Friday, September 30, 2016

workplaces compared

Choon has been hard at work in Singapore for a month now. It’s very natural to want to compare his work experiences in Darwin where he spent over 10 years, and where he is now.

The context: Choon’s a dietitian. He used to work in a public health organization in Darwin, attending mainly to diabetes and renal outpatients (so they don’t actually stay in the hospital), and he was part of a team of eight dietitians.

Now, he is the solo dietitian at a private hospital and he has to take care of the diets of every single patient, including those who are warded and who may need tube-feeding.

ATTIRE. In Darwin, he went to work in shirt and shorts, and track shoes were fine. Here, the moment he got back he stocked up on Zara shirts and whatnot because he needs to be wear long-sleeved shirts and pants and proper shoes.

* Quick change to slippers and readying the bike for some weekend cycling

WORKING HOURS. Both start at about 8-ish. In Darwin, 430pm marks the end of the work day and if he should want to stay back, he can’t as the lights are turned off. Here, work ends at 6pm, 530pm on Fridays, but he has to stay back late often and once had to work on Saturday.

FRIENDS. He eats with people in Darwin. Here in Singapore, he lunches alone. I hope its because people are slower to warm up.

STRESS LEVELS. He says he’s a little more stressed here, but that is likely due to the very steep learning curve.

PAY. He gets a lot less here. Maybe 70 percent of what he used to get in Darwin.

TRANSPORT TO WORK. He used to drive to work. As he can’t afford a car now, he takes the bus. Happily, Phoebe drives him from work some days.

Lifestyle has definitely changed. The good thing is that he doesn’t have to cook, Jai takes care of that. But when it comes to exercise, he simply has no time to work out the way he did in Darwin, every day after work. He’s become a weekend warrior, cramming cycling, rock-climbing, swimming, gym work, on Saturday and Sunday.

The kids are going to read this and they’re going to ask: Why would anyone want to work in Singapore? (Kids, for the answer to that, ask Papa)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

big day

Today marks the culmination of Day’s entire primary school career, when his performance over four days will determine the course of the rest of his life (it's English today). Or, it’s just another exam.

* This morning

I haven’t written about Day’s exam preparation because there isn’t much to write.

For me, the point of greatest worry was somewhere around the first half of this year, when there was still time and space to Do Something in response to dire CA1 results. And the breaking point within that point (again, for me, not for Day) was when I saw what he got for one of his mock Chinese papers a few months ago and tears filled my eyes (out of depair, mind you, not exhilaration). Day saw, hugged me very tightly and assured me he’d try harder (no he didn’t cry!).

As with my usual style when it comes to the kids (perhaps not the greatest), I accept what they are and what they want.

The time since the June holidays has been peaceful for me, as I, as usual, leave Day to his schoolwork and do some slow, daily revision with him. Slow meaning we take our time, there’s no particular study schedule or goal to finish this or that. All the assessment books and whatnot are half-done. On my part, there’s a kind of stoic acceptance, that traditionally (according to a teacher), the score which kids get in the PSLE don’t veer off more than 5 marks up or down from what they get in the Prelims.

Day? He has been consistently obedient but not self-driven. He does his homework, if he has his phone or laptop, he’d go on it right after, and if I take the screens away, the next thing he’ll do is to find some games to play with his sisters or draw or read a book. When I ask him to study, he will, but only when I ask him to. Sometimes, he goes to the library with his friends after school to study.

If he feels any stress, it would be from how everyone expects more from him. Well-meaning teachers who give him knowing looks when they talk about careless mistakes or how some in the class definitely have the potential to do better, friends who tell him "I thought you were better than that?" when he talks about going to a particular neighbourhood school, and from his own parents. We do, keep telling him he can do better, if he works harder.

But if I had hoped the PSLE would be an exercise through which he appreciates the value of hard work, it hasn’t worked. He regards the PSLE with a massive sigh, as an irksome duty which he doesn’t quite care about, as a demonstration of why Singapore sucks. He once said, to my fury, "I can do better but I don't want to." He also seems to have adopted my attitude of acceptance as he seems quite happy with the prospect of going to lesser schools. I hate using the word lesser, but you know what I mean.

