Pretty Gur … GRRRRRR

“Pretty gur,” says the tiny woman who’s emerged from the kitchen of the cafe. She is pinching Miss M’s cheeks and grinning.

“Pretty gur, ah!” Miss M grins back, showing off her new teeth in a very cheeky manner.

The old auntie barely comes to my elbow. She started small, then became bent with age. She has grey hair and a growing-out perm and she’s missing one of her front teeth.

“Pretty gur,” she says again. “Half Chinee, hah? So pretty.”

I say no. “She’s half Vietnamese,” I say. I feel uncomfortable labeling her like this. She’s just my baby. She has dark hair and dark eyes but she looks like I did in my baby photos, only beautiful. She’s not half anything. She’s 100% lovely.

“Vietnamee, ha?” the old lady says.

My friend, the sophisticated Ms K, is back at our table, poking at her smart phone. We’ve had a lovely day, lunch in Kampong Glam then a walk through Bugis and now a cafe in Singapore’s former Parliament House. But after Ms M’s in-pram nap, now she just wants to explore. I was halfway through a coffee and a chat when Miss M stirred. Now I’m chasing her round the cafe, much to the annoyance of a film crew who is trying to conduct an interview in the corner of the Earshot Cafe.

Earshot Cafe - Photo by William Cho

“And da mudda?” the crone asks.

“I’m Australian,” I say.

“Ah, Australian.” She smiles. Pinches the baby’s cheeks again. “And da mudda?”

She’s repeating the English words but somehow not understanding. I wonder if she’s mentally disturbed. I’ve worked in hospitality. I know what kind of people work back there, behind the swing doors.

“I’m Australian,” I say.

“Ah, Australian,” she repeats. “And da mudda?”

I’m just not getting this conversation. Miss M is ripping a napkin into pieces and smiling at the girl behind the bar.

“I’m Australian,” I say again. Then add: “I’m the mother.” Perhaps the blonde hair-dark hair has confused the old lady, I think. She doesn’t know I was a dark-haired baby too.

“You da mudda?” the crone says.

“Yes,” I say, patiently. I’m obviously dealing with a loony.

“Oh, I thaw you da grandmudda,” she says. She turns to the girl behind the bar and says it louder: “I THAW SHE DA GRANDMUDDA. SHE DA MUDDA.”

Jesus. I know I’m not getting enough sleep but do I look that flipping bad?

I smile and force out a not-very-jovial “huh-huh” fake laugh.

“Come on, baby,” I say, and I hoist Miss M up and carry her back to our table.

I lean in and tell Ms K what the old lady said. But before I finish, the old lady is right next to us, booming: “I THAW SHE THE GRANDMUDDA” and laughing.

Ms K tells me she’s paid. I am so grateful. I chug down my cold coffee and we smile fakely, put Miss M in the pram and start wheeling her towards one of the exits, the one not blocked by the rude old lady, who could be 50, or 90.

We had intended to stroll through the gallery but Ms K somehow understands my need to get as far away from this insult as possible. We blaze a trail to the back door of the cafe.

I mean, technically, I am old enough to be somebody’s grandmother. I remember attending my best friend’s mother’s 30th birthday when I was in grade 11 at school. My best friend and I were 15, the same age her mother was when she became a mother. I could have been a grandmother a few years ago, several years ago, technically. But I’m didn’t. I’m not. I’m a young mum. Miss M has only just turned one.

We wheel the pram down a wooden-floored corridor, artificially cooled. Sunlight streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, turning the wooden floor honey-gold.

“That’s so rude,” Ms K says, as I smile at a security guard sitting behind a desk.

“How do we get out of here?” I ask. Ms K has been here before.

“We can go through here,” she says, pointing to my right.

“I THAW SHE THE GRANDMUDDA.” The crone is following us, pointing. She’s bellowing at the security guard, who starts to chuckle. “I THOUGHT SHE THE PRETTY GUR GRANDMUDDA.” I don’t know whether the security guard is laughing at the old lady or at me.

