A nomad mother in Singapore

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Happy looming

When I was young it was punniken. I punniked all day with my friends, trying to make a record breaking length of … well… punnik-thingy-ma-bob. Nothing more useful than a punnik-thingy-ma-bob. Punniken, like thingy-ma-bob in English, is one of those amazing Dutch words that are impossible to translate. A dictionary would give you spool knitting, or French knitting, but those don’t do at all. Punniken (pronounced puhn-nick-an), merges frunniken (fiddling) with pulken (picking, as in picking one’s nose, or a scab), and does not need any explanation. I had not used the word for several decades, but writing it down just now, I realised it is one of my favourite words. But I digress. 

When I was young it was punniken that was the rage. Today’s fad is not that much different; it is just executed in plastic. And on a loom, although an old fashioned knitting dolly serves as well. Rainbow loom is every bit as addictive as punniken, and worse. Making gazillion bracelets out of the colourful rubber bands was only the first step. Soon, we progressed to flowers, snakes and lizards.  

When papa came home finding his wife and offspring amidst a heap of colourful rubber, he cried out that rainbow loom must be the most pointless thing ever. He picked up a looper, and refused to give it back. ‘Wait, I am not done yet!’

One can rainbow loom at many different levels. The kids make simple bracelets on their fingers, on two pencils, the plastic knitting spool, or even a fork. More complex designs are to be done on the loom, instructions for which you can follow, band by band, online. In fact, it was before we even owned a loom, when they watched a fifteen minute instruction video in total silence, that I knew there was no way back. 

‘Mama, I want to make a mouse.’ 
It is an easy guess who found herself fervently looming mice, lizards and hamsters, long after the kids were sound asleep in their beds. 

A few weeks later Jasmijn, at three, can set up a ‘triple single’ on the loom with cap bands, needing mama only to loop the thing with the looper (which normal people would call a crochet hook). Suddenly I find myself excited about Elsa, Anna and Spiderman knitted out of rubber bands. Penguin, anyone? Just to prove that rainbow looming is a lot less pointless than, well, punniken. 

So our summer holidays unravel. The Ipad and TV have never had as little use, and even Lego and Kapla were neglected until the rubber bands, alas, were finished. The house was strewn with bracelets, necklaces, hairbands, charms and figures, until Tijm had the brilliant idea to combine all into one super chain that goes around the room, and back, quite possibly beating mama’s childhood punnik-record. It definitely impressed his friends. 

The end must be near, as nothing bar Lego and Kapla can hold the attention of my little ones for longer than a week or so, but so far so good. Time for a trip to the shops. I suddenly itch for some wool, and a punnik spool. Perfectly pointless.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Singapore Summer #1

The rambutan tree in our garden is too high for anyone apart from our hairy, long tailed friends to enjoy it's delights. Luckily there is another tree just down the road. 

It's low hanging fruit might look unripe, but the yellow ones are perfectly edible. Maybe not as sweet as farm grown varieties, yet surprisingly tart and refreshing in this hot weather. 

Monday, 23 June 2014

Singapore’s got talent!

The X factor. American Idol. Idols. Britain’s got talent. Holland's got talent. Who does not know these? But Singapore’s got talent, who’s heard of that? The city-state is not known for it’s creative excellence. Does Singapore have talent?

This weekend, I had the honour of being a judge at the HOME Talent Pageant 2014. The pageant is open to a very special group of Singapore residents: Foreign domestic workers. These brave women leave their home’s behind to take care of other peoples homes overseas. They live in their employers houses, have long working hours, and often not even a weekly day off. No wonder HOME felt these amazing women deserved to be in the spotlights for once. 

UWC’s Dover campus hosted the semi finals, the talent part of the pageant hosted by the amazing Pamela Wildheart. With the other judges I sat, slightly nervous, in anticipation of the day’s events. We would have to judge the contestants women from mostly Indonesia, the Philippines and India on attributes including stage presence, uniqueness, skills and emotional impact. 

HOME’s talent pageant is not about body shape, age, race, weight. It is about inner beauty. Grace and charisma. Focusing on skills rather than beauty, the pageant hopes to encourage domestic workers develop their talents, and pick up life skills whilst working in Singapore. HOME Talent Pageant 2014 was organised by HOME domestic worker volunteers, giving them the opportunity to showcase their talents off-stage as well as on. 

