Perth – the good, the bad and the ugly…

OK, so we’ve only been in Perth about 4 weeks so I suppose I can’t really talk yet – I guess the title of this post should really have been “- the good, the bad and the ugly…SO FAR!”

Perth city - sunset view

tortoise-crossing-sign

we had to laugh at the many “tortoise crossing” signs we’ve seen…a sign of the pace of life in Perth?

Well, so far, we are just LOVING Perth!

It seems to have all the things that we love and crave and have been missing for so long, since leaving  Auckland, NZ – and just haven’t found in all the other cities that we have lived in so far in Australia.

The wide, open spaces and soaring sky; the lack of crowds; the empty roads and easy traffic; the genial attitudes of the residents; the slower, more relaxed pace of life; the abundance of big, beautiful, ‘natural’ parks, reserves and beaches around the city; the stunning water views & green, tree-lined streets and the ease with which you can get around the city – and out of it too, to the surrounding countryside.

Arriving here, it felt as a if a huge weight had lifted off my shoulders – like coming out of a dark, smokey, noisy bar to stretch and breathe deeply in the cool, fresh air.

Swan River + city view

But the nice thing is that you’ve still got a metropolitan city on your doorstep, complete with theatres & galleries, shopping malls and gourmet cafes. Oh sure, it’s not Sydney or Melbourne -  it lacks that edgy sophistication and grungy style – so you haven’t got your exclusive boutiques and iconic concert halls, and the choice of restaurants, cafes and bars is much more limited…

…in fact, we’ve met a lot of  local Perth residents who are very humble about their beautiful home and almost apologetic for their “backwards & boring” (their words!) city. Hah – well, I guess we must be really “backwards & boring” ourselves because so far, we like it just fine and feel that the entertainment options are more than enough to satisfy us.

Our first view of downtown Perth, seen from the car on the way in from the airport...

Our first view of downtown Perth, seen from the car on the way in from the airport…

We have been told repeatedly by a lot of people that the food scene is terrible in Perth – that eating out is very expensive, with high prices for mediocre food. Well, we haven’t been out & about enough so far to be able to comment properly – yes, it certainly isn’t cheap to eat out in general (is it anywhere? Other than Taiwan, that is!! ;-) ) although we have managed, the few times we’ve been out, to have nice meals without breaking the bank. But then, we tend to go to cheap & cheerful places, not cordon bleu! ;-)

AtomicCafe-breakfast-collage

our first breakfast in Perth, the morning after we arrived…

It certainly doesn’t seem as bad as Brisbane, which is where we had our worst experiences of bland, poorly-cooked, expensive meals. I suppose if you’re a really fussy food-critic, then Perth might be a disappointment.

wine+pizzaI don’t really have such a sophisticated palate so I’m probably not the best judge.  I’m not fussed if it’s not an award-winning restaurant or a bar making world-famous cocktails…and I’m not really into “10-course dégustation menus” or a bit of froth with a fancy name, served on a gigantic white plate the size of a shield. ;-)

I just like simple, fresh, tasty food in a pretty place with nice atmosphere and friendly people…a spicy Thai, an authentic Japanese, a cosy Italian, a rowdy Chinese, a good steakhouse and a couple of gourmet cafes in pretty settings…and I’m happy.

(In fact, it’s ironic but it’s taken me less time to find a good local Italian that does delicious pizza here, than it did last year, when we lived next to Leichhardt, Sydney’s famous “Little Italy”. Sometimes, I wonder if living in a big, inaccessible city is a bit like having 122 satellite channels on TV but not being able to find anything worth watching…)

Of course, a lot of Perth’s benefits comes from the simple fact that there’s a lot less people here. Perth has a population of 1.8 million, compared to Sydney’s 4.6 million. That’s a big difference which is translated directly into a less manic, claustrophobic lifestyle. Whether it’s doing the weekend morning walk with your dog or doing the weekend foodshop at the supermarket, finding a parking space or waiting in line to be served, less people just makes things so much easier…

(Images courtesy of Simon Wright)

(Images courtesy of Simon Wright)

Being less crowded also means that people in general are a lot warmer and friendlier and “kinder”. When we first moved out from the UK to Auckland, all those years ago, the biggest thing that struck us was the “kindness” of the Kiwi locals – how generous they were with their time and how they would go out of their way to help us (like the time we asked a man in a store how to get somewhere and he came out of the store and walked halfway down the block to show us). It was one of the nicest things about moving to NZ and what made us fall in love with the place so quickly.

8 years of living in a place like that makes you spoilt and when we moved to Australia and the bigger cities we lived in, like Brisbane & Sydney, we were really taken aback at the aggressive, pushy, apathetic attitudes of the locals. People haven’t got time for you, service staff treat you like a number and random acts of kindness were few and far between. Of course a lot of this is simply the by-product of “big city living” – and as I said in my last post, it is probably far worse in other big cities around the world. There is a well-known joke that if you have a heart attack in New York and collapse in the street, people will simply step over you and hurry on. I know friends who have moved to Sydney from London and rave about how warm & friendly the people are…so I guess it is all relative.

Welcome-Perth-signBut since arriving in Perth, it has been refreshing to be met with that “human feeling” again – we’ve noticed a lot more cars letting you cut in to change lanes when you signal or leaving a gap, so you can join their road from a side street; yes, strangers have gone out of their way to help & direct us, and service staff have really taken the time to “listen” and treat us as individuals – and give honest advice, even if it means that they lose a sale. (Like the rental agent who – while showing us a house – advised us to wait a few weeks rather than rushing to rent her property, because the market would cool down once the school term started and we would have more choices.)

Yesterday I ran into the supermarket to grab a bottle of water and as I joined the checkout queue, the man in front of me waved me ahead of him, saying that he had a full basket of groceries. It was just a little thing and I wouldn’t have minded waiting but I was pleasantly surprised and it spoke volumes about people’s attitudes of generosity and consideration for others.

Still – from the other side of the coin – I can see how some might find the lack of people and the “quiet life” here disturbing. Driving into downtown Perth one Sunday, I found myself the only car on the streets…it was like driving into a ghost town.

empty-downtown

And I know that shops have only started opening on Sundays within the last 6 months – and still close early on weekends…something which could seriously annoy a lot of people used to the longer opening hours in bigger cities. (I actually find all hours in the “West” too short compared to Asia, where shops usually open till 10pm and you’re used to being able to go out after dinner for a browse…! ;-) )

Perth has lots of other negatives too. It’s ironic that while some complaints come from its “sleepy, small-town” status, other complaints come from the fact that – in recent years, due to the growth of the Western Australia mining industry – Perth has become a “boom town.”  Because of the labour shortage out on the mines, WA is probably the only place in the world where young, unskilled labourers are able to earn 6-figure salaries. On top of this, the massive exodus of people to the mines meant that few people were left in the cities to do the work – and with little competition, you could charge what you liked. Especially tradespeople…which meant that young men barely out of their apprenticeships were swaggering around, driving their $80,000 utes…

(image from thepunch.com.au )

(image from thepunch.com.au )

Then there’s the ‘FIFO’ (Fly In, Fly Out) culture – where it’s actually cheaper for companies to fly out groups of workers to the isolated mining outposts in far north WA for weeks at a time. The workers, mostly young men, then return periodically to Perth to rejoin their families or – in a lot of cases – for a bit of R&R and ‘hard partying’. Let’s just say that testosterone, cabin fever, alcohol, drugs, girls, fast cars and a lot of cash are not a good mix. On any given night of the week, there are parts of Perth to avoid if you don’t want to fall prey to FIFO’s out to have a “good time”.

