Sunday, April 17, 2016

breakdown

Falling asleep at 830pm was the straw which broke the camel’s back.

It was an unforgiveable transgression, a sinful indulgence, a terrible mistake, which Day realized the moment I woke him up at 640am the next day.

He sobbed.

He had not completed piles of homework. He had not prepared for his English composition examination that day. He had not finished the homework for Chinese tuition which would take place later that same day.

Cliched as it may sound, my heart bled for him.

The year has not been a nice one for my Primary Sixer. It’s pile after pile of homework from a school which has clear and present ambitions to be the top school in the area. I am the Mum who does not pressure him at all, but I am also the Mum who does not help him at all. Hands off is good, but may also be bad.

During a free Maths tuition trial which I sent Day for – because I felt bad for the poor young man who was trying to get parents to sign up for it – the post-trial analysis was that Day was doing fine in everything except in parental support, which was extremely lacking, and was scored 0 upon 5. The lady in question eyeballed me at that point, as if to say: Aren’t you going to do something for your son by sending him for our great tuition? (I didn’t)

Day has been keeping up. If one imagines the class as a pack of runners, he is somewhere in the centre, perhaps nearer the back, the ones in front being those who have tuition in all four subjects, so on and so forth. (clearly it is tuition which determines the winners from the stragglers) But he was still running.

Then he got very sick. Lu brought back a virus which felled me, then Day, then Jo. It was particularly crippling for Day, who might have been vulnerable from stress.

He missed school for three days. Three. It is a lifetime for a Primary Sixer who is supposed to be slogging in school all day and slogging at home all night. He spent those three days sleeping, feverish at night and sluggish in the day, watching TV or reading books or on his phone when his energy was up. He needed to rest. No work (rightly so) was done.

The return was when the homework landslide began in earnest, and when I started getting messages from the teachers that Day is falling back.

It’s three days. Three days which led to the inevitable breakdown.

He is still sick, coughing now, he’s been sick for a week. Perhaps that's why he collapsed in bed at 830pm. It's hard for him to catch up. But work be damned, he needs to get healthy first.

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* In happier times with Kaofu Choon

Friday, April 15, 2016

chinese orchestra

Jo has unexpectedly fallen in love with Chinese Orchestra, which is her main after-school activity.

Once the different instrumental sections came together, playing pieces in its entirety, she suddenly understood where her erhu fits in the scheme of things and everything clicked.

She will therefore be the only one amongst my trio who shares my love for ensemble playing. I suppose it’s fitting that she is playing the Chinese equivalent of the violin.

How she shows her love:
  • Like a dog straining against its leash, she looks forward to the twice-weekly rehearsals.
  • She insists on bringing her erhu home after rehearsals, to practise. She actually practises. During busy weeks, when she doesn’t get much practicing done, she sometimes makes me wake her up at 6am for her to saw away in the kitchen before going to school.
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* Early morning practice
  • She memorises the entire score.
  • She searches for and listens to other orchestras performing the pieces on Youtube.
  • After practice, she sings the other instrument’s parts to me. “When I’m playing this, Mama (sings her part), the sheng is playing this (sings) and the dizi is playing this (sings).” She is really paying attention. I used to do this all the time with my fellow orchestra players, singing each other’s parts in harmony as we took the bus home.
  • She now declares that she hates piano but loves the erhu because she wants to play in an ensemble. Although I rightly tell her that were it not for piano, she would have had a great deal more difficulty with learning the erhu.
So recently, she took part in her first SYF competition. The 49-year-old Singapore Youth Festival takes place once every two years and it allows all the performing groups (Chinese Orchestras, string ensembles, dance groups etc) from all the schools to take to the stage and try to impress judges who will score them – Distinction (Gold), Accomplishment (Silver), Commendation (Bronze).

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* Getting her hair pulled up high by a mummy volunteer

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The kids, all dressed in their black pants and white shirts with satiny-smooth red jackets and, for the girls, red ribbons in their high ponytails, made their way to the Singapore Conference Hall where they were the last in a conveyor-belt assembly line of kids to perform.