Embracing my inner Simon Cowell, I sat in eager anticipation of the contestant’s performances in the first category, singing. Just like on TV, not all the contestants managed to hit the right notes all the time, but dedication, beautiful costumes and poise more than made up for that. In the special acts category, we heard declamations about the strife of foreign domestic workers, percussion, even dressmaking and make-up skills were demonstrated on stage. Doling out points became harder with each new contestant. How do you compare a lady dramatically acting despair to one performing a traditional Indonesian chant, or one swirling a hula-hoop on her neck? 

The most popular category was dancing, and wow, these ladies can shake their hips! We saw Shakira, belly dancing, hip-hop, traditional Philippines sarong dances, classical Javanese dance, pop, zumba, tribal dances, and much, much more. 

During the counting of the votes, the audience was treated to performances from fellow judges, whilst I, the writer with the singing capacities of a peanut, hid in a corner. Fifteen finalists were selected, each of them demonstrating that domestic workers are capable of more than cleaning washing, or taking care of the elderly. They are women of many talents. 

I hope that the HOME Talent Pageant 2014 will teach Singaporeans how unique and special their foreign domestic workers are, and that these women deserve the right, opportunity and time off to further develop their skills and talents. 

The HOME Talent Pageant 2014 final will take place on Sunday, the 29th of June 2014 from 1 to 5pm at the Catholic Junior College Performing Arts Theatre, 129 Whitley Road Singapore. Tickets are available at 20 dollars each.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The World Cup: through the eyes of a sports hater

A while ago, in a taxi heading downtown, the taxi driver asked where we were from. ‘Ah,’ he exclaimed excitedly, ‘Holland! What do you think about their chances in the World Cup?’

I sat back in the cool leather, passing that one to my husband, who duly responded that he did not give them much of a chance. The taxi driver scratched his head. He was not amused. He had put a significant amount of money on the Dutch team. The odds against them had been good, and last tournament he had made some good cash supporting the orange lion.

A heated debate between the two men followed, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the team, leaving me silent, and surprised that this Singaporean taxi driver could not only name several players of the Dutch team, but was perfectly equipped to debate their capabilities on the field as well. I, by contrast, would struggle to name a single player. I am sure Gullit retired some years ago?

Which football team to support is an important matter for a young (or slightly older) boy. My son struggles at school, being one of the few to support PSV in a group full of Ajax fans. Admirably, she stands by his daddy, even though he has never set foot in Eindhoven, PSV’s hometown, in his young live. It never ceases to amaze me that where you are from has little to do with the choice who to support. 

Singaporeans are great football lovers (although they call it soccer), and favourite clubs include FC Milan, Manchester United, Barcelona and Arsenal. Man U has the biggest fan base outside the UK in Singapore, and makes tons on merchandise alone. When the club decided to get listed on the stock exchange, they seriously considered the Singaporean Stock Exchange, before finally opting for the US. Not a strange consideration, if you know that Man U has a fan base of roughly 190 million people in Asia. That is about 3 times the total population of the whole UK (or 380 times that of the city of Manchester, if you are counting…) 

World Cup matches are screened widely here, but since Singapore is not competing, the locals have not gone mental. Unlike others. Personally, I find watching the crazy crowds far more entertaining than the game. 

Dutch fans are some of the worst. To the annoyance of serious fans like my husband, who claims that the more people dress up, the less they really care about the game. Amongst Dutch fans try to spot ‘carrot man’, who wears a helmet with dangling bunches of carrots over his ears, the ‘badmutsman’ (or ‘bathing cap man’, I am not joking) or ‘the Indian’ between the legion of milkmaids (all male), lions, cowboys and other ludicrous loony’s. 

Football has long stopped being about football. And with that, for me, has become much more interesting. The circus has just begun, with Oranje kicking off with an impressive 5-1 win to reigning Wold Champion Spain and my husband googling tickets to Brazil if, just if, they will make the finals. ‘Don’t worry,’ he reassures me. ‘They won’t.’

Read the full story in Hollandse Club's The Magazine's new issue soon. In the meanwhile, check out this site for more crazy fans..

