Is Santa real?

Here is something I wrote for The Age.

***

Recently, my six-year-old came home from school and asked, “Is Santa real?”

I wasn’t prepared for this. I gulped. I floundered. Frankly, I would have preferred ‘where do babies come from?’

Apparently, word had got around the playground that Santa doesn’t exist.

“But I spoke to him on the phone last year,” she said.

Perfect, I thought. Irrefutable evidence right there.

“Yes, you did!”

But then the bombshell: “Dad said he isn’t real.”

Dad said what? Surely, the question of whether Santa is fiction or non-fiction should be a joint parenting decision; it’s up there with choosing your child’s school and whether they learn flute or violin. We really needed to have presented a united front on this one.

Sensing my befuddlement, she made a helpful suggestion: “You could Google ‘is Santa real?’”.

“Well, I could, but it’s a mystery and no one really knows for sure,” I said, trying to buy myself more time.

I respect kids’ intelligence and their right to know the truth, but of course the problem is deciding how much truth is appropriate. To see the wonder in their eyes at the thought of Santa is to see something real and precious. It’s the purest magic, and to casually end that feels wrong. Plus, they’re growing up at warp speed. They’ll be busy vaping and scrolling tik toks in no time, and I wanted her to believe just a little longer.

I remember when I found out. I awoke one Christmas to find that the big guy had left my brother and me a one-dollar coin and a Minties lolly. And he’d left it in an old white bucket. As for his note, Mother had made no attempt whatsoever to disguise her distinctive cursive handwriting. No nice old man would leave me a dollar and a Mintie, I thought to myself. Case closed.

I did not want my child to face that at six.

A complicating factor was that her dad had volunteered to be Father Christmas at a community event. My kids would spot him a mile off, and no amount of white facial hair was going to change that. This would send her the message that Santa isn’t real, but if he is real he’s your dad, who doesn’t believe in himself.

In desperation, I went for the truth.

“Santa’s proper name is Saint Nicholas and he lived many years ago. The Father Christmases you see outside Woollies aren’t actually him, but they represent Saint Nicholas, who was the real deal.”

Naturally, the ‘tell me mores’ started, so we did some online ‘research’ about St Nick. The ‘facts’ were on my side. He was a protector of children. He generously helped a poor family who couldn’t afford dowries by throwing pouches of gold through their windows at night. The gold would land in stockings drying by the fire.

He travelled on horseback and would give well-behaved children sweets and presents (gosh, maybe that was him with the Minties after all), and children would leave carrots out for his horse.

St Nicholas also brought three children back to life after an evil butcher had murdered them and put them in a barrel to pickle (I censored that story, heavily).

As we learned more about this superhero, I could see myth, history and magic starting to blend in my daughter’s mind. She was disquieted and intrigued. We decided that St Nicholas was a real person who helped people with his special powers and that perhaps his magic is still with us today in some form. And that strange and miraculous things happen, but we can’t explain why.

I could tell that she wanted to believe, and this explanation was satisfactory. She has even gone back to penning some letters to Santa (one must hedge one’s bets): Dear Santa, My wish is for a giny pig [guinea pig]. If you say no that’s OK.

Come Easter, my partner and I will need to make sure we’re as one on the rabbit. Though actually, he admitted to me that he only denied Santa’s existence because he thought I would.

But for this Christmas at least, we’ve managed to maintain the magic.

Mum’s carpet

An article I wrote for SBS on Mum’s carpet.



Mum sent me a link to an article entitled, ‘The science is in: wearing shoes inside your home is just plain gross.’

There you have it, Mum wrote. Vindication.  

For as long as I can remember, the love of Mum’s life has been her carpet – 434 square metres of a wool/nylon blend shag pile in ‘frosty taupe’.  

The romance began in 1973, when Dad was sporting chocolate brown flares and Mum’s hair was perm-curly with a centre part. They were newlyweds and had just moved into a three-bedroom house in the suburbs.

As a wedding gift, Mum’s parents gave them carpet. From the moment it was unfurled, Mum’s life had purpose: to keep that carpet pristine.

This was a tricky proposition, what with a keen gardener for a husband and children on the horizon, but Mother is not one to be deterred by trickiness. Leaving nothing to chance, she devised a carpet care plan.

Rule number one was no shoes inside the house. This was typical in Asian households, although perhaps not as common in most seventies Australian homes. When one of my parents’ mutual friends suggested they throw a house-warming party, Mum put her foot down – gently, of course, so as not to inflict unnecessary wear and tear – no party on the new carpet.

