Schooling on the Road

My boys and now a bike

My boys and now a bike

 

We decided to embark on this adventure  as it would peel back the kids’ eyelids. The nitty gritty of schooling was glossed over after a web search popped up a few options.

First port of call when we arrived was checking out the French Montessori School. This was right up our alternative yet still structured alley, and in French only added another feather to its cap.

As all well laid plans or should I say imaginings often pale into a gooey stickiness of reality,  we discovered that for our older son at 7, it was not Montessori method but French Classical System. At this point, a small bell rang in my head, especially upon reading the material list required a slate (!) but I pushed it aside. Our son was not showing any linguistic leanings, if anything the opposite and that’s in his mother tongue. We ploughed forward, in the face of parental schoolyard gossip about other schools ranged from:

(1) a breeding ground for colonial superiority whereby foreign cherubs get carried up the stairs

(2) equally frightening, touts sell energy drinks to kids on their way to the toilet

After week 3, Quinn was showing the strain, dark circles under his eyes even after a full night’s sleep. Each day I would probe him getting a blank expression which I imagine he’s had since morning when he began retreating into his world of go cart design and fortification building easier to understand than the banter around him.

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Coming from ‘Stralia’, a second language isn’t necessary (no direct neighbours) and maybe we’re all lazy, the Board of Studies has scrapped it from the primary school curriculum altogether. Obviously there is an adjustment phase to second language acquisition and it takes some good ol’ digging deep until you can start making daisy chains out on the frontier.

In the face of Quinn requiring up to 5 afternoons of private tuition just to make some headway, I did some quiet soul poking and saw that this was my dream not his.  He prefers to be drawing in his ‘creative book’ that lives under his pillow or stalking muddy puddles on his bike. It was something that the Director of the School said to us

We need to set children up to succeed

Playing to kids’ strengths to build confidence can have spin off effects in areas that niggle them. I also realised that my zeal for him to achieve may actually overshadow his happiness. And even if being well meaning and passionate about education, especially my own kids is not a bad thing,  my interest now gets interpreted as pressure. I’m like a single woman’s biological clock ticking and Quinn, a confirmed bachelor.

Me (add white wine) at a friend's wedding- My captive's face says it all

My captive’s face says it all

 

Not one to let myself off easily, I probed the onion skin to see a mouldy fear still there from my school days. How the carrot and stick system is geared for little over achievers to get self gratification in every tick on the page or a teacher’s sweet smile. How I became like Pavlov’s dog hooked on praise. Look I could have got into some harder shit than teacher pleasing and studying hard, and yes I got an education, a good one and doors opened, but emotionally, all that striving only reinforced that I needed to be a try-hard.

To feel worthy.

Who knows why I felt this, lack of nurturing in childhood ? genetic makeup? sensitivity ? Maybe there is no singular reason, but recognising this as an adult, is liberating. And now as a parent, I want to take out my own trash and hopefully the stench won’t waft up Quinn’s nostrils.

Where to now? Tim and I will share the roll out of Quinn’s education. And he can go to a local school for socialisation in the afternoons. The literacy book seems to send our potential perfectionist into groans. So the other day, we decided to ditch it and head outside.

In our garden

In our garden

I took a deep breath and allowed Quinn to lead me. Soon he was digging and we planted tomato, basil, rocket and parsley sent by his beloved Godmother. Soon we were on our haunches making clay men and  elephants out of mud.

'Mum and Me'

‘Mum and Me’

 

'Elephant Man' -  not a piece of poo

Elephant Man

It was a wonderful morning listening to the birds, making up stories to go with our creations. Quinn showed his bravery for worm wielding (they’re huge here!) and told me how that meant we have fertile soil. I feel we do sweet Quinn. And that if I learn to trust that your future will be bright, I will hold your hand and be led along into the unknown. Know that with a full heart and an open ears, I have your back as you tread your own path in life’s learning journey.

Boys will be….boys

A wise friend doing the Battambang life with kids recommended we get outta town regularly. With school holidays limping into their third month, it was definitely time.

