Ni baba mama hao ma?

‘How are your parents?’ the teacher asked Mr PC, who shot me a wry look, and I know he was suppressing the urge to tell her that one of them was no longer alive, but instead he said: ‘They are fine, thank you.’

‘Are your parents busy?’ she persisted.

‘Yes,’ he lied, ‘they are both very busy.’

‘Are YOUR parents busy?’ she asked me…

…and I looked at her and then at my husband, and it was as if all the words had exploded into the air around us because they were Mandarin words, slanted whooshes and terse ‘s’ sounds, coming out of our pencils with crossed lines and little hats and tiny boxes like miraculous mahjong chips, and all of them now falling slowly around my husband’s head as he sat waiting expectantly for me to reply.

‘Could you just go over it again?’ I asked in English.

I think that out of all the new outfits I have been pulling on in the great changing room that is Singapore, Mandarin might be one of those reserved for the dressing up box.

Not like me

Sorry for banging on about it, as anyone who knows me knows I have been lately, but I just cannot believe that last weekend I threw myself into the sea and swam three-quarters of a kilometre and then ran all around the southernmost part of Sentosa Island for five whole more kilometres. Dressed in a tri-suit. And no one paid me, I paid them.

If you had ever told me, in the past, that I’d be doing something like this I would have spat my tea up my nose. I am the person who, aged 15, hated sports so much that I forged my sick notes and went home, went for a walk, did that morning’s washing up, even agreed to take part in some dreaded voluntary service – something/anything rather than motivate my skinny little body into doing anything sporty. Sporty girls were that generation’s mean girls. Sporty girls shouted at us on the netball pitch when we shot the ball off over the wrong net or watched it drizzle away into the bushes. Sporty girls yelled at us as we chatted about our favourite new 45 on the far reaches of the outfield (well, EXCUSE me, but we were trying to have a converSATION, thanks). No. Sports was for sharp girls in white socks with lithe, bendy bodies and boyfriends in the year above. Give me a packet of Bourbon biscuits and a cup of Sainsburys Red Leaf any day (or, sadly, 10 B&H, but that’s a whole other story and not a proud one).

Anyway, when it came to voluntary service, we (my partner in crime was my best friend, a girl who hated the S word even more than me) were sent back to our much-hated primary school, stuck in the two bottom infant classes and told to take over while the ragged teachers staggered to the staff room for a fag. We preferred watching the school guinea pig pee itself on the reading mat, rather than join our team mates on the netball courts.

One day the children had a black paint fight. I was happier tidying it up with wet newspaper than puffing up and down Parliament Hill on cross-country, or standing on some cold sports field, or getting bussed out to the Lea Valley like convicts only to spend the entire afternoon tipping canoes over while we sat in them (whose stupid idea was that?). Me and my friend would do anything, I tell you, anything rather than do any of the above. I personally would have signed up for extra maths. I would have retaken my history O Level mock exam. A.N.Y.T.H.I.N.G. We had an unspoken agreement that you lived and died by the bunk-off note, and after a while we started bunking off voluntary service, too: first person to get the kettle on and put the flame under the pancake pan was that afternoon’s winner. I think that’s when I really fell in love with The Kinks’ Face to Face album, as that was the LP I most recall bunking off to, back at mine, munching pancakes while the needle crackled.

And now I do duathlons. ‘What next?’ asks my sister (who also regularly asks me, in all-caps: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY SISTER?)

Well. Our soccer moms’ group has started a little training regime on Wednesdays while the kids do their practice. I’ve banned it up til now but I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to have a kickaround. There’s a nice-sounding 5k next month that I’ve already signed up for. I got a bike last weekend for Christmas and today I wobbled all the way to a friends’ house for lunch and back again. Doubt I worked off the wine but it was a nod to health. There’s talk of proper swimming lessons, which would help if I ever signed up to a swim event again, since the worst bit of Sunday’s race was being churned around like an odd sock in a washing machine while I puffed up and down with my ‘old lady’ breast stroke as all the other white-caps sliced through the waves with their sporty front crawls. There was a clue in the category title ‘Sprint’ that I might have to go faster than my current Blue Rinse speed and I suppose I could do with learning how to go a bit faster, and how to do it properly.

