40 shades of grey

Hello. I’ve just turned 40 and thought it would be appropriate to write about grey hair.

Here’s something I wrote for SBS.

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I was round Mother’s for a family dinner with various aunts, cousins and nephews. Ah, home sweet home, the one place you can be yourself and let your hair – 

“Oh!”

Mother had snuck up behind me while I was haunting the prawn cracker bowl. The force of her exclamation made everybody stop.

“You have grey hairs now,” she announced, pointing at my cranium.
All eyeballs swivelled in the direction of my hair before swiftly plunging back down in embarrassment.

Thank you, Mother, yes, I am going grey. 

Surprisingly, it had started in my early thirties. I say surprisingly because I was under the impression that people went grey in their sixties. Well, that’s what happened on TV – no one had given me the grey-haired equivalent of the birds and the bees talk. 

This is why I assumed I was a freak when I did find my first silver hairs. Of course, I labelled myself immediately. A premature greyer. Pigmentally challenged. But after Googling ‘when do people go grey’ so that I could check exactly how freakish I was, I realised that I’d been duped. According to the reputable medical journal ‘40plusstyle.com’, most people start going grey in their early-to-mid thirties. As the words flashed up on the screen, the penny dropped. It was like I’d been living in the follicular version of The Truman Show. 

So, I wasn’t a freak, but I was sad for my velvety, blacker-than-a-black-hole Asian mane. In its prime, my hair was so thick and shiny I could have been on one of those Pantene commercials (provided I didn’t turn around). And one of my primary school friends even adopted my fringe as a pet and would stroke it as if it were a hamster.

By my late thirties, I had developed a small thatch of snowy rebels at the back of my head. Was I self-conscious about it? Only in socially confined spaces such as deli queues, though I comforted myself that if I whipped out my pocket comb and did some aggressive Fonz-style back combing, no one would be any the wiser. 

Now that I’m 40 the greys are no longer confined to a manageable grouping. They’re slowly setting up outposts in other regions of my scalp. And against the black canvas of my natural hair colour, the greys are positively high vis. And unlike my blonde or brunette counterparts, I can’t gracefully fade out to an ash. 

And now I’m faced with the deepest of philosophical questions: what to do – or not to do – about my grey hairs. While I don’t see the need to purchase shares in my local salon to offset the cost of a daily tint just yet, I do feel that I need to research my options. 

What are my peers doing? Some are plucking, though a friend has confided that her centre part has become unnaturally wide. Another sprayed her roots with hair paint but ended up with Mahogany Brown No. 8 splattered all over her face Jackson Pollock-style, right before an appointment with her handsome GP.

As none of these responses seemed particularly inspiring (or effective), I looked to the veterans of the grey-hair game – my ancestors. 

Let’s start with my father. One day when he was in his fifties, I accompanied him to the barber. As the dove-white cuttings fluttered to the floor, he asked with a detached curiosity: “Is there any black left?” We concluded that the answer was not really, and he never mentioned his hair again. Dad’s approach has been to embrace reality and to rock a Brittney buzz cut. So far, he’s resisted the urge to make a statement about society’s narrow beauty ideals because he’d rather fossick about his shed and do other Dad things.

By contrast, Mother has been inking up at the hairdressers for decades, maintaining a helmet of shiny black that’s flecked with auburn highlights. When the coronavirus closed the salons, she adapted. In extraordinary times, people rise to the occasion and Dad – retired accountant and hobby watercolour artist – was summoned from his shed. Waving his paintbrush around Mother’s crown, he dabbed here, dabbed there and worked his magic from root to tip. Mother sent me a selfie of the results: consistent all-over coverage and not a splodge on their cream carpet. Look out Edward Beale, Dad Eng, senior colourist, is in town.

My maternal Grandma is also a source of #hairinspo. When I was eight and poking about her cupboards, I chanced on some wigs. They were short-and-curly perm wigs – the raven equivalent of Little Orphan Annie’s do. Again, I had been fooled – that perfect head of tight black curls had been an illusion. Since she turned 90, she’s worn her hair grey. She has, however, invested in an extensive collection of boldly-coloured furry hats.  

What I have learned from Mum, Dad and Grandma’s respective approaches is that whatever you choose to do, do it unashamedly. Should I shave it off à la Dad? Or make an appointment at his home salon? (The price is right.) Wear a wig? A hat? 

If I do end up dyeing it, I know that my four-year-old daughter will tell me when it’s time. While quizzing her on colours the other day, I asked her what colour my teeth were. 

“Yellow” she said confidently. 

The face for a Pantene commercial



The pathetic mewl of the tiger cub

Hello! Here’s something I wrote for SBS  on being a failed tiger cub.

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I’m a failed tiger cub.  I was the kind of child that would have given infamous Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, heart palpitations. Most of us are familiar with the Tiger Mother’s rigorous parenting style, where academic and musical achievement is forced on the child and failure (as signified by an A minus) is not an option. It’s an approach that makes the SAS selection process look like a tea party.

My mum and dad were Tiger Parents Lite. Sure, they wanted to elevate me to great academic and musical heights, but after trying to push me, an idle panda, through a tiger-shaped hole, they realised it was futile.

Like all good Asian tiger cubs, I was forced to take piano lessons. My teacher’s house was on the train line and, as I enthusiastically butchered sonata after sonata, I saw Mr Murrel thanking the gods for the few blissful moments when I was drowned out.  After several years of lessons, I amazed everyone by making absolutely no progress whatsoever and Mr Murrel begged my father to save his money and let me quit.

