Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Restoration

You might have guessed from my prolonged absence from blogging that we've had quite the year. It's been a shitty year, our "Annus Horribilis" if you will. We've really put the the vow "in sickness and health" to the test, and now that I think about it, "for richer or poorer" too… I've been sick, Dave's been sick, both boys have had nights in hospital under general anaesthetics. We've lost loved ones, we've moved (a gut wrenching trial that I will share later), we've had ups and downs with school and work, and experienced both the best and worst aspects of life in a small community. We've watched friends and family go through their own truly terrible times, and wished for the end of 2013, as if that would somehow fix everything.

A friend recently mentioned that doing anything out of the ordinary, with even the slightest possibility of something going wrong would be like "tempting fate" after the year we've had, so with that thought echoing in my ears, and my heart in my throat, I went away last month. By myself. To New York. I was determined to end the year on a high. To have just one good thing that came out of 2013. It was a trip that came about purely by accident after a conversation with a friend who was about to venture off on her own. She suggested I do the same, and when I laughingly told my husband about the idea, his response was "why not?"

And within a week, that conversation somehow miraculously evolved into me being in what is arguably the coolest city on the planet for a week. By myself. Did I mention I was there without my husband, without the boys, completely alone? I didn't quite believe it until I was on the plane, and I didn't quite relax until I was safely ensconced in my mid-town hotel room, but it was nothing short of bliss. I shopped and had time to try things on, I walked, no, I meandered through museums. I ate 3 meals a day without being rushed or shouting at someone else to hurry up and finish their dinner. I saw the Lion King on Broadway and cried because it was so beautiful, and I didn't have to explain to anyone why I was crying, or pretend that I wasn't moved (it was also the point in the whole week when I missed my boys the most). I sat in cafes and drank hot chocolate and ate cake and was quiet and still. I did the same in Central Park, for two hours! And I slept. I slept whenever I wanted to, for however long I wanted to. Deep, uninterrupted, perfect, healing sleep. I slept like someone who has no place to be and is not accountable to anyone. Central Park, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, sunset from the top of the Empire State Building, Christmas shopping at Macy's - none of it compared to the sleep. It was restorative, and the best thing that could've happened to me all year. Despite being 12 hours off my body clock, and a little run down from the travel and cold, the sleep made me feel well for the first time since this time last year.

I missed the boys terribly, and I felt awfully guilty, often. But lately I'd begun to feel like I wasn't doing a very good job of being their mum. After a particularly vile Sunday at home with them on my own, I said to my husband that if this were an actual job, I'd have been fired by now. Or at least had a very unfavourable performance review… We needed this. All of us. And I knew I would be a better mother if I had a chance to be by myself for a while, and if my boys had a chance to miss me. I feel like I've been swallowed up by motherhood.  I accept that sometimes there are things you choose to sacrifice when you have babies, and the rewards for that sacrifice are above and beyond anything that you might give up. But I needed reminding that there's more to me than who I have been lately. With all that glorious sleep I woke up a part of me that had been hibernating, and I came back feeling like I can give my boys so much more.

Coming home was wonderful, and the looks on my boys' faces when I walked through the door told me I had done the right thing. They had a great week with their dad, and they were perfectly fine without me. The sky didn't fall in, the house didn't burn down, no one broke any limbs. More importantly, we all missed each other enough to appreciate each other just a little bit more. I got my wish and ended the year on a high note, and with everything I have in me, I'm very much hoping it's the start of something better.

Friday, September 13, 2013

And Away He Goes...

I've written before about the insanity that is the Hong Kong school system, and as we dive headfirst into it, I'm just as perplexed as I was back then. A quick recap for those not familiar with how it works here: Everybody does a playgroup of some sort from about the time a little one can sit; at two years of age they go unaccompanied to either playgroup or nursery; and then at 3 they embark on Kindergarten or reception at 4; followed swiftly by primary school one-two years later. I'm sure there are a couple of cultural elements behind the drive to have kids in school so young here. Parents work long hours in this city and preschools and kindergartens are basically the equivalent of child-care centres, but with uniforms and curriculums. There's also a strong emphasis on academic success and getting ahead, and there's a conviction that the younger a child starts learning, the more likely they'll be to do well. As a stay-at-home mum I know too well the temptation to have the kids occupied and out of your hair every day too! But very few seem to question just how much this pressure to be educated really impacts on little ones.