The arrival of my brother and myself upped the ante – children aren’t the tidiest of creatures and mashed pumpkin is a richly coloured food. Mother had thought of that in her risk analysis and, each mealtime, her generous-in-radius plastic mats were placed under our highchairs.

Growing up we knew the drill. Shoes came off at the back door step, which was a perilous rubble of thongs, runners, gumboots, school shoes and loafers. Looking at the mound, I could see the logic. Our school shoes were caked in mud, our tennis shoes were stained pink from clay courts, and it was the eighties, so there was a high chance that a pre-chewed wodge of Hubba Bubba gum was stuck to the sole of your high tops.

Oh, but the hassle of it all when you’d laced up your stiff Doc Marten boots and had to run back in to get your lunchbox. What to do? Burst in fully shod and risk Mother’s wrath? Or master the art of walking on your knees? I chose the latter and became skilled at getting on my knees, holding an ankle in each hand and trotting along on my kneecaps across the carpet. Permanent damage to my patellas was a small price to pay to preserve Mum’s frosty taupe treasure. 

Our immediate family knew the rules, but outsiders, such as tradespeople, always posed a threat. A shoeless tradie was an occupational health and safety issue and so, prior to their arrival, every inch of the home would be covered in a collection of floral bed sheets and tablecloths from the last three decades. 

Visiting guinea pigs were also problematic. A friend brought hers over and, before I could shout “Not on the shag pile!”, Bindi was on the loose. Her bowel movements were frequent and I scurried after her with tongs and a plastic bag. Luckily, her hay diet produced droppings that were dry, firm and carpet friendly.

The biggest test came on the night we had people over for dinner. It was a big deal for us – my parents dusted off the wine glasses and brought out the ash tray. Mum cooked up a banquet and everyone was having a gay old time (in their socks) when the unthinkable happened. A wayward elbow, and over went 329 millilitres of Shiraz.

Mum, who was in the kitchen, entered the dining room with her beef curry and, seeing the red puddle assumed that the culprit was my brother.

“WHO did that?” she thundered, glaring at my brother.

A grim silence fell over the dinner party and everyone looked down at their rice bowls.

Then Dad, via some frantic eyeball work, silently indicated to Mum that it wasn’t her son who was to blame. It was one of our guests. And not just any guest – it was our beloved family doctor, who had shepherded our family through viruses, sprained ankles and even the removal of a giant wart from my left hand.

Realising her error, Mum backpedalled and tried to smooth over the situation. Dabbing at the stain and flinging around the baking soda, she laughed and tried to make light-hearted conversation. But the night never recovered. The awkwardness may have been amplified by Mum’s prolonged disappearance between main and dessert as she went off to study whether the addition of tetraacetylethlenediamine to hydrogen peroxide would be a more effective stain remover.

Decades have passed since that night, as has some of the trauma. For time heals all wounds and some stains. Mum has a new GP, I have two children of my own and Bindi is in a better place.

But some things are constant.

“Hey, shall we bring some Play-Doh to Por Por’s [Grandma’s] house?” I ask my 5-year-old.

“No” she replies sagely. “What about her carpet?”.

Carpet looking good

Behind-the-scenes on reality food shows

Here’s something I wrote for The Guardian on cooking shows.


It’s battle time on Netflix’s cooking competition Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend, and celebrity chef Curtis Stone is facing challenger Mason Hereford. Their task? To cook five courses in 60 minutes with the surprise ingredient (lamb). Each dish must be inspired by street food and cooked by fire.

“Allez cuisine!” shouts the host. Stone throws a whole lamb over his shoulder and runs with it to the workbench. He saws at the lamb neck, pounds furiously at spices and puffs into a charcoal blower. After a frantic hour, both chefs have miraculously created five gorgeous courses.

Drama, fire and close-up shots of the most mouth-watering dishes are just some of the reasons why we love a food show. But how do they do it? How do they so seamlessly conjure up photogenic phos and telegenic tartines that have us salivating at the screen? Legend has it that eyeliner makes great grill marks on steak, glue looks just like ice-cold milk and that car oil gives meat a lovely sheen… So, how much behind-the-scenes ‘magic’ is involved?

Very little, says Kate Nichols, a former chef who has worked as a food producer on many major shows, most recently SBS’s The Cook Up with Adam Liaw.

“The Cook Up is about real, home-cooked food. Adam [Liaw] puts his recipe in the oven and takes it out of the oven. Our audiences are smart. You can’t get away with fake food with high-definition cameras, and once you start touching it up, you lose the essence of the dish. We don’t touch up or replate dishes unless the sauce has set. If it’s a starchy food like risotto, then we might spritz it with water and olive oil, but that’s it.”

