Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Camp Sharon

Summer camps are very popular here in New York.  Children have 12 to 13 weeks off school during the summer.  Typically, they enroll in a few weeks of camp.  Since many parents work full-time, summer camp is a helpful option to preoccupy children during the day.  It is quite a far cry from my own camp experiences with NCC where my friends and I orienteered in Mandai, fell into wet swamps, stayed in gloomy military camps and slept overnight under the open sky in Pulau Tekong.  Most memorable of all were the days at the Outward Bound School.  Best of all, the time we were made to crawl into a pitch black tunnel only to find ourselves stuck in a human jam, this carried out with the distinct purpose of toughening us up when confronted with a dark and confined space.

Camps can have specific subjects ranging from music, ballet, art, chess or a sport.  Many camps such as Ramapo, Pierce and Gate Hill are located outside the city and provide various activities in an authentic outdoor setting.  I contemplated one of these camps for next year, and then realized how far they are from the city.

I usually send my children to camp for 4 weeks out of the summer.  2 weeks of Chinese camp which they find so much more fun and engaging than the lessons they take throughout the school year, and 2 weeks at another camp.  My daughter has been to a 'camp without a home base' where they met at the sidewalk and spent each day visiting a museum, traveling by subway.  This year, my children thoroughly enjoyed their time at Chelsea Piers where I sent them for my interpretation of the Gulag - continual sports from 8.30am to 3pm.  They lost weight, had a stronger appetite and were completely exhausted each night.  Best of all, the school bus came to pick them up at 7.55am and dropped them off at 5pm.  I felt like I was on holiday from the kids each morning.

Because camps average $500 per child per week, I have found it worthwhile at times to use part of that  budget to travel and conduct my own "Camp Sharon".  This year, I decided that we should be tourists in our city.  So I planned my days starting with "academic maintenance", i.e. finishing those workbooks sent home from school and working on weak areas.  The motivation for my children was that as soon as they completed their homework, they could start off with the day's outing.  Last week, we covered the following:

Monday - Lunch at Chinatown, Flushing...then the New York Hall of Science 3 stops away
Tuesday - The New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, followed by milk shake at the nearby Shake Shack
Wednesday - The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) on the Upper West Side where we visited the dinosaurs, watched the Imax movie "Journey to the Stars" and went to the new exhibition about Bioluminescent creatures.

On Thursday, we made a poignant visit to the 9/11 Memorial, had a lovely lunch outdoors at Battery Park overlooking the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty, followed by a trip back to the east side to the Bodies exhibition at South Street Seaport.  Along the way, my children were curious about St. Paul's Chapel so we stepped inside, only to learn that George Washington had attended service there on the day of his Inauguration at Wall Street.  While there, we saw a postcard about the Anne Frank Center.  My daughter was somewhat keen to visit, and we made our way there to its new location at Park Place. We stumbled upon a very interesting exhibition about the life of Anne Frank.  We watched a 25 minute documentary narrated by Jeremy Irons about her, and then listened to the iPad apps.  It provided rich information about a historical person whom my daughter had been reading about.

On Friday, we went to the new exhibition about healthy eating and sleep at the Children's Museum.  There were facts that even I found useful for aging gracefully.

The camp was exhausting but completely enlightening, seen through the eyes of my children.  Other impressive trips included the "Lunchtime" exhibition at the New York Public Library where we were introduced to the automat.  Older visitors would stop beside us to reminisce about the time that they frequented the automat restaurants, the last of which closed in 1991.

We will end with a finale to the Intrepid to view the space shuttle.

Creating my camp has given me a deeper appreciation of the many camp counselors and planners who work hard to make each day fun, engaging and memorable for their attendees.  It was undeniably my proudest achievement this summer.

Friday, July 20, 2012


The Taiwanese ladies I referred to in my last entry about Flushing mothered me when I had my second child.  Aware that my own mother had passed away a few years before, they took it upon themselves to ensure that I would be well taken care of after my son was born.

