Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Hi Readers! Here's my special love and romance column which appears in this month's That's Beijing/That's Shanghai/That's Guangzhou magazines just in time for Valentine's Day. Enjoy!

WHEN I became a father of girls two things happened. Half the population laughed and rubbed their hands together, chortling that I’d get my just desserts for how I’d treated their people as a single man.

When I didn’t understand this at all, I asked my wife for an explanation. When I didn’t understand that either, I just dropped it.

The other thing was I had to decide what approach I’d take to parenting. It seemed a simple choice between two sets of values. At the one extreme was Victorian. Way down at the other extreme came Edwardian.

In time, though, I opted for “groovy”. I realised as the girls grew up there’d be no use fighting what the heart wanted and nature demanded. I decreed the two of them could start dating as soon as they turned 30.

But this Valentine’s month I’m reeling in shock. Our eldest, Lani, is only eight but already the heart-tingling idea of love has reared its ugly head. It’s only the third grade but boyfriends and girlfriends are all the rage. In the wonderfully transparent style of that age group, the targets of “crushes” have been firmly decided, and publicly declared in formal announcements.

There’s also a game, a bit like Truth or Dare, in which girls have to nominate boys at school in one of four “categories of the heart”. It’s called Kiss, Marry, Punch, Kill. When I heard about this I felt I had to step in and say something. It baffled our girls a bit but I explained that when we grow up we usually attach ourselves to just one person, and that that person ticks all four boxes. They’ll learn.

I didn’t start with girlfriends until the ripe old age of 10. And contrary to a wealth of public evidence, I treated women very sensitively indeed in the years before I married. And then I stopped. No. You know what I mean.

It all started at a grade five school camp, where everyone acquired a girl/boyfriend as a grown-up thing to do while away from our parents, and with all the grace of piranhas on a carcass.

My best friend was a girl, Kerryn Johnstone. It seemed we were sat next to each other every year. I figured this was fate, that our hearts should beat as one, and that we should soar together like swans. Or maybe lobsters. It wasn’t until years later I fully understood. We were sat together because of alphabetical order.

Kerryn and I decided we should naturally become boyfriend and girlfriend, or "go with each other", in the language of the time. The result, of course, was the immediate cessation of all contact. We could no longer be seen within 50 meters of each other for fear of being teased. This went on for several weeks. It was a huge relief that our relationship finally got back on track when, also in the language of the time, I "dropped" her.

Leanne Miller was next. She’d asked me to go with her four times before I acquiesced, telling her softly that it was her “reward" for having "guts”. After a few weeks of more no-contact I knew this one had also run its course. I respected her, however, and felt it needed to be ended nicely. So I asked my friend Eddie Foster to do it.

Eddie rose to the task without a moment’s hesitation. In hindsight I wish he had hesitated, because at that moment we were a good 20 meters from our class line-up when he screamed: “Hey Miller! You’re DROPPED!”, and the poor girl shrank while everyone laughed, etc etc.

I had my own heart broken in turn a few weeks later by Sonia Favero. I loved her so, and had fantasies about her. Being 10, these consisted mostly of me picturing myself taking out the bins, without complaint, at the home we would share when adults. But that ended abruptly when Sonia done me wrong with an unforgivable act of betrayal. She had her hair cut short.

Nowadays, though, even the third graders are into it. But as lunch with Lani and her friends revealed, even at that age love is a battlefield.

One girl had been convinced a particular boy was her soul mate, and that they should be together "4 eva", until she made a shocking discovery. “Was he seen with another girl?” I asked. No. Far worse. He was seen wiping his nose on his sleeve.

Another boy had asked Lani’s friend out on a date. I asked what a “date” could possibly mean at that age, and was told that - “D’uh” - it meant a trip to the movies. This seemed very grown up, but still the plan was scuppered by a problem fairly common to the eight-year-old.

“He hasn’t got any money,” the friend told me. “So he said he couldn’t buy me popcorn. I’m not buying my own!”

Another girl was similarly dismissive of Lani’s crush interest.

“He’s too short,” she huffed.

“He’s only eight!” I said. “Give him a break".

She was unmoved.

This girl was even able to inform the group what sex is, owing to the fact she possesses that most useful of things, a big brother.

“Well, the man lies on his back and the woman gets on top of him,” she said. “And then the man puts his penis in the woman’s vagina, and he stays there for about an hour and then he takes it out.”

