Friday, December 11, 2015

Flipping for Joy - The Role Chinese Books Play in Our Homeschooling

A story my boys have been asking me to tell them over and over again is the one in which my Chinese teacher threw my Spelling book out of the window and I had to sorrowfully go out to retrieve it at recess time. The story well encapsulates my subsequent experiences with the Chinese language. Let it be said that it was a hate-hate affair. I went on to fail my "AO" Levels twice before passing finally, I'm sure, due to my desperate prayers out of fear of having to attend Chinese Camp before my entrance to Uni.

Fast-forward 30 years, and I find myself at home with two young boys who are looking to me to teach them the same language I struggled with for so many years. It soon became clear that I needed some help, especially when my older boy recently went into a phase of constantly asking, "What is ______ in Chinese?" and I was forced to Google translate most of the answers.

I have been trying various approaches to our Chinese lessons. I use a lot of kinaesthetic activities with the boys, like learning the different words for colours by tossing beanbags into a basket while on scooter boards. Then there was my discovery of Chinese picture books last year when I realised how inexpensive they were compared to English picture books. And beautifully illustrated, with well-chosen storylines and none of the "twaddle", a term which 19th Century educator Charlotte Mason coined to describe books which lack substance and quality in their writing.
This is how we often do our learning - with a scooter board and lots of scooting around!
In fact, what I liked best was that a lot of the books had been translated from Japanese, French and other European picture books, some of which had never been translated into English. On our trip to Kunming last year, I brought home a suitcase-full of picture books and we have been enjoying them since.

It was therefore with great excitement that we were given the opportunity to review "Flip for Joy", an online bookstore with carefully curated Chinese books for children. I was sourcing for a birthday gift for my sister in the US, who had requested for some Chinese books for her soon-to-born baby girl, whom she wanted to be exposed to the Chinese language.
The Flip for Joy website is so attractive, and easy to navigate!
Doesn't everyone simply flip (over) with joy upon receipt of such a parcel? Or is it just me?
The Flip for Joy website is extremely user-friendly, with bright and cheery colours and three main categories Fun, Knowledge and Love. For a book lover like myself, it's like stepping into paradise! Of course, the fact that the product descriptions were in English certainly helped!

I also appreciated the friendly invitation to ask for recommendations with no obligations to purchase. There were too many choices! I emailed the very friendly and gracious Meiru, who soon replied.with a list of  personalised suggestions for my new baby niece and for our homeschooling purposes.

The whole order was arranged very efficiently by courier, and we were soon greeted by this oh-so-marvellous parcel full of storybook treasures. I think I was more excited than our boys. There's nothing like the prospect of a new book to make my day.

I had ordered a selection of infant books for my little niece, and another set for our homeschool use. Meiru very generously included some additional book treats for us. This was our stash! It was like Christmas Day early!

Oh, joy! Christmas comes early this year :)

Our stash.. with book treats galore! Thank you, Flip for Joy!
The baby books were sent to Florida via my parents. For the little one, Meiru had suggested the Starter Pack A, which included the Chinese translation of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  by Eric Carle as well as a sweet series of lift the flap board books for babies. I also got some touch and feel books, and a Japanese series which involved parent-child interaction. What a great idea as a baby gift for new parents instead of the usual gift ideas!
The Chinese translation of an Eric Carle favourite!
A sweet story for baby!
Some lovely lift-the-flap books, perfect for little hands!
Brain stimulating activities for parent and child!
Touch and Feel Books for Baby
For the boys, I went with Meiru's recommendation of a set of sequenced early readers which would provide the foundation for their acquisition of the language. My boys have always taken to books with real photographs (I'm not sure if it's a boy thing!) and I knew it would also give myself as a teacher a framework to work with, knowing we could just go through the books in sequence.

I have indeed started using the set as part of our daily Chinese lessons. We are taking our time to go through each section and the boys have already picked up the terms for family members and parts of the body and are starting on new vocabulary for the different parts of a house. I have been writing out the words on flash cards to reinforce their learning with games and actions. I love the fact that it's finally working for us! We are gradually working through the set of 18 books, categorised in order of difficulty. This homeschool mama is going to take these books on holiday with us, because it will be so easy to learn on the go!
These are perfect for homeschoolers wanting to teach their children new vocabulary!

Enjoying the lesson on parts of the body!
The simple way we learn - simple but effective!