We packed ourselves into the back of a taxi for the 3 hour drive to Siem Reap with 2 hyper boys practicing head stands on the back seat. This city is a cultural mecca being the home of the Mighty Angkor Wat and many lesser known cousins.  A must see on anyone’s bucket’s list. Its ancient architecture whispers of a forgotten kingdom, patriotically kept alive in the minds of the Khmer as a time of strength and power. Even today a pulipal energy radiates as Buddhist monks still visit shrines daily keeping the spiritual fires lit.

The Bayon- Tim's favourite pick

We left the boys poolside in an innocent housekeeper’s care. All went surprisingly well, except for receiving 6 missed calls to say the kids were ravenous and needed to order pizza. Ce La Vie.

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We so enjoyed the quiet togetherness. Moving away from family, you rarely get time to relax with one another, rather we tag team our breaks. And try not to bicker over who gets more sanity savers.

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 We are still adjusting to our new life. From other expats I’ve heard it takes up to three months to acclimatise, but from Battambang locals, who have lived the high and lows that occur on a daily basis, it is more like six months. So whatever the magical figure may be, it is where we are at right now.

The boys still in the throws of missing their friends keenly, and without school or routine AND living in a strange new world, they are emotional. Their sibling relationship showing the strain of being only friend, brother, sparking partner and side kick. Beau has regressed in his toilet training big time which may be influenced by the size of the cockroaches in our bathroom or never knowing what kind of squat, pit, hole or seatless throne may be on offer. Quinn has retreated into this fantasy world of fighting and weapons…whereby he is slaying ninjas in our street every night, and by day hitting plastic swords on a pole, or punching clothes hanging on the line.

Having two boys I’ve witnessed some aggression but it is definitely magnified at the moment. A coping mechanism?

So when Quinn got wind of the War Museum, he came alive so I acquiesced. The word was that it was a government rip off who bullied the more informative Land Mine Museum into moving premises out of town.  We arrived to an open field of rusty tanks ready to attack if only they had wheels.

Friendly Staff members play with the boys

Friendly Staff members play with the boys

With no conservation signage, safety measures dependent on how adventurous you are, the boys clambered over the tanks like monkeys. That was until they spotted the gun exhibit- a bungalow with rows of rifles that you could freely touch.

OMG!

OMG!

Quinn yells with characteristic Elvis thrusts as he strokes an AK-47, affectionately known from then as ”Gun-ji”.

Heaven on Earth

Heaven on Earth

I was reminded of the gun racks in my Uncle’s bedroom at my Grandma’s farm. And how I never wanted to sleep in that room, let alone touch them.

Tim and I had the whole gun conversation early on, our consensus being no toy guns in the house. But like water wears away at stone, a wooden handcrafted (that makes a difference, right?) toy rifle slipped into Quinn’s clutches at aged 4.  I can only describe the whole process as seeing an avalanche coming towards you, and deciding to calmly step out of the way.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said things about war, and what it means, and how hurting people is bad. They kinda listened the first time but now it is like trying to get your kids attention when they are glued to a screen.

So the boys were in army heaven fondling all the paraphernalia, one of the guides wanders by, I smile and say:

‘My boys love guns. I tell them war is bad’, looking defeated.

As the sky changes to yellow, the same guide returns beer in hand. We are still in the hut, hours gone. I’m scrawling in my notebook, snatching precious time, the boys still enthralled.

He gestures to the boys and tells me I’m a good mother for letting my sons go.

‘Your boys ok, they come from you, they will be good, you must believe that. ‘

Maybe I’m easily flattered, or enjoy validation whenever I can get it, but I was touched by his words. With linguistic limitations and a traditionally patrilocal culture, you don’t get too many conversations with blokes on any deep level.

He continues:

‘I loved guns as a boy. I play with his father’s gun and make him worry. Then at 13, I join the Khmer Rouge, for 14 years’

As a boy soldier for a notoriously brutal regime, he saw what no person, let alone child should ever have to witness.

I lose everything. All my family dead. I see war. Not good. You tell your children that.’

Do you have kids I ask?

’After war, I want for nothing. I become drunk guy’.

