Friday, February 28, 2014

When Plants Get Hungry

A review of the Feed Me! series of workshops at Gardens by the Bay. This is a bite-sized version of the review that was written for Little Day Out, a Singapore-based website that provides information and updates on the best of Singapore for families with young children.

The amazing Venus flytrap!
“Venus flytrap!” shouted the children. “Venus flytrap!” echoed our little son Z.

It was a lovely Saturday morning and our little group of about 30 children and parents were huddled in a comfortable room engaged in a busy craft activity. Using the recycled materials provided, the children had created their version of the Venus flytrap, one of the three carnivorous plants we learned about that day. Children were then led in a simple game where they had to use their newly-created “insect-eaters” to trap their partner’s “flies”. And everyone was happy.

The group of us had been specially invited to preview one of four children’s workshops taking place during the March holidays at Gardens by the Bay. Our workshop was recommended for the ages of four to six and intended as an experiential learning journey for children to learn why carnivorous plants capture the insects that serve as extra nourishment for them.

Meet the seductive pitcher plant.
One of the benefits of having a workshop at the Gardens was that its two huge cooled conservatories each house thousands of plants. The children were introduced to the pitcher plant, butterworth and Venus flytrap, and listened attentively as the guide explained how the sweet nectar in the pitcher plant helped to drug the insects so that they would not be able to escape from it. They were then intrigued by the butterworth and how it used its sticky leaves to trap insects. The children were, however, the most fascinated by the Venus flytrap and its snapping mechanism, which was the key manner in which the plant catches its insects.

Learning comes alive at Gardens by the Bay
The two-hour Feed Me! workshops will be held at the Gardens from 15-22 March 2014.

For more information on the workshops, as well as other educational programmes at the Gardens, check out this website.

The complete version of the review can be found on the Little Day Out website here.

You may also wish to carry out some follow up activities for your children. Here are some suggested resources for your reference:

For us, our 3-year-old will next be learning about the letter "C"; so perhaps he will learn that "C" is for "Carnivorous Plants"!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Korea 2013: Gyeongju Chapter 3

Anapji Pond

We were very excited when we got up the next morning. For that day we had planned to visit a number of traditional Korean landmarks. First up, the Anapji Pond. The Korean Tourism Board had a very interesting write-up on the place, and we were drawn to visit it:

According to the historical records of ‘Samguk-sagi,’ Anapji Pond was built during the 14th year of King Munmu (in power 661-681 AD) of the Silla Kingdom (57 BC-935 AD). Small mountains were created inside the palace walls, beautiful flowers were planted, and rare animals were brought in to create an exquisitely exotic garden fit for royalty. The pond was originally built in Wolseung Fortress (erected in 101 AD during the Silla period), but the fortress was destroyed and now lies in ruins. In 1974, an excavation project revealed large spherical shapes (measuring 200 meters in diameter and 180 meters in height) which indicated that 3 islands had been located in the pond. Thanks to these important findings and existing historical records, Anapji Pond has been restored to nearly its former glory. 

We arrived to realise that the word "pond' does not actually justify the size nor the grandeur of the site. From my perspective it seemed to function more as a "lake". Built during the Shilla Dynasty, the Anapji Pond was built as part of the Crown Prince's palace. We learnt from the audio guide that the water body was designed by an architectural expert to accommodate the construction of three "islands", incorporating an elaborate drainage system to cope with changes in the annual rainfall of the area. Quite an accomplishment for that period of history!

The lovely palatial pavilions. During its heyday the garden
complex could apparently accommodate 1,000 people.
View of Anapji Pond from the main entrance.
The "islands" floating on the elaborate water feature.
Our sons were of course at home in the
natural surroundings, enjoying the lovely
"forest" grounds nearby.

Cheomseongdae Observatory & the Daereungwon Tombs
Referring to the map of the area, our next location, the Cheomseongdae Observatory built by Queen Seondeok was just separated by the Anapji Pond by one main road. What we didn't expect was that the road was very long; moreover travelling with two young kids magnifies the total time taken. We were therefore relieved when we finally arrived at the site.

