Wednesday, 29 February 2012

I bet grandma said, 'Don't throw it out'

Today we're at Wun Yiu.

Wun Yiu looks no different from any other suburb of Hong Kong - thanks to those charmless concrete houses nestled in the much more romantic arms of the woolly green mountains - but this location is extraordinary, mostly for what you can't see.

At Wun Yiu, now on the outskirts of Tai Po new town, ceramic bowls were made, some say as far back as 1200, maybe even earlier.

I know it looks unlikely. You have to see beyond the modern shopping plaza, soaring apartment blocks, four-lane highway, and sewage works. Ask yourself, where would you choose to work if you were a potter? Here you have streams for washing the earth, timber for the kilns, and a deep, thick wodge of fine, malleable clay. Perfect for bowl making.

Ceramics have been made from this site, probably for hundreds of years, but certainly since the 1670s.

In passing, maybe while house clearing, turning out the old cupboards, wondering about the car boot, you could have handled your grandma's serving bowls, perhaps the ones inherited from her mother, the most ordinary and useful of household crockery, maybe made from earth scooped out and shaped by hand at Wun Yiu.

It wouldn't surprise me. People were mining earth, pounding clay, shaping bowls, painting, glazing, and firing bowls in dragon kilns on the mountains here in a scale that the English pioneers of the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution would have envied. I'm told even the old name of the place - wun yiu - says bowl kilns in Cantonese.

Your grandma's ceramic bowl, the old one with the chip and the crack, perhaps you saved it as a keepsake, still useful for something, is like hundreds of thousands, turned out of each kiln from Wun Yiu for years, and years. One excavated kiln is said to have been 30 metres long with seven stacking chambers, capable of producing over 320,000 bowls in each operation. The china pots produced here were sent around the world from the ports in and around Hong Kong throughout all the trading times of the British Empire, till every home could have one.

I hope you saved the bowls she used, and the ladle that poured, pan to pot.

Because they're irreplaceable. You can't buy any more bowls from here, at Wun Yiu. The kilns, making everyday serviceable pots that your grandma, and hers before her, filled to the brim with the family recipe for winter lamb stew, stopped work in 1932. Wun Yui kilns closed down, the pottery huts collapsed and, unavoidably, the spoil heaps of rejected bowls were cleared for housing and a four-lane highway.

Every trace might have gone from here. It was as recent as the 1970s that an archaeologist studied the area and began to connect this ceramic-making site with others along the south China coastline, to realise that here is China's place in the history of your cupboard filled with handed down crockery.

But I get the impression it's not that exciting a site. I mean, the only visitors here today are the old pot lovers, and us odd-balls, teaching our children about another country's industrial heritage.

I'm happy. The kids can be archaeologists for the day. They visit the museum, kick around the tracks on the hills, poke at the soil, unearth pottery fragments, find misshapen discarded pots, and fill their pockets with the broken bowls that never made it on board ship and to your grandma's table.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

One of the problems

One of the problems with being a home educating parent is that you inevitably make all the wrong decisions.

For example, here I am, alone in Hong Kong.

(Ignore the three children.)

Imagine me here, sitting all alone at the lonely dining table with my sad and lonely solitary cup of coffee.

(Ignore the three children, the three hot chocolates, the heap of biscuits, the tea cakes and the scones.)


Think about this. I have access to a pile of Dig's cash. I am a broad-minded liberated woman. And I AM CLOSE TO AN OUTLET OF PRADA.

Get my drift? I could dump the kids in the library, leg it to spend the day in Prada and, best of all, I would come home to no sensible, hard-working, grown-up adult, gripping their chest, going ashen faced, and gasping in strangled horror, 'You paid how much? For a hand bag?'

(Not that this has ever happened before.)

But this is where being a home educating parent is ALL BAD BAD BAD.

Because this is the point I make the wrong decision. I telephone a man. (He bears an uncanny resemblance to a gnome.) And I offer to give him all Dig's hard-earned cash in exchange for Cantonese lessons.

That's right. Cantonese lessons. Even though they are at this stage a bit pointless. As in, we are leaving Hong Kong in two weeks. The only Cantonese speaker I am next likely to meet is the woman who runs the Silver Sea on the High Street. I don't think she'll be impressed by my knneee-howw and maaan-gwoo. But.

I am a home educator. I must prioritise over all other desires related to time, money, and generally being alive, the education which is at stake.


This is bad, is it not? It is allocation of resources all at the wrong end. It is the wrong decision. It is principle beating down desire, and education winning out over the covetous ownership of a delightful hard-working well-designed bit of woman kit that would see me right for years to come.


Of course I am considering my options.

(I am weaselly.)

There is always a compromise and a best-way-all-round, is there not? If I can quickly find a tricky route, whereby I justify the distribution of financial resources on a Spring 2012 Prada handbag via grounds educational/pedagogical/philosophical/socially-just-and-beneficial, then I have cracked it!

Leave it with me. (I managed it over The Peninsula.)

And ignore those three children requesting theatre trips, horse-riding lessons, and visits to Scotland to see salmon jump up rivers.

(Until then, the Jimmy Choo that I am carting around is fake. But you can call the children well-educated.)

Monday, 27 February 2012

Between worlds

I must try and stay calm; manage my exit from Hong Kong with three kids, yet remain a role model of a parent. I must show the children, by my words and actions, this is how a woman experiences challenges and problems, yet remains in a state of purpose, dignity, and poise.

Obviously, this is not going to be possible.

For a start, I am packing up our habits and routines in this house, alone. Or, more precisely, with the sort of help you might imagine from three children who have almost no grip on the cruel practicalities and brutal realities of packing up your belongings, throwing out the refuse, and leaving a place where you've lived.

