Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Indian dress-up day

It seemed like we had a holiday every month in Malaysia. The country celebrated the three major religions and so we had Chinese New year, Buddha’s birthday and Wesak day, along with Indian Thaipusam, Deepavali and the Muslim celebration of Hari Raya at the end of the month-long Ramadam fasting. Malaysia also did the more Western traditions of Halloween and Christmas too, decorating all the malls with giant Christmas trees and baubles, and you even could buy Easter chocolate bunnies in springtime.

The school made the most of these festivals, incorporating with their cultural studies and reading stories or doing related artwork. The school would hold a dress-up party before the festival, with traditional foods from the religious celebration. Our first such day was the Indian Deepavali (also known as Divali in England) or the festival of lights in autumn. In class Nina made a candle lamp and Marc wrote about it. The day before the festival the kids came home with a note in the cahier de jour, a day-to-day planner for teacher-parent communication. Habillez-vous on style Indian demain! Dress up as an Indian tomorrow !

This amazed me, firstly it was the night before, and I had no time to visit Little India to stock on a child-size sari for Nina and Indian pyjamas for Marc. Secondly I found the idea of the kids dressing-up as Indians rather odd, when the school had several mixed Indian-French families, who might find it insulting. But Nina insisted that ‘everyone else will be dressed-up!’ and not wishing to humiliate her as the only child not in the mood I agreed. Sorting through our fancy-dress box we had nothing Indian-like, only a fairy, nurse or pink butterfly costume. At six pm I dashed over to Liz, our Indian neighbour in the condo. She was helpful and told me Nina would need lots of bangles to jingle on her arms and a red spot like a married lady. She found some brightly-coloured saris and shirts. Although they were too big for four-year-old Nina, they gave me an idea. At home I found my turquoise-blue cotton beach wrap decorated with tiny beads that we wrapped around her sari-style. I glued on some extra sequins for effect. We borrowed Liz’s collection of bangles and with a dot of red lipstick on her forehead she was ready for the day! Marc was not so keen on dressing-up and just wore a t-shirt with an Indian elephant.

The maternelle or pre-school part of the school was enchanting, tiny Indian princesses danced around the classroom, covered in shiny silks and jangling jewelry. The boys were dressed-up too, in miniature Indian suits and pyjamas and looked fantastic. Three Indian ladies came to make a beautiful Mandela design of coloured rice on the floor and later there was a dance and some Indian sweets and cakes to try. The classroom assistant in Nina’s class was an Indian-Malaysian and she drew henna patterns on the children’s hands. I was impressed at the way the school integrated the culture of Malaysia. I checked the calendar for the following festival, so we could have our costumes ready for the next time…

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Small differences…small talk

There were a few differences between the French and British systems:

1) Stodge or salad? French children eat a proper lunch every day, and I mean proper, with a starter of fresh salad followed by a restaurant-style tempting main course, such as chicken with creamy mushroom sauce, la puree de pomme de terre (a kind of smooth mashed potatoes) and green beans, and a dessert of alternating fruit or light sweet such as yoghurt, compote, or ice-cream. Sometimes they would have a slice of camembert cheese and French bread. Parents even had a testing rota, to check all was well and volunteers would man the canteen. This was in stark contrast to the school dinners in England where Marc ate ‘pasta, rice and chips with gravy’ almost every day with a stodgy pudding with custard. In England they let children from age five choose their lunch, which seemed to be asking for trouble. The French put an airplane-style tray in front of the kids who were sat at the table. When I asked why Marc didn’t choose any vegetables in England he said that the lady never asked him, and that all his friends thought green things were yucky anyway. Many kids in England take sandwiches (at least you know what your kid eats) but this was not even an option at the KL Lycee.

