Many people have defined "home" in their own way. "Home is where the heart is." "Home is where you hang your hat." To me, nothing has ever resonated more strongly than that famous quote by Robert Frost: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." I'm fond of where I grew up, where my relatives are and my earliest memories reside, but more than anything this is what keeps me pinned: the knowledge that if our house of cards gets blown to the seven winds, this is where we'll bolt to, and they'll not only let us through immigration, they'll give us healthcare, education and a basic pension - as applicable. This is why I don't begrudge paying taxes to a nation I don't currently reside in. In the meantime, my heart and my hat will come wandering with me.

We went to a Mid-Autumn Festival celebration recently, and in the expectant silence between one of the magician's tricks and the next, The Young Master asked (in a voice loud enough to carry throughout the entire hall), "Mum, why did he make a flower come out of the cup?" The audience laughed, so the magician called him to the stage.

He asked The Young Master his name, how old he was, and where he came from. "Brisbane," said Master to the last.

"And can you spell Brisbane?" asked the magician.

The Young Master considered this question deeply, his lips moving in silence as he sounded the word out from beginning to end. The audience waited in quiet anticipation of the response of our boy-genius. Finally, he leaned in towards the microphone and said, with clarity and confidence, "No."

Later, The Young Master's fans crowded around. "How old was he when you moved to Singapore?" one of them asked - and I had to explain that he was actually born in Singapore, and had lived most of his life here. "Oh!" she said with a chuckle, "so he's not really from Brisbane at all!" I guess not. But Brisbane (and not Singapore) is the place where, when he has to go there, they have to take him in, and in this sense it is still very much his home.

As to where he comes from - the answer is still in the making.

How do you define "home"? Is it where you came from? Are you living there now?

It's no coincidence I started blogging about this as Master turns four. Previously he was too young to put forward his opinions on much, but nowadays he provides them in great detail whether we like it or not. Melissa asked some great questions on the last post about what happens when the kids don't want to live where the parents do. We often hear certain places being touted as great for specific agegroups. This place is ideal for young families. Another is great for retirees. A third is exciting (yet affordable) for teens and twenty-somethings, and so on and so forth. In some ways we are unique like snowflakes, and in other ways we are products of our generation or the biology and influences inherent to our current stage of life.

What happens when the kids want to live in one place, and the adults another? When I was a child I begged my parents to find a job in an exciting foreign location. I guess it wasn't as easy in those days, but my mother maintained that it would have been possible, except they thought it was "best for us kids" to stay put. No matter how many times I assured her we truly wanted to spend a year or more living in Birmingham or Dallas or Wellington like friend X, Y or Z, they utterly failed to pack us up and move us anywhere. Until I was sixteen. Then they packed us up and moved us to the next suburb, but nobody even had to change schools.

They still live in that same house today. My parents have lived in a total of three houses each their whole lives (the second two being common to both lists) and this is not likely to change. My sisters and I, on the other hand, flew the coop rather magnificently on reaching adulthood, and all of us now have to take planes to get home. I wonder how much of that was a reaction to the extreme geographical stability of our youths? I wonder how my children will react if I provide them with the opposite lifestyle?

Looking back, I don't think it was as simple as my parents deciding to put their nomadic dreams aside on the assumption that us kids wouldn't like moving - or at least that's what I'd like to think because, gosh, what an idiotic situation that would have been. I think there were a complex network of reasons for their choice, from my father's decision to be content with a humble role which allowed him to come home each night for dinner, to thoughts of my grandparents' health and (once my grandfather died) loneliness.

I'm wondering how your childhood experiences of moving - or not moving - affected your adult decisions to move or stay put? And I'm wondering which places are the most welcoming of all agegroups - young and old.

A couple of months ago, The Young Master started asking us why we decided to move back to Singapore. First he asked me, and I answered him as fully as I could. I explained about his father's job, the attractions of Singapore itself, the benefits of experiencing new people and places, and so on and so forth, until at last he seemed satisfied. But then I heard him ask the same question to his father, so obviously he wasn't. After a pause of several weeks, we repeated the process again, and finally, on the third round, I realised it was time for a different response.