According to Korean Tourism, the Observatory was built by one of the country's greatest rulers for astronomical purposes:

Cheomseongdae is the oldest existing astronomical observatory in Asia. 
Constructed during the reign of Queen Seon-deok (632-647), it was used for observing the stars in order to forecast the weather. This stone structure is a beautiful combination of straight lines and curves, and was designated as National Treasure No.31 on December 20th, 1962. 

Cheomseongdae was built in a cylinder shape with stones 30cm in diameter. 362 stones were piled up to make 27 levels. Roughly 4.16m up from the bottom there is a 1㎡ square entrance and a space to hang a ladder under it. 
The inside is filled with soil up to the 12th level, and the 19th, 20th, 25th, and 26th levels all have long rocks hanging on two areas, shaped as the Chinese letter 'δΊ•' (jeong). 

It stands 9.17m high and the base stone on each side measures 5.35m. 
The Vernal Equinox, Autumnal Equinox, Winter Solstice, Summer Solstice and the 24 solar terms (also known as the astronomical solar year) were determined by the observation of stars. The pavilion stone is believed to have been used as a standard of deciding directions, north, south, east and west. The 362 stones used to build Cheomseongdae represented the 362 days in a lunar year.

Since the structure was supposed to be a viewing platform for the stars, we had expected a huge tower. We however forgot that during that era, any tall structure would have already been considered extraordinary.

The road is long.... But with a beautiful scenescape, travelling
was rather enjoyable.
One for the road...
The Cheomseongdae Observatory.

Again referring to our map, we ascertained that our next destination, the Daereungwon Tombs, were just next to where we were. We therefore took some photos of what we thought were the burial mounds of the ancient Shilla Kings. We learnt later that while there are many burial mounds scattered all over Gyeongju, only a couple were identified as the final resting places of the ancient nobles!

Our supposed Daereungwon Tomb Complex. We realised later
that these were probably just a number of unidentified mounds.
After more than an hour of walking, asking for directions, retracing our steps and once again returning to our original location, we finally arrived at the fabled royal site.

Korean Tourism shares this interesting nugget about the tombs:

Large ancient tombs of kings and noblemen of the Silla Kingdom can be seen around Gyeongju at the Daereungwon Tomb Complex (Cheonmachong Tomb). There are twenty-three large tombs located here; the most famous being Cheonmachong and Hwangnamdaechong. In an excavation of the area in the 1970's, Cheonmachong was discovered with a painting of mounted horse. This painting is the only discovered painting from the Silla Era. You can also view the inside of Cheonmachong. There are 11,526 remains and crowns of the king inside the tomb demonstrating the lavish lifestyle of the king. Another tourist attraction is Hwangnamdaechong, which is the largest ancient tomb. It houses the bodies of both the king and queen and has over 30 thousand relics and gold accessories. The unique thing about Hwangnamdaechong is that the queen's tomb has more luxurious accessories. From that researchers have concluded that even the queen can have a high social position before marriage. You can feel the ancient culture of Korea 1,500 years ago when visiting these tombs.

After passing though the main entrance we were immediately convinced that our wanderings were not in vain. The glorious Autumn trees served perfectly as guards for the final resting place of the great Shilla leaders. As solemn figures lining the sides of the tombs, the trees truly added to the ethereal nature of the site. We were even allowed to enter one of the burial mounds, the Cheonmachong Tomb. What a spectacular way to end our day!

The Daereungwon Tombs at last!
A lovely half-hour walk to the cluster of
burial mounds. A delightful endeavour with
the tree-lined pathways.
What lies beneath?
Fresh life awakens after the passing of the dead...
Peaceful streams. Solace to those long gone?
Mummy & Z enjoying a special moment.
E looking particularly reflective.
One of the favourite photos taken by my expert
photographer wife.
Rest at last...
Exhausted by the day's wanderings, we took a cab back to a restaurant near our pension, before asking our lovely hostess Mrs Kim to fetch us home for a much-needed sleep.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Parenting in the Mundane (Daddy's Version)

The two of us enjoying a rare moment without the kids.