So, the piano was a no go, but what about something from the string family? I chose the violin’s more mellow sister – the cello. My teacher, the delightful Mrs Keunaman, loved music. Though something about the way I dragged that horse-hair over the taut strings conjured up creaky attic doors and cats in heat. I’m sure it was this that led her to bring my unbearable sawing to an end after about ten minutes and turn each lesson into a private concert given by herself (with the occasional lecture on the importance of women being financially independent thrown in for good measure).

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t become the next Yo Yo Ma. Indeed, the biggest impact I made on the classical music scene was when I left my cello in the school hallway with the endpin sticking out. My friend walked straight into the razor-sharp spike, shin-first. The result was a bloody hallway and stitches, though thankfully she was spared tetanus.

Science and mathematics are also a tiger cub’s natural calling and Dad encouraged me whenever he could. For the school science competition, my peers made papier mâché volcanoes and model solar systems using polystyrene balls and coat hangers. In hindsight, my project about primary colours was more a postmodern art piece than science project. I thought it perfectly reasonable to hand in a blank sheet of paper and three tubs of paint so that the examiner could have a dabble. A shameful A minus? Not even – I scraped by with a pass.

Sadly, maths wasn’t my strong suit either. My brother and I loved potato chips and I felt it was my moral duty to inform him that crushing your chips into tiny pieces actually resulted in more chips. He patiently tried to explain the concepts of mass and volume, but I wasn’t convinced. (I’m still not.) While I pecked away at my pulverised potato dust, my brother shrugged and lifted a perfectly intact crisp to his gob.

This was not an untypical scene. My pathetic attempts at excellence were in stark contrast to those of my older brother, who was effortlessly every immigrant parent’s dream tiger boy: scholarship, prefect, athletic star and dux.  You’ve heard of Type A personalities? Well he was Type A+. As he stormed home in running races and had his name etched in gold lettering on school honour boards, I was wondering when I could get my next potato chip hit.

But there was a glimmer of hope. Like all Tiger Parents, mine would set me homework during the holidays. Dad asked me to write an essay and I penned a damning exposé of my family, which included insights such as who read the newspaper on the toilet and who had the baggiest undies. My aunt read the essay and threatened to show my parents.  I would not be silenced, and for the first time I saw how the written word could move people – even if it was to disgust.

It turned out that I was less bad at English. I enjoyed telling stories and, unlike maths or science, there was no wrong answer.  After graduating high school, I went on to study arts while my brother studied medicine.
“But what job will you do?” Mum asked, envisioning a future where I’d be living rough with nothing to keep me warm but my unfurled Arts diploma.

“Would you like fries with that?” my brother quipped unhelpfully.

A couple of decades on, and my parents have come to terms with the fact that I’m not a doctor. (My brother is.)  While they’ve given up on me, they’ve got their eyes set on the next generation.

The other day, Dad asked after my three-year-old daughter.
“How is Holly’s counting going?” Dad asked.
“Pretty good.” I said.
“Time to introduce her to some maths, then,” he purred.

Stay tuned for the battle roar of the Tiger Grandpa.

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If you bash your chips up, you get more! (Note cupcake in one hand, chips in the other.)

 

Homework

Hello, many of you are now working from home.  Here’s something I wrote for SBS on the matter.

Stay safe people!

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How to work from home, by a WFH veteran

As the dreaded coronavirus closes workplaces across the globe, many of us find ourselves working from the ‘home office’. Piece of cake, I hear you snigger as you rub your little hands together with glee (with a splash of sanitiser). You think it’s going to be all feet up on the pouffe, watching reruns of The Bold and the Beautiful in your saggiest tracksuit pants, don’t you?

Well, as a seasoned work-from-homer, I can assure you that it’s all too easy to slip into slovenliness of both body and mind.  And before your KPIs become the latest victims of COVID-19, please consider some tips from someone who knows the pitfalls only too well.

Wash and get dressed

It’s tempting to lift your head off your drool-stained pillow at 8.58am and stumble straight to the computer, bypassing the bathroom altogether. As your laptop whirrs into action, you congratulate yourself on getting to work a minute early. Clothes? Soap? Why bother, you say. Well, let’s not forget there’s a pandemic going on just outside your front door and, in these perilous times, soapiness is next to godliness. And going through your ablutions can be the ritual that signals to your brain that you are ready to work.

It’s important to maintain your dress standards too (low as they may be). As a philosopher-CEO once told me, ‘casual clothes, casual attitude’. No one’s saying you need to be boardroom standard, just respectable enough not to traumatise the courier when he delivers yesterday’s online shop.  And no, tucking your pyjama top into the elasticated waistband of your undies won’t help.

Be comfortable

Comfort is paramount. Seven-to-eight hours is a fair stretch, and you’re probably used to perching on an adjustable swivel chair and peering into a computer monitor that’s been set up to ergonomic perfection by a qualified OH&S officer. Fluffy pillows, soft mattresses and couches that you disappear into are just not supportive of the ol’ bod, and if you start slouching, you’ll degenerate from straight-backed homo erectus into an ageing chimpanzee with thoracic kyphosis in no time. Get a desk (preferably not a round one; you’ll see why when you try to find an easy-to-reach space for your notebook and pen), a chair (with some cushioning) and get cracking. Don’t forget you can create a home standing desk too. Ironing board or kitchen benches plus a hefty dictionary does the trick.