"What is it you're really trying to ask?" I said, answering his question with a question. Of course, he didn't know - if he had, he would have asked it already. "Do you think we made a good choice?" I tried again. This seemed to get him thinking properly, so I waited.

And finally, he said it: "I wish you'd decided to stay in Brisbane."

"Why's that?" I responded.

"It's quieter there."

I remember the first time I came back to London. It was the start of November 2011, and I had just spent a month travelling around Egypt, almost completely by myself. (The usual horde of tourists had stayed away that year, for some reason.) The Earl came to meet me at the tube station, wearing a long, black coat he'd acquired, in my absence, off a friend who was leaving, and as I walked towards him I sniffed the cold, crisp air - slightly sooty, a little damp - and all of a sudden it smelled like home. Since then I have learned to savour those subtle signals. London smells like cold, damp soot and sounds like buses and mumbled small talk. Brisbane smells like fresh cut grass and sounds like birdsong and motorised gardening tools. And Singapore smells like humidity and lightly rotting vegetation, and sounds like a bustling expressway. So when Master said it was quieter at home, I knew exactly what he meant, at least about the noise, and discounting, of course, the motarised gardening tools.

Over the next few weeks I asked a series of followup questions, many of them hypothetical. If we moved somewhere quiet, but it wasn't Brisbane, would that be ok? What if we went to live in a ger on the steppes of Mongolia, and we didn't even have broadband? At last I felt as if I had a handle on his perspective, and I let it drop, for a while.


Soon after we moved back to Singapore last year, before we'd unpacked, there was a day when I was trying to organise fifteen things at once, plus a newborn baby and a demanding three year old. On his fiftieth impossible request, I turned to Master in frustration and growled, "That's what you want, is it? Well do you know what I want? I want donuts to fall from the sky!" He giggled. I stopped short. "You thought that was funny?" I asked him, surprised.

"Donuts falling from the sky!" he cackled, and his laughter caused me to step back a little and calm down, and I was able to agree. Nowadays (if I remember to) I use this phrase to let him know his request is unreasonable, and vice versa, and instead of having meldowns and arguments, we have laughter and conversations*.

One day, several weeks after our talk about the quiet virtue of Brisbane, we were having afternoon tea at a toast shop. Singapore has these little coffee, tea and toast shops and I am quite addicted to them. You get the local style of caffeinated beverage or milo, some description of toast - maybe with kaya butter, a slab of icecream or a dusting of pork floss - and two very soft-boiled eggs. "You know," I said wistfully, stirring the condensed milk into my tarry, black drink, "if we move away from Singapore, I am really going to miss this." With appalling table manners, Master deconstructed his kaya butter toast and bit in. A thought occurred to me. "What would you miss about Singapore?"

"My toys," he said promptly.

"Well, we could probably bring those with us. I'm talking about things you can't bring with you. Like toast shops. They don't have toast shops like this in Brisbane, do they? What about the MRT system?" He didn't seem convinced. In fact, he seemed stumped. "Think about being in Brisbane, what you might feel like."

"Ice cream at Grandma's house?" he offered.

"Well, you could have that in Brisbane, though," I explained desperately. "What would you want that you couldn't have?" I was beginning to feel as if the point was lost on him.

"Do you know what I would want, if I was in Brisbane?" he replied with sudden conviction. "I would want... donuts to fall from the sky!" And he laughed, and he ate some more toast.

They do say wise words can come from the mouths of babes. The thing about living as an expat is you not only see the good things out there that you don't have at home, which is bad enough, but you also get used to them. At the same time, you long for the good things of home that aren't everywhere else. Expat life can easily become a recipe for dissatisfaction. Probably the best thing we can do is simply acknowledge that, though it may be our heart's desire, no place on earth has donuts for hailstones, or rains of chocolate drops. Then, having done so, we should laugh and get on with our toast.

*We still have plenty of meltdowns and arguments, but not on those specific occasions.

