Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Long Goodbye Party

You can’t avoid a goodbye party in KL so a series of goodbye parties started with different groups of friends, a lunch with the ladies who had French Husbands, organized by Hilary at the Hilton, a Ladies Night Out and a goodbye buffet for four of us who were leaving the Cooking group. A last lunch with Ikuko, my calligraphy teacher, a night out drinking at the English bar down the road with Victoria, an afternoon gouter at Odile’s house to celebrate her third baby and reunite the mercredi group for the last time and a last sweet coffee with Liz and Mahin at our first condo...and as time ran out I decided we should throw a last party too.

We had an all-day Saturday event in the end, since someone was always busy. I invited everyone in my address book since I couldn’t bear to choose one person over another, even Marc’s tennis teacher, who came along rather bemused to be included. The morning started with a Garage Sale, where we got rid of nearly all our excess clothes, baby stuff and rubbish.

In the afternoon I did an English-style afternoon tea with scones and sandwiches. The kids played in the pool and their parents chatted about holiday plans. Close friends Christophe and Mazdida, Sasi and Bruno, Corinne and Alastair, Victoria and Jerome, Mahin, Liz and their families came along with many others we knew. Everyone came, even if they just popped in for an hour or so.

Nina’s classmates presented her with a picture, suitcase and warm clothes for her new life out of the tropical sun. We were presented with many gifts; the turquoise ceramics I loved, a red Chinese tea-set, a Japanese scroll, a Malaysian cookbook from the cooking group, a guidebook for Chicago, a stunning book on tropical style and the condo ladies (who I though never really liked me!) got together and bought a beautiful set of brushes for my beloved Japanese calligraphy. Victoria made me a unique photo montage picture. I was very touched.

Later on another group of friends came for the evening buffet. My closest friends Odile and Hilary were there, along with Jacques’ good friend, John and my French friends Miriam, Sophie and Christine. We cut two huge cakes, one an American flag, one a Malaysian flag (remarkably similar, both red and blue stripes, but one had yellow stars, the other white). Marc’s friend, Adam, stayed the whole weekend as did Nina’s friend, Laure, and I was grateful for their enduring friendship when they knew we were leaving.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Have a nice visa!

The USA Embassy requested that we list all the places we had lived and/or visited in the last 10 years for our family visa. This was a mean chore. Jacques spent a whole morning doing his on an excel file, while I flicked through the photo albums looking for where we spent holidays …and trying to remember when I last visited America (in 1992 and 1980 as if it mattered). This was an excessive amount of information, like who was going to check all this information! But we turned it into an interesting summary of our travels so far.

We worked out that Marc had visited or lived in 16 countries over the last nine years. Arriving two years after him Nina totaled 14 and Gabriel managed to squeeze in 9 countries in just 3 years! In bold are those countries we lived in and the others we visited: Hungary, Egypt, Jordan, Switzerland, France, Germany, England, Turkey, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, China, Bali, Vietnam, Australia and Cambodia.

The KL USA Embassy, where we went for an Interview, made a big thing of security, with airport-style guards and x-ray machines, thumbprints and sneaky questions. It was not a good sign. Everyone inside looked terrified. Our tricky question was ‘Why were your children all born in different countries?’ So how does one answer that? Jacques smiled and said we had planned it that way and the chap laughed and banged down the official stamp and we were in.

But after coughing up a huge amount of money for the privilege of a 3-year working visa (where the Spouse could not work) we then had to pay even more because 4 of us had UK passports and there was ‘no reciprocal agreement’ as the visa-guy called it. What? Between England and America? When we went to war in Iraq to help you? I was close to shouting but didn’t want to get us a premature black mark on our new visas. With all that smart technology we could be refused at the airport gate before we left Europe. We grudgingly paid and outside watched delighted Malaysians clutching their newly stamped passports with joy. What were they expecting in the land of plenty? A lot of disappointment I was sure, they were too optimistic for their own good…I wanted to shout, Stay here! Don’t give up your beautiful country for America!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Shaved Reckless Boys

Jacques’ friend, John had had all his hair shaved off for an office dare. Jacques said he would like to see how it felt, just once while he could in tropical Malaysia. One Friday he went and had all his hair shaved off too, without telling me. I hated it. To really rub salt in the wound Marc begged to have the same haircut and Jacques took him to Little India on Saturday for the same crop. I was furious, especially the next day at school when French mothers asked me whether he had had a particularly bad attack of head lice….

The May school holiday trip to the Perhentian Islands trip was a few days later. Jacques taught the kids to snorkel and we swam with sharks and turtles. We asked ourselves why had we wasted so many long weekends doing nothing in KL when we could have come snorkeling. And the funniest thing, Jacques and Marc both had matching sunburnt heads….since you can’t snorkel in a hat. That will teach those daft boys I thought.

A couple of days later we flew to Borneo for the second part of the holiday. Jacques and Marc were still keen to climb Mount Kinibalu. The obligatory huts were all booked up, but they scored a last-minute place in mountain hut. Within ten minutes they were off up the mountain, dressed for summer and sharing a rucksack with only a light change of clothes. I spent a restless night wondering about their whereabouts as a tropical storm raged. They finally rolled in the next day, battered, exhausted and aching everywhere, totally unprepared for a hike like that. Marc had very nearly reached the summit, but gave up suffering from lack of air, a stomach bug and intense tiredness. They had bought matching wool balaclavas (for their chilly heads) gloves and barely slept all night.

On the last night in Borneo Nina was chosen to be the Sarawak Princess for the night, along with a girl she had met on holiday. Dressed up in the black national costume she was carried to the beach and treated to a dance by a local group.

