasty, I couldn’t bring myself to do the same. Oh I’d eat it outside. But I couldn’t with good conscience prepare the same at home meaning home food is boring.

For instance, I have never and will never deep fry anything and it was only in the last few months that I could bring myself to add small bits of sugar into meals (apparently for flavor…?).

Back to the beginning of this year.

I decided that since I am forced to practise cooking four, five days a week, I might as well try to be better at it. You know, be diligent, stop moaning and try to get excited about what I have to do instead of just making do. And have everyone in the household be a bit happier with better food.

(Grief, I could have mastered a new instrument in the time I have spent on cooking over the years)

How?

ONE, I started planning the entire week’s meals including Jo's lunchbox contents – simple as it is – on Sundays when I am happy and rested. So even when I feel like dropping dead with fatigue at 5pm on a weekday, I’d stay the course and produce the damned thing. (It used to be I’d jump into the supermarket at 4pm to buy bacon and mushrooms for another boring pasta meal)

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TWO, Try new things. Like fried fish. I did try it again but it still looked like shit.

THREE, I take inspiration from library recipe books (free mah). I try to introduce approximately one (or two if I’m feeling preppy on Planning Sunday) new dishes a week, or practise dishes tried before. This is hard because it’s tough finding recipes that fit me. Sylvia Lim was too challenging. Some Popular recipe books turned out crappy dishes. Forget Jamie and Gordon and their impossible list of ingredients. My pantry consists of a one-metre shelf. So far I’ve found Kylie Kwong a bit of a godsend.

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* My pantry

FOUR, Ask people who cook food I really like, how they do it. I have since learnt how to cook our beloved Zha Cai, and gotten another stewed pork recipe from a relative.

FIVE, Forget eating like a monk and liberally use things which I had thought of as ‘unhealthy’ before. Oil, sugar, wine. (When we first moved in, I bought a packet of sugar which I threw out after five years, wet, clumpy and half-used)

(Of course the above only applies when I am not swamped but I have not been swamped this entire year to date)

It’s a journey. I think I’ll be cooking for a l-o-n-g time more.

I don’t think I’ll EVER enjoy it. But I hope KK and the kids have nice food memories years down the line.

To end off, my novice response to a few ingredients used in Kylie Kwong’s fried rice which earned an unsolicited very very rare food compliment from KK. I know some people are very amused by my Stupid Cook responses.

1/3 cup (80ml) peanut oil for frying eggs (So much oil!?? She has got to be kidding! Whoever uses so much oil? But eh, the eggs are looking good man. They’re not even sticking to the wok! So fluffy and soft!)
Finely chopped ginger (Ugh. I’ve never used ginger in cooking before. I hate ginger. But eh, I don’t taste it in the rice at all! Its a miracle!)
Brown onion (What the hell does a brown onion look like? Aren’t they all brown?)
Chinese sausage (Where do I buy lap cheong from? The wet market people look at me like I’m an idiot but I finally find it)
White sugar (Eeeks. I have never used sugar in a savoury dish. Doesn’t it feed cancer or something? Never mind. Kylie Kwong says dishes need to be sweet/salty/sour for balance and the objective here is better-tasting food)
Shaohsing wine (Eeeks what the hell is this? $9 a bottle?? So expensive and it stinks. And will I use it again? But eh, I don’t taste it in the rice at all!  Its another miracle!)

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* The result, in foreground

Thursday, April 10, 2014

lu's tooth drops

For the record, her first tooth finally dropped a week ago during swimming as she was bounding around the pool in a snatched moment of joy before Desmond arrived.

She had no idea. I spotted the gap. She gasped: But it wasn’t painful at all! Where is my tooth, mama?

Whereupon ensued the search for a tiny milk tooth which was lost somewhere – but no idea precisely where - around a swimming pool.

Incredibly, we hit the jackpot when KK spotted it on the ground.

Lu who still faithfully believes in the tooth fairy (because Jo still does and bats off Day’s attempts to shatter the illusion) tucks the tooth in an envelope under her pillow.

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She gets a dollar, the tooth fairy’s standard rate.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

save the oats!

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Weevil attack!

The bugs climb out and drown in the water which the oat jar is sitting in.

Kids shiver in horror at the seething, living, pulsing sea of oats.

Nobody wants to eat oats anymore.

Monday, April 07, 2014

sick magnet

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Lu is sick.

The trio have all been sleeping in our room at night because it’s the only room with the aircon and its hot these days.

I order Day and Jo out of the room.

Lulu is sick, I say.

They both chime in unison, But we WANT to get sick.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

fearing desmond

Sundays Lu comes to me and quietly asks: Mama is there swim class with Uncle Desmond next week?

(she asks six days in advance)

Yes there is, I say.

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* Paralyzed with fear

The little explodes with a passion. Quivering with rage, tears threatening to spill over, she spits out: I HATE Uncle Desmond! STOOOPID Uncle Desmond! Uncle Desmond is a F-WORD!

(being a F-word is the worst label she can dredge up)

As it turns out, KK loves Desmond’s no-nonsense, my-way-or-the-highway approach.

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Desmond's coached the kids for nearly a year now. He pushes them. Not very hard, but probably harder than any of their other very nice, friendly teachers do. Like he makes Day and Jo flop madly, lap after lap, for their very feeble but energy-sapping butterfly.

Of the three Day is the most bo-chop about Desmond because he can take the iron fist. Jo hates it but she sucks it up for Lulu’s sake. They can swim for sure and don't need classes anymore, but we keep them in it so Lu has some company.

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* Jo and Day

Lulu unfortunately still swims like a puppy, arms and legs cycling madly in the water.

She will forever remember her childhood Saturdays as dreadful ones.

Over the past year, KK has typically doled out one of the following three stock responses to desperate Lu:

ONE: Lulu, as long as you can swim one lap, everybody will stop swim class, OK? Gor gor, jae jae and you can all stop. (he means it. Lulu learning how to swim tops his priority list of things the kids must learn. In haze and in rain, he drags the kids to the sometimes freezing-cold pool every Saturday. I have never seen him so serious about any other class including school. But no, she still can’t swim one lap without gripping the wall at some point)

TWO: Lulu, do you want Uncle Desmond or Papa to teach you? If you want Papa we can stop classes with Uncle Desmond. But Papa will be even harder on you. (he means it. Lulu never picks Papa)

THREE: Lulu, if we’re all on a boat which capsizes, we’ll all probably be able to survive except you…

To which Jo interjects: If I have to attend some more swim class with Uncle Desmond I’d rather die.

(but she can still smile for Desmond's camera)

swim