woensdag 30 mei 2012

Singaporeans do things differently: cubicle life

Disclaimer: I do not have any personal experience with working in Singapore. I am solely relying on hearsay and liberally quoting other people's stories. This is what we call "journalism".

My big brained friend B. used to play World of Warcraft, in which you form a band of creatures roaming a virtual reality. He ended up in a band with mainly Singaporeans, who all complained heartily of their leader, a fellow Singaporean. B. being his Obama-like self (and apart from skin colour, I am not even joking) soon replaced said leader and never heard another complaint again. In fact, after being promoted to leader of the band, communication between him and the tiny red dot practically ceased. "It's this authority thing", he mused to me on a rainy night in London.* "They do exactly as I say. But why would my ideas always be the best? They used to have loads of ideas too!"

Recently, I talked to a Dutch recruiter trying to set up shop in Singapore. I asked him why he did not have an office of his own, but sat at a desk between his employees. "This way I keep tabs on what's going on", he explained. I told him B.'s online leadership woes and the recruiter laughed. "That's exactly the way it is", he nodded. "It's been a steep learning curve."

The recruiter was not the only Dutch businessman I spoke too. And all of them had one thing in common: they abolished cubicles in their offices. "It was hard", the purveyor of interior hardware told me. "Singaporeans are really attached to their cubicle. They like having their own space." He showed me the upstairs office, where the employees had managed to recreate a semblance of cubicles by stacking books and files on the edges of their desks and putting up cork board in between the desks. The manager smiled. "We're working on this floor", he said. "But I have to admit, it looks like a mess, but they always know exactly where everything is."

For me, this was a revelation. Even though I have worked in many and varied offices (journalists like to call this "freelancing") I have not ever worked in a cubicle. I have always worked in what we in the Netherlands term "office gardens". This is not because of the plants (though there generally are plants as they are supposed to be conducive to a calm and peaceful environment) but because all desks are grouped together as if we were in flower beds with little pathways lined with cupboards leading from one group to another (at least, I imagine this is what the interior decorator who first coined the term must have thought).

Usually I had my own desk within the appropriate flower bed, but Mr Tamtam as a consultant has mostly worked in office gardens with flexible seating. This means that you come in, pick up your rollable cupboard and drag it underneath your desk of choice for the day. Cleaners love this, because it also means you have to completely vacate the premises before leaving every night. Bosses also love it, because in order to get a good desk, you need to come in early. In fact, this set up has grown so popular that even in Singapore Mr Tamtam has been subjected to it. Although, in a typically Singaporean twist, he has been assigned a specific desk to roll his cupboard to every morning.

Cubicle life and authority tie in together. Generally, in a flower bed setting, the chief editor or manager would have the desk at the head of the group - but crucially, he'd still be with the group. So the boss would be first among equals, not some exalted person removed from the daily grind. Within this setting, discussing and questioning is known as a good thing, such as "showing initiative", or "supporting the group effort". It also leads to everybody being involved with everything that goes on, which unfortunately also means endless meetings.

In a cubicle, everybody has their own space to do their own thing. The boss tells you what to do, you do it, nobody's looking over your shoulder, questioning you, demanding that you give input and come up with stuff independently. You just do what you have to do. It's not a group process, it is a boss who knows what should happen and tells employees how to make it happen.

But it is hard for Dutch bosses, who are not used to being solely responsible for every decision made and who rely heavily on group thinking to come up with the best answer. Maybe Dutch bosses even have different personality traits than Singaporean bosses, who have to shoulder much more responsibility on their own and who are expected to know and understand more than the underlings.

And maybe I have misunderstood the whole thing. I'm fairly sure about the Dutch perspective - but have I got it right Singaporean-wise? Dear readers, please let me know in the comments!

* Once again, I did not write this (or any of the other) conversation(s) down, so am paraphrasing from memory. I do remember when the conversation with B. took place: November 2003.

dinsdag 29 mei 2012

Plaatjespost & Picture post: Koninginnedag

Unintentionally, we were back for the biggest national holiday of the Netherlands: Koninginnedag or Queen's Day. You might have seen pictures of these orange infested flea markets spreading out through the historic city centrespicturesque canals lined with boats filled with wig-wearing, face-painted party people, drinking, dancing or non-waterborne party people trying to make money by selling junk, handicrafts, playing a musical instrument, by offering their loos for public use or even by lending you a shoulder to cry on.