Shark has been in a state of denial for some time. She has taken two weeks to turn out one plastic box and throw away a copy of First News she brought from England last August. (Not without taking a cutting first.)

She seems to imagine her days here will continue just the same, somehow after we're gone.

Maybe I have tried to introduce these profound changes to her. Maybe last week the discussion arose about possibilities of her leaving. Maybe she suggested she didn't want to go, unless she acquires an aquarium in England.

(Did I agree to that? DID I AGREE TO THAT? Which stupid, weak parent, in a moment of madness, AGREED TO AN AQUARIUM? Idiot.)

Squirrel says it bluntly. She does not want to leave the house. Particularly the roof, which is her play space, and where she makes papier mache landforms. But she is more pragmatic. She says she's definitely coming back to Hong Kong to work.

Work at what, I am not sure. Mucking about and eating ice cream, probably, the way I see her options panning out. Maybe I can locate for her a member of the idle rich; one with zero demands and a lot of patience?

If you are looking to take on Squirrel as a future high-maintenance daughter-in-law with a compulsive rock-collecting habit and a line in fairy sparkle, then I can certainly recommend her.

Tiger, the insane, beautiful, deadly, emotional roller-bundle that is Tiger, cannot arrive home to England fast enough. That's what she says, anyhow. She hasn't started packing yet, I note, nor sifting through her treasured stockpiles of books, fabrics, and drawings of horses. Every time I mention starting the sifting process she howls, claims she cannot possibly do that with only seconds in her life, then smashes up her bedroom.

I think there are people, places, and experiences here in Hong Kong that Tiger will miss. She denies it. Except for whispering, as if in confession, that she will miss Diana, the ebullient daughter of a homeschooling mom who I will miss, too. At least I admit it. Tiger's denials will be louder, longer, howlier, with each passing day and turning clock.

But I have learned a few things. I must try and pull off the trick of packing her treasures with her agreement while she doesn't notice yet is fully aware.

Me, I'm just carrying on, packing stuff, sorting out piles of paper and cardboard, most of which the children have glued together to make miniature rooms and houses, and having the odd squeal, in an undignified parenty sort of way.

I'm thinking over how the last fortnight here I expected to spend buzzing about Hong Kong, seeing and doing everything that I failed to do in the last two years. There are so many places to visit that I never went; so many sights I never saw; so many moments I never lived. Can I fit them now into days, or hours?

Not now. Time is moving too fast to fit in everything. I am already waving the losses gone; pottering about in old clothes, turning out cupboards, throwing things away, listening to talk about all the fish that can be put into tanks, all the rocks we can carry in our socks or on the wings of homing fairies, and how all the delights of Hong Kong can never match the feel of cold soil in England.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Whatever they can do, I can do better

Dig has left me and flown to Brazil. He says he has that other job.

I have my suspicions. That it is not as claimed, but that his secret occupation there is pimp and racketeer.

What else could it be?

I submit evidence. He arranges these trips in short notice, departs in haste, and returns with any one of the following: a pimp shirt; a crumpled envelope stuffed with used Brazilian banknotes; a photograph of himself wearing snorkeling gear while surrounded by bikini clad women; and the statement, 'I always feel a sense of place with the first Caipirinha'.

Well, I'm sure I can match anything the bikini-clad babes of Brazil can offer. After all, I am a woman of not inconsiderable talents and resources.

I can do the bikini, if I take off my glasses and you peer through half-closed eyes; I can do the big bosom if I shove under my bra top something to wedge them up a bit - I don't know, I have a couple of Parmesan pots here, they should do the trick; and I could even have a go at that trendy vajazelling business with the stick-on jewels from the kiddy craft box. The Caipirinha in my hand I cannot do, but I have an old gin bottle and can fill it with vinegar, which might pass, no? And I am sure we have some reais in the drawer; I could strap those to my thigh and the image would be complete.

Now what sane man would chose a tour of Brazil, compared to me?

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Single woman in Hong Kong!

Yes! I am a single woman in Hong Kong!

Well, for four hours fifteen minutes, anyway.

Sadly, I do not spend the time productively, not even managing a search for cheap men and even cheaper booze down old Wan Chai.

I decide to go shopping. Which means I stagger about Queen's Road Central for a bit, staring at the buildings and wondering why the voices in my head have gone, then I wander about dazed for two hours in Sogo, half-heartedly trying to part with a gift voucher worth $100 (about a tenner).

Sogo, for those who do not know it, is a Japanese department store. It is built for people who are the height of a domestic rabbit (probably also explains why the buttons on Japanese electronic goods are the size they are).

Because the place is built for rabbits, or gnomes, or hobbits, or very teeny, tiny Japanese people, if you are a BigFatWesterner like me (5foot 4ins), then you have to crawl around this hobbity store mostly on all fours.

I bet it is designed this way to make the tiny people feel at home, as if you are in the cosy comfort of your own warren: narrow passages, floor to ceiling less than the cupboard space under the stairs, product stocked top to bottom, and miniature escalators up and down like moving tunnels conveniently placed around your burrow.

But it seems to have bypassed everyone's attention, probably because they are too busy crawling around looking for a way out, that all the products in Sogo are priced at least 30% above normal prices. The only item I could find under $100 was a pencil case with a teddy bear face. Then I decided the best way to use $100 was in discount, maybe if I handed over $15,000 in exchange for a Vivienne Westwood purse.

Dig is glad I came to my senses just before the handover, but as I explained to him, after you have spent two hours locked in a rabbit warren with 20,000 tiny people, then $15,000 for a bit of folded cow skin with a embossed orb on it seems reasonable if it justifies your presence in the burrow and secures your escape.

