About Estella

I'm a wife and mother whose musings come from the many fascinating people, events and places I come across daily.

Going from 1 to 2: the long awaited BABY news.

Good people of the world, I have a very important announcement to make: after what seems like a lifetime in child-rearing years (9 precisely, next Australia Day) I’m going to give my singleton, Amanda, a sibling. Yes, you read right. I’ve got a bun in the oven that’s due this Christmas. It’s a boy. And yes, I’ve been teased about hogging all the public holidays – as though one can time these things.

I shared the news with my facebook friends this Monday and everyone was extremely congratulatory. After all, 9 years in anyone’s book is a long, long, Rapunzel-please-let-down-golden-hair long time. The question hovering on everyone’s lips, but which none were rude enough to ask, at least not openly, is “Is this baby the result of an accident“?

I can emphatically say No. This is very much a planned baby, one whose journey into being has been marked by way more concerns than Amanda’s (it has a lot to do with me being much older), whose very arrival has been anticipated by HRH’s clan (yes, I don’t mean family) for roughly 2 decades. HRH, who you might remember me saying is Chinese-school-educated, is a second son of a second son whose clan adhere to the tradition of giving all males a “generation name” from a typically 40 character “family poem”; a once flourishing practise that today is followed only by the most traditional of Chinese families. With HRH’s brother and male cousins all having resisted marriage, this boy is his paternal great grandfather’s only male descendant to go forth into the future, a living symbol of the clan’s continuity.

Although his English name Ethan Alexander was chosen by HRH, his Chinese name Tzetan (pronounced “Certain”) was picked out at the time of HRH’s mother’s death from bowel cancer, some 18 years ago, etched on her tombstone as a promise to perpetuate her lineage, since dying without descendants is very bad for a Chinese person. Amanda’s Chinese name is there too, but as we are a sexist, ageist and dare I say, racist, people (that’s just being honest), use of her name was optional whereas this boy’s is not. There is one other male name there but I’ve already informed HRH I’m shutting down the baby factory after this. In more ways than one, this has been a difficult pregnancy for me and even HRH agrees that my body might not be able to cope with another.

In the first 4 months, I had horrible “night sickness” and was constantly fatigued. For a meat-eater, I couldn’t stand the smell, much less taste of meat, and had terrible sleep, which left me even more run down than what I already was. At the 12 week mark, I went for the obligatory blood test and ultrasound to determine the health and development of the baby. I walked in to the doctors’ rooms with roughly a 1:300 chance of having a baby with down syndrome, I left with 1:83. I was told that this put me in the high-risk category.

Even though I knew that in no way had I contributed to those odds, I was distraught and devastated all the same. I opted to have my blood extracted (from my arm) at a cost of AUD1250 (with zero subsidy or reimbursement from my medical insurer or the government) and flown to the US for the Verifi Prenatal test that’s just been recently offered to expectant mums in Australia.

A close friend of mine on being told the news commented that, “It’s good to have money.”

I replied, “Money doesn’t change the outcome of the test. All I’m buying is information.”

I would have much rather not gone through the angst of being told my high-risk as I walked around with lead balls in the pit of my stomach for the next 3 weeks – it ended when I received a call from my doctor with results from the test. 99.9% accurate, I was told the baby is healthy, normal and well, a boy. I was so rapt at the news I quite forgot HRH’s and my desire for another girl. Yes, we are strange Chinese. Most people would think we’d want a boy but he and I actually wanted a second daughter because we are so enamoured by our first.

Throughout this pregnancy, we’ve consistently said to Amanda, “The only reason we want another child is because you’re fabulous. You’ve made us very happy just by being yourself and we want to give you someone for when we are dead and gone.”

Amanda had the mother of all melt-downs when she was first told. I was so upset by her reaction that I had to leave the room while HRH placated her. With weeks to go until D-Day, Amanda has not only come around to having a sibling, she’s actually looking forward to it. She’s already talking about the games she’ll play with her brother when he is old enough.

In my second trimester, the nausea subsided and my energy returned, but so too did my appetite with a vengeance. At this point I could out-eat even HRH who is 6ft 1 inches tall. Where he ate just the 1 Vietnamese roll, I had 3. Suddenly Australia portions were just the right size. I could wolf down a typical main meal and still have space leftover for desert. Predictably I gained weight at an alarming rate of 1 kg a week. My back began to kill me and I had to see a physiotherapist at the hospital, who kindly undid the knots in my back, kitted me out with tubi grip and taught me some exercises.

Around 26 weeks, I went for a Glucose Tolerance Test. I didn’t expect to have any problems since I guzzled 5 litres of Ribena a day while carrying Amanda and was perfectly fine. That, on top of the requisite Boston Bun for breakfast. This time around, apart from the vast quantities of food I was consuming, my diet was a lot better. The midwives I was now seeing told me that under new guidelines, I had gestational diabetes. One of the hospital’s dieticians rang me and we went over my diet. Without my realising it, I was eating enough carbs for the whole Australian army.

At 28 weeks, I looked like I was 32 weeks along. At 32 weeks, I looked like I was due. Thankfully on my new “diabetes-friendly diet” my weight, 20 kg more than when I fell pregnant, has stalled. Another mother from school, also due about the same time and in the same “no-sugar boat” as myself, and I started to go for walks after school drop off.  We formed ourselves a “Diabetes Club”, the purpose of which serves to spur us on to eat within the recommended guidelines while still allowing us to enjoy the foods we love. In the weeks since, we’ve both controlled our blood sugar while partaking in such delicious meals as Seafood TomYam soup, Kerabu Tanghoon (Peranakan Green Bean Noodle Salad), Soto Ayam ( Indonesian Chicken Soup),  Tekwan (Palembang Fish Ball Soup), Yam Woon Sen (Thai Glass Noodle Salad) and so on and so forth.

A picture of me 35 weeks pregnant.

A picture of me 35 weeks pregnant.

Now in my third trimester, my water-retention is so bad that my toes resemble sausages and my neck has all but disappeared into my puffy face and shoulders. The skin feels tight and somedays, I can’t bend any of the fingers in my right hand, which, along with the left, has been afflicted by carpal tunnel syndrome. Sleep is sort of a hit and miss affair, with me no longer needing PJs since I am 5 or more degrees warmer than everyone else. I have been sleeping on my side since 25 weeks as on my back, I simply can’t breathe. The fatigue has returned and with it, pain in the pelvis and knees.

So there we are, folks. Soon enough my parents will be here to help me through the period post-birth. Like with Amanda, I will be observing the traditional Chinese practise of “confinement”, which lasts for a whole month. During this time I will be fed a special diet, mostly consisting of copious amounts of ginger with protein, and won’t be allowed to bathe or go out of the house. Don’t fear for me: I’ve already bought myself 2 cans of Klorane dry shampoo to manage.

So if you don’t hear from me for the next couple of months, you know what I’m up to. If this is to be my last post for the year, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year! May we meet again in 2014!

 

 

 

 

The Great Gatsby: is it a story of love and lost or inevitable self-destruction?

By now everyone’s probably heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, said to  be the magnum opus of a master storyteller, based very much on his own life, which some might say was defined by a compelling need to be a success, in order to win the woman of his dreams. Made for the sixth time into a movie, this adaptation stars none other than Hollywood heavyweight Leonardo DiCaprio, himself too, like Fitzgerald, of humble origins, once a long time ago.

