Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Top Tip Tuesday - Making Connections

I decided after the rather strong views I expressed in my last post, I'd use today's Top Tip to write about the other side of life amongst a community of expats. It can be a whole lot of fun, and through living here I've made some life-long friends, but it can be hard to get started.

If you've moved here reluctantly or if you're just a bit shy, you might be hesitant to get out and meet new people. It can be far too easy to pine for your friends back home, and you'll probably spend a bit of time comparing the people here to those you left behind. But you'll settle in a lot quicker if you accept that this is where you live now and start making those all important connections with people that make a place "home." When you're a long way from family and friends you really need a support network of people who understand how tough the expat life can be, and who will be there for you when you need a hand. Once you start to make connections and develop friendships, you'll be surprised by how many other opportunities come your way.

Hong Kong is a very social place. If you live in town you can (and some do) go out every night of the week. Depending on the kind of people you want to meet, this is definitely one option for increasing your number of friends, but it's not really an option if you have a couple of kids and/or a job. So if all night partying in Lan Kwai Fong is not for you then there are plenty of other ways to meet people with similar interests. If you're new here, or even if you're not, and you're looking to meet some new people, here's a quick list of contacts for some local organisations to help you get started.

Mums and Bubs
Local playgroups, schools and play centres are a great place to meet mums with kids of a similar age. If you're still just pregnant, an antenatal class or birthing class (check out Annerley, A Mother's Touch and local Private Hospitals) is a great way to prepare you for what's ahead but also to ensure that you have a ready made group of playmates for your little one.Little Steps is another great resource on things to do with kids (and therefore places you'll meet other parents).

Anglo Info has a great list of sporting clubs and associations located in HK, from rugby to running you should find it there.If you're interested in sport with a more local flavour check out Dragon Boating.
Geo Expat has a list of gyms and fitness centres here if that's more your thing, or you can check out their page on Yoga and Pilates - it's by no means a comprehensive list but it's a good place to start.

Special Interest Groups
Again I'm going to cheat and send you to Geo ExpatAnglo Info, Asia Xpat and The List because they've done all the research already! On these pages you'll find info on everything from cooking classes, ballroom dancing and stamp collecting, to religious groups, theatre sports, and automobile clubs. If you have a special interest and it's not listed on any of these pages, it might be a good opportunity for you to start your own club!

You'll find that whatever you do, people will be giving you their phone numbers and inviting you over for coffee and playdates. New people are accepted very quickly, because we all know what it's like in those first few months.You might even find your new best friend in the queue at the supermarket! Making new friends here is the best way to feel settled and you'll get so much more out of it when you mix with people from different backgrounds to your own.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Typhoons and Tantrums

Well, typhoon season is upon us. Of course I had plans for this week and ended up having to go into town during torrential rain and winds of 40-60km/hour. The "Typhoon Signal 3" was hoisted which basically meant that it was really wet and really windy. When I arrived into Central on the ferry yesterday the rain was coming down in sheets and the wind was blowing it sideways. My umbrella was rendered useless as soon as I stepped out of the shelter provided by the ferry, and I was soaked through by the time I got into a cab less than 10 metres away. A "T8" is generally a bit more serious and everything shuts down, but during the T3 it was business as usual - it just made getting a taxi a bit more challenging than usual. Not to mention the challenge of finding "indoor fun" for a very "outdoor" kind of boy, as playgroups, kindergartens and nursery schools close down at T3.

Call me crazy, but I actually love this kind of weather. It's still hot, and the 99.9% humidity makes going outside feel like you're stepping into a sauna, but the rain does cool things down just so slightly. I also love the unpredictability of it all, and the fact that we all get a day off if it's really windy. It's also a great reminder that we're a long way from home. I love the jostling of umbrellas on busy streets, the gumboots under work suits, the clarity of the sky before the rain sweeps in and obscures everything. I love lying in bed and listening to the wind howl and the rain pelting the window, and knowing I'm tucked up safe, sound and dry. I have a deep respect for the awesome power of nature, and I know that freak weather can be so incredibly dangerous, but for us, in this city that's so well prepared for the annual typhoons, it's simply a fascinating part of life in the tropics. Oddly enough, it's one of the few things I love about this place.

When I was teaching, we could always tell when there was a typhoon on the way, because the kids would get a little bit nutty. There'd be a bit more noise in the hallways, a few more fights, lots of general silliness, and they'd all be buzzing almost perceptibly as we waited to hear whether or not we'd all get to go home early. J wasn't bothered by this recent bout of inclement weather at all. He still insisted on going out for his morning walk yesterday, and he protested quite loudly when we had to turn around and come home after we both got drenched by a passing storm. He reminded us all day today that we hadn't yet been to Mui Wo for playgroup, and didn't understand the concept of "cancelled due to weather"... We have had more tantrums than usual this week, and I'm hoping that I can blame the weather and not a new phase. Last night he insisted on feeding himself dinner, which meant eating shepherd's pie with his hands. Battles like those held regularly at our dinner table make yesterday's typhoon seem like nothing more than a stiff breeze in comparison.