Skype meetings

No doubt you’ll have to do a skype call at some time. Now it might have been a while, so don’t forget to make sure it’s actually downloaded onto your computer. Thankfully, you’re dressed for the occasion – well, at least from the waist up. Next you need to think about where you’re going to skype. Doing it from the bath is, obviously, not a winning career move. Find a quiet place that’s away from a window so there’s not too much glare. It pays to think about what’s behind you as well. Do you want your colleagues to see overflowing rubbish bins encircled by a mob of hungry buzzards? No. A white wall is safe, and perhaps a side table where you can casually place a few books, perhaps Ulysses and Long Walk to Freedom. For extra brownie points, frame your company’s vision and mission statements and hang it directly behind you.

The internet

The internet is a wondrous thing. It enables us to exchange pointless memes, rapidly spread misinformation and work remotely. It’s also a rabbit warren of distraction, and when there’s no one around to police your non-work-related browsing you can get lost in it for hours. We all know that feeling when your boss creeps up behind you, forcing you, crimson-faced, to swiftly minimise that Luke Perry Wikipedia entry and become engrossed in an Excel spreadsheet. Thankfully the rear-view mirror can stay in the office, but you can try an internet blocker or, as a last resort, willpower if you need to manage that browsing habit.

Feed yourself

It’s easy to fall into the trap of abusing food when there’s no one to judge you. In the office, you’re righteously snacking on kale chips and lunching on bone broth and soba noodles. At home you’ve ripped through a tube of Pringles and it’s only 10.16am. Try to eat nourishing meals in sensible amounts at logical times. Your immune system will thank you for decent tucker should the virus knock on your door.

Hours

Be strict on the hours you work. On the other side of slackness is burnout. It can be tempting to just keep going and to prove that you actually are working. But as the lines between work and home are blurred, it’s important to know when to clock off. A good indicator is when you’re unable to blink because your eyes are so dry.

So, there you have some helpful hints on how to nail the work from home situation. I wish you luck and good health in these strange times. Now, stop reading this article and get back to work!

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Distracting colleagues at home

Family in the time of Covid-19

Hello there. Goodness, aren’t these strange times. Here’s something I wrote for SBS on managing Covid-19 and families. 

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Can Dad come to visit us? Suddenly, with coronavirus swirling about, this is a question that we need to ask. He wants to drop off a food package and some much-needed baby wipes that he managed to source at the seniors’ shopping slot this morning. He’ll be on public transport too, and that’s not ideal. Plus Mum’s just returned from Egypt and, while she’s assured us she maintained her social distance from all camels and virtually mummified herself in protective gear, this adds to the complexity of the situation.

So we have to think about our response. After some back-and-forthing on email, we conclude that, as we have a baby, it’s best that Dad drops the package off at our front door and doesn’t come in. When he arrives, there’s no hugging, handshaking or coochie-cooing. Instead, he keeps a 1.5-metre distance and says a cheery hello.

“How are you, Dad?”

“Good! I don’t have coronavirus… yet,” he quips, before waving goodbye. As my partner and I watch him disappear, it all seems so weird, and a little sad. But of course, weird is the new normal.

I peek into the bag. He’s lugged 13 homegrown cucumbers (so we’ll be right for tzatziki in the event of a lockdown), kale leaves, homemade baby food, vegetable soup and those precious baby wipes.

“Why didn’t Goung Goung stay?” our 3-year-old demands. “I want to play soccer with him!”

We’ve explained to her that there’s a ‘nasty cold’ going around – and that the toilet paper makers, silly sausages that they are, have gone on holiday – and if she doesn’t wash her hands she could catch it and wouldn’t be able to play. We’ve also banned her from making her toilet paper scarves, bridges and streamers. It’s tricky, but we’re trying to find the right balance between keeping our young girls safe (and clean) without alarming them. Especially after our toddler has only just calmed down about the “fire bushes”.

Like so many people, we’re trying to navigate unfamiliar territory, including what to do about the older members of our extended family. I am part of a multi-generational clan that extends all the way from my 92-year-old grandmother to my 9-month-old youngest daughter. The sudden advent of the coronavirus has made something as simple as a family catch-up potentially dangerous.

My grandmother is obviously our most vulnerable relative. In addition to her age, she also has pre-existing chronic health conditions, and has even stopped visiting her beloved church and choir in an attempt to protect herself. So, in a time when she could do with some company, we’re not likely to be visiting – especially with our small children who are still going to childcare.

And then again there’s my mum and dad, who are nobody’s idea of frail grandparents. They’re active and robust… but they’re also in their late sixties/early seventies, which means they’re more vulnerable. Any of the activities they so enthusiastically pursue – visiting grandchildren, hitting the gym, playing tennis, attending art class and movies – could lead to them contracting the virus and passing it on.

Compromise will have to come and Mum is wondering whether she and dad should curtail some of their activities. To protect herself from the virus, Mum is relying on a facemask, head-to-toe sanitising and the dissemination of regular e-bulletins on proper handwashing to the family. By contrast, Dad says Mum is “over cautious”. He is hesitant to pull back from his cracking social calendar, saying that it’s only the oldies who will be most affected.

“We are the oldies,” Mum says wryly.

She is also keen to babysit for us as I head back to work (or now, back to work but from home) after maternity leave. “Yes, I’d love to. I have NOTHING to do!” she unconvincingly assures me. “NOTHING!”. We would love her help with the two tiny terrors, but that would mean exposing her to danger on a regular basis simply through the now-hazardous activities of using public transport and collecting her granddaughters from child care. And if she visits us, she should probably isolate herself from her own mother.

There are so many decisions to make. Do we FaceTime our loved ones for the next few months? Will we be able to call on them for help if childcare centres close down? Does my Grandmother have to learn how to use TikTok? The situation is changing at great speed and it seems we have to take things one day at a time.