Thankfully, for my wife was there, the big brother’s credibility was soon dashed by another revelation. It’s a fair bet he’s the only person alive who knows what sex is - give or take 58 minutes - whilst still believing in Santa.

Then again, they’re learning early these days.

I googled "young love" and got this. I was shocked.
Little kids shouldn't be up to this sort of thing. But
more importantly, where did he get the money for that?

Ban this filth!

Back in my day we had a far different way of
approaching girls.

The author on his first "date".

Pop dickhead Miley Cyrus. I blame
her getting about in her undershirt
and putting her buttocks on men
for inspiring girls to want to fraternise
with the opposite sex far too early
these days. She, too, should be banned,
obviously. There are plenty of other
"cool" female rock stars. 

What's wrong with a bit of this?

Or this?

And if it's racy clothes they want ...

Phil Collins was wrong on many levels, but particularly
when he said "You can't hurry love" - for kids today are
showing that's exactly what you can do!
Collins did prove, however, that you could hurry
the end of love - by dumping a wife once by
sending her a fax, rather than spend the extra time
telling her face-to-face or getting his mate to do it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Hi readers! Happy New Year. Speaking of which, here's my New Year's column running in this month's That's Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou magazines.

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I've never been one for the annual round of self-flagellating personal improvement pledges known as New Year's resolutions. I've usually just stuck to one: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

But this year in the parallel universe that is Expatland, China, a freaky celestial event is happening. We get two New Year's Days in one month! The Chinese one comes up on January 31, while the western one this year fell on January the first.

If my memory of school serves me, this could very well be what's called a Blue Moon. And since that fits my schedule for making New year's resolutions exactly, I've turned over a new leaf to make not just one but a whole bunch of them. These I can use, as father figure, to make our family fulfill the slick new motto I’ve decided for us: Go like a well-oiled machine in 2014.

Feel free to cut them out and put them on your fridge to make yourselves better people too. In fact, I'd recommend it.

This year I resolve to:

  • Stomp a full ten paces away from a problematic child before screaming an obscenity, instead of the usual two.

  • Tell the kids their new secret language is “very creative and clever”, and not “a pain in the ass for everyone around them”. 

  • When a child says they are sick and can not go to school I will believe them. I will not demand to see evidence of a ruptured organ or severed limb.

  • I will also not tell them "Worse things happen at sea" and tell a gut-wrenching tale of scurvy-ravaged sailors having their heads blown off.

  • I will stick as close as possible to the “three-second rule” when forcing one of my children to eat food they have dropped. This replaces the old “three minutes and what about the starving kids in India” rule.

  • I will listen, and smile, whenever one of my children wants to play me something on the recorder. And say it sounds "terrific". Every time. And not fake my own death.

  • This I vow even though our house has entered into the state of having not one but TWO recorders, or "Armageddon".

  • Whenever my kids start a physical fight I will not merely stand there and watch, just to see who wins.

  • Whenever one child complains of preferential treatment lavished on her sibling, I will no longer give the explanation "because she's my favorite".

  • Nor will I say “because you’re my favourite”, just to mess with her head.

  • I will only engage in positive parenting, and will not try to motivate a child with a threat.

  • But if I do, it will be a threat I can actually carry out, and not “Eat the food or I’m never giving you food again”, which may or may not have happened during one particularly desperate dinner time. 

  • I will not treat the kids to any more three-hour lectures with titles like "On the importance of David Bowie" (unless faced with a sudden outbreak of Justin Bieber).

  • I will engage patiently and pleasantly in all conversations, no matter how inane. Even “Why it makes sense to go for a nap between dinner and bath”. Or “It is right to wear a tutu and chat with my friends in a soccer match.”

I found this photo on a parenting website. As a
parent myself, I can look at it and make one or two
inferences about what the mother depicted here has
done in this situation. The main one is that she's
put money on the son in black.

A sight to send shivers down any parent's
spine. I think we all remember exactly
what we were doing when we first
noticed there was a recorder in our homes.

It's an instrument of the devil if ever
there was one. All efforts to make it
more appealing have failed, including
this attempt to "sex it up" during the

But it could be worse ...

A friend's kid brought home a recorder like this once.
Bloody nightmare.

Or this could be your husband.

This guy also sucks.
It must take a lot of preparation to
look this worried.

This is obviously a far better
role model for one's kids.

Under the Chinese zodiac, this will be the year of the horse.
It's easily the best animal of the dozen in the rotation.
For starters, I am a horse, which I think means I'll turn
12 years older this year.
And what's more, who ever won money on a rabbit?
Or a dragon?

