Saturday, September 30, 2006

Live And Let Live

Singaporeans definitely have a different way of seeing the world than we do. That might seem like stating the obvious, but in lots of different ways their culture has fleshed itself out with little quirks and traits that are just somehow…different.
Perhaps I should point out that the fact that there is such a strong sense of being Singaporean – a palpable national pride which drives the people here in a common direction and sees them striving to meet the same basic goals – is remarkable because they are a mix of several vastly different backgrounds and different cultures, all living closely together on this tiny piece of land and sharing a range of different religions. Where else would you find Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and any other number of religions all living together so peacefully, successfully, and frankly thriving in a way which is the serious envy of much of the developed world?
Here’s a classic example: this week there are three major religious celebrations taking place: The Chinese Harvest Moon Festival, Ramadan, and Deepavali. That means that Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jain, Sikh and Buddhists are all having a good time doing their thing simultaneously. All three festivals being celebrated and enjoyed around the island with no fights, no protests, no marches or religious fundamentalism stirring up problems. In fact in true Singaporean style the locals are having fun and making a tidy profit at the same time by selling moon cakes, fireworks and incense.
The first of these festivals to start – on October 6 this year - was the Chinese Harvest Moon Festival. All over the city delicious moon cakes with a detailed picture of the lotus blossom embossed into the delicate pastry are being sold. In China and throughout many Asian countries people celebrate the Harvest Moon on the 15th day of the eighth month of their lunar calendar. The Moon Festival is a day of family reunions similar to the American Thanksgiving. Chinese people believe that on that day, the moon is the roundest and brightest signaling a time of completeness and abundance. During the Festival, children are allowed to stay up past midnight, parading with multi-colored lanterns at night and families take to the streets or city parks to moon-gaze.
Deepavali (also known as Diwali) is a major Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist festival/celebration and lasts for five days. Known as the "Festival of Lights," it symbolises the victory of good over evil, and lamps are lit as a sign of celebration and hope for mankind. Celebrations focus on lights and lamps. Fireworks are associated with the festival in some regions.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. It is during this month that Muslims observe the Fast of Ramadan. Lasting for the entire month, Muslims fast during the daylight hours and in the evening eat small meals and visit with friends and family. It's a time of worship and contemplation and a time to strengthen family and community ties.
As an outsider to all of these events, they are merely a colourful addition to our lives that we can watch and learn from and which the locals are more than happy to share with us. This morning as I was waiting to catch a taxi back from a park we had visited, we walked past a brightly painted Hindu temple adorned with figures of animals and deities. The place was full and we paused to watch the faithful, barefoot and dressed in their finest saris, lighting incense and offering wreaths of bright yellow chrysanthemums to the various demi-gods depicted inside. Chubby priests in half-togas were chanting prayers for the faithful and burning sheets of paper on which prayers are written in the various shrines inside the temple. The smell of incense hung thickly in the air and the atmosphere was busy with a bubbling of chatter and well wishings, a million light years from the few hushed Christian services I have attended in my life. Out the back a large extended family covering what must have been four generations were cooling off in the shade , fanning themselves to cool off. As we walked past – three pink-cheeked whiteys and fairly obviously ex-pats – they waved and greeted us enthusiastically, smiling at the boys and happy to enjoy a pleasant word on a sunny day. We couldn’t have been more different but to them it didn’t matter – and that’s what seems to characterise the national culture here. Tolerance and acceptance has led to the freedom to enjoy and express personal religious beliefs without the urge to become defensive or aggressive.
The government plays an active role in keeping the peace. Cults are expressly forbidden under Singaporean law, and apparently near the top of the back list are the Scientologists. So at least we won’t have to put up with Tom Cruise and his stick insect of a wife calling in!

Note: I have shamelessly stolen the information about the religious festivals from various places on the internet. However as I learnt during my days working as an editor for a huge multi-national publisher: To steal from one is plagiarism, to steal from many is research!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Bombs Away