Happily we’ve all agreed on something important – the family handwashing protocol. Thanks to Boris Johnson, we all sing a lusty two verses of Happy Birthday while lathering up at the sink. And we make sure to wash between our fingers and up our wrists too.

Dad and Holly ball

Dad playing ball with Holly in less pandemicy times!

3G mothering

Here’s something I wrote for SBS about the experience of being a mother.

Special thanks to Mother and Grandmother for agreeing to chat about their experiences and for providing photographs.

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Sleepless nights and food fights… From Malaysia to Melbourne, Kelly Eng looks at the stories and experiences of motherhood from three generations of her family.

My grandmother

Anna w baby Helen, husband and MIL,

My Grandpa (Kim), paternal great grandmother, my Grandma (Anna) and baby Helen (my Mum). Confused? Me too!

Despite being in her nineties now, my Malaysian-Chinese grandmother, Anna, remembers giving birth to her first child as if it were yesterday.

My grandmother was twenty-two when she had her first child (my mum, Helen). She was sent to a midwife’s house to give birth because her own mother didn’t believe in hospitals.

“No-one told me what to expect, and there were no birthing classes in those days, so it was all a big shock.” Labour took all night. “There was no pain relief, and neither my mother nor my husband were with me. But anyway, it was all so painful that I couldn’t think about anything else.”

When my grandmother returned home after the birth, she was looked after by her mother and a maid. “I was given traditional Chinese confinement food to help me recover – eggs in sweet wine and ginger chicken – and I was instructed not to eat raw foods as they would ‘chill’ the body. I was only allowed to bathe twice a week, with special herbs added to the water.” And her guiding light? “I always did what my mum told me to do!”

My grandfather, Kim, was a teacher and he worked in a different town, visiting on the weekends. Almost seven decades on, she remembers the moment he first saw his baby daughter. “He was so happy. He patted her all over!”

Just a month after giving birth, my grandmother went back to work as a teacher – my grandfather thought it would be better for everyone if someone more experienced cared for the baby.

After a year, my grandmother moved in with her in-laws. She went on to have three more children. “Initially I only wanted two, but your grandfather talked me into having more. He thought that a family needed to be balanced, like a car. So: four wheels, four children!” All six of them lived in one room.

My grandmother remembers Kim as being untypical of men of that place and time. “He was very gentle, and he really cared for the family. At night, he would get up to feed and change the babies so that I could sleep.”

When asked to nominate the best and worst aspects of being a mother, my grandmother answers, “The best part was seeing my children happy and laughing. And the worst part was when they were upset, especially when they got their immunisations: when they cried, I cried too.”

My Mum

 

Helen w baby Kevin

My Mum, Helen. That’s a hairdo!

Helen was born in Malaysia and moved to Melbourne when she was 18. She had my brother, Kevin, at 26 and me at 28. Although there were some similarities with her mother’s experience (labour pains of course!), her experience of giving birth and parenting in Australia was quite different.

“Absolutely horrible” is how my mother describes going through labour. “And painful and exhausting too”, she adds. “But when Kevin finally arrived, your dad and I were delighted and relieved.”

After giving birth, my mum stayed in hospital for seven days, and it felt like a holiday: “Ticking the boxes for my meals and not having to do the dishes… I loved it!”

Mum’s in-laws brought her Chinese confinement food, including pig’s trotters in vinegar and chicken and ginger broth. Like her mother before her, she was discouraged from bathing or showering as it would cool the body and cause arthritis. But there was one significant difference in their respective experiences of confinement traditions: “No-one enforced the rules, though, so I mainly did my own thing.” And does she have arthritis today? “Actually, yes I do!”

Mum’s parents were still living in Malaysia at the time. “I would have liked to have them around, but that’s not how it was. Phone calls home were too expensive, so I wrote them letters.”

My dad’s parents worked seven days a week in a Chinese restaurant, so my parents mostly did the child rearing on their own. Luckily my dad (David) was, according to Mum, hands-on and helpful. “He cooked dinner when he got home from work – quick things like noodles or vegetables and rice.”

For my mum, the hardest parts of parenting were the the lack of sleep and freedom. And feeding me and my brother was an ongoing challenge. “You kids barely ate the chicken rice porridge I lovingly prepared – if only I’d known that children won’t let themselves starve.”

As for the positives of early motherhood, Mum quips, “Were there any?” But she does concede that not going back to work was great.

One of Mum’s most memorable parenting experiences was flying to America when my brother Kevin was only 11 months old. “He cried the whole way, traumatising me, your dad, the lady next to us and a cabin-load of people.” Then, while she was out shopping for towels in LA, Kevin got quite sick. The memories of dealing with the US hospital system live on. And so do the towels. “We’re still using them forty years on.”

Me

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Four generations plus a really old air conditioner in the background.

I was 36 when I had Holly (3), and 38 when Edith (8 months) was born. After having had children, I am in awe of my mum and grandma’s generations, who did it without Google, baby wipes and online shopping.

It was an amazing experience to go into labour. Not knowing exactly when your life is going to be transformed forever is a great reminder that Mother Nature is boss.

Unlike my grandmother, I attended prenatal classes and read books and, in theory, I knew what to expect. But no amount of bouncing on a ball or deep breathing can really prepare you for the extreme sport that is labour. Or the intensity of the first few months.

