Chapter Two

Think about an occasion where you are required to dress up, to greet and nod politely at people that you do not remember, to pretend to have emotions that you do not feel and be expected to confront unexpected ghosts from your past. What do you think of?

A family funeral.

(Unless of course, you make a stupid decision of attending an ex-boyfriend’s wedding, which to this day remains one of the most regrettable decisions in my life.)

On the day of Ma’s funeral, I was standing next to a big white sign with her smiling face, and words that said:

“In Loving Memory of Lee Fah Wong, wife of Michael Coleman, mother to Sara Coleman, Nathaniel Coleman and Melanie Coleman, grandmother to Riley Teo

(26th May 1947-1st August 2015)”

I was also the first family member to greet the inflow of guests and the recipient of all condolences and related messages.

“Ah-Jie, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother. She was such a nice woman. Do you remember me? I’m your Auntie Jacintha, you used to play at our house when you were younger. I know Lee Fah loved white roses, here are some that I have ordered for her.”

“We are going to miss your mother at our line dancing classes. Your Auntie Fong, especially. They were such good friends, like two pods. Wait, I think the saying is two peas in a pod.”

“Sara, please let us know whether there is anything we can do. Do you want me to bring you cakes? The ones that you and Mel liked when you were little girls?”

“Oh, Sara, your poor mother! She is so young too. And what happened to you? Why have you put on so much weight?!”

And each time, I nodded my head, smiled politely and let them hug me to make them feel better, even when all I wanted to say was:

“Thank you but no, I don’t remember you.”

“Auntie Fong? Wait until you hear what she says about her!”

“Yes, please bring cake. Any cake.”

“Really? I was just going to ask you the same thing! I don’t remember you having the face of a dried prune.”

My head was throbbing. I felt like a sledgehammer was making its way through my skull. I had had less than thirty hours of sleep in the last five nights. Every night when I closed my eyes, I saw her face, the one from that evening, wondering whether there was more I could have done more to prevent her early death. Did she really have a heart problem which I was not aware of, because I did not see her enough? Then flashes of images from our younger and happier days would flood my mind, and the pillow that I was lying on would inevitably end up being soaked in tears.

To make matter worse, the day of the funeral was hot, my black dress was a size too small (the little lady with the wrinkled skin was right, I had put on weight in the last year) and the funeral was held at Ma’s house. Fifty guests, six immediate family members, all cramped into the small space that was her house and her back garden. All less than 500 sqm of space.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked Mel three days ago, when she mentioned the venue for the funeral. “It’s going to be 37 degrees of glorious West Australian summer temperature that day.”

“No, I‘m not, but it’s what she wanted. She had it written down in her will.”

Mel had been appointed as the executor of Ma’s will, which came as no surprise to me. Ma had always referred to her as the intelligent and responsible one. Ma had also set aside a certain amount of money to be spent on her funeral, which did not include the hiring of a venue. Discussion closed.

“Guests? Who do we have to invite? What about the program?” I asked. “I have a friend who works in printing. He can help out.”

“Here’s the list,” Mel said, pushing a list of fifty names in front of me. The names were categorised under various groups – Pa’s relatives, family friends, very close friends, friends from line-dancing, friends from pottery, friends from fine arts and friends from church.

“Who are these people? I have not even heard of most of them.” I took a second glance. “And church? Since when did she go to church?”

“I think there was a short period of time about five years ago. She must have made some life-long friends.”

“Do we need to invite everyone?”

She shrugged. “Again, she had them written down.”

“What about flowers? Chrysanthemum?”

“No, white roses. Several bouquets of them. And a casket spray of white lilies. I can order them. There is a florist down the street from our place.”

“I thought she would prefer some Chinese tradition. Don’t we always have chrysanthemums at Chinese funerals?”

“Well, she said that she wanted roses and lilies.”

“She wrote that into her will?”

“Not her will. There is a list of things that she had passed on to me in case this day should come.”

“Really? What was she being so prepared anyway? Did she have some kind of illness that I didn’t know about?”

Mel shook her head. “No, she didn’t. Healthy as a fiddle, for all I know. But she had been prepared ever since Pa went out with the heart attack.”

“Oh. I didn’t know that.”

“There are a lot of things about her you don’t know.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Can we just focus on getting this done? I have to take Riley to speech therapy in an hour’s time. And tomorrow there is a team meeting that I have to get to in the office so I won’t be able to see you in the morning.”

“Speech therapy? For a two-year-old? Is that really necessary?”

“Sara, he can’t even pronounce some basic words, OK? Besides, Riley’s my son, so please back off with the judgement.”

“OK, OK. Sorry,” I mumbled.

Mel and I had been spending a lot of time together over the last couple days, working through what needed to be done and planning for Ma’s funeral. We had not spent this much time together in the past fifteen years, since I moved out of the family home (the same one where the funeral was going to be held). I could not say that I had been missing it.

“Any guests flying in? Do we need to arrange transport or accommodation?” I asked.

“The only one I can think of is Nate, if he’s coming at all.”

“Well I called him the night Ma passed away. I expect he would come. No one from her home town?”

“Not that I can see on the list.” She paused. “Where’s Nate going to sleep? Is that woman coming too?”

“I don’t know, he didn’t say. I assume that they will be going to a hotel.”


As it turned out, Nate did fly in from Melbourne the night before the funeral. Now, at the funeral, I looked across the room to where he was standing awkwardly in a corner as guest after guest walked up to him with their condolences. I tried to look at his eyes, to see whether there were signs of redness. Are you sad at all, Nate? Did you shed any tears when you found out that she was gone? I could not tell. There was some puffiness but it could have just as well been from jet-lag.

He did seem taller than I remembered, although I knew that was not possible. It might have been the suit and the Djokovic-style haircut that made him look so. He definitely looked more handsome, and more like a man than the boy I remembered him to be.

His partner Rei was sitting down next to him, her face expressionless, fanning herself with the funeral program that Dan, my friend in printing, had helped us pull together over the last two days. From time to time she would take out the compact mirror from her handbag and stare into it, presumably to check that her impeccable make-up was not running in this oven-like condition.