The boys and Nina had all had fun and it was an unforgettable experience, and we all agreed that they would never have done it if we were not leaving Malaysia…

History lesson in Angkor

Leaving meant a panic look at the ‘Things To Do’ list that we had compiled when we first arrived in 2003. Although we never learnt Chinese or how to dive we had visited Singapore, Bangkok, Shanghai, Bali, Vietnam, Australia and the western Malaysian islands of Langkawi and Pangkor. But Jacques still wanted to go snorkeling on eastern Perhentian Islands and see Malaysian Borneo in May, with the idea to climb Mount Kinabalu. I would have liked to have gone to Beijing or Japan too, but time was running out and we only had one two-week holiday to squeeze it all in.

And there was Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, which we both wanted to go to. Two of my friends, Anne and Corinne had raved about it but we had put off going because they said it was not good for young children. So we left Gabriel with the maid (and surveillance from three trusted friends, took Marc and Nina out of school for a brief 3½ day trip. It was odd just having Marc and Nina. I thought they would be happy to be without their pesky brother, but they still bickered and squabbled anyway, but at least they were interested in the history of Angkor Wat.

We had a stunning hotel and quickly found a chauffeur/guide, which was the only way to see the whole ancient site in such a short time. He drove us everywhere with patience, waiting while we scrambled up hundreds of steps to the tops of temples, admired the giant stones faces and visited the local silk farm. Marc and Nina handed out dollar bills to all the local children and came back with a collection of scarves, paper flowers, stone carvings and whistles. I found a market and shopped like I would never go to Asia again, buying a puppet, silk handbags, brightly coloured hammocks, turquoise pottery, art and my favourite, a heavy stone Buddha’s head.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A bilingual school?

School was the next big worry. French or English? But even that was not so simple. The French Lycee (12,000$ per child) or the Bilingual French-English(3,000$) one? A British school or local American public school? After several emails and web searches we decided to go for the Bilingual school, but they only had space for Nina and we must wait for April 1st, when parents were asked if they would return for the next school year.

At the end of March a place did come up for Marc and we smartly paid the deposit. The French classes were limited to only nine children. The Ecole Franço-Americane de Chicago or EFAC was a private institution linked to The Abraham Lincoln Elementary public school.Marc and Nina would have a split curriculum and do an extra hour of French every morning (starting at 8am), and French studies while their American class did French and other subjects, like sport or art. It promised bilingualism and biculturalism and seemed like the perfect school for us. Marc and Nina would get a feel for real American life and yet still keep their hard-won academic French. I would find a local pre-school for Gabriel, and his French immersion would have to wait.

The school was situated in a surburb close to Downtown, called Lincoln Park, which we found out was a rather posh gentrified area, favoured by ‘eclectic and educated young families who eschew bland suburbia and enjoy lively city living, with a zoo, beach and ample green space within walking distance…’ or so the guidebook told us. There were an awful lot of cafes, Starbucks and clothes shops in Lincoln Park. So I knew we wouldn’t have the perfectly manicured lawns and nosy neighbours of ‘Desperate Housewives’, that I was currently watching in a vague aim to find out how I would fit in with American stay-at-home moms….in fact we probably wouldn't have any kind of garden, it sounded more like Chelsea or Notting Hill in London.

Using the GoogleEarth software we took a sneak peek at the school buildings and scrolled across to the zoo, lake and beach. This was the first time we could actually show the children what their new neighbourhood would look like, without moving an inch! We knew that we would have to live in the school’s catchment area, so we could imagine living in one of the tall townhouses nearby and walking to school each day. Maybe we could live without a car? It would be nice to walk around on a fresh spring day or an autumn days when the leaves changed colours...Our new life finally began to look like reality...

Friday, May 25, 2007

A new continent...

Jacques' boss from England came over to visit the office and had some big news for Jacques. I was away at the time, on holiday in Langkawi with my mum and sister. Jacques rang and said he had been offered the American CFO job based in Chicago. I was totally stunned for a moment. Jacques sounded excited and wanted my reaction. ‘OK’ I stalled ‘But when?’ ‘As soon as possible' he said and chatted on about his new role, which he had wanted to do since he joined the company five years ago.

I told the kids straight away, not wanting them to overhear confusing conversations. ‘What will you miss?’ I asked Marc and we sat on the edge of the pool. ‘My friend Adam’ he said immediately. Nina said the beach and the tropical life. Then I told my mum, who said she thought it would be a good move, and at least we would be nearer to them. I thought how faraway we must be to them and that seemed one good reason to go to America, although I couldn’t think of any other reasons…apart from that we knew we would have had to leave Asia sooner or later.

It was soon confirmed and before we knew it we were applying for visas and working out what to do with all the furniture we had accumulated in three years. It seemed too soon though and my heart was aching as I broke the news. As news spread round the KL grapevine I found out I was not the only one. Liz, my Indian friend from the condo was off to Singapore, Audrey to Dubai and several families were returning to France.

The reaction to our news was very nationalistic. The Brits or anyone who had American connections said great things about Chicago and everyone knew someone who had lived there and loved it. The French were mortified we would go to country run by George Bush. Such was the strength of anti-American feeling among the French, after their President Jacques Chirac had refused to join in the war against Iraq, which in retrospect had been a good decision, but who was to know?

The children looked up Chicago on the map and Jacques optimistically told them wew would be living on a new continent, which sounded exciting.

All we could do was make a list of things to do before we left and begin to imagine our new life in USA…

Surprise guests

To my surprise my mother said she was coming to visit in February, with my sister. My mum didn’t want to travel alone, after being seriously ill on an airplane, and Jayne didn’t want to travel alone either with her son, now 16 months old. I felt excited yet somewhat nervous, after last years run-in with my mother-in-law and my family I wasn’t sure how it would go. We hardly knew our one and only English cousin, Brayden, and I was unsure how he would fit in with my unruly and over-active trio.