Perth’s status as a “boom town” also means that there is a LOT of opportunistic crime around. Everything from the good ol’  handbag thieves in supermarkets to elaborate rental scams…as we found out ourselves the hard way! :P

(image from news.domain.com.au )

queue of prospective tenants waiting to view a house!           (image from news.domain.com.au )

We arrived in peak rental season, just before schools and university terms started, and it was like being sucked into the eye of a storm. Lured either by career opportunities from the mining boom or the promise of a better lifestyle, huge numbers of people are pouring into Perth, from both across Australia and overseas. That’s a LOT of people needing homes and not enough housing to go around. Tenants get desperate, landlords get greedy and rental agents get completely frazzled, their mobiles ringing nonstop with enquiries about viewing times and applications…

To have any chance of success, you had to comb the online rental sites obsessively, several times a day, for new listings, and hound agents for viewing times. These were usually announced at short notice (“Just to let you know there will be a viewing at 33 Pleasant St from 12 – 12:15pm tomorrow”) and come hell or high water, you had to make it to the viewing because you only got one chance. By the next day after a viewing, several applications for that house would have already gone in and it was usually rented by the following evening. It was that fast. If you didn’t have your finger on the pulse – if you didn’t catch new listings as they appeared, go to viewings as soon as they were announced and put in applications as soon as you left the viewing, you didn’t have a chance.

HY-househuntingTrying to find a home to rent in this highly-competitive market – especially with a Great Dane and cat in tow – was like trying to make it through a season of TV’s Survivor.  Landlords are already generally anti-pets and in the current market, they can be as fussy as they like. And to make matters worse, there is the dreaded Option Fee – something we’d never encountered before arriving in the Perth rental market. Basically, with every application you put in, you have to include 1 week’s rent as well. If the owner rejects you, then you’ll get the option fee back but if the owner accepts and you change your mind (decide to go for another house), you’ll forfeit that money.

OK, I can see where they’re coming from – it protects the owners from being messed around: if someone backs out of your house to choose another house (meaning that you’ll have to put your house back on the market and search for another tenant) at least you’ll pocket the option fee as compensation. But it’s also horribly unfair to the tenants – especially in the current market where owners have queues of people to pick & choose from.

For example, as pet owners, we know the odds are stacked against us and so it makes sense to put out as many applications as possible, in the hopes that ONE of them might be accepted. But with this Option Fee business, you can’t send out multiple applications willy-nilly, as insurance – each one is tying up a fair amount of money and most of all, for every one that accepts you which you don’t take, that’s money down the drain… Of course, you could just take a gamble and send out one application at a time – but most people want to hedge their bets, especially if they want to find a home as soon as possible.

online rental adsAnyway, so three weeks into this market without finding anything suitable and we were starting to get desperate. I started scouring the private online classifieds and soon came across an ad for a house which sounded perfect. It had all the mod cons, was in a great location and seemed a fantastic bargain at the price they were asking. When I emailed to ask, they were even happy to accept pets! It all sounded too good to be true…which should have warned us. The owner emailed us back to explain that she was a university academic who had suddenly been called away overseas on a research project and so couldn’t show us the house herself but gave us the address and invited us to go have a look and peek in through the windows. Idiots that we were, we never questioned it…we went and looked and loved it and were even planning where to put our furniture in the empty rooms… ! :roll:

I did finally start to get suspicious though when the owner started asking for references and rental deposits but still refused to give a contact number. I Googled the house address and found it listed in another ad, with a different name and number (and different price!). This time I called and spoke to the real owners of the house – and discovered that we were very nearly the victims of a typical rental scam. Someone who knew the house was standing empty was just going around advertising it as their own. We were not the first and certainly won’t be the last new residents in Perth to fall prey to such scams. The real owners had reported it to the police but there isn’t much they can do to track down these internet criminals…I guess it was just a good lesson learnt for us and thankfully, no money lost!

(Anyway, the good news is that after nearly 4 weeks of hard slog, we finally did find a place to rent which ticked all our boxes – AND accepted pets! Miracles do happen! ;-) )

So…yes, Perth does have  a dark side and we’ve brushed up against it already.

As for the ugly? Well, I have to say that so far, the city seems green, clean and blessedly free of graffiti. But…I know that we’re currently staying in one of the “nicer” areas and we haven’t really seen all of Perth yet. Like all cities, it will have its uglier neighbourhoods (what got to me about Sydney, though, was how dirty, seedy and graffitied it was, even in our upmarket, expensive neighbourhood! ) – I’m going to make a point of visiting some of the less desirable areas just to get some photos and prove to you that Perth can be ugly! ;-)

1st-Perth-views5

LakeMonger-drive

just love Perth's wide streets and pavements!

just love Perth’s wide streets and pavements!

1st-Perth-views4

All this beautiful cleanliness does come at a price. Western Australia has a reputation as a “nanny state”, with heavy-handed punishments for everyday things . We were quite staggered when we saw a sign by a disabled parking space warning that inappropriate use without a disabled parking permit would result in a fine of $1,000!! There are also $500 fines for not wearing seatbelts and strict anti-graffiti laws that probably account for the clean state of the streets and buildings. So far, I’m seeing the benefits more than the negatives but I’m sure, given time, I will probably find it frustrating living somewhere with such strict attitudes.

That goes for everything really. To use the analogy in my last post, I know that I’m still in the “honeymoon phase” with Perth – when everything is new and wonderful and exciting. Like going out on those first dates with a new man, when everything he says is funny and every expression he makes adorable. But whether with partners or cities, things change with time and familiarity – what you used to think was “quaint” starts to get irritating and what you thought was cosy starts to get confining. That’s life, I guess.

HY+Honey-walk-SwanRiver-foreshore

But in the meantime, I’m enjoying the romance. ;-) And there are happy marriages that last decades. So who knows? Maybe this could be the start of a beautiful relationship…

MathildaBay-sunset

“Down Under Christmas”…

Fluffy white clouds in a brilliant blue sky; sunshine dazzling through the windshield and reflecting off the sunglasses of the man crossing the street, his shorts and flip-flops still caked with sand from the beach…and in the car, Bing Crosby’s voice crooning from the radio: “I’m drea-ming of a Whi-te Christmas…”

Yes, welcome to a “Down Under Christmas” where the only open fire that chestnuts are roasting on would be a barbecue and the only thing nipping at your nose would be a bad sunburn. ;-)

Santas_surfing

Even after living out here for over 10 years now, I still just can’t get used to celebrating Christmas in the middle of summer. People often ask us what we’re doing for Christmas and more often than not, the answer is “Nothing much” – partly because we always seem to be moving home/state/country yet again around Christmas time and are more concerned about packing up boxes than putting tinsel on the tree (!) – but also because for us, it just doesn’t feel like Christmas at all when the temperatures are hitting 30°C (86°F) or higher and the sun is blazing in the sky and everywhere, people are strolling around in shorts and bikinis, swatting mosquitoes, eating ice-creams and heading down to the beach…

Of course, I know it’s just a matter of what you’re used to. I’m sure all the Aussie & Kiwis who have been born here think it’s perfectly normal to have barbecued prawns for Christmas dinner and build sandmans at the beach…in fact, I read a hilarious story on an Aussie blog where the kids were told that Santa Claus came through the air-conditioning ducts…

Unfortunately, living 3 quarters of my life in the Northern Hemisphere has just conditioned my brain so much to the Northern Hemisphere seasons that I struggle to embrace the Down Under calendar despite my best efforts. For me, summer is still in July (not Dec), the school year still starts in Sept (not Feb) and Christmas is still celebrated in winter (not summer).

