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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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east and west

I am Singaustralian

We had a lovely Australia Day, on balance. Had a few families over for BBQ and 25% round of Cranium, and Arddun was mostly cheerful until the end when it was a battle of wills regarding bedtime (she won today). Then the skies opened and cooled our part of the world, and the smell of freshly fallen rain is comfort and delight indeed.

About 15 minutes before our first guests arrived this morning, however, I was having a small meltdown.

It’s just this: I haven’t celebrated Chinese New Year. The sadder part is, I don’t know HOW to celebrate Chinese New Year. For the last 6 years since we bought our house, we’ve hosted Chinese New Year at our home. The program usually entailed silly dress ups, a token effort at decor, a potluck which consisted mostly of non-Chinese food anyway, some atrocious lion dance ching-chong music, and the requisite cheesy group photo.

Hard enough in a small house with no baby. But this year, I looked at Arddun’s meal times and nap times, thought about juggling that along with 40+ guests, and chickened out.

So the night before Chinese New Year, we did nothing special. And the first day of Chinese New Year, we did nothing special. Ditto the second. Ditto the third. And then today, I felt I was letting myself down, and I was dooming my girl to a white-only upbringing.

What is it about having a baby that throws your family values and traditions into the spotlight? Suddenly, I want to define everything and I’m starting to panic that I haven’t gotten good habits in order and that I lack enough Chinese customs and tradition. The laughable bit, of course, is that I’m not even ‘typical’ Chinese Singaporean. I barely manage conversational mandarin, and I slip into Singlish out of nostalgia, rather than necessity. My immediate family has never been superstitious, so we’ve never bothered with many customs and practices typical of Chinese New Year preparation, as so many of these traditions stem from the worship of fortune and luck.

I am, as they call me, a kantang. A potato. Brown on the outside, white on the inside. And yet, here I am. Feeling like I’ve completely sold out.

Because I think I have.

In leaving and cleaving, I wonder if I’ve wandered too far off track and embraced too much of my new home and culture. In dutifully integrating into Australian life, I wonder if I’ve been too willing to apologise for my individuality and where I’ve come from. I’ll be straight with you – Australia, for all her multiculturalism, believes in One Australia. One culture. One identity. She is not a plural society. Her people, on the whole, are not interested in where you’ve come from and the God you believe in. Race, for instance, doesn’t usually come up in polite conversation. She is a melting pot of cultures and countries, but believes ultimately that unity is best celebrated in embracing common habits, customs, and a common language.

And I’ll tell you, it works. I’m not knocking the country I’ve come to love and now call home. I love her vast land, her sometimes devastating beauty, her people and their zany sense of humour. If anyone were to put Australia down, I think I love her enough now to feel pretty insulted and rawr about it.

All I’m saying is that there is a part of me that feels largely unacknowledged and neglected. Always. Because I’ve learnt over the 9 years to play down my roots and my past and my experience, and to focus on what is common. What is shared. What is mainstream Australian.

And so here I am, on Australia Day, trying to celebrate my new country’s anniversary while trying not to forget my roots. So that I can continue to be a beacon of light for Arddun, shining on my past and my heritage. (Pretty daunting and lonely responsibility, by the way.)

Except what did I do? I made a cob loaf dip (without the cob loaf), served up two flavours of potato chips, and a platter of sweet chilli Philadelphia cream cheese together with a small block of Camembert. This was to complement the barbeque, which consisted of sausages and rissoles and grilled eggplant, onion, and mushrooms. The only thing remotely Chinese New Yeary were the 6 mandarin oranges that Sean brought. Even then, I didn’t get organised enough to give him an ang pao.

I didn’t even give Arddun an ang pao.

Tony says I’m being too hard on myself. That there’s still lots going on with a baby who needs attention constantly; that she’s not going to remember any of this anyway, and that we have time. But I still feel awful. What kind of Chinese mother am I, who doesn’t even get organised enough to cook a reunion dinner? And yet yesterday, I felt so knackered and unwell, I slept through dinner. All the while with a sick feeling in my stomach because I didn’t get organised enough to bake fortune cookies – my one lame token effort at a Western version of Chinese culture and tradition. (But mine were going to be dipped in dark chocolate and peanuts. DIFFERENT!)

And maybe the answer is hooking up with more chinese Chinese Singaporeans. I look at my friends in Melbourne and almost envy their enclave of Singapore/Malaysian friends because at least they have a home within a home. As much as I love Aussies, sometimes it’s comforting to be with “your own people”. To finally be in your comfort zone and not have to explain yourself, or put your Australia hat on. Because that hat… sometimes, it’s exhausting. Like wearing stilettos a half-size off the whole day, every day. It fits… but not quite. And my bunny slippers are a lot more forgiving, and roomy, and comfortable, and me.