I also remember the ideals I had from years ago, when I thought to myself that I wanted my child to enjoy learning, and that the sense of joy would power him through the PSLE. Hmmm. Nice ideal.

He goes in today with a hug, a kiss, a ham sandwich and hot Milo in his tummy. He has a jacket in his bag because the air-conditioning in the classroom is really cold and he's right smack in the draft. He also goes in sick. He’s down with a cold and sore throat.

* Sick, yesterday

Here he is, sounding slightly croaky, in a pre-exam interview.

* Famous last words: "I feel great, that, it's finally boiled down to this. But I also hope that I can do my best. I just wanna say that PSLE ... will be easy."

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

coping devices

In the lead-up to the PSLE. For Day.

Enough sleep. This is crucial for Day. 930pm if possible.

Exercise. Some cycling, playing badminton with Kaofu Choon, perks him up.

Medicated oil. He discovered he likes "feng you" because it helped get rid of his headaches, on the rare occasion he got them.

Pills. Someone asked what sort of pills he was eating. This isn’t something Choon would approve of, the dietitian is very much against these supplements. But as my folks and a few other oldies I know have been eating stuff from this multi-level marketing company for years and they all seem terribly healthy and energetic for their age, and since I’ve started on it too, I let Day have it. It seems to work, is the best I can say.

* Feng you and pills

Lack of interference. Good or bad, I don't know, but I don't interfere or nag much, while KK is far too busy with his own studying (he never seems to stop studying) to do anything more than say, "Look, Papa is studying hard too, let's study together!"

Sunday, September 25, 2016

friendly neighbours

As Xueying herself puts it, we were colleagues in the newspaper over 15 years ago and now she’s become my neighbor! Life is so… circular.

* Girls, Xueying and Kei An on an outing to Gardens by the Bay

Some time ago, I saw that a unit in our estate was up for sale and I immediately let her know. She and Kelvin were looking for something in the vicinity. Something old and charming. They bought it. While they were based in Hongkong, the unit remained occupied by the waiters working in the nearby Indian restaurant, who were renting it.

Now they are back and staying in the newly-renovated pad. Xueying has even got Jo's mobile phone number and Whatsapps Jo - whom she has literally seen growing up! - when necessary.

The best thing? Baby Kei An!



Of late, since the sleepover, the girls have not been getting along so well with Liyen, who has grown up and whom they think is no longer cute for some strange reason. Sometimes they spend an entire day at Liyen’s without speaking or playing much.

Kei An is the New Baby and they are thrilled. The first time we went over, Kelvin put his gleaming kitchen in use for the first time and cooked us a scrumptious omelette. Day whispered to me as he inhaled it all – “This is much better than anything you cook, Mama.”


The girls love gazing at and squishing fleshy little Kei An, and I think the bub loves having the girls around. The girls also love to, erm, read Kei An’s books and play with Kei An’s toys. They also like going over because it’s nice and clean and stylish – “our house is so disgusting Mama, so dirty” says Jo – and there’s central air-conditioning.

* In Kei An's playroom

Friday, September 23, 2016

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


The way in which Jo attempts her first attempt to swallow a pill is so… Jo. Day never worried about it, started takings pills when he was seven without fuss.


Why does she want to try?

Because she sees Day swallowing three capsules every morning. These are well-being pills, the sort of stuff which people pay through their nose for and pop for no other reason than to feel good. It contains the likes of ginseng and cactus and other “good” ingredients which have actually worked on Day as it puts some pink in his cheeks and a spring in his step.

“She doesn’t want to lose out,” said KK, “that’s why she wants to take it. I know her. She’s just like me.”

She holds a capsule in one hand and a cup of water in the other, for over 30 minutes, working up her guts and worrying herself into a frenzy. The entire time, she is plagued with What Ifs.

·         What if the pill gets stuck in my throat? Will it make me choke or vomit?
·         What if I can’t swallow it and I keep it in my mouth? Will the covering melt?
·         What if there is an air bubble in the pill which enters my blood and kills me?

KK helpfully gives her a demonstration.

* Now you see it

* Now you don't

I don’t say anything, I can’t, because I can’t swallow pills.