0511-0812-0117-2217_Australian_Santa_Riding_a_Kangaroo_clipart_imageWalking around, seeing all the festive decorations that the shopkeepers have determinedly put up, the fake snow that’s still sprayed on windows; the “Carols by the Beach” planned and the Christmas trees festooned with pictures of holly and robins and snowflakes and snowmen…I keep telling myself that it’s Christmas but my brain just keeps rejecting the idea. It all feels slightly bizarre and fundamentally “wrong” – like seeing a nun in black lace underwear or a baby smoking a cigar…

It doesn’t help, of course, that all the “trappings” of Christmas have mostly been imported wholesale from the Northern Hemisphere: the heavy, stolid food more suited to chilly days and icy nights; the images of snowy landscapes and cosy log fires; the architecture & traditions with their roots in cold, Northern Europe (chimneys & sleighs, anyone?) and most of all, the songs.

Oh God,  the songs. Winter Wonderland, Frosty the Snowman, Let It Snow, Sleighride

Radios here started playing Christmas music from October and driving around, listening to them, my husband & I just kept wanting to laugh at how incongruous and inappropriate and surreal it all seeemed.

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Of course, when we first moved out here – just like most visitors and expats – we were delighted by the novelty of it all. While friends back in the UK moaned about the long, dark days and freezing temperatures, we were enjoying mince pies at a park picnic and lazing in the sunshine, watching cricket on Boxing Day…

BONDI-BEACH-CHRISTMAS

Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach at Christmas time…
(source: http://www.thepunch.com.au)

…but that wore off pretty quickly and a couple of years on, we were wistfully missing the cold, winter Christmases we had grown up with. Never mind a white Christmas – we’d settle for a slightly cooler one, just to have a bit of ‘atmosphere’!

Our first year in Australia, spent in tropical Queensland where it wasn’t just summer in Dec but hot, humid, sweaty, tropical summer – felt like we were in a time warp at Christmas time. The jokes of Santa in a Hawaiian shirt and “decorating the palm tree” wore pretty thin, pretty quickly!

But don’t think we’re the only ones who feel the “weirdness” of it all. The Kiwis and Aussies must somehow hanker after a traditional cold, wintry Christmas as well, because one of the quaintest things we discovered when we moved out Down Under is the custom they have here of a “Mid-Winter Christmas”, a.k.a “Christmas in July”.

Xmas in July flyer 2012Yes, you heard that right: having Christmas again, a 2nd time – in winter. So in July – when it IS the middle of winter out here, a lot of shops will bring out the Christmas decorations once again and restaurants will have special Christmas menus and people will celebrate Christmas again. Except this time, it will actually fit the songs a bit better. (Well, OK, maybe still not in tropical Queensland but in some places, such as South Island NZ, which can match Scotland for cold, harsh temperatures, it can feel surprisingly like the real thing! ;-) )

In the Blue Mountains near Sydney (where if you’re lucky, you might actually get a sprinkling of snow in winter), there is even now a big “Yulefest” festival in the months of June, July & August, with special events such as Christmas carol singalongs, Santa visits and accommodation packages with roaring log fires, traditional fruit cakes, mulled wine, stuffed roast turkeys and all the trimmings.

The “Mid-Winter Christmas” is not as big as the “real deal” in December (not everybody celebrates it, probably because you don’t get the public holidays) and a cynic would say that it’s just a chance for the shopkeepers to have another sale but I have to confess, we quite enjoy this tradition because it does give you a chance to have a taste of what Christmas really should feel like.

six_white_boomers

I suppose, though, at the end of the day, Christmas is really about families getting together and spending time with your loved ones – that’s what’s really important at the heart of the festivities…so whether you’re celebrating in blazing sunshine or wintry snow doesn’t really matter, as long as the spirit remains the same.

I hope you have all enjoyed a lovely Christmas – wherever in the world you are and whatever weather you’ve been having! :D

Part 1: The Art of Chinese Compliments…

You know the expression – “You can take the girl out of Taiwan but you can’t take Taiwan out of the girl..”?

Well, for someone who has grown up and lived most of her life in “the West” – and who is considered pretty Westernised -  I’m still often surprised by little things that crop up in everyday life which remind me how “Chinese” I still am, underneath it all.

Like a few days ago, when I upset several readers because I happened to mention on my dog’s blog that I find it really embarrassing to sing her praises – to others – in public, and struggle even to accept compliments about her, without always rushing to counteract with a catalogue of her faults or to “belittle” her good behaviour with an excuse (whereas others usually find reasons to excuse their dogs’ bad behaviours! ;-) ).

For example, while out at a cafe a few weeks ago, with a friend who wistfully compared my dog’s calm, quiet presence by the table with her own dog’s inability to settle, I rushed to “brush away” Honey’s good behaviour by claiming that it’s simply because she is much older. I wasn’t even aware I was doing it – the words were out before I realised – and it was only later that I thought to myself, “Why did I say that? Actually, it’s true that my dog shows impressively good behaviour compared to many others. And it’s certainly not because of her age – she has been able to settle calmly like this since puppyhood and it’s something to be proudly acknowledged. Why am so I embarrassed to do so?”

It’s simply not the Chinese way – we’re raised from the cradle to consider “modesty” one of the most important qualities ever to aspire to – and modesty in Chinese culture means never talking about yourself or yours in a positive way, or accepting compliments from others, without trying to “dilute” the compliment first.

In fact, in Chinese circles, this determination to be “modest” can reach almost comical proportions. Anyone who has ever worked, lived or married into a Chinese community will probably be familiar with the following scene:

Mrs Lee :  “Ah, your daughter so beautiful! Make you so proud!”

Mrs Wang :  “Oh no! Not really. She actually very ugly – just using some good make-up – ha! ha! You are the one proud – your daughter so clever! Top of the class!”

Mrs. Lee :  “Aya, no! Not at all! She quite stupid but she has good teacher.”

Mrs. Wang :  “Oh – I am sure is also because she has good mother like you, look after her so well. Your cooking so good!”

Mrs Lee :  “No, no, my cooking very bad! Just make very basic dishes. Nothing special. I don’t have good skill with my hands…not like you! So clever! My husband say your cake best he ever tasted!”

Mrs Wang : “Ah no, that is just because your husband so easy-going. So good temper! Not like mine – so fussy! Always complaining!”

Mrs Lee : “Oh no, your husband work very hard. Has very important job. So successful! You so lucky! Your new house so beautiful. You have very good taste – decorate so nicely!”

Mrs. Wang : “Aya – no, no, just I find some lucky things in the shop. But I never get good discount like you! You have great skill with bargaining!”

Mrs Lee : “Oh, no…”

(…and so on.)

I know – to a Westerner reading this, it sounds like a lot of ridiculous false modesty and fishing for compliments. But it really isn’t that at all. Each one is genuinely trying to deflect the compliment by “talking it down” – and then hurrying to return the compliment in kind. But why, you wonder, is it necessary to go through all this?

