The here and now and a bit of way back then

I relived my journey to 40 and found there's so much more to say

Singapore mourns its founding Prime Minister

It has been a unique week in Singapore. Today marks the end of a week long period of mourning at the passing of Lee Kuan Yew. 

You may have heard about it in the world news and not realised the impact this will have had. Same as I would have done had I not spent the last six and half years living in Singapore.

But even after this amount of time, what do I truly know about the history of Singapore. Not much.

I have several books about Asia, of Singapore and of Lee Kuan Yew himself. They are yet to be read and sit in a pile of unopened books taller than me. 

But in this past week just reading up on the constant feed of news articles about his political achievements, his love for his wife and about the man he was has shed some light on the more recent history of Singapore.

I’m not an experienced Expat, I don’t know how it works if you move on from one country to another after a couple of years or so. How much you could or would immerse yourself in local culture and governance. I have a hard enough time keeping up with what’s happening back in the UK. There is also that notion that whilst I am absent from the UK, just how much does current politics affect me. 

When the next UK General Election comes by in May, I again won’t be there to cast my vote even though I strongly want to urge all those who have the right to vote to exercise this right to vote. I haven’t experienced life in the UK under the coalition that was formed five years ago. What exactly do I know about how well they’ve done, or not.

And so, this week, I came to realise that the privileges I have enjoyed with living in Singapore have not come about by chance, even if my being here has. But has been carefully orchestrated by one man’s vision. A vision that has been realised in less than 50 years of independence away from British rule and a failed attempt at unification with Malaysia. 

Every 9 August, Singapore’s National Day, celebrates the formation of an independent sovereign state. There’s patriotism abound, a parade, jets flying overhead and fireworks. I especially enjoy this day for the fireworks which are rehearsed every Saturday six weeks in advance. I’ve viewed this public holiday as exactly that, a public holiday that has fireworks to round it off.

It was only when Scotland was voting for independence did I learn that 50 years ago, Singapore had independence forced upon it. Independence was not what Lee Kuan Yew asked for. He campaigned for Singapore to no longer be under British colonial rule which ended in 1963 and had hoped for a successful merger with Malaysia. It was short lived and break downs in relations were attributed to racial tension. The day Lee Kuan Yew had to inform the people of Singapore about the separation from Malaysia was an incredibly sad one for him.

Perhaps this is what drove Lee Kuan Yew forward to make Singapore all that it is. From a barely noticed island with a few fishing boats, kampong housing and no clean drinking water system. Many an article describes his passion for Singapore and a better life for its people. Taking patriotism to a whole new level that he lived and breathed Singapore. That in fact he was Singapore.

His achievements are plentiful and criticised in equal measure. What works well can also be cause for frustration in another sense. How he achieved his goals along the way is sometimes up for debate. 

Granted, Singapore is a small nation with a population of five million people. Some may say it’s an easier task to govern a nation smaller than Greater London. The political party in power has been the same one since Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister with the People’s Action Party which he co-founded. That in itself is a rarity for such a modern developed democracy. 

On the day I was celebrating turning 30, Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew took over as Prime Minister from Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Kuan Yew became Minister Mentor. He has always had some influence over the governing of Singapore. A steady presence a bit like the Queen but with a more active role in how things are done.

So it’s little wonder that Singapore is grieving the loss of its founding Prime Minister, its founding father. As his body lay in state at Parliament House earlier this week, people queued for eight or more hours to file past in seconds to pay their respects. It can be joked that Singaporeans like nothing more than to queue, and I have seen long queues of people for the most ridiculous things hardly worth the effort. But on the whole, not many are keen on spending much time in the outdoors heat and humidity. I was impressed with their dedication. It was a particularly scorching few days. The government responded quickly by changing the viewing of Lee Kuan Yew lying in state to a 24 hour operation and people still queued all through the night.

It’s funny for me to have known this man’s name all my life. I never knew it before and only realised about four years ago that the Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is the fabled Lee Kuan Yew of my youth, revered for his intelligence and capability across Asia. I never made the connection because of the difference in English translation of Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese.

I remember a few years ago waiting for a friend for coffee when the staff around me were getting rather animated at someone’s impending arrival. It happened to be Lee Kuan Yew arriving for his book launch, he passed right by me with an entourage of about 20 people. He also lived around the corner from us at our previous condo in his modest house guarded 24 hours by two officers and always with a police escort when he went anywhere.

Today, the day of his funeral, you could say there was some significance in the fact that it rained heavily all morning and throughout the funeral procession. I know the Chinese interpretation of this would be to say even the heavens are crying at the passing of this great man. 