Here are some photos from previous year's storms...

If you're a bit of a weather nerd like me check out the Hong Kong Observatory's great typhoon information page.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Top Tip Tuesday - Get Them Swimming!

I'm cheating a little bit with today's Top Tip and giving you one that you probably all do anyway, and one that isn't Hong Kong specific. We watched a documentary recently on some great work being down across Asia and the Pacific by Surf Life Saving Australia. In Australia last year over 30 children drowned. Across the Asia-Pacific region - every year - 300,000 + children drown every year; a shocking and completely avoidable tragedy.

In Australia kids are taught to swim from a very young age. Enrolling them in swimming lessons is just something you do. Here in HK a number of international schools offer swimming programmes as part of the curriculum but I'm amazed, given the fact that we live on islands, how few children can swim by the time they get to primary school. I've watched 8 and 9 year-olds struggling to do the basics with kickboards, floaties and an adult holding their bellies.

So, if you're like me and you don't live in an area or a complex where there's a nice resident's club with a pool and instructors on your doorstep, you may have been procrastinating a little. After I watched this show, and discovered my son's absolute absence of fear around water, I decided it was time to get him proper lessons. We're going for an intensive summer programme, but most of the local providers also run classes all year. My research wasn't exhaustive I'm afraid, so please let me know if you have found other options, especially here on South Lantau. Here are the swimming lesson providers I have found so far (complete with links):

Harry Wright International, claims to be HK's leading swim specialists. They do classes for kids from 4 months of age, and they have a few locations around the place, but they do fill up fast.

Multi Sport, have a great range of classes for kids from 6 months. They have fewer locations but are a bit cheaper than HWI.

ESF Educational Services, another provider with lots of locations and services, but I wasn't impressed with the lack of infant classes over the summer (i.e. none at all), and those they had during term time were held quite late in the day (not convenient if you have to travel for an hour to get there and back, like we do).

Hong Kong YMCA although they also offer a few great programmes, in Chinese and English, I wasn't able to find out from the website where the classes are held...

Asia Swimming Sports Center, a local organisation that holds classes for children from 4 years to adults. Classes are really affordable but they're only held in Kowloon and Tung Chung, and there's nothing for babies.

Platypus Aquatics, based at the Australian International School in Kowloon, they offer programmes from infants to adults, and all their classes are based on Aussie standards and practices. Their website is also quite tricky to navigate, so if you're really keen to know what they offer you might have to call or email them.

OWLS in Mui Wo offer swimming classes for kids right here on South Lantau, but like those in Tung Chung, they don't offer anything for kids under 4 years.

As I said, it's not an exhaustive list but it should give you a good idea of where to start. Please do let me know if you have anything to add (preferably before I send off enrolment forms for J...). It's absolutely one class you won't ever regret sending your child too. Unlike ballet or cello lessons, swimming lessons may save their lives one day.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Best Things in Life

This weekend I'm feeling full of benevolence and goodwill, and I wanted to link up with one of my favourite blogs again, Maxabella Loves. So, the things I'm grateful for this week, in no particular order:

  • Baby hair - Burying my nose into a little blonde head of hair and taking a deep breath of that smell, that's equal parts salty, shampooey, musty and fresh baby, is soul soothing on even the worst days. The best part is that the taller J gets, the closer to my nose his little head is when he's on my lap.
  • Sunny Sundays - Hong Kong is the ultimate ugly duckling city. She's cold, grey, stinky and miserable, and no one wants to be her friend for 6 months of the year, but when the sun comes out and the wind changes direction, she is simply stunning. Of course it's far too hot to go outside but I love sitting in my living room and seeing clear, blue sky out the window.
  • Dads who like to do stuff with their kids - When J and I are on our own he's pretty chilled out. He makes me get out of the house more than I would otherwise, but he knows his time with Mama is "quiet time." We read books and do puzzles and just hang out. But when Daddy walks in the door it's time to play. I came home from a baby shower yesterday and my living room had been turned into a temporary Arabian tent, complete with a slide and a great big pile of cushions in the middle of it. After thoroughly wearing the little man out indoors, D took him down to the beach to wear him out outdoors. I love the stuff they get up to together, even if they make a mess, and I love watching them having so much fun. 
  • Other expats - I met a lovely new person at the baby shower yesterday, she's a friend's neighbour and we chatted for ages. She's had a really interesting life and had a really positive outlook on life and family. I don't always find it easy meeting new people but you can't help but love it here, when people come from such diverse backgrounds. Most of us are here for the same reasons; adventure, work, love, and no one gets what it's like to be an expat better than other expats. I've met some amazing people here, and they all have fascinating (and sometimes really boring) stories to tell, and my life is richer for having known every one of them. 
That's all. Have a great week everyone!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Decisions, Decisions

So, you all remember this... Right?