My mum seemed happy to be in KL and with us. Jayne was battling with the west-east jet-lag and having a young child awake most of the night, but once she got over that she liked it. Our children absolutely adored Brayden, fussing over him and playing with him and there seemed to be a good bond between Gabriel and Brayden already. I have always been so grateful for the easy friendship between the French cousins (Marc and Francois & Nina and Manon). Later on realized it was not automatic or guaranteed. As more cousins popped out on the French side, now twelve in total including our children, the inter-cousins relations were not always warm and could even get aggressive or nasty. So we were happy Gabriel had found a friend and encouraged it.

But I found myself feeling jealous of the way Brayden ran to my mum, while my kids looked on, thinking how just a few years ago they had been the ones to cuddle up to her. I was having problems adjusting to my sister with a child and listening to her ‘first-time mother’ moans irked me since I was doing everything in threes these days and no one seemed bothered anymore. It felt like a lot of time had passed since I was in the same boat. Like when Jayne first fell in love with her husband-to-be - I had been married for five years, and I felt so old and boring. Now I felt I was on the way out of having young babies and toddlers, while she was just starting...

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Little devil or angel….

January is birthday month for the boys but they did not want to share a party this time. Marc would be nine and chose a pool party with pizza, which was relatively easy. Gabriel’s would be three this year and old enough to understand it was his special day. He would celebrate his day at school on the Thursday with a cake, and then we would have a party for friends at the condo at the weekend. We considered a clown, or a puppet show, or a dress-up party and made long guest lists of everyone we knew and then two weeks before the birthday he bit his one of his closest friends, Macauley…

Miss. Tim rang me at home and told me it was not the first time. I knew Gabriel had bitten a boy at the playgroup a year ago and had bitten his condo playmate, Anael, several times. But I had put it down to lack of language skills and being young. Now it was more serious. Miss. Tim reported that she had done a role-play and made Macauley pretend to bite Gabriel. She was sure this would help and Gabriel would feel sorry. To my horror when I picked up Gabriel he said ‘Macualey bit me!’ In his mind he had erased the real memory (it was true, he was the biter, I saw the marks) and recreated this false version. I talked to Macauley’s mum, my good friend Victoria and we didn’t know what to do. Gabriel needed pulling into line and the only option was to cancel his birthday party…

The next day I talked to Miss.Tim about him and she mentioned that he often referred to himself as a ‘devil’. I laughed and said it was a joke…with his name, blonde hair and cherubic look he had been our ‘angel’ since he was born. But over the last year we had begun calling him a ‘little devil’ at home, since he was often naughty in the family. Miss. Tim was shocked and told me it was becoming a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and we must stop right now!

But I couldn’t cancel his birthday party. He was the baby of the family and certainly my last child, how could I cancel this special day? After several chats with friends I came to the decision to have a Sunday afternoon tea-party with only close friends (i.e. only those who knew that Gabriel was rather naughty). I had long chats to Gabriel about biting and the badness of it and tried hard not to call him a devil anymore.

A few days before Gabriel and I went across the road to the appropraoty named Angel cake shop and he picked a big cake with a Batman design for the school and a chocolate one for the weekend. I told him if he bit anyone he would lose the cakes. The school party and the simple Sunday party were a success in the end. Nina organized the little ones into crafts activities and Marc played games with the older brothers and sisters. The kids all played nicely and no-one was bitten, thank goodness and Gabriel seemed to enjoy his special day. But it made us all take a good look at our angelic little boy and wonder would he live up to his name….

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Downhearted down under

We went to Australia for Christmas. I had heard great things about Australia. Two French friends had lived there and raved about the cool lifestyle and Brits loved it. We flew to Brisbane and then took a short flight and boat trip to Lindeman Island, where we would spend a week on a Club Med resort for Christmas.

Our first impressions were negative, after empting our snacks into the bin at the airport and losing our luggage. The service staff seemed particularly bad-tempered. Rules were rules and we were thrown out of our hotel room at 10am, forbidden to snorkel without signing a million forms, and not allowed in a bar after 9pm with the children (something we always did in Asia, where kids are accepted till midnight). But the kids were happy and enjoyed the Australian entertainment and Santa arriving on the 25th on a sea-plane loaded with gifts. I hoped that Christmas would be more ‘English’ and I was pining for roast turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce with Christmas pudding. But this was a true Australian Christmas and it was an open-air barbecue and beer in the sunshine. Most fellow holidaymakers from Europe were delighted to be on the beach on Christmas Day, but we wished we had gone to Bali or Thailand.

We flew back to Sydney and rented a car and did a road-trip around the Blue Mountains. Here we saw English-style houses and ate great fish and chips. The children loved visiting the caves, trekking in the blue-green forests and petting a kangaroo and koala at the zoo. In the local supermarket I bought Christmas crackers (glossy cardboard tubes with a small gunpowder strip that bangs when two people pull it open and a gift falls out). This is typically English but had the effect of making me very homesick!

Back in Sydney for the last few days we met up with friends from KL, Sasi and Bruno, who were also there on holiday. We ate Chinese food in Chinatown together and Sasi confided that she missed Asia and would not want to live in Australia. I agreed that it simply did not impress me either. Had I become a snobbish asiaphile? Or was it because we were so used to the soft kind of smiling friendly tourism around Asia? We had had high expectations and the reality didn’t live up it. But what was reality? Why were we not happy when millions of tourists loved Australia? Would we ever be able to leave Asia now and go back to normal life?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Dress up party

The last cooking session of the year was in December and was to be a joint Indonesian buffet lunch. Three ladies would cook each part and we were promised a true feast celebrating the end of the Muslim fasting month. As I sent out the usual sms and email I added on the line ‘Dress code: Asian style’ as a little joke, thinking no one would take it seriously.

