Monday, January 29, 2007

My sister, my kaka…

The kids soon picked up a few words of local Bahasa Malay and would greet the security guards at our condo with salamat datang! (goodday!) or they said terimakasi (thank you) when we were served something or in a shop. The kids loved to chat with taxi-drivers who we used daily to go to and from school. The taxi drivers would ask them how many languages they spoke and when they said two the chap would laugh and say his children spoke four languages! It was true, local kids all spoke the national language (Bahasa Malay) plus English, then they had a local home language, either Chinese or Hindu and usually another family dialect too. It was impressive. being bilingual was nothing in multilingual Malaysia!

Marc and Nina learnt that the word kaka meant big sister. They had heard some kids in the condo calling their Indonesian maid ‘kaka’, and laughed and laughed, since that meant ‘poo-poo’ in French! Marc joked he could call Nina ‘big caca’ and she could not be angry, because he meant ‘big sister’!! They were just at the age when they loved the playground slang and their favourite mixed version was ‘You are a big caca!’ so this linguistic novelty amused them greatly.

Gabriel was now nearly six months old and with his sunny personality I could take him nearly everywhere; for dinner in a restaurant, to someone’s house or to an organised event and no one would mind. That was a huge bonus after England where children are not always welcome. Gabriel was easy to travel with and everywhere we went people stopped to talk to us. They would smile at Marc and Nina, ask their names or give them a sweet. But it was Gabriel who people loved, a big fat bald baby with huge blue eyes and a smile too! They pinched his cheeks, or tickled his legs and arms and picked him up to cuddle or cooed over him while he slept. When we visited the zoo in June people even asked us to pose for their photos next to the orang-utan or the elephants, or would crowd around us for their group shots!

The summer term or trimestre wound up with a show in a local auditorium. Not knowing any other parents yet at the school I sat next to a woman who looked friendly. She immediately introduced herself as Mahes, the mother of a boy in Marc’s class. Although we only exchanged a few words throughout the performance it was a relief for me to have someone to talk to and I felt we had a lot in common. She was Malaysian, of Indian heritage and married to a Frenchman too. The theme was French songs from the Seventies, which of course I did not recognize any at all, but our boys did their songs and then Nina danced Tata Yo-yo with the little ones. Both children looked happy and proud to be on stage and had no problems to sing along in French. I was reassured for the next school year.

As the holidays approached expats prepared to leave for the long eight-week summer holiday. Having only just arrived it seemed too soon to go back to Europe already, but the news that Jean and Nora would get married in August was an occasion too good for us to miss. We also thought we should spend a good part of the holiday in France to help Nina adapt more to her new school language and spend some time with the cousins there. My mother-in-law offered to take five of the cousins on a beach holiday and so with bags over-loaded with Malaysian souvenirs we set off for Paris….

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Expat Wives Club

Once I had got to know the expats of Sri Bukit Tunku Condo life suddenly got busy. We would cross paths at least once or twice a day, dropping off and picking up kids, waiting in the street for a taxi, or in the local mall. Suhita was the queen of the expat wives and she organized regular coffee mornings in her house. There would always be a person selling something; handmade scarves, artwork, ceramics or made-to-measure shoes. One morning Mahin took a few of us to the local Chinese market where she shopped to show us which vendors were good. I was overwhelmed by the smell of rotting meat and repulsed by the cages of frogs and chickens. But we fun and came back with several bags of rambutans, giant watermelons and custard apples.

KL is a small city, compared to most Asian cities like Bangkok and Shanghai. The expats were, in general, grateful to have posted there. They usually only had a two-year contract so they made the most of it before being swept off somewhere else or back to England or France. Expats met each other through the school network, the condo where they lived, or a country club or national clubs. Expat wives especially need to get together, because lacking family and friends they need support and a social life. We also want to discover things together and perhaps take up a new hobby or sport since most woman were not allowed to work in Malaysia.