Most schools base their intake on a child's year of birth. This proved problematic for us as Josh was born in December and in most cases would have been one of the youngest in his class. In theory he should have started kindergarten last year, at the tender age of 2 years 9 months, which just seemed absurd to me. We fought the system, and found many schools to be unwavering in their policy on holding children back, despite the evidence (read this!) that shows that there are numerous benefits to delaying school, and the fact that many children here who should've been allowed to start later end up repeating a year of primary anyway...  We were alone in our quest to delay schooling, and most people thought we were mad, it was a really frustrating time. Luckily we found a school that allowed us to keep Josh at playgroup another year, and we sent him 5 mornings a week to ensure he wasn't bored. He had a chance to play, and grow, and be a kid, and it gave us a chance to deal with his eyesight issues and for the rest of the time enjoy his company a bit.

He started K1 a few weeks ago at the same school that he's been going to for playgroup. We were ready for him to take the next step, we knew we had made the right decision in giving him another year at home, and we were excited about the year ahead. For a number of reasons this particular kindergarten didn't work out - the words "epic fail" spring to mind - and we withdrew him before the daily distress over school took its toll. We had him at home for two days and briefly toyed with the idea of homeschooling him for another year. We have applied to a primary school here that has a different intake, and he's not due to start there until next year. Not having something for him to do was not a big deal, and I was even a little bit relieved. Then I turned to the Hong Kong Schools forum on Facebook where it appears that everyone is planning and talking about school options from a very young age. Toddlers going off to school by themselves isn't just the norm, it's expected. I stopped reading the comments as I began to feel like I was being quite negligent for even considering that my son would benefit more from a year at home with me than from a fully-equipped educational institution.

Josh is a very bright and social kid who needs constant interaction and a lot of stimulation, so we decided to try one of the other schools over this way. All the kids who went on ahead of him last year are at this school, and loving it, but I was very reluctant. All the effort that went into holding him back and the careful sculpting of his circle of friends and trusted teachers would all be thrown out the window, and we'd be starting him at a new school, as one of the youngest in the class, exactly where we hadn't wanted him to be! The school were very supportive of our request for a trial day, just to see how he coped with it, which was today. It's also a much longer day than he's used to so I sat by the phone all day, expecting at any minute to be called to come and get him. What I wasn't expecting was to be greeted at 2.15 by a child positively beaming. He simply radiated happiness, and appeared completely besotted with his new teacher. He had a wonderful day, and fit in so well that one of the other children said, "we like Josh, can we keep him?" All the stress that had built up after two weeks of a little boy screaming every day because he didn't want to go to school, and the "are we doing the right thing?" anxiety of the last few days, melted away when I saw his gorgeous, smiling, utterly exhausted little face. So, he's enrolled. I collect his uniform tomorrow and he officially starts Monday, 5 days a week, 9.15-2.15. It's not what we had planned, and if I had my way he'd still be at home with me until he's 6, but we're letting Josh lead the way on this one. I have to focus on how happy he is, and right now that's the only thing stopping me from freaking out about the fact that my 3 year old is at school full-time. Because this is it for the next 14 years now... My baby boy's schooling has begun in earnest. He's more than ready, and now I need to catch up to him.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Facing the Future

I'm 34. Only 34. I have to remind myself of that often, and then I have to remind myself that 34 is really still quite young. I forget this of course because most days I feel REALLY old. My body hurts in a lot of places and I'm tired all.the.time. Two pregnancies, four years of sleep deprivation and the stress of the last 6 months have taken their toll. Big time.

I've become one of those women who rely on products like "primer" and "concealer" as if I'm prepping an unsightly old wall before covering it with something far more appealing. Mascara and lip gloss are essentials these days. I don't bother with much else because I'd still prefer to sleep a bit longer in the mornings, but one day, in the not so distant future I'm pretty sure I'll be setting an alarm so I have time to "put my face on" before I leave the house...

I've also noticed random grey hairs popping up on my head, and damn it if they aren't more wiry and unruly than all my nice brunette hairs! Pretty soon I'm going to have to bite the bullet and add regular dye jobs to my list of things to do.

Fortunately here in Hong Kong there are countless products available to help girls like me hide our flaws. From skin whiteners and BB cream, to fake eyelashes, whatever you need can be bought on almost every street corner. Manicures, pedicures, facials and waxing, massage, detox, weight loss clinics, botox, dermabrasion, laser hair removal, and something called Hypoxi (which I don't really want to know about) - it's all available, all the time.

It has never even entered my mind that I might like to be someone who ages gracefully. I'm still too young to age. Maybe when I hit my mid forties I'll come to grips with the fact that there's no turning back the clock anymore, but for now I want to at least look 34, even if I don't necessarily feel it. Maybe it is so important to me because I don't feel it...