But it seemed like we all had a hidden wish to dress up as one of the local cultures and everyone came in ‘Asian style’. We had about twenty guests that day, a great turnout. Everyone squeaked as a new person came in, looking totally different, and the cooking was postponed for ages while we all admired our dress-up. Some ladies were in Indian saris, others in Chinese cheongsams, one was wearing the familiar batik uniform of Malaysian Airlines (she used to work for them I think), while most of the Europeans were in sarong beach style outfits. Everyone looked great, it felt like being six-years-old again and invited to a your best friend’s dress-up party!!

As we sat around on the floor cushions eating our spicy curries and rice, homemade peanut sauce with satay and other such delights from Suhita and her team we laughed at each other. At the end I announced that the next session would be Brazilian cooking and with a smile I added ‘The next cooking session dress code is Brazilian beachwear!’ The look of horror that crossed some of the faces was hilarious!

Friday, May 18, 2007

The one and only birthday party…

My birthday is on Christmas day, which means I don’t usually celebrate it with friends. As a child I have only one strong memory of a birthday party at my Nanna’s house with all my cousins. I can’t remember ever having a proper birthday party with school friends. Generally it was just my parents and sister and we celebrated Christmas in the morning and my birthday in the afternoon with a cake. Later on I found myself working on birthdays (cooking in a ski-resort or teaching English in Japan). For my 30th I was at Jacques’ parents house and everyone totally forgot until I started weeping at 6pm. On my 29th and 35th birthday I was hugely pregnant and ready to pop, with Marc (born 8 days later) and Gabriel (24 days later). So it is an emotional day for me.

Having children certainly has helped, and they love preparing a surprise for my day, but understandably they are rather busy with their new toys to really pay much attention to my birthday. It’s not that I feel sorry for myself (well I do to be honest!) but that’s how life is. I can’t even blame my mother since she didn’t expect me arriving either that day!

So imagine how delighted and amazed I was when some of my KL friends decided to organize a mini-party for me. I would be 38, not a great age but memorable as the only year I really truly had a party arranged in my honour. My Filipino friend Maribeth booked us a table in the English-style hotel bar where her husband worked. We did it a week early since some of us were leaving for the holidays. Maribeth invited Hilary, Yuen-Chi, Sasi and Fred. I was close to tears when a surprise cake arrived, iced in pale lilac with my name, made personally by Maribeth's pastry-chef husband. The girls presented me with a bracelet made from yellow stones, which was good luck for my Chinese birth year of the Goat. It was the perfect gift, I am not a jewellery person but I loved the asian bracelets I found in markets and wore at least one a day. I was truly touched and we danced till 1am to the Filipino band singing along to Abba hits and my favourite song ‘I will survive…’

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Wind of change

As the year ended contracts finished and families were on the move again. Yossy from the ‘French Husband’s’ club had left for New Zealand and Yuen-chi was returning to Korea, Nina’s amour, Dorian, went to Paris, a French family from the condo went to Vietnam and a Chinese-Malaysian friend, Maureen, from the cooking group returned to Canada.

There were several goodbye lunches, dinners or parties. KL social life revolved around goodbye parties. They were a chance to meet old friends, who were all connected in some way, and find out how long we all had to go (like comparing prison sentences, someone joked!).We usually contributed towards a joint gift, chosen by the departing person’s ‘best friend’ - a cookbook, a local painting, or a set of Chinese ceramic bowls. It was an important part of the ritual of saying goodbye, closing the departure and allowing people to move on.

I noticed how many expats simply replaced one departing person with another, the fourth person for the mah-jong club, a tennis partner, the PTA mother and so on. But I found it hard to replace close friends so easily. Certainly the groups I was part of could not be replaced. The diverse mixed expat families from our first condo, the French mercredi club, and the ‘French husband’s’ club were unique. We had tried replacing lost friends with new expats or a friend of someone in the group but somehow the fragile balance of characters, background and connections was broken and eventually the group drifted away or re-formed somewhere else.

Mahes and me just before she left for Kiev
There was one person leaving who was truly irreplaceable, Mahes, my Malaysian friend. Mahes had battled with breast cancer most of the year, but was recovering well. Mahes was married to a Frenchman who had been posted to Darfur in Sudan and had three children. Her husband came back when she was diagnosed and stayed with her, but his compassionate leave ran out and he was posted to Kiev, Ukraine. Their departure was hard for me and Marc, who was losing his friend, Danton. I had never seen anyone as brave as Mahes in the face of such a horrible disease, and her wit and spontaneity always made my day. On her last day we went for a last coffee and shopping in Megamall, picking out warm clothes for her arrival in -30 degrees Kiev. Someone told me later that people only spend their last day with a good friend and I was touched that she chose to spend it with me.

As Mahes left we exchanged gifts, I gave her a painting of some Chinese bowls, as a reminder of our lunches together, and she gave me a bamboo wind chime, which I hung on my balcony to tell me when a storm was approaching. For the first time since we had touched down in Malaysia I began to wonder how long it would be before we were leaving too and I felt the wind of change began to blow in our family too…

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Happy Halloween!

Halloween is big business all around the world and KL was no exception. I loved Halloween and it was the time of the year when I really most English! This would be the third time my British friend, Vikki and I would organize a Halloween party for condo friends. The first year had been a trick-or-treat trail from my block to hers, ending in a scary fright when her husband aka The Hunchback of Notredame, opened their door, making all the kids take a giant step backwards! The second year was a party by the pool with games and trick or treating around the condo, which was safe and offered a fair number of sugary give aways.