The emergency repairs to the kitchen a couple of months ago. You can see half of our oven on top of the bench and the beautiful 90's Ikea cabinets that have incited many spatula-throwing, pan-banging, door-slamming tantrums lately. I've never been particularly superficial or obsessed with material things, but this kitchen drives me to distraction. I've managed to cook some pretty special dishes in it but my husband is currently downstairs constructing a gate to keep J out of the kitchen now that he can reach up and potentially pull down appliances, including the oven. There's only one thing that's going to get us out of this state, and that is extra cash. In a fit of pique last week I shot off a job application, and I'm going in for an interview today.

It's a full-time job in one of the local international schools. It's the kind of job I'm trained and qualified to do, and 3 years ago I would've leapt at the opportunity to do this job in this particular school. But now that my moment of rage has passed I'm a lot less certain. I'd be working full-time, commuting for about an hour each way, and with D doing his upgrade this year, J would be left most days, all day, with our helper... I did a list of pros and cons last night, assuming that they offer me the job, and there were an awful lot of cons. But I can't help thinking that it would be really good for me to feel like I was actively contributing to making the house into a home, instead of just complaining about it all the time. Not to mention how nice it would be to get out and do something that I genuinely enjoy doing. I keep trying to justify it to myself; J will start unaccompanied playgroup in January, he's a lot more independent these days, I need to do something so I don't go stir crazy when he doesn't need me so much. Then I remind myself that he's only going to be small and at home with me for such a short time - I should enjoy every precious minute. We talked about every working mum we knew of and there were very few who were actually happy with that arrangement. If they were happy, their husbands and/or kids generally weren't.

I know it's crazy to over-think it so much considering I haven't been offered the job yet, but I feel like I need to work out whether or not I actually want it before I walk into the interview. So I have to ask myself, can I live with my god-forsaken kitchen for another year? Or can I bear to leave this behind every day?

My sweet, funny, gorgeous, special little man. He'd be fine, but would I? I'd love to hear from any of you on this one. And I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Top Tip Tuesday

Regular visitors to the blog may have noticed that I've added a few pages. Lazy followers who just get my emails will have to actually go to the website to see these. For a while I was a frequent visitor to parenting forums like GeoBaby, and I found I was responding to a lot of the same types of queries. There are so many parents out there struggling with the same issues of sleep and feeding, and so much conflicting advice on both. I don't know all the answers, and I haven't found many through reading books, but I felt like I had an opinion worth expressing (doesn't everyone?). I wanted to write about my experiences in the hope that someone might benefit from them, and rather than being confused by all the different opinions out there, be relieved that someone else has a baby that doesn't fit the mold, and that they survived. The things I think about certain topics related to parenting can be found on the page I've titles "Parenting 101."

I also started this blog with the intention of writing about life in Hong Kong. I got a little off track with this one so I've created another page titled "HK Top Tips." I realised after I created these pages that I had very little time to add all the necessary information so I'm going to write a special post each week dedicated to my top tips, and each one will be added to the page for future reference. I'm not sure yet whether that'll make sense but it's a start!

So here's this week's Top Tip:

Be Prepared for all Eventualities: Hong Kong is hot at this time of year, really hot, and humid. But, the air quality is as good as it gets so it's worth sticking around if you can stand the heat. Despite the outside temperatures it's often positively frosty indoors, and it's not uncommon to get sick from the constant hot/cold change. June and July are the wettest months of the year too so there's always a chance you'll get caught in a downpour if you leave the comfort of your climate-controlled living room. So, if you do leave the house there are few things you need to have with you.
  1. An umbrella. A golf-umbrella is the only thing that will protect you in a typhoon, but a hand-bag sized one will suffice if you're just walking down Queen's Rd between Marks and Spencer and H & M.
  2. A cardigan or pashmina. No matter how hot it is outside, you will get chilly if you step into any building or use public transport. Same goes for little people. 
  3. A sense of humour - whatever the time of day you'll either be hot and wet, or chilly and damp, and as gorgeous as the place is at this time of year, it's easy to lose patience. And people of all ages seem to go a little bit batty whenever there's a typhoon coming. You just gotta roll with it and laugh about it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Food For Thought

After parenting and blogging, the other love in my life is food. I love cooking, and baking, and planning meals, and shopping for  food, and I especially love eating. I wrote about how important food is to me in a post last year, Love and Lasagna, and my battles to find good quality produce here in Hong Kong here. Today I'm hooked on Masterchef and seriously considering a foray into professional cooking - if only I could study something other than Chinese cuisine while I'm here. I could write a dozen different posts about food at the moment but since this isn't a food blog, I thought I'd give you a quick summary of what's happening in my kitchen and what's inspiring me lately:

Delicious Magazine - I love this magazine! A subscription is the only thing I ask for when Mother's Day is coming up, and if the postal system here wasn't so random I would be waiting by the mailbox on delivery day. I make a point to cook something from every issue and I have them all organised in chronological order next to my cookbooks. Yes, I am a food nerd.