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The business of making money

I have been very busy lately, and have not had much time to blog. Therefore, this week, I will treat you to the work of one of the students of my writing class at the shelter of HOME, the charity I work for. Jessel is a domestic worker from the Philippines, and she shares with us her story of her agent, who when she complained about having been deceived with a false contract, send Jessel a text message stating ‘I told you before my business is making money’.
‘Getting married at an early age is quite difficult. At 19, I gave birth to my eldest daughter, and the following year to my second. Life was hard with my husband having no permanent work. So I decided to apply for work abroad, in Singapore. Applying to work in another country takes time, money and patience. My first attempt failed and I had no choice but to stay with my family. I gave birth to my third and fourth child.
At that point, life got even harder. When my youngest son turned two I decided to apply again to work in Singapore. I had to pay six months of salary to the agent, but my employer let me pay small deductions every month. I was lucky, my employers were good people. I felt at home with them, even if I did not have any days off and they did not allow me a handphone. The first three months were hard. I missed my children. I cried a lot. But I got through that, as my family in Singapore was treating me well. After two years, my contract finished, and I had to find another employer. I did not go home to take a vacation because I wanted to earn money. To transfer I had to pay two months of salary to the agent again.
My second employers were good people too. They treated me as family. When my mam gave birth, I felt like I was having a baby too. After a year and a half, I made a mistake that I regret badly. I decided to go back home. My mam wanted me to stay, and I am now very sorry she agreed to send me home.
Life back home was difficult, as I did not have any income and could not provide for my four kids. I felt so down. I applied for a job in Singapore again. Processing went very fast and after only one month I was back in Singapore. I was very shocked when the agent told me seven months of my salary were going to be deducted as an agent fee. I did not get to see my contract until I had been working for the new employer for three weeks already. By that time I had little choice but to sign it. I felt that I had been fooled. Why had they not told me this when I was still in my own country? They had said that because I had worked in Singapore before, I would be a direct hire and would only get four months of salary deductions, spread out over a longer period. I had trusted them to tell the truth. Another mistake.
This time, I had left for Singapore together with a friend, through the same agency. My friend’s contract stated she would pay four months of salary deductions, and that they were going to be spread out over ten months, just like we were promised. Me, I would not have any money to send home to my family for seven months.
I asked my agent, who had turned out to be my mam’s sister, why my loan was so much higher than my friends. The agent said my friend was different, but when I asked why, she would not answer me. Neither did she answer me when I asked to go home. When I told the agent I was very disappointed in her, she texted me back, saying: ‘I told you before my business is making money.’
I thought I was very strong. I thought I had patience. But now, I started to feel unhappy with my work. Every time my mam raised her voice to her kids, every time I even saw her, I felt nervous. I could not fight the thoughts anymore about my own kids, now I could not send them any money. If I can’t send any money to my kids, they will starve. I was worrying so much I could not work properly. I felt depressed. I wanted to go home. That is why I ran away .’
HOME has managed to negotiate a reduction of Jessel’s agency fee, and she is hoping to find a new employer soon. 

For more stories from HOME, please check out the new blog at www.home-blog.org

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Our very own safari lodge

When we just moved into our new jungle house, the first thing the kids did, was organise an expedition. Armed with hats, backpacks, water bottles and a self drawn map, they safari'd through the garden. When they returned I asked what they had seen, and the answer was a very disappointed: 'Just a squirrel. Oh, and some birds.' 

Not much later I heard screaming from the kitchen, and I still regret I did not have a camera ready to snap the grinning macaque that sat in the middle of the kitchen table, dextrously peeling the skin of a banana he just pilfered from the fruitbowl I had naively placed in front of an open window.

The macaques were only the beginning. One day Indah came running, pointing excitedly at what she described as 'a tree-hugging rabbit'.  I immediately knew what she meant: this must be one of the flying lemurs that our area is known for. Flying lemurs have large skin flaps between neck, arms and legs, allowing them to glide through the air like a flying cloth, sailing from tree to tree. Once we were lucky enough to spot a whole family, and on the picture below a trained eye might spot he baby in the top left skin fold of the upper lemur. 

Some animals, like our lemurs, are highly cuddly, others are just plain beautiful. Like this white throated kingfisher that got stuck in our living room, and tried to seek refuge on a matching turquoise painting.  

Or the fluffy caterpillar that we don't mind offering our palm leaves to. 


Some visitors we have come to regard as good friends, like this tree frog, that we have affectionately named Kermit, who likes to live in our beanbag.

The most illustrious of our guests must have been the pangolin mother and child we found napping in our drain one morning. This friendly, scaly anteater is an endangered species, and not a sight we will easily forget. 

For convenience's sake we name all our amphibians Kermit, and this guy lives under the outdoor sofa, and the slightly grumpy face below was due to the fact that he was disturbed from his slumber by Indah, who moved the roof of his house for mopping the floor. 

Less popular is our Jungle Fowl rooster, a rather pretty cocky fellow with colourful feathers, who likes to wake us up very early in the morning with his cheery cock-a-doodle-doo. Roel has threatened to turn him into cock-au-vin more than once, only to be stopped by the knowledge that, although increasingly easily seen in Singapore, this wild ancestor of our domesticated chicken is in fact a protected species. 