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* Jo making her way onstage. She decided to wear her spectacles in case she can't see the conductor

They played Tian (天) and Shi Cheng Man Bu (狮城慢步), and they scored a distinction, as has been the case every year because their school takes their Chinese Orchestra very very seriously.

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But the real win for me is seeing that Jo has developed a passion for music which, as I well know, will delight her for the rest of her life.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

class castes

One of the kid’s teachers has been trying out a new teaching method in class.

The teacher split the class into three groups with labels: Slow, Average and Smart.

Kids being kids, they have modified the labels into Slow-poke, Average and Smarty-pants.

I’m not sure what determinants are taken into consideration. It may be the teacher’s general judgment on ability, how the child performs in class tests, so on and so forth.

What difference does it make in the classroom?

Just based solely on what the kids say (bearing in mind I have not spoken to the teacher), the teacher customizes teaching and homework according to which group the child is in.

So while teaching, the slow ones sit in one row, in front, so the teacher can address them directly. The averages sit in the second row. The smart ones sit behind, where they are sometimes assigned to independently work on their own.

Apparently, the teaching varies. That is, the teacher will use “fewer and simple” words for the slow ones and speak “very fast” to the smart ones.

Homework also varies. The slow ones get to do much less.

What difference does it make to the kids?

One says, “I know I’m slow. I don’t belong to the smarty-pants.”

Another says, “I’m average but aiyah, I want to be slow. I want to do less work.”

Yet another says, “Why am I in the smarty-pants group? I’m not smart at all. I’m in the wrong group and I don’t like all the people in the smart group. My friends are all in the slow group.”

What difference does it make to the parents?

If their child is in the smart group, they may be less inclined to make noise and give their child a pat on the head instead. "Keep it up, boy!" they may say. 

If their child is in the slow group, they are livid, at the label and at the unfairness of it all. They want to complain at the highest level. I can fully understand why. 

I am certain the teacher has good intentions, to teach more effectively at a customized pace, perhaps, because standards in the class may be wildly different.

But results – from what the kids say and how they feel – speak volumes about whether the exercise has been carried out well.

Worse is if the label sticks in the kids' minds, for the rest of their lives. It's like EM1, EM2 and EM3 all over again.

Monday, April 11, 2016

still drawing

Lulu is still at her drawing.

We keep thinking it is a phase that will go away, just like it did for Day and Jo.

She still draws every day, or every other day. These days, her thing is using pencils to copy illustrations she likes from books around the house; the old Enid Blyton books, the Little Miss books…

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Jo, who used to draw rather a lot herself but who has since gone off it completely (ever since she started Primary school, actually), gazes at Lu’s drawings with some bewilderment and sometimes sighs, a little wistfully, “I don’t like drawing.”

I sometimes wonder if I should send Lu for art class, to expand her horizons, one of those classes which will set her up for entry into SOTA which still remains her dream school. I don't think she really knows what she'll be in for at SOTA, but perhaps it is also my duty to enable her to realise her dreams.

But it will mean yet another class in a family schedule which is already packed to the brim with barely any wiggle room. And as it is, without classes and expectations, she enjoys drawing so much. Copying stuff she likes, showing it to us with glee, filling up her little sketch book which simple things in her free time which she in particular has a lot of (compared to her busy bee siblings).

This love of art, versus her attitude toward piano and her piano classes which is ….. URGH. 

She hates the skill she has classes for, but loves the skill she has no classes for. I'm not sure if its the skill itself she likes/dislikes, or the fact that classes/ teachers will impose structure and goals and rigour, all hateful to her.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

birthday wish bomber

Since it is very rare that Choon comes back to Singapore during his birthday month, our mother buys him a cake for his 39th birthday. We manage to drag him downstairs – “Whaaaaat??” he drones from upstairs when we summon him down – and he puts on the obligatory shirt.

We take the photos. We sing the birthday song. Choon just wants to get the whole thing over with.

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Just before he blows out the candles, three big ones and nine small ones, Mum yells – Birthday wish! Birthday wish!

There’s a beat of silence.

Then Mum follows up – Get married before 40!!!

Another beat of silence. Then Lu pipes up – But… but it’s his birthday! That’s not his wish, that’s your wish!