DIY - Fed up with trying to find decent bread, we invested in a bread maker when we first arrived in HK. It spent a lot of time gathering dust in the cupboard until we realised that bread was one of the few things J will eat. We now make our own on a weekly basis; no nasties, no fuss. Our $500 HKD, second-hand Princess bread maker just bit the dust, so we're upgrading to the Kenwood BM450, a bread maker that's bigger than our oven - that's how serious we are about our bread.

We've also started making our own yoghurt. It can be messy and getting a good batch requires patience and exact measurements and mixing, but it's worth the effort, especially when you see how much added sugar goes into some of the more common commercial yoghurt brands. It's the kind of cooking once reserved for hippies, but everyone's doing it these days. DIY yoghurt is cool, people.

GIY (grow it yourself) - Our rooftop kitchen garden has taken off with the heat and humidity of the last few weeks. It's resembling a jungle more than a garden at the moment but we're loving it. So far we've only managed to harvest herbs, zucchini flowers and some rock-star quality beans, but we'll soon have a bumper crop of tomatoes and the pumpkins won't be far behind. I'm excited about food in a way that I haven't been in a long time, and there's nothing more rewarding than sitting down to a meal with ingredients that you've grown from scratch on a hot rooftop (where, by rights, nothing should grow).

Going Vege - We've been talking for a long time about eating less meat. All the meat we can buy here is imported from somewhere, and it's hard to know what's ok to eat and what's full of hormones, antibiotics, and animal cruelty. I also have to wonder how long it's been sitting at the airport or on a truck, between leaving its country of origin and arriving on my supermarket shelf...  When we buy Australian beef I think about the good quality beef I used to buy at Coles, and I know they use the crap stuff for export. When we buy beef from South America I think about the swathes of Amazon rainforest that have been cut down for farming, and I can't stomach the thought of anything other than free-range, organic, corn-fed chicken. I spent 10 minutes in the egg section of the supermarket last week, trying to decide whether the 'free-range' eggs were better than the 'vegetarian' eggs. Were the corn-fed chickens kept in cages? And what were they feeding the free-range chooks that made them not-vegetarian...? Not to mention how expensive imported food is in general. I grew up in the country where we would see the sheep in the paddock one day and be served a roast lamb the next. I've always made an effort to know where my food comes from, but the process involved in getting it from the paddock to my plate has always made me squeamish, and more than a little uncomfortable. My husband bought a vegetarian cookbook recently and we've been enjoying coming up with new ways to eat our favourite dishes without meat. Until now I haven't quite been able to completely make the break from steak, but over the weekend I caught some of the footage of Aussie cows being slaughtered rather inhumanely in Indonesia, and finally decided my meat-eating days were behind me. I feel better for it, physically and morally, but I'd probably be laughed out of any professional kitchen if I rocked up for an apprenticeship and told them I was a vegetarian, "sigh".

Finding Familiar Favourites - When you're an expat you find that the things you once took for granted are the things you miss the most. Every month one of the local supermarket chains has an international food week, and this month happened to be Australian Food Week. Yay! So I was thrilled to find Arnott's Shapes, Scotch Fingers and Assorted Creams, Brookfarm muesli, Caramello Koalas and Vita Brits on the shelves, and they're now in my cupboard at home. I also discovered a range of gourmet cordials that I'd never heard of, which are great mixed with soda water on these hot summer nights. I've tried a lot of great, new products from all over the world since living here, but nothing beats having a tin of biscuits in the cupboard that are exactly the same as the ones you used to sneak from the tin at Nanna's house.

Family Dining - Our J bird is a fussy eater sometimes. He has his favourites, but like most toddlers, he's not all that keen on vegetables. I've had to get creative to get him to eat well, and most of the time that involves hiding vegetables and meat in things like baked beans. I've also made sure that everything that's available to him (with the exception of Scotch Fingers) is relatively healthy; whole grain bread, organic baked beans, natural yoghurt etc. I've also brought in a new regime this week, with the three of us eating dinner together at the table, with the TV off. He's more inclined to eat something if he sees us eating it as well, so it's a no-brainer really. I haven't forced him to adopt vegetarianism, because that would be irresponsible I think, so dinner last night was vegetable bolognaise with spaghetti, and a few meatballs thrown in for the blokes of the house. After some subtle persuasion, and much ignoring of his protests about the TV being off, dinner went down a treat. J does love his fruit and having so much of it in the house means that we're eating more of it too. I still sat down, after J was in bed, and tucked into a packet of Pepperidge Farm Cookies, but I'd had at least 2 pieces of fruit during the day and a salad for lunch, so I felt like I'd earned a treat. And because food should be fun.