Well, I guess it’s just what is considered “acceptable response” to a compliment in different cultures. In the West, if someone were to say “You’re beautiful!” – it’s OK to simply say “Thank you” but you would be considered terribly conceited if you’d smiled smugly and said “Yeah, I know”. So similarly, in Chinese culture, simply saying “Thank you” to a compliment is the equivalent of that smug smile and arrogant agreement. Even if it’s true and the compliment is completely justified, you’re never supposed to just accept it without protest. (Well, there’s one exception to this rule – which I’ll tell you about in Part 2! ;-) )

(Oh, by the way, while Googling around, I came across a lot of pop psychology about ‘the inability to accept compliments’ being a sure sign of low self-esteem. Well, I can’t speak for every Chinese person, but I can assure you that my struggle to accept compliments is definitely not due to low self-esteem! ;-) Sometimes the reason isn’t always psychological but cultural.)

Cross-cultural marriage problems? ;-)

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Don’t get me wrong – Chinese people enjoy & welcome compliments just as much as the next person and they lavish them on each other. But they just have different ways of “accepting” it. So if you do ever compliment a Chinese friend – don’t be taken aback if they contradict you – and don’t overdo it. ;-) One token repeat after their first protest might be nice, just to really flatter them – but if you keep insisting on praising them (“No, really, your cooking is amazing!” “Seriously, you’re the best cook ever!” “No, it’s not the cookbook, you are just such a great cook!”…) , you’re simply embarrassing them and forcing them to keep coming up with more and more excuses to deflect your praise! :P

Of course, the Chinese mutual complimenting ritual only works when everybody knows the system. You need two to play the game. Otherwise, you end up with a lot of cultural misunderstandings and conversations like this! ;-)

Mrs. Lee : “Ah, your daughter so beautiful! Make you proud!”

Mrs. Jackson : “Oh thanks – yeah, she’s pretty awesome, isn’t she? And she’s top of the class too! I’m so proud of my baby girl. She’s just the best daughter any mother can have. Well, see you next week…” (walks away)

Mrs. Lee : (to herself) ‘What a conceited, boastful woman with no social sensitivity!’

(ETA: Oh, before anybody takes offence – I just want to clarify that I’m not saying Mrs. Jackson actually IS conceited & boastful. She’s probably behaving perfectly appropriately for a Western society…just perhaps not for a Chinese one! ;-) That’s why I said that it’s only when the cultures mix that problems arise…)

Growing up, I stood by and listened to a lot of conversations like the first one above, between my mother and her cronies, talking about me right over my head. Every Chinese kid is probably well used to being put down by their parents in public. :D Ask any of my Chinese friends and they’ll tell you similar experiences. I suppose most Westerners reading this are horrified at the thought of all the psychological damage caused by hearing your own mother call you “stupid” and more – (but hey, since everyone’s mother calls them “stupid”, it doesn’t quite have the same impact – ha! ha! ;-) ) – and yeah, I agree, it probably isn’t best for one’s self-esteem to listen to your parents criticise you so harshly. I suppose a “sensitive” child could really take it to heart – and I do remember moments during hormonal teenagehood (when I was always hovering on the brink of taking offence anyway! ;-) ) – when I was angry and hurt at my mother for talking about me that way.

But overall, those moments were few and far between, and I quickly learnt that she didn’t really mean it. It was just a social ritual. She never sat me down and told me so but – just like the way children learn the rules of grammar by listening and absorbing and understanding in context – rather than being specifically told a set of rules – so too did I realise that Chinese social interactions had far more complex layers of meaning than what was just being said.

In fact, without ever being specifically taught, as I grew up and started joining adult conversation, I slowly began to respond in similar ways, when necessary. It’s not an easy skill, you know – the ability to always find a negative side and talk down any good thing! ;-)

So yeah – while I never doubted that my mother loved me and was very proud of me, I knew she would never say so directly to others in public :P To many Westerners, who believe in lavishing praise on their children in public, this seems almost like a crime. In the West, there is a lot of fuss now about children growing up in hyper-critical environments and the negative effect this can have on their emotional development and self-esteem. This can certainly be true… (although by this reckoning, every Chinese child probably needs to see a shrink! ;-) )

On the other hand, I’ve also heard a lot of disapproval about the modern (Western) phenomemon of “over-praising” children for doing very little, just for the sake of bolstering their self-confidence. The way that competitions & events now give every child those ridiculous “Certificates of Attendence” for doing nothing other than turning up…and everyone behaving as if every child’s self-esteem needs to be on constant life support!

It isn’t that I don’t believe in rewards – anyone who has seen me train my dog, or teach students in the past, will know that I use rewards lavishly – but I agree with those who think that this phenomemon of “over-praising” children simply:

a) encourages arrogance & laziness and the tendency to “settle” for mediocrity, since you have to do so little to get recognition, and

b) makes a mockery of the few children who really do work hard and make an effort  – and thus deserve unique recognition.

What’s more, many believe that this form of “constant praise” actually creates a generation of children more fragile and vulnerable to the inevitable criticisms, disappointments and failures that life will later throw at them. If you grow up with everyone always telling you how wonderful you are, you just can’t cope when you suddenly don’t get that constant accolade.

Real strength of character comes from the ability to continue believing in yourself, even when those around you are putting you down – and that’s something, perhaps, that I’ve learnt better from my “harsh” Chinese upbringing. My self-esteem is not based on what others say about me but what I know about myself.

My mother always used to tell me that she deflected compliments and put me down in public so that I wouldn’t “get a big head” – but also as a form of “vaccination” for any negativity I might have to deal with later in life. Hey, if you can cope with your own mother criticising you to others in public, you can pretty much cope with anything! ;-)

And don’t worry – us Chinese kids did get compliments. Just from everyone else, not our own parents. You never praise your own but you’re always quick to praise others – and so since everyone is avidly complimenting everyone else, it all evens out! ;-)

I guess the best thing is a balance. Perhaps the Chinese way is too harsh and it would be good if Chinese parents could acknowledge their childrens’ achievements in public sometimes. And perhaps the Western way is too indulgent and it would be good if Western parents could make their children work a little harder to earn praise and be less reliant on others for their self-esteem.

As for me, I’m slowly learning about balance too. I am much better about accepting compliments now and even manage to receive a few with nothing more than just an embarrassed “Thank you”. I’m still squirming inside, of course, but at least I manage to bite my tongue on the protests and excuses. It’s easier on paper/online somehow – I find that I cope better with compliments in text than in person. Somehow it’s less embarrassing (after all, you read it in private and it’s not said out loud in public! :P )  and it’s easier to control the urge to deny or deflect and instead just write ‘Thanks for your nice words!

So if the Chinese have such a hard time handling praise coming from others, you can imagine how impossible it is for them to actually praise themselves…my struggle with that has certainly led to some awkward moments, as I’ll tell you in Part 2! ;-)

‘Till we meet again…

There have been books written about it, movies made about it but somehow, I never thought it would happen to me: The Big High School Reunion. Yikes. Has 20 years really gone by already??

I have to admit – for all my social media scepticism, this is one area where Facebook has been great: giving you the chance to find and get back in touch with old school friends again. People who were such an important part of your life growing up – and who will always share a part of you that your college & “adult” friends can never relate to.

