I Want to Eat Sleep! (On Mandarin Chinese Tones)

I think most beginner Mandarin learners would recognise Transition’s ‘Duìbùqǐ’ song. It’s probably the most-played tune on the first day of any Mandarin class:

Why is the song so popular with first-time learners? Maybe because it perfectly highlights one of the trickiest things you grapple with when you start out learning Mandarin: the four pronunciation tones (with the bonus of a light, catchy tune!).

Image credit: Ninchanese

You can read more about the four tones here. Suffice it to say that in Pinyin — which is the Romanisation of Chinese characters based on their pronunciation — the tones are usually indicated by marks at the top of the letter (for example, mā, má, mǎ, mà are four different words).

The interaction at the start of the ‘Duìbùqǐ’ video has a young English guy approaching a snack stall to order boiled dumplings (shuǐjiǎo 水饺). Instead of doing that though, he inadvertently mixes up the tones and pronounces it as shuìjiào (睡觉). He ends up saying “I want (to eat) sleep.” Both words are composed of “shuijiao”, but the tones are pronounced differently.

“Oh, are you tired?” the dumpling man retorts.

Eventually the message gets across, and a sweet apology song ensues: “Sorry, my Chinese is not so good!” (Duìbùqǐ, wǒ de zhōngwén bù hǎo! 对不起,我的中文不好!)

In my opinion, while pronunciation tones are indeed very important, we also shouldn’t dwell on them too much to the point where we’re afraid to speak at all. I find that generally native speakers can still understand me even if I get a few of my tones off, as long as there’s enough context. (The ‘Duìbùqǐ’ song just exaggerates the situation for comedic effect, but in reality, I think the English guy might have gotten his dumplings eventually.)

There’s a fine line between sounding stilted (like a TV variety show host) and making yourself understood.

It’s hilarious how he uses the hand technique to remember tones

I still often get self-conscious about my tones. But I think the more important thing is to get out there and start using the language. That will help you recognise your mistakes and tame your unruly tones faster.


By now you might be thinking to yourself, “Tones are too much trouble.” Let me assure you they’re not. In fact, I believe Filipinos are a pro at tones already. Let me demonstrate.

Imagine you’re waiting for the elevator. Ding! The elevator doors open and you see a fellow Filipino inside.

“Bababa ba?” you ask.

“Bababa,” she replies. *

If you understood that monosyllabic conversation, you’re good to go with Mandarin tones! 😉

Think critically dear readers,

* Translation for non-Filipinos: “Going down?” “Going down.”

Featured image by shiyang xu on Unsplash

A Sign of the Times

Sentosa, Singapore’s self-declared “State of Fun,” re-opened on July 1st. We wasted no time in visiting the island over the weekend.

There are a lot of fun, free, kid-friendly activities you can do in Sentosa – ride the electric trams, walk the nature trails, and – most importantly for us – swim in the beaches. Sentosa has three to choose from: Siloso, Palawan, and Tanjong.

Relax on a hammock at Palawan Beach
A ride on the tram. “Mask up, see your smile soon”
The Sentosa Boardwalk

Our favourite mode of getting to Sentosa is by strolling along the Boardwalk from VivoCity. It’s shaded from the heat and there are moving walkways, if you get too tired. There’s also a lovely view to your right looking out towards the cable cars and Keppel Island. The other plus is if you go by foot, entry to Sentosa is free (it usually costs a S$1).

But the Sentosa entry fee is waived until end of this year anyway, so it’s free however you choose to get there.

There are a lot of renovations going on in Sentosa at the moment. The fountain and paths near the replica Merlion with the Cyclops laser eyes, as well as the seemingly Gaudí-inspired Merlion Walk with the colourful mosaic tiles, have been torn down to make way for the “Greater Southern Waterfront” redevelopment plan.

The replica Merlion, during National Day celebrations back in 2018.
The Merlion Walk mosaic fountain, back then. This section has now been razed to the ground.