This, for Singapore modest sized, monitor lizard of around a meter long frequents our garden increasingly. It's sneaky silent crawl allows it to sneak in unobserved, until his presence is found out by the Myna birds, who will try to scare it away with loud squealing twittering. 

Often we are enchanted by the lovely song of the bulbul, so we were excited when a pair of them started to build a nest in our lipstick palm. For days we followed them packing leaves, sticks, and a strip of discarded snake skin into a small bowl. Not much later we saw the hardworking bird fly back and forth with food, filling the mouths of his demanding offspring. Then, this morning, disaster stroke. I saw the macaque strolling close to the tree, but it was not until he leapt up in one big jump that my heart stopped: the babies! I ran towards him, shooing, but it was too late. The rascal swiftly climbed to the top of the tree, a fistful of grey fluff in his fist. Nature at it's cruelest, and the incident left me with a bad taste in my mouth all morning. 

This picture, although not technically taken in our garden but just down the road, is remarkably deceptive. The fern in the middle is in fact well over a meter wide, making this python roughly four meters long and as thick as my thigh. Since I was within inches of stepping on it, I still check under my bed, every night. Just in case. 

And, of course, there are all the animals I did not get a picture of. It was way too dark, that one time that Indah was afraid there was a burglar in the bushes, and she was very relieved when our flashlight proved it in fact to be 'just' a large wild boar. 

There are all the birds, the yellow orioles, the scarlet sunbirds, the fluttering butterflies big as my hand, the woodpeckers, the omnipresent Myna birds. The numerous ants, termites, mosquitos and, before I forget, the 30 cm long giant centipede that once scampered over my foot. I was too busy screaming to think of camera's that night. 

I also never got a shot of any of those slender squirrels and tree shrews that jump around our trees so abundantly that we hardly even notice them. Not because they are so fast and agile, although they are, but because I never tried. It makes me realise how spoiled we are, here in our very own private safari lodge.  

Monday, 5 May 2014

Mother's Day off

On Sunday morning I find myself badly hung-over, baking thirty cupcakes for a birthday, preparing a quiche and a pile of salmon cream cheese wraps for a picnic, whilst simultaneously trying, with my hip, to shoo off kids that keep pulling at my skirt for attention. ‘Get out of the kitchen; entertain yourself for a minute, will you. Mama is busy, or do you want to go to school empty handed tomorrow?’

I plod on, head throbbing, and not so silently cursing the fact that there is no time off, ever, for a mother, that we have to work 24/7, with no time to rest and no time to clear our heads from the constant screaming. And that we hardly get any appreciation for all our hard work, only on that once yearly commercial trap called Mothers Day. Downing another panadol I curse myself for staying out too late and drinking too much, and for not doing all this the day before. The day when I had an extra pair of hands around the house.

I could now write that this experience made me understand the fact that some parents do not give their domestic worker a day off on Sundays. But that would not be true. Even in my miserable sick-to-the-stomach state, I realised that it was not all about me. That there is one group of people even worse off than parents: foreign domestic workers. These brave women who travel to a different country, and leave their own kids to take care of those of someone else. They get up before their employers do, to prepare breakfast, and don’t finish until the last dinner plate is washed up and put away. Or later, if the whim of the employer wants it that way. In Singapore, domestic workers are not covered by the employment act, which means there are no laws regulating their salary, working hours, days off, sick leave, annual leave, overtime pay, or any of those things other workers have a right to. A domestic worker is totally dependent on the generosity of her employer. 

Sure, there are many employers that treat their domestic workers well. They even call her part of the family. The problem is, a family member, like a mother, has really crappy collective labour agreements. Family, like a mother, does not get paid, time off, sick leave, treated considerately, et cetera. A domestic worker would be better off protected by clear regulations. Clearer than the recent law in Singapore, claiming that domestic workers have the right to a day off, but still leaving a loophole by stating the worker can be offered extra payment in lieu if she does not get one. 

So yes, it sometimes bugs me that as a mother I never get any time off, nor the appreciation I deserve. Yet, I feel utterly blessed that six days a week, I do get that extra help that makes my live infinitely more easy. Next Sunday it will be Mother’s Day. But I know someone who deserves to be spoiled much more than I do. 

Photo by Jolovan Wham, taken at the HOME labour day celebration picnic (the one I was making the quiche and wraps for) which we had to celebrate on the Sunday after, as most domestic workers were not given Labour Day off to celebrate on the actual day.