Valentines' Day has again come and gone. How did Sue and I spend the day? Well, we had a short window of time for ourselves in the late afternoon as the boys were at my mum's. So we headed to Holland Village to get some banking done, before getting a quick bite at a fastfood restaurant and buying a new iron and DVD player. We then spent dinner with my mum before heading home to send the boys to bed. The most "romantic" part of the day was then spent watching a historical Korean drama with our newly-installed DVD player, enjoyed with a glass of soothing iced ocha.

Indeed, as I posted in my Facebook update, there are more important celebrations to observe, such as our birthdays and of course our wedding anniversary. I then mused whether the mundane nature of the evening was a sign of being "old"; or perhaps it was just because we are comfortable just the way we are.

I recall the time when Valentines' Day was a difficult period for me - that especially when I was a single person and everyone around seemed to be enjoying a romantic time with their significant other. A single friend recently shared with me that he had been emotionally besieged by the numerous stalls selling flowers and other cute items all around his university. His story brought me back to my own difficult journey as a single. I was of course reminded of a particularly momentous Valentines' Day when I first asked a special girl to share a simple meal of fish and chips at the nearby coffee shop. The girl "happened" to be around the area and I was thrilled when she agreed to have dinner with me. That girl was of course none other than the love of my life, my dearest wife Sue. I still remember the nervousness with which I approached her, as well as the lovely journey we shared as I walked her home. 

Many Valentines' Days later, both of us met after my work, and we both declared that we were too tired to think about celebrating the day. The last couple of weeks have been very trying for us. It has been a period during which everything seemed to be going wrong. At work I have been very tired in getting used to the fast pace of life following the opening of a new school year. At home, the kids have been taking turns to fall sick; the 3-year-old has been refusing to follow instructions in homeschool; the 1-year-old has been asserting himself and throwing more tantrums than ever before. And in the midst of it all, the housework continues to pile up. Life seemed to be spiralling out of control.

In the midst of it all, I happened to read an article entitled Love in the Mundane. The author, Nathan McCloskey, shared a key aspect of what he had been learning:

"I’m learning to celebrate our marriage in the mundane. I’m learning to just lean in, and take it as it comes, and show my wife in the routine that she is still my priority."

Taking the boys to the park, one of their favourite activities.

Nathan sums up what Sue and I have been talking about over the last couple of weeks, even as our little worlds seemed to be on a collision course. During our Marriage Preparation Course we had learnt that we should prioritise our spouses over our children; otherwise both our love tanks would be empty, and we would then not have the capacity to continue functioning effectively. It was with this in mind that I made the decision a few days ago, that no matter how tired I am, that I should try my best to help Sue as she takes care of the kids and does the housework. I resolved to love her in the small things; so that she would feel loved in a big way. Extending this principle to my children, I resolved to love my kids in the smallest way possible - such as by spending more time doing the things they enjoy - in order for them to feel love in the biggest possible manner. 

My boys love roughhousing and all forms of
physical interaction; something this Daddy is
still learning to engage them in.

I will always remember the lessons I learnt from the 17th Century cook Brother Lawrence. In the book The Practice of the Presence of God, it was written that Brother Lawrence found joy in all circumstances, even in the most mundane of tasks such as cleaning the pots and pans in the kitchen.

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” 

For the true measure of a parent's love is in the little things done for the child; in the day-to-day mundane moments of life.

The Mummy's version of Parenting in the Mundane can be found here.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Korea 2013 - Gyeongju Chapter 2

Gyeongju Teddy Bear Museum

With the weather getting colder by the day, we decided to head indoors to escape from the elements. One of our indoor choices was the Gyeongju Teddy Bear Museum. Located along Bomum Lake, near the site of our pension, it was an easy choice; especially since our 1-year-old has a certain fondness of soft toys and all things cuddly. So early the next morning (after a simple breakfast at the pension) we hitched a ride from our kindly pension hostess Mrs Park, and headed off to the museum. 