Being Inspired - There are a lot of foodie websites out there, and some great recipes online. If there's something specific I want to cook and my Delicious collection doesn't have the answers, I hit the web.

Here are some of my favourite food sites (in no particular order): - she's a foodie and a mum, I love this website! - loved her zucchini flower recipe recently
The Cook and The Chef - a great show, and Maggie Beer is one of my food idols - a huge catalogue of recipes from some of Britain's best chefs - should be on everyone's bookmarked list

and for the parents:

Have a great week everyone, and please check back in tomorrow for a brand new regular feature - Top Tip Tuesday.

* Photo courtesy of Suat Eman,

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mission Aborted

Sorry doesn't begin to describe how I feel about bailing out of my promise to write a post every day this week, but I do have a very good excuse. You see, we must have done something to offend the powers that be recently, because we've had a few really bad days, a few bad weeks in fact. And did I mention there's a typhoon on the way...?

It all started when I left my boys to fend for themselves for a week, and J got a nasty chest infection. This plague upon our house then spread to my husband (man flu deserves a post all its own), and I finally succumbed this week. In an attempt to boost our little man's immune system after all this illness we took him to a homeopath last week. We came home with a bag full of supplements, administered them as per the instructions, and then watched as our child turned into a puffer fish after having an allergic reaction to one of them... He woke up an hour after we put him to bed, screaming the house down. His little face was red and swollen and he was having trouble breathing. We gave him some antihistamines and he quickly started to look more like himself, but he was clearly having stomach cramps. We spent the whole night awake, trying to make him more comfortable. Unfortunately that involved sleeping in his dad's arms, or between us in the bed. At one point D and I were perched on the very edges of our king-sized bed, wrapped around our son like awkwardly shaped bookends, exhausted and demoralised, and feeling certain that we were passing a parenthood rite of passage. Surely it couldn't get any worse than this...

But it did. J was fine after that night of horror, we were shattered, but relieved it hadn't been more serious. With the supplements safely placed in the back of the cupboard to gather dust with the lentils and green tea, we went on with the business of living. We had a great start to the week and all was well until J took a tumble down the stairs yesterday. He's always been fairly confident, but cautious when it comes to our staircase. There's a gate at either end so he can't tackle them boldly on his own, but he always checks to make sure the gate is closed when we're going up or down. It was while I was closing the gate behind us yesterday that J decided to step off the top step on his own and his little hand slipped out of mine. He was at the bottom before I could catch him. I thought I was scared on Friday night, but nothing prepared me for the terror I felt watching helplessly as my son fell down those damn stairs. When I got to the bottom, a split second behind him, I picked him up and checked for damage. Apart from a few bruises he was fine. Hysterical, but fine. We held onto each other as if our lives depended on it and he gently fell asleep on my shoulder. Relief quickly gave way to the guilt that comes with knowing I could've prevented the whole thing, and that it could've been much much worse. It didn't help matters when my husband pointed out that I needed to be more careful...clearly. I sobbed into my little guy's neck and gingerly took him upstairs to bed. Then I made plans to carpet the stairs.

I actually did write something yesterday but it was full of self-pity. I've been feeling very responsible for this run of bad luck, and since I've been back it seems like I've lost my groove. J didn't want anything to do with me on Friday night - his dad was the only one who could comfort him. Not only did I feel responsible for his pain, I felt obsolete as a mother. Then he had an accident on my watch, it was like I failing miserably at the one job I thought I could do. Here is an excerpt from what I wrote yesterday, just to give you a hint of how bad I was feeling...

So, I'm left feeling like the worst mother in the world and wondering if perhaps my boys would be better off, safer even, if I packed my bags and headed for the hills. I've never been a completely confident mother; I question myself a lot and wonder if I'm doing the right thing, and I take even the slightest criticism really personally. But I've always been confident that I was doing the best I could with what I had. The last few weeks I've felt like I've lost my mummy-mojo, and that my best simply won't do anymore. When I was a kid I expected a lot from my parents and I hated it when my mum would say "you'll understand when you have your own kids." One thing I do now understand is that parents are far from perfect, especially at the start, and sometimes no matter how hard we try, we can't stop our kids falling down the stairs. We just have to pray that if and when they do, they'll bounce. I'm taking full responsibility for the recent series of woes that have befallen us and I'm going to go upstairs and watch my beautiful boy sleep until I can figure out how to make my best better. Does anyone else ever have days like this? I'd really like to know.