The second set I ordered was a lovely illustrated series of stories on values (影响孩子一生的情商故事(15册+5张DVD+父母导读手册) which came with accompanying DVDs. My sons are visual and auditory learners too and love audio books, so I thought this might work for them. Well, turns out they love the books themselves so much that we have only watched the DVDs once. The series has been perfect for bedtime with the sweet and gentle illustrations and tales of animal adventures which put forth a clear message without being overly moralistic like the Chinese books I was so familiar with and disliked in my childhood. The authors and illustrators are from Spain, Italy and the US!

These books have become fodder for mealtime discussions too. There's the one about the bear who was bored and decided to paint the world around him different colours; it talks about contentment and  the beauty of nature just the way it is. My boys' favourite at the moment (because it resonates with them a bit too much, I admit!) is about a cake making competition which turned into a disaster because each animal claimed his was best. In the end, they learned to cooperate to make the best and most "luscious, delectable cake" ever, as my 5-year-old puts it. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the set of 15 with them!
Each of these stories is based on a value or character trait to be emphasised.
And for the book treats... I could not wait to see what Meiru had handpicked for our boys!

My favourite choice was the set by a Korean author and illustrator which teaches very specific concepts in Chinese like colours, prepositions, and parts of the body; loved the humour infused in the stories!
Learning about prepositions in Chinese!
Inspired by the book 纸飞机飞到哪里去了?Is the airplane flying over my head?
Another book which I personally could not imagine ploughing through for its length was 100晨的房子. More than its length, I wasn't sure if my 5-year-old would find the concept interesting yet at his age. But he loved it! We enjoyed a nice afternoon going through and counting the different levels up to 100, and predicting the kinds of animals he was going to find living at each level. It was a fun read!

A fun read, involving counting and lots of visual discrimination!
To be enjoyed next...
And this one too!
And so we have it! This blog post sure took a long time to write because of the bounty of books we had to review and enjoy. I must say it was one of our most enjoyable reviews of the year... and the enjoyment is carrying on, because, as quoted in Flip for Joy's Christmas promotion of a free $5 e-voucher for any expenditure over $50, a book is a gift you can open again and again. Thank you, Flip for Joy, for helping us bring the joy back into learning the language on our homeschooling journey!

And now to share the joy with others in this season of peace, joy and giving:

Parenting on Purpose is pleased to host a giveaway for Flip for Joy books. Simply complete the following by 20 Dec 2015. Two readers will be selected to win a $20 e-gift card each. The card is valid for one time usage and may be used within the next 6 months:
1. Like Parenting on Purpose on Facebook. 
2. Like the Parenting on Purpose Facebook post of the review and share the post on your Facebook account.
3. Visit Flip for Joy at 
4. Leave a comment under the  Facebook post telling us which is your favourite title and why. 
"A book is a gift you can open again and again." - Garrison Keillor
Share the joy of reading this Christmas and receive a $5 Flip for Joy e-gift card (valid for 6 months) for every $50 nett spent in the month of December.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Food of My Amah - A Reflection on Family & Life

This blog post originated from a eulogy delivered at the wake of the late Madam Diana Wee Soo Guat (10 November 1920-30 November 2015).
My Amah and Me - Celebrating 95 Years of God's Faithfulness.

It is now early in the morning; the day when I will say my final goodbye to my grandmother, who passed away earlier this week, at the grand old age of 95. I recall the events of the past week, and I am thankful that the tears of yesterday have given way to the smiles of today. My grandmother, Wee Soo Guat, has lived a full life, and I am happy that she has now gone to a better place; one without suffering; one without pain.

I choose to remember Amah through the food that she cooked; something that all our family members have talked about and something that all of us will remember as long as we remember our Amah. Indeed each of the food items she cooked represents one aspect of the Tan Family matriarch.
My Amah and Ah Kong loved each other dearly; and she was the wife who stood
by his side for better and for worse.
Amah was famous for her achar, the traditional pickled mix of cucumber and carrot marinated in a blend of vinegar and other spices. This was a special delicacy that Amah made once a year and distributed to all her family and friends. To me, achar symbolised Amah's generosity, and family members shared that after all the hard work of preparing the pickles, that they sometimes did not even end up with even one bottle. My Amah was exuberant in her generosity, and gave all that she had to everyone whom she knew (and even to strangers).