2) What we did this week: The lycee sent home all the work done in the week on Fridays, to be signed by the parents. At first I found this heavy book bag day annoying at first, and since I didn’t understand the work done it wasn’t much help to me. Eventually I could acknowledge the fact that you could at least be aware of your child’s horrific spelling or maths before the school report. In England we only knew that Marc has never got more than 50% in a spelling test in Year 2 until we had a Parent-teacher conference. There was a simple grading system - tb (trés-bien or very good), b (bien or good) or ab (assez-bien or just good enough) and the mysterious vu, which I translated as ‘seen’ but apparently means ‘ok’. However we did not count for fun, because not enough tbs or b meant trouble or potentially re-double and so we must be vigilant. A missed accent or a badly-written sentence were punished. The grading was taken very seriously and there was none of the generous ‘he tried hard’ marks that we might have scored in England.

3) Parent contribution: There seemed to be very little parent-initiated fund-raising, as opposed to England where they were always trying to update the playing fields, or buy books for the library or suchlike. There were the official PTA members, of course, and they reported by email the ins and outs of the school board. Here in KL we didn’t have to organize a Christmas Craft Fair or bring a bottle for the raffle or drop off second-hand toys for the stalls. But even though we saved on direct fund-raising we had to pay for the yearly supply of paper, files, pens, pencils etc and even the class set-texts. So although I might have saved on tombola tickets I lost out buying trendy stationary and endless pencil sharpeners and felt-tipped pens.

4) Greetings! You must always ‘bonjour’ and ‘au revoir’ all the teachers, staff and fellow mothers as you cross paths. I mistakenly saw this as friendliness, it was not - it was just etiquette. You should kiss (twice on each cheek) a mother or teacher you knew socially too. Once you knew the teacher well you could tentatively use the informal ‘tu’ and their first name, but formality was a safer option. In England I usually only talked to the teacher and staff if I had too, although most staff would say a cheerful ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ as we dropped or picked up kids. The English tradition of small-talk on the lines of ‘Bad traffic jam today/terrible weather/how’s the car…’ with other mothers and teachers was not important. It went straight over the French mamans head, even worse they found it shallow and boring.

So with this insider knowledge of the two education systems I strangely felt proud and dissatisfied with the both French and English schools at the same time. Whereas one offered a delicious lunch, the other had stationary in the classroom, one you had to say hello, the other you talked about the weather. On some days I delighted in the French way of dong things, other days I was exasperated as I signed off every page of the weeks work or tried, without success, to engage my fellow mothers in conversation. In the end, I learnt to stop moaning about the monsoon weather or heavy books, and try to discuss the pros and cons of the French class/teacher/teaching style/comments in the class-book and compare it to the UK. When done well this would earn me the right to more than a morning ‘bonjour’…. and a step in the right direction to find a few French friends.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Cooking for fun

Suhita, my Indonesian friend from my condo, had had a brilliant idea. Not knowing how to make a certain dish she asked if she could watch her neighbour make it. She learnt a lot and visited more neighbours in the multicultural condo where we all lived. American, Chinese, Iranian, Algerian, Indian, Thai and Swedish ladies all passed on their secrets of herbs, spices and special sauces. This quickly became a regular meeting with word spreading fast. Every two weeks expat wives would meet at someones house, but not for coffee and idle chat – it was a cooking lesson by a real native. There was no membership fee, just the agreement that once a year you would cook for the group. The ladies gathered at 10am and lunch was served at 12 prompt, because several mothers had children in pre-schools that finished early. In 2003 there were about fifteen members. Membership was only granted to certain nationalities though, and there was a cap on three people from the same culture. Suhita called it ‘Cooking for Fun.’

My neighbour, Liz, took me to the first cooking session, a French-speaking African lady who made a chicken stew traditionally served in her village and told stories of how they would catch the chicken for the pot that day. I joined that day after chatting over lunch to ladies from all over the globe. I looked forward to the bi-monthly sessions and over the first few months learnt the how to mix the five essential spices for a Chicken Korma, how to make an Iranian custard-like pudding, an Indonesian spicy salad and had a Japanese sushi demonstration.

What was so nice about the group was that there was no competition between the women. We mostly had children in different schools so we did not talk about teachers and class-stuff. We genuinely admired each other’s cooking and the fact we could talk and prepare a full meal, in just under two hours. I also loved visiting all the houses, from tiny apartments on the twentieth floor with window-less kitchens where we ate on the sofa with plates on our knees, to vast palaces in the suburbs with maids chopping vegetables and the hostess setting the table with real china and silverware.