"Dad, he reckons powerlines are a reminder of man's ability to generate electricity." (Dale Kerrigan, The Castle)

I've been thinking some more about what's funny. Today, as usual, I dropped the Young Master off at kindy, and walked his sixteen-inch child's bike back down the hill towards home, steering it by the handlebars. Master's school unfortunately does not have a bike rack, but letting him wear his dress-up aviator's cap and ride his bike - sorry, fly his aeroplane - is still the most pleasant way of getting him there. Steering the riderless contraption home and then back again afterwards is a small price to pay for a ten minute journey spent singing Those Magnificent Men versus a thirty minute journey spent moaning, whining, cajoling, threatening and weeping. Nevertheless, I still sometimes garner expressions of friendly sympathy from passersby as I try to stop it running away from me down the hill, and today was such an occasion.

"If only it was expandable!" the Singaporean woman in question said. "Then you could let your son ride it to school, and expand it into a big bike so you can ride it home again."

"That would be useful," I agreed. "Or maybe I could just buy a rainbow wig and some oversized shoes."

She hesitated awkwardly, her friendly smile frozen on her face. So I laughed at my own joke, which kind of made me feel like a dick, but less of a dick than I would have felt just standing there listening to the crickets chirp, punctuated by a lone cough. "Oh!" she resumed. "Because then you'd look like a clown, and you'd match the very small-sized bike!"

"Yes!" I affirmed, and we both laughed together, but more out of relief than anything else.

This happens to me all the time. At home, a joke like that would have been rewarded with an instant laugh. (Actually, a roll of the eyes and a shake of the head is more likely, and yet still more gratifying.) When you move away from where you grew up - even if it's not all that far or all that different, but especially if it is - you do expect to have trouble communicating with those around you. What I didn't expect was how much I'd miss having my jokes understood, most of the time.

"What were his eyes like?"
"They were... melancholy." (Big Train, Police Artist Sketch)
Some things about humour are universal. It is easier to laugh at yourself than at other people. Or rather, it's easier to get other people to laugh at you, than at themselves, or third parties. Or rather, I should say, you are less likely to offend the people who are not laughing if you have made the joke at your own expense. There are no guarantees with this, however, and there are fewer guarantees when you have identified yourself as part of a larger group - people from region X, or thirty-something females; followers of this religion, or infertility patients who have recently experienced miscarriage, and it depends also on how you choose to structure your joke. But there is humour everywhere - yes, everywhere, written here by someone who made a number of jokes about her own miscarriages - if you know how to use it, and I think it is a great gift to be able to. In fact, if I sit down and list off the things I want for Master, as his parent, I would not start with "to be happy" or "to be comfortably well-off" or "to be well educated" but I would write "to be able to laugh. To be able to recognise a joke and make one. To be able to make others laugh with him.

"To be able to laugh together."

And if we were at "home" he would pick up the necessary tools through ordinary observation and maybe another thousand or so incessant questions about why so and so found such and such that darned hilarious. But we are not at home. We are in a place where, when I make witty remarks to locals about rainbow wigs and oversized shoes, I get awkward pauses followed by relieved laughter - if I'm lucky. Often it's just me and the crickets.

 "Look - no cars, no police, also no government. Just walk, okay!"
"Stop! Hands Up!" (Lim/policemen, Just Follow Law)

There is an opportunity here to increase and expand our ability to use humour. To see the funny side of more things, to understand more jokes, to laugh more often at a broader range of circumstances. But there is a danger also of letting our jocularity wither for lack of the right kind of feedback. Of inventing lists of nationalities that "don't have a sense of humour" or "wouldn't know a joke unless it hit them on the head", when nothing could be further from the truth.

So I'm looking for the answer. The universal rules. The right body language, perhaps, or facial expressions. Whatever tools I need to keep the laughter alive. And if you have any suggestions, please leave them!

Humour is tricky. Parody is trickier. I once watched a documentary about a Korean-Dutch comedian who took his show back to his parents' North Korea, where the authorities changed everything "to make it more presentable to a Korean audience". I wasn't entirely sure who was being offended by whom, much of the time, but I'm pretty sure both, and everyone. Comedians will tell you being funny is like that. Jenny Allen has certainly experienced it this week with her piece I'm A Mom, which didn't appeal to Pamela of Silent Sorority, amongst others. This surprised me - not the lack of appeal, per se, but her eventual reaction to it - because the message Jenny and Pamela are trying to convey are so much the same. (Here is what Pam wrote about the infamous Anne Romney mum-speech.)