I think it’s not that I hate and loathe sport or can’t manage it, I think it’s actually the opposite: I share the deep-seated competitive gene that my mother had and that my sister, I suspect, might also have. Tucked away in the recesses of our emotional motherboard is a small switch dialed for all eternity to ‘GAME ON’. (My sister hates board games for the very same reason, though she would argue that she just hates board games). Once I understood, for instance, that many of the mums at the sports day hoop race some four or five years ago had actually cheated their way to the finish line (apart from second-to-last me), I was back bigger and better next year and from then on I either won or came second year on year. And don’t say it was ‘just’ an egg and spoon, I owned it and you can’t take that away.

I feel sure that this brief hiatus to my rounded, sedentary lifestyle will retreat, once I am back in the UK, along with the rest of my tropical pool-blue memories. I hope it doesn’t, and I’m gluing all the ribbons into a scrapbook just to make sure I really earned them. One day I might even take them to my friend’s house and get her to put some pancakes on. Or maybe, as my sister suspects, I really have been stolen by aliens seeking lazy cake-lovers to populate a planet that needs people to bake the best ever buns, while sporty replicas get put on earth instead? I’d be a great choice for the baking if so, though of course I’m not competitive about it at all.

PS I’d like to thank my trisuit, which I borrowed, and which not only kept it all in but looked rather good in the process. I’d also like to thank the friend who lent it to me. And finally I’d like to thank the random men who, every now and then, would bark out: COME ON ANZA! Only halfway round the run did I remember that I’d borrowed a suit that had the ANZA group logo all over it. They were such a nice bunch, I might even consider joining up.

As you were

IMG_5012That’s all folks: Chinese New Year is almost over. We’ve only had one Singapore CNY prior to this but already I know the drill – first, the fairy lights get taken down from outside Cold Storage. They’ve been up for ages – since November, when they went up for Christmas – and they’ve stayed up right through til now. The music in the aisles will return to ‘normal’: bluesy melodies by artists beginning with the letter ‘B’ (Bangles, Beach Boys, Belinda Carlisle). Like the lights, we’ve had festive tunes since November. Disney carols segueing neatly into upbeat renditions of the classic Gong Xi Gong Xi tune piping out from behind the boxes of pineapple tarts. After that it’s all fairly academic: shops take down the red hanging horses (snakes last year), sales come to a sad end, lions stop dancing around shopping malls, receptionists stop putting you on hold and pick up the phone, and there is a definite Return-To-Duties kind of feel about the place.

Chinese New Year is enormous over here and goes on for longer than many other festivals worldwide, with the general theme being about happiness and good fortune, and it does seem to make people genuinely happy. Singapore heralds itself as a city full of overjoyed people, or so we are told via numerous cinema and television adverts – but during New Year it really is. I shall miss the constant well wishes and genuine smiles at every turn; it’s been a real pleasure to witness the excitement at close quarters.

This weekend we saw a big parade that just so happened to begin at the top of our road; we only knew about it thanks to the road closure signs on the lampposts. Just as the first rains of the year fell (someone in charge of climate scheduling needs to look at that for next time) a series of huge floats set off for the city from the top of our street, amidst fire-cracker gun-bursts and the throb of pop tunes booming from the top of an enormous flashing Merlion: truly marvellous stuff. The resulting fog was a lot like the Haze, only happy.

It’s been lovely to have my annual sadness at the end of Western Christmas softened by the upbeat activites of this borrowed Lunar new year party. January* has always been a special month for us, housing the birthdays of our son, our two mothers and my best friend. Now it has another trophy to its display case.

*Or February, depending when the calendar falls. February is now fine, too.

Another bloomin’ holiday

Phuket for beginners

Phuket for beginners: don’t look down

You’ll notice we go away rather a lot. That was kind of the point of this relocation exercise – that we burn runway fuel as often as we can in the short space of time that we are here. I won’t excuse it any further, that was the plan and it’s going nicely. I give write-ups about things I have enjoyed and tend to leave the disappointments blank. I’ve written only a few Tripadvisor reviews, nine in total, to date. Four of those were pre-Singapore trips. Six of the nine have five stars; one has two stars; two have four stars. You can see that I really hate giving a bad write-up. So I won’t do that for Phuket, the location of this weekend’s Chinese New Year break, but I can’t say I’ll be rushing back.