As chance would have it, we were driving by near to part of the funeral procession route. We were locked in by other vehicles and so I got out of the car to join so many others in paying their last respects to Lee Kuan Yew as his glass hearse passed by. 

  

People were calling out his name and applauding their appreciation. Afterwards at home I listened to the eulogies that were read out on the live televised broadcast. All extolling his commitment to making Singapore the best it can be.

Of course, I could never feel the depth of loss the Singaporeans are feeling. But I do feel the sombre atmosphere all the same. 

And I do feel a greater appreciation of Singapore after hearing a quote from Lee Hsien Loong as he addressed the nation last Monday, that was taken directly from his father and highlighted many times through the week.

  

 

He has no regrets but I find it sad to think he has dedicated his life to building Singapore with all the sacrifices that must have entailed. In modern politics, that kind of commitment and belief feels hard to come by. In years to come, I hope complacency doesn’t unravel the foundations already laid down. 

And so it’s only right that I look upon this city state afresh and remember that someone’s dedication gives me a place to live that is safe for me and my children, beautiful to look at with both natural and modern architecture and a lifestyle beyond what I would have known in the UK. We are only passing through for a short while so we should consider all that is good rather than focus on the quirks of this nation. I’m sure they equally would find lots of things hugely disconcerting in the UK without even watching Jeremy Kyle reruns. 

So No, you can’t buy chewing gum unless you can prove to the pharmacist you have terrible halitosis. Yes, you would get thrown into prison and caned for vandalising a train. No, you can’t always have a really good random discussion with a Singaporean. Yes, there is a lot of character to Singapore if you look beyond the glossy high rise new buildings. 

I do like living in Singapore. Not all the time. But then again I would have those days no matter where I was in the world. That’s just life. You wouldn’t go on holiday otherwise. 

This August marks SG50. Singapore’s 50th National Day. It was always going to be a huge deal. And even more so now with the passing of such an important man. 

I think Singapore is entitled to one very big celebration, albeit a poignant one too.

  

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我是中國人

In case you haven’t noticed I am Chinese. I am also British. In global Chinese circles I am known as a BBC, as in British Born Chinese. The US version is an ABC. Figure that one out. 



It’s not something I usually spend a lot of time pondering. I live my life as me. Sometimes I’m speaking Chinese, well Hakka which is the New Territories dialect my whole clan speak. Sometimes I’m speaking Cantonese. Sometimes I’m speaking Mandarin very poorly and following up with a lot of nodding and reverting back to English. Mostly I’m speaking English. Which I speak very well. It’s only contested occasionally when Husband thinks I’ve injected too many Geordie influenced elongated vowels into conversation. 


So why am I pondering this now? Well, a little belatedly because I was too busy talking about my running progress to talk about Chinese New Year a few weeks back. The new Lunar New Year began a month ago on Thursday, 19 February 2015. Signalling the end of winter and the start of spring. Of new beginnings. Of a quest for better luck, better fortune, better health for all. 


It is now the Year of the Sheep. Or is it the Year of the Ram? Or maybe’s it’s the Year of the Goat? It caused quite a bit of confusion. For sheep and goat are quite different animals are they not? I think so. But the Chinese character is the same for both. 



So every year on social media I wish everyone Gung Hey Fat Choi/Gong Xi Fa Cai. Good health and prosperity. Peace in your family and may you achieve all that you wish for. Written in both Chinese and English. And every year, I get a comment from Big Brother Li and Lil Bro expressing surprise at how ‘good’ my Chinese is. Every year. Without fail. I don’t go on about how good their English is.


Truth be told, my Chinese is not that good. It’s so basic that even #1 and 2 are surpassing me. Something I realised over the Chinese New Year holidays when #1 and 2 were able to recite a full Chinese New Year poem to me. And when #1 asked me to read a billboard poster for Goldilocks and the Three Bears written in Chinese, then proceeded to tell me the characters that he could read. I’m really impressed with what he’s picked up. #2 has the intonations spot on. They have the potential to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese and I intend to help them along with it. And whilst we’re at it, I should take the opportunity to improve my own. It’s much better than six years ago when I could hardly follow a basic conversation in Mandarin Chinese. Now I can garner the gist of most things. If they speak really slowly. And loudly.



One of the great things about living this Expat Life is that it is a truly multicultural environment for us to live in. We are amongst many nationalities, cultures and languages. For a long time #1 identified himself as the only Chinese person in our family because he could speak Mandarin Chinese. I was English because I only speak English but as he gets older, he has a growing understanding of the different nationalities around us. That different countries celebrate different traditions and at school they are encouraged to learn more about the wider world and to embrace the differences that we all bring.