The museum visit was an enjoyable experience, and as expected, we got to view many exhibits of teddy bears (which we learnt were named after the American President Theodore Roosevelt). What we did not expect to see, were many dinosaur figures. The museum had apparently spun a tall tale of a family of Korean scientist teddy bears, who were sent back to the era of the dinosaurs. There they rescued Back to the Future heroes Marty McFly and Dr Emmett Brown. before travelling back to the Shilla Dynasty in Korea. Plot aside, it was quite a treat for the family; and I personally went from exhibit to exhibit trying to find the teddy bear time travellers who did look particularly cute. Our sons were of course mesmerised; as evidenced by the numerous times I heard my 1-year-old say "Wow!"

Warmly greeted by the family of bears.

Z's definition of a "bear hug".

The teddy bear scientists preparing for their time travel adventure.

The "bad guys" attempting to exploit dinosaurs for personal

E was clearly enthralled by the exhibits.

What if.... the Shilla Dynasty inhabitants
were teddy bears?

War against the "Chinese".

Our very own "Mummy Bear" looking smart!

One of my favourite exhibits - the ending credit bears from
the hit drama serial "Princess Hours". Really nostalgic for us.

Bomun Lake

After some warmth indoors, we decided that if was safe to venture outdoors - at least round the beautiful Bomun Lake. We figured out that we could walk back to the area nearer our pension; and at the same time enjoy the lovely scenery. Alas distances were more than we imagined, and we had to hail a cab after a good two hours of walking.
A lovely view of Bomun Lake in the winter.

Z dons his winter wear.

We felt like we were on the set of one of those Korean
romance dramas.

Truly a scenic walk despite the winter landscape.

The park by the lake.

One last look at the lake before our departure.

Stopping for some yummy burgers and sausages and fries.

Gyeongju Bird Park

The taxi driver got lost as he didn't expect that we would want to go to the Gyeongju Bird Park. It was probably not one of the most visited places on the tourism map. But of course, as parents with young children, our sightseeing map was probably different from most tourists. In fact we probably met one of the curators of the bird park - he inquired about Singapore's Jurong Bird Park the moment that he learnt we were from Singapore. Looking back, our visit to the Gyeongju aviary was interesting in that our children got to see some extremely small birds up close; although we would likely not make another trip there if we end up in Gyeongju again.

This indoor Bird Park was a welcome respite
from the cold. 
Home to a whole host of lovely feathered friends.

Our boys clearly enjoyed the close proximity of the birds.

Seeing eye to eye.

The beautiful water fountain comes alive with lovely music.

Clearly the highlight of their day!

Enjoying a delectable dinner.

Korean grilled meats have become one of our favourite foods.
We especially like how each piece is individually wrapped with
the numerous side dishes in a crisp lettuce leaf.

After a satisfying meal, we were thankful that we could call our lovely pension host Mr Park, and he fetched us from the nearby 7-11 convenience store. All in a day's travel!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Annyeong - the Universal Language of Hello

This is the first article in a series, “It's the Little Things”, written for and contributed to Little Day Out, a Singapore-based website that provides information and updates on the best of Singapore for families with young children. 

The Korean social culture can be rather informal at times,
This is a scene from the foot of the Jeongbang Waterfalls in Jeju,
where you can enjoy seafood freshly caught and served raw
with a glass of soju. It's all in the name of camaraderie and fun.


Our little boy raced out of the lift, with a bright smile on his face. He waved his hands in delight at the middle-aged couple waiting at the lift lobby, and greeted them enthusiastically. 

The young boy expected a warm response in a similar manner to what he had experienced during his recent Korea trip. He instead received an icy glare, almost as if the couple was perturbed by his behaviour.

During our recent 3-week trip to Korea, both our boys had been the centre of attention wherever they went and many people, young and old, would greet them on the street with a friendly "Annyeong", meaning "Hello" in Korean. Our children consequently learnt to greet everyone they met in a similar manner. 

Upon our return home, things were very different. While the boys did receive an occasional smile or reciprocal greeting, they mostly received blank stares, or worse than that - accusing glances that seemed to imply that our children were abnormal by being enthusiastic in greeting others.

One can argue that the culture in Singapore is different from that in Korea, and that we should not expect a similar response from people here. After all, the Singapore "culture" is actually an amalgamation of different backgrounds and practices, stirred together in a melting pot over the duration of less than half a century. This is unlike Korea, where people seem to share an almost homogeneous way of life, one that spans across several centuries.