Especially for someone like me who has moved around so much that my ties to childhood friends have worn down to barely a thread…So it was wonderful for me to be welcomed back into my “Choueifat family” – the boys & girls I had gone to school with in the U.A.E….all those years hurrying down those endless corridors, chased by the bell for class; passing notes to friends and making fun of the teachers; agonising over multiple choice questions in our weekly exams and sweating our way through P.E. class under the hot, desert sun…

Sometimes, it still only seems like yesterday and yet here are those same kids, now with families of their own, important jobs & impressive titles…

…except that there, still,  in the sparkle of her eyes or the curve of his grin is that bubbly girl I used to laugh with, the cheeky boy I used to know.

It’s hard to believe that so much time could have gone by…

…and yet this past weekend was the reunion, organised by my school mates, through Facebook, to mark 20 years since we all hung up our school uniforms and said goodbye.

Sadly, the reunion party was back in Dubai so I couldn’t go – but I would have really loved to. This wasn’t just your usual high school reunion – you see, unlike schools in most Western countries – my “international” school simply started in Kindergarten and went up through Grade 1, 2, 3….all the way up to Grade 12, when you graduated from “high school” and went onto university in the U.S. or other countries following the International Baccalaureate system. Unless you were like me and stayed on for Grade 13, to complete the A’Levels needed for university in the U.K.

So all this means that – whereas kids normally change schools and thus friends, as they move up through the different primary, intermediate and high school intitutions, we stayed in the same place and grew up with the same kids. There were guys at that reunion last weekend that I had known since I was 10yrs old, when I first moved to the U.A.E. – and many of them had known each other for even longer, maybe even since kindergarten. The thought is slightly freaky. ;-)

It also means that the potential changes we might see would be a LOT bigger. This isn’t like a college reunion where you already knew each other as young adults and you don’t change that much afterwards…a lot can change between your tweens/teens and your late thirties! :P

Of course, not being able to go meant that I wasn’t subjected to the the usual, classic Pre-Reunion Angst: Oh my God – do I look old?  Should I lose weight? What do I wear? What will I say? Who will be going? What if those bitchy girls still ignore me? Will that cute boy I had a crush on be there? Should I go???

If any of you have been to school reunions, you must tell me what it’s like! ;-) Is it really that awkward? Did you have a panicky pre-reunion make-over? Was it great to see everybody again? How much had everyone changed?

As it was, I’m really lucky that one of my best friends from school still lives in Dubai and she attended the reunion – so I spent a blissful hour yesterday on a long distance phone-call with her, getting a blow-by-blow account of the whole event. In a way, that itself was just like the “good old days”, with the two of us gossiping and giggling on the phone (just without irate parents in the background, shouting at us to get off the phone! ;-) )

And one of the funniest things she told me was that she sat next to one of the “popular” girls as they were all looking through a slideshow of old school photos and she was shocked when Popular Girl cringed at her “terrible hair” and eyebrows and other supposed fashion faux pas, desperately wishing that she could have been different…

Now, my best friend is a late-blooming “nerd” like me and back in school, we spent more time worrying about the answer to No. 7 in our Physics exam than whether our eyebrows were properly plucked…but we still always envied the pretty, “popular” girls for their easy grace and flirty confidence, their perfect hair, perfect figures and the attention they got from the boys. Even if you’ve managed to turn into a swan, you still wish you didn’t have to go through your “ugly duckling” years…And yet here was one of those girls confessing that she had agonised over the same insecurities we did and never even realised how admired and envied she was! In her memory, she wasn’t one of the “popular girls” at all!

And I’ve realised that she’s not the only one with a dodgy memory. I always thought of myself as relatively unliked in school. My nickname was ‘The Dictionary’ – because I was good at English, enjoyed the writing assignments that everybody else hated and knew big words to put in my essays. I had a small circle of close friends but to everyone else, I was the goody-goody “teacher’s pet” who sat up at the front of the class, knew the answers to all the questions, never missed a homework assignment and got top grades in every exam. I took everything very seriously and never broke the rules. I mean, I made Hermione look fun. ;-) Girls found me annoying and boys found me intimidating – and most people only talked to me when they wanted to copy my homework. Well, that’s what I thought, anyway.

But then I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly many of my old classmates were when they found me on Facebook, how keen they were to get back in touch – and when we got talking, how different their impressions were of me. Sure, they did think I was a “nerd” and a “teacher’s pet” and they did groan at me always knowing everything…but it was more in exasperated affection than anything else. People liked me more than I realised and remembered me nicer than I thought. Probably nicer than I deserved.

So maybe we’re all guilty of getting things wrong. Maybe this is one time things actually were rosier in reality than in memory. Maybe it’s all part of hormonal teenagehood: to always think that everyone is against you and that no-one else suffers the way you do…when actually, things were never as bad you thought.

I certainly had more ‘friends’ in school than I realised – and I’m so glad now that I’m getting a second chance to appreciate them! ;-)

******

P.S. A couple of things, following all your comments on my previous posts: first – wow, I never ralised there were so many fellow ex-nose-pickers out there! :lol: And I really loved hearing all your stories of the times you were “naughty” when you were little…

And secondly – following all those comments from people promising not to hug me if we ever met – don’t worry, I don’t mind being hugged! ;-) I’m not that “Chinese” – hee! hee! It’s just that I tend not to think of initiating it myself. So if I ever get the chance to meet any of my long-time blog friends, I would be honoured/delighted to be hugged by you and I will happily hug you back…but just don’t be offended/hurt if I don’t initiate the hugging myself! :P

Naughty and nice…

So last week I started my 5-week ‘Writing for Children’ course at the Sydney Writer’s Centre. Nice small class & eclectic mix of people, including an ex-policeman, a lawyer, a retiree and a TV crew girl…guess there are a lot of aspiring authors out there, all hiding under our “day jobs”! ;-)

And for our homework the first week, we were asked to call up a vivid memory from our childhood – and write it as if it was a scene in a children’s book.

Well, I wracked my brains and came up with one of my earliest memories of life in the UK: a visit to London Zoo, in particular to the “children’s petting zoo” area…where I disobeyed my mother and sneaked off by myself to have a look at the ponies in the stables…and one of them took a chomp at my arm. Enough to bring up a perfect half-moon of purple, teeth-shaped bruises on my little 6yr old bicep…but I swallowed my tears and never told my mother, in spite of being in terrible pain for days afterwards.

The thing is, it wasn’t so much the pain (although that was pretty bad! You know the kind of pain when your heart suddenly races in your chest and you feel like your eyes are bulging out? ;-) ) – but more the whole thing of not wanting to be found out that I had been “naughty”.

I don’t know if 6-yr olds understand “pride” but I think that is sort of what it was. My mother had always warned me that if I was naughty and disobeyed, Something Bad would happen to me…and I was determined not to give her the chance to say “I told you so” – even at the expense of not having her comfort me and help me relieve the pain. (Thinking about it now, it was a good thing the bite hadn’t broken skin and wasn’t a more serious injury as it could have gotten dangerously infected!!)

Anyway, it got me thinking about all the other times I was “naughty” and got caught out.  OK, I have to admit – I can pretty much count them on the fingers of one hand because – I hate to say it – but I was one of those nauseating “goody-goody” kids who always followed the rules and did what they were told.

In fact, when I was 8yrs old and we lived in the U.S., I attended a Catholic school in a little town in New Jersey – and I used to really struggle when we had our obligatory ‘confession’ with the school priest every week…I had nothing to confess! I used to cast desperately around, trying to dredge up one respectable “sin” that I could report and more often than not, resorted to making things up to tell the priest (“I thought nasty thoughts about my little sister”), as I didn’t want to disappoint the him or face the embarrassment of being the only one in my class with nothing to confess…

I mean, come on, let’s face it – the average life of an 8yr old doesn’t exactly lend itself to a wild life of crime. And I was the kind of 8yr old who still believed in unicorns and Disney fairytales and whose biggest ambition was to grow my hair as long as the ground, so that I could be a “real princess”. Yeah.