I think it’s instinctive for those of the middle and lower classes to cheer for the underdog, even when that underdog assumes alpha status and thus, The Great Gatsby has that timeless appeal of poor boy – Gatsby – made good; his subsequent quest for what I’d call “social validation” by the rich whose ranks he’d managed to  scheme and maneuver his way into is what the more aspirational among us can relate to. Most men I’ve observed, like to imagine themselves as him. Women like to imagine that a young, handsome fellow such as Gatsby would set out to conquer the financial world, only to sleep alone on a bed of fine Egyptian Cotton a good 5 years just for them.

Perhaps I’m too cynical for a tragic love story such as this, but I watched it 3 times, the first 2 times with Amanda and the last with HRH, to make sense of the melancholy I felt after the first time watching it. And as a writer, I was keen to see how Fitzgerald had drawn from his own life because, as we acknowledge in the business, the best told stories are the ones we know most intimately. Furthermore, I was told by an old friend that a cousin of mine (on my father’s side, estranged due to family politics) worked on the special effects for The Great Gatsby and since she’d raved about his work in the past, going so far as to send links to me with it, I decided that even if not for the sake storyline analysis, I had to see the great talent she was determined to show me.

The story is set in the 1920s, an era characterised by superficial strictures on morality and underlying excess and decadence. In it we have Gatsby, the protagonist, Daisy, his married love-interest, Tom, her blue-blooded husband, Myrtle, his mistress and Nick, Daisy’s cousin, narrator of this timeless tale. Summarily, Nick is forever scarred by enabling Gatsby’s relentless pursuit of Daisy, whose flakiness combined with duplicity, eventually costs Gatsby his life.

The story is timeless even in the year 2013 because we all still want to get ahead – now perhaps more than ever – and we all still fall in love with impossible people in ever more impossible situations. It calls to mind a poem I once studied doing English Literature in secondary school about whether it is better to love in hell than to suffer in heaven. Personally, I’m partial to the latter, but you’ve probably figured out by now I’m not the most romantic person around. I did however, so like how Gatsby woo-ed Daisy.

The third reason why The Great Gatsby is timeless is because even in the year 2013, mid November at that, men are still expected to make a go of themselves before committing to a woman. Now, definitely more than ever, with the steep price of housing and spiralling cost of living, peer pressure to live a lifestyle commensurate with one’s social standing, that’s proving to be even more impossible than finding someone suitable to fall in love with. Alpha men may settle for Beta and Gamma women – in fact, most rather prefer it that way – but women, all the way from Alpha to Epsilon want to marry Alpha men. But such is life; we struggle and strive for our 5 minutes in the sun.

At the end of my viewing with Amanda, she remarked, “It’s NOT really worth falling in love with such a person (like Daisy), is it?”

I said, “Why do you say so?”

“She didn’t even send Gatsby a flower when he died.”

“That’s why you’ve to be careful who you fall in love with. There are worse things than not receiving flowers when you’re dead.” In my mind I was thinking, things like people disappearing for donkey years and expecting you to still be in love with them. I fancy that Gatsby was not so much “the most hopeful person” that Nick ever came across or is likely to come across again in his life, but the most unrealistic one: Gatsby “felt wedded to Daisy” even though Daisy was, for all the time that he was away, wedded to someone else.

Watching the movie with HRH, I was taken aback to see he had tears in his eyes. Usually, with his inviolable sense of right and wrong (as opposed to my flexible one) he sides with the chuck-holds; after all, one most relates to the character closest to one’s self. Husbands relate to other husbands, wives to other wives. But with Tom being a compulsive cheat and born-privileged racist one to boot, HRH couldn’t help but side with Gatsby, who, when you think about it, is the very definition of a home-wrecker.

HRH exclaimed, “But what pure love he has! To love only the one person.”

I contend that Gatsby was in love with an image he had of himself  and Daisy just happened to be a means by which to manifest it.

Afterwards HRH had me find on youtube “Young and Beautiful”, the haunting theme song from The Great Gatsby by Lana Del Ray. You can click the video below to have a listen.

Having said all this, the movie is a well-crafted adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece through which we can all study human motivation and character, the intricacies of relationships and the consequences of choice. Here is the trailer if you’ve yet to catch it. And like the song accompanying the official trailer, I do agree that “Love is Blindness.”

 

Things you do when you have just one child.

A friend of mine recently postulated the reason behind my very-involved style of parenting. In case you haven’t noticed, almost every third or fourth post is about something I do or have done with Amanda. In fact, if you were to stay a week in my house – not that I’m suggesting you do for I make a bad, bad, host – you’d notice that the idiot box, inordinately small in this age of super-size everything, is relegated to a quiet section of my bedroom where it is gathering dust as I type this. That’s because with Amanda singing, dancing and trading on the inherent cuteness of her jiggly bits every night (kept nicely plump by a steady diet of gourmet cheeses, macaroons and Ben Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice cream), I have no need for, much less attention left to give, a TV.

So what does one really do with just the one child? And can it ever equal the work of having as many children as Old Mother Hubbard? Have a read and you tell me.

1) Starting in babyhood, you give her two dozen names – in place of the other children you will not be having. She has so many names, ranging from “delicious” to “sweet and sour” (you can tell I’m constantly thinking of food), that when the Maternal Child Health Nurse asks,  ”Does your child know her name?” you blink and ask, “What name?”

2) You know all your child’s measurements, starting with her APGAR score, so when that same Maternal Child Health Nurse tells you your baby has grown 1 kilo consistently since birth and is a good 68 cm and 9.5 kilos at 6 months, you decide a massive banquet is in order. Your spouse arrives home to find his wife – who usually feigns any excuse not to cook – has made enough food to feed the entire village.

3) Top of the Pops is replaced with more child-friendly tunes, composed entirely by you, looking at your baby.

4) Your spouse overhears you spouting sweet nothings and sees you staring at the baby.

5) Your spouse gets jealous of the baby. Most spouses do, but yours has put the baby on the table and suggested she be added to the dish of roast pork.

6) Because your bundle of joy (and cause for prolonged sleep-deprivation) was born on a Wednesday, you decide hereafter that all Wednesdays (if only for a whole year) will be “picture-taking day.” The following year, you decide to go one further by recording DAILY the evolution of bub’s speech. By year’s end, you not only have firm proof that she has the vocabulary of a child a year older, or 10 times a child her age, very clear speech at that, but can pose and answer questions. And yes, you still think she’s the best thing since sliced bread.

7) By 2.5 years of age, you’ve read to her so much (try 3 hours a day) that she can recite the contents of 100 books, word-for-precious-word back to you. Just for good measure, you decide to record her using your over-used camera. The sound isn’t great but at least you have something for posterity, along with 1000 photos from the first year, many of them featuring her in various states of undress.

8) Unlike other children for whom toilet-training is a breeze, yours resists every trick in the book. She even resists sitting on the toilet so pooing and peeing becomes an hour-long whole family affair with Papa holding the thrashing toddler in place and Mama reading (yet again) or singing the “Shee-shee Poo Poo” song.

9) Your baby, who’s no longer a baby, agrees to use the toilet if she can go to school. FYI, this hard-fought agreement only comes about after the principal tells her (or her back since she steadfastly avoids any discussion of her toilet habits) that only “Big girls (meaning toilet trained ones) can come to school.” Within a month of this, your baby is completely out of nappies. Hallelujah! You could kiss the ground!