Chef Stone (who, incidentally, triumphed in the lamb battle) affirms that on Iron Chef, what you see is what you get.

“People always ask me if it’s real. Are the time pressures real? It’s legit – the craziness, not knowing what you’re using beforehand, the running around the kitchen: that’s what makes it special.

“On Iron Chef they like the gritty bits and don’t care if you get messy. There’s no ‘glam squad’ touching up your makeup in the middle of a battle – the blood, sweat and tears is all part of it and audiences like to see that intensity and focus.”

In episode one, Stone presents the judges with a lamb arepa served under a glass dome filled with smoke.

“I was clearly a little nervous as I was carrying it up. You can hear the cloches shaking in my hand! You’ve got to hold the plates perfectly still, walk across the room and describe something without huffing and puffing.”

Time pressure is also an issue for the people behind the cameras. Producer and director Lin Jie Kong travelled around Australia with comedian Jennifer Wong, visiting regional Chinese restaurants for ABC’s Chopsticks or Fork?

“Our show was different to those where everything is beautifully stylised and they’re in a controlled environment with a crew of 20. We had a crew of three, so it was incredibly low budget.”

Kong had just two days to shoot each restaurant, typically filming between lunch and dinner. To ensure that the chefs didn’t need to make dishes twice, she shot the dishes being prepared in the kitchen while the other crew members set up in the dining room, ready to get the ‘hero shot’ as the dish emerged.

“We are rolling as soon as the dish hits the lazy susan. You only have minutes to get the shot where you see steam rising or the broth glistening and before sauces start congealing.”

Small and awkward kitchens also presented a physical challenge.

“I’m not that tall and a lot of the workstations are high and the woks are deep. To film inside the woks, I’d have to raise the camera really high above my head, which is quite difficult, especially if they’re stir frying for five minutes and I’m trying to get that slow-motion stir fry shot.”

Iron Chef is big budget and plentifully resourced, with, reports Curtis, an art department that makes everything “big and beautiful. There’s a culinary team, too. If you ask for a rotisserie with a live fire bed, they just roll one in. Or you say: ‘I need an inversion circulator’ and they hand you one.”

While the budget expands creative possibilities on both sides of the camera, it can’t do a thing about the ticking clock. “Iron Chef is similar to a restaurant where your guests arrive, they sit down and order and you have 15 minutes to get them an appetiser before they get restless.”

According to Curtis, keeping calm on set is essential.

“It’s a mental game. You are constantly creating dishes in your mind while making sure that it’s all coming together on the plate. There’s cameras everywhere, producers asking you questions, you’re worried about what the other team is doing, you have sous chefs to keep an eye on… That 60 minutes flashes by, then you think, oh my God, what did I serve?”

Another way of minimising the risk of on-set disaster is to be highly organised.

Nichols explains that on The Cook Up “It’s like a military operation. All the refrigeration, storage and cleaning is kept like a commercial kitchen. On set, it’s all about being prepared for any last-minute problems and having a sense of how to cook food and knowing how it will react.

“Anything that melts, solidifies or is structurally unsound is challenging! The studio lighting is quite harsh, so you have to think about pastry under hot lamps or the food props at the back of set that sit out all day. When you work with cream, you put the bowls in the fridge before you whip it so that it can last longer. With ice cream – ice cream’s a disaster! – you need dry ice, freezers and extra scoops on hand.”

While working on Chopsticks or Fork, Kong found that stir fries – a staple of Chinese cooking – were not naturally photogenic and she worked hard to find their beauty.

“Certain stir fried dishes are harder to capture as they’re saucy and flat. Though if you get something like Mongolian lamb, it usually comes on a sizzling hot plate and you get the extra texture and steam off the top.

“There was a salt and pepper squid dish we shot which I think looked gorgeous. There was height in the dish, garnishes and a beautiful afternoon light coming through the window.”

So the magic ingredients for making food look beautiful on a screen aren’t magical at all – just preparation, hard work, food knowledge, passion and keeping cool under pressure when things don’t go your way.

Kong also cites another influence on what audiences see.

“We can talk about how to plan the shots, but there’s more to it than that. How we tell a story and what you see on screen is influenced by all of our individual backgrounds. Food is such a vehicle for love and emotion, and it really enabled us to connect with the people we met. I hope that we were able to capture that connection in how we shot the food.

Photograph: Adam Rose/Netflix

From sangas to sushi – how school lunches have changed

Here’s something I wrote for The Guardian on school lunches. Thank you to everyone who told me what they ate.