One of the nice parts I like about the walk is passing by the rotating Universal Studios globe. It’s usually packed with tourists taking selfies, but these days it’s quiet and empty.

Social distancing for no one

I noticed with surprise that someone had replaced the signage displays at the Universal Studios ticket booths with these Photoshopped gems:

When you see it…

It’s amazing attention to detail on the part of Resorts World… but I can’t get the image out of my head of some poor intern tweaking the face masks so they looked “natural.”

What a funny sign of today’s odd times.

Mask up and stay safe everyone!

Think critically dear readers,

Our Happy Place

One of my favourite books is a book about books, ‘Ex Libris’ by Anne Fadiman. In one of her essays, she describes her parents’ library, with her dad and mom between them having “about seven thousand books.” In another she writes about having so many books in her loft that it “had come to look less and less like a home and more and more like a second-hand bookstore.”

While I don’t have a thousand (yet!), like Fadiman, I sometimes feel like we live in a bookstore too (think homely BOOKSALE rather than chic Kinokuniya). Back when Hub and I lived in London, I managed to accumulate a Billy-bookcase-and-a-half’s worth of books, aided in no small part by a wealth of choices (it was a literature lover’s paradise), cheap prices, and the convenience of book-shopping via Amazon.

Since we moved to Singapore, the family library has ballooned to nearly three tall Billy bookcases, not to mention my kid’s own growing collection. We were running out of space…!

It was such a joy for us then, to find out early last year that they were opening a library in a mall close to our condo. From zero bookstores within a mile radius to thousands of books at our doorstep! Bye-bye Amazon! It truly felt like Christmas had come early.

As a non-citizen, all I needed to do was pay a S$10.50 one-off registration fee (around Php 400) and a S$42.80 annual membership fee (around Php 1,520), and I could start borrowing up to 16 physical books straightaway. On top of that, I could borrow up to 16 e-books, so the total number I could check out was 32.

I don’t think I ever maxed this limit out borrowing books for myself, but the fees were truly worth it when it came to book choices for our kid. The selection of books we could read to him increased exponentially from what was on his little shelf. It made our routine “story-time bedtime” more interesting (both for him listening and us reading).

A trip to the mall library became almost like a weekly family ritual: we dropped by before a run to the grocery, while killing time waiting for a movie, after eating dinner out.

During the circuit breaker period though, libraries were one of those places deemed “higher risk” and were told to close. We thought they wouldn’t open until Phase Three. But – joy! – the government announced libraries across the country could open on July 1st.

We all wanted to visit it immediately, especially my kid. He’d been stuck reading the same old stuff from his bookshelves and I could tell he was getting bored.

But there were now a few extra steps we needed to do:

  • Pre-book our visit online. We were only allowed to stay in 30-minute time blocks and the online booking had to be done at most the day before the visit. The government’s message was clear – get in, get your book, and go home. But… but… who does that?! Libraries are made for aimless wandering.
  • Check the crowd levels before our visit. I admit, this feature is pretty useful. This link shows which libraries are crowded in real-time, so you can avoid the crowds and save yourself a walk. I would use it, even if we weren’t safe distancing!
  • Have our temperature checked and “check-in” by QR Code or government ID before entering. Like all other places now open in Singapore, there was a compulsory infrared thermometer scan at the entrance. We also had to check in via SafeEntry, the country’s national visitor management system, for easy contact tracing.

Of course, this didn’t stop us and we made it to the library – our library – yesterday. It took all of my kid’s self-control not to sprint through the entrance checks.

We had it to ourselves. There was a section right outside the library where the clouds reflected against the windows. It looked stunning, as if the books met the sky.

It dawned on me then that this truly was our family’s happy place.

Best 30 minutes spent this week.

Think critically dear readers,

The Case for Learning Multiple Languages

I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for the past couple of years.

Why did I start?