Clubs existed for all nationalities and interests. You could learn tennis, bridge, mahjong, calligraphy or how to speak Bahasa Malay. I joined the Association of British Women in Malaysia (ABWM) first. Thinking I would meet fellow Brits I went for a Welcome Coffee and Lunch, only to find half of them were in their fifties and were living a very different life from those with kids. The others were all in the posh British school and after a cursory ‘What class are your children in?’ and discovering my children were at a French school, left me alone. I kept the membership for a year and went to few events and craft markets, and suchlike. I wrote articles for their magazine, but I never felt at home there.

The French had their club too. They met weekly for guided French-language cultural tours of KL, aqua-aerobics and lunches around town and they also had a regular walking club, which seemed a good idea. Since my French was still not perfect I preferred to practice with one or two people, rather than in a big group. The French woman at school said ‘bonjour’ as we dropped off our kids but they did not seem very friendly either. So I put that off for a while.

The club that suited me best, in the end, was ibu, an association of international women with young pre-school children. They met five days a week in a converted house in Bangsar. They ran baby clinics, first-aid classes, daily playgroups and so on. It was wonderfully cosy and gave my week some kind of focus. I offered to help out on the committee and signed up Gabriel for a place in the playgroup.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Multilingual Condo mix..

In May we found our neighbours. The manager of the condo told me there were several expat families living there. But where were they? The pool and park were deserted and I hadn’t seen a single child since we arrived. One morning as we waited outside the condo for a taxi to go to the airport an Indian lady came to greet me, saying she was living right opposite me. Liz had a son, Rubin, aged four, and a baby girl, Sheeba, just a few months older than Gabriel.

The holiday was great, but unfortunately four-year-old Nina fell into fishing net on a floating fishing village and gashed her inner thigh, needing 12 stitches. On our return I was desperate for help and rang Liz’s doorbell. She was instantly on the case, calling her doctor for a nearby hospital and helping me get there by taxi. We became friends, walking to the mall together with our babies in their pushchairs, or chatting by the play area or pool as out kids played together. Our husbands were away often on business, usually for three days or sometimes a week, and we were glad to have someone to talk to and rely on, if need be. Liz would make me Indian breakfast – flat pancakes with potatoes and onions with sweet milky coffee. I would reciprocate with croissants and jam from Deli France. When I praised her home cooking she offered to invite me to her Cooking Club so I could learn how to cook Indian food.

Soon I was introduced to Liz’s closest friend, Min. Min was a second-generation Chinese-American married to a Danish man. They had two children Andrea, aged seven and Greg, five. Greg and Rubin went to the same pre-school. The next day I bumped into Vikki, from England, with two children, Gabriel, who was three and MacCauley, 18 months. Vikki was friends with Suhita, who was Indonisian, and married to a Swedish chap. They had two children too, Kieran, six and Chloe who was three. Gabriel and Chloe were at the same pre-school too. Then there was Soraya, from Algeria and her family, Falak, five, and her sister Youssra who was seven. Youssra was at the French school too. The last person of the expat gang was Mahin, who lived right next to the pool. She has seen us but was too shy to say hello, and finally we met one Sunday when she sent her daughter, Nilgouin, out on her behalf. Mahin was from Iran, and had lived in KL for years, and her three teenage children had spent nearly all their lives there.

One Friday in the park Vikki said to Suhita that we should have a condo party….Suhita was the social organizer of the expat families. Within a few hours a potluck party was planned and on the Saturday night everyone met by the pool, and each family brought a dish. The night was balmy and tropical and the kids played wonderfully together. An English/Thai family joined us, as did an Australian married to a local Malaysian. We ate spicy food from India and Thailand along with Malaysian chicken and beef satay sticks and peanut sauce, Chinese sweet cakes, Swedish delicacies, Iranian rice and kebabs and we brought some French salads. As we chatted and shared our new and past experiences of Kuala Lumpur, we thought how lucky we were to have found such a group of diverse and multilingual friends. Within the group of ten families there were eleven languages and twelve nationalities.

We asked curiously why it had taken so long for us to meet? They looked at us with amazement, “Didn’t you hear about SARS?” they said. We shook our heads, it had been mentioned in England briefly in the newspapers, but we had no advice, even when I had signed on at The British Embassy. “We’ve been forced to stay inside for several weeks to avoid the virus,’ they explained “and the authorities banned going to public play areas, malls and condo pools.” The party was the first time they’d been out in weeks. That explained why the condo had been so quiet and we thanked god we had not caught SARS in our naiveté….