Holly arrived on my birthday! I was planning to have Italian for dinner but ended up with a baby and a hospital chicken schnitzel. As for confinement activities, my parents aren’t very traditional so there was no suggestion of me being trapped indoors with greasy hair and a bowl of pig’s trotters. I ate salads, showered and, actually, when mum came to visit me after Edith’s birth, she ate my hospital food and used all my teabags.

Just like my mum, I’ve found that one of the worst parts of motherhood is sleep deprivation. Holly wasn’t a sleeper, and we tried everything. I rubbed olive oil on door hinges and blacked out her bedroom windows with garbage bags. God only knows what the neighbours thought we were cooking up. Thankfully, Edith is better so far.

Like both my mother and my grandmother, I have great support. Paul’s the parental good cop to my bad cop, and Holly is always sidling up to him for a Teddy Bear biscuit when I’m out of earshot. My parents will help out whenever I need it. I took the girls to a playground with them recently and it was like having two butlers – bananas were unfurled, toy unicorns were picked up…

And then there’s the steady food delivery service that comes direct from my parent’s kitchen to my dinner plate. They’re also 100% dedicated to feeding their grandchildren: Mum makes them rice porridge and, unlike my brother and I, they do lap it up.

While I’m permanently knackered, being a mum is fun, funny and has filled my life with purpose. I hope my girls can experience the joy they have given me. It’s still early days, but little Holly has said she wants one baby named Ronnie. Or Timmy.

How to be a champion yum cha-er

Hello there and welcome to the year of the rat. Here’s something I wrote for SBS Food on  how to yum cha like a master.

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The clatter of trolleys, the clacking of chopsticks and the merry sound of families sucking on chicken’s feet. Oh, yum cha! Food trends will come and go, but your appeal will endure.

I know that you know all about yum cha, the buffet tapas-like meal that takes place some time between breakfast and afternoon tea, where dim sum are rolled straight to your table. Of course you can spot a har gao (prawn dumpling) at 50 paces and are on intimate terms with the char siu bao (pork bun).

But could your yum cha-ing do with a polish? Perhaps a little upskilling to ensure you are putting the cha cha into your yum cha game? Here are some tips to help you munch like a master.

When to go
Weekends are ideal. This is when restaurants are at their busiest and will have the freshest and widest variety of dimmies up for grabs. Be wary of Mondays, where you may be eating Sunday’s leftovers. Timewise, choose the earliest sitting: they can’t have run out of anything if you’re first at the gate.

Who to take
Going on a date? Bring that third wheel. Yum cha is best enjoyed in a group and, as many of its goodies come in triplets, your party should be a multiple of three. Six or nine people is best as it means you’ll get to try more. And ideally your companions will be partial to seafood or pork.

Factor in the parking time
Those in the know factor in an extra 15 minutes to find a parking space. Suburban yum cha restaurant carparks are simply heaving on the weekends, and there’ll be vehicles left in all sorts of uncarpark-like places – up hills, in ditches and on kerbs. You can easily find yourself swerving around five-foot-high slow-moving grandmas before getting stuck in a convoy that’s trying to turn around in a cul de sac. Don’t waste precious eating time.

Seating
The best tables are those close to – but not right next to – the kitchen, where you’ll have first dibs on all the hot and crisp goodies. A table too far away means you risk missing out on your favourites, or worse, chewing soggy fried whitebait. And don’t sit near the toilet, for reasons we won’t dwell upon.

Elect a leader
Select a table leader. Your yum cha-czar should orchestrate a well-paced, balanced meal that encompasses a wide selection of items. The overture should feature lighter, steamed morsels before yielding to a crescendo of the richer fried and roasted goodies and winding up with a sweet conclusion.

Just say no
Those trolley staff can be brusque. Heck, you would be too if you had to push vats full of rice porridge across undulating carpet. As they hurriedly bark out the trolley’s contents, you might feel intimidated into saying yes to anything. Yes to the plates of crisp-skinned suckling pig. Yes to the oysters with melted cheese. But take note: these (and anything with the word ‘abalone’ attached to it) are the costliest items. You have the right to say no.

Branching out
Of course you’ll want the classics. Siu mai (pork dumplings) and char siu baos (pork buns) are must eats. But don’t miss out – branch out. If you love cheong fun (rice noodle rolls), skip the prawn version and try them stuffed with liver or Chinese doughnut. Going hard at the dumplings? Break them up with a pan-fried turnip cake (loh bak go) or a lacey taro puff (wu gok). Do you always finish with a mango pud and a custard bao? Swap that for an explosive drizzling sand bun or the sublime junket-meets-soup dish tau fu fa. And of course, you haven’t really properly yum cha’ed without chicken’s feet, though tendon and tripe also make for excellent textural delights.

To drink
Your beverage shouldn’t be an afterthought, especially as yum cha literally means to ‘drink tea’. You’ll want something with a touch of bitterness to help counteract the onslaught of oil. Pu-er is the go, though if you want something milder, chrysanthemum is a mellow beauty. To signal that you’d like a refill, flip the teapot lid so that it sits ajar.

So, there you have it. May you approach your next feast with confidence, purpose and an adventurous spirit. And, as the word dim sum translates to ‘to touch the heart’, long may those bite-sized beauties do exactly that (though not in a heartburny way).

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Three pushes and you’re out!

An article I wrote for Mamamia on how baby Edith came zooming into the world in three pushes. Hold onto your hats!

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When it comes to organisation, my partner Paul and I are like chalk and cheese. For a weekend away, he’ll print a comprehensive packing list and cross off every item as it’s packed. My approach is more casual – I throw bits into a bag, hope for the best, then wonder why I haven’t got a toothbrush or, indeed, any clothes.