She sits at the kitchen table, stares at the pill, mutters her way through all the things that could go wrong, gets up, paces, goes to the balcony, stares out into the night, perhaps thinking that it may be better if she doesn’t look at any of us or the pill, slowly brings the pill up to her mouth, puts it down, turns around and goes to the living room, peers over Lulu’s shoulder as Lulu tries to work out a Chinese app on a handphone, brings the pill to her mouth, puts it down.

By the time she’s done upping and downing, the pill covering has turned soft and squishy.

No, she doesn’t down it. I think she feels like she has failed.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


She made me take this picture, I’m not sure why.


Friday, September 16, 2016

weighty bags

I thought I’d weigh their bags, just for fun. Maybe in future kids won’t have to carry books to school and this will be a record of the “good old days”. Or the bad old days.

These are their bags.


Lu: 2.7 kg (13 percent of her 20.4 kg body weight)
Jo: 6.1 kg (22 percent of her 28.3 kg)
Day: 8.6 kg (26 percent of his 33.3 kg)

According to a medical website, the maximum a child should carry is 15 percent of his body weight.

There are lockers in school where the kids can put their bag contents.

Why don’t my kids use them?

Day says, “It gets messy”. What he means is, he’ll forget what he put inside and sometimes he may leave his homework in there and forget to bring it home. In other words, he's not able to keep track of work that is split in two places.

Jo says, “Erm I’m afraid it’ll get stolen”. I THINK she’s kidding.
(EDIT: Jo says she didn't say that. What she means is: “I don't want everything to be in different places because its very messy and whatever.")

* Day's bag content

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

lantern walk

We still do this, thankfully.

Delightfully, there is no haze this year and the moon is as round and bright as can be. (The kids all ask - What rabbit? What rabbit, Mama?! – when I point out there’s a rabbit in the moon. Goodness, can’t they see it?)

* Bright moon in the middle 

The kid’s school give them a lantern which is a really funny thing, like a round Japanese paper lantern with foam paper cut-outs with double-sided tape behind, which they can stick onto the lantern to make animal faces. It’s got a small bulb powered by a battery and after carrying it for a few minutes, Jo tosses it aside.

“I don’t like this light Mama, it’s ugly. It’s not nice like the light from the candles.”

I didn’t say it, but I agree. (But I end up carrying her discard)


What is Lantern Festival without fire and burning lanterns? (yes one did burn off this year, reduced to a charred black pile of ash)

Day, once again the official fire starter and lantern lighter, grips a candle and prays for good PSLE results.


For the first time, Choon joins us too. He makes it back in time from his exhaustively long working day. Long working hours are a Singapore thing which he now has to endure.


Monday, September 12, 2016

art over music

That’s Lulu in Miss Mona’s piano room.


Jo is having her lesson, Day is awaiting his turn.

Lu takes one of Miss Mona’s pieces of paper and copies a butterfly from a book. She isn’t interested in the music. I take a picture because its one of her nicer drawings. 


Drawing in her music class fully demonstrates what she always tells me: Mama, I much prefer art to music.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

anything goes

Two strange little observations about Lu.

One of her favourite snacks is frozen peas, straight from the freezer.

I never thought it was weird until one day my insurance agent, who happened to be at our home selling me a policy, saw Lu grabbing a bowl, heading to the freezer, making some noise, closing the freezer and popping whatever was in that bowl into her mouth.

“What… what’s she eating?”

“Frozen peas.”


* Cold wet peas, some hard some soft

Then I realized its perhaps not a very normal practice. It evolved because sometimes I get tired and I don’t want to steam things. So Lu got fed up and tried out the frozen peas (she asked for my permission first and I said OK just to see if she'd dare to) and she actually liked it. She keeps the rock hard orb in her mouth and when it thaws after 15 seconds or so she squishes it. Incredulous me tried it one day. It is actually a rather refreshing snack for a hot day. But I wouldn't do it again.

* Our nice snap frozen Wattie's peas. I hope they are responsibly processed.

She also does the same with frozen corn nibblets.

Then the other night, she searched high and low for a white board. “Miss Chiam says I need to bring my white board to school and I can’t find mine,” she said.