I had not had a chance to speak with them much since they arrived. I made a mental note to invite them out to dinner tomorrow night, once the last of the formality was over and the sledgehammer in my head had been retrieved. Maybe at that new hotpot place in town. I think he mentioned that she liked Chinese food. Real Northern Chinese food, he added, not the type that you would get from a Hong Kong or South East Asian restaurant.

“OK, everyone, can I please have your attention?” a voice rang out loud and clear, as I was still contemplating whether hotpot or traditional Szechuan cuisine would be the way to go. The voice came from the funeral celebrant, Robert something or another. “We are going to start our ceremony soon. If I can please get you all to find somewhere to sit, or stand comfortably, as I understand that there may not be enough seats for everyone.” He had a deep and soothing voice, like that one would expect from a radio host for a jazz channel.

Mel found Robert through Google search. He described himself as a celebrant with many years of experience in the performance of non-religious funeral ceremonies that centred around the life of the deceased loved one, which was exactly the type of ceremony that would suit Ma. His Google reviews were great (4 stars), although I did tell her that the assessments were questionable since the reviewers were not, and would never be, the actual recipient of the services.

Having said that, I had been thus far impressed with Robert. He seemed to take his role of funeral celebrant very seriously and with a lot of pride, advising us of tips that he had gathered through his many years of experience, like where to seat the guests, how to deal with children, how to deal with very sad people, how to monitor the mood, what type of music was appropriate, and so on. He also assigned each of us a role so that we would feel like we were part of the process. Mel, of course, was assigned the role of delivering the eulogy, which was fine by me. I was never much of a public speaker and just the idea of speaking in front of people made me feel sick, even if it was at my own mother’s funeral.

My role was to greet and direct the guests, and then after the ceremony was over, to show them where the refreshments were, and explained what they were, if asked (there were bound to be some questions since we decided to serve the guests with some of Ma’s favourite Malaysian kuih). I felt that this suited my skill sets well. Robert must have thought so too. Funny that a man who had only met us a few hours could already spot the strengths and differences between my sister and I. As for the son and de facto daughter-in-law who just flew in less than twenty-four hours before, they were not assigned any role. Their only responsibility was to show up.

The ceremony itself was short and concise. It started with an introduction and reading by Robert, followed by the playing of Ma’s favourite song Rose, Rose, I Love You (“Mei Gui Mei Gui Wo Ai Ni”) and a eulogy delivered by my dear sister. Mel looked very elegant in her Audrey Hepburn style vintage black dress. She used phrases like “warm and caring friend and mother”, “larger than life”, “funny”, “a vibrant blend of Eastern and Western cultures”, “loved everything with colours”, “no one cooks soups like her”, and finishing it all with “We love you and will never forget you, Ma.” I could only agree with half of what she said, but I could not fault her speech. It was well composed, sprinkled with just the right amount of sadness and humour, exactly something that you would expect from Mel. All throughout she spoke clearly and eloquently, whilst occasionally dabbing at the corner of her eyes with a tissue at well-timed pauses.

After the eulogy Robert closed the ceremony, and guests were offered the opportunity to walk up to the casket to say their final goodbye’s (we ultimately decided on a closed casket because there was too long a lag in between time of death and the funeral and given the summer heat, her body was decomposing quicker than we thought). Some guests took this opportunity, others just went straight to the refreshments. I hurried over and took my place by the refreshments table.

As I stood there, silently swearing at the sun while smiling and nodding at each a guest who walked past, I felt a nudge at the back of my leg.

“Oh hi little buddy,” I said, looking down at my two-year-old nephew. He looked up at me with eyes that reminded me of Mel’s. “You lost?”


“Are you looking for your Mama? I’m not sure where she is. She might still be busy.”


I looked around and spotted Patrick in the backyard, talking to a couple of people and spreading his arms out animatedly as he did. Typical Patrick. Always looking for the opportunity to socialise in any environment.

“I think Papa is busy too. Do you want to hang with me for a while?”

He nodded, looking confused. I smiled at him and picked him up in my arms.

“Oof!” I said with surprise.

He must be at least two kilos heavier than the last time I held him, and he looked very adorable in his little black suit and bow tie. How did something so adorable come from my uptight sister and her pompous husband? And poor little guy. He had no clue what was going on, who all these strange people were and why they were here. I wondered if in the years to come he would remember once having a grandmother who loved him.

Oh yes, how she loved him.

“Are you Sara? Lee Fah’s eldest daughter?”

I turned around and came face-to-face with an older woman. Her skin was fair and the firmest of all the other older women I had met at my mother’s funeral, and her hair was beautifully held up in a bun on top of her head. Even at her age one could say that she was attractive. She looked to be of Asian descent, but spoke with an Australian accent, unlike a lot of the other ladies that my mother spent time with, including my mother herself.

“Uh, yes, I am.”

“You look so much like her.”

I smiled politely.

“Beautiful ceremony,” she continued.

“Thank you. Mel did most of the planning.”

“Sara, I don’t think we’ve met before but I am your mother’s good friend, Linda. Linda Fong. I’ve seen your sister Mel a few times when she picked your mother up from line dancing class, but not you.”

Auntie Fong, I thought in my head.

“Oh yes, she has mentioned you a few times,” I said. I could not help but steal quick glances at the bottom half of her slim body, which was cladded in a tight dress, as I imagined those buttocks and thighs that used to be covered in very short pants.

“Yes, yes, we hung out quite a bit. I am very sorry that this happened. This really comes as a shock to me too. She seemed so healthy.”

“Yes, that makes two of us.”

She paused and looked around awkwardly, as if to make sure that there was no one standing within close proximity who could hear our conversation. Then she leaned in close.

“Look, Sara, there’s something that your mother had asked of me to do when she was still alive, in case this happens. I just did not realise that it would be so soon. Can I speak to you in private?”

Chapter One

I smelt it first, before I saw it with my eyes.

No, I am not talking about the smell of death. Despite my usual acute sense of smell, I did not detect the putrid and rancid smell that evening like that described by many others, who have proclaimed to have smelt it at a scene of death and know immediately that it cannot have been anything else. I have always thought that only happens to corpses that have been left undiscovered and unattended for days, at which point they would have become infested by white, disgusting, squirmy little things.

