Chapter 12 – Tea Of Chooks And Spuds!

On March 3rd 1971, we boarded a BOAC flight for Brisbane, Queensland,
Australia. I was filled with excitement tinged with occasional bouts of anxiety
– would I be well accepted by my in-laws or would they be racially prejudiced
against me? A little optimistic voice inside my head assured me that all would
be well. After all, even though English is not my mother tongue, I have been
reasonably well-educated in an English school so therefore there should not be
a language barrier when communicating with my in-laws or with any English
speaking race for that matter. Mother’s words echoed in my head – “Always
respect your parents-in-law as you would your own parents, in fact, even more
so. Never forget that if not for them, you would not have their son to marry.”
Wise words indeed…

We were not met at the airport but that did not concern me in the least as it
had been understood that Rick’s dad owned and managed a newsagency in Margaret
Street in the city centre of Toowoomba in the Darling Downs region and could
not possibly make the long journey to Brisbane to meet us. Rick’s recently
wedded sister (Wanda) and her husband, John were both at work but had given us
instructions to get their house keys and to make ourselves at home in their
unit at Kangaroo Point until their return from work that evening. Rick’s mum
was in a rest home as she was “unwell”. We hired a car and found our way to
Kangaroo Point, taking a scenic route so I could appreciate a little bit of
this “new” country that would be my permanent home someday.

Wanda and John welcomed me with open arms and as we chatted, it soon became
obvious that they had no trouble understanding my Singapore English with just a
hint of the Queen’s English thrown in for good measure. All went well until
Wanda pondered aloud, “I wonder what we can have for tea tonight…” ‘Strange
woman indeed,’ I thought to myself, ‘well, perhaps she meant she has several
different blends of tea!’ I opened my big yap and hesitantly said, “I’d really
much prefer coffee, instant is okay, but if tea is all you’ve got, tea is what
I’ll drink, regardless of the blend.” There! How’s that for tact? To my
surprise, all three burst out laughing and after they finished wiping the tears
from their cheeks, it was explained to me that in Queensland, “tea” actually
means “dinner”. To this day, that doesn’t make any sense but I have since
adopted the very same “Aussie Speak”.

This language confusion continued thus:

Wanda: How about a chook for tea? You do eat chooks, don’t

Me (not wanting to appear ignorant, tried fishing for clues):
Well, it depends on how it’s cooked.

Wanda: Oh we can cook it anyway you like – baked, roasted,
fried, casseroled…

Me (getting desperate for more clues): Err… it’s not pork,
is it? You know I don’t eat pork, right?

Wanda: Nope, not pork, I wouldn’t serve pork to you!

Me (Giving up in exasperation): What is a CHOOK???

Wanda (flapping arms about and making clucking noises): You
know? A chook!

Me (raising to my full height of 165cms/5′ 5″): Where I come
from, we call them CHICKENS!

We ventured into her kitchen and I naturally offered my assistance which was
gratefully accepted with the suggestion that I could perhaps, “Peel some
spuds.” My mind went into overdrive as I thought to myself, ‘SPUDS? SPUDS?
Hmmm.. obviously something that needed peeling, onions, maybe? Ok, get clues,
get clues…’ out loud, I asked, “Where do you keep your spuds?”. “Oh they
should be in the pantry somewhere, near the onions.” ‘Aha! So SPUDS are NOT
onions!’ I opened the pantry door and prayed that the SPUDS would leap out into
my hands but alas, they did not obey… All I could see near her bag of onions
was a big bag of POTATOES, so I grabbed a few out and confidently began peeling
them. I couldn’t resist saying aloud that, “Where I come from, we call these
POTATOES!” And this was just the beginning of my lessons in Aussie English…

The very next day we drove west to Toowoomba, the Garden City to visit Leo (my
father-in-law) and his second wife, Meg. I immediately addressed him as “Dad”
and he was honoured by my show of respect. He was a wonderful guy but his wife,
Meg was a tad on the aloof side, so I was not comfortable calling her “Mum”,
but addressed her by her first name instead. We went sightseeing around
Toowoomba, the town that Rick grew up in and I was introduced to my very first
Aussie Meat Pie, Chiko Roll and potato crisps/chips. [Upon our return to
Singapore, I began experimenting making my own meat pies and potato crisps
during Rick’s absence to surprise him with when he came home on leave.] From
Toowoomba it was back to Brisbane where we met up with Wanda and John for an
arranged visit to see Rick’s mum, Joyce, in hospital.

We arrived at the hospital in two vehicles and as I walked down the corridor, I
knew this was no ordinary hospital at all. There were patients of both genders
and assorted ages wandering about, talking to imaginary mates and invisible
creatures… It dawned on me that this was a Mental Hospital but I said
nothing. I just wished that Rick had been honest with me so I would be better
prepared to handle my very first meeting with my mother-in-law. After reminding
myself to be as tactful as possible, I decided to just take things one step at
a time. My apprehension was needless as Joyce was delighted to finally meet me
in person and she liked what she saw. I too, warmed to her immediately and had
no hesitation in calling her, “Mum”. Wanda had arranged for a day pass for Mum
to accompany us on a picnic so by the time we arrived, Mum was dressed in her
Sunday best and ready to rock and roll.