My god, would somebody please tell me want it is about Singaporeans and leaf blowers?! I hate those machines and they have become the bane of my life. Our living room and kitchen look out over some historic properties, three large “black and white” colonial houses set in large private gardens. The view is lovely and green and private, and actually one of the main reasons we chose this apartment. The downside to living anywhere near a piece of grass on this island however is that some guy gets paid to haul out a noisy leaf blower and blast every…single…leaf off said grassy patch every single bloody day. Take it from me, it takes a long time and the noise they make is enough to drive you crazy. If labour is that cheap, for goodness sake employ two guys with rakes and give us all some peace!
On Saturday I was in Labrador Park with the kids and again, I would swear I was being stalked by leaf blowers. Maybe I should invent a name for them, Blawkers. It’s probably because we are always at the parks early – Holger works until about 1.30 on Saturdays and I like to jump in a taxi with the kids by 9am and go and explore a new park each weekend, then return home before it gets seriously hot. We don’t have a playground or a lawn for the kids to run around on so during the week they make do with the school facilities and the swimming pools, and on Saturday we go exploring.
Incidentally Labrador Park is fascinating for any of you who are interested in seeing some historical artifacts while over here. I found it in the book which has become my official Bible, titled ‘Fun Singapore’ a brilliant little work purporting to contain info on 245 places and wrapped in a shamelessly hot pink cover. Anything that useful in such frivolous packaging gets my vote.
Anyway Labrador Park has bunkers, a fort and tunnels dating from World War 2 set in a jungle-like nature reserve and bordered by the sea. From the top of the hill you look out over the water to what looks like a huge car park for ships, but is actually the Straits of Singapore and hence the world’s busiest shipping lane.
The all-time highlight for the boys which is now at the top of their list of things to do in Singapore (thanks guys, forget the S$245 we spent on a family ticket to the Zoo) was a gun/cannon measuring about five meters long which fired six-inch diameter shells that they could climb all over, turn wheels and knobs for, and generally pretend to be blowing those ships out of the water with. There were even statues of soldiers cleverly crafted to look like they were about to put live shells into the gun. Niels and Carl were in seventh heaven, yelling and making explosion noises and pretending to be shoving those shells into the barrel and screaming “FIRE!!” at the tops of their voices.
Niels just loved spinning the wheels that used to change the elevation of the gun barrel and soon had an entire storyline going about an imaginary battle. Now that he's five and a half he can get really involved in his own imaginary scenarios, and acts them out very convincingly. After a while Carl got bored with taking orders from his big brother and decided to explore the base of the gun which is a huge circular platform (this sucker used to rotate 360 degrees and weighs over five tonnes). Small metal doors concealed alcoves for the ammo to be stored in and he wandered along trying to open them while I continued my usual monologue for when we are in the bush: “don’t stand on the ant trail, don’t pick up that pile of rotting leaves and discover a millipede nest, don’t walk into the spider web because their might be a 10- kilo tarantula in there…” etc etc. All the time I’ve go my fixed, slightly crazed smile on my face that basically means “yes aren’t we all having fun you go ahead and be adventurous little boys” while I do my best not to make my kids paranoid and just let them enjoy themselves. After all, the chances of seeing a snake here are probably fairly small. You never see any warnings about them and given the regulated nature of society over here I’m sure I would have seen a sign about them or at least a warning of a stiff fine for disturbing them if there were snakes.
Carl finally found a door which would open, just when I was happily convinced that they were all locked. With an exultant “ah-ha!” he flung to door open and in a blur of scuttling slithery panic I saw what I was convinced was an eight foot diamond headed cobra shooting towards my baby’s head!!! I hadn’t realized until that moment that it is actually possible to scream without making any noise. Thankfully it doesn’t slow your reflexes one bit and I scooped him up so fast it’s amazing his shoes were still attached to his feet.
As all the blood drained from my face and I felt my heart beat what surely was it’s last desperate thump Carl looked down calmly, pointed a chubby finger and said “chi-chak”. Indeed, it was only a lizard. To be fair it was a fairly large one (o.k. about 15 cm), and completely utterly harmless. It sat there blinking in the sudden light with that look in its eyes that said “what does a lizard have to do to get some sleep around here” and then padded off vertically up the wall to curl up in a crack.
Sorry mummy chi-chak, I know how you feel.

