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.

*

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

On cemeteries

An article I wrote for SBS about visiting the cemetery. Something to cheer us up! 😉


When I was a child, while other families would go bike riding or to the beach at the weekend, mine would have a trip to the cemetery. To me, it was better than going to the shops, and there was nothing creepy about our visits – no thunder claps or crows giving us the side-eye; in fact, it was always sunny when we went and the mood was buoyant.

We’d meet at family HQ (my Grandma’s), then drive convoy-style through the quiet suburbs to the cemetery. The sound of car doors slamming would be followed by the hubbub of baskets and trays of food being unloaded. My brother, cousins and I would race ahead through the entrance gate, down the main path, right at the end, then right again till we got to the grave.

When the adults arrived grave-side, they’d immediately start to work through the long list of things to be done to honour my Great Grandmother. Dad would whip out his gardening gloves and do a little weeding, while aunts would be emptying out vases of decayed flowers and swampy water. Us kids were tasked with getting fresh water, and off we’d pop to the nearest tap to fill up. When we got back, the grave top was laden with food – roast pork, roast duck, poached chicken and multiple kinds of buns – and a lacey, umbrella-shaped food protector plonked on top to keep the flies off.

As the busyness continued, I’d have a mosey about looking at the dates on other headstones, peering through cracked sarcophagi and marvelling at the more elaborate sites with glass doors and marble angels. Then I’d wander back to enquire if I could have a bun yet. The answer was always no.

Hmmpf. To an eight-year-old it seemed illogical to keep offering food to someone who never ate it. And who was this person they called Great-Grandmother? I knew she was in the grave, but I’d never met her.

Three decades later, I have a better understanding of my Great-Grandmother, Toy Yeung Chu, who came to Australia from China in 1966 to live out her final five years. She was illiterate and hobbled through life on bound feet. Her toes were bandaged down until they were broken, and her feet misshapen into triangles as was the custom then so she wouldn’t have to do hard physical work. And through all of this she was tough, clever and resourceful. She was also said to be quite strict, so maybe a substandard grave-top buffet offering would have unleashed an angry ghost.

Luckily my family always brought delicious foods, and other important rituals weren’t forgotten. Three wine-filled teacups and three pairs of chopsticks were placed close to the headstone so that Great-Grandmother had something to drink and something to eat with. The adults would then hold incense sticks and bow three times (apparently once for heaven, once for earth and once for man), then pour the wine on the ground. In hindsight, she’d probably have preferred it left in the teacups.

“Come on, bow!” the adults would tell us, gesturing for us to follow suit. Naturally, we’d do the most theatrical bows possible, usually in slow motion or frantically sped up.

Then it was time for the exciting part – the pyrotechnics! Dad would put a stack of fake money in a tin to burn, the translucent paper curling and turning black until it was ashes. This was definitely no currency that would be accepted at the local milk bar, and later I was told it was ‘hell money’. While it sounds terrifying, it was money for my Great Grandmother to spend on the other side, a kind of pocket money for the afterlife. It is also acceptable to burn paper replicas of cars and whitegoods, as well as PlayStations and fax machines – anything to help your relative be more comfortable in the next life.

When all the formalities were over, the lace food protector was whipped off and I could finally get my greedy paws on the custard buns. Then we’d start packing up the trays and basket and head off back to the cars and on to HQ to eat the rest of the food.

I haven’t been to the cemetery for two decades now: life, work, children and negligence have all gotten in the way.

“Hey,” Dad said a while back. “You should bring the kids to visit the cemetery one day!”

While that would perhaps not be as easy a sell as Disneyland, maybe I will. It would give them a taste of some of their culture and could gently expand the concept of death for them (my four-year-old’s current level of understanding is that there are French fries in heaven and you get there by helicopter). I could also tell them about Toy Yeung Chu and the other relatives who have died since I was a child.

While I don’t think that my children would continue these traditions, in the very distant future when I’m pushing up daisies, if they come to visit me I’d like scones with jam and some lip balm to enjoy in the afterlife.  Roaming about the spirit world with dry lips would indeed be hellish.

No bird gave me the side eye

Playgrounds are closed, this is probably a good thing.

Something I wrote for The Age on the playgrounds closing in Melbourne.

Hoping no one trolls me 🙂

***

No doubt a barrage of expletives was unleashed in WhatsApp parenting groups when Daniel Andrews announced that playgrounds were closing.

As a mother of two children under 5, I was moved to the f word by the news. With no front yard, back yard or balcony, playgrounds are where my kids go crazy so they can be sane indoors. I definitely don’t like playgrounds being closed.

But I do think it’s necessary.

This is mainly because children don’t social distance. They hug, poke each other, pull each other’s eyelids and lick each other’s noses. Children were made to spread germs. Mine have recently brought home from childcare conjunctivitis, hand, foot and mouth disease, croup and other illnesses that don’t even have a name (what do you call it when your tongue is sore for six weeks?). Luckily, those diseases are mild.

As for practising coughing and sneezing etiquette in a playground, maybe the most advanced of three-year-olds could make a decent attempt. But a chubby little hand with the fingers spread wide open over a coughing mouth is not a barrier. And as for the younger ones, you can’t ask them to sneeze into an elbow when they don’t know what an elbow is because their understanding of anatomy comes from the lyrics of ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’.

With extracurricular sports and birthday parties cancelled, playgrounds have become even more attractive. Consequently, they’re packed with families, many of whom know one another because a 5km travel limit means everyone has to go local. Two hours of ‘exercise’ suddenly turns into a series of accidental catch-ups. It’s only natural, we’re social creatures and children are creatures whose sociability is very hard to restrain. Try breaking it to an adorable 3-year-old that they can’t play with your child because of coronavirus – I definitely couldn’t.

At least children are wired to find fun. Close the playgrounds and they’ll adapt: an upturned washing basket becomes a turtle shell costume, a bed is a trampoline and a prostrate sibling is something to be hurdled. Let’s not forget about the old-school games like hopscotch and a ball. They’ve endured because they’re fun.

So, I’m dusting off the frisbee and girding my hamstrings for a few weeks of cartwheeling. While I know my kids would love to form a disorderly queue with friends and strangers and whizz down a slide, at the moment closing playgrounds is the safer option for everyone.

But make no mistake: when we do get the green light from Daniel, we’ll be there at the crack of dawn, bursting through the barrier tape like Olympic sprinters and ready to pull some eyelids.

A little lockdown fun

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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for the battle roar of the Tiger Grandpa.

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

 

Homework

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

Stay safe people!

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How to work from home, by a WFH veteran

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

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

Wash and get dressed

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

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

Be comfortable

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

Skype meetings

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

The internet

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

Feed yourself

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

Hours

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

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

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Distracting colleagues at home