My kid is studying in a bilingual preschool here, where classes are taught in both English and Mandarin. Because of his age, I was reluctant to enroll him in a language enrichment class* (not all parents have similar qualms) – but somebody at home had to be able to help him revise his lessons if needed.

Also, while Singapore is a multiracial country, ethnic Chinese comprise over 75% of the population. I thought it would be useful to learn a few words to understand the local culture better and not feel too left out of office cooler conversations (though I’m nowhere near that level of fluency now).

I started in a Daily Chinese class with an eclectic group. There were three Singaporean elderly ladies who were using their SkillsFuture credits.** One of these ladies was over 80 years old. They all spoke English at home, despite learning Chinese in school years ago. There were two teachers from international schools, one homemaker, and a banker. The banker, like me, was there primarily because of his preschool daughter. (“My wife wasn’t interested, so…” he shrugged, smiling.)

We were all largely learning for fun, which took the pressure off the term-end test. Our Lǎoshī (老师,teacher) teaches at an international school and has a great sense of humour. He peppers the class with constant jokes, usually self-deprecating ones about his “awful” relationship with his wife. (They’re actually very close.) Two years on and of that original group, only Lǎoshī and I remain.


The language grew on me. Unlike English and even Korean, Chinese has no alphabet which makes it notoriously tough to learn. Hànzì (汉字,Chinese characters) are made up of functional components, like Lego blocks. You can make a fairly good guess at the meaning of an unknown character if you’re familiar with some of these components.

Take for example 心 (xīn),which means heart. When used as a “Lego block”, it indicates the character is “related to feelings, temperament, thought, expression or other mental activities.” 想 (to think), 忘 (to forget),意 (idea, thought) all have 心 squashed at the bottom.

Some of Singlish’s nuances also started to make sense to me, like why some sentences were truncated. Often, it’s a direct translation to English of how the sentence would sound in Chinese, hence grammatically correct in the latter.

I find all that fascinating.


Don’t get me wrong, some days it’s a tough slog getting through my textbook. I look at a block of text, recognise nothing and think – it’s all Chinese to me. Literally!

I also don’t bring up my class too much. I’m not sure why myself. Maybe it’s because the issue of the Philippines’ relationship with China is a highly sensitive one, fraught with the landmines of over-generalisation and stereotypes on both sides. It will take someone more skilled than I to unpack that dynamic.


Language learning, for me, provides a welcome distraction from the stress of work. I find it deeply satisfying to read through a simple passage in Hànzì and find that I understood the gist of what it was trying to say.

I also believe language is a window into a completely different way of seeing the world.

Perhaps I can best explain this view with a story about the Himba tribe colour experiment in Namibia. (The experiment itself was a controversial one, but keeps getting cited by the BBC and other media outfits.)

The Himba have no word for blue and no distinction between blue and green. When tested, they were unable to pick out the blue square from a circle filled with green squares. However, the Himba have more words for green that we do in English. When they were shown a circle with green squares with one square a different shade of green than the others, it was much easier for them to spot the differently-shaded green square compared to native English speakers.

In other words, language not only helps us communicate better — it also shapes our perception.

Isn’t that a great reason to learn more than one?

Think critically dear readers,

* Enrichment classes are big business here in Singapore and probably deserve its own post. Some parents start children as young as 18 months in these classes. The enrichment and private tuition centres near our condo are always jam-packed on weekends (or used to be, pre-Covid 19).

The interesting thing about ‘enrichment’ is it’s not about preventing kids from falling behind, it’s about getting kids ahead.

** All Singaporean citizens receive $500 funding for courses of their choice to promote “lifelong learning” –I think it’s a pretty cool initiative.

Featured image by Hannah Wright on Unsplash


A couple of weeks ago we received a thick, official-looking envelope from the Singapore government. Lo and behold, it was a booklet about the 2020 Budget.