This year we had a party room in our new condo that we could use, already dark and spooky to start with. We decorated it with blowing net curtains, fake spider’s webs and glow-in-the-dark skeletons. We prepped games, a feel what’s in the box (with jelly slime), bobbing apples and found some ghost screams and scary music on a CD. The kids loved it and the adults all brought a plate of something to share. It was a Tuesday night and I thought no-one would come, but in the end practically we knew everyone turned up, with kids fantastically dressed, and more came as the condo people heard the noise and came down to see what was happening. As the chaps came home from work they joined the kids with a glass of wine or a beer and it was great fun.

Sometimes it can be uncomfortable to mix English and French together. They tend to group off and ignore each other, but this time it was a true mix of chatter and comments on the kid’s costumes or laughing at the spooky room. It felt good and I was delighted to see a few new friendships formed and the French see that they could mix with the English-speakers without fear.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Exit Princess Nina!

Nina was still doing badly at school. Jacques said it was my fault for socialising too much and reading while snuggling in bed with her. I accused him of never reading bedtime stories to her, as all good English parents do. We clashed culturally on what to do with our non-reader. I wanted a tutor while Jacques proposed seeing a psychologist. This sent me into a fury “She’s not mentally sick,” I screamed, while he calmly told me he had seen a psychologist when at school. ‘You never told me!’ I said, but apparently it was quite normal since he refused to work and said he hated his mother. For an English kid to see a psychotherapist is asking for social exclusion (no more birthday invites…) and I didn’t want Nina on Ritalin.

But after an informal chat with her teacher I was persuaded to try out a session. The resident school psychologist was a charming young French woman married to an American and she totally approved of bilingualism. We discussed the French-accent-when-she-spoke-English issue, Nina’s problems with friends and her decision to play dunce. She said she would interview and observe Nina and get back to us. I had a few sleepless nights worrying about her. What had we done to her? Was it the overload of languages, the expat life, the lack of extended family, having a maid or leaving her alone too much?

But in the end it was very simple. Nina was ‘stuck’ in maternelle, where she had spent three happy years, with delightful teachers, loving friends and a reassuring routine of singing, dancing and creative work. Now she had lost her girlfriends and was asked to sit still (the teacher said she was very twitchy) and do academic work in a very structured environment. Nina's reaction was to try to revert back to maternelle. So as parents we had to encourage her to ‘grow up’ and not treat her as a princess. She loved to dress up as a princess and did enjoy being the only female in the threesome.

The psychologist concluded that the French accent was just her way of fitting in with the French kids and said we should let it go. Nina had said that she felt ‘more French’ but she thought that was normal in a Francophone school.

Nina had to learn to make friends in a more sophisticated way and adapt to their ways. The psychologist told me that between age 7 and 9 is a very intense time for a girl and they need a ‘best friend’, to reflect their changes and assure them they are worth something, almost like a love affair. They must go through it before they reach puberty and fall in love with boys. This startled me, but it made sense and so we looked at Nina with a new view.

I think the reason she did not click with the girls was because she came over as quite immature, which I had put down to her not having much cultural input like MTV or pop music. But she needed to change or she risked being teased for being a baby. I had been proud to have kept Nina away from Britney Spears, pink iPods, Bratz dolls and wearing sexy clothes but we couldn’t keep her as a cute little girl forever, no matter how much we wanted to.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The perfect combination

In autumn with the kids back at school I had more time for my pursuits. The Bilingual Support Group was still running once a month, alongside workshops and seminars. Gabriel was now at school five days a week and so when I met someone from an international school looking for a part-time TEFL teacher I jumped at the chance. It was once a week, teaching Asian mothers from an international school, Mont Kiara. Although they all understood some English they needed specific English; how to talk to their child’s teacher, understand a report card or talk to their child’s doctor. I prepared all the materials myself and it was a great class, with a mix of Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Malaysian and Korean. The only downside was that the school had an American curriculum and I often had to ‘translate’ my worksheets into American English and spellings.

At the same time the bi-monthly cooking group needed a leader. I was asked to do it and did so with pleasure. It was a simple matter of arranging two cooking sessions per month, with a variety of cuisine. We all agreed to do ‘Ladies Night Out’ at least once a semester. There was a great informal atmosphere with stories shared and a strong group feeling, we all loved getting dressed up and going to an outdoor bar, a typical thing to do in KL. The Anglophones swigged their beer or knocked back strong cocktails alongside Muslim or Hindu non-drinkers sipping lime-juice, showing the cultural differences of the group. The Japanese were very timid and worried about staying out late, rushing back before midnight.

Cooking group field trip to market and indian lunch

Through the cooking group I met Ikuko, a shy Japanese lady who was curious about learning some English through cooking. I noticed she found the fast cooking commentaries difficult and one evening at a party I found out she loved Japanese calligraphy. Rather cheekily I proposed to teach her English in exchange for calligraphy lessons. She agreed and so every Friday I would go to her house and we would do one hour of calligraphy, followed by a cup of green tea and then English. Often we went for lunch afterwards, or to visit a certain shop or buy supplies in Chinatown.

Ikuko had two teenage daughters, one of whom was studying in Canada, the other at the American School. Her house was so calm and quiet it was an oasis. She forbid my handphone (of which I had become addicted, like most Asians, to checking my sms’s every few minutes). Although my calligraphy work was not brilliant I loved the serene practice, the smell of the ink, the soft brushes and her guidance. My goal was a framed piece and in the end I produced a series of four characters – winter, spring, summer and autumn.

This was the perfect combination, a little art, enjoyable teaching, the diverse cooking group, and my lively Bilingual Group discussions, along with plenty of café lattes and chat with the mothers at drop-off time. I didn’t have to worry about housework and I was always there at 3pm to meet the kids and take them to activities or to play. I could easily do this for a few more years I thought….

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

All work and no play...

