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,

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.

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,

Why did I leave?

The view from my plane window, when I first left the Philippines to work abroad.

No doubt, for a majority of overseas Filipinos the incentive to work abroad is economic. We can earn incomes potentially up to 20x more than in the Philippines.

My initial reason for leaving was simpler: love.

My then-boyfriend (now husband) had been assigned to the UK the year before I left. We both agreed that a long-distance relationship wasn’t sustainable, so I left a fairly comfortable job in Makati to apply for a UK role within the bank I worked for. Thankfully I got in.

It wasn’t an easy decision for me to make, but I’m no stranger to OFW life. My dad, trained as an engineer, decided to work abroad in Indonesia in the early 1990s and left my mom behind to care for me and my siblings. Like most middle-class Filipino families, we had domestic helpers to assist in daily chores but my mom was effectively a single parent for a few years. She also decided to keep on working.

We were never in want during those years. But I could see it was tough on my mom: she and my dad often argued over the phone, usually about money, and I spotted her crying by herself a few times. I remember how unnerving it felt to see her in such a vulnerable position – for a kid, seeing a parent cry meant something wasn’t quite right in the world. I wrote in my diary that if I ever had a family of my own, I would never put them through something like that and dreamed of the day we were all together for good.

Eventually, my dad managed to bring us all to live with him in Jakarta, which made things much, much better.

Two decades later there I was, on the cusp of following in my dad’s footsteps. Right before I left, my mom and siblings gave a me a blank scrapbook to fill with memories of the new life I was about to have. There were short and sweet messages from family and friends pasted throughout the pages, but right on the inside cover was a printed e-mail from my dad (he had just moved out of the Philippines again, this time to work in the Middle East). He said:

“In my own view, OFWs are always confronted with a dilemma; that is, to know when to stop if he/she prefers later to go back for good, or to stay permanently in a host country of his choice. Either way, you have to be resolute in your decision. The difficulty is that you can’t do this unilaterally. There will always be pressures from relatives, peers, even from your would-be spouse and children.

I’m jumping the gun here. I should be saying… enjoy and build a career! Seriously, be focused and build one while you’re still young!”

A decade on and here I am, still abroad. Still building, still dreaming, still finding my voice.

Think critically dear readers,

Mabuhay! Welcome to my blog

“Mabuhay.” I bet you expected me to write that. It’s a Filipina blogging — isn’t that how we greet each other in the Philippines?

Well, no. The only times I ever hear someone say “Mabuhay!” is at Duty Free Philippines or at a Miss Universe contest.

I suppose the reason why I’m starting this blog is I’m tired…

  • tired of being pegged as a great singer (though for the record, I do like singing but it doesn’t like me back);
  • tired of people automatically assuming that, as an OFW or overseas Filipino worker, I’m a nurse / domestic helper / seafarer (all valuable and tough jobs, by the way) or that I’m either loaded with money (back home) or poor as a mouse (abroad). It’s strange to paint an entire nation’s overseas population this way;
  • tired of seeing other OFWs work so hard for so long in difficult conditions abroad, only to have near zero savings when they finally decide to return to the Philippines for good. I work in finance, so I hope to share a few tips on how to manage our hard-earned cash;
  • … and other stereotypes.

By sharing my thoughts here, I hope to give you another perspective on us OFWs and Filipinos in general.

I’ve been working overseas for over ten years with around seven of those spent in Singapore. I grew up as a third culture kid, but for the most part was raised in the Philippines.

I’m also a mom to a preschooler, so expect some posts about #momlife here and there.

Oh, and I’m two years in to learning an entirely new language, which has been made more interesting in the days of Covid-19.

I’m looking forward to reading your stories and hearing from you too. 🇵🇭 | 🇸🇬

Think critically dear readers,