Still, there was one naughty “sin” I never confessed to the priest because I was just too embarrassed to be caught out. But first I have to tell you a dirty, little secret: when I was a child, I used to love picking my nose. Nothing beat the furtive pleasure of rooting around in my nostrils when I thought nobody was looking. Of course, I was seen by my parents once or twice and warned that if I continued my nasal excavations, I would end up with a huge nosebleed.

Of course, I ignored them – and of course, they were right. One day, I brought them running with my screams as blood gushed out of my nose and down my chin.

“You were picking your nose, weren’t you?” My mother demanded.

“N-no,” I said, tearfully. “I – I wasn’t.”

“Then how did this happen? I told you…I know you were picking your nose again.”

“I wasn’t! I wasn’t!” I insisted, near hysterical now but still stubborn.

Well, the tears and blood were wiped up and all was forgotten until a few days later when I was sitting with my parents in the living room, bored as they watched a programme on TV. My little fingers wandered absently up to my nose…then I caught my father (stepfather) staring pointedly at me. Quickly, I dropped my hand again. But old habits die hard and the longer I sat there, the more the urge ate away at me. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I just had to find a way to defy them.

I don’t know who it was who always went on about the “innocence of children” – I don’t remember being that innocent myself. At any rate, I was capable of thinking up pretty cunning deceptive behaviour from an early age.  Getting up as nonchalantly as I could, I mumbled something about getting something to eat and pretended to wander off to the kitchen – but instead, ducked into one of the bedrooms. There, in the dark, I sat down and blissfully stuck my finger up my nose, delighting not only in being able to indulge in my favourite past time again but also in outsmarting my parents…

Then I heard someone behind me. I turned around. My father stood there.

I braced myself for the telling-off but instead, he leaned towards me and said drily, “Shall I get you a spoon?”

Well, that was the last day I ever picked my nose again. ;-)

So go on – tell me – do you remember the earliest times you were naughty or disobeyed your parents? Did you get in trouble??

BFTNY (Best Friends….’Till Next Year)

We were out at dinner the other night with some old friends who we had known back in the UK and who coincidentally had moved out to Sydney recently, for work reasons. In between catching-up on each others’ news, we got onto the subject of friends – specifically making & keeping them – when you have to keep moving around.

I found it rather sad when my friend admitted that she now lies to people when she is asked how long she is staying in Sydney – pretending that she is settling here for good – because she knows that otherwise, people would not make much effort to invest in a friendship with her, if there was a chance she’d be leaving soon…

But you know what the really sad thing is? I’ve been guilty of exactly the same attitude myself.

In the last 4 years, we’ve moved & lived in 4 different cities and I have to tell you, when it comes to meeting new people & making new friends – I’m emotionally worn out.

I know it sounds terrible but after a while, you do start to think “Why bother?” You know what’s going to happen…first: the polite smiles, superficial questions and tentative invitations for coffee, followed by meeting for lunch or “playdates” with your kids (playground), dogs (park) or credit cards (shopping mall) – whereupon you decide that you might hate their taste in shoes but you actually quite like them – so then maybe you meet up with partners, or invite them over to your place for dinner or even suggest a family outing together – and just as you’re starting to really enjoy having them as a ‘friend’ and feeling like you “belong”…it’s time to say goodbye and move on. To start the whole process all over again somewhere else. And then again. And again.

After a while, it really begins to take its toll on you. My email inbox is like a graveyard of potential friendships,  an ever-growing list of names of people left behind – as lunch dates and fun weekends fade into hastily exchanged email addresses and empty promises to “stay close & keep in touch regularly”…when I know in reality, they won’t bother and it will simply be another name for me to feel guilty about come Christmas card time …

By the time we arrived in Sydney this year, I was struggling to find my sociable side. What was the point? When we would be leaving again by the end of this year? Where in the past, I would have caught that fleeting smile and returned it, struck up conversation and sent out feelers of friendship, now I find myself breaking eye contact, responding with a distant nod and making no effort to “chat”. Oh, I feel bad about it. But I’m just so tired of the emotional investment that seems to keep leading nowhere…

But wait – I haven’t told you the whole story.  I didn’t always used to be like this, all  bitter and cynical. Oh no, quite the opposite in fact.

Constantly moving around seems to take people two ways – either you get really jaded and can’t be bothered to make the effort anymore…or you get really desperate and start running around, practically begging everyone to be your friend.

When we first started moving around, I was the latter. See, I’m a pretty gregarious person by nature so arriving somewhere where I don’t know anyone is like an Irishman arriving at a wedding with no alcohol. I start clutching at any chance of a friendship. I’m not joking. Every encounter with someone gets a voice buzzing in my head, gushing “Oh my God – she’s nice! Maybe she’ll be my friend??”

In our first year in New Zealand, when we arrived from the other side of the world without a single friend, family or acquaintance, I was so delighted to meet a friendly face when I went into our local travel agency that I sent her a postcard from our holiday and then invited her out to lunch when we got back. After coffee & sandwiches with a (rather bewildered) travel agent, I hurried home to smugly announce to my husband that I  was no longer a social pariah. I had a “friend” (never mind that most of our conversation was about the latest discount flights to Malaysia).

Don’t worry – after various attempts to befriend my plumber, dentist, landlady and supermarket manager – I did finally manage to make some friends the ‘normal’ way, and spend time with someone because we had similar interests rather than because we both agreed that the hot water cylinder needed replacing.

Sadly, after 8 happy years in New Zealand, it was time to move again and I was dragged, kicking & screaming from that warm, comfortable social circle, to land in Australia, alone & friendless again. My poor hairdresser never stood a chance. We’d barely known each other for 1 appointment before I was already asking her out for gelato. ;-)

Then there’s the other danger of being desperate: the Curse of the Psycho Friend. It’s like that Express Lane at airports when you don’t have to go through all the usual baggage checks and you forget to look for any hidden bombs…I’ve lost track now of the number of times we’ve jumped to make friends after arriving in a new place, only to start backpedalling frantically when we discover what a nightmare they really are.

Like that couple we went out to dinner with and then invited back to our place on our first evening with them, only to find that the husband was a total boor (there is no other way to describe him) who spent the entire evening making snide comments about the restaurant we took them to and then proceeded to march into our bedroom as soon as he entered our house and practically start going through our underwear…. 8-O Hmm, yeah, well, I can tell you – we certainly didn’t go out with them again! Thank goodness we haven’t befriended anyone yet who then tried to boil our bunny…but we’ve come close.

So yeah, now I’m wary. And I’m fed-up. But you know, sometimes life can still surprise you. I spent most of our year in Brisbane, friendless and alone (yeah, the hairdresser and I just didn’t have the right chemistry) – and then 3 months before we were due to leave, I suddenly met some wonderful people: fellow dog owners in a new training class I’d joined with my dog. It was stupid, I know; it was a waste of time and would never go anywhere but even as I was getting quotes from movers and starting to box our things up, I was making arrangements to meet them for fish ‘n’ chips; to go out to the beach with our dogs; to laugh, talk and have fun…it was like one of those fleeting summer romances, all too short and you knew had to end soon – but worth every minute while it lasted.