The new school year started. Marc was in a mixed level class or a classe mélange this year, eight children from his year mixed with nine from the year below. Marc was happy, his best friend Adam was in his class. But I found it a bit strange and wondered how the teacher would organize it. Jacques didn’t seemed worried at all and said it often happened in France that the class was split like that, and it was better than a big class of thirty or more. The teacher had transferred from Bangkok and frankly didn’t seem super-happy to be in KL, with expats it always depends where you have lived before. At our first parents evening she found Marc ‘brilliant, but lazy’, a description that apparently matched Jacques as a child (the things you find out about your husband!). But when she left the older kids to work Marc was often distracted and had problems to work independently (he made paper airplanes or chatted with Adam). We must crack down on that she said. ‘No making airplanes?’ I enquired. ‘Non’ she said very seriously. ‘No fun, only work.’

Nina had a lovely teacher, who was in her third year of teaching the important first year of primary – CP. Nina was in a small class of fifteen with two girls who she knew, Laure and Souad while Elodie was in the other class. Two new girls joined the class, Alix and Maisane. The six girls soon became friends, but Nina was never sure which one was her best friend. Nina tried to play with Souad, but was miffed when Souad chose to play with a boy over her. Meanwhile the other girls were hanging out in the corner of the playground, gossiping and saying mean things about other girls….Nina was torn between chasing boys and being in the girly corner. She hestitated so long she was excluded in the end, and missed her four friends deeply from last year. I could not work out which direction to go either, these new friends mothers were either working, lived absolutely miles away or had restricted play time due to older siblings. Although we would meet up at birthdays or at the Saturday catechism class and say ‘We must get the girls together…’ it rarely happened.

At the condo the French girls were cool with her, although they played together at parties. On the good side she had the daughters of my two friends, Odile and Hilary to chill out with on Wednesday afternoons and weekends, and even though they were a year younger the friendship worked and they often came for sleepovers.

When we met Nina’s teacher she told us she was worried. Nina seemed to be playing stupid to get more attention. The teacher had selected four kids for extra reading practice while the others did English and Nina was in that group. Unlike the other three Nina did not have dyslexia, was familiar with French and able to read (when she wanted to) so why was she acting like this? On top of this Nina started speaking English with a pronounced French accent! The teacher said to keep an eye on her and encourage her to read and write more at home.

But how does one cultivate a bilingual bookworm? We certainly had plenty of books and magazines in both languages at home. But both children lacked the incentive. Was it because I always read to them, were we too busy swimming in the pool or doing outdoor activities or, even worse, did they perhaps have some cognitive problems with text. Should I get a tutor? See a specialist? The fear of failure loomed as I re-read all my parenting books on reading and literacy again….

Monday, May 07, 2007

The cousins in KL

The cousins visit the Elephant Sanctury in Malaysia,

from left - Francois (9) Marc (8) Manon (7)
Nina (6) Baptiste (5) & Gabriel (2)

How to get your family back?

Luckily the cousins got on well and they had a great time, exploring Malaysia and having fun together and I did not regret inviting them. I cried when the cousins left, I loved them dearly, but I could barely embrace Odile and she knew it. It just was too much with my own family problems and my tricky mother-in-law.

I was depressed after they left. The kids still had a month to go before school started and to make matters worse a white toxic fog descended on KL, blown over from Indonesian forest fires. It matched my mood. We couldn’t play outside and Gabriel’s school was shut. I was robbed in broad daylight in Chilli’s Mexican restaurant. Losing my credit cards, glasses and personal items was another blow, and I had to ring my mum to cancel my UK credit card. It was an early Sunday morning and she answered straight away but she was short and cool with me. In desperation we booked a holiday to Vietnam.

Our family holiday in Vietnam was one of the best ever, we were so glad to get away and it was much better than we imagined. We trekked in the northern mountains, sailed around Halong Bay and laughed at the water puppets in Hanoi…and I reflected on how hard it was to juggle extended families. The conclusion I came to was that somewhere along the way we had all changed (or matured) and new rules were needed or all the good work we had done over the last eight years would become a huge black hole.

I accepted that I had over-reacted with my mother-in-law, and not been a nice hostess, after spending months at her house, which was not always easy for them and having her organize Gabriel’s christening just a few months before. But her comments stung, especially since she had traveled and lived as an expat wife too. I thought she would understand that we move in a different world, getting what we want, eating out at restaurants, holidays and buying whatever takes our fancy. This can lead to us being rather spoilt and shallow. I thought I was still the same person, but Odile certainly didn’t like the woman she saw. Had I really become a caricature of ‘expat wife’? I looked at the christening photos of me in shiny satin blue dress with matching scarf, shiny blue shoes and hat, and realized how they must have all wondered what was happening to the simple Suzanne they once knew?

I didn’t want to become like one of my paternal aunts who cut off contact with her parents after a silly family row. But I felt like I was being punished for not being in England, as if by moving away I had made the decision to leave the family. I didn’t see it like that at all. My parents had moved away too, and were in many ways punished by their families for their selfishness, they were never able to be as ‘good’ as the son or daughter that lived nearby. They should have understood.

By the time the kids went back to school in September I had cooled down after talking to several understanding friends, who had had similar family problems. In fact I was amazed at how many people weren’t speaking to a parent or in-law. The summer ended with the knowledge that we could not live a glitzy expat life in Asia and be a close part of two very diverse families in two countries. I learnt that no family is perfect and things can change without us realizing, I had to accept that perhaps I was not as important to them as they were to me and life went on for them, without us.

There was a positive outcome. I had several long tearful, sometimes angry, phone conversations with my parents and my sister. Apologies were made and relations returned to some normality. Jacques and I decided to renovate a small property in our village in France and use it in the summer, to have some independence and allow the children to see their grandparents. We agreed that the children must not lose touch with their family at all costs.

