Archives for the month of: January, 2014

glittery horse

Yes it’s the Chinese Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival and it is celebrated across this region with bells on starting on January 31st for fifteen days. The date changes each year depending on when the second moon after the winter solstice occurs. There is something very poetic sounding about that although I’m sure any astro-physicists reading (unlikely) are putting their heads in their hands in quiet despair.

Welcome to the Year of the Horse.

Some of the decorations outside the flash department stores are all a bit bling but we decided to go into Chinatown and see the celebrations up close and personal. Aside from the crowds (oh my word!) it was a huge dose of tradition slamming into modern culture. It does take your breath away. The horses in Chinatown are cleverly wired in the air and although they look striking in the daylight…

daylight horses

…as the sun went down they are lit so cleverly and sway in the breeze and they look like they are galloping down the street.

at night

Then it was less about the poetry and more about the celebration in Chinatown and it was good fun.

chinese lanterns

everything red

new year barrels

I was also told that I was born in the unluckiest year of the century so far. When a friend of mine – also born in the same year – married, his future wife’s family had to make more offerings at the temple to try and counterbalance the bad luck his birth year would bring. So there you go. The jury is out whether that explains a lot or proves it is nonsense.

There’s a lot of red in these photos and the condo here is covered with red banners and lanterns and when the kids asked, it was time to find out. Here, as always, is my version of the myth.

This time it is written for Jacob, because he likes stories.

Once upon a time there was a fishing village in China that was surrounded on one side by a fierce sea and on the other, by a huge mountain. Every year, on the second moon of the winter solstice a terrifying monster, Nian, would come to the village and destroy their crops, take their hard earned fish and steal their children. Every year, without exception he would come and he was too strong to fight; too terrifying to even look at. He had the head of a lion and the body of a bull and he was so big that even the strongest of the villagers cowered in fear. On the eve of Spring, the villager would hurriedly pack their belongings and try to find a safe place to hide. They were never sure if he would come from the mountains or appear suddenly from the sea.

One year, as people hurriedly packed and panicked, an old monk called Hongjun Laozu came to the village. But no one had the time to offer him food to eat or a place to rest. “We must hurry!” they said as they pushed past him. Eventually an old woman took pity on the monk and stopped her packing and helped the monk to rest. As he sat there he chuckled to himself and said to the old woman “Why are they running from old Nian?” They should be celebrating the New Year”. And so he told the old woman how to fight Nian. The old woman sat next to the monk and they both enjoyed their meal with all the villagers shaking their heads in disbelief.

That night, the villagers watched Nian come down the mountain and approach the house of the old woman. Suddenly, red lanterns lighted up the house until it looked like it was on fire and the loud crack of firecrackers could be heard across the sea. Nian reared up in fear. As the lanterns burnt the sky red Nian fled to the mountains. As the villagers came back, the monk told them that Nian feared three things – the colour red, fire and noise. Every year since, to keep Nian away, each family lights red lanterns and sets off firecrackers.

There is so much more to say about the Spring Festival – about the ritual spring cleaning that is embraced across much of this part of Asia, about the traditions for each of the fifteen days and about how in another version of the myth it was actually the fact that Honjun Laozu was wearing red underpants – that he flashed at Nian – that scared him away. But it is late and I still have to do my own spring cleaning before all the mops and brooms must be put aside on New Year’s Day. You must not sweep away your good luck as the New Year dawns.

(Three days left, I’d better get a wriggle on).

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Yes, it’s the post that answers the questions that I’m most frequently asked – who have you met? Have you found it easy to make friends? Are expats dreadful?

What are they like indeed? The worst was the Dutch man who, less than 48 hours after spending a joint family day together hiking, said ‘sorry, do I know you?

Oh we have met some revolting people but also some fabulous people we will know all our lives.