But that was not the case here. Not at all. Not with her.

Lee Fah Wong was not one who could have been left alone long enough that she could die and no one would notice for days. She would not allow it. She was constantly surrounded by people. She was the type who would rather not eat a meal than eat it alone. She would sign up to classes of any sorts, whether it be line dancing, or gardening, or pottery, just to meet new people. She would decide whether to attend a concert or a play not based on whether she liked it, but on whether there was someone (whom she liked) to go with her. One of her favourite past times was to plan and organise for guests to come to visit her at her house where she would host them for a meal, or sometimes just a tea and a chit-chat.

And on this Tuesday evening I was that companion. She had insisted three weeks ago that I was to have dinner at her place four times a week, being Monday to Thursday nights. Demanded, in fact, as she placed her bony fingers on my arm, like she always did when she was insistent upon something and she suspected that I might not be of the same view.

She started by saying how terribly concerned she was about the state of my mental health and general welfare.

“I am worried about you. To have no family and no job, when you are almost forty!” she exclaimed. “What are you thinking? Most women your age will either have beautiful family or successful career, or both, by now. Aren’t you worried?”

She always had a way with words.

“Ma, it’s not that I don’t have a job,” I tried to explain, not for the first time. “It’s just that I decided I did not enjoy what I was doing, so I need time to reassess my career choices. Lots of people who become successful later on in life do this.”

She waved her hand in my face. “Same, same,” she said. “We should have dinner together more often so that you have company, and I can give you some advice about being a woman at your age.”

Besides, I did not like cooking, she had pointed out, so why not just have dinner at her place and she would cook for the two of us? Rather than getting something frozen from the supermarkets or getting meals delivered by Uber-eats, as I usually did, both of which were laden with salt, preservatives and MSG. Again, not be suitable for a woman who was close to forty.

Of course, I suspected that it was her own loneliness that played a big (if not overwhelmingly major) part in her invitation. Ever since Mel went back to work a year ago, the visits from her were getting further and fewer in between. Therefore, a replacement was required. And who else would be better than the eldest daughter who had no family, no job and nothing better to do on a weekday evening?

I finally relented to three nights a week, because really, what else was there for me to do on a weekday evening? I convinced myself that I could use some company (even if it was from my own mother), a healthy dose of family and non-family gossip, and home-cooked dinners which usually consisted of rice and a soup that had been boiled on the stove for hours. I had always liked my mother’s soups.

That evening, as I was standing on her porch in front of her door, the one with the wooden ornament that said “Please take off your shoes before coming in”, my nose sensed that something was not right.

I could not smell the essential oils. Sometimes it was lavender, sometimes peppermint, sometimes eucalyptus, sometimes chamomile. Each night may be a different one, depending on what needed to be remedied that day (whether it was sleeplessness, indigestion, a blocked nose or anxiety), but she would always have something on. Diffusing in the background of her living area (not burning, as she had explained many times before, because burning would destroy the healing properties of the oils). She was a firm believer in the healing power of essential oils, so much so that a lot of her retirement funds had gone into the acquisition of them. As such, she would always have something on. Every single evening without fail. She could not sleep without them.

And that evening, I did not smell it.

I had a copy of her house key. It jangled amongst the others as I tried clumsily to insert it into the key hole and then pushed the door opened.

The house was dark. I flicked on the light switch. Her downstairs living area was not huge and I could see it all in one glance. She was not there. She was not in her regular La-Z-boy in front of her television, nor fussing around in the kitchen. The living area looked clean and meticulous, as if no one had been in the house for the last few hours. True enough, the cylinder-shaped essential oil diffuser was sitting on the kitchen benchtop, with the lid off and not plugged into the socket.

“Ma?” I called out. “Ma, I’m here.”

I was expecting her voice, from somewhere upstairs in the house, to say, “Yes, Ah-Jie, I am here!” But there was no answer.

Then I noticed the pair of red cloth-slippers with the green beads. The ones that she wore when she went out. There were laid out neatly by the door. She always tidied her shoes before she went to sleep each night, and they looked like they had not been touched since she left them there last night. My heart pounded.

I took off my own shoes and ran through the house, across her cream-coloured carpet, past her collection of Chinese landscape paintings in the hallway, and up the stairs to her bedroom. Her door was closed. I reached for the knob and opened it. And that was when I found her, on her bed, stiff and yellow, still untouched from the night before.

And that was that.

Later on, they told me that she most likely died in her sleep, of old age. I remembered thinking, What does that even mean?

She was only 68, and seemingly healthy just the day before. Very healthy indeed. She even went to her weekly line-dancing class at the local leisure centre and was talking and laughing on Monday evening, with rice spitting out from the side of the mouth, as she described to me how one of the aunties at the line-dancing class was trying to flirt with the stand-in instructor.

“Can you believe that, Ah-Jie? The young man, very fit and very handsome.” She pushed out her chest when she said that, trying to illustrate a young and fit man. “That Auntie Fong, old enough to be his mother. Oh, Ben, she said, can you show me how to do that again? The poor boy. Of course, he could not say no. I know she used to be quite a fox when she was younger. They say that she used to wear pants so short that the men did not know where to put their eyes. But doesn’t she realise that she no longer has a body like Kylie Minogue? Wa-haha!”

And the next time I saw her, she was stiff and yellow, on her bed. With her long grey hair spread out against the white pillowcase like silver phoenix wings. Looking so peaceful and yet not breathing.

There would be no more joking about Auntie Fong and her flirtatious ways. Ever again.

Died in her sleep, they said.

On her death certificate they put down the cause as “cardiac arrest”. Really? I had asked the doctor. I had never known for her to show any signs of heart related issues. The doctor explained that it was not always possible to ascertain specific cause of death in an older person, and they would usually not carry out invasive procedures on an elderly who had just passed on if there was nothing suspicious about the death, so in those circumstances they would usually just put down the most likely cause of death.

The first thing I did upon finding the body was to ring my sister, Mel. She picked up after three rings.

“Mel?” I choked, right after she picked up the phone.