“Can I take your plastic thingy?” she said, as she waved around one of those clear plastic inserts which go into folders to contain paper documents.

I told her to go ahead.

I watched her as she slipped a piece of paper into the insert, taped shut the open side and slipped it into her bag together with a whiteboard marker.

“Wait. Lulu is that your whiteboard?”

“Yes. I can’t find mine so I made my own.”

* I hope it holds up. I think Miss Chiam means for them to write stuff on it and hold it up 

Ah my little improvisational artiste. She ad-libs when life doesn’t give her what she wants. (maybe because Number 3’s never get what they want!)

Thursday, September 08, 2016

sister night chats


I go into the girl’s room at 1.30am to turn off the air-conditioner and turn on the fan. I hear a noise. Horrors, they’re still awake. After having been put to bed hours ago.

They’re both in Lulu’s bed and are trying very hard not to giggle. I’m really not amused.

Me: What is happening, girls?

Lu: We’re talking, mama.

Jo: Ya, Lulu wanted me to sleep with her and we’re talking about stuff.

Now I’m curious. I put aside the time for the moment. Talking about what, I ask.

Lu: Oh we’re just pretending. It’s so nice to have a sister. I don’t want a sucky brother like David who drools in my bed. Go away, Mama.

Now I’m piqued. They refuse to tell me what they talked about.

But I did have something to confess to them, outright. I've thought it, but I don't think I've ever told them: Girls, I wish I had a sister.

They console me: Oh, it’s not your fault, mama. It’s Por Por’s fault. But if you had a sister, she might be called Shereen! Or Jermaine!

(They’re not always loving. Theirs is a love-hate relationship. I’d just rather not blog about the hate part. Their feet also don't look very clean...)

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

girls organise playdate

Jo had a playdate with her best friends, one afternoon between 12pm and 6pm. This is what struck me.

* Keun Min, Celina, Emma, Emilyn

* These girls planned the date, via their Whatsapp “Best Friends” chat group, for over a month or maybe more, right down to the schedule. They knew what they were going to do, in order: Lunch, bake a cake, swim, and play in between. Then as the date drew near, they reveled in counting down the days – on Whatsapp again, through messages like “10 more days, I’m so excited I can’t wait!”. The night before, one of the girls started counting down the hours. Day's outings usually happen after school; when he rushes up to me to declare "I'm going out with XX to YY, not going home with you."

* Korean lunch with sushi

* All siblings were left out, meaning Lu was left out. Lu really wanted to go, she really, really wanted to. But Jo, in what is possibly the first time she has purposefully detached herself from Lu, said sagely, “Lulu, you need to find your own friends. (I need to bold this because ... it really is a huge shift) XX’s younger sister wanted to go too, but I don’t think I’ll like it very much so I know how my friends would feel if you went”. Gulp. Lu was heartbroken. “But I don’t like my friends, mama! I don’t have good friends to make playdates with!”

* Nobody played video or computer games. Honestly, after witnessing Day’s “glazed-eyes”outings for so many years where all the boys huddle over their screens, it was a revelation to discover that the girls only took out their mobiles when they needed to refer to a Youtube video of how to use the Popin’ Cookin’ set, and to take photos. Otherwise, it was all productive, tech-free fun. 

* There was a lot of sugar. These girls really liked their sweet stuff. The baked chocolate brownie cake was sliced and each girl piled up her own piece with an assortment of whipped cream, fondant creatures, marshmallows and icing sugar. All at the same time. But at least they ate. Boys don't even eat.


* Jo's slice

Monday, September 05, 2016

popin’ cookin’

I’ve discovered something new and it’s called Popin (one P and no G) Cookin.

That’s right, Popin Cookin.

* The box cover

It’s an absolutely hideous fad which young girls are apparently into. Jo was introduced to it by her friends and she was given a pack to bring home.

Essentially it’s powered food. OK those two words make it sound a lot better than what it is because it ain't food. It’s chemical compounds in packets which are to be mixed with water and popped into a microwave, to simulate not only candies but also pizza, sushi and ramen! It's meant to be eaten! 