The more significant the event, the more polarised our approaches become. Take the coming of our second child.

My obstetrician, Dr Pip, had advised us that a second labour could be fast, and my partner – knowing that I tend to leave for a 10 am appointment at 10.03 am – was keen to avoid delivering the baby on the kitchen floor while trying to fend off a toddler. Quaintly, he wanted me to give birth in an actual hospital, surrounded by qualified health professionals and sterile machinery. To ensure that this happened, he’d drawn up an intricate action plan that we studied and refined from week 25.

At 9.5 months, in the early hours of one morning, I felt an inner niggle. After Googling labour symptoms for the millionth time, I decided it couldn’t possibly be labour pains. I mean, how could it be, so close to my due date, especially when the niggle felt exactly like the labour pains I felt with my first child?

Come sunrise, my little niggle had become larger, and I had to concede that it probably wasn’t last night’s lamb madras working its way through my duodenum. I mentioned the niggle to Paul and off went his adrenal glands – he was at the door with toddler under one arm, hospital bag under the other and action plan, ready to start actioning.

I, by contrast, couldn’t see what he was fussing about. Rather than waste time going to the maternity ward, I determined to knock off a few chores. So, I went out and, between contractions, filled up the petrol tank, got bread, hand soap and some ham. When I staggered through the front door, Paul took one look at me and said, ‘Call your parents.’

The plan was for my parents to take care of our toddler while I gave birth, and as I spoke to Mum, I could feel Mr Action Plan’s eyes rolling skyward as I said things like ‘no rush’, ‘probably a false alarm’ and ‘Have you watched The Crown yet?’.

I’d barely put the phone down before my partner swept me into a waiting taxi. As we hovered in the hospital lobby, he asked for my parents’ ETA.

‘Don’t worry, they’re coming.’

‘How far away are they?

I texted Mum. ‘They haven’t left the house yet.’

My parents travelled the 30-odd kilometre emergency journey in a leisurely fashion, via bus, train and tram. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. When they eventually sauntered in, Paul sighed with relief, knowing that he had done his job – got me to the labour ward on time.

Well, almost. When we first arrived at the birthing suite, we were sent away. All the beds were in use, and a nurse instructed us to come back when my labour was more advanced. Oh, ok. Meanwhile, we could sit in my obstetrician’s waiting room.

This, I reflected, must have been how Mary and Joseph felt being turned away from various inns. Mind you, they ended up in a stable – at least the obstetrician’s waiting room had a couch. And an aquarium. Lovely gravel. Staring within, I noted that one of the fish looked a bit lethargic. Fin rot? Should I tell the receptionist?

But then, Dr Pip summoned us to her office. I mounted the examination table with all the grace of a donkey.

‘Now, let’s see how far along you are,’ she said, snapping on the latex gloves. A long pause. Being thorough, no doubt. ‘Oh my God! You’re fully dilated: you could give birth right now in this office!

This wasn’t the birthing environment I had anticipated. Only 35mm of door separated me from a waiting room full of pregnant women. Surely my screams would be bad for business.

I didn’t have long to ponder the acoustics as a wheelchair appeared, a sheet was flung over my lower half and I was run through the waiting room, down the hallway, into the elevator and back to the birthing suite.

Onto the bed I rolled and the birthing team looked leant forward as one and focussed on my crotch. Having people stare expectantly at your privates is always unnerving, so I tried to break the ice. We covered how I met Paul and workshopped potential baby names. Still no action. I was contemplating starting a game of Celebrity Heads when Pip decided that breaking my waters could move things along.

Move things along?? As soon as my amniotic bubble burst, I was possessed. I had no control of either my lower half or my language. Push number one felt like I had to pass a Boeing 707. When the birthing team started talking in soothing tones, I knew that carnage was afoot.

And this pain! How many hours of it would I have to endure? The second push came and re-dipped me crotch-first into hell. I tried to remember my pain management techniques – yes, a positive visualisation would help. Breathe the baby down! I told myself.

But it seemed the baby was already down. And out. At least, the head was, and she was babbling away to herself while the rest of her was wedged in the birth canal. Holy crap, there was a chattering baby between my legs. This was Alien crossed with Boss Baby and The Fast and the Furious.

Then the third and final monumental push and, voila, the baby was born.

Wait, back up. Did I just give birth in three pushes in under ten minutes? I lay rigid on the table in shock as my brain tried to catch up with my body. The slimy cherub was placed on my chest and everyone agreed that she looked like an Edith.

My partner wrestled with the rubbery umbilical cord. As he sprayed blood over Dr Pip’s blouse, I could see him mentally completing the final row of his action plan.

Healthy baby. Tick.

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Negligent mothers

Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for The Age addressing Leunig’s recent mothers-neglecting-children cartoon.

I thought it was an interesting cartoon that, for me, brought up many issues around how we parent, flexible work, the internet (!) and being judged.

Anyway, I had a strict word count so I couldn’t touch on much, but here it is. Please don’t call Child Protection…

***

Almost a week after Leunig’s cartoon of the pram-pushing mother distracted by her phone ignited outrage, I find that I’m still thinking about the central question that it raises: am I on my phone too much when looking after my children?

I’m confident that my three-year-old daughter would say that I am. Recently, she asked me to draw a playground. I obliged and drew her whizzing down a slide.

“Where are the parents?” she asked.
I drew in a mum and dad.
“What about their phones?”
I obediently put smartphones into their hands, and as I did so, I felt a pang of shame. A nerve had been hit.