But the afternoon shopping time spent all alone was not entirely wasted (even though my Bone Lady was shut). On a street market in Central I bought a large wheely bag suitable for check-in luggage.

I expect we will soon see why it cost a mere $168.

Friday, 24 February 2012


Thursday, 23 February 2012

Yes, science lessons look like this

In home ed land, I sometimes experience those days that I can't really fault. But I'm not allowed to kiss strangers in public places, so I'll show my gratitude by blasting it out, toot-toot, on the blog.

Home ed is a wonderful, varied land to live in. I don't see kids humiliating, bullying, or threatening each other; I don't see slavish following of teaching methodology taking precedence over personal interaction; I don't see adults demonstrating their power over kids, nor spending their hours working out sanctions, punishments, exclusions and threats.

I see learning taking place naturally, socially, with friends. I see tolerance, support, a helpful spirit of inquiry, fun, and protein folding.

I see a group of 15 kids make double helix bonds from carrot sticks, peas, raisins, marshmallows and blueberries, then follow it up by making a copy using ideas about transcription and translation of DNA.

All the time in the workshop, I keep whispering to Tiger, But how do you know what to do? She looks at me suspiciously, maybe I'm pretending to have the intellectual range of a medieval peasant, then answers, I listened.

As a mother, I'm grateful. I don't have to spend all my days doing the work of an institution: forcing three individuals into uniforms; worrying about what they're doing and who they're meeting in worlds far away from mine; yelling about getting out the house in time, the same time, everyday; complaining about each item the school requires; enforcing rules I never made. I can enjoy freedoms and choices; I can join in, enjoy the process of learning, unpicking, making, asking; I can talk and laugh with like-minded people, then answer Yes! Let's eat cake.

Some days, they are just so lovely, they make sense of all the rest.

But still, so great is this heart today, better watch out, stranger in public place.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Home educators missing out social skills?

Of course, the answer's NO! Home ed kids don't miss out social skills. Just think about the social skills Child A (aged 11) has employed today.

1. Got herself out of bed, dressed appropriately, and made ready to go.

While mother is slopping in pyjamas with dribble on the bosom? Falling out the shower 10 minutes before she is due out the house? So what? She is an artist. Call it the start of her new public installation work: The Artist in Motion. Smelly & Dishevelled.

2. Bought breakfast en route to the public transport for all family members.

Okay. The mother-artist on duty doesn't actually provide breakfast. Well, what's the point? Squirrel has stitched up a good deal with our cake-woman street-seller for daily freshly-baked pastries. Still warm! And Hong Kong food culture is snack-based.

3. Checked the transport card is suitable for travel.

Yes, this is Squirrel's job! Don't look at me. I'm not doing it. I bung her fifty dollars to buy the top-up from the old woman in the booth. (Rats! I've forgotten my card! Surely Squirrel can deal with the guard on duty at the turnstiles, then slip me hers to get me through to the ferry?)

4. Seated the family on city transport.

Where are we going? Can someone remind me? Squirrel, sort it out. Go and ask that man to move. Look, today I am wearing matching socks. Consider that my triumph.

5. Purchased lunch from 7Eleven.

Just be quiet, you creepy lunch-box police types. This overpriced cheese sandwich is not a statement on modern motherhood. Hong Kong food culture is SNACK BASED. Now Squirrel, don't forget to ask the cashier for straws. And are they going to stock raisin bread again? Ask the assistant for me, there's a good girl.

6. Provided the details for the group meet-up at the right time, in the right place, at the right sports venue.

Thank goodness Squirrel is firmly in charge. She can recall which group of people we are meeting in which place today. Different from yesterday. And tomorrow. (My confusions are understandable, surely.)

7. Acquired the correct-sized sports gear from the attendant. Joined in appropriately with the mixed-age, mixed-ability sports group for ice skating session.

Squirrel, get it sorted with the young men behind the desk regarding the gear. And don't ask me again. NO WAY am I strapping thin metal blades to my feet and trying to stand upright on a sheet of ice. If you need me, I'll be in Starbucks with the rest of the hangers on, aka the parents.

8. Assisted, supported, and encouraged the junior in the group who is convinced she will fall over.

Ahhh. My girls are kind and caring. (Truly.)

9. Agreed time to exit the sports venue.

Twelve kids today to negotiate on a time? Blimey, that was quick. But must your mother leave Starbucks? The seat is so cosy and warm! The hot chocolate is delicious!

10. Made a selection of 12 cup cakes at fancy cake shop.

Squirrel, here is MATHS. Cake choices are as follows. 12x22; 3x54; 1x350; 2x140+3x22. You must feed 12 people. You have two minutes to decide. Order from the cake-shop woman and tell me how much cash to hand over.

11. Located group at meet-up venue for impromptu birthday gathering!

Honestly, if someone doesn't find the way out of this shopping centre, eternity will finish and I will still be wandering around the blasted back of Versace. Thank goodness! Squirrel's asked the woman at the concierge desk.

12. Behaved appropriately for birthday gathering.

What? You mean no screaming? Shouting? Pushing? Or grabbing at the chocolate cake with scrabbling claws fiercely yelling GERROFFTHATONEISMINE. (For which I humbly apologise.)

13. Completed same in reverse; i.e. managed transport home, coordinated mother, organised all payments, negotiated purchasing of supper (not from 7Eleven).

Social skills? You can call them responsibility, resourcefulness, self sufficiency, care for others, sympathy for mother (okay, maybe pity), and dealing respectfully with a lot of people in a lot of jobs in real-world situations.

Now please excuse me. I have to go back to drinking lager, dribbling down my vest, watching Sky TV, and burping.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Time for the thank yous

Of course I'm changing my tune! Hong Kong is amazing. And I am grateful for having had the opportunity to experience life here.