My daughter has just started prep and, in addition to the herculean task of getting her out the door five mornings a week, we have to pack a lunch.

It’s a complex business. Nuts are out and if there’s too much sugar, processed food or excessive use of cling wrap, your mug shot could be all over social media with the headline: “Distraught mum lunch-shamed over THIS”.

You’d think that Googling “kids’ lunchbox ideas” would help, but seeing what pops up in response can be overwhelming. There are heart-shaped sandwiches, alternating-coloured fruit kebabs, vegetable sticks with homemade hummus and Moroccan couscous salads. Plus, a handwritten positive affirmation – 2022’s essential lunchbox item.

What a contrast this is to my early school years, a time when fringes and Cabbage Patch Dolls were massive and slinging a lunch box together was no big deal. In the eighties, my aqua lunchbox typically contained a strassburg sandwich, a muesli bar and fruit.

My peers’ lunches were similarly unfussy. Chicken loaf was a popular protein; peanut butter was slapped on fearlessly; and prima juice boxes were a regular fixture – this was before juice was considered the devil’s sugary brew. Pieces of fruit rolled around our school bags for weeks until they fermented. And at recess, children skipped about with fluorescent-orange fingertips, thanks to the Cheezels and Twisties that they consumed for play lunch.

Sonia Wells went to school in the seventies. Vegemite or cheese sandwiches accompanied by fruit were the norm, ferried to school in a brown paper bag. Having immigrant parents meant that more exotic ingredients were also included. “Sometimes I’d take mortadella sandwiches. Nobody teased me. The area I grew up in was really multicultural – there were lots of kids from Greek, Italian and Lebanese backgrounds.”

One of Wells’s friends, who used to go to school with frittata sandwiches, didn’t have it so easy. By lunchtime, the sandwiches smelled and were soggy, making her a target for teasing.

The soggy sandwich is something that has blighted generations of students. Take Phil Smith, who went to primary school in the fifties: “I loved a beetroot sanga but the juices stained my books pink,” he says.

In Smith’s lunch bag, sandwiches ruled. Some of the filling options that were standard to him would be unfamiliar to many today. “I had Camp Pie and sauce sangas … Camp Pie is like spam but much better. There were Peck’s Paste sandwiches too [a type of fish paste], with a Monte Carlo or Scotch Finger biscuit thrown in on a good week.”

Smith could swap food with his peers without fear of triggering an allergic reaction. “I had a mate from Switzerland – he had salami sangas on rye bread and we used to do a swap. They were delicious!”

So what about today’s packed lunches? I threw the question out to an Australian primary school teachers’ forum and received many impassioned replies. The responses confirm that some schoolchildren eat “like kings and queens” with a smörgåsbord of wholesome homemade snacks, sushi, sandwiches or cutely cut fruit. “I look at their lunches and salivate,” one teacher said.

Several teachers pointed out that, while these lunches are usually healthy, the sheer quantity of food provided means it takes ages for the children to eat them.

Multicultural meals are common too and no longer a source of embarrassment, with students bringing thermoses of fragrant curries, noodles and fried rice. One teacher mentioned the time he was making a lamb and tzatziki wrap for his son’s school lunch. His own father, who had come from Greece after the second world war, was there at the time, and concerned that his grandson would be teased for having “different” garlicky food. His grandson assured him that the only time other children commented on his lunch was to ask if they could have some. The grandpa was amazed – his own experience with school lunches had not been so happy.

According to the primary school teachers, packaged snack foods like biscuits, lollies, chips and “SO much chocolate” are still fuelling a significant number of children. There were mentions of students eating a cold McDonald’s cheeseburger or a family pack of chips. Some children go to school with no food at all, a stark reminder that, for some, lunch is a luxury.

When packing lunches, we’d do well to remember that generations used to thrive on a sandwich. Tomorrow, I’ll just make my daughter a Vegemite sandwich and throw in an apple.

Maybe I should make it with wholegrain bread, or is sourdough better? I’ll add some cheese for protein. But will that make her too thirsty? Watermelon should sate her thirst.

On second thoughts, will the watermelon leak all over her sandwich?


Teddy

Here’s something I wrote for The Guardian.


The lost teddy

It was 8.10pm and I was running through the dark streets, desperately searching. Just as I was about to concede defeat, I spotted him. He was near the corner pub, lying lifelessly on the nature strip.  I looked upward to thank the heavens, then messaged my partner: I’ve found Teddy.