Graffiti Blues

Isn’t it amazing how quickly kids can get up to mischief? Turn around for a moment and they are into something they shouldn’t be. On Tuesday night we went to the Hollandse School for a parent/teacher evening for Niels. This meant the boys were with a babysitter for the first time – Nancy, the Philippino woman who also cleans for us on Mondays.
All went well and they had a great time coloring in pictures, reading books, playing with Lego and who knows what else. And because it was Nancy and not their awful mother looking after them, they even went to bed and stayed there, something previously unknown in our experience. However at some stage Carl must have smuggled the felt-tip pens into his room. The next morning at breakfast I was sitting groggily at the table still 80% asleep when Holger came in (perky and chipper and wide awake of course) carrying Carl. I thought I was hallucinating – Carl looked like one of the tattooed gang members from the movie Once Were Warriors! His legs were completely covered in dark blue pen, his arms were coloured green from above the elbow down to his hands and there was a green goatee around his cheeky little smile. The “oh my god” hadn’t even left my lips before Holger asked accusingly “did you know he had pens in his room?!”
Yes honey, that would be me, the mother who gives her two year old pens to play with unsupervised in an apartment that is painted completely white.
Back in Lochem something similar once happened. I was colouring in pictures with the boys and stopped to get them drinks. I could hear them giggling and when I came back Niels had coloured both of their noses black! And I mean BLACK. All over black. They looked like two big puppies sitting there giggling, Carl going cross-eyed trying to look at his blackened snout.
Either that or frost bite victims.
Of course it is really difficult to get that ink off lily white skin like Carl’s. We put him in the shower and scrubbed him till he was pink all over but it still wouldn’t come off. Only the green goatee disappeared, he must have put that on last. Later in the day I went to the supermarket, strapping Carl into his buggy so he didn’t have to walk because it was so warm. The whole time people walking towards us would look at Carl, look at me, then look down at Carl again with an expression of “okaaaaay, definitely an amateur parent. Poor kid”. I felt like I was the one with pen on my face, the words BAD MOTHER scrawled across my forehead. When I got home I discovered that he had also covered the soles of his feet green and red. Because we hadn’t scrubbed those they were still as bright as when he’d coloured them and as he sat in his buggy with his bare feet poking straight out that’s the first thing people had seen.
Almost all of the white kids we see in Singapore are accompanied by a Philipino nanny, we really are an exception in not having one. I could just imagine what people were thinking when they saw my multi-coloured little graffiti-hound waving his feet around. The looks in their eyes said “just employ some professional help lady”.
Score: Carl 1, Mummy 0

Friday, September 15, 2006

Papa - You've Lost It!

Carl is now at that great age of two and a half where his vocabulary is expanding rapidly – at the rate of around seven new words a day I read somewhere – while his understanding of the context in which to use words and phrases is also growing. He has an insatiable curiosity about knowing the name for everything, and some days seem like an uninterrupted stream of “What’s that? What’s that? What’s that? And that?”
His pronunciation is still a bit hit and miss – Weetbix gets called ‘Beetbix’, my computer is the ‘pooter’ and marshmallows are ‘marmos’ – but some words come out perfectly formed and all grown up like ‘marmite sandwhich’, ‘school bus’ and ‘no way!’
Carl is also capable of yelling “NO NO NO NO NO!” about thirty times in succession without seeming to feel the need to breathe, an admirable feat admittedly but one for which the novelty value has long worn off for his weary parents. Even the way he squeezes his eyes shut when he yells to stop the sheer force of his words making his eyeballs pop out of his head, then slowly opens them while remaining motionless when he finally stops yelling to check that we have indeed been watching, are suitably impressed and of course accept his superior judgement, has started to get stale. But sometimes he comes out with a classic.
Last night he was sitting on the loo to have a pee before getting into the bath. Minutes passed, the conversation had wandered from what he did at preschool that morning to oohs and aaahs over the new plant in the bathroom, until finally we broached the subject nearest and dearest to any males heart – his genitals. Like any male he thinks they are the eighth wonder of the world and just to impress upon his jaded mother what a miracle they really are, he decided to start on his favourite game again: naming things.
“Whats that!” he asked in a voice filled with amazement at the sheer wonder and perfection of it all.
“Your willy” I answered, knowing full well that wishing for this to end quickly so he can pee and finally get into the bath before the water is cold is completely pointless.
“Oh. What’s that?!”
“Your balls sweetie”
“Oh. What’s that?!”
“That’s also your balls”. By now patience is wearing thin. “Come on Carl, focus!”
Carl looked up at me, maybe realising the exasperation in my voice means a complete malfunction of my patience chip is imminent.
Looking down between his legs again, he clenched his little fists and yelled: “Focus, willy!”