10) Now that she is in kindy, your days are spent trying to get pen marks off your beloved red leather sofa and that WIP she has next to the throne – it’s a picture of a birthday cake on which she’s stuck another picture of a birthday cake.

11) One morning, all 3 bunches of car keys go missing.  Your spouse asks the toddler if she’s seen the keys but she wears an expression that says, “I no speak Englishee.” You then spend the next 45 minutes helping him turn the house upside down for said keys only to find them – wait for it, wait for it – on the shoe shelf, behind her shoes.

12) When she goes to Prep, you arrive to find her on the mat with all the other kiddies awaiting collection, but unlike them, she’s reapplying her lip gloss in anticipation of your arrival.

13) She has so many play dates that you have a diary dedicated to whose house you’ll be visiting next. Because you only live 3 or 4 blocks from Southbank, your weekends are filled with trips to the Queensland Museum, Gallery of Modern Art, Queensland Art Gallery, State Lending Library and the adjacent fake beach. By the time she’s 6, your baby, now a baby only to you, has seen all manner of earthly creatures, dinosaur bones, mummies (neither of them alive), and cost you hundreds of dollars in exhibition-entry fees.

14) You can scarcely finish celebrating one birthday when she asks what is she going to have for the next one. It’s either that or she’s pestering you to go shopping for another birthday she’s been invited to.

15) When you’re not buying presents or helping her with “Show and Tell” or cleaning up the mess from her latest experiment (they are learning Science at school), you’re taking her countless questions on everything ranging from Boy-Girl-Relationships (I told her no boyfriends until at least 30) to life after death (she’s afraid of you dying, even though you’ve told her you have no plans to for a long, long time).

16) Even when you’ve been freed of all of the above, you still have to protect her from everyone and everything. That’s because you’re now a 24/7 bodyguard. This year you’ve had to deal with death threats in the playground, stalkerama issues, other girls being mean to her…You even have to accompany her to the toilet at home and wait outside the door, in case the “monsters” in her imagination come to get her.

** Meanwhile, 8.5 years on, you still have to defend yourself against accusations of “neglect” or “inappropriate mothering” from people who a) are not mothers b) are mothers but never raised their children c) are mothers but never breast-fed or co-slept with their children d) mothers who just have a different idea of mothering to you. Oh yes, and meanwhile, you keep receiving “sweetheart letters” from total strangers the world over. Go figure that one out.

17) The baby, who is no longer a baby, now complains you are “forever tired.” It seems that you are tired almost from the moment you open your eyes in the morning until you close them at night; or in some instances at midday, when you have the house all to yourself. But since another full-day beckons, you dutifully down your vitamins, breakfast and a bottle of Chicken Essence. “Until the weekend,” you mutter to yourself. “Until the weekend.”

So do I ever worry I’ll be raising a very self-centred Little Miss? No. Quite the contrary. If you’ve ever met Amanda, you’ll know she’s a very giving sort of person; so much so that sometimes I think a bit of self-centredness would do her good. Because she’s never had to fight with siblings for her slice of the pie, she thinks that all children are as unconcerned about their possessions as she is. She doesn’t understand agenda or the games little girls play to manipulate each other. And for that reason, many of her playmates are male.

She knows she is lucky to have her father and I as parents, as we are very open-minded people. She knows we have afforded her many opportunities and spend a lot of time helping her make sense of what she sees around her. People with more than 1 child can do the same too, but obviously it will take more time, more stamina and more resources. For a long time I wasn’t convinced that I had more of any to give, that’s why I stopped at 1. That may change in the very near future. Do watch this space.

To tell or not to tell.

Intrinsic to the Australian education system is the weekly performance by children of an item known fondly as “Show and Tell.” Depending on the age of children and class size, most are rostered to stand in front of their peers for something like 5 minutes. When Amanda was in kindy, aged 4, her weekly “Show and Tell” had no designated topic; the purpose then was simply for children to get used to standing before an audience and opening their traps. As you may expect, being my child, Amanda had no difficulty doing this. Her first “public performance” was at the age of 2, unprompted, on a wooden dias of a Japanese restaurant, to which our fellow diners clapped afterwards.

As Amanda got to grade 1 and then 2, “Show and Tell” became a more structured activity. We parents were given hand-outs of topics our children had to prepare for in advance. We were to help them, if they needed help, which was almost every time. I began to suspect this “Show and Tell” to be an means by which parent-involvement in the upbringing of a child is gauged, if not why else was I – by no means an enthusiastic cook – spending the better part of a morning making Chinese pork jerky for 25 seven year olds, just so Amanda could talk about “Malaysian Food” for 5 minutes? You can click on this link to have a look at the recipe I used.

When Amanda, aged 8, entered grade 3 at the beginning of this year, “Show and Tell” became “The News”; but the basic premise remained the same – the child still had to present something to his or her classmates in the allotted time. In this new school of hers, children are free to choose what they want to talk about. This week Amanda wanted to regale her classmates with her new purchase from the newsagent across from our street, her favourite store.

“BOOOOOORRRRIIING!” I called out with a yawn.

As Amanda’s mother, I have to be honest with her. People showing off their new crap, as they do on facebook day in and day out – ball gowns, kiddy clothes, new cars etc – bore the hell out of me. I have worked in TV before and trust me kiddo, unless it is a very slow day, “Cat rescued by fireman” – honourable though it may be of the fireman to save a distressed cat – does not make it on to the evening news. We want action, drama, a pulling of the ol’ heart-strings to make the audience to ditch their day-dreaming over stale milk.

“But I don’t have anything else to present!” Amanda said.

“Who said so?” I countered. “You could tell your classmates about tempe, a staple food of Indonesian people, which you tried last night. Since I showed you the video, you can tell them how it is made, what it tastes like. You can mention how it has kept the poor of Indonesia well-nourished. Or how about that video (of Indonesia’s poor) eating KFC from the rubbish dump? Surely that will pique everyone’s interest? Or what “Children For Sale” in India?”

Here are some of the videos I showed Amanda over dinner two nights ago. The reason tempe came up was because I had scored a fresh piece from an Indo friend; a real treat because the ones sold in stores have a bitter aftertaste that like people, comes with age.

My Indo friend tells me that the poor eating KFC from bins is a fact, not fiction.

“Yes, but that’s what you want me to present. I don’t think children are interested in any of this,” said Amanda.

And they are interested in 235 piece boxed-set of art supplies you bought from Newspower?” I said, sarcasm-toned down specially for her age. “I’m not carrying that box home once you’ve finished your presentation, you know? I’m not gonna be responsible if someone nixes it or ruins it either.”

“Fine. Fine,” she said, sounding like what most women do when forced to do something they don’t like.

When we arrived at school, I chirpily informed her Thursday and Friday teacher, Mrs D, in front of the assembled class that I had saved them all from a presentation on arts supplies.

“Instead, you will be hearing about ‘Children For Sale in India’,” I said, rubbing my now-chubby paws (due to water-retention, causing carpal tunnel syndrome) with glee.

Amanda returned from school later in the day and said, “Mrs D requests that in future we only present ‘child-friendly’ topics.”

“What was wrong with your presentation?” I asked. I thought it was better than the same-old, same-old “This is what so and so bought me”, “These are the sausages I ate on the weekend”…inane topics one and all.

She said that “Children for Sale” scared the children.”

“And it should. This is what happens to children in India, Brazil, Nepal…all the poor places in the world. They get sold into slavery and prostitution. How about eating KFC from dustbins? Didn’t they feel so lucky to not have to eat from bins?”