However. That's the grown up version and it's not the one we went to in the village I grew up in. After we had watched the Queen on television and eaten our orange tompouce (apparently a local variation on the mille-feuille), we put E. in the bicycle seat and went into town to see the children's fair. Don't be fooled into thinking this is the anomaly - it is not. This is what Queen's Day really looks like, when you're not stuck in Amsterdam.




































































vrijdag 25 mei 2012

Opvoeden: taboes en oproep

39 reacties kreeg ik op mijn Facebook oproep wat de taboes zijn in de Nederlandse opvoedkundige wereld. Ik vond dat best wel veel.

Toegegeven, er waren ook reacties bij van niet-ouders, die zich afvroegen of het uberhaupt wel "done" was om op Facebook over kinderen te praten (gapende cultuurkloof), een Scandi-expat die ook de vaders graag betrokken zag in de discussie en een Belgische die zich verbaasde over de Hollandse taboes die vlak over de grens juist tot norm zijn verheven.

Maar toch. Ooit zat ik in de huiskamer bij de Scandi-expat met een originele Scandi-mama over zulke zelfde taboes te praten. De Scandi-expat greep regelmatig in, om context te geven zodat we elkaar begrepen.

"Weer gaan werken als je kind zes maanden oud is, is enorm vroeg hier in het hoge Noorden."

"Borstvoeding geven tot je kind negen maanden is ontzettend lang in de Lage Landen."

"Je kind met drie maanden naar kinderdagverblijf brengen is heel normaal in Nederland."

"In Scandi-land vinden ze dat een professionele pedagogische kinderopvang beter voor je kind is dan een oppassende oma."

Enzovoorts.


We merkten dat de ideeen en opvattingen van de ander schuurden met onze eigen ideeen en opvattingen - en dat we beide onderzoek hadden gelezen dat onze eigen overtuiging staafde. Maar laten we wel wezen, al het onderzoek naar het wel en wee van kinderen is toch eigenlijk van toevalligheden aan elkaar geknoopt?

Denk eens aan alcohol tijdens de zwangerschap. Ooit las ik dat het enige dat onomstotelijk vast staat, is dat meer dan 7 glazen alcohol per dag schadelijk is. Alle andere hoeveelheden zijn gebaseerd op aannames en mogelijkheden. En geen wonder: welke zwangere vrouw doet mee in een labtest met verschillende hoeveelheden alcohol per dag om te zien wat voor effect dat heeft op haar ongeboren kindje? Dus hoe zouden we eigenlijk moeten weten hoeveel alcohol je al dan niet mag drinken?

Op kinderen wordt niet getest als het schadelijk kan zijn. Dus al het bewijs is gebouwd op kaartenhuizen. Kaartenhuizen waar ouders zich aan vastklampen alsof het aardbevingbestendige betonnen kolossen zijn, want hoe moeten we anders weten of we het goed doen?

"Kinderen zijn het laatste fort van de taboes", zei de Scandi-moeder, in het dagelijks leven sociologe. "Ze zijn onze toekomst, niet alleen van hun ouders maar ook van de maatschappij. Daarom investeren we zoveel geloof en hoop in ze. En daarom zijn we zo stellig in onze opvattingen."*

De taboes die Facebook opleverde:
- pasgeboren babies in het ouderlijk bed
- potjesvoer voor kinderen
- borstvoeding voor peuters
- drinken tijdens zwangerschap en borstvoeding geven
- tv laten kijken (al dan niet om het kind te overtuigen voedsel naar binnen te werken)
- meer dan drie dagen naar kinderdagverblijf
- eigen iPad onder de vier jaar
- kindertuigjes
- peuters op les (Frans, Chinees, piano)
- een slapend kind thuis laten terwijl je zelf een boodschap gaat doen
- geen suiker voor babies/peuters
- zindelijk maken voor 1 jaar oud (jawel, dat kan wel)

Het grappige is dat ik, nu ik zoveel moeders (en vaders, maar toch vooral moeders) ken uit verschillende landen, voor elk taboe wel een cultuur heb ontdekt die het juist tot norm heeft verheven. (Baby Einstein, iemand?)

En wat me nog het meeste frappeert: ik zie geen verschil tussen die kindjes en onze eigen E. Het zijn allemaal kleine blije bengeltjes die genieten van de wereld, ballenbakken machtig vinden, bellen blazen zo mogelijk nog cooler en snacks werkelijk het einde. Ik zie geen apathische vierkante oogjes, geen dociele volgestampte papegaaitjes of psychopaatjes-in-spe.