Especially Sham Shui Po, one of my favourite places on earth.

The geeks know this Chinese district of Hong Kong for the computer centre. Leave them in there. Come out on the streets with me. Messy, noisy, dirty, overcrowded, with rat warning notices everywhere. I love it.

If you are a dedicated crafter, maker or doer, it is nirvana, and you will never want to leave.

There are shops here like Lewis's wardrobe. Pass by each doorway, cluttered with buckets of beads, and you will wind your way into a labyrinth of buckle, button, trim, zip, sparkle, ribbon, sequin, decorative metal, and thread.

The only lion and witch you will encounter are inside your own head, struggling for control of your purse, because $4 for a bag of yellow sequins is a bargain, but since you already spent $200 on novelty buttons, maybe it is time to go home.

Forget it. Down the road you can acquire more trim, fastenings, and cloth.

Here, amongst the fabric merchants, you will pass the fashion designer, searching out the composition you'll be wearing in Spring 2013.

For the dolly dressers crawling at snail's pace behind you, it is all an Aladdin's cave. Should she choose the pink sparkle or the purple sparkle? (At HK$10 a yard, I know that never again will I be able to pay Hobbycraft prices without a shop-floor brawl.)

I will miss all Sham Shui Po, and the street sights it offers.

Yes, that's grandma, pushing a few crates up the main road. To help her out, the family have strapped some nylon cord round her body and attached a few crates at her rear, too.

It tells me there's a different work ethic here in Hong Kong from Essex! Here the Chinese don't expect benefits at all. Just carry on working until they fall over.

I think grandma is worth another view; she came back round the block again in the 10 minutes I stood there, waiting for Squirrel to choose between silver or not-quite silver thread.

And the cafe culture.

I will miss Starbucks and Ditta egging me on, that much is true. I will also miss watching the trade of the street-cookers. Here's one of my favourite restaurants. It occupies half a road in Sham Shui Po and is always busy with street-eaters perched at rickety plastic tables. To pass down the street, pedestrians must first be submerged in the noise of Cantonese and the clip of chopsticks against large plastic dinner bowls of soup, rice, noodles and tofu with green peppers in sticky sweet black oyster sauce.

As you tread a careful path, feel the pavement clinging to your feet with chicken fat, be careful of the gas flames roaring and hissing and the clouds of hot steam rising from wide, bubbling woks. You can smell the burning peanut oil, hear the cleavers chop on worn wooden boards, and hope that the entire structure, leaning thirty degrees to the left, doesn't collapse on top of you as you push your way out.

After watching the meat cleaver come down on the chicken head, Tony's hired burger van just isn't going to be the same.

Thank you, Sham Shui Po. You occupy a special place in my heart.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Moving out

I have to clear out the house and manage this transition in a way that minimises the screaming, tears, sorrows and partings.

So my first question is, How much crap can we store in drawers? (Lots.)

Squirrel is by far the worst hoarder. She keeps everything, from torn-up ferry tickets to clothes that don't fit her, to unfinished items of craft sporting one wiggly eye.

I say to her, What are you going to do with your rock collection? Without a beat she answers, Take it home.

So that's no problem. Transporting (illegally, probably) the rocks and minerals of Hong Kong back to the shires where we already store the contents of Cornwall and the possessions of a Suffolk beach.

I jolly everyone along with a first stab. (Tiger refuses to join in.) We tip out a few drawers and compose scrapbooks, with my aim to produce a ton of cut-up paper for the recycling bin and a neat record to fit into a suitcase.

Honestly, this process of packing up and moving out is going to be hard work. I shall have to keep this record if only to figure out how to do it.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Taking comfort in geology? Weirdo.

Shhh - don't tell anyone, but I have ways of living in Hong Kong.

(I will miss.)

Yes, I know I said I hated the damn place. Shut up. But those other voices are right. There are worse places to be.

And I have suffered here! That always counts for something in a human, right? Emotionally, the last two years have been blasted hard work.

So I have had to look for, and find, consolation. That has come not in the Hong Kong shopping malls (although Starbucks and I Scream have helped), but in its impressive and majestic mountains, seashores, and rocks.

Even then my consolation has not been complete: I have imagined the heaving waters as Tiger's homesick sorrows, and the beach rocks her tears, picked up and pelted at me in fury.

So I am not about to admit I have found my immediate land and sea scapes my full spiritual comfort. These mountains, they are not home. They are hard work to climb, and sometimes the sea swell makes me queasy.

But I would say, looking over the experiences of the last two years, that I have grown a certain love for living on a two hundred million year island in the sea, where my thoughts are surrounded by beaten-up old volcanoes. I can trace with my finger their inside veins. I can see their broken surface, pricked with sparkle. I can see proof that solid can melt. I can watch great surges of waters from sky and ocean. And I can think about permanence and transition, the passing of minutes and millenia, and how all things change and stay the same.

We each get our kicks somewhere, right?

Today, while I come to terms with new realities and all the instabilities and insecurities of our future living arrangements, I make the kids and Dig take a walk against the sea and rocks.

Where I can quietly watch the rocks and pretend to everyone how we come here only for a Sunday stroll along the shoreline.

Ahh. That's better.

And just as well that Tiger is in charge of the route-finding to the tip of Ma Shi Chau.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The gap

I wake up all peaceful as normal, tra-la-la, am sipping coffee as normal, humdy-dum, then suddenly I have the most shocking experience of the last twelve months (not sex).

The moment when I realise it. We are leaving Hong Kong. No, I mean, really leaving Hong Kong. Packing-objects-into-boxes. Deciding, item by item, what is important and what is not; what is worth the journey and what can stay in the landfill. That type of leaving.