Happy Chinese New Year, my little potato

And maybe the answer is forging new roads, and new traditions. Maybe it’s not trying to emulate some version in my head that I grew up with. I’m here now, and no we don’t get 2 public holidays for Chinese New Year, and no one here exchanges ang paos, or visits each other’s homes with 2 mandarin oranges, or gets excited about new clothes, spring cleaning, and cooking for 8 hours, then eating for 8 hours. And if we can’t find the ambiance here, maybe we need to take a trip – just us three – to Sydney or somewhere, and soak it all in.

Because I want Arddun to grow up understanding that she ISN’T all white. And I want her to be fiercely proud of her blended heritage. I want her to enjoy being a little bit different, and it would break my heart if she were to grow up wishing desperately that she looked more white because she didn’t feel even a little Chinese.

I just don’t quite know how to set things up here so that we can be both Australian and Singaporean.

But I pray I never stop trying.

Pregnancy mythbusters

I was having lunch with a colleague who, like me, hails from Southeast Asia and thus has the happy conundrum of being saddled with two versions of everything. And when it comes to pregnancy superstition and “do-this-or-else…”, the East has always excelled in scaring the daylights out of poor hapless n00b moms… but the West can hold their own in this department, too.

There are heaps, HEAPS out there and I’m sure it depends on generation and upbringing, but here’s a choice pick from both my worlds.

1. Avoid soft cheeses because of the risk of listeria

Two things seem to be linked to the harbouring of listeria in soft cheeses: pasteurisation and how the cheese is ripened. White mould cheese, such as brie and camembert (yum), are surface ripened, and their near neutral PH value and high moisture content make them that extra conducive for the listeria bacteria to grow.

The thing is, Australian law likes its milk and cheese pasteurised. And listeria, like love, is all around us anyway. We are already exposed to the bacteria whether we like it or not because it’s in the environment. Yes, pregnant women are at risk – but the risk is low, especially in Australia. In 2006, only 61 cases of listeriosis were registered with the Department of Health and only 8 were cases where a mother and baby were infected. And we don’t know that soft cheese was the culprit either, since there are many ways you can get exposed to listeria

BTW, if you’re suffering from leg cramps (especially with your calf muscles), it’s likely due to a lack of calcium. And that’s far more common a symptom in pregnant women than listeria.

So get some perspective, and if you’re still wiggy about it, nuke the little buggers by having your soft cheese piping hot and runny. Yummm… 

2. Don’t bathe or wash your hair during your confinement

The logic goes that if you bathe or wash your hair during confinement, ‘wind’ will enter your body and you can get rheumatism, among other ills.

You have GOT to grow up in a Chinese household to understand the concept of “heat”, “cool” and “wind” to not look at me like I’m talking about breathing in someone else’s farts.

BTW, I’m not talking a couple of days after the birth, or even a week. Some households have the no-hairwash limit at 12 days, and the no-bath limit at 40!

Fact: if you want to be a yummy mummy, then smell like one. And let’s not even get into stating the obvious, like good personal hygiene and the reduced risk of skin and wound infection.

3. If you eat sushi, you are basically a baby killer

Okay, first of all, sushi ≠sashimi. And fat, happy, pregnant Japanese women still have sashimi because man, the fish oil is great for baby. If you believe Dr Phil, Omega 3 fats

enhance the development of the baby’s brain, improve the baby’s IQ, make the baby a better sleeper after birth, prevent premature contractions and premature labor, prevent high blood pressure during pregnancy, and act as an anti-inflammatory that prevent infection.

But yes, we also have to think about mercury levels and other contaminants. So do a bit of sleuthing and figure out which fish is safer. The rule of thumb seems to be young, fresh white fish and canned light tuna. Basically, young white fish good, big old sea-going fish bad.

As for me, because I can’t attest to the refrigeration standards of soi disant local sushi chefs, I’ve decided to avoid the raw anything – mostly because it’d be horrible to deal with pregnancy AND salmonella at the same time. But I miss it like a fat kid misses cake.

4. Don’t watch scary movies when you’re pregnant

Another Eastern gem. Basically, stay clear of horror flicks as you might scare the baby witless.

And just to prove how deeply embedded this superstition is among certain folks, apparently some Chinese horror flicks place the following disclaimer before running:

Important to NOTE: this movie is not suitable for expecting mothers.

I think the myth speaks for itself, but I just had to add this one in because the movie bit was priceless. I say this with much affection for Chinese ghost stories. They are usually funnier than they are scary. Except for Ring. That was just insiduously freaky. But then again, it was Japanese.  