Wat mij tot de uiterst geruststellende conclusie leidt: het maakt eigenlijk niet zoveel uit wat we doen als ouders. Als we maar van ze houden.

Maar! Nu moeten jullie dit van me aannemen. Dat is natuurlijk veel minder leuk dan meegriezelen en verbazen over alle mogelijke verhalen uit andere culturen. Dus wil ik een nieuwe serie starten, en daar heb ik jullie hulp voor nodig:

OPVOEDEN IN DEN VREEMDE

Ik zoek Hollandse expatmama's en -papa's die mij willen vertellen over hun ervaringen en wat er anders is in hun nieuwe thuisland - wat wij Hollanders kunnen leren, wat we vooral niet moeten overnemen, en hoe het zit met die typisch Nederlandse taboes. Leven die elders ook? Of vrezen ze daar juist hele andere dingen? (Om maar wat te noemen: bevallen zonder pijnbestrijding. Just sayin'.)

Ik hoop van jullie te horen!


Singaporese horror: Maar wat als die geit bijt? Wie weet waar die geit met zijn snuit in heeft gezeten! (Nog erger: hierna zette E. met zichtbaar plezier zelf haar tanden in de afgekloven boterham.) Nederland, mei 2012


*Ik parafraseer, al zet ik er aanhalingstekens omheen. Dom genoeg heb ik deze briljante conclusie, waar ik nog heel vaak aan denk, toen niet snel in een aantekenboekje opgeschreven.

woensdag 23 mei 2012

We're going to the movies! Or: Singaporeans do babysitting differently

I know, I know, Katrijn going to the movies? Yawn. When does she ever do anything else?

Thing is, about 19 months ago a tsunami ran through my body, leaving in its wake this tiny human-shaped blond thing that needed round-the-clock care. Or at least, supervision. Even while sleeping. (I know! She's sleeping! Leave her alone! But no, society has decreed sleeping babies must be closely supervised although one should not actually be in the same room with them, since then they don't sleep. Apparently they don't like to be supervised when snoring. It's all so very counter intuitive!) So my days of catching a movie straight from work and going on home to watch some more are sadly over.

But I love me some good film. So, enter the babysitter. Which in the Netherlands was fine. And free. (Thank you, sister F., brother P. and girlfriend IJ.!)

It is not free in Singapore. (Oh, it is so very not free.)

This is not quite a story on how Singaporeans do things differently. (Although some things they certainly do very differently and I'll get to that in a minute.) But I am quite sure that Singaporean mummies get their sisters, mothers, sisters-in-law, aunties and neighbours to look after their little ones, just like we did back home. So, actually, it's mostly the same: free, familiar faces for baby.

However, when you do venture into the world of PAID babysitters, it's ALL different. Well, not all. They're still female. Elderly females, with broods of their own. No malleable teenagers coming round to eat all my cookies and drink all my diet coke and watch all the tv they can while texting all their friends what a brilliant way of earning money babysitting is: doing the same as you'd do at home, but getting paid! And gratitude as well!

The thing about elderly ladies with broods of their own, is that they also have opinions and ideas of their own, honed through years and years of child- and grandchild-rearing. And their ideas differ from E.'s and mine in several crucial aspects:

1. Babies like cuddling with appreciative people.
E. enjoys admiration and worship just as much as the next person (with her white blond hair and blue eyes she gets a lot of that). But she prefers people to keep a proper distance. As her beppe remarked, E. has a very strong sense of self and an accompanying preference for who gets to cuddle her. As a rule of thumb those would include A. anybody sharing a blood tie, B. anybody her own size or under and C. her teachers at daycare. Yes, that is indeed a very short list and there are no babysitters included.

2. Babies like television.
E. gets bored by television. (Unless it's this video of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.) And then she'll start looking for trouble. This is not a good way to calm her down, as one babysitter found out to her astonishment. "How do you get your baby to sleep?", she asked in wonder. "She did not want to close her eyes until 11pm!" We came home at 11.30pm.

3. Babies need milk. Lots and lots of milk.
In the evening E. gets her dinner, yoghurt and night bottle of milk (I like to think of it as an equivalent of the cup of warm milk before bed time of yore, it soothes my feelings of guilt by still giving her this nutritionally completely unnecessary feed, just because I love cuddling her so much while she drinks it). That is it, after that she's done until breakfast. For one thing, she doesn't need more, and for another, I don't want her to think of it as an option. I want her to sleep. If she does wake up, she gets cuddles in a dark room, until she falls asleep again.