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Immersion into KL…

The first week in Malaysia was like a holiday - sunshine, the condo swimming pool and eating out in restaurants every day. But I also had to pull the house together and make a home. Jacques had arranged for a temp girl from the office to spend two weeks with us, helping me to find my way around. Monica was a chatty Chinese heritage Malaysian student studying law at night school, and she was great at showing us the ropes; how to get a taxi (to add one ringgit extra when you put the pushchair in the taxi boot…), where to shop for basics and how to run fast and get under cover when a storm came. We had an Indian lady who came in to clean and iron, although she spent most of the time chatting on her phone and moaning about her legs…

The apartment was hugely empty, and much bigger than the London one, but lacking all the furniture we had before. The apartment was furnished with the basics; a table and chairs, sofa, beds and one bedside table each. Due to the SARS crisis the shipping company said our cargo would be late….probably not until June. We had nothing for Gabriel and had to rush out and buy a cot, pushchair and some summer clothes. In the nearest department store the baby clothes were made of synthetic fabrics, which seemed cruel since Gabriel was already sweating profusely. The only cotton ones I found I grabbed, in size 3-6 months, only to find out later that our plump Gabriel was not an Asian size baby and these items were like doll’s clothes. Our summer clothes were in the shipment so we had to buy clothes for school for the Marc and Nina. I had a mild panic wondering what chic French mamans would dress their kids in, would our kids look out of place?

The children had a few days to relax before they started school. They were deeply jet-lagged. When I went to Japan I had spent a whole week wide-awake at 3am, reading a book till I fell asleep at 5am. But this time I had three lively children full of energy at 1am and I had to amuse them! They wanted to play. My saviour was the 24-hr cable TV and they watched Cartoon Network till they dropped off eventually. The next day we were unable to wake up, not having to go to work or school, so would sleep till midday, which made the jet-lag last even longer…

School eventually started and we made our way to the maternelle or pre-school part of the school. Marc would only be here for a few months; because the year when children are six they start formal schooling. So Marc had a few months to chill before serious work. Maternelle was in a separate house with three classrooms about five minutes drive from the main school building. It was painted egg-yolk yellow with a lizard mural, and surrounded by tropical forest, monkeys were playing near the playground and the canteen was outside in the garden under a tent. Children had to take off their shoes on arrival, as did parents. I made a note to buy slip-on shoes. Marc had a male teacher downstairs who did not seem very interested but found a place for him. Nina was upstairs with a female teacher. She ushered Nina in and we were sent off.

For an international school the staff were remarkably insensitive to the new expat children. Nina was culture-shocked and very disorientated. She wet her underwear, cried, demanded to be with Marc (she was put in his classroom in the end) and barely talked a word. The teacher reported all of this in front of the other mothers, which had to be the height of rudeness. Marc’s teacher wondered aloud why he didn’t know his address for a letter project (he just moved here!!!). Luckily we only had a few weeks till summer holidays, which started the end of June and the school was busy preparing a summer show. Nina was chosen to dance, while Marc was in a circus show. This at least made them feel part of the community. They were also cared for by the Malaysian English teacher, Yew-Lin, who helped them communicate and held Nina’s hand in the playground to comfort her.

The weekly school newsletter advertised maids and when I spotted a Philipino maid looking for work we jumped at the chance. Lili came for an interview, and we agreed she would work five afternoons and two mornings. She could start immediately. I fired the Indian cleaner, who didn’t seem at all bothered, and Monica left to go back to her temp work.

By the end of the month we had a regular rhythm to our life, school started at 8am, followed by me shopping at the local mall and having a late breakfast at Deli France, where the staff loved Gabriel and played with him while I drank my latte. In the afternoon I would leave Gabriel sleeping with the maid to pick up Marc and Nina by taxi at 2.30pm. We would end the day with a dip in the pool or play in the condo play-area, or play in the house if there was an afternoon storm. We would eat out with Jacques later or sometimes join him in the town. And so life began in KL…..