And so, I love living my life as me and part of that life has had strong Chinese influences that will never leave me. Influences that will be passed onto #1, 2 and 3.  They are not inherently ‘Chinese’ influences. They just happen to be values important to my Dad, Mr Li and my Mum that I respect greatly. 



Having grown up in the UK, of course I’ve been influenced mostly by my environment. We always celebrated Chinese New Year, mid Autumn festival and some other festival of the hungry ghosts but I only remember my mum making these really yummy rice dumplings. Every festival is celebrated with food and usually it’s the food that I remember most rather than the meaning of the festival.


So it is just as well that we’re spending all this time in Singapore that is a mix of cultures. It’s rather fair of them to allocate two public holidays a year to each faith. It is whilst living in Singapore that I have learnt more about my Chinese heritage and embraced it more so than I would have done without having this experience. And it is important to celebrate what makes us different. So long as we are inclusive of this celebration with everyone around us.


I especially like how #1 and 2 are learning the history behind the celebrations and not just look forward to these festivals because we get to eat pineapple tarts and mooncakes at certain times of the year. I like how they are teaching me the stories behind the Chinese animal zodiac signs and the relevance of why certain customs are followed. 



Embracing cultural identity is important. It provides us with history and a connection to our ancestors and bridge the gap between grandparents and grandchildren. It can provide a sense of belonging too. It should not exclude us. Neither should we be mocked for not knowing much about our cultural heritage, whatever that may be. We should educate each other and share in the celebration of all festivals. 


For who isn’t happy celebrating something good?




 

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For all Mums on all days

It is Mothering Sunday or Mother’s Day today in the UK. The benefits of celebrating this occasion in Singapore when everyone else will be celebrating in May, is that you can go out for lunch without places being fully booked. Luckily for Husband, there are shops savvy enough to realise they can make good use of their stock of Mother’s Day cards twice a year.

Overall today is a Sunday like any other. #1 still has rugby practice first thing in the morning, #2 and 3 have eggs for breakfast without #1 around complaining about the smell (and yet he finds smelly farts hilarious). They all have endless appetites outside of mealtimes, require entertainment and meltdowns can happen at any time.

But they do try and remember that today is a ‘special day’. However if that special day doesn’t involve presents and surprises for them then the good behaviour can be short lived. But I do love the enthusiasm and excitement that small children adore when they are involved in a conspiracy. Even if they don’t quite understand the full meaning of that conspiracy as Husband is still leading Operation Mother’s Day Appreciation Plan.

They love the surprise presentation of cards and gifts with a flourish that elicits exclamations of joy and gratitude. The knowledge that they have made you happy. This doesn’t just extend to me on Mother’s Day but on all occasions where they share something with someone that makes the other person happy. And who doesn’t feel good when they’ve made someone else feel good. It’s part of who we are. I have a purple painting of me done by #2 as my special gift. #1 and 3 went for a more abstract take on things.

But this year, a lot more than previous years on Mother’s Day, I really miss my Mum. There’s still an eight hour time difference between us and I couldn’t wait to give her a call and hear her voice and wish her Happy Mother’s Day.

Perhaps it’s because my last trip to the UK my Mum did a lot of home cooking for us that reminded me of my youth. For what can be more comforting than your Mum’s (or Dad’s) cooking. I try to cook the same way my Mum does but it never will be as good. And whilst I have eaten in some really fabulous places and tasted food that can only be described as exquisite, nothing can really compare to dinner at my Mum’s with my Mum.

I find one of the most challenging aspects of living an expat life is the absence of family. Especially with having a family of my own without my Mum being around to guide me through the days when I didn’t know what was going on. Still don’t to be honest. Perhaps living near or around London would also mean I wouldn’t see my Mum as often as what my ‘if I wasn’t living an expat life’ imagination leads me to believe. But I would be able to call her more often without having to calculate the seven or eight hours behind. Sometimes you just want to be able to call now and not have to wait until later. As much as we have amazing stay in touch technology that has helped keep many of my relationships going without missing a beat, there’s something quite special about talking on the telephone that feels much more personal.

All I know is that I miss my Mum and now, more than ever as I get older, do I appreciate just how much she is. Just how much comfort she gives me in something so ordinary like the meals she still cooks in the same way she has done all my life. That level of consistency. Just like my Mum.