"But what if she's hungry?" Babysitters worriedly ask me. She will not be, I tell them. "No, but what if she's hungry?" Well, she just is not. Soothe her some other way.

4. Babies should not cry ever.
E. has this thing where she sometimes cries out during her sleep. It sometimes even sounds as a proper cry. But it's not. And if you go in, she wakes up and that's that, you're stuck for the evening comforting her, or in a worst case scenario, have to let her sleep next to you in the extra bed. So, DO NOT GO IN unless there's some proper panicky stuff going on in there.

"But she cried!" says our babysitter, with a wild-eyed waking little girl on her lap when we come home at midnight. That she did. And the rest of the night, while I tried to soothe my little bundle of tears, I cried too.

Basically, we want babysitters to leave our child alone, unless there is something majorly wrong. A teenager would instinctively know this, because they would very much prefer to have a sleeping baby themselves and not have to worry. An experienced granny however, apparently wants to show off her skills.

Unfortunately, the local skill set, although loving and very child centred, is not adapted to what we have taught E. with our detached style of lazy parenting. Which means that it upsets her.

But! There is a solution! Friends have helpers who have been trained in expat ways of thinking - and if friends go on holiday, their helpers are free to babysit. Isn't that a match made in heaven? So Friday we're off the movies while helper G. looks after E.

She also looked after E. last Friday (we're enjoying this weeklong holiday very much, even though we miss the friends) and when we came home, not only was E. sound asleep, but the dishes were done as well. Bless her heart.


Sleeping E., in the taxi on the way to the zoo, February 2012

ps. There is a small added aggravation with the babysitters we'd been using. Reception would book them, and not only was the hourly rate fairly steep - much more than I've seen quoted elsewhere - also they would require a minimum of 4 hrs and 25 SGD for the taxi - whereas I met one of them shopping down the road the other day, indicating that she lived nearby and could easily walk home after babysitting, thus pocketing an astounding 25 SGD - to wit, I've only ever paid 25 SGD for a taxi when going to the airport after midnight. I don't mind paying for good service - we're paying the helper as well, including her taxi fare - but I mind being taking advantage off. Especially blatantly.

maandag 21 mei 2012

We were in the Netherlands

So, I had plans. You lot would hardly notice that we'd be in the Netherlands. Well, apart from all the wonderful pictures I was going to post.

However. Reality intervened.

What happened? Some illusions got shattered. Like the one where I keep to a schedule (this illusion gets shattered on a regular basis - but might I note that in some weird warped way I do manage to keep to a work schedule? Work-me and normal-life-me are not the same person). Another illusion to get shattered was the one where I did not eat all the lovely cake and cookies people so thoughtfully put in front of me. Also shattered was the one where I went running more than twice. (I am actually really proud of going running twice.) And of course the mere thought of checking email was vanquished when we ended up staying in the beach side resort of Bergen, Noord-Holland where people are wealthy enough to get their own internet and thus do not need wifi hotspots sprinkled around town.


But I did snap pictures. Look, here are some tulips I photographed while stuck in front of a red light. (Reminds me of the abundance of orchids in Singapore.) Please note the dreary weather in the background.



And here's a mum with what is so charmingly called a "tub bike". These are very fashionable in Amsterdam-Zuid, the Bukit Timah area of the Netherlands.




We were the only ones thinking it was freezing cold. Look, some people thought the smidgen of sun warranted a picknick by the waterside:




So, now that I've proven that we really were in the Netherlands, I'll go and meditate on my plans.

For our beloved Dutchies:

Lieve vrienden en familie, wij hebben genoten van ons bezoek aan jullie, wij hebben genoten van Elsemieke's logeerpartijen en dagprogramma's, van het bewonderen van babies en het vele heerlijke eten dat ons is voorgeschoteld. Wij hebben genoten van de promotie van broer W. (al begrepen wij er weinig van, maar gelukkig van de stukjes tijdens het feest des te meer) en wij hebben genoten van de frisse lucht, het Hollandse strand met snijdende wind, het voeren van konijnen, geiten, eendjes en wat al niet meer. Het was heerlijk. In oktober weer!

Want we missen jullie wel. Eigenlijk.

woensdag 2 mei 2012

The expat toddler years: part II Singapore


Read part I, expat toddler life in the Netherlands, here. The things that struck me about the Netherlands (such as: Ducks! Cold! Mandarins!) highlight the differences between everyday Singaporean life and back home. However, this post focuses solely on my childhood memories of Singapore.