“Yes, Sara? What’s wrong? Is everything OK?” she asked. There was the sound of a child shouting in the background. I could tell she was genuinely concerned. After all, it was not common for her to receive a phone call from her elder sister in the middle of the week, under normal circumstances.

“It’s Ma. I-I think sh-she’s gone.”

“Gone? Gone where?” There was the sound of a dog barking in the background.

“Gone! Gone! Kaput! To where Pa is! To the Heavenly Kings!”

A sharp breath on the other end of the line, then followed by a rhythmic breathing as I imagined her pacing quickly to a separate, quieter room in her house.

When she reached the other room, she breathed into the phone: “Where are you? What happened?”

“I’m at her house, and how would I know? I just arrived at her house and found her in her bed, you know, gone.”

A pause. “Are you sure?”

“Am I sure? Am I sure?” I said incredulously into the phone, almost shouting. “Yes, I think I’m sure. She’s not breathing and her skin is cold and saggy! You should come and see her face, Mel. Then you’ll know whether I’m sure.”

“OK, OK, Sara, calm down,” she said. “Have you called the doctor yet?”

“No, no, you are the first person I called. Am I supposed to?”

“Yes, you are. Can you please call Ma’s GP Dr Patel now and let her know? Her details are on the fridge, on a white magnet. I’ll be over in fifteen minutes.”

Typical Mel. Always the calm one. The cool and collected one who did not buckle in stressful and unexpected situations. She always knew what to do and she always had a plan, despite being five years younger than myself. I was glad that I rang her. At least that was one decision that I felt good about making, the first one in the last five years, that I knew I would not regret.

After my phone call to Dr. Patel, I walked back to Ma’s room and sat on her bed, next to her stiff body, as I waited for Mel to arrive. I looked at her face, the skin that was losing colour, the closed eyes, the sagging mouth, a face so calm and not at all like the one that I recognised from when she was breathing. For a second there I thought that maybe it was not the same person. Maybe my mother was still alive and out there somewhere and a stranger had climbed into her bed and died in it. The absurd thought only lasted for a second.

I put my hand over her clammy one and gave it a light squeeze. Then I pushed a few strands of loose hair out of her face, and laid them out by the side of her head, as symmetrical as I could possibly make it, and I smoothed the creases from the top of her nightgown. I wanted her to look presentable when they, whoever they were, came in later to take her away (which I only found out was futile effort when they came and swiftly rolled her body onto a piece of white cloth without so much as looking at it).

But that was how she would have wanted it. She always took the time to make herself look presentable.

And that was when the first tear made its way out of my eye. And then a second one. And they did not stop falling until long after Mel arrived fifteen minutes later and we held each other, as sisters would in times of distress, and sobbed together until our faces were wet, our eyes were puffy, our chests were heaving and our wails were penetrating the unnatural silence that had been invading the house since the night before.

A Week in Italy

For the last week I have been waking up either on a plane or in a hotel room all by myself, in a foreign city far away from home. The mornings were strangely calm and quiet, and the chaotic madness that I am used to in our daily household seemed distant.
This foreign city was Florence and work brought me there. Whilst I was there, the daytime was filled with intense work schedules, but we had the evenings to explore.
Florence is a city that is beautiful and rich in history. This was the place where the Renaissance started, and this was the place where great Italian historical figures like Galileo and Michelangelo were buried. Standing on the cobbled-stone streets, surrounded by concrete and marble buildings that were hundreds and even century years of age, you could not help but feel the presence of its grandeur past. The craftiness and architectural genius of the Italians could be observed through the intricate details that were attentively painted, carved and sculptured into every inch of their buildings – the doors and windows, the arches and columns, and even the roof and ceilings.
The atmosphere of the city was light and relaxed at most times; majority of the people milling about in the streets were tourists who had trickled in from all parts of the world to enjoy the Tuscan summer. The Italians who I came across in the shops and restaurants were lovely and hospitable people – not so much in the polite Asian kind of way, but more like in a louder, passionate and homelier kind of way.
When the sun went down, the city transformed itself again. The streets, the buildings, the Ponte Vacchio bridge and the surrounding hills all lit up in a modest, subdued manner, unlike the bright modern city lights that I was used to. The big majestic church, the Duomo, stood still and somewhat eerily in the backdrop, softly illuminated in a white light that reminded you of its presence without being intrusive. Together with the evening breeze and street musicians around every square and corner, you could not help but feel like you wanted to fall in love in this city. It was truly an indulgent experience.
However, while I was in the midst of basking in all of this, I was also aware of another reality that was unfolding halfway around the world. Despite weeks of advance planning, my three-year-old son caught an unexpected throat infection that resulted in high fevers and night waking for days. My husband, who was also sick and whose birthday I had to miss, was working full-time and having to take time off to look after him. My daughter, who still needed caring for while her brother was sick, ended up staying at my mother’s place for days while her father cared for her brother. I realized that for me to be able to make this trip and focus on doing what I needed to do, there were a lot of sacrifices made by my loved ones on my behalf.
A mother’s guilt is real, and it stems from the realization that the decisions made by myself can have multi-faceted impact on those around me. When I was in Florence I thought of my family every night before I went to sleep and every morning when I opened my eyes. Every time I was starting to savour Florence I felt guilt for being the only one in my family who had the opportunity to do so. Every time I received a text saying that Maxy was unwell, I felt guilt for not being there.
As the days go by, I get better at managing the guilt (or perhaps I just become numbed by it), but it does not ever really go away. Even before this trip, it has thrown (and will continue to throw) questions at me that make me think and consider about my real intent of doing things. Questions like:
Do I really have to work? Would the house finances fall apart if I stop working? Or am I working because I want to? Because it makes me feel accomplished and better about myself? Because it challenges me and keeps me in touch with the real world and I get to socialize in different networks? But even if I work, does it really have to be with a company and in a role that would require me to be away from my young family for days at a time, and sometimes steal hours in the evenings too? But haven’t I always wanted this opportunity to travel, and is it a bad thing to still want this knowing the impact it will have on everyone at home?
Is it ok to be selfish and want only for myself sometimes?
It is tiring sometimes to think about it, especially when knowing that there is never going to be one solution that would satisfy all these questions. But by pondering them from time to time I am hoping it woukd help me re-evaluate the validity of the decisions I made to date, particularly around work and life. And by doing so I am hoping to keep myself honest and challenge myself to try and find that right balance that would work for all of us – for those I love and also for myself.