That made me wonder, what am I doing on my phone in the playground?

A lot of my activity could be classified as productive: work, household admin and researching childcare-related matters. I tell myself these activities are necessary. I’ll even talk aloud, justifying my tapping away to my three-year-old: “Mummy is just telling Daddy where we are” or “I just need to answer this for work”, but still, my (over)use of the phone doesn’t sit easy with me.

To take the example of work, I have enjoyed flexible working arrangements. However, I feel I have to justify my right to this by proving that I really am working. That involves staying on top of work issues as they happen and being responsive. Flexible working is a double-edged right – I do get to spend more time with my child, but I’m not 100% present. When we’re in the park and she shouts out “Look at me!”, sometimes I’m not looking at her – or I am, but my mind’s in the office.

Mothers generally do the majority of child rearing alone, and that can be isolating. It’s a privilege, to be sure, but it’s also emotionally and physically challenging. Partners typically go back to work just weeks after a child is born and the mythical ‘village’ that once raised children doesn’t exist. I turn to the phone for company and advice. Where once we learned from our family and community, we now learn from online forums, blogs, YouTube and websites.

So that’s the ‘virtuous’ phone use. But there is also plenty in my usage history that doesn’t enhance my parenting – memes, cute puppy videos and Miley Cyrus relationship updates. And not all the activity that I like to class as productive needs to be done at the times that I do it – or even done at all.

When it comes down to it, my daughter can’t differentiate between my scrolling mindlessly through Facebook or writing an essential work email. She doesn’t care whether I’m using the phone to be ‘worthy’ and productive or idle and self-indulgent: what bothers her – and me – is that sometimes all she sees is the top of my head when she wants my full attention. At times she has batted away my phone and said firmly “no photo” or even just “stop looking at your phone”.

As I continue to reflect on the issue, if I’m honest with myself, my daughter is right: as a parent, I use my phone too much.

Kelly's drawing

I call this ‘Parents on phones in parks’

 

 

 

 

When sh*t hit the fan

Who doesn’t love a good constipation story? This is a labour story (kind of) that I wrote for Kidspot

*

My partner and I hadn’t gone out for a meal together since our 2-year-old was born. And with another child arriving soon, we decided to have one last supper (a very early supper due to both of us routinely being catatonically tired by 6pm) so that we could have some ‘us’ time before sh*t hit the fan.

On the morning of our big date, my 7-month-distended belly felt a bit…er, blocked up, shall we say? Considerably blocked, actually, but I was sure it would pass. Just another one of pregnancy’s funny little quirks that didn’t mean anything.

We arrived at the café and eyeballed the menu. Intellectually I knew that everything would be wonderful, but my stomach felt too compromised to be accepting new goods. Rather than force anything, I gulped down a black tea and, certain that I’d be hungry in an hour, requested an adjournment.

An hour later we entered another eatery. I would feel fine. No, I must feel fine. This was our one time slot to romance each other. A quick trip to the restroom would set things right. I excused myself to powder my nose. Five minutes of intense nose powdering became ten, which became twenty-five. When, after thirty minutes, my partner texted me to see if I’d fallen in, it was my grave duty to inform him that we’d run out of time and had to collect our toddler from childcare.

Of course, by then I knew. I was constipated. And not your run of the mill constipation – this felt like constipation cubed. Like I had a week’s worth of meals queued up on the digestive conveyer belt. Like I had to lay an ostrich egg but couldn’t.  I felt sweaty, weak and delirious. Embarrassed too.

When we arrived home, I tried to keep up appearances for the toddler and my concerned beau, but my forced laughter and ashen complexion were fooling no one. I limped back to the lav, hoping for a result. Surely the home ground advantage would help. But … nothing. Sweet Jesus, what had I done to deserve this? Did my diet, rich in soluble fibre, leafy greens and BBQ Shapes, count for nothing?

When my partner popped his head in to check I was all right, I wasn’t. I was curled up on the bathmat. He urged me to see the doctor. For constipation? Surely, they’d just point to the bottom of the food pyramid and give me a lecture on wholegrains.

More horrible time passed. I tried using positive visualisation (putting logs on a fire), chanting affirmations (my body was designed to do this) and singing Disney’s Let it go, but nothing was budging. Plus, as my partner and toddler might actually need to use the toilet some time that day, I concluded that professional help was needed. I couldn’t live like this.

The GP was a 250-metre walk away. Would my Mount Krakatoa moment occur on the way there, or worse, in the waiting room? But I had no choice. With quivering legs, I made it to the foyer of my apartment block before I had to check into the WC. Negative. So, on I lumbered, legs wide like an egg-bound cowboy, clomping one unsteady foot in front of the other. I could see the surgery in the distance, like a beautiful grey-brick mirage.

Then a keen-to-chat neighbour appeared. Gawd. I did my best to exchange pleasantries about the weather. Then the unthinkable happened: she went in for a hug. Not a light diagonal shoulder tap, but a meaningful, full-squeeze bear hug. I clenched my cheeks and held on for dear life.

Into the doctor’s surgery I fell, with guts intact, though barely able to extract my Medicare card. The GP listened sympathetically as I mumbled red-faced through my symptoms. After a mortifying Q & A, he concluded that I had a severe blockage downstairs. The baby had caused things to become, um, desiccated and impacted. Not to worry, said the doc. An enema would help. I didn’t know what an enema was, but after an explanation – and a helpful mime – and reassurance that I could administer it in the privacy of my own home, I was in.