In regard to my children's mother mother, I vow:

  • To keep the romance alive, in a marriage beset by parenthood, I shall institute spontaneous bouts of "couple time". These will only sometimes involve drinking beer in the pub with my mates, sitting on the couch watching sport, and demanding my wife acknowledge the toughness of my ear hair.

  • However, if sport watching does occur, I will not get mad on any of the three or four occasions my wife will undoubtedly walk across the front of the TV at a crucial moment during any given match. I will say something nice.

  • And I will engage patiently and pleasantly in all conversations, no matter how inane. Even “Why didn’t the captain of the team that lost the final prepare a loser’s speech?” and “Why do teams always look like that when they’re celebrating on a podium?”

  • When asked "How do I look?" before we go out, I will not trot out the usual clichés like "Alright I suppose", "Better than nothing" or "No opinion". I will say something nice.

  • I will listen when my wife is saying words. And when given a list of 10 things to do I will not forget any more than 10 of them.

  • I will strictly limit all greenhouse and personal gas emissions (to occasions when they are really, really funny, or to when at least one of us is asleep).

  • I accept that the following conditions may not be life-threatening: 1. Meeting new people. 2. Trying new things. 3. Going to new places.

So there it is - a fairly comprehensive list, I’m sure you’d agree.

Come to think of it, it's very comprehensive. That’s a lot of change for one man in one year. I mean, my wife married me for a reason, right?

Maybe I’d better procrastinate on it a bit longer. We don’t want to go overboard.

After all, “well-oiled machine” also rhymes with 2015.

And 2019!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Hi Readers! Here's my column from That's Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou magazines this month. Merry Christmas!

*  *  *

THIS family has big plans for Christmas. First we're going to euthanize Santa. Then we're going to hang on a beach in Vietnam.

It's probably time. I've never been to Vietnam before. As for Santa, our eight-year-old Lani has started asking awkward questions, like "Daddy, are you a liar?"

Perhaps not that pointed, but the inevitable question about the North Pole's most famous resident came up over dinner last week. Since there was a six-year-old also at the table, I made the very clever parent move of telling Lani that we would "talk about this later". I then winked at her and slashed my throat.

Only with a finger, mind you. I don't find these parenting situations that troubling. But it is probably time we labelled as "fiction" this tale about an exotic place where lots of not very tall people work feverishly to make presents for the world's children. For one thing, everyone now knows that place is called "China". For another, there are some fantastic other Santa-ish Christmas tales around the world. As citizens of expat-land's cultural melting pot, maybe we should try a few.

There's the Russian one. Just to confuse things, Russia's "Santa" delivers presents not on Russian Christmas (January 7) but on New Year's Eve. He goes by the name of Ded Moroz.

Now, I don't want to claim our Christmas is any more jolly, or point at Russia's famous national vibe of melancholy, or misère de vivre, but goodness their main spreader of joy sounds perilously like "Dead Morose".

Ded Moroz sounded to me like a heavy metal band. Or perhaps a stun grenade. Or a used condom. But the internet said it meant "Grandfather Frost". When you become a grandfather in Russia, straight away they just start calling you Ded. I can see walking sticks being shaken angrily everywhere. As for Moroz, there was confusion.

For clarification I turned to my friend from the gym, Roman. He's not Russian but he is from Estonia (motto: "If it's not exactly Russia, it'll do til we get some"). As me and my fellow large bald man sat naked in the sauna talking about Santa, I finally found understanding. "Moroz" is actually the term for when the temperature drops below about minus 10 Celsius. So really, Father Christmas in Russia is more like "Grandfather F***ing Freezing".

Russia also has none of this North Pole business. Ded Moroz lives in Veliky Ustyug, a town of 32,000 people a few hundred kilometres north-east of Moscow. You can probably see him there in the summer doing whatever Russians do - trimming his roses, running an export-import business, etc.

The Russians in fact have two people said to dish out presents. The other is Babushka. It's Russian for "grandmother", but this Babushka is special.

One night, as the snow fell heavily in mid Russian winter, this very old lady was sitting by the fire in her cottage when there was a knock on the door. It was THE three wise kings of the east. They were wise enough to know the son of God had been born in what is now Israel. But apparently they were still hopeless with maps.

The kings told Babushka what had happened, and said she should go with them to meet Jesus. As she stood in her doorway while the kings beckoned her out into the snow, without a moment's hesitation Babushka looked up at them and cleared her throat to speak. She said "Nuh", and closed the door.