And you know what? Maybe it is always worth it. Because last week, I got a call from one of those friends, nearly 2 years after we last saw each other in Brisbane. She was coming down to Sydney and would love to catch up….And I realised – as we rushed towards each other, waving and laughing – that maybe it’s always worth taking a gamble on friendship. Because – like love – it might not be the right place or the right time but you never know when you might meet someone amazing.

When in Rome…get on some lyrcra?

They say you never forget your first time. I admit – I was a slow starter. Other women around me had all done it. Some in several different places. I’d listened to them exchange experiences and compare notes. But I just didn’t feel ready… And then one day, it happened. I was nervous. I was terrified. But I was determined. I didn’t want to be left out anymore. They said it always hurts a bit the first time. They said there may be a little blood but it gets better and you’ll soon start to enjoy it…Well, they lied. It hurts an awful lot the first time and there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Yes, nothing ever quite prepares you for your first gym class…

I can still vivdly remember it now: hesitating in the doorway, eyeing the women walking past me, their lycra-encased thighs pumping like matching torpedoes. Trying to ignore the fact that I was already out of breath from climbing the steps to Reception,  I marched up to sign my name and was recommended “Aerobics Level One – for the older or deconditioned woman” (gee, thanks).

In the changing rooms, I skulked in the corner as I realised with a sinking heart how little I resembled the other women in their logo-enhanced, matching crop top & bike shorts outfits. Since I’d done nothing more strenuous in the last decade than walk from the car to the house with 2 supermarket bags, I had had to scour my wardrobe for something that I could stretch in, without splitting the seams or garrotting myself at the collar. The closest thing was a pair of old pink pyjama bottoms, which had seemed passable at home but looked suicidal now under the merciless changing room lights. Still, I told myself that when I was powering across the room jogging, kick-boxing, weightlifting or what-have-you, I’d be just a blur of motion and nobody would notice. I hope.

When I finally got up the courage to enter the studio, it was already full of women, all doing terrifying things with their bodies, it seemed – before I realised that they were just stretching. Music throbbed as the instructor took her place on stage and I joined in as everyone started swinging their arms and skipping from side to side. After a moment, I smiled delightedly to myself. What was all the fuss about? This was easier than I thought! I raised a knee with flourish. All these years I had been terrified of exercise and really, there was nothing to it!

More hopping & skipping around the room and I followed enthusiastically. OK, I was starting to puff a bit now but nothing I couldn’t handle. I caught sight of myself in the wall mirror and thought smugly of my “healthy glow”.  Star-jumps now and I launched into these with fervour. When the music started to fade and everyone slowed and stopped, I continued jumping, feeling very superior. Hah! Look at them – tired already, whereas I was only a little bit out of breath. I did one more jump for good measure, then stopped and leaned gratefully onto my knees. Whew! That was a good workout.

“Good warm-up, class! Right, let’s get started!”

Warm-up? That was the warm-up?!

That was the last coherent thought I had. Music pumped into the room and everyone flung themselves into a frenzy of movement. I gasped and panted, trying to keep up. My lungs were bursting, every breath a rasp of agony. Sweat dripped off my forehead and into my eyes. I wiped at it desperately and glanced at the instructor. Maybe – I looked hopefully around at the blur of bodies around me – maybe she wouldn’t notice me at the back of the class. Maybe if I just slowed down a bit…

‘Hey! You in the pink pyjamas! Don’t stop!’

Everyone turned to gawp at me. I squirmed. There was no escape now. I skipped, I hopped, I twisted, I flapped…until I felt as if I was in a trance. The priests have got it all wrong, I thought. Instead if spending hours every Sunday preaching Hell and damnation, they should just hold Aerobics classes for their congregation. One taste of this and nobody would ever sin again…

When I came to, I was lying on the floor of the studio. Vaguely, I remembered doing something involving weights and flexing muscles, and then another tortuous ten minutes straining through sit-ups and buttock clenches. All I wanted to do now was to be left quietly to die…

OK, if you’re wondering why someone who has a morbid fear of exercise would suddenly put themselves through such torture, the answer is: moving countries. Specifically, moving to New Zealand.

See, people often think it’s the ‘big’ things (such as new languages or different religions) that are hard to cope with when you move to a new country but I found that the things which hit me were often the “little, everyday things”.

When I first moved from Taiwan to the UK as a child, the thing I found hardest to cope with wasn’t learning to speak English from scratch or being surrounded by blond, blue-eyed friends…but rather the traditional English 8pm bedtime for children. Asian people, as you’ll know, are all night owls. Asia comes alive at night and children are often out & about, at night markets, restaurants & departments stores, having a wild time. Suddenly having to follow a strict 8pm bedtime was tough!

Then when I moved from the U.A.E. to the UK for university, again one of the things which I struggled with was not the suddenly cold weather after 9yrs of living in the desert or all the things I could do as a female, now that I was no longer in a conservative, Muslim country – but rather the lack of meat in our college meals! ;-) Arabic cuisine is really heavy on meat: stewed lamb, shish kebab, grilled chicken, whole roast lamb, minced meat kibbeh…every meal was based around meat and LOTS of it. Suddenly, here I was in England, being served a “Sunday roast” which included 2 paper-thin slices of beef, surrounded by lots of peas & potatoes…hmm, my stomach was not happy! :P In fact, all through my first year, I kept a packet of ham in my fridge just so that I could have a “meat fix” every so often…

So roll in New Zealand. When my husband & I arrived in Aoetearoa, 2 things hit us immediately: 1) rugby there IS a religion (and the All Blacks are GODS) and 2) exercise is a way of life. We had our first taste of this a few weeks after we arrived, on Boxing Day morning (when most people are staggering home with a hangover or having a major, post-Christmas sleep-in) – the streets were filled with Kiwis out power-walking, jogging, cycling, roller-blading, dog-walking…at 7am in the morning.

You know how they talk about people being “married to the job”? Well, I think a lot of Kiwis are married to exercise. ;-) People revere it, embrace it, even (gasp!) look forward to it.

Exercise in New Zealand isn’t some dirty little secret you pretend never happens but an addiction you proudly boast about.

People ask you what you do for exercise, when they first meet you, the same way the English ask about the weather and the Chinese ask if you’ve eaten. After a couple of months in Auckland, I was embarrased when talking to others, not to be able to say I was running a triathalon/doing the winter ocean swim/joining a bootcamp/generally-doing-something-that-involved-lots-of-aching-muscles…

Of course, I resisted at first. I clung resolutely to my flabby arms and wheezy breathing. But slowly I found myself wistfully wondering what it would be like to own a pair of “trainers”; covertly eyeing the Jane Fonda DVD; enviously wishing that I too had “upper body strength”…until that fateful day when I took a deep breath and walked into a gym.

Now I’m Out & I’m Proud. Nine years of living Down Under have made me a convert. Yes, I exercise. Yes, I can now lift 2kg weights and talk at the same time (and sometimes even smile). Yes, I even own a pair of crop top and lycra shorts (although not matching, since I got them in a sale…hey, I am still Taiwanese, you know…) and I’ve tried Pilates, Body Combat, Step Aerobics, Pump, Yoga, Cardio-Boxing, Zumba, Aqua Aerobics and even those weird classes made up of just letters, like ABT and HIIT…

…but not a Spin class yet. I have it on good authority from several friends (who barely survived) that a Spin class really is A Fate Worse Than Death.

So tell me: do you ‘exercise’? Or is it still a dirty word? :P

So whose got a funny accent?