“I told them to imagine a bin of chicken in our classroom. No one said they’d touch it. Mrs D said we are very lucky to live in a country where we have fresh food that hasn’t been consumed by someone else. But the talk may have offended Sophie (her classmate)?”

“Why is that?”

“Sophie was born in Indonesia.”

“Then Sophie is a wuss. A big fat tofu. She may be born in Indonesia but she doesn’t know the first thing about being Indonesian; she can’t speak the language, doesn’t know the culture, much less the socio-economic situation. It’s like you being offended because someone in Melbourne (Amanda was born in Melbourne) murdered someone else. Does that make you a murderer? What’s it got to do with you?”

“I think my classmates would have preferred to hear about the arts supplies.”

“Ahhh…all big fat tofus,” I said, despondently.

Somehow I have the feeling Amanda won’t be asking me to suggest topics for “Show and Tell” from now on; which is just as well. I don’t want to be making more Chinese pork jerky.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back: when hired help pushes you too far.

Up until very recently, I thought of myself as an exemplary employer: I took on a single mother on an AUSAID scholarship who agreed to come and work for me once a fortnight. Her hourly wage, which I should have asked beforehand, but thought would be reasonable since she is a devout Christian whose kid plays with mine, was AUD32 per hour, CASH ONLY. This, I discovered not long after our arrangement began back in April, is above the normal rate  of AUD25 per hour for a house the size of mine in our area.

Notwithstanding, I thought maybe she’d bring something extra to the job like outstanding work ethic (punctuality would be nice) or an eye for the finer details (like picking up ALL things from the floor when vacuuming). After all, she wasn’t the first cleaner I’ve ever had. Since I’ve had other cleaners in the past, and rolled up my own sleeves to straighten this pad, I have a pretty good idea of what needs to be done and how long such a job will take.

It’s about now you probably wonder why I even hired a cleaner. I’ll give you two words. The first: laziness. The second: rhinitis. My nose goes all crazy on me for days after a cleaning marathon. Perhaps, the other two (as in Amanda and HRH) can create mess faster than I can clean.

Maybe my first cleaner set the bar too high for the others to follow: we met while I was living in Wanganui, New Zealand, nauseous with all-day-sickness from being pregnant with Amanda. A young grandmother, M, knew just what a house like mine needed. Asking only NZD12 per hour CASH, she would arrive on the dot to vacuum all the floors, mop the lino-ed surfaces, scrub out the shower stall, euphemistic throne and vanity, wash all the plates and pots mounting in the sink and dust and oil all wooden furniture in the hour and a half allotted to her. Afterwards, I’d fix her a cup of tea and we’d sit in my lounge for a friendly chat.

HRH’s only objection to having M clean for us was that he often saw her in Emergency: one of her sons used to routinely kick and punch her. Sometimes she brought in one of her grandchildren who was being abused by the child’s stepfather. As such, HRH saw her working for me as blurring the doctor-patient boundary. I saw ours as a very good deal.

Subsequent cleaners all did a passable job, but were no where near as efficient as M. Moving to Melbourne, I hired a Chinese lady who attended the same church as a friend of mine for AUD12 per hour CASH. The Chinese lady was newly-divorced and as such, probably had not made childcare arrangements for her daughter in time for her first clean with me. She asked to bring the child along and I acquiesce. The cleaning went well enough but there were too many times when she paused to give me “marriage advice” – extolling her situation as superior to that of a married person since she was no  longer hindered in achieving her “financial goals” as she’d gotten rid of the deadweight – ie. husband.

I allowed the Chinese lady to prattle away since I supposed she was simply venting, but decided not to hire her again when she said, “Your microwave is so cheap. Who can believe you are married to a doctor with such a cheap microwave?

My next cleaner was a friend’s sister, a university student, who was keen to work for AUD10 per hour CASH (since this was more than the Chinese restaurants, which only paid AUD7 or AUD8) but didn’t know how to do anything. I spent much of our first meeting showing her what was expected of her, what to use for each task and how to use an iron since at that point the dishes in the sink had been replaced by HRH’s crinkly work shirts. Also by then, my regular hour and a half had also morphed to an acceptable 2.5 hours.

After the friend’s sister, I did without a cleaner for a while. Amanda, then just over a year old, was napping on and off and I found I could get some tidying done while she slept. It wasn’t until we moved to Brisbane, after Darwin, Cairns and Townsville, that I decided to employ a cleaner once more. Our apartment in Brisbane wasn’t so much big as it was perpetually dusty. On my weekly visits to Paul and Tania’s up the road, I began to notice that their home was always clean and dust-free so I asked them to let me on their secret; were they hiring someone? And if so, could this person come clean for me too?

A couple of doors down from them lived 15 Indian guys, all in need of some form of work. Paul and Tania’s regular cleaner, who was an electrician in the old country, couldn’t take any more clients on, but he could pass my query along to one of the guys. Usually, I’d be hesitant to allow any male into my home, but my next cleaner, S, came with a indirect recommendation (for safety that is) from Paul and Tania’s cleaner, who I’d never met, but who did a good job. For AUD17 per hour CASH, S did what he was asked to do, but I felt the clean wasn’t as thorough as what Paul and Tania’s cleaner did for them. That, plus he was in the habit of leaving 10 minutes early. Hence, I used S only a couple more times before I had him swapped with another of his housemates.

My cleaner after S, R, also worked for AUD17 per hour, but was more open to instruction. With a masters in biology, R, was whiling away time post-graduation, until the Indian government offered him a job. Even though he wasn’t such a fantastic cleaner, R gave me many useful tips on the preparation of pulaos and biryanis, gleaned from his other job as a cook in an Indian restaurant, for which he was only paid AUD10 per hour.

After R came K of Nepal, who also worked for Amanda’s besties mum, Melissa. K charged AUD25 per hour CASH but brought a knowing for how to clean borne of experience to the job. Aside from showing her where I kept all the cleaning implements, I didn’t have to instruct her on what needed doing. I could sit there with my laptop at the dinner table, banging out a thousand words an hour while she went about her business.

Sadly, because K was so good, she was offered a full-time job 3 or 4 jobs in to our arrangement. To the job hunters reading this: that just goes to show you that if you do things well, someone is bound to take notice and offer you something better. K was courteous enough to call me up to inform me of the development and to my surprise, express how much she enjoyed coming to clean for me!

After K, I probably had another 1 or 2 forgettable persons come to clean, but as with M, the bar was yet again too high for them to reach. Which brings me back to my most recent cleaner. What broke this camel’s back was NOT that she routinely came late (sometimes by as much as 15 minutes) or finished early (by as much as 10 minutes) or didn’t do things without me pointing it out to her, tersely I might add (like wiping down the bathroom mirror, vanity and taps or vacuuming the staircase), or allowing some spots to go un-vacuumed, or using a broom to sweep downstairs when she could have used the vacuum in the time given to her…it was that after paying her AUD32 per hour CASH (which means she pays NO TAX on any of it), SHE OPINED she was too poorly paid for the job. She text messaged me to inform me that as of October, her hourly rate would be raised to AUD37.

I smiled to myself. Nay, actually my face broke into a Cheshire cat grin, for as you might realise by now, I’m not all strawberries and cream in the behaviour department. Certainly not when my tail has been stepped on more times than I care to recall.