A Weekend in the South West

We were in Busselton again over the weekend.

We have established a bit of a family tradition this time every year where the extended family would all pack up and get out of Perth for a weekend away to celebrate my mother’s birthday. It is always somewhere in Western Australia, and more often than not, in the South-West region.

But birthday or not, the South-West has grown on me and whenever I am seeking for a quick easy get away I would always head south. It is close enough to be convenient and far enough to get my mind off things. On the drive down, you get vast open areas of beautiful, rugged country side, dotted with livestock and the occasional farmhouse and cute cottage. Once you are there, depending on your destination, you either get long stretches of pristine white beaches and an ocean that spreads out like a shimmering golden and blue blanket; or you get nestled between rolling hills and tall, majestic trees and the odd clearing where kangaroos lay down to rest. There is also an abundance of local fresh produce around the region like fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood, and everything else ranging from bread, olive oil, pate to jams and preserves – which you can choose to bring home and cook for yourself or sit down in one of the fancy winery- restaurants and get a well-qualified chef to cook for you. What is not to like about this region?

In more recent times, with the boom of the resources industries, the increased prominence of WA as a tourism destination and the attraction of more people (and money) into the state, the region has seen a bit of a shift from being just a holiday location into a more sophisticated, upper-class getaway location. This can be observed from the upscale of some of the long-term establishments (note the iconic Miami Bakehouse which now forms part of a bigger food-court establishment) and the increasing number high-end wining and dining locations and luxury accommodation for travellers (not to mention the number of imported cars and well-dressed people who frequent these establishments). From the balcony of the rental house where we were staying we could see a dock full of recreational boats. Although at times it can feel a little over-commercialised, I believe this has overall served to improve the quality of experiences available around the area.

However, on top of all of that, there is another reason why I have become even more enamoured with the South-West (which is the same reason why we have been frequenting the region for at least twice a year for the last few years), and that is because I find out just how easy it is to travel there with kids. If you have not discovered that for yourself, here are my top reasons why:

  1. It is ten times more convenient than flying – we can pack and chuck everything into the boot of our SUV and drive, unrestricted by check-in time and luggage space (for example, if I forget a pair of boots right before we leave our garage, I would grab them and throw them on top of everything else as opposed to having to repack). We also do not have to worry about the logistics of towing around two kids and big pieces of luggage for miles in an airport or waiting around for long periods in an airport lounge or being buckled up with young kids in an airplane for hours (i.e. think many opportunities for toddler melt-downs). And even if they do have melt-downs, they would be buckled up in the backseats of our car away from the wary eyes of other airline passengers.
  2. It is also much more affordable than taking a flight to like say, anywhere. The amount of money we save on flights will allow us to splurge on very nice accommodation down south.
  3. There are many things for both adults and kids to do down south. Wineries, pubs, Margaret River chocolate factory, gourmet food shops, animal farms, ice-cream factories, Busselton jetty with train ride and underwater observatory, tree top walks, forest hikes, walks by the beaches, and the list goes on.
  4. Most places are designed with families in mind – majority of accommodation will provide portacots, high chairs and children’s plates, cups and cutleries. Some of the hotels will have swimming pools and playrooms for children (we have even rented a house once that provided a game machine). Family-friendly accommodation can easily be found on websites like Airbnb and Even when you dine out you will also notice that a lot of places will provide kids meals and have colouring pencils and play areas to keep your children happy.
  5. We are still within Western Australia, so we are familiar with the surroundings, the shops, the facilities and where we can go to pick up baby food or more nappies or Panadol / Neurofen if by tough luck one of your little ones come down with a bug (which has happened to us on more than one occasion).

Protecting our Daughters

I love having a daughter.

I always knew I wanted a daughter. When I became pregnant with our first child and even before we found out the gender, I was already having mental images of a mother and daughter hanging out, of me dressing her up, tying her hair in different styles of ponytails and French braids, of us going shopping together for shoes and pretty dresses and sharing many slices of indulgent cakes and desserts.

I wanted a daughter whom I could mould into a better version of myself and to pass on my life-long lessons of growing up as a girl and then a woman in an evolving world where traditional meets modern, where the value of women are starting to be recognised in the workforce and society and where ample opportunities are being made available.

And then when Maya came along, she turned out to be the daughter and the little girl that I have always wanted – sweet, beautiful, intelligent, funny, cheeky, slightly quirky and a little too defiant. I watch quietly in pride as she grows up and I quite often thank the powers that can’t be seen for gifting me with this precious girl.

However, as much as happiness and pride as this little girl has brought me, at the time she was born was also the time when I started experiencing fear and anxiety like I have never experienced before in my life. For the first time, I was experiencing the feeling of overwhelming love that a person can have for another being – and I started to realise that the more love you have, the more fear that results from the potential inability to protect that person whom you love.

From when she was a baby I was constantly worrying like a new parent would and I saw safety threats in all aspects of everyday life – is her cot safe, is there a piece of cloth covering her face, will the heater in her bedroom overheat, is she playing with toys that she might choke on, is there a cup of hot water that is too close within her reach, is every cabinet in the house secure in its place – and this list could go on for another two pages.

As she grows up and I see my baby turning into a little girl, I started to worry about all the horrible and unthinkable things that can happen to girls and young women, imposed on them against their will, as we have seen in all parts of the world from as long as history has been recorded and continue to witness. Are we making progress? I’m not sure; but it has certainly gained more visibility.

The recent incident of the rape and murder of a young woman in Melbourne as she was walking home from work at night has brought about various emotions in me. I felt sadness; at a death that was so senseless and unnecessary. The girl had only just entered adulthood and she would have had so much ambition, so much dream, so much to look forward to in her life. I felt disappointment; that a crime like this could still take place in a country which I thought was relatively safe and civilised. I felt anger; at how someone felt like they had the right to violate another human being and then proceeded to take away her right to live.