With the sudden shock that is the gap between intellectually looking at monthly planning sheets a long way away, and the horrible dawning that the clothes are in the laundry, the books lie open, the cupboards are filled, nothing is sorted, and we're gone in just one month.

And we means me, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger.

There ensues an uncomfortable conversation. Along with this knowledge, how our time is up, how packing is a priority, how I do that alone, how I manage three children leaving Hong Kong, comes the reality that I knew all along, how Dig must keep to an entirely different schedule.

While me and the children unpack our things in England, Dig must return to his old ways of globe wandering. He will stay a while in Hong Kong, visit Brazil, pop back to Blighty, then jump back out to Asia. Colombia, he is yet considering.

I tell myself I can deal with this way of living, because I have done so before. I have a script for it. It is not called packing up, changing places, or living apart. It is called staying on, earning a wage, and supporting a family.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Fun with adenosine triphosphate

Squirrel, Shark, and Tiger are following Ellen McHenry's course, Cells.

I recommend it.

Specifically, I recommend someone else's mother leading Ellen McHenry's course, Cells.

I recommend someone else's mother also organising my kids on the chapters, running the weekly meetup, setting out the games, jigging the brood along, playing the videos, and shouting Twist the ATP synthase! While I drink tea and eat biscuits.

Basically, with Cells, someone else's mother is a lot more fun.

Yes, of course I would like to prove how I am capable of leading Cells with my own children. The truth is, I can't.

I would give up after two weeks. The words are hard. I would never find the sellotape to stick the board game together. The kids would ignore me because I would fail to understand some crucial point. Then I would lose interest and speak gibberish. I would try and disguise my yawning lack of enthusiasm by coming over all pompous and teachery. Squirrel, fuelled by anger and resentment, would mount a rebellion, offering dolly clothes for her supporters. Eventually I would be knocked out by the combined forces of my own failure and ennui, before concluding that me sitting alone in my room in shame is a better activity for everyone.

Worse would happen. I would hide Cells in a cupboard. I would tell myself it was a mouse nest. Then I couldn't ever disturb it! I might see baby mice! I wouldn't haven't the heart to kill them. The only solution is never open the cupboard door again.

What is the alternative? Open the cupboard door to see a curling course on cells? The one I abandoned after week 2? No! This would reveal my failure! Guilt would gnaw at my soul. Cells would have been a great course. If only I had run it. Squirrel could have been a top scientist in cell research. If only I could have been bothered. Dig paid for it. See how I squandered his cash. I could have spent it on a handbag. And there were no mice.

But I recommend Cells. It is a great course of games, play, videos and fun. Just make sure it comes with your friendly local home ed group, a great bunch of kids, and someone else's mum to stick the ATP synthase machine together.

Thanks, Chris!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Grit, Minister for Grit School, in Grit Land

People of England, I have decided something important.

I shall become Minister for Grit School.

Yes! It is time. I am called to power. Soon, I shall wield swords of truth and righteousness and gallop about in proper shining armour.

I am led to this destiny by your own Nick Gibb. (Minister for Schools, if you forgot.) He is my mentor and, by his brief appearance in Hong Kong this week, has taught me much.

The lessons I take from Nick (I think I can call him that) are as follows:

1. Know your job.
Obviously, if someone comes to Grit's house and says Hey Grit! You are a great Minister for Grit School! Can you promote British schools abroad? I would do a proper job. I would answer, British schooling system? It is THE BEST IN THE WORLD.

It has to be, right? It's a free-flowing system that means people like home educators can decide when to join in, and when to piss off. Okay, it could do with some tweaks, but basically it lets us all muddle along together to produce reasonably open-minded kids who are doctors, lawyers, artists, and office managers! How cool is that? Schools and parents in partnership!

What I wouldn't say, EVER, if I was a proper minister, is that British schools are CRAP. Nor that we are falling behind; being 'out educated'; or that we must follow Chinese schools for our business and economics lessons to get us proper jobs in finance.

I know how you can yell these things in England, sure! You have to! You have an electorate to hoodwink. But I would not say these things overseas! Especially not while under the banner of the British Council, cultural wing of the Foreign Office, whose job it is to big up British education and entice those rich foreign students back to the needy shores of Blighty!

So I would be better than Nick. I would be polite, visit the schools, eat the nibbles (without spitting out the peanut husks), and I would say 'Britain and Hong Kong? We are ONE.' (With all due respect to China, obviously).

2. Learn some facts.
Of course I wasn't invited to Nick's reception last night! The British Council don't let in people like scrubby-grubby Grit to touch the cloth of your most important Ministers! I merely hear about the shindig!

But Nick still teaches me wisdom. He teaches me to make sure, as Minister, you know all the facts and figures. This means I would not sit like a goldfish without oxygen while a member of the team leaps in to cover my ignorance about student numbers in higher education. Honestly! We don't want the Redwood and Welsh national anthem scenario all over again, do we?

3. Show some cleavage.
As I see it, the problem with Ministers for Schools generally is that they do not exude enough sexual suggestion.

I would rectify that. I would put on some sexy heels, pull the skirt up a bit, show a little cleavage, walk a bit wobbly, and go all giggly on the arm of my counterpart, the Hong Kong Minister for Schools. I think the evening would go a little better after that. Just my suggestion.

4. Listen.
I can see how any minister could be star struck by the size of Hong Kong's exam results.

But if they could start listening to the way Hong Kong schools reforms are going, they might, instead of bleating on and on about scores, tables, testing, accountability, show more careful attention, and develop an ear for some tentative ideas about the need for creativity now swilling about in Hong Kong educational circles.