However when you consider that neighbourliness is a universal trait, cultural differences across countries should fade away; and one should merely consider if such an act is desirable. As parents we try to teach our children to treat others with courtesy and respect and also improve the way they communicate with others. 

Therefore, even though my little boy still encounters blank stares at times when he lets out a big “hello”, I encourage him to carry on doing so and practise being friendly and neighbourly. This allows him to develop open and positive personal communication and also helps him build his confidence. Of course, as a parent, I also balance this by teaching him not to be too friendly and run off with strangers!

Personally, here are three ways in which I have found useful to put these ideas into practise:

1) Smile often and greet others you see in lifts or along the street (children learn most from what they observe their parents doing).

2) From an early age (even as early as one) encourage your children to say words such as "hello" and "goodbye", and instruct them to do so to people whom they meet. 

3) Words like "please" and "thank you" go a long way in helping your children develop courteous behaviour. Teach them to use these words and reward them with praise when they do so appropriately.

The Little Day Out article can be found here.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Korea 2013 - Gyeongju Chapter 1

Of Train Rides & Bouncy Beds

The original plan was to head north from Busan, up to a delightful holiday resort in Chongju, where Sue's aunt had booked one week for us to enjoy. However, as the days went by, we began to receive reports of temperatures falling below zero in Chongju and Seoul, which was our planned alternative destination. While I was comfortable driving in Jeju, I was not prepared to drive on the Korean mainland under conditions of snow and slippery roads. We therefore made a series of last minute changes to our itinerary, and landed up instead in the traditional city of Gyeongju.

We were at first hesitant about travelling on the Korean train, This was especially after our previous trip to Taiwan, where we almost missed our train a couple of times as we had to carry our numerous suitcases from one train to another. And all this in addition to getting two restless boys to sit patiently on the train. 

The KTX, Korea's high-speed rail system, was a far cry from any of the trains we had boarded in Taiwan. For starters it is very fast, and the trip from Busan to Gyeongju took only a little more than an hour. Moreover, tickets are not too pricey, and children under 4 ride free. In addition, you can easily check the train timings on the KTX website and reservations are not needed (especially for popular routes). Most importantly for us, the system is completely child-friendly, with numerous lifts to wheel your luggage and stroller from platform to train. Our kids were also comfortable in the train seats, and the journey went by relatively hassle-free (which was a relief for us after hours of pondering whether to make the trip with our two young ones).

The comfortable KTX train seats.

Daddy & Son enjoying a peaceful moment
on the train.

Upon arrival at the Gyeongju KTX station, we were given instructions to take a bus near to our Bellus Rose Pension, and to then call our pension hosts, Mr and Mrs Park, who would fetch us from an agreed location. We didn't know that the bus ride would take an hour and a half, and transporting all our luggage with two sleepy kids was indeed a challenge. But there were very kind locals on the bus who helped us to carry our things, and we managed to make it to our pickup point at the Bomun Lake Resort. When we finally arrived at our pension, it was almost mid-afternoon, but all our apprehensions melted away when we saw the lovely accommodation.

The lovely Bellus Rose Pension, a gem of
a find in traditional Gyeongju.

Our son Z loved the room. He called it the
"pink bouncy bed" and spent many precious
moments rolling around.

Room with a view. Unfortunately we arrived
in winter. In the summer you can actually use the
outdoor pool and relax with a cup of coffee there!

Our growling stomachs indicated that a meal was in order and we wasted no time in getting to a restaurant, thanks to Mrs Park, who gave us a ride to the nearby eateries.

One of our favourite dishes pajeon (spring onion pancake).

A delightful "pizza" of minced beef topped with cheese.

And the younger one is happy too!
After dinner we decided to take a walk to Bomun Lake. However temperatures suddenly dipped and we were forced to call it a night, but not before enjoying the delightful musical fountain outside the Gyeongju Botanical Gardens.

One of the most delightful musical fountains I have ever
seen. It operates for half an hour every couple of hours.

This was the highlight for our kids, who thoroughly enjoyed
themselves in song and dance!