It wasn’t the Newquay factor – I quite like Newquay, in the same way that I also like Scarborough, and also Herne Bay. Patong was flagged up as being a bit similar to all that, coming with several gaudy warnings, but it was alright in the end, a jolly strip of colour and sand, which SM loved as this is where he learned how to haggle, spending his CNY hong bao on a pair of flashy shades.*

In fact this was a holiday of firsts, and there’s a lot to be said for some of them: the haggling for SM, the ride in an ox cart, and also on an elephant – ours was called ‘Margaret’ and she was quite tall and loved our bananas. We also took a ride up a fast A-road in a flat-backed truck, that was another first.

The sun was very nice and our beach, Karon, was pretty, and the hotel not bad at all, really very pleasant give or take a spot of mould and a lack of authentic local cuisine. I mean, though, what’s to nitpick about, really, when you’re on a lovely short break like ours? If the staff are lovely, which they really were, just float into the pool again and leave the catty reviews off. Here I must quote a fellow Singapore-based blogger who writes about how she goes all-out to avoid the local hotel culture – it’s just not her thing: – I won’t stop HavingFunAtHotels, K, but I know what you mean.

Along with all the good things came not-such-good things: the chained monkey riding a trike, the skeletal oxen heaving us along in the cart, the poor old elephants trained to wiggle dutifully from side to side before popping a load of balloons with darts (I didn’t know whether to burst into tears or shout out ‘180!’) and then pretending to step on a number of small children lying prone on the ground, our son included, lightly tapping their huge feet on the lined up little backs; another first for SM, who of course loved all the animal antics. And no, I didn’t intend to see any chained-up chimps. ‘An elephant ride,’ was all they told us, and even that was something I had my moral doubts about.

Could it have been the pre-election road protest literally set up right beside us as we walked along Patong Beach road – causing a mile-long block and all the street vendors to come out and stare? Or the fact that my right arm muscle is now so much stronger than the left thanks to the bizarre position I adopted while we sped along in the truck, last passengers to get in so first ones, presumably, to risk faling out. Sat loosely on benches in the back of the open-air vehicle going very steeply up a massive A-road way too fast with nothing to hold onto but the ceiling strut above us and the rails on either side, I adopted a He-Man position, getting SM to put his little arm tightly round my waist while I kind of hung on over him. Every time the guy stepped on the clutch to get his tin death machine to motor on we were shrugged back towards the tarmac. I never want to have to do that again and wasn’t comforted when I found an online news report about the decline in Phuket road deaths not being down to drivers adopting a more sensible approach, but by the roads being jammed thus preventing instances of speeding. The taxi driver on the way back to the airport hammered this home, dashing us alongside a motorway ravine as his lids lowered again and again in the rearview mirror. Finally he decided to keep himself awake by repeatedly phoning-a-friend for the remainder of the hour-long drive. I’ve never really had a religion but I crossed myself when we got out. SM, after a spot of white-knuckle caution at first, of course wanted to do it all over again: blissful ignorance.

We weren’t entirely sure where to eat and should probably have done some homework, but Singapore has spoilt us with Thai restaurants like Esarn and Mai Thai and I suppose we were expecting something along those lines. We ate burgers and chips, a bit of floppy Pad Thai – I suppose if you choose to go to Newquay then you eat what Newquay offers. All credit to the Thai Airways restaurant on the upper floor at Phuket airport: really delicious food, finally, and a nice view of the end of the runway as well.

I’m not complaining though. I’m just saying. We did have such a nice relaxing time that I forgot (again) to write postcards but if I’d managed it then I would have genuinely wished you were all here. Or there.

*Mr PC’s lesson in haggling for SM amounted to: ‘take a third off and then halve it’. Sadly he didn’t supply SM with a notebook for all the workings out, and SM didn’t have the required 20 minutes to do such a sum, or access to a table to sit and make the required spidery mathematical diagrams, but he did a great job of sweetly asking the price and then sucking air through his teeth theatrically until the sunglasses lady caved in. I’m taking him with me next time I have to haggle, and pushing him to the front.