This is a traditional post-natal rite of passage for Chinese mothers.  It is a serious business in Singapore. My best friend reserved her confinement nanny well before her due date.  I would not be surprised if her son's birth date centered on the nanny's availability. The nanny stayed in to cook, massage and care for the mother for an entire month, pretty much like the role of the 'baby nurse' in New York except that the focus is on the mother.   The premise is that a new mother needs to be nursed back to health at a time when she is most vulnerable to fatigue, loss of blood, hormonal imbalance and diet changes.  If the health restoration is not optimal, it sets the risk for long-term repercussions health-wise, ranging from migraine to arthritis.  The fear is compounded by the fact that many of these ailments do not manifest themselves until many years later.

I support this idea of confinement, although I have no proof that my hypothesis is correct.  When I had my first child, it was very important for me to wash my hair soon after, only because I wanted to look presentable before my dashing doctor.  I blamed my migraines on that particular time.  I attributed the backaches to the fact that we often dined out in the wintry cold less than a month after the birth.

Confinement implies that the new mother is not supposed to take a bath for the entire month so as not to dampen flesh and bones which in turn retain the cold.  She is also made to consume specially cooked food, with ingredients that nurture her back to health.  These include ginger for 'beating the wind' out of the body, liver to supplement iron and 'dong guai', a Chinese herb that maintains the female reproductive system and regulates the monthly cycle.  My mother fussed over my sisters when they had their children.  She made soup containing snakehead fish - a kind of fish which was known in Chinese medicine for its healing properties, in this case, healing C-section surgical wounds.

The Taiwanese nanny I knew, Mrs. Yang, found me a 'chef'.  Annie is Taiwanese but having lived in Vienna, spoke German fluently, in addition to Mandarin, the Fukien language and Shanghainese.  She pampered us with her nightly home-cooked fare, so much so that we would invite friends to join us for dinner.  As such, we were having mini dinner parties at the expense of me supposedly recuperating in bed. Annie made fresh dumplings, soups and stir fries and charmed our friends.   A married couple  invited her to cook for them regularly as well.  (They were not Chinese and they definitely had not had a baby just then.)   Once, she went to the medicinal shop to obtain deer's antlers, ground into fine powder to be prepared into a brew for my 'cold ankles'.

I was told that mothers could repent for their 'sins'.  If they had not been observant with staying in self-confinement and slurping those bitter soups, they could be more obedient when they had the next kid.  I wince when I meet a mother walking outdoors when she has just had a baby a week before.  I always relate that maybe these age-old myths are true given my own experiences.  Either run back indoors and stay in for the rest of the month, or have another baby and do it right the next time.

The two dishes I associate with confinement are Pig's Trotters stewed with Ginger and Black Vinegar (to improve blood circulation and alleviate the 'wind' in the body), as well as Chicken stir fried with Ginger and Sesame Oil.

Chicken in Sesame Oil

2 pounds chicken (breast or parts)
Drizzle of vegetable oil
2 inches ginger, skinned and julienned
4 tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon rice wine


Rinse and pat dry the chicken.  Slice the breast into stir fry slices.
Heat a saute pan.  Drizzle the vegetable oil.  When the oil is glistening, add the julienned ginger, followed by the chicken and sesame oil.  Season with sugar and rice wine.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Before Din Tai Fung began to spring up everywhere, my Chinese-American friends would subway to Flushing for some of mother's Taiwanese food.  The progeny of Taiwanese immigrants - my husband included - they liked Nan Bei He located on 40th Street.  That was in the late 1990s.  I would sit there and gawk as Gloria enjoyed her bowl of salty soybean curd with deep fried cruller (you tiao).

Flushing, to me, is a Taiwanese-influenced Chinatown as opposed to Manhattan's Chinatown which remains a Cantonese stronghold.  I assume this based on who resides where and what dialect they tend to speak.  The Taiwanese nannies I know live near Flushing whereas the friends I know with links to Canal Street, still break into Cantonese in the midst of their dialogue.

As part of my weeklong "Sharon summer camp" for my kids, we made a pit stop at Flushing today before visiting the New York Hall of Science which is three stops away on the 7 line.  After walking two loops around the block in the withering heat,  I was told that Nan Bei He had moved to the other side of Main Street.  It is now situated in a new complex along Prince Street.  I explained to my kids that this was the cuisine of their paternal grandparents.  The cold soy milk was a welcome relief, swiftly followed by scallion pancake rolled with beef (niu rou bao bing) and beef stew noodle soup.  The beef stew was so tender, my daughter was thrilled that she did not have to tear or chew the pieces apart.  The scallion pancake reminded me of Mrs. Yang, my friend's late nanny, who made this for us from time to time as a thoughtful gesture.