Any listening minister might then understand how the Hong Konkers are aware that their system is generally perceived to be all rote-learning and miserable; maybe even how they might be seeking to do something about it. Perhaps Hong Kong education officials are a mite stung by the criticism that Hong Kong kids have enormous grades but zero personality? (And that observation comes from Singaporeans, for goodness sake!)

5. Say thank you.
So, in the unlikely circumstance that I have put up a crap performance, dissed British schools, banged on and on about how crap we are in the exam tables, ignored the damage limitation that has gone into overdrive, and pissed everyone off. What would I do?

I would quietly acknowledge a few shortcomings, and I would be grateful. I might even say thank you. I wouldn't call for heads to roll. I wouldn't blame everyone else. I wouldn't strut around like a self-important tosser.

6. Raise my profile.
This is a lesson I'm taking from all Ministers, everywhere.

I would be really, really, disappointed if I came all the way to Hong Kong and no journalist gave a toss! Even The Telegraph can't be arsed!

I would want all you people in England to be at home admiring me, and maybe even talking about me as a successor to my boss!

Surely I must acquire some column inches somewhere with my education programme! Surely I can do something positive for that?

I know! I shall run my first press conference! As Grit, Minister for Grit School in Grit Land!

But first I must finish off the Jack Daniels, call the British school system a load of crap run by a bunch of ponces, say that all poxy teachers should be accountable to parents (when really I mean the government), then fall down the stairs by accident-on-purpose to qualify for a free helicopter ride round the harbour.

PS. If you want newspaper and student views of the UK and HK Higher Education systems, go here and here. The SCMP couldn't be arsed.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

(It should not be)

I apologise to all those back home in the shires, yearning for the caress of summer.

Today I took the children strawberry picking.

Yes! Hong Kong grows strawberries. In February. When the temperatures never freeze, the sun does not scorchio, and the humidity balances for a gentle day, neither too wet nor too dry.

In my defence, I can say it was not by my instigation. The local home ed group made me go. And the strawberry farm made me pay Hong Kong prices.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012


We're not going anywhere today. Nowhere at all. We stay put. I shall not clear away the piles of trash, not complete basic projects, not attend to all matters relating to personal hygiene, and not achieve anything, by way of um, anything.

I'm not expecting much of the children, either, except the usual breathing, eating, sleeping.

I don't excuse myself. It is down time. It is very positive. It is what we home educators can declare an amount of, when we like.

Out of doing not much, except footling about, staring out of the window, gazing and wondering, will come bright and shiny things. You see if it doesn't.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Tidy up day

Isn't this how visitors impact your house?

Trash. Everywhere.

I don't know about you, but no clearing up is done while there are visitors. None at all. Only an emergency sweep of one forearm across half the sofa, sweeping away kid trash. The esteemed guest can then park their backside for five minutes and drain a cup of coffee, before being marched out the house to express eternal wonder at the tourist facilities. In our case, a Hong Kong street vendor squatting by a pile of Chinese cabbage. Whatever. Visitors = I stare at our three-week routine of dump stuff and run. Dump more stuff, and run. Dump and run. Dump and run.

But now the visitor has gone!

I start the day with vigor and enthusiasm. Today! Things will be done!

I survey the landscape of this Grit household. Folded mountains of pamphlets, leaflets and newspapers appearing inexplicably overnight, lakes of plastic food-wrap swirling by the front door, never draining to the ocean of the recycling bin, and forests of clothing which have grown in heaps, I note mainly at foot of stairs and mostly composted from Squirrel's gear.

I declare proudly, it is tidy up day!

Shark tuts, Squirrel puts her hands over her ears, and Tiger is downright rude. I am just glad she doesn't yet know the four-letter word.

I am undaunted.

I say to Shark, Tiger and Squirrel, pick up your precious stuff. Now. The typhoon of the vacuum cleaner is due imminently.

You can guess the kid response. Clutch hair, gasp, scream, bear expression of terror, adopt body contortions of torture victims straight off a violation of human rights card. I ignore them all. I am used to it.

Children, it may come to pass that my enthusiasm will end in an earthquake of fury at a blocked vacuum hose within about 15 minutes. And yes, when I reach exhaustion, one black eye thanks to a broom pole and one collapsed lung courtesy of Cif fumes, I may grab hold of anything left over, including the kitchen cat if we had one, and shovel it into plastic sacks to dump it by the bins, BUT.

I must go through with it.

En route I simply note Law of Kids + Tidying up: it is easier for any kid to spend three hours in emotional suffering, beating themselves senseless and rending their clothing, than it is to spend three seconds picking up a half-finished unicorn moulded from bottle-tops.

It is time. I merely go to find the vacuum cleaner in a stately, majestic sort of way. Like a sailing ship in full wind across the Pacific/front room floor, stepping over writhing kids, sure of my course, and steady as I go.

Only I can't find the vacuum cleaner.

Where is it? It is not in the office. It is not in the toilet (now disused thanks to the landlord cutting off the water supply). It is not behind the curtain.

The vacuum cleaner isn't anywhere!

Which leads to the following conversation with the beloved, which I hope you do not have in your household on tidy up day.

Grit: Have you seen the vacuum cleaner?
Dig: What?
Grit: Have you seen the vacuum cleaner?
Dig: What?
[repeat this for about five minutes]
Dig: The one with the brushes?
Grit: What?
Dig: Has it got brushes?
Grit: We've only got one vacuum cleaner. Does it have brushes?
Dig: I don't know.
Grit: I want the vacuum cleaner.
Dig: Where is it?

Reader, I shall draw tidy up day to a conclusion now.