Wow, first of all, I have to say thank you to everybody for your great welcome on my 1st post – and for coming over from Honey’s blog to check out mine. I have to admit, I feel like one of those lucky kids of rock stars who have an unfair advantage and get a record deal just because of who their parents are ;-) …in this case, my newborn blog is lucky to get a ready-made readership that other people might take months to build up! But I’m very flattered and grateful that you’re taking the time – so thanks for the support! :P

parlance asked an interesting question in her comment on my 1st post:

“One household member reckons that a man of Chinese ethnicity would have had a Chinese accent, even if his family had lived in Australia for a couple of generations. He reckons that it’s only in the last couple of decades that Australians of Chinese background typically have Aussie accents. Any opinions?”

Well, I’m no linguist but I have to say, if that man’s family has already lived in Australia for a couple of generations, then – unless they’ve been living in a refugee detention camp, surrounded only by other Chinese immigrants – I would be surprised if he didn’t have an Australian accent!

In my experience, children pick up accents amazingly quickly (like – a couple of months, as opposed to a couple of generations! ;-) ). I don’t know if this is partly because of the ‘pliability’ of their brains at that young age or because children subconsciously want to “fit in” and so they make a big effort to mimic their peers.

6yr old me in Hyde Park, London

I know this certainly happened to me during my childhood, as my family moved around. I left Taiwan at the age of 6 and until then, had never spoken a word of English. Very quickly, after a short year in London, I was speaking English fluently and already with a noticeably British accent. This despite the fact that my mother spoke English (and still does) with a very strong Chinese accent and my stepfather spoke English with a distinct Arabic accent.

We then moved to the United States when I was 8yrs old and I’ll never forget my first day at school in Rutherford, New Jersey: when the teacher asked me to read a sentence in a book out loud to the class, I gamely stood up and read:

“The froog jumped into the pool.”

Everyone burst out laughing while I flushed red to the roots of my hair.  There is nothing like being laughed at by the whole class on your first day in a new school, in a new country to help you learn to deal with humiliation! ;-)

The teacher gave me a puzzled look and said, “What did you say?”

I tried again. “The froog jumped -”

“Sorry, the what?”

“Froog,” I said desperately. “You know, the little green animals who hop around.”

“Oh – you mean fraaag!”

Well, that was the last time I ever said “froog” ! ;-) From then on, I quickly made sure that I said “fraaag” and “wah-der” and “day-ance” – I was determined to fit in and never be laughed at again for being different. A few months later, you wouldn’t have been able to tell me apart from any other child brought up in North America, just by listening to me speak. I absorbed the accents and speech patterns around me like a thirsty sponge – but perhaps that was just a side-effect of my adaptation to moving around constantly.

A couple of years later, we moved to the United Arab Emirates and I was enrolled in an international school: I was taught by Scottish & Irish teachers and surrounded by mostly Arabic classmates – but we (the students) all strived for an American accent. Why? Because it was cool. It was what we watched on TV, heard on the radio and saw in the movies – if you spoke English with a British accent at my school, you were teased and considered “uncool” – (hey, this was before the rebirth of ‘Brit-cool’ and being like Michael Jackson was definitely a lot cooler than being like Rick Astley…besides, in many cases, even British singers would put on an American accent when they sang!)

I definitely think that for most children – the environment they grow up in (and especially peer pressure & aspirational influences from the media) play a far bigger role in determining what accent they’ll speak with – regardless of what ethnicity they were born with or how many generations their families have settled in the new country. In fact, this is such a common phenomemon that many wealthy families back in the U.A.E. found that when they left their babies & toddlers in the care of a Filipino nanny, the children ended up speaking English with a Filipino accent!

And if you’re wondering what my accent is today – well, let me finish the story: after 9yrs growing up in the U.A.E., speaking with a largely American accent, I moved to the UK at the age of 19 to start university. And suddenly found my ears flooded by a host of British accents – from London Cockney to Manchester glottals, Northern lilts to Welsh brogues. By the end of my first term at college, I found myself starting to copy my friends around me. A further 7yrs studying, living & working in the UK and I was definitely sounding more Barbara Cartland than Barbara Streisand!

Today, I have what someone once dubbed a “trans-atlantic accent” – which really is a polite way of saying I have a really messed-up accent that doesn’t sound like much of anything. Everyone hears different things when I speak: British people think I sound “American” and Americans think I definitely sound “British”. The fact that I don’t sound much like anybody can have real drawbacks – for example, as some of you know, I do a bit of commercial modelling & talentwork…but I very rarely get speaking parts because nobody can quite place where I come from! ;-)

Interestingly, since moving out Down Under and living here for nearly 10yrs now, I have not picked up either a Kiwi or Aussie accent (well, unless my Kiwi or Aussie friends disagree! ;-) ) – perhaps this is because, as some linguists believe, it just becomes much harder to change or pick up accents as we get older. I think the cut-off age is around 12 – if you move countries before that, you very quickly & easily pick up the new local accent; after that, it happens less and less.

I don’t know where I fit in since I managed to change my accent even at the age of 19 but perhaps I’m an exception since I moved around so much as a child that my brain was probably rewired so many times, it never had a strong ‘foundation accent’ to revert to. I know that my husband sounds resolutely ‘BBC British’ despite having travelled extensively – and that might be because he lived in one place (England) for the first three decades of his life. Besides, they believe that some people are just more susceptible to change – even as adults – and will always continue to adapt the way they speak, to the environment around them.

But perhaps it is a subconscious decision on my part too. Now in my 30′s, I am confident in who I am and don’t feel such a need to change my own identity to fit in, as I did as a child (hey, maybe these days I’d keep on saying “froog” and get them all to start saying “froog” too! ;-) ) – and so perhaps I make no effort or maybe even actively resist letting local dialects seep into my own speech.

But you know, the original question wasn’t a stupid one – I can understand where that assumption came from. You see, I think we all have a tendency to expect people to sound like the way they look. I know that when people first meet me, I often see a look of shock on their faces when I open my mouth and begin to speak. Why? Because they’re expecting me to speak broken English with a Chinese accent and are surprised to find my English fluent and my accent very definitely “Western”. In short, I speak like a native. And that doesn’t fit with the way I look. Many people’s standard response when I introduce myself as Taiwanese is “Oh – but your English is so good!”

I often meet other Asian people brought up in the West who experience this same reaction and like them, I have to admit, I find it mildly insulting: why shouldn’t we speak fluent English, just because we look Asian? But to be fair, I have the same reaction myself when I meet a Western person who speaks Mandarin fluently. And it works in reverse as well – when I go back to visit Taiwan, I have the problem of looking exactly like everybody else on the street and getting shocked reactions from the Taiwanese locals when they find that I speak Chinese with a “funny, foreign accent”! ;-)

So what about you? Have you changed your accent since childhood? Did you do it consciously? And what’s your reaction when you meet a ‘foreign’ person who speaks your own language fluently, with no trace of a ‘funny’ accent?

(I know from my friend, Nicoletta, that the Italians love it when Colin Firth speaks Italian! But then that man would sound gorgeous in any language…! ;-) )

ps. a bit of blog housekeeping: on Honey’s blog, it automatically notifies you if anyone replies to your comment (without you having to subscribe to anything) – I don’t know how it works here? I’ve replied to a couple of comments on the 1st post – and I noticed Elena replied to Nicoletta’s comment – but I don’t know if any of you original commenters have been notified?