In the car, she sat between Rick and I and out of the blue, she asked me if we
live in a brick house in Singapore. Upon hearing my affirmative reply, she
proceeded to relate the tale of The Three Little Pigs as the main reason why
more and more homes are being built with bricks these days instead of straws or
sticks. I somehow managed to keep a straight face and humoured her as I would a
lovable child. We enjoyed a lovely picnic and a leisurely stroll around the
park before taking Mum back to the hospital. Before we left her and as she
hugged me goodbye, she loudly announced, “I like you because you didn’t laugh
at me and I’m glad Rick married you!” Later that day it was explained to me
that Mum suffers from schizophrenia and tends to lose the plot when she decides
to avoid taking her medication. At such times, she has to be temporarily
hospitalised until her condition is regulated again. Long after Rick and I were
divorced and to this very day, we have a high regard for each other and keep in
regular contact. I still call her, “Mum” and she still regards me as her
daughter-in-law. She is a great lady with a heart of gold.

After Brisbane, we drove to Tamworth in New South Wales to meet Rick’s Aunt
Reece and her family and also his Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack took us to the
Workers’ Club where I got to play the ‘One-Armed Bandit’ (poker machine) while
the guys drank beer and gas-bagged at the bar. What great fun I had with AU$5
and it took me three hours of solid play before I lost it all. I was
disappointed at my loss but Rick and Uncle Jack reckoned it was a wonder that
the money lasted that long! After visiting Rick’s relatives in Tamworth, we
drove back to Brisbane and from there, we went to the Gold Coast, Surfers
Paradise and the surrounding tourist attractions. After that jaunt, it was
northward bound for the Sunshine Coast of Queensland where we met up with a
couple of Rick’s childhood mates and their respective wives for a spot of
fishing and crabbing. One of them had a holiday home in the then newly
developed Minyama Waters. We had a fabulous time – we partied until dark, then
baited the crab pots, loaded them into a motorised dinghy and putt-putted in
the Mooloolah River to drop the crab pots. Afterwards, we went back to the
house for a few drinks, listened to music and yakked for a few hours before
checking the crab-pots. We ended up with more mud crabs than we had hoped for
so without further ado, a huge potful of salty river water was brought to the
boil and the chilled crabs were cooked to perfection and enjoyed by all at an
early 5am breakfast. We spent a few days around the Sunshine Coast area,
getting oysters off bridge pylons and catching nice sized bream and flatheads
in the Maroochy River at Bli-Bli.

Rick and I then travelled on a bit further north to Noosa and Tewantin before
turning around and heading south back to Brisbane. How true the saying, “Time
flies when you’re having fun” as all too soon, our holiday was almost over. We
made another trip to Toowoomba to say our farewells to Dad and Meg then another
visit to Mum. We spent the last couple of nights with Wanda and John before
returning to Singapore armed with souvenirs for Mother, Brother and a few close

Rick signed a new two-year contract with GSI, as a married man, which entitled
him to an extra S$900 a month living allowance. With our new-found “wealth”, we
pensioned off our faithful Ford Zehpyr and upgraded to a Triumph Herald
convertible. Shortly afterwards, we moved to a bigger and better residence – a
semi-detached house in Jalan Anak Patong (Malay word meaning “Doll
Street/Road”) in the Bedok/Changi area. Within days of moving in, I became
friends with Sue and Max B who lived two doors down from us. Max was in the
Australian Army and being fellow Australians, we hit it off from the very first
hello. Although we do not keep regular contact, we are still on each other’s
Christmas list.

One of Rick’s colleague, Ben Lage, brought his lovely young Indonesian bride,
Tenny Eleonora Anunsianta, to live in Singapore and as her knowledge of the
English language was rather limited, it was decided that I should take her
under my wing. I was the ideal tutor, speaking both English and Indonesian and
this of course progressed beyond the teacher-student relationship to a warm
friendship… and so my circle of friends continue to grow. I celebrated my
21st birthday with a party at home with a bunch of my ex-colleagues, my new
friends and Rick’s mates who were in town at the time. It was an impromptu open
house all night affair with satays ordered as needed from a satay stall in
Bedok, not far from home.

Brother visited a few days after the event and upon seeing an almost full
flagon of alcoholic cider, he decided to drink it, mistaking it for apple
juice. Although it tasted “a bit funny”, he put it down to the fact that maybe
the apple juice was on the turn, about to go bad. Waste not, want not, so
instead of tipping the contents down the sink, he drank more of it. Several
generous glasses of it later, he complained of feeling rather light-headed. We
realized then that he was a tad tipsy. He was horrified when told of its
alcoholic content, as unlike me, he is a devout Muslim… He managed to console
himself by saying that it was for medicinal purpose only as he slept really
well that night!

Rick was in town for Christmas this year, as was Ben, so we donned our party
clothes and attended the GSI Christmas party at the Goodwood Park Hotel in
Scotts Road. If my memory serves me right, that was where I met Prudence and
Eric Mueller who I remain friends with to this very day.

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