If you have reached this point and found it a profound disappointment, be reassured. So did I.

And if you find the vacuum cleaner, please let me know where the f***ing thing is.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Final day of the visit

Travelling Aunty leaves Hong Kong today, bound for Northumberland.

It sets her off into sorrowful remembrance. Or maybe trepidation. Her facial expression looks remarkably the same when she contrasts the memory of sunshine temperatures in the Philippines with the expectation of snow-locked moors of Northumberland and a central heating system that doesn't work properly.

Tiger is beside herself with envy. Aunty Dee is going home. To England. This fact prompts Tiger to spend a morning growling and muttering at her computer screen, vengefully stabbing the keyboard. Going home can't come soon enough, and she's now counting the days to our own departure in March.

Squirrel watches packing proceedings with her detached air. These events are all happening out of her control. Later she'll be upset and slam doors. That will mark the loss of a precious aunty who can actually knit and seems to enjoy watching dolly fashion shows. But for now, Squirrel quietly assists in the to-ing and fro-ing to the post office, sending the holiday cards back to an office in Prudhoe. Everyone agrees the postal system can sometimes defy time. Magically the cards can arrive at work desks quicker than the person who sent them.

Shark is sparked into a fury of action in the kitchen. She wanted Aunty Dee to squeeze in one last cultural experience of Hong Kong. A journey by sampan. But the only sampan experience we can organise in time is the crossing between Hong Kong Island and the South of Lamma Island. That means crossing the East Lamma Shipping Channel. This route is the passage of the heaviest container vessels in the world, and one of the busiest sea ways in Asia, active every day of the week. A sampan is like a miniature rowing boat. Dig explains the usual terms of travel insurance and remarks how there isn't time to enjoy a hospital experience, so Shark is asked to cook cake instead.

She does that vigorously, bashing flour and beating eggs, clattering about the kitchen and warding off incomers, until she has created chocolate mousse, cinnamon biscuits, spicy cake and bread dough which we don't have time to cook. The time for departure is upon us, so our Travelling Aunty is hurriedly fed cake with a squashed mousse top and bundled out the door with her unfinished Sudoko puzzles and a flurry of farewells. Dig accompanies her to the airport, just to ensure she catches the right plane to the right place.

I put the house back to the pre-visiting order, wrapping laundry and rearranging furniture. Shark looks glumly at her uncooked bread dough, Squirrel sorrowfully slinks up to her room, and Tiger beams. Next month I'll be packing up our bedrolls, too.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Big Buddha

Huzzah! Last day for Travelling Aunty in Hong Kong!

Today we must show her Buddhism! We are escorting her to the mighty tourist attraction that is the Tian Tan Buddha, affectionately known as Big Buddha.

This has to be on everyone's tourist itinerary of Hong Kong, doesn't it? Of course it does. Lantau must offer you something apart from the airport. And when you're fed up with Buddha you can shop at the fantastic themed retail experience that is Ngong Ping village!

The Chinese have this sort of thing organised. Big buses to get you there, large coach parks, directional signs, plenty of dining opportunities, toilets for the disabled.

But la famille Grit is not here simply to take part in the great tourist enterprise! No! Any reader knows that Grit is a half-hearted follower of the Buddhist business. She can even manage a bit of mumbled chanting in exchange for a free dinner.

So you can take it that our tour today also means we can actively demonstrate our Buddhist virtues of zeal, charity, morality, patience, meditation and wisdom. The Travelling Aunty can enjoy them as well, whether she wants to or not.

(She can call it home education, religious studies.)

First we show zeal. I set Shark on shovelling the reluctant aunty out of bed at 9am. Then we can push her on the ferry, force her on the underground to Tung Chung, and prop her up on the Number 2 bus, bumping its way round the hills in Lantau. For it is here the Chinese proudly display the world's biggest bronze Buddha sat outside on a hill, facing north! (V. important.)

To experience the momentous meeting with Buddha close up, Travelling Aunty must then walk up the hill.

We immediately have problems with the hill. Apparently the Travelling Aunty has a blister which she says got worse when I made her wear flippers.

I say a blister is no problem. Stop groaning. (More zeal, double tick). After all, the Chinese have provided steps! Lots of them. Like a runway. (Choose the correct side to ascend! Right side up! Left side down! Do not get these instructions confused if you do not want the tourist guard to beat you with the baton.)

But then Travelling Aunty With The Blister says she must rest half-way up because she is Clapped Out. She attempts to cling to the railings. After waiting a considerate moment I send Squirrel back down to force her to get a move on. Given the length of time she has spent hanging over the railings gasping, I think I show a great deal of patience, so I'm ticking it on my path to nirvana. And morality. I am sure it is in there too.

Because, sadly, we are against a time limit on our visit to Buddha. We must attend to the Buddha, walk round him anti-clockwise (or clockwise, I forget), look under his seat to visit his display, say a venerating ooh at his ancient relic (v. v. v. tiny slither of bone, possibly from middle finger), and then get to the restaurant by 4.00pm before they close up and the cook goes home. Here we can gaze upon the lovely vegetarian dinner! (Tick meditate.)

That is from Dig. He bought the full dinner set for six people by accident. If you are likewise visiting Big Buddha, be warned! You do not have to buy the full meal set! You do not have to buy the snack set! You do not have to buy any food at all! You can just visit Big Buddha!

The Chinese craftily position the Buy Your Ticket booths at the foot of the steps to Buddha, so in Dig's confusion (not getting to bed until 2am thanks to flight from Philippines) he persuades himself we must acquire curious forms of entry ticket, so buys a full set dinner for six.

Now on that score we have achieved wisdom (tick). And I will say how very kind it is for Dig to provide us all with dinner (tick charity).