With that he’s gone, raising his bottle in a quick salute. And I’m left in that space where someone’s shared a part of themselves that leaves a mark.

As the sky turns to pink, I touch the sleek cold metal of a M-16, feel its secrets and know its been used for real, not just in boys’ war games.  And I promise to keep sowing the seeds for love and peace in my little soldiers’ hearts.  Teaching compassion for all things, and dropping those crumbs hoping that my boys will always know that it is wrong to hurt others. Maybe it was unwise to let them covet these weapons. But watching Quinn I get a sense of his own dad as a child, who wanted to join the army but has never been in a fight.

I can’t change where their present passions lie, only trust that by allowing them to explore them, they will tire of them and move on, hopefully with equal zeal but less violence. I’ve seen those kids deprived of television, who once they see one, have no self control or discretion, they watch shopping channels verbatim.

I don’t vouch to know what I’m doing most of the time, but raising boys is like a biology lesson. Neither Tim nor I encourage violence. I teach yoga and enjoy Buddhist philosophy. What I’ve been working on is acceptance of my self, no matter what to stay soft and listening. And I’m realising this extends to my kids.

Moving the Family to Cambodia

140 kgWe commonly get asked, why Cambodia, and how can you do it? So i’ll answer these curlies in this post.

Family Selfie at the Airport

Family Selfie at the Airport

 

I stumbled upon a blog about an American family who moved to Mexico  (www.revolutionfromhome.com)
at the beginning of their journey, and it was a source of encouragement and insight into how it is possible, even with parasitic bouts and tired, resistant children, and the joys and growth all involved shared. It was possible with kids!

But of course, the seed was planted a lot longer ago..

It started with a conversation… Tim and I had about living overseas with kids. I’d always been fond of the idea, especially as I’d spent a year living in Beijing as 21 year old. I arrived green, as part of an Australian government initiative that sends young Aussies across Asia-Pacific to immerse themselves in local culture, share some Australisms and impart their professional knowledge. What a 21 year old thinks they know professionally and what they do, is oceans apart. I had much free time that involved cruising the Foreign Students College making friends with folk from all parts of the globe. Many students were from Russia (pop across a big long border) and Columbia (I met one wealthy kid whose parents realised that it was safer getting educated in China rather than hijacked for ransom in their own town). Even though I had an arsenal of contacts in this strange new world if I needed them, it was still like landing on the moon. It was 2001, and few local Chinese spoke English. I was soon lured into local Primary schools to teach conversational English. Visions of delivering my final uni thesis presentation in broken stutters still fresh in my mind. I think the only thing I achieved in these classes was convincing one 6 year old kid who had chosen the English name of Tomato, that it was a winner as it never ceased to have me in fits of giggles.

Maybe the coconut never falls far from the palm. Once I was out of nest, the poop not even dry, my mum set off on an intrepid backpacker adventure even though she was nearing fifty, from Kathmandu to London inside an old Bedford truck. Once there, she stayed eights years, doing itinerant work between gathering new stamps in her passport and regular visits to her Bedouin lover in Jordan.

And so after years of watering the idea from our Umina suburbian backyard with its dog and two babies later, my dearest Tim decided,

Ok, I’d give it a crack

Green light go, we rented our beach shack to a beautiful young family, escaping city living with dreams of having a pooch and more chicks in their brood.

Patrick Swayze in our Umina Yard

We were lucky to know of a reputable NGO, a young team of dedicated individuals trying to implement international best practice in social welfare. Supporting over 150 students, they provide income support, training, health care and education to children and their families. Importantly, they are trying to keep the family unit strong and together. Also, they understand intrinsically the role that Westerners should play in skills sharing and ultimately handing over management to the Khmers. We are self funded volunteers and loving the nature of this work. We were able to offer our skills, as artist, all-round handy man, yoga devotee and educator. I have also been approached by local expats to run yoga classes, so a little in the can will help.