Teddy was my child’s, well, teddy. The two were inseparable.  He did all that a good ‘transitional object’ should do – helped Holly get to sleep and soothed her when she was upset. But Teddy was much more than that; he was her confidante, cub, dance partner, hanky, sunshade, plate, mop and weapon.

Just a couple of years in the job had taken its toll on Teddy. A once handsome, light-brown bear, he’d become matted and filthy. He looked, as my partner cruelly observed, like a rag with a head. But Holly adored him and that made him priceless. If we couldn’t find him, Holly wouldn’t sleep. If Holly didn’t sleep, neither could we. And thus it was that a ragged bear became the central figure of our family.

Understanding the precariousness of our situation, we bought back-up bears – a gaggle of understudies if we lost the main man. None fooled Holly. They were too fluffy, too odourless or their eyes were too close together. And although we tried to age them (rolling them in the dirt and squishing them under mattresses), she knew.

Holly was our only child then, though it was like we had two. When we hired a babysitter, we emphasised that, while Holly was important, so was Teddy and he should be included in any head count. When the babysitter returned from taking Holly to the park one day, she burst through the door: ‘Is Teddy here?’ she asked frantically. We assured her that he was, and relief washed over her.

Unhelpfully, Teddy was the master of camouflage – especially at bedtime – his nondescript ratty colour ensuring that he blended perfectly into bathmats, carpets and upholstered dining chairs.

It also didn’t help that Holly would habitually fling him out of the pram – maybe she was practising the adage ‘if you love them, set them free’.  More likely she was testing us. We found him in the library, the café, the gutter and even on the road – clearly a hit-and-run victim as he was even flatter than before and had a tyre mark down his front.

Somehow Teddy always found his way back to us.

Except that one day he didn’t.

One wintry day, Teddy wasn’t in the pram. Or at home or the park. After so many false alarms, I was confident he’d show up. We just had to look harder. We retraced our steps, looked in bushes and posted a LOST BEAR sign in the local neighbourhood Facebook group (all we got was twenty-two sad face reactions).

But this time he didn’t show up. He was definitely gone.

Holly was inconsolable, and so were we. In desperation we pulled out the back-up bears. That failed. We tried other, similar soft toys. But she wouldn’t have it.

A few weeks later, something odd happened. She chanced on one of the spare bears in her toy box.

‘It’s Teddy!’ she cried. ‘He’s back.’

He clearly wasn’t, and I studied her, trying to work out what was happening.

‘Er, yes… he’s back!’ I said, playing along. ‘And he’s so fluffy as he’s been… out in the rain?!’

OK, so I wouldn’t have won an Oscar for that dialogue, but I didn’t need to. I padded out the story, adding in bits about where he’d been and not having a hairdryer to tame his wild fur.

With Teddy’s ‘return’, I thought we would slip back into the swing of things, but it was never quite the same. Our enthusiasm for the new guy was a little forced. Holly knew that we knew but perhaps she was just trying to create an alternative and comforting reality; or finding a way to leave Teddy on her own terms as she gradually shifted her attention to a little mauve unicorn.

Now we have a second child, and her choice cuddly toy is an owl. We’ve learnt our lesson and bought five birds, diligently rotating them so that each is worn down equally and infused with the home scent. Already we’ve lost three.

I think I’d better sew a GPS tracker into each of the last two.

One of our near misses
Teddy

WFM

Here’s something I wrote for The Guardian on working from my parents’ home.


“What do you like on your pancakes?” Mum asks.

It’s our first day working from Mum’s house and she’s made morning tea. My kids’ preferred condiment is strawberry jam, and Mum’s face drops: “We’ve got none,” she says.

In my peripheral vision, I spy Dad lacing up his shoes and scurrying off to the local shops for some strawberry jam.

*

As Omicron numbers spiralled, my partner and I decided that that sending the kids to childcare was too much of a risk. Our relief at having made the decision to pull them out was tempered by the knowledge that we’d have to work from home with kids. Having scraped through the last two years of lockdowns – working till midnight and peering at spreadsheets through blood-shot eyes while trying to stop two small children from hurling themselves off a dining table – we braced ourselves for the next push.

Then my Mum suggested that we work from their home while she and my Dad looked after our children. We gratefully accepted the offer. What could go wrong with three generations going about their business under one roof?

As Dad onboarded us with the Wi-Fi password and Mum explained where the pens were, things were going swimmingly. The girls were capering about the garden looking for tomatoes and getting tennis lessons with their grandpa. Reflecting that this was the stuff of work-from-home dreams, I took a call.

Suddenly there came an almighty clanging. Peering into the kitchen, I saw Dad, in a powder blue floral apron, beating the heck out of the wok as he prepared lunch.