His father also doesn’t escape these little gems of linguistic quirkiness. As my nearest and dearest will testify, I am not my best in the morning until I have had a shower and a cup of coffee, preferably two. Niels and Carl are exactly the same (minus the coffee) so the whole breakfast and getting ready for school ritual is carried out on a knife edge as we carefully negotiate trying to get everybody ready for the day without them noticing it. Since we moved to Singpaore we are also experiencing a strange and totally foreign phenomenon in the mornings: Breakfast Papa. This may seem like a small thing to most of you but for the past eight years, hubby has either been leaving the house at 5.35 am to go the office during the week or he’s been at sea. So Breakfast Papa is an unfamiliar creature to us, particularly because he is one of those rare individuals known as a morning person. Not only does he awake BEFORE dawn, he also gets up then and is fully functional by 7am. This for me is proof that men are indeed from a different planet.
This week I was drooping over the breakfast table encouraging the kids to get ready while Holger was in the bedroom doing that guy thing of yelling “where’s my mobile, where’s my short’s, where’s my ………….(fill in the blank with any of a thousand different things that are probably sitting right where he left them) that they do. Carl looked at me over his half eaten Weetbix and asked “what’s Papa (doing).”
“Papa’s just lost it” I mumbled.
At this Carls’ eyes popped open, he jumped out of his chair and he ran down the hallway, stopped at the corner where he could see Holger in our room and yelled: “Papa - you’ve lost it!”
At least the laughing woke us all up.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I Shop Therefore I Am

Finally, I actually officially exist in some form in Singapore. I have my own Ikea store customer loyalty card. This may seem minor to you, but it’s the first thing I’ve managed to actually get my name on since we moved here. I am a shopper, here me roar.

One of the (many) weird things about living here is that because Holger is the one with the work permit, I’m seen merely as a dependent and I don't appear to have any status as an individual in my own right. Of course Singapore is a very polite society so even when they are snubbing you they do it with a smile, but everything from getting a mobile phone to opening a bank to signing on with an email provider has to be done by Holger. His permit number is sacred – mine is an afterthought to prove I’m not an illegal immigrant. As our friend Mandy said, being a white foreign woman means that you don’t really exist here. Welcome to the twilight zone.

It’s a strange feeling for someone who’s grown up and lived in western societies their whole life. I’m used to working, paying taxes, arranging everything myself. Maybe I am more acutely aware of the contrast because Holger has always travelled for his work a lot, sometimes for weeks on end, which means I have always been the one at home “holding the fort” and organising things. I’m used to getting stuff done, picking up a phone, being taken seriously. Over here, I even get called “Mrs Holger”!

When we opened our bank account – or rather Holger opened the account and I was accepted as a secondary signatory – the clerk turned to me with a polite smile (there it is again!) and asked doubtfully “and are you working in Singapore?” Of course the answer is no. So in the space for occupation she wrote in large letters “HOUSEWIFE”.

Needless to say Holger was killing himself laughing. He raised his hands in the air, looked to the sky and sighed “finally!”


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Revenge Is Sweet...But Kinda Toxic

OK, so I have returned to a more rational state after my encounter with The Mother of All Cockroaches. After making sure the culprit was really dead, I dragged the corpse out from behind the fridge, secured it in a plastic bag, then disposed of the body in the refuse chute. I'm sure the janitor will see it land in the refuse container - having looked up to see what the dull thuds were as it clanged its way down six floors - and he will shake his head and give a low whistle at the sheer scale of the disgusting beast.
Holger has thoughtfully rung twice to make sure I have calmed down. Poor guy, apparently when I called him my first words were "something terrible just happened" and he immediately assumed something had happened to one of the kids. Every parents worst nightmare and if I'd been a bit more sensible I would never have started off like that and given him such a fright. The darling has promised to look in all the scarey dark nooks and crannies where any more roaches could be hiding when he gets home and to strategically place the traps I bought from the supermarket.
In the meantime I've sprayed outside all around the doors with a Super Nuke 'Em and Kill Everything spray which promises to kill roaches for up to three months. The kids aren't allowed out onto the landing because we're always afraid that Carl will try to climb up onto the balcony railing to peer over the side and...well you can imagine the rest. So for now the only thing apart from roaches at risk from my chemical warfare is the paintwork which has bubbled alarmingly over the last hour. I really hope it doesn't peel because that would be pretty hard to explain to the landlord.
Having worked on ships all of his professional life Holger thinks it's hilarious that I am slightly phobic about roaches, and seems to be quite amused by the whole scenario and not at all phased by me finding one in the very place where we prepare our food. I have become something like the slightly mad relative who you invite over at Christmas to keep everyone entertained with their nutty behaviour.
I've been reduced to entertainment value and have only myself to blame. And one Mother of a roach.