Most of my childhood was spent outside, in the garden (or other people's gardens). Apparently we would spend every Sunday in East Coast Park, of which I have no memory whatsoever. Fortunately, I do have pictures. See:


East Coast Park, 1982


E. spends her time at the beaches at Sentosa, because I really like the bathrooms they have there (really, Dutchies, you have to see them to believe them - clean, bright, big and they have a little rock garden with a water feature and a bench for sitting in the shade just behind the entrance!). But back then, Sentosa was just a pile of sand in front of Singapore Harbour, not very attractive.


Sentosa, February 2012


We used to have animals, a white wild cat and a tame black one (only the tame one made it back to the Netherlands for obvious reasons). I got to name the black one and I choose "singapore airlines" until my mum suggested "flip" after my new uncle. Not having learned their lesson, my parents let my brother and me also choose the names for our black and white rabbits, resulting in "band aid" and "cuddles". One of them got bitten by a snake, I don't remember what happened to the other one.

We also used to have a swing and other climbing gear in the hallway. Remember while gasping at the uncovered tiled floor that all of us made it out of childhood with enough brain cells to finish university.


Our house, 1981. Apparently my dad made the swing (not in the picture) himself.


E. demonstrating the climbing gene, march 2012

With my school friends I'd built castles in that hallway out of the chairs and cushions, but that was later on, when I reached the grand old age of four years. I went to the Dutch school and I was picked up daily by the school bus. Apparently, before that I used to go to a local school, which reported that I was a nice enough girl, but that my Mandarin was lacking. (It's disappeared since.)

I remember our house being quite dark, especially the bedrooms. And this has not changed. In our current apartment we always need to leave the light on because the windows are tinted. It took a bit of getting used to (I love light houses) but in the Singaporean context I'm a convert. Keep that sun outside! I remember naps were lovely, after playing outside, my mum drying me with a big towel and feeling all tingly and tired, the curtains being drawn and lying there in the cool aircon air. No wonder I took naps until well in my third year of life.

I didn't always sleep well. One night I had an ear infection. I remember my mum cuddling me all through that night and me just crying, crying and wanting the pain to stop. And then it was morning and I was a happy little camper because the pain had stopped and my mum was so, so tired that day... I don't know when I started feeling guilty over robbing her of that night's sleep, but I still kinda do. Sorry mum.

My tonsils were cut when I was in Singapore, and I got to stay overnight in the hospital. And I had to wear a gown without underwear, which embarrassed me mightily and I never understood why my bum had to be visible if they were going to do stuff to my head. On the plus side, my dad stayed with me that night (superhero!) and I got to eat jell-o for the first time in my life. Grandmother Tamtam used to be very big on health food (reportedly I ate no sugar for the first two years of my life), but society managed to subvert her strategies and jell-o became a firm favourite in the Tamtam household. Afterwards I was allowed unlimited supplies of ice cream, which I refused because it hurt too much, and then when I wanted it again, they told me I couldn't have it because I was better. No fair.

Also, all of us had a cold pretty much all of the time. And the Singaporean health system had a unique way of dealing with runny noses: they hooked us up to a machine and sucked the snot out of our noses. (I checked with our current pediatrician - if so inclined I could have it done with E. as well. But it's not standard procedure anymore.) I used to get barbie dresses as a consolation, but I still preferred not to have the treatment. Also, we were on a constant diet of antibiotics. Which obviously didn't work. So fellow Sing mummies, maybe this explains a little my complete lack of concern over E.'s coughing and colds.

One day my dad got ill, I think he had the mumps. I remember him lying in the big wooden bed under the white covers keeping his eyes firmly shut and me sitting at the headboard being fascinated by the fact that apparently grown-ups could be ill too.

In that same vein, I would have thought that my mum being pregnant (twice) would have made some sort of impression on me, but no. Even the hospital did not register further than the floor on which I was playing with the new duplo farmhouse my little brother had given me.


I'm playing with my duplo farmhouse at Gleneagles Hospital, 1981


Although, obviously, I later discovered a whole wonderful new world of playing because of the little siblings. What could be more fun than tickling an infant which is strapped into a bouncy chair? But that was years later, at 2.5 years old I was not yet so advanced and stuck to reading to  the tiny one (who is now the Really Big One With A PhD). Because, apparently, being read to was my favourite thing in the whole wide world, so I really was trying to be nice.


My brother and me at home, 1981


Same guy, thirty years later. Mount Faber Park, 2012

The summary of my early childhood: hot sun, dark cool house, lots of water play, lots of colds and lovely food. Not too bad, I think.