The next day she remembered she was supposed to go out and do something, or find someone. "Was it Jeff? Gene? Ooww!" she groaned. Though vexed, she headed off from house to house asking if the occupants had seen a "baby" or a "saviour" or "something like that". One after the other, the residents all said "NO DEAR!" Perhaps to avoid embarrassment she decided to leave them presents, and has been doing it ever since.

Ded Moroz, complete with hair and beard.
No, just kidding. He's supposed to be jolly, remember?

This is him.

No really, this is him. He doesn't look so bad.
He delivers presents with the aid of a young
female companion. This Ded Moroz appears
to live by the motto: "Why have one when
you can have two?" But don't get the wrong
impression. She's his granddaughter, who
goes by the distinctive name Snegurochka.

Spurred, and upset, by the thought there might be
someone in Russia more popular than him, the
the country's Grand Ruler Vladimir Putin recently
made a snap visit on Ded Moroz in Veliky Ustyug.

Putin watched enviously as Ded Moroz told him
it wasn't enough to merely achieve amazing feats -
whether they be delivering presents across Russia
in just one night, or changing a constitution to
prolong your presidential power - but you should
try to be liked as well.

Putin said he was grateful to Ded, but would reserve the
right to have final say on his "Naughty or nice" list.

Meanwhile this is an artistic representation of
Babushka. They do like to rock hard, these
elderly Russian Christmas figures.

Luckily an artist was present when King Balthasar
explained to Babushka: "Yeah I think we got a bit
stuffed up around the Khyber Pass".

I'd heard the Dutch Christmas had a crazy twist. So I grabbed the first Dutch person I could find, a man called Fred at a friend's wedding, and asked him. It started with a shock. There was no reindeer.

"Well Santa Claus turns up with his whores," he said, as I spat my beer all over him.

I liked this Santa better than ours already. I pictured him in a sleigh, jacked right up at the front, with a set of really big speakers booming out something a bit more gangsta than Jingle Bells.

"No, his HORSE," said Fred, more clearly.

Still the story was astounding. The Dutch Sinterklass used to be a Greek bishop in Turkey sometime in the first millennium AD. He retired to take up the position of Dutch Santa, residing in ... Spain. No one is sure why he lives there, but my money's on the weather. Where would you rather live - the North Pole, Veliky Ustyug, or Spain? Especially if you're the wrong side of 1,000.

Usually Sinterklass goes around with a much loved colored man named Pieter, who is more commonly known as Black Pete. He is usually depicted in all sorts of garb, like curly hair and made up red lips, and performs functions like distributing candy. By the look of him it wouldn't surprise if his roles also included tap dancing and singing "My Mammy". In fact there are usually a handful of Black Petes, who since the mid 19th century have been called Sinter's, umm, "servants".

Early on, Dutch Santa and the Petes would turn up, and if children had been good he'd reward them with presents. If they'd been bad, they would be punished by getting no presents. They would also get a good kicking and a beating from Santa. If they were especially bad a Pete would bundle them into a sack and they'd be dragged back to Spain to a mysterious - but presumably wretched - fate.

Since the 1950s, however, this tale has been softened up. Now if children are naughty Santa only pretends to give them a good kicking and beating.

The Dutch story - which is replicated in Belgium - is so bizarre it has caught the attention of more and more people in recent years. These include people from the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. They couldn't help noticing the story might be a wee bit racist, especially since people playing the Petes in Christmas parades wear "blackface" make-up.

Hopefully the Petes will soon be retired, replaced by a more universally loved breed of Christmas helper. For as the old saying goes - you're alright as long as you've got your elf.

Sinterklaas and some Petes at a Christmas parade.
Defenders of the Pete tradition say it's a harmless
bit of fun that delights parade-goers every year ...

... such as these merry revelers at one such event.

We Australians even have our own slant on Christmas.
According to some accounts, when Santa descends on
our country, he is flown around by a group of rare Albino
kangaroos, or "Six White Boomers" as a song goes.
This might be because his reindeer faced a month in
quarantine because of Australians strict importation
laws and fear of foot and mouth disease.
This parochial story hasn't really caught on, however.
For starters, kangaroos bounding through the air would
give a much rougher ride than reindeer ...
OK, I'm gonna stop now, or all these Christmas story ideas
told to our ever-trusting children might just start to seem
a bit absurd.

I'll leave you instead with a more normal image of the pure, unadulterated Santa known and loved by most of the western world.

Merry Christmas to all!