BTW, Tony and I have been completely blowing this one as we’ve been catching up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the last 3 weeks. It’s our stay-home dinner date and I wouldn’t miss the excuse to snuggle up with him even for Blob.

5. Don’t eat spicy foods as you will induce premature childbirth

Pffft. My comeback to that: India and China’s populations. ‘Nuff said.

6. Ginger and liquor keep the body’s vigour

Again with the wind. And please don’t take this as evidence of my knocking the “wind” theory in Asia. It does sometimes work and besides – the food that forms part of the remedy can be SO yum.

Basically, Singapore Chinese confinement foods include lots of ginger and sesame oil to deal with excess gas, and alcohol to promote better blood circulation. I’ve actually tasted confinement food, and some of it is just sublime. Possibly because some dishes are fattening beyond belief. But I digress.

However, the bit about the liquor especially flies in the fact of Western thinking and I have to agree with my Western counterparts on this one. If you’re breastfeeding, then getting liquored up isn’t great for bub. Then again, alcohol burns up when heated in foods, so I’m not sure cooking with it is so terrible after all.

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Heaps more to talk about of course, but I’ll stop here. I’m not a nutritionist or some pregnancy guru, so check these out for yourself and form your own opinion. I wanted to do this exercise so that I could know my own mind. After this, whether I choose to comply with the myths “just in case”, or to keep the peace with the older generation for my own sanity, remains a subject entirely separate.

Why Chinese mothers are superior

Not that I believe they are, but it’s a catchy title, huh. Read this rather controversial article today with the same title, and had to really think about it before I decided to publicly “like” it on Facebook.

It wasn’t an easy read. It wasn’t even all that familiar in bits, because my mother had never been that crazy – thank you God! But the article scored gold stars with me for the following reasons.

  • The author displayed absolute guts in presenting a single version of Asian values in a very Western publication with – no doubt – a highly opinionated target audience poised to pounce and protect their way of life.
  • The author practically glorified the crazy competitive nature that seems dyed in Asian wool – and gave it a name, a face, an explanation that wasn’t centred around saving face or sadism.
  • While she sounded rather abusive and nuts in places, the author wasn’t that off the mark. She had some valid points. She wasn’t completely bonkers.

I’ve survived the Singapore educational system. It’s nothing to sneeze at and as much as I look back on some of the years and shudder, I am strangely proud to be a product of its rigour. I had my most difficult school years in Singapore. By the time I got to Uni in Australia, it was a breeze. And while I really didn’t enjoy aspects of my school life in Singapore, I learnt this much at least.

  • Life doesn’t slow down to wait for you to catch up.
    Sometimes, you just have to force yourself to learn. When it comes to learning about do-or-die, I think I’d rather learn it early over a math book, than later in a job that pays my mortgage.
  • Keen competition with others is good.
    It tells you never to be complacent. It instills humility because you know there’s always someone better, brighter, faster, more diligent. It teaches you to get over yourself after your 5 seconds of glory.
  • Everything requires hard work and perseverance.
    Even subjects you think you’re good at. The whole concept of reaching your full potential is very much the pulse of Asian upbringing. And the drum beats even stronger in Asian churches. Do your very best for God. Be a testament for Him. Laziness is sin.
  • Self-esteem and job satisfaction comes from doing it proper.
    Praise for every single non-event is empty indeed. Praise earned for a job truly well done is a prize far greater and worth striving for.

There are heinous stereotypes about Eastern and Western parenting styles in the article that the author was quick to acknowledge from the start. I’m not saying I agree with all she said. But a part of me read it, and felt proud because yeah… the work ethic that Asian families instill in their young is so invaluable. I see so many wimpy, aimless, idle, ungrateful teens today that I want to shake – hard! And give them a dose of REAL school homework and school activities so hectic, they stay out of mischief. Simplistic, but a girl’s gotta dream.

And yet, I wished the Singapore school system – in my time – didn’t force us all to be bilingual. Wasn’t so terribly pragmatic that it forced us to be doctors, accountants, engineers all. Didn’t make our local exams so difficult that MENSA students couldn’t even answer a Primary 6 math question easily. Didn’t pigeon hole us before we barely reached puberty. Didn’t litter our holidays with private tuition and extra classes. Didn’t ostracise us for wanting to attend a church camp instead of choir practice for the national finals.

But still, I look back largely with fondness. Because it was a rite of passage. And it was tough. And I survived by the grace of God and extra tuition. And made tremendous friendships. And got equipped with invaluable life skills.

I know I’m not a parent yet, and I’m still relatively new to my borrowed and Western country of residence. I don’t profess to have all the answers. But I had a chat with Tony today, and we know we want to find a happy medium between our two educational cultures for our children.

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