“What” [CLANG] “is that?!” [CLANG] my caller asked, alarmed.

“Oh, renovations next door,” I lied.

Having both retired some years back, Mum and Dad were unaware of Zoom etiquette having come from ye olde days when people did meetings in person.

Halfway through a weekly catch-up with my manager, Mum materialised from my blurred background to serve me a smoothie in a seventies punch glass. Later, I spent an entire stakeholder engagement meeting on edge because I knew she’d just poached a chicken in rice wine and there was an outside chance the fowl would make an appearance.

Those few quirky moments aside, the WFM’s – Work From Mum’s, that is – arrangement is paying dividends. We’re spending quality time together – something that has been impossible for long stretches of the past two years.

During the day, I see the girls whizzing outside on their bikes with Dad patiently clomping after them. I catch snatches of conversations as they enjoy ice creams on the patio, gaze out at the lettuce patch and discuss their favourite animals.

And Dad, a retired accountant, now has many an opportunity to shoehorn in a maths lesson. No matter how long the girls take to get the right answer, he’ll exclaim, “Top of the class!” or “You’re no slow coach!”  

The catering is particularly outstanding, a world away from a hastily ripped open tin of tuna. Dad’s speciality is stir-fried tomato prawns and spring rolls while Mum will have baked a slab of zucchini slice or 50 sausage rolls.

At 3pm, Dad knows that the mid-afternoon slump is upon us and he’ll be jiggling tea bags in cups. “Biscuit?” He’ll ask, thrusting a scotch finger our way.

At the end of the day, we back out of the driveway in a shiny car – yes, Dad throws a car wash into the deal – with two clean girls and enough snacks for a village.

Countless people have struggled in this pandemic. Many have no friends or family whose help can be enlisted and I know how lucky I am. The devotion and patience my parents show their grandchildren is legendary, and I salute them and all the grandparents who can step up and help their families get through this time.

Back to that jar of strawberry jam – the girls refused to eat it.

Covetiquette

Here’s something I wrote for The Age on ‘Covetiquette’.


I was raised in a non-physically demonstrative family. Kissing and hugging was not our thing. Passing the soy sauce bottle to each other at dinner was the most touchy-feely we got, and the deeper emotions were expressed in other ways. When, for example, I was upset because my Grandmother had died, Dad consoled me by offering to buy me a new tennis racquet.

Don’t get me wrong, though: if it was medically necessary to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre, we’d certainly invade each other’s personal space. But to say hello? Woah there, cowboy.

That was my upbringing, and when I was released into the world of physical greetings – handshakes, bear hugs, high fives and continental kisses – I had to learn what to do.  

Initially I was flummoxed. What was an appropriate length of time for a hug? What percentage of your trunk do you press to your fellow hugger? Kissing was even more complex – lips didn’t seem to connect with cheeks. And how did people feel about tongues?

Deciding that the best way was to follow others’ lead, I soon learnt these strange rituals and was embracing and smooching everyone from work colleagues to the Coles delivery man.

Then COVID hit and suddenly I had to unlearn everything. A cheery wave from 6 feet away was not only acceptable, it was encouraged. It was confusing.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I wobbled awkwardly around people. I’d thrust my hand out and have to retract it immediately. We’d lean in for a cheek kiss then, like a pair of nervous pigeons, bob our heads back and forth when we realised it wasn’t COVID safe. What about the elbow bump, you ask. Well, I knew where everyone’s elbows had been – connecting to filthy high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and lift buttons – and there was no way I was going there.

Somewhere in one of the lockdowns (it’s all a blur, isn’t it) I mastered the required procedure. Months of a hermit-like existence meant that whenever I met anyone, I’d keep my arms firmly plastered to my sides and then overcompensate for the face mask, sunglasses and lack of physical touch by pouring all of my expressiveness into my forehead.

Then the vaccines came and lockdowns ended. I saw people on the streets greeting each other gaily like it was December 2019. Everybody was at it. At a children’s birthday party, someone extended their hand and said, ‘nice to meet you’. My mind whirred – was this a weapon of mass biological destruction I saw before me? I was weighing up whether to plunge my paw into the pink lemonade in the absence of sanitiser, but in the end I shook her hand firmly and survived.

I suspect that with Omicron here it’s all going to change again. I simply can’t keep up. So I suggest that we all just grab the sides of our jeans, dip slightly at the knees and bring back the damn curtsey.

Covid-safe greeting.

The Christmas spirit

Ho ho ho. Here’s something I wrote for The Age on the Christmas spirit. May you all have a wonderful festive period!