I manouver the pram right, the way Ms K is pointing. “Do I look like a grandmother? I ask plaintatively.

“No, wsssht.” Ms K makes some stern Korean noise and flaps her hand, indicating “ignore her”.

“I THAW SHE THE GRANDMUDDA. SHE DA MOTHER.” The old lady is still with us. She’s yelling out to another security guard now, as we traverse a room filled with sculptures and paintings.

Doesn’t she have work to do, I think, feeling more than a bit annoyed.

Ms K, Miss M and I reach the other brightly lit honey-floored corridor and charge the automatic door. Thankfully the old lady drops away. I had half a notion that I was stuck with her for life. Everywhere I went, her booming voice announcing my oldness, then cackling her gap-toothed cackle.

Instantly sweaty in the sultry slow and sticky heat, we walk away from the Arts House, which is set a little back from the Singapore River.

“Do I look like a grandmother?” I’m not plaintative anymore. Ms K knows the way to the best bus stop for us to both get home quickly. She’s has worked with Westerners long enough to know the correct answer to my vain question.

“No,” she says. “Forget her. She’s a crazy old lady.”

So much for the exciting expat life. I’m tired all the time, cranky 40% of the time and offended 20% of the time.

Miss M and I get on the bus. I’m really hot and tired by the time I get home.

“Some old lady told me I looked like Miss M’s grandmother,” I announce as we cross the threshold.

Darling Man laughs. He doesn’t understand why I’m so offended. In Vietnam, age is revered.

Sometimes Asia is hard work. As is a cross-cultural relationship.

Months later, in Malaysia, it seems every third person is asking if I’m the baby’s grandmother. I look at some Facebook photos from when I was pregnant and I look 10 years younger, not two. The strongest sign yet that I have to finish this full-time gig that is sucking the life out of me.
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10 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. HA! I love it! I was 37 when my twins were born, so I was WAY able to be their grandmudda! Now I love being an older mother – I think it gives me a lot more confidence than if I had had them while younger.
    Nancy from Family on Bikes recently posted..What to do when you need to go but there is no toilet

  2. naomi says:

    Oh … that had to have just been miserable! I agree 100% with your comment “So much for the exciting expat life. I’m tired all the time, cranky 40% of the time and offended 20% of the time.”

    Yep. I feel that way too.

  3. Awww try not to be offended. Remember, in Asia people look like they are 18 until they are like…..40.

    Jade Johnston |
    Jade Johnston recently posted..Getting To Know Malaysian Food at Lazat


    Very funny post! Nice job…
    Raymond @ Man On The Lam recently posted..Travel Photo of the Week — Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand

  5. Mark Wiens says:

    Interesting story and that lady sounds pretty grumpy. Living in Asia, people do sometimes judge my age to be about 20 years older than what I am – or they just have absolutely not clue or guess as to my age…
    Mark Wiens recently posted..Heart Surgeries for Children in Iraq: Preemptive Love Coalition

  6. Theodora says:

    Was this before or after the orange buzz cut? Jesus. What a nightmare. You must have been on the verge of tears…
    Theodora recently posted..Me Singlish Damn Powerful One, Ah?

  7. Sally says:

    This story was hilarious… and horrible all at the same time. (Asia certainly has a way of doing that, doesn’t it?) I was so glad you finally got away from that lady. I was ready to punch her for you, if that means anything.
    Sally recently posted..Sinking, Swimming & Staying Afloat: On Writing & Other Near Death Experiences

  8. i would have fallen apart. like having a kid isn’t aging enough? no sleep, lots of stress and hoping you’re doing the right thing, and never eating right. Oh My. well, i am really proud that you got out of there with no leaking tears.

    yes, cross-cultural life (and marriage) is difficult. i’d say you need to find a spa and go relax for an hour.

    btw. raymond’s comment is TOO funny…
    wandering educators recently posted..Excellent European Adventure – Part 3 – Croatia