Inside was a high-level overview of where the various budgets – the Resilience Budget, Solidarity Budget, Unity Budget, together totalling nearly S$60 billion (around US$43 billion or over Php 2.1 trillion) – were going and how the money was being used to support families, seniors, workers and job-seekers in the wake of Covid-19’s devastating economic impact.

The information was clear and simple to follow: this is how much we’re allocating to you, this is where we’re getting the money, this is when you’ll receive these benefits.

From a practical perspective, it was relatively easy for a layman to know how the government support would be given. There was no reference to obscure laws normal citizens would need to Google to understand; there was limited use of technical jargon. None of “To cover the funding requirements for the implementation of Social Amelioration Programs per Republic Act No. yadda-yadda” but more of “Up to S$600 for all Singaporeans aged 21 and above in 2020”.

The message was replicated in English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil — Singapore’s four official languages. Apart from the physical booklet, the budget details were also shared on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and government websites. This ensured the widest reach to the broadest section of the population.

As a non-citizen, I will not benefit from any of these support packages. But I appreciated the little booklet nonetheless. It seemed to me a genuine effort by a government to serve, to be truly transparent and helpful.

Not all hold themselves to the same level of accountability.

Think critically dear readers,

Lockdown and The Last Dance

Image credit: Netflix

It was a sign of how far we’ve come since the 1990s when, after finishing the first two episodes of The Last Dance – a much-anticipated Netflix/ESPN limited TV series about Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls – I told my husband, “O, i-play mo na yung susunod” (Play the next episode) and he replied, “Walang susunod, next week pa” (There’s no next episode, wait until next week), I was momentarily taken aback.

What? In this age of Netflix’s autoplay-the-next-episode and real-time news feeds, they’re making us wait*?

But wait we did. It evoked faint memories of other, small intervals of anticipation:

… minutes, for Donita Rose to play my request on MTV Most Wanted (there was no YouTube replay option back then, I either heard the song or didn’t),

… hours, for my favourite cable channel cartoons those early Saturday mornings (no alarm clock needed!),

… years, for the next Harry Potter book to emerge from J.K. Rowling’s imagination (excruciating, when I devoured the latest instalment in mere days).


I’m not a basketball fan, by the way. Unlike my husband, a.k.a. Hub, who watched the series like it was a ‘greatest hits’ reel. The Shot, The Flu Game, The Shrug, The Last Shot – he’d seen them all before.

But The Last Dance remained a compelling watch, especially for me seeing most of the behind-the-scenes dynamics and winning shots with fresh eyes. Jordan’s career followed the classic storytelling arc – a solid beginning (a hungry and talented athlete eager to win the NBA championships), crises in the middle (Jordan’s father’s murder, his alleged gambling controversies, tensions with Krause as team GM), and the final redemption (winning his last NBA season proving all the naysayers wrong).

There were moments in the series that left me emotional – that scene where Jordan bawled on the floor after winning a Father’s Day game following his dad’s death felt so raw, I felt like I — along with the rest of the world — shouldn’t be watching. It felt so personal.

All the elements of a good TV drama, right?


The Last Dance, for me, will forever be linked to our early days in partial ‘lockdown’ here in Singapore. The last episode aired two weeks shy of the circuit breaker period ending.

We couldn’t step outside. Working from home and managing home-based learning for our kid blended the days and weeks into each other, though I recognise the privilege of having these options.

Hub and I needed a break and The Last Dance was a welcome distraction. It was a good feeling to have something to look forward to every Monday that was not related to what was going on in the ‘real’ world.

The world the series inhabited couldn’t be further apart from today – the 1990s vs. the 2020s – and the nostalgia of looking at images from my childhood was jarring, to say the least. I can’t think of anyone nowadays who can unite people across cultures the way Michael Jordan did in his heyday (maybe Tom Hanks?).

These days the world seems to be breaking apart at the seams, with no redemption arc in sight.

