A Window into Life in the Suburbs

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


You can learn a lot about your kids just from watching them play.

We're at the pool (I'm poolside really but the girls are in it) and I've got my nose stuck between the pages of P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction, chuckling to myself. Interrupting my reverie is the 4 year old, who has stumbled out of the water sobbing incoherently that some a certain dastardly sister of hers had done something to her.
So I reach for the towel and she recoils instantly.
"I don't want to stop swimming yet..." She declares through tears and runs back toward the shallow end of the pool.
Ah... I see... She doesn't really want me to do anything. It's an appeal... to "a higher authority" but mostly she just wants... sympathy.

They're playing a shoestring version of "Here Comes the Bride". Very shoestring. It revolves around Nana's lacey, crochet thingamygig and a flannel blanket for the dollies.
Yeah, it's dress-up with music. But only one of them has pretend clothes on. The other one is dressing her up.

Kids are creative... duh... who doesn't know that. Innumerable books have been written on the subject. But sometimes creativity is the means and not the end.

We're scootering up the "hill". For a child under the age of 5, a suburban "hill" is almost like a mountain. Older sister whizzes all the way up.
But the 4 year old, with her smaller frame, is struggling to keep up. She's annoyed that older sister has not shown her proper consideration to wait for her. What she doesn't know is that we've been waiting for big sister to scooter without bribery and extortion for over 2 years.

Cajoling her... making threats about selling the scooter all that time... and in the end, she had to own it. Timing, dealing with the stuff between the ears had to be hers to do.
4 year old almost always wants to do whatever her big sister does.
But big sister needs the self-confidence to get on with the job.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cruisin' the Brisbane River

It's Friday night. We're in Brisbane CBD. Kids in tow. No romantic candlelit dinner planned.

So we're standing at Eagle St Pier waaaaaaaaaiting for our church buddies to arrive. Very pretty to look at but after 10 minutes, the kiddies get a bit restless. "I'm bored, mum..." says the 9 year old.

 The Kookaburra Queen looks very pretty with the lights. We're sharing the ride. Wedding on the upper deck and a party below. We get the bit in the middle.

 Had dinner in the car before we got there. McDees drive thru'. Don't hold it against us plebs. Kookaburra Queen maybe a luxurious lady but we're economy class ticket holders.

 Night time scenery by the river is also vvewy pweety.

 Girl lookin' at you is Keiko from Nagasaki. She hopped on a plane a day after the tsunami. Returned to Japan last Saturday.

Finally we board. On tenterhooks for the merest second. Have visions that they're going to put us in the hold.

Ah... things are looking up. Hi ho,  hi ho it's up the stairs we go

Not bad. Loads of room for 40 something people

 May we have this dance?

Enjoying a cool evening with a gentle breeze sweeping through the vessel. I had an attack of hayfever earlier in the day. Lasted all weekend.

It's good to see the city come back to life after the floods. Businesses like the Kookaburra Queen are probably getting back on their feet after temporary closures along the river.

The little one fell asleep on my lap (waaaaaaaaay past her bedtime) and there was something comforting about looking out at the Brisbane River, wind in my face, with a child in my arms at peace with her surroundings.

A gentle reminder that life goes on... life keeps chugging along...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Parents in a Hurry

Drove past a local Anglican church earlier in the week. On their signboard were the words (or something along those lines):
"Dear God, help me to be patient. But please hurry!"

I burst out laughing immediately. Wish I had stopped the car and taken a picture.
How true... I thought as I drove on... pondering the wisdom of those words.

Patience must be one of the most elusive virtues in modernity. We're constantly in a hurry. I'm constantly hurrying the kids
There are days I just want them to hurry up and grow faster.

But the irony is, when they do, I wish they'd slow down. I'm chewing my nails thinking about the 9 year old heading into puberty.

I'm time obsessed.  Every minute... every second. Without a watch, I'm feel... lost.
I've lived by the clock and I daresay, I'll die by the clock.

I tried in vain to breastfeed by the clock. Didn't work.
I tried to get children to nap by the clock. Worked for the first but the second, well, defies textbooks and rules... in nature and in nous.