I shuffled home with two magical wands in my clammy hands. It was time to induce this mofo.  Number one went in – or was it up? The instructions said it was fast-acting. I waited for the fireworks. Nothing. I checked my watch, 45 minutes later and no movement at the station. These were the slowest fast-acting enemas ever.

I clutched the second one. My only hope. In – or up – it went.  Thirty whole minutes passed and still nothing passed. I had just given up hope of leading a normal life when itfinally occurred. I’ll spare you the finer details except to say that the enemas were highly effective.

After my arduous ten-hour labour, I collapsed into bed. No stitches were required (and the walls didn’t need repainting), though one question plagued me: if I couldn’t eject yesterday’s Weetbix, how was I going to birth a human being?

Thankfully, the remainder of my pregnancy was free from any further gastrointestinal complaints and my partner and I even managed to lunch together. The experience has been humbling and educational.  As Michael Corleone (kind of) said in The Godfather, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemas closer’.

And six weeks later I ejected a baby girl in less than ten minutes.

 

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On breastfeeding

Wrote something for Kidspot on the horrors of breastfeeding.

*

I am not a natural-born breast feeder – not one of those women you see with a scarf artfully draped over her upper body while a compliant baby suckles at her bosom. No, I’m more the Quasimodo of breast feeders, hidden high up in an apartment block, hunched over my baby, fevered with mastitis and howling in pain from my nipples being shredded six-to-eight times a day.

Prior to entering the mother club, I thought that breastfeeding was a piece of cake. It looked easy enough – simply usher baby towards nipple, baby attaches to nipple and away it glugs. Surely breastfeeding would be just like the pictures: serene, with me bathed in natural sunlight and dressed in taupe and sage Country Road leisure wear. Er, no. I soon understood what the nurses meant by breastfeeding being a ‘learned skill’, which is code for fricking hard.

When my milk came in, it came in like a tsunami. One nurse, upon seeing my nipples splurting away like the Las Vegas Fountains of Bellagio, tipped her head back with an ecstatic ‘isn’t Mother Nature wonderful’ groan. While her eyes were rolling heavenward, I was feeling horribly wet across my newly inflated bosom. For someone who usually makes Keira Knightly look voluptuous, suddenly developing a Pamela Anderson chest was intensely uncomfortable.

Breastfeeding seemed to be disturbingly hands-on. By hands-on, I mean for the multiple nurses who poked, squeezed and milked me to the point where I wondered if what I was experiencing was assault. The set of instructions they gave me on how to feed was comprehensive, though to my sleep-deprived and holy-shit-I-just-gave-birth brain, incomprehensible. It seemed that I required a protractor and sextant just to get started. My posture was to be upright; baby’s head, neck and spine had to be aligned, her chin up and my nipple level with their nose… Heck, I even needed a civil engineering degree just to get the pillow configuration right.

Baby’s mouth also needed to be wide open to ensure that she took a huge mouthful, her embouchure encompassing not just the nipple but the whole areola (I had to Google where that was too). That’s the theory; in practice, the nurses would wait like coiled springs for the rare moment when baby’s jaw would unlock and then ram my newborn’s head onto my nipple.

I figured that by the time I’d gotten home baby and I would be feeding in perfect harmony, like seasoned tango partners. As things turned out, we remained like two out-of-synch teenagers doing the lawn mower dance at a school disco.

Of the many unexpected issues presented by breastfeeding, pain was the most surprising. I thought squeezing a baby out of a small hole hurt – but with a team of health professionals and opiates to spur me on, labour was, in comparison with breastfeeding, a doddle. As baby thrashed her head around, her razor-sharp gums clamped to my nipples, there was no one to shout you’ve got this! or pain is temporary! I tried to remember the practical advice the nurses did offer up – wiggle your toes or count to ten. Funnily enough, these didn’t offer much in the way of pain relief.

Then there was the issue of engorgement. My knockers were no longer soft orbs of fatty tissue; no, they felt like titanium wrecking balls that had been pumped full of concrete. The cutting-edge, 21st Century remedy suggested by the nurses was popping cabbage leaves in my bra, though all my vegetable drawer offered up at that point in time was bok choi. Was this as efficacious?

It didn’t help that the birth of baby signalled visitors, lovely, well-meaning friends and relatives who wanted to press my heaving and wincingly sensitive concrete bosom tightly to theirs. It’s not often you need to pop some Fentanyl before going in for a hug. Not to mention I was permanently sporting two huge soggy milk patches down my front, leading those visitors, the post man and Coles delivery personnel to assume I was abnormally pleased to see them.

Then the cruellest of potential complications occurred: mastitis. While websites describe it as presenting ‘flu-like’ symptoms, the reality is that the most unspeakably vile symptom is that it feels like you’re breastfeeding naked in the middle of Antarctica with nothing but a fig leaf for warmth. And you also have the flu. Nothing ‘flu-like’ about it – just the flu in all its savage glory. The shivering was violent, the headaches besieged my brain and there didn’t seem to be enough thermal attire in the southern hemisphere to keep me warm. And the cruellest twist? Rest is one of the recommended remedies. Yep, rest with a newborn.

Breastfeeding is seen as one of the great mother and child bonding activities. In my experience, I think we’ve bonded marvellously despite breastfeeding. Thankfully, it has become easier with time and practice. Or maybe my little poppet has simply chewed her way through my nerve endings so that I now feel no pain. My chest has also deflated a few notches so that I’m now a more manageable Peggy from Mad Men than Pamela from Baywatch. Though one cannot get complacent – come six months, baby develops teeth and at that point breastfeeding will be like a Jaws reboot.

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From Pamela to Peggy

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