You'll be happy to know that I didn't pack my bags, but I did go and watch my son sleeping. While I was there I pulled a book off the shelf that some friends gave us before J was born. It's called "1000 Top Tips for Mums and Dads," and it's brilliant. There are lots of great tips on general parenting for kids of all ages. Then at the back there's a chapter simply titled "Wisdom." It was if this chapter had been written for me, and it was exactly what I needed at the time. It talked about not beating yourself up when you have a bad day, but giving yourself credit for all the things that do go right. The book also reminded me that if you treat your kids with love and kindness, they'll love you unconditionally, no matter what (this also made me cry). J didn't blame me for his trip down the stairs. He'd completely forgotten about it by the time he woke up. My little boy wasn't going to forgive me, because there was nothing to forgive in his mind. It was a bit of a revelation! We might be sick and bruised, and our spirits might be slightly broken, but we're all still here, still functioning as a family, and that deserves to be celebrated. So yesterday afternoon I put the pity party away and we spent the gorgeous summer afternoon on the roof in the paddling pool. And that's why there wasn't a post yesterday.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Talking the Talk

Before I had a kid of my own, I used to watch the interactions between my friends and their babies with utter bewilderment. I never understood how they managed to translate their little one's babble into discernible conversation. Baby would say something like, "blah, blah, goo goo gah!" and their delighted parents would exclaim, "yes, sweetie, Einstein's theories are perplexing to the uneducated mind, how perceptive you are!"

Now I know how that ability to translate seemingly meaningless babble is developed, because I do it myself every day. When J first started saying words other than Mama and Dada, we made a list of all of his "words", for posterity. There were only a handful of words on there, and we didn't add to it regularly like we should have, but since he seems to say a new word every day these days, we thought we'd make a new list. There were over 60 "words" on there. Granted, most of them are not recognisable to anyone but us, but it is still an attempt on his part to communicate. Watching him transform from a tiny, helpless baby to a confident, talkative and very cheeky toddler has been pure joy, and he amazes me every day. He still babbles incessantly and sometimes looks at us quite seriously, as if he believes he's saying something quite profound. But for most of the basics there is very clearly a series of sounds that signify specific objects or actions. "Car" and "Bath" are the more obvious ones, but a few words/sounds can have a variety of meanings depending on the tone and context. "Num Num" can mean dummy or dinner, while "Mi Mi" can be milk, Mummy, please, or excuse me, depending on the tone and where he puts the emphasis. Every time he says it, we know what he means by the way he says it - it's almost as if he's speaking Cantonese sometimes. When he can't express himself with words, he's very good at using gestures and body language. I was taking too long to get ready yesterday and while I was sitting down putting my shoes on, J grabbed me by the shirt and tried to pull me up - his way of saying "let's go!"

Even though I know what J is saying, most of the time, I still don't have a clue what my friend's kids are saying. It's like we've all developed these intimate mini-languages in our own homes, that are unique to us. I'm always really conscious of it when we're with friends who don't have kids, and I try not to make a fuss or translate for them what J is saying. Partly because some of them simply don't care, but also because I'm aware that they're convinced he's not saying anything at all and that we're just plain crazy. I know that for a fact, because I once thought the same thing!

The experts say that the best way to teach your kids to use words is to speak to them, all day, every day. We do talk to J a lot and we also read to him a few times a day. He often watches our mouths, fascinated, and you can almost hear his little mind ticking over as he processes the different words and the way we're forming them. My niece A, who is two and a half, has a very sophisticated vocabulary, and it's sometimes easy to forget how young she is. When I was looking after her she was asking me for something that I wasn't prepared to hand over. I tried to make a deal with her, eat your vegetables then you can watch TV. It didn't work, because she may have been able to pronounce the word "negotiate" but she couldn't yet understand the concept. Her parents have always spoken to her in a way that's very respectful of her intelligence, and it's paid off in her ability to clearly express herself.

I think all kids deserve to be spoken to as if they're on the same level as the grown ups around them. This doesn't mean being open and honest with them about things they're too young to understand, but there's no need to limit the words you use (unless you're prone to dropping the f-bomb) or "dumb it down." Our little guy is a parrot and will repeat everything he hears, which can be a very bad thing, but it can also be used to teach kids words that are bigger than they are. Yesterday I told J he was handsome, and wouldn't you know it, he said "handsome" straight back. My nephew went through a phase where he was using the F word in context, but he pronounced the F as a P (as in "puck you, Aunty B"). He stayed with us for a week when he was 4 and instead of telling us to puck off, by the end of it he was saying everything was "wonderful." It really showed me how important it is to give kids some credit and to speak to them as you would want to be spoken to. One thing that has always driven me crazy is baby talk - when parents put on a babyish voice to speak to their kids. You know what I mean; there's nothing worse, or more insulting to a child's intelligence than hearing a grown adult say something along the lines of, "Mummy wummy's gonna go get your binki, my widdle bubby, cos it's time for your nigh nighs..." Urgh! I once tutored an 8 year old who spoke like that all of the time and it drove me mad. She was the only child of older parents and I think it was her way of manipulating them. Her parents indulged her - they thought it was cute - but it turned my stomach so I simply refused to play along. Eventually she started speaking normally when I was around and proved herself to be quite a smart, sweet kid. There's definitely no baby talk in this house!