Humour is tricky. There is a cliche in the world that Americans have no sense of humour, which is, of course, outrageously untrue (example: Jenny Allen), but it is a testament to the delicacy of humour that it can be so hard to deliver across even the most subtle of cultural boundaries. I have a couple of American friends, and both of them insist on suffixing their jokes with "I'm kidding!" which, for me, not only sucks the humour out of it, but almost offends me. Where I come from, not being able to recognise or handle a bit of light-hearted joking around is a social deficiency akin to mean-spirited name-calling, or complaining loudly and repeatedly about your host's roasted pumpkin. When an American friend says, "I'm kidding!" after a joke, I hear, "I am funny, but you are socially deficient. You are probably the sort of person who gets pleasure from mean-spirited name-calling, or thinks it's ok to loudly and repeatedly criticise your host's roasted pumpkin." I have to consciously remind myself that they are actually trying to remove offense from their humour, rather than add it, and that this is probably their response to being misunderstood as expats living in a foreign culture. Then I have to forceably resume what remains of my merriment.

The whole thing is topical for us at the moment. Lately, whenever we laugh, The Young Master wants to know why it's funny. This morning I laughed because when (for the forty-third time) I released the balloon I'd blown up for the purpose of releasing, it flew around and around the room and into the rubbish bin. "Um, it's, well, it's like even the balloon is tired of the game," I explained.

"I'm not tired of the game," Master replied gravely.

"Yes but... no I suppose you're not. Why don't we blow it up again?" But it was too late. I'd laughed, by my laughter and the following explanation I'd inferred that there was something funny about the fact he was still interested in the game long after everyone (including, apparently, the inanimate balloon) had ceased to be interested, and now I was locked into a discussion about the nature and meaning of humour and I had to think fast about what I wanted him to learn. Was I supposed to agree that the joke had been made in error, and promise to never joke about releasing balloons again? Would that teach him to be fearful of making jokes, which can be such a useful tool? Should I, by my example, encourage him to tack a metaphorical or actual "I'm kidding!" on to the end of every joke he makes, to ensure the listener doesn't take it too seriously, knowing that this will offend a lot of people he has to spend Christmas with? Should I demonstrate how to suck it up, push him to laugh at his own quirky determination to watch that balloon fly around the room til both his parents lie passed out on the floor from hyperventilation? Would that send an inappropriate message that I think him foolish, or that he can laugh at anyone over anything and expect them to join in?

I thought Jenny Allen's article was funny. Much funnier than a tired old balloon flying into a bin after its forty-third journey around the room, and more important, too. Through parody, she deftly exhibited not only the offensiveness of recent political speeches to women without children, but to women everywhere, whatever their choices or circumstances. It's a feminist piece, calling on politicians to speak to women as if they have a place outside the assigned role of motherhood - much as you might speak to men, regardless of their current reproductive status. She had a tightrope to walk between the too-subtle and the too-obvious, and I thought she walked it brilliantly, but not everyone agrees. Some, like Pam, think the piece doesn't push hard enough, and is in danger of being taken seriously. Of course, if mother-worship is a hot-button topic for you, it will be harder to recognise or appreciate the parody. Your buttons will have been triggered and your anger will already be high before the writer smirks, metaphorically speaking, and as a result the joke will be lost much more easily.

Humour is tricky, but it is also a powerful tool for facing adversity, making a point, or bridging a gap between people - even across cultural boundaries - so I really do need to know how to explain its nuances to my four year old. If you have any universal rules to throw me, I'd be most grateful.

Here's what we did. We married young, studied hard, began our careers, and went out to see the world - but not for too long. We didn't want to be the couple who "forgot" to have kids, so somewhere in what you could arguably still call our mid-twenties, we headed home and started trying for a baby, and that's when it happened. When what happened? Why, nothing, of course. That's when nothing at all happened.

So we reviewed our options, decided on a path, and went down that path for long enough to think we were running out of options. And that's when the next thing happened - the job opportunity in Singapore, which gave us more options. We discovered that if we built up a year's residency in Singapore, we could pursue adoption - which was not possible at that time back home - and in the meantime we could continue fertility treatments. So we shipped ourselves away again, but a few weeks before that year was up, the treatments worked and we had our first take-home baby. Wherever "home" was, nowadays. We weren't sure.

