Monday, October 22, 2012


... and our parents making us look like idiots.

FOR International Day, when we're asked to send our kids to school in national costume, I thought I’d send the girls dressed in a sari. Or a kimono. Or maybe as an Inuit holding a frozen plastic fish.

We’re not Indian. Not Japanese. And have you ever heard of an igloo-dweller named Trev?

I’m just sick and tired of International Day rolling around and being Australian. I quite like my country, but living in expat Beijing this is one day when my nationality feels lame.

Perhaps you’re not aware of International Day if you’re not living as an expat somewhere. It’s a slightly weird one. It’s kind of a World World Day, which makes me think we should have a World Mars Day just to be fair. But International Day is where we celebrate the fact the world is made up of several countries. Its proper name is United Nations Day, and it’s the UN’s way of marking its founding on October 24, 1945.

In fact it’s one of my favourite “Day” days. This is saying something, because counting down through the UN’s list of days, until the end of days, you can see there are 113 of them. That’s a day every three days!

There are well known ones, like Universal Children’s Day. But some are more obscure, like Philosophy Day, where I think we’re all supposed to sit around thinking. There’s also World Migratory Bird Day, where we get to cheer for our favourite long-distance flying bird (“C’MOOON THE BOOBIES!”).

I was heartened to read June 1 is the Global Day of Parents, although this merely made me realise that nothing ever happens. December 11 is World Mountain Day (Blessed are the mountains!). And, my kids will love this, November 21 is World Television Day.

There’s an International Day of Democracy on September 15, but no International Day of Communism. There’s an International Jazz Day on April 30, which I’m pretty sure should have read “International Victims of Jazz Day”. There’s no Blues day (but March 20 is the International Day of Happiness). And there’s no Hip Hop or Boogie days, which again doesn’t seem fair. Nor does it dilute jazz people’s reputation for self-importance. Can’t we at least have a Worldwide Day for the Prevention of Scat?

I also recently learned, from a post on Facebook, that October 10 is World Mental Health Day. And later on Facebook I learned that two sets of friends had in fact got married on World Mental Health Day. Both insisted they weren’t being ironic.

My favourite is of course November 19 – World Toilet Day. This year I plan to observe it by solemnly going to the toilet. And I encourage you all to do the same. OK, this isn’t a UN-sanctioned “day”, just like the UN doesn’t mention Mothers’ or Fathers’ Day. But it's admirable that the World Toilet Organisation (WTO) has nominated a day to raise awareness of the need for nice, clean amenities.

Jack Sim, toilet hero, founder of the WTO.

Really, International Day is pretty good, especially in such a melting pot of cultures as Expat Land. But every late October I’m faced with the same question:

“Daddy – what’s our national costume?”

“Pretty much what you’re wearing,” I say, without always looking up.

It’s a little sad, especially when the girls see friends from Indonesia, China, South Korea or places like Bulgaria and Chad in some strikingly beautiful garments. We could cobble together something like an Australian rugby uniform, except we don’t own any. What’s more, for little girls, sports apparel isn’t going to cut it alongside a silk sari.

The problem is felt by many westerners, but not all. Even the Scottish can wear a kilt. The Spanish can do traditional. But not us.

This year it fell to me to last Friday organise an outfit for our five-year-old. From early on the signs weren’t good for Evie. This was mostly because I suck at these things. We don’t have much green and gold – Australia’s sporting colours (like Brazil, South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, etc). So instead, in a flash of brilliance, I opted for the colours of our flag.

There aren’t many countries whose flag has the same colours as ours. Only about 90. It’s red, white and blue. I found a red cardigan, blue shirt, and a (partially) white skirt, with some blue-and-white leggings, and put Evie in that.

In a masterstroke, to achieve a point of difference I clipped a toy koala to Evie’s cardigan. I was suddenly delighted some Australian friends had brought a whole dozen such koalas on their recent visit, though I’m still not sure why.

Of course, to my horror, Evie didn’t want the koala. I tried convincing her by listing the nationalities with which she might be confused. This at least exposed some interesting five-year-old racial profiling.

“Do you want people to think you’re French?” I said.

“Nooo!” Evie said.

“Why not?”

“Because I can’t understand a word French people say!”

“Do you want people to think you’re American?”

“Nooo … because they all have such curly hair.”


“All they do is sit around singing Yankee Doodle!”*



“Why not?”