J has already proven to be quite the chatterbox, which is great, and while he's not yet speaking three languages or discussing quantum physics, I'm fairly confident that his language skills are on track. If he's still asking me for his "nhack" (snack) or a ride on the "hing" (swing) when he's 12 then I might start to worry. But for now I'm enjoying the little ways he has of talking to me, and the fact that his favourite word is "Mama".

If you're at all interested in what your kids should be saying and when, have a look at the following resources:
Baby CentreZero to ThreeWhat To ExpectSpeech Pathology AustraliaChild Development Institute,
and Vocal Development

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Wardrobe Worries

A Mummy in a Strange Land has been a bit neglected of late and I'm feeling bad about it. To be honest, the reasons for this neglect belong in a whole other post, but for today I have set myself a challenge to get back on track - a post a day for a week. So, dear readers, please forgive my recent laziness, and stand by me as I try to deliver something worth reading (and if you really like me, please share me with your friends ;-). Here goes...

I'm not sure how you would describe my style, but before I had a baby I definitely had a style. It was boho/primary school teacher/coordinated. I tried to style myself after Audrey Hepburn and buy classic, timeless pieces but I didn't have the budget or the class. So I dressed the way I imagined Ms Hepburn would dress if she was a 30-something, primary school teacher, who had no choice but to shop at Target in Sydney's eastern suburbs. When I was pregnant I borrowed a lot of maternity clothes, and the few pieces I did buy were basics that would last me a couple of pregnancies. I didn't care too much what I wore as long as it was comfortable and large. It was the first time in my life where I felt beautiful no matter what. My body was doing an amazing thing, I had curves in all the right places, and pregnancy seemed to suit me. I wasn't fat - I was pregnant, and I loved it. Then I had the baby and I was just fat. I hated wearing nursing tops and clothes that allowed instant access for breastfeeding. Not only were they really unflattering, but I felt like a fraud, since the whole breastfeeding thing wasn't working out. I looked like a breastfeeding mother, and the baby was a perfect reason to look so dowdy, but sooner or later I'd have to pull out a bottle and suddenly the clips on my singlet top would seem so unnecessary and irritating. Don't get me started on the fact that I couldn't button up my regular jeans for about 6 months after J was born, it was too depressing. When I finally lost the weight I packed away all of my "fat clothes" that I wore post-baby, for next time, and it felt quite cathartic. It did, however, leave me with a dilemma - what was I supposed to wear now?

I had a lot of clothes that could double as work clothes and hanging-out-on-the-weekend clothes, but they were either too nice to wear to playgroup, or stretched from being worn while I was pregnant, or not nice enough to make me feel like something more than a frumpy mummy. I had a bit of an image crisis, and I felt like I needed to seriously work on my style, or find a new one. It wasn't just the need for new clothes; it felt like I had made a massive leap towards being a grown-up and my wardrobe hadn't quite caught up. I now need pants that don't skim my hip bones, because I bend down a lot and plumber's crack in the playground is just indecent. I also need tops that don't reveal what's under them every time I pick up my son. But I want to feel attractive at the same time, and that's not as easy as you might think. My lovely friend G, mum to two gorgeous girls, revealed recently that she has the same problem. She was shopping for new jeans recently and explained what she wanted to the sales guy. He recommended she buy a pair of "Not Your Daughter's Jeans" jeans. She was mortified - they're the jeans her mum wears...

Walk into any store in HK and you'll find racks and racks of skinny hipsters in all sorts of colours and sizes. There are see-through blouses and low-cut t-shirts, all cutely cinched at the waist. The perfect outfit if you're 5' 4" and 45 kgs. Where are the clothes for the young mums with a bit of fashion sense and a longing to look their age (as opposed to looking like their mums)? I love, love, love Gap's curvy jeans. I got a little junk in my trunk and need the extra room they allow (in a size 2, thank you very much), but they only do boot-legs. Don't the curvy girls deserve a straight leg, or heaven forbid, a skinny jean too?! If any of you out there know where I can buy cute, timeless, well-made, and young-mum appropriate clothes please let me know.

I had the chance to restock my winter wardrobe a few months ago, but my summer clothes are still a work-in-progress. I have a gorgeous maternity swimsuit, and a pair of swimmers I bought last year while I was still a little heavy, but nothing remotely appropriate for wearing to the beach or pool now. So on the weekend I took the plunge and bought a bikini. Not a stringy, triangle thing, but a modest 2 piece, with extra coverage in the bottom area and extra support up top, in a colour called "grape". Now, I haven't worn a bikini since my days as a single uni student, when I spent my weekends on Coogee beach, so those who know me are probably wondering what on Earth has possessed me to go back there now that I have stretchmarks, cellulite and a muffin top? My husband tells me I have a gorgeous stomach, and I know he's biased, but this whole image crisis has got me thinking - Is my body really flawed? Or is it just my own perception of it that's flawed? I'm 32 and skinnier than I've been in 10 years. Because my bikini wearing days will soon be behind me, I thought why the hell not? Better to do it now while I still got something, than when I'm 45 and it's just embarrassing. I won't be wearing it anywhere near my child-less friends or anyone who does Pilates, but everywhere else it'll be fine. I was actually inspired when I was looking through a Victoria's Secret catalogue this weekend and spotted a picture of new mum Miranda Kerr, modelling one of this season's bikinis. Her linea nigra scar was still obvious and un-airbrushed. She's 28 and gorgeous yes, but if she can be proud of her baby-scarred body and show it off to millions of people then maybe so can I (be proud, not a bikini model, obviously).

