From sangas to sushi – how school lunches have changed

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Teddy

Here’s something I wrote for The Guardian.


The lost teddy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow Teddy always found his way back to us.

Except that one day he didn’t.

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

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

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

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

‘It’s Teddy!’ she cried. ‘He’s back.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of our near misses
Teddy

WFM

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


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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, renovations next door,” I lied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covetiquette

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covid-safe greeting.

The Christmas spirit

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the office

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

*

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)