I had my name penciled in for 2004, but as luck had it my Algerian neighbour couldn’t do her slot and I offered to fill it at the last minute. I had a mild panic as I thought what to do. I was listed in the members list as English/French and thought they might like to learn something traditionally from both cultures. The only recipe that I could do with my eyes closed was my mum’s English scones and fruit crumble. As for the French the easiest thing to do was quiche. So in the end the menu came out as a mis-mash of cultures:

v English Scones with clotted cream and jam (to be served with morning coffee at 11am)
v Salmon and Courgette Quiche (which was my specialty)
v Green salad
v Apple crumble with Bird’s custard

I raced around over-buying and prepping a quiche that was ready-to-eat in case the one I made in front of the ladies burnt, or worse. I made an extra batch of scones and a crumble just in case too. I stayed up till midnight weighing ingredients, organizing the table and folding napkins to perfection. I had had twelve RSVP’s, but only had dinnerware for six. Liz leant me extra chairs, cutlery and plates and was on hand with her hot water thermos, which was a blessing.

On the day I had a rigorous timetable, set by Jacques, which worked to the minute. I actually enjoyed telling them about how to make the breadcrumb-like mix for the scones and crumble and instructing them how to drip the eggy quiche mixture like my mother-in-law does. They asked hundreds of questions and wrote over my printed recipes many times. As we sat down at 12.01 for lunch and I saw the group chatting and eating with much pleasure I breathed a sigh of relief. Over for a year…now I could enjoy cooking for fun.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

To redouble or not…

Before flying back to KL I had rushed to buy school supplies in France. The French Lycee in KL had given us specific class lists for Marc’s entry to the Primary section, underlining the fact that some things cannot be found in KL. So off we went to Super U to stock up.

We started with a huge cartable rigide, a satchel-like school bag that French kids carry on their back. Not knowing French cartoons character were in or out Marc hesitated for ages, eventually choosing a Titeuf schoolbag, which seemed a popular choice for 6 year-old boys. We found an ardoise blanche, a mini-whiteboard for letter practice. I searched for ages for a chiffon, until I realized it was just a cloth or rag for cleaning the whiteboard. We looked at the reams of graph paper with tiny squares for writing perfectly, and I sensed that Marc would be doing a lot of letter practice. Marc threw in much-needed erasable pens that had not reached KL shops yet, and we searched for the mysteriously named taille-crayon avec reservoir, which is just a pencil sharpener with a container to hold sharpenings. We also needed a beginner’s French dictionary and thesaurus. I threw in a world map blotter too, with the names in French, which I thought might be useful for Geography.

Marc started CP or cours preparatoire in September. The French system allows a relaxed curriculum until the year children are six, then it kicks in. ‘Academic’ is the keyword and children are given nine months to learn how to read or write or redouble or re-take the whole year again. I had never heard of re-taking in England, unless for a special circumstances like a child was sick for a long time and missed too much work. Jacques explained to me that in the French system if you failed a year you had to redo it. That explained why some of his friends left school aged 19 or 20 or finished university at age 22. Although it was a bad thing for the child, it made sense for the teacher, because the children were a homogenous group, rather than having the extreme differences in ability that a UK teacher might have in their year-group.

The year started well, a small class of twelve and an excellent male teacher from Paris who was well prepared (he even had his own website with coursework on for those who might miss a day). Marc already knew how to read and simply had to ‘transfer’ the knowledge across. However we soon discovered what I call the ‘i/e’ problem. In English the letter ‘i’ sounds like ‘eye’ and ‘e’ is ‘ee’, but in French the ‘i’ is a ‘ee’ sound and ‘e’ is like an English ‘i’. So spelling became a nightmare, with me saying ‘i’ when it should be ‘e’ and vice versa. Marc has never recovered from that period and still mixes up his e’s and ‘i’s…