My response was, “About your increase, your hourly rate is already $32 (TAX FREE!). My friend who works as anaesthetist (that’s a specialist doctor) only charges his patients $34 (which he has to pay tax on) for calls out in the dead of night. Someone offered to clean for me for AUD15 per hour (that’s less than half your rate) a month ago but I declined to take her on because I was sympathetic towards your situation (single mother on limited wage). I’m sorry but this increase is untenable. I will no longer be requiring your services.”

She apologised for having brought up the raise but the dye was already cast. The poor often say that the rich (which I am not) are out to screw them when, from observation, the opposite is more the case. Since then, we’ve run into each other a couple of times. Initially, she’d scurry away – in embarrassment perhaps – but as I’ve acted like nothing has changed between us, when everything in fact has, we can still be civilised in front of the children – which is all I really care about right now.

Teaching children about money: wages, taxes, debt and repayment.

Except for a very privileged few, household chores are part and parcel of growing up; it’s how mums and dads lighten the workload around the home and for some kids, provide that first taste of things to come many years hence in the adult workforce. So much is it a “rite of passage” that most of us can even name that first chore: mine was folding clean laundry and helping either of my sisters to wipe the dishes as they were placed on the wiring rack to dry – I started this shortly after I turned 8. HRH’s was to rub his uncle’s sore back now and again, which he never saw as a chore. He’s still rather good at giving back rubs, by the way.  At any rate, neither of us were paid for our labour and had we asked for payment, our caregivers would have most definitely have pointed to all the food we consume, as Chinese are apt to do.

Nevertheless, since we’re now living in 2013, and in the west at that – where children are all remunerated for their labour, however modestly – it seemed only right to offer Amanda money for the work she asked to do around the house in order to afford a second batch of books from the Scholastic Book Club, a programme through which schools raise funds. While HRH and I encourage reading, neither of us were particularly keen on spending another $125 on books she’d read just the once. Furthermore, there is such a thing a public library; we’ve been meaning to bring Amanda to the one in our neighbourhood but something always crops up on our weekend agenda. Be that as it may, the one in her school allows kids to return and borrow new books outside of “library day.” So as far as we parents were concerned, there was no need to buy anything, much less stuff we’d have to get rid off when we move again.

I settled on what I thought was fair pay given her age and lack of experience, a means by which to afford the Scholastic Book Club order, but not so much that it’d make her consider a long-term career in cleaning. You can laugh but I once heard of this university-aged boy who got so caught up in the money he was earning from a Western restaurant ($16 per hour excluding tips, 8 years ago) that he failed his studies 2 years in a row, necessitating his mother, who works at a fish market in Hong Kong, to go around begging for soft loans to fund yet another year’s international student school fees.

HRH, who is more “China” of the two of us, would not even entertain the idea of paying Amanda. He said, “She should help to clean for free!”

But I said, “We want her to learn about earning money. So how is she going to do that if we don’t pay her for her efforts?” Moreover, she’d treasure more the things she’s bought through her own sweat – or at least I’d hope so.

So he said to her, “Fine. For every $5 you earn, you must give me $1.”

I raised an eyebrow. So early paying “father maintenance” already? 

“Why must I give you my money?” protested Amanda, quite loudly I must add.

It’s called paying tax. Papa has to pay the Australian government tax for money earned, so you also have to pay tax to me, the Australian government in the house, for money you earn. Because you aren’t earning very much, I will only collect $1 out of every $5 from you or 20%.”

“But that’s not fair! How will I be able to afford my book club order if I have to pay tax? I have to work for that money!” she shrieked.

“You can be lazy and not work and not earn anything. Or you can work and pay some tax. Your choice. The tax you pay will go towards other things you need.”

Things like the sticks of glue she has me buy (she’s now on to her 4th stick for the year), or coloured paper for her school projects (costing $1 per piece) or the workbooks we practise Maths and English with ($8 per book). HRH and I are not calculative, especially not with Amanda, but we want her to learn about money – how hard it is to earn and why she has to manage hers. She went away harrumphing like a camel and I thought that would be the end of that, but she returned minutes later asking when she can start work.

Because I’d let go my regular cleaner a month ago, who wanted a raise after I was already paying her DOUBLE the award rate (and a good $7 more than what people pay per hour for a dwelling like mine) allowing her to come late and leave early (trust me, there’s a story in there yet to be told), there was more than enough work for Amanda to earn what she needed for the  Scholastic Book Club. She needed a couple of pointers to get the downstairs vacuumed and the bathroom and toilet cleaned, but did both jobs in under two hours, for which I paid her $10 in total. At the end of it, she was less-than-happy to give her father the $2, but she did anyway. After which she asked me for more work.

“But why?” I asked her. “Isn’t that enough for your order?”

She grabbed her dog-earred catalogue and started totalling up her order.

“How much more do you need?” I asked.

“My order comes to $65. I have a $5 voucher from the last time and $25 before I started. Now I have $33. I’m short of $32 but 2 books are what you agreed to buy for me (those are Maths and English grammar books. I refuse to pay for story books)…”

I grabbed the catalogue from her. “My order is only $19. I will use the $5 voucher towards it (because I paid the last time) so I will throw in another $14. So how much more do you need to complete your order?”

She came up with the right answer and so I said, “I’ll give you a loan for the balance. But a loan means you have to repay me.”

It’s not big money but I wanted to teach Amanda that she has to be responsible for money she borrows. Otherwise she’ll turn into one of those adults who run around scratching their heads, wondering how they can be declared bankrupt over a couple of paltry thousands.

The next day we went to submit her order. A red “NO CASH” sign greeted us on the collection box; this meant I had to place her order over the internet with a credit card and fill in the receipt number on the form instead. Since I carry a card few vendors accept (thank you hubby!), I had to borrow HRH’s Mastercard to put the order through. Understandably, when Amanda returned from school to see the money still on the table, there was some confusion on her part.

“Can I take the money back since Papa has already paid?” she asked.

“Not so fast,” I said. “Mama paid for your books using Papa’s card so that money has to be given to Papa.”

“But then now I owe 2 people!”

“No, you only owe me for the money you borrowed.”

“But I have to work for you to repay the money and I have to give this money to Papa.”

“You have to give this money to Papa because he paid for the order with his credit card so now he owes the credit card company. If not, how is he going to pay for the order?”

It’d have been so easy for me to just say, “You can have the money back as Papa has already paid for your order.” It’s after all, peanut-money to us. But I wanted her to understand the flow of debt, to not get into debt unnecessarily. 

“So I earn the money to give to you to give to Papa to give to the credit card company? But I still owe you?”

“That’s right. Because you didn’t have enough for the order in the first place. So you don’t owe Papa or the credit company, but you still owe me for the balance on that order.”

While it’s going to take plenty of concerted effort on our part for Amanda to be “financially literate”, we cannot afford for her to be blind to the consequences of rampant consumerism, which is the accumulation of debt for non-income producing assets. Put simply, if we don’t teach children to think twice about their purchases or how it is to be funded, then we run the risks of allowing them to be slaves to debt accumulated for goods long since passed their usefulness. That’s like paying for a bag of Twisties you ate a decade ago. Nonsensical, isn’t it? But that’s exactly what’s going to happen unless children are taught how to manage money.

 

Old China Meets New China.