  9. Amy says:

    OMG that must have been awful! The fact that she was following you and yelling that, as if the first comment wasn’t enough! Was it a cultural thing or was she just totally looney?
    Amy recently posted..Feels Like Home

  10. Laurel says:

    Oh no! I’m sure you look great, it’s just that Asians look unbelievably young, but I can understand why you would be offended. When I lived in Thailand, I once got asked if I was pregnant (I wasn’t) and in Canada would have been considered thin. That was over 10 years ago and I still haven’t forgotten that one.
    Laurel recently posted..Columbia Icefields

    • The Dropout says:

      When I WAS pregnant in Asia, people thought I was just fat. Until I was about seven months! Then my neighbours took great delight in telling me they thought I was just getting fatter.

  11. Sophie says:

    Too funny 🙂
    That happened to me as well, indirectly at least, on board a Qantas flight. I was travelling with my two daughters, then 14 and 1. The stewardess asked my oldest daughter “would your son like some ice cream?”… Two faux-pas for the price of one.
    Sophie recently posted..The streets of Oslo are filled with love

  12. Sailor says:

    That was so funny! Sometime being an expat is a terrible situation. Like my wife dealing with her mother-in-low. The best part is that they cant communicate each other. And I am the only translator available for both of them.
    Sailor recently posted..A Cruise to The End of the World – Ushuaia

  13. I would have been devastated too! This part of learning about other cultures is not very fun.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..My Argentine Crush

  14. Coming from Malaysia, I have to say it’s always a thrill trying to guess foreigners age. 7 out of 10 I will be wrong and ‘over’ by at least 5-10 years lol. It’s so true. Expat teenagers who are 14 look like they’re 21. So, welcome to Southeast Asia 🙂
    David @ MalaysiaAsia recently posted..Malaysia Airlines MAS A380 Plane Video

  15. Kelly says:

    Aww! That’s mean, at least in our culture!
    Kelly recently posted..How to Beat Travel Burnout and Culture Shock

    • The Dropout says:

      Usually, when I get offended, I try to tell myself that people are not deliberately being rude. But sometimes I wonder if they are and they’re taking advantage of my politeness.

  16. robin says:

    I love the way she not only delivered a killer insult but then proceeded to follow you so that she could repeat it – clearly a seasoned insulter. You have to respect that.
    robin recently posted..Nada

  17. Awww…. funny for us to read on this end, but obviously not so funny being in the middle of it all. That lady not only sounded crazy, but way to damn persistent.
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..A Canal Ride through Central London

  18. […] I had visions, as you do, of our six months in Thailand involving a lot of lolling on a hammock tapping away at my laptop, baby gamboling (quietly and non-destructively) at my feet, while Darling Man did vigorous and bare-chested things in the garden. I had visions of strolling through wet markets greeting the vendors, of exploring ancient temples and zipping into Myanmar for the weekend. I had plans to start every day with a yoga class so I could regain my youthful glow (and no longer be asked if I was Miss M’s grandmother). […]

  19. Heidi says:

    Hi Barbara!
    My husband received a job offer in Can Tho which means we will have to give everything up in Western Australia – homeschool 3 boys (5,9 and 10) and I am scared shitless!! (Although we are looking for something else than just the daily routine, and this contract is for 4 years) Please! Give me advise where I can find more informations (seems like Can Tho has floating markets, and is noisy and dirty??) or what we need to consider before (if) moving….!

    • Barbara says:

      Hi Heidi!
      I’m so sorry, I’ve only just noticed your comment now. I’ve been neglecting my blog quite badly of late.
      Can Tho is quite lovely. It is on the river, with a lovely riverfront esplanade. The floating markets are quite a way away, and only really for tourists. There’s a small expat community there, so you should be able to make some friends. And Mekong Delta people are very friendly.
      It’s not too far from Ho Chi Minh City, so it would be possible to spend the weekends in town if you needed a change of pace.
      It’s been a few weeks since your comment. Have you made a decision yet?

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