The Devil Has Six Legs

Hi folks,
We've been living in Singapore for a month now and I thought it was time to give you all a general update.
By now we've all more or less acclimatised to the weather. In the mornings once the kids are off to school and Holger has gone to work I turn off the air co, open the windows to try and catch a breeze and the air co doesn't usually go on again until around dinner time. Of course we still feel the heat if we are outside, but then so do the locals - Holger takes a perverse pleasure in pointing out locals who are also dripping in sweat when it's really hot and humid outside - I guesss it makes him feel less of an outsider to know that we aren't the only ones finding it hot!
Carl seems to feel the heat a bit more than Niels, although with his fair colouring (just as 'strawberries and cream' as the day we arrived) it's not surprising. Niels has tanned to a deep brown all over now thanks to the hours he spends in the swimming pool and playing outside at school. Only his little bum is still white when he jumps in the shower at night!
I am trying to be healthy(er) by swimming for half an hour most days and I'm definitely fitter. On the days Carl goes to pre-school on the bus with Niels I'm in the pool by 7.50 which is great, just me and the birds and the sun still to come up over the trees. It's a lovely peaceful way to start the day.
We continue to be amazed by the wildlife - although there isn't that much in our central city location what we do see is fascinating. The large gardens bordering one side of our condo are a haven for all sorts of living things, not all of them cute and furry. I was heading off to catch a taxi with the boys in the weekend and by the fountain at the lobby entrance we spotted an ENORMOUS locust sunning himself. No wonder they say those things can be roasted and eaten, there must be as much protein as a KFC Hotwing on one of those suckers. It had vibrant yellow splotches on a glossy black background and the Carl especially couldn't believe what he was seeing. There are a few squirrels leaping around in the trees outside and judging by the noise at times some frogs as well. However the most infamous and numerous of Singapores wild creatures had remained thankfully absent...until today.

This morning is the first time Nancy, our new cleaner, came to work for us. She cleans for a French couple upstairs and was recommended to us by Sedu, the friendly Indian ex-police security guard at the condo next door who knows everything about everybody here. He and I usually chat while I'm waiting for the school bus in the afternoons and he is a wealth of information about everything from the best parks to visit, to the shops to stay away from to avoid being ripped off as a foreigner - graphically demonstrated by drawing his finger across his neck to illustrate how ruthless they are! He is also full of interesting tid-bits about the residents of both our condo and next door's, and gave me Nancy's phone number to arrange for her to come and work for us.
So this morning I was tidying up before she got here and had just finished when there was a knock on the back door and there she was. We met last week already to get to know each other so I told her to come in, we started chatting and because my hands were wet I grabbed the tea towel which was hanging on the oven door. Something HUGE and dark coloured flicked off the cloth, collided into my arm and then hit the ground and honest to God I saw the worlds biggest ugliest cockroach anyone has ever seen. How something that big could move so fast is beyond me but in the blink of an eye it had shot across the kitchen - narrowly avoiding Nancy's feet - and disappeared under the fridge. Of course I did what any sane person would do and SCREAMED. Nancy just looked at me and asked in her gentle calm voice "where's the bug spray?" Using the two functioning brain cells I had that hadn't seized up into panic mode I remembered a big can of industrial looking insect spray that fortuitously was in the apartment when we moved in and thrust it into her hands. She calmy set about nuking THE ROACH FROM HELL from various angles as it tried to scuttle away while I stood there ready to leap up onto the bench if it should head my way and wondering if it would be rude to just flee the property and let her deal with it.
The thing is I am not normally a squeamish person. I have kept rats and eels and Axolotyls as pets, I've patted snacks and possums and don't mind catching spiders and lizards to release them outside. But there is something so abhorrent about cockroaches - even though they don't bite or sting, just the disgusting hunchback shape of them and their scuttly crawly legs, those quivering antennae and the horror stories people love to tell about how if you squash them a million fertilised eggs will burst out and how they will be the only living things to survive a nuclear all just adds up to make them my No.1 pet hate. The devil has six legs and a shiny brown shell.
As I am writing this (at the other end of the apartment with my feet up on my chair) I can hear Nancy cleaning in the kitchen and can only hope that:
a. She doesn't think we are disgusting filthy people who live with cockroaches. After all, given the size of the bug I woudn't be surprised if someone came and painted a cross on our door with the word 'unclean' scrawled in red underneath;
and b. She doesn't think I am a complete head case.
When I rang Holger at work to tell him he thought it was funny, at least until he heard how upset I was. He reassured me that there are cockroaches everywhere in the tropics (which I know is true), that if we really were being invaded or facing a major infestation we would have seen more of them, and that of course we can expect to get the occasional one (which I know is also true). However I am a long way from seeing this as funny, especially since one of the reasons we choose this apartment is that it's fairly new at just two years old and therefore in theory cockroach free.
Anyway, I'm off to the supermarket to buy some traps and sprays and anything else I can find to kill bugs. I'll post again when I'm in a more rational state of mind.