I’ve been told, nay reminded, by many Malaysian Chinese friends that we, Malaysian Chinese, are different from China Chinese. We’re different too from Singapore Chinese, the majority in Singapore, and Indonesian Chinese, who make up less than 3% of the Indonesian population, who, unlike us Malaysian Chinese, had Chinese language and culture suppressed under Suharto. As if those are not enough distinctions between various members of what is essentially the same race, give or take the influences of our adopted countries, being a master race, the majority, a minority or in the case of Malaysian Chinese, a majority minority, I’m reminded every time I go back to Malaysia that there are another 2 categories into which we are divided: Chinese-educated and non-Chinese-educated.

Meanwhile Amanda, who was born here, announces, “I’m not really a Chinese person. I was just born into a Chinese body,” which would be blasphemy to many Malaysian Chinese, but ironically, it’s a sentiment my China Chinese friends seem to relate to.

Few seem to give as much thought to their racial identity as we, known collectively as Overseas Chinese, do. With us Overseas Chinese, being our version of Chinese is a full-time vocation, an uninterrupted show of filial-piety to long-dead ancestors, a badge by which we distinguish ourselves from the other races we’re born amongst and raised to adulthood with. China Chinese don’t need prove their Chinese-ness. They just are, regardless of purity of bloodlines, cultural-adherence or linguistic-proficiency, Chinese.

Maybe it’s because they don’t expect me to be able to speak Mandarin, much less insist on doing so all the time, that they are effusive of what my fellow Malaysian Chinese consider to be rather atrocious Mandarin. Then again, I suppose it’s where you set the bar. HRH, himself a fluent Mandarin speaker thanks to 12 years of Chinese school, says I sound like a Westerner speaking Mandarin.

“Would you rather I not speak Mandarin then?” I ask him. “If Mandarin is all you speak, I’m sure you’d rather I sound bizarre than not make an attempt to communicate with you at all.”

Perhaps, one can only improve through practise, and practise is nigh impossible if you are overly self-concsious. Furthermore, it should be noted that those who point out your inadequacies, have inadequacies of their own. All those Malaysian Chinese who moan about my Mandarin for instance, only speak mangled English or market Malay at best. But as I said, what I’ve found among China Chinese is a complete lack of justification for who they are. They simply are Chinese. For instance, due to Mao, they cannot understand why anyone would follow the orders of an Emperor.

“The Emperor used to be God incarnate. You did whatever he asked or else you and your kin would be put to death,” I say, explaining why 500 nobles of the Ming court would agree to accompany the legendary princess Hang Li Po to Malacca, in what was, one would assume, a one-way journey to an alien land.

How do I know this? Because it’s what Malaysian history books I grew up reading told me; it’s what learned elders say when expounding the Confucian principles underpinning our practise of filial-piety: children obey parents, parents obey rulers, rulers obey Emperor. Even without an Emperor, children still have to obey parents and parents still have to obey the law for there to be a well-run state.

Have you ever heard of the Er Ya?” I ask them.

Most shake their head; one or two have heard of it but can’t say for sure they know what it is about. If you must know, these China Mamas are all university-educated, some with multiple degrees.

“Have you ever wondered why we Chinese do the things we do? Why our relatives have the individual titles they do? What defines our relationship with them?”

Few may have heard of Er Ya, but it is the oldest surviving Chinese encyclopaedia known, from which we – especially Overseas Chinese – unknowingly draw guidance for our personal conduct from. So yes, I may be a bastardised non-Chinese-educated Chinese, whose Mandarin sounds decidedly phelgm-free, whose Cantonese is only slightly better, but there’s a core of me that’s undeniably Chinese.

But why should I have to justify any of this? Am I any less Chinese if, like my China Chinese mates, I don’t? Must I have a PHD in Mandarin and be able to recite all the classics from memory to be deserving of the race identified on my birth certificate? Or am I not just what it says I am?

Recently I’ve taken to identifying myself not as Chinese, not as Peranakan, but as a dinosaur. “Yes, you better believe it. I’m a jurassic creature,” I joke, before sharing with them the news that China’s top brass has visited Malacca to observe ancient Chinese culture in practise, conserved ironically by the Peranakan, descendants of the first Chinese settlers to the Malayan Peninsula.

I often feel that we modern-day Malaysian Chinese are the result of an unintended social experiment into cultural transplantation. The reason our forefathers’ culture has survived the competing foreign influences of our adopted homeland is because we cleave to it with a ferocity not shown by the Chinese communities in neighbouring lands. It is this that often puts us at odds with the Malays, because in order for us to defend our culture, we’ve had to reject all others. This of course precludes any meaningful integration. Having said that, we already know this. If not, why the on-going debate about what it means to be Chinese?

 

Inhabitants of border-town: caught between generation X and Y.

Before I went to Melbourne, I came across this article call Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy. Even without reading it, I knew the reasons why Generation Y Yuppies are unhappy: they’re spoon-fed softies who expect to have the wealth and fame of…name whoever you want…minus the years of toil that person has endured to be who he or she is. After reading Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy, I was even more convinced that this is the case. The only question I had, as a 78 baby, was whether I was Generation Y Yuppy (in which case, I retract my less than flattering earlier statement about Generation Y Yuppies) or a Generation X Yuppy (which no one writes about because we are generally well-adjusted, if not particularly exciting, members of society).

Let’s face it: no one is going to dedicate virtual or real pages to you if you pay your taxes, stay within the defined limits of the law, produce the national average of children and have a retirement plan in place. Lawmakers, sociologists, journalists, even your fellow bloggers, are only interested if you are creating a ruckus about essentially nothing, spending your inheritance to sustain the entire economy, and not keeping up your end of the national repopulation plan. Hence the endless yarns about Generation Y Yuppies.

So being born on the border between X and Y, where do I fall? Many of my friends – coincidentally all border-town inhabitants – have asked themselves the same thing.

“But I’ve always been responsible,” insisted one. “I took the first job that came along.”

“I’ve never thought of unicorns,” said I, in reference to how unrealistic some Generation Y Yuppy aspirations are; although there was a time when I harboured a desire for Pegasus-type achievements. That’s the border-line influence I suppose.

Then of course came reality, followed by a crash down to earth. I can’t say that I dream of anything more than a overflowing bank account anymore. The Generation X Yuppy in me has come to a begrudging acceptance that bills are paid with money and not unrealised potential or good feelings inspired by something that may or may not materialise with plenty of hard slog. Unlike most Generation X-ers, I’m not waiting for Boomers to shove off so I can take their place. I can’t speak for the other X-ers, but I certainly have nothing to gain from them vacating their perch at the top of the resource tree: I have not asked or taken a dime from my parents since graduation and leave it to their discretion to do what they want with what they have. It’s after all their money. Thus my own advice and concerns for my daughter, a Millennium Yuppie.

“You can sing, paint and collage all you want but just make sure you have a proper day job,” I often tell her. “Mama and Papa are not going to give you anything more than love and a good education.” That’s also to keep away the would-be gold-diggers – there’s too many of those around.

The mistake Boomers made with their Generation Y offspring is they imbued them with this sense that they can achieve anything when in reality, they can achieve anything with untold amounts of luck (which is God-given), talent (also God-given), plenty of blood, sweat and tears. Boomers also neglected to teach their Generation Y offspring anything about money.

If my Beijing friend is to believed, Generation X and Generation Y yuppies are the same the world over. You can tell what generation a person belongs to simply by observing his or her spending.

Those born in the 70s are used to saving a large part of their wagesThose born in the 80s, like my sister, don’t save anything,” she said. “Those born in the 90s are worse. They take out loans for trifling things like mobile phones. Can you imagine taking out a loan for a mobile phone?” she asked.