Marc had a copy of a poem or a poesie to learn each week. Not a simple little children’s poem about bunnies or tigers, but a proper rhyming fifteen-liner with deep meanings and tricky vocabulary. Here we hit our first tip of the iceberg regarding homework. I just couldn’t do the poem. I didn’t know what it meant and had no idea of the right rhythm, rhyme or inflections. On Fridays Marc would do his haltering English-accented poem and systematically got a bad grade. After a tactful Parents meeting in November, when the teacher pointed out Marc’s handicap Jacques stepped in and took over poesies. Jacques seemed to enjoy it, and it was simply a matter of repetition he said. Five lines repeated five times every day. He explained all the unknown words and it made sense to Marc. Jacques could remember poems from his childhood so it must work, I thought, although I was sure that learning poems off by heart went out with the 1970’s education act in England…

Nina was blossoming in Moyen or middle section of the maternelle school. She had lost her shyness and now the teacher couldn’t stop her talking. She was enthusiastic and gave her all in class. Nina needed friends now and got on well with a little English/French girl called Isolde, and a Tunisian girl, Alya, whose family spoke French. There were new girl twins in the class too, Julie and Marie, and Nina quickly became friends with them too. Between the mothers we started a play date system and the girls came round regularly to dress up, play Barbies or swim. They all talked French together and when they were gone Nina would continue to talk in French to her Barbies or dolls. She seemed so at ease in French we could hardly believe that three months before she would barely speak a word. It finally seemed we had made a good decision on the choice of school.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Another mixed-marriage in the family

In France my parents-in-law had decided to take Marc, Nina and their three cousins on a two-week beach holiday. The village de vacances had a club for the children, which would keep them all busy with games and activities. This was to help out my sister-in-law, who had four children and worked with Jacques’ brother all summer long selling clothes at beach markets. It would help me too, and I planned to visit my mum, who had been sick. The children were excited to go off alone and I was sure they would practice lots of French. When I picked them up after the holiday they were glowing with sunshine and they had had a fantastic time. Nina’s French was dramactically better and she was chatting non-stop to Manon, her cousin just a year old than her. Marc was relaxed and had enjoyed his time with his close cousin, Francois.

In August Jean and Nora got married. They chose the church near to Jean’s house, in the small village where we had lived three years before. It was a traditional marriage, the bride was in white, the house decorated with bamboo and coloured ribbons for good luck and the family had organized a vin d’honneur after the ceremony in the garden of Jean’s house. Musicians played as the couple walked the short distance to the church and Nina and Manon held up Nora’s train. It was perfect, except for one thing, there was no-one from Nora’s family present, although she had a few friends there. Nora’s family were in Kosovo and either could not come, or would not come. She had one married brother in Switzerland, but he could not come either. It was hard for them to travel and visas were hard to get. Luckily French weddings are not so formal and everyone can sit where they want, if it had been an English wedding one side of the church would have been the bride’s family, the other the groom. I thought to myself that I was an honorary member of Nora’s family.

As is the tradition at the church door the groom enters the church with his mother, and the bride with her father. Since Nora had no family present Jacques father, Rene, was chosen. Nora seemed very uncomfortable with the idea and arrived at the alter looking tearful. I thought to myself it would have better to have dropped the walk in the circumstances, but no-one seemed to have thought about Nora. The service proceeded with Nora replying to the wedding vows and praying in perfect French, amazing since she had only starting learning French three years ago. The celebratory village drinks were a success, the sun shone and everyone was in a good mood.

Later we ate a wedding dinner at the same ferme-auberge or farm-restaurent where we had celebrated Nina’s christening. The food was excellent, as always, and the guests were chatting loudly and toasting the couple. But as the evening wore on and I ended up in the back room feeding baby Gabriel I saw Nora. She looked suddenly sad and I asked her in English what was wrong. ‘I miss my family’, she simply said and I knew exactly how she felt. We smiled and hugged and she went back to being the charming newly-wed she was. I hoped that she would be able to invite some of her own family for her next family party. In the darkness I sat and thought about how when we fall in love with someone from another culture we never think about the actual wedding will be, or how we will feel without our clan around us.