I was going to say that Christmas has crept up on me, but actually this year it feels more like an ambush and I feel a little resentful.

Most of my grinchiness is due to my woeful non-attempts at Christmas shopping. I left everything too late and then Googled “What time does Big W close?”, which prompted a frenzied nocturnal shopping expedition.

I’d sworn to myself this year I’d keep my list of present recipients minimal – but after a few laps of the aisles, I’m sucked in and find myself considering a potpourri sachet for that neighbour I smiled at once in 2014.

But I decide against it. All that spending is wasteful, and how many presents are really appreciated on the big day among the gift paper ripping, the forced smiles and everybody being overwhelmed by ham?

But despite all the Christmas chaos, I know there are some aspects that make it all worthwhile.

Like the other day, when I was dragging my two small children to the supermarket. I was just dousing the trolley in acid to protect us from the coronavirus when the little ones shrieked. They’d spotted a Christmas tree in a nail bar.

Running towards it, they danced around it with their arms raised like two possessed elves. Never mind that the tree was tacky and sparsely decorated. The people inside looked up from their lobster-roll-red shellac manis, tipped their heads 35 degrees to the right and watched my girls wistfully. As did I.

A couple of weeks ago, my parents invited the girls to help decorate their tree (though as the post-lockdown Christmas traffic doubled the length of the journey to their place, I found myself fantasising about back-burning their tree). But when we finally arrived and I started to unbox those old familiar decorations, that Christmas feeling returned.

A velvet Santa, a felt teddy bear and a, ahem, “unique” bauble that Mum made in a 1970s craft class. My children looked at these decorations with the same reverence I did decades ago.

My festive feelings peaked when we untangled the Kmart lights that had lit all the Christmases of my youth. After some nerve-wracking moments of unresponsiveness, they spluttered into life, casting a lurid pink glow on my youngest’s amazed face.

There’s one moment that de-Scroogifies me every year. I live near a children’s hospital and early on Christmas morning a fleet of tinsel-covered fire trucks hurtle past on their way to the hospital to put on a show for the kids. Something about the cacophony of their sirens moves me and I rush out onto the street, waving and cheering them on as they head off to do some of their worthiest work.

Children amazed that Santa is coming down the chimney. I think Santa would be stoked at how skinny his ankles are. By Holly
Kmart Christmas Lights. Just noted the warning: “not to be used near metal foil decorations or the like”.

Back to the office

Working with kids during the pandemic has been challenging (I may never actually recover), but the flexibility has been brilliant. Something I wrote for The Age.

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The debate about how the world of work can realistically accommodate mothers juggling childcare and careers is not new.

But as Victoria reaches its 90 per cent vaccination milestone and many of us head back into the office, the nature of the debate has changed – many of us have now spent long periods working from home, and we know it works.

As a working mum of two young children, my experience of working from home is that the flexibility it offers has made me a more productive worker and a better parent.

Working and parenting often feels like you’re trying to fit a star-shaped block through a square hole. No matter how hard you push – with compressed hours or recruiting grandparents to help – it never seems to fit and it’s a constant juggle.

In March 2020, when I was due to return to the office after maternity leave, I was planning how to manage breastfeeding and calculating the number of hours I wouldn’t see my kids. Then the pandemic hit and my daily commute shrank to the 20 steps to my dining table.

I wanted to spend more time with my second-born but never anticipated it would be a virus that would enable this to happen. She attended childcare until centres closed to all but essential workers.

Suddenly, breastfeeding was possible and I didn’t have to worry about pumping milk before work. I worked around her naps and even developed a late-night work rhythm with other mums, the emails going back and forth between 8pm-11pm.

Then when childcare opened up again, I could enjoy the convenient travel situation – all it took was a three-minute jog down the road to childcare in my tracksuit pants. I no longer had to factor in heels or travelling into the city.

Our work days were shorter and the kids were home earlier. We could all enjoy the small things that connect families – dinner, baths and watching TV together.

I could also be with the kids more easily when they were sick. Rather than feeling embarrassed about requesting carer’s leave for yet another sniffle, my partner and I tag-teamed through it. We didn’t have to constantly advertise our absence from the office and could manage our kids’ illness more discreetly.

As the pandemic rolled on, I felt more confident in applying for new jobs. I’d clung to the old one for the location and flexibility it had given me, but the changed situation meant I could go for more challenging jobs, confident that the pandemic had created a climate that made requesting a family-friendly work situation unnecessary.