* The "food" comprising the different pizza components

* Mixing the food with water before blitzing in the microsave


This brings to mind the worst future shock scenarios I’ve encountered in novels where people sustain themselves on powdered nutrients, only in this case I doubt its even nutritious.

Jo and her friends made Popin Cookin pizza. The (eeew) result:


Thankfully, she ate one tiny chunk (one quarter of the yellow square at the bottom) and silently told herself never again. She said it tasted “kinda floury”.


Sunday, September 04, 2016

por por’s 70

This is a big one. Por Por is now a septuagenarian. She’s turned 70.

* Seven candles!

I wanted to do a big party for her.

There would certainly be plenty of supporters and guests, young musicians whom she had befriended and nurtured for the 20 years when she managed the orchestra. One of them very excitedly told me a few months ago that he was on standby and would be all ready to mobilize a troop of fellow orchestra members to organize a big bash for Mrs Wong.

Another reason why I wanted to do one is because I’ve been working on a book about funerals and I think it’s quite stupid for people to say all sorts of nice things only when a person is dead. It should be said while the person is alive and healthy, isn’t it? Then they could hear and even give a toast to their own “eulogy”!

But no. She is dead set against a party.

The thought of being in the limelight, for both her and my father, is very uncomfortable indeed. They vehemently protest: We’re inconveniencing people, we don’t want to take centrestage, and my father incredibly says – I don’t want to remember my age. (this when I threaten to organize a 80th birthday bash for him next year)

OK… one has to respect one’s elders. (Although I really wonder how much they would actually mind if I were to spring a surprise)

So Por Por has lots of mini eating celebrations with different groups of people. Her colleagues, her family, us.

* The family (her generation)

* Birthday buns

* The family (our generation) at Canton Paradise

* Her descendents at home

* Helper Jai, who is very much a part of the family

This year is special, though, even though we don't have a big bash. She might possibly have gotten the biggest present of all, one she has been waiting over a decade for.

* With Phoebe, who gave the sunflowers to Por Por

Thursday, September 01, 2016

teacher’s day

I ask a teacher in the kid’s school: What do you like to get on Teacher’s Day?

He told me, “Cards with meaningful words in it.”

Not gifts and such?

No, he said, very diplomatically with a smile. Sometimes, he said, we get repeat gifts and we don’t know what to do with it.

He didn’t have to say, but I have seen what Mum gets. It’s all really, really sweet, but she sometimes struggles to utilize her stuff. This year she gets a ton of cookies for some reason. She doesn’t like cookies.

So at my advice, Jo carefully types and prints out personal letters to her teachers.

At first she didn’t know what to say, and three words - Happy Teacher’s Day – is hardly meaningful. I give her guiding questions which miraculously do the trick in helping her to make out very sweet detailed letters:
  1. How long has this teacher been teaching you?
  2. Do you remember the first time you met this teacher? How did you feel then? How about now? (When I first saw you, I remember I felt scared because you... But now I feel that you are...)
  3. What do you like best about this teacher? (I like it when you….or I like you because you are patient/understanding/caring/kind/encouraging etc)
  4. Any specific example which you remember of what this teacher did with or for you? (I remember when I…., you really helped me to…)
  5. Three words to describe this teacher?
  6. What do you hope to achieve because of what this teacher has taught you? (Because of what you taught me, I want to…) 

From the above, Jo came with letters like these:

Dear XXX,
I would like to wish you a happy teacher’s day! You have been teaching me for almost two years already! You know, you are one of my favourite teachers! It is because you explain things, and make sure we know what we are doing. Before we do a composition, you will show us news reports, or videos, to give us ideas on what to write. You also make us copy down the complicated tables, for example changing passive sentences to active sentences. I would like to thank you for teaching me. Happy teacher’s day!

Lulu preferred to paint small cards on A5-sized canvases, showing sunsets and houses on mountains and whatnot.

While Day, who by rights should feel the most gratitude toward the teachers who have been slogging to guide him over the past six years, did not do a thing!

It’s never too late, though, to thank them after the exams are over and he has time to sit back and reflect. Teachers don’t always have to be thanked on Teacher’s Day.