But most of all, I felt fear; fear knowing that the incident could have easily happened to any other women, and by how little else that young woman could have done to save herself. Women had always been made victims but not been equipped with the strength to be able to fight back – even before we start, we are already behind (yes, I guess I was a little disappointed in God too). I felt fear because I have a daughter and I will not always be around forever to protect her in a world where women are continuously being made victims of crime just for being women.

As a woman I have felt anxious in many instances in the past were I had to walk in quiet places by myself, and now it clearly strikes me that my daughter also has to go through the same experiences growing up. The world has not changed much. In advance of women’s independence and freedom, I wish I am able to say to her that she should live her life without worrying about what others might say or think or do, and that her life is hers to live, but unfortunately I know that is not the case. What we say, how we dress, how we act, will affect our lives and I cannot see this changing in my lifetime or hers.

How can I best protect her? If I could I would hold her hand at all times and walk with her by my side, I would keep her under the roof of our house for as long as we can in order to protect her, but I know that at some stage she would have to (and would certainly want to) learn her independence and the ability to look after herself. As a mother, I feel that the only thing I can do for her is to provide her with the advice and the skills and the tools to be vigilant, and to reiterate to her again and again, the need to be so.

And until the day that we can trust all men would do the right thing by all women, I will continue to worry and to pray that she will always remember the advice and that she will not cross the path of people who seek to harm her.

The Life that Might Have Been

Hey lady, you, lady, cursin’ at your life
You’re a discontented mother and a regimented wife
I’ve no doubt you dream about the things you’ll never do
But I wish someone had a talked to me like I wanna talk to you

Over the last weekend for what was supposedly a quick family trip away, I found myself stuck for an hour in a cramped and dirty McDonald’s toilet cubicle somewhere between Busselton and Dunsborough, with a screaming constipated child and this song in my head. (If you have not heard of the song before it was a 1980’s ballad titled “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene.)

At that point I closed my eyes and imagined what that moment would have been like for me in another lifetime long long ago – when a vacation would have been like a real vacation, and time away would actually be relaxing. Instead of a toilet door that seemed to be closing in on me by the minute, I would have been staring at the ocean which had no end. Instead of the flushing sounds of the next door toilet, I would be listening to the gentle lapping of waves and gawking seagulls. And instead of alternating between standing in a small room and squatting and comforting my child who was on the toilet until my legs and back hurt, I would be lying down with a book in one hand and a cocktail in the other.

So Charlene, you were right.

On some days I dream of a life that would never be. When the demands and responsibilities of everyday life take its toll I wonder what it would have been like to just be free. To not have to be stuck in a routine of waking up early, going to work, picking up kids then making dinner, to not have to clean up toys, poo and vomit, to not have to be confined to office space for eight hours a day so that the mortgage and private school fees can be paid off, and to not have to be always concerned about whether your actions and decisions might start a fight with your spouse or someone else in your household of ten.

To travel whenever and wherever I want to and see the world, to meet new people and talk to interesting strangers, to pursue a career and a life that is plagued with uncertainty but full of excitement. To be responsible only for me.

What would my life have been like then? Where would that take me? What kind of person would I have been?


I do not let those thoughts linger for long or otherwise consume me, because I know they are not real and the trade-offs have would been unimaginable. When the mind fog clears and I look into the face of a smiling child (my smiling child), I know that these moments, these so-called hardships, are short-lived and in return for something better. Like good investments. You give up a life free of responsibilities and put in the effort in return for things that you now realise you cannot live without once you have experienced them; for those moments when you pick your children up after work and your heart melts when you see their grubby, smiley faces; for the nights when you lie in your husband’s arms, watch Gogglebox and talk about your day; for the family dinners when you sit around, enjoy good food and exchange life stories; for love; for the genuine laughters.

You do it, usually without question, for the certainty in your own mind and your heart that you have given all you can to the people you love most and that you would have them by your side when you need them and when you get old and lonely and you can no longer run freely.

After all what else could life be about?

So listen to the rest of the song. Charlene would tell you the same.

Rethinking the Goal Posts as a Part-Time Working Mother

One source of stress I find working part-time as a mother is this:

Before kids I was used to working longer hours than average in order to achieve my goals and a bit more. So when I return to a corporate environment where most people are working full-time and very full days, it is difficult not to be self-conscious when as a result of personal reasons, I am leaving before 4:30pm each day and not coming in on the alternate day.

I am very conscious of the potential impact of my work arrangement may have on project schedules and demands of other colleagues. If I miss an important activity today, it may be another two days before I can get around to it. Therefore to make up for it I try to be the most effective I can be when I am at work (minimising chit-chats, working through lunch etc) and when I am not there, I am checking and responding to emails to ensure I don’t hold things up. I am used to thinking about and carrying out preparatory work that I can do while at home to make my hours in the office even more productive. I try to plan in advance to ensure that my hours do not place additional burden on my colleagues and I am painfully conscious of the times when I have to decline meetings on the days I am not in or leave early because I have to go pick up my children.

At times I feel exhausted and burned-out, mentally juggling and managing all these aspects. I care about workload equity and I care about meeting my work goals and people’s expectations. I also care about how other people may perceive as the attitude of working mothers and part-time arrangements in general.

But the reality is this, in trying to meet all these expectations, how many of these are actually real and valid? Unless expressed in concrete terms, how would I know or measure how others may think of me and my personal circumstances? Like many situations in life, are these expectations, really, just set on myself, by myself?

Of late I have come across some materials, incidents and self-revelations that are making me rethink the way I have been approaching things.

1) I do not have to feel guilty about my work-life preferences.

It took me a while to realise this but just because others have different work-life priorities and preferences, does not mean I have to guilty about my preference to spend more time with my family. I do not have to make excuses or justify why I wish to spend more time at home than at work because it is my prerogative to choose how I use my time and set my work-life boundaries.

This is not applicable just to parents – if you love surfing and want to leave early every Friday to catch the waves, that is up to you to decide.