I know I'm not setting a good example. I don't want my kids to grow up thinking that looks are important, and I definitely want them to know that beauty comes from within, so I'm hoping my quiet little rebellion against the sands of time goes mostly unnoticed at home. Given that I have two boys it probably will.

It's not all bad: I'm skinnier than I've been since I left university (last century). I have moments, in the right kind of light, where I feel like I'm doing ok. But until I start to feel my age physically, I'm going to have to fake it. In the meantime I'm beginning to understand why my nanna never leaves the house without lipstick, and that makes me feel even older!

Are you ageing gracefully? Is it possible to look and feel your age when you have kids? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Time Out

I had grand plans last month for more exploring and lots more blogging. But as with many things, our "Staycation" didn't go as planned. Dave lost his beloved Nan and had to make an unscheduled trip back to Brisbane. We decided after that that we needed to be around family, so we packed the boys up and headed to Manila for a weekend. Then we kind of got caught up with a bunch of stuff.

Despite the unexpected turn of events, I desperately wanted to make more of our everyday lives here, so I tried to add a little adventure to the stuff we had to do. We took Josh into town for a doctor's appointment, and for the first time ever, we went on a tram. I can't believe it's taken us this long to use one of the most basic and underrated forms of local transport! The fact that we weren't actually going anywhere meant that it truly was just about the journey, and not the destination, for a kid who simply loves going for a ride...

The following week Josh had an MRI. Not a big deal, just a follow-up to some of the findings from tests in Aus during his surgery. It meant spending an afternoon up at Canossa hospital, so again we tried to find the adventure in an otherwise quite boring activity. We rarely venture into Central with the boys, and even less often go beyond Queens Road, so a ride on the escalator was hugely exciting. I have never taken it beyond Caine Road, I didn't even know it went further, but it does, and we went all the way to the top...

 (The stroller is normally reserved for Charlie, but on this trip it was essential!)

We then walked from the escalator across to Hong Kong Park. It took us an hour to get from the ferry pier to the park so we didn't have much time to wander, but it was great to spend time in a part of the city that we rarely get to see.

I love the oasis that is HK Park, and the view of the city from way up there... We wandered through the park at a more leisurely pace after the MRI but Josh was out cold and missed it all. A good excuse for another trip!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tai O

We decided to start our mini break close to home yesterday with a trip to Tai O. It's a small fishing village on the western tip of Lantau island and it's renowned for its stilt houses, streets lined with dried fish and sea creatures, and the elusive dolphins that precariously inhabit the local waters.
On the surface it looks like a very traditional Chinese village, mostly untouched by Western influences but it is very much geared towards the hordes of tourists who visit every week. Rumour has it that a local film or soap opera was filmed there and that alone brings a lot of people to the village! Tai O is about 45 minutes by bus from Mui Wo and Tung Chung. There are a number of fantastic hikes down into the village from a few points on the island. It's also a 20 minute drive from where we live, so we drove, but parking is pretty limited. You could also charter a sampan and arrive in style!

Our first priority was lunch. While we drawn to some of the local restaurants offering fresh fish and local delicacies, with two kids in tow we weren't as intrepid as we could've been and when we stumbled across Melt, a western style cafe with a very kid-friendly menu, we sat right down. The boys split a sausage sandwich and an apple juice and we shared a plate of nachos and lime sodas. If we didn't live here we'd feel a little guilty not indulging in local food, but since it's an option all the time we didn't feel so bad! Melt was clean and fresh and the food was just what we needed. It's located next to some pretty cool little cafes and local shops selling food. The Chinese pizza, directly opposite Melt looks delicious, and if the queue was anything to go by, worth a trip to Tai O! The Tai O Bakery sells delicious egg tarts and Chinese donuts, local delights we simply couldn't pass up.

Next up was a wander through a fascinating little village. The boys loved looking at the tanks of fish, crabs, and even eels, for sale along the streets. The smell of incense and dried fish made me feel like I was very far away from home, and took me back to the time I first fell in love with Asia. The click-clack of mahjong tiles and the chatter of everyone around us provided a nice soundtrack, and a relief from the city noises of traffic and construction. There are no cars in Tai O, only boats, and a boat ride is a must. We piled into a small sampan with a handful of other "tourists" for a tour of the village.