So we left, we came back, and today we constantly question where we are and where we want to be and how we can get there. We're not unhappy - we like it. It's a blessing to have a future so open with possibility. But it's also a juggling act - fitting everyone's dreams under the one umbrella, and trying to teach our children the lessons they'll need for this type of uncertain future.

I used to blog here as Bea, author of Infertile Fantasies. Today, these are the things I grapple with, and could use some help on. To mark this new phase, I have redecorated, changed my blog title, and given us all new pseudonyms - kind of like an Appalachian Trail Name as once suggested by The Stirrup Queen, if more pronounced. Henceforth, I shall be known as Aerotropolitan Comitissa, although I don't honestly expect anyone to stand on ceremony enough to spit all that out. AC, perhaps. I don't know. I answer to just about any friendly call. Mr Bea will henceforth be known as "The Earl", The Prata Boy as "The Young Master" and Surprise Baby as "The Young Miss" - or Master and Miss or various derivations around those terms for short.

I hope at least a few thoughtful people will keep me company. The issues I face have taken on a new angle because of our chosen lifestyle, but they exist universally. We all grapple with the give and take of our own wants against those immediately affected by our decisions, and with our own viewpoints against the society around us. I hope we can grow richer using collective wisdom gleaned from many walks of life.

Sometimes I feel like I haven't really found my parenting voice.


Once upon a time there was a woman who had no children. She chased their spirits through the forest in vain, for they always eluded her at the last moment. Then one day, whilst she was running, a little voice called out and said, "I'll be your child." And she took the speaker into her arms and cherished him gratefully.

By and by, another child saw her with her son, and wandered out of the forest to join them. But her son was angry and could not control his jealousy. One day, over a petty grievance, he struck his sister hard, and she fell down, broken. The woman tore into a rage, and broke him, too. Then she wept for those two, broken children she had wanted so hard to care for, and cried out to the fairies to let her know what to do. The fairies appeared, their faces long and grim. They only had magic to restore one of her children, and they didn't know which to choose.

On hearing this, the woman wept harder. Her son was so precious to her. He had come to her when none of the others would, and she had loved him for so long. But she loved her daughter, too, and she was innocent, having caused no harm. As she wept, her tears grew thick and black, bitter like a brackish pond.

Then something strange happened. A tiny plant grew from the tear-soaked soil. One shoot, then two - then a whole carpet of yellow flowers, waving with the howling gale of her sobs. The fairies began to talk together, and eventually one came forward. "With these flowers, we have magic enough to restore both your children," she explained. And they did.

As the woman embraced her two children, she cried once again, but this time they were tears of soft crimson, and tasted of the earth. Red flowers grew, and blue, and violet and green. They spread throughout the whole clearing, as far as the eye could see. But the fairies left with solemn faces, because they knew there would never be enough magic to restore the woman herself.


Little Running Bear hurtled through the forest, down one path, then another, until he realised he was lost. "What shall I do?" he asked the air, and the air replied, "Did you take a wrong turn?"

I must have, Little Running Bear thought. Then he asked, "Who will tell me which it was?"

"Talk to the caves," the air said. So Little Running Bear talked to the caves, but he heard only echoes in reply.

"They haven't told me anything I didn't tell them first," Little Running Bear said crossly, and he sighed a deep sigh of despair. "Who will show me where I went wrong?" he wondered aloud, and this time the trees replied.

"Look to the pond," they advised. So Little Running Bear looked into the pond, but he saw only his reflection.

"The pond showed me nothing I didn't show it first," he protested, and he hissed a soft hiss of exasperation. "Who will lead me where I need to go?" he cried out to the hills, and the hills whispered back, as quietly as they could (for hills are very big and very loud), "FOLLOW THE PATH."

So Little Running Bear looked down at his feet and there, on the ground, was the furrow of his own footsteps, leading right up to where he stood. He retraced carefully, circling around and around, until he had explored every inch of where he'd been, and where he'd been headed. "The path took me nowhere I hadn't trodden before," he complained, and he moaned a soft moan of disappointment.

"Everywhere, there is no guide but myself," he concluded, and the leaves murmured assent. So Little Running Bear looked to the skies and to the streams, knowing only that he must leave, to find his way.


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