Thursday, April 07, 2016

from lancer to vw

So finally, the Lancer goes.

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* Last glance, as I leave it behind at the car dealer to be scrapped

Its COE expires in June and there is really no point in renewing the certificate for a car which sounds like its having a mechanical version of a heart murmur. Although it runs fine, every time we turn on the engine, there’s a “flutter-flutter-flutter” of what sounds like a loose strap flapping against something in the car.

KK was on tenterhooks whenever he drove it. “We’d better get rid of it soon,” he’d say.

But the really happy ones were the kids. They have been waiting for this moment a long time.

While I made them say their goodbyes to the Lancer, and give some verbal tributes on the last day we drove the car – “Thank you for taking us from Point A to Point B for so many years” was about the best they could manage – their enduring memory of the car will be the baby roaches. 

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* Last drive in the Lancer - I'm bringing them to school in the morning. That's the neighbour's kid, Yishen, in the back

Every time we have to get into the car at night, when it’s dark, a particular ritual has evolved which I wish I could have video-taped, only the kids would not allow it: Lulu opens the back door, Jo opens the front door. They both take a step back and stare into the dark inky depths of the Lancer. Day is usually next to Lulu, also making a visual survey.

By this time I would have plopped myself into the front seat (because I’m fearless and I don’t care what I sit on). Lulu says – Mama, can you turn on the light, please? Jo says – Mama, can you check the seat? Can you sweep this area? (she points to the crevice between the seat and its back rest)

I turn on the car light. And I sweep the crevice with my fingers.

Five times out of 10, the girls will stiffen or shudder because they can see a baby roach, or two, or three, languidly crawling across the head rests or on the seat.

Mama! They all yell.

I will inevitably sigh, grab a random ball of used tissue which usually ends up in the cup holder next to me, get out of the car, hone in on the baby roach and swoop in for the kill. For some reason they’re always sluggish and I usually succeed.

When I don’t, the roaches disappear somewhere into inaccessible areas of the car, while I threaten the kids that I will drive off if they don’t get in, then they will all crouch on the seat and squeeze themselves into small balls without letting their limbs dangle vulnerably.

I think this car and the roaches have given the kids some very traumatic childhood memories. And I’m certain that as adults, they will not permit eating in their own cars, and will strive to keep their own cars clean. (It’s such shock-and-awe tactics which work to change behavior, isn’t it?)

A few things I notice: It’s always babies. Like the Lancer is some warm roosting spot where the roaches can grow up peacefully and leave once they’re ready for the world. And there are some places where there seem to be more roaches than usual, I suspect they crawl into the car from outside and are not inherently in the car. Like if I parked next to a rubbish dump, for instance.

In any case, the kids are not too sad to bid farewell. I feel the car has served us well, despite the occasional fault; here and here. It served us a good six years and the fact that we get back over $7,000 (in scrap value) against its $36,000 cost (cars only cost that much back in 2010!) means it’s really not too bad.

On to the new.

So finally, we decided on a second-hand Volkswagen Golf.

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The process of getting a car this time is a little more structured than when we got the Lancer. KK did his research, I even asked around, and what made us consider the Golf was that Jason recommended it. A big truck veered off course and clipped into the back of their Golf recently while they were on the expressway, and it was quite impressive that the Golf was so sturdy it only suffered a few dents.

It is also German (KK says – German good), small and humble (I like).

Our white Golf now is the second one we saw. The story is that it was purchased by a British banker four years ago, but he ended up cycling to work and kept the car for weekends and stuff. It looked and smelt and felt brand-new, with a low mileage of 26,000km (which means it was seldom driven). That was KK’s tipping point. He hopes to use the car beyond its 10th year.

Cost: $74,000. Urgh. Whatever.

Internally, it feels bigger than the Volvo, I don't know why. KK, who aspired to own a MPV or a SUV but downgraded because I drive the car 90% of the time and I wouldn't want one that is bigger than necessary, is OK with the Golf's engine (I don’t feel any different except the car seems a lot heavier including crazy-heavy doors). Most importantly for him, he can squeeze in his golf bag.