One of Tim's sculptures, recycled steel

One of Tim’s sculptures, recycled steel

There is always a lot of conjecture over children’s education. As the next wave of knock kneed kids reach the playground, more theories pop up about how kids learn, how they can learn better, faster, quicker, even though the brain still remains somewhat of a black box. Personally, I was shaped strongly by my education, and my adult years have been somewhat a period of unschooling. So after recognising the whole disruption to our Grade 1 son’s schooling the move would cause, we decided it was still valuable. If anything, we were heartened by this ideal that maybe he would actually gain more through life experience rather than sight words.

That being said, I came armed with helpful hints from his teachers, and again, idealistic visions of being a cool grammar teacher (yup I am a foxy moron). It hasn’t quite gone to plan. We probably average 10 minutes a day, with Quinn honing his debating skills on why he can’t sit down, I try for calm without resorting to bribery and fail on both counts. If there are jobs going for illiterate lawyers, he’s sure to do well.

Quinn in legal attire

So we made it, fumbling our way through and grateful to have this opportunity. We are going to milk it and give it a real hard shake!

Peace in Paradise

Meet Beau

Meet Beau

I made a promise to myself, and my readers to write honestly about the good times, and the harder. There is often that feeling that writing about potentially negative stuff isn’t what people want to read. But being real, is just that.

We are in our eighth week of settling into our new home.  We are all feeling emotional as we navigate new territory, trying to establish a connection with a place, and its people.

We miss our family, friends, school and little shrines of familiarity. My whizbag, jelly foam pillow that miraculously has a memory, to cherish all the hours we’ve spent together.

Quinn misses his top bunk haven with its secret compartment hidden from his brother’s tenacious, prying fingers. Here, the 2 brothers share a double bed, one mosquito net and numerous cuddles or wrestles depending on their romantic mood.

Tim misses his tools. and his man cave made out of a converted shipping container. Far enough down the garden path, and nestled into oleander, to give him much needed solace and privacy.  Not a dude to ever frequent our local Umina pub, this space, for both artistic pursuits and thinking time, is his temple.

Beau being the most rambunctious of our lot, and the youngest, seems quite content, being a toddler mutant ninja turtle, as long as his family are within earshot. But even he is showing signs of mild distress, mainly I feel through soaking up our frustrations.

We are all a noisy, vibrant bunch. Putting it positively, we are gregarious. But now we live within a compound, with our landlords and another foreigner, a British guy with a demanding job overseeing the removal of all landmines across Cambodia. He is often away in Angola. But he isn’t showing much paternal penchance and is more interested in Asian women.

Our landlords, have worked hard in the US, leaving in 1980 in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, Tong worked as a security guard and Pheak, his wife in an electronics factory, her job was to put the battery part into the ubitiquitious ceiling fan. After 22 years of being migrants in another culture, and working 6 days a week 12 hours a day, they decided to return to their homeland. They had saved enough to buy a big house and live out the rest of their days in peace.  They are examples of the resilient spirit that many Cambodians, and migrants world over exhibit. I stand in the face of this story, humbled by privilege and a fanciful nature, that has been able to grow wild in my garden of fortunity.

So there is a big adjustment by all parties in this microcosm. Our children make noise, bouncing a ball and squealing as they ride their bikes. Yes they are loud, and surely improvements can be made, but they are also children. Tim likes to play his guitar, it is a lifeline soothing a deep thinking, sensitive soul. He has been asked to play quietly and not outside at night.

And then there are my actions. It is time for one of those self reflecting mamma moments. You know those times when you see, are forced to look, at how yes, I’ve been yelling a bit too much. Possibly it starts as a reaction to the kids’ continual chatter, I have to raise a few decibels to be heard.  But it is also wielded as a tool upon deaf ears with…no effect. So the cycle begins, ends and continues.

I’ve been coping with the change, with the kids lack of friends and subsequent boredom, by resorting to the comfort of cooking. Cutting up onions and discovering new herbs, has become a relaxing pastime for me. But ironically, whilst I’m enjoying the aromas of fried garlic, the kids are running amok in the courtyard. And my lack of supervision is seen as neglectful.  Yesterday during a particularly large downpour, a welcome relief to the heavy cloak of heat of past few days, Quinn and Beau were delighting in waterfalls coming off the roof.  Quinn then decides to start riding the downpipe like a horse, the end breaking off. Tong seeing all of this, needless to say wasn’t happy. It is fixable. But the point has been made, that I can’t control my kids, and Tong is worried they will hurt themselves one day.  That very morning, Beau was trying to lift up the water pump cover. His curious fingers could have met with 240volts.