Pre-COVID-19, I had conversations with other mums about when you should bring up the “f” word (“flexibility”) in job interviews. The consensus was that if you brought it up too early, you’d likely be out of the running. The lack of flexibility offered in many jobs no doubt prevented many mums from applying for roles they would have excelled in.

Family and flexibility is not something you should feel you have to hide. The pandemic has shown me that it’s possible to balance family life and work – not perfectly, but in a better way – and it would be a shame if that was lost in the big return to the office.

Gold digger

SBS asked if I could write something about the gold rush. Here’s something I cobbled together.

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Until recently, all I knew about my great-grandfather was that he had come to Australia as a young man to find gold. Now that I’m older, I’ve become more curious about him – and I’m glad I have. Speaking to my dad and aunts to learn more about his life, and how he shaped our family’s history, has been fascinating and humbling.

Herng Chong Eng was born in Taishan in China’s south in the 1860s, by which time the Gold Rush was in full swing. When Herng was 20, he set off to join his two older brothers in a country they called ‘New Gold Mountain’.

Herng’s journey was – as the local diggers would have said – hard yakka. Having travelled from his village to Hong Kong on a tiny boat, he would have waited in a shanty town until he could board a ship for the three-month voyage.[1] The 12-weeks he spent at sea was only part of the journey. Many Chinese miners were ‘dropped off’ in South Australia to avoid a £10 tax in Victoria. Those men (few women came) often walked between 500-800 kilometres to get to Victoria. My great-grandfather was possibly one of a long line of Chinese men, making their way across the Australian landscape to Ballarat.

When Herng arrived in Victoria, the Gold Rush had already peaked. Joining his brothers in the tight-knit Chinese community, he would have found market gardens with Chinese vegetables and people who spoke Cantonese. He would’ve played mahjong and gone to concerts, although Chinese entertainers (including seven-foot-eight Chang the Chinese Giant) had mostly stopped coming by the 1880s.

Herng worked in Ballarat, Maryborough and Bendigo. The reality of his daily life was likely one of exhaustion and some hostility from the locals. I hope that his personality, which my aunt described as that of “a very nice man, easy-going, a real gentleman”, helped him to make friends, and even integrate into Australian life. We know that he mingled with the locals, enough to learn English and speak it well. Apparently, if you closed your eyes and heard him speak, you would have thought he was a western man.

Herng never found gold, but he worked as a carpenter and sent money back home to his family. Dad believes that Herng made the boat trip back to China six times, including to get married. He was in his 50s when he married Toy Yeung Chu, who was 25 years his junior. I’ve heard that my great-grandmother was quite tough and it’s no wonder: she would have barely seen her SISO husband (Ship In Ship Out), and managing the household with her bound feet would have been challenging.

When Dad told me that Herng had a child (my grandfather) in his 60s, I was confused. Was there another wife? An Australian girlfriend? Fertility issues? I found out that Herng and Toy had lost children very early on – a boy and a girl. After this, they adopted a son and then had my grandfather late in life.

Like many Chinese men at the time, Herng worked as a furniture maker. He worked just four kilometres from where I now live, in Melbourne’s city centre. There’s a building there that belonged to Herng’s brother. “Go to 242 Exhibition Street,” Dad told me. “And look up.” The name Peter Hong Nam 1910 is still branded on the building.

After 48 years working in Australia, Herng packed up his tools and went home to China. He’d made enough money to live comfortably and he ran the local temple, reading people’s fortunes on flat bamboo fortune sticks. Herng didn’t foresee his own fate. One day, rumours reached him that the bank in which he’d deposited his savings from Australia had collapsed. Rushing there to see if the news was true and finding that it was, he had a heart attack on the spot. He never really recovered and died in the early 1940s.

Herng’s son, my grandfather, would’ve heard stories of Australia, and in the 1950s he packed his recipe books and flew to Melbourne, working in Chinese restaurants and making dim sims. My Dad followed a few years later.

I feel privileged to be able to piece together Herng Chong Eng’s story, to preserve the fragments of our history that might’ve disappeared. But I have so many more questions. What were the goldfields like? What kept him going when things were tough? Did the Australian flies drive him crazy?

Maybe my kids, his great-great-grandchildren, will one day marvel at how his story is interwoven with this country and draw strength from knowing that Herng Chong Eng was an intrepid, adaptable man – and an excellent long-distance walker.


[1]  (Voyaging to Australia (victoriancollections.net.au)) 

Great Grandfather’s carpentry tools still at the family home in China
Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother

Building in Melbourne CBD that belonged to a relative back in the day “Peter Hong Nam 1910”
Chang the Chinese giant