Clock obsession is a hard habit to break. But little by little the old ways are being chipped away. It's what happens when you have kids.
You learn to wait because you have to.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reflections on Tiger Mother Part 2

Jonathan Swift, reknowned for his fantastical, satirical scifi fantasy epic, Gulliver's Travels, also wrote a farcical essay, "A Modest Proposal" -- a rich, ironic hyperbolic piece counselling the impoverished Irish of his day to sell their children to the wealthy class as food. In it he writes:

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.[...]

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
Swift's object in this was to ridicule attitudes to the poor and protest British hegemony over Ireland.

While reading the WSJ article, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior", I thought that I had crossed over into a Swiftian universe. All the extracts from Tiger Mother that were published on that occasion gave me pause... and the strong impression that somebody was doing a Swiftian turn. Quite bizarre, I thought.
Call me intolerant or what you will, but I was astonished that anybody in the 21st century with the ability to reason could seriously hold such radical views about authoritarian parenting based on such egregious stereotyping. And pontificate about it with so much relish.  In chapter 10 of the book, she claims for instance that:
Chinese parents can get away with things that Western parents can't. Once when I was young -- maybe more than once -- when I was extremely disrespectful to my mother, my father angrily called me "garbage" in our native Hokkien dialect. [...]
As an adult, I once did the same to Sophia, calling her garbage in Englsh... When I mentioned that I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracized.

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable -- even legally actionable -- to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty, lose some weight."

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you."

There's a part of me that's still waiting for Chua to announce that she had penned a Swiftian diatribe against aspects of modern parenting , the self-esteem movement and reasons behind the decline in American education.

*crickets chirping* *toads croaking*

In another universe perhaps.

Make no mistake, I'm no fan of the nobody-loses-and-everybody-wins-so-we-don't-damage-self-esteem type of nonsense that's been propagated in certain circles the last couple of decades.
But I draw the line at verbal abuse... there's nothing superior about that.

I'm the last person to decry a traditional conservative upbringing. Old fashioned things like:

1) A strong work ethic
2) Respect for one's elders
3) Thinking for oneself

Virtues that have been adopted by different cultures at one point or another in history.

But manipulating and bullying children into doing what you want them to may yield short-term benefits but at what cost to character and relationships? It's also odd to me that a woman of such intellectual calibre can't see that children don't come out of a factory production line from the same mould. Perhaps it is that self-certainty that blinds her to the realities of raising a family.

I found Chua's definition of success narrow... and troubling. It is materially driven and leaves no place for failure. Still one has to admire her tenacity to go to the ends of the earth for her children. Amy Chua paints herself as a woman with a mission. Even then, one wonders  (despite her protestations to the contrary) what's really in it for Amy Chua.

Chua's children are still young... there's no way there won't be another book especially because this one's been such an undisputed publishing success.
Portions of it are entertaining but one doesn't have to look to hard to see it's a puff piece. (Frankly, it reads like a series of blog posts) This is not say that there aren't any good things about the book, such as sister Katrin's battle with leukemia or "Popo" (mother-in-law) Florence's relationship with the family. My favourite bits in the book are of younger daughter, Lulu, the central character in an old fashion family melodrama, rebelling against her villainous Tiger Mother. After suffering vicariously through all the bald manipulation and pigheaded parenting, my sympathies were with Lulu entirely.

Fun stuff aside, the self-justification and preachiness does sour one's appreciation of the entire project. In the end, after having to battle it out with a strong-willed child, Amy Chua does acknowledge some of the short-comings of "the Chinese Way":

This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.
But instead, it's about a clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen year old.

(I apologize for not providing page numbers but the book was read on my iPhone Kindle app.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reflections on Tiger Mother Part 1

Earlier in the week, I happened to mention on Facebook that I was tackling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. My friend, T, wondered why I was reading that book. She thought, perhaps, half seriously, that I was scraping the bottom of the barrel for parenting tips.
My reason is really a lot less utilitarian. Like everyone who has read it, I was suckered by the controversial but successful publicity campaign that began in the Wall Street Journal article. The firestorm that ensued guaranteed that the book would be an international marketing success. And so it is.

When I began reading Tiger Mother, the question of why the book was written was a recurring thought. Even though I've finished the book, that question continues to linger. Tiger Mother is not your usual self-help parenting book (I would dispute that label entirely), rather it is a candid and some times humorous memoir of one woman's highly driven parenting of two remarkably accomplished children. Prior to the bruhaha that surrounded the book's release Amy Chua was known mainly as a law professor and author of a couple of political books.