It does mean that I have to manage it proactively, but this is no different to when I was working full-time. I still have to deliver what I say I will deliver but it is about understanding my own constraints and setting realistic expectations. Good organisations would generally respect individual preferences as long as you are communicating them and still achieving your goals. And if they are not, well, that is another different issue altogether.

2) I do not always have to be 100%.

This came up in a conversation with a woman whom I have a lot of respect for. She asked me, “Women sometimes feel like that they have to achieve 100% in all aspects in their lives. Why not try for 80%? That is still pretty good and you may find that it is more acceptable than you realise.”

What a simple statement, but what an impact that can potentially have.

As someone who has always liked having control, I am finding myself in more and more uncomfortable situations as I venture more into new and unfamiliar territories, made worse by time constraints – this is what puts my mind into overdrive trying to contemplate all the varying situations and balls that I can potentially drop. At some point I have make myself comfortable with the fact that my resources i.e. time is limited and the notion that I cannot control everything. If I am doing all I can within the means I have (and maybe a little bit more), I have done enough.

And to my point earlier, how do I know that 80% is not good enough? If I don’t answer that email today, will there be a crisis when I get in tomorrow? Most likely not.

3) Work-life integration and focussing on priorities at the time.

I recently read an article on Thrive Global about an interview with Denise Morrison, President and CEO of Campbell Soup Company (if you have not heard of the website Thrive Global, I would highly recommend it. It was founded by Arianna Huffington – also the co-founder of Huffington Post – and is a wellness site created with a mission to end the stress and burnout epidemic plaguing the workforce by proposing sustainable, science-based and purposeful solutions to achieve success).

In describing a book that changed her life, Denise talked about the “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” which debunked the concept of work-life balance and discussed the concept of work-life integration instead. She also talked about being able to set clear priorities in the moment as life happens.

I liked how clearly she articulated that – whilst still coming to terms with the concept of work-life integration I am starting to apply her point about setting priorities. Through the last year I learned very early on how a meticulously planned daily or weekly schedule can be quickly derailed by a sick child, an injured dog or someone at work approaching with an urgent situation. Whether it’s life or work, or a muddled juncture of the two, if something unexpected jumps out it is about clearly understanding and setting priorities to focus on at the time. It is not about trying to do all and doing a lesser job at each.

I realise that this a marathon and I am only in my very beginning stages. To ensure my own well-being is in check, I will have to rethink and revalidate my goal posts from time to time to check that they are still in sight. And at times when I feel like I am losing sight of them, I will refocus and revert to asking myself this question – if I am on my death bed today, what is it that I am likely to regret or wish I had done more of? I do not think that answering emails would be one of them.

The Lunch Box Challenge

Every once in a while a new hobby or interest comes along that I would allow myself to get immersed into.

Two years ago it was baking; triggered by my desire to bake a birthday cake for the kids (which was no doubt triggered by the many instagram photos of crazily creative but somewhat unrealistic birthday cakes posted by other very talented mothers). I am now reminded of that each time I open the kitchen cabinet to find rows of baking trays and tools in different shapes and sizes, many of which have only been used once. There was also that time when I went a little overboard after receiving an email from daycare informing me of book week dress-up day – which resulted in me fretting for weeks trying to think up an appropriate costume that would resonate with my then two-year daughter without costing me a fortune in terms of money and also time. She ultimately ended up going as Grug, which no one recognised, and I still have leftover confetti paper of various colours in my store room.

Each time this happens I would spend hours every week trawling through Pinterest and magazines researching and gathering ideas, and then spend more hours trialling the ideas before ending up with the final output. Nevertheless I do like these little bursts of projects; they inspire the creative part of the brain which I believe is not used often enough and create distraction from an otherwise hectic lifestyle and at times stressful work environment. Life can’t always be about words, numbers, schedules, negotiations and managing people’s expectations right? What fun would that be?

So, what currently hogs up my time? There are two – firstly, planning the interiors of the house that we are building and secondly, planning what to put into Maya’s school lunch boxes. Both very challenging and equally fun (although driven by vastly different budgets). However this post will only be about the lunch box, the house can come at another time.

For those who have not done this before, do not underestimate how much thought and planning actually goes into that cute little compartmentalised bento box. I started thinking about it a couple of months even before she started school. Those dreadful news on how parents get chastised for packing chocolates into a lunch box. That school information evening where teachers specifically tell parents NOT to put junk food into your children’s lunch boxes. Those television programs that tell you that basically almost EVERYTHING you buy pre-packed from supermarkets these days are laden with sugar, salt and preservatives. And to top it off you have a fussy and slow little eater, you are limited to what you can pack in that lunch box without it getting rotten by midday or it getting all over your kid’s front shirt, and you must be conscious of all the other kids who might be potentially be allergic to nuts, eggs and etc etc. What else is there that you can pack?!

Well, a lot actually, as I eventually start to find. And it is extremely fun! I now love looking up new healthy recipes, making them and then forming them into shapes that she would willingly eat. Nothing feels better than checking her school bag at the end of the day and finding an empty lunch box.

Six weeks into the routine, and here are some things I learned about the process that makes it easier and more enjoyable:

  1. The box matters. Yes, having a good and cleverly-designed lunchbox helps. Think lids that can be easily opened by a four-year-old, think compartments that will separate your savoury from your sweet (and wet-tish from dry), think lids that are attached so that the kids will not lose them, think size that would fit nicely into a lunch bag or their school bag. There are so many cool options out there right now that makes shopping for them quite fun.
  2. It’s good to have varieties. Put different types of food into that lunch box – main meals (e.g. sandwich, pies, sushi etc), snacks, vegetables, fruits – whatever makes sense. This not only increase their nutritional intake, but it also makes it interesting for kids who may be fussy eaters. And in case there is something in there that they do not like, there is always something else that they can eat.
  3. For a working mom I try to stock up the pantry with essentials to avoid the mid-week night supermarket run. Rice, bread, wraps, puff pastry, carrots, cucumbers, cheese, ham and eggs are good staples to have throughout the week – you can make so many combinations out of these ingredients. Sliced cheese, rice crackers, seeds, dried apricots and any other type of dried fruit are also handy to have on hand to be added as snacks.
  4. Think up fun lunches that are easy to prepare and can be done the night before so that you don’t have to wake up an hour earlier in the mornings: Sushi, cucumber and cheese sandwiches, banana and peanut butter wraps, rice balls with fillings, mashed potatoes with peas, quiches, hot dog/sandwich. I usually make them mini sizes (e.g. half a seaweed slice for the sushi or sandwiches cut into 4 mini triangles or quiches made in muffin pans) because Maya finds them easier to eat and loves the idea that they are made just for her.