We’ve  had a family meeting with the kids about ‘out of bound’ areas and respecting other people’s stuff. It is a learning curve. A life lesson for living in a society with others.  Quinn at nearly seven gets it. Beau at three, was thinking about the zombies that live in the blue house up the street.

This parenting gig is HARD. Even when you want to escape to places in your imagination or  hide in the linen press, they require your attention.  Quinn amazed me with his insights- I asked him how should I tone down my yelling- ‘mum, I could post signs up all around the house for you?’. Bingo. Reminscient of a movement called Orange Rhino ( http://theorangerhino.com) that I discovered then forgotten about back in Oz. A great exercise in consciously trying to change your behaviour and getting your kids to help.

I just want to salute all the parents out there.  A difficult job without a manual, and this generation of parents are steering into unchartered waters. Without child labour, industrial revolution and corporal punishment as a basis for discipline, societal pressures and occupying kids’ time, how things have dramatically changed over the last century. 

Has anyone noticed how joyful and well behaved your kids are when you give them time and your undivided attention?

Always a juggling act.

Motherhood

Trapped in an Elevator

The whole overseas experience is an interesting one.

It is a bit like getting trapped in an elevator, long enough to have moments of claustrophobic fears and sensory deprivation, that you bond firmly with all involved from shared experience.

I had a good laugh at myself, when I rounded a corner this week on my bicycle, out of the corner of my eye, the upstairs computer scanned ‘ALERT, possible English speaking boys’.

I literally shouted ‘Are you travellers?’ while making a beeline for them. Whereby their mum responded ‘No, we live here’. I leapt off the bike mid sentence. Me too. We should be friends.

Commandos in action

Commandos in action

Later that very day, the newly formed commando gang were testing out their survival skills on the security gate, and a kindly security guard!

Annie, their mother and I have much in common:

  • simply by sharing the same language (they are from the U.K.);
  • the fact that we both have boys (I don’t like being stereotypical but there is a mutual bonding between little ninja mothers, they get the insurmountable amount of energy, the weapon obsession, and the feisty ‘I’m going to bite your head off’ talk)
  • to top it off our eldest boys share a birthday. So let our forces unite, planned festivities have begun. Phew, Annie knows where to buy an ice cream cake. We better buy a few in this heat.

I wanted to mention a bit more about sensory deprivation. The pace is really much slower.

Getting OCD and liking it

As I said, we took away the telly as an experiment. It is all going well- they still have access to limited DVD use – and the negotiated minefield that presents, but at least the box isn’t in their faces as a constant reminder. So we play cards! We line them up and see the pretty patterns they make. To be honest, boys lost interest and left me to it.

Quinn got crafty with his own self directed project.

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‘Where’s the Bull?’ – Recycled polystyrene 2014

We’ve been thinking about recycling. All the stuff we have on tap at home. Not always stuff you have to buy, but stuff we can rustle up in the useful box (craft box of tit bits) without too much work. Well, here, I am noticing how resourceful people are. Their access to materials (for buildings, furniture, mechanics, tools) is of such a limited supply and quality. So the kids and I are collecting what we can find, a pretty ribbon in the street, cardboard box turns into a lego container. Milk carton, a home for pot plants.

We are also making stuff for the house. Everything you buy is often plastic crap that doesn’t last under the Wilson-Hall wear and tear. Nor, do we like spending pennies on it.

Now, handymen are sexy, look at what Tim rustled up in a flash:

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Guitar installation

And then, thanks to my darling pixie friend Peita, I got this idea whilst exercising the boys in local park at sun up. I spent an enjoyable afternoon doing this:

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‘Peas in a pod’ : Seed pods, fishing twine 2014

Let’s have a craft in, any pictures of your homemade creations welcome.

Here’s to slowing down and getting brain quiet through working with your hands. Isn’t that what we’ve all been doing for millennia?