Lunar New Year In A Foreign Land

So the madness began last weekend. I was shopping at Costco, no there wasn’t anything that suggest that Chinese New Year was a couple of days away, we had plenty of reds though, but it was because Valentine’s day was round the corner.

So Costco had these huge Caribbean Sweet pineapples selling at less than 3 bucks which really reminded me of my mother’s pineapple tarts. She made them every year during this time.

And I thought I should have learned my lesson after my Bak Chang incident, never to underestimate my mom’s effort.

Unfortunately memory like this was short and before I knew it, I was at the check out counter and the cashier was looking at me in amazement. I told him yeah, I am taking all 5 of them.

My mother used to grate a dozen of them, using a grater, manually. So I thought, it’s only less than half of what she used to grate and these days, she doesn’t even use a grater, she has a juicer which separates the juice from the pulp and I have my magic bullet to do the job.

I soon realised my magic bullet didn’t quite work like a juicer. I gave up and ripped off the tag for my brand new grater, which was meant for grating cheese and that was the beginning of a tormenting workout.

Just 2 pineapples on and my arms turned sore and jelly. Lesson recapped.

Luckily my husband was home and he helped clear up the mess that I had started. I spent the rest of the day standing over the stove, cooking pineapple jam.

Yes. it took me a day, to have the pineapple and juice reduced to jam. I was exhausted when it was finally done and everything else had to be left till next day.

It took me 2 days to make 2 jars of pineapple tarts.

After the day I made pineapple tarts, an Arctic snowstorm came our way. Schools were closed because the city we were in wasn’t prepared for snowy days ! I was told the last time it snowed here was like 20 years ago ?! Roads were closed and traffic was in a mess.

Earlier that morning, before all the madness began, I had to head out to get some grocery because I wasn’t sure how long we would be trapped home. The storm came earlier than forecasted and I had to drive back in what known as sleet or freezing rain.

I couldn’t get my windshield wiper to work because droplets of ice had formed on my windshield (I later found out that I needed to blow hot air onto my windshield). Visibility was poor , I almost had to stick my head out of the window to see where I was driving. Luckily I didn’t venture far and managed to get home safely.

For the next 2 days while we were home bound. I got into some serious baking.

I attempted to bake my husband’s favourite Kueh Lapis. It failed miserably on looks but the boys couldn’t stop eating them. There were so many recipes out there and mine was a mishmash from different sources because I really wanted a healthier version with less eggs and sugar.

And I baked some really good melt-in-the-mouth (yet with a crunch of cane sugar) walnut cookies which I adapted from here. I actually halved the amount of oil and used 3/4 amount of cane sugar instead of castor sugar. I suspect there is some mistake to this recipe. Can’t imagine using the amount of oil that was stated in the recipe.

I took the Almond Cookie recipe from the same website as well. Because icing sugar was used, the texture was a bit different from the walnut cookies.

After 3 days of baking, our festivity corner had been well stocked. I packed some in recycled boxes to let our friends try them. They were given a short introduction to Chinese New Year and the wonderful snacks that we eat. Surprisingly, they seemed to love the ugly looking Kueh Lapis most !

Because schools were closed and my husband needn’t had to go work, we skyped with my family back home and did the virtual Lo Hei. It almost felt like Chinese New Year.

Here’s to good health and prosperity in the year of horse !



How The Librarian Might Lose His Beard

My 9 year old is an avid reader.

Back in Singapore, he reads whenever he finishes his work in class and this habit continues when we are here in the States now.

The difference is, the school that he is attending here has an extensive reading program where they keep track of how much every student reads and everyone is given a reading goal tailored to their reading capability, measured in Accelerated Reading points or AR points in short.

Students accumulate Accelerated Reading (AR) points towards their goal by answering a set of 10 to 20 questions that tests their understanding of the books they have read. For example, a Bernstein Bear book will earn you 0.5 AR points, The Hobbit, 16 and the Da Vinci Code, 23 AR points. The students are expected to reach their goal by the end of school year.

All the books in the library have an associated AR point, depending on the difficulty of the book. Once the student has attained his first 50 AR points, his name would be put up on a bulletin board in the library to recognise his achievement.

Interestingly, each student’s AR point goal is generated by a computer that measures the reading skill of the student. An advanced reader will be given a higher goal than a beginner reader.

Each student’s AR point goal and score are private to discourage the parents and students from comparing. The idea is to have the students strive for a personal goal and improve their reading skills.

In an effort to encourage the students to read, the school librarian, a funny guy in his late 20s or early 30s, challenged the kids in the elementary school to beat his AR point score.

At the beginning of school term, he declared to every student that if any one could beat his score, he would shave off his carefully grown and trimmed beard.

Malcolm’s name came up on the bulletin board after a few days of school hitting the 100 point. Everyone was surprised, including the librarian who didn’t quite expect a serious challenger from a 4th grader.