The stilt houses are quite remarkable, and after being here for a few typhoons myself, I marvelled at how they manage to withstand such weather extremes. The view was completely lost on the boys but they were both pretty excited to be on a boat!
Before heading out into open water, the boat passed by the Tai O Heritage Hotel. Built in 1902 as a police post, the building was restored and turned into a boutique hotel and granted heritage listing in 2009. We haven't had a chance to visit the hotel, or its famed glass-roofed restaurant, The Rooftop, but we will be making a special trip back for dinner soon. It's only accessible by boat, and is yet another glimpse into a different time and place.
We wound up the boat tour with a brief stop offshore where the local pink and white dolphins are known to hang out. Very few people that we know have actually seen them, and we weren't confident that we were going to be that lucky. There are a number of boat operators taking tourists out to see the dolphins all day, every day, and the spot is littered with debris from the boats. There are also markers in the water so the boats know where to stop, but it is disheartening, especially with the airport not far away and the spectre of the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge rising out of the sea mere kilometres away, threatening to destroy the dolphin's habitat. Then suddenly we saw a disturbance in the water, a splash and flash of silvery white in the distance. All ten of us onboard gasped in delight, and again when one of the dolphins leapt out of the water, putting on a show just for us. We saw 2 of them playing and one rose out of the water a couple of times, quite close by. It's impossible to take photos as they move so fast but I felt like I was watching something very special. The boat ride costs $20HKD for 20 minutes and Charlie rode for free. Some operators also guarantee that if you don't see a dolphin you'll get a ticket for a free ride next time.

We had a fantastic day but we did get a little sunburnt. Despite the weather being wet and grey in Cheung Sha, it was sunny and clear in Tai O, so my advice for anyone planning a visit is go prepared for all seasons! All in all it was a great day out, and were home having a cup of tea by 3pm. Rediscovering the place we call home is off to a very good start!

Thursday, April 18, 2013


After our recent trip to Australia, we've spent a lot of time planning our exit strategy. Our time in HK is limited and we have a lot of options available to us, but we want to make sure we really get the most out of living here while we can.

I always felt like I left Sydney before I was ready. I don't have closure and I want to live there again one day until I'm "done."
I have no doubt it'll take 6 months to drive me crazy and then I can get on with living happily ever after elsewhere!

So, with that in mind, I made a list of all the things I wanted to achieve before we leave Hong Kong for good. While "taking advantage of living here," may sound quite vague, it's top of my list. Part of that involves seeing the places we haven't seen yet, and showing a few of those that we have seen to the boys. A ride on the Star Ferry holds a lot more appeal when you're watching the face of a very excited 3 year old! We haven't really experienced much of the local culture and there is still so much of the city we haven't explored.

Dave has 3 weeks leave coming up, and after our very expensive trip down under, we can't afford to go anywhere. So, we're seizing the opportunity and we plan to be tourists in our home town. Join us on our adventure, as I blog, tweet, and update every step of the way - starting next week!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Starbucks and Me

I have a strange relationship with Starbucks. I don't particularly like the food or the coffee but I find the stores themselves oddly comforting. You can guarantee that they'll be exactly the same wherever they are in the world. As an expat in HK There are days when you crave that simple familiarity and bad coffee in amongst all the noodles and wontons.

When I was pregnant with Charlie I developed a penchant for Starbucks sausage rolls and chocolate frappucinos, especially after work as I stepped off the bus in Tung Chung. It was in the days when I felt sick all the time and didn't want much of anything, so it was an unusual choice, but Mama wants what she wants!

The first thing I ate after giving birth to Charlie was a sandwich and hot chocolate from, you guessed it, Starbucks. It seems they're conveniently located inside most of HK's public hospitals - like a little oasis of Westernism. They're also at the border crossings, like a beacon, guiding you homeward. Many of the stores closed down in Australia recently, Australians being renowned coffee snobs and all. It would appear that hospitals and border crossings are the only place you'll find them now here too.

So given our history, it seemed only fitting that I found myself sucking back a short mocha latte from Starbucks while we waited patiently at the children's hospital at Westmead today. Josh had his first surgery today and all went well, but I'll fill you in on all that later. What struck me most while I was having my daily dose of caffeine was how odd it was to be craving something I don't particularly like, that reminds me so much of a place I claim not to care for. HK has never felt less like "home" than it has these last few weeks that we've been in Sydney, and yet my little trip to the coffee cart had me feeling quite homesick.

Sometimes we have to be taken out of our comfort zone to realise just how comfortable we actually are.

All that from a latte, who would've thought it??

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Bit of Housekeeping

Firstly, I have to acknowledge the wonderful people at Little Steps for once again recognising this little old blog of mine in their annual Best of the Blogs. It's something I love to do but have hardly had time for lately. So thanks to you all for reading and giving me a reason to write.

Secondly, thanks also to Mehroo from Miss India to Motherhood, for passing on the Liebster award. It's a bit tricky to find information about this "award" but it's basically designed to increase your readership by sharing other people's blogs with your readers. I like the idea and I'm flattered and soon I'll get around to writing about it properly!