With just a trace of Generation Y Yuppie about me, I might have seen the value of  buying by instalment in my younger days, but I have since become the 35 year old that prefers cash purchases, recalling the frequent exhortations of parents to refrain from buying one’s way into debt. Moreover, I was taught that the fastest way to lose a friend is to ask for a loan, which would inevitably happen if I were to stay on the spending path. Then there are also reasons besides lost of friendship and financial insolvency for not doing so.

I remember reading about this boy in China who sold his kidneys to buy an Ipad and an Iphone,” I said to my Beijing friend. “He probably now realises that fancy electronics are a poor exchange for 2 good kidneys.”

“That’s sad but the desire for nice things is driving young people to do all sorts of things.”

That’s not to say I don’t admire the boundless self-belief Generation Y Yuppies have for themselves. While the rest of us are stuck in some less-than-ideal version of ourselves, Generation Y Yuppies morph Machiavellian-like into whatever suits their purposes. Being a border-town inhabitant, with a strong leaning towards the X, I see more hurdles to the transformation than benefits to be gained from such a soul-altering undertaking. Accordingly, even the grandest of my aspirations are pygmies beside that of the typical Generation Y Yuppy. Even then, they aren’t things I go about declaring to the whole wide world. I have that Generation X tendency of playing it safe by saying nothing – that way, whether I succeed or fail, no one is to know. There is of course, another reason for this:

When I was in my early 20s, a colleague further up the Generation X tree than I am, said, “Don’t ever tell people what you want to achieve. If you do, they’ll try to stop you.”

Over the years, I’ve encountered the people I was warned of so I can fully appreciate the reasoning behind that former colleague’s advice. Meanwhile Generation Y Yuppies, perhaps luckier than I’ll ever be, have that loveable naivety that everyone is on their side and thus set about broadcasting their plans to anyone who will listen.

 

A week-long trip to marvellous Melbourne.

Okay. This post is not going to be for everyone because a) I took no photos of my week in Melbourne b) I saw only the taxman, 3 friends and a few family members c) covers mostly what returning residents to a city as marvellous as Melbourne do, when disinclined to see anyone.

Due to the many verbal sparring sessions I’ve had in leading up to my time away (I’d put it down to hormonal imbalance except one look at me will convince even the least observant person otherwise), I simply wanted and needed some time to myself to recharge my batteries. So I’m very sorry if I didn’t call you while in Melbourne. If it makes you feel any better, very few people even knew I was there.

Anyhow, HRH, Amanda and I took to the skies last Monday night, at the start of Amanda’s second week of school holidays. We arrived at the cock-crowing hour of 6am and by the time we made it to HRH’s bestie’s home in Balwyn, after first being conveyed to an off-site car rental company’s parking bay, then negotiating unfamiliar roads guided only by Google Maps on our half-dead mobile phones, it was close to 8.30am. Thoroughly jet-lagged, we had a quick breakfast with one of our gracious hosts and willed ourselves to catch-up on some much-needed shut eye. If there is anything I can say about flying budget, it’s this: don’t expect to get any sleep, especially if the person behind you is a giant whose knees keep kneading your back, but not in a good way.

I awoke mid-afternoon, showered and settled into a comfortable lump on one of the sofas with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for company. With HRH glued to his Iphone and Amanda still fast asleep, I remained utterly content in that semi-comatose position until one of hosts returned from work, and then another. We indulged in some chit chat, as old friends who’ve not seen each other in a long time do, then adjourned to the Straits Cafe in Doncaster where I managed to satisfy my long-held craving for fish head noodles. And that marked the end of day one.

On day 2, the 3 of us spent a good hour getting to the taxman’s office (yes, it does take forever to get anywhere in Melbourne) then another 2 hours holed up in his windowless room until our business with him was done. Leaving $2400 poorer (taxman has yet to bill us for his services but that’s the price he quoted beforehand), we made our way to Glen Waverley where we stumbled upon an ol’ haunt, The Grand Tofu, famed for Malaysian hawker fare, which with the on-going construction of the apartments above the railway station, is now housed a stone’s throw from the library along Kingsway. There, in place of the second bowl of fish head noodles I was hoping to eat (I told you I have a craving), had Penang assam laksa with extra “hae koh” (shrimp paste) as my first choice was sold out. HRH had curry noodles with 6 pieces of yong tau fu while Amanda had her regular wanton noodle soup. You can click on any of the highlighted links to see pictures and reviews of the restaurants I frequented.

We returned to our hosts’ home after that to enjoy the last of the sun’s rays. Fine weather such as what we had last Wednesday is so rare in Melbourne that when you do have it, the way to make the most of it is to do absolutely nothing – which is what we did. Changing back into my PJs, I went for a stroll around the garden and sat by the pool contemplating the many people who in one way or another, make up the fabric of my existence. Why do some irritate me more than others? Do I make extraneous allowances for those that don’t, therefore they don’t, or is there simply such a thing as an animal-knowing of incompatibility?

That night, our hosts treated us to a Thai restaurant called Jinda in Richmond where we feasted on crispy pork belly stir fried with chinese kale, green paw paw salad, fish with the traditional namjin sauce, massaman curry and shared two scrumptious desserts at the end. Walking back to their car, we came across a Thai grocer next door. Since none of us had ever been in one, or one completely dedicated to Thai food, we all went for a look see. If you love Thai food and are the lazy sort like I am, you’ll appreciate the wide variety of freshly cooked, boxed, curries, stir fries, snacks and refrigerated desserts on offer. Not only that but I spied quite a number of the road-side snacks I’d bought as a kid in Malaysia, such as fish satay and tamarind candy.

Since we were in Melbourne to essentially decompress, we spent day 3 snoozing until midday, then went to Box Hill’s Ramen King for lunch, followed by a spot of shopping at Chadstone, just to show Amanda “Australia’s biggest shopping mall.” She wasn’t as impressed as HRH and I were, nostalgic at the sight of Chaddy, an old friend that has grown into this sprawling capitalistic behemoth in our absence. We walked around pointing out the new additions to the the building to her, the way proud parents say, “Do you remember when our baby was just this high?”

That evening our host took us to  Tien Dat Vietnamese restaurant in Box Hill where we shared plates of broken rice, vermicelli salad, and crispy stir-fried noodles. As I’d picked up a jar of marinated goat’s cheese and rosemary flavoured Byron Bay-made crackers from Simon Johnson at Chaddy and HRH a 24 piece box of Lindor balls from Sweet As, we decided to have dessert in the quiet of our hosts’ home instead of competing for shouting space with the other diners there.

Day 4 was much like day 3, in that we also slept until midday; I, having risen earlier than the other two, took a break from Cloud Atlas to check out Jeff Mcmullen’s “A Life of Extremes”, which came highly recommended by one of our hosts; part travelogue, part memoir of a life lived out documenting many of this centuries’ worst wars, A Life of Extremes will make even the most restless first world dweller thankful for the relative peace and affluence we enjoy here. It is a read that will open your eyes to what it means to live and be alive like no other. Flipping through it’s pages, I was grateful to my maker not to have been born a South American or African child soldier, or any soldier for that matter, as a horrific death is almost a certainty in many of the encounters cited.