Happy Mother’s Day to all Mum’s near and far. But especially to my Mum for many reasons that keep coming to me every day.



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International Women’s Day 2015: Make It Happen

I received flowers today for International Women’s Day. Not from Husband but from Mrs Cake Pops. Quite possibly an attempt to mask the smell of sweat I was emitting from doing this morning’s 10.5km Green Corridor Run. It was really hot! Husband does on occasion buy me flowers. Usually when they are meant for other people and we forget to give them so they end up mine by default.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Make It Happen’. Such a strong, bold statement. I like it a lot. Don’t just think about it, ‘Make It Happen’. 

Despite in modern Chinese culture where the men still inherit the land, I come from a family of strong women. Perhaps it is because the men inherit the land that the women are such strong characters. My Mum and my cousin’s have made it happen by setting up their own businesses. If there’s a new skill they want to learn they go ahead and do it. If there’s a question they want an answer to, I’ve asked on their behalf, unless it’s in Chinese. They can ask it themselves. I once felt so self conscious being the interpreter for much of my family. Often too young to realise the importance of some concerns and the implications of others. But now, I realise this is the only way you are going to find out anything and make an informed decision or get anything done. 

Only by questioning things can you make changes. For if you don’t question something then how do you know it’s right? Or the only way to do things? Or how things should really be? Every time we question something, we challenge perceptions. And only by challenging perceptions can we make change happen. 

So in support of International Women’s Day, I’m going to ‘Make It Happen’. 

I’m not sure what yet. But every year when it’s International Women’s Day and we celebrate women all around the world and I think about what it means to be a woman for me, I firstly remember that I have a life of privilege.  A right to education, to vote, to be in gainful employment, to have opinions and voice them, to be with a partner of my own choosing, to be able to choose a partner of any religion, ethnicity or gender. Already I can make a lot happen. 

But I can make a lot more happen.

For myself with getting on and doing the things I’ve felt inspired to do but haven’t quite got round to. 

For others around me with giving them the support they need to ‘Make It Happen’. Encouraging them with a listening ear and as #3 says all the time, ‘You Can Do It’. Or she says ‘I Can Do It’. And then she gives herself a Well Done when she’s done it. Usually jumping in the air with two feet. 

For others not around me by wholeheartedly supporting the importance of campaigns such as Everyday Sexism, No More Page 3, He for She. By exercising my right to vote and to take notice of the wider world and the challenges faced by women in other cultures and the challenges faced by both genders. 

And whilst there is the issue of Gender Equality to address, I strongly believe that women and men have a responsiblity to themselves and each other to ‘Make It Happen’.  

Whatever that may be. 

No one else can really ‘Make It Happen’ for you.  

What will it be for you? 



 

 

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Do one thing every day that scares you

Well I’m not quite sure about doing one thing every day that scares you. I don’t think I’m built to live my life on a permanent knife edge. But I do think that every now and then you should do something that does scare you. Not that I intentionally set out to do such things.

As I get older and with the company of #1, 2 and 3, I have definitely become more risk averse. When I look back to some of the (relatively mild) escapades of my youth mostly involving a pint or two, late nights and public transport, I can now see why my Dad, Mr Li would not approve. But at the time of course I thought it was all risk free and nothing terrible was going to happen which it didn’t. But that’s not the point. Had my Dad, Mr Li had the means to go onto higher education, I think he would make an excellent Risk Assessor and the financial crisis would never have happened with him in charge.

Since becoming a parent, I am constantly on the lookout to avoid scenarios that could lead to some form of hazardous accident that ends up with a trip to A&E. Hence I am constantly voicing the dangers of certain behaviours to #1, 2 and 3 ‘just in case’ it happens. This can range from jumping off items of furniture, venturing off in random directions in public spaces to launching either themselves or blunt objects with little concern for spatial awareness.

Come to think of it, sometimes going out in public with #1, 2 and 3 is exactly like doing the one thing every day that scares you.

I am no adrenaline junkie like Nana Moon, I have never had the inclination to fling myself off a precipice with a piece of elastic as my only trusted friend. Whilst I often have wanted to skydive, I would only do it in tandem because at least someone knows what they are doing. I could never be trusted to pull the cord. I would freeze with fear. If I even was brave enough to fling myself out of the plane in the first place that is.

I say my Dad, Mr Li is the most risk averse person I know and how he can see the danger in all situations usually involving my care of #1, 2 and 3. For example I’ve mentioned before when I’ve told him either #1, 2 or 3 has started to roll/crawl/walk and after marvelling over the fact said Grandchild is rather clever, he will immediately follow it up with ‘be careful they don’t roll/crawl/walk too much and their arms/legs get tired and they headbutt/fall onto the floor’. Indeed.