How to lose your family in 40 days…

The summer started badly. We were not going to Europe this year, after our May trip it was too soon to go back. Somewhere along the line we had had the idea to invite the cousins for a month, along with my mother-in-law, Odile. My sister-in-law, Gaelle, (along with Laure and Nora) was heavily pregnant and we though it would help Gaelle if she had some quiet time, without three of her four children.

But it didn’t go exactly as planned. A few weeks before the cousins arrived I had heard that my sister had organized a last-minute christening for her son in Nottingham. I was not consulted, or even invited, and since I had the French family visiting I couldn’t just go off and leave them. I flew into a rage, I felt totally excluded and furious that our family meant so little to them. Jayne was supposed to be Nina’s godmother, how could she not invite her goddaughter? I immediately stopped contact, except with my Dad, who seemed apologetic, justifying by saying it was a last-minute decision and her friends had pressurized her to do it before he was walking and talking. But even my dad couldn’t calm my rage and I ended up cutting off contact with him when he emailed me about what a great day they all had (without me…).

It was the first family rift in many years and I felt sick at the idea that our children would not see their English grandparents again. But I refused to talk to them. Odile and the cousins arrived in the middle of all this and I tearfully told the sorry story. Unusually she was not sympathetic and I felt even more alone. In the beginning I tried hard to meet her requests, finding her a dressmaker, a shoemaker and taking her to buy the Asian fabrics she loved.

But we clashed on our daily plans, Odile wanted the kids to have swimming lessons and do homework, but I could sense the kids were bored and wanted to go out and have fun, and she refused to change her strict plan. Then it became a fight over who was running the show. In my house, I felt I had a right to decide if my kids worked or not, but she wanted it her way and expected me to bend. Odile saw I was not the pliable daughter-in-law I usually was in her house, and it became a battle of wills. I refused to be under her command and set the agenda, telling our maid to follow me, not her. There were several petty fights, for example, Odile would not accept apples and oranges in the house saying the children must eat tropical fruit. I said this was ‘excessive’, then she refused to take the cheap taxis and took public transport in the steamy humidity just to prove how lazy and wasteful of money I was and so on we battled…

Soon she accused me of being spoilt, selfish, obsessed with my expat ladies lunches and matching my dress to my shoes (I tried to explain that there was not much to wear in a hot climate and shoes were so cheap so we all had several more pairs than usual and besides that what expat wives do…). But I lost it with her when she enquired why Jacques worked so late at the office? Did he, perhaps, have someone there? This was the limit. Such a sensitive subject such as the boss running off with his skinny Asian underling was off-limits (it happened too often to expat wives) and I could hardly bear having her around. I decided not to speak to her either, but of course I had to, since she was staying with me, but I was cool, spent lots of time with my friends and I did the bare minimum.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Sad farewells

Most expats stay on average two years, like we usually did, but this time we were not moving. But other families were not so lucky. It began with a few phone calls, ‘Can you come over….I have some really bad news…’ and the inevitable confirmation of a move back to France, England or to another country a few days later. The wives felt useless, nothing they could do could save their husband’s job, and all they could do was to busy themselves shopping before they left Asia, and try to be imagine going back to normal life again.

We were hit badly in June. Marc lost Benjamin from our new condo, the oldest of three boys, who often played with our kids. Nina was devastated when she heard that her class twins, Julie and Marie, would be departing a year earlier than planned for France, along with her French-speaking friend of two and a half years, Alya, who was returning to Tunisia, her parent’s country.

Nina had also become close to Nadia, who had been at the school only eighteen months. The girls did ballet together on Fridays. Nadia’s mother was Malaysian, educated in England at Oxford and her father was a Greek/German, who was brought up in an expat family in several Spanish-speaking countries. They had a wide circle of diversely multilingual friends and Jacques and I felt positively boring only speaking two languages together! They were aiming for at least four languages for their two adopted children - Bahasa Malay, English, German, French and maybe Spanish too.

Nadia was very good at languages and adapted well to the French school, even though she had little French input at home. The law in Malaysia stated that Malaysian parents could choose any pre-school they liked, but by age seven the child must go to a Bahasa Malay local school or a private school which had classes in the national language. The exception was if you were married to a foreigner, which gave you the right to an international school place. They could have left Nadia in the French primary school but her parents reasoned that the workload in French would be too much, and they transferred her to an American school. It was another loss for Nina.

Another diplomatic family from our first condo went back to Algeria and another moved out to another condo. Some of these departures were happy, but for us they were heart-breaking. We hurriedly arranged Goodbye parties for Anne and her three children, Youssra, Falak, Alya, Julie, Marie and Nadia and we sensed that life would be empty without their daily smiles and chats. I felt quite sad, I had lost about eight friends in the space of a few months. Although I was only close to two or three of them I would miss their places by the school door, the pool and at the birthday parties.

Goodbye Party for Nina's classmates

To make matters even more the French school was moving location, so next school year Nina would be starting Primary in an unfamiliar school and without her close friends. On the good side, just before school ended, I found out she would have a lovely teacher, Catherine Hervé, who I already knew.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The postponed Baptism…

Gabriel was now twenty-nine months old and still had not been baptized. Marc had been christened at nine months and Nina at sixteen months, but we still had no plans. We had not wanted to overlap with other family celebrations, in Gabriel’s first year there was the summer wedding of Jean and Nora. The next year we had my sister’s February wedding in England. Finally we had a year free of weddings. Marc and Nina were doing catechism, the Catholic classes that prepare children for their First Communion and they frequently asked me when Gabriel would be baptized.