When the other two cared to join me after their shower, we went to Springvale for lunch. HRH and Amanda, hankering after mud crab, had that sea meat Melbourne is so well-known for, braised with noodles at an establishment named Hue Hue, where it’s currently going for $26 per pound. Meanwhile I walked to the neighbouring market and back, where I picked up a roast pork roll and a undiluted glass of freshly pressed sugarcane juice laced with tangy kumquats for a tiny $11. In the evening, we drove over to my brother’s place to sort out some stuff and take him and his wife to dinner.

Endeavouring to show Amanda what Papa and Mama got up to before we had her, back in the days when the two of us called Melbourne home, HRH ferried us to Kansai in Huntingdale, an old favourite, only to find the shop no longer there. So I got my first choice, which was a visit to another old favourite, an unpretentious little Thai place in Springvale called Papaya Pog Pog where we had 2 plates of fragrant crab fried rice, tolerably hot Thai paw paw salad, fermented crab Lao paw paw salad and thai chicken mince salad.

A word of warning: if you like 5 star establishments or silver service, most of the diners in Springvale will not be for you. Spingvale is one of those what-you-see-is-what-you-get type suburbs. Food is cheap for the simple reason that eateries are typically no-frills affairs. Having said that, produce used is fresh and of good quality, which is what I’d prefer to zen-out establishments featuring over-priced “Asian-inspired”, bastardised fare any given day. But that’s just me. You can’t eat the wallpaper anyway.

On day 5 we had to pull ourselves out of bed a little earlier as we had a date with HRH’s cousin, who lives in the same suburb as our hosts’ but 10 minutes by car away. It was good to see that he had relocated from Brisbane to Melbourne successfully and is by all accounts, very happy there. After a cup of tea or two at his place, we all left for Papa Rich, a franchise familiar to all Malaysians, synonymous with upmarket Kopitiam (coffee shop) fare. I suppose that for all our oft-proclaimed desires that society be flat and everyone equal, everyone wishes for a rich Papa, hence the popularity of the chain.

At the urging of HRH’s cousin’s wife, I tried their biryani and ayam masak merak set, which was surprisingly authentic. HRH had their nasi lemak, which he too was only too pleased with to extol the virtues of, and Amanda a couple of sticks of satay and some of my biryani.

After yet more sofa-warming back at our hosts’ home, we were taken to Kenji in Camberwell for one final good feed ahead of our flight back to Perth. There we had so many delectable Japanese dishes that for me to recall them all, I wouldn’t have been paying much attention to the food. After dinner, we went home for tea and one last yakking session because who knows when we’ll get to do this again? My last visit to Melbourne was a year and a half before this. With Amanda in school, we’re restricted to the school holidays when flights are most expensive and reasonably-priced accommodation scarce.

As all good things must come to an end, we enjoyed one last breakfast with our hosts, then  retraced our steps to the car rental company, from which we were spirited away to the Tiger terminal for our flight home. FYI, even flying Tiger cost $1000 + for the 3 of us. But reemerging in Perth, feeling utterly rested and refreshed, I can say it was money very well spent.

 

Lost in translation: converting from third world to first.

Most migrants I know lead double lives. There’s us, bright and cheery, speaking in rose-coloured tones about things as mundane as the weather to friends in adopted homelands and there’s us, huddled together in a sombre circles, discussing some new calamity (there’s always one) to have befallen our original homelands. In the second scenario, many of us even manage to crack one or several jokes – humour often veiling contempt, frustration or even plain despair. But it’s not something we care to share with those in the first scenario  because our inner reality – fear for family far away, fear for the lands of our birth – is just too different from our outer reality of sunshine, picnics and BBQs. Perhaps, why piss on everyone’s parade?

This has gotten a friend of mine down. “All anyone wants to talk about is what they’re doing on the weekends or where they are going for holiday.”

“Isn’t that why we moved here?” I asked her. “To get away from it all?”

My most memorable conversations have been with people who’ve survived worst than the legally codified racism of Malaysia. One was with the husband of an acquaintance who survived being shot in the bum as a boy, escaping the rebel forces of Sri Lanka. His mother stood down tanks and now in her twilight years in Australia, is standing down anyone who says she has to accept her Chinese daughter-in-law. I’ve never met the woman but she makes me – who’s been labeled the yakuza of the family – look like a tame pussy cat.

Another woman I chanced to talked to many years ago when visiting a friend who’d recently delivered a baby, had swum from China to Hong Kong to be with her husband, back in the days when China and Hong Kong were two separate countries instead of one.

“There used to be a watchman guarding the  coast,” she told me in Cantonese. “We’d wait until nightfall and five of us would try to swim across at a time. If they caught you, you’d be in big trouble. They’d sent you back a long way from there. The worst part of this,” I expected her to say the swim in cold waters with an armed guard at her back, “was there was no soup to drink. Not a drop at all!”

So what’s a couple of conversations about BBQs, picnics and holidays every week? If not contemplating the fate of family left behind – inhaling heavily polluted air romantically called “haze”, or enduring chronic power outages and water cuts, or living in fear of masked bandits wielding parangs – a fate you, by virtue of having migrated to this gloriously safe and well-governed land have left behind, what is there to do otherwise?

The problem I’ve found with first generation migrants like myself is we come with too much memory. We come with an ingrained knowledge of real lack, real poverty, real hopelessness, sometimes gleaned first hand. We also come with too much logic for refuting things like the need to prop up the lazy, stupid or undeserving – a first-world conundrum that seem to bother only the most unenlightened of arm-chair activists.

To be sure, we have ample compassion for the downtrodden but to say to us, marginalised and disadvantaged means to not have the money to go to a private hospital or private school because one’s parents breeds young they cannot feed, or to expect me to be responsible for young that don’t belong to me which I have fed through my taxes, forever and ever in some cases, is like waving a red flag at a very wound up bull. The animal will charge, I warn you. Best not be in the vicinity when that happens or it will be your entrails flying everywhere.

Tellingly, my best Aussie mates are other migrants or those with enduring memories of their parents hardships settling in a new land. They appreciate the difficulty of acquiring English as an adult (not that I’ve ever had that problem, as you can see), or adapting to the myriad of peculiar customs and ways the second generation find as easy as breathing. Defying the call of those unacquainted with such emotional baggage, to lay our pasts to rest, a precious few even remember the history of their people and what drove them to seek greener pastures. But they are in the minority and are few and far between – your troubles too deep, wide and high for them to comprehend, much less juxtapose theirs against comfortably.

Which is why we should all stick to safe topics like the weather, BBQs and holidays; especially before happy hour when everyone’s too sober for murder-conspiracies in far off lands, involving peoples none is particularly inclined to know about. Which is why I showed Amanda several videos on dole bludgers yesterday (people who rob your father, I told her) lest after a privileged childhood in this blessed country, her conversation is restricted to politically-correct, gender-neutral, colourless, position-less, statements about the weather, BBQs and holidays.

That’s not to say there aren’t any dull birds where I come from. There are plenty.  When checking out the pages my friends LIKE on facebook, I was consternated, alarmed and insulted in turn to find that in a land where political, social and economical issues are rife, “Lady of Liberty”, an elderly woman who puts herself in harms way to fight for political reform has fewer fans than the bimbos who cut their faces and take off their clothes.

Maybe this is the way of the future. Maybe we’re all meant to be bright and cheery and speak only of mundane things, in case we offend anyone, which, with uncountable, cross and semi-cross interests, that could be just about anyone. Maybe. A small voice inside my head says, “I’ll be damned if anyone expects me to keep quiet.”