The joys of eating alone

I like eating alone. Here’s something I wrote for SBS.


People gush about the benefits of families eating together – it’s a ritual that apparently strengthens families, boosts a child’s vocabulary and combats obesity and juvenile delinquency.[1] [2]

We only have to look at the movies to know that family mealtimes are a big, life-affirming deal. Parents call out ‘dinner time!’ and children lay aside their homework and run (in an orderly manner) towards an actual table with unprocessed food on it. Then they pass the potatoes and talk about their day. Or, if we’re talking a multigenerational family, there’ll be a long table at a rustic farmhouse. People are wearing beige linen trousers, eating heirloom tomato and farro salad and look pleased to see each other.

Pfft, I don’t believe it.

In the real world, families are often too busy to eat together. Congregating around a dining table seems quaint, and work, school and judo/violin/creative movement classes, plus our unique dietary needs (I’m keto, I’m gluten free, I only eat white sugar), take precedence over anything communal. Today, we often dine alone. Or with a device, our faces green from YouTube’s glare.


And amen to that. I say this because eating with family is a lot of hard work.

Let’s start with children.

My own at-home experience shows that dining with minors is like an X-rated horror story. There’s pleading, shrieking, rice grains zipping through the air like shrapnel and usually some kind of red sauce flowing down the walls. To fend off the rabidly hungry children, we offer them broccoli florets (look, little trees!), but the tiny savages won’t have it and inevitably we toss them something crumbed and fried to delay having to call for police back up.

As a parent, I also feel the constant need to set a good example. Extolling the virtues of kale while also trying to conceal the Ferrero Rocher chocolate bulging in my cheek (“it’s an oversized goji berry, promise!”) takes its toll. But come 8.30pmish, when the kids are in bed, you can finally unleash and, unobserved, eat foods that are completely inappropriate for small people.

Want a spring roll wrapped in Wonder White bread? Let me get you the tomato sauce! How about cereal and champagne? Sashimi and sausages? Or something piping hot, filled with tiny bones or riddled with chili? The fridge is your (canned smoked) oyster and no small person can rob you of that joy.

Yes, eating alone is my precious me time (well, that and the occasional solo trip to the supermarket #mumsgonewild). With the cherubs otherwise engaged, I have the luxury of sitting down, using both my hands and eating quietly and carefully. I can even chew.

So that’s the joy of eating with kids summarised, what about the wider family? In short, it’s a gruelling multitasking minefield.

Take Grandma’s 80th birthday – you need to remember names and occupations; mask your disdain for cousin Dudley; have your small talk ready, “lovely weather we’re having”; and actually connect a fork to your face.

If that’s not overwhelming enough, some foods are plain tricky to eat and need your full attention. It’s hard to keep up the cutting edge conversation when you’re sucking on a crab leg; gnawing furiously on anything chewy (tripe, abalone); needing to open your mouth very wide (for anything in a lettuce cup); or are dealing with splash back as a wonton dumpling dive bombs into your broth. To protect your dignity, and your white shirt, these foods are best tackled in solitude. 

Timing also needs to be considered. A shared family meal is like a group dance and you need to chew to the beat. Not keeping a beady eye on the situation can see you grapevine ahead of your dining companions or step-ball-change and be hopelessly behind. You thought talking about your new side hustle terrarium business was a good idea. But when you look down at your plate, there’s 150 grams of pork belly left, everyone’s looking at you pointedly and Grandma’s slumped and snoring at the table. Someone will need to prod her for the birthday sing song.

Eating with others, small or tall, is the ultimate multitasking nightmare, and trying to accomplish too many things is destined to fail.  When people moan about families no longer eating together, let’s remember what it’s really like: attempting to eat dinner while your toddler rapid fires pork buns at your head; well-meaning aunts force feeding you bowls of fried rice the night before a swimsuit competition; partner claiming they’re too full for dessert and now they’re eating all your dessert; or trying to divvy up three wasabi prawns between six. 

Well, how about six prawns divided by one? You do the maths. I’m all in favour of a table for one. Alone, but not lonely. 