We had christened Marc in England and Nina in France, so where should we do Gabriel? I had originally thought of Chorleywood, in England where we previously lived, with maybe a joint christening with my sister, who lived nearby but it seemed such a long time since we lived there and we would need someone to organize the whole celebration on our part. Jayne had a young baby to take care of and my mother had been sick and I didn’t want to throw planning a christening onto her. Then by chance we heard from Jacques’ mother that the church in our village, Caunay, would be open on the 1st of May for a special service. Village churches are closed these days, but the prêt or minister goes round each village, opening the church once or twice a year. I felt this was a sign from God. Jacques had proposed to me on the 1st of May in 1996 and it seemed like a lucky day.

Within hours the prêt had provisionally agreed, since he knew several members of the Hauwaert clan, and agreed to email us the church documents. Jacques’ mother found a small chateau that we could hire for the whole Sunday, with a garden area for the kids to play and a kitchen where we could prepare food. A few days later we informed the family and asked my English friend Rachel to be the godmother, alongside Jacques’ brother as godfather, Jean. Rachel had visited us several times in Chorleywood and we all liked her, plus she had studied French and spoke it very well so she would not feel out-of-place in the ceremony.

We flew to France the week before, and whizzed around finding a caterer, patissier for the cake and rooms in the local bed and breakfast for my parents, sister, her baby, Brayden, now six months and Rachel. I was nervous how it would all work especially since I would meet my sister’s baby for the first time. But when I picked them up at the airport on a sunny Friday there was a nice atmosphere, and later we ate a huge dinner at Jacques parents in the evening, with everyone reminiscing about previous christenings. A family friend, Nicole, the mother of Nina’s godfather, helped decorate the church and prepare the tables. In all we were about twenty-five.

Gabriel ready for his Bapteme, with Nina and cousin Manon

The Sunday ceremony was beautiful, very simple with poems and passages from the Bible chosen by us. The sun shone through the stained glass window and Gabriel, dressed in a cream linen suit, accepted to have water and oil poured on his head. The cousins gathered around holding lit candles and participating in the service. Jacques and I spoke about our links to Caunay and how we wanted Gabriel to be part of the community. The day flew by and after a long lunch we stayed till ten at the chateau, sipping wine and enjoying the spring air. I gave each guest a bag of blue almonds or dragees, as was the tradition in France, and a lily-of-the-valley flower or muguet, which is given for good luck on May 1st. I flew back with my family on the Monday and spent a pleasant week in England with Nina and Gabriel. I felt very proud of both families and how we had managed to have three perfect christenings with no problems, but that was an illusion, as I was soon to find out…

The French enclave

After nearly two years in our condo our Chinese-Malaysian landlord asked to re-sign our contract. We called to confirm this in February and to request two more years. ‘No problem’ he said, but then just after Chinese New Year he called back to say that his brother needed to move into our apartment and we must be out by the end of March. Some family issue had obviously come up. There was nothing we could do and we reluctantly began searching. We checked out a few apartments in our condo but they were tiny, dark or overlooked train tracks. I visited several apartments in nearby Bangsar, where Gabriel went to school but found nothing better than what we had.

In the end we plumped for the condo next door, called Sri Kenny. We would not change our daily travel plans or local shopping and most importantly I could see my condo friends easily. Mahin, Soraya, Liz and Vikki had become important friends in my life and I would miss their daily chats, food gifts and get-togethers if we lived far away. We signed for a five-bedroom first floor apartment with a spacious balcony and view of palms and tropical trees. Jacques did not like it at all, he said it was bad feng shui (the Chinese art of organising your room for good energy or 'chi'). Under the apartment was an open garage area, and Jacques said it was bad luck to sleep over an empty space. But apart from putting Marc in the Master bedroom (thus giving him the bad luck!) we were stuck with the layout.

Sri Kenny was what expats called a French enclave. There were about fifteen families living there, and I knew most of them from school. Most of the husbands worked for the same company and they socialized together. The French wives were often on their first expat post and couldn’t, or didn’t want to, speak English. I was eager to chat with them in French. I had a French friend, Anne, living in the condo, with three boys similar in age to our kids, and so we would plan to meet by the pool after school. They were friendly in the beginning but I knew straight away I would never be fully accepted. Without Anne I was gently excluded, they would chat about their lunches, poker games and shopping trips without even thinking of inviting me. Anne had decided to put her oldest child, Benjamin in an English-language international school, and this fact bothered the French, who couldn’t imagine anything else but the Lycee Française. Equally they found me strange too, for putting my ‘English’ kids in a French school and were curious as to how we managed. Anne was part of the French group, and liked certain families, but like me, as a group she felt uncomfortable.

The French had their own life and schedule and sat on the left side of the pool, with the English-speakers on the right. All the French kids took the school bus (I was the only one who drove as several didn’t have cars or disliked driving on the right), and they went for coffee after drop-off together. Later at 3pm they waited for the school bus and paired off. The kids did their homework and assembled by the pool at 4pm for a swim and gouter or snack. They stayed till 6pm, since they ate late. Meanwhile the Anglophone community, the Brits, Australians and others who spoke English went down to the pool at 3pm or earlier, and stayed till 5pm when they went back to eat an early dinner. Anne and I would often dash from left to right, keeping up two separate conversations!

Nevertheless we were counted at part of the French enclave and listed on their private email circle. In most condos families got together for Sunday barbecues, and we were priviledged to be invited to such a gathering in May, strictly in French. Families gathered with beautiful salades, fruit tarts, homemade pizza, quiches and fresh baguettes from Deli France to accompany cheese and wine. It was fun though and the kids had a great time running around, but when I looked across the pool I saw some English families having their own party, with a guy grilling charred steaks on a barbecue and ladling out the alcoholic punch and beers to loudly laughing invitees. I had the distinct impression they were competing! As the French noticed them a few said maybe we should invite some of them next time? A worried look came over several faces, but with a wish to improve their English for free they decided that next time they would invite them too…