Finally, in the spirit of Chinese New Year this weekend, I've started a new blog. Don't panic! A Mummy in a Strange Land is still in action, and I plan to write a lot more here in the coming months. But, our darling Josh is about to have two separate surgeries on his eyes and we've decided his journey deserves a blog all its own. We'll post explanations of everything to do with his condition and updates on how he's doing here -  Seeing Josh.

When I started this blog over two years ago I didn't have a plan for it, I just desperately needed to write. I needed an outlet for all the ups and downs of parenting as an expat. I've strayed a little from that path, and it's become a blog about life in general, our life, more than life in Hong Kong, and I'm going to try and get back on track. I had no idea how many other parenting blogs were out there, and never expected anyone would be all that interested in what I had to say, but the recognition I've received lately has proved me wrong. There may not be many of you out there, but to those of you who are still reading, thank you! I hope you like what's still to come x

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bye Bye Baby

After a lot of angst, we are finally a dummy free household. Well, almost. I kept one, and it's hidden away, for absolute, disaster-type emergencies only - which I know goes against all the recommendations for weaning, but we have some big things coming up and I want one handy. Josh loved his dummy, it was his lifeline, his safety net, his comfort zone, on so many occasions from when he was just a few months old. It saved my sanity more than once too. Once we managed to get it to a point where he only had it for nap-times and sleep, but then he grew up a bit and started asking for it more and more often, and we couldn't say no. It was a constant battle to keep it out of his mouth. Then there were tantrums when he wanted it and we didn't have one handy (usually in embarrassingly public situations), and at night he'd often lose it, wake up screaming, and we'd have a frantic late night search under the bed until it was retrieved and placed back in his tired little mouth.

I stopped buying them a long time ago, letting the old ones get ratty and disgusting, hoping he'd eventually give them up voluntarily. We had the best of intentions when it came to weaning, but we also had lots of excuses. A change in routine here, a new baby there, and it all went out the window, and the dummy became more and more an essential part of our day. Every photo from our trip to NZ recently features J sucking on a dummy and I hate it! His dependence on it, and our inability to fight it, did my head in, but I had no idea just how much life, and our little man, would change without it...
Cold turkey weaning was never part of the plan. We researched and read a lot about the kindest, gentlest ways to do it. It had to be a choice, or really we had to let the kid believe it was a choice. We kept telling J that once he turned three he would be a big boy and we talked constantly about giving the dummy to Santa, and getting a very special treat in return. Then my husband took him to visit family in Manila for a weekend and forgot to take one with him. I had removed one from J's mouth to brush his teeth before they walked out the door, and didn't put it back in, oops... I was convinced Dave would go straight to the nearest pharmacy and buy another one, but to his credit he weathered the weaning storm, solo. It wasn't an easy battle, and one I'm not sure I would've had the strength to fight, but he came home a different kid. He grew up that weekend.

Six weeks later he still asks for it, at least once a day, especially when he's tired and/or upset. He's also developed a bit of an oral fixation and sticks everything in his mouth. I read somewhere that that can happen when you wean them too late, which is a bit of a no brainer, but we're working on it. He doesn't stop talking either. He's always been a chatty kid, with a great vocabulary for his age, but now that there's nothing "silencing" him, he has come along verbally, in leaps and bounds, and we're astounded every day at the things he says.

His other "comfort item," is a scruffy dalmatian who goes by the name of Potts. Potts was once J's constant companion, and anytime he was tired he would ask for "a dummy and Potts," the two things being part of one whole comfort package. Sadly it seems they were a package deal, and poor Potts has been neglected since we lost the dummy. I always said it would break my heart the day that Potts was given up, and it has, because my little boy isn't my baby anymore. Watching him getting around on his own in the world, soothing himself when life gets him down, it makes me proud but still deeply sad. I was so determined to get rid of the damn dummy, but I had no idea what would unfold from that simple act of leaving the dummy behind. I guess I should be careful what I wish for... In the days when he still had a dummy, at bedtime Josh would lie in bed humming and twirling Potts' tail, it was a sweet little habit that instantly relaxed him. Now he just turns a few times and sighs, a little sadly, before surrendering to sleep. Some nights I listen to him and want to give the dummy back, just to keep him a baby for a little bit longer. Sad but true...


Through all of this I keep reminding myself that I still have "Baby Charlie," as he is known to his big brother. He never had a dummy, but he still drinks from a bottle and rocks a onesie like nobody's business, he sleeps in a cot and can't walk yet, and will be my baby for a little bit longer. I just have to ignore all the info I keep getting from Baby Centre, that refers to him as a "Toddler" and his absolute determination to grow up even faster than his sibling.