[1] Science says: eat with your kids (theconversation.com)

[2] The Protective Role of Family Meals for Youth Obesity: 10-Year Longitudinal Associations – The Journal of Pediatrics (jpeds.com)



On noses

Here’s something I wrote for SBS on my big fat Chinese nose.

***

My nose is a big, fat, flat Chinese nose.

I never really gave it much thought as a pre-schooler. It worked perfectly well – it sniffed things, wrinkled in disgust, sneezed and performed other critical nasal functions such as facilitating breathing.

I had no problem with my nose. But it became apparent very early that other people did.

Although we didn’t speak the same language, you didn’t need subtitles to work out that my paternal grandfather wasn’t a fan of my nose. He’d routinely place his index finger on one nostril, a thumb on the other and give it a good one-minute squeeze. As I protested (in such nasal tones I sounded like Fran Drescher from The Nanny), he mimed with jokey menace that the peg was next. I didn’t take these assaults lightly. After his pincer move, I’d launch my counter-attack, pressing my nose down so hard that it was practically concave. Then I’d fix him with a deathly stare, let rip a succession of rapid nostril flares and flounce off to play with my pretty-nosed dollies.

My maternal grandmother was another source of nose-ism. Her life was arranged around her obsession with US daytime soaps, especially The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of our Lives. The latter featured a character named Kelly Chase, a former nurse and a svelte blonde stunner. Circa 1988, Kelly and her fellow townspeople were trying to avoid being the next victim of the ‘Salem Slasher’ serial killer. So, was my granny’s concern focused on whether Ms Chase would survive? No. It was focused on the mystery of why Kelly Chase and me, Kelly Eng, didn’t share the same fabulous Caucasian face and nose despite our shared first name. Like many eight-year-olds, my knowledge of the role of genetics and phenotypes in shaping a person’s looks was sketchy. So, I took my grandmother’s comment as another blow to my nose. There was clearly something wrong with it.

By the time I accompanied my cousins to a theme park at the age of 16, nasal self-consciousness was blossoming. There was an artist doing cartoon portraits and my cousin suggested that we get our group done. As we sat down to pose, my eldest cousin whispered nervously, “I hope he doesn’t draw our noses really big…” It was a tense eight minutes as the cartoonist scribbled away. When he unveiled his work, our eyes made a beeline to our noses, which looked… absolutely fine. The relief was palpable.

Self-consciousness was followed by self-doubt. Should I restart my grandfather’s nose-thinning sessions? Could I purchase nose tape, nostril pegs or a DIY prosthetic nose wax kit? No. Meddling with a hooter shaped by centuries of evolution seemed nuts. And my nose and I were likely to spend a lifetime together. So why not try the more affordable and less painful route of acceptance?

A period of personal reflection and re-education led me to conclude that the nose is an under-appreciated organ. Eyes and mouths traditionally get all the poetic attention, but that appendage in the middle of your face is a multitasking marvel. As well as being breathing apparatus, it has great symbolic value. In Chinese face reading (the equivalent of palm reading), noses represent wealth and success in middle age. So, the bigger the better. Dream analysis tells us that noses symbolise curiosity and intuition; they represent listening to your instincts. And my instinct was to be grateful for being so well-endowed.

There are more items to add to my nose gratitude list. My exceptional sense of smell must be related to the fact that I can almost fit a 50-cent coin up each nostril. I can name perfumes from the merest whiff and identify the components of multi-course meals from behind closed doors. When it comes to yogic breathing, I can send air up and down my nose pipes in a way that makes Darth Vader sound demure. And when I whisper into people’s ears, the rounded tip of my nose doesn’t violate ear canals like my pointier-nosed counterparts.

The final step in my journey to #nosepositivity was motherhood. While pregnant with my first child, I wondered whether she’d inherit the long and pointed Anglo Saxon conk of my partner or my *cough* button nose. When Holly emerged, the first thing she did was sneeze and I knew right away: you need a big bugle to achieve that kind of thrust. I craned my neck to see her face. There it was. My nose had been transported onto the baby’s face.

Ah, the Eng nose gene is strong I thought. Then baby number two came along. Would she perhaps be more sleek of beak? Nup, Edith had my honker too. And rather than feeling disappointment, all I could see was total perfection.