Photo by Howard Chai on Unsplash

Think critically dear readers,

* Strange as it may be, I’ve only ever consumed TV series once all the episodes are out. Game of Thrones, WestWorld, The Wire – you name it, I only watched when the season was done. Not a good strategy if you want to avoid spoilers though.

Small Things

Safe measures at the nearby McDonald’s. No temp check, no entry

Singapore moved to Phase Two of its three-phase reopening strategy yesterday.

It’s Re-Opening Day!

This meant the government has determined that community infection rates remain stable, there are no new large clusters, and the cases in worker dormitories – which blew up Singapore’s infection rates to the tens of thousands* – have declined.

The country has been on a partial lockdown since April 7, a.k.a. a “circuit breaker” period. While groceries and pharmacies remained open throughout, almost everything else was shut. The public buses, on those rare days I had to go to office, were nearly empty. Singapore’s famous hawker food centres and kopi stalls were left to rely on takeaways and deliveries. Even the nation’s beloved bubble tea shops were told to close, triggering a mad rush for a boba fix the evening before the circuit breaker kicked in.

Everyone (my family included) is much more excited about this phase than the last. Phase One, which started earlier this month, focused mainly on getting the schools safely open (with extensive Covid-19 testing of all teachers and school staff beforehand) and resuming a few basic services.

Phase Two, on the other hand, has physical stores, parks, playgrounds, and public pools open. We can now dine out at restaurants again! They’ve allowed groups of up to five outside – albeit with multiple caveats in place, such as mandatory temperature screens, check-in by mobile app and QR code to all the places we visit, a requirement to mask on at all times. (This being Singapore, there is the threat of a fine or worse, for non-compliance.) In the wider scheme of things, I think these are small inconveniences.

We went outside for a short walk last night. It was the first time we’d gone out as a family together in nearly three months. My kid was thrilled. I even heard him say “I love walking!” at one point.

Walking freely. Holding hands. Small inconveniences I’ll happily trade for these small joys.

Think critically dear readers,

* Deaths, meanwhile, have remained low – 26 as of today or 0.06% of total cases.

Why stay?

Image source: The Standard HK

Lately we’ve been placed in the unusual position of speaking to over a dozen domestic helpers looking for work here in Singapore. Our own helper, Ate C, who’s been with us ever since I gave birth, tearfully told us around a month ago that she had to leave later this year for personal reasons. I fully support her decision though I expect our lives to be upended when that day comes – my kid will lose the only Aunty he’s ever known and we’ll lose a core member of our little family.

Talking about having a live-in helper may come off as rather entitled. But here in Singapore (and the Philippines), they are an important – if invisible – part of daily life. Often, especially for families like ours where both my husband and I work, helpers are our primary source of child care. We have no extended family members here, no lolos/lolas or titos/titas to mind Junior while we’re at work.

I recall attending a “women at work” seminar years ago hosted by a huge law firm. The women present were mostly senior professionals, with a few juniors (me included). One woman quipped that in Singapore, the old expression “Behind every great man is a great woman” should be changed to “Behind every great woman is a great helper” – she never would have made partner back home in Sydney, especially with three kids, she said. Her peers back home had simply dropped out of the workforce once they started a family. “Let’s count ourselves lucky!”

I was kid-free at that time and didn’t think much about what she said. But the encounter lingered in my mind, and I’ve thought about it many times since.


The absence of Ate C will be deeply felt especially since we’ve spent so much time together the past years – shared celebrations, holiday trips, stories. Not all the helpers we’ve spoken to recently have had the same relationship with the families who employ them.

There are the lucky ones who’ve spent over five, ten years with a single employer. They’ve raised their employer’s children as their own and are treated as very much a part of the family. They have above-market salaries, get months of vacation during the school holidays, stop working 8PM or earlier on a usual day, have both Saturdays and Sundays off. The only reason why they’re suddenly looking for a new job now is because their employers are flying back to their home countries for good, mainly due to layoffs and changes to long-term plans driven by Covid-19.