Have fun lunch-making, and please share your ideas!


Spinach balls recipe from Good Chef Bad Chef

Easy Date Slice recipe from Chef Not Required … recipes from a home cook website

Apricots – pre-packed from Coles

The Image of Me

The other day I was sitting at the edge of the swimming pool, just looking and observing my daughter as she splashed and kicked around in the water and followed her instructor’s directions. I noticed how now she is starting to understand most verbal instructions and has developed enough dexterity to be able to replicate others’ movements – things that I had not noticed she was able to do about a year ago.

Of late I found myself doing that a lot – marvelling and at the same time surprised by my daughter’s progression, and her ability and eagerness to learn and absorb all things new to her.

What a wonderful age.

At this age there is a lot of excitement; for all things new to her young mind which our old minds have taken for granted for so long. Blow bubbles, and she will squeal. Pick her some flowers, and she will treasure for days. Sing a song, and she will sing and jump along. Show her a see-through Lego block, and she will pretend that it’s gold and keep it by her side as she sleeps. Tell her a made-up story, and she will sit on the bedside with delight and conjure up images of fairies and fireflies in her head.

At this age there is so much curiosity but yet so little judgement for people around her. There is no discrimination from where and whom she learns. She does not notice the differences in people’s skin nor eye colours; she does not notice whether you are wearing Prada shoes or a plain t-shirt; she does not question if a person does not possess all the physical characteristics that she does. There are things she can learn from everyone.

Her mind is like a sponge – which is incredibly exciting for me to watch, but also makes me nervous at the same time. You are starting to see what you consider as your own good and also bad characteristics reflected through her – your positivity and your negativity, your generosity but also your selfishness, your (weird) sense of humour, your temperament, your superficiality, the way you want others to see you, down to your careless eating habits – all being mirrored through the thoughts, words and actions of your child.

Blurt a foul word, and you hear that echoing through the little one’s mouth almost instantaneously. Tell her that she is not to speak to you loudly, and you see that being repeated as instructions to her father and her little brother some days later. Let her know when you are angry, and she takes it as an acceptable emotion to be portrayed back to you and others. Where does it start and where does it stop? How can you be angry at or disappointed in her actions when you realise that you are one of the biggest influence in her life and major source of her learnings?

I am starting to feel the paradigm of parenting (and my being a mother to my daughter) shifting. There is so much you can teach her but you realise it is so important that you pick the right methods, lessons, messages and timing. It also causes you to constantly re-think and question about your own behaviours and choices you make as an adult. Do you want her to see you losing your temper, or would you rather her see you handling situations calmly? Do you really want her to see you reaching out for that chocolate bar every time you are stressed? Do you want her seeing you speak loudly to her dad when you disagree on a matter? And it may only be actions and words for now, but as she gets older she will also look to you to form her thinking on bigger issues like social ideals, acceptances, norms and boundaries, self-image and self-worth. Even from a young age, can you afford for her to see your insecurities, your self-doubt, the days when you feel that nothing matters?

Nothing has made question myself as much as parenting has. But it is ok; in fact I think it’s a good thing. It feels like I have been given me another opportunity to look hard at myself and question whether I am the best person I can be for my child to learn from. It begs me to ask the question that in twenty years time, regardless of who my princess grows up to be, can I truly allow myself to say that I have done all that I could for her and let her be the best she can be?

Generations and Traditions

Close your eyes.

Now picture yourself as a young child again, celebrating your most favourite festival. What do you see? The sights, the scents, the noises, the music, the people – young and old, the food, the excitement swelling in your heart.

It is only 5 days until the start of the next Lunar New Year. My sister recently wrote on her Facebook page the wonderful memories she has of it from when we were young. The things she mentioned – from the month-long preparation prior to the festival (baking, cleaning, shopping) to the red packets, the new clothes, the firecrackers, the somewhat noisy Chinese New Year songs being played repeatedly on major channels, days of visiting houses of friends and relatives, days and days of feasting on rich, decadent Chinese dishes and home baked cookies, I think she forgot to mention the gambling (oh yes…. do not forget the gambling) – are all as etched into her memories as they are mine. In my mind I can still see and feel it, and every year around this time I would reminisce those days.

As a species, we do not like staying still – we migrate, we move away far from our homes to meet new people and explore new opportunities. As we do that time and time again, generation by generation, we move into and adapt to new environments and shed off and move further away from the histories and cultures that define us (more out of necessity and limited by resources). Like us, we love Australia and now call it home, but I am always acutely aware at this time of the year that we are now in very different environment from the one we grew up in – there is no holiday, no loud music, no excited little children, no crowds milling around shopping centres and no special programs on TV to remind you that somewhere else in the world a major festival is being celebrated.

So increasingly more these days we yearn for and need cultural festivities like these to connect us back to our roots and bring people back together. It is during these festivals that we have the opportunity to celebrate and continue to pass on traditions that our ancestors from thousands of years ago taught us to do (like the art of performing lion dances and the lighting of firecrackers to ward off the evil spirits). It is also during these festivals that families get together and sit down for a nice dinner and those from afar travel to be with those they love.

Within the family here we try to do as much as we can to revive those traditions – which may include taking a day off to visit relatives and spending a weekend making cookies and withdrawing a large sum of money and putting them into red packets ready to be handed out to eager little hands. I would really love for my children to have the same experiences and fond memories of cultural festivities as part of their childhood as I did and I also realised that it is entirely up to us – myself and Will – as to whether that happens and the impact it would have on generations to come if we are too complacent to make it happen. 

Like my mother would say, we should not use the excuse of busy modern lives get in the way of doing something we are serious about doing, and this is one of them.

Generational traditions