The Eng nose gene is strong.

On bloomers and wardrobe malfunctions

Hi there, how are you? Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for The Age/Daily Life.

Netball Australia’s recent finding that the traditional figure-hugging short netball dress was turning people away from the sport and may even be phased out strikes me as highly appropriate. That’s because the dress, along with other items of sporting apparel for girls – at least, the ones I was forced to wear – are not fit for purpose, and in more than one way.

As a child and an adolescent, I was an enthusiastic athlete and, as such, found myself clad in sporting attire that not only impeded myself and my peers from reaching athletic glory but seemed to have been designed by a committee of perverts.

Take the bloomers. During the eighties and nineties, my school sporting uniform was worse than a short, tight dress – it was ‘bloomers’ and a singlet. Some genius had decided it would be a good idea for schoolgirls to leap about in what was basically a pair of undies.

In primary school, I didn’t give them a second thought. Sure, they got wedged up the backside and constantly extracting them when you were trying to practise your bounce pass was irritating. It was only as I got older that I thought there might be something NQR about wearing nothing but undies plus undies on the sporting field. I imagine the older girls thought so too.

I remember partaking in a stretch session on the athletics track. “And now, let’s stretch our gluteus maximus,” our male coach said, folding his legs up pretzel-style and twisting round. “Maximus is right,” a senior girl mumbled, pointing to the size of her backside. The coach guffawed politely, then gallantly focussed on something in the middle distance.

At times we were allowed to wear a skirt on top of our bloomers. Gee, thanks. This floaty number offered all of five millimetres’ more modesty while posing its own set of problems. Well, it did to me. While competing in a high-school version of Gladiator, my attempt at powering my way through 500 metres of pretend water was compromised by the garment repeatedly getting tangled in the rowing machine. In the end, two female PE teachers had to hold up my skirt on each side as I rowed my way to last place.

Our sports uniform was also a distraction, both to us and others. When our all-girls PE class was learning how to power walk, Miss Bashfield, former aerobic champion and blonde Amazonian bombshell, led us out of the school gates to master its purposeful stride. As we followed her like a row of highly motivated ducklings, I saw her tense up as we neared a group of tradies. Her face turned stormy: “Girls, just keep walking,” she said firmly. “Ignore them”. We realised that our attire was causing a stir. Shouldn’t we have been focused on perfecting our heel-toe-heel-toe combo rather than on trying to tug our non-existent bloomers down?

Finally, in early high school, a new sporting uniform was unveiled in assembly. As the most conventionally attractive pupils modelled the new designs on stage, the rest of us oohed and ahhed. Shorts with pockets and a polo t-shirt! Very sensible, and for those of us in the midst of puberty, not a moment too soon. Any SWOT analysis of the bloomer would identify a significant weakness – that girls and women have a menstrual cycle that renders the garment even more inappropriate for around 5-7 days a month. I seem to remember that, from around Grade 6, there was invariably a row of girls sitting out of PE class sick. Were they sick? In hindsight, I suspect that they simply didn’t want to practise the splits or their roundhouse kick in bloomers at that time of month.

And I can understand why. Embarrassment about your changing body is standard in adolescence, and minimalist clothing does nothing to remedy that. I speak from (excruciating) experience. One day on the netball court, I was gaily doing my warm-up groin stretches. A referee sidled up to me. “Um,” she said nervously, “I, err, am sorry but I think that,” her voice lowered, “there’s a chance your pad might be hanging out”. Dear god. I took the news gracefully – I screamed, covered my backside with both hands and broke the land speed record getting from centre court to the bathrooms. There, a frantic investigation revealed substandard adhesive qualities on the part of the maxi winged pad. Wrestling it back into the bloomer, I shuffled my way back to the court, red-faced and too frightened to pivot.

In the hope that future generations are spared the embarrassment that was heaped upon mine, I would like to offer Netball Australia and other sporting bodies the following tips for what a sporting uniform should be – a good uniform should provide adequate coverage, enable the athlete to undertake their duties without fear of humiliation and, above all, should never distract an Australian tradie from their vital work.

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.

***

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.

🐅
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!

*

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. 

*

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).

dim-sum

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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