“Because I’d be TOO FREEZING COLD!”

We compromised. She carried the koala in her front pocket, which I assured myself looked like a marsupial pouch. Still, at school we of course found kids in all sorts of wonderful costumes. There’s always next year, I thought.

Tadaaaa! That's the most
Australian outfit you'll see
in a long time, my friend!
No, OK, it's poor. All the
colours are there, to varying
degrees of visibility. Still,
as Evie bounced off to school,
I couldn't help but feel how
much she looked like a
happy and proud little

Aaah! But look closer and you'll
see this! 

One Australian friend had this clever idea, sending her
daughter to school dressed as an Aussie surf
lifesaver. Mind you, it's all very well if you live in
Singapore, as she does. In Beijing, it's a bit cold.

Lani’s school’s day was today, Monday. My wife Stef, as impressed with my Evie efforts as anyone, took control, hatching the great idea that Lani should go as a tree. Not just any tree, but a native eucalyptus, or gum tree. We had all these koalas, see ...

We’d dress Lani in the colours of a gum tree, weave some green ribbons into her hair, and voila! Better still, on the day before when we went Halloween shopping - another international festival which sucks up expats – we found a ready made tree outfit.

Lani loved it. We all did. When we got home we dressed her in it, complete with some plastic leaves, and koalas. Lani laughed. We took photos. We all gushed over how everyone would love her outfit.

And then …

“I’m not wearing it!”

“What?” I said. “Why not?”

“Because everyone will laugh at me!!!!”

“But … but … that’s the point!”

We were suddenly mired in a pit of seven-year-old angst over what peers would think. It’s probably normal, but it worried us as parents. We knew the outfit was a winner, that it would stand her out from the crowd. This, of course, was just what she didn’t want.

This tree costume had triggered a parenting watershed. We wanted her to feel the joy of making people laugh, in a nice way. It would surely be good for confidence. The danger of not going to school looking like a tree was of course a lifetime of slinking into the background as one of the herd. We wanted a mighty eucalypt, not a wallflower.

She dug in. I got desperate. I had to promise her I wouldn’t put any of the tree photos on my blog.

OK, I lied.
Look, we all do it.
How about Santa?

Now if that's not a kid who's
over the moon to be dressed
like a tree, then I don't know
what is.

Lani slept on it, but by morning nothing had changed. We had an hour to get ready for the bus. We had to act on the run, for in none of our parenting books is there a chapter called “Forcing Your Child to go to School Dressed Like A Tree”.

I spent breakfast time convincing, cajoling and pleading. I am dead against bribery, but these were desperate, important times. I offered chocolate and ice cream.

“It’s Halloween next week,” she said.

This shouldn’t be this hard, I sighed. Surely all men are well trained in convincing females to do things they don’t want to do. I thought back to my years when, I seemed to remember, I was extremely persuasive with the ladies.

“I’ll pay you money!” I said.

Here, I added an interloper. But this
would just be making her look
ridiculous for its own sake. The
hand puppet didn't stay either. The
keen-eyed will see it's not, after
all, a koala, but a wombat. 

Now we were getting somewhere. The subject of instituting regular pocket money had come up before. I promised to bring forward its implementation. The clincher was we had a rental car for the week. I could drive her to school, allaying her (unnecessary) fears of teasing on the bus.

When we arrived, Lani's fears washed away. Kids rushed up to enthuse over her outfit. Teachers said it was original, clever, and would probably be best-in-school.

“A TRIUMPH!” screamed the New York Times.

As I walked Lani through the playground, I got a bit sentimental. It seemed like déjà vu in reverse. It felt a bit like it might if I one day walk her down the aisle on her wedding day.

She would be nervous. I would be proud. People would be looking. And, if her parents have anything to do with it, she'll be dressed like a tree.

* YANKEE DOODLE POINT: I had to give Evie points here, for this was only half as silly as it sounded. Yankee Doodle was written and sung by British troops as a taunt to America’s rag-tag patriot soldiers in the War of Independence. It was an early chant by the forerunners of today’s English soccer hooligans. The Brits charged, for example, that the Americans could only approximate the European sign of nobility – the curly, white ‘macaroni’ wig, by sticking a feather in their caps.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! Your daughter as a tree is a truly inspiring sight to all homesick Aussies, I'm sure.

    Note to Evie: we Brits never sing Yankee Doodle past the age of 3.