It created some kind of news among the kids and Malcolm became a little famous overnight. Schoolmates whom he doesn’t know came up to him, asking about his AR score. Everyone was curious and I guess everyone was hoping to see the funny librarian shaves his beard.

To date, he is at 900 and his target was set at 1200. Both the librarian and his scores have been pretty close. Some days, the librarian would be ahead. Other days, Malcolm would catch up and overtake. When Malcolm runs out of books to read, he would go to the librarian for recommendations and so far, he seems to be pretty happy with what that was recommended.

The students seem to benefit from this reading program. A friend told me her son who never like to read, recently picked up a Harry Potter.

Malcolm however seems unfazed. He reads, with or without the score. However we are all secretly rooting for him. I know it may sound evil, but it would be really funny to have the librarian lose his beard to a 4th grader from Singapore.



What It Means To Be A Singaporean

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So I have been posting pictures of food that I made on my Instagram and Facebook page.
Yes food.
Glorious food that reminds us of home.

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Food that I would have easily picked up from any food court or HDB kopitiam back home, a stone throw away from every corner of the island.

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Food that is unheard of in this part of the world, where a decent Asian supermarket is 2.5 hours drive away and getting the necessary ingredients itself is a logistical nightmare which requires careful planning.

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Food that I probably wouldn’t bother learning how to make because there is always my mom and mom-in-law whose culinary skills are unmatched.

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Food has helped me better understand what it means to be a Singaporean.

Recently, during a trip to a museum in Washington D.C, I was thrilled to see a ‘Food Court’ within the museum premises.
I brought the kids there and we were greeted by 20 counters opened for orders but they only sell one thing, MacDonald.

My jaw dropped because I was expecting the kind of food court we have back home with 20 stores selling 20 or more different kinds of food.

The food court we have back home is colourful and vibrant with a wide variety of food and I realised that perhaps that is what symbolises Singapore and its diversity.

I bought some homemade jam during a trip and gifted it to my New Zealand friend and she asked whether I made them.
I told her, no they were store bought homemade jam.
She laughed cos that’s what she makes back home all the time.
Fresh fruits from her backyard made into jam.

I learned not to serve my Italian friend my focacia bread; the French, macaroons and homemade waffles to my Norwegian friend (she calls them ‘Waffels’).

From food, I learned about a country’s culture and what it means to be uniquely Singapore.

It is evident that I have gone through some kind of identity crisis

During an international gathering, my cheongsam looks unauthentic beside a Taiwanese or PRC Chinese.
And my Singapore Airlines kebaya seems like a joke next to an Indonesian.
An attempt to forge an accent or roast a turkey for Thanksgiving are tell tale signs of how superficially Americanized I am.
What should I wear? How should I speak? What food should I introduce to my foreign friends?

When I visited the US for the very first time, I didn’t know how to respond to comments on how clean Singapore was. I was like, “Really?”
20 years later, I still am not sure how I should respond.

Are they talking about our fine system which has given us the reputation of being a ‘fine’ city?
Are they impressed by how civic minded we are for not littering
Or are they referring to the army of foreign workers that we employ to help clean our streets and prune our trees

When people bring up issues like our bubble gum law and caning policies, I wonder if they remember Michael Fay and they have something to say about our draconian laws

I agree that there are many things that Singapore could have done better

Like how the education system should be made less competitive, how we shouldn’t have opened the immigrant flood gate, how our MRT shouldn’t break down so often, how things shouldn’t be so expensive and malls shouldn’t be so crowded

But things were put into perspective as I recall how the subway in a most beautiful city in a first world country reeked of urine; sometimes the city came to a standstill because the train workers were on strike; me and the kids were packed like sardines in a train without working air conditioning during a hot sweltering summer; and worrying that my pockets would be picked (which eventually did happen).

So, I am okay with not having fellow Singaporeans greet me with a “Bonjour” or “Pardon” before shoving an elbow into me because they wanted to get pass and I was too slow to make way

I am grateful that I needn’t have to spend a day waiting at the driving school to get my driving license just to be told to go home or tip the policeman who gave me a bogus speeding ticket or being spat at by some young punks while driving past some suburban residential area because I am different.

I am thankful that I needn’t worry about being carjacked because I accidentally drove into a bad neighbourhood late at night; or coming home to a dozen policemen surrounding my house because there was a gunman in my backyard; neither do I need to worry that some crazy kids will decide to bring his dad’s semi-automatic and gun down half the school.

And I am glad we don’t have to have a Martin Luther King national holiday to remind the nation what Dr King stood for and how he lost his life to racial violence.

All these make our far from perfect education system, overwhelmed transport system and sometimes difficult to understand government policies normal because it is normal to be imperfect.

I love Singapore not because of how much she has achieved or how perfect she is.
It’s like I love myself not because of how successful or how flawless I am.

It is loving myself even when I am far from perfect.
And to me, that is what it means to be a Singaporean.

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