Last year, the artist Grayson Perry wrote a BAFTA winning documentary about the class system in the UK. What was particularly interesting was his idea that you can break class down into ‘tribes’. And each tribe likes to stay within its perimeters. The upper middle class is based upon intellectual snobbery, unhinged financial values and a desire for social superiority against your neighbour.

A lot like the expats then.

Here are my worst and best.

The most common excuse I have heard to justify rude behaviour is from the long term expats. They seem to think that you get emotionally bruised by making friends and having them constantly leave you to go home. Apparently it makes you very wary of ‘giving’ yourself to new people.

#1 The Lifer

Lifer “How long have you been in Singapore?
Me “About 2 months or so.
Lifer (laughing) “Oh God, I just can’t handhold somebody else that is new in town.
Me “I’m 44 and really don’t need you to hold my hand.
Lifer (now talking to her equally manicured friend) “Don’t you just wish people would have a sign telling you how long they’ve been here?”.
Me “Do you go to the school coffee mornings?”
Lifer “Yes, are you going to go? It’s a great way for you to listen to us talk and find out about Singapore.
Me “No”.

#2 L’Oreal – because I’m totally worth it.

On being introduced L’Oreal (fully decked out in tennis gear and diamonds) she turned to me and said,

L’Oreal “Do you belong to the British Association and do you play tennis?”
Me “I don’t play tennis and am not sure yet about joining the other.”
L’Oreal didn’t reply, she just turned on her (very white) tennis shoe heel and walked away. To her back I called out “I think I’m pretty decided now”

#3 The Do-Gooders

Do-Gooder “I’m collecting pencils to take to an orphanage charity in India I’m going to visit”
Me” Oh ok, do the orphanage need just pencils or are you collecting other things for them?”
Do-Gooder (ignoring me) “Me and Yan are going to take Hansel and Gretel there so they can see their little faces light up when we give them the pencils?”
Me (slightly persistant) “But do they need 3000 pencils? Have you TALKED to them?”

I was dismissed at this point, probably quite rightly as I think I was getting a bit punchy. I did have to laugh into my hand though when they reappeared after the holidays and marched into the school fully resplendent in all their new indian floating silks….

Nice aren’t they? But for every person you meet that makes you want to start walking and not stop you meet the people that you hold very dear.

#1 The Holiday Romance

We met Sharon and Eric waiting for a minibus to take us to the jetty in Malaysia to visit an island for a few days. Sharon is Singaporean, educated in the UK and now lives in the middle of the US. She has the poshest English accent I have ever heard! She and Eric are full of humour, wit and fun. We propped up the beach bar while the kids played wildly with the lovely staff at Rimba and I don’t think any of us stopped laughing.

beachcombers rimba

#2 Kids!

We walked passed Adam and Dimity on our way to our hotel room in Penang last Christmas. Millie took one look at their daughter and a friendship was born that was so immediate, and so fluid it still makes me well up. For the four days we were in Penang with them, Millie and Darcy were inseparable and so we got to know Adam and Dee and had one of the best holidays. We kept in touch and saw them again this Christmas in Singapore for a fabulous 2 days. Millie and Darcy needed no introduction.

The Real Deal #3

When you are finding your way in a new country when you make a real friend it is an unbelievably good feeling. Liz and Paul were our surrogate family over Christmas and we have had (sans kids) sunk many a frozen margherita with them. Liz also told me the most important fact about living in Singapore. She told me that when you buy a chicken here they still have their heads and feet attached. They cleverly fold them in – designed to give you a heart attack every time.

Kim and Bill have lived in Singapore for a long time. Kim is as happy floating elegantly around the malls on Orchard Road as she is wandering around the supermarket with me. When we met on a sort-of-husbands-work-social we got halfway through our 2nd drink when Kim announced she was taking her heels off and putting her flip flops back on. Our last afternoon out involved going to a park by the canal and a massive monsoon drain. It was empty as not many kids seem to go the park (a different post!) and nearly every bench was taken up with construction workers sleeping. The kids had a ball with Kim, her daughter and the fat dog and we both took a picnic. Out of Kim’s basket she pulled a chilled bottle of wine – enough said!