Bakwan Kepiting. This Peranakan dish, often prepared during family gatherings, comprised minced pork mixed with crab that was spooned together in a special manner. This would then be stuffed back into the crab shell, and either prepared with bamboo shoots in a delicious broth, or deep fried to perfection and enjoyed with all its crispiness. The dish represented our close family gatherings that we used to have once a week, first in my Uncle Wilson's home at Hythe Road in Serangoon Gardens, and then at Mt Sinai in the Holland Road area. These were precious moments when the extended family would gather every week and enjoy the food and warmth of family. My Amah loved her family and she always ensured that everyone ate well, and that everyone was kept closely knitted together.
The grandchildren and great grandchildren today.
I cannot remember when, but one day, these weekly gatherings stopped. I was sad; but thankful that the family remained close, and continued to meet during regular gatherings at Christmas and Chinese New Year, as well as on other special occasions. One dish that would characterise this season of life was mee siam. My Amah's version comprised a delicious selection of side dishes such as sambal udang and sambal sotong (chilli prawns and squid), that would be served alongside the staples of bee hoon, sliced boiled egg and twa kwa. Amah's fried beancurd had to be cut into small pieces and fried to a crisp. Only then would the mee siam be representative of a bona fide Amah-style dish.

Then there were the more personal dishes. Amah loved each of her grandchildren in a different way. For me, it was through the food that she prepared for me to take home to eat. As I lived alone for many years during my time in university, this was particularly precious for me. One such dish was nasi ulam, an unusual dish even by Peranakan standards. This special seafood-based dish is a complicated one to prepare, with its numerous ingredients of white flaky fish, small prawns, crabmeat and a unique spice. One memorable incident was when I took the dish to school, to enjoy it as I studied. I remember that one of my good friends happened to take a whiff of the food, and he remarked that it was especially pungent. He still wanted to try the dish, since I told him it was a one-of-a-kind dish prepared by my Amah. So I continued to do my work, and when I looked up I realised that all the food was gone! My friend had apparently wolfed down every single grain of the nasi ulam!

My Amah was also known for her glutinous rice or zubi peng. This was something that I had always loved in childhood; but something that my wife Sue had never eaten in her life. She however grew fond of the sticky rice, fried deliciously with small prawns (hae bee), and sprinkled generously with peanuts. To me, zubi peng represents how my wife has came to love my Amah, and how Sue grew fond of my dear grandmother during the ten years or so that she has known her.
My grandparents at our wedding. We desire to learn from them, and to pass on the
legacy that they have left us.
Chinese New Year as a family.
For me, I will always remember Amah's fried onions and chopped garlic. Amah knew I loved to cook, and that it was sometimes hard to do so given my busy life. She therefore made it a point to prepare fried onions and to peel and chop garlic for me every time we met for our family gatherings. These condiments made it easier for me to cook, and till today I still have these ingredients ready in the kitchen. My children have become fond of these condiments, with my older son Z constantly asking for fried onions whenever we eat noodles or fried rice. As for my younger son E, he loves the chopped garlic pieces deep fried, and would often eat them on their own, even when they are served with fried egg or other dishes.

In John 4:34, Jesus said that "My food... is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work." This verse was spoken in the context of a later verse talking about the importance of outreach, when Jesus asked his disciples to look at the harvest; to realise that it was ripe and plentiful but that the workers were few.

Jesus had a heart for those who did not know God. So did Amah. She went to church from the age of 12, and was baptised at the age of 16. All her life she attended one church, Telok Ayer Methodist Church; and she often emphasised how important it is for everyone to know Jesus and to go to church. In fact when I first told Amah I was getting married to Sue, my grandma remarked, "Sue is a good girl. She loves Jesus." That, to her, was the most important. And I can appreciate the wisdom of that statement.
Supporting me at my confirmation service. I remember
she was beaming from ear to ear!
During her 95th Birthday celebration, just two weeks before her death, Amah shared with Sue what was to become her last words to our family. She told Sue to "always read God's Word to your children." Sue replied that we have been reading God's Word to our sons each night at bedtime, and Amah was pleased.

We are thankful that both our children have chosen to receive Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. This, I believe is Amah's greatest legacy to us. She was a third generation Christian, which makes our children sixth generation Christians. What a rich legacy!

We were especially thankful when 5-year-old Z prayed for Amah during her time in hospital. He declared," Dear God, Thank you for choosing Cho Cho. She belongs to you." My son has been asking why people do not want to know Jesus, and Sue has been encouraging him to pray for them. Our desire is for our children to take ownership of their faith, and to live lives pleasing to God, just as their great grandmother did. 

And we know that Amah would approve.