But really he isn’t. How could he be when I think of how he left Hong Kong in the early 1960s to sail all the way to that far flung dot of an island called the UK by himself to set up a new life. So I like to think that he and I have a degree of bravery somewhere in us that can be drawn upon on the occasions when we feel like doing something to challenge ourselves.

What’s considered a challenge to some would hardly cause others to gently perspire and we all have those strengths and weaknesses within us. I am very good with being on land but I am no good being in or on water, on wheels or mid air without a harness. Even with a harness.

And yet, sometimes there comes a need to do something that takes you out of your comfort zone. Sometimes, it’s important to take yourself out of your comfort zone. To feel that rush of fear, doubt, adrenaline that pumps through your veins and reminds you that we are not yet done and ready to be still. We want to be challenged, experience new things and dare to take the risk. By which I mean I don’t expect you to throw your pension savings or the kid’s education fund away on some whimsical plan. That’s just reckless. And we are no longer reckless. We have pension plans.

So what could be slightly risky but not quite reckless? I certainly don’t want to get another one of THOSE telephone calls from my Dad, Mr Li and again I refer to the ALS/MND Ice Bucket Challenge. In fact, if I think about that telephone call too often I would never do anything ever again. So luckily there is no photographic evidence of anything slightly risk worthy in evidence.

Well from my previous post you heard me go on about the Men’s Health Urbanathlon event. It took place on Sunday, 1 March 2015. It’s a 14km course with nine obstacles along the way. When I signed up for it, it seemed like fun and a change from just running. Looking at the different obstacles on the screen of a small smartphone is much different to looking at the obstacles on a full size 23 inch screen.

As the weeks drew nearer to the event, the more nervous I became. The running was fine as I knew I had put in the effort for it. Managing 6 metres across parallel bars using just upper body strength, traversing across 4 inch beams of varying heights off the ground, climbing up 2 metres and reaching out for a rope just slightly beyond reach soon began to take on much bigger proportions in my mind.

I couldn’t understand why I was getting so nervous when really, if I didn’t want to do it or couldn’t do it, I didn’t have to do it. But that’s just it. I am not one to admit defeat. Are you? No, not you either.

I don’t want to not do something in the first place because I’m afraid of defeat or because it seems pointless. What kind of example would that be to #1, 2 and 3. Who we tell are capable of doing anything they choose to do. So why am I not setting them an example? Do things not only to get somewhere but because it’s fun to do and there may be no point in it other than you enjoyed it.

What you find is that when you actually come to do something that scares you, it is never as bad as what you think it is going to be. And after it is done, the sense of personal achievement does great things for your soul.

I say that now as I’m tapping this out sat on a very stable chair with feet firmly on the ground and smelling of Tiger Balm muscle rub that has been liberally applied to all aching muscles that have never had to work before in all my years. I couldn’t say I was feeling quite so sage sat on a ledge some distance up high at the pinnacle before completing the event. You’re so close you can see the Finish line. All you need to do is jump off the ledge onto a foam landing beneath you and that’s it done. So simple. But I am not one for flinging myself off a precipice of any height. Why would I? Would you? You would?

I’d covered the 14km. I had crossed the tipping plank, hauled myself across a slackline by elastic hanging ropes, tentatively traversed the balance beams, forced my way through the pain of having no upper body strength across the parallel bars, jogged 100m with 20kg weights, jumped down a rope 2 metres high, squeezed my way through four hanging tyres without wedging myself in, climbed up and over a 3 metre high truck. Was I then going to sit on that ledge until the Fire Brigade came to rescue me down? Actually, I never really thought of the perks of such a thing happening whilst I was sat up there.

I’d like to say that I managed to gather myself together and gave myself a good talking to in a Rocky-Eye-Of-The-Tiger sort of way and leapt off the ledge with style and panache. But I can’t. I sat and covered my eyes a few times with the MC helpfully encouraging the crowd to ‘jump with her after a countdown from 10’. There wasn’t much I could do. So what I think happened is that I sort of flopped off the ledge, screaming all the down and landed in a bundle on the foam mat beneath. And I survived. I have the medal to prove it. And if anyone tells my Dad, Mr Li about this then I will show him the medal that says ‘SURVIVOR’. That will definitely top the list of pointless things to do alongside tipping a bucket of ice cold water on your head. Especially at my age he will say.

But it’s precisely at my age that you should do one thing every now and then that scares you.

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