Whether or not I'll actually wear it in public will be a different story...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Trading Places

My recent trip to the UK gave my husband and I a unique opportunity to walk in each other's shoes for a week. When he comes back from a trip we're always trying to out-do each other with tales of jet-lag and baby-related exhaustion. He complains about how hard it is to spend so much time on a plane, turn your body clock on its back and then fly back and have to readjust all over again. Meanwhile, after 4 days and nights on my own I'm usually tearing my hair out and ready for a break. Generally speaking we both find it difficult to sympathise with each other.

So, ready to prove him wrong about, well, everything, I arrived in London completely wiped out after 12 hours flying. I didn't even have to work on the flight, but I was still unmoved. When I switched my phone on there were two text messages from home; J had developed a fever after I left and had coughed all night. They were on their way to the doctor. On the one hand I desperately wanted to turn around and come home - it was hard enough to leave as it was - but on the other, I couldn't help but think that it was about time my husband found out that our days weren't all playgroups and cuddles.

J was sick, really sick, the sickest he's ever been according to D. I received updates several times a day and my heart broke a little bit each time my little guy refused to look at me on Skype. Apparently he asked for me constantly and was absolutely miserable. I hated being so far away knowing he was so unwell. I had to concede that my husband had been right about that one.

I did however, think that I had proved him wrong when I managed to adapt to the time zone change almost immediately, and I had as much fun as I imagined him having every time he was away. Once I got into the swing of things, had some time with friends, saw some sights, and shopped up a storm, I realised I'd gone too far to not enjoy myself. I consoled myself and eased my mummy guilt with the thought that J would be just as miserable if I were at home; his father wasn't doing anything that I wouldn't have done myself, and that made being away not nearly as hard as I had imagined. Despite the time zone change and the fact that my hosts had 15 month-old twins, I slept better than I had in 2 years. I didn't have to worry about anyone else, there were no decisions that had to be made about who was going to eat what and where we were going to go or what we were going to do. As I'm writing this my little man is upstairs asleep but the dog is beside me, desperately trying to get some love. At home there's always someone who wants a piece of me, and it was really nice to be away and keep all my pieces to myself. I do not wish to have a job that takes me away all the time, but I do envy my husband for those days he gets to himself. That hasn't changed.

I was, however, desperate to get home and if I could've made that plane fly any faster I would have. When I came back (after a god-awful flight which you can read about here), I was relieved but a little bit disappointed. J and D met me at the airport and my snotty, sweaty little guy didn't run and leap into my arms as I had imagined, he just kind of stared at me and seemed very uncertain about who I was and why I was there. Eventually he wrapped his arms around my neck and didn't let go, but he has made me work hard to earn back his trust ever since. My husband has always complained that it takes at least 2 days for J to love him again when he gets back from a trip, and I've never minded so much, because it usually means that Mummy is his favourite person for that time. But when it was the other way around it was like a knife in my heart. Yes, that definitely sucks.

Then there was the jet-lag. D had warned me that it would harder at this end, something about going east, but I thought that missing a night's sleep on the way back would exhaust me so much I'd sleep like normal. I was so wrong! The first two nights I did pass out at 8pm, but then I'd wake up around 11 and be fully awake for about 4 hours. Then I'd go back to sleep and find it impossible to wake up in the morning. Being the jet-lag veteran, and all-round good guy that he is, my husband had a lot of sympathy and patience for me - far more than I deserved. He took care of a still-sick J, let me sleep when I needed to and dished out melatonin tablets when I was desperate to get back on track. I only ever give him 24 hours grace when he comes back from somewhere and after that he has to get his act together and be a fully-functioning member of the family. I wasn't sure if he was so kind because he knew what I was going through, or whether he was hoping to earn brownie points and more sympathy for the next time he goes away, but either way, he put me to shame.

At the end of it all I had a new perspective on what it's like for my husband to have to travel internationally for a job. It's definitely hard work, and I would hate to not have a choice about it. But, as he succumbed to the same flu that plagued our son, D declared "you win!" He readily admitted that my job is indeed harder. So, while I enjoyed my time away immensely, I'll be leaving the jet setting to the professionals from now on. Because I realised just how much I love my job, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.