The kids love the car. Coming from the old roach-ridden Lancer, who wouldn’t? They are fascinated with the intelligent features. Key-less system, intuitive windscreen wipers, optical parking system, and a kick-ass sound system. Also, they know by now: They all refuse to eat and drink in the car, and will call each other out.

May the car go the distance for us. May we also have the stamina and discipline to keep it clean.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

jo rock climbs

Jo climbed her first rock wall.

As with anything which requires some risk to life – like swimming – she’s slow to arrive.

But she’s finally embraced it. And she rather enjoys it.

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She saw Day doing it, she attempted a couple of kiddy walls, only up to a height of about three feet (!), and through it all were lots of assurances that she can trust the safety systems put in place.

It helped that Choon was there to climb with her, shadowing her at every level and pointing out where she could put her hands and feet when she felt stuck.

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Finally, KK was the one who got her to climb right to the top, by sheer dint of not allowing her to come down as he yelled at her from the side.

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Which makes me realise that he has got that much more power over the kids than I do. They listen to him when it comes to overcoming the hard stuff, not to me.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

swinging from a tree

An urban childhood.

Friday, April 01, 2016

in my absence

How did the kids fare in the longest period of time I left them?

I think they missed me. But not much. (although Jo said she cried thinking about me one night)

In ascending order of missing-me intensity, I think it would be Day (he hardly blinked and told me to go off to enjoy myself, but he did say he wanted to go not because of me but because he wanted to see Nepal), followed perhaps equally by Jo and Lu, who said they hated Nepal before I left.

I didn’t worry too much about who would bring them to school and whether they’d be fed right. One must have faith, right. And so things fell into place.

KK held the fort. My intention was to have them all live at Mum’s for 10 days, because there’s a helper there to cook and clean. KK didn’t want to go.

So he ended up bringing them to school every morning, feeding them breakfast, and bringing them back every night to feed them dinner. In between, Mum sometimes helped to chauffeur them from school and they’d spend most afternoons at her place. When there were extra classes, somehow, they all worked it out.

Honestly, the kids thoroughly enjoyed their mum-free time. I don’t think they are the first kids to enjoy lax daddy Government; they ate dinner out every night at nice places, launched into a banana split at Haagen Daaz (so over-priced I’d never go), savoured packet food for breakfast (like sausage buns versus my oats), never practised piano, didn’t have to care about ting xie etc.

Who did the housework? The kids did. Specifically, Day, who kept the mountain of laundry small. That, I have to applaud.

When I returned and started sniping - Bathe! Sleep! Eat! Homework! Practise! - Jo rolled her eyes and sighed.

Did I miss them?

Er, not really, no. I didn’t think I would, and I didn’t. There was too much enjoying going on.

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* Lu's sheep and Jo's piggy which I brought along just in case I missed them

And even if I did miss them, Whatsapp always came to the rescue, even in the mountains when all it cost was US$1 at most.

There is, however, one major regrettable repercussion from my Nepal trip.

See, the day I left, KK bought Jo a mobile phone. Because he was in charge, he felt he needed to be able to communicate with her.

I was furious in Kathmandu when she messaged me. Furious!

I had to calm my breath, as I knew I’d have my work cut out for me upon my return.

All the signs had pointed to Jo being a major phone addict. Once on my phone, she would clasp it for a long time, not playing games but communicating. She would Whatsapp whoever she can– KK, her grandma, her uncles – and just wait for a response. She would scroll through all my messages and read what my friends were saying. She would try out all of the phone’s functions and spend time changing the wallpaper until she found one to her satisfaction. She had pleaded for a phone, claiming all her friends had one, and I had flatly refused.

I told her – You will only get a phone when you need one, which is when you really need to communicate with us, your parents, which is probably when you start going out on your own or when you have to stay back late in school.  When? I think about 13 years old?

She’s 10 and she’s effortlessly got her Oppo. And something, once given, is very difficult; nay, almost impossible to take back.

I suppose the good part was that she really kept me posted. KK and Day are not great communicators and largely ignored me online. I wanted to know what they were doing, what they were eating, where they were, Jo gave me all that and more. When I was bored, I’d message the family chat and Jo would reliably, unfailingly, respond.