A larger group sat next to our table.  Their lunch order featured so many familiar dishes that had it not been for my kids, I would have plopped down with them to partake of their fare. Chicken Taiwan style (san bei ji), braised beef (hong sao niu rou), vegetable stir fried with sha cha sauce and of course, xiao long bao.  

Later, we walked past a cake shop and peeked in.  Iris Bakery, at the corner of Main and Prince, in the same complex as Nan Bei He, assures me that yes, finally, those hipper Asian food retail shops are coming to America and will provide a much needed facelift to the old-style shops that make Chinatowns here a cultural time warp.  The cakes were innovative, glossy concoctions and were elegantly presented.  We were too full to try any of them but they were pretty enough to suggest that perhaps I should ride out to Flushing to get these cakes for my next dinner party.

A reliable cookbook for such Taiwanese fare is "Blue Eye Dragon: Taiwanese Cooking" by Jade and Muriel Chen.  Enjoy!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Childhood Summers

We were recently invited to spend the weekend at a friend's beach house.  There were seven children.  They spent the day at the beach digging and constructing water tunnels, (cess)pools, moats and castles. Then we all ran into the sea to jump over and ride on the white water waves rushing in.  We collected beautiful black scallop shells, mussels and soft shell crab.  Winding down in the evening, we tucked into grilled steak, hot 'dawgs' and burgers.  The children went on to play hide and seek.
This made for the kind of idyllic moment that children deserve to remember of their childhood.

Looking at the happy, contented faces of the children that evening of June 30, I thought back to the evening of June 1, 1981.

I recall that day so clearly because I was one of several freshly-bathed children seated at a long table, waiting for dinner to be served.  One of the mothers came over and said that we should toast to the half-year mark.  A precocious 7 year old boy then corrected her by saying that she was a month too early, it should be June 30.  (He went on to MIT.)

Singapore does not have a three-month school break.  But it does punctuate the school year with a monthlong siesta in June.  In 1981, my eldest sister took me along on her weekend jaunts with her friends.  She had not had children then, so I became the token child who mingled with the minors in the entourage.  Late Friday, we would hop into one of several cars in a convoy heading northwards towards Kuala Lumpur.  We would stay the night at the KL hotel which one of the friends owned.  The following morning, the cars would then travel the winding road that led up to the top of Fraser's Hill.  I only made it to the Hill twice but the experiences were so carefree that I remember them for life.

We stayed at the Sime Darby chalet, situated at the end of the main road.  It was a double-storey bungalow with several bedrooms, a tennis court and a huge compound.  Best of all, it came with a resident Hainanese chef who whipped up a gourmet meal each time.  He brought out the best of what the Hainanese are renowned for.......marinated pork chops, sweet and sour fish being what I recall best.  We would pretend to toast like the adults seated at the long banquet table parallel to ours.  The adults found us amusing until one of the boys unknowingly poured the white wine into the ice bucket, thinking that it would chill even faster.

The same 'half-year mark' mother, Teresa, was a beautiful lady who donned nylon stockings when she wore her sexy sports shorts.  She was the ultimate den mother who co-ordinated rounders matches and charades.  With her loud, booming voice, she was able to whip us children into obedient teams.

Our travel entourage made other trips that same year - to the Golden Sands Hotel in Penang, a durian plantation in Johor and to a Malaysia Cup match in KL (where we had to be hustled out quickly in case a riot broke out between Singaporeans and Malaysians).

These days, the dozen or so children are spread out.  But we keep abreast of what's going on among ourselves from time to time.  I once flew up to New York with one of them.   We have our own families.  I bet, like me, we will be hard pressed to remember what Chinese characters we had learnt in June 1981, but will recall with fondness, hiking and horse-back riding in the cool climate in Fraser's Hill, and bumping up and down in the back of a car riding the highway past palm and rubber trees.

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