Then there are those who aren’t as lucky.

One transferred to three different families in nearly as many months because of abusive situations in all of these homes. Some spoke of not being given enough rest or food. A helper said she had only salad to eat for dinner, which doesn’t sound so bad – except that was all that was given to her after a full day’s hard labour cleaning the house, doing laundry & ironing, walking the dog and picking up the kids from school.

One of the more insidious cases was of a helper who said her employer never spoke to her. “Text lang ma’am, kahit katabi ko s’ya” (She sends me an SMS, even if we’re seated beside each other). I cannot even begin to imagine the indignity of that situation. But the helper we spoke to managed to stay at that post for four years.


“Retention rate” is the term Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower uses to describe the percentage of foreign domestic helpers who have stayed with the same employer for at least a year. The average retention rate is a mere 44.47%, which means most do not stay long with the same family. (Source: MOM)

There can be various reasons for these statistics of course, both due to the helper and the employer. But it’s clear from our informal poll interviewing for Ate C’s replacement that the working conditions for helpers who do stay vary widely. While Singapore has various rules in place to guard against the worst abuses, things fall through the cracks. On top of all that, helpers here also have to deal with the ever-present feeling of homesickness – they miss graduations, births, deaths of loved ones.

In the midst of these challenges, what motivates them to stay?

For the younger ones, there is a sense of independence (“Marami na po ako friends dito”) and the novelty of being in a new country.

For the vast majority though, there are the photos of the children they’ve managed to put through college, posted on walls and in wallets. Stories of the homes they’ve financed in the province. The nest egg they’re carefully, slowly building. That’s what keeps them going.

“Hanggang kalian po kayo sa Singapore?” “Hanggang sa kakayanin, ma’am.”

(Until when do you plan to stay in Singapore? As long as I’m able, ma’am.)

Think critically dear readers,

The Great Singapore Bake-off, Pinoy-style

Self-raising flour clearly wasn’t popular…

There was a story on the Straits Times yesterday about the Great Singapore Bake-off, the three-ish months most of us in Singapore turned to the “comfort in combining flour, sugar, eggs and milk to make something delicious”. It was a way to deal with the all the shit going on right now in the world, Covid-19 included. We were called “circuit bakers”, named after Singapore’s so-called circuit breaker period (a.k.a. don’t-call-it-a-lockdown).

I could tell everybody was planning to stress bake just like me – bags of plain flour, pancake mix and vanilla extract were sold out in the shops. I waited weeks to buy instant yeast at RedMart (a popular online grocer) and the nearby NTUC FairPrice, without success.

In the absence of yeast, we turned to Betty Crocker boxed cakes. All we needed were fresh milk and eggs. My kid loved to sprinkle chocolate chips in the batter (and sneak snacking on a handful or two of chips).

We turned to fridge cakes. I had a few trays of fresh blueberries bought on sale and we made them into a sauce for a cheesecake, which I made using Nigella’s Cherry Cheesecake recipe (my go-to recipe for an easy cheesecake). If I had access to sweet ripe mangoes I would have, without a doubt, made a Filipino mango float. Alas, the quality of mangoes in the shop was hit-or-miss.

Then, awesome Ate C reminded us of Filipino kakanin, local sweets usually made from glutinous rice flour and coconut milk. With no yeast required, we set off on a roll. We made biko (glutinous rice cake) with a dark brown sticky sugar topping, cheesy puto (steamed rice cake) from a mix which turned out surprisingly well, purple sapin-sapin with leftover jackfruit liberally applied so you got a lot with each bite, yema or custard balls from condensed milk and rich egg yolks.

The yeast eventually arrived. I still managed to squeeze in some gooey chocolate chip cookies – the secret is a tiny pinch of salt over the top of each cookie before baking – and misshapen cinnamon rolls, à la Cinnabon. But by then our sweet tooths had been fully satisfied. We didn’t need the yeast after all.

Think critically dear readers,