Thus, having mostly achieved the objectives for nirvana, we walk briskly about the Buddha, make all the right noises, do not fall out with any security guards, and enjoy a fantastic vegetarian dinner for six!

I think we do it all in the right order. We save the gift shops till last. The directional signs are very good and the entire complex is unmistakably what industrial-scale Chinese tourism is all about.

Now here are the variety of rubbish photographs taken on the day. You'll have to bear in mind that we were here for business! We couldn't hang about to compose shots, or frame anything! Just enjoy all the heads-in-the-way, the over-exposure, and the tilted statues.

PS. I only deliver it to the Buddhists because I know they can take it. And they are unlikely to retaliate by punching me in the face, kneecapping, bombing, or any other non-nirvana-inducing means of retribution. (And I love 'em.)

Friday, 10 February 2012

I shall live there in other life

We have to leave Mindoro Island in the Philippines.

To do that, first they must prise my fingers from the door frame, then smother me with chloroform to knock me out, so I can be carried on board the departing boat without the kicking and screaming.

Take that as a recommendation of these beautiful, delicious islands for tourism. The Philippine people deserve to receive your attention and the many denominations of your tourist coin.

It is a crying shame they have had years of colonial exploitation (thanks, sixteenth century Spain), the bombing of Manila (say hello to the USA) and the brutality of occupation (we don't hold any grudges against the Japanese round here).

Okay, so Britain was no guardian angel (occupied them for two years). It's another of those histories we don't teach to school kids.

Well, if we're going to find out about it, let's put on a good face for it: the BBC/Lonely Planet suggests the British occupation actually 'assisted the Philippine movement for independence'. Indeed. Something they didn't realise for another couple of hundred years, and then they had Marcos.

Me, I loved the place. Even though the brawl with the customs officer over the shells which he tried to extract from my clammy clenched fists was undignified.

I still leave in love, thinking how life is too short for all the lives I would like to lead.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Diving lesson 3

Here is my big shout out for the superb organisation that is Action Divers.

I loved them.

As a complete naive, non-diving parent (and the sort of carpet-slippers wussy who swims about trying not to get her hair wet), throwing my precious 11-year old daughter into the brutal surly ocean, wrapped only in a skin of neoprene and protected by an oxygen tank splattered with a death's head sticker, is a big thing.

Understandably, my starting fear has been, Will the ocean kill her?

My phobias have progressed through all water-related scenarios, well beyond simple drowning, to being decapitated by coral, eaten by mutant octopus, and facing naked protean underwater savagery from flesh-eating humanoids desperate to chew off her arms and legs, having escaped from their caves in The Descent.

Reader, in protecting my daughter from these terrors, Action Divers did not fail me.

For three days Shark has been safely scuba'd through hazards procedures, equipment handling, and proper watery skills. Each evening she has dutifully completed her homework. That meant confronting her woeful spelling, doing armed combat with a set of comprehension exercises, and preparing herself for a 9am start. (She probably was also taught how to handle aggressive octopus, wicked coral, and terrible creatures of the deep.)

I have rarely seen her with such determination and dedication.

And I must give a big whoop-de-doo to Simon in particular, who has been a perfect teacher for Shark; unfailingly patient, attentive, and communicating a love of the diving life which has led and inspired her. She has already pin-pointed the list of courses she wants and is now busy plotting her diving career. An eternal thank you.

(Or at least until she drops the idea of becoming a marine biologist and chooses life instead as a beach bum and bar fly.)

But for this experience - first-time child diver and annoying fussying mother - then yes, I totally recommend them.

If you are at the Hong Kong end, simply use Action Divers in Puerto Galera. The beaches are prettier than in Sai Kung and non-divers can amuse themselves by snorkeling without being hit in the head from a sampan.

Hmm. Now I've started thinking about it, maybe we should move out to the Philippines. Action Divers can take over Shark's Maths education as well. They need only represent every problem in terms of fish and coral and together we should crack it.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Diving lesson 2

Shark is occupied in her diving education for the entire day. Text book, talk, videos, wet suits, and sloshing about in sea water accompanied by manly men and oxygen tanks, busy twiddling dials and scouring the reef for puffer fish.

I cannot do the same, more's the pity.

Listening to the barbed comments delivered to me at the breakfast table, I think that daughters number 2 and 3 are becoming a little resentful about the attention that Shark is enjoying. And probably they are irked at how mama seems to have abandoned family loyalty in favour of peering into the sea to catch hopeful sight of grown men gearing up. (Yes, of course I am learning the lingo; how else can I establish my credibility?) Squirrel not very politely reminds me, over the toast, that I am married. You children have a lot to learn, that is for sure.

Well, I give in to my miniature morality custodians. Really, I have not much choice. The Philippines has slapped me about something rotten, so I am not much of an eyeful. I have sun burn on one shoulder, carry a headache the size of Manila, limp on a left leg eaten by mosquito, and the rooms at the Portofino Hotel come with the wrong sort of mould, so my eyeballs have swollen up like a couple of watermelons.

Then Aunty Dee says she must buy a post card, and Tiger says unless she sees something interesting she will never travel anywhere again. So there is nothing else for it. I must dutifully occupy my custodian daughters 2 and 3 in a day of constructive and improving education. While Shark is having fun, I conduct a geology lesson,

become a cooperative tour guide for the local town,

describe Philippine cuisine from the contents of the local grocery store,

go oooh and ahhh with the marine biology,

and equip everyone for an afternoon's snorkel.

By bedtime I am chastened and promise to behave myself.

(But I keep my fingers crossed behind my back when they make me promise not to strip down to what looks like my underwear again and run about the beach pretending to be Bo Derek.)