Her messages were satisfyingly long and verbose, with photos and heaps of emojis thrown in. (she must have spent a long time typing on the phone though...) She started her first private chat with me with: "Hello mama. I have made a private chat for me and you."

Her phone even has an automatic beautifying app (which completely pissed me off) but which she used to send posey pictures of herself and Lu which were kind of cute.

Phone pix
* Beautified! Urgh!

She also took photos of her Maths problem sums for me to solve, while I was up on the mountain.

Anyway. I can say for a fact that the Greatest Impact of my Nepal Trip on my kids was that my 10-year-old daughter’s dream was realized when she was given her first phone.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

nepal: last bits

(One last one on Nepal, which surprisingly seems to be quite a popular bucket-list destination)

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That, I think, is what Nepal wants the world to know.

Yes, the earthquake which struck in April 2015 killed over 8,000 and injured over 21,000, but the fallout from the loss of tourist dollars is making it worse for people who are trying to rebuild their lives.

Our guides and tour agency owner took pains to emphasise repeatedly: Nepal is very safe, no earthquakes. Prince Harry visited Nepal at the same time we did, and the locals made much of his trip. It was a huge deal.

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Ratna our guide - always frowning and grave in demeanour as if there is nothing much in life to laugh about - made a personal appeal for us to send friends and family his way so he can earn more. His mountain abode was split in two during the earthquake and his wife, 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter now put up in a small, dark, temporary hovel with a tin roof and tin walls. He wants to re-build his home. They sustain themselves on his earnings as a trekking guide as well as his takings off a meager plot of land and six goats. The Nepal Government has not provided any support.

On trek, the effects of earthquake were not apparent. The Annapurna Base Camp circuit – which our trek was a part of – was largely untouched.

But parts of Kathmandu city itself was still in shambles, especially the old temples which are centuries old and which were not exactly built to standard.

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* Pieces of fallen wood, laid out like a huge puzzle to fit together in reconstruction which will take place God knows when

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* Parts of the fallen temple

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* Tarpaulin protecting the old wood

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* The rubble next to Choon is the remains of a huge temple, Kasthamandap, which collapsed completely.

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* Life goes on

Everywhere, Before and After photos attempt to fill in the tourist's imagination.

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* The top of the stupa is gone

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Still, the raw, authentic appeal of Nepal – even when one is not in the mountains – is apparent.

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* Phewa Lake, Pokhara

Kathmandu itself is chaotic. A maze of wires, possibly growing in number as telecommunications and all sorts of networks are created, criss-cross the city in a mindless manner, roads for stray monkeys which use the wires to safely traverse the city without getting run over by the horning streams of vehicles. The local people occasionally lean out of their windows to smack the monkeys on their butt. 

(On chaotic traffic, I was hit by a motorbike as I was trying to hobble my way across the road with my stick post-trek. The biker stopped just in time, but I was nearly knocked over)

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It is so dusty the first thing shopkeepers do every morning is to throw water on the ground outside their shops. Their wares are coated with dust, dust which the shopkeepers ineffectually try to get rid of by flicking long-tailed brushes. When I blow my nose on Day 2, the tissue is blackish. After my bath, dust worms gather on my comb when I comb my hair. Some people wear masks.

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* Dusty air makes for small, red suns

It is also an incredibly spiritual place, where Buddhists co-exist with Hindus, where everyone gathers for picnics for a day out in the local park to watch public cremations. What can I say? I found that very interesting and would have stayed to watch until the burning was complete, only my brothers were not too keen.

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* A body being prepared for cremation at Pashupatinath

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* Arranging the base of the pyre

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* One body per wooden platform. The remains, wood and bone, are all swept into the river which is ... dried up. It hasn't rained for months. Which begs the question of where the remains all go.

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* Someone wading in the same river

Nepal is a world away from countries with an endless panorama of MacDonalds and Starbucks Coffees and quaint cafes and upmarket shops, in which I sometimes struggle to find anything unique or different from Singapore.

I suppose that's why Nepal stays in my heart. (although honestly speaking, the locals probably wouldn't mind having a few big malls and fast food outlets around)