So who is Amy Chua and why has she written this book? Why now?But more importantly, why should we care?

For me the key to understanding the book,  is to position Amy Chua within her immigrant narrative. In that narrative, immigrants encounter a kind of displacement by choice. Often, they may embrace much of their adoptive country and yet there are vestiges of the old country that remain, as it were, in the soul. It's telling that Chua admits early on that she had wanted to write an inter-generational immigrant epic in the tradition of Joy Luck Club and Wild Swans.

On the surface, Chua and I have a lot in common. We are both immigrants and overseas-born Chinese, hailing from the same region. We now live in anglophone countries, western educated and are married to non-Asians. We are also, as it happens, mothers of two girls. But that's where the similiarities end. No doubt, Amy Chua's CV is far, far more impressive.

So why in the world did she write this book?

If one were to break the book down to its brass tacks, it appears that her claim to parental expertise is derived from her genetic/cultural upbringing. Being a Chinese... whatever that word conjurs up to the user... is at the core of her identity which seems to be the impetus for adopting the "Chinese way" to parent.

I scratch my head at that one. I'm rather a sceptic of the "Chinese way" because, well,  I don't believe that a single "Chinese way" exists. Chua assumes that her brand of "the Chinese way" works because it has worked for her... more or less... Still, I don't find her personal experience definitive or compelling evidence that the Chinese way is superior. It's ahistorical, anecdotal, too narrow and extreme... largely dependent on the parent's ability to manipulate their child. And really, the world is globalizing so quickly that is becomes meaningless for anyone to reduce this kind of authoritarian parenting to some kind of parochial grandstanding.

When I was growing up in Singapore, it was "the Singapore way". Living in a competitive, cramped island with thousands competing for piddly numbers of university places, everyone had to pull their weight to get anywhere. A university education was the ticket to a good job. And everyone was after a good job.

During my university years and beyond I worked casually as a private English tutor to migrant children, ie. Chinese children. It was a job that had it's perks and drawbacks requiring a great deal of driving around to students' homes.
The most fascinating aspect of it was being able to go inside the homes and see how "Chinese" people parent, which was almost as diverse as how Australians parent. Some children I tutored didn't have any parenting at all because mum and dad were back in their country of origin "doing business", while an older sibling or a relative nearby took charge of household affairs.

My experience of course, like Chua's, is purely anecdotal. It isn't proof of anything in general terms. Some parents are always going to be more hands-on than others.

This kind of peppery talk reminds me of the kind of harmless gossipy stuff I used to hear from relatives and acquaintances as a child: How foreigners are lax and liberal with their children... blah, blah, blah... that sort of stuff. It's a gross generalization and probably based on watching "The Cosby Show" or "Family Ties" than any real notion of how people in the west actually lived.

Back then it was just talk. But for an academic who should know better to turn this into a premise of a book without any substance, is absurd.

What it demonstrates is that parenting... like culture is a deeply emotional issue because it goes to the core of our individual identity.

Ironically of course, whatever superior parenting techniques that Chinese parent Amy Chua may lay claim to, Chua is herself the product of  a western education and her children the beneficiaries of western culture. University education, scientific advancements, classical music are all the result of developments made by individuals of western parents.

Tiger Mother irritates and amuses. I daresay it's meant to. Political incorrectness is one thing but there's an over-the-top bravado on display in the book that rubs me the wrong way.

To be continued.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


A gentle blow
Breathes the little glassy orb to life
Sparkling in the sunlight's glow
Bobbing, dancing down so low

Hands and feet, no match it seems
For the jolly orb that gleams

So fleeting is its frangible life
Here one moment and gone the next.

They come... they come..
Then they grow
And then too soon... they will go

Playful sounds fill the air
Little eyes search and stare
Happy thoughts fill eager minds
Hands and feet a song will find

© Lilian Read 2011

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I am changing too

Children are God's gifts to us.
Little by little, I am convinced we need them more than they need us.
Not a clingy, possessive sort of need. But we need their eyes (to see the world from their perspective)... their hands (to watch them play and make sense of the world)... their mouths (to hear their sounds of laughter) and most of all, their hearts (to feel their love). 

Without them our notion of "giving" would be feeble, without them "sacrifice" would be an ideal rather than an everyday reality.