Kim and Liz, I couldn’t do this without you.

Well here we are in 2014. Hello to you and goodbye to 2013; it was quite a year.

For us 2013 started on a plane on our first trip to Singapore as a family. Ned was a complete monster on our maiden flight and I can remember thinking we would have to stay in Singapore because I’m not doing this again. By the time we moved out here in the early summer the kids and I had racked up 5 of those long haul flights and were all still speaking to each other.

2013 was a year of change; and change is good isn’t it?

This is not going to be a post about how wonderful it is to get out of your comfort zone.

We have had time on our hands to think about what makes us happy and what makes us tick and every conversation we have about where we want to be always takes us back to the same place; and that place is home.

What I’ve learnt in 2013 is that home for me is a much wider space than the four walls that keep the four of us safe at night. For me home is a much bigger deal, in fact it’s a HUGE deal. My dad often says we have two homes as I extend my sense of home to their house as well. We are always there. I’m also lucky that many of my oldest friends live so close to my parents giving me the very best of two worlds. My parents have a welcoming home like no other. I want more than anything to create my version for our children.

My favourite thing in the world is wandering around our garden with a cup of coffee on my own making plans – things to see, friends to invite over, jobs to do. It’s a family joke that no plant stays in the same place in the garden as over time you see how the light filters and the shadows fall, and the first place is never quite the right place. When we moved into our house in Kent it was rundown beyond belief. It was filthy and unloved. The garden was as diseased as the house and it took me the four years we lived there to coax it back to life. Once I’d managed it we spent so many happy times sitting outside with our family and friends. The home I miss is full to busting. Home here in comparison is a lonely place.

set table for dinner

garden

What we have embraced instead as ex-pats is a culture that I don’t like (or understand) very much. An ex-pat life makes people very brittle and surprisingly fragile, although this is often masked by generally quite appalling lapses in social niceties. My experiences with ex-pat women will be a separate blog post – worth waiting for! Suffice to say here that we are all different and what makes me tick does not make the ex-pat lady tick. I don’t have much spare cash so am neither groomed nor glossy. I don’t want to eat out all the time, I don’t want to shop. I would like to do yoga, go running, hang out with my friends drinking coffee but for me these things are accessories to a busy life; they are not ‘life’.

Without this wider sense of home you end up on a constant promenade. The ex-pat life is constantly moving and shifting as everyone tries to fill the void. Much like those plants in my garden at home everyone is trying to find their right spot in the world. We have just realised that we were in our right spot all along.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made some friends for life on the Little Red Dot of Singapore and these friends make me laugh a lot but I am ready to go home now, we all are. It’s been an incredible adventure. The best gift this Christmas we have given Millie and Ned is their lack of fear of the world, and the world can seem a scary place. We have no doubts at all that Ned will travel when he’s older. He is wild; a chameleon that can fit in wherever he goes and with whoever he is with. Millie is a home body. She is adored by everyone on the condo for her chatterbox ways (never letting a language barrier deter her) but she never likes to stray like Ned. She, like me, wants to put down her roots and not be moved again. Dom has rediscovered his love of running while we have been in Singapore. He spends his quiet time looking at trail runs that he can do at home in Kent where it will be him and the odd early morning dog walker unlike in Singapore where each path is already crowded. He fuels our idea of home even further with his deep love of countryside and coast. Dom reminds us about how beautiful and blessed we are with what surrounds our home – these are the fields through the gate in our garden.

fields behind the house

And I am glad he took us on this asian road trip; he is our true adventurer. Millie summed it up in her own way ‘Singapore has been a really great long holiday, and we’re really lucky aren’t we, but I’d like to go home now and see granny and grandad’. And that’s what we are going to do.

For all my friends at home that read my blog, we will see you very soon. Much love to all of you in my virtual space and a very Happy New Year.

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