Without children, what "love" we claim to have for our fellow humans may never really be tested.

Without them we would struggle to comprehend the depth of the Father's love for us. How he must grieve when we ignore him and how he, the hound of heaven, calls rebels to be children.

Without our children, our world would be flatter, narrower and smaller.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Eyes on Me (How I Spent a Monday Morning with a Bunch of Amateur Artists)

A few weeks ago, mum-in-law asked if I'd like to sit for her amateur art group out in Cleveland.

I thought, "Hmmm, why not...  more fodder for my blog." It's not everyday that I get to model for anyone. And I get to keep the portraits if I want to! It's a tad like that Rolf Harris tv show I saw twice. Except I don't have to rise to the dizzy heights of celebritydom to be in the running.

"Fun" is not the word I would randomly throw around here. Interesting perhaps... surreal maybe. There's nothing normal about sitting for 2 hours doing not a lot but fidgeting occasionally. Sitting in one position for an hour and a half trying not to move one's head, can be surprisingly hard on the neck and shoulders. Definitely not natural. And well, plus I have neck-shoulder issues... anyway.

Had a lovely chat in the course of the morning with the ladies and gents that wanted to chat about our favourite detective authors and characters. Various people chimed in with jokes about Midsomer Murders' body count and complete lack of realism. Then we inevitably yakked about kids and grandkids ... the cute and embarrassing stuff they do and say.

Overall, I rate it a positive experince, met a group of art-loving friendly folk and got to see mum-in-law at work.

Years of standing in front of young eager minds probably prepared me for this moment... being scrutinized with clinical curiosity.

 Mum-in-law and friend

 The hot seat... literally... I was sweltering...and melting

No... I kept my clothes on. No sense in turning this into a pornographic, horror flick.
Humid day, totally wrong outfit for the weather... 
In desperation, I thought it best to mention that I was simmering. Some kindly soul then took the trouble to turn on the airconditioning.
Just in case you're wondering... I'm looking at the hibiscus bush trying desperately to look pensive. I can assure you the pose is much harder than it looks.

 Sliding specs. Having trouble getting the glasses to stay in one place. Should've probably got them tightened last week.

The Many Faces of Me. Which is the real Julia Lilian?

My personal favourites:

 Mum-in-law took this home to "touch up". Promised to give it to me when she's satisfied. Are artists ever satisfied?

I found Liz's techinique with watercolour very striking.

Often... I reckon, the portrait says a lot more about the artist than the subject.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Somedays I really hate Windows

Arrrrrrrrgh... I was busy doing internetty stuff and Windows decided it wants to do some updates at the most inopportune moment... thereby shutting down everything and instantly wiping out the typing I had done in Firefox.
Not too happy, I can tell you. Fortunately, it wasn't too difficult to redo whatever it was I was doing but what a waste of time. Duh.
For years and years I've heard techies bagging Windows... the husband (a Linux man) being one of them. While generally it's no biggie that Windows (especially XP) can be irritating, I've been tempted to go Mac lately. But the price of Macs never seem to be right when compared to PCs.
I'm due for an upgrade soon, methinks. The machine that I've been using is becoming increasingly unstable and overheated. Time to fob it off on to the kiddies, if  it doesn't explode first.

The fence outside our front yard is coming along nicely. I'm tempted to say... "let's leave it au naturel" but frankly speaking, it doesn't quite go with the look of our very humble abode. So I've been co-opted to do some painting. Should be fun. I vote for night time painting.

Our house is almost 20 years old so there's plenty of stuff that needs fixing. Not that we've lived in that spot for the entire time but over that period, things just go the way of the second law of thermodynamics.

Some of it is due to the fact that stuff was done on the cheap. (Someone didn't use properly treated wood) Some of it has to do with children hastening decay. Some of it, plain neglect. Mostly it's the weather that's the culprit.

There is much to love about the area I live in but I absolutely loathe the way traffic lights are placed and designed around here. We have great Asian restaurants, supermarkets and more coffee shops than we have bookshops in a single shopping centre. (Soon we'll have no bookshops at all.) But getting from here to there seems to be taking longer and longer every year. There are at least 6 lights to get through from our place to the nearest K-Mart which is about 3-